It was one of those nights you knew would live like a ghost in your memory to be called up by the tinkle of Nepali music or smell of cheap cigarettes or a sorely out of place Irish pub plopped in the middle of Asia. And one of us will say, remember that time when…we showered for the first time in weeks, and shared that delicious Greek salad and peanut sauce satay and Nepali milk tea and chocolate cake with ice cream and chicken milk at that little Italian restaurant that we went to so often they greeted us by name and made special farewell coffee drinks for us? Or maybe it will be the brush of warm feet, or golden streaks in shaggy hair, or the telling of long stories and hard questions that will remind me.
We flew from Lukla to Kathmandu at 10am and it was like a stereo had been switched on to blaring. A part of me felt an odd sense of welcome, a strange happiness to see this dirty jumble of humanity. As if I had come home and yet not. And then the noise, the honking, the bargaining and shouting and dodging peddlers and puddles and bikes towing large carriages and manic taxi drivers became overwhelming and I was longing for the cool quiet mountains again.
We took a taxi to a sacred river where bodies are burned and then swallowed in its depth and final farewells are said. Hurt and wounded and crippled people lined the block around the welfare house begging for money and food and I could not take a picture. I could not take away their dignity. The very act of taking a photo for myself, of displaying their pain seemed selfish. It is one of the only times I have felt this way, felt that without a purpose, without a message, without giving back in some way my photographs would be exploitative. Their misery washed through me, one small cry that expressed the misery of the whole world.
As the evening light fell I made my way to the river side milling around and feeling a wee bit useless. One beautifully winkled old lady in colorful Nepali dress took my hand and led me with her and laid out a grain bag for me to sit on as if she had been expecting me. Other women plopped down around us in front of what I gathered from hand gestures and random English words is a building where the old go to die. Behind the cool wall lining my back lay wrinkled and age wizened bodies waiting for the final breathes of their spirit to slip away peacefully and join with the slow moving swirls of the river. The group of women chatter aimlessly at me in Nepali, touching my arms, my hair, and happily smearing a red, slightly sour smelling goop on my forehead and hair in a blessing. I gather that something is going to happen and that we are waiting and that when it does happen i am to take pictures, but not now. So I sit with them as they hum softly, swaying with their movement, receiving curious stares from other foreigners, thinking how I must look, one strange girl tightly encircled by brightly dressed old Nepali women. Blessed. As the last glint of light skims the horizon they each get up slowly and begin to dance in a pool of golden light, me in tow. Their beautiful dark wrinkled skin turned golden by the street light, swirling silhouettes against an incredibly blue blue sky.
They were my angels. I don’t care why they took my hand and led me with them to the river, but their kindness touched my heart and in that poignant moment we were literally perched there, on the stone steps, in between life and death. What is life but a flamboyant balancing act that will eventually tip over into death? And so to thank them for welcoming me like a daughter I did what they asked me to and what I do best, took pictures, praying that one of them would express the channel of love flowing from my heart to theirs and back again.