Sleepless in Nepal

For previous sleepless nights, click here.

Here is how I know that I am a deep sleeper: there was a night during high school when a motorcycle caught on fire outside my bedroom window. Said window was on the 2nd floor of a Manhattan apartment building, about ten feet away from the curb. The motorcycle’s driver had spent the previous ten minutes revving the engine trying to get it to start, a process so loud and so absorbing that he failed to realize that there was gasoline leaking on his leg until a spark from the engine lit it on fire. Shouting, he jumped off the bike and extinguished his pants as his motorcycle began to burn. People ran out of the ABC studios next to our apartment to see what was going on. My own father tossed him a fire extinguisher from our window, which turned out to be so old that it didn’t work. Eventually, the motorcycle’s gas tank exploded, sending flames shooting to the third floor and destroying his bike.

I know this story is true because the next morning, as I left for school, my father showed me the blackened patch of pavement where the motorcycle had been parked. But personally, I don’t remember any of it. Not the shouting, not the flames, not the fire department, and not even the fact that my parents, worried that if the bike exploded it would shatter my bedroom windows, actually walked me out of bed and into their bedroom, then walked me back to my bed again. I didn’t wake up for any of it.

So you can trust me when I say that night time in Nepal is loud.

We spent our first few days in the country at a yoga retreat on a hill above Kathmandu, a peaceful enclave with fruit trees and carefully manicured lawns and “luxury safari tents” overlooking the valley below. It was a welcome break from the craziness that is Kathmandu, with its constant honking of horns, plumes of exhaust, and roaring motorcycles.

But that doesn’t mean that it was quiet. We got our first hint at what night time held during our orientation talk from the yoga teacher. “There are many insects at night,” he said, as crickets chirped in the background. “And birds. And animals. You know rooster?”

We knew rooster.

“And local women, they go to the hill to collect herbs, and when they come down, they leave offering for the gods and they ring a bell,” he explained. “They ring the bell sometimes very early. Maybe five, four, three thirty in the morning. There are many noises. So do not be afraid!”

We weren’t afraid, but we were a bit curious about what the fuss was for. Crickets and birds and roosters might be loud, but they’re not that unusual. Sure, bell-ringing women of the night sounded odd, but they couldn’t possibly ring the bell for that long.  And besides, we were used to Kathmandu. How loud could it possibly be?

Oh, Catherine. How naive you were.

The first creatures to break the afternoon’s relative silence were the dogs. There are thousands of them in Kathmandu, and they all began barking around seven, just after the sun had gone down. It was as if there were an intricate system of communication between them, a sort of canine version of “Telephone” that could only begin after dusk. It started with one dog barking, then another would begin, then another, and before long there was a chorus of dogs echoing through the valley, as consistent as cicadas (which there also were), but much less pleasant. From what I could gather, the discussion appeared to be something like this:

Dog #1: I’m here! I’m here! I’m here!

Dog #2: And I’m here! Did you hear me? I’m right here!

Dog #3: Helloooo? I’m here, too! Whoah! Did you hear that echo? How cool is that! Helloooo!

Et cetera.

Exhausted from fourteen hours in the car (we had come from Everest Base Camp all the way to Kathmandu), neither of us had trouble falling asleep that first night, even with the dogs. But peaceful slumber did not last long. Despite my fatigue – and ear plugs – I was awoken at 3:27 am by a loud bell ringing somewhere that sounded like it was directly behind our tent. And it wasn’t a one-time ring. No. The herb-gathering women, apparently worried that the gods might be heavy sleepers, each rang the bell for five to ten seconds at a time. Ring ring ring ring ring. Silence. Twenty minutes. Ring ring ring ring ring. This went on until our 6:30am wakeup call, as if it were the world’s longest snooze button.

Then came the buglers. We were near some sort of military training post, and from what I could tell, they spent the majority of their day trying, rather unsuccessfully, to play arpeggios in unison on instruments left over from World War II. Slow and methodical, they would skip up the scale and back down again, sounding less like a military band than a third grade recital held at 7 in the morning. Instead of silence, their brief breaks were filled by the sound of Nepali pop music playing from a neighbor’s radio (who left it on all day, starting around 6am), occasionally broken by the screaming of a nearby baby. Afternoon would usually bring some quiet, and then the dogs would begin again.

This routine played out for the four nights we were there, but the strangest was undoubtedly the fifth, when I awoke at 2:45 a.m. to hear what sounded like someone blowing through a conch shell, then chanting loudly, over and over again, as he walked the path behind my tent. In my half-awake state I worried for a moment that this might be some sort of night time rebel trying to incite people to launch an attack on the yoga center. This was not the case; I think it was a local man who, like the herb-gathering women, had a habit of wandering the hills in the wee hours of the night, making unconscionable amounts of noise in an attempt to alert slumbering deities (and yoga students) to his presence.

When we left the yoga place for Bhaktapur, a fascinating city several kilometers outside of Kathmandu, I expected the barking of the dogs to be replaced by cars and motorbikes – not particularly relaxing, but at least something I had grown up with.

But nothing, it turned out, could have prepared me for what we got instead.

The first odd thing I noticed, while still fast asleep, was a dream: I was in a high school auditorium, watching the band play. There were lots of cymbals in the band, drums, too, and  – in the odd logic that so often permeates dreams –  the reason for the cacophany was that this was a special type of band in which one half of the group played instruments and the other half acted as conductors. “Of course!” I remember thinking, before taking a seat to listen to their concert. “It’s a student-run, student-performed concert! How fun!”

Then I suddenly woke up and realized that the sounds had not been a dream – there were loud cymbals and drums echoing through the courtyard outside our window. It sounded like someone had decided to schedule a Chinese dragon dance for 3:45 in the morning. Peter groaned; I believe I said something along the lines of “What the hell is that?”

I pulled myself out of bed and looked out the window, but there was no one in the courtyard except for a few shadowy figures who appeared to be approaching the courtyard’s central shrine, their entrance marked by a familiar ringing sound – another goddamn bell. (“It’s probably not a good idea to get a hotel room next to a temple,” muttered Peter, half asleep.)

True enough, but that didn’t explain where the other noise was coming from, loud crashes and bangs that waxed and waned as if the parade were marching through the streets. The noise faded for a moment as the procession became more distant; then, several minutes later, it returned – this time with flutes. Loud flutes. Was this a special ritual for the Dasain festival? Had some concert organizer gotten the schedule wrong?

The parade lasted for about twenty minutes and Peter and I drifted off into a light sleep that was frequently interrupted by the ringing of the courtyard’s bell. I almost thought I had imagined the whole thing, but here is a video that speaks to its reality:

The next morning, we asked the owner of the hotel what the noise had been.

“Oh, that’s the Buddhists. They do that every morning around three,” she said, cheerfully. Whereas I might have interpreted three a.m as “the middle of the night” and apologized to my bleary-eyed guests – or at least offered them earplugs – she said this as casually as one might relay the opening time for the breakfast buffet. “Well, the Buddhists hold a marching band parade from 3 till 3:30, and we start serving coffee at six. Enjoy your stay!”

It was the same nonchalance she exhibited when we explained that our toilet didn’t flush. “I know,” she said with a smile. “We tried to get a plumber. But he is busy because of the festival.” She then handed us a plastic bucket.

It turned out that she was referring to a different toilet problem, though – previously, there had been no water flowing into the toilet (again, a fact that would have been nice to know before I discovered it myself). But on the afternoon when we arrived, something was preventing the water from flowing out. When we explained that the toilet was actually clogged, she sent up a maintenance man, who got down on his knees and plunged his bare hand into the bowl.

“Do you want some soap?” I asked him, as he emerged from the bathroom with a bucket full of wet toilet paper and a dripping arm.

“No. It is okay,” he said. And then, in what must be the best accent-produced double entendre I have ever heard: “It is my doody.”

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