Stupid Tourist

from my travel journal: 19 july 09
kathmandu, nepal

I felt like a stupid tourist at Pashupatinath. Zsoka had said, “Go see the burning bodies.” But it didn’t register until I was there that I was trespassing (or so it felt to me) upon families’ funerals.

As soon as we paid our admittance fee, a man who wanted to be our guide hurried us up some stairs and proudly presented the platform we stood on. He gestured to the river and then ushered us to the platform’s walled edge. I tried to distance myself from him because I didn’t want a guide. I was wondering how we were going to lose him. Those thoughts were hastily swept away when I peered over and saw we were right above a couple of funeral ghats. A foot was just being licked by orange flames. My stomach jumped into my mouth. I felt sick – a human body was burning less than 10 feet from me. I also felt liking becoming invisible. I felt I had mis-stepped boundaries and cultures. I wouldn’t want groups of foreigners watching my loved ones’ funerals. Some things are meant to be private or, in this case, shared only within a known community.

Things got worse, in my opinion. (I’m very aware that I may have projected my personal discomfort, but I don’t think so given the glares we got from families.) We left the platform—and the guide—and crossed a bridge, which took us over the sacred river. Facing us were stone steps, like prehistoric bleechers. On them were at least 30 or so other foreigners all wearing—groan—matching red t-shirts. They magnified my tourist humiliation. The steps. The shirts. A disrespectful sporting motif tinged it all for me. What must these locals think of us? (And yes, I may as well have been wearing a red t-shirt.)

Sure, you can argue that the temple is a UNESCO world heritage zone for which tickets are sold. Sure, tourist revenue helps with the up-keep of the reverent area. But, I highly doubt the locals who are there, trying to say good-bye to their loved ones, were ever asked if they minded the foreign attendees. From the cold looks they gave us, I’m guessing an overwhelming “no.”

I took one surreptitious photo of the funeral ghats. There was an eerie beauty to the smoke and fire above the river, reaching up the late-day sky. When I focused on that view, I felt the reverence I wanted to communicate to the mourners. Stowing my camera away, casting my eyes down, and getting out of there as quickly as I could were the ways I knew to show some respect for the sadness that permeated the place.

The whole experience reminded me that I always have to put thought into where I go as a tourist. I feel I usually do. I can’t recall another place that overwhelmed me with regret. (You could even argue that that’s good.) The experience underscored to me that forethought is always so important. I hate feeling like a stupid tourist.

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