Take a tuk-tuk, they said. It’s so fun, they said. We had hailed a tuk-tuk, of the foot-pedalled bicycle variety, and pointed at high angle towards the high white dome on the hill. “We want to go to the Monkey Temple,” we said. The driver grimaced, which at the time I thought was simply due to the sun in his eyes. Fifteen minutes later, after pothole after pothole and slopes of impossible incline, we guiltily threw as many rupees as we had on us at him and told him we would walk the rest of the way. The walk was better than the tuck tuk. Past chapati stands with fuchsia flatbreads strung on a loop and queues of uniformed school children on their way home, their shirts untucked and tongues stuck out for a photo opportunity.
There are 365 steps to the top of the Swoyambunath, the Monkey Temple, one for each day of the year. Many of the steps are cracked, the hallowed statues defaced with graffiti. The need in Kathmandu is ever present.
A woman tugged at the hem of my t-shirt. She held a wriggling toddler in her arms and moved her pinched fingertips to her mouth. Feed me.
I stammered. I had no money left. I had given it all to the first recipient of my guilt earlier. I felt another tug from behind me. I held open my empty hands, as though that made it better and shook my head. She turned quickly on her heels and moved towards a larger group approaching the stairs.
I stopped halfway up the stairs to catch my breath and wipe the tears and sweat from my face. I was so uncomfortable, so embarrassed, so guilty. But I knew that it was important I feel this way. As we neared the top, a tiny, gingerbread-like shack sat to the side. My heart sank.
“I have no more money. I thought the temple was free.”
A small woman, wrapped in a pink sari, smiled widely, the line of her teeth full of holes. “Not for temple. For him.”
She gestured across the stairs to a man I hadn’t even noticed, for half of him wasn’t even there. He sat, or rather lay, on a mound of blankets propped up with a trekking pack. No arms, no legs, and a wide smile.
“Does he live here?”
She shook her head. He slept at the temple in the centre of town, she said. Each morning someone from the neighbourhood carried him up and then down again. He relied on the generosity of strangers not only for money and food, but also to clothe and feed him.
“Namaste.” He smiled with a nod. I smiled back.
“Don’t worry,’ she said. “There’s a money machine at the top.”