Are you going to play Holi?
That’s the question that everyone in Nepal has been asking me since I got here. Of course, the (former) English teacher and current editor/proofreader in me wants to correct it to take part in, but we’ll let that one slide. And yes, I am going to participate in the Festival of Colours.
I’ve spent the few couple of days travelling from Nagarkot in the central part of Nepal to Pokhara in the south west. First I had a bumpy ride back down to Bhaktapur down the most atrocious roads I have ever travelled on, spending an afternoon and night in the town, and then nine hours crammed into a bus bumping and crashing along the 200 km of winding, mountainous roads from Kathmandu to Pokhara.
Today is Holi day. I’m excited to see the colours and the water and all the activity going on. I’m hoping I can get some cool pictures, of course. I’ve had a great breakfast on the rooftop overlooking Phewa Lake and I’ve heard music and activity blasting out somewhere, but nothing is happening yet. I spend a little time hanging about in my hotel room waiting for things to get going. Because it’s gonna get messy and colourful, I’ve decided to wear the one and only white polo shirt I’ve brought with me but haven’t worn yet, hoping it will show up all the colours.
Because I’ve heard that things get quite wet – the idea of the festival is to throw water at people and then chuck a coloured powder called gulal at them – I’ve put on a pair of old shorts, which is not the done thing in Nepal, but because I’m going to be travelling for a few months I can’t risk ruining the only pair of jeans I’ve brought with me. I’ve also put my camera and my phone into a plastic bag, lest it get ruined by the fine powder or water.
Around 11 am I decide to step out onto the streets. Right outside the hotel is a large stage that I saw being set up last night. There’s people milling around and a few people yelling ‘happy Holi!’ I start to feel excited. I look at people expectantly, hoping to get gulaled, but nothing. I see a dog that has been covered in powder, which is fun.
I keep walking. I walked the length of the main street yesterday when I came in from the bus station. It’s quite a long walk. I go past shops and restaurants and travel agencies. There’s a different feeling here than there was in Bhaktapur and Kathmandu. Maybe it’s being beside the water, but it feels more like there is a holiday vibe here. I’m kind of reminded a little of Indonesia in terms of the types of restaurants and bars that are here – it seems a lot more touristy. I see some kids loading their water guns from a bucket on the side of the road, and then I buy a multi-pack of gulal for myself. I’ve brought a bottle of water from the hotel, the cap of which I’ve pierced so that I can spray water myself.
‘Happy Holi!’ Two young girls approach me and extend their arms towards my forehead. It’s begun! I’ve had my first daub of gulal. It’s red and I have to get a selfie to capture the start. ‘Happy Holi’ I yell back. I haven’t opened my packets of gulal yet, so I can’t daub them back. As I walk along the road, I prise a pack open and prime myself.
‘Happy Holi!’ Another daub, this time purple. I’ve opened my yellow gulal so I daub them back. I’m starting to enjoy this.
I keep walking, and then I round a corner and see a large crowd congregated at an intersection. There’s a big mix of foreigners and Nepalese people mingling, chatting, dancing and daubing each other. I get the camera out and run off some shots. A young chap approaches me and we talk. Where am I from? Have I played Holi before? What do I think of Nepal? We daub each other. Then a band appears, with marching drums and brass, and the group forms a parade that marches along the street, people yelling ‘Happy Holi!’ and throwing gulal and dancing and enjoying themselves. I trot along beside, taking photos, daubing people, getting daubed, and enjoying the celebrations.
We wind up a mile or so later at the large stage set up outside my hotel. The parade joins a large crowd that has assembled here. A rock band is playing on the stage, and now everyone is dancing and drinking and having a good time. The band plays Smells Like Teen Spirit. Then they play a song in Nepalese and the whole contingent of Nepalese people goes wild. Groups dance together, people are moshing and singing along at the top of their voices. I have no idea what this song is or why they love it so much, but it’s a lot of fun to watch everyone enjoy themselves.
I’m standing watching a crowd of young guys who are dancing together with their arms around each other. Suddenly one of the smallest of them is picked up and the groups gives him the bumps and then they throw him up and into the air. It’s awesome to watch this kid flying over the crowd. God knows how he landed, or if he crushed someone when he did. I hadn’t got my camera ready, but that would have been awesome to have captured. Being taller, I turn around and take some videos and photos of the revelry. When I turn back, I see the kid flying through the air again. Dammit, I’ve just missed it. That would be such a cool picture. I hope he comes back and they do it again so that I can try and capture it. Nothing. I turn around again and take some videos. When I turn back, they’re getting ready to throw him in the air again. I flick my phone from video mode to camera mode and then I see them throwing him through the air. I’m ready this time. I hold the shutter down in burst mode and follow his trajectory through the air. Caught him!
Later, I’ll post the picture to Instagram, and an account called Discover Nepal will share my photo. If I was excited to get 200 likes for my picture from Bhaktapur, I’m thrilled to find that the pic Discover Nepal shares has hit 250 – my all-time record smashed! I open it later and see the pic has got 500 now, and it keeps going up. A few minutes later it’s at 1,000… then 1,500… I keep checking throughout the next few days, and I’m astonished that the picture has garnered over 3,500 likes – a number I’ll probably never achieve on my own account.
It’s past lunch time and I’m hungry, so I head off to get something to eat. I walk through the part of the town I haven’t been into yet today. The revelry continues, with groups of people daubing each other with gulal and yelling ‘Happy Holi!’ and dancing and enjoying themselves. Pockets of groups have congregated around trucks with sound systems on the back. A group of people are throwing buckets of water off a balcony and over passing motorcycles. Gulal is splattered everywhere. I even run into the Belgian couple that I chatted to the other day when we saw the sun rise over Mt. Everest. I eat and then I head down to the lake, where another stage has been set up, like at a music festival, and where groups of people are walking around.
I sit by the lake and enjoy the atmosphere for a while. It’s late afternoon now, and when I get back to the main street things are a bit quieter. Not so many people are around and the music has stopped and people are sweeping up in the streets. Seems a bit odd. I sit and have a beer and then the waiter in the restaurant tells me that usually about 4 pm things finish. Nepalese people will spend the rest of the afternoon and evening visiting their relatives and family members and sharing sweets and food with each other after the colourful festivities of the day.
I head back to the hotel, feeling ready now to get the gulal off and change my clothes. I’m slightly concerned about not being able to get the dye out of my skin. A google search has revealed ways of doing it, and they suggest not rubbing the skin so that the pores open up and absorb it. You have to run your gulal-flecked skin under cold running water to try and wash it all away. Luckily, I don’t get out of the shower all stained, though the porcelain didn’t get away so lightly. Neither did my bag or my phone, whose speaker grills are a bright pink. But I don’t care about any of that, cos I’ve had a great day.