Say Cheese

Kathmandu, Nepal
The Babas

When I was little, a place called Chuck E. Cheese had just come on the scene, and kids had birthday parties there. One of the things that you could do with your tokens was pay to have all the lifeless animatronic stuffed animals up on stage briefly come to life and sing you a song. I think it was a song about pizza... or maybe communism? I honestly can't remember, but when your token ran out, they would stop singing and pretending to play their little instruments, and unceremoniously return to the slumped, lifeless state they were in before. Truth be told, it was actually a pretty lame use of your tokens, and after wasting them once, you quickly learned not to make that mistake again.

Fast forward to modern day Nepal. It was explained to us that these gloriously dressed men, hanging around the 5th century tombs in Kathmandu, with their colorful attire and vibrantly painted faces, were called Babas. They were considered to be extremely holy men, hardcore spiritual leaders of the Hindu faith.

These Babas were some of the most photo-ready individuals that a person is likely to ever come across in their lifetime. The problem was, the second they saw so much as a twitch that you might be going for your camera -- or even the slightest suggestion that you might be trying to take their picture, even with your phone -- they would all immediately shield their faces. Sometimes they would just turn around completely with a sort of resolute "Hrrmph." None of my NORMAL TRICKS and subterfuge worked on them (trust me I tried), as their intuition about photo-taking attempts truly did seem to be supernatural, if not divine.

I commented about what a shame it was that these fabulously dressed men were so against having their picture taken, and our guide informed me that, "Oh no, these Babas would very much be willing to cooperate, they just want an offering first."

Maybe it was the severity of their tribal clothing, or the fact that we had just come from seeing a DEAD BODY BURNING ON A FUNERAL PYRE near the river, but my Western brain was immediately picturing that some sort of elaborate animal sacrifice was in order. Our guide clarified with the word, "Donation," but I was still clearly confused, and trying to remember how many blocks back it was that I had seen that SICKLY, UNATTENDED RAM. Finally, our guide spelled it out for me.

"Ryan, they want money. Cash."

Oh! Duh. I pulled out a wad of rupees and handed it to one of the Babas, and then I swear, it was Chuck E. Cheese all over again. These holy men, that were so uncooperative and camera shy just seconds before, sprang to life with a rehearsed routine of chanting and cooing that was transcendent.

They all made a sort of "itsy-bitsy-spider" formation with their hands and, like pros, started making love to my camera with their eyes. They must have had a set number of seconds in their mind (that corresponded with the exact number of rupees I had "donated"), because it was all over just as quickly as it began, and all at once they stopped, and returned to their unanimated, camera-hating, photo-reluctant state.

My token had run out.

Our guide spoke limited English and so I decided against sharing my complicated Chuck E. Cheese analogy with him, and went instead with another comparison that this reminded me of -- the elaborately dressed superheroes of Central Park, who will allow you to take their photo for money. He seemed to like this analogy even less, especially when I couldn’t think of a name for what we call these people. My travel partner, Kimby, is a cinematographer in Los Angeles, and said she also didn't know what the superheroes of Central Park were called, but was pretty sure the people who dressed up and hung around the Hollywood Stars were called "Ambassadors."

"Yes!" our guide said, "These men are like spiritual ambassadors!" I was about to say something along the lines of how "ambassador" seemed too lofty a term for whatever the Hollywood grifters were up to, but possibly not quite lofty enough for whatever these holy Babas were doing , when through my camera lens I noticed that one of the (many) things in this one Baba's hair was a small Nepali flag. Well, okay then: I guess "Ambassadors" it is!

But in my photo files, I have named him Chuck.


Side Note: I was determined to write an amusing story called "Baba Black Sheep," involving one of the other Babas I met and photographed, but after many failed attempts, I finally abandoned it. The title kept taking on a strange and upsetting racial quality that I never intended, so I squashed it.

But don't worry, if you can't get enough of these fascinating Babas, I still wrote more about them both HERE and HERE!