Its my third day back in Kathmandu, nearly two years after my last visit. I stayed home all day yesterday. And today I am in a mood to go out and see what has changed in these two years. I plan to go to downtown Kathmandu to soak in the atmosphere (not advised for health reasons if you are a weak type!), to see what has changed over these two years since I was here last, and most of all to re-orientate myself to the sights, sounds, and smells of Kathmandu. First thing in the morning however, I wanted to go an have a haircut. A 25-rupees haircut is a very tempting prospect indeed, for I had paid 7.50 pounds only a few weeks ago for the same purpose! After the haircut and a hot shower (to my complete surprise I found a hot water system installed at home, which I wasn't expecting at all!), and early lunch of masu-bhat, I ready myself for the challenge - use local buses, micro buses, three-wheelers et al., plus my own feet to explore Kathmandu downtown.
Get on the bus just in front of my house. Its a
bumpy bumpier and dusty dustier, and dearer ride to Saatdobato compared to a couple of years ago. Plus, this time the bus conductor charged me the full fare despite carrying a backpack, unlike two years ago when I was always charged a discounted fare as they thought I was a student. I became so used to paying only the reduced fare then that when the conductors charged full fare, I also shouted "card chha" (I have a card, meaning I have a student ID) and handed them my SFU ID card. Those who could read English recognised it was a student ID, despite being of a university they had never heard of and returned me the discount fare with the card. Those conductors who couldn't read English, checked both side of my ID with suspicion but always gave me the discount in fare at the end! This time they charged the full fare from the beginning and I didn't say anything. Didn't want to create a scene, especially in the local bus where most people, including some bus drivers and conductors know I don't live here. But I still felt overcharged for the ride nonetheless.
I am heading to Kalanki, so I get off at Saatdobato and catch a "micro bus" that arranges its passengers so meticulously it seems that when it was full there wasn't even a tiny space left to move your head. It rushes towards Balkhu/Kalanki at an unbelievable speed with occasional zigzag motion to avoid other vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists, and most of all people on motorbikes, who seem to be everywhere and who seem to drive through every tiny gaps between other vehicles. We haven't even reached Ekantakuna and there is already a huge traffic jam. Now everybody is looking for that "tiny" opening through which they could take their vehicle forward. It doesn't matter how far forward, but it seems only an inch will suffice. Its making the matter worse. There are three lanes of outgoing traffic and one lane of incoming - double the capacity of the two-lane ring road! The traffic is moving nowhere and I don't think it'll for quite sometime. Suddenly, the driver takes the micro bus to the left and straight along the unpaved portion of the road, which must be for the pedestrian. We are moving forward and after some clever manoeuvring by the driver, we are past the gridlock and again speeding towards the destination. It stops just over the Balkhu bridge to the unbearable smell of Bagmati, then again over another bridge near Kalanki to even worse smell. As soon as it pulls off at Kalanki, I get off with a huge sigh of relief.
After spending a couple of hours at my sisters house (where only her in-laws are present) I head towards the centre, i.e., to Ratnapark. Another micro bus ride, this time a smaller one running on LPG (or CNG?). There is a strong smell of gas inside the bus and I worry if I pass out mid-journey. All the windows are slid open, which gives some relief but also brings in lots of dust and smoke from other vehicles. Its bad either way so I am content with the best of the worst. This bus speeds just as much as the last one and in no time we are in Sundhara, and from here its takes a while to arrive in Ratnapark. Another full fare and I am off.
I don't notice any park at Ratnapark. It must be there hidden behind the rows of buses, micro-buses, three-wheelers and footpath full of vendors, pedestrians and bystanders. But I don't go looking for it - instead I head in other direction towards Jamal/Kantipath. I want to see what has changed since I was here last, hear the noise, feel the general atmosphere. I take the path that runs along Rani Pokhari, a narrow stretch of a footpath where you have to avoid bumping into people coming from other direction. I try but to no avail. I also utter words of apology after a few bumps but I soon realise I need not. Avoiding bumping is like clapping hands - it takes two. My solitary effort wasn't working. After a few shoulder charges (mostly involuntary on my part), I realise the norm is to bump into others, even shoulder charge but NOT to avoid. With so many people in so little space, its probably the right strategy. Survival of the fittest. I remember Darwin - his long bearded portrait. I can't bring myself to this new norm of bump-walking or shoulder-charge-walking however. After living in a society where even the eye contact with strangers are rare, direct body contact, that too somewhat confrontational worries me a bit, and I try to avoid it as much as I can. Of course, it doesn't take me long to realise the impossibility of it. After a walk that takes me along the whole stretch of Kantipath and then to the Durbar Marg, and to Putalisadak, and back to Ratnapark, with hundreds of bumps and shoulder-charges, I am slowly getting used to it now. I haven't gathered enough courage to go to Ason however - just a view of that area from the overhead crossing at Jamal was enough to scare me off!
I enter a little store during this Kantipath-Durbar Marg-Putalisadak walk to purchase a pre-paid SIM. Mero Mobile (My Mobile) is the brand and apparently its exuberantly expensive compared to the other mobile service provider NTC, which is very hard to get. I try dialling a few numbers as soon as I get the SIM activated but I only get the "Network Busy" message! I try calling Deepakji but couldn't get through either. I go to a store near Ratnapark to give him a call and arrange to meet at his office in half an hour.
Its more like three-quarters of an hour and I arrive at Kantipur Complex. After getting security clearance at the main entrance (with help from Deepakji himself), I get into the reception area. A familiar but at the same time unfamiliar face comes to greet me and we head towards the "canteen". Over a
cup glass of tea each we formally introduce each other. I soon find myself doing most of the talking - and the journalist sitting in front doing most of the listening. Dinesh Wagle of UWB joins us after a while and I get some relief, for the conversation is no more unidirectional, and quite varied too. After an hour or so, we leave the canteen - I head back while the journalists get back to their work.
It is getting dark and the crowd seem to be growing everywhere rather than receding. Its quite a sight compared to how it used to be when I was here last. I guess it wasn't like this even until a few months ago before the peace deal between the government and the Maoists. Looking at the crowd, shops open till late at night and the vibrancy of the urban life, it feels Kathmandu has regained its old life back. Probably at a much grander scale!
I arrive home tired, eyes hurting due to dust and nose blocked but in surprisingly good spirits and still wanting to re-explore more of this changed Kathmandu over the next few days that I am here. I better get a good nights rest, recharge my batteries and get myself ready for another day of Kathmandu exploration!