crowded, crazy, catmandu: a day in the capital

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!

5 thoughts on “crowded, crazy, catmandu: a day in the capital

  1. Hey Mahesh.

    My world travelling isn’t nearly as established as yours, but I have some experience in Singapore (3 weeks there, 1 week on Phuket/Thailand). It was similar, I guess.

    I have never been small. And was probably pushing 280 lbs or so at the time. 6’2″. Walking in a large city with many, many small Asians all about me. I think I stuck out in a touristy-white-guy kind of way. Yet noone seemed to see me. I got sick of dodging very tiny people who really should be more aware of a twice-larger object coming at them and maybe contribute somewhat to the collision-avoidance (I’m liking the hyphens today!). But no.

    ON several occasions, I would meet eyes with the oncoming smaller object so as to say “hello, I see you, and now you see me, perhaps we should not collide. particularly you, actually, as you weigh approximately 92 pounds and are 5 feet tall and would do me really no damage or harm whatsoever. I, however, may unintentionally knock you on your ass.” We would meet eyes and then they would go back to their friends or cell or book or whatever, and still hit me.

    In the end I gave up and decided I was tired of being taken for granted (or ignored?) and made a “game” of it. If it looked like there was mutual avoidance coming, I would avoid. If not, I would collide. Well, not with the elderly. That would be evil.

    Oddly, everyone was very polite and apologetic about collisions – even surprised. Even when we had met eyes and seen each other coming they would apologize in a surprised voice – genuinely shocked that I didn’t get out of their way, apparently. But polite. YOung punks walking 5 abreast across the ENTIRE sidewalk would expect the large man approaching to get out of their way so they could continue to control the sidewalky resources. It was rude and odd.

    Misc. other specifics (I am sick and tired and cannot sleep and the narrative is leaving me. This would have been more entertaining had I posted while rested and well). I avoided umbrella-bearers like the plague. The pointy parts of the umbrellas of short(er) people can be threatening to the eyes of the tall(er). Singaporean girls/women were very attractive (something about Malay/Indian/Chinese genes mixing? or more to do with the fact that I hung with and was crushing on Orientals in general? I think the former.) – slight and feminine and yet surprisingly robust in all the right ways (is this too racy for Pouydal.net?), so collisions were not always simply annoying.

    Off to bed to try to sleep. Take care on your journeys and (I forgot earlier) all the best to your family.

    Mr. Witt

  2. You are updating me with current situation of Nepal.

    With all good wishes for Christmas and the New Year.

    Have a great time…

    Many thanks!
    Shiromani& Manju

  3. hey Darren,

    sorry, couldn’t get around responding to your comment while in Nepal or even till now after being back in the UK for more than a week! in fact, i am not doing anything in particular to keep myself busy, but still am not being able to do so many things that i was thinking i would do as soon as i got back here. most of all my usual quick responses to the comments on the blog and the emails have also been hit by this “putting-off disease”. anyway, i think i have finally got over this disease, for i have posted a couple of entries in random jottings… already and a picture on poudyal blog too!

    well, i hope you had a nice christmas and new year celebrations and that everybody in your family are doing well too…i had a nice time in Nepal meeting my family and some friends after nearly two years but 1 week was just not enough to enjoy the trip properly 🙁 as soon as i arrived in kathmandu, i had to start preparation for leaving!! anyway, it was nice to be back home nonetheless…

    and yea, did i tell you julie is working in nepal thesedays? it was nice (and a bit strange) to see her in my hometown! who would have thought of that when we were at sfu!?! very small world this…and she says “hi” 🙂 and had promised to check out my blog and read your comments too, but i don’t think she finds much time for these stuffs!!

    anyway, i think i’ll stop here as i fear this could go on and on and be longer than the actual post itself…look forward to hearing from you again soon!

    happy 2007!

  4. Hey Mahesh,

    good to hear from you! I don’t know when this was posted – I haven’t been much for the surfing lately what with the busy holiday season – so hope I didn’t miss it too far back. Honestly, I cannot recall what I/we were talking about. The danger of blog-commments communications, I suspect.

    but great to hear from you as always.

    updates: didn’t get another job in smithers (but ranked LAST in the competition. okok, they tested 8, interviewed 2 and i came in second, but sort of “last”?), but am on the short list for the next job. then they offered/promised me a 2 year contract which then sort of disappeared (this happened to me in November also!!! the rollercoaster is killing me!) and may come back in a few weeks, but i will have to compete for it again. sigh. buggers.

    tish is doing fine, as is the latest IT-Witt. though she is tired and stressed and grouchy all the time, but no more than expected (second pregnancies can be nastier because the body doesn’t so much resist decomposition from “normal” as speed itself into a low point. sciatica, sore joints, energy lows, and a painful pelvis – since you asked!). ben is great. after a somewhat violent 2 or 3 weeks in november/december (he learned that hitting gets a rise out of his parents and being a little scientist as all rugrats are, he tested different permutations of it), he is sweet and wonderful, even if he doesnt nap enough. and he loves to read again, which we both love, so long as it isn’t the same book over and over and over and over and over again. and again.

    but im pretty bummed about not being employed. not looking for a pickmeup, really – it will happen when it happens, and tish has a good job (that she hates). unless you can employ me?

    anyways, tish is having her late snack (she’s gestationally diabetic, which means regimented eating) and i should go join her.

    all the best, will visit blog more often if you keep posting!

    Mr. Witt

    PS – bit concerned about Julie reading my comments – don’t recall if i said anything inappropriate. many people think my comments inappropriate even when i think them harmless/truthful. is expressing my undying affection for her inappropriate? i guess i am married…. damn. now what if she reads this??? Julie, i have nothing but respect for you – really i think of you just like i think of Mahesh. (don’t worry Mahesh, its a lie.) I hope all is well for you and i will understand if you want to avoid me in the future. (But i will cry…)

    hmm. i’m really not good at this…

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