Kathmandu and The Traveler With Bad Timing

by Kaye Luiz Alave

26 September 2005

Shiva, the Hindu god that simultaneously dances life and death, is a perfect icon for modern-day Kathmandu.
Photos by
Ninfa Bito 

“A successful multyparty [sic] system is synonymous with people’s democracy.” — King Gyanendra

There are no malls in Kathmandu. No fast-food castle hailed me as we drove on the rust-colored road. From someone sick of Manila’s bland concrete malls, this absence of modern commerce ought to be refreshing. But why did I feel a bit panicked? The dollop of trepidation in my gut did not stem from the absence these consumer icons, so otherwise familiar, like a deceptively benign but truly pesky neighbor. Rather, it was a realization that I am so far from home, with its warts and all.

I am so far from Manila’s grimy concrete jungle. I am surrounded by the Himalayas! The pessimist in me whined to my other self all throughout the dusty drive from the airport to the hotel: What if I hate Nepalese food? Where would I eat? Is this a godforsaken place or just a city that couldn’t care less about air-conditioning and the technological advances of the 21st century? My reasonable self answered back: Go back to your consumerist city then. And relinquish your claim to having a traveler’s spirit. Hah.

It turned out there were more serious things for me to worry about aside from how my stomach would react to unfamiliar foods. I arrived in Kathmandu at a particularly dangerous time: King Gyanendra just imprisoned the prime minister after months of house arrest and riots were breaking out in the streets. (So far, this has been the story of my life as a traveler: from one country with a constitutional crisis to another.) The prime minister is a popular man and the king is the villain. Rumor has it King Gyanendra orchestrated the royal massacre that shocked the world in 2001 by brainwashing his cousin, Crown Prince Dipendra, who killed himself after he shot his family. Sounds incredible, but the Nepalese people actually believed it could be true.

I arrive in Kathmandu just in time to see the Danish Aid Agency pull out of the city. The next day, the International Herald Tribune ran a page one story on the bloody riots. I don’t see the riots first hand, nor do I hear the protesting students of Tribhuvan University. As my traveling companions and I are under the care of the World Health Organization and Panos, an international NGO that sponsored the health reporting workshop we are attending, we are sheltered from all the political troubles.

All I’ll see during my stay are the remnants of the fights and signs of unrest. Armed military men loiter on the streets and rocks used from the fights the day before littered the roads. Our group is stopped on our way to lunch by policemen who want to see our IDs and know our business. On my first night, the whole city had a black out for a few minutes. From where I come from, black outs are nothing. Inconvenient yes, and growing rarer (once the power was halted by jellyfish), but they do not herald the coming of graver things. In Nepal, the black out added to the nervousness and fueled speculation. Is it a coup? Did the Maoist rebels bomb the some electricity plant again? When the lights came on, one could hear a collective sigh of relief through the walls.

For all the inconveniences, Kathmandu itself is bearing the crisis well. It is the countryside that is taking the brunt of the battle between the King’s Royal Nepalese Army and the Maoist insurgents. Thousands have been dead and missing in the almost decade-long fight and the King used the collapse of the peace talks in February as an excuse to invest himself with emergency powers. Since then, King Gyanendra has censored the press and even closed down mobile phone services, making it difficult for protest organizers to assemble quickly. Human rights abuses continue to escalate. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights and other humanitarian agencies have called for investigations on the abuses. Members of the Nepalese Diaspora abroad have called their country a “collapsed state”. Yet despite the atrocities and the fighting, it is business as usual in Kathmandu and no strikes occurred while I am there. The King still has control over the city and I guess he could not afford to bring the fight to the capital as it would mean a protracted disruption of business and services that could further lessen tourist arrivals.

Architecturally, Nepal’s capital city is the long-lost sister of those quaint Italian towns expatriates rave about. The streets are labyrinthine and shaded. A wrong turn and one would be lost. Kathmandu has a homogenous look: the palette of the whole city is earth-tones-dark, red-and-green. Because this is the Himalayas, flat land is scarce so the brick red houses in Kathmandu are narrow, two- three- even four-stories high.

But unlike the Italian hillside towns, the Kathmandu streets have a lot of bad moments due mostly to the government’s neglect and underdevelopment. Thick black cable lines snake through the air. Small hills of unpicked trash grow on dark corners. In some cases, development and money do come in, but it does not always translate to good taste: one homeowner uses gleaming pink tiles in the façade instead of the traditional bricks.

Patan, a town where we find ourselves in our early morning walks, is luckier than other parts of Kathmandu. (We, meaning my Indonesian roommate Aryani, Ninfa, the other Filipina in the workshop, and Conrad, a Filipino UN worker Ninfa unexpectedly met at the airport. We Filipinos are everywhere!) Most of the houses still retain the structure they had half a century ago. Four temples preside over Durbar Patan, the town square, where pigeons park and wait to be fed by the believers who diligently rack up good karma, and the tourists who wanted to get the authentic experience of the place. Wisps of smoke curl from the domes, filling the square with the smell of incense. Around the square, vendors squat behind their wares, mostly handicrafts, flowers, vegetables, and surplus clothing made in China.

Since it is far from the city center and from the touristy areas, history is more pronounced and ritual is practiced less self-consciously in Patan. I walk with my left arm stretched out to feel the carved doors and the etchings (animals, the omnipotent eye, various positions of heterosexual coupling). Suddenly, I feel raindrops on my arm. I look up, expecting immobile rain clouds, only to see a faultless blue sky and unrelenting sunlight. Oh, no. Shit. I think, stepping from the sidewalk. This could only mean one thing.

“Did you see that?!” I turn to Conrad, indignant and grimacing.
“Relax,” he says. “It’s only holy water.”
“Oh. I thought they were throwing out dishwater.”

Thank God for Conrad, frequent Kathmandu visitor and Lonely Planet Nepal Guide owner. Without him, I would have spent most of my time getting lost and freaking out not just in Kathmandu but in Bangkok, too—but that’s another story.

My favorite scene in Patan is neither the temples nor the early morning chaos, though. It’s the presence of two high school girls who meet at the corner beside the stall that sells colorful kama sutra accordion books, fossils, miniature statues of Hindu gods, and religious paraphernalia. They wear British boarding school-style outfits: polyester skirt in tartan, a tie, and a book bag. (Oh, long live the British Empire; the Empire strikes back.)

The moment they see each other, the girls exchange shy smiles. Nothing looks more comforting and normal in a city during a political breakdown than two local girls on their way to school, nudging each other and rambling about nothing and everything. Did they talk girly talk the night before? Do they have phones at each residence there, in the first place? I think if I go there at 7am today, these girls will be there, again. I cross my fingers for them and for their city, even though it is their city that almost killed me.

Kathmandu streets are quaint, yes, and so positively fatal. I thought the stories of South Asian drivers having the worst and the most appalling road manners in the world were exaggerated, a biased conclusion made by obsessive compulsive foreigners, who, faced with the Other, immediately concoct stereotypes to suppress their fears of the unfamiliar. Come on, it can’t be that bad, I thought. The same is said of Manila’s jeepney drivers and I have traversed those roads many a time with no problem. Well, as I stand on a street corner in Kathmandu, I also stand corrected and an apology to the West is in order. The international stop/slow down sign — hand raised palm outward — has no meaning in Nepal. The drivers there don’t drive. They zoom. I cannot cross the avenues of Kathmandu without fearing for my life and thinking that my last words would be “Aryani, we’ll cross the street after that car! Come, on. Let’s go!” To make matters worse, the cars are not exactly up to safety standards, so being inside or outside the vehicle matters little to the safety of all concerned.

On my last day in the city, Ninfa and I accompany our Indian friends to pay a visit to Shiva, god of destruction. Being non-Hindus, we are forbidden to enter the temple so we stay at lookout hill. Behind us, a group of punk Nepalese kids are smoking marijuana. Around us, white hooting monkeys, the holy animals, clamber up and down the steps and all over each other. The golden domes of the temple look dull on that grey morning. I can’t tell if the throng inside the temple are singing or crying. From the sound rising from those walls, it could be both. Ninfa and I amuse ourselves by observing the monkeys — well, Ninfa tries to play with them — and the people. We wince every time we see someone wade into the river to bathe, as the river also doubles as a garbage dump. Lucky for me, I am not a believer. Holy as it is, that river is home to a lot of undesirable things and nothing could compel me to wade into it.

A Nepalese man strikes up a conversation with me. No, I am leaving today. My next stop is Bangkok. Our Indian companions are inside. No, I am not Japanese. I’m from Manila, I correct him. He lights up with this information. “I have many Filipino friends in Dubai, In Dubai, Filipinos and Nepalese are the only good friends,” he says. “That’s good to hear,” I say, trying not to wince at the statement’s unfortunate implications. How could the Filipinos and Nepalese not be friends? They come from countries that are dependent on labor export. They share the similar fate of being in-demand, unskilled laborers in the Gulf. Their shared fate is the stuff of true friendship. I do not tell him this, though. He is having another go at being an overseas contract worker and it isn’t right for me to discourage him by lecturing him about the politics of labor exploitation.

As we talk, two stretchers covered in saffron blankets are brought down to the river. Bodies to be burned, someone says. We stay to watch. One body was that of a young man: a crown of black thick hair manages to peep from under the covers over his body. I can’t tell if the other body was once a man or a woman. For the other body, the mourners are late, while the young man’s relatives came with him. The attendants lift the young man’s covered body to the steps. A red smear is left on the stretcher, from where his head had been, and the attendants lowered it to the river to wash away the blood. A gunshot wound, a blow . . . who knows? He could have died from an accident or hay may have been killed in riot the night before. The women in the family wail as they scatter flowers on the body that will be burned in a few minutes. The rest of us ogle silently. There is no privacy for the family of the dead, no respite from the pitying and curious gazes of strangers. Death is a public affair here and grief is a burden everyone must share. We wanted to witness the spectacle of the last rites, but there is a plane to catch and last-minutes goodbyes must be said. We leave Shiva’s temple as the men in the young man’s family haul and chop the wood for the day’s first funeral pyre.

Topics: jeepney ride
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