A short walk in the Kathmandu streets
I’m one of those tourists, that hates tourists. Someone with a more colorful vocabulary would call me an “hypocritical asshole.” All the same. When I travel I tend to find myself annoyed with the presence of other tourists. As if the ratio of tourists to locals has a direct correlation with my satisfaction of an authentic experience. Confusing sentence, I know. How am I supposed to feel like I’m accomplishing something exotic when every third person I pass is a hippie clad in baggy, elephant mosaic pants? The ones hanging in every store window for a 10 mile radius, right above the buddha statues and next to the “I ❤️ Nepal” t-shirts. Essentially what I’ve described to you is my delusion of authenticism. Most of the world has been, and is being traveled by all walks of life and especially here in Asia.
My visa ran out five days ago. I’ve been an illegal alien of Nepal since Halloween. Now in Kathmandu I figured it smart to extend until past my plane’s departure date. The attendant at my hotel told me to take a taxi to Immigration for about 600rs, one way, and it wouldn’t take long. I wanted to spend some time away from Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu, so I asked him for a map and trod off under my own footpower. I went for a short walk, in the Kathmandu streets. Almost the Hindu Kush, but not quite. (See novel, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush to understand reference).
“Rickshaw, you need rickshaw!”
“I’m fine, I have legs”
“Rickshaw much better than legs, you take rickshaw”
I had no need for his three wheeled, carriage laden bicycle. Although his argument was spot on. Rickshaws are better than legs. The rickshaw was olive green with rainbow colored spokes and a maroon carriage shaded by a yellow parasol over a hard wooden seat. The Kathmandu equivalent of a Venice gondola. Two turquoise streamers extended from the handlebars, which were gripped by his dark skinned, wrinkled hands. He was a tiny man with a face of more lines than the El Paso Immigration Office. He smiled at me with a few brown teeth situated under his beaming eyes and rosy pink hat. He was excited by the thought of making a few hundred rupees. Maybe all he’d make for the entire day. I looked away quickly, if you look too long they’ll rope you in.
“YOU TAKE RICKSHAW” slowly faded into background noise behind the blaring horns and twangy engines of hundreds of motorbikes. They zip around each other without any choreography of law. A true, dog eat dog existence. Driving in Kathmandu is a constant game of chicken and if you’re good you’ll make it home. My footfalls were light and deliberate, avoiding upheaved bricks; signs of the recent earthquakes. One misstep almost landed on a pile of dog poop and as I dodged it to the left I almost slipped on a cow patty like a banana peel with rank consequences. I snaked around colorful women in saris and between short men in tailored business suits. Soon my eyes fell only on brown skin, no longer in the presence of tourists and completely aware of my black sheep appearance while standing heads taller than everyone around me. My head is draped with long, light brown hair meeting up with a scraggly beard of the same color. My fellow walkers all sport black hair and smooth faces. Every stare met my own gaze. I was just as enthused by them, as they by the presence of me.
A young man in a plasic poncho stopped turning the handle of the man-operated cement mixer in front of him. He watched me approach before getting yelled at by an obvious superior. His tiny frame hefted a massive bag of fine gray powder over the opening of the mixer until a hand raised in “stop” brought the bag back to the ground. He resumed his handle cranking while a woman in a pink and blue sari threw buckets of water into the hole, drenching the poncho’d man while he cranked. Behind them, seven men held onto a rickety bamboo scaffold, one hand held them ten feet off the ground and the other placed bricks on dripping mortar. Above me, a monkey held onto the hairball jumble of wires in the same way, scoffing at the passerbys below him.
At a major intersection I searched for a crosswalk, a useless pattern of white lines symbolizing a place no safer to cross than any other. I stood at the curb’s edge, waiting for a break in the colorful trucks, buses, cars, motorbikes, bikes, rickshaws and just when I thought to take a step the window closed. Suddenly a squat man, hands in his pockets, approached the crosswalk and without hesitation walked into the street. The traffic parted around him as he moseyed across the street as freely as a plane skirts the skies. I took a step out into the street, assuming the waters would part, same as they had for my Moses friend before me.
Shit! I hopped backwards and a young woman laughed at me. She too stepped into the street so I raced behind her and used her powers of traffic avoidance to my own advantage. Apparently you just have to go for it.
On the other side of the street a dark man laid on the ground, a towel between him and the dirt sidewalk below his back. His arms were outstretched, reaching straight up like a child asking to be picked up. The arms stopped at the wrist, and his hands were non existent. His wrists ended in stumps and I traced the line of his dirty green jacket to his face to see a cleft upper lip and dark eyes staring at me. A silver bowl sat next to him, the same as a few dollars worth of colorful bills and gold coins filled the volume below its rim. A few feet farther and a small child laid on a blue and white floral sheet. I couldn’t see the child, just the outline of them as they assumingly slept beneath the blanket their parents had left them under. Another silver bowl, another colorful pallette of rupee bills. Business suit legs stepped over the two begging props like another log on the hiking trail.
Piles of garbage filled every available corner of unused pavement. Parts of the piles charred from the circadian burning of garbage every morning. The Nepalese attempt at garbage control. Only the smell of burning garbage was more imposing than the sight. A long line of motorcycles extended before me. As far as I could see motorcycles were parked side by side, forming a wall around cars parked bumper to bumper. A long blue ribbon was tied from handlebar to handlebar, solidifying their place in this perpetual line.
“Petrol” Answered the unexpecting pedestrian. “Because of the Nepal fuel problem, they’re waiting in line.”
The petrol station had a makeshift fence built around it. Barring potential customers from attempting to drain the fumes that filled the underground tanks. There is no fuel, there are only lines.
The “Fuck India” graffiti all over the country points a finger at the culprit.
The exterior walls of the immigration office were white. The interior walls of the immigration office were white. The chairs were white. The desks were white. The computers were white. And all of the people in line, were white. My walk through the Kathmandu streets was over, and I was back in lines with tourists, getting my passport stamped so I could continue on with my “authentic experience.”