Friday, May 13, 2011

And Still They Honk!

Note: No new pictures posted yet, but will get on it as soon as I’m in a country for more than ten hours! 

  • IMG_5810 Sunday, 8 May: Took car to Baktipur with Jan; explored that Durbar Square; driver walked with us and took us to his sister’s home, a tiny wooden place with four floors, each around 5’x10’; spend a quiet evening back at Shanker Hotel.
  • IMG_5841 Monday, 9 May: Met Rubee and Rucee and all went to the Palace Musuem, a wonderfully beautiful and interesting trip, but no photos allowed; had lunch at hotel, all four of us; Jan got in touch with Ms. Hawley, who runs the Himalayan Foundation, a non-profit organization that tIMG_5867racks and legitimizes Everest summiters; went swimming in the late afternoon.
  • Tuesday, 10 May: Went to Patan on my own and explored all day; decided not to spend the night and returned to Kathamandu and Shanker; had good chats with Jan.
  • Wednesday, 11 May: Moved things from Shanker to Everest Hotel, where I met several of Jan’s friends from previous trips; then went back to Shanker to meet Nepali Colonel’s wife, who took Jan to see their new house on the outskirst of town; I went to Swayambunath (Monkey Temple) with Rimu; explored around on foot for most of the day before returning to Everest Hotel.
  • IMG_5898 Thursday, 12 May: Went to Bhodnath Temple again with Jan and Rimu to gift-shop; spent the day walking around with Rimu and doing more shopping; celebrated Jan’s 70th birthday that evening with wine and cake sent up by her hotel friends; Colonel’s wife came as did Ramesh, a Shanker Hotel employee who took a liking to Jan; both brought gifts; bought my ticket out of Israel; to bed late.
  • Friday, 13 May: Took Government tourist bus to the airport due to country-wide strikes stopping most vehicles; met Rimu at the airport (he walked) and chatted with him until it was time to check in; found out my airline had canceled my flight and got rebooked to a different airline; flight was delayed but still arrived Delhi around 2pm; no transit visa allowed so spent all day in airport.

The streets of Kathmandu were eerily deserted as the government bus that had picked me up at the Everest Hotel rolled along. There were two “tourist police” men, armed, on the bus. At various street corners there were small crowds of people behind soldiers and police in riot gear, although everything seemed peaceful.

For the last two weeks, I’ve wandered in various parts of Kathmandu, from tourist spots to local neighborhoods, and always the noise, pollution and traffic have been terrifically overwhelming. Taxis, a few oversized SUVs, buses of all kinds, rickshaws, bicycles and motorbikes all crowded the narrow streets of Thamel, the lanes snaking in and around all the neighborhoods, and wide avenues everywhere else. They all honked, they all zigged and zagged around each other. Sometimes you could see long lines of vehicles going on into the distance, waiting for the limited amount of petrol available.

Kathmandu’s streets are pretty dirty, with rubbish near the sidewalks when sidewalks exist, and rubbish piled in the gutters where people walk. The dirt and dust and diesel fumes clog the air and create a smog that is barely repelled, it seems, by the facemasks many people wear. Still, walking along any of Kathmandu’s streets is always fascinating. The women in their beautiful clothes, so different from Western-wear but so practical and so flattering. The men hurrying along, some carrying loads and others shopping and still others just wandering. Children in school uniforms of varying designs flocking together at breaks or before and after classes. The random cow eating trash or food or just gazing at the flow of humanity and automobile. Scarecrow dogs and the occasional pup weaving in and out of the throngs of people. Storefronts of all kinds, some glittering and some filthy. Fruit stands everywhere and cyber cafes more common than the fruit stands. Tourists and backpackers, trekkers or those going on treks, foreigners of all kinds gawking about.

I never once saw an accident, even though I felt like I nearly got hit at least a dozen times, most often by buses that decided to pull to the side of a road suddenly. Motorbikes were the next scariest, as they would suddenly appear out of alleys or around corners with no warning and, seemingly, no brakes. They sounded their obnoxiously loud horns the moment they seemed ready to collide with someone, pedestrian or vehicular. They were tied, though, with taxis, whose drivers seemed especially careless with those crossing the streets. Taxis sounded their horns constantly, becoming silent only when they had to grip the steering wheel with both hands as they slammed on the brakes to avoid vehicular manslaughter. Crossing the streets, by the way, was an adventure, although nowhere near as terrifying as in Vietnam.

So rolling down the streets and seeing only an occasional other vehicle on the road, and no one on the sidewalks except for the milling crowds and riot police and very visibly armed soldiers, was surreal. No people were in the streets, no rickshaws were to be seen, the storefronts were closed up tight. For me, the air seemed “taut with suspense,” as they say, although everyone seemed only to be waiting and watching.

Our bus driver still honked. So did the three other vehicles I saw on the road. At the airport, the trickle of taxis and buses that came to the airport – so different from the flood, the absolute gridlock of vehicles on my arrival – all honked as well. I guess some habits are hard to break.

Rimu, the Sherpa guide from our trek and now a close friend, met me at the airport, having run forty minutes to make it on time. We sat together and talked, we sighed and we said good-bye. He hung a khada about my neck as a final gesture: a thin, delicate white scarf that portrays respect in the Buddhist culture.

I will miss Nepal. Much like Cambodia, whose poverty struck me but with whose people I connected, Nepal’s people and their friendliness, humor and kindness are enough to make one forget about the pollution and the traffic and the dirt.

Well, almost, anyway.


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