Thursday, March 5, 2021… I have some time to kill before dinner tonight. So I venture into the narrow uneven streets of Thamel. The area is known for its shops carrying trinkets for budding Buddhists as well as trekking gear for hopeful trekkers. You can find a dream catcher or a meditation bowl or Tibetan peace flags. From the authentic to the knock offs. You name it. They even have a store that sells just yoga pants.
I pass the old American Embassy compound which occupies several blocks. It is surrounded by a high fence. The embassy was moved a while back but they kept the property to house the usual American necessities. A gym, swimming pool, tennis courts, and a bar. The Crow Bar, as it is called, is named after the thousands of crows that circle the property day in and day out. It was a bit unnerving to see them swarm in circles looking like remnants of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Down the street is the “Rodeo Drive” of Kathmandu. There are well guarded shops with shiny things in the windows. Its fancy, but it ain’t no Rodeo Drive. Truth be told, it ain’t much at all.
Right behind the American compound is Kathmandu’s major North-South artery. That intersection is a clusterfuck if there ever was one. I wouldn’t be surprised if the word cluterfuck originated there. Cars and trucks and busses and bikes and scooters and people and more scooters and more bikes and tiny cars that zip around like Tasmanian devils and more people. You get the picture. There is a lone traffic cop who sits in the middle of a platform in the center of this intersection with a hand held stop sign that would be much more useful as church fan. His role appears to be no more than adding insult to injury. He is whistling and screaming and pointing as if anyone notices or cares. People just do their thing and I kept wondering if he feels fulfilled at the end of his day when he goes home. What do you tell your spouse? How do you quantify the amount of insult you’re added to the obvious injury you preside over?
The sidewalks are filled with throngs of pedestrians. Young and old and everything in between. On this very intersection you can easily sift out the tourists from the locals by the way they cross the street. Crossing streets in these places is an art that is honed and passed on from one generation to the next. Do not expect to be a pro from the get go. It requires practice and having lived in similar parts of the world I can attest that you need more than luck to stay alive when crossing these iconic intersections. To help you in case you feel compelled to travel after reading these travel logs, I have compiled these 8 rules to live by (I mean that literally). These rules apply to most non European countries with the exception of Japan, Singapore, New Zealand and Australia!:
1 – Think of it as a game of Double Dutch. You don’t need to know how to actually play Double Dutch, just understand the basic concept.
2 – Before you dive in, make eye contact with at least one driver. I’m not sure why this works but it does. Trust me.
3 – Pretend that you have super powers and that the force will not leave you throughout the duration of your crossing.
4 – Use your arms as magical wands that can stop any vehicle simply by gesturing.
5 – Stay focused.
6 – Whatever you do, do not hesitate.
7 – Do not show any signs of fear. This can be deadly.
8 – Find strength in numbers. Huddle with a group of fellow crossers and move forward as a single unit. Its very empowering.
One important caveat. You must employ all these rules simultaneously while crossing. For instance, you cannot just pretend you have superpowers while showing fear or hesitating. You will get your ass killed or at least badly hurt. What’s worse is that you won’t get any sympathy and will be only remembered as that stupid foreigner who snarled traffic.
Walking back to my hotel, the streets and sidewalks get narrower. I navigate the pot holes and ditches and muddy curb sewers. I am careful not to step on the dogs sleeping on sidewalks. I zig zag past the bicycles and rickshaws and vendors. And I take in the smells wafting out of the little shops. I grab a lassi and a couple of momos and I am rejuvenated. I am enjoying the light cool afternoon breeze. I am a sponge in a sea of humanity and I feel so alive. I know it sounds like a cliche, but it was like I’ve been here before. I know these streets. I’ve tasted this food. Even the smells are familiar. Suddenly I am not an American in Kathmandu. I am an earthling. I am connected to all living things on this planet. I belong to it and it belongs to me. And as I reached my hotel, I get to my room, plop myself on the bed, a slight smile crosses my mouth and tears run down my face.