New Eyes. And Also, a Lengthy Discussion of Traffic in Kathmandu

 “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people see you differently too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky


While I’m not returning until late May 2017, I am thinking about how it doesn’t take returning to your places and your people to see them with new eyes. Right now I am in this funny between point of having the shiny new eyes looking at the US and the starry eyed wonderment of a recently arrived traveler (and one who no longer has the flu).

The eye motif (Eyes of Buddha) can be seen everywhere, even behind a temple (mandir) in Bhaktapur's old city. I wondered if these were salvaged from Earthquake-wreckage and is being stored there until they know what to do with them

The eye motif (Eyes of Buddha) can be seen everywhere, even behind a temple (mandir) in Bhaktapur's old city. I wondered if these were salvaged from Earthquake-wreckage and is being stored there until they know what to do with them

I’m talking a lot about eyes. and there is a lot to see in Nepal. But really, so much of Nepal is about the sounds. As someone easily overwhelmed by sound, I notice all the noises and the exciting and interesting things they have come to represent.

At night, it’s so silent. Life really does shut down at night and, having had some sleepless periods in the night thanks to jetlag and my flu, I could revel in the quiet nights, which alternate between silence, peeping frogs, gentle falling monsoons rains, and the cascades of dog barking that sometimes set off by just a single person making noise. The dogs seem to sleep all day and bark all night.

But it’s not always so calming. One of my fellow Fulbrighter’s is an artist named Ryan, she’s awesome. On our first real night (not counting arrival nights with pre-sunset bedtimes) she was writing in her journal and asked me for a single word to describe Nepal. Stimulating. Stimulating in every sensory way; sound, sight, touch, smell, and even taste. If nighttime is quiet, it’s because the city has been churning so busily, starting early in the morning, that it has exhausted itself completely by dark. The regular sounds are honking car horns, puja (prayer rituals) bells ringing, puja prayers being sung, people making noise, roosters crowing, and music or TV from open windows in nearby apartments and homes.

To an American, particularly one who has never seen driving outside of North America or northern Europe, the beeping would be confusing. While I’ve seen adventurous driving all over the world, including my home city of Boston, Kathmandu certainly has driving worth marveling at. It’s a feat of great awareness, maneuvering skills, and regularly communication via horns.  

Let me set the scene: the roads are pretty narrow, the sidewalks are also narrow and sometimes uneven. And sometimes they don’t exist. There are always lots of people out, so there is always the job of negotiating around people and having them negotiate around you when something in a shop window makes your feet stop moving and captures your attention completely. Sometimes people sit on the edges and sell fruit or offer services like shoe cleaning and repair. There is a social stigma about stepping over people in Nepal, so they are given a wide berth, further narrowing the space to walk. I often try to stay on the left to mimic traffic patterns here (opposite of the US), but this adherence to walking patterns isn’t as ingrained as it is in, say, Japan. Where I very rudely and confusedly set a pick for whole family in the train station as I wandered around finding my way. Anyway, all this is to say that sidewalk pedestrian traffic spilling onto the road to negotiate sidewalk congestion is normal. (As is the occasional motorbike or even car using the sidewalk to negotiate around car congestion on the road.)

Monsoon clouds building over Bhaktapur

Monsoon clouds building over Bhaktapur

There are cross walks, but people really cross wherever and everyone goes on their way trying to avoid hitting or getting hit. So you just sort of wade out into traffic when it’s a bit lighter then pause at the approximate line (which can be fuzzy and sometimes quite flexible, if at rush hour) between the two directions of traffic waiting to get across the next lane. You stick your traffic-facing hand out, like it will help you (actually, it seems to). Also, there is safety in numbers. Most of our crossings have been ok. We suspect the Nepalis feel sorry for these poor helpless looking white women and give us more room than they would a Nepali, who they can trust to handle the situation coolly, with less running, arm waving, and general panic.

On the roads, there are marked lanes, but these are really more of a suggestion. Traffic is sort of a guided free for all that, remarkably, works. There are a lot of near misses, or rather, tight squeezes. There are so many cars and motorbikes (and bikes and rickshaws and tuk tuks and minibuses) for the road widths. The intersections are frequent, and until a recent taxi ride, it seemed like back road short cuts aren’t an option and there are only a few ways to go most places. Technically the intersections are roundabouts, I think, which makes for back ups. At rush hour a police office controls it, like a human traffic light with more authority and high exposure to vehicle emissions. The merge is a lot like when you’re leaving an event at a theater, or a sporting event and there is no space and its packed so you just merge in and people make space and it works. The only difference is people are in small, metal vehicles carrying speed and not wearing seat belts or helmets consistently. 

Now this works for two reasons: 1) it is expected and so people are always aware of the road in a way I am envious of. No clueless cell phone drivers yakking away and nearly killing everyone and 2) the wonderful communicative power of horns. Honking isn’t “Hey Jerkwheel*! MOVE IT!” (like it definitely is in Boston), it’s “Namaste, I’m coming around you on a narrow side street even though a truck is approaching and a woman and child are crossing and you’re in the middle of the lane and there is a motorbike on my tail. Please be advised. Oh thank you for making room**.”

Unlike in Boston, the impetus for this type of driving isn’t aggression or competitiveness; it’s really just a result of the structural constraints on traffic and the norms established around it. When I learned to drive, my dad taught me the safest way to drive is to be predictable. (Incidentally, he also taught me to not to be a “sleaze ball lowlife early apex-er” into turns and that “squealing tires are happy tires”, which are the sorts of lessons you get when a former racecar driver teaches you to drive. Thanks, Dad!). The seemingly unpredictable choices of Nepali drivers to American eyes are actually quite predictable and therefore not as unsafe as it would be if you tried the same maneuvers one day in Seattle. Seattle drivers are already timid and panic at the first sign of anything amiss. If you drove Nepali-style, they would probably drive right into you. If you were able to magically replace 50% of all the people on the roads in Kathmandu with average Americans, there would be thousands more accidents than there are here. We simply couldn’t adapt fast enough with the unclear rules or the loss of social norms (anomie).  

Sometimes it might be a cow in the road that you need to negotiate around. But usually not.

Sometimes it might be a cow in the road that you need to negotiate around. But usually not.

I think about this with load shedding too. These are the twice daily power losses used to managed the load on the grid. Apparently, because the dams are flush with water from the monsoons, the load is light, even though it’s 6-10 hours out per day. They’re annoying at best and rather frustrating at worse—but knowing when it’s coming, thanks to the BattiGayo app, helps. When you’re out and about and in different zones, the power can just go out. Many businesses have generators, but in the interim of the power loss and the generator, there can be darkness, but no one misses a beat. Life and the conversation or presentation or whatever was happening carries on (except the rock music at the show, that stopped). People know power will come back. Or it won’t. But whatever, people carry on doing what they were doing. In the US, when the lights go off, everyone freezes and sits up straighter, like a prairie dog or high alert. There may even be a scream or audible inhale. A nervous “what’s going on?” or at best, silence as people wait it out, privately worrying about an attack or shooting or natural disaster that they are woefully ill-prepared for. 

Our neighborhood monkey crossing one of the masses of power lines

Our neighborhood monkey crossing one of the masses of power lines

I haven’t taken many pictures of daily life here because it’s this weird mix of everything seemingly like a beautiful picture and also everything seeming not that photo worthy. I am already getting used to what I see (still enjoying and noticing it) but having to remind myself that people at home might like to hear about this. So here is a random list of experiences or insights that might be interesting to those who haven’t been here:

  • There is a monkey that lives in our neighborhood that I notice every few days (pictured above)
  • There are the same neighborhood people we see everyday at their stalls and stores, they are always smiling and friendly, in a every so slightly shy or humble way
  • I hear the elderly neighbor singing prayers regularly throughout the day and it is so joyful in the most simple and wonderful way
  • Foreigners ringing prayer bells at local shrines is a way of saying “I respect your gods” and is respectful, which is sort of the opposite of home, where you want to abstain fro religious practices that aren’t your beliefs unless invited
  • There isn’t much breeze here, which I miss, especially on hot days. But it makes monsoons less destructive because the rain just comes straight down and doesn’t blow into open windows as much.
  • On August 1st there started to be way more sun and way few low cloud cover days, slowly crawling our way out of monsoons season, which should wrap up by the end of the month
  • I saw a cow sitting on the side of the road (same area) a few days in a row (pictured above)
  • If you walk into an empty (and possibly closed) liquor store/cafe mistaking it for the Irish Pub next door and ask if you can watch the Olympics because your former teammate is competing (Go, Schmett go!) because this one athletic degree of separation is the closest you will ever be to the Olympics; chances are the slightly confused Nepali workers will do everything they can to make sure you can watch. They might ask some questions about Rowing, but they'll let you sit and write a blog post in their Air Con while they host you for the hours before it comes on. That's the kind of Nepali nice I am talking about.

*Jerkwheel is something my Mom once said about typical Masshole driver that cut her off when I was about 10 and even then I appreciated it as a hilarious adjective

** Except they don’t say thank you. Nepalis are very helpful and so doing a thing that is expected of you does not require thanks. Americans over thank everyone. I think we’re fundamentally not that helpful and so helping behavior is incentivized through the reward of individual recognition. The word for “thank you” in Nepal is dhanyabad and it is traditionally reserved for a very big thank you, though Westerners have shifted the norm for smaller actions.

Fellow Fulbrighter Lily's computer. I particularly love the "Not Different Than You, Different  Like  You" (emphasis added by me)

Fellow Fulbrighter Lily's computer. I particularly love the "Not Different Than You, Different Like You" (emphasis added by me)