If somebody asked me “What is the most crazy, adventurous, heart-pumping thing you have done in Nepal so far?” there would be no hesitation: My walk to work. The 15-minute trek from my front door to my office might not look like much on a map, but in the flesh it is a real life Jumanji in the heart of Kathmandu. The warm-up begins as I open my front door and step into the tranquility of our garden and neighbouring plant nursery, sometimes greeted by the black lab Cali or adorable little boy who lives next door.
Walking towards the gate offers a perfect view of the golden stupa at Swayambhu, a temple that sits on what I would call a mountain but what the Nepali call a hill. I guess boasting 8 of the world’s 14 highest peaks over 8,000 metres – including the Queen herself, Mount Everest – puts measly “hills” into perspective. As I pull back our front gate, I am hit with a wave of noise, dust, and smells that I will spare you from describing.
But what is most impressive are the animals you meet along the way. Stray dogs line the roads, poking their snouts through bags of trash that litter both sides of the street. On a good day one will walk me to work, until we cross some imaginary boundary that only street dogs know, and it is chased off another dog’s territory. Every once in awhile you will pass a cow, sitting in the middle of a busy intersection, completely unaware and unperturbed by the steady stream of cars and motorbikes that swerve around its sides. Just outside my office, there is always a number of ducks, chickens and goats running around.
And then there is the traffic itself. A heavy mix of two, three and four-wheeled vehicles jammed onto narrow streets decorated with potholes, if they are paved at all. My survival instinct can already distinguish the honks of a motorbike (keep walking as you are) from a passenger bus (get the hell off the road). The other day, as I was standing at the side of the busy Ring Road waiting to cross, I realized that you are never really waiting for a break in traffic, you are just waiting to build up enough courage to walk into the traffic itself.
Anyone who has ever resorted to the stereotype that Asians are bad drivers has never seen them drive in their own country. Put a North American driver on the Kathmandu obstacle course of people, cars and animals and they wouldn’t last a day. Quick tip: Honks should not be used for road rage and pick-up lines. Here, they are a life-saving signal for “I am coming around the corner/over the hill/down the street” or, in the magical words of Ludacris, “Move ***** get out the way!” I have also re-discovered what those interior handles above the car door are for, i.e. holding on for dear life as you swerve up, around, over, repeat.
And of course there is the mystery muck. That lovely brown substance you get on your feet and convince yourself can only be mud. In preparation for the upcoming monsoon season, I have started to rock a pair of rubber boots to work everyday, which wins me some curious looks from Nepali bystanders. But with all this, I have to say I have missed the everyday chaos that comes with life in a place like Nepal. I can remember coming back to Canada after spending time in Senegal and being completely overwhelmed by how empty the streets are (What have they done with all the people?!). For some reason it brings this Diane Ackerman quote to mind:
I don’t want to come to the end of my life and find that I have just lived the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.
Next post I promise to update on my work activities, which are moving along well!