November 27, 2006

Manifest Density

Kathmandu is one of the densest and most crowded places I’ve ever been. Throngs of people, snarls of traffic, riots of color and sound assault and overwhelm the senses. Though it looks and sounds like chaos manifested, it all seems to flow smoothly.

Kathmandu traffic is insane. In many parts of the city there are no sidewalks, traffic signs, lights, lanes, double yellow lines or any of the other markings we take for granted. I like to think of myself as a pretty good observer of my surroundings, but it took me over 15 minutes to realize which side of the road Nepalis drive on (the left). The road is shared not only by cars and buses, but bikes, motorcycles, bicycle rickshaws, taxis, people, and street peddlers. Everyone creates their own lane, and the speedy maneuverable motorcycles stream wherever there is an open space, weaving back and forth between sides. Rickshaws plow head first into throngs of people, and magically a path clears. Bells, whistles, and car horns constantly screech the presence of their drivers to the rest of the world. Jonathan stood by the roadside one day and found he could only count to three before another honk or noxious noise pierced the air.

Taking a right turn across traffic in our rickshaw actually made me put my hands up to cover my eyes – I literally couldn’t watch, because I was sure we were going to die.

Besides being riddled with potholes and dirt patches, the roads became even more like obstacle courses due to the random piles of trash strewn in the streets. The trash is just swept into heaps, and then sits there. We couldn’t discern any sort of trash collection the 6 days we were there.

And yet, it all worked together somehow. People flowed and went about their daily business, shopkeepers hawked their wares, women sold fruit and vegetables while men prayed and placed offerings on thousand year old religious shrines on the side of the road. The city had a festive spirit as people prepared for the upcoming 5 day holiday of Tihar, and shops were decorated with garlands of flowers and holiday sweets were sold.

Amazingly, we got used to it in just a few short days. It seemed natural to pick our way along the narrow streets, and to move my arm up out of the way to avoid being hit a car’s rearview mirror zooming by. We stepped blithely around the trash, and learned to hold our ground against oncoming honking motorcycles.

And viva Thamel, the tourist ghetto, where we savored the first Diet Coke, Pizza and baked goods since leaving Beijing…:)

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