Uncertainty and Unrest: Kathmandu, May 3, 2009

Hi Everyone!  I’m not sure who has heard about the current state of affairs here in Kathmandu.  Here’s the link to BBC’s story “Nepalese army general fired by PM”  (though I don’t know if the link will work anymore)
Here’s my version.
I download another rural school report from the Department of Education website and hit “print.”  One of the young men who works in one of the other offices comes in.  “There’s going to be a curfew today,” he tells Prema, our Program Manager.  “What?  Where?”  “They’ve fired the Army Chief.  I heard the curfew is going to be in Baneshwor.”  I half pay attention as I download another school’s report and print it out.  Curfew.  Hm….  Then someone else comes in.  “Did you hear about the curfew?  The students are already getting out of school.”   Sure enough, we look out the window see children in uniforms heading home from school, full of chatter and laughter over their free afternoon.  The teachers didn’t even have enough forewarning to assign homework.  A truly free afternoon.  I get up from the desk.  “What does this mean?  Should I start going home?  Will I make it?”  I live across town, and I know what strikes in Kathmandu are like: vehicles just stop running.  If you want to get anywhere, you have to walk, and with my sprained foot, there’s no way I will make it across town.  Prema goes into Chokpa’s office and makes some phone calls.  Someone checks the news on the internet.  Sure enough, there is a photo of a fiery tire streaming smoke into the rain-washed sky.  It looks like photos I see of places during war.  I’ve seen people burn tires before, but somehow it looks different on the news, photographed like this.  “You can stay with me,” Chokpa offers, but I want to go home today, if possible, take a shower, have clean clothes to change into and my own bed to sleep in.  The air buzzes around me with conversation as people discuss possibilities.  There’s a man from another office who has a car who lives near me.  Are cars being allowed out on the road?  Are the roads open?  The final verdict is that we should stop talking and get a move on.  I limp down the stairs behind the man (whose name I still can’t remember) and get into his car with him.  Left side.  He rolls down the window as the car warms up.  The roads are quiet.  Relatively speaking.  Instead of the usually jam of cars, there is this afternoon a steady stream that allows for spaces in between vehicles.
We zip through the city, across the bridge, toward Ratna Park.  We come to a fork in the road and turn left, only to find the road ahead of us blocked by armed police who have set up metal blocks across the street.  Back around a traffic circle to the fork where we now take the fork we missed.  We pass by the turn toward New Boneshwor, and I see the not so unfamiliar site of riot police with their automatic weapons and plastic shields like something out of a poorly funded action movie.  We make it to Ratna Park, and here the cars fill the road with bicycles, motorbikes and people squeezing through the narrow spaces in between.  The police have arrived here, too.  And they direct us away from the turn we want to take.  We follow the cars, squeezing into spaces barely wide enough to allow the car to pass through and keep its mirrors.  The gentleman beside me has been grilling me on my life this whole way – where am I from?  What did I study?  He asks me about Zimbabwe and South Africa.  I am impressed with the knowledge he already has, but I struggle to focus on the conversation as the cars honk around us.  We follow the road straight to go back through Naya Bazaar.  We are at the head of a bunch of cars, and as we head forward, a motorcyclist beside us motions us not to go.  It takes a moment to register the mass of people, it must be thousands, making their way toward us, red banners held high, arms waving.  I can hear their voices shouting above the purr of the car air conditioner and the croon of a woman singing a Hindi pop song on the radio.  It takes several tries to get the car turned around, and I can’t help look back at the crowd, watching them come upon us and praying we will be out of their way in time.
We find ourselves heading back the way we have come.  I catch my breath as our car barrels down upon an old man in traditional darwa surwal (the traditional Nepali gathered pants and long loose top) walking in the middle of the street.  He fails to get out of the way despite the urgent warning of the car horn, and we swing around him at what seems to me to be the last moment.  As I begin to wonder where we shall go, I see a car turn left up a street, perhaps it will lead somewhere we might want to go.  We have passed it by this point, but the driver pauses his friendly interrogation of me to reverse the car to the turn, and we too take it.  From here we turn left again and find ourselves on narrow lanes that seem barely big enough for one car. I stop in the middle of a sentence about game parks in Zimbabwe as we manouver(SP?) our way around another car.  In these narrow streets, it seems that the uncertainty that I felt on the larger roads has disappeared.  People go about their lives, sit in their shops, watch the cars squeeze by as if nothing is happening.  And somehow it feels here like nothing is.  Except for us trying to find our way through this maze.  The alley delivers us to a larger street where there is the mixed blessing of cars – it means that there’s no protest that’s going to pass through, but there is also no way for us to pass through.  people stream steadily across the alleyway in front of our car, and we end up stuck waiting for perhaps 15-20 minutes.  It seems like an eternity, and I can’t tell whether people are worried as things have gotten violent in the past with things such as this, or if people are not paying attention and just want to go about their lives as they always do without having to be bothered with the troubles of politicians, rich and powerful men who want to be more rich and more powerful and care little for the livelihoods of the people around them.  We roll down the windows, and I watch people young and old stream past.  Women in saaris with their green wedding beads glimmering on their chests, men in darwa surwals, young men with hair cuts that puts jagged daggers of black hair in all directions wearing jeans and printed t-shirts, tiny women in skinny jeans, heels and fitted shirts.  The smell of roasting corn wafts to my nose, and I watch the woman roasting it.
Finally the cars in the line begin to move, but directly in front of us is a crowd of bicycles and motorbikes that want to enter the lane that we are blocking. We cannot get out with them in front of us, and they cannot enter the lane until we pull out.  It takes what seems like forever for people to get this, but finally a pedestrian directs the bicycles and motorbikes to move so that the car has room to pull out.  And we’re good to go.  Leaving the jammed area behind, so do we seem to leave the sense of uncertainty and enter into an area where people are finishing up their afternoon shopping.  We see children on the streets again walking home.  The number of vehicles out is less than normal, but it’s a nice change and makes the road seem more relaxed.  The gentleman drops me off at the temple at the corner of the street I live on now.  I thank him profusely, and he warmly thanks me for the good conversation.  Very interesting talking to you. He says.  See you soon.  Take care.
I walk home via the fruit store where I buy enough apples to last me the week.  When I arrive home, it is quiet.  Now, the only sounds that pierce the evening are the haunting call of a bird that I cannot name, a warble as if an invitation to something.  A crow responds crassly.  Someone is sweeping, and I can hear the swish of the broom.  A few voices in the distance remind me of people.  A child’s voice nearby.  And the gentle sound of Belle and Sebastian.  What has happened with the curfew, I do not know.  How strange this country is.  People have had to learn to live with uncertainty – not knowing whether there will be electricity or water, whether vehicles will be running or not, whether petrol will be available, whether there will be a government or strikes or protests in the street.  It has been years.  Almost 20.  My whole generation has grown up this way.  It blows my mind!
I am grateful to be safe.  And I am grateful for the grace and generosity of individuals, someone from the office to give me a ride home.  An adventure.
I hope you’re all well.

About Thandiwe

Hopeful cynic, creative, seriously silly, lover of people and places, hypocrite, third-culture kid, queer, life-long learner, white woman, Christ follower, outdoor enthusiast: I am a seeker of justice and truth who has re-found my spiritual home in progressive Christianity. I serve as the Associate Pastor at a small Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation near the mountains of Colorado where I live with my beloved.
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