house of happy

Life adventures in prose and verse. Explorations of places, people and words. Stories and fun.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Kathmandu at Work

Monday morning. M. gets ready for work. This involves cereals for breakfast - an interesting concoction of everything-he-can-think-of, with milk. Coffee, an article of the New York Times, delivered daily (in three copies for some reason) to inspire (triple) fear. There's a new protocol, with newspapers, I realise. We unfold them, scanning already for horrors, Brexit, US, the T-word. What's he done now? What more, worse, cringing and scandalous could he have come up with - to plumb the latrines of history?

M. leaves for work. I have a sleep on the roof terrace, in the sun. I wake up to find three workers eyeing me from the top of the neighbouring building. This they are in the process of expanding upwards. Two new floors have been added already. 'Bye-bye view', I heard M. say earlier - although the only view is a milky, unhealthy-looking haze.

I watch the builders - they're very young, and in no hurry. They carry armfuls of rebar and secure it in place, very slowly; one does, to be precise, and the other two, on their haunches, watch. They hardly speak to each other. The active one places a rebar collar over the other bars, presumably to keep them in place. Then, very slowly, another, before crouching next to his mates. Together, they regard the work. After a few minutes, another worker gets up and begins again, more collars over the same bunch of bars, at a sloth's pace. Satisfied that this will take a while, I get up and make myself another coffee.

We're staying in an old house, four floors, many windows - each protected with thick wooden shutters. Our bedroom is dark, pierced by one ray of light, where the sun has found, for a few minutes, a hole in the shutters. A shaft of blinding gold - as if the Lady of the Lake has risen to hand it over, for a yet unclear mission (and rises daily around 9.15). Fine, I accept! I lie on the bed and shuffle about until my face lines up with this single ray. I wait for it to warm up my eyelid. What shall I do today, I wonder.

Dust motes dance inside the straw-thin burst of light. Dust fills the house, the street, the valley. If I dived off the roof, I almost feel that dust would carry me like surf, for all the sight-seeing I set myself today. But first, I have another mini-sleep.

I'm out finally. Ten seconds later, I can say with certainty that I have escaped death at least a dozen times. The streets are barely wider than a train compartment, and shared somehow by cars, mopeds, bicycles, building materials, school children, fruit carts, temples, mounds of roasted peanuts, cows. Motorised vehicles appear to have the same MO: move silently until they're level with a person, and then and only then expel a blast of noise. The honking and trumpeting never stop. I jump out of my skin so often, I am more out than in.

People seem to exist, work, walk, wed, and generally keep their sanity in this mayhem. Older people sit on stone steps with all appearance of relaxation. A calf is having a siesta. A young woman paints, outside a craft shop. Dogs lead rich dog-days, dog families, a whole dog city; I see a group of about seven big puppies, dusty and boisterous, playing and rolling about through the spokes of bikes, past exhaust pipes and car doors, how do they survive?

It doesn't look likely that I will. The wind knots my hair and lifts my skirt, yet another moped brushes my shoulder, with a deafening beep. I sit down on a stone bollard (possibly a little dragon) and make an emergency call. I only need to survive another 20 steps, M. assures me on the phone. We have a lunch date at a street stall (always the romantic, that man, and prone to luxury). We sit on stools and eat from banana leaf plates. Momos - my favourite kind of dumplings - and an odd pancake, onto which we pile some greasy veg. The food is so spicy that I'm beginning to think the dust of the city is part-turmeric, part-chili, straight from our breath. Three schoolgirls are eating next to us. I weep with the fire of the spices, unable to stop eating, it's so good. The girls laugh. M. repeats a word he hears from the cook, the girls laugh again. 'That is dirty word,' one of them explains. We all laugh. The air is thick with dust and noise, the city gathers itself to a crescendo, a roar, a daily storm. How on earth am I going to get home through this?

Back on the roof terrace, the builders are gone. I try, again, to see the big mountains - the Everest is somewhere that way - but there's only fog, smog, white cloud and dust. Another short sleep is required, I think. Eyes closing, I remember what the writer Thomas Wolfe said to his editor, Max Perkins, in his final letter. Wolfe talked about a moment he would always remember, when they went to the top of a tall building "and all the strangeness and the glory and the power of life and of the city was below."

He may as well have been talking about Kathmandu, today.


At 16 March 2017 at 05:45 , Blogger Rupert Wolfe-Murray said...

Wow, another brilliant article. I'm planning to write about Nepal too and was wondering how to describe the street life -- and you have done it for me. Can I quote you?

I am following in your footsteps. I just had that very same breakfast of everything-he-can-think-of and I feel so full and fat and tired that I must take a nap.

I too was looking at those building workers atop the next door house, wondering what the Health and Safety Executive would have to say about their work at 25m up.

I too was gobsmacked by the streets but felt myself blending into it. I stood on one corner and turned on my video recorder for a minute; I didn't move the camera and posted the very busy footage on Twitter.

At 17 March 2017 at 18:07 , Blogger emwolfem said...

Hi Rupert - thank you. Quote away (if you want) and perhaps post a link to this blog? This way your readers can see the whole lot (if they want).


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