We live in Bhaisepati, a part of Kathmandu (or a suburb, I suppose) that is fairly wealthy by Nepali standards. Our primary form of transportation has been little white taxi cabs distinguished from other white cars by their black license plates. Taxi drivers line up to wash their cars in the stinking filth of the river near where we live, standing bare foot, knee high in the water filled with the runoff from the nearby housing and the toxic waste that drains from hospitals and clinics. There is no such thing as a car wash in Kathmandu that I am aware of (though some lone facility might indeed exist somewhere in this city). Even the water that flows from the taps is so toxic we don’t dare brush our teeth in it or allow a drop of it to get in our mouths when we shower. Taxi drivers rely on their cars as their livelihood and though their vehicles are rusty old machines with ripped seats and sometimes biting insects living on the cushions, they try to maintain them as best they can using the resources available to them.
Taking taxis in Kathmandu is always an adventure. This is true, almost anywhere in the world, but in
this city of 700,000 people, there are no street lights, no street signs, no speed limits, and almost no regard for the dotted line that runs down the middle of the road. And yet, drivers are vigilant. They seem to have an unspoken, unwritten understanding with the other people on the road and impeccable control over their vehicles. I have yet to see any form of road rage on Kathmandu streets, but I’ve watched taxi drivers veer skillfully around dogs sleeping in the middle of a busy road or ducks that have accidentally waddled out into the street, while at the same time avoiding children walking to school (without the privilege and safety of a sidewalk) and vehicles coming from both directions.
Initially, during our first four or five taxi rides, I experienced the street chaos as nothing but a free-for-all wherein drivers meandered through the open spots in traffic wherever they existed on any side of the road. Because people drive on the opposite side of the road, I honestly couldn’t make sense of what the drivers were doing or how they weren’t crashing into the other vehicles, people, and cows. At first, I would cringe, cover my eyes, and dig my fingernails into the seat in front of me each time we came within millimeters of hitting a young child or a moped, but I’ve learned to just relax and watch the miracle of our survival as it unfolds before my eyes mostly as a result of skillful driving, respect for the other people, respect for animals on the road (cows especially), and serendipity.
It took us several taxi rides to discover that “Bhaisepati” was the magic word that would get us within the vicinity of our apartment. At first we used the word “Sainbu” to tell people where we lived, thinking that this was technically the name of our city, based off the address we were given for our apartment, but hardly any of the taxi drivers recognized this word. Since Nepali addresses are not numerical, but just rough estimates of a location based on some well-known landmark within a given area, we tried telling taxi drivers that we lived near the Kathmandu radio tower, but this only worked when they got close to our home and they could see the tower. Some of the taxi drivers speak English, some speak only Nepali. Most of them are very friendly. Once we started learning just a little bit of the Nepali language, we were able to get cheaper rates to travel from one place to another. Especially helpful have been the phrases, “Mahago cha” (that’s too expensive) and “Sasto garnus” (make it cheaper, please).
There are no skyscrapers in this city. From north to south, it is a relatively homogenous collection of metal and cardboard shacks and cement housing with tiny mom-and-pop shops on the lower levels selling fruits and vegetables, shoes, and women’s clothing. In Thamel, we were able to find a couple of fans one day in a shop specializing in electrical appliances like rice cookers, counter-top ovens, and mixers. We bought the fans to help us cope with the heat, but since the electricity is only on for about four to six hours of the day and four to six hours of the night (it varies when and how long the electricity is on), we rarely use them.
After sundown, there are no streetlights, or at least none that I’ve seen so far. Some houses and shops have back-up generators or special LED flashlights that they set up on shelves to help light up their little area, but the streets are dark except for the headlights of cars and mopeds. Generators provide just enough power to turn on a few lights and a television. Cooking is done with gas (if you’re lucky, and we are, thank God), or fire. Our reverse osmosis water purifying system only works when the electricity is turned on so we store water to drink when the electricity is off. Nepali people accept this aspect of their lives with surprising aplomb. I find it frustrating.
Riding in a taxi after sunset is truly harrowing, or so it seems, but then again, driving in Nepal is not in any way comparable to driving in the United States. There are rules apparently, but none of them are posted. I’ve only seen one minor accident since we’ve been here and I don’t believe anyone got injured. The drivers usually don’t talk much when they’re driving. It seems that generally, they concentrate on what they’re doing more than we do in the United States, although there are exceptions to this rule, I’m sure. They also don’t drive as fast as Americans do because they’re either driving on crowded, chaotic streets or curvy mountain passes.
Kathmandu taxis that approach a smaller vehicle or a pedestrian on the road honk to let the people ahead of them know that they’re coming from behind. We try not to make any sudden moves out into traffic when we’re walking along the road (there are few walkable sidewalks in Kathmandu) because the drivers rely on the predictable behavior of pedestrians and bicyclists to avoid hitting them. Once a little girl broke free from her mother and ran out into traffic. We heard the woman screaming at her child behind us, but the little girl didn’t get hit. The cars went around her as though she were a large rock in a river. Another time, when we were riding in a taxi, a motorcycle coming from the opposite direction popped out around the side of a bus that our taxi was readying to pass. Had our taxi and the motorcycle tried to pass the bus at the same time, they would have collided head-on. Tons of lucky moments like this happen regularly in Kathmandu, but their fatalistic views ensure that they happen without celebration or even recognition.
My dad sent me a message about a bicyclist at home who was hit by the mirror of a car on a highway in rural Nebraska, and a part of me wondered, how is that possible? As we meander treacherously through onslaughts of bicyclists and mopeds on streets packed with dogs and cows, goats and pedestrians, rickety buses, and cars, I think, why aren’t these cyclists being hit by car mirrors. Why would any man on a rural road in Nebraska get hit by any part of any vehicle? Our roads are so safe, so clean, so orderly. From our comfy house in the United States, I was really concerned about the taxis and all the other dangerous details of living in Nepal, but now that we’re here, it’s clear to me that the Nepali people manage the dangers of their lifestyle as well as they can. It’s amazing how resourceful people can be when they’re given very little to work with. And it’s equally as amazing how slothful people become when they’ve been given too much.
Nepal Travel: Lydian vs. Bus (video)
Nepal Travel: Lydian vs. Bus (video)