Melting Pot

The City Hasn’t Changed Much


The author recounts her daily way to work in Kathmandu, Nepal, where she spent the last two summers teaching English and IT to local street kids.

The city hasn’t changed much. Again, I’m heading North; to work. I start from home, leaving the heavy gate behind, then walking down a steep hill, then turning right. I follow a muddy path with some huge residential buildings on the one side and shacks on the other. Where the road ends, there is a turn and a large courtyard opens ahead of me. At the end of it, a set of concrete stairs climbs up a hill. I believe it’s the very same hill my house stands on, yet, in Kathmandu you can’t just figure out how things are built. Look at the map. Try to find order. Fail.

The base of the hill is punctured with tiny pipes, three, or perhaps four. I can’t remember exactly, but fresh water runs from there. All the time. I haven’t noticed any tap, any way to shut the water down, to stop the flow. Women do their laundry here. They wash their long, dark hair, collect water. Dye from their clothes runs down the yard colouring the mud where the path begins. Then it runs further and further, nearly reaching the crossing where I’ve just turned right. Nobody minds. The family owning a corner shop patiently washes the dyed mud off their store floor every time I pass by. Red. Blue. Yellow. Red.

The courtyard is a cul-de-sac. No vehicle can climb the steep staircase surrounded by a wall of a modern, white-walled development on the left, and a red-brick wall of some forgotten garden on the right. One clever rickshaw man knows the spot. I see him there at different times of the day, waiting for somebody to ask for a hand in carrying home heavy gallons of water. Sometimes music plays, people sing, kids run around. There’s a great sense of community, as if they are all friends. My appearance stirs things a bit when I appear from around the corner, my pace unreasonably fast, my sunglasses on. I just can’t get used to the stares, so I cover my eyes and scan in secrecy. I watch my step, smile to everyone and climb up as fast as I can the ever wet stairs.

When they turn for the second time, the turn is sharp, ninety degrees. I can’t see what’s behind the corner. I know that part is a steep one, and that on top, there is a portrait of a Hindu deity, or a snake. At one point some worshippers attached a tika and a coin to it. The coin was gone first. Passed the tiny shrine a narrow corridor between two red-brick walls begins. Hardly enough room for two people to pass. Half way through, the walls turn. Again, I can’t see what’s coming on me. Most of the times it’s actually nothing. Not many people choose to squeeze through there. In the tall and narrow labyrinth every breath can be heard. The passage makes me think of a secret tunnel from a crime or, perhaps, a love story. I’m sure these walls have seen a lot.

Looking up the tall walls, the whiteness of the new development looms over me. The houses are massive, yet most likely aimed at single families of two or three generations. Similarly to what used to be in Poland in the 1980s when my parents’ house was built, two-storey square blocks with the upper floors permanently unoccupied. That’s what they are right now. Here, nobody needs to worry. Every corner is taken. The change hasn’t arrived yet. Perhaps it never will.

Walking slowly downhill, suddenly, a major road appears. Where my muddy path ends, Lazimpat road takes a sharp “S” turn. That is a perfect parking spot on a side of a busy road. Young men sit on their motorbikes, chatting. Next to them there’s a pile of garbage, all scattered around. One day it is there, another is not. I haven’t figured out the collection days yet.

As soon as I come out of my private, secret little road I’m being hit by noise. For some reason, I can’t hear the traffic until the very end. The contrast strikes. From a dreamy mood, I have to switch to the survival mode. Politely declining all offers to hop on a micro-van I walk along the crowded street. Listening to music as I walk is a no-go. One – if the music isn’t loud enough, it can’t beat the traffic. Two – if the music is loud enough to be enjoyed, I risk to miss a crucial second to hear a motorbike coming up on me. U-turns in the middle of the street – allowed. Short rides against the traffic – allowed. Taking over driving in the middle – allowed. Riding on the pavement – have a guess.

At the second bend of the “S” turn, there is a bus stop. It’s shown on Google Maps and I often use it as a reference point. Pity that hardly any buses stop there. The white-development seems to be right behind it. A DIY metal gate appears to be leading there. I’m curious to peep inside. When the gate is open I can see a long street, similar to those inner roads of modern compounds in Poland. On both sides, at close distance, tall villas stand proudly. They look as out of place as the US embassies are in most countries around the globe. Marching past the bus stop and the gate, a line of stores begins. A liquor store, an eatery, a bike repair workshop, a stationary shop, a photo point, another eatery.

When the first cough comes out of my throat, I remind myself to keep the mouth shut. The nose does its job better. I can’t force myself to wear a face mask, even though it would be reasonable. I keep convincing myself that nothing that bad can happen to my respiratory system if I’m in the Kathmandu Valley just for a couple of months a year. Pollution is undoubtedly one of the local newspapers’ favourite topic – together with road deaths and injuries. All these issues are real here. No jokes. A guy on a motorbike has just got pushed by a huge, green city bus as it was changing lines. Nothing happened. The motorbike let the bus pass, took over and carried on business as usual.

After the bend, the road finally straightens up, the stream of people and vehicles seems to have no end. A tall, dark-blue mountain looms over them, looking like a heavy rain cloud. I pass a tiny shrine built of red bricks in the middle of the pavement. Incenses burn bringing a nice moment of relief to my overwhelmed senses. I would like to stop and keep inhaling. Sometimes somebody rings the bells as they pass. But I guess I shouldn’t.

A few steps after the shrine there used to be a few meters long stretch of a wet wasteland on the side of the pavement. I remember the smell of dirty water evaporating under the sun. Somebody has built a row of what look like shops over it. Four or five wide gates stand there now, all locked. Wondering what happened to the chicken that used to hang around that same spot last year.

On the opposite side of the road, another row of shops is growing. Three more appeared in a thin building that was still under construction last year. No more than three meters wide, it rises three floors up over the street. On its top terrace, laundry is drying in the wind. The building was being built without any machinery. Laborers, water tanks, buckets of sand obstructing the path. That’s what I remember. Brick by brick, up and up. Their terrace overlooks the “President’s House” and its greenery. Not a bad spot, indeed! The walls of the palace are at least 200 meters long. Behind them, watchtowers stand on their spider-thin legs. Security men holding rifles watch the traffic. The presidential palace is painted red and yellow, neoclassical columns make it look very elegant. A big Nepali flag waves on top of it.

This part of the road is quiet. The pavement is wider. Some trees give shadow. Where the President’s House ends, another wall immediately begins. Its first part belongs to the Investigation Bureau while the second to the Police Academy. A single gate, guarded by a military man, leads to both compounds. When it is open, I can see a huge green lawn with football goals. The grass is green and well-trimmed, I have never seen anyone playing on the pitch, though. Cars go in and out. Female guards work alongside their male colleagues. Passed the gate, the red wall continues. The traffic rages. The city hasn’t changed much.