2 August 2011
Kafka in Kathmandu
What are you willing to go through in order to get a pair of walking sandals? I had brought my old Chackos, my sturdiest, waterproof, hiking sandals to Nepal, where I wore them every day. At night I left them with the myriad other shoes jumbled up at Sughanda’s house door, well behind a locked gate. One morning, towards the middle of my time there, they were gone. Someone had stolen them.
I bought a knockoff pair in Kathmandu, but they fell apart the first time I climbed a mountain in them. Then I tried to get by on flip-flops and hiking books, but the former were too flimsy and the latter too hot. My dear friend Shreejanna spent an entire day with me searching for something with which to replace them, but I found nothing suitable and ended up with more blisters.
I found myself walking less and less. After a few miserable weeks I broke down and ordered another pair from R.E.I. I had plans to do some serious mountaineering and needed something sturdy and reliable. The new Chakos cost $95 plus $30 to ship, and arrived 10 days later. I had no idea what I was in for when I headed downtown to pick them up.
Three days before I was supposed to leave Nepal, I received a phone call from an officious official who informed me that I had a package waiting and should come to Room 32 at the General Post Office (GPO). My friend Bill, who knows Kathmandu very well, went with me by cab to the heart of the city. The GPO is an enormous, concrete structure in deteriorating piss-yellow paint.
We entered a cavernous, noisy room with grey walls and floor and stood for a few minutes in front of a teller who sat well behind a high, glass wall. When it became clear that she was determined to ignore us, we moved to two other women who looked a little friendlier. They looked at me and acknowledged my greeting, so I said,
“Hello, name is Doctor Latta and I have a package to pick up.”
Neither of them said a word. I repeated my statement. They mumbled something in return.
“I need to pick up a package!” I said, raising my voice.
They responded again but I could not comprehend. Finally Bill stepped in and said exactly what I had said, but it was as though he had said something different because the women grinned at him and directed us to a different building. We went back out the door and around what looked like a trash heap through a parking lot and towards some piss-yellow buildings. I saw a lot of crushed boxes mailed from different countries and wondered if the carton of books and tee-shirts that Tim had sent me had ended up here, in this graveyard of undelivered packages.
We went into one building and found another enormous, echoing room At a large wrap-around desk in the center a woman in a purple kurta sat and stared at us.
“Yes?” she demanded crisply.
“Room 32?” I asked.
She pointed to a dirty corridor to her left and we followed it outside again, around a corner and across a concrete slab on which a dog lay. It was hard to tell whether it was dead or alive. We entered another, smaller labyrinth but this time there were signs in English. Room 30, 31, 32 this way. We followed the arrow and entered into a dim corridor which led us to a number of different rooms. Finally we found room 32, a long, dark room with a long counter that ran its length. We waited for about five minutes in line behind someone speaking to an official, when a man dressed in black pants and white shirt—the uniform of the officials at this office—called us in an irritated voice to a different spot at the counter. I explained that I had receive a call from the G.P.O. informing me that I had a package to pick up.
“What is your name?” the official asked.
I told him. He disappeared into a room at the end of the room, behind the counter, for another 5 minutes, and then returned, empty-handed.
“We cannot find your package,” he said, and gestured for me to follow him into the room from which he had just emerged. Bill came with me into another dark room filled with boxes in no particular order, haphazardly stacked in piles on the floor.
“You look for your package,” the man ordered.
We obeyed. After 10 or 15 minutes of searching, we found the box and mistakenly assumed that our ordeal was finished. But no. The man took the box from me and put it behind the counter. He shoved a form at me and told me to take it to room 31.
We took the form to room 31, a bit brighter but dirtier room in which four or five men were lounging behind desks, smoking cigarettes. The only person who appeared to be working was a woman in a pink kurta at a desk near the entrance to the room.
We approached her, but she directed us to one of the more relaxed fellows at a neighboring desk. He allowed us to wait for a few minutes before scanning the form that I handed him and consulting a large, green, leather-bound book. He said that I had to pay about 180 rupees and wrote something on the form. Returning it to me he indicated that we should return to the woman at the front desk, who took my money.
She didn’t have exact change in her drawer so she got some bills out of her purse. Then she told us to return to the central office, where we had encountered the woman in the purple kurta. We went to her, showed her the form, and she told us to return to room 32.
We trudged back through the labyrinth, outdoors again and around, past the still seemingly dead dog. In Room 32 we presented the form to a different man behind the counter, who pulled my box from underneath the counter and looked at it blankly.
“You must wait for Mr. Shrestha,” he said, without further explanation.
We stood there for many minutes, staring at the box that I for some unknown reason was not yet permitted to receive. Finally he told us to sit down in some plastic chairs nailed against the wall opposite the counter and put my box back under the counter. This was all starting to get very tiresome, and I was tempted to simply grab and run, but Bill stayed me. We waited. Mr. Shrestha failed to show.
I got up and went over to the counter, where I did my best to glower at the man who had asked us to wait. Perhaps I looked fierce, or perhaps he was also tired to waiting for his superior, and so he pulled the box out from its hiding place and stood with his hands on it.
Suddenly, Mr. Shrestha appeared. He ceremoniously stepped up, greeted us gruffly, and proceeded to tear open my package. Inside he found the sandals and rooted around for other stuff.
“That’s all there is,” I said, expecting any minute to have them in my hands.
But no, he did not hand them over. Instead he scribbled something illegible on another form and told me to take it back to Room 31. Back out we went, past the still unmoving dog, around the piss-yellow walls, and into the enormous central office, and into the dingy room where all the men lounged and the single woman worked. We went back to the surly gentleman who we spoke to before, and he demanded another 50 rupees, which he said was a tax. I was so sick of the process that I didn’t argue and dully handed over the bills, which went again to the woman in the pink kurta, who signed the form.
We took it back to Room 32, where I think I would have screamed and raved had I not finally gotten my hands on the goods that we had expected to get over an hour ago.
As we sailed out the door Bill asked, “Ever get the idea that you’re in a Kafka story?”
“Never quite so much as today,” I said, laughing.
O Nepal. How I miss you.