Kafka in Kathmandu

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 boots, 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, my 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.

On the way home, part 1: Nepali Sexual Politics

On my way home, part one:

I have not been able to write for a while because I have had very limited access to the internet.  Also, my last days here in Nepal have been richly complicated and busy, and I have not had the energy or ability to post.  Right now I’m sitting in a delightful garden café at the Shechen Gompa, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery near the great stupa called Boudha.

There are magnolia and mango trees, and swooping bushy hot pink and orange bougainvillea vines, hibiscus bushes, marigolds, impatiens and countless other shade and sun flowers I cannot name.  I have spent a lot of time here in the last week.

There is much to report, much to record, and much more to consider.  For now I’m going to upload some thoughts that I wrote during my transition from the last post to today.  During that period bedbugs drove me out of Sugandha’s house and into what Sugandha called a palace.  It was a nice, upper middle-class Nepali house.  I lasted less than a week and ended up here.  Brendan moved over with me a few days ago.  We’re sharing a well-appointed room at the Tharlam gompa and have had many adventures and conversations.

25 July, 2011

I’m having a difficult time adjusting to the new house.  First of all, I miss Brendan.  I don’t like having breakfast and dinner without him, and I liked getting to say goodnight.   Second of all, I have a lot less privacy here.  Every move is scrutinized.  Not so much by the wife, Nirmala, as by the husband, Kalidas, a traditional Nepali man.  When trying to make conversation on the first day, I asked Nirmala what she liked to do.  Did she like to garden?  Yes.  She told me about her garden.  Did she like to cook?  She hesitated, and then Kalidas interrupted, practically shouting, “Cooking is her duty!”  It didn’t matter to him whether or not she liked it.   He asked lots of personal questions, as Nepalis tend to do, and quickly discerned that I was divorced, a status that most Nepalis find disgraceful.  He makes me uncomfortable.

I don’t have the nice view from the room that I had at Sugandha’s house, and I can’t hear the frogs chirping in the fields at night.  I can’t sleep because the bed is super-hard and the machine that recharges the battery intermittently fires off a round of zaps like a machine gun.  This noise goes on from about 9 pm to 2 am.

Kalidas does not approve that I get up at 7 in the morning.  He likes to inform me that he gets up at 5.  He plays badminton with three other Nepali businessmen, who come over afterwards and drink tea on the front porch.  They keep the front door wide open so when I come out to take a shower they are all there gaping.

At meal times, Nirmala serves Kalidas, then me, and hovers at the table to see if we want any more vegetable curry or rice.  I am so sick of dal bhat. Somehow I have got to persuade her not to pile the rice into a mountain on my plate.  If I say “pugyo,” or “I am full,” when she wants to give me more, Kalidas suggests that I do not like the food.  Nirmala sits only after Kalidas has had his second or third helping.  I want to wait for her to finish her food before leaving the table, but Kalidas gets impatient and wants me to bring my dishes to the sink as soon as possible.  He barks at me to get up, so I do.  He is used to ordering women around.  I find this unsettling.  I like Nirmala and am willing to like Kalidas.

Nepali sexual politics are difficult for me.  There are four ways to address a person in the language: the very, very formal “You” (hajur) used for kings and magistrates; the ordinarily formal “You” (tapaai); the very familiar “timi” used for children and between friends; and the very low “ta” which is used for dogs, lower beings and between intimates.  Kalidas says “ta” to his wife but she says “tapaai” to him.  He addresses her by her first name.  She always and only says “tapaai” to him.  “The husband dominates the wife,” he explains to me as she sits beside him smiling and agreeing.  Nirmala never leaves the house.  Her sister-in-law comes over with her 18 month-old during the day and they watch t.v..  Nirmala keeps a relatively clean house—but the bathrooms are not nearly as clean as mine back home.

They are Brahmin and not particularly religious, which is somewhat of a relief after Sova’s morning puja, which began loudly at 5 with the same version of “Om Nama Shivaya” on the stereo, and concluded at about six with a long and vigorous ringing of a bell and the blowing of a horn.  I will try to adjust to this new dwelling.

What I love here:

The comforting croak of the frogs at night.

The sound of rain on a tin roof.

Women walking in kurtas, veils trailing.

Hennaed hands on the first of Saun.

Temples like mushrooms in the unlikeliest of places.

Mild-mannered dogs, neither tame nor wild, sleeping in intersections.

Ducklings waddling down the center of the street.

Chicks milling about the gate.

Spindly legged men herding cows.

Bamboo ladders and scaffolding.

Color.

Rice fields in terraces, corn everywhere else.

Squash vines climbing house and garden walls.

Flowers from my homeland by the side of the road.

The rare glimpse of the god-mountains overlooking the valley.

Women driving trucks and buses.

Men balancing wares on bicycles.

Giant metal baskets of mangos.

Fortune-tellers lounging on the sidewalks at Ratna Park.

Women fanning roasted corn at corners.

Goats.

Weed(s).

The red- and the orange-robed.

The dark, dirty, and ragged, red-robed monk who lives at Boudha.

Walking slowly.

Bare feet.

Ankle bracelets and toe-rings.

Saying Namaste.