Round Table

By Ruth M. Hall '82

Driving in Kathmandu

I get up at six o’clock and take a quick bath. I would take a shower, but the water pressure is too low again and I don’t have time to wait forty-five minutes for the pump to send it into the roof tank. The water is only mildly yellowish-brown today. Some days it looks as if ten monkeys peed in it. (All the tap water here is contaminated.) I get into a warm sweatshirt and sweatpants. I am going to the school for “displaced carpet children,” where I teach hatha yoga every Saturday and Sunday morning. The school is too far away for me to teach on weekday mornings and still get to work at the U.S. Embassy by eight o’clock.

My thirteen-year-old Nissan Sentra (all I could afford on a junior-officer salary) barely starts on this cold, foggy morning. Then I notice the flat tire. Amazing: I’ve made it to age thirty-five without ever changing a flat tire. My boss says he’s had two hundred flat tires in Kathmandu. The narrow roads were never really intended for motor vehicle traffic, after all. My gardener emerges sleepy-eyed from the servant’s quarters to help, but the job is already done. He opens the gate as the car coughs onto the street.

Saturday is the day in Nepal when businesses are closed, so there aren’t many people on the street at 6:30 a.m. But there are still enough to be a driving hazard. Bicycles, motorcycles, and three-wheeled “tuk-tuks” disregard lanes and use the center of the road, where there are fewer obstacles and less chance of injuring tires. There is no shoulder of the road, and the open gutters are deep and jagged, filled with filthy water that contributes to disease and public health problems here. Bricks, gravel, and chunks of cement from building sites litter the road edge. Dogs, cows, and goats scavenge the roadside garbage. They do not wear reflectors. I begin my ritual honking.

There are three types of honks used in Kathmandu by all vehicles with horns:

The “please-get-out-of-my-way” honk. For pedestrians and miscellaneous animal life. It means: “move over, car coming.” Dogs respond more quickly than the people. Cows don’t move at all. The penalty for killing a cow in this Hindu kingdom is as severe as murdering a person, and the cows know it. We wait for cows.

The anticipatory honk. This is used when you suspect that bicycle is going to wander back out into the middle of the road, or that pedestrian is going to step out into the street without looking, or that car is going to enter the intersection before checking if anyone is coming: all frequent occurrences. This honk means, “Don’t do it.”

The “I’m here” honk. This is for the tired truck drivers, inattentive motorcyclists, distracted taxi drivers, and rubber-necking tuk-tuk drivers. This means, “Please note this oncoming vehicle, which it would be better for all involved not to hit.”

I pick up Ram, assistant at the school and my volunteer translator. The school has about one hundred students and was formed with assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Asian-American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI). Nepal is the second-poorest country in the world and child labor is still a big problem. Two years ago nearly 26,000 children worked in Nepal’s carpet factories making hand-woven woolen carpets at slave wages for Germany’s hungry import market. In early 1994, negative publicity in Germany about child labor caused the cancellation of hundreds of contracts. Suddenly, the children were out on the streets. USAID and AAFLI stepped in and purchased a warehouse and converted it to a dormitory, classrooms, and workshops.

The school has been a tremendous success despite chronic funding problems, which will worsen if the U.S. Congress carries out its threat to cut USAID’s budget. Even for these fortunate hundred, there is no hot water for their baths and not enough clothing or supplies. Still, they are much better off than they were in the carpet factories and better of than most of the children in Nepal.

I had previously visited the school, and Ram told me the children were bored and restless in the morning before class and did not like the “marching” one instructor had them do. I offered to teach hatha yoga. Initially there was lots of giggling and laughing, but most tried the postures and everyone seemed to have a good time. I now teach them twice a week.

A gigantic pothole, which I dodge, brings me out of my reverie. I swerve to miss a bike and almost catch the corner of a rickshaw. At the corner temple, people bring their early-morning offerings of fruit and flowers and perform their “pooja,” or prayers.

My little yellow Nissan approaches the school, which is close to the airport in a valley near the river. The fog descends thickest here. When the visibility is good, this is one of about three roads in Kathmandu where a vehicle can actually go thirty-five miles per hour. Most of the time fifteen to twenty is about the maximum. I wonder what this is doing to my engine.

On pea-soup mornings like this, I ask myself why they built the country’s only international airport in the most fog-prone part of Kathmandu Valley, guaranteeing many socked-in winter mornings and evenings. I am told that the air pollution makes the fog worse, because the condensation clings to the pollutants in the air, like London in the nineteenth century. Of course, maybe the air here was less polluted when they built the airport.

Despite the poor visibility, many trucks and other vehicles do not have their headlights on. I begin the “I’m here” honk. We turn off the airport road onto a side road to the school. Men are starting to gather in tea shops or around fires. A small boy performs his morning bowel movement by the side of the road. A woman sweeps the wet dust in front of her door. Another carries wood for the morning’s cooking fire. Dogs wander and scavenge. I steer around a pile of bricks, then veer to get out of the way of an oncoming truck. We come to the small bridge with the world’s nastiest speed bump. No matter how slowly I go over it, I always bottom out.I plow through an unavoidable scattering of sharp gravel from a construction site, praying I do not get another flat tire — at least until I fix the spare. We finally turn into the school gates. The children are waiting. This is the first time I have been late. “Namaste, Didi!” they yell down from the roof where we have class. “Greetings, big sister!”

I climb the stairs to start our morning exercise.

Ruth Hall ’82 is in the Foreign Service, working at the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal.