Lalitpur, Kathmandu, Nepal
The traffic was completely stuck. Horns blared at each vehicle in front of them as though it was their fault they couldn’t move. We were able to escape the gridlock by sidling along the edge of the intersection. To our left, the cause of the blockage was revealed. Road works had finished for the day, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the chowk (or intersection), flagged by a stick with tiny red rag. The ensuing chaos was ignored by the traffic policeman standing by and the taxi drivers waiting to pick up a ride. Pedestrians sauntered through, meanwhile hapless cars and motorbikes remained stuck, beeping their horns in the hope that this would solve their ailment. The beeping must have eventually solved the traffic situation. The next morning when we walked through, the road had been patched up and drivers careened through the intersection beeping their horn on approach once more.
You don’t often see dead people in the over-developed world. It’s not a common occurrence and most people live to see their “three score and ten years.” A passing glance on arrival to Kathmandu made quite the impression on me. Amidst the cacophony of noise, colour and traffic was a body borne aloft. Wrapped in orange cloth, four men carried the body and a small procession of people followed solemnly behind. I read later on Red-Eye’s blog about what was going on. This was a funeral procession. In the Hindu religion, adherents are cremated very soon after death They would most likely cremate the body by a river (sacred to Hindus) to release the person to the afterlife.
Yesterday when posing tourists through the historical Patan (or Lalitpur as it is known traditionally – the “city of beauty”) our journey was abruptly interrupted trumpets and cymbals leading a procession. Carried on bamboo poles aloft was a body wrapped in orange cloth, mourners dressed in white followed behind. A motorbike carried the straw that would be used for the cremation. I learned later that night when recalling the story to the family we are staying with that the older brother would be required to pour kerosene over the body and light the match. Then it would be off to the afterlife and reincarnation according to the Hindu religion. The soul would then face the bardo as John Greenway in Snake Lake explains. The bardo in the Hindu mindset is a 49 day terrifying final obstacle to connecting with the next life. As if the people in these impoverished situations needed any more challenge to their nigh impossible circumstance.
How do more people not die in the crazy Kathmandu traffic? (No, it’s not my first time in Asia) Somehow, it works. It just works. One of my teaching friends after spending time in Indonesia explained it to me with a little saying: “big, chicken, no look …” [There were two or three other things in the saying that helped to explain how the traffic works – I’ll have to email my friend to find out]. Here’s the pre-emptory list:
- Firstly – whoever is biggest wins. So if a truck and a motorbike are headed for one another… no prizes for guessing who gets out of the way. This isn’t always true, I reckon that horn and flashing lights trumps this first rule. For instance, on the main intersection, a car with horn blaring driving in the middle of the road with lights flashing will usually beat other road users.
- Second – like a chicken, drivers simply nose ahead. They only accelerate or brake, yet the speed of this is exciting to say the least. Also, like a game of chicken, people hold out until the last moment before giving way to oncoming traffic. While the rule of law here is that traffic is supposed to drive on the left hand side, this is usually a suggestion.
- Thirdly – no shoulder checking required, the traffic somehow weaves together and flows. I’ve never seen a driver here shoulder check – not required really.
- Fourth – TBA!
- Fifth – TBA!