A Night Walk in Kathmandu

by Carolyn Keller

A night-time walk through the streets of Kathmandu evokes that strange, almost mystical, curiosity and vulnerability a traveler feels when crossing into the unknown. This story was selected as the winner in the Crossings travel writing competition.

We walk through the night. We walk through the night, and it’s hard to breathe. We walk through the night, and the traffic surrounds us, and the streets of Kathmandu are dark; they are black, they are thick, and they are winding, and in that they are the night itself. We walk in pitch black, but the power has not gone out, though it does go out, sometimes, but it has not gone out tonight, not yet; it’s just that there are no streetlights, no lights but the headlights, almost nothing at all.

Ganesh, our guide, passes the news back: it’s time to cross the street. To do so, we must walk slowly, but we were already walking slowly because we’re tired and overwhelmed and a little bit lost, but now we must walk slowly – that is to say, a different kind of slow, the kind that will allow us to confront the rush and swirl that is traffic in this city, and we must somehow step inside of it. We must walk slowly through this blackness because that’s how the cars –  the cars that honk to let others know that they are passing, that they are turning, that they are right beside you, behind you and the trucks and motorbikes and pedestrians – that’s how the cars will see us in their headlights and know where we are and where we’re going. If we do not walk slowly, Ganesh says, if instead we dart this way and that, trying to avoid the multiplying and collapsing lanes of traffic – see how it’s three lanes here, then four, now three, now five, and yet the width of the street never changes –  if we dart, the cars will hit us because they won’t know how to miss us, and that’s how we could die.

Such are the streets of Kathmandu at night. Two days into our trip, I’ve seen just one traffic light in the entire city, and it’s far from here. The streets have no street lamps, no crosswalks, no guidance I can recognize, nothing but the incessant horns that pepper this fast-fallen night. These horns: our only orientation in a world where driving is active, is action, is rhythm and drift.

For Ganesh, there is sense here, in Kathmandu, sense among this chaos, method within this madness, nothing new at all. The streets here are smog and sweetness, exhaust and campfire smoke snaking through our airways, and we tourists find a treacle in our lungs and a scratching in our throats as we step out into the street. We are twelve tourists in a group, and there are a few others like us, white and out-of-place and wandering amid the swell of citizens of this city, learning how to trust. We are an odd collection of souls – and did we not say this was what we wanted, before we arrived, to skirt beneath the surface of a country? – and slowly, slowly now, we step out into the street, one foot in front of the other. And I hold my breath, not only because of the smoke and sweetness, but because of this precipice that isn’t, and I stay close to Ganesh. We step left foot first, then right foot, then left, and with headlights to our right and taillights to our left, it’s like wading through a fast, waist-high current of water, about to be swept from our feet.

As we step, left foot then right, then left, then right, the current parts and the headlights turn, just as Ganesh said they would. The world slides to either side of us like water feathering over rocks, and our legs are still beneath us, as if we have become the rocks and the water and ourselves at once, and then we have passed through it: this one street in a city of so many, we have crossed this tributary and the current passes us by. And then I am across. I step safely onto the curb, and then Ganesh does too, and more of our group follows, and he beckons us a bit further down the sidewalk, motioning for us to wait for the rest to cross. And the cars part for them, too, like a kind of miracle that we can only see because of how strange it is to us: the simple matter of putting one foot in front of the other, this rhythm, this trusting – so new, yet this, the learning of it, feels like something we should have known.

“How long have we been walking?” I ask David, our group leader.

“Maybe an hour?” he shrugs.

Was it just earlier today, at sunset, that we were at Swayambhunath, the Monkey Temple, a place overrun with creatures so much smaller than us, yet so eerily familiar? Their slinking forms outnumbered even all the tourists: cradling babies and stealing fruit, collecting in packs and then scattering, enduring the slingshot pebbles of street vendors who need to make a living, who know the monkeys’ nature all too well.

“We can walk if you want,” Ganesh had said back at Swayambhunath. The sky was smoke-gray then, cloud cover still shot with dwindling light.

“How far away is the hotel?” David asked.

Ganesh squinted. “Maybe fifteen minutes?”

For the rest of our trip, we tease him about “Nepali time,” which is really “Ganesh time,” particular and specific to our guide and our guide alone, and just another lesson we have to learn.

But in this stretching slip of time, David and I edge further down the sidewalk, waiting for the rest of the group. We cling close to concrete walls – if we’re not careful, the uneven, narrow sidewalk will drop from beneath the balls of our feet, and back into the street we will go. Others in the group are complaining, joking about visions of their lives flashing before their eyes, and so David takes up the back, makes sure nobody gets lost. I press closer to the walls while Ganesh counts heads, he and David working in tandem to make sure we’ve all assembled.

We finally approach the tourist district, one step after another closer to our hotel, and my lungs taste incense smoke as shopkeepers attempt to beckon us into each market stall or indoor shop along the way. This smoke drifts, hazy and strange, mingling with the smog and wood smoke, meandering through these winding pathways, twisting my stomach — this smoke not for summertime indulgence, for marshmallow or meat, philosophy or song, but for warmth. Its sweetness snakes down my windpipe, churning in the acid of my gut. I see men clustered around fires lit along the sidewalk in casual necessity, hands in friction above flames, fires to fight off this damp, thick-throated chill, this smoke dark and necessary as it swallows the lungs and mind and heart.

It’s cold now with the sun down, and it’s starting to rain, so I wrap my scarf around my head to protect my hair from the wet, my lungs from the air. Traffic creeps around us. David finishes collecting us and catches up; David, the nonprofit’s director, who organized this trip for well-intentioned tourists to coincide with his yearly visit to the women’s empowerment groups he works with in Nepal. David, who knows the difference between thoughtful support and useless aid, who coordinates these mini study-abroads for people to begin to know somewhere new, to sense the muscle and tendon and backbone of an unfamiliar place. David, I think, approves of today’s slightly wayward sojourn but then he tugs my sleeve, pulling me from the road.

“Careful,” he says. “You’re too close.”

I’ve somehow drifted toward the street, and in a flash of metal next to flesh, a car almost catches my ankle. That’s how snug we are, all pressed together and on top of one another: the pedestrians and the cars and the mopeds, and the people in the cars and on the mopeds, a kind of chaos swelling with life and not without price.  A kind of chaos that is not really chaos, only people, all these people, trying to breathe safely, walk safely, keep warm safely, as constant and rhythmic as waves breaking on the shore. Only then do I realize that we are not a river, or stones in a river, that there is no riverbank, and that this is not a kind of water that can be crossed at all. We are people and only people, and somehow because of this strange crossing, the world has cracked itself open just a little bit more, and because I am a tourist I would not know this world, its rush and swirl, not one bit, had we not all been so lucky to get just a little bit lost. 

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