The roosters are crowing, the horns are honking, and the electricity is on the fritz again.
It's 5 o'clock in Katmandu, and I'm walking through a chaotic press towards the beating heart of the city, or, what most people simply call The Square. I am aware of a tiny part of my brain that is endeavoring to fight off a growing sense of claustrophobia; the rest of my mind is in overdrive, staying alert, dodging pedestrians, livestock, motorcycles, all with their own peculiar dynamics of motion and momentum and their own idiosyncratic senses of urgency. You have to learn to judge these things, it's the only way to float without being swamped in the confusion when this cauldron of human drama boils over the straight-away and into the next intersection. But all that is really too abstract when what I really mean to convey is simply this: the Gauntlet of Durbar is peerless and beautiful, impossible and awful and I would recommend to anyone.
Look, there's no other way to do this, so I'm going to give it to you straight. This pavement is rough, uneven, and cracked. You can be cold sober and you'll still be stumbling and reeling like drunk. That's disorienting enough, and if you forgot your mask the air will make you dizzy. You want to look at everything, but if you don't pay attention to the right things at the right times then you'll get hurt, or worse, miss something you'd rather see. The scene is like this:
Here's a dragon riding a goat, and now there are children over there climbing on a statue that must be hundreds of years old. Are these people crazy? They must be.. Any western museum would be proud to have that in their collection and appalled to see it being used like a jungle gym. or maybe art becomes even worthier once it's sincerely and tightly integrated with everyday life's normal activities for a thousand people over who knows how many years? Don't slip in that horseshit. That frantic horn-honking approaches fast from behind- is it to the right or left? "NO"-- I won't buy it!, oh Your Wife and Your Children, yesiknow. Herddit all before. how hard do i have to make my heart to live in the world? Oops, a birdcage. Don't look now but she's looking at you. Say Do you speak English? What time is it anyway and where?, holy cow, or is that one a water buffalo? and wouldja lookit the beard and mop on that ancient-hippy-expat-wizard, guess the sixties left him here all alone?STOP!-- and with the screeching tires, almost dead makes me mad! and then you can only laugh but really to be fair, you do have to admit the traffic lights would be useless, but still there's just no need to carry a refrigerator on a horse without at least tying the son of a bitch down....
..and it just keeps going on like that all the way down the line as far as you care to follow it.
So to avoid possible mutilation, you'll want to stay alert to dodge rickshaws and motorcycles piloted by maniacs. (Need to carry a few hundred pounds of sharp, rusty rebar and don't have a truck? No problem, strap it to a moped sideways, it'll be fun. All the tourists will remember to be on the lookout so there's no chance of side-swiping them? Well, let's hope...) General caution will go a long way, but it also helps to be particularly cognizant of the 3 kinds of primary traffic patterns and understand how the 4th and final pattern arises as consequence of them.
The main patterns are simply that of the tourist, that of the native, and that of the beast.
The beasts of course are totally oblivious to anything short of blows, so naturally traffic jams frequently occur as a result of livestock. When I was a child, I was taught never to walk behind a horse for fear of being kicked, but realistically for animals conditioned in Nepal, even a bomb blast might not be enough to startle them. Get around them however you can, and be assertive[ref]i.e. rain down blows[/ref] if they should crowd you. These beasts are often treated indulgently until things get clogged or a native in a particular hurry comes around, then they are dealt with swiftly.
The tourists (fresh meat!) are great fun to watch because you can see them trying to figure out the rules. They think: "but with no stop signs at intersections and this much traffic, how on earth will I cross, burdened as I am and sluggish too with this heavy baggage?" and they think: "I am new here, I must wait my turn!" and they think: "which side of the street do I even walk on?" but ultimately they think too much. The only rule is that there is no rule, there is only The Flow. In this play the only part of all the actors is to balance the preservation of The Flow with their own senses of preservation and urgency in whatever way is least damaging to the whole.
Compare all this with The Locals, who don't think about any of it very much at all.. they just move, because interfacing with The Flow is second nature for them. They were born into it. Before they could even walk, they were gripping the handlebars of their parents scooters and hurtling down these rough dirt roads at breakneck speed. They move on bicycles and rickshaws and scooters and mopeds and putt-putt-puttering diesel tractors and even the occasional car. They move on contraptions of their own design or they ride animals.
Or to put it another way. Later, after night descends, the scene is more quiet but every bit as peculiar. First, the trash cans for several blocks around are gathered together, summarily up-ended and their contents strewn about at random. Then the dogs and sheep and cattle and yaks and naks[ref]female yaks[/ref] and goats and chickens come, and then every edible food scrap is gobbled up (along with quite a few of the plastic bags- the goats seem to like those). Next, the rickshaw drivers gather all the papers and the odd bit of wood and build a fire in the middle of the road.. naturally it has to be in the middle because the periphery is still taken up by the rest of the rubbish pile.
After all that, the army usually shows up with automatic weapons. They jump down out of the back of the truck they've been bouncing around in, stretch their legs, and warm their hands at the flames for a while and bullshit with the rickshaw drivers.
The last opportunists to show up to the nightly rubbish fire are the homeless. Nepal seems to have very, very few of these, despite the widespread poverty, but there are a few. For them, the most desirable item in the heaps seems to be rubber. Well, they can't eat it so maybe they sell it somehow? No, they just grab up the shredded bike tubes or whatever, set that on fire too with ashes from the main fire, and lay down to sleep beside it. Even from 2 streets over it smells just like brain damage.. to lay down beside it is just unimaginable.