In Nepal, We Have to be Perfect
About two hours before I was draped over his chair with my back exposed, letting him put a tattoo on it, I met Manish. He’s from Kathmandu proper.
I liked and trusted Manish almost immediately and it wasn’t until half an hour had gone by that I noticed how young he was. I asked his age and found out he was 20. He had been working as a tattoo artist since he was 15, starting in his craft early because, in his words, “in Nepal, we have to be perfect.”
The population density of New York City is just over 10,000 people per square kilometer. Even if you’ve never been there, you probably have some understanding that NYC is crowded, competitive and generally irritating. And that’s with all the benefits of being a city in a first world country with, like, electricity that usually stays on. Halfway through the two hours he spent stabbing me in the back with a needle, the power to the city went out and Manish excused himself, reappeared a few minutes later and hooked up an ancient car battery to his lamp and whatever the torturous thing that sticks the needle into your skin while you’re getting a tattoo is called. We carried on that way and he thought nothing of it so I pretended like I didn’t either.
Anyway, the population density of Kathmandu is nearly double that of NYC at 19,500 people per square kilometer. Double. That means that Kathmandu is twice as crowded, competitive and irritating. Also, Nepal doesn’t currently have a functioning government. I heard some echo of this from every single Nepali person I spoke with during my month there, but the most poignant example I can give, I witnessed myself. I had to witness it. It was on the corner of of the traffic circle in Kathmandu’s Thamel neighborhood and there was no way to get back to my hotel each night without walking by it. It was the fact that in that particular area of town, like in every other, there is no garbage collection and, instead, during the day everybody who lives within some particular radius of this spot brings their garbage to the curb and leaves it. At the end of each day, this results in a fairly massive pile of garbage. It’s probably two feet high, sticks out maybe eight feet from the curb and is about five feet wide. It’s already sort of gross that this mound of stinking food and litter piles up every day, but later in the night is when the cows come in to play. The Nepali are largely Hindu and this means that cows can basically do whatever they like. They wander the streets, they aren’t to be harmed and, as I learned night after night, they’re well fed. They’re herded up and brought to this garbage pile so that they can eat it. And they do. It’s not an appetizing thing to watch.
Ironically, however, if Manish doesn’t make enough money to eat, there isn’t any such thing as food stamps or unemployment benefits or large piles of free food to fall back on. It’s on him, and it has been since he was the age that most American kids are sophomores in high school.
This is at least partly due to Nepal’s lack of a governing body. Ten years ago, on a Friday in June, the heir to the Nepali throne murdered nine other members of the royal family and then turned an AK-47 on himself. Those he murdered included his father, mother, brother, sister and several aunts. It was a massacre. The most amazing part of this story, however, is that the heir didn’t die. He was in a coma for three days and during those three days – because he had killed his father – he was the king of Nepal. They proclaimed him king after he murdered his entire family in the royal palace and while he was entirely unconscious. On the fourth day, however, he finally did die and since that day until now, Nepal has basically been ungoverned.
This may sound great to some of the Libertarians I know, but it has had some ugly consequences.
For one, hospitals.
In order to tell you what I know about public hospitals in Nepal, I have to first inform you of the fact that the concept of a line is entirely foreign to Nepali people. They reject it as a theory or plan or system for waiting. As an alternative, they form a large human gaggle, press their bodies directly into the backs of the people in front of them, throw elbows and shoulders to try to gain ground and all the while continue on with their respective conversations in louder voices so as to be heard over the other loud voices. It’s chaos and it’s how it goes absolutely everywhere you go. Airports, restaurants, bathrooms, food carts. Everywhere.
This method for waiting was most poignantly exhibited to us while fully participating in the insanity outside of a doctor’s office in a hospital in Pokhara. Being not really that amused at the time and thinking my travel companion, Michael, might die of a mysterious lung disease, we held on tight to his chest x-ray and used our bodies as human shields to guard our places in the “line.” The one fortunate aspect of our situation at the time was that the Nepali are generally short and we were able to stick our noses above the din of the coughing, spitting, breathing, potentially contagious crowd.
We were seen by a doctor relatively quickly, which surprised me, given that there were nearly fifty locals sitting in chairs, on ledges or on the ground around the door that led to the one doctor in the hospital. They had looks on their faces that suggested they had been there a long time and many of them looked very, very sick. After asking a few questions of expats later that day, I found out that we were seen so quickly because we were white and because Nepal is very dependent on tourism dollars (or rupees). Basically, they don’t want foreigners dying on vacation. If you’re Nepalese, though, you wait forever. There’s one doctor. You have to pay after each service you receive. After you get an x-ray, you go to the payment counter. Before you see the doctor, you go to the payment counter. After someone takes your blood, you go to the payment counter. And most people can’t afford all that so, with no hope of government assistance, they don’t go to the hospital at all. It’s a mess to be really sick and Nepalese.
It’s a smaller mess to need to get somewhere that you consider to be too far to walk to, but it’s still a mess. The buses are run by corrupt drivers, they’re pretty much never serviced and they’re packed to a dangerous and uncomfortable degree.
One morning I awoke in Pokhara – where we spent almost a week doing very little while Michael recovered from bronchitis – and decided to explore the countryside alone by motorcycle for the day. I announced my intentions to Michael, who in turn announced that that would not be happening. After a somewhat embarrassing public disagreement over this matter, he stormed off in the direction of town and I stormed off in the direction of the motorcycle rental lot. Five minutes later I had a bike and a helmet and was driving off the lot to the sounds of the rental guy yelling at me to get on the left side of the road. About ten minutes following this ungraceful start, the right-hand side mirror to the bike flew off, hit me in the face and was disorienting long enough for me to hit and slide underneath one of these overcrowded buses. It could have been bad, but it wasn’t and I got up fast, for obvious reasons.
Chaos ensued shockingly immediately.
Everyone wanted a piece of this accident. The bus stopped. Everyone on bicycle, motorcycle and car who was in the general vicinity stopped to stare or yell. I was standing next to the bus lifting my bike from the ground and looked up to see that half of the thirty Nepali people riding the bus I had hit were sticking their heads out of the window hollering at me in Nepalese. The driver came out and was pointing to the completely fabricated “scratch” I had left on the bus (I had hit the tire) and was clearly demanding money. A man helped me to lift the bike and move it to the side of the road and then he demanded money. I held on tight to my backpack and stood there trying to ignore both the driver and the man I had thought was just being kind, and looked out at the street that refused to return to order. It didn’t take much consideration to decide that I needed to leave the scene absolutely immediately so I checked to see if the bike would start, got back on it and drove away despite the three pairs of hands trying to physically prevent me.
I had managed to hold on to the side mirror and thirty minutes after leaving, I sat down next to Michael at the cafe I knew he would be inhabiting and slid the mirror in front of him. He took in my bloody leg and dirty clothes, and started cleaning my wounds and berating me at the same time.
Anyway, the transportation system there is not perfect.
The education system isn’t much better. Kids go to school until they’re around 11, unless they’re very lucky or very brave. I met one such kid whose family owned a small row boat and who was trying to make money by offering to row people around Phewa Lake. I didn’t have anything better to do with my time or my money, so I gave it to him. Normally it takes thirty minutes to row around the lake, but he asked me if I was in a hurry, I realized I wasn’t and I got to spend the next two hours talking with him about his life. He came from a family of seven, who all lived in a house with three rooms, one of them the bathroom. He was 19 and had been working either in restaurants or rowing the boat since he was 10. His english was good because he wanted very much to be an english teacher some day so that he could get out of Nepal. He worked to feed his family – his older brother was ill, his father was elderly and his mother and sisters were his responsibility. But he also worked to pay for his own schooling. At one point we passed some Nepali kids his age in another boat who were drinking beers and jumping in the water. He started talking to them in Nepalese and told me they were his friends. They got to spend their day playing, but he had to work every single day, he said. He had to be perfect.
I asked him why he wanted to leave his country and he echoed what I’d heard before. His words were “Nepal is fucked up.” I heard the same phrase from a doctor, guides, shop owners, Manish. Unfortunately, it was one of the last things I heard while in Nepal. On October 19, I put my backpack in a trunk and got into a cab that I directed to the airport. The cab driver had some english and the only thing he wanted to discuss was Nepal’s problems. At the time I had a couple of my own – I didn’t think I had enough money to pay for the cab and I was afraid I was going to miss my flight, so I wasn’t very talkative. Finally, he ended with “Nepal is fucked up” and gave up trying to talk to me. I gave him every rupee I had when we got to the airport. Despite whatever problems he had so ardently wanted to discuss, he smiled and told me it was enough.