The brawl began with an eggplant. Maybe the sauji’s scale was off by a few grams, or his change short a few paisa; maybe the woman in the pale blue sari had miscalculated. But her outraged shouts caught the attention of six local boys, who stood smoking unfiltered Gaidas in a nearby doorway.
The Indian merchant shouted back, his brooding face screwed into a mask of indignation. The teens sidled up beside the shopper, adding their own racial insults to the mix. Their voices carried down the alley, inciting a state of alert. Guava and tamarind vendors, freshly arrived from the Indian border, glanced nervously up the lane, counting out change with fresh precision. The housewives and didis pretended to ignore the altercation, but held their purses more tightly against their bellies.
The brinjal seller was on his feet now, yelling at the teens. He was a thin man with a square face, a few years older than the boys but much smaller. He grabbed an eggplant and raised it high, meaning to display the fruit’s tender flesh, expound upon how difficult they were to transport. But his gesture was misread—and before anything could be explained, one of the boys seized one of the purple fruits and pitched it with tremendous force into the little man’s chest. It burst against his shirt like a balloon. The seller shrieked with rage and groped for the hardwood stick reserved for pariah dogs and greedy cows. The teens charged, grabbing his cart by the corners and heaving it over.
Eggplants and lead weights rolled at drunken angles down the filthy street. As the shoppers scattered, sellers leaped to defend their wares. Most of their stands were spared—but the hooligans toppled a pyramid of tangerines, and kicked over a basket of onions before skipping away.
The incident might never have registered if the taxi driver hadn’t been chewing pan. We were stopped at a traffic light on Kalimati Avenue: the ugliest road in Kathmandu. My driver cleared his throat and tilted his head out the window.
“Fight,” he observed, and spat red spittle.
There was an alley on our right: a sloping chute angled between precarious brick tenements. Women were fleeing the lane, moving awkwardly in their saris. Oranges and potatoes fled with them, rolling across the sidewalk and into Kalimati’s gutter, where they were snatched up by a gathering crowd of pedestrians and dogs.
I felt a certain thrill. “Who is fighting?”
“Everyone fighting.” He craned his neck to see over the crowd. “Always fighting. In Nepal, too much fighting. Over there, market, many Indians. Too many Indians in this place.” He spat again.
Further up the lane I could see the unmistakable aftermath of chaos: overturned carts, scattered produce, men waving their arms like agitated mantises.
I opened the taxi door and shouldered my daypack. “I’ll get out here.”
“Better you stay in car. Very danger here. Maybe shooting, also. If police come, maybe shooting.” He squinted as I pulled a large bill out of my pocket. “Sorry . . . no change.”
“Sir?” The driver held my sleeve.
“You are a very lucky man.”
“Why is that?”
“You can leave Nepal.”
The Road to Hell in Kathmandu
The situation had calmed by the time I arrived. The produce sellers were reclaiming their wares, arguing among themselves in rapid, overlapping Hindi. I spoke with a few bystanders, but there wasn’t much of a story. Tensions between Nepalis and Indians had been escalating for months, and incidents like this were common. But the locals needed vegetables, and Indians needed to sell them. In a few days the street market would be open again, with a bored soldier leaning against a utility pole.
Back on Kalimati, I held my breath as a convoy of diesel trucks roared by. Gravel dust swarmed above their beds with every bounce. A pall of black soot hung above the ground. Taxis navigated the miasma like devils on the fly, weaving erratically to avoid cows, bicycles, and pedestrians.
I was standing just before an uphill grade. Along the roadside, boys and men in tattered and grimy rags hauled huge, flat carts loaded with pipes, lumber, rebar, or tin roofing. Their bare feet left shallow prints in the asphalt as they pulled the wagons with woven hemp ropes. Meanwhile a stream of foot traffic coursed along the sidewalk, moving in both directions. Men in baggy darwa-surwals, their black woolen vests absurd in the afternoon heat; women in bright polyester saris; kids chasing metal hoops through the gutters, their threadbare clothes the weakest link in a decade-long chain of hand-me-downs. All beneath a soundtrack of ceaseless diesel thunder, the blaring of Hindi movie soundtracks, Radio Nepal soap commercials, car horns, bicycle bells, barking, braying and shouts.
One memory dominated my thoughts every time I found myself on Kalimati. Years ago, when I was green around here, I’d bicycled down this avenue with a seasoned traveling buddy named Paul Janes. Janes had prematurely thinning hair and pale blue eyes, the youngest son of a Texas panhandle preacher. We’d stopped at this very point on Kalimati, straddling our bikes, and squinted up the filthy, congested road. Paul raised his eyebrows, and shook his head.
“This is it,” he said.
I turned toward him. “What’s it? What are you talking about?”
“This, man! Kalimati! I know it.” Paul gazed up the road with theological dread. “One day, we’re gonna arrive in hell,” he whispered. “You and me. We’re gonna drop down that long, slimy chute and land bare-assed on the griddle. Then we’re gonna stand up, and look around us. You know where we’ll be?”
“Right here, man. Kalimati. Wait and see. This is it.”
My first introduction to Kathmandu had been more than ten years ago: in July, 1979. Nepal in 1979 was unknown to me, a place that had never crossed my radar. I’d been lured to Asia by a woman I’d met in Athens, a medical school graduate on her way to Kathmandu to study ayurvedic medicine. After a month together in Greece we parted, vowing to meet in Asia. But in the time it took me to scrape up enough money for an onward flight, she’d fallen in love with someone else. Her Dear John letter reached me in Cairo. I’d held a match to my ticket, but finally acquiesced— not to hope, but to sheer momentum.
I’d arrived in Kathmandu by overnight bus, during the thick of the rainy season. Though the ground was a sea of mud, the magic of Kathmandu filled the air like ozone. I loved the monsoon. It was a miracle, a dual baptism in water and fire. After each lightning storm the sky broke open, and rainbows arched between impossibly green hills. Then the clouds coalesced, and with a clap of thunder the rains fell again. It was as if the whole valley were being washed clean, over and over again.
Mornings I followed the trains of pilgrims walking in bare feet or rubber thongs up the empty avenues, watching with curiosity and delight as they offered flowers and coins to Ganesh, the elephant-headed remover of obstacles and lord of auspicious beginnings. There were always drums beating from someplace, tablas and horns and bicycle bells, the grating scream of ravens, arguments and laughter. Yet, somehow, Kathmandu was also the quietest place I’d been. Between every sound was a beat of pure silence, so pure that the temples and pedestrians seemed like brilliant, abstract stitching on a sheet of air.
I’d never expected it to be so cinematic. Every sight, large or small, was a flawless frame in a motion picture. A sacred cow poised in a carved wooden doorway, three schoolgirls in bright purple uniforms, a street stall selling pistachios and masks. I shot picture after picture: a beggar with a melted face, the hallucinatory displays of the glass bead district, the butchers’ shops displaying fly-blown heads of freshly slaughtered goats.
My senses awakened with a vengeance. Smell, especially: juniper incense, tobacco and ganja, cow shit, jasmine, frying honey, kerosene and eucalyptus. I spent my afternoons at the Yin Yang Coffee House, filling my journal with a wild energy fueled by hashish, ginger tea, and french fries. As I rode home on my rented Hero bike, the thunderstorms turned the streets and alleys into a slush of cow manure. Primitive electrical lines spat and shorted, with blue and red explosions, above my head. On clear evenings I’d watch the sunset from the roof of the Kathmandu Guest House, waiting for the fruit bats to drop from the trees and soar over the grounds of the Royal Palace. I could follow their path across the valley—which was still, in July 1979, a patchwork of emerald paddies, uncluttered temples, and white palaces.
It was like no place I’d ever been, no place I’d even imagined. Yet it was so familiar that on my very first afternoon in Nepal, I sat on a cane chair in the garden on the Kathmandu Guest House, opened a package of soggy arrowroot biscuits, and—surrounded by flowers and a grinning plaster Buddha—wrote down the words I’d waited all my life to write: Welcome home.
Oakland-based Jeff Greenwald is the author of five travel books, including Shopping for Buddhas, The Size of the World, and Scratching the Surface. His latest, based in Nepal, is Snake Lake. He is a frequent contributor to Salon.com, and serves as Executive Director of Ethical Traveler, a global alliance of travelers dedicated to human rights and environmental protection. Jeff launched his stage career in 2003 with a critically acclaimed one-man show, Strange Travel Suggestions. Visit his website at www.jeffgreenwald.com. See an interview with Jeff Greenwald here.
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Searching for Rare Primates in the Valley of the Langurs by Jeff Greenwald
Other Asia travel stories from the archives
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