by J. C. Watkins

The steady drumming of monsoon rains last night left the pavement slick and cleared away the blue-black fumes spewed by Kathmandu’s fiendish stable of scowling Tata trucks, shrill scooters and cars. Quietly, I closed the heavy teak door of the New Moon Guest House and stepped outside, lightly crunching the gravel underfoot. The gaunt old chowkidar was still asleep at his post by the garden gate, wrapped in a coarse woolen shawl; his night stick and plastic sandals tucked beneath his cane chair.

With only the slightest rustle, I scampered over the iron bars, carefully avoiding the broken bottles that sprouted like jagged crowns on the concrete pillars. Dai, “elder brother,” as I called the guard, did not approve of my morning excursions among Kathmandu’s street denizens: the homeless young women who fled abusive marriages; orphaned children whose parents had died of Aids or languished in prisons; and landless peasants drawn to the city in search of work. Dai would insist that a ferenghi, a white foreigner, must travel properly in a taxi, certainly not on foot alone. And, Babu, “father,” a retired soldier who owned the lodge would gently scold me, reminding me that women of his family always went out accompanied by a driver or, at the very least, a maid.

At 5.30 AM the sun had not yet penetrated the maze of alleys near Asan Tol bazaar. I shivered and pulled the soft pashmina shawl over my head, striding quickly, looking forward to my first cup of tea and a cigarette. A few bodies lay tucked in doorways, wrapped in thin cotton cloth, huddled against the damp cold; others slept under soiled bits of cardboard or ragged pieces of plastic sheeting. Mangy curs, brown and tan, darted from side to side, scuffling and snarling over prized scraps snatched from garbage heaped in the gutters.

Several street sweepers swathed in cheap cotton saris shuffled along barefoot, bent at the waist like an endless progression of question marks. The women from untouchable castes carried large galvanized buckets and short handled brooms, which they swished back and forth over invisible stains, ignoring the obvious litter strewn along the edges of the road. At street corners rick-shaw drivers lay sprawled under their canopies, sleeping off the fiery rakshi, the distilled spirits that soothed aching muscles and quieted empty bellies. Others lay embalmed in the stillness of heroin-induced dreams.

I saw Sita at her usual spot against the crumbling stucco wall of Bir Hospital. Nearby, her 6 year old daughter played with scraps of paper and pebbles under the tamarind tree. Sita, a thirtyish woman with smooth toffee skin and a gold-capped tooth, sat on her haunches under an enormous black umbrella and waited for customers. On one side she had a portable shelf & carrying case which housed an assortment of cigarettes, pan betel nut, chewing gum and roasted snacks. In front of her, two blackened pots simmered on a small stove fueled by twigs.

“Good morning, Didi,” older sister, as she always called me. Without asking, she plucked out a handful of imported 555 cigarettes from her case and dropped them into my hand. Next she scooped a ladle of frothy boiling water buffalo milk sweetened with a pinch of cloves and sugar into a glass of strong black tea. I squatted down next to the fire and wrapped my hands around the glass. I offered her a cigarette and we both sat silently, savoring a few moments of tranquility before the city awoke to its frenzied pace.

J.C. Watkins is a cultural anthropologist who has studied Himalayan Nepalese society.

This article originally appeared in Travelsearcher May of 2004.

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