It’s just before sunset, which is right around the time when everyday all of Kathmandu loses power for an hour or two. It’s also when all across the city there is major congestion– so bad that the whole city becomes completely gridlocked and everyone just sits on their horn.
I really should’ve left more than a half-hour to make it to my destination, but I’m still learning. And besides, I only needed to go a short distance, so I figured that should leave enough time. I found a taxi-driver drinking chai beside his cab, I negotiated a rate of $1.50, and off we went towards Patan.
Perhaps sitting in the backseat would’ve spared me some grey hairs, but I chose the passenger seat. I was in for a journey of a lifetime!
Departing Freak Street, the congestion began immediately. There were thousands of people everywhere! Cars and rickshaws, busses, motorcycles, pedestrians…it was totally mad. And like millions of ants crawling over each other, we were all just trying to get a little further– if only just a few inches further.
There seems to be just one model of car here. It’s a miniature little vehicle– a Suzuki, and it’s just a bit bigger than a go-cart.
The cabdrivers are madmen. They speed down insanely crowded roads that are so narrow you would think they are only for pedestrians. These drivers possess an extraordinary sense of their dimensions, however, and they seldom err in knowing what’s physically possible.
Like water that always finds a way to flow past obstacles, the drivers and pedestrians of Kathmandu are all part of the unstoppable fluid throng that always finds a way to pass on through. Currently, we are all at a standstill, but the Darwinian principle of survival-of-the-fittest is in effect, and every now and then someone finds a hole and drives off.
Usually it’s the motorcyclists. They seem to maneuver the best in this traffic. The pedestrians, they can also usually find a gap somewhere, even if it means they have to change their course, backtrack, and go around obstacles. The rickshaws (slow-moving bicyclists with a carriage), they are the least agile and usually have to hang out until everything clears up. The cars and the busses, they just edge forward little by little, knowing they are bigger than everyone else and they always get their way eventually.
Interestingly though, there is no roadrage here. Though everyone is sitting on their horns incessantly, no one seems particularly frustrated by this standard every-day scenario. It’s just the way of life here in over-populated Kathmandu.
Though it seems I’m going to be late for tonight’s show, I feel like I’m in good hands with my driver. This guy is like Rambo and he’s employing every guerilla tactic in the cabdriver’s handbook. He’s hopping up onto curbs, ducking down narrow corridors, he’s pulling uturns in narrow spaces, and he keeps modifying his strategy based on where the heavy congestion lies. I might be late, but if anyone is gonna get me there as quickly as possible, it’s this guy. Once he finds an opening, he picks up the pace and is now freakin’ flying down these bumpy dirt-roads. Neither the many people scattered everywhere, nor the little kids playing in the street cause him to ease up.
Another interesting thing about driving in the city: there is an extraordinary element of respect, or civility, in all this chaos. These drivers will not hit another. They might go from 60 to 0 and come to an abrupt stop with their bumper touching the clothes of an oblivious pedestrian ahead of them, but they will not hit the person. I don’t know how they do it, because there really is no margin for error here, and yet I have yet to see a single accident, never does a foot get run over, and no one seems to ever make a bad calculation.
When things get really jammed up, there is a shared commitment to do doing whatever it takes to free up even one person. You back up a little, you move over, you try to get out of the way– whatever it takes. Also noteworthy, the Nepalese don’t say “thank you” in general, but they also don’t give the old cordial wave of the hand once someone helps them out in a jam. You just go on your way. Of course, this happens thousands of times every time you go somewhere.
The bottom line: you have to be aggressive. Otherwise, you will get nowhere. If you waited for an opening you would just sit there all day long. My cabdriver knows this better than anyone, and an hour and half later, we arrive at my destination. My nerves are totally jangled, but my driver doesn’t seem at all stirred. It seems outrageous that he just endured this madness for a paltry $1.50, so I give him a nice tip. As I begin to walk off I see him turn his car around and begin to wait for the next customer. And so it goes…just another day in the life of a Kathmandu cabdriver.