Saturday, September 13, 2008

Bandh!: "They Break Our Rules, We Break Their Windows."

(Bandh at school. Like a snow day, except with flying bricks and burning tires)
School's canceled, shops are closed, and there's no traffic on the roads. It's a bandh!

The bandh is a tried and true Nepali political tactic where an aggrieved group forces a citywide strike by blocking the streets, throwing bricks, and burning tires in the road. Taxi drivers called a bandh this year when fuel prices spiked, and teachers did it over restrictions on their freedom to protest. Today's bandh was in response to an incident of alleged police brutality.

On Wednesday evening a member of the Nepali Congress Party was riding his motorbike in the city when he was either 1) flagged down by traffic police and then, after he refused to stop, was beaten to death by them or 2) died from injuries after he drove accidentally into an electrical pole. Witnesses say the former, police say the latter.

The Nepal Student Union, which is allied with the Nepali Congress party, responded with a bandh. They announced it Thursday night and carried out on Friday.

So what did this week's bandh look like? Walking around Patan, it meant lighter than usual traffic, and some shuttered shops. When I needed a ride home, only a few buses were running. Finally, I caught a ride with a tempo, one of those sputtering threewheelers that charge a fare of 15 cents.

Then all of a sudden the bandh got a lot more volatile. A group of teenagers swarmed the threewheeler I was riding in, yelled at the driver, banged on its sides, and eventually, as I was turning to disembark, one of them hucked a red brick through the glass window, shattering it all over my seat. This ride was really worth the third nickel.

The riders in the threewheeler started walking home. All down the street, shop keepers pulled down their metal gates, and motorbikes scattered.

The brick thrower, it turns out, was the secretary of the Nepal
Student Union at Patan University. He said he was friends with the party member who had died this week and he was sad and angry at the police and the Home Minister over the incident. So why was he attacking the threewheeler? "They break our rules, we break their windows. Rule is rule." And with that, he was off to swarm a man riding a motorcycle, who was let go after a curt lecture.

"Rule is Rule."

Monday, September 8, 2008

Doing Business in New Road

XLR microphone cables aren’t easy to come by in Kathmandu. But if you ask around enough places in New Road, the commercial neighborhood of winding alleyways and cubby-hole malls, you might eventually be directed to the fifth floor of a shopping center where Shiv Electronics Concern sells TV and computer parts. They also assemble XLR cables to custom lengths.

Shiv Electronics Concern is a little window into the shabby conditions for doing business in Kathmandu these days. When I visited it was manned by Santa Shakya and her brother Krishna, who's working on one of my cables. The shop was started by their grandfather 27 years ago. Business is down, according to Santa, because of political problems, “bad protocols,” and general mismanagement in the country. On top of that, the market’s been flooded with cheap parts from China, which are sold indiscriminately on the street, Santa said. The Concern mostly sells Taiwanese and Japanese parts, which are more expensive.

While Krishna was wiring the cables, the lights went out a few times, causing him to mismatch a pair of wires, which he fixed when the lights came back on. But this was in the same week that The Nepal Electricity Authority announced that power outages, or “load-shedding” in the local parlance, will reach up to 35 hours a week. The daily newspapers published a handy chart of outage times, according to your neighborhood.

As for cheap Chinese merchandise, you don’t have to go far in New Road to find it in abundance. Just around the corner from The Concern is a storefront selling counterfeit Shure SM-58 microphones. To locate the SM-58, a stout vocal mic used by rock and roll bands everywhere, look for a large straw basket of ginger root and an old man cutting his toe nails. Turn a corner and you’ll find a whole line of Shure mics up on a shelf to your left. Here an SM-58 only costs 900 Rupees, which is just a hair under 13 US dollars. In New York it sells for over a hundred bucks.

These microphones are counterfeit of course, and the salesman wasn’t at all shy about advertising that. “These Chinese export quality SM-58’s sound just as good as the world class ones. But the real ones cost 10,000 Rupees, and you can’t get them in Kathmandu anyway.” He went on to explain that there are in fact three levels of counterfeit SM-58’s: one costing 900 rupees, one 1500, and one 2500. You can’t tell the difference by looking at it straight ahead. But if you look into the bottom of the mic you can distinguish the low, medium, and high quality fakes. See if you can tell which one’s 2500 rupees. Hint: look for the gold plated pins.

Traditional Dress

Today is Diversity Day at E's school, which here in a country with a historically very rigid caste system, chooses to actively disregard caste. But one day a year, the school celebrates it. Kids and teachers dressed according to their caste, ethnic, or regional identity (I can't begin to understand what the relationship between those three vectors is). Here's an example of a traditional Newari outfit, for instance.

More on flickr.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Kathmandu Traffic

If you want to get a sense of how chaotic the city of Kathmandu is, go for a drive. The roads, which are shared by taxis, bikes, motorbikes, pedestrians, street dogs, chickens, vegetable carts and the occasional water buffalo, often appear lawless. The other day, for instance, I was in a taxi travelling down a narrow alleyway when the driver cut off a pair of eight year old school girls. As a nepali newspaper editor said recently, an analysis of nepali traffic can tell you a lot about the politics here: it's anarchic and selfish.

But another way to look at traffic here is that it depends on generosity and an understanding of some very subtle self-enforced rules. The fundamental approach to driving requires quick reaction, distance perception to the millimitre, and lots of horn honking. If you're a motorcycle or a car, you honk your horn on average three times per block. But unlike back home, honking isn't used as a form of aggression, it's more a courtesy. Like the way waitstaff in a fancy restaurant would lightly touch your elbow and say "pardon me." In fact pedestrians here get angry if a driver doesn't honk, because it's seen as wreckless. Luckily, not honking is rare.

One thing you almost never see in the street is frustration. Somehow gridlock is understood to be part of the game of transportation.

It’s hard to believe, but we've been told congestion is at significantly reduced levels right now because of fuel shortages. Fuel comes from India, and due to unpaid debts its flow is very irregular (waiting times at the gas station can last up to 24 or 36 hours on bad days).

Here's a video of the drive to Patan Durbar Square.