Apparently, to get a sense for what a country is all about, you should look in the streets.
I remembered this again last Thursday! In response to the hike in traffic violation fines, the association of transportation entrepreneurs called a nationwide strike pulling all public transportation vehicles off the streets that day. Similar and many more things happen on the roads and streets of the metropolis of Kathmandu, which excellently reflect the character and personality of the people and the country of Nepal.
To begin with, here’s the first characteristics of the Nepalese that we can see evidence for in the streets: perseverance.
Take the road and transport department and their work on the small network of streets and roads in my neighbourhood, for instance. The current pathetic and terrible state of disrepair is pretty much how they were twenty years ago, when we first moved. A municipality elsewhere would have given up a long time ago. Not ours! They continue to do one or other “improvement” work on them!
What’s more, I’m confident that they won’t give up. They will continue to work on them, CONSTANTLY, for a longer time to come.
And that, I am sure, is also the story of every road and street in the metropolis.
The municipality shows its perseverance in trying to improve things in other ways too. For instance, recently they gave the streets in Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu, a make-over! For the first time in forty years or so of being a regular of that area, the streets there are a glowing!
They now have lane dividers! Given how narrow those streets are, they are a welcome addition for regular Thamel visitors, like myself. Until now, many of us faced great difficulties figuring out where one lane ended and the other began!
They have crosswalks and yellow lane markers (see image below) too! Never mind there are no footpaths or pavements on either side of most streets in Thamel! But hey, if you want safe passage to the other side of the street, you have an option!
Drivers on the streets of Kathmandu display their perseverance in the way they drive.
Nepalese being late to everything belies the true value they place on time. Everyone in Nepal knows everyone is late every time to everything. It’s like we are cursed to be late! But that doesn’t stop everyone from being in a hurry all the time. Of course, in case you thought otherwise, they are in a hurry at all times because they value time so much! They keep at it, always, hoping against hope, to be on time for something for once and break the curse!
The police show a great degree of perseverance as well in the way they are constantly trying to improve traffic and educate the public, swimming against the current in the waterfall of Kathmandu traffic!
They have, for instance, instituted zero tolerance for driving under the influence. Alcohol level allowed in the blood stream of a driver is zero, yes zero!
Recently, they increased traffic fines. That brought about an incredibly sharp drop in traffic violations (see image below). You know they have done a good job when that draws the ire of the association of transportation entrepreneurs! The entrepreneurs did just what any association in Nepal does when authorities clamp down on them: call a nationwide strike!
The Police also run educational campaigns with catchy and unforgettable slogans to educate drivers and pedestrians alike.
Another commendable characteristics of the Nepalese people is that they are very resourceful.
On the streets of Kathmandu, you can see that in the way the traffic police use traffic-control podium. While one police directs traffic, another holds lessons for violators under it (see below)!
Another example of the resourcefulness of the traffic police is in finding a way around lack of breathalyzers. Traffic police in another country would have thrown in their towel, and probably their baton and whistle with it for good measure. Not ours!
Nepalese Traffic cops use their dog-sharp sense of smell to conduct sobriety tests! A police conducts the test by putting his/her nose right up close to the mouth of the suspect to breath into! Who but a Nepali would have thought of that?!
The drivers, being equally resourceful, of course, have found ways around it. I have met offenders who swear by “just breathing in”! Still others have sworn by chewing on some cloves before getting behind the wheel!
The resourcefulness of the drivers extend to their use of horns! Lacking knowledge of most traffic rules, Nepal drivers have created a million-and-one use of the horn, such as to tell pedestrians on a crosswalk to get out of the way!
Another characteristic of the Nepalese people is that they are extremely flexible and accommodating.
You would have seen an excellent example of that in the streets of Kathmandu last Thursday, the day of the nationwide strike. Pretty much all the public transport vehicles were off the streets. But, everyone went about their daily life as if it were just another day…except those who couldn’t.
There was nary a complaint from anyone, not even on social media, the hotbed of activism in the country. While everyone was relaxing and enjoying not creating a scene, being the party pooper that I am, I tweeted the following:
— Dorje Gurung (@Dorje_sDooing) May 26, 2016
(However, if you think the Nepalese are the let-me-lay-down-and-you-can-walk-all-over-me kind of accommodating people, think again! When recently India called off all vehicles travelling into the country from along the Southern border, social media exploded with #BackOffIndia campaign! There is a limit to how accommodating Nepalese people are. India, for instance, the Nepalese won’t accommodate!)
Nepalese on the streets are accommodating in other ways too. They are accommodating of drivers coming at them on their (the wrong) side of the road letting their horn rip. They don’t challenge the driver. They just get out of their way, without as much as…even a honk!
When drivers in the street decide NOT to be accommodating, like when stuck in a traffic jam, they’ll just start a symphony right there — every single one lays on the horn! A traffic jam unites the Nepalese with a singleness of purpose — to break up the traffic jam with honking — like nothing else does! The reasons are simple. Firstly, “If everyone does it, why not me?!” and secondly, obviously it works because everyone does it!
If you have driven around the streets of Kathmandu and other cities, you would have noticed that pillion riders don’t wear helmets. That too, of course, is thanks to the highly accommodating nature of the Nepalese.
Apparently, there was a time when traffic regulations (existed and they) required pillion riders to wear a helmet as well. But the rate of violation was so high that the authorities scrapped it! Now, they are free to ride with the wind in their hair and with little care in the world! The best part is, no pillion rider has to needlessly suffer from, what I call, hideous, “helmet-head” appearance!
The traffic police are so accommodating they turn a blind eye to vehicles, specially motorbikes and scooters, using crosswalks as a waiting station for the ‘Go’ signal.
The authorities were so flexible and accommodating that, at one of the crosswalks in front of the Durbar Marg museum, they moved the crosswalk forward by several feet. (See image below.)
Recently, I noticed that they had moved it right back to the original place. I suspect all those lessons in the middle of the crossroad did the trick — the motorcyclists must have now begun respecting crosswalks!
Here’s another way the municipality has been extremely accommodating: they have stopped using traffic lights completely and instead have dispatched traffic police at every crossroad and street! The drivers, I heard, were showing a knack for fooling the lights. Plus, I have it on good authority that this is all about personalized service now!
Another example of the extremely flexible and accommodating nature of Nepalese is found in the way everyone helped make the strike called by the transportation entrepreneurs last Thursday a resounding success. Most of those relying on public transportation just didn’t go to work and were not much worse for wear!
And finally, who could forget the world-famous resilience of the Nepalese people?!
Those on the streets, obviously, display it too! The traffic police being no exception again!
The health hazards of working in the streets of Kathmandu have been well established. Traffic police suffer disproportionately from respiratory health problems. But however often and however much they get knocked down by the pesky pollution and dangerous traffic of Kathmandu, they keep pouring back into the streets day in and day out, wearing only the ubiquitous, cheap face masks for protection.
The drivers and Kathmanduites themselves, in pouring into the streets with more and more vehicles also show great resilience!
Many work extra hard to make enough money to join the club of vehicle owners. Others work hard to move up the social ladder by becoming the proud owner of a bigger/fancier vehicle! Still some are goaded on by a dream of one day driving to work sitting inside an SUV surrounded by the conditioned air from the bowl of a valley of polluted Kathmandu.
They thus get off their asses and get to work every day regardless of how much and how often they and their loved ones get knocked down by the extreme pollution. If that’s not resilience, I don’t know what is.
The only time they stay home is when some association or political party or some student wing of a political party or the paid foot soldiers of the political party in the government etc. calls a strike.
So, there you have it, Nepalese people and Nepal as per the streets of Kathmandu.
People take a piss at our country for many reasons. But many also love NEPAL and its people for obviously all the above reasons as confirmed by the huge number of foreigners who keep returning to the country again and again.
* * * * * * * *
References (added after the post was published):
My Republica (July 2017). Lights Out. About the issues with traffic lights in Kathmandu.