A Rump a Thump with a Rattle and a Bump: A Celebration of Kathmandu's Transport System

Features Issue 92 Jul, 2010
Text by Pat Kauba / Photo: Suyesh Raj Shreshta, ECS Media

Everyday in Kathmandu starts with an adventure, the journey that we all take to get to where we need to be, whether it is our workplace, school, the market or even just visiting our friend on the other side of the city. Kathmandu’s transport system is a wonder to behold, in some way it is as if the Lord himself in one of the great epics had heard our woes about traveling. Picking up his own vehicle, he hurled it to the earth with such a crash that it flew into 108,000 pieces, scattering throughout the land. From these pieces and parts came the buses, micros, tuk-tuks and everything else we see on motorized wheels that would help us move about with a greater ease. No one piece was perfect, much the same as how Humpty-Dumpty couldn’t be put perfectly back together again. But with love and attention each piece was molded into something that could work, would work and, more than that, does work.

As we ride along in that rattling bus, on the roof overhead we hear the goats bleat and the chickens cluck away to their hearts content, as they surf along to their next or maybe final destination. (Perhaps they know something that we don’t?). The bales of vegetables and bundles of clothing are hurled up and down, down and up. The boy hangs to the side like a yachtsman in a great ocean race, wailing at the people standing on the side of the road… his own special destination mantra; Lagankhel! Lagankhel! Lagankel!, or Ratna-Parak! Ratna-Parak! Ratna-Parak!  The driver, swinging to miss that sacred bull, the man on his bicycle who is wobbling along with his oversized load and a sleepy lethargic mutt roused from his mid-day nap, then breaking hard mid-swing with a bang as passengers-to-be launch their arms for attention. More bags for the roof and three more are squeezed in. There is always room for one more! Like the Marines motto, no man is left behind, we all have somewhere to go.

Kathmandu’s transport system, looking past its outward faults to those of us with overly critical eyes is about the wonder and adventure that is moving from place to place in this playground. Compared with “the West’s” system it’s technically not right. But removing the frame of thinking from there to here, it seems to smile and laugh in the face of Western correctness, for it knows that it works and owns its own unique form of dependability. Is this maybe why we can deal with our grievances with a smile, for the morning tuk-tuk journey gets our adrenaline pumping. Diving around the craters that we wish were mere potholes, we all in unison hold on tighter, cornering faster than a pepped up Formula One driver, racing between the family of cows on one side and that big Tata truck on the other, aiming for the tiny gap that will move us ahead another few spaces.

Before boarding we look at our chariots with questioning eyes, wondering maybe is it a reincarnation of something before, maybe an ill-fated Tata; nothing is wasted, none of the gifts are left on the side of the road, everything does and will serve a purpose again. In the bus parks the fumes billow to the sky as if carrying the bus boys mantras to the Gods, like the prayer flags on the great peaks that carry the prayers of humanity. The buses rev and spew, roaring like lions protecting their patch, their territory, ready to lunge into the next great and unknown fray, sellers moving in between the roars and fumes with bottles of warm water, fruit and nuts.

What times the bus going to leave? Soon is the answer. There is no timetable to examine, to plan your journey with, and in many ways the alternative is better. When you are ready you just go, safe in the knowledge that it will be along, that it will be coming and leaving soon enough. Because that is what it does. It moves like a true constant. Dependable it be, even so far as dependably trustworthy. The road constantly moving beneath your feet, sometimes if you are lucky you have a seat offering you a pristine view of the ground below, moving, swishing past as you hurtle to where you are going to or getting from. The destination inevitably arriving just as your transport also does.

Some might call it all chaos, but no matter what happens or what we might say, it moves the people not just of the valley, but of the nation, over the hills, through the craters and the thrashing rains. To put it mildly, there is more than a lot of people living within the valley, moving at the various times of morning, noon and night. The system works even if outwardly it appears not to. The engines splutter and bang, racing and crashing to their finishing line, ready to turn around and start again and again and again. It is the rhythm of the city, the heartbeat by which we all move to and fro from where we are to where we want to be. We were given these gifts so we could move about with a greater ease. With marvelous and tall adventures we start and end our days, although not given something that is to say perfect, it is nonetheless something that is dependable. We will always make it in the end and after that we all, in our own special ways, give prayers of thanks for it all once again, as ever, dependably working out.