Stupa and a monkey

Kathmandu Diaries: Zipping around by motorbike

A motorbike driver stops near me and I check the license plate number to see if it matches the one on my Pathao app (like Uber, but just for Nepal). I’ve learned the Nepali numbers because these are what all the license plates use. (More accurately: The numbers are Devanagari script which both Hindi and Nepali languages use)

Hindi numbers

Sometimes as I walk along the streets I whisper-read license plate numbers out loud to practice. This reminds me I should watch the movie Rain Man so I can know what I’m referencing when I call myself Rain Man as I mumble to myself in public. 

Plate number confirmed, I swing my leg way up over the seat and hop up onto the bike. It’s a good thing I’m flexible because this bike is tall. I casually place my hand on the driver’s shoulder, the other on the bike’s fin behind me. “Huncha” (ok), I say and we set off. 

I’m so sleepy today that I want to rest my head against the back of his shoulder, but this would a) be super weird and b) if I legit fell asleep I would fall off the bike onto the street and get run over by 3 Vespas, 12 small motorcycles, and 2 colorfully painted buses. 

The driver is more aggressive than I prefer (many rides are much smoother) and the frequent hard stops slide me forward to press against his back. Rather than continuously wriggling myself backward I just roll with it and stay close. Plenty of other passengers sit in this same proximity, regardless of gender. Men in military fatigues included. 

Sitting back here it doesn’t look like I’m doing much, but my muscles are alert and engaged. My torso curves slightly forward, even when my shoulders are back. I keep my mass forward using my transverse abdominals. <hi pilates!> My booted feet angle against the metal footbars to secure me from flying backward if the driver accelerates hard. 

In this secure, yet open air position, I relax for the 30 minute drive through traffic to Gaia, my favorite restaurant in Kathmandu. When I walk in I wave to the servers + other regulars. I walk to my usual spot at a table edging the courtyard, and my primary server (who’s in his second year at university) comes over and confirms if I want my usual: the Gaia set breakfast, papaya juice, masala tea black, and a bottle of mineral water. A lot of writing and a lot of PunkTorah work happens here.

Notice the man waving? That was for the video.

But wait, we’re not at Gaia yet!  We’re still on the motorbike.

Here’s what I see:

  • Passengers nonchalantly scrolling through their phones on the back of bikes.
  • A passenger holding a huge rectangular glass panel a foot taller than his head. There’s a noticeable crack in one corner…
  • A man walking on the side of the road carrying a 4-foot tall refrigerator bound with rope and secured around his forehead with a wide piece of fabric. 
  • In between a bike driver and his elderly woman passenger is a small, fluffy white dog with a silky tail. Wearing a midnight blue velvet cape embroidered with gold stars.  Chill AF laying squished between the two humans. 
  • A black and white dog trotting along the sidewalk without a collar, but with a recently made pink tika along the white blaze of his forehead. 
  • A big, open field where sometimes I see men practicing cricket and sometimes I see long, very straight lines of soldiers doing military drills. 
Produce seller and Julie in the mirror
Produce seller on street corner | Life and other adventures travel blog

During rush hour I wear a disposable blue mask, like I did during the Blip. But now it protects me, as much as it can, from inhaling unhealthy amounts of exhaust particles. There’s so much going on around me, and oh man, the wind whipping my ponytail back, my body moving along with the engine-powered crowd. It lifts my heart. 

When the rain starts, we pull off the road and the driver takes out a bike ponchos. This waterproof sheath

  •  covers the front of the bike
  • has ears for the mirrors
  • has an opening for the driver’s head along with a rain hood
  • AND has an opening for the passenger’s head along with a rain hood 
  • When there isn’t a passenger, there’s a flap that covers the back opening  

The poncho reaches all the way down the passenger’s back and is spacious enough to cover, let’s say, a backpack with a precious laptop in it. These are ubiquitous here since most people with a personal vehicle have a bike rather than a car.

Room-sized shops go by, the owner usually scrolling on their phone or sometimes chatting with a friend. Meat is sold from some of these small storefronts. 5 raw chickens, feet in the air, laid out on a counter waiting to be purchased whole or chopped up. Large sides of buffalo are sold like this as well. Some stores have a fly tent over the meat, but most don’t. This challenges everything I’ve ever learned about food safety. But, I’ve eaten multiple tasty meals made with chicken from these stores and had zero ill effects. From this I gather that if you long cook the chicken, as people do here, it seems quite alright. 

Raw chicken in Kathmandu | Life and other adventures travel blog

So change of subject, but it totally connects because of rain and meat and, well, it’s still in Kathmandu, so it tracks.

This year Indra Jatra started the last week of September. This Newari festival comes towards the end of monsoon season when the people pray to Indra, the god who controls the rain, to ask him to end this year’s rainy season. Usually the dry season starts at the beginning of October and lasts through November. 

People crowded around each street corner with lit incense and small clay bowls with candle wax and homemade wicks. People also created conical pyramids of food offerings placed on plastic tarps directly on the sidewalks. Each stripe around the pyramid made from a different food: sliced radishes, pieces of papaya, white rice, even a strip of grilled buffalo meat. Inside one temple, in addition to food, were offerings of full-size orange Fanta bottles. 

On one corner, a large group crowded around a particular golden god statue. When Ghanshyam and I got close enough we saw that a container was set behind the statue so it appeared like the god was generously pouring homemade rice wine to the people gathered around. We tried to get some of the opaque white liquid, but the cups had run out and we didn’t care enough to wait, so we moved on. 

We came upon a Buddhist temple. Men sat in a central room off of the ample, warmly lit courtyard, chanting and playing rhythmic percussion. We didn’t know if this was also celebrating Indra Jatra since in this area Hinduism and Buddhism are often seamlessly blended, or if this was customary Buddhist worship that we happened upon. 

This year, Indra has not stopped the monsoon rains yet, and I am stuck at Gaia until it either stops pouring or I want to return home strongly enough that I call a Pathao and mentally prepare myself for rain flying into my face for the entire 30 minute drive back to Patan. Which is fine, just not my favorite.

Epilogue: I left Gaia at 6 pm and tried to get a Pathao for 40 minutes, but they were all occupied. Hungry, I dipped into a Chinese restaurant and had cold tofu salad with lightly pickled cucumbers and traditional Chinese dumplings that brought me back to my college internship summer in Beijing. With a full belly 45 minutes later I snagged a Pathao CAR cab as a treat to myself and had a relaxing ride home where I needed to engage zero of my muscles. 

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