During my last few days in Kathmandu I was struck with a new and hard-earned understanding of the way that people make their circuitous ways through that roiling circus act of a town. I realized in the end that there was in fact a system for who takes the semi-sheltered refuge of the curbside when two people pass on the street.
Women and children always get the inside, the elder if you’re both the same sex. Often natives will concede the curbside to foreigners, who are usually terrified. But I grew chivalrous toward the Nepali ladies; they are just so much smaller than me! The objective, I suppose, is that the MVP (ie the most vulnerable person) gets to stay the furthest from the maelstrom of traffic and the safest distance from harm.
Crosswalks are good for absolutely nothing, at least nothing they are good for in America. So people gather themselves into impenetrable groups and then cross as one living organism. We would wait until our mob had reached critical mass and then silently, as if of one mind, something would trigger a mob-wide decision and we’d surge all at once into the street, giving the relentlessly oncoming vehicles no choice but to slow down and stop.
By observing Joel’s driving I discerned that there is in fact a language particular to the car horn. A sort of morse code, a dialect of honk, an audible navigational code. He would tap lightly three times to let a car know he was passing, twice to invite someone to pass. There is also a beep for “Hell no, motherfucker! What in Shiva’s name are you thinking?!” In the end, I surmised that the average Nepali navigates by some indecipherable combination of sign language, sonar, and telepathy.
I paid Joel twice as much as I normally would have when he dropped me off at the airport. I thought he might cry when I refused to take change. As he drove away, he offered me a sad little smile and said softly, “God bless you, Lakhni.” He’s never said that before, not in two long months, and then I thought I might cry too.
As hard as it was to leave Nepal, I have never been happier to board a plane. I had been at Tribhuvan International Airport for three long, hot, crowded hours, napping in a sweat, wondering where the restaurants were, being elbowed through every queue. There were wasps in every window of the departures lounge and the couches were threadbare and stained. The one cool thing about the Kathmandu airport was the exit form at immigrations. My heartfelt congratulations to Nepal for having an “other” category for gender.
As I climbed up the steps to the Thai Airways megaplane, it felt like taking a deep breath. There was air conditioning! Cleanliness! The smell of fresh red curry! I was being waied by two beautiful Thai women of two very different generations. Both were dressed in gilded sin skirts with traditional sabai shawls.
I was wined, dined, entertained, and happy within an hour of leaving the ground. The curry was delicious, the booze was free, and even the coffee was good. Traveling on a complimentary air mile ticket I had no control over my seats and yet the computer happened to have randomly assigned me the one spot in all of economy class that has no other seat in front of it. Three cheers for unlimited leg room, my friends! Three cheers for climate control! The air conditioner was raging and the other passengers were swathed from head to toe in their blankets; I, on the other hand, was chillin' like a villain in my lightweight short-sleeved T-shirt. I sprawled out and fell asleep basking in the cool with a warm belly full of panang.
I woke up nauseous as we’d gotten in early and air traffic control couldn’t land us. We did donuts over Bangkok until I thought I’d throw up and then finally plunged into the monsoon. I’d forgotten how massive and futuristic Suvarnabhumi Airport is (for the record, it’s pronounced Su-WAN-na-poom, but please don’t ask me why).
The airport’s funny name made me think about all the peculiarities of language. The Nepalese speak in a strange fluid mash-up of Nepali/English pidgin. Commercials sound like: “Blah blah blah tropical beach holiday blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah, call now! Blah blah blah blah blah your travel solution!”
The Chinese don’t have separate gender pronouns. So until they are exceptionally fluent in English, they just call everyone “him”. It was funny to hear the students at Oral English College refer to me and Phoebe as “he”.
I’d forgotten how beautiful I find Thai script. It’s so sexy! So curvy and voluptuous. There are so many circles and whirligigs and curlicues that it looks like the writing is carbonated.
I have an inexplicably crystalline memory of my first visit to Suvarnabhumi. It was my honeymoon and a heart-pounding inaugural adventure in the legendary faraway East. I remember approaching the ladies' room skeptically, with my stomach tying itself in knots, terrified that I'd have to use a squat toilet right then and there, with jet lag. I had never even seen a squat toilet before, let alone attempted to use one. It makes me giggle now that I know how exceptionally modern this airport is, especially compared to so many others I've suffered through in Asia (Lahad Datu, here's to you!). It also makes me laugh because I've recently become an adept squat toilet user in China.
So I’m plodding through a seven-hour layover in Bangkok, thinking of loos and linguistics, before boarding my next flight (10.5 hours) on to Johannesburg, South Africa. I’ve decided that seven hours is plenty of time for at least two rounds of Thai food. Then I’ll just mosey across the whole Indian ocean and into the southern hemisphere. Voilà! Winter! I cannot express how excited I am to put on a freaking sweater.