Sunday, January 21, 2007

Go With The Flow

A person can become fond of the packed sidewalks and the tangles of overhead wires, of narrow passages, the steady roar of voices vying with motors, the smell of frying foods, and constantly shifting colors. But it takes practice to thread through the crowds, dodge motorbikes, and compete successfully for narrow, high-demand sidewalk space littered with merchandise, food kiosks, broken paving, and sleeping dogs.

I practice in Khan Market, a chaos of small shops in a stylish area of New Delhi where pedestrians seem less like an endangered species than in the dense streets and alleys of Old Delhi. It’s a good place to exercise what I’m thinking of calling: "Survival Techniques for Expatriates."

Indian women in their colorful and elegant saris, sail along as blithe and unconscious as butterflies, alighting occasionally to purchase spices or scented soap or to finger a piece of cloth. With a flip of a scarf, they’re off again, becoming spots of color in the crowds. Red and green turbans and full beards nod and bob. Girls, bright scarves flowing above tight blue jeans, lean their heads toward young men in tee shirts and matching jeans. Skinny men pedal rickshaws while fat ones, cigarettes between lips, lean out of doors, looking for customers.

"Decide where you are going," Navina Jaffe says, "and maintain a steady course. That way others know what you are doing and will avoid you. This ducking and jumping aside is much too dangerous." Navina’s my guru to street life.
"Easy for you to say," I squeaked, as I jumped out of the way of a car’s fender and almost into the person a six-foot Sikh, his turban making him at least six-foot-four or five.

The trick, it seems, is to know when others will avoid you and when you must avoid them. I’m wondering if an inherent understanding of this isn’t bred into the genetic structure of people raised in heavily populated areas. One thing is certain: it isn’t part of either my Wyoming experience or my northern genes.

"You see, Pat," Navina says of the car fender and Sikh, her voice patient, her hands adjusting a length of embroidered Pasmina. "If you had maintained course, the car would have avoided you as would the Sikh. All would have gone according to the way it was going. It is rudimentary."

The rudimentary part is where I need practice. It’s like memorizing grammar or vocabulary. Once you learn all the parts and practice, practice, practice, you can communicate. But this has got to be easier--all I need to do is survive. A bit of practice should do it, so I decide to tackle the subway next. After that, it will be Old Delhi or Bust! Total immersion. It works for language training.

Baby Elephants

Nothing upsets a baby like having its toy stolen, and what fool would steal a toy from a baby elephant whose shoulder already reaches higher than that idiot’s head?

One did. We’re at the elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka, an institution that no longer brings in elephant babies made orphans because of the war. But it still has elephants—lots of them. Those original babies have grown up and produced their own offspring, one of whom has wandered up a hill to socialize. When the little guy comes to a stop, he has a length of bamboo tucked into the end of his trunk.

He’s immediately surrounded. Both human adults and children crowd around wanting to touch this adorable (if huge) baby. He seems happy enough with the attention—is probably used to it we decide.

Every day hundreds of people pay twenty dollars each to enter the orphanage and watch the elephants. Their feeding and bathing times are the same every day, giving the public something to watch. We’ve come for the bathing, but, first, have climbed this hill to watch the elephants browsing and milling around at its foot.

“Get back,” one of the mahouts calls out to the crowd … or words to that effect. His order produces almost no result. Hands reach out and touch the baby. Hands pat his hips thighs, back, tail, nose, ears and legs. Little girls giggle about the roughness of his hide. Boys posture and yell. Adults want their pictures taken.

“Get back,” the mahout repeats.

Far down the hill more people are watching the bulk of the herd, enjoying the sight of babies wound around momma’s legs, of trunks waving, of lumbering strides as the elephant moms move slowly to their positions in the herd. They’re getting ready to go swimming, a case of assuming their places in the pecking order.

Halfway up the hill a three-legged elephant stands between two juveniles. “He lost his leg in a land mine explosion,” my daughter says. She’s been here before and has told us about the history of the orphanage—established to care for the elephant survivors of the long and bloody war between the Tamils and Sinahlese. Most of the original orphans are gone—this one remains.

“They tried to give him a prosthetic,” our guide tells us. “They fitted two different ones, but he just wouldn’t accept them.”

I’m looking down toward the crippled fellow when a blast of sound splits the air and brings my hands to my ears. It’s as loud as an air raid siren and just as sharp. I jump. The crowd around the baby elephant scatters. Out of their midst comes the baby, the end of his trunk held up and curled around his bamboo stick.

“What happened?” I ask. “What was that all about?”

“Someone tried to steal his toy,” my daughter says. “His stick,” she adds seeing my confused look. “Someone tried to take it away from him. He got mad.”

“Someone was very lucky that that baby’s a nice baby,” I said, watching the huge rear end and the funny, little string of a tail. “So, let’s go watch as they come to the water.”

Which is exactly what we did, sitting down to lunch at a table overlooking the swimming hole. We’d just had time to order a beer when the gang started making its way down through the town to the river. First came the bulls with their mahouts riding. They moved into the water, long chains connecting leg irons to huge bolts set into rock ledges. Many lowered themselves into the water, the better to accept the attention of scrub brushes and showers of water administered by the mahouts.

Next, the cows and calves appeared. They waded in, the babies ducking under each other in a game of ambush. Finally, the juveniles appeared—our bamboo stick boy now trailing an inner tube.

No one else seemed to want to play, though, and he abandoned his inner tube in a pool near the shore in favor of following his friends into deep vegetation on the far side of the river. Even for elephants, it seems, some things are better than toys.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Sigiriya ...The More Things Change

Once upon a time on a beautiful island studded with precious jewels and gemstones, there lived a wicked king who stole his brother’s throne and drove him away. Then, he found the perfect site for an impregnable fort. No one could ever touch him there. So, he built Sigiriya—a great citadel atop a six hundred-foot high, sheer-sided rock. Around its base he laid out a beautiful city of palaces and gardens laced with pools and fountains, with streams and waterfalls.
Dee dah, dee dee dah … a recorded flute plays over and over in a minor key, sending an eerily appropriate sound over the ruins of Sigiriya. My daughter, her friend, Monique, and I sort through our money at a Department of Archeology kiosk. We need much more than we expected and have to pool our resources. Then, tucking water bottles into belt loops or back packs, we pass the source of the music—a motor rickshaw, its body transformed into an ice cream machine.

"And," our guide, Malik, says, "the king loved his creation so much that when his brother came back with an army, the wicked king took his own army out onto the plains rather than risk having his city destroyed. There, he was defeated, and he never saw Sigiriya again. The city for which he risked everything fell into ruins, only monks living in caves on the rock. Finally, even the monks left, and the city was forgotten, was eaten by the jungle."
The wicked king’s parks are laid out before us … the waterways and pools delineated by walls and filled now with grass kept low by wandering cows, its precinct a playground for monkeys. A roadway the width of an oxcart stretches toward the 600-foot high rock with its sheer sides and its crown of ruins. Minus the ruins, this is a Sri Lankan Devil’s Tower—older and half the height but with the same impressive presence.
The crowds here for the Christmas holidays spread out, children vaulting walls and playing tight-rope walker on their tops, adults strolling, teens checking out their peers—blue jeans and tee shirts as common as anywhere else in the world. Slowly, the laughter and chattering diminish, though, as the rock-paved road leads uphill until we’re in the shadow of "the rock." Sigiriya, itself, looms over us, seeming impossibly high.
Stairs funnel the crowds now. There’s no other way … just one flight of stairs after another with these lower sets ending at trails that snake away around the rock, accessing caves and overhanging shelters that once provided homes for monks.
"Buddhist monks lived here for centuries after the kings were gone," our guide, Malik, says. "Then came years of drought, and the farmers had to leave. The monks, with no one to feed them, left, as well."
The sound of rustling clothes and of leather and rubber soles on rock fills the air now in an otherwise hushed silence. Hundreds of us are climbing and climbing. One hundred meters up, we reach the "mirror wall" where frescos line one side of the trail. There’s only space for one person to move forward at a time here, and it’s a traffic jam—a tight press of bodies, those ahead be pushed forward by the stream of people coming up. At this point, my chest cold and my Wyoming need for elbow room tell me that I’ve had enough, and I take a lateral trail that will lead to the parking lot and the jungle—a route blessedly free of crowds.

Back at the bottom, I watch a troop of monkeys raiding a box of coconuts strapped to the top of a van. One by one, the audacious thieves scoop out the fruit, tossing the brown spheres to their fellows in nearby trees. Just so their remote ancestors probably raided kitchens when Sigiriya was inhabited. This thought provides a bit of perspective, a way to pass time until, sweat-soaked, Robyn and Monique reappear.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Golden Carp

Exotic stories of the orient speak of ponds of golden carps, tell of a beautiful princess who, dressed in the richest of gold silk embroidered with pearls and precious jewels, falls in love with a giant golden carp. He is transformed into a prince, his iridescent scales becoming priceless gems, and they live happily every after.

Our golden carp are greedy monsters, fighting and thrashing through the water, swimming over, under, and practically through each other to get at handfuls of rice, chepattis, and French fries thrown at them by the kitchen staff.

Standing on the sunny breakwater, trying to warm a body frozen by a breakfast exposure to an unheated restaurant, I ask, “Why do these carp come for food, and those don’t?” I point first toward the swarming fish, then at a huge school of smaller ones—all facing upstream, with their tails to us. No matter how close the food comes to them, I’ve noticed, they don’t move.

Across the narrow waterway, a flood plain of boulders runs another twenty to thirty yards before reaching the far bank where a group of lemurs play in the trees and amongst the root structures that reach down toward the rocks. The white hairs circling their faces flash as they move, making it look, at this distance, as though they’re wearing hijab.

“A kingfisher,” one of the young men says in English. “See.”

I see. It flits up the river, its wings a vivid blue against the solid green hills. It lands in a large tree and is lost. Unlike its name, the kingfisher is not the huge bird one would imagine, but a small thing—about the size of my fist. What he lacks in size, though, he makes up for in visibility.

A flock of egrets come next, wheeling and turning in a brilliant display of ever-changing white patterns painted on a blue sky. They land, taking up positions on rocks along the far shore, looking like stylized question marks.

And on the subject of questions, I’d forgotten mine about the fish when one of the staff—he tells me his name is Amal or maybe it’s spelled Hamal or with some other variant. Amal says that some of the carp are Black Carp and some are Golden. “Yes. This gold carp.” He points. “This black carp. Yes.” Which is meant to explain everything.

And leads to the next question. Why? But having already tested my ability to simplify English and the budding naturalists’ ability to understand both my vocabulary and accent, I abandon the effort. Some things are best left a mystery.

Warm, now, I leave the carp, both the swarming and stationary varieties, to their breakfast—none of these fish, I fear, will ever make a prince—and climb the hill. Next on our schedule is an elephant safari on a lovely great beast named Lakshmi. Perhaps we’ll see a bear?

Lions, Tigers, and Bears, Oh My

Woody Allen, move over. Harpo Marx! You’ve got competition. Never doubt the human capacity for developing two left feet. I look down. Yup. There’s a right one and a left one but they’ve both become the wrong one.

Two days in the Corbett Tiger Preserve and two sightings—a leopard yesterday and a tiger today. That’s by everyone in my group except me.

“You didn’t see it?” This from Monique. She’s pretty and blonde. Her sport is running, and her job is public health. “It was right there in the road. It swished its tail and crouched the way cats do … you know … then it ran off.”

“Didn’t you see it?” Everyone else cried. “It was a leopard. Brown.”

“Watch,” Yogi, the guide, says in a hushed voice. “It’s there in the bushes.” In a whisper, he adds, “This is the first leopard sighting in six months.”

For the next half hour or so, we watch. I’m standing on the front passenger seat of the open-topped Jeep now. The seat and its placement was part of the problem before. With no leg room between the seat and the dashboard, I had turned around to see the road behind but my view was blocked by five people standing up in the next two rows of seats. By the time I’d dumped binoculars and camera off my lap and clambered upwards, the cat was lost in foliage.

If it reappears, we don’t see it. Oh, well. Easy come, easy go. So what if it was the first sighting in six months. So what if everyone had seen it except me.

Then, we had a long drive back in the cold and colder night air. Then, I went to sleep, missed dinner, an open fire in the lodge and a nature movie. Then, I slept through the 6:00 wake up call for the next Jeep outing and seeing the tiger. While I was snug in my bed, tucked under a thick comforter, the rest of the group bounced along in the Jeep, came to a river crossing, and there was the biggest of the big cats.

“He saw us. His tail swished. And he just melted into the jungle.” This from Mary. She’s a nutritionist by training, currently the deputy for America’s health assistance programs in India, running a multi-million dollar operation. She’s ecstatic … can’t stop smiling. “It was like magic.”

Two sightings in two days. “Two of the big cats,” the restaurant manager said, having heard the news before everyone got back. “This is fantastic.” He looked at me in pity.

Tucked into my front seat … well insulated against the freezing temperatures in my bed, though, I had dreamed of … lions, tigers, and bears.

Oh, my.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


The signs are everywhere. They are tacked onto power poles, stuck into the ground on stakes, strung on banners across streets, and emblazoned on windows and store fronts. Some signs carry just the one word ENGLISH and a telephone number. Others are more elaborate.


Learn English Here



And dozens of variations. Trade schools teach English. Regular schools teach English. Everyone with a passing acquaintance with the language teaches English. No wonder little boys come up to the white-skinned tourist on beaches and at historical and religious sites: “Hello. I can talk to you?”

An English-speaking tourist is a target, an opportunity to practice, a chance to improve a necessary skill.

Everywhere in South Asia this is true to some degree, but in Sri Lanka it seems to be a fixation. Of course, like most of India, Sri Lanka (Ceylon, then) was an English colony and English was the language of both the conqueror and the government. Once, statistics say, the island had the highest rate of English-language literacy in the region and one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Well, statistics can be extrapolated from very little. In any event, time and chaos have put paid to all of that.

Now, though, on an island split between Sinhalese and Tamilese speakers, an island at war with itself, English has become lingua franca of sorts … not as much as it should be, no doubt, but, if the signs speak true, the number is growing.

At any rate, it may be a ticket to any job. At our Galle hotel, even the cleaning staff and pool attendants speak working English.

Lord Shiva Lives

More tales of death and destruction. Shiva, the Hindu god who controls these things, seems never to take a holiday. Tourism in South Asia some days feels like five parts of old life and death stories and one part stories of fresh life and death--two weeks ago the bombing in Colombo; two years and two days ago the tsunami.

“When tsunami come, they all die,” our Muslim guide, Malik, tells us as we drive along the coast road of south Sri Lanka. “This was my friend … he is also guide … and Japanese tourists he take to national park. But I am with two Russians in Sigiriya. And, now, I think of what if. He was good friend. Sometimes I take Japanese. Maybe that day? Who knows these things?”

In the headlights, we could see what looked like bombed out remnants of buildings. There would be a row of them and, then, a mile or more of new structures glistening in bright paints. And, everywhere, the palms stood, survivors, their green fronds vivid against the night sky.

“One thousand two hundred people,” Malik says flooring the gas pedal and swerving around a bus. The road was narrow before the tsunami and has not improved since. “One thousand two hundred people were killed on the train.” It was a train running from Colombo to Galle, and it was overtaken by the tsunami wave. The cars were derailed and jumbled up. When the water left, the train looked like the victim of a childish temper tamtrum, its occupants as broken as the cars.

I see gravestones … rows of them … alongside the road. “The graves?” I ask. “From the people killed on the train?”

“These are local people. Twenty thousand dead here.”

I wonder, peering into the dark, watching the scenes illumined by our headlights. by passing store fronts, by village street lights … I wonder how it was that day. I wonder and am very glad I wasn’t here. So many gravestones. They don’t line the road but are clustered, a group of them here, another there, fitted among gardens and structures. It’s like the living have infiltrated a cemetery.

A day later I meet Dharanga, an auto rickshaw driver. “I was pastry chef at hotel on beach, but hotel ruin now,” he says. “That day I not at hotel. Why I alive. All there die. See!” his arm shoots out of the side of the little vehicle as he points at the tunnel under Galle fort’s walls. He fumbles for words in English. “Water come. All gone.”

He stops so that I can look around at what is now a big plaza where men are busy laying paving stones. A solitary tree stands near one end, casting shade over an area that might once have held a house. There were many buildings around it … once. Now, except for the tree, it’s a broad expanse of … nothing. ‘All gone.’

The tsunami roared into the protected Galle harbor, surging through the mouth of the bay, hitting the outer walls of the old Portuguese fort first and skirting it. The master builders of four hundred years ago would be proud if they knew. The fort’s exterior facings held. Centuries of use and the wall’s strength defied the power of water. But the tsunami wasn’t stopped, only diverted. It came on, rushing into the harbor, laying waste to the town of Galle, then doing what water does best—backtracking and infiltrating the fort through its open, bay-facing gates. The forty-plus foot long tunnel that led through the impenetrable walls gave the flood a channel, which it used as inevitably as a river follows its bed. Seconds after the wave first reached land, water exploded into the fort’s interior, laying waste to all in its path.

“All dead,” Dharanga says of the empty plaza. He engages the gas, and we putt putt through the tunnel to emerge in the harbor area. On one side the road follows the fort. On the other a fleet of fishing boats are pulled up on the sand, the fishermen just beginning to emerge from their little shacks.

“All gone. Dead,” Dharanga repeats.

We avoid a bus that momentarily looms over us, and Dharanga pulls out his wallet and extracts a card that certifies he is a certified master pastry chef and instructor. “My hotel lost. Job lost. Tourists lost. This is why I drive tuk tuk.” He uses the local word for auto rickshaw.

The Lighthouse Hotel, where we’re staying, is an exception to Dharanga’s general statement. It sits high above the beach, buttressed by an impressive barrier of rocks where on a normal day waves crash and spume flies high in the air.

“The water came up to the second floor,” an IT tech says as we work over internet access for my computer. Gradually, I develop a mental picture of how it was here. The tsunami struck and rose, flooding through the ground floor on the beach side. But that’s the second floor on the land side. Water surged around the hotel and filled the lower two stories but, since the hotel is built in layers over the top of a rise, its foundations weren’t compromised and the bulk of the building was untouched. “Only one person was killed,” the tech adds, “There. Now, just add a password and you’ll be on line.”

“Where were you?” I ask.

“I was driving to another JetWing hotel … the one that was destroyed. When the water came I jumped out of my car and ran to high ground. I was safe. But if I had been at that hotel … .” He shakes his head. “They all died. They all died. My friends there.”

It is two years and two days since the tsunami. We walk the beach, looking for shells, watching the waves break on a rock barrier and, occasionally, wading into the surf. Then, we feel the power of the sea through the little line of water sweeping at our legs. “Whoops!” A bigger wave swoops in and knocks me off my feet. I laugh in the foamy, warm water, sand slipping away under my bottom, tickling.

Two years and two days have passed. Everyone along this coast has a story. In Sri Lanka, memories of the tsunami are equivalent to 9/11 for us. Everyone remembers where they were, what they did, who they lost, who survived. There are tales of miraculous saves and tragic deaths. But mostly the two-year anniversary boils down to the question of what happened to the survivors.

“The government gave me three payments of 5,000 rupees each ($500). That was all.” Dharanga says. “Now, I rent tuk tuk. Before I bake pastry. If tourists come again?”

He hopes the hotels will rebuild and the ones that still exist will fill up. But I am here now, so I reach into my pocket for a generous tip.


Wars, rebellion, and death. These themes jump from the pages of newspapers and history books in South Asia. Then, they come from the mouths of guides. We’re in Sri Lanka this week.

“There were over two hundred casualties here,” our guide waves around a lush green park spotted with vine-covered trees and palms. “Men with guns came during festival and fired until no more bullets.”

It’s the site of the world’s oldest, continuously tended tree, the sacred bodhi tree, an offshoot of the tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment.

We walk on bare and tender feet around the walls that separate the two thousand year old tree from the worshipping public. Then, and again on bare feet, we admire a nearby Buddhist stupa (called dagoba locally … don’t ask. Until a year ago I had no idea what a stupa was and still am not too sure except that it’s big and round, generally solid right through, shaped like a Mongol’s helmet and, often strung with prayer flags. For the most part, these are not buildings with interior rooms. You don’t enter them. Instead, you pray while circumnavigating them on foot—seven times is the idea.)

Later, driving back to the hotel, we pass an intersection. “The road to the north,” our driver pointed and gave a snort of sound … hard to tell if of disgust or mirth. “No one can go.”

The roadblock had the usual staggered barriers … you get used to them. In South Asia the police as well as the military set out these tall, triangularly shaped impedances. But these weren’t your typical barriers, these were the mother of all barriers—built like the berms of a Civil War fort—tall, constructed of stone and soil and already covered with grass as though the war, once again resumed in Sri Lanka, had never stopped. Maybe it didn’t.

We definitely got that impression, over and over again as we’re repeatedly patted down by uniformed females and walk through metal detectors to enter historical or religious sites.

My titanium thigh bone and hip set off the alarms, but no one mentions it or stops me. Just as the guards assigned to search packages at the entrances to the modern Delhi metro—a prime target for home-grown insurgents, seldom stir from their tables to hinder the flow of passengers, all carrying something.

That’s because these are wars run South Asia style.

And there’s enough of them. Impossible to go anywhere without seeing the impact. Insurgencies are rife, every country having at least one. Pakistan fights in Kashmir and in the Tribal areas. Bangladesh has its incessant bombings and strikes. India conducts six or seven wars within its various states—nevermind the conflict with Pakistan.

“Once the U.N. comes we will have peace.” Those were sentiments I heard repeated in Nepal, over and over, almost as a mantra. Which, while we were there, didn’t stop the Maoists from calling a general strike, sending armed insurgents flooding out of the camps, and threatening a resumption of violence.

In Sri Lanka the Norwegians came in the nineties, persuaded the Tamils to coexist with the Sinhalese (and/or vice versa) and both of these ethnic groups to put up with the minority Muslims. That put a temporary lid on the decade-long spree of bombings and killings in the name of ethnicism or nationalism or Marxism … didn’t really matter what –ism.

But hostilities have resumed. While the people of Nepal are coming out of a ten-year cycle of hostilities, the Sri Lankans are headed back in. At least they’ve had their refreshing period of stability and economic growth. Too bad you can’t say the same for most of the rest of South Asia.

“It’s bad for business, ma’am,” a hotel manager tells me.

“Too bad you don’t run the country,” I reply and head for the beach. The likelihood of encountering a bomb-lobbing beach boy is slim, and I feel capable of handling anything else.

Death Customs

Today a bandh (general strike) has us trapped in our hotel. Yesterday we watched a woman die.

She lay below us and across the narrow, polluted Bagmati River on a rock-paved ramp, her feet partially submerged in the holy water. Family members were grouped at the top of the bank and stood on stairs flanking the ramp.

Imagine how it was. The same stairs continue along the river in both directions. On one side they disappear into a gorge that borders the temple compound, on the other, they pass under a bridge and continue along under ghats or funeral platforms that are lined up on top of the bank. Three of the ghats burn, the wood on them five tiers high, the scent of the smoke strong in the air. It drifts in white clouds toward the great dome of the Pashupatinath Temple with its golden trident, spreading to encompass dozens of lesser domes and smaller, but equally gold, tridents.

A chanting family fills the big temple’s second-story terrace, thirty or forty feet above the woman and directly across from us. At irregular intervals temple bells ring, summoning the gods. The woman doesn’t stir … appears completely lifeless.

As for us, we’re on another terrace, one with concrete railings and benches. It’s overhung with trees and backed by a high-fenced nature preserve where a little spotted deer just jumped in alarm, spooked by a pack of monkeys. A street lined with weathered, domed shrines runs to one side of our terrace and hermits’ caves and small huts can be seen on the steep slopes of the gorge. Women in long cotton skirts and sweaters sweep their stick-brooms toward us. A dozen or more men occupy the benches, watching.

Mitra, my guide, has already explained the funeral processes and customs and has turned to tutoring me in Nepalese political realities.
The dying woman may be dead. A figure in a red sari comes down to kneel beside her, pushing the men aside.

“Peace,” Mitra tells me. “It is like a dream of prosperity. We are all waiting for peace.” He doesn’t look at me as he speaks but stares down from the parapet.

“After the massacre, we were very happy.” He refers to the 2001 shooting of the royal family by the Crown Prince. “Many corrupt people were dead. We thought the new king would be strong and good. But only result was new corrupt people. Nothing changes. This is why when there is call for julu, we come. You understand? Great mass of people come together to make demonstration … hundreds and thousands … to make change.”
I remember his words the next day. Not only have the Maoists called for a general strike, the first since the king was deposed last May, but they have summoned the people to yet another julu—a mass meeting. Our hotel is largely unaffected, occupying an expansive, walled compound at a distance of some thirty minutes from central Kathmandu. Here we have a shopping arcade, street vendors and local shops, a casino, restaurants, facilities ranging from a watchmaker to a garage, and, of course, the hotel. Those who don’t live on the premises came to work early today, before the bandh. Many of them … those that can … will leave in time to attend the julu.

Big blue government busses arrive just before ten, a long convoy of them. Their doors wheeze open and armed policemen jump to the ground. This is airport transport for hotel guests. Everyone flying out today must depart now since the taxi drivers have joined the strike and Maoist roadblocks bar the way to the airport. Rickshaw drivers—the poorest of the poor—are exempt from the bandh, of course, but we are too far from the city center for them. So, hotel guests with airline reservations load into the busses. No one questions the wisdom of sending police escorts to usher foreigners through Maoist-controlled roadblocks or to face students who, we hear, who have already begun setting fires to piles of tires at intersections.

Two of the busses fill with Thai Buddhist monks in their bright orange cotton robes, worn here against the chill of Nepal over sweaters and topped with knit caps. They have been on a pilgrimage, staying in a five star Crowne Plaza hotel. Monks? What’s wrong with this picture? For that matter, what’s wrong with the rest of the picture?

But back to the terrace … yesterday … a new procession has arrived, this one carrying a body on a mat. With care, the mourners place him on a flower-strewn stair just below the top of the bank, and two people stay to do something. I can’t see what. Mithra says, “In two hours from dead, whether in hospital or house, the body must come here.”

Speed is an imperative. The faster you get rid of your early remains, the Hindus believe, the longer it takes for the elements to reconstitute and for your next reincarnation to begin. Or so Mithra says—my guru on death customs.

People have gathered around us, and I realize that we’re standing in the only place on this side of the river that provides a clear view of the dying woman. “Are these relatives?” I ask.

“No. They just watch. A person who dies here in the Bagmati may go straight to the top,” Mitra says. He means that the person breaks the reincarnation cycle and achieves Nirvana. Timing is everything, which is the purpose of a two-story white house just above and behind the ramp. There, if you have enough money to pay for the service, you can wait for death in the care of a person whose job it is to forecast that death within minutes.

Do people revive on the ramp?

“Of course,” Mitra says. “It can happen.”

Death more than revival, however, seems close and imminent in Nepal, particularly as the blue and white busses pull away from the Crowne Plaza. A new friend stands next to me. “The Maoists have killed over 15,000 people,” he says. “But they are very popular, and the people do what they say. Which is why you must not go into the street today. Many people, you understand, do not read or write. They hear on radio of bandh. They are ignorant. If you go into the streets, these are poor people … you understand.”

His words make a certain amount of sense. The Maoists have come to power on the back of violence and with the support of the untouchable caste. One tall white woman, alone, might look like a reasonable target to such people.
Later, after a discussion of the current reason for a bandh, he says, “So. Will you go to the julu?”

I remember the woman, waiting to die. “I am not ready for the temple ghats,” I say.

He laughs.