As soon as I place my hand on Ratan’s shoulder I remember the first item on the Lonely Planet’s list of “Dos and Don’ts” for Nepal:
“Don’t place your hands on Nepalis’ shoulders, as it is a sign of disrespect.”
The first of many cultural taboos I will break during my ten months in Nepal, I’m sure.
Ratan is the driver for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), and has picked me up from the Kathmandu airport on this humid Saturday morning. He is, like most Nepalis I’ve seen so far, short and very smiley. He wears a British-style plaid cap and a bright yellow t-shirt with the IRC insignia.
My first moments in Kathmandu are vivid. Bold yellows, oranges and pinks jump out from women’s dresses and coffee shop signs and doorways; smells of sun-baked tarmac, musty cigars, ripe armpits and leaking diesel storm my nose; and the sound of incessant horns, mopeds with muffler problems, loud flute music from store-fronts and roosters crows clatter against my ear drums.
On the 20-minute drive from the airport to the IRC guesthouse (my new home) Ratan tells me that there’s a big strike today over rising fuel and transport costs. Public transport is grounded and in the center of town, students are burning tires and throwing rocks at government offices.
“That is why the streets are so empty,” he explains. Meanwhile I see mopeds, goats, cows, walkers and bikers weaving to avoid the potholes and each other. I try to imagine what it would be like with buses and taxis added. Yikes. Empty is relative.
I see a line of mopeds on the side of the road. It is at least 200 meters long.
Ratan motions to the line; “they are waiting for gas.” Today he says, the line is short – usually it is twice as long and people have to wait hours to fill up.
I ask him if the lines are new. “Oh no – not new at all,” he says, as he turns off the main road into a narrow alley lined with high walls. This puts America’s four dollar a gallon gas “crisis” in perspective – at least we don’t have to spend half a morning waiting to fill up our tanks. (Yet.)
In the alley, Ratan honks his horn at every turn to alert the oncoming walkers, goats, mopeds and bikers. Fifteen minutes and many honks later, we turn off the narrow alley onto an even narrower, ruddy path.
My new home.
Ratan insists on carrying my two elephant-sized packs into the house. I say “Namaste” and bow my head, relieved I've remembered to not shake his hand or put my hand on his shoulder.