Sunday, July 20, 2008

Political Fragility and Chocolate Milkshakes

This weekend revitalized me. Highlights included a yoga class taught by a giggly British woman, a double-thick chocolate milkshake, and my first Nepali language class.

Saturday night was also a highlight. My roommates and I went to Thamel, the nightcluby/expaty/cover bandy/knick-knacky part of town where you can get a good salad and expensive beer. I’d avoided it until now. But Saturday was indulgent and fun. We saw a cover band that played all sorts of awful 80s music (including “Play that Funky Music White Boy” and “It’s Raining Men”). I bobbed my head a bunch, laughed and drank a couple of "Everest" brand beers. I want to write about the taxi ride home from that night. I’ve been thinking about it.

* * *

It is raining, a downpour in Thamel. After a night of giggles and screaming to hear ourselves over the tinny live music, Jenny, Tienle and I make a run for the corner where taxis wait down the street.

Screaming over the pounding rain, Jenny lowers her head to the first taxi driver in the line: “250 rupees to Sanepa?” This was 50 rupees more than we’d paid two weeks ago for the same distance. The fuel shortage and rising prices continues to push taxi prices up.

The driver shakes his head, says he’ll do it for 400. As we walk away, he calls out to us, “OK, 300, get in.” I am relieved to put my soggy body somewhere dry.

The driver is young and chatty and I’m in the mood to engage. He’s from Western Nepal but came to Kathmandu four years ago for work. Kathmandu is bad, he says, hard work. Taxi business has been especially tough recently because of the fuel prices.

We pass a line of parked cars – the petrol line, easily 400 meters long. He nods to it, says he will wait in the line tomorrow. How long will you wait? I ask. If he is lucky, a day. But more likely he’ll have to wait two. I see shadows of heads in the cars lined up, leaning on their car seats for sleep.

He shakes his head, sighs. “Things were better under the king,” he says. He goes on to explain that when Nepal had a king, gas prices were stable.

This is the first time I have heard someone attribute the recent fuel crisis to Nepal’s political changes. But I have heard increasing grumbles about the new government’s capacity – and will – to affect change.

In April, Nepalis voted in a historic election to disband their 200-plus year old monarchy and elected a Maoist majority to lead the new government. After the elections, the mood was hopeful, jubilant. The Maoists Party won a legitimate majority on a campaign to uplift Nepal’s disadvantaged and marginalized.

But now, three months later, the government is still “sorting itself out." Each of the main parties in the new coalition government - the Maoists as well as the National Assembly and Communist Party Nepal-UML (more old-boy, status quo parties) - claim they should hold the posts of President and Prime Minister. None will budge. Everyday the newspaper headlines reflect the political stalemate: “Maoists threaten to back out of government talks;” “Dozens hurt in Maoist-NC Clash;” “No Consensus Yet.”

While this happens, people are becoming impatient. Most political talk I hear these days – in the office, at the vegetable stand, in taxis - involves grumbling, frustration. Why cant the government act as adults? Will the losers ever accept defeat and bow down?

If the new government takes much longer squabbling over who gets what seat, more and more people will come to the conclusion of our taxi driver – that life was better under the king.

No comments: