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Lights Out in Kathmandu

by Diana McLeod

It is late in the evening in Kathmandu, and I am heading back to my hotel. I am enjoying the walk. The little street is quiet at this hour. Many of the shops are closed for the day, and there are few pedestrians about. I like this twilight time, when my white skin doesn'’t show as much, and I can blend in with the locals in the shadows. I feel like less of an intruder in this culture, and more like I belong here. This is a neighborhood that I know well, and it has grown on me. I pass the little pharmacy where the young druggist (who barely looks like a teenager) has cured my ailments for years. He is very knowledgeable. There is a the barber who always sets up his outdoor shop under the big tree in the chowk (street intersection). He is busy cutting hair tonight. I wonder how he can see to cut straight in the gathering gloom.

At the corner, the ever-present group of bicycle rickshaws are ready to hire out. The drivers call out softly to me, "“Rickshaw Madam? Very cheap!"”

Suddenly, the power cuts out, and the street is plunged into darkness. I am surprised by the blackout. I thought we had another hour before they cut the juice. Kathmandu has been plagued by drought, so there is not enough water in the big dam to provide all the power for the growing city. Rolling blackouts are the order of the day. My life is timed around the blackouts. I cannot work when the power goes out, so I even plan my meals around them. In the evening, when I really need to work anyway, I go to a restaurant rich enough to have its own generator, and I work while I eat.

In another city, the darkness would be frightening. In Kathmandu, it’s not so bad. There is no street crime to speak of, despite real poverty. People believe in Karmic retribution for sins. Anyone who steals will be reborn into a life that is even more full of suffering! The only way to escape this fate is to stoically bear whatever fate hands to you in this life, and hope for the best in the next one.

On the street, people are gingerly picking their way along, trying to avoid each other. Pedestrians are just black outlines, now that it has become fully dark. Huge potholes and construction ditches on one side of the street suddenly become very dangerous. A bicycle rickshaw weaves past me in the dark, just missing me. How can he possibly see where he is going?

In the buildings along the road, candles and oil lamps are being lit everywhere. In the fancy shops in the tourist district, they are lighting Coleman lanterns and revving up gas generators. Here in the neighborhood, it'’s candles only, because they are cheaper. The glow of candlelight gradually transforms the darkened street. Suddenly Kathmandu looks as it did five hundred, or even a thousand years ago. The ancient little shops, the pedestrian shoppers, the utter quiet of a street with little motorized traffic, The little shrine on the corner where some evening worshipers are quietly chanting their prayers; all are primeval and pristine. The candlelight instantly transports me backwards in time to another, simpler world.

The locals curse their poor country with its pathetically small power grid. How can they climb onto the twenty-first century bandwagon of globalization, when their country hasn'’t even achieved the basic modernization of electricity on demand? I must confess, I am frustrated too, as I try to access the Internet by means of car batteries linked together at my Internet center. But how can I express to the local people how precious these moments are, here on the streets, in the glow of simple candles? How can I describe to them how beautiful it is here, by candlelight, when their eyes are strained each and every day? They curse the dark, and look forward to being just like us. Don'’t they understand the cold, impersonal nature of the modern Western city, with its 24-hour pulsing, mechanical heart of neon, cold, florescent tubes, steel, glass and concrete? But these people haven'’t experienced it, so they crave it, like a child who has been denied sweets. It is an ironic thing. I resolve to enjoy the moment, and savor it for them.

It is dark in the alley to my hotel. The hotel has candles lighting up the stairwell, and it is charming as well as practical. I climb several flights of stairs to my room, and I almost go inside. But something tells me to keep going. I have switched to a new guest house, and I know that this one has a rooftop garden. I have never been up there. On an impulse, I resolve to go. I want to see the city by candlelight! The whole power grid is dark, but the moon is rising. It should be perfect!

I am excited, now. I race up the last three flights. Out of breath, I come out onto the rooftop garden, which covers about half of the roof. There is no artificial light up here. I can barely see the potted plants on the balcony ledge. I get out my trusty flashlight, (NEVER leave home without one in this town!) and I climb the stairs to the next level. Up here, the solar collectors gleam in the starlight. Hotel laundry clotheslines share the space with prayer flags. (This hotel is run by devout Buddhists) There is a little staircase that goes up to the final level. At the very top is a small enclosed balcony, offering a vista in all directions. The views from here are well worth sharing!

THE EAST - In the East, the moon is rising, and the clouds have parted to reveal the stars! I can see into the windows of the next building, two stories below. A young lady brings a candle to the windowsill. She drips wax, and secures it onto the concrete frame. Her face is gently framed by the soft silk of her dupatta. She pauses, and spends a moment looking out into the darkness. With the candlelight warming her face, she reminds me of a Renaissance portrait of the Madonna.

THE SOUTH - I can see the heart of the city from here. The lights are out, all the way to Durbar Square! Only candles and starlight illuminate the city. I am enchanted by the softness of the city under the stars, without the ugly orange glare of sodium streetlights to ruin the natural lighting.

THE WEST - In the West are the Himalayan foothills that surround the city. One of these is crowned by the ancient temple of Soyambodnath. The power is on, in that section of town, so the towers of the temple and the dome of the Stupa stand out as if the Gods themselves were blessing it. The painted eyes of the Buddha are looking directly at me, since they look out in all directions. I cannot make them out from this distance, but I know they are there, so I feel pierced by their gaze.

As I look out, the dogs of Kathmandu begin their nightly chorus. The barking begins in one section of town, and gradually moves to another. A second group takes up the complaint, and answers with a series of howls. For a minute, all is quiet, then one new dog begins, and it starts over again The dogs have their own power-grids, and they have “rolling bark-outs” that move back and forth around the city. I wonder: is this only aggression, or are they talking to each other? Are they competing, or forming pack alliances? Do they remember their wolfish roots on some level? Dave and I always used to joke that the city was mis-named. It should be “Dog-mandu”.

THE NORTH - I have saved the best for last. On this side, I can catch a rare glimpse of the real Himalayan peaks. It is not easy to see them here in the city. The air pollution is much better than it used to be, but the smog and the mountain mists usually obscure the view. Tonight, I am lucky. Behind the foothills, I can see the snowy peaks of the Langtang range, glistening in the moonlight. I am very lucky!

Lights out!

Thanks for reading, Diana

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