I’d never seen Kathmandu so quiet.
I didn’t notice it at first. I was too busy wedging myself into the tiny taxi’s front seat, my knees hard against the dashboard, my neck craned forward to stop my head banging against the roof. And of course, there was the inevitable (and inevitably futile) attempt to get the seatbelt working.
But when I started watching the streets zoom past, it occurred to me that something was very different tonight. Where was the rest of the traffic? Where were all the people? Why were we zooming not crawling?
Even the taxi driver seemed confused. Without a stream of other taxis and mopeds to follow, he hit several potholes, had to swerve to avoid a dog wandering across a deserted junction and even drove on the wrong side of the dual carriageway for part of the journey. Or maybe he was just unused to being able to drive at over 20 miles an hour. I rather doubt he had ever reached such dizzying speeds before.
Whatever the cause, neither he nor his car seemed at ease. The engine rattled disquietingly and, as we progressed, he pulled his coat up over his mouth and his hat low, as if doing so would prevent his vehicle attracting attention.
As we drove the 20 minutes to the tourist district of Thamel, the only other residents of Kathmandu we saw were worried-looking older men hurrying for the shelter of home or small knots of younger men apparently come out to wonder at the emptiness.
Plus many, many groups of lathi or assault rifle wielding policemen in combat fatigues or even riot gear.
It’s election day tomorrow – the first in five years – and here in Nepal, there’s none of the ennui associated with elections back home.
Over the last few weeks we’ve seen rallies, marches and demonstrations everywhere we’ve been. Some were just small but most were thronged with enthusiastic supporters. Even in the mountains, where we’d hoped to sit (or rather walk) this time out, there were leaflets scattered on the paths and posters glued to the walls of every village.
The gatherings have all been peaceful so far (if generally noisy – Nepalese PAs all seem to be bought from the same supplier Metallica uses) but there are apparently threats of violence, especially from the communists if things don’t go their way*.
We’re safe here in the hospital, of course, but the staff have warned us that everything will close tomorrow and transport will be impossible, and the day after we hopefully leave the city.
So why did I brave the streets on the verge of a nationwide riot?
To collect our laundry, of course. Political instability or no, you have to have clean pants.
* (I won’t pretend I understand the political situation. There seem to be a dizzying number of political parties, and each group brandishes a different prominent symbol.
I can recognize the communists (with hammer and sickle, of course) but other major groups carry pictures of cows, suns, flaming brands or umbrellas (for this last group it’s apparently acceptable to just carry actual umbrellas instead of an umbrellas banner… or in some cases to just wear an 80s-style umbrella hat – a cunning plan our own parties could learn from; whenever rain threatened, anyone who didn’t support you would have to either carry your emblem around or get wet. Win-win.).
I even saw one rally where they flags showed something remarkably close to the the Conservative Party’s oak tree symbol. Do they have a Nepalese wing?)