Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Incredibly Close: Observations of Proximity in KTM

One aspect of living here in KTM (as I’ve come to call Kathmandu) is the apparent closeness of just about everything. Sure, we can think about it in the sense that I’ve already written about, the sacred and profane/mundane being quite close or even intertwined, but beyond that, there is the physical closeness of bodies, buildings, and vehicles
During those busy times at the stupa when a lot of people are doing kora, nobody seems to be miffed that walking on the inner pathway means people are packed together, and people still seem to manage to go their own pace with the faster folks darting in between others when a small space comes into existence.
Then one dares to step into a vehicle of sorts. Getting onto a bus, micro, or tuktuk almost guarantees a physical closeness with others that is much, much tighter than the crowd doing kora. But even getting into a taxi or riding a motorcycle means you’re about to become part of a tightly packed puzzle moving in all directions. Beyond the fact that vehicles are supposed to travel on the left side of the road and that drivers should pay attention to the traffic police when they happen to be at an intersection directing traffic, there aren’t a lot of rules. (Or if there are, they aren’t enforced or followed.) Part of the craziness that occurs in vehicles has to do with narrow roadways, in the sense that sometimes two cars coming from opposite directions are wider than the road. There isn’t really a middle line, so the number of lanes of traffic going in either direction at a given time is a little blurry. Even on the big Ring Road where the highway is wide, the space is usually packed so if one wants to turn into the moving traffic or shift lanes, there has to be a certain level of assertiveness (or I suppose aggressiveness, but assertiveness explains it better) on the part of the driver. One time when we were on a bus coming back from Patan, an assertive tuktuk driver decided he needed to get around the car in front of him so he eased in between us and the car and for a minute or so was about 1 ½ inches from our bus. Amazingly, after awhile this closeness of moving vehicles no longer is alarming. Sure, the first time our taxi driver pulled a u-turn in wall to wall traffic or the first couple times we met buses coming around corners on winding mountain roads was alarming, but soon it ceases to be a novelty or a cause of increased blood pressure.
So I’ve told you a bit about people, and I’ve told you a bit about vehicles. What about vehicles and people? The best way to describe crossing the street is Frogger. Did you ever play that game on the computer when you were a kid? In Frogger, your arrow keys control a frog that you have to move through traffic to the other side of the road, sometimes having to pause in the middle of the road or back track before moving ahead again. Now that I’ve described Frogger to you, I no longer have to describe crossing the street here, because it’s just like Frogger. Except that maybe you aren’t a frog.
One of my favorite examples of vehicles and people is when we were in Patan learning about water systems and resource management. We had split off from one of the main roads and were walking down a fairly narrow road. It was easy enough for us to just step to one side for passing motorcycles, but then along came a truck. It wasn’t even that big of a truck in comparison to the hulking chunks of metal you see flying down highways in the U.S., but in comparison to the width of the road…
The photograph accompanying this post is during that situation. Some Nepali guys who had been walking on the street were squished up against the wall on the other side, the truck took up the middle, and our group was lined up against the wall on the other side. Maybe the nice balance to the close proximity of objects is that they aren’t moving incredibly quickly…
Shifting into a more philosophical mode, the location of things in the streets makes me see certain processes as being more proximate as well. Imagine a goat tied up to a light post, and maybe chicken pecking around nearby. Look up from the goat and the chicken and there’s a butcher, displaying his or her wares, namely chicken carcasses and chunks of goat. Sometimes a leg or head is hanging out on the table as well. Now, walk down the street a shop or two and you might be able to find some fried meat on a stick or be able to pop into a restaurant for meat-filled momos. Some students seem put-off or disgusted by seeing life and death and consumption so near to each other. I’m actually not bothered by it at all (maybe the myriad times I got in the car in the garage and turned the headlights on, only to find a deer carcass hanging in front of the car desensitized me?), but this juxtaposition and perhaps other students’ reactions to it makes me marvel at the way meat seems to be treated in the U.S. Not only are live animals and saleable meat products not physically close, but also the products that are sold in stores typically don’t immediately point to what was once a living animal (i.e. legs and heads). Heck, most of the meat is deboned already, further disguising it from its previous life form. Further we have terms that distance the consumable object from the living animal: instead of pig we eat pork (which is of course further classified), instead of lamb we eat mutton, instead of baby cows we eat veal, instead of deer we eat venison. We also don’t tend to look at the kind of animals we are eating as we eat. A lot of times we we’re served meat here, we have to be aware of many little bones, because a whole chicken will be used or a piece of mutton might have skin and hair still on it. Watching people’s reactions has brought to light an American perception of what edible meat is or should be like. (Is it weird that bones and hair don’t bother me at all? :-/)

Interestingly, there is one thing that has stood out to be as being not “incredibly close,” but rather being entirely separate. Whereas the consumption of meat may occur right next to the original source—the goat—or the raw product—the carcass on the table, the production of metalwork for the shops around the stupas—objects that are seemingly tourist trinkets and/or objects for ritual—isn’t occurring next to the shops that sell those items. Rather, on my walk from the program house to my homestay house I pass many one-room operations where 2-5 people will be sitting marking metal rings and dishes with painstaking patterns or softening and shaping a piece of metal over a flame. There could certainly be a practical reason for this separation—primarily that it seems everything into those rooms of construction is smudged with soot, whereas final products need to be clean. Or maybe it’s an authenticity thing when it comes to selling things to tourists. Tourists want old things, things with histories. The items can be made to look antique-ish, but that façade would disintegrate if tourists saw the items being made right in front of them. The Authenticity Points of an object might further fall if tourists discovered it was not Tibetans but Newaris or some other less-famous ethnic group making them…In any case, I find it very interesting that while many things that are part of local people’s everyday production, consumption, and action are incredibly close, the products made for sale around the stupa are generally not physically close processes of construction.

Maybe the space and people around me wouldn’t feel so “close” if I had grown up in an urban area in the U.S.? (Ask me about my Pancake Placement Theory if you are curious about proxemics in the United States. I maintain that one’s childhood setting can be deduced from way one cooks pancakes on a large grill. :P) Any New Yorkers out there want to describe what kind of space bubbles people have in the city? I kind of like having to rethink space and adopt new habits to operate in that space.

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