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David Guterson

Politics

The strike began.  He went to the lobby with the intention of arranging a taxi to Patan Hospital, but none, said the concierge, were available. Literally, none. So thoroughly unavailable that, if you wanted to leave the country, you had to walk to the airport. And, in fact, a lot of people were doing that, with hired porters carrying their luggage. Nepal was shut down—no banks, shops, cars, trucks, no goods coming in or out of Kathmandu, nothing happening, nothing moving. “How long is this going to last?” he asked the concierge. “I have somewhere I have to go this morning.” But the concierge just shrugged and smoothed his eyebrows. “Outside is not good,” he warned.

He took matters into his own hands. His ex-wife, a journalist — technically she was still his wife because they hadn’t signed divorce papers yet — had been traveling in the remote east when the car she was a passenger in veered into a bus, killing 3 people and injuring 16, and now she had twenty screws in her pelvis. Her spleen had been removed, but there was concern about tetanus. Erring on the side of caution, he was going to have her transferred to a Level One Trauma Center in Delhi, and that was why he had to get to Patan this morning. Strike or no strike, he was headed there to fill out paperwork and start things moving. In other words, unlike a lot of the Hyatt Regency’s guests, he wasn’t in Nepal for a trek in the mountains, a rhododendron tour, or a bird watching expedition — but there was no point in telling the concierge this. So instead he found the “business center” — three battered Dells around a corner from the reception desk — and Google-mapped the shortest walking route to Patan. Seven-point-eight kilometers — five miles. Two hours at most. With a bottle of water, a hat, and sunscreen, walking would be his answer to this strike. He printed out the map, got his water, hat, and sunscreen from his room, returned to the lobby with these things in hand, and, waving at the concierge, left.

His map, he soon found, was misleading. He wanted, first, to get to the Ring Road — a straight shot, according to Google — but in truth the indicated route, beyond the immediate pale of his hotel, was a maze of muddy alleys full of flies, dog shit, mangy curs, garbage, and — most immediate of all — poor people. The area was called Boudhanath, and according to his guidebook it was full of Buddhist monasteries. Sure enough, he saw monks walking around. The big point of interest in Boudhanath was its gargantuan stupa, which, according to the guidebook, contained relics of the Buddha. That explained the many shops — right now, all with metal roll-doors down — under signs indicating that they sold things for tourists, like Buddha figurines, prayer rugs, prayer flags, incense, postcards, and thangka paintings. At the moment, though, they sold nothing, because of the strike. Instead of selling goods and wares, the merchants were sitting around, and so was everybody else, except for a few kids playing cricket in the street because — for once, he realized — there were no cars and trucks to stop them, except that on occasion someone blasted through on a motorcycle, taking, he supposed, a political chance. Young guys, reckless and cavalier, always with a passenger, sometimes two. As soon as they passed, things fell quiet again. It was a hot morning in early May — dogs asleep in the shade, garbage reeking. And beggars everywhere. Some were lame and sickly, immobile and imploring, but most were urchins who trotted along next to him trying to look and sound more pathetic than they were. Not that they weren’t pathetic. Half-naked, unwashed, they naturally and inevitably plucked at your heartstrings. But still, he wished they wouldn’t tap his hip eight thousand times in a row while saying “Sir, sir, money, money,” or otherwise, in their half-intelligible ways, pleading their insistent cases. He didn’t think of himself as uncharitable or unkind, but this — this insistence — this was too much. Not the proper context for giving, not the right way, too many unknowns, too invasive, too ambiguous. He decided to pretend these child-beggars didn’t exist, that he didn’t hear or see them, but that was even more infuriating, because it embroiled him, now, in self-examination, and in pondering the conclusion he was rapidly coming to — that you couldn’t win in a case like this. That no matter what you did, you were wrong.

Beset this way, he came to the Ring Road. The Maoists had taken control of it, he could see, by clogging the intersection. In red shirts and bandannas they milled with restless zeal, listening to a speaker exhort them through a bullhorn. Except for a few motorcycles, some oxcarts, bicyclists, water trucks, and a couple of ambulances, the Ring Road was, for the moment, pedestrians only.  In a way, that was lucky; he wouldn’t have to dodge cars. Trying to look full of confidence, bold, he crossed the Ring Road and pressed on toward the hospital. Now his way felt clear and unimpeded. He’d left the tourist zone of Boudhanath behind, which meant fewer beggars, con men, and touts. Once, he saw an air conditioned bus coming at him with a large sign on its windshield reading TOURIST ONLY, as if that was a talisman that could thwart tossed rocks. As far as he could tell, the sign was working. The bus seemed to have carte blanche despite the strike. But then he saw that, behind the bus, there were two Jeeps full of soldiers in blue camo fatigues. They had weapons in their hands and slung across their shoulders. On he walked, with sweaty duress, bulling past the frowns of red-shirted teen-agers, some of whom brandished long, thick staves. Troops had taken up positions. Some kept watch behind sandbagged outposts, while others stood or crouched in the shade, or bounced past in fast-moving, canopied carriers. Well, it wasn’t his business, whatever was going on. None of this had to do with him. But then he came to what his map called a river — mud, plastic bags, garbage, shit — and the road he was on became a bridge blocked by Maoists. Fortunately they were letting pedestrians cross, except that, when he tried to cross, a caramel-skinned and gaunt, tense teen put a hand on his chest to check his progress. They stood like that, facing each other, the Maoist with his imposing stave, he with his sunscreen, water bottle, and hat. While other pedestrians passed in droves, the reality of his circumstances gradually became clear to him: he had to go back, he couldn’t cross.

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