[ Kathmandu, Nepal ]
T.I.N. This Is Nepal. It’s one of the first morsels of wisdom a veteran Nepali traveller will impart to a first-timers. Over the last two years, I’ve moved from the latter category solidly into the former, but forgetting this indispensible nugget still bites me occassionally. T.I.N.: Things take their own time; they work in ways unexpected or inexplicable to those accustomed to the increasingly genericized (and therefore predicable, reliable) ways of the developed world. People here deal with life in unique ways. You can’t change this (and shouldn’t want to), so RELAX, and build extra time into everything you do. That’s the lesson. And I had forgotten it.
Instead of booking my bus ticket well in advance, I woke up yesterday just in time to grab a coffee and a cab to the station. However…every single seat on every single bus was filled, occupied by folks delayed by the previous day’s, post-accident, six-hour road-blocking feud between the victims’ family and police. Pramod’s own trip to Kathmandu had taken thirteen hours (instead of the normal seven), as a result.
This Is Nepal.
And so it came to pass that I arrived in Kathmandu this afternoon, 24-hours later than expected, full of concern and overcome with a sense of lateness and urgency. Hopping into the first available taxi, I proceeded directly to Grande1 International Hospital. Entering its soothingly modern, glass-walled and marble-floored atrium, I locate—then proceed to pester—a lovely, unflappable woman at the reception area, who directs me to the ICU on the 10th floor. After an interminable ascent in the longest, narrowest elevator car I have ever encountered—stuffed far beyond the posted passenger load count, I exit into an equally long, narrow shoe box of a waiting area with a claustrophobically low ceiling. (Being John Malkovich leaps to mind: I’m on the 7-½th floor?)
Spread evenly throughout the room are perhaps forty-odd folks, all locals, sitting in industrial metal & plastic chairs reminiscent of every airport gate “lounge” you’ve ever passed through—bland, artless, utilitarian. The seats all face the same direction—towards the ICU entrance, with the elevator door ahead and to their collective right—perfectly framing the exodus, and subsequent self-conscious fidgeting, of a certain far-too-tall-for-the-room white guy. Forty-odd mouths halt their conversational susurration in unison, fixating eighty-odd eyeballs upon me in sudden, complete silence. It’s as though I possess three heads, one of which I employ to scan the room for Punya or his eldest brother.
[At this point, apropos nothing, I could tell you a funny aside about my taxi ride to the hospital with a driver who—unlike me and my three figurative heads—had six literal fingers on his right hand. (The sixth being an extra right thumb.) Six fingers on his right hand. With that in mind, can you imagine the difficulty in which I found myself when this gregarious and helpful cabbie politely inquired after my name? There was a long silence. I took a deep breath, screaming “DON’T SAY IT!!!” to myself over and over and over again. I open my mouth, and hear myself say aloud “Hello. My name is…” (DON’T SAY IT, JIM! DON’T!!!) “…Jim. What’s yours?” Whew. Close call. Though common decency prevailed, perhaps you can imagine the number of times I mumbled that other name to myself, under my breath, during our subsequent 30-minute ride together. Many times, I assure you.]
When I spot them, they are sitting against the back wall of the room, Punya gesturing me over. I cross the room to stand face to face with four of Aamaa’s five sons and her two daughters. All of her children except Pramod, who had returned to Pokhara on the morning bus. As it turns out, with the exception of a couple of medical professionals, every person in the room is from the Shrestha clan—aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews and cousins and grandchildren and great-grandchildren—and all of them apparently know about the gora (“gringo”) who has been living in the Matriarch’s home in the family village.
If I’ve not said it before, Nepalis are not shy about staring. Eighty-odd eyeballs are directed at me—and only at me—as I try to greet these two people I know in what I hope they will recognize as my much-improved Nepali.
If there’s a more sure-fire guarantee of sudden-onset, short-term linguistic amnesia than eighty-odd ears on forty-odd strangers’ heads atuned exclusively to every syllable of one’s utterance, I can’t imagine what it might be. I stammer. I blush. I “er” and “um”and “eh” my way though how and when I arrived, and how long I hoped to stay; I awkwardly inquire into the ICU visiting hours and ineptly decipher the answers. After an excrutiatingly long time, the youngest brother—who lives in Kathmandu, and whom I had never met—takes mercy on me (or, more likely, on my auditors) and switches to English; my relief is so palpable that some of the family (ladies, mostly) openly chuckle.
Despite my protests, the entire family insists that I be moved to the front of the line, and within 15 minutes of my arrival I am gowned, slippered, disinfected, and led into the ICU itself. Room 08. And with that I am standing in her presence, looking upon the indomitable Ganesh Kumari Shrestha, resting peacefully and looking well despite the usual tubes and wires. She opens her eyes, raises her head and meets my eyes—I’m standing ten feet away in the doorway—which brings to her face a brief look of confusion, then excitement, and then mild agitation as she starts gesturing to me in a way I can’t decipher. She grows increasingly restless, so a nurse wanders over and asks who I am, seemingly ready to escort me out. I tell her. Instead of chasing me away, she lets me stand close enough to hold Aamaa’s hand for a moment until she calms down, and helps translate my best wishes and assurances that I will be here a couple of days and will visit her again and again as soon as they move her to her own room. Hopefully this will be tomorrow. She can’t speak louder than a whisper (which I can scarcely understand, anyway), and I feel I should leave quickly in order to let others have their turn. As I leave, she keeps waving at me, and smiling, and nodding while holding her hands together in the gesture that means “namaste,” and generally making me feel warm and happy and relieved and on the verge of sobbing like a baby. (Which, to be honest, I later did in the public toilet.)
The technical details are these (still incomplete, but the nurse filled me in a bit before I gave up the gown and slippers and left the ICU): THERE IS NO BROKEN BACK! No broken femurs either. She broke both hips and one tib-fib and has numerous contusions and lacerations, but NO BROKEN BACK! The only thing they’re worried about right now is post-operative fluid in her lungs, which they’re having trouble getting rid of. Once they get that under control, she’ll move to a private room for an unknown period of time.
And that’s all I’ve got the energy to share for now. It’s been an exhausting couple of days, but worth it. Aamaa’s on the mend. More details to follow as I have ‘em.
1) Despite the odd oh-so-spanish choice of transliterated spelling, the original is ग्रान्दी and it’s pronounced “Grahndee.”