Finding the way in Nepal

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The taxi driver runs like Groucho Marx - knees bent, low to the ground, with a little grin on his face. We are lost in the bustling Baneshwar area of ancient Kathmandu, trying to find a social agency. The driver stops, apologizes, and runs off to find someone to explain the directions again before driving on.

In the polluted, honking chaos of Kathmandu traffic, it occurs to me on my fourth day here that it may be somewhat of an axiom that third world cities edging toward modernity can appear to be too eager to change. Western influences, like slick advertising lingo, baseball caps, and T-shirts with slogans can be masks over ancient customs and values.

Or maybe it is just Kathmandu, this legendary city of the hippy and hashish invasion of the '60s. With a population of 1 million-plus, it has become the cutting edge of Nepal's experiment with "individual" rights, a sea change from centuries of being "subjects" of the king. Nepal's Constitution is a mere child of 9, with a squabbling, ineffective, corrupt parliament unable so far to deliver much of democracy's promise.

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With rising expectations, young Nepalese men and women, fleeing the poverty of mountain villages, want to taste Kathmandu's burgeoning urban life. Most often this means menial jobs, no jobs, or hard labor in a carpet factory.

It can also mean daily life dotted with inventive logic, like the downtown policeman who finishes smoking a cigarette, then puts a protective mask over his mouth presumably to ward off the city's horrific air pollution flowing from brick factories, old buses, and thousands of diesel-burning taxis.

Or the workmen I watched in the touristy Thamel district replacing wooden steps with cement steps leading up to a patio. From start to finish, by Western standards, every move was counterproductive, a mini-version of their parliament. All four men worked diligently in a tight area, but continually bumped into each other.

My taxi driver doesn't have much help getting around, either. Without a single number on a house or building anywhere in the city, directions are given to "areas." Only a few major roads have names, and landmarks such as shrines are the best clues. The driver slams on the brakes, jumps out, runs to a cluster of shops beyond a trio of lolling cows - sacred Hindu beasts that roam freely past the storefronts of Western-style nightclubs and CD stores. No answer.

Next stop, a side-street dry-goods shop. A portly Peter Ustinov-type takes the paper from my hands, reads the directions, and with all the assurance of Hannibal sending elephants over the Alps, he pinpoints the wrong office. Finally, a man in a gas station knows: Down a gravel road, and it's the stucco and stone building. Eureka.

I tell this story to Mike Rechlin, a forestry expert from the US who first came here 30 years ago. We are walking at night around the city.

"Just think of it," he says with enthusiasm. "Not a street number or sign anywhere, and the city still works."

As a journalist, I challenge him a little, suggesting that real democratic development here is constrained by ancient religious and social customs like the caste system, arranged marriages, and sons favored over daughters. Underlying all this is a prevailing fatalism, the belief that whatever happens - good or bad - is simply God's will. To work hard at change is to resist fate.

"All true," says Mr. Rechlin, "but this is their country and democracy, not ours."

Several nights later he leads us away from the tourist mecca of the Thamel area into Asan Tole, an old, vibrant market area filled with tiny spice shops, vegetable vendors, bead and clothing shops, rice sellers, stationery stores, carpet and silk merchants, and bicycle repair shops. Children of the shop owners play in the streets, and there is more of a family atmosphere.

On this balmy night one of the temples has an elaborate wedding under way. Hundreds of guests are seated around the temple on mats, eating dal bhat, a traditional rice and lentil meal. The women are beautiful in ochre, red, and yellow saris. Many of the men wear suits and ties. Children are everywhere.

It's wonderful to see the ease with which they gather in energetic celebration. Perhaps from this deep Nepalese warmth and civility the seeds of democracy will find moisture, and with growth protect the country from fumbling political leaders. It may trickle up, a kind of cultural counterbalance to strained eagerness. But the point - either realized in a taxi or at a wedding - is that a fledgling democracy may be its own best friend. Having tasted freedom, and eventually uncovering responsive leaders, it doesn't know what it can't do.

*David Holmstrom is a Monitor staff writer.

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