Riders on the Storm

Riders on the Storm

For any new comer, Kathmandu's vast streets are a maze of the new and old alleyways with multitudes of astonishingly vibrant populace, where in the evening you can easily find your

For any new comer, Kathmandu’s vast streets are a maze of the new and old alleyways with multitudes of astonishingly vibrant populace, where in the evening you can easily find yourself in a labyrinthine course swarming with motorcycles, cars and careless pedestrians.

And among all of these, the sight of a Safa Tempo, comforting as it is, invariably makes numerous people who wait furiously at stops to get home after a day’s work find a strange sense of relief and comfort. The Safa Tempo is like a theatrical meeting of metal and engineering, an envelope of steel devoid of any sense of beauty to the aesthetic eye. For many whose lives do not consist of privately arranged rides, being adept at understanding rigorously confusing route numbers of the Safa Tempo requires a talent not only to reach destinations on time but also to educate the perplexed few. It is because the intensity of traveling in pace has its horrifying prerequisites. But in many cases-the Safa Tempo becomes a magic carpet and the talented few play Aladdin best. The Tempo ride could be as much of a thrill as could be on a magic carpet if one could only reduce the ghosts of embarrassment and frustration to acquiescence throughout the ride. For one must understand that the Tempo does not represent poverty or failure. It represents the average, the hardworking, the dreamer and in many cases, Kathmandu itself. One could say that there is a good deal of optimism left over even when Kathmandu surges towards darkness; a problem which is by all means peculiar to the rest of the world. And no, it’s not a question of saving electricity during our days of “load shedding”, Safa Tempo is an electric rickshaw, into existence after its predecessor, the fossil fuel burning Vikram Tempo was outlawed in 1999. The word “Safa” itself means clean. There are about 650 Safa Tempos in the Kathmandu valley and most of us ride at least one of them everyday. This ride is like a realization of common problems. It is when the poverty of Nepal, the corruption of its rudimentary politics is momentarily put on hold to realize that Kathmandu is rapidly becoming smaller by an overpowering host of imported private vehicles, motorcycles and the rashness of the micro bus drivers. The entire world is confined to the hazards of traffic. But it is within a Safa Tempo that you also realize the preservation of the spark of life in ordinary circumstances. It is here that you can witness a host of colorful, essential local folks full of stories and expressions next to each other and within reach. Each ride begins and ends with that fundamental realization.
At dusk when the smooth crimson countenance of Kathmandu stretches to a facade of a dusty glum, a Safa Tempo marches towards Lagankhel, which for a moment stands no less than the truth that only some crumpled notes that sum up to a few rupees occupy my pocket. It stands before me in a strange continuous fervor, like a wild river that cannot be tamed. There cannot be something more welcoming than a vigorous and sturdy ten feet body of steel anticipating you to board on. The offer of this gentle monster is too good to resist. And then with each passing rattle you can see a hand waving to stop; an assertive certainty for the Tempo is hardly vacant. A waving hand means that the journey will be shared by a new passenger. And like a newly wed bride, trying to adjust to a host of curious examining eyes, the new passenger finds it a little difficult to find a seat inside the Tempo. He or she must sometimes just stand until a seat becomes vacant. You can almost see the driver nonchalant as the vehicle gently passes across a traffic attendant and him the driver, instinctively tries to hide the crowd crammed up inside the Tempo. It is a moment when men unacquainted to each other share a common destiny; one common space and the common road. And we move on as if we are trying to escape the chaos of a life left behind. I discover a certain charm in riding a Safa Tempo. Something that bears a similarity with an experience of thrill and amusement entwined in a perfect harmony.

Inevitably, the Tempo always carries different kinds of people. There is the fussy, the hasty, the scowling, the chatty and each of them with a sense of mystery, with a past and a future. A strange understanding of unspoken words and indifferent faces connect all of them. It is a time when the din and clash of a usual Kathmandu no longer exists and men who speak aloud are silenced. Only the rattle of the Tempo reigns supreme. At Maiti Ghar, where routes diverge, the eagle eyed driver yells out to lure a potential passenger. For sometime we had ridden in silence save for the clatter of the tin and the engine no longer restrained by any silencer duct. But for the Tempo, silence is seldom incessant. The driver screams endlessly for passengers and crowds in another one or two of them and moves along. The clash over the fare is only common. It is to be understood in the commonness of one man struggling against the vicious cycle of life and death. No, the problem is yet graver. It calls an answer to the question of one’s rights. The fight for one rupee does not pertain to penny pinching. That one rupee is a metaphor for your right. The battle, sometimes won by the passenger leaves a mark on the driver. So he with his rumpled black hair and ingenuous brown eyes rides along. His disappointment is inevitable and is portrayed upon the lines of his face.

This ride is beyond all things that thrill a bored mind because it is still the only window we now have to see how people connect with each other even in diversity. It’s in one ride that you can still see the festivals of the Aryans and the mysticism of the Mongoloids. And fortunate, still, there is nothing like all of Nepal combined in one small box of steel for in that blessed moment the Tempo becomes a crucible. The Safa Tempo always reminds us of an underlying power to realize that there is a great sense of pride in being an ordinary citizen of Kathmandu. The Tempo ride tests it in more ways than we can ever experience and in each curve and bend of the lonely road, a miracle gradually unveils before us; the miracle of feeling pride in being ordinary. For amazingly, it is about us common folks that famous writers write their books. Could there not be a writer sometimes in a Tempo trying his hand at research on ordinary people? And many times when we think of this city and its people, we are alarmed about a swiftly draining reservoir of vivacity, realism and charm. But for the beauty or the complexity of the Safa Tempo, even if it is in a small measure, we still discover the beauty of life in ordinary situations.

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