Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Bandh of Brothers

It's been a good week for anyone sick of the crippling traffic in Kathmandu. First, a fuel shortage thinned the roads. Then traffic ceased entirely today. And I do mean entirely. I walked out onto what is normally a vehicle-choked thoroughfare today to find this:

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Today is the first bandh, or strike, Claudine and I have experienced since moving here. During Nepal's ongoing political squabble as it approaches the deadline for drafting a new constitution (31 days!), one bargaining chip used by political parties is to enforce a strike in the capital city and surrounding areas. During a bandh, stores must be closed and traffic is ordered off the roads. I remember reading about these bandhs last May as the previous constitutional deadline approached. But constitution writing is tough work -- Nepal gave itself an additional year. With the deadline looming once again, I expect to see more of these bandhs in Kathmandu.

Surely there are costs to these bandhs, especially for the average citizen reliant on day-to-day income. On my first bandh day, though, I can't help but notice the upsides. The roads are gloriously clear of the usual traffic, and it was a great day to go on a run. Children around the city don't seem to mind either. With a day off school and the streets clear for playing cricket, it's like an American snow day without all the snow. Today's strike is set to last for one day only. I suspect all the bandh fun wears off after a certain number of days (although as a kid I certainly never thought that was possible for snow days).

The city is on strike, yet I wouldn't say that life here has come to a standstill. The streets are filled with socializing, strolling, and playing of cricket. Some street vendors are bold enough to hawk their wares, and on the side streets most small businesses are open. I'm not sure how people in Chicago would react to discover that a political party had completely shut down the city for a day, but here people seem to take it in stride. When you've been waiting years for a new constitution, I suppose you have plenty of practice in patience.

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