On Nepali Time

On Nepali Timeby Brendan Work '10

Brendan Work '10 is a comparative literature major from Missoula, Mont., who recently interned in Katmandu at The Himalayan Times. At Swarthmore, he is a member of Boy Meets Tractor, Delta Upsilon, and the men's rugby team. His other observations on Nepal and its historic summer can be found at his blog. Write to him at theworkzone@gmail.com.

'll begin with irony: I bought a watch before I left for Nepal. I wasn't out to experiment. I just wanted to replace the one I left in a patch of high grass somewhere in Crumhenge, a circle of small stones in the Crum Woods. But when I touched down on the other side of the world and twisted the watch knob to set myself half a day forward, I was beginning a time defined by time, in a way well beyond my experience that has stayed with me well beyond departure. I'll try to explain.

Swarthmore is not a place of strictly enforced deadlines. But the concept of deadline exists, and a Swarthmore student is rarely free of appointment, up to the ears in sticky notes, toeing tomorrow's schedule, passing in and out of the shadow of Clothier belltower and the echoes of its semi-hourly peals. I'm no exception. Indeed, my ostensible purpose in Nepal was concerned with a career, and therefore with time: I'd be an intern at The Himalayan Times (THT), a leading English-language newspaper in Kathmandu, collecting stories before five p.m. and copy editing them before seven. All internships share the idea of "on time." Not all take place in a culture anathema to it.


A typical day at Kathmandu's historic Durbar Square, ...

Nepal is a temporal phenomenon vastly different from America, sure, but it even makes the world's other time-optional cultures seem like clock-punchers. Spanish siestas may as well be overtime hours, beach bums in the Caribbean are living in the fast lane. Happy globetrotters often cite time "slowing down" as evidence of a successful trip. But Nepal does away with slowing down and speeding up alike, because both suggest the idea of measurable velocity, and Nepal has no such thing. Nepalis joke about tourists unfamiliar with "Nepali time." One reputable travel author claims Nepali time is "a stick of incense that burns without being consumed." In two months of amateur language study that yielded me little more than "potato" and "hello," I learned that Nepali doesn't have a word for the noun "minute." But my own experience really began with what passed for my job.


... which includes this five-story pagoda.

A workday at the THT office, and all other non-medical buildings in the country, began around 11 a.m. I arrived at one in the afternoon, at no detriment to anything resembling productivity, and the first stories filtered in six hours later, after leisurely lunch, a dozen games of solitaire, and boredom so thick it eventually became something like an out-of-body experience. I worked for two hours. When I left at nine, it was not infrequently without leaving a few stories outstanding and uncorrected, with improper uses of the word "the" and comical malapropisms worthy of Jay Leno's "Headlines" bit. But I learned not to care. Receiving a story on time - the hopeful deadline being five o'clock - was just not feasible to expect. Editing more than five in my allotted two hours would be a feat. I wrangled with the writers and dropped unsubtle hints to my boss, but the office remained relaxed, and THT went into print every morning with sentences like, "Pradeep was awarded a death sentence." Eventually I opted to write a short guide to basic journalistic writing and post it around the office, in the hope that future generations of interns might be spared. But the internship only seemed to raise more questions than it answered. How was it possible that a newspaper - a daily, probably the most regular beat in the country - could be so susceptible to the molasses pace of life in Nepal? My host in Kathmandu, a family friend named Rajendra, who as a local news director has been party to Nepal's strange relationship to journalism for a long time, said it was the culture.

So I went in search of the culture.


Artistic flair in Boudhanath, "the other great Kathmandu stupa."

From the Himalayan rain shadow to lowland jungles, I lived in the limbo of Nepali time, waiting for buses and discreetly checking my watch. I pitied the clocks in Rajendra's house, the three of them like unloved house cats, one fifteen minutes fast, one stuck on 2:25, the only one that worked bearing the logo of Nepal's number one condom brand. And I performed tests. Bungee jumping near the Tibetan border, I traveled 100 feet in three seconds of free fall, but on the scree slopes of the Himalayas, I climbed the same amount in no less than an hour. If I was stuck in one of the city's legendary two-hour traffic jams, Kathmandu was a vast metropolis, but if monsoon rains hit while I was walking to work without my rain jacket, Kathmandu could have been a 100-meter track. I met a woman who had meditated in a cave for 10 days and a young man in the middle of a six-month, 12-country world tour. I ascended thousands of feet, got stuck at an intersection on a motorbike, rode through it on an elephant, had tea for days, slept on a mountainside, woke up mosquito-bitten, and then came down on a bicycle with two flat tires. But dabbling in space and time, though exhilarating and enlightening and once resulting in a free t-shirt, only afforded me a paradox.


A Hindu pilgrim returning from the northern region of Mustang.

The first of two misconceptions involved in the paradox is that Nepal stays still. This is abetted by all the Shangri-La comparisons touted by two-week tourists and spa-goers, and yes, by Nepal's outrageous natural beauty. The Tamang people north of Kathmandu still wear traditional dress and raise goats in view of aeons-old peaks; seventh-century Buddhist monasteries still house young men in crimson robes. But custom cannot be confused with shiftlessness. That much should be clear from Nepal's historic summer. Just a week before my arrival in early June, Nepal bid goodbye to a monarchy older than the United States. Three days into my visit, thanks to my temporary THT press pass, I had the opportunity to witness the ex-king's landmark final press conference. Forty-three days later, I saw Nepal's first president take the oath of office, and as I left the country in early August, political parties were still wrestling for the all-important prime ministerial post. In the late 1990s, Western newspapers ran headlines like "Trouble in Paradise" when they reported on the Maoist insurgency that killed more than 10,000 people. Now they arrive at similar conclusions: somehow, ideology has taken root in the idyll. Somehow, political change happens at 12,000 feet. They're incredulous because they forget Nepal is never as still as it appears in the postcards. But even the Himalayas are rising, one centimeter per year, triggering massive and often deadly landslides. The sight of those landslides, like the smell of burning tires in Kathmandu, reminded me not to fall under any spells.

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