Vehicle and pedestrian traffic in Kathmandu operate as a libertarian’s smog-smothered, hazy utopian dream – humans operating in perfect harmony, collectively (with beautiful mix of chemicals circulating in the air once factories and cars are unrestrained and unleashed in their full potential, sans regulation, to emit whichever damned pollutants they desire, thank you). But back to the traffic – everyone does exactly what they want to do. Ayn Rand would see it as the perfect case study for human brilliance unleashed once they are allowed to pursue their own self-interest. “Objectivism,” she once prophesied as the Bolsheviks stormed “will only be understood when you see Kathmandu traffic in 2017.” Milton Friedman must have done some pioneering work here in the collective benefits of selfishness and the success of de-regulation. Or no regulation. “Neoliberalism,” he told the team in Chicago, “just wait and see Kathmandu traffic!” And it kind of works. Just like libertarianism and neoliberalism kind of work. For the most part. Except when it doesn’t. But just as Rand and Friedman didn’t consider the downsides of society with zero limits to freedom, we’re not considering the downsides here, either.
Cars barrel straight ahead in oncoming traffic, knowing that others will move. Turn left, across two lanes each with their own traffic, and do it NOW, don’t wait for a break in the flow of traffic. Just do it. It works. Except for the occasional bump, or crunch.
Bikes beeline straight at an ocean of pedestrians and they all magically part like the Red Sea. Or a sea of pedestrians flows at a wall of vehicles and the vehicles magically part to make way. Police rarely interfere. Lanes are suggestions. Road signs, stop signs and stoplights are non-existent. Ahh, if only Libertarians in the US weren’t so isolationist, they may actually learn something by traveling internationally! What would Gary Johnson, the 2016 Libertarian candidate for the US presidency have said if asked about Nepal? “Umm, which Paul?! You mean Rand Paul? I don’t know anyone named Knee Paul.”
Cars are one of the most inefficient machines humans have designed argue Hawken, Lovins and Lovins in Natural Capitalism. Nearly all of the energy expended by the machine is used to move the machine itself, with only a fraction doing the work for which it was designed – that if human mobility. Thousands of pounds of steel, rubber and fuel, in millions of myriad forms, heaving themselves around the planet every day, with very few notable innovations in its 100+ year life on the planet. That has changed recently, with electric and hybrid cars, but the argument still holds.
Then, enter the motorcycle. The antithesis to this equation, with the light and nimble rig of steel and rubber and fuel doing an amazingly efficient job in its intended function – that of single-serving human mobility (well, single-serving is smart, but that’s not to say that as many people can’t fit onto a moped as, say, an Excursion, as many a travel to Asia will tell you that they can – father, mother, son, daughter, baby, baby, groceries . . .) Where a car lumbers, yawns, slumps its way around its duties, the bike zips, zooms, zams around on its simple form to perform its function. Nearly one month now on our zappy Pulsar and a single tank has sufficed for daily commutes as well as further excursions into the nearby mountains around Kathmandu.
Dangerous? Absolutely. Polluted air and direct exhaust slam your health daily, while steel, timber or concrete do, on occasion, also slam the unlikely motorists health, with far more acute and grave consequences. Two wheels provide ample balance while they hurl themselves precisely forward, but abrupt turns? Balance is compromised, also with acute and grave consequences.
But the freedom! And the agility, especially in such narrow, congested, under-anticipated and under-performing urban infrastructure. While most romantic portrayals of bikes look to the open roads, this particular vignette squares its target at the city.
I wish I were writing about an Enfield, as Gregory David Roberts did in Shantaram. Of the deep breathing, the roar, the bellows. But ours is a Pulsar – 160. It pants, and wheezes. It whines. But it gives timely access to this city and its surroundings. Breakfast? Zoomy zoom. Yum. Work meeting? Zimmy zim. Done. Trail run in Shivapuri? Zhoo, zhoo, zhoopy zhoop. Ahh. What’s next? A micro t-boning a bus in front of you? Just zoop under it. A pedestrian walking a dog? Just zump it. A speed bump? Just zomp it. Whiz around the cement truck on the shoulder. Wazoo around the angry dog on the sidewalk. Juke all 5 million inhabitants of the city with a single beep-beep on the push-button horn on the left handlebar. Sidewalk, shoulder, alleyway, skirting through traffic, passing on the left or right side, in this lane or that lane, or all the way over in that lane.
Just remember to wear your helmet. And keep your head. Your Fountainhead, that is.