Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
From Thamel I caught a cab to Bhaktapur, the ancient city five miles east of Kathmandu proper. The driver was a tallish, chatty man of about forty named Ben.
“Are you married?” he asked. I said I wasn’t. “Good. Single life better. Once you marry, in Nepal, all the responsibility is on the man.” I asked how many children he had. He said he had a 12-year-old daughter.
I asked whether the earthquake last year affected his family. “Yes,” he nodded. “Our house collapsed. Thankfully no one in my family was hurt.”
“Have you rebuilt it?”
“No. We’re waiting for the government assistance. But actually the amount of money they give is only two thousand dollars.”
“That’s not much for rebuilding a house.”
He shook his head in agreement. “It’s not enough. So I hope that God will help me.”
Presumably it was this talk of family responsibility and financial pressures that prompted him to volunteer: “I used to drive a truck in Iraq.”
“Yes, I was a convoy driver for the Americans.”
“We drove to all different places. Tikrit, Mosul…”
"When were you there?”
“Uh, 2007 to… 2010.”
“Did you ever get into any dangerous situations?”
“We would run into bombs, and, uh, guns…”
“How many times would you say you were in that kind of situation?”
“In my three years, ten or twelve times.”
“Did any of your people get killed?”
“No one in my convoy got killed. But some got hurt. Some American soldiers we rode with,” he pointed at his knee, “lost their legs. We drove wearing helmets and flak jackets, but the jackets only protected the front, so if a bullet came through the side,” he gestured at the door, “then, finished.”
“Do many Nepalis go to work in Iraq?”
He nodded. “My sister has two sons, and one of them is over there now, driving in a convoy. It’s good money. If you have European passport you get paid two times as much. Same work, more money.”
He asked me my religion. “I don’t have one,” I said. “How about you?”
“What denomination? Are you Protestant?”
“Not Protestant.” Then he said a word that I didn’t recognize. “We believe in Jesus,” he explained, “and also God the Mother, who is 72 now.” I wasn’t sure that I heard him right, given his thick accent. Virgin Mary is 72 today? “God the Mother is from North, or is it South, Korea.” Ah, a Korean church, I thought. That might begin to explain things. “When the Mother passes — I mean, you know, death — that is the end.”
“Yes, the end. It’s all proved in the Bible. Very clear.”
I showed more interest in his religion than I’m normally wont to do, if only because I was fascinated by the idea of a Nepali member of a Korean millenarian church driving convoys for the U.S. military in Iraq. He took this as an opportunity to proselytize and reached over to fumble in the glove compartment for his church books. Kathmandu traffic was a close-quarter affair, and I wanted to tell him to keep his eyes on the road.
He found his books, and I flipped through the mostly Nepali texts. The bits of English taught me that the church in question was the World Mission Society Church of God. In the middle of one book was a small photo of the “Mother of God,” an elderly Korean woman, beaming. Underneath, in English, the caption read “Melchizedek,” a Hebrew term meaning the priest of God most high, a term once applied to Jesus.
“I see all the signs,” Ben was saying. “Wars all over the world. Earthquakes, disasters. It’s all in the Bible.”
“You mean Revelations.”
He nodded. “Soon the end will come.” A small part of me wondered why he bothered working for money or trying to rebuild his house and even raising his daughter if the Apocalypse was just around the corner.
Just then we drove past a large crowd of Hindus carrying all manners of supplies. Ben explained to me that they were preparing for the upcoming Dasai or Dashain festival. “Does the festival have to do with Kali?” I asked about the goddess.
“Kali, or Durga,” he said, mentioning the proper name of the Mother Goddess, of whom Kali was one incarnation. Hindu mythology says that a demon named Mahishasura once vanquished all the gods. To avenge their defeat, the gods pooled their powers to create Durga and gifted her with divine weapons, so that she would become more powerful than all of them. Dasai celebrated the ultimate triumph of Durga over Mahishasura.
The gathered Hindus and the story which they prepared to celebrate struck me as some kind of metaphor or lesson. Of what I still didn’t know. That when men can’t do the job, leave it to a woman? I wondered whether Ben converted from Hinduism but didn’t get a chance to ask. If so, what was it about the old Korean lady that he found so much more compelling as a Mother Goddess than Durga? As for all this talk of "the end," there is an idea of the Age of Kali or Kali Yuga in Hinduism, which is the age in which we live, which is an age of degeneracy. But that’s a different Kali, a demon instead of a goddess.
Later my hotel manager cast doubts on Ben's story. But still I'd like to believe him. Maybe I just like the image of my Nepali cab driver, wearing helmet and flak jacket, millenarian theology in his glove compartment, praying to his Korean Mother of God while speeding along the dusty road to Mosul.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."