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Travel and World Culture   
 Photo: Chad Nelson
 Photo: Chad Nelson

Kathmandu, Nepal: Crossing a Bridge
By Julian Zabalbeascoa

It’s my twenty-fifth birthday, and I am in Kathmandu. Mike, his host brother, and I are coming from the cinema and need to cross the canal in order to hail a taxi. Mike’s host brother says that he knows of a bridge just down the road, but when we get there we see that the bridge is actually twenty scattered stones that span the ledge of a thirty yard-wide canal. In order to cross the canal you must hop from stone to stone. If a hop is miscalculated or a stone is too slick and you fall to your right, you fall into the canal. The city’s sewage pollutes the canal. If you fall to the left, you fall about eight feet into the garbage and filth that’s collected at the bottom of the drop.

Mike and I look at one another and back at the bridge. “No,” we tell the host brother. He is momentarily taken aback, but says that he knows of another one further down the road. We follow him and come to another bridge made of stones. Again, we shake our heads at the host brother. He is amazed at our apprehension.

“Look,” he says, to prove to us how easy and practical this bridge is, “I show you.”  He climbs down the embankment and then, in a matter of seconds, as if the stones were a speedy conveyor belt, he is on the other side. He waves us over. “Come, come.”

“That doesn’t look that hard,” I tell Mike, who, obviously aware of something that I am not, remains silent and on the embankment. I leave him, climb down, and look out at the canal. Dark clumps bob in the still, murky water. “It smells worse down here,” I tell him. I look back at the canal, at the slick stones set one wide step apart from each other. I hesitate but then think, 'I can do this. Just focus on the stones, not what separates them.'

I hear something behind me. A line is beginning to bottleneck. A woman holding a child in her arms wants to cross but is waiting for me. A woman with a child? Come on now, I can do this. I step on the first rock, balance myself, and then step onto the next one. I realize that it is better not to balance on each stone but to just take one rock and the next and the next. Soon I am flying. I’m hardly on one stone before I’m on the next one ahead of it.

Halfway across the bridge it occurs to me that I am crossing a canal of shit. If I slip and fall, then I will be covered with the filth of Kathmandu. With this, I lose my momentum, though my forward motion is still carrying me onward toward the next stone.

“Come, come,” Mike’s host brother says, trying to urge me on, but I lose my balance. My foot begins to slip. Just a few feet away, I see a rock that can save me. In slow motion I put my foot out to step on this rock, while from the other side of the canal Mike’s host brother yells, “No!!!!!” The excessive exclamation points, I swear I can hear them ring in my ears just as I notice that the rock isn’t a rock at all but a collected pile of filth. My foot goes through it. I catch my breath, expecting to go under entirely. But my foot quickly hits the bottom of the ledge. My right leg, up to my knee, is in the river.

In a moment, one I can not remember, I am back on the side from which I started and have climbed up the embankment. Mike is laughing. Behind me the lady with the child in her arms takes the stones one long stride after another with something that I can only accept as grace.

Mike’s host brother crosses back over and pats me on the back, apologizing. He seems very concerned. I wave him off and try to make him feel better. I smile, shrug my shoulders, and wave my hands in front of me. I try to make it seem as if things like this happen to me every day.

“Do you realize how lucky you are?” Mike asks. “I bet you were only inches away from going under completely.”

I can think of better definitions of luck, but I know he’s right. The shelf was probably no more than two feet wide.

Since we can’t take the bridge, we walk the half-mile down to the end of the canal. Both shoes are soaked through. A squishing sound turns my stomach with each step I take. Fetid water squeezes out of my shoes.


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