dériving kathmandu by marcus f benigno

In the gloaming hours before dawn, Bishnu Tyata starts a 24-kilometre hike across Kathmandu Valley. For a country that peddles trekking expeditions through the Himalayas, his trek is no feat. But the 46-year-old isn’t on holiday. For the last 22 years, Tyata has delivered up to 25 bowls of curd per day from the municipality of Bhaktapur to corner shops across the capital—all by foot. Toting his yoke since the late 80s, he has witnessed the patchwork construction of an urban milieu. Roads lined with paddy fields only a decade ago are now flanked by brick high-rises that keep the sun out, and ancient, cobblestone passages spill out onto potholed concrete. By mid-morning, Tyata reaches Z Store in Paknajol, a district due west of Kathmandu’s tourist hub, Thamel. There, he replenishes my ration of Bhaktapur King Curd.

Equivalent to what déppaneurs are to Montréal or 7-Elevens to Osaka and Fort Worth, Paknajol’s Z Store typifies the quintessential quick shop in Kathmandu. It sells a mixed bag of conveniences like rupee sachets of detergent, shampoo, and betel nut, and household names such as Wai Wai instant noodles, Surya Lights and Dabur tetra packs. But distinctive amid the plastic and glossy packaging is a modest stack of earthenware. Each clay tier of Tyata’s artisanal curd is separated by a makeshift, wooden bracket and sealed by a delicate slip of paper. The wider bowls of the sweet, yet tart creation go for 140 Nepali rupees and satisfy a midday appetite—perfect with trekker’s muesli and organic honey. The smaller cones, at only 70 rupees, are good on the go.

During my stint in Nepal, I never met the curd man. Our paths never crossed; I did not even know his name, but every other day I purchased and enjoyed his curd. Looking back on our blind, yet material exchange, I was forced to justify my detachment and disconnect. And so, I thought about what I had been doing all that time in Kathmandu, and where. I pictured my room and the steps that led down from it; the alley and street beyond my hotel. And from there, the 360 degrees of probability, the oscillations and asymptotes that pulled and repelled my senses. I then imagined Tyata and his routes through the city and, in a sort of mental ‘dérive’—or ‘drift’—I pieced together a map.

In the original Situationist sense of the dérive, people “drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.”1 Like child’s play, the game seems plain: stop, drop, and let go. The ultimate dare is to unfetter our comfort zones and realign our conceptions of normalcy through situations—think Baudelaire’s flâneur or Bueller (Ferris). And although the Situationist International (SI) dissolved nearly 40 years ago, its preoccupation with critical analysis and psychogeography—studying the reciprocal effects of urban space and human behavior—remains salient. Accounts by Lettrists and Situationists like Ivan Chtcheglov, Asger Jorn, Abdelhafid Khatib, and Gabriel Pomerand explicitly reject utilitarianism in favour of a poetics; functional mimesis was never the goal of a group whose precursors were the Dadas and the Surrealists.

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Since its disbanding in 1972, however, the SI has been transplanted and succeeded by epigones of cult followings and anti-capitalist movements. But their theories and subversive techniques—meant to be a revolution in praxis—have been recuperated by social media and its gadgetry.2 Flash mobs mimic the “constructed situation” in spontaneous choreographies; Adbusters and Banksy dub their works détournements only to then spawn into vague occupations and posers like Mr. Brainwash. The dérive, meanwhile, has been commodified into a smart phone app facilitating candy from strangers.

But Situationism was about more than just changing hats and arousing a tingly feeling inside. In theory, the experimental practices espoused by the SI were to serve as a launch pad to an existentialist overhaul; a challenge to perceive and perform our lives differently. So I tore a page from my notebook, and etched a map of Kathmandu from memory. Drawn by desire lines, my psychogeographical reading of Kathmandu depicts points of habitual exchange girded by basic needs. Namely: eating, sleeping, defecating, and fornicating, and higher needs of belonging, loving, and learning. These points are mostly intuitive, while others, not so intuitive:

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