Z STORE

Z Store is situated on a cramped corridor that literally cuts through the base of a residential building. Like Les Halles in Paris—as dérived and described by Khatib in 1958—it is a unité d’ambience connecting Thamel to Paknajol. Almost everyday, I sat for tea with its owner Kailash Tamang, whose background was typical of a city labourer getting by on day-to-day earnings. The 28-year-old shopkeeper comes from a village in the outskirts of the valley that should take 30 minutes by car, but what is—with the poor infrastructure in Kathmandu and its even poorer to absent counterpart in the periphery—a four to five-hour bus-then-local-taxi ride. When he was a teenager, he migrated to Kathmandu after his father had abandoned him while he was at a boarding school in India. He made what he could from remittances sent by a brother in Malayasia. Today, like a codger who has just about settled on a life behind the tabac counter, Tamang quibbles about politics, load shedding, gas prices and the lumpen indifference with the Maoist-led government. Here, the cups of dudh chia, or milk tea, are always free and flowing, and attract storytellers far and wide. What began as a transaction of midnight hankerings for dried peas and a glove of Indian whiskey evolved into friendships upon friendships made at Tamang’s shop.

Lastly, the arrows and dotted footways that lead off to nowhere represent the seamlessness of the urban sprawl and the infinite potential for the dérive. Inversely, the gridded, empty space acts as a frame to my solipsism. To take from Debord, speaking on the self-imposed restrictions on the urban environment: “We could expect nothing of anything that we ourselves had not altered … People can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves.”5 Driven by a conditioning or a hypermutation of needs, the spectacle induces a “tunnel vision” that possesses the city, its dwellers, and their notions of “city” and “dweller.”6 It limits their capacities, desires, and destinations. It compartmentalises space into ganglands.

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In conceiving a map of Kathmandu, I realised why I never encountered Tyata in my time in Nepal and why it is only now that he emerges—as an afterthought, an anecdote, a metonymic bowl of curd, and a contour in a post-experiential dérive. For most, Tyata could easily be essentialised as a Luddite embedded in tradition and reluctant to yield to the invisible hand. And even elsewhere, artisans like Tyata and their production have been fetishised by advanced capitalism; bread aisles in global food chains vend a more expensive, artisan-baked loaf. But what is business as usual for Tyata is for me an inspiring peripatetic protest against what Debord calls the “banalisation” of urban space into the functions of capitalist production and against the spectacle that subsumes us.

PAKNAJOL

Parallel to Thamel, Paknajol lies on a curved, eponymous street beginning at a string of pharmacies, cut by the Sorakhutte division of the Nepali police, and running down a 10-minute march to Chetrapati. Midday in the typical Kathmandu neighborhood: shoe shiners and hawkers ambulate announcing their services and wares, while elder residents perch on steps under storefront eaves. Activity pivots around a bend on the main road: street kids, stray dogs and a lone cow graze at a perpetually renewed pile of trash. From this point, a set of stairs descends onto a timeworn fountain, where on Hindu feast days the devout conduct their pujas or ritual cleansing and, on an ordinary day, women wash and children bathe. An adjacent row of apartments is replete with tenants, children, and their children’s children. It also serves as a barrier, muffling the recycled tunes of Bob Marley and Bryan Adams by nightly cover bands in Thamel. From top to bottom, lines of laundry decorate rooftops; homemakers and less-able bodies engage in vertical chatter from windows; and doors and arteries into semi-private courtyards perforate their feet. Up a slight incline, commodities in tranches are on sale in an almost repetitive succession of produce, textiles, samosas and haircuts. Just outside my guesthouse, taxi drivers huddle at a steaming momo (dumpling) stand drinking raksi, the local moonshine. The joy of living in Paknajol lies in the ability to indulge in the local customs of getting a weekly shave and paying homage to the goddess Durga with battled kites and slaughtered goats—all within a quick turn from a freshly pulled espresso, a pain au chocolat, and copy of the International Herald Tribune.

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A FALSE SENSE OF CONNECTIVITY

Orange diamonds denote wired coffee shops where a to-do list of pending e-mails, headlines, and blog entries succumbs to Instagram filters and Tweet-nothings. They furnish bonbons of a boho voyageur: byte-sized sign-value exchange and oodles of material for an episode of Keeping Up Appearances. The Internet and social networks validate a Debordian spectacle or “where the real world is replaced by a selection of images which are projected above it, yet which at the same time succeed in making themselves regarded as the epitome of reality.”4 It’s a phenomenon that we buy into and readily assume; the spectacle of being me.

Further inspection of the map reveals quadrangular overlays. They imply the spatiotemporal ambiences in which I attempted to satisfy desires simulated as Maslovian needs. And at their osculation, Z Store bridges the two districts:
THAMEL

Thamel is a blur. Nag Champa, Buddhist chants, exchange rates, Skype dates, fisherman pants, Northface knockoffs, cheap Chinese, and Jew’s harps. With its façades swamped in signage promoting oil massages and two-for-ones, Thamel bears an eerie semblance to Bangkok’s tawdry Khaosan Road. “Rickshaw! Change!” heckles a tout. “Smoke, smoke,” whispers another. The short shorts and fanny packs lap it up.

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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:

The Right to Life

On 27 January 2005 at the Naregatsi Art Institue in Yerevan, Hetq Online and Yerkir Media TV staged an exhibition of photographs by Onnik Krikorian and a film presentation by Edik Baghdasarian on homelessness in the Armenian capital. A presentation of some of the images exhibited and articles published by Hetq Online is now available for viewing online (4.93 Mbytes) or downloading (5.45 Mbytes).

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The presentation is optimized for viewing at a minimum resolution of 1024×768. A second version of this presentation with a 19-minute documentary film produced by Edik Baghdasarian and Yerkir Media TV is also available. Please contact Oneworld Multimedia for more details.