Lessons on Contentment from the Top of the World

That morning I had woken up early, ate a full breakfast, taken some extra long, deep breathes and said a few more prayers readying myself for the day. No matter how hard I tried nothing could prepare me for what lay ahead. I had sold my motorcycle and needed to change over the title. I was going to the Motor Vehicle Department.

The mention of the DMV normally sends shudders through the general population. Nary a soul has escaped the turmoil of this infamous foe. The precious time wasted to get simple paperwork done. Time lost forever. The sloth like service that strips you of all energy. But this was not your typical office. This was the transportation department in Kathmandu, Nepal. You can understand my trepidation.

I triple checked my documents. I was going to be prepared this time. I tried to think of anything they might ask me for, the more ridiculous the better. I stuffed everything in my backpack and grabbed my helmet as I hurried out the door. Best to get there early before the lines started forming. Getting there was the first obstacle. There was only one location in the Kathmandu Valley conveniently located about 30 minutes outside the city almost halfway up a mountain. Road conditions were never to be desired. Traffic, cows roaming freely in the road, the latest round of road construction and unpredictable pedestrians crossing the road wherever they saw fit, felt like a messed up video game. Every driver had the responsibility to look in front of them and try not to hit anyone or thing.

The Transportation Department was in a residential area and the offices were spread out in a few unidentifiable houses. Fortunately, there were small independent agents there to help you make sense of the process. Unfortunately, they didn’t know much more than you did. Basically you paid them to point you in the direction of the next line you had to wait in and told you where to sign your name on undecipherable documents. Like a glorified game of follow the leader, you trudged behind them dreading every next step.

An hour in and I was feeling pretty good. All of my efforts to prepare weren’t for nothing. Until the inevitable happened.

“Where’s your bike file?”

“I don’t have it.”

“You have to have it.”

“I don’t. They said they wouldn’t give the file to a foreigner. They kept it here.”

“They don’t keep your file here.”

As the argument continued, a few guys and gals were sent off running to look for my file. They came back empty handed. My file was missing. Without it, I couldn’t transfer my title. Was there any other way? I asked. I would have to go to the Honda dealer on the other side of town and get another piece of paper from them. I was standing there with the bike and the registration in my name, but no, that wouldn’t do.

In order to avoid the trip, I asked to try to find the file myself. I didn’t know who I thought I was, but maybe by some miracle the file would appear before me. I followed a girl down a small foot path and inside a house. The whole bottom floor was filled floor to ceiling with shelves. The shelves were bursting with files. This room was not temperature controlled and it smelled of mold. The edges of the paper disintegrating. Light a match and the whole place would go up in flames. There were no backups. A couple of morning doves cooed in the corner making themselves at home on a pile of files. My file most likely.

As I was looking in disbelief at the sheer volume of files placed haphazardly with no organized system, I hung my head in defeat. That is when I saw this man of small, proportioned stature standing there in the file room. He had graying hair and too many smile lines to count. He seemed content standing there amongst the files in his little sweater vest and Nepali cap. A group of people stood outside the door yelling out numbers. “Buddha Uncle, can you help me find this one?” “Uncle, I’m looking for that one…” One by one, he led them through the labyrinth of files to obtain what they most desired. In this world, he seemed like a hero. But not even Buddha could locate mine.

It was only 10:30am. I could probably go get that paperwork and make it back in time to finish my business. If I imagined I was on a top secret mission trying to procure an important document maybe the drive wouldn’t be so bad.

After jumping through the proverbial hoops, I was about to be handed the precious paper I longed for, when the phone rang. “We found your file.” They sounded elated, thrilled to be saving the poor foreign girl. The news came only a couple hours too late. “Come back.”

With the missing file now in hand, we crammed into the office where the officials sat stamping their stamps and signing their names all day long. They sat in their thrones sipping their tea and chatting with each other as the lowly commoners filed in and out. There were about ten people standing around the desk when we came in. Here there was no turn taking. Whoever could push their file closest to the big man’s hand was first. He couldn’t possible lift a finger. Those were important hands. The ones that signed the things.

He appeared to have it all together, until an American girl walked into his office. The questions started. What is this passport? Where are you from? You own a bike here? How long have you lived here? How long will you live here? Oh, the questions.

Then the questions about their job, the one they do day in and day out, came. Questions they should know the answers to themselves. “Can foreigners on a year long visa own a bike?” He asked the crowd gathered around. Did they also work here? You could never tell. When his question was met with blank stares, he called the heavy upstairs. “I have an American here… she has a year long visa… it’s a student visa… she’s studying music… she’s been here for seven years… she lives… but can she sell her bike? … yes… yes… ok.” Ashamed to have shown his incompetence, he grabbed my file stamped and signed. Then practically tossing the registration back at me like he hated the sight of it and I’m freed to go. The grand finale.

As I left the building proud of myself that it took only seven hours to accomplish what could have easily been done in one, I pass Buddha Uncle in the hall a few lone files cradled in his arms. It’s the end of what I can only imagine was another terrible day in the file room, yet his face is beaming. There’s a bounce in his step. It strikes me that while I’ve been spending this day here miserable lamenting over the non existent system, these Nepali people practically scoured a few buildings to find my file. They worked with no complaints not knowing any other way. To them this was all they knew and they accepted it. Buddha had been ruling his file domain, proud of the job he had been blessed with, happy to provide for his family. At the end of it all that’s what I remember most. Buddha Uncle’s smiling face as he held his head up high after another long, satisfying day well spent.

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