My Time in a Kathmandu Jail

Kathmandu. Just the name conjures up the image of a magical, mystical, mysterious locale set back in another place and time. Women in their brights saris and men in their striped hats light up the dusty streets with their ready smiles and warm greeting, Namaste…the divine within me salutes the divine within you.

A sense of calm descends on the hassled voyager. There’s no hurry here. Kathmandu appeals to the searching soul in everyone. The cafés are filled with people reading The Snow Leopard, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and every book by Richard Bach. The spiritual centers are filled with folks wanting to learn about Buddhism and how to meditate, perhaps in an effort to take a piece of the serene pace of Nepal home with them.

Every well-seasoned traveler knows the sites: the monkey temple, Durbar Square, Thamal, Delli Bazaar. Wait, what? Delli Bazaar?

Yes, well, okay…..that’s not exactly on most tourist routes. Delli Bazaar is a jail located near the King’s Palace. Many cafés, hotels, and meditation centers post notices asking tourists to visit foreigners in jail. Each prisoner receives 3 rupees a day (less than 15 cents) and a cup of rice. The Nepalese, of course, can rely on their families to augment their supplies; the foreigners have to rely on other foreigners passing through.

I figured I’d visit two people, a man and a woman, at two separate jails. I loaded up two bags with toothpaste, shampoo, soap, granola, powdered milk, cookies, fruit, and a few other essentials. The visit appealed to the good Samaritan and me; I had no idea it would become the most impactful two hours of an eight-month trip around the world.

Just finding the jail was hard enough, though, as many buildings in that section of town could easily be mistaken for a jail. When I asked people where Delli Bazaar was, they looked at me as if I was crazy. “What in the world do you want to go there for?” “Who do you know there?” They looked at my overloaded bags and at me – as if I were more of a criminal than those on the inside. Telling them that I really didn’t know who I was going to see didn’t help my case very much.

The guards right outside the jail were more used to seeing philanthropic foreigners coming through, so they just pointed the way. As I arrived at the women’s jail, four female guards were lolling on a bench in the afternoon sun shining into the antechamber. I asked to see a woman from Nigeria.

One woman with a fat role of keys jingling down her side shook her head. “Out,” she said. “Last week.”

“Okay, how about Rani?” I asked, remembering another name from the list. “From Indonesia.”

The woman nodded and yelled, “Rani!” Another woman closer to the jail door yelled “Rani!” And I could hear her name echoed through the inside jail as more people yelled for her.

She came to the door. “Yes, who is it?”

“My name is Ann, from America. I’ve brought you some things.”

Her eyes lit up. “Oh, Ann, it’s so nice to meet you!” She spoke in Nepali to the guard. The guard shook her head. “They won’t let me out to see you right now. Maybe I’ll try again in a few minutes.” She sat in the doorway, and I sat on a bench in the foyer, about 5 feet from her door. We both had to strain our necks to see each other.

What do you say to someone you’ve never met, will never see again, and are only seeing for a few minutes? Regular introductions took a whopping 30 seconds. I told her about some of my wild travel adventures, but that took only 15 minutes.

She tried asking the guard again to let her out. The guard rolled her eyes toward the room next door, where some male guards were sitting around talking. Rani told me, “You have to ask the guard over there.” I did. He told me to talk to the head guard, who turned out to be the woman who had rolled her eyes in the first place. When I came back to her, she shrugged.

Rani shrugged, too. “Maybe in a few more minutes.” She wiped away a tear. She still wasn’t hardened to the fact that the guards will play with her like a toy at every chance they can get. She was so beautiful. A whole year in a Nepalese jail hadn’t dimmed the glow in her eyes. I couldn’t imagine what she had done to be sentenced to time there. She never told me and I never asked.

She did tell me that her family in Indonesia had no idea she was in prison. She had left a few years prior to marry a man in the U.S., and they thought she was still there. She would mail letters for her family to her husband, and he would mail them from the U.S. for her. I asked her if she thought she get back together with him and their two-year-old daughter when she was free again. She shut her eyes and shook her head. “I don’t think so,” she whispered. “Not after this.”

With no warning, the prison guard stood up and opened the door for Rani. Change of heart? Gas passed? Whatever the reason, Rani could finally come out. After we hugged, I showed her the provisions I’d brought for her. I gave her both bags, not even explaining why there were two bags with exactly the same items in them. There was no way I was going to go through this again.

Another visitor came for another prisoner, a boisterous Israeli woman with a great sense of fun about her, despite the prospect of 10 years of jail ahead of her. The four of us sat cozily with the four prison guards and watched the sun set over the courtyard walls. I could almost forget we were in a prison for a minute.

But Rani couldn’t. She took my hand and said, “Please stay a while longer. Time goes so fast when you’re here. And so slowly after you leave. “