My Swiss Army Knife
I detest having to pack my knife into my check-in baggage when flying. When I arrive at a new airport, the first thing I do is unlock my pack, withdraw my pocketknife and keep it on my person.
I was new to Kathmandu. I told the cab driver to go to Krishna Mandir, a temple not far from my room. It was late; the orange sky was steadily fading to a deep purple and the thought of taking a microbus packed with two-dozen people and being forced to sit on the lap of a sweaty stranger because of my small stature was very unappealing in my hungry, exhausted state. I easily silenced the frugal traveller in me and decided to splash out on a cab.
The driver nodded curtly in acknowledgement of my destination. I sank back heavy into my seat. My eyes fell upon one of the many pictures that decorated the edge of the cab’s windscreen.
Varying ideals of beauty in different cultures fascinates me. In Nepal, I realised that stereotypically “Indian” features were upheld. While I personally found the mix of dark skin tones with east-Asiatic features enchanting, many a Nepali expressed their desire to replace their flat nose with my pointy one. They celebrated the female form as depicted in Bollywood movies: an angular face with high cheekbones, long hair, ample bosom, a tiny waist, generous hips and shapely thighs. While I don’t claim to look like a Bollywood goddess, there were occasions on which I was overly aware of the glances I was attracting – subtly by Nepali women, not-so-subtly by the men.
I recognised that face on the windscreen. She was a prominent Bollywood actress, her figure obviously digitally enhanced. Her chest strained through the sheer fabric of her sari blouse. I scanned the other faces and bodies: more Bollywood babes with their backs arched and breasts out.
Slightly uncomfortable, I caught myself sizing-up my cab driver.
My mind was running for no good reason, so I reeled it back in and reassured myself he was simply a man with an appreciation for the voluptuous women that graced Indian cinema.
Some 40 minutes passed. Unfamiliar roads intersected with other unfamiliar roads. Weatherworn buildings and olden-day stupas rolled on by. Finally, the cab came to a halt outside a temple. It was bigger than the Krishna Mandir near my room and I didn’t recognise the road.
The sprawling Kathmandu Valley was once divided into three rival kingdoms: Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan. The old geographical divisions still exist today.
I was in the wrong kingdom, outside a different Krishna Mandir. The wrong Krishna Mandir.
My cab driver looked at me expectantly, waiting for the fare we agreed upon. I looked back blankly. The misdirection was my mistake. He started screaming in rapid Nepali when he realised how much further my actual destination was. My Nepali was slipping as I tried to match his volume in an attempt to get through the message, “I WILL PAY YOU DOUBLE!” I don’t know if he understood.
I was attempting to exit the vehicle when he started to drive away, yelling incomprehensibly. He wove in and out of traffic and multiple near-collisions made him more agitated.
Panic was settling in. I began preparing myself to wrench open the door and make a potentially fatal jump into the traffic flying past in a rowdy mix of horns and headlights.
The cab bounced up from a pothole and I felt my pocketknife jump in my right pocket.
It’s nothing special; your standard Victorinox Swiss army knife. Red. You probably have the same one.
It has been used to cut fruit, vegetables and rope. Its corkscrew has opened bottles of cheap wine in hostel rooms on nights too wet to venture out into. The blade has fashioned many a branch into walking stick on long treks. It has torn through packets of nuts, biscuits, chocolate and trail mix when my fingers were too tired to do the job.
Pretty normal stuff really. What else do you use a pocketknife for?
I carry my pocketknife like a lot of travellers – with that small, dark wariness of what sharpened steel can do. The likelihood is I’ll only use it for purposes like those above. But somewhere in the shadowed corner of my mind is the knowledge of that other purpose it could serve on the road, particularly alone and – as much as I hate to acknowledge this as a factor – as a woman.
I didn’t know whether or not he was taking me to my destination. I just kept repeating my offer to pay him double, hoping it would calm him. He kept muttering under his breath and every now and then would bang his fists on the steering wheel. The veins were popping out of his forearms. The pictures of the scantily-clad girls became more ominous.
I wrapped my palm around my pocketknife, brought it behind my back and opened it there, with both hands. I worked it back into my pocket, covering it as fully as possible with my palm until it slid inside, unseen. I held it there, open, at the ready, just in case.
We fell into an uneasy silence. I had one hand in my pocket, on my knife and the other resting just below the handle of the door. The whole trip, I thumbed the edged of the blade, reassuring myself with its sharpness.
He drove and drove and eventually reached my Krishna Mandir. I hurried to retrieve my money to pay him. He snatched it out of my hands and drove away muttering.
My knife had broken the surface of my skin along thin, rough lines.
I don’t know if I would’ve used my knife that night, but I know that inside that cab, plagued with the paranoia of what that man’s aggression could lead to, I was ready.
Every time I return home from a solo trip I feel the need to carry my pocketknife for weeks, not because I anticipate trimming sticks for metropolitan hikes in Melbourne. I am uncomfortable at the thought of carrying around a weapon and as such, the weight of the realisation that dawned on me that night in Kathmandu – that I could actually use it on a person – was unforeseeably heavy.
I cannot begin to fathom stabbing another person, but I was made aware of my capability to hurt if I have to. Hidden in my pocket, the small weight of my knife is heavy with possibility. And it is a terrifying, yet paradoxically powerful awareness.
You can follow this badass knife-wielding globetrotter on Twitter at @AmandaJDC