01 March 2016

On the Importance of Public Transportation

Picture the scene: You're rocketing down the side of a mountain on an unevenly paved road in a flamboyantly colorful bus with poor suspension. The next landmark on your path, a small bridge, is visible at a sobering downward angle. The sparsely placed roadside barriers are only one or two feet high and will do nothing to stop the bus, should it stray in their direction. The air is thick with the smoke of incense burning on the dashboard shrine, and the positive karma thusly accrued is the only thing preventing the bus from briefly transforming into a plane and shortly thereafter into a fiery coffin several thousand feet below. The seats are minimally cushioned, and, if you're a normal-sized person, are too small. The radio is playing a mix of Nepali and Hindi dance music, primarily drawn from Bollywood and Kollywood films (Kollywood, the Kathmandu film industry, is to Bollywood what Bollywood is to Hollywood), along with the occasional top-ten American rap song of yesteryear, the awful, vulgar nature of which dawns on nobody other than you, and which would almost certainly not be broadcast if the censors understood them. It goes without saying that this is all at a completely excessive volume.

After careening around a particularly sharp bend in the road and finding, to your pleasant surprise, that you're still alive, the guy sitting across from you leans over to explain the count and details of past deadly bus crashes that have occurred on this stretch of road. At such a moment, there's little else to do other than remember that your odds aren't much better in a plane, laugh at the illusory nature of life, and join with the other passengers who are all having a great time singing and dancing in their seats. For you New Englanders, it'd all be just like going down the Mount Washington road in the Magical Mystery Tour bus.

The Magical Mystery Tour is waiting to take you away...
This describes the greater part of the journey from Khandbari to Dharan, the closest city to the south, which I've experienced several times now. It takes 7 - 10 hours, depending on the size of the vehicle, the recklessness of the driver, and the condition of the road. The scenery is really spectacular; the road passes through low-lying fishing villages, alpine forests and hill station towns, and countless terraced mountainsides, many of which offer stunning views of Mount Makalu and its surroundings. Sometimes the bus gets stopped by a homemade roadblock in a village, providing the locals with enough time to jump on board and try to sell everyone their sugarcane or oranges or something like that. Sometimes it's stopped for a police search, although nobody knows what they're looking for or, with their very cursory searches, how they'll ever find it. If they happen to notice me, there's about a 50% chance that they'll take me outside to fill some forms about my passport, itinerary, length of stay, etc, but they're usually far more interested in watching the giant foreign guy who can speak Nepali than in checking the completeness of the forms.

Now we move to Kathmandu. This time, you're in a small minivan, although it contains about as many people as the full bus from last time. You had to play a game of Twister to find a space for yourself, and now you're standing in an L-shaped position holding on for dear life with your one finger that could reach a handle. You don't know where you are since you can't see out of any windows, not that you would recognize most of the mottled streets of Kathmandu anyway, and the only indication that you've reached your stop comes in the form of a shout from the teenage boy whose job is to hang out of the sliding door and wrangle new passengers. The situation on the roads would be akin to rush hour in Boston if one were to remove the saner drivers, and yet, somehow, there are never any accidents.

Sadly, I don't have many pictures of any of this, partly because I prefer not to act like a tourist when I'm with a bunch of Nepali strangers, and partly because letting go of one's handholds on a bus even for a few seconds can result in serious injury from face-to-back-of-seat impact.

I like to pretend that all the flowers are tiny airbags
These days I always travel by public busses for the completely practical reason that I can't afford to make a habit of using taxis on my meager Nepali salary, but I think I'd choose to travel like this anyway. Aside from saving money and allowing one to see more of the country than by plane (flying over Nepal on a clear day is an experience that would reduce even the most calloused person to tears at the ineffable majesty of the Himalaya, but the domestic airlines charge double for foreign passengers and flights are regularly canceled due to dangerous weather conditions), it also helps with our public image. Nepali people really appreciate seeing foreigners who aren't higher-than-thou rich jerks, too good for the typical ways of doing things here, as, unfortunately, so many are.

Also, public busses have provided me with many of my best memories while living in Nepal. There was the time when, due to lack of space, a girl wearing the clothes of a Hindu devotee had no choice but to share my seat, raising a riot of heckling from other passengers. There was the time when the goat tied to the roof became too upset, so they decided to shove it in the trunk instead. There was the time when I was sitting in the back-center seat to get better legroom, and I ended up having to spend hours bracing a several-hundred-pound pile of rice sacks from toppling over me and crushing the little boy sitting on the other side. There was the time when I was the only passenger in a Kathmandu minivan, so the driver decided to close the door, crank the stereo (it was playing a techno remix of Toto's "Africa," if I remember correctly), and drive as fast as possible across the city. There was the time in the mountains when my bus was the first to happen upon an impasse caused by a fresh landslide; the driver, totally unperturbed, produced some shovels, and everyone started digging out the new road.

The last time I went to Kathmandu, I got my best bus-related story yet. When I got in my bus (jeep) in Khandbari, I asked one random guy sitting next to me if he would help me buy my ticket from Hile, my first transfer point, to Dharan, so that they wouldn't give me a bad price (giant foreign guy). He was traveling through Dharan himself, so he offered to stick with me until there and help me to get my ticket to Kathmandu from Dharan, as well. In Dharan, the people selling tickets to Kathmandu were charging too much and claiming to have a very nice bus that they were unable to show us. It smelled like a scam, so my random bus friend offered to take me to his house in Biratnagar, a city several hours south but equidistant from Kathmandu, give me dinner there, and then provide me a ticket on a nice bus for a cheap price, since he had friends who work for a local bus company. We went to his house, had dinner, sat on the floor watching "People Are Awesome" YouTube videos until 10:30pm (very late, by Nepal standards), and then he drove me across town to catch the bus at its scheduled departure, which was, at that time, fairly dangerous for him as the driver due to road strikes in the area. The next day, both he and his wife called me to make sure I had arrived safely and to ask when I would come to visit them again. This was all from some random guy on a bus, and what's truly amazing is that this kind of story is common in Nepal. When I told one of my Nepali friends what had happened, he just smiled and said, "I'm glad our people are still like that."

That's why I love this country, that's why I prefer living here, and that's why you should travel on public busses in Nepal. It's not for the faint of heart, or the faint of stomach, but for the rest it's always a heck of a ride.

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