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Bus Ride Blues

“Bus skids off a cliff killing 22,” screamed the headlines in my mind. I wanted to see the Himalayan slopes, not become a part of them, and I looked around the bus with foreboding to see if these would be my companions in death as well as the ride to India. Traveling is not as simple as it looks and in India and Nepal it never looks easy and what seemed like a mass exodus was in fact just an average evening in the Kathmandu bus depot. 

Scurrying families rushed around the sides of the buses with their luggage, and I use this term loosely as baggage could mean anything from a sack of bricks to Auntie Rupa.  In this part of the world, I have even been on a bus where the family moved the entire contents of their house from one town to another using public transport.  Try that on the Bakerloo line some time. 

Hessian sacks, PVC carrier bags, cardboard boxes with twine wrapped round and round, all hoisted up to the bus top by sinewy men who strapped them down securely knowing what dangers lie ahead.

Unfortunately my compulsion to have within sight all my belongings, forces me into a claustrophobic and intimate relationship with my luggage.  It is something we wouldn’t even consider if we were taking a 35 minute ride to Milton Keynes and even then we would still complain about the person in front reclining full way.  Not that it is any different in Nepal or any other country for that matter because that annoying individual is always ahead tilting back, in fact I believe it may be some kind of conspiracy by people with bad backs who are required to travel in horizontal position sabotaging most public transportation systems.  Which brings us onto the subject of space restrictions, lets put facts straight, first of all if you have any fears of Deep vein thrombosis, then perhaps this kind of travel is not for you. In fact, the average height for a Westerner is about 5 foot 6 for women and taller for men, we Need space, we are big and fat and have grown up on TV dinners, steaks and a good supply of ice cream. A bus ride here will punish us for this overindulgence and it’s about time I bet many would reckon.

As it is these buses were assembled before humans reached their full evolutionary stage of Homo Erectus.  I know this as when you pull down the tray and cup holder it usually cuts off the air at chest level, which means there is not even enough room to get to that bus ticket in your breast pocket.  Something, of which I am compelled to find so to peer at it in the dim light, guaranteeing that I am actually on the bus heading to the Khyber Pass rather than Goa, and won’t have to make a jump for it in an inopportune time.  So I just suck it in and hope, because quite frankly the ink has long gone from the ticket due to sweaty pocket and only a few scribble marks will be left.

I firmly wedged my pack at my knees thus ensuring that I am trapped forever in the tiny 2-foot space called my seat.  Not that it mattered much with the metal bars on the window.  You take a bus in these countries you are in my opinion really living on the edge.  Who needs extreme sports like heli skiing, the 9:56 am to Manali is much more death defying. and I always justify local transport taking by the cultural experience, support of local infrastructure, and its cheapness ending with the, Well its can’t be any worse than that 27 hour trip from Chiang Mai, when I didn’t have a seat.

A grinning sweat stained bus driver with a Chicago Bulls cap climbs in and then promptly climbs out; it was the last we saw of him.  Instead what looked like a high school student jumped in and started gassing the engine, which accomplished not a lot except for a carbon monoxide build up inside the bus.

The roar of the motor startled many of us as we had long ago forgotten the reason we were sitting here cramped in the dark. It was already two hours past our supposed departure time, but I am sure that they just wanted to get everyone who had bought a ticket on before we left.

Like an elderly aunt who smokes too much and was rumored to have had an affair once in the 50’s, these decrepit buses have seen better days. But despite their screeching engines, unsprung seats and dragging axles, they are tarted up in a blaze of color, with tassels, fairy lights, and well endowed goddesses with fawn like black eyes stenciled on their tire mudguards. Rather then emergency safety instructions, banners proclaiming Hindi Good luck expressions and strongly muscled gods, adorn the interior and are intent on keeping the occupants well protected. As the Hindu religion predominates in Nepal, I was hoping that the driver was taking extra care not to be the subject of bad karma (is this written in their contract to live a holy life?) and save us all from premature reincarnation.

Frankly I am not sure what I would come back as and my mind hunkered down to give it some serious thought. In 2001, the Kathmandu Valley Traffic Police Office announced that a total of 5,734 people had died in road accidents in the last nine years; this was at a conference no doubt titled, ‘Why flying is better’. India’s figures are even more frighteningly clear, as 1993 data claims road accidents accounted for 25.2% of all accidental deaths. Having seen a disturbing amount of highway ‘incidents’ with the still bodies of the vehicle’s occupants lying under large palm fronds besides their crushed wrecks, I always think twice about traveling on the roads around here, and then think about it again.

Excitement mounted and about 50 more people crowded in.  A young lad stood on the steps leading down of the bus next to me.  A slap on the side of the bus twice and we were away!! He hung on and we surged forward, about two feet.  He reached out, took a quick look then hit the bus again once; we came to a jolting stop.  He yelled something and this was relayed to the driver, The gears ground into each other and we reversed back 3 feet, The manoeuvring of the bus out the depot took on a cacophony of clattering fists on metal, horns, people yelling directions for the drivers. At once the whole station seemed alive with the sluggishly moving vehicles, inching their way out of the tangle towards the main highway

Past-darkened ruins of buildings, shanties and huddled clumps of people, men in woolen blankets crouched beside the roadside, some stood over smoking barrels trying to keep warm in the chill.

Guiding us through traffic, the slamming of fists on the metal bus reverberated constantly, conveying to the driver the vast necessity of using his horn aimlessly and without provocation. As well, the predilection of driving without lights on, until faced with immediate head on collision at which time you flash them on and off as if you have some serious nervous condition caused the inside of the cab to be illuminated by the twisting light the entire night.

My rattled mind was taken back to my childhood, the Lumpa luumps and Willy Wonka’s mantra, “there’s no earthly way of knowing which direction they are going, not a spec of light is showing…and they’re certainly not showing any signs that they are slowing”

Like an HG Wells novel about travel into the dangerous unknown we drove onwards in the dark, down, down, down into the centre of earth I guessed. Slipping into the Kathmandu Valley, its listing slopes blackened in the dark with only a few tiny specks of flickering light far far below, made me glad I was unable to see outside.  Having journeyed around Nepal I knew that visions of the bus wheels close to the edge of a precipitous mountain where you had just a fleeting glimpse of mangled wreckage below, was not needed at this moment, or really on any occasion, unless you are a participant in a really dumb game show based on looking fear in the eye and had the possibility to win lots of prizes.  However, that was not the case here.

Nepal has only two main highways and two minor ones leading south out of the country, they verge from the rough and bumpy to the very rough and bumpy. The busy Prithvi was no exception and my face smacked continuously against the window.

It was at this point the lurch of the bus around one of the first bends of the twisting road that a passenger popped into the antique ghetto blaster a tape.  A tape for the next 36 hours would be the bane of my life. Now, I appreciate most forms of music, the Indian Tablas, the aboriginal didgeridoo, the strum of an Argentinean guitar and even most heavy metal rock bands with multiple piercings from Berlin, The sound that hurtled its way out of the dusty radio with deceptive power, well if you can imagine someone performing something particularly horrifying to a vocal cat sans anaesthetic you might come close to the racket.

With the vibration of a poorly fitted speaker, the music was just on the level of being indistinguishable to any other industrial sound.  Although my eardrums being in very close proximity – a close estimate of a foot, may have biased me on this issue. As if in some kind of disco gone mad.  The whole bus shuddered with the beat, as its axle strained to get around bends angling 15 degree at best. Wildly shooting lights, coming from the convoys in front and behind. I resorted into pulling apart a Kleenex and stuffing it in my ears. The result was mildly therapeutic, although not to my self-esteem. It is hard to look like the cosmopolitan chic traveller when you have tuffs of tissue protruding from the head. I have only ever had to use this technique again at a Top of the Pops concert in Hyde Park, in which the pounding beat of Rule Britannia was just too much for me.

And all the while the staccato of the man slapping the bus continued amidst the frenetic music and horns of the trucks.

Just as the rhythm was lulling me to sleep or perhaps it was the coma, which the music had induced, we came to a grinding halt, in which a great discussion awoke me regarding the changing of the thread worn tire, gone flat.

The second time this happened the novelty of Nepalese vehicle maintenance was long gone.  Twenty men standing around a gearbox, one tentatively prodding it with a wrench did not inspire great confidence. Needless to say, mechanical failure is a great attributer to buses pitching off mountains and I felt quite lucky we were only listing at a 45-degree angle on a soft shoulder than a 360 on sharp pointy rocks.

Finally after more than a few hours later, we were on the road again arriving at the Indian border in a sickly morning sunlight that smelled of diesal. Extracting myself from the seat, took more dexterity than imagined and blurry eyed greasy we emerged from the bus, my eardrums rattled intensely, giving the feeling that I had butterflies battling inside my head. Consoling myself that I only had a couple hours left until I would get to my destination I hobbled with my atrophied muscles over to the customs point.  Knowing several people who had actually strolled through Nepal into India without getting stamped (God knows where these people thought they were and what they said when they reached the Taj Mahal) I wasn’t about to make the same mistake and got embroiled with Indian Bureaucracy at its lowest level. Giving a most hearty “Namaste”, I handed over my passport with an inane grin that I hoped would transport me easily and without glitch through the border, and it almost did until that is, they found the stack of pornography magazines… ahh but that’s another story.

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