The woman’s thin lips were chalk white next to her brown skin as she slid down under her bus seat. Hands reached out to drag her up. “Birami chha”, “she is sick,” someone said, opening her window. A man hung her out the window, holding on to her red sari, while she proceeded to throw up continuously for the next hour and a half. “Her first time on a bus,” the man noted sourly.
Three seats back, a small baby, naked from the waist down, his tiny body girded by strings tied at birth by the Brahmin priest, nursed feverishly at his mother’s breast, oblivious to the chaos and slightly sickening smell of vomit that began to pervade the bus.
Behind the baby, a rooster, tucked into a basket, squawked mournfully, perhaps aware that tonight he was to be the main ingredient in someone’s chicken curry. Near the rooster was my seat – a large wooden suitcase perched in the aisle that I shared with three other people. The suitcase belonged to a lovely Nepali couple who had taken pity on a foreigner with no place to sit. As our bus lurched downhill over the rutted roads and around hairpin (and hair-raising) curves, we all slid into each other constantly, bouncing mercilessly on the hard timbers of the box and skidding precariously up and down the narrow aisles.
This was Nepal by bus – a two hour ride from beautiful, cool, hilly Tansen in the west to hot, crowded Butwal in the Terai, where we would get a second bus for our ten hour return trip to Kathmandu; a slice of the real life of the country; an opportunity to literally rub shoulders with Nepalis of all castes, ages, sexes and smells… not to mention assorted goats, chickens and sheep. This was also a ride that would see a flat tire outside the dusty town of Mugling in 90 degree heat, several stops by rivers so we could water down or cool off, and a complete breakdown about half an hour from the Kathmandu bus station.
“Go Greyhound. Leave the driving to us!”
Nepal is famous for its trekking and mountain climbing opportunities, but little has been written about any other ways of seeing the country, particularly by road. Yet road travel in this area is extremely exciting, to say the very least! Over the past eight years, I have bused a good part of mountainous Nepal, often as the lone westerner, and each trip has been a true happening – a far cry from the sheltered world of the trekker, solicitously cared for by Sherpa guides.
Nepalis love their buses. Where there are roads, Nepalis jam into their buses, whether to travel short distances to school or to markets or long distances to visit family or friends. For the naive westerner, however, buses do pose some problems. The first obstacle is simply selecting the best bus for your destination from the myriad of companies running vehicles at all times of the day and night. In Kathmandu, the major bus station, Ratna Park, covers several street corners and is a model of diesel fumes and confusion. The best solution to finding the best bus is to ask a Nepali for help. Only a Nepali, and not everyone at that, truly understands the system. A knowledgeable Nepali can choose the bus company with the newest buses or better time schedules and tell you how the night bus drivers tend to get drunk and have accidents.
Depending on what town you are in and where you are going, you can buy seats for different parts of the bus – the cab with the driver and his cronies, the first seats behind the cab, or even the roof of the bus, with the chickens, goats, and passengers who either get car sick or hate the stuffy inside of the bus. Of course you have to hang on tightly around the sharp curves and over bumps when you are on the roof in order to not fall off; but it’s easier to jump off the bus in case of accidents. Note that in Nepal, just because you have reserved a seat does not mean you will always be the seat’s sole occupant. Nepalis have a different sense of personal space from Westerners. When we touch each other accidently, we apologize profusely and try and keep our distance. Nepalis will sit on top of you with no compunction. I will never forget the 15 – hour bus trip from Jiri, the jumping off point for Everest trekkers, to Kathmandu, in our “reserved seats” by the door. At one point, three men and myself were scrunched on a two-person seat; a woman was asleep with her head on my lap and her feet out the door; and Ang Pasang, my travel companion was trying hard not to be car sick through the open window.
The Jiri route taught me a lot about the ticketing system. Passengers going from Jiri to Kathmandu support the bus service and must pay full fare. Yet all the people who live along the route and want to travel from village to village can ride for free. This makes for a very crowded bus, as everyone wants a free ride – wives going to markets, students traveling to and from school, people going to visit friends.
On the other hand, if you ride the local bus, as I did recently from Bertamod to Biratnagar in the eastern Terai, the fare structure is different. Here, the locals support the bus route with their rupees. In a car, the trip between the cities should take only about 45 minutes, but on a bus time is irrelevant. The bus trip can take up to five hours, while bus staff waits for a sufficient number of local patrons to clamber on and pay enough to cover the bus costs. Fortunately, the Bertamod route has tons of fruit and vegetable markets, so one can drink tea and nibble bananas while waiting. On this last trip, I sat next to the owner of five buses on the Bertamod route. While sharing his delicious fresh lichees with me, he lamented the expenses of gas and bus repairs and told me he was going into film making. Of course he wanted to know if I knew any American producers who would be interested in the cassette he just happened to have with him in his briefcase!
Nepali buses are a trip – running the gamut of new Japanese-made, very luxurious night buses to some amazing rattletraps with bald tires that hardly belong on the road. Most are decorated with Indian paintings and wonderful signs, although Nepalis are beginning to do their own artwork. One of my favorite vehicles was a jumble of metal and wires that ran between Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace and the airport at Bhairava. There was no hood on the bus, just a metal stump with some wires and tubes that the driver connected when he was ready to start. Once the wires were connected, three people pushed hard from behind to get the bus and engine rolling, then leapt aboard. The whole trip to the airport was not more than ten kilometers; but it took us almost two hours, with several tea stops for the driver and subsequent complicated start-ups in this Rube Goldberg contraption.
Nepali bus staff differs a bit from our typical lone Greyhound driver. On non-local trips there are usually at least two more people – one person takes the tickets and sees to it that the reserved seats go to the reservers. A second oversees when the bus can leave, pushes people into crowded buses and helps the driver navigate through spaces he cannot see. Nepalis have a whole code of banging on bus sides to help drivers back up, turn around, or even squeeze through narrow spaces. Extra friends of the driver or ticket takers also often ride along and can be very useful in breakdown situations or if there are flat tires.
I’m not sure which I prefer more in Nepal these days, the good roads or the bad ones! The bad roads scare you to death as the bus perches over precipices, but the drivers must drive slowly. On the newer, paved roads, you still hang over precipices, but people drive faster! Nowadays, on the beautifully paved Pokhara road, it is not unusual to see people staring over a cliff at the ruins of a bus, clucking in disapproval about the driver who probably had too much of the local brew en route. Actually, road building in this country that rises from 100 feet above sea level to Mount Everest at nearly 30,000 feet, is somewhat of an amazing feat.
The Chinese do the best job, and are presently expanding the Pokhara road to three truck lanes. Sometimes they are blasting into the mountains, and sometimes they are building concrete supports up from the river. Unfortunately, contracting with the Chinese for this southern highway, so near the Indian border in the Terai, was a prime cause of the Indian embargo of Nepal in 1990. The Indians were furious with the Nepalis about the number of Chinese so close to their territory, and tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the road project.
Building the roads, however, is only half the job. Maintenance in this rocky world that is subject to the fierce monsoon rains is a major task: where foreign aid often goes for road building, little is designated for repairs. Too frequently roads are built without proper drainage or grading. Come the summer storms, cascades of dirt and rocks turn car tracks into impassable mud piles and rivulets. In fact, the second major cause of erosion in Nepal, outside of the natural geography of the country, is road and dam building.
Tourist amenities along the bus routes in Nepal are somewhat lacking. Usually, on long trips, the driver just stops periodically when he needs to go to the bathroom. Then everyone hops off and scurries for the nearest bush, if there is one. Life is easier for men on buses than women, who often have to be very creative in their search for a “charpi” or bathroom. Sometimes I have to wait for all the men to go back into the bus, and then entreat the driver not to leave me in the lurch. On other occasions, I follow a Nepali woman down the path, hoping that she knows more than I do. Also, if there are two women together, there is safety in numbers and the men tend to stay away. Unquestionably, rest stops are truly a test of ingenuity or, at worst, of a strong stomach.
Food too, en route, is basic. Usually the driver has his favorite restaurants, places where he can get a free lunch of the country’s staple dish – “dal bhat”, or rice and lentils, served in metal plates with a daub of vegetables or “tarkari”, an “achar” or relish, and perhaps some curried meat. One of the main transit points is Mugling, at the confluence of the Trisuli and the Kali Gandaki rivers – a true truck stop for east-west travelers through the Terai of Nepal. There one can see the local restaurants cooking up some huge pots of dal for travelers in hot, steamy, dirty kitchens. Everyone on the bus just piles in for lunch while the families of the owners dole out as much as you can eat for about a dollar. The miracle is that people don’t seem to get sick.
Other than official stops, one can occasionally hop off at a market to get some fruit, crackers, or a cup of tea while new passengers are boarding. Each town also has its hawkers, selling soda, coconut, ice cream, bananas or cucumbers. The Nepali word for cucumber is “cakra” – a sound that is hard to repeat ten times rapidly (try it!); but which doesn’t seem to faze the cucumber sellers. Often the hawkers are children, charming you with dirty faces and persistence. One young cucumber sales girl noted she sometimes earned 130 rupees a day, or about $2.50. In a country with an average yearly income of about $100/year, $2.50 a day is not bad.
Given the vagaries of bus travel, then, wherein lies the charm? Well, for the economy traveler, one can see Nepal quite cheaply. For example, to go from Kathmandu clear across the country to Tansen/Palpa, a lovely Newari hill town in the west that figures prominently in recent Nepali history with the British East India Company, costs only about $4.00. A plane to a nearby airport could cost about $77; and a private car, at least $50.
Secondly, if you are not rushed, feel friendly, and can take things in your stride, buses are a delight. People always ask who you are, what country you are from, and where you are going. On most routes, there are few foreigners and a westerner is the “ramita” or spectacle, subject to intense scrutiny, the whispers of children, and furtive glances of babies, who have never seen the “white eyes” before.
At the same time, on a bus, a world opens before your eyes – peasants who squat rather than sit on the seats, girls in fancy red saris returning to their parent’s homes for the first time after a year of marriage, children who support their families hawking bananas on the bus, or a bus owner who wants to be a film star. So next time, hang up your trekking boots, fill your water bottle, bring your sneakers, and leave the driving to a “bus chaalaune manche”!
July 23, 1992