Nepal's Nightmare Ride
After ten months on the road and a week in Kathmandu, I craved a quiet, open space, free of exhaust fumes. I wanted to go far away, far from the scruffy tourists in two-tone velvet pants bought on Freak Street, from the Nepali men hawking hash and tiger balm on crowded street corners. I was ready for the jungle.
A swarm of Nepalis and their bully bags were waiting at the crossroads. By meeting the bus on its way out of Kathmandu, I hoped to shave an hour off my trip.
A smoke-sputtering bus rolled up. Pink cursive letters on its side read "The Swan."
"Bardia National Park?" I yelled.
Its big-jowled driver waved me on. What luck! Hoping to blend into the tired upholstery, I took a seat with squeaky springs at the back of the bus. Several men vied to sell me a ticket, and I handed one the sum he requested.
Two toothbrushes dangled from a crocheted fringe on the windshield -- the sign of a man married to the road. The driver vaguely resembled the actor on a film poster I had seen plastered around Kathmandu. Looking at his long, ragged hair and sallow skin, I wondered how long he had been awake, and if he would stay that way.
Perhaps Mr. Bus Driver used his horn to stay alert.
He spelled out "I am bus driver, hear me roar" in Morse code beeps as he passed dopey-eyed cows grazing on garbage, slow girls in lemon and lime saris, and boys on bicycles carrying boxes.
The horn dueled with a tape of a Nepali comedian. My attempt to meditate was like trying to relax at a Queensryche concert. I pinned my ears shut with my hands, then earplugs, which the noise still managed to penetrate.
The road was folded into Nepal's lush, green hills like a tapeworm, leading a boy and his mother to abandon their lunch. I gripped my seat and tensed a calf to keep from joining the men sitting on rice bags in the aisle.
Every few minutes we stopped at a dinky village or chowk (bazaar), where young, raspy-voiced salesmen circled the bus, peddling peanuts and pancakes through the windows. One boy ripped me off on a slice of coconut; twice I had to turn down shifty deals on oranges. I don't mind being pegged as rich, but I do mind being taken for a fool.
With every stop, a new character took over the seat beside me. One wild-eyed girl sat close and asked me "jane?" ("you go?"), nodding to her house somewhere in the hills. A boy with intensely brown eyes babbled to me as if Nepali were the universal language. An old man with jumbled teeth asked if he could have my introduction. He kept pumping my hand and saying "yessir, I'm sorry." My favorites were the schoolgirls with cocoa skin, gold noserings, and long twin braids tied in ribbons.
An hour into the trip, a teenage kid plopped into the seat.
"How much you paid for the ticket?" he asked. "I saw he cheated 70 rupee from you," he said.
I sighed. Fooled again.
"And I hear you go to Bardia. This bus will not go there," he said.
"Haste makes waste," said a whiny voice inside my head. I sighed again.
The driver confirmed that I had another two buses to catch. My morning flight from Kathmandu was turning out to be a red-eye.
At last, at least we reached the Terai's crossroads, flat ground to exercise the engine. Driver #1 passed me off to Driver #2, a dark, skinny man with a moustache and a mellow air. At dusk, he dimmed the lights, put on some Indian pop and lit a cigarette and a pack of incense. The diva's voice swirled around the curls of smoke. It was sleepy time. I snuggled up to my shoulder and started fading away.
Until the torture chime struck.
I woke to the skunk smell of marijuana -- some kids had lit up a joint -- mixed with someone's recurring dhal-bhat gas. Sweat was salting my back, but heat being relative, nobody else was interested in opening a window. I had to pee like mad.
My senses were in a state of alarm. I closed my eyes and breathed through my mouth. Sleep was no longer a possibility for me, though my seatmate kept nodding off on my shoulder. Insomnia consuming my personality, I stabbed him with my elbow.
Suddenly I felt something touch my butt through the crack in the seat. I let it go, perhaps a mistaken brush.
The toes toyed with my butt again. I squeezed the offending digits until my fingernails tasted blood.
Then it moved to my breast.
"What the HELL do you think you're doing?" I screamed to the back seat. No reply.
I was pinching my own body parts by now, wondering if the nightmare was real. I forced myself to laugh, then I really laughed, laughed until my bladder almost let loose. I laughed in the face of discomfort, injustice, and indignity, of foolishness, optimism, fate. I thought about the people I had met across Asia, smiling in spite of absurdly unfair lives. When all else fails, give up hope and laugh.
By the grace of Kali, I did make it to Bardia National Park. I spent days roaming sal forests draped with vines and laced with orchids. I battled blood-sucking leeches, rode a regal elephant, tracked paw prints and tiger poop, even glimpsed a Gangetic dolphin. I refused to think about the dreaded ride still ahead.
Originally Published: 2001/10/26