Nepal won me over literally from the moment I landed. Every single member of the staff at the airport were smiling like hit up junkies from the get go. Till that point in my journey, getting a smile from a immigration officer was as remarkable as the second coming. These guys were joking and tossing forms around with the full contempt they deserved. They knew there was no foreseeable eventuality that anybody would bother to try to find that paperwork and even if they did, there’s no way on Earth they’d find it. You see, Nepal isn’t very orgainised.
As soon as I left the airport, we didn’t enter into some advanced sliproad system connecting to motorways so that people can use the word zip as a verb. In Nepal, they don’t much care for using zip as a verb. Nobody in Nepal has ever zipped anywhere. You see, when you leave the airport, you just come out onto a street. This street has cows on it. These cows have every right to be there. Why? Because in Nepal cows are holier you and your car, you dummy.
When you get onto the streets, you just have to know where you’re going because there’s no way of telling what street you’re on because there’s no official street names. They also seem to wind around the place aimlessly meandering to wherever it is they go and God help you if you’re out at night time, street lights are for pansies. Cars of course drive on whatever side of the road suits them as they have to negotiate things we don’t have a word for in English - they’re technically pot holes, but that would imply superficial damage to the road. In this case, the holes are so big or deep, that the road appears as superficial damage to the hole. Buses are big too. There are people so crammed into them, its as though they were loaded by vacuum. I was almost positive that based on the conditions inside the bus, it was the people on the overcrowded roof that had were travelling first class and the ones on the inside that were riding for free.
A few days later, I set out on one of these buses to head into the foothills of the Himalaya on a trek. Myself and two others had hired a guide and a porter to get us through the following 8 days in the Nepalese wilderness. I sat at the stop that morning sipping my chai tea, watching and wondering how this chaos formed a working system. Bags being picked up left, right, and centre, with no labels on them and just hoisted onto the roof racks of the buses. People milling about, some selling tickets, some buying tickets, some just walking around shouting, for no discernible reason. Until the buses started leaving nobody was going anywhere, but at the same time nobody was waiting around. Everybody was doing something, even the ones doing nothing. A child dancing by himself, an woman clutching the results of an MRI scan, a man trying to gather his eight member family together in the melee, all pushed on by store owner trying to open the shutters and lay out his his knock off Gola apparel.
We finally got our seats on the bus and it turns out you do have to pay for seats on the inside. I was stuck in a seat one row from the back. There was no air conditioning and on the right of the aisle a window had just been accidentally kicked in by somebody clambering onto the roof. The rest of the windows, glass long gone, had bars on them. By the time we set off, every seat was full, and I was lucky that the woman next to me didn’t have a couple of live chickens in a plastic bag - another of my party was not so fortunate. What I did have was a chorus line in the back seat behind me who got into full swing about an hour into the journey. In my experience, Asian people don’t seem to travel well on buses, and this was be no exception. As soon as one puked, the sickly sweet aroma filled the stagnant air, and those around her couldn’t help themselves but join in. I only wished I could have puked, just because I felt left out sitting there listening to the wondrous sound of contagious wretching. I should also add at this point that Nepalese buses don’t come with sick bags, and apparently the Nepalese don’t travel with them. Why would you waste a bag when you have a perfectly good floor in front of you?
I looked out the window and managed to convince myself I was getting some air, and granted I was compared to the those deeper into the bus. Eventually, to relieve one of my party, I did find myself in the aisle seat. It was there I had time to consider the question of where on my body will I not accept the presence of somebody else’s vomit. I decided I could take it pretty much anywhere, even on my wallet, which had fallen out of my pocket and onto the floor. Nobody manged to puke anywhere above my chest though, so the question of how much I can take remains academic.
Five hours later and we were well and truly up in the mountains. The roads at that point were only as wide as the bus we were travelling in, and this was not a one way street. It was on the other hand, the beginning of monsoon season, and the rains had been heavy of late, though the road was still open. How or why this road was open is beyond me. What criteria was used in making this decision? Basically, the road was open because nobody has said it’s closed. The reason nobody has said it’s closed, is because people are still driving on it. The reason people are still driving on it, is because they can. They can because the landslides haven’t been sufficient to completely wipe it out. But a landslide is still a landslide.
Driving over wet mud at a 45 degree angle tilted towards nothing but a kilometer of air and the floor of a Himalayan valley is a time when you are quite literally confronted by a sense of your own mortality. Nothing but the grip of the worn tires on the jaded wheels of a second hand, decades old Tata bus, between you and oblivion. Some of the travellers around me, who obviously did this regularly, had put jumpers over their heads to stop them looking out the window. The chickens at this point had stopped clucking and the only sound you could hear over the struggling engine was the intermitant bleeting of the bound goats on the roof and, of course, the occasional dry wretch.
There were points where the only thing more scary than looking out over the edge of the cliff, was looking forwards at the road ahead, wondering how in jaysus name is this bus going to get over that? But it did, everytime, even over points where the road became a river. Until at one point, in a dense mist, it had to get over two landslides in quick sucession, and finally the engine cranked, the wheels lost their grip and we started sliding backwards down the hill. I was sitting over the back axel and I could see just how close we were to the edge. There was nothing but mist beneath me. Somehow the driver managed to keep it on the road and after the longest 5 seconds of my life, the bus regained its traction and we came to a halt. Immediately, some people on the bus got up and started to the door. At this point, I looked at the people I was travelling with, and I don’t remember many words shared, but seconds later we were off that bus. What I didn’t realise was the other people getting off, were only getting off to help push the bus up the hill.
I wasn’t pushing that bus anywhere. I was told the village I was trying to get to was somewhere between an hour and four hours walk from where we were. That was good enough for me. So I slung my bag and headed up the road and took my chances walking through a level three maoist insurgency zone (6 being the safest, 1 the most dangerous). I had a bit of banter with the lads on the roof as I headed off, soon realising where the best place to be on a bus is as its about to take a plunge off a cliff. Anyway, I wasn’t there to go on a bus, I was there to go on a trek.