At 7:30 AM, we board the city bus at the bus park in Melamchi Bazar. Bus park means that there are also several other buses parked there all looking in a similar state of disrepair as the one we have just boarded. In fact, off to one side, men are working on a large truck. They have removed one of the bolts holding the leaf springs on one of the back wheels. Now one man is underneath the giant truck bracing his back against the leaf spring to force it upward while two other men with short, ineffectual tools attempt to bolt it in place. Another man attempts to pound the bolt into place with a rock.
On the other side of the road, a woman is bathing a child next to the water spigot. Another woman is stooped down washing pots and pans. A man stops by and splashes water on his face and drinks some of the water and then walks on.
A man dragging a small herd of goats with cords around their necks passes.
Despite the relatively early hour, it is already hot and dusty. A haze hangs over the low foothills surrounding the town.
We are fortunate to be a few of the first people on the bus since this is its starting point for the six-hour ride. Rebecca and I clamber into the front seat of the bus just behind the door and jam our small daypacks at our feet. Perhaps a dozen people have filed onto the bus now. The driver starts the engine. It resists starting for a few moments but then catches. Then with a great grinding and crunching of metal on metal, the driver jams the bus into gear and we jerk forward lurching down the pot-holed dirt street.
The crew on the bus consists of the driver and another young man who hangs partway out the open door of the bus. I don’t know what this second man’s official job title is, but he has several functions. He yells out the door as the bus progresses down the street in congested areas or when we approach people. Presumably he’s yelling in Nepalese something like: “This bus is going towards Kathmandu. Do you want to go to Kathmandu or somewhere along the way? Hurry up and get on.” I would think that anyone who wanted to go to Kathmandu would have already decided and been waiting, but he almost seems to be encouraging people to make an impulse decision to get on the bus. Related to that, there are no bus stops. The bus stops anywhere and anytime. Another function of the doorman is to collect the rupee notes from the people as they enter or exit the bus, everybody paying a slightly different fare depending on how far they are travelling. These transactions transpire with a certain nonchalance. Ruppee notes are pressed into the doorman’s hand and people walk off. His final job is to jam as many people on the bus as possible. All the seats are filled on the bus in only a few minutes, and the rest of the people are jammed back in the narrow aisle of the bus. Soon that area is filled, and now people sit and jam themselves in the area up around the driver’s seat sitting on bundles of potatoes and other goods that passengers have brought aboard. When that area is filled, people fill the actual doorway of the bus, hanging out the door, riding outside the bus their arms wrapped around bulwarks of the bus’s frame. On some buses, we have seen people riding on top of the bus.
We make little progress in the first minutes of the bus trip. The bus is almost immediately filled to capacity: Indian women in saris, women carrying small babies, children, serious men in fez-type hats, several monks, young attractive girls, teenage boys.
The driver honks the horn almost constantly. From where we sit, the horn blasts seem to serve several purposes: to tell people to get the hell out of the way and that he is not going to slow down or yield in the least (this is mostly for pedestrians and errant motorcyclists and scooters), to announce the arrival of the bus to those who may be waiting, to warn other vehicles (large trucks and other buses) when passing at inopportune times or as we round the many blind-curves on twisting mountain roads, and finally to just honk the horn for the hell of it—or so it seems to me.
Two large plastic drums of chemicals are hefted onto the bus and placed alongside us in the aisle. One of the drums says ‘hydrogen peroxide’; the other I cannot read. They sit beside us sloshing back and forth as we go down the bumpy streets. I can only imagine when the bus plunges off one of the steep embankments we traverse with inches to spare, how the volatile chemicals will add to the conflagration as we roll down the mountainside.
Bus crashes are not uncommon in Nepal. In the paper just yesterday, a bus, not unlike ours, rolled down a cliff side killing 17 people and injuring 35. According to the news today, relatives of the dead are blocking the highway attempting to obtain compensation for their loss from the bus company or the Nepalese government.
Over time, the place at our feet, one of the last vestiges of space left on the bus, becomes filled with various items people carry on. The hawker—that’s what I call the announcer/money-collector/bus packer—hands stuff to me through the open door or sometimes through the window and I stuff it at our feet. Soon along with or daypacks, we have a large sack of potatoes, another sack with an ancient pickax, a plastic bag of carefully-folded old jeans, and a woman’s handbag.
On one of the stops to pick up still more passengers—the bus is full now and the hawker yells vehemently at the passengers to push backwards to allow more people to be stuffed on—the hawker seems to notice the front left tire to be low on air or almost flat—I can see him out the window pounding on it and examining it. He discusses the situation briefly with the driver and after another kilometer or so, they pull up alongside a small machine shop which has an air hose dangling from a wall. For some reason they can’t just use the air hose. More honking. The hawker jumps out and goes searching around for someone in the nearby shops. More honking. No one shows up. The hawker gets back on the bus, bangs the side of the bus to let the driver know to take off and off we go with no other concern being given to the low tire for the rest of the trip.
We pass endless small storefronts selling goods. The ground is dry and dusty and strewn with trash everywhere. Dogs lay in the shade.
At some point on the journey, the driver puts on loud Hindi music that blares out in the heat and dust of the bus. Sometimes the songs are lilting and in counterpoint to the chaos going on around us; sometimes they add to it.
Soon we have left the more congested region surrounding Melamchi Bazaar. Now we pass rice paddies where women squat in dirty brown water tending to plants. We see people carrying huge bundles, twice their size, on their backs moving slowly down the road.
Then we begin a climb out of the valley, the bus grinding and clawing its way up the steep road. The roads are narrow, very poorly maintained, there are no traffic signs or directions of any kind, and the driver comes perilously close to the edge on each curve. In places the roadway has crumpled partly falling into the canyon, or small landslides have occurred which we need to avoid.
There is lots of traffic—lots of buses, big trucks from India decorated with garish writing and pictures of Krishna on their sides delivering goods to villages, and the usual endless stream of scooters and motorcycles that engulf us.
The bus driver passes anyone anywhere. With a loud blast of the horn, he passes a slow moving truck. Through the open front window of our bus I see another huge truck barreling toward us. Our driver dives in front of the truck he’s passing, and all vehicles exchange loud blasts on their horns. This goes on constantly.
We reach more villages. A few people get off our bus and lots more jam on. Next to Rebecca a small boy—he looks like he’s about three—is being smashed between his mother and the bus seat. An attractive Nepalese girl, her lipstick matching her sari, is smiling and talking to her companion. A man jams himself part way on the bus and part way hanging out the door. I can tell he thinks himself dapper and suave. He asks Rebecca a strange sequence of questions.
“Where are you from?” (first question)
“How old are you?” (second question).
“Who’s he?” gesturing towards me (third question)
“He’s my husband,” she responds.
“How many sons do you have?” (fourth question).
The conversation seems to end at that point. Nearby, a boy has started vomiting into a plastic bag that his mother holds under his mouth. Above the doorway to the bus is a bag filled with smaller plastic bags for this purpose. The boy finishes puking and his mother heaves the puke-filled bag from the window, and grabs another bag which the boy promptly fills.
Nothing can quite prepare one for how jam-packed the bus is. People are virtually lying and sitting on one another up near the front of the bus and are jammed so tightly no one can move in the narrow aisle.
It goes on like this for a long time—several hours. Then on a mountainous road we pull off the side of the road—it’s a pee break. People force their way off the bus. Rebecca joins several other women who scurry just over the embankment into the trees and squat alongside each other. Men, their backs to the bus, piss gazing off into the distance the way men do when they are pissing. Then those who have left board the bus and we lurch forward again.
In another few hours, we reach the outskirts of Kathmandu. It is very dusty and the air is thick smog. Kathmandu is the third most polluted city in the world.
Now we are passing through a larger city and the road widens. Two scraggly cows walk, oblivious to the six lanes of traffic, down the center of the road.
For a short period of time, more people disembark then get on, and people can stretch and move a little. We are lucky to have seats but still we are jammed against each other.
A tiny woman gets on carrying a huge sack of something. I can see it is very heavy by the way she struggles to get it up the bus’s two steps. The hawker finally helps her, plopping the huge sack in the middle of the aisle. People sit on it.
The man who quieried Rebecca gets off smiling blithely and saying something we can’t understand.
At another stop, an ancient Hindu woman—I can tell by her dress—hunched over almost double carrying an equally ancient stick slowly climbs the steps. She shakes her stick at us; she wants our seat. We nod no. The hawker seems to agree with us. A small boy is taking up an entire large seat just across from us. With a few words, the boy is chased away and the elderly woman collapses into the seat. Later, she will get off the bus. We’ll see her struggle down the steps losing one sandal on the bus steps. Once down, she collapses sitting down on the curb folding her head into her hands. The hawker throws the shoe out the door at her. It lands alongside her and we drive off.
The woman who brought the huge sack onto the bus now gets off also. The hawker heaves the sack onto the ground and I watch as the woman attempts to lift the ponderous sack onto her back. Finally, she gets the sack onto her back. She staggers this way and that as if she were drunk, and then slowly regaining her equilibrium staggers down the street.
Watching from the bus window and door, there is always something going on. Motorcycles and scooters pass us narrowly missing the bus’s bumpers before darting in front of us. I watch as one motorcycle with three people on it pulls alongside us on the left side—vehicles in principle drive on the left in Nepal—and then races alongside us with only inches to spare before making it to the front of the bus and darting in front of us. There is one Oriental woman on a scooter. She is going impossibly slow for the traffic. We pass her numerous times as we are forced to stop and pick up and lose passengers. She stares straight ahead as she drives, a cloth mask over her mouth and nose like many of Kathmandu’s residents due to the pollution.
Now we are in central Kathmandu. We enter a giant roundabout. Vehicles are rounding it in all directions. Eventually we reach our stop, and spill out onto the sidewalk and the bus goes coughing and roaring off.