Despite strong urgings from the Kopila Valley group not to test my sanity on the bus ride from Kathmandu to Birendranagar, which has an airport, I decided that both the cheap price and country-viewing experience would make the journey worth it, though Nepal’s roads are infamously rough and dangerous, and its buses in even worse condition. The trip is a 15 hour marathon to the north-west corner of the country.
When I asked my hotel clerk for information on the bus to Birendranagar, he sent an employee on an hour long motorbike trip to find out bus times- forget about the Internet or even a telephone, this data had to be collected by hand. And so, I took the 4:30 “normal” (as opposed to “deluxe,” which entails A/C and more spacious seating) bus out of Kathmandu, promising to deliver me to Birendranagar.
I had taken crappy bus rides in Asia last year, but it was immediately apparent this would be worse. Nepali-sized seating, seats that were stained, ripped, and creaky. My luggage was strapped to the roof, and I worried it would take a tumble onto the turbulent Nepali roads. I stole some guys window seat, and used my language barrier to hold it. He sat down next to me and it was awkward, until I started sharing my Nepali version of Cheetos (Masala Munch flavor!) with him.
When the lights went out 4 hours in, he decided my shoulder was the best place for his head. Okay, fine, I stole your seat. I started listening to Deadmau5 and writing ridiculous notes on my phone.
The road, which had been curving along hairpins like a drunk and leashed puppy on a walk (too obscure?), got more and more violent and shoulder-guy was dancing to the loud Nepali music, coming from the ceiling, by smashing his temple repeatedly on my shoulder bone. It began to hurt and I really respected his ability to stay asleep. One particular jarring pothole did the trick though, and he woke up groaning and running his temple.
The kid didn’t learn his lesson though. From that point onward, when I felt his head on my shoulder I leaned forward to “check something” in my backpack as his head flopped over behind me like it was some anesthetized appendage. Needless to say, sleep didn’t come easily. When I said the music was “loud,” I meant that you would literally have to shout in someones face to be heard. This ridiculous practice is not unique to Nepal, I saw it last year as well. Possible reasons: 1. the drivers are delusional enough to think people want music blaring all night 2. the people are delusional enough to actually want music all night 3. the drivers need the music to stay awake, and either don’t know how to turn off the back speaker or think that it would be unfair to those in the front.
Sleep did come, though, and when I woke up at 5 am we were stopped and my phone indicated I had Internet service. I switched on my maps app, to see where the hell we were and how close I was to getting off the damn machine.
When the map loaded, it felt as though all the blood in my feet had been sucked out. Here’s what I saw:
Yepp. 12 hours in and going exactly the wrong direction. Zooming in, I saw we were headed towards BIRATNAGAR, a few miles from the north-east India border. This struggled to compute for a few seconds. I looked at the guy next to me and said “Birendranagar?” And he said “Mmm. Biratnagar.” Uh oh, there was definitely a syllable missing there. I ran and found the bus driver, who was in a crowd of his buddies smoking a cigarette outside the stopped bus. I told him my suspicion, and he muttered “ooohhh..” He laughed, and said something to his friends. They laughed hysterically. I joined in. What else could I do? It really was hilarious and, in truth, I found the situation so insane that it had ceased to be real.
A few factors (excuses) here, lest I look a complete idiot:
1. The guys in my hotel were entirely fluent in English. I wrote out Birendranagar for them in both English and Nepali, as well as the name of a nearby village. They confidently went and got me a written bus schedule, which I used to buy my ticket.
2. The driving time between Kathmandu and each of the Bir___nagars was the same: 15 hours. Wow! What are the odds!?
3. To the untrained ear listening to the rapid Nepali of impatient strangers, “Birendranagar” and “Biratnagar” sound very, very similar.
4. I might be a complete idiot.
And so I stoically grabbed my bags and sat down on the road as the bus left me behind in its black fart. Money running thin, 400 km of rough road from Kathmandu, and completely without any means to communicate with those around me. Hahah! See! It is hilarious!
Anyway, I made it back, though I had to transfer buses three times, and at one point spent 20 minutes on the side of the road while a group of villagers staged a strike. Their demand: that we give them electricity. This brief rebellion took the form of three tires strewn across the road, the middle one in flames and spewing an evil looking smoke. When the police showed up, there was no resistance- they simply dragged the tires from the pavement and traffic was once again free to move forward. I scoffed at the idea that we could give them electrical power for obvious reasons, but this certainly put things into perspective. How else might the people demonstrate their discontent? They are groat-and-penny poor and pay little, if any, taxes- what motivation, other than civil duty, might a government feel towards helping them? Burning tires and stopping traffic is a weak and ineffective move, but at least it’s a move.
When I got back to Kathmandu after 25 consecutive hours on Nepali buses, it turned out there was a bus to Birendranagar (the right one) leaving 10 minutes hence, and another early in the morning. God dammit, I said, lets just get there already. And so I bought the ticket and prepared myself for another 15 hour trip. I believe this is what the father of Calvin (best friend of Hobbes) would call “character building.” 40 hours on Nepali buses- that could be a new pledge event in the fraternity that would test the mental fortitude of even the bravest of souls. I made it- could you?
As a post script, so no one feels the need to pity me, I am writing this from the third floor balcony of Kopila Valley Children’s Home in Surkhet, Nepal, overlooking a palm gazebo and garden, and could not imagine a more peaceful place to be. Birds chirping, goats bahooing (?), forty children running around and below me, and all surrounded by mountains that bear some resemblance to those back home in Vermont (with a slight difference in size). Want a picture?