I have a love-hate relationship with buses in foreign countries. They can be infuriating, smelly, crowded, broken, too slow, too fast, and the list goes on. Despite all of the negative aspects, there is something highly entertaining about them, although half the time it’s only entertaining after you’ve recovered from the journey.
After teaching English in Northeastern Thailand for five months, I was starting to get a little stir crazy and decided that the solution was to mix things up a bit by venturing to Nepal. My Mom joined me for the first two weeks of travel which included several interesting bus rides much to her dismay. We didn’t quite see eye to eye on the concept that buses can be wonderful modes of transport. She wanted to go by plane between destinations because of the speed and ease, but in the end I convinced her to give buses a shot.
Our first bus experience in Nepal, from Kathmandu to Pokhara, was supposed to last six hours but turned into a 13-hour journey due to a truck accident which spurred a village strike. After leaving our original tourists-only minivan and hiking to a taxi that offered a reasonable price, we ended up in what turned out to be a Nepali clown car. In a vehicle that fits 15 people sort of comfortably, we squeezed four Frenchmen, one Canadian, two Americans, six Israelis, one Japanese, and 12 Nepalis. That’s 26 for those of you who don’t feel like doing the math. This number slowly increased as we got closer to Pokhara. Four people were on the roof, which looks comfortable because you get to sit/lie on the giant mound of backpacks and could be fun and scenic as long as you don’t mind the dust and holding on for dear life. Good luck to your poor broken body if the taxi or bus gets into an accident though.
Being in tight quarters with a skipping Aqua CD on repeat made this adventure feel like it would never end. The first time you hear Barbie Girl in a foreign country it’s exciting, but by the eighteenth time you are ready to kick the stereo in. By the time the Israeli on the roof started hurling and the taxi driver kept stopping to tighten the bolts on the wheel, I was over it. I only wanted a bed and if I was so lucky some BBC World News before the power went out (a frequent occurrence). I had been gone long enough that even hearing sports news, something that would typically bore me into a catatonic state, made me happy.
Our next bus ride was from Pokhara to Chitwan, and although it wasn’t nearly as long as the previous experience, it was equally annoying. The seats on the bus felt as though they were held in place by a few pieces of used chewing gum, making for the bumpiest five hours of my life. I think I can confidently say that I’ve been on better roads in Burma, which says a lot. The roads make you feel every gram of fat on your body jiggle and if you’ve ever wanted to test the quality of your bra, this is the most thorough way to do it.
It didn’t quite matter whether or not you wanted your seat to recline because they all do the moment you lean back in them, leaving very minimal personal space for the person behind you. My mom and I are lucky to have short legs in these situations.
This ride made me reminisce about that Disneyland ride the Matterhorn. The road winds close to cliffs and makes those sharp zig-zaggy moves along the road, only unlike Disneyland, the sharp wheel turns aren’t made to scare you but to make sure you aren’t run off the road by the trucks, buses, and cars that you are playing chicken with.
On our third bus ride, my Mom and I found ourselves with great front-seat views of the road ahead of us. We were aware of every near miss and the fact that the only things preventing us from flying off the road were a few stacks of bricks here and there. I came to the realization that I seem to have an almost unnerving lack of fear in these situations. My mom can’t even look at the oncoming traffic, let alone the cliffs, whereas I can’t even get my pulse to race the slightest bit. I would like to say that it’s some kind of weird adrenaline junkie thing, but I don’t get any kind of rush out of watching us nearly slam head on into a massive truck carrying a huge load of gravel.
I felt nothing throughout what should have been frightening bus rides. Which is interesting because while we were on our canoe trip in the Chitwan National Park I had a mini panic attack as our canoe hovered above a massive crocodile and my mom remained completely relaxed. I think that’s slightly justifiable, though. Our guide was a stoner who was perpetually baked out of his mind. As we got close to the first crocodile in our canoe made out of a single hollowed out log, he nonchalantly told us about his last close-call crocodile attack two days earlier. I don’t know about you, but I sure as hell don’t want the man in charge of my life to be high as a kite and chuckling when a crocodile comes out of the water to rip my arm off. I want Crocodile Dundee, someone with a spear or a gun. At least someone with a safari shirt, not a dirty t-shirt that says “Hello my name is _____. If I’m too drunk to know my way home, please send me to this address:_______.”
While my mom was trying to calm herself down in her front row seat of horror, I would admire and read the phrases on the back of the trucks we passed. Road King. No time for love. See You. Horn Please. Catch me if you can. I thought the trucks in Thailand were pretty, but Nepal really takes the cake. They are brightly decorated inside and out and painted with elaborate designs and scenes. And the horns! The horns are the best in Nepal. The drivers make little songs with their horns. It could be a quick warning single beep or it could be a fun little tune depending on their reason for honking.
As I dozed off, I dreamt of my imaginary life as a Nepali trucker. My truck was neon pink and on the sides there were paintings of birds flying above a Buddha in a field of lotus flowers. The back read Eat My Sneeze Inducing Nepali Dust Suckers! and the front proudly declared Road Queen. I was perched above the steering wheel in my turquoise and lime green sari honking tweedly dee da dee until I was jolted awake by a near head on collision.
At first my mom was annoyed with me for not agreeing to fly between Kathmandu and Pokhara, and although she didn’t fully come around to love bus travel like I do, she at least understood where I was coming from. First of all, I’m cheap. When I’m traveling and I see a large sum of money being spent in a way that I know I could do for ten times cheaper it kills me. An unnecessary flight between Kathmandu and Pokhara was seen in my eyes as several days worth of food. Secondly, there is no better way to actually see a country than by bus.
Slow travel is severely underrated these days. We are always rushing around and in doing so end up missing so much. Why fly over a country when you can drive through it? Every rest stop or break down gives you the chance to peer into the way things operate. Planes are usually uneventful modes of travel, but buses will almost always give you a story to walk away with in the end, even if it means you have to suffer a little in the process.
My mom may not have relished the quirks of bus travel while in Nepal, but she sure does have a lot of fun reminiscing about it now. She swears that it made her less uptight and nervous because now she just accepts that sometimes you have no control over a situation. You just have to sit back and enjoy the view.