One can effectively travel through Nepal these days without ever having to encounter Nepali culture. Traveling between the tourist hubs of Thamel (in Kathmandu) to Chitwan to Pokhara, perhaps even to the Khumbu (Everest Region), a tourist will definitely encounter a whole of a lot of haggling (Tiger Balm? Pashmina?), heaps of restaurants with the same novel-length ‘international’ menu, ugly hippie clothes, and fluorescent bedspreads in their guest house- but never will they come across culture. Take a local bus from the Ratna Bus Park, and all that changes. Not only will you be fully immersed in the sounds, smells, and textures of Nepal, you will forget that you ever had a sense of personal space, you will obligingly take on other people’s children as your own, and you will disregard the small mountain of fossilized vomit that is prohibiting your window from opening.
Mind you, I have taken a local bus before. My journey to Sangachok just reminded me of how perfectly serendipitous, and painful, a local bus journey in Nepal can be, and I wanted to share. I woke up on Thursday morning at the usual 6:15 am, a time I can’t seem to shake after my weeks at the orphan home, and headed out to find some breakfast and Wi-Fi. I was to meet Durga and head north through the hills to Sangachok, in Sindupalchowk, at around 10 am. It is working with First Steps Himalaya that I am to spend my next week, helping out wherever needed in any of the 7 Early Childhood Development Centres that they have established in the Sindupalchowk region. When I finally did meet up with Durga, he had collected an array of items for the ECD centers that resembled a traveling Toys R Us. After 5 minutes convincing the taxi driver that we could indeed fit all of it into his cab, we were off to Ratna Bus Park, where I believe I had been before, when Becca and I climbed aboard the godforsaken 9 hour bus to Jiri three years ago. A little bit of a cluster-f***, as most bus parks are (even in the ‘developed’ world), it was easy enough to find the bus, as Durga is Nepali and I just chugged along behind him toting supplies. $1.50 later we were on the bus, and I was surprised at how quickly we got moving.
As our bus pulled out of the park, I was relieved to find that our driver was more of the “slow ambling pace” than the “pedal to the metal” variety, until I found out that he would not leave 1st gear until we were well out of the Kathmandu Valley. Even after that, I’m pretty sure we only ever made it to 2nd. While people walking from village to village passed us, our bus made its snail pace up and into the foothills of the Himalayas. Durga and I found the pace amusing, until the bus got so packed to the gills that I had a teenage boy pressing himself into my shoulder, with my nose closer to his armpit than I ever want to relive. At some stage we stopped for a minute and Durga lept up and stated that he “had to go to the stationary store”. Five minutes later the bus was pulling away, with Durga making a mad dash for the door. He had to pick up some apples, I guess. Taking the vacant window seat opportunity, I left Durga for the aisle, to which an unknowing woman gradually made her way as far into Durga’s lap as is humanly possible without sitting on it. His nose nearly in her purse, I jokingly told him that he should take something out. He snooped for a bit, but noted that there was nothing of any use.
Three hours into the journey, two young dusty haired brothers dressed in equally dusty school uniforms hopped on the bus. When Durga asked them where they were headed, the younger replied that they were headed to Sangachok. Durga then scooped up the young one and plopped him between the two of us, commanding him “sutne jau”- go to sleep. If I had to pick one thing about Nepali children that amazes me the most, it would be their ability to sleep on command. This little guy though, tried painfully hard to stay awake, every so often giving me a sideways glance, as if falling asleep would surely mean doom in the hands of the scary white lady who keeps smiling. I tried my best not to scare the poor child, and instead focused my time on keeping my feet from falling asleep, as the jackknife position I had assumed was cutting circulation to nearly all of my appendages. I pity the Nepali that is anywhere near 6 feet tall.
Eventually we did make it to Sangachok, a quiet town high in the hills with sleepy street dogs, friendly people, and a view like you can’t believe. I met Leela and Kamal, who are not only my host family but pioneers of the ECD center with Durga. They have two children, 12 year old Ashish, and 15 year old Anu, who Leela pointed out is, “tall and thin, like you!” Already welcoming us into their 2-storey Newari home with some of the most delicious daal bhat I have ever had, Leela’s family is all smiles and nothing but warmth. Already I’m loving the pace of village life, and tomorrow we are on to the ECD Center to hang out with some kids.