There’s an air of festivity to the country roadside. It is the first day of Dusshain (or Durga Puja) .
Many are making pilgrimages to Dakshinkali whose temple holds regular animal sacrifices (each Tuesday and holidays). Today, in lieu of Dusshain, the temple is said to be “flowing with the blood“. Family- packed motorcycles, passenger-crowded trucks and festively-flagged country buses all decorate the Taudaha roadways. like sparkling Christmas lights. Packed with curiosity of Nepalese festivals, I’m foregoing the bloodworks to witness the local ceremonies. I am pilgrimaging out to Dakshinkali and want to take the Nepalese country bus! In a way, I’m even more curious of what it’s like getting around Nepal by bus, than I am to see the festival. The fronts of the country buses in Nepal are painted in festive design and when over-crowded, there is the secondary art of passengers hanging out from the sides and riding on rooftop.
Lessons on the Nepalese country bus
Sometimes, you forget to ask important questions when you travel …like “How do I catch the bus?”
I reached the bottom of the hill of Chobhar village (a ten minute walk downhill) and looked for telltale signs of a bus stop. There were none.
Standing on Ring Road, I watched as several cars and motorbikes packed with families, rolled down the hill on their way to Dakshinkali. But where the hell was the bus stop? I stood next to a roadside shack, selling ice cream. Two nearby cows reclined up against motorcycles and a couple of sari-clad women hung out in a squat, waiting to see what I would do… I stood and waited up to an hour baffled as to why buses were driving past me, but not stopping.
When the only boy waiting for the bus alongside me, boarded a passing bus using a “run and hop” method, I started to feel uneasy. Catching a country bus wasn’t a passive sport!
Fortunately, I met Sanjju, a handsome 5 foot tall Nepalese biker. He lived in Santa Barbara but was now, flying down the road doing “dare-devil wheelies”, training to represent Nepal in a big bike race. While waiting for his entourage of press friends to catch up, he disclosed the local secret to hailing a bus.
Note: There are NO bus stop signs & buses along the countryside won’t stop unless you “hail” them down. It is like hailing a NYC cab- you have to make it apparent you want them to stop for you- wave, flag, whistle if you can. Local Nepalese more “practiced” at the art of boarding a bus have another alternative – when the bus slows, the person runs with it and hops on!
After some time chatting with Sanju and meeting his press, I hailed and boarded my bus! Over-crowded with passengers, I had to hold onto the side rail to keep from spilling out!
What is it like riding on Nepalese country bus?
All the crazy decoration you see on the outside front of the buses… continues inside the bus too and is accompanied with bollywood music blasting from loudspeakers!
I call this the “Nepalese Singing Bus” and at the cost of 25Rs (a little under a 25 cents USD), I don’t know why I didn’t try this sooner! The driver section of the cab is decorated with fake garlands and hanging cha-chas, which jiggle a dance to the bumps and grinds of the bus’s Bolly-roading. Additional cushion seats and an open view of the road are available in the front cab with the driver too.
Whip around to the back and you’ll see a sea of beautiful brown faces clothed in an array of colorful saris, bangled hands and fez-like cloth hats staring wide-eyed back at you. It’s both, a beautiful and curious sight for a foreign traveler like me to see.
How tall is the average Nepalese?
The average Nepalese male ranges under five feet tall in height, while the women average four feet. As a 5’8″ Asian-Pacific Islander, I feel giantess! I cannot stand to full height while riding in a Nepalese bus and thus, … I cannot blend. Instead, I stand hunched over, and come to discover the entire bus has their attention fixed upon me for viewing entertainment.
Seating in the Nepalese bus
Friendly Seats, Cargo & Livestock… Nepalese passengers can transport all kinds of cargo and livestock, either by storing it at the back of the bus or on the rooftop! How they get them in, on or out during peak crowd conditions, I’ve no idea…
The Nepalese are friendly and accommodating people. Standing out as “obviously awkward”, with my neck craning to keep my head from hitting the roof, people were thoughtful to offer me seats. The first seat offered had baby vomit on it, so I declined and opted to stand. Next, I was offered an arm rest to sit on. I was grateful, but still hunched, because I wanted to look outside the window, where a funeral procession, carrying a body wrapped in white cloth, crossed the road. My third seat was at the back of the bus on a heap of grain-filled bags.
There are many rules of etiquette to observe in Nepal…
- NO eating with your left hand,
- NO sharing food/drink which has touched your lips (to share drinks, you would “pour” the water into your mouth vs sipping),
- NO blowing your nose while eating”, etc…,
I was a bit surprised that sitting on someone else’s grain bag was not considered offensive and breaking some kind of “NO Ass to Mouth” rule.
Nepalese friendliness and kindness
It was on the heap of grains that two young girls, Latika and Reiju (approx 11yrs) adopted me. At first they whispered to each other, pointing and giggling at me, while looking at my New Balance shoes. They were trying to decipher my country. Finally, Reiju leaned over to ask me where I was from. The girls (along with their mothers and Latika’s little sisters) were going to Dakshinkali for Durga Puja. When we arrived at Dakshinkali, they pulled me along to follow their family puja. Each girl gifted a part of her own puja to teach me the experience.
(ringing the bells)(Latika’s mischevious baby sister #2)
Everyone will tell you that its NOT safe to travel at night and to be home before dark…
It’s not safe to be travel alone at night, but you don’t understand it until night actually falls and you’re trying to find your village in the dark! The economy in Nepal rumors to be in bad shape and there have been cases of foreigners and women being robbed, even kidnapped. Having survived the Watts Riots, L.A. earthquakes and NY’s 9-11, I’m part risk-taker, part street-smug cocky and part stupid; I’m part-naive too. With all those factors, its difficult to say which is the part that manages to elude danger each time.
When I left Dakshinkali under the wing of my new friends and their mothers on the last bus out, it was still daylight. But sunset came swiftly and before i knew it, night fell and it was very very VERY dark. Pitch black to be specific. Thus, I had four obstacles:
- #1: Street lights seem as uncommon to country villages as are bus stop signs, and not thinking to have left a bread crumb “count trail of stops” along the way, I wasn’t sure where or if there would be a Chobhar stop.
- #2: IF there was a Chobhar stop, there was an 10 minute obstacle course up a winding hillside road to the village and then to my resort stay. I poured thru options – each feeling either flawed or fucked depending upon the equations of inadequate information.
- #3: Translations to English were weak which didn’t help. Somewhere along the lines I was charged 125 Rs bus fare, due to a situation of “communication failure” (or tourist extortion).
- #4: Panic was setting in. Man, woman or child- NO ONE on that bus thought it was safe for me to get off of the bus alone to find my way in the dark. Finally, communication breakthrough- the fare collector/extortionist eventually affirmed a Chobhar stop!
Tip: Always carry a flashlight when you’re in Nepal
When the bus left me at my stop, all the light had left with it. The night sky and the stars were a brief consolation (If you can see the stars then all is not completely dark & stars don’t move, so you can navigate by them…that’s what the Ho’okulea did). Fortunately, the hillside wasn’t as deserted as I’d thought- occasionally, a car or motorcycle would drive by and shed light to the path ahead. Another handy tool was my free keychain mini flashlight that I remembered I brought for such emergencies (never discount free- it can sometimes save you). Scared shitless and briskly hoofing it up that hill, i made it back to my hotel and into the safety of a concerned resort manager and an electric lamp with 1/2hr of light left to it.
Should you accept food from locals?
Traveling in countries where the water is considered unsafe and leads to bad-baad stomach problems, I adhere to strict “Safe Food Rules” as if it were an ass-tight religion. But there is no easy way to steer clear of food if it’s offered to you out of friendship. Some people have no problem maintaining strict NOs in their eating standards despite risking hurt feelings to goodwill efforts. I am NOT one of those people. When my little friends, excited to have me join them in Durga Puja- offered me a portion of their own prassad from their hands, I took it. When they wanted me to try a berry their mom had given them and pushed it past my pursed lips… I chewed. When they begged me to take chai and roti (aka bread) with them from a sit-down run-down-shack café (BTW- much to my dismay, their mom paid for us all, despite my offering), etc… I ate. Why? There is no way to pretend to eat it and then secretly toss it out when you have four beautifully eager pair of young eyes awaiting your response! What can you do?!… Well, you do what any polite person would- you silently pray “God Bless Germs, please”, then you open your mouth and insert sickness. If sickness could come in any form, this would be the loveliest.
Still Breathing, Me