Dana and I woke up early on our first morning in Nepal. We were staying in a hostel in Kathmandu, and the air was much colder than we had expected. We were swaddled in the hostel’s blankets, listening to the sounds of our other bunkmates’ breathing, when we realized that we were both already awake. We changed clothes in the cold air, abandoning a shower for the sake of staying warm. I stuffed my swim suit – a necessity in the 90 degree weather of Thailand – into the bottom of my backpack and pulled out my snow hat. We went to the front desk to check out.
We planned to take a tourist bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara, where my college best friend Alex would meet us. Alex is in the Peace Corps in Nepal (she was the original reason for our trip), and lives in a village located about a four hour bus ride from Pokhara. But because we would be trekking and because Pokhara was the closest big city to her village, she elected to meet us there. She pre-booked us tickets for a tourist bus, which had large seats, a bathroom on board, and an included lunch. We’d spend our entire day – seven hours – on the bus.
“How early do we need to be for our tourist bus?” I asked the man who was checking us out of our $1 American room.
“But,” he looked at me questioningly. “They already left.”
Panic drove deep into my stomach. The buses were gone? But the buses left at 8 am. We knew that. Dana and I exchanged worried looks. I logged onto the wifi and checked my messages from Alex. Her message said that the buses left at 7 am, something that we had missed in the hecticness of our late arrival the night before. Dana cleared her throat.
“Are there any other options?”
“Well,” he looked at us, as if trying to gage our stamina. “You can take a local bus.”
It was our only choice. The hostel-owned taxi drove us to the mini bus park, where we boarded a bus that was more like a 15 passenger van than a bus. 20 Nepalis sat crowded into rows in the tiny bus, which was parked in a dirty road-side lot. We were given the seats in the back corner, and everyone stared at us. We knew only one word of Nepali: “Namaste”, which means hello and goodbye. I couldn’t bring myself to stare back, but tugged my snow hat further down over my forehead instead. The crisp air felt as prickly as their long, hard looks. In Thailand, I had been one of many white people. In Nepal, we stuck out like very pale sore thumbs.
The next six hours were bumpy. I hate buses, probably due in part to the fact that I always have to pee when I get into moving vehicles. Vehicles that don’t have on board bathrooms may be one of my worst fears – my palms get sweaty just thinking about it. Worse yet, we had no idea if or when the Nepali microbus would stop. The driver turned on loud Indian music and we set off along the mostly-paved (and slightly unpaved) roads. When we hit potholes, my head hit the ceiling of the bus. There were no windows open near me, and the stares continued well into the second hour of the trip. When we finally got off of the bus in Pokhara, I almost collapsed from the exhaustion of holding both my composure and my muscles taunt. We found Alex twenty minutes later and it was an excessive reunion. I cried.
That bus ride turned out to be only the first of many on our trip. This is a good moment to give you an aside about Nepali buses. The buses are painted bright blues, pinks, and purples and made of what is likely some type of aluminum. The insides of the buses are bedazzled, and large sound systems play that same Indian music at high volume for the entirety of the ride. One man, who’s designated job is collecting fairs, hangs out the door most of the time, yelling into the bus about stops. The seats are designed for a shoulder width that is roughly three-quarters of my own, and I spent most of my rides smashed up against Nepalis, who consequently have a very different sense of personal space than Americans do. Nepalis are also notorious for motion sickness, so you often hear a shout for “Plastic!”, followed by the sound of vomiting. When no plastic is available, chip bags are used. The bags are then tossed out the window. The unpaved roads are so narrow that two vehicles can barely pass each other, so the passing process involves an excessive use of horns and coming within inches of another bedazzled tin can bus. This is all accompanied by severe overcrowding (more people fit on those busses than you can imagine). It’s a fun time.
The day after our initial bus trip, we took another two hour ride to the starting point of our trek. I had to pee badly about an hour into the trip, and eventually Alex had to stop the packed bus by yelling at the bus driver in Nepali about my intense need to get off the moving vehicle. Later, she told me that the Nepalis around me were yelling “The foreigner needs to pee!!” When the bus finally pulled over, the whole bus got to watch me pull down my pants and squat in a ditch. That’s an experience I may never forget.
On our way to Alex’s village, the bus ride took about four hours (the trip is only 60 miles). At one point, a very pretty, very tall Nepali woman sat down next to me. I mention her height because her extra inches made it even less likely that either of us could be contained to the dimensions of our individual seats. Her thigh immediately pressed against mine, and we juggled for shoulder space. She seemed unconcerned about the fact that we were touching each other. I was conscious of her every movement. She talked loudly on the phone, playing with the unraveling edge of her sweater. She chatted with the Nepalis around her (who she apparently did not know). She asked me questions in Nepali (to which I kept replying “No Nepali!”). She made me hold her seat while she got off of the bus to pee at one of the stops, leaving me with her bag and the stares of the Nepalis standing in the aisle, who I was certain thought I was hogging the chair for myself. And finally, she boarded the bus again, reached across my body, closed the window that I had been pointedly keeping open (fresh air was necessary given the “plastic” shouts around me), laid her head on my shoulder and promptly fell asleep. I couldn’t help but laugh as we bounced in unison, the sound of loud Indian music narrating our ride. When she got off the bus several stops before me, she touched my shoulder with gratitude. I smiled, and reopened my window.