We crawl through a hole, G. and I. To call it a “tunnel” would be too generous; it is more an architectural mistake. It is as if the builder had set the frame of a building and then started laying brick from this end before running out at the far end. It is a dark hole just over a meter high, power lines running through it near the top right corner, and water pouring into it from the street outside, bringing with it the stench and filth of the Kathmandu streets. This hole separates our hotel from the main street, a second row of buildings built behind the first row and divided by a narrow alley. An unexplained oddity that occurs frequently in a city with no obvious system of planning.
G. and I are overburdened. We carry three bags each. A massive pack full of gear is strapped to each of our backs, forcing us to squat low and power through the hole. We each carry a blue and red plaid bag, both bursting with gear, and finally, a smaller backpack and duffel.
We emerge onto the street, and the scene is dismal. It has rained all night and continues to drizzle under a dark, grey, overcast sky. The rain has collected in pools all around the uneven road, carrying with it and collecting the garbage and dirt and feces of a city bursting at the seams. The constant stench that marks the beginning of total sensory overload anytime you leave the hotel is intensified by the rain. We jog down the road, overloaded but unwilling to let our gear get wet on the first day of our journey, before we even leave the city. We bang on the side of a taxi. The driver, dozing, wakes with a start, and becomes confused as he struggles to understand two deranged and dripping white men, obscured by baggage and the morning rain. We point down the road to indicate we want a ride, he nods, brow still furrowed, and we throw our things into the cab.
The rain is getting worse. We have been delayed a week and the Monsoon season should be ending, but instead it is intensifying. The afternoon showers of a week ago have become prolonged rainstorms. It is disconcerting, especially so because we are not entirely prepared. My bag is the only one with a rain-cover, and it has never been tested. By process of elimination, it becomes the one volunteered to ride on the roof of the cab when we run out of room inside. All my books, journals, and clothing are protected by an uncertain thin sheet. The plaid bags are guessed to be “water resistant” and they end up on top as well. G. and I finally climb in, clothing damp.
Even with the bags on top, there is still little room in the cab. G has a duffel on his lap, and I try desperately to avoid being impaled by the metal frame of his pack which has ended up perilously close to my eye. The final small bag has been jammed into the back of the cab, in the space between the top of the back seat and the window. We are cramped, and we still plan to pick up K.B. and have no idea what kind of baggage he will have. The cab jostles to life, gears catch in place and it lurches forward, rolling over various soaked scraps of colorful paper left over from a parade the previous night.
The night was strange and we are still processing it. It began with our Tibetan guide quitting at the eleventh hour; literally 11 o’clock the night before we left, when she demanded an absurd amount of money for her labor, something she had told us not to worry about on multiple occasions when we had asked. She is exceptionally smart, a native of Dolpo, and showed particular interest in the project, but refused to accept anything less than her ridiculous proposal, even after we repeatedly said we simply didn’t have that much money. After talking it over for a while and trying to make sense of her abrupt personality change, G. and I finally crawled into bed with less than four hours to sleep.
An hour later, however, what I initially took to be a dream turned out to be a parade of snare drums and trumpets. Our room extended over the hotel front door, merged with the buildings lining the street, and our windows looked out over it. The curtains were drawn, but quickly thrown open as G. and I looked down on a baffling scene. Nearly forty people were cheering and marching down the street, at two in the morning, preceded by a marching band. This unusual celebration of some holiday or marriage–we couldn’t tell–left us wide awake the remainder of the night.
The cab has begun to hit large pot-holes and between splashes of water I push G.’s bag back to keep it out of my eye. There is no traffic on the roads this early, and the driver is taking full advantage, avoiding the use of a brake whenever possible and accelerating over the rare straight regions of otherwise winding roads. We hydroplane around corners and make great time, arriving at our meeting place with K.B. several minutes early.
We make no attempt to get out of the car. The cabby looks around, confused. We don’t know enough Nepali and he doesn’t know enough English to explain that we are waiting for someone, we want to go somewhere else. We sit staring at each other for a minute or two. The cab driver has turned the meter off and G. and I both try and tell him it’s okay to let it run. In a city where cabs constantly stop for Caucasians, or break from traffic moving in the opposite direction to pull a quick U-turn, disrupt other vehicles to pull into oncoming traffic, and slam on the brakes inches from your hip just for the opportunity to make a few extra rupees from an unassuming tourist, it seems we’ve found the one unambitious cab driver in the lot, and he smiles and says it’s “OK.”
K.B. is like most other Nepali, the concept of time is beyond him. It would be a miracle if he were even awake by now. We wait five minutes past our meeting time and then call him on the phone. He proposes we drive to his house to pick him up. We hand the phone to the cabby to get directions, and after a three minute conversation it appears the cabby still doesn’t know where K.B. lives. He hangs up, drives down a few random alleys, and then asks for the phone again. He calls K.B., talks for another minute or so, drives forward thirty meters, then gets out of the cab and walks away. G. and I are left inside the cab, more than a little confused. The meter, we notice, is running.
The rain continues to fall. More than a drizzle now, it splashes and runs down the cab’s windows in great streams, and I think of my exposed bag. We wait another ten minutes, the only words exchanged between G and I, a question from him: “Uh… Should we go try and find him…?” and then silence as both of us try to make sense of the situation, but without stepping into the rain. K.B. finally shows up, entirely empty-handed. He gets in the cab, exchanges a hello, and then sits back, seemingly unperturbed there is no driver.
“Uh… We… Don’t have a driver?” G. seems to pose this question to the dashboard. I decide I’m going to be proactive. We have a bus to catch. I open the door, crawl out from my cave of baggage and stumble onto the soaking street. A few feet away is a dog with white and tan fur, large patches missing, trying to poop but struggling, a bloody mucus leaks from its behind. Beside it lies a dead dog, hit by a car and dragged to the side of the road where it decays. I hold up my arms in a useless attempt to prevent the rain from soaking my clothing and walk a few paces behind the cab before finding the driver, sitting in a tea shop drinking milk tea and chatting amicably with the owner. I catch his gaze, point, and then rush back to the cab as he waggles his head and then continues to drink his tea.
The dog is still struggling, soaked through. I push through bags to get back to my seat. “He’s drinking tea.”
The meter runs.
A few moments later the cabby gets back in and pulls the cab forward. He and K.B. begin to talk in Nepali. K.B. is sitting behind him and gesturing and pointing frantically, no gestures of which the cabby can see unless he turns all the way around and drifts precariously around narrow roads with stone walls on either side. We reach K.B.’s place of residence to pick up his baggage. He has a large duffel full of supplies, something we didn’t anticipate, and then a small, pink, knock-off Sparrow pack capable of carrying maybe five-pounds for himself.
The duffel is smashed and twisted until it fits in the cab and we begin to bounce along the pot-holed road once more. We reach a main road and the cab picks up speed on the nearly empty street littered with plastic wrappers, rotting food, and empty tin cans all floating in a growing stream of muck that overflows the nearly-nonexistent gutters and spills onto the sidewalk and laps up in waves against store fronts.
We are headed north from just outside the southern boundary of Kathmandu toward a bus park near its northern tip. It is a brief tour of the reality we have grown used to the past few weeks. Twisted and knotted power lines dangle haphazardly along sidewalks, dipping low enough to threaten unwary pedestrians with decapitation or worse. An electrocuted carcass currently rots in a city hospital from one such incident. The boy died seven weeks ago and the family refuses to remove him until the electrical company pays the hospital bill. The story has made front page news in the English papers, which currently soak and disintegrate in the puddles on the road.
Roaming packs of emaciated dogs hunt through giant, soaking and pungent garbage heaps littering the side of the road.
We cross the Bagmati river, swollen from recent rains, and a disgusting brown color with garbage floating in it in giant heaps. Discarded papers, shoes, hubcaps, food, plastic bags, and other discarded pieces of civilization mix with the ash of burned bodies dumped in from a few kilometers upstream at Pashupatinath. It is a sickening pale-green brown of pollution and filth. The overpowering odor of sulfur and vomit that rises from it penetrates the car’s doors and invades our nostrils. The river is lined with tin and straw shanties. Several of the residents are already wading in the river with giant metal forks to collect something from the sludge at the bottom of the river, as they do every day.
We are finally stopped. A traffic policeman in a blue parka directs a three-way intersection where the light overhead has stopped working because of a load-shedding power cut. The city has no electrical grid, just a haphazard collection of wires that constantly demand power, which it cannot provide. So the city regulates the power given to each district, shifting available power around periodically and leaving whole sections of the city in a blackout for hours at a time. The buildings beside us rise high and lifeless with soaking plastic signs hanging at odd angles, banner upon banner crowding any available viewing space, but all dark.
A boy about seven in a soaking, red, muscle shirt wanders in the street and shuffles over to our cab window. His eyes are red and hollow, his lips blue and chapped. His whole body shivers. He reaches out with his hand, taps on the window, moans, and moves his hand to his lips, indicating he wants food. Water runs down his face as he continues to moan and repeat this motion until the traffic around him begins to move again, urged on by the policeman.
The road changes, going from potholed and uneven asphalt to uneven brick, then to uneven stone. We pass through narrow alleys where butcher shops have begun business. Lifeless heads of goats or water-buffalo rest on tables, their entrails spread over tabletops where the flies have begun to gather, their blood turning the streams of water red. The Groomers have also begun to emerge. They peel each others’ hair back, pull out lice and smash them between their fingers. People materialize in the dense downpour from houses, carrying black plastic bags with last-night’s feces in them which they place on the side of the road where they fill with water and spill over. Waste disposal typically involves burning. Small fires normally burn on every street corner, filling the air with black smoke and large pieces of ash, but this isn’t possible today in the rain.
Traffic begins to swell and surge on the road to the bus park, and after another twenty-five minutes of driving the cab pulls to the curb and we arrive. We pile out and stand around confused, unsure what to do next. I grab and flip open an umbrella as K.B. runs off to find our bus. G and I stand in the murky morning and hesitate. We’re unsure if we should unpack the cab. Is this the right bus park?
K.B. is gone for several minutes and our driver becomes impatient. I look at G, and say I’ll go search for him. The bus park is a large complex with several exposed concrete islands separating various lanes of road where buses are pulling in and out. Goats and other livestock are tethered to the top of some, where they stumble and slip on the wet roof-tops. Behind the exposed islands is a small, covered island and then an open air building complex covered in hastily-erected tin sheeting with refreshment stands and ticket counters bustling with people. I jog forward, unsure of where to go or what to do, but too uncomfortable with simply remaining stationary.
It takes me a minute of searching, but I find K.B. He is walking back from a distant, unseen part of the park under a red, plaid umbrella that contrasts strongly with his yellow and green shirt, covered slightly by a gray North Face vest. The shirt is unmistakable, with a giant green marijuana leaf covering nearly the entire front side bordered by the words: “Marijuona, because your friends just are’t very funny” (sic). He raises his arm high and signals that we should come over and join him under a portion of the covered island.
I jog back to the cab and we unload the gear. We pay the driver the first of our now limited monetary funds. We had to pull out everything we thought we would need for the next three months from an ATM the previous day. As I grab my bag, a pool of water that has collected at the base of the cover pours down my legs.
Under the island we are just as lost. We are next to a parking lot now, overflowing with colorful buses dripping with water. The lot is an explosion of green, blue, pink, and orange colors, and advertisements for “Coach Seating” or “DVD.” Most people waiting for a bus are gathered under the covered islands and the whole area is engulfed in a thick fog of cigarette smoke which stings my eyes. I feel cold, genuine cold, for the first time this trip and open my bag to pull out a sweater. The bag is mostly dry, the cover having done its job well, except for where the rain leaked in around the base. K.B. has wandered off again, but returns shortly with our trekking agent and porters.
The porters are all young and strong, needed for carrying the loads they are expected to carry over the high-mountain passes we plan on crossing. There are five, the youngest 19, the oldest 34. Hurried handshakes are exchanged, names I cannot possibly remember are given and then they grab our bags and walk off, carrying the loads to stack on top of the bus. We call them back, say some of our bags shouldn’t go on top. We don’t want to start out with wet bags, and tell them just to stick the bags in the back row of seats, which we’ll pay extra for if necessary. They continue over to the bus, a white 21-seater with blue and orange stripes that have bled down the side, probably when it rained as they were
painting the bus.
On top of the bus is a massive collection of bags stacked precariously high. We have had multiple conversations with our trekking agent, telling him we did not want the usual luxuries trekkers receive when traveling in Nepal. Normally, tourists sit at tables on metal folding chairs, drink tea from complete tea sets, and enjoy luxurious foods like apple-pie or lasagna when trekking. This has become a culturally accepted norm, and we shocked everyone by requesting none of these things be brought along. It would require an extra porter, and so we vehemently opposed any luxury and insisted on drinking tea from our own mugs and eating simple foods with our own plates and silverware. Judging by the size of the bags stacked on the bus and belonging to our party, these requests have been ignored and we are going to carry significantly more weight than we anticipated.
We huddle under the protective cover of the island, unwilling to go out into the rain and board the bus until it is absolutely necessary. I need to pee, and grab my umbrella and begin to walk toward the building complex to find a toilet. It is swarming with people, and I struggle to find my intended destination. I briefly consider just finding a quiet corner, a rather common practice around Kathmandu, but then find a sign with a male figure pointing around the back of the building. Outside, there are a collection of women who ask for money to enter the toilet: five rupees. I dig deep into my pockets, pull out a dirty bill and hand it to them, walk into the toilet and immediately regret not simply carrying out my initial impulse of finding a corner.
The women in front of the toilet are obviously not maintenance women. They may not even work for the bus department. They may just sit out front and try to catch unsuspecting tourists. In any case, their job doesn’t extend to cleaning anything. Several of the toilets have backed up and spilled over, leaving a shallow pool of urine and feces spilled across the length of the room, and the smell is overpowering. I hold my breath, stick as close to the wall as possible and tip-toe around to a urinal, quickly complete my business and rush out. This is, sadly, not an unfamiliar state for restrooms in this city.
The rain continues and time ticks slowly by. G. turns to K.B. and asks “How far do you think this storm system stretches across Nepal?”
“Today, I think it rains across all Nepal.”
We finally get a signal from one of the porters and rush over to the bus and clamber in. Three men sit inside smoking and the bus is filled with the noxious fumes, but they quickly depart and the atmosphere becomes a bit more manageable. The bus seats are stuck as close together as possible, designed for a population whose average height is around 5’4″, and so I am given a seat by the door where there is a little more room between the seat and hand rail that runs along the stairs into the bus. The seats are rusted, with torn cloth covering cold metal, and are exceptionally uncomfortable. In the front, there are simply benches laid haphazardly around the driver to maximize the number of people that can be jammed in the bus at one time. The front window is covered in decorative, colorful strands of yarn, giving the bus a rather festive feel.
Cold air flows in around me and makes me shiver. G. and K.B. sit behind me and begin talking to the Door Boy about the cost of seats we’re putting luggage on. Buses are operated by teams of two: a driver and a door boy who stands in the door way and screams out destinations and tries to attract customers. Our D.B. is about 17 years old, a muscular frame, and wears a blue shirt with a picture of a smiling puppy and two pink shoes. He has a square, baby face with wide, round eyes that give him a constant perplexed look.
The porters get involved in the negotiation and, outnumbered, the D.B. agrees to let us have the seats for free, so long as the bus doesn’t fill. A few minutes later the driver climbs in and the engine roars to life. A few more people climb in, but the bus is still mostly empty as we roll out of the bus park and into the street.
The door to the bus is never closed. It hangs open as the D.B. swings out of it, rain splashing against his face and body as he shouts to people on the street. Cold air blasts me in the face and rain splashes against my eyes, forcing me to close them to tiny slits as the city begins to slip by. The bus swerves around wandering cows and people that carelessly cross the street, oblivious to the traffic careening toward them. Large buildings begin to be replaced by smaller structures, roughly constructed.
Just before merging with the major highway out of the city, we stop at another bus stop and the D.B. leaps out and vanishes into the crowd, shouting. A middle-aged man holding water bottles in both hands climbs into the bus and shouts “Pani! Pani!” He gets no takers, turns to me, sees me looking and thrusts a bottle near my face “Water?,” he asks uncertainly.
I wave him off, but he is replaced by several small children, beggars. They hold out their hands and make feeble moaning sounds, looking as miserable as they possibly can. Some carry slips of paper with an English and Nepali paragraph written on it describing their plight and asking for money. They shove the paper at your face and continue to do so until they are brushed away. One boy asks me for money and when I wave him off he points at my hiking boots, moans and points at his own bare feet. He persists at this, grabbing my shoulder, until the bus begins to move again and he jumps off.
The D.B. is still not on board. He reappears every so often in the crowd, slowly following the rolling bus and jostling with other D.B.s for potential customers. He is very good. His baby face and perplexed look crave sympathy, and his loud voice and constant pulling on peoples’ shoulders convinces them to board our bus. He is not satisfied with only a few customers, but must win them all from other D.B.s, and quickly gathers a large harem.
A husband and wife join us, pulled from another D.B.’s stock and very unsure of their new bus. They wait a few minutes as we slowly roll, then stand and get off. Before their feet even hit the ground, the D.B. is on them, materializing out of nowhere, his innocent, baby look gone. He is angry, shouting, pulling, but the couple are insistent and walk away followed by his screams.
Salesman and peddlers of various goods continue to enter the bus briefly and jump off, several of our porters get off, purchase junk-food from a nearby refreshment stand and run to catch up, before we finally reach the end of the stop, and a now sopping wet D.B. leaps back on, bangs on the side of the bus twice in a signal to the driver, and we merge back with traffic and pick up speed. The bus is full now, and the D.B. temporarily sits next to the driver to dry off, but the door remains open, blasting me with cold air.
The urban sprawl of Kathmandu seems to go on forever. Breaks in buildings reveal rice paddies and other cropland, but just as quickly these are replaced by even more buildings. Buildings that initially seemed to be shrinking in size begin to grow again. Complex neighborhoods with multiple-storied buildings spring up. Advertisements for televisions, cars, and soft drinks never disappear along the roadside. After nearly an hour, we finally begin to climb a hill and leave the sprawl behind. The view outside the bus window changes, and we see numerous brick mills, each brick-red against the dark-green landscape. The mills gradually give way to green fields, woodland, and terraced farmland overflowing with water.
The bus reaches our first precipice, a brief flat zone before a steep decline down a narrow road into a sparsely populated valley. The driver pulls us past this point, slowly eases the machine over the edge and down the slope before pressing hard on the brake and bringing us to a stop. A pee break overlooking the valley. Several passengers spring up and clamber out.
The driver pulls the emergency brake and begins to climb out himself. As he gets up from his seat, his knee hits the emergency brake and knocks it lose. The bus begins to roll forward.
There is a pause, everyone in the bus hesitates, and the driver looks back across his body toward the wheel, confused.
Then all at once people begin to scream. I grip the hand rail hard and open my mouth, but this is all I can manage. The bus is beginning to pick up speed, roll down the hill toward a cliff-side with increasing velocity and the driver is still hesitating, unsure of what to do. Several passengers from the back begin to leap forward and climb over seats, and this seems to jolt the driver from his stasis. He leaps back into the chair, but is still unsure of himself. He grabs the wheel as an instinctual response, and we continue to roll. The bus is filled with sound now, the sound of people shouting and screaming, while I sit silent, opening and closing my mouth, watching my impending death accelerate toward me.
The driver finally comes to life, smashing both feet onto the brake pedal, and the bus comes to a screeching halt. The passengers in the aisle are thrown forward and land in a pile near my feet. The driver looks around in a daze, puts the bus in reverse and begins to roll it back up the hill. There is nervous laughter. We park at our previous position and he moves to get out again. I decide, suddenly, that I need to pee, too, and leap out onto solid ground. G. follows me and we exchange a look. “That would have sucked,” he says. I manage a weak smile. My hands are shaking.
A minute later we are all back on the bus and rolling downhill in a more controlled manner, though barely. The bus careens around corners, drifts over wet roads, and passes within inches of other vehicles heading up the hill. The road is narrow, and there is danger on either side. When we are closer to the cliff-side, I look out over a sheer drop with no kind of barrier preventing vehicles from rolling off. When we are hill-side to our left is a massive stone drainage ditch, several feet deep, covered in vines and mosses and just wider than our wheel. To the right are buses and dump trucks climbing up the hill. The driver only applies the break when needed, lets us pick up speed until we round a corner and see we can’t fit between the space provided between the hill and an approaching vehicle and smashes on the brakes. The door in front of me remains open, not even allowing me to separate myself from impending doom with a window and making me shiver from both cold and fear.
Within a few minutes the D.B. swings between seats to talk with G. and K.B. again. The bus is full and he wants 1200NRs for the seats we are taking with luggage. G. reaches into his wallet and pulls out a 1000 rupee note and hands it to him. The D.B. looks at it, frowns and gestures for more.
G. responds, “Two-hundred rupees for nearly killing us.”
K.B. and I begin to chuckle. The D.B. looks confused and K.B. translates loud enough for the entire bus to hear. Everyone bursts out laughing. Ha ha ha! Yeah! You remember that time we almost all died in that steel tube careening off the edge of the cliff!? Ha ha! That was funny! The D.B. sits down again. Apparently this is a good enough excuse for not paying.
Our bus is faster than most. It quickly catches up with traffic ahead and we begin to pass other vehicles on the twisting, narrow road. There are no painted lanes on the road, no indications of when it is okay or not okay to pass. Our bus swerves into the opposite lane and hurtles down the wrong side of the road around blind corners at excessive speeds.
I try to comfort myself with a false sense of security, reasoning that this is a normal behavior in this part of the world and accidents are rare enough that most of the people who go on these trips still seem to be alive, but this feeling is shattered time and time again when we come to a large traffic jam and have to creep around overturned trucks and buses. The entire front of one is missing, having smashed into a wall with excessive force.
As we turn and screech and zoom past other vehicles, the ride becomes rough. I am thrown
about in my confined space as the driver slams on the brakes, or the bus is violently pitched back into our lane to avoid a collision with on-coming traffic. My exposed knees are repeatedly banging against the partition in front of me, sometimes painfully, and when we stop for food or rest breaks I can feel them bruising as I walk around.
We are following the Trishui river, swollen and muddy brown from where its banks have invaded the surrounding landscape in the persistent rain. It is a clean brown, though, a healthy, bright, natural brown unlike that of the Bagmati. Waterfalls of various sizes are frequent on nearby hillsides, pouring down to the valley below. They, too, are larger than they should be, having eroded portions of the landscape and destroyed sections in mud and landslides.
The road is not immune to this excessive precipitation. Canals dug to direct water off the road have overflowed, and the water collects in sometimes massive pools along the road that we skid through recklessly. Adding to the excitement, we occasionally find whole sections of hillside collapsed on the road. Small passages have been dug out, leaving just enough room for a single vehicle to move through over loose and muddy rock.
Pot holes are common. The driver will suddenly slam on the brakes on an empty road and slowly move the bus over a massive missing portion of the road. Wheels will dip into wells, the bus will tilt, the weight of the bags on top increasing the angle of tilt, and we will lean out over the cliff-side at angles over twenty degrees, teetering on the edge of overturning, before the wheel catches the opposite side of the hole and we straighten out again.
The valley becomes shrouded in mist and we temporarily lose sight of the river. We pass a bus which has hit the drainage ditch and bashed into the hillside at an odd angle. Another bus that tried to avoid the accident is stuck in a massive pile of mud. Cold air continues to blast me from the open doorway. When we pass people walking on the road, probably from broken or crashed busses, the D.B. will rush to the opening and yell at them, invite them in, and the bus begins to fill well beyond capacity. People collect on all the benches around the driver, stand in all the aisles, and the bus begins to sag and teeter even more dangerously under the excessive weight.
We are barely three hours into a twelve hour ride and I already feel as though we have used up whatever luck we brought with us to prevent catastrophe. If not for the beauty of the landscape–the views from the tops of hillsides or along valleys that reveal an almost incomprehendible amount of color, darkened and deepened and standing in contrast to the gray sky and rain–I would be on the verge of panic. I cannot keep my eyes off it, the overwhelming explosion of life and biodiversity that I crave. I have not been in an environment like this since I lived in Australia, and I have longed to see it again. Kathmandu has been overwhelming, a chaotic and disgusting view of human overpopulation, of resource exploitation and destruction. To see such a vivid natural landscape is refreshing and inspiring. We have left civilization behind for the next three months.
We stop in a village along the way for lunch. K.B. claims he knows a good restaurant and we follow him for a few minutes down wide, muddy roads until we come to a large grey building with cafeteria tables set up along the inside. There is no menu, only dalbaht. It is served by two young girls in yellow dresses commanded by an angry looking fat father who sits in the corner and watches television. The girls never smile, and scowl at me when I try to thank them. Behind us is a woman, who I assume to be their grandmother, holding the youngest infant. The grandmother is ancient and lined, and I hope the infant only has a bad case of chicken pox. Its whole face and neck are covered in a large red rash with white pustules that rise out of the mess of unhealthy skin. It is silent and motionless while we eat.
Back on the bus, the number of children begins to rise exponentially as we get into more remote areas. The few signs we see along the road depicting the use of birth control are clearly ignored. Mobs of children rush after the bus, screaming as we pass. In settlements with only four or five buildings there will be fifteen or sixteen children of various ages chasing after us. They leap and smile and scream in wet and torn rags revealing skeletally thin frames and rotting teeth. They emerge from crudely constructed shanties and wave at us, as if the passing of a bus is the most exciting event that occurs in their day.
The physical abnormalities that mark a people without proper medical care are rampant. Here, a child with massive elephantitis: the whole right side of his face is blown up and hangs off his skull. There, a child with what appears to be no bones in his right leg: the useless shell of skin hangs flaccidly at his side and waves about as he hops. Missing limbs are common, large and infected-looking rashes more so.
We stop and pick up a group of three men who are shouting and smiling. One trips over the benches in the front, shoving several people aside until he is next to the driver, then sits staring out the front of the bus, swaying back and forth. He is exceptionally drunk, and when the D.B. tries to remove him from the seat he violently pushes back, lashing out with his arms and legs and nearly kicking the driver in the shin as we careen around yet another cliff-side corner. The D.B. hesitates, thinks better of trying to remove the man again and instead sits beside him and watches closely. The man continues to sway and smile, at one point he reaches up and tears down the decorative yarn hanging from the front window angrily, apparently insulted by the frills, and begins to wave them around in front of the driver.
I cringe in my seat, my body tightens up, just waiting for the moment when the drunken man will make another violent movement and send the bus off the cliff. Everyone sitting around him just seems amused at this point. He continuously leans on the driver and must be pushed off, at one point he violently grabs the drivers arm to read his watch, and the bus is jerked around the road as the driver recovers. Finally, he begins to amuse himself with the AC vents and this occupies him for the ten more minutes he stays on the bus before his friends disembark and call after him. He shakes everyone’s hand, smiles, and leaves. I relax again, slightly.
We pass through a valley around Pokhara and the clouds finally begin to clear a little. It is the middle of the afternoon and the sun and blue sky begin to shine down, making steam rise from the dense vegetation around us. Time begins to pass quickly despite the growing discomfort I feel in the torn leather seat, and while I try to nap I can’t, the landscape remains so beautiful, each section so unique, that I can’t take my eyes off it. I haven’t even opened my book.
Outside of Pokhara, during a break, the driver and D.B. pause in front of the bus and exchange concerned looks. They point and grab at the front of the vehicle, spend several minutes discussing something and then climb back in and continue around canyons and narrow roads. We stop at the next village and someone with a wrench and hammer is called. For several minutes he bangs on the front, walks away with 20 rupees, and we are off again, rising up over another valley and crossing over to the Kaligandaki river.
The sun has begun to set behind looming hillsides and the dusk obscures visibility. The road is no longer paved, just a muddy path beset with holes and overrun with landslides that threaten to push us off the precipice time and time again. We cross over flooded sections, pass through rivers simply flowing over the road and submerging nearly the entire base of the bus. At times, our wheels spin uselessly in the mud and we must back up and take another run at rough sections of the road. The Kaligandaki is also a muddy-brown color which cuts through increasingly green and uninhabited valleys as the light continues to fade.
When visibility is almost zero we finally see lights on the horizon signifying our impending arrival at Beni. It is a small town, resting at the confluence of two major rivers, and as far as the road can take us. Tomorrow, we begin to walk to Dolpo. The bus pulls up next to a hotel for us, and we climb out, stretch, and G., K.B., and I enter to arrange rooms. By the time we have keys for everyone, the porters have unloaded all our gear from the bus and it has left.
We have a massive collection of supplies, and we all see that the number of people we have will be insufficient to carry it. Tomorrow, with limited funds, we will have to find and hire another porter to come with us until we eat enough of the food to get by with only five.
Children run rampant in the streets throughout the night. Older siblings look after younger. There is also a large population of wild dogs roaming the streets, and power cables still hang low and unorganized around the street. We are not too far removed from Kathmandu here, but it is our last night in a village with a population greater than a hundred until Dunai, twelve days away, and the only major town we will see for the next three months.
Our beds are little more than wood planks with cloth over them, and we are forced to pull out mattress pads to make them comfortable. G. and I choose to leave the room and wander for a while longer, although tired.
Shortly after leaving the room, the rain starts up again and we are forced under cover. We stop for a late dinner of noodles and Sprite on a dusty patio restaurant where everyone is watching television. On the news is a story about a high-altitude plane carrying four American tourists that crashed in a region not far from us. The story begins with dramatic music, a series of shots of plane crashes from famous movies, a computer generated image of what the plane crashing would have looked like, and then pans over the actual wreckage. It is repeated every two or three minutes.
I wonder if the news has reached America, if any of my friends who knew I was traveling today will wonder if I was on the plane. I will not be able to get word out to anyone for at least 12 days, most won’t hear from me for months. I feel isolated. Our trip is truly beginning.
Later that night, we go to bed to the sound of rain pounding on the roof above. Tomorrow begins five weeks of walking over some of the roughest terrain I have ever experienced. G. and I will both be carrying 40-50 pounds, nearly twice the amount of weight we anticipated in order to make the excessive load easer on the porters. I am twenty pounds overweight, a consequence of standing behind a counter and drinking too many lattes for nearly a year, content to watch my life pass away in front of me. And I have never spent more than three consecutive days camping in the wilderness. Our first trek will be four times longer then that, our second nearly five times longer.
It occurs to me how completely unprepared I am. I agreed to this trip knowing it would
challenge me physically and mentally beyond anything I had ever done in my life. But I
realize now I have no idea what that truly means. I am limping with bruised knees, already physically and mentally exhausted before we have taken a single step on a trail, and I am trying to keep up with G., a cross-country runner and long-distance biker. I’m isolated, each day forward makes it that much harder to retreat, and I realize I am genuinely scared for what tomorrow will bring. I fall asleep after a long time, staring into the darkness, listening to the beat of the insistent rain.
A rain that will continue, almost unceasingly, for the next 25 days.