Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Trip from Hell and Other Vacation Adventures

At the end of June we went to Gorkha and Kathmandu to renew our visas. Much to our surprise and delight the process went smoothly. People remembered us, the education office in Gorkha had heard good things about us, and (most important) we knew the process and came prepared. The process still took two weeks, but that was fast compared with stories we have heard. So we are good to stay until we return to the States next spring.

We had planned to go to India for the remaining month of vacation, but we were so focused on the Nepalese visa that we neglected to apply for India. That takes at least ten days, which would have given us too little time. So instead, we hung around Kathmandu and visited some of the local attractions. We also saw old friends, including Dil Thapa, the man who taught Harvey Nepali in Kathmandu back in 1973.
From there we returned to Dharapani for a week, where everyone was planting rice and had no time for us. Then we spent some time in Pokhara to the west, where we stayed in our usual hotel on the lake. But then we got bored and decided to head west to Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha.

That was on July 22. Our route took us from Pokhara to Bhairahawa  through the heart of Syangja and Palpa districts. The headline from July 23:

It had rained heavily the night before and was raining the morning we left Pokhara, but this is the monsoon, so what else is new? We had made reservations on a “tourist bus,” which is supposed to be an express and more comfortable. Ours was neither.  At 6:00 we folded ourselves into our seats for the seven-hour trip. We made good time for the first several hours until we encountered landslides. The first few weren’t bad; they were small and quickly cleared by bulldozers deployed along the road.
Around noon, in the middle of nowhere, we stopped dead in a long line of traffic. There were reportedly two major slides ahead. Estimates of getting them cleared ranged from two hours to six hours to tomorrow. A bulldozer came but it wasn’t big enough so it went away. We hung around for an hour and then waded through a pond of mud to see for ourselves. It was clear that nothing would be moving that day, so we decided to climb over the slide and seek a bus trapped on the other side that would be returning west. That meant walking on unstable rock and dirt on a steep slope over a river gorge. Rocks were continuing to come down.  
Once on the other side, we joined the masses of people with the same obvious idea of finding a bus going west. Under the best of circumstances, Nepalese buses are crowded. This one was packed to the gills. The Trip from Hell was about to begin. We still argue about who had the worst time of it.

Harvey’s story
I was offered a seat in the back, but that was a prescription for claustrophobia. Instead, I staked out a spot on the bottom of three steps leading into the bus. It meant standing for three or four hours, but it had the advantage of fresh air. Buses here run with the door open, but I was in no danger of falling out; a layer or two of people hanging out the door would have to go first.
A nearly empty bus on the road from Kathmandu
The doorway was packed and became more so as we went on. Just when you’d think a piece of paper couldn’t slide on board, three more people would pile on.  It was a hot day and there was no part of my body that wasn’t pressed tight against someone. As people moved around, my body would contort, like playing vertical Twister. At one point, my head spent far too long tucked firmly in the armpit of a sweaty fat man standing on the step above me.
Music is the curse of Nepalese public transportation. Whether their tastes run to local popular music or Hindi film tunes, drivers like their music loud. This driver had a fondness for breathtakingly bad Nepalese rap and he liked it really loud. We always carry ear plugs when we travel, but mine were in the front of the bus with Malinda and they would not have helped anyway.
We encountered lots of landslides, most of which did not detain us. Around 6:00, we were stopped by another slide (left). A bulldozer was there within an hour, and we got to watch the courageous (or insane) machine operators push dirt out from under an active slide zone. By sunset we were on our way, with hours yet to go. We weren’t stopped again, but were slowed by piles of cleared debris and isolated rocks all along the route.

Nepalis are patient, even cheerful, in situations of extreme discomfort. As more passengers piled on, people squeezed themselves ever-smaller. A woman with an infant came on, and the child was passed to the lap of a complete stranger. When I tried to move the arm of the sweaty fat man, he reproached me with “But we must cooperate!” In such a genial environment, it would have been churlish to get impatient and inexcusable to “lose it.”

I lost it shortly after the last landslide. My legs and back ached, I was hungry, my sandaled feet had been trampled all afternoon, and the music was making my head explode. The tipping point came when a young man with whom I was standing cheek-to-cheek pleasantly asked, “And where are you going today?” “I’M GOING FUCKING CRAZY WITH THAT LOUD MUSIC!” (Malinda: “There were four or five people standing between us and I heard him say that. That’s when I began to worry about him.”) The outburst was unpardonable, but I felt better after it.

We finally made it out of the hills and into Butwal around 8:30. The bus emptied (relatively) and I was able to sit down. We were now in the Terai (Nepal’s sliver of the Gangetic plain) and followed the flat-as-a-pancake, straight-as-an-arrow road to Bhairahawa. I had called ahead and when we arrived at 9:30 there was a car waiting for us, ready to take us the final 25 km to Lumbini, a comfortable hotel, and our first meal of the day.

Malinda’s story
The landslide that stopped us dead was daunting, but a path had been made over the toe end and a slow trickle of people was passing over.  We heard that the nearest town was just a few kilometers away on the other side, and decided that having food and drink, as well as the possibility of a bus going toward Lumbini, sounded better than waiting where we were. So we crossed the mound of rubble with several heart-stopping moments when loose boulders continued to ricochet down the mountain.
The geology through which the road runs consists of Upper Precambrian to Late Paleozoic highly inclined and faulted bands of thinly laminated slates and shales between layers of calcitic quartzites and limestones. In any good rain the calcites dissolve, the thin slates and shale beds separate, and gravity does the rest. It was roadside geology in action!

On the bus, I claimed a seat up front on the engine cover, a large, flat surface used for passengers and cargo. I was glad to be sitting. (There is no prohibition on standing in front of the yellow line. There is no yellow line. We have even seen drivers sharing their seat with passengers.) 

Personal space is less of an issue for Nepalis than it is for us.  They don’t like crowded buses either, but they are more stoic about being fully dressed in steam bath conditions while pressed cheek to jowl. Or, from my sitting position, cheek to buttocks. I was facing to the rear near the stairwell, so people leaned in my direction and stepped on my feet every time someone got on or off. The conductor would lie across me to collect fares from people behind me at the very front. The bus made frequent stops, which meant frequent movement around me. Bus conductors are expert at calculating how many people they can manhandle in and still have a handhold and foothold for themselves at the very edge of the door.  

The worst was the heat. Several inches of padding usually cushion the engine cover. Not on this bus. I was sitting on a metal sheet on top of the motor. I was afraid my quick-dry skirt would melt. I was able to dig my rain poncho from my pack and put it under me, but then I worried that would ignite. Sweat was pouring into my eyes and my hair was drenched. Sitting on that griddle, my clothes completely soaked, I could feel my privates starting to poach.  Now add hot flashes….

This went on for hours. The only relief came when we were stopped by landslides and people got off to look. I was able to get more air and space, but those stops were a mixed blessing. They also meant that we were further delayed.
When we finally got there, Lumbini was pretty interesting. The birthplace of Buddha, it is a World Heritage Site and the Nepalese government, along with international donors, has been implementing a multi-decade master plan to develop the site. We saw the rock that marks the actual location of Buddha’s birth and the pillar erected by Emperor Ashoka in 249 B.C.
The next day we hired a guide to take us around to other places associated with Buddha. At Kapilvastu, we saw the ruins of the Sakya palace and walked through the foundations of the gate (left) through which Siddhartha passed when he renounced his princely life to seek enlightenment.
From there we traveled east to Chitwan’s national wildlife reserve. For three days we got to see crocodiles, elephants, rhinoceroses, tiger prints (but no tigers), and lots of birds.

While riding an elephant through the jungle, we saw a baby rhino that had been mauled by a tiger. We were told the next day that the rhino was fine and back with its mother, but it sure didn’t look fine when we saw it.

We also took elephant baths, which Malinda thinks was the coolest part of the whole trip.
It was all very fun, but the Terai is hot, flat, and not that interesting. We were glad to leave for hills and home.

We arrived here on July 30, hoping to spend the final week-plus of our vacation organizing our photos, writing this blog, catching up on emails, and getting ready for school. Unfortunately, eight of the ten days following our return were spent without electricity, a result of poles falling over in the soggy soil. As we watched our computer, i-pods, and kindles run out of battery, and our pump-fed solar hot water tank run dry, we had a premonition of the End of Civilization.

Then came a spate of computer problems. The keyboards on both our computers stopped typing certain letters. If it wasn’t due to an undetectable virus, we think the probable cause was an infestation of tiny ants in our laptops that ate away at the key contacts. (That sounds stupid, but we cleaned them out, still have the problem, and don't know how else to account for it.) We finally got a cheap Chinese external keyboard, which works fine if you don’t consistently need capital letters. Malinda’s computer is on its last legs (she's already lost Photoshop!), and Harvey's is starting to show those first worrying signs of untrustworthiness. At some point one of us will need to make a trip into Kathmandu to reprovision us (another bus ride!), but all we can do now is Embrace the Suck.
Meanwhile, we are back in school and anticipating a busy fall with teaching and other projects. The monsoon should wind down and the cooler weather arrive in about a month, and we are looking forward to that.

Finally, two milestones are worthy of note. At the end of July, we passed the one-year mark of our stay here. It continues to be engaging, challenging, and mostly fun. And this week we celebrated our 30th anniversary. After a year of surviving as Eng and Cheng, we feel pretty confident that we’re good for another thirty years.

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