An authentic bus ride

Happening Issue 127 Jun, 2012
Text by Chris Czarnecki

One of the best ways to see Kathmandu and meet its people is to take public transportation around the city

Suddenly the front of the bus was illuminated, I could make out the silhouettes of those sitting up front as sparks shot to the ceiling of the bus’ interior with no regard for whom they settled upon. The conductor was wielding a long metal pole – not unlike a cattle prod. Crammed into a window seat above the bus’ rear axle, I was shocked by what I saw. It would not be long before I realized that what I was witnessing exemplified the daily adventure that is Kathmandu’s public transportation system. The bus was dead. The conductor had the center console propped open and he was fiddling with the vehicle’s inner-workings. The driver tried to start the bus. Nothing. He tried again. Nothing. The third time was a charm, the ignition caught, we were on our way.

For the past three months, I have received a crash course in navigating this lively city by bus, mini bus, and tuk tuk as I commute daily across town from Patan to Baluwatar for work -- well, almost daily when you take into account the notorious bandh. What have I learned in this crash course? I have learned that public transportation in Kathmandu is confounding; it is perplexing; it is frustrating; and it is my favorite part of the day. There is perhaps no better way to see Kathmandu’s plethora of neighborhoods than through the windshield of a tuk tuk, and perhaps no better way to get to know its people than having two of them sitting on your lap in a mini bus.

No two bus trips across town are the same in Kathmandu. I can vividly recall the strain building in my forearms one January morning as my entire body hung out of the door of the bus hoping that the driver would maintain sufficient distance from the telephone poles. I can unfortunately recollect the taste of another man’s hair as my face was jammed into the back of his head. I remember, also unfortunately, the pain in my buttocks as my left leg supported the full weight of two men in an overcrowded mini bus. I can still feel the “what do I do now” sinking of my stomach as I stood in the middle of the road halfway to Budhanilkantha next to our bus with the flat tire, and again as I stood in the middle of Durbar Marg after the driver of our tuk tuk decided that he simply did not want to drive any further.

However, through these public transportation adventures, one detail sticks out in my mind above the rest: the kindness of the people I have encountered. I have been invited to the home of a local tour guide, and I have been invited to Sikkim, India. Many conductors have informed me where to get off the bus and many seat-mates have told me the truthful cost of a ride. I have seen people pick one another up off the floor after sudden violent stops, and I have seen young men give up their seats for elderly women. I have seen people help one another load and unload luggage, sacks of rice, even a goat, and I have received more smiles than I can count. These days, as I cruise by the endless lines of motorcycles and cars waiting to fill their tanks with petrol, I think to myself, perhaps I’ll keep riding the bus.