I’ve had a few exciting things happen to me as I use public transportation in Kathmandu. Once, as a friend and I were walking from one bus stop to another, a young boy showered us unintentionally with dirty water when he abruptly slammed the jug on his shoulder down on a low wall next to the sidewalk. Another time (with the same friend) our bus broke down on Ring Road, and we had to find a new one. Last week, I told the tempo driver that I was going to Sundara in Nepali, and the lady across from me was like “Oh! You speak Nepali!” and I got to have an impromptu test of my Nepali conversational skills as I answered her barrage of questions about my work, language ability, and how I like Nepal. I tried to make appropriate comments on her railings about how underdeveloped her country is and the fact that she can’t get a job at an NGO because her English skills are far from perfect, despite having a master’s degree and significant experience in advocacy work.
Two days ago, I got onto the microbus at Jawalekhel, and a young Nepali guy got in after me. In order to make room for more passengers, he comfortably took the seat next to me. When the bus boy came around to collect our fare, the Nepali guy handed him a 20-rupee bill. “That’s not enough,” the bus boy said (he was probably about sixteen or seventeen), “give me four more.”
“But I gave you a twenty,” the Nepali guy told him.
“Not enough; give four more.”
“How much is it for one person?”
“See, I gave you a twenty.”
The bus boy slowly looked from the Nepali guy to me, then back to the Nepali guy. “Oh…sorry,” he said in English. I smiled and handed the bus boy my fare of twelve rupees. The Nepali guy staunchly refused to look in my direction the remainder of the trip to Sundara.
Since I’ve been going from Sundara to Tinchuli for two weeks now, the drivers at the safa tempo stations at both ends have begun to recognize me. They automatically direct me to the correct tempo—a three-wheeled truck run on battery power—and ask me where my two travel buddies are if I happen to be alone. “One just now arrived, and the other had work today,” I told one of the drivers once, after her inquiry. “La, see, I understood EVERYTHING she said!” the driver declared to another driver that happened to be nearby.
Half my drivers have been women. The come to work donned in socks with flip-flops, fingerless gloves and wrapped in shawls to protect against the morning cold. The majority are married. They wear their gold earrings, bead necklaces and glass bangles, and display a red sinduri on their forehead (the tikka that declares they have worshipped or honored their husband that day). I can’t help but admire the stride in which they take their work. A young man with long hair threw a comment at my driver one morning as she got into her tempo, and she threw back, “well, you have too much hair yourself!” An older guy got in front with her later, and he made the comment that he was going to Gaushala to either look for work or start work. The driver asked, “Well, older brother, have you eaten?” (a common question between people here), to which he replied the affirmative. Later, when he tried to give his fare, she waved it away: “Not needed,” she said, and drove on. At other times, they’ve tactfully argued with passengers as to whether a fare should be ten or twelve rupees, or whether a child’s fare should be applied if they’ve take a seat instead of been placed on the parent’s lap. They've won their argument every time.
Sundara to Tinchuli is a long route. It can take anywhere from forty-five minutes to one and a half hours one way, depending on traffic. Turning off from the Durbar Marg into Bag Bazaar is almost like going into the jowels of a big creature, and then the downhill slope into Gyaneshwor/Dili Bazaar is like going further into the animal. Buildings tower over the narrow streets that wind through the bazaars. Coming out of Gaushala onto the stretch of Ring Road going to Chabahil is like emerging from some depth; the road is wider and there are actually sidewalks that line the highway. There have been a few times when I feel like I've been able to breathe again.
People get on and off all along this route. Some are going to work; others are on their way to Pashupati or Maiti Devi temples for morning worship (or returning home from morning worship), many are school children or college students on their way to or from class. There were four young men on my tempo yesterday morning, all very friendly with each other as Nepali guys usually are. One had his arms happily wrapped around his friend’s neck; another held his friend’s knees across from him the entire way (its tight seating in the tempo, so this position was actually a comfortable for the bumpy ride). They made comments about the drive the entire way. My favorite was made when the driver was pulled over by a policeman in Dili Bazaar. “La, he’s going to take fifty rupees,” the one guy said. Policemen are notorious for being corrupt in Nepal. All the guys had their attention to the cab as they watched to see how the driver would handle the policeman.
The safa tempos can hold eight or nine people in the back, and up to two people in front with the driver. There are no seat belts, and no door in the back; everyone just squashes in together. On a cold morning, nobody seems to mind. There’s been more than once when I’ve missed the passengers next to me after they get off and the chilled air hits my sides. Micros are even more crowded. On the way home to Jawalekhel from Sundara last Monday, the guy behind me had a notorious cough, and didn’t have the sense to cover his mouth when he did it. My hair received several blasts of warm air during our forty minute ride. On that same ride, I was snugly fit between the window and under some dude’s armpit. The bus boy didn't seem to take the hint that we were full, and kept shoving more people inside as we wound through Thapathali and into Kupondole.
Each trip across town has had the potential to turn into some kind of adventure. The above stories are just my highlights. Then again, just walking on my own two feet has landed me in enough trouble. On my way to buy a newspaper one Saturday morning, I got hit in the face with a (well aimed?) soccer ball by the Jawalekhel soccer team, practicing in the field in front of the zoo. I’ve had to dodge a few birdies being smacked around by businessmen playing badminton before work at the same sports/meditation/temple area. Motorbikes are notorious for popping out of nowhere, and if I’m walking up to Lagankhel at 5PM, I get to go against the crowd of college students pouring out of the institutes that line the main road. My travels never cease to be interesting.