It’s not a bus per se, more of a mini-van. It could comfortably hold ten passengers plus a driver; we’re already at 18 inside and 2 on the roof. I’m lucky I’m in the front row by the window. I open it wide, ignoring the fumes and exhaust. A father sits opposite me, perches on a small ledge behind the driver’s seat, his young daughter cradled on his lap. We adjust our knees so mine slant right, his left, and settle in for the 6 hour drive.
We stop again, not far from our start. I assume we’re getting fuel. I’ve assumed wrong. We’re picking up two more passengers.
A few minutes into the drive, I see the father in front of me snapping his fingers and motioning for something. “Plas-tick,” he says to the driver. Oh, no. I glance at Min, who is glancing at me and we give each other a worried look. This is going to be a long ride. The man gives a plastic bag to his wife who is sitting behind Min, and she promptly throws up.
We stop by the side of the road hours into the trip. Min guides me across the road to – a shack? a shelter? a lean to? where a couple of empty picnic tables sit. Across from me at another table sits a woman with a cleaver. She’s staring into space, cleaver upright. After a few minutes, she resumes chopping garlic. A teenage boy, perhaps her son, sits next to her, kneading dough. He forms it into a rope, then pinches off small balls. She stops chopping garlic and starts rolling out perfect circles of dough. Another male, a son? her husband? takes the perfectly formed circles and carefully fills them with a chopped garlic/vegetable/meat combination and seals them with a twist and a pinch. Perfectly formed momos, ready for steaming then eating. I watch this process until my noodles arrive. I eat, savoring the hotness, savoring the deliciousness of each bite of the small bowl.
I’ve arrived to Besisahar. I am so happy to stretch my legs, to be off of the bus. I register as a trekker with the local authorities. I’m ready to start this trek, this 18 day adventure in the Himalayas. Min guides me to a kiosk. “What’s this?” I ask. “We buy bus ticket. One hour more.” Though disappointed, I don’t argue. We board the school bus cum community bus, complete with brightly painted renditions of Jim Morrison.
I’m sandwiched in seat 7, at the back of the bus, by the window. The Nepali men in front of me recline their seats. Or maybe that’s just how the seats are, permanently reclined. My knees push into the seat back. My day pack rests on my knees. There is a ladder covering my window. The aisle is filling, with people, with bags, with huge milk containers. It is at this moment I realize I am claustrophobic, at least right now. I tap Min on the shoulder and motion with my hands. “I need to stand up. Now.” He hears the concern in my voice and moves, allowing me to stand in the aisle. It is enough. I don’t feel completely trapped anymore. “Problem?” he asks. “Um.” How do I explain claustrophobia to someone who lives with ridiculous crowds everyday? “Um. It’s just a little crowded. Okay now.” We start the ride. Bump, bump, bump. There are several times the bus sways this way and that, perilously close to overturning. Waves of panic flood over me. If the bus overturns, could we all escape? Could any of us? I remind myself I’m on vacation.
After an hour or so, the bus stops. Once I begin to walk, I feel as though I’ve started my vacation. We all walk. Me, Min, and Durga, my porter. Guilt floods over me. I’ve packed too much. I watch Durga with my large blue backpack, his small orange one strapped on top. He’s walking in flip flops. Flip flops! I’m having a difficult time navigating the stones and creeks in proper hiking shoes. And he’s doing just fine.
After dinner, Min informs me there will be a cultural program. I’m confused. I’m staying at a “guest house” in the middle of a field. The guest house is sheet metal crudely assembled with dirt floors. Sure enough, village women come and gather on the grass in a semi-circle cluster. Laughter and cackles fill the air. I’m mesmerized by their dark hair hanging in thick plaits down their backs, red ribbons intertwined. Various pieces of jewelry adorn them, earrings and nose jewelry of varying sizes: small gold studs, gold rings, gold chains that loop back to the other side. One begins a nasally chant, the others join. A drum beats. One woman is pushed to her feet, to the center of the group. She begins a dance, twirling clockwise, ankle bells jingling. Her arms are extended, gracefully undulating with the voices of the women. This continues, the same song, different women dancing, for hours. The women pull us, the trekkers, into the circle, one by one, encouraging us to dance to their chant, the chant of dreaming happy dreams of wishes coming true.
I sit down. The chanting continues. I smile at a little boy, watching from the edge of the circle. He grins a toothless smile and sidles up next to me on the picnic bench. We clap to the beat and his friend joins us. Soon five little boys are clamoring for space next to me on the picnic bench. I laugh at their antics and we continue to sing and clap. The group leaves and I head for bed, very happy on this first day of vacation.