Riding on a public bus in Kathmandu is one of the few ways a human being can understand what it’s like to live in a beehive. Before we reach each stop, I think, ok, we’ll probably skip this one and keep going because it is physically impossible for another person to fit on this bus. I already have two strangers sitting in my lap. The small woman next to me can’t touch her feet to the ground — the pressure from the four people’s bodies around her is suspending her an inch or so off the floor. And yet six more people just got on. The last two stand in the open door with the young conductor, hanging on for dear life.
A Nepali bus isn’t just any kind of bus. The point is to cram as many bodies on board as physically possible. More people equals more twenty rupee fares. It’s like a game — a boy, usually nineteen or so, hangs out the door of the bus calling out the route to passersby. He sounds like an auctioneer, screaming over Nepali pop music blaring from the bus’s antique speakers. Chabahil Boudha Jorpati Sundarijal! Chabahil Boudha Jorpati Sundarijal! He hangs from the open door, his body exposed to the road, one leg swinging in the open air. I cringe for him as we trundle over a pothole. The only protection we have from tipping over is a baby Shiva sticker on the windshield.
If you’re standing, you don’t have any trouble balancing because there are at least ten bodies pressed against yours. If you’re sitting, you are treated to a slightly more intimate encounter. In those moments, when my face is squished between someone’s buttcheek on my left and someone else’s crotch on my right, I begin question my decision to live in Kathmandu. I start to get irritated. Do people not realize this is my face? Dear lord. Someone just farted.
A Nepali bus can feel like a diorama for the 21st century. It’s a place where we’re all forced to mash up against each other despite what may appear to be extreme differences — and none of us have a seatbelt. There are no guarantees for what’s going to come next. It’s kind of like a microcosm for an epoch where people, places and traditions mix and coalesce in crowded places, like New York, Kathmandu or Delhi.
Some of us really look like we could be from entirely different planets — me especially. White, freckled and far too tall, wearing slim cut jeans, a smelly sweater and a mala, I look like a scruffy baby ostrich who found herself in a sparrow’s nest. An ancient ama sits behind me, wearing a traditional Tamang longhyi. She can’t be more than four feet tall. She’s pulled her grey, wispy hair into a single long braid. Gold rings dangle from her nose and ears. Wrinkles within wrinkles crease her skin, like a crumpled note left behind by a friend and found years later. Just ahead of us, two teenage girls stare into their smartphones. They pause occasionally to take selfies. One of the girls has a cell phone case with bunny ears. The bursting aisle to my left is a mosaic of kirti pyjamas, business suits, saris, and mismatched, Vogue inspired get ups. I recall the cantina scene from Star Wars.
I glance at the boy sitting next to me. He’s fallen asleep, with his head resting against the window. His shirt advertises some metal band, his jeans are a grungy black. He wears a leather jacket and knock off Nike shoes. Shaved at the sides and streaked with artificial blonde, his hair sits uncomfortably in a lump of gel. His face is peaceful. Full lips slightly parted, brow relaxed, eyes softly closed. He breathes a gentle snore. When I look and him, I forget the crowd and the smell. This must be what he looked like when he was a baby.
My stop is coming up soon. I bite my lip and try to stand. Getting off the bus feels like cramming your body into an impenetrable bamboo thicket. People lean to make a few centimeters of space, but it’s still a tight scramble. Every ounce of fat on my body compresses as I squeeze through the inert gauntlet. It turns out we’re squishier than we think we are.
I fall out onto the crowded sidewalk and gulp a few deep breaths of smog. The bus rambles off into traffic. Honks, calls and groaning engines swallow the voice of the boy calling Jorpati Sundarijal! I turn down an alley, happy to have made it home.
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