The bus itself is creaky, but wears its age with pride, smiling gap-toothed through the cracked grill. Meagan’s already on; I pay 300 rupees for the seven hours, hoist my bag on top, and sit down next to her. Charachters begin to fill the theater-in-the-round for the 700a show – the ass end of Langtang to already familiar Kathmandu.
The conductor, brandishing an old oval carabiner instead of a belt buckle, either snakes through the filling crowd collecting fares, or monkeys his way onto the roof shoving bags around. I breathe in sharply, then commit to the thought that all my stuff is up there, and there’s nothing to be done. A dhoti’d old man, all in black, settles into the bench across us and promply falls asleep, to wake only when we hit home. The driver’s eyes never veer from the windscreen, half Stoic and half meditative guru. Four Indian hikers, three chatty women, seven wide-eyed kids, four bags of rice and one pail of garbage vie for space in the aisle.
We set off at precisely 7:22.
Every few hundred yards, we stop for hitchhikers, garbage, farm tools, bags and parcels. I’ve forgotten how these half-dead mongrel diesel four-bangers are the sinew that ties this place together. More and more folks cram on board, until there’s no more room to be had. My feet, entombed in crampon-compatible Cordura, disappear miles away.
The constant jostling neccessitates a discourse. I yield two inches of foot space to a smiling old woman; she wedges herself between me and the sharp metal rack stabbing my spine; I latch onto the hand rail, with my arm cushoning an old man’s head; he moves half an inch to let me put my other foot down, and stands on top of it to better rest his sandal on the bag of rice. Meagan’s taken some lady’s bag; the lady has handed her kid to a motherly sort of aunt and stars passing around chewing gum.
Half an hour and a few miles in, we’re coming together – a ragtag collection of strangers has birthed a culture, and we’re now a bus. My body’s not actually mine anymore; for the next five hours, it’s a functional component of this organism, creaking down and juddering up the unpaved track. My wrist is a handhold for someone else; an infant nestles on my camera bag; someone cushions my back; I take the brunt of the swaying kid ahead, but know he’ll be there for me when the brakes come on. They do; we shuffle forward in synchronized unison and come to a supple rest.
We stop a third of the way, and hands and feet scream up the sides of the bus. I can’t count how many bodies are on the roof, but know my bag is still up there. I’d rather know if I need all new kit in Thamel, and slither out the door at the next stop.
My bag is a pillow for a sleeping eight-year-old, and everything’s right where I left it.
I ride out on the roof, and start to play the game for keeps. There’s a dozen of us hanging off the sides. There’s more space, but the rules are sharper. One dumb move, and the lot of us are off – ten feet to the asphalt, and another dozen to the stones below. I latch on with my left hand, cuddle the camera with my right, and jam my boots under a bag. Some bearded guy who looks like a guide spoons my leg and falls asleep, wedging me in. We sway with each turn; sometime I take the brunt of the moving mass atop the bus, and sometimes I rely on the hands of others.
We were one then, for a few sunny hours, sailing through the dusty haze atop the bus to Kathmandu. We knew when to give and what we’d get back. We’d smile at each other through the blowing dust, yell out and cheer the drivers on. Kathmandu came a few hours later – all too soon.