Taxis, Buses, Spiders, and Daman (Matt & Laura)
May 15, 2007
Our taxi rattles past men shovelling muck out of a manhole, veers around cyclerickshaws and early-morning tourists, and stops in the gridlock of Kathmandu traffic. "Always traffic jam," our driver notes wearily. "Bad traffic, bad government," he explains as the vehicles around us begin to move again. Cars and trucks honk their horns as they drive into the oncoming lane, or stop without warning or apparent reason; the two way road becomes a jumble of cars jostling for space. This is what happens without traffic laws or enforcement of any kind: the roads are filled with music-blaring, honking impatient two year-olds driving cars.
We arrive at the bus station close to 9AM. We're on our way to Daman, a town to the south of Kathmandu where, our guidebook tells us, some of the most incredible views of the Himalayas can be found. It is also -- in a round-about sort of way -- on the way to Chitwan National Park, our next destination.
The bus station is a large parking lot dotted with rickety colourfully painted buses. The ticket counters are in a low building to one side. We pay the taxi driver, unload our bags, and wheel them toward the ticket building. Soon, we are pursued by a cluster of men asking, "where you going? where you going?" in a persistent chant. The ticket windows are probably all clearly labelled, but as they are only written in the curled Nepalese alphabet, I pick a window at random. "Daman," I ask, hoping I'm pronouncing it right. The man looks puzzled, shakes his head. "Where you going? Where you going?" repeats a man as I walk back to Laura. This time I answer. "Daman," I reply. Now he's frowning. "Daman bus leaves at 8AM, you must go to Hetauda, come come quickly!" he decides, motioning for Laura and I to follow. Another older man approaches. For some reason, he looks more trustworthy. Soon we are the middle of a heated discussion in Nepalese, possibly over how we can get to Daman, possibly over how badly they can mislead and overcharge us. We wait. "Hetauda is hours past Daman," Laura notes nervously, "Why can't they just stop at Daman and let us off?" The debate continues until a conclusion is reached: the older man reports,"I think best you go with him," as he motions to the guy gesturing at us to follow him, quickly quickly.
"Stop at Daman and let us off, Hetauda is too far," I protest hopefully. "No no, bus not go Daman, only Hetauda," he replies. It makes no sense, but regardless we don't want to travel six hours, then backtrack for another three. I tell him no. "Ok ok ok, I take you to Daman bus, direct in three hours," he accepts begrudgingly. I seem to have bartered for a bus destination, a new experience for us! We follow him as he weaves around buses, leading us to a nearly full bus idling at the exit to the bus station. We load our big bags inside and, as soon as we're both on, it leaves.
I catch the man's gaze and ask, "This Daman bus?" He shakes his head, "No no," he replies with a smile, "this is Hetauda bus." "But we don't want to go to Hetauda," Laura exclaims. I consider getting off when the man explains, "Daman bus five minutes."
I optimistically interpret this to mean that he's going to drive us somewhere we can catch a bus to Daman. I sit back and relax.
The bus weaves its way through traffic, stopping frequently to coerce passengers aboard. At one point, two men from the bus pull a man aboard, one at each arm. He looks genuinely afraid, quickly jumping off at the next stop when no one was looking. They continue to coerce people onto the bus. Some get on board. Do they even want to go to Hetauda??
After a while, we stop and Laura and I are asked to pay 60 rupees each (about $1) for the ride before being waved off. A woman and her baby quickly take my seat as I squeeze out of the now-crowded bus with my bag on my back. The last words I hear, as we are guided toward the minibus, are "150 rupees each, good price, only 150 rupees".
Of course, once aboard the minibus we are told the price is 250 rupees each, not 150. I argue for a while, then give up. At least we seem to be on a bus to Daman!
As the road winds its way out of Kathmandu and the traffic becomes occasional transport trucks and farm tractors, I sigh in fatigued relief. Contrary to my expectations just minutes earlier, we seem to be on our way to Daman.
The road winds steeply up and around hillsides. Terraced fields extend above and below us as we gain elevation slowly. Our destination is just 100 km away, but it will take us 4 hours along narrow winding roads.
The bus stops at a roadside restaurant and everyone gets off. I look at my watch: this must be the lunch stop. On a nearby sign, I notice "Daman" in faded paint. We seem to have arrived.
I climb atop the minibus and remove our bags. About 10 meters down the road, we see the sign for the Daman mountain resort. We made it; we're here!
The Daman mountain resort was probably a well-organized, attractive, and pleasant resort at one time. Now, the sidewalk is cracked and worn, the rooms are musty and the walls stained, and the grounds overgrown. We opt for a tent instead of one of the musty dark rooms. We deposit our bags in the tent and head to the viewing tower.
Not surprisingly, the horizon is filled with heavy low-lying clouds. It is the beginning of monsoon season in Nepal, and a clear day is probably a rarity. We might not see the mountains. "You don't like the rooms," the manager asks as we stand on the viewing tower. He looks a little hurt. "I like," I reply, "I like tent and rooms." He can make of that what he will. "View better in morning?" I ask. He shakes his head, "Sometimes, sometimes." I won't get my hopes up then.
The sky threatens rain, but we decide to take a walk regardless. We wander up the windy road to a gate draped with prayer flags: it is the entrance to a local monastery. After walking about 1km along a narrow dirt path, we arrive at a hilltop draped in prayer flags topped with a few buildings. As we approach, dogs begin to bark, prising open a gate as we pass. I half-expect one to jump at us, but eventually the barking stops. The building we just passed looked like a small Buddhist temple. The dogs are probably trained to guard it, I guess. We continue around a corner to a platform carved from the hillside, a stream passing alongside. It looks like it was once a temple, but now has an abandoned feeling despite looking freshly swept and tended. As fog moves quickly over the hilltops, surrounding us in a white blanket of mist, a haunted feeling settles on the place. We take some photos and decide to leave.
On the way back, I hold our umbrella in case the dogs are waiting for us. Thankfully, it is not needed; their barking stops as we leave them behind us and return the way we came on the winding, mist-lined forest path. Somewhere behind us, I am sure, someone was watching us from one of the empty-looking buildings on the hilltop.
The rest of the afternoon is spent playing cards and relaxing on the viewing tower. There is a beautiful sunset before day gives way to night, and I snap some photos while Laura writes in her journal. It is a pleasant relaxing afternoon.
Near dusk, Laura returns to our tent to startle a large spider from the thatch roof and onto the ground below. Later, I notice a very large set of legs protruding from behind the toilet in the communal forest-side outhouse. Her arachnophobia remains under control however, despite the eight-legged creatures being about the size of my hand.
In the night, I feel things crawling on me in our tent. I wrap the covers tighter and try to sleep. I'm sure there are bedbugs in the unwashed blankets, but I have few bites to show for it in the morning.
We are waiting with our bags at the side of the road by 7:30 in the morning. The bus to Hetauda comes by sometime around 8:30, we've been told. At 8:15, we're piling into a bus filled with blue-uniformed schoolchildren as it winds its way uphill before beginning a winding, steep descent into a cloud-filled valley below.
Thus begins our journey to Royal Chitwan Park ... and our next entry.
Daman was enjoyable mostly for its isolation from the tourist hordes of Thamel. I enjoyed walking along country roads where chickens and goats wandered freely, where children waved happily without asking for pens or rupees, and where it was clear that tourist rarely visit. Mostly, though, it felt like a small triumph to get there in the first place.
I am somewhat sad to leave Kathmandu as I know that we are not returning here. I don't want our time to end but yet I am keen to get away from Thamel and to explore something new. We decide to wing it and just show up at the bus station and see what happens. Are we gluttons for punishment? Well, yes sometimes...
When we are first told that the bus to Daman has departed, I am skeptical as there are always buses or someone with a vehicle who wishes to make some money. I figure if we are patient, an another option will present itself. Sure enough, an express mini-van hurtles us along the mountains road. We even get to sit in the front seat! I am a little stressed (okay, a lot stressed) when we are first shuttled onto the larger bus by a man who keeps telling us "don't worry", yet telling us his bus doesn't go to Daman. But in the end, it all worked out and we made it to Daman.
I wanted to visit this place for the view of the Himalayas, but the clouds prevent us from seeing them. Instead we have a very relaxing time exploring the community. The walk through the forest along the stone path is magical as we watch the mist crawl over the tops of the high hills and waft down and around the plethora of prayer flags. Some quiet time in the woods, especially when I don't have to worry about bears, is always a great way to de-stress and to calm my mind. I feel rejuvenated as we walk back down the winding road to our hotel. Young boys appear on the road on their way from school and they smile and greet us with "namaste". We marvel at how young they are and how they are able to walk home from school by themselves, playing, throwing rocks and just being kids, with no parents in sight - a treat that is almost unheard of at home.
My reverie is broken by the thud of the HUGE spider that drops from the thatch roof over our tent and lands on the cement floor and then runs into our tent. My hero goes in and shoos it out. Matt confirms for me that, yes, it is really, really big. Yuck.
The highlight of the trip for me is the bus ride out of town as it is jam- packed with kids on their way to school. They are on the roof, in the aisle and sometimes five across, in the normally 2-person seats. They are giggly, silly and everything that kids should be. I enjoy standing amongst them until they offload in a massive herd and run excitedly toward their school; blue uniforms disappearing around the corner leaving our bus now silent and almost empty. The morning is misty and the fog is so thick at times that we can only make out the red brake lights of the truck in front of us. As we descend quickly, the view slowly clears enabling us to see the villages and terraced hillsides. I pass young women sitting outside their thatched-roof huts, goats bleeting nearby. They have an emptiness about their eyes and I wonder what they are thinking and how they fill their days. Their homes are on the curve of a road suspended high above the valley floor. They watch the bus as we might watch television at home - the only entertainment they have perhaps? I am struck by how incredibly lucky I am to travel. I am passing women who likely are born, raised, live and die in the same village while I have the privilege of exploring the planet. I have always known that as a rich westerner, I am a minority, in terms of global population, but I had never considered how rare it is for humans to actually have the ability to visit other places. I think of the travel agent in Chiang Mai Thailand who lamented about the difficulty in getting a passport, and about the young Indian student who closed her eyes as she told us dreamily how she so wished she could visit Canada. I cannot take this experience for granted, no matter how difficult it can be at times.
Our bus swerves around countless switchbacks and eventually deposits us in Hetauda where we transfer buses to Chitwan. The heat starts to build as soon as we reach the valley floor and continues during our entire stay in the national park. At times I am overwhelmed at the thought of cooking in this heat for the rest of the trip. Will I be able to last until September? Maybe the beaches of Malaysia and Thailand will at least offer us a breeze. I daydream of this as make our way toward our next stop.