December 30, 2003 - Personal Web Site: Adventures in Public Transportation with Kendra in Nepal

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Nepal: Peace Corps Nepal : The Peace Corps in Nepal: December 30, 2003 - Personal Web Site: Adventures in Public Transportation with Kendra in Nepal

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Adventures in Public Transportation with Kendra in Nepal

Adventures in Public Transportation with Kendra in Nepal

One bus, eleven hours and 300 rupees:

Adventures in public transportation in Nepal

May 16, 2003

Tin saye rupiya Bhairahawa janne bus ko laagi (Three hundred rupees for a bus to Bhairahawa)

It's not like it was my first exposure to the wonders of public transportation in the Third World, where indeed the wonder is that anyone survives the rollercoasting, leap-frogging game of chicken played by every bus, truck, rickshaw and bike on the road. Indeed, during my trip to Cambodia last year I quickly learned the best way to travel such roads is the same way I watch horror films--always ready to cover my eyes when the car careening toward me at maximum speed takes my threshold for fear into the red. In this part of the world each bus trip requires that I entrust my life to a driver whose only qualification is the ability to reach the pedals, jerk the wheel, shift and lay on the horn, all at the same time. Western driving laws are irrelevent in a land where horns replace blinkers and the rules of the road are as foreign as the language in which the driver shouts profanities. Those kind of laws don't matter when the 11-hour journey costs the equivalent of four U.S. dollars.

Anyway, my most recent experience with public transportation in Asia was to the eastern terai of Nepal. Optimism set the tone for the beginning of the journey as I quickly learned that the east-west highway of Nepal is actually paved, unlike the roads I was traveling on in Cambodia. The east west highway, with only a single lane in each direction, is an abstract scene painted against the backdrop of the Nepal's terai, dashed with all the beautiful and repulsive, amazing and repugnant colors of Nepali life.

I boarded the rather posh bus, known as the airbus, with my ticket to Jhapa, a district in the far eastern region of Nepal. This bus costs twice as much as the run-down public buses of Nepal because, as the name "airbus" implies, the vehicle is equipped with an air conditioner, supposedly. Instead of an A/C however, apparently the "air" in airbus refers to the hot air blowing my hair into a tangled mess as it comes through the windows. So, the extra cost of the airbus might not actually be paying for the A/C, but the extra fare does guarantee that the maximum passenger capacity won't exceed the number of available seats, which means you never have to share your seat cushion with a 5-member Nepali family. But in case the three whining kids are seated directly behind you on the airbus, never fear! The persistant and annoying kids will soon be drowned out by the even more persistant and annoyingly high pitched voice of the Indian actress starring--and oh, yes, singing--in the latest Hindi "flim" (film) brought to you by your friends at Airbus Nepal. Somewhere in the middle of the third Hindi film, which by the way had the exact same plot and dance numbers as the first two, I was about ready to rip the T.V. right out of the console mounted above the driver's head. Luckily for the other travelers on the bus, who were mesmerized by the Hindi actresses as if they were the Sirens themselves, I opted for the non-violent choice and simply invited John Mayer to provide an alternate soundtrack for my trip out east. Just 11 hours and a daal bhaat break later, I finally arrived in Kakarvitta, just minutes away from the border of West Bengal.

Days later when I showed up for the return trip aboard the airbus, I was informed very matter-of-factly that the airbus would not be traveling today. I'd have to wait until tomorrow. A wise person once said that life has no guarantees. I think that wise person coined the phrase while traveling through Nepal. I had no way of knowing that morning when I woke at 4 to make the 5 o'clock bus that a strike would be declared in Kathmandu or that such a strike would cause the airbus to cancel the trip entirely, despite the fact that over half of the passengers, including me, weren't even going to Kathmandu. But I rolled with the punches, as I have learned to do over the past couple months living in Nepal, boarded a bus outside of the Airbus fleet and embraced down home, fully exposed, hard core Nepali culture. As I looked for a seat I tried to ignore the dirt and stains on the half-way gone upholstery and the spit dried all over the floor and instead focused on the red lights and "Happy New Year" banner spread across the dashboard, decorating this shrine to Sai Babba. I took a look around at the millions of Nepalis who would be accompanying me on this journey, all of them squished like sardines into every last little corner of that rickety, run down, yet run of the mill, Nepali bus. And I, squished among them.

After securing my window seat a young Nepali mother and her 4 year old daughter claimed the seat next to me, which means they were sitting practically on my lap. I'll admit that as she sat down I wondered if this little girl would be annoying enough to make me long for a Hindi "flim." Luckily for me, she was an amazingly sweet little girl. I closed my eyes, put John Mayer back at the helm and drifted off to a deep sleep only to be woken by an urgent tapping on my shoulder. When I opened my eyes, the young mom in the seat next to me was pointing emphatically to the window. My first thought was hey, I woke up at 4 to get the window seat lady. Selfishly I flung to my seat next to the window, despite the fact that I hoped John Mayer had the power to sing me into a deep 11 hour sleep. But there was something urgent in her unintelligible Nepali, something urgent in her gesticulations that pointed first to her stomach, then to her mouth and over and over again to the window. The hand motions that express the words "I'm going to puke my guts out" are amazingly similar no matter the mother tongue. I dove out of the way and realized seconds later just how much more than me this mother needed the window seat and just how happy I was to give it to her. In my broken Nepali I asked her if she was okay and offered her some of my trail mix, the latter of which probably wasn't the greatest of ideas.

For 11 hours I watched this mother love her daughter--comb her hair, peel her apple, kiss her forehead and lead her outside, hand in hand, on all 8 of the pit stops, each taken in the randomest of places along the side of the highway. Back in the bus I watched as the mom shifted her daughter from knee to knee, as the mother's legs were certainly growing tired from the constant weight of her 4 year old girl weighing down on her thin frame. So, I wasn't at all mad when the mom asked me to scoot over (as if there was anywhere to scoot) so that we could fit a tiny rear on the seat along side of the two already occupying the cushion. I also wasn't upset when the shift in space pinched my right arm between the arm rest an my backpack, leaving a bruise that still has not completely faded weeks later and although I would have preferred to have some leg room, I didn't mind (much) giving it up so that three more people could fit inside the bus. Of course, it would have been more pleasant if all of the other passengers supported the deoderant industry as I do, but at least the obnoxious sounds of the Hindi "flims" weren't competing with the obnoxious smells around me. Just as I took a deep breath (via my mouth instead of my nose) and hoped that the man who had taken the liberty of turning my arm rest into a foot rest for his flilthy bare foot would soon realize that he was digging his toes into my ribs, the young mom next to me passed me a piece of paper on which she had written her name and phone number, welcoming me to dinner at her home if I ever happened through her town.

With this kind gesture the Nepali bus experience was complete. I realized then that the purest way to experience Nepali culture is to walk down to the bus park with 300 rupees and see how far it can take you. In Nepal, eleven hours on a bus won't take you half as far as it could on the freeways of America, but here in Nepal the ground covered is never something that can be measured in miles.

1. The Peace Corps...isn't that a hippie organization?
A: Not exactly. It's a governmental organization that seeks to "promote world peace and friendship." The Peace Corps volunteers travel to developing nations to help those nations meet their needs for trained men and women in various fields such as education, health care, environment, and business development. The Peace Corps only serves in a country upon that country's request. Click here for more information on the Peace Corps.

2. So...Nepal, eh? Isn't that
A: No, Nepal is not in Italy, it's not part of India, nor is it in South America. Nepal is on the Asian continent, between India and Tibetan China. Nepal is home to Mt. Everest. If you are like most Americans and still confused about where Nepal is, click here for a quick geography lesson.

3. So...they don't speak Italian there?
A: Uh, no...Nepali people speak a language creatively called Nepali. I will begin my stay in Nepal with three months of language training.

4. How long are you going to be gone?
A: The Peace Corps volunteer commits for two years and three months. I will have 24 vacation days a year, so I plan to come home at least once. I also plan to do spend some of that time trekking around Central Asia.

5. How much do you make in the Peace Corps?
A: As the term "volunteer" implies, I will not be "making" money. However, I am provided with enough so that I can eat daal baht (rice and lentils) and clothe myself with yak's wool in the winter.

6. So...why did you decide to join the Peace Corps?
A: There's really no quick answer to this question, but I invite you to read my Manifesto, which addresses this question. Click here if you have some time on your hands.

Kendra's Manifesto
a window into my heart and soul...

"Why would you want to join the Peace Corps?"

After hearing this question enough times I figured it was necessary to put some answers down on paper.
I call it a Manifesto to make it sound cool.

Just last summer, fresh out of college, my roommate Beth and I embarked on a five week backpacking trip around Europe. For five weeks I was on a cultural high, not because my eyes met the paint strokes of Van Gogh's Sunflowers, nor because my hands felt the crumbling pieces of the Berlin Wall, but because of the connection I felt to total strangers as together we witnessed these relics of history. Standing humbly before all of Europe's sites, I shared triumph and sorrow with people I had never seen before. The boundaries that separated us--boundaries of language, religions and politics--all blurred until the person next to me was simply a reflection myself. Traveling through Europe I tasted of the sweetness that this human connection brought to my lips. Upon my return to the States, I soon realized this journey had done nothing to quench my thirst for that connection. In fact, it only made me thirstier. The mission of the Peace Corps had always appealed to me, but it wasn't until I traveled to Europe that I really started to understand why.

My decision to join the Peace Corps came during my senior year in college, before traveling to Europe, before traveling later to Thailand and Cambodia, before I had even experienced such an astonishing connection with a total stranger. Originally, what led me to the Peace Corps was a ceaseless desire for knowledge. I dreamed of the lessons I would learn in a distant land; I dreamed of the people who would teach me thse lessons as they shared a part of their culture with me. I dreamed of things that had no name, and that was the most exciting part of my dreams, not knowing what it was that I would learn, but knowing that some knowledge awaited my discovery somewhere far away.

I knew the Peace Corps would provide me with innumerable opportunities for a type of learning that I would never experience within the borders of the United States. For 22 years I have looked at the world through the tint of an American value system. All of my knowledge has come from my perceptions, my American perceptions, of the world. It is not my goal to necessarily rid myself of my current perceptions and thus my present ways of thinking, but rather to acknowledge the existence and strive for the attainment of alternate perceptions in my enduring quest for knowledge. Such a feat of expanding my perceptions can only be accomplished by leaving the borders of my country and immersing myself in an alternative society where values and ways of life are truly foreign. Only in a society entirely different from my own will I be able to continue my unquenchable thirst for knowledge.

Of course, among all of these selfish reasons to join the Peace Corps, I wouldn't be joining if I did not believe strongly in the contribution of the volunteer. Today, among all of these other dreams I dream of strengthening the educational system in Nepal. I dream of training the Nepali teachers of tomorrow who, as citizens of a Third World nation, do not have access to a university education. I dream of teaching children who are the hopes of their nation's future and the promise of a better day. Volunteering in Nepal will certainly enable me to improve the lives of others, yet I know that the blessings these dear children will bestow upon my life, and the lessons they will teach me, will be far greater than any contribution I hope to make to their lives.

Those opposed to my decision will ask me why I don't spend those two years volunteering in America, making my own nation a better place. Many may wonder why I am putting the needs of other countries before the needs of my own country, but I have an entirely different way of viewing the world. I see the world as a universal community, therefore I don't feel any greater obligation to help the American people than I do to help the people beyond the borders of America. My obligation is to humanity.

As if I needed some sign to show me that I was making the right decision, as if the post-decision serenity in my heart was not enough, what I witnessed on my trip to Cambodia this past September solidified my commitment to my dreams. In Cambodia, I came face to face with poverty, the kind of poverty that made me want to turn my head because I knew that once it seeped into my conscious I would not be able to forget it. An unfortunate turn of events, however, left me stranded for two days without food or water in what felt like the middle of nowhere. Out there, I was forced to see poverty so harsh that it stared at me with an unrelenting gaze. In the absence of food, water and electricity, I literally held the hands of Cambodian children who will die in the ruthless grip of poverty. Beyond all barriers that separated us, I witnessed the beauty of human connection once again. I wanted to stay out there forever, knowing that I had so much to learn from those barefoot, naked, starving children.

Listening to my stomach growl, feeling the dirt that layered my body, I never doubted for a moment my decision to join the Peace Corps, knowing that those two days in Cambodia would be a way of life for the next two years in Nepal. In fact, during this trip my desire to become a volunteer in the Third World only became stronger. The root of this desire is a quest for first hand knowledge. I want to know the despair of poverty by feeling it in my stomach and on my skin. I want to know it by living it because, thank God, that is as close as I will ever get. That said, I know that I will never truly understand the hopelessness of poverty. I will never know what it would have been like as a child to work in the fields instead of going to school. I will never know what it is like to be robbed of the childhood gift to dream.
I will never truly understand the feeling of undying starvation. I can never truly know any of this because I do know that in two years I will return to a home with running water and electricity, that for the rest of my life I will have a hot shower every morning and food every night. So, while the Peace Corps may be the closest I will ever come to poverty, I know that I will never truly feel the anguish it brings.

Many people, including my family, wonder why I would give up the comforts of life back home to work for free, but the explanation always comes back to a quest for knowledge and a passion for human connection.

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Story Source: Personal Web Site

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Nepal; PCVs in the Field - Nepal



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