A (Slow and Boring) Passage to India
When we heard the term “overnight bus”, we assumed we would arrive in India the following day. When we heard the word “strike”, we assumed the bus drivers were refusing to work. When we heard the words “12 pm”, we assumed the bus would start moving again at noon. We were wrong on all counts. Agonisingly slowly, we began to piece together the story of what had happened.
We had been travelling overnight from Kathmandu when our bus stopped moving sometime in the small hours of the morning. It was now 7 am and we had yet to start again. So we started asking around, and we given various answers. One conversation went like this:
“Why have we stopped?”
“Because of strike”
“But why is there a strike?”
“Yes, but what are they striking for?”
*deep breath* “Okaaay, so what time will the bus start moving?”
“Am or pm?”
“Do you mean am?”
“No. Pm. Noon.”
Grabbing our umbrella to shield against the monsoon rain, Adam stepped off the bus to see if he could find out any more information. From the window I could see that we were in a line of vehicles, queued along a road surrounded by fields and a small collection of stalls and diners. I turned to one of the men we had been speaking to earlier. Giving up on the question of “when”, I continued to try to find out “why?”. Eventually, I managed to piece the story together.
It turns out it was not the bus drivers who were striking at all, it was the people living in the area ahead of us. Also it was less of a “strike” and more of a protest. The government had failed to provide aid to the area following the earthquake in April (the man explained this to me with a rather condescending “you see, there was a natural disaster”- making me feel like even more of a clueless outsider). Understandably angry at this, the local people had retaliated by blockading the road and attacking any vehicle that tried to pass. They allowed two convoys a day, of 500 vehicles each, to pass with a police escort. We had just missed the morning one, and were now stuck waiting in Bandipur for the next one. Returning to the bus looking damp and sullen, Adam told me that the police had confirmed that the next convoy would not be until midnight.
We sat staring miserably into the rain, refusing to believe we would be stuck on this bus for 16 hours (on top of the 14 hours we had already spent on it, and the god-knows-how-many hours it would take once we started moving again). The rain eventually subsided, and the man whom I had been speaking to seemed to decide we would have a better chance of getting moving earlier if a foreigner appealed to the police. So he left with Adam to speak to the policemen who were gathered outside the station. I didn’t hold my breath, and sure enough, a few minutes later, they returned shaking their heads. Adam relayed to me what the policeman had said; he refused to risk an attack by the protesters. Our new bus friend had informed us that he blamed ethnic groups, and that if it were up to him they would just be shot.
But at least the rain had stopped. So we left the bus to stretch our legs and see if there was anything of interest to do for the next (quick calculation) 13 hours and 25 minutes. Turns out we really were near the front, only five buses were ahead of us. The first one looked worse for wear, with a smashed windshield and lights. I don’t know whether it had tried to break the picket line or whether the protesters were just giving a warning.
The line behind us, however, stretched almost a mile long. Buses, trucks, cars, and motorbikes sat stranded on the road, surrounded by grumpy looking passengers.
After walking around the tiny village of Bandipur, we turned off road and explored some of the surrounding farmland, before heading back in the direction of our bus. Forbidding ourselves from checking the time, we sat at one of the diners and ate some rice and vegetables. This had been our lunch and dinner for weeks now and, despite it usually being pretty tasty, it was fairly monotonous, and by then I was craving a pizza.
And there we sat until the sun started to go down. I wrote. Adam read. We chatted to other people from our bus. We put off using the vile squat toilet that was covered in excrement and maggots until there was no holding it any more. We played card games.
Eventually, the day was over, and we returned to the bus to try to sleep (our third consecutive night sleeping on a bus, including our journey from Syangja to Kathmandu). Mercifully, the engines eventually began to rumble, and we passed, uninterrupted, along the road until the following morning, when our bus broke down.
Convinced that someone up there was punishing us, we gritted our teeth and tried to stay calm as we waited for another bus to pass. We were then shoved and squeezed into the overflowing vehicle, where we stood, luggage at our feet, elbows in our backs, armpits in our faces, until we finally reached the Indian border, a grand total of 27 hours later than planned.
Edit: Since the passing of Nepal’s constitution on 20/09/15, the road to India has been entirely blocked by protesters, who claim the constitution does not protect the rights of certain ethnic groups. When we travelled this road a few weeks ago, the protests merely meant delays to journeys. Now, the protesters are stopping all traffic in either direction, preventing both travel and trade, and leading to a worrying fuel shortage in Nepal. Read more here.