There are certain moments in life that I look back on with a feeling of nostalgia that surpasses all others. They are the moments that define me. The moments that take my breath away. The moments where life was nothing more than the space and time that existed right then; no future, no past, nowhere else in the world. These are the stories that I am putting in the “Memories” categories of this blog.
The day was already hot, and day had hardly even begun. I was instructed to wait for the bus at a location a few blocks from the hostel where I had been staying. The impression I had gotten was that a guide from the program would be there to meet me, but when the bus arrived and the line formed I figured it was best to just get on. Maybe someone would be waiting for me on the other end of the line.
I had been in Nepal for over a month at that point and was beginning to feel somewhat comfortable with the concept of taking a chance and finding that it worked out in the end, somehow. That morning, I was leaving Kathmandu for a trip to Chitwan National Park. I had already been up in the Himalaya’s and lived in village outside of Kathmandu and now I was excited to see the jungle in the south of the country. The bus quickly filled in the early dawn, then slowly made its way out of the growing city traffic. Most of the passengers were Nepali’s with a handful of tourists mixed in. As we headed south, I stared out the window with my headphones in, taking in the changing countryside. At a mid-morning rest stop, the gentleman sitting next to me stirred awake and bought tea for myself and the family members he was traveling with, saying that having me join his family for tea was a way of welcoming me to his country. Most of the roads I had traveled on in the north while in Nepal were carved into the mountainside with a steep wall on one side and a drop off into the river below on the other. As we traveled south, the road was no different. Gradually, the sky began to turn grey and the summer rains started to fall heavy upon the road. The week prior, I watched on the local news with my homestay family that a bus had lost control on this same road and crashed into the river below. The accident killed all except the bus driver who had jumped out of the vehicle as it drove over the edge. As I watched the news report all the faces of the family members turned to look at me questioningly. The teenage daughter, asked “Are you really still going to take that road south? Buses fall off that road all the time. But at least you will be on a tourist bus. It’s only the local buses that crash”. So much for being on a tourist bus. But what were the chances of another accident? As I counted the rusted out buses on the side of the road and in the canyon below, I stopped wondering and just turned up my music. After all, there was nothing to do to change it now. I was on the bus and it was taking me on a journey.
Until it stopped. Suddenly and completely. We had made it to the rainforest, which meant it was hot. And humid. Sweaty does not begin to describe my condition. After an hour of not moving more than a few feet forward, in a line of buses that stretched as far as I could see down the road, sweat was pouring down by body from my head to my toes. Slowly people got off the bus into cars that arrived to pick up the stranded family members and friends. In the moments between my benevolent neighbor waking from his deep slumber and quickly exiting the bus with his family to a waiting car, I learned that the reason for the traffic jam was a blockade into Chitwan. Protests were beginning to occur around the country after the hotly contested first democratic election. Blockades were being set up around popular cities to stop tourism as a way to adversely impact the government. I found myself in the midst of one of them. Seemingly alone. I sat there, trying to decide what the best course of action would be. Maybe I could find a bus that would be heading back to Kathmandu. Maybe there was a town with a hostel close by. I tried to form my questions in Nepali when suddenly a man who had been sitting at the front of the bus the entire time got up, walked back to my seat, and told me that my ride would be there in one hour. He then immediately turned, walked off the bus, and disappeared into a waiting car. Bewildered and very confused, I decided I would wait one hour and see what happened. Time crawled by and sweat continued to pour, though we made no more forward motion on the bus. To my surprise, at exactly one hour, a motorcycle drove up to my window and stopped. The driver looked up and said my name. This was unbelievable. He asked how many bags I brought and when I told him I only had a day pack he smiled and said “good” and that he would be back in one hour. As he drove off I thought my luck had ended. I looked around the bus to see that more than three quarters of the people had already left and the few remaining looked as if they were not planning to stay much longer. The sun was starting to cast long shadows in the jungle and I knew I did not want to be caught out there on an empty bus in the jungle at night. Do I wait for this mysterious rendezvous or do I continue with my plan to catch a bus back to Kathmandu? Hell, what was one hour. The minutes crept by as I stared out the window. Ten minutes to go. Five. Three. I cursed myself for being so stupid as to wait for nothing. I could have been one hour closer Kathmandu by then. One minute. Times up. A new motorcycle stopped at the window and the driver said my name. “Let’s go”. I don’t even remember getting off the bus, but I must have ran, because suddenly I was cruising down the dirt road on the back of a motorcycle, thrilled to feel the wind against my face. Initially, we were going slow enough for the driver to tell me that he was from the hotel and would be driving me through the road block on the back of this bike. The protesters’ aim was to keep out tourist, so no buses, vans, or cars were allowed through. Since motorcycles were the exception, they were going to smuggle me in on the back of one. But first, the driver needed to do one errand, so I am hold a funny memory of drinking one of the best tasting colas, from a glass bottle, of course, with the grandmother of this motorcycle driver in the driveway of her house in the middle of the jungle in Nepal.
We were back on the road after a (relatively) short wait. For a while, the road ahead was clear, except for the line of buses that stretched on and on around every turn. After one particular turn, however, the tranquility of the quiet jungle gliding past suddenly gave way to the confusion and commotion of a mass of people, fire, and shouting ahead. The driver slowed the bike, but never spoke a word or allowed the bike to stop completely as he picked his way through burning tires and debris. For a while we appeared to go unnoticed. A subtle nod to one person and diverting of gaze from the glare of another. These maneuvers worked until one particular protester’s machete blade slicing through the air brought the motorcycle to a halt. Silence. Then a sudden barking of questioning and demands by the protester. He was yelling at the driver but staring and jabbing the machete in the air at me. After a number of heated exchanges between the two men, the motorcycle driver, barely turning his head, asked me if it was true that I had learned Nepali while I was in the country. Hesitantly, I told him I had, but very little, thinking to myself that there was no way I would be able to speak well or answer questions. He told me I only had to say one word but that he could not say anything in Nepal to help me. “I hope you know the word for friend. If you do say it now.” I did! Of all the words to ask and the few words I knew, it was a miracle to me that this was one that I knew. I looked at the man staring at me with his machete still held at his waist and, as confidently as I could, said that one, simple word, “Saathi!” The man looked uncertainly between myself and the driver and back again and, I swear, even in all the noise, I could hear the driver give a sigh of relief. After a very long moment, the protester waved us on, though his face held the look of a person not convinced that he wasn’t being tricked. The driver did not give him the opportunity to change his mind, but put the bike in gear and took off down the road. Before long, we were cruising down the open road with the road block behind us and the sun sinking low in the distance.
It wasn’t until we pulled into the parking area of a quiet hostel that I finally got the opportunity to ask the motorcycle driver what had happened back there at the blockade with the machete-wielding protester. I was told that the protester was accusing him of smuggling a tourist through the blockade. The driver had created an elaborate story, stating that I was not a tourist, but a family friend. He told the protestor that I had come to live with the family years ago as a volunteer and have been visiting every year since. He they scolded the protester for delaying our progress, which would cause his mother to worry and questioning him as to how his mother would feel if her guest was sent away after such a long journey to visit her. The protester told him that if I was truly a friend who had been in Nepal many times I would be able to tell him so myself. So that simple word “Saathi”, meaning “friend” was what got me through a roadblock in Nepal. As the sun sunk behind the trees, I walked into the little hostel and on towards my next adventure.