Saturday, December 8, 2012

NEPAL: Of Beasts and Buses

It just dawned on me that Nepalis treat buses pretty much the same way they treat oxen. Yes, they've replaced the Se Se Se noise people make to warn animals out of the way with the horn, and Nepalis do love their horns. There's even a sign in the Kathmandu airport proclaiming the creative communication of the horn. But to get more personal with either an animal or a bus, you gotta tap it, tap it good. Want it to stop or go? Tap it to stop it. Tap it again to get it going. Tap tap tap!

The "bus butler" loads
lumber onto my bus
Every bus has a both a driver and also a guy - let's call him a bus butler since I have no idea of his actual job title - who takes fares, helps load and unload whatever people can think to transport - a few days ago I road with a building's worth of lumber and human-sized bags of rice building a wall down the aisle, and I spotted a goat on top of another bus.  But perhaps the bus butler's most important job is to communicate with the bus driver so no mishaps will befall the bus or its riders or, in many cases, other vehicles on the street, by a system of tapped  instructions to the driver.  In its simplest form, this involves letting the driver know that people are still getting on the bus (one hard slap to the side of the bus) or that everyone is safely aboard and the driver may roll (two slaps).  But many times, the bus butler gets called into serious tap-dancing when there's real danger on the road - for example, when two vehicles with a combined girth too big to pass on a narrow road must do so anyway.   In these dramatic moments,  you suddenly see only the butler's legs and feet out the window, and then nothing, as he pulls himself up onto the bus roof to oversee the delicate but urgent operation, directing the driver with a selection of tapping noises and the occasional shout, as the bus and the other vehicle take turns jolting five inches this way and then that way to accomplish the seemingly impossible.

The guy on top of the oncoming bus is getting
ready to direct his driver around my bus. 
But it's not only the bus butler who gets into the act.  Need to walk, bike or scooter past a bus?  Honk if you will, but if you have any doubt, slap away at the side of the vehicle so the driver knows EXACTLY where you are.  Is a bus about to take off your rear view mirror?  Launch yourself out of your vehicle, spring onto your own vehicle roof and slap that bus hard while scrambling to fold your mirror in, then slap the bus again. Oh, and make sure your hand isn't on the bus side of your vehicle as it takes off, because it's going to be very, very close.

The roads in Nepal are a very tactile experience. Whats good for the beast is good for the bus. And as far as I can tell, the system works just fine!  Especially for its entertainment value.

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