Fourteen hours -- that's how long I'd been stuck on that infuriating, twisted road. Trapped in ninety degrees of pea soup humidity, scratching the sweat-covered, raw bedbug bites that covered my limbs and torso, trying to ignore my growling stomach and to make what little water I had left last however much longer I might be pacing the edge of steaming pavement. There wasn't much space between the asphalt and the drop-off to the boiling rapids. Across the road, the earth angled up abruptly for hundreds of feet. That's why there were mudslides.
Two mudslides, actually -- one somewhere ahead, the barrier between me and Kathmandu, and another that had come down far too close for comfort behind. We were boxed in. Not that we'd have been able to turn around and go back to Pokhara; there were countless cars, busses and mopeds parked helter-skelter on the highway in that direction, too.
When I say "we," I'm referring to myself and my driver. After sitting in the Pokhara airport for two days, waiting for the torrential rain to ease up long enough for a prop plane to take off with me on it, I'd had no choice but to travel by car. Again. The last time I'd ridden that only road between the two cities, it had taken eight hours to travel those 206 kilometers, the driver weaving in and out of traffic, missing oncoming vehicles sometimes by mere inches with my life in his hands, which sometimes left the steering wheel to crack his knuckles. But as much as I was dreading another long ride, if I didn't leave Pokhara by the next morning, I'd surely miss my plane. I'd been in Nepal for three months, part of that time during a sometimes violent and always troublesome, nationwide Maoist strike. I was very ready to go home.
So I'd selected another driver from the pool of many who had tried to sell me their services. He spoke good English and offered me a fair price. But soon after we left, he'd pulled over without warning and switched with another driver. The original driver now said he had a more important commitment, so this other guy would take me to Kathmandu. "This other guy" spoke no English, and when his right hand left the steering wheel, it kept finding its way to my left knee. I progressed from moving away to shoving his hand off to a yell that clearly surprised me more than him. I'll bet he understood those English words.
And then everything had come to an abrupt stop.
Moments later, my driver reclined his seat and closed his eyes. It had taken much longer than that to find someone to say a single word I understood: mudslide.
There were hundreds of people on that road, but no one else spoke to me or met my eyes. That certainly hadn't been the case in tourist areas or with the people I'd come to Nepal to see. Now that I was on my own amongst strangers, however, in what was, to me, a very strange situation, I felt isolated.
But the situation didn't appear to feel strange to anyone else, as everyone else was looking quite content, either snoozing, peeing, or engaged in Nepalese conversation. Meanwhile, my blood pressure had risen to the boiling point as I craned my neck, trying to see that hidden mudslide up ahead, willing it to move out of my way.
Then, as I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a hand came down gently on my shoulder, and a bottle of water and a green banana appeared in front of my face. I turned to see a gap-toothed smile surrounded by brown wrinkles. The old woman motioned for me to sit on a patch of grass, and, as I did, she walked away. I felt my muscles and mind finally give in. There was nothing else I could do.
I looked up to see many eyes upon me and lots of smiles and nods. I wasn't alone anymore.
As if on cue, engines came to life almost in unison, and I ran with my water and banana to get in the car. My driver reached over as if to touch my knee, then laughed and put his hand back on the steering wheel, where it stayed for the next few hours until we parted ways in Kathmandu.