Fourteen hours -- that's how long I've been stuck on this twisted, infuriating road. Trapped in pea soup humidity, scratching the sweat-coated, raw bedbug bites all over my body, trying to ignore my growling stomach and make what little water I have left last however much longer I might be pacing the edge of steaming pavement. There isn't much space between the asphalt and the drop-off to those boiling rapids. Across the road, the earth angles up abruptly for hundreds of feet. That's why there are mudslides.
Two mudslides right now, actually -- one somewhere ahead, the barrier between me and Kathmandu, and another that came down much too close for comfort behind us. We’re boxed in. Not that we'd have been able to turn around and go back to Pokhara, with 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 tiny 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 rode that only road between the two cities, it had taken eight hours to travel 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 hadn’t left Pokhara by this morning, I'd surely have missed my plane.
And now it looks like that still might happen. I've been in Nepal for three months, part of that time during a sometimes violent and always troublesome nationwide Maoist strike. I’m very ready to go home.
So, I chose another driver from the pool of many who tried to sell me their services. He spoke English very well and offered me a fair price. But soon after we left, he pulled over without warning and switched with another driver. The original driver said he had a more important commitment, so this other guy would take me to Kathmandu. Unfortunately, "this other guy" speaks no English, and every time 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 yelling, which clearly surprised me more than him. I'll bet he understands those English words.
And then everything came to an abrupt stop.
Moments later, my driver had 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 are hundreds of people on this road, but no one else will speak to me or look me in the eye. That hadn't been the case in tourist areas or when I was with the people I'd come to Nepal to see. Now, however, I’m on my own among strangers in a very strange situation, and I feel isolated.
But the situation doesn’t appear to feel strange to anyone else, as everyone else is looking quite content, either snoozing, peeing, or engaged in conversation. Meanwhile, my blood pressure has risen to the boiling point as I crane my neck, trying to see that hidden mudslide up ahead, willing it to get the heck out of my way.
And now, as I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a hand has come down gently on my shoulder, and a bottle of water and a green banana appear in front of my face. I turn to see a gap-toothed smile surrounded by brown wrinkles. The old woman motions for me to sit on a patch of grass and, as I do, she walks away. I feel my muscles and mind finally give in. There’s nothing else I can do.
I look up to see many eyes upon me and lots of smiles and nods. I’m not alone anymore.
As if on cue, engines come to life almost in unison, and I run with my water and banana to get in the car. My driver reaches over as if to touch my knee, then laughs and puts his hand back on the steering wheel where it stays for the next few hours until we part ways in Kathmandu.