Psychologically, though I haven’t left yet, I am already in India and Nepal. I’m in both places. A part of my mind perpetually rehearses the trip from New Delhi to Kathmandu. It begins in New Delhi and proceeds to Gorakhpur, India by train. Then I take a three-hour bus ride to Sunauli and walk across the India/Nepal border to find our hotel in Bhairawa, Nepal. After a restful night’s sleep and some food, my mind takes a bus from Bhairawa to Kathmandu.
When the part of my mind assigned to this chronic rehearsal completes the trip, it starts all over again. The problem is, and one of the reasons why I keep rehearsing the trip is because sometimes the bus from Bhairawa to Kathmandu careens off the side of a big cliff. When this happens, I try to manage the problem the way that I would manage frightening nightmares that end badly in those lucid moments between dreams and wakefulness. Where would we sit on a bus that was destined to crash in order to avoid death? Could I trust my intuition to tell us to get off the bus just before it crashed? Could I intervene in some way and perhaps take control of the wheel?
In my head, I’ve tried all of these things, but none of them works to save our lives which turns out to be okay because once my thinking, logical brain takes over, I remember that John and I changed our New Delhi to Kathmandu travel plans.
Initially, we were going to go by land from New Delhi to Kathmandu, but after we learned some unsavory facts about the overland journey, we decided that going by plane would be a better plan.
When we first decided to go to Nepal several months ago, I read the Lonely Planet travel guide and learned that Nepal’s airlines are scary and unreliable. I then got on the Internet to do more research and read a blog post about reasons to avoid the airlines with plenty of photos to back up the article. I scrolled down the page to peruse photos of the remnants of plane crashes that were abandoned only yards from where they crashed, the empty carcasses lined up along the Kathmandu runway like modern art. It left an impression on me and John and I became very committed to the idea of traveling overland from India to Nepal.
But about a week ago, I read a small blip (just a couple of paragraphs) at the end of the Lonely Planet section on “Buses”. It talked about bus crashes in Nepal and the sleepy bus drivers who take the corners too fast because they’re paid per passenger and not on salary. The buses slide off the edge of steep cliffs. Everyone inside dies.
I read this paragraph, at 11:30 at night, closed the Lonely Planet book, turned off the light and lay there blinking into the darkness and wondering how on earth will we get to Kathmandu safely from India?
I showed the Lonely Planet paragraph to John the next morning.
“Bus travel in Nepal poses a significant risk of accident. It’s uncommon to drive for more than an hour on any stretch of road without passing the burnt out shell of a public bus crushed like tin foil into the canyon below. Traveling on an overnight bus trip is probably the most dangerous thing you can do in Nepal and is certainly a bigger risk than that currently posed by the Maoists and even more dangerous than the bungee jump (only kidding on that one). You are more than 30 times more likely to die in a road accident in Nepal than in most developed countries…”
It goes on to talk about the number of fatal bus crashes (10) over a 10-day period and the number of people killed in them (200). I knew how John would respond to this information.
We discussed the possibility of simply staying in India for our whole trip. We even committed fully to the idea for exactly 6.5 hours before we felt a twinge of disappointment, if not guilt about giving up so easily on Nepal.
Later on that day, for approximately 6 1/2 hours after we’d cancelled our train tickets from New Delhi to Gorakhpur, we thoroughly considered the virtues of staying in India. I thumbed through the Lonely Planet guidebook for more information. John looked for more information about New Delhi to Kathmandu flights online. I felt like we were missing crucial pieces of data. Other people went to Nepal and survived the journey. Why couldn’t we?
I found a section in my book that talked about the fun of riding on top of buses in Nepal which sounded incredibly dangerous after having read the other paragraphs about buses.
“The arguments in favor are that you get an exhilarating ride with great views , the opportunity to watch your bags, and sometimes, room to stretch your legs.”
At www.seat61.com, John found a short paragraph written by a man who had recently made the journey from Bhairawa to Kathmandu overland. His review of the overnight bus ride was glowing. Seat61 is almost as much of an authority on overland travel as Lonely Planet. John and I studied the contradictions, trying to make sense of it all.
At first, we decided to avoid buses altogether and instead hire a private driver. “We need to learn the words for ‘slow down’ in Nepali.” John said. “At least with a private driver we would have some control. If it seems too dangerous, we can just go back to India.”
In the evening, John, Lydian, and I settled in to our comfy chairs to watch some very amateur YouTube videos of tourists traveling by road from Bhairawa to Kathmandu. These were so boring that we didn’t watch most of them all the way through to the end; a good sign that the roads were probably fine, at least when there weren’t heavy rains. One short, but shocking video about the road captured a group of dirty and forlorn three and four-year old children in Sunauli, India near the Nepali border playing with burning trash in the middle of the street with cars and trucks passing by on either side.
“Oh my GOD!” Lydian said and covered her eyes as a little girl’s dress flirted with the flames, “Where are their parents?”
The children poked sticks into the flames, laughed, threw fire at each other. Trucks passed by within inches of the unsupervised group. We sat and watched, our mouths agape.
“You see it all the time.” John said. “Those kids play with fire and nothing bad happens to them. And kids who are careful and thoughtful with vigilant parents die tragically.” We all agreed solemnly that it didn’t make sense and clicked on to the next YouTube video.
We continued watching videos about roads in Nepal. One stretch of road was featured on the show Deadliest Journeys. We watched the episode with rapt attention. One of the two men on the journey was assigned the task of putting rocks along the road ahead of the truck so that it wouldn’t get high centered or roll off a cliff.
“Now, imagine doing that during the monsoon season.” John mused. Lydian and I made no comment. There was nothing to say. The show wasn’t about the road we would be taking, but the fact that there would be heavy rain along any road in Nepal still loomed as an important consideration.
We marinated in a stew filled with all the contradictory pieces of data from reliable sources. A jeep with a private driver seemed like a good plan but we knew we’d be sleep deprived and jet lagged and probably hungry by the time we got to Bhairawa. We wouldn’t be making the best decisions. We weren’t fluent in Nepali. Would we be able to communicate with a private driver?
But other people went to Nepal. And we wanted to go to Nepal. I wondered if we were just scared. We mulled all the information over as though our lives depended on it, the recent Malaysian airplane crash over the Ukraine weighing in heavily. If we decided not to go to Nepal, we’d be cowards among the intrepid souls who’d made the journey without issue. If we decided to go to Nepal (and we died or got injured), we’d be idiots among those at home. This seemed an oversimplified assessment of things.
“Do we care whether or not another group of people thinks we’re cowards or idiots?” I asked John and Lydi.
“It’s not about that, Mom.” Lydi offered sagely. “It’s not like we know anyone personally who’s been there.” Imagining what other people would tell us to do can be a guidepost at times, but not when we’re working on unchartered territory where no friend, acquaintance, or family member has ever gone before.
I thought about the kids in the street who were playing with fire and how they were like ignorant firefighters, pyro-technicians, or flame throwers. Playing with fire is an acceptable thing to do when people know how to respect it and wield it with care. But with enough luck, even young children, completely oblivious to the potential dangers could walk away from the fire pit without so much as a blister.
John and I Googled questions about the safety of flights from New Delhi to Kathmandu. This time, I couldn’t find any lurid photos or blog posts about near death landings or take off experiences or frequent crashes, just people talking about flights from India to Nepal in a very ho-hum way. The Nepali airlines were definitely unreliable and not especially safe, but when John looked up the ratings for non-Nepali airlines that flew back and forth from New Delhi to Kathmandu, these airlines, like Qatar Air and India Air had excellent ratings.
Late that night, we booked a flight from New Delhi to Kathmandu on India Air.
“Do you think this is the right thing to do?” John asked after he clicked the ‘submit’ button for our tickets.
I shrugged my shoulders and sighed heavily. “Let’s try it… If we wanna be flamethrowers, we have to take some risks to learn the art, right?”
“I wanna be a pyrotechnician, not a flamethrower.” John said.
“Fine.” I said.
“Okay.” He said.
So we go by plane.