The morning Kim and I set out to hike the Annapurna Circuit, we find ourselves on the bus to Besisahar, our starting point for the trek. We wait patiently as the bus winds through the streets of Pokhara, picking up passengers until every seat and every inch of the aisle is full. Luckily, this bus comes with little wicker stools for aisle dwellers to sit on. (It’s the little touches that make luxury travel worthwhile…) Once the bus is sufficiently stuffed with bodies (and extra fares), we start making our way to our destination.
The twists and turns of the mountain roads (straight roads in Nepal seem to be more elusive than the Yeti) has every passenger searching for something bolted down to grab hold of to prevent then from crashing into their neighbor. Suddenly, the driver slams on the brakes and I instinctively put my hand out to stop a stool-dweller from tumbling down the aisle. Luckily, she catches herself and saves me from having to explain why I ‘stopped short’ to her husband as visions of Frank Castanza float through my head.
As we round a curve, I hear the unmistakable revving of an engine out of gear. I look at the driver and he looks at the shifter and jiggles it. After a few moments of staring at the shifter (windy mountain roads + driver not looking at the roads = Toonces the driving cat), he stops the bus and motions to his assistant. As the driver starts fidgeting with something around the shifter, the assistant says something to the dozen or so people sitting around.
The shifter cover is removed and the driver gently slides his hand under the shifter. I can only assume says ‘cough’ because a noise emerges from the front of the bus. A few ‘coughs’ later he puts the bus back in gear, nods in self-satisfaction to his assistant and we start down the road again. I guess everyone needs a little help getting their shifter in gear every now and then…
All seems well until the driver tries to shift gears while the bus is moving. As soon as he attempts to put the bus into 2nd, the engine revs again and the driver looks at the shifter, only this time with a hell of a lot more concern on his face. At this point, his not looking at the road and his concern over his bus have me worried.
After the bus is cleared of people up front (except for Kim and I), the assistant re-boards the bus carrying a long steel pole. I don’t have the time to make a bad joke to Kim before I am stunned into silence as the assistant proceeds to stand over a hole in the floor and repeatedly ram the pole into what I can only imagine is a vital piece of bus-moving equipment.
Now, the interior of buses aren’t very big areas to be working in. Swinging a metal pole near my head adds an element of danger I have never experienced before in vehicle repair. As I stare wide-eyed at the ‘repair’ going on, Kim wisely exits the bus between jabs.
Seeing the assistant stab and crank the pole and the driver feebly moving the shifter around, it finally hit me (an idea, not the pole): they are trying to force the bus into gear! After applying the right touch, the driver nods, starts the bus, and it lurches forward. Success!
Everyone re-stuffs the bus and we continue down the road – only in first gear. As the engine screams down mountains roads, I notice the assistant hasn’t moved – and is still holding onto the steel pole. He is literally holding the transmission in gear as the bus limps down the road.
After a few minutes the bus pulls off to the side of the road. Kim and I look at each other, both wondering how long this breakdown will be. We discuss how long we think it will take to walk to Besisahar (we did set out to walk for the next three weeks, after all), but realize we have no idea where we are or how to get to Besisahar.
As we are weighing our options, the assistant is outside the bus talking to someone in grease stained clothes – a mechanic! Everyone who knows better is already waiting outside and soon its only me and old ladies remaining inside the bus.
The mechanic gets on the bus with only three tools: a pair of pliers and two small wrenches. The phrase gonna need a bigger hammer enters my head, but in under two minutes he pulls out a piece of pipe: the linkage for the transmission. He takes it out of the bus, leaving me alone with the old ladies.
Outside his shop, the mechanic stands the pipe on its end and grabs a welder. In just a few minutes he welds a new piece onto one end of the linkage and is back in the bus. A couple of screws put back in place and some test-shifts from the driver and the bus is ready to go.
It took the mechanic less than 15 minutes to fix. It made me think that the Nepalese know a thing or two about their vehicles. If this would have happened in the U.S., not only would the driver not know how to improvise a fix, it would take 2 weeks to schedule the repairs, buses would have to be dispatched to retrieve stranded passengers, insurance agents called, ticket refunds issued, complaints made, etc. This was all accomplished in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee with a handshake with no one fussing about being delayed.
Once the mechanic had been paid, Kim and I were finally about to begin the adventure we had set out for: hiking the Annapurna Circuit.
Stay tuned for more to come on the Circuit in the coming days….