Chicken bus

Patan, Nepal

Nepali truck

Decorated truck on the street

Pokhara, Nepal

The bus wrangler was a young man with a wispy beard who looked as if no one had ever respected him in his life. He also had a seating chart and a mission: the bus wasn't going anywhere until everyone was sitting in the seats shown on their ticket.

The passengers had other ideas. The tourists simply ignored his efforts to get them into their assigned seats, while the Nepalis mocked him openly. He raged ineffectually for a little while longer and then gave in.

M. groaned. "If they're letting people on without luggage," she said, "This is the chicken bus, not a tourist bus."

I watched the bustle of people getting on and off, the ineffectual attempts of the bus wrangler to enforce his will, the accumulation of boxes in the aisle. True, there were no actual livestock, but the signs were all there.

"The chicken is strong in this one," I said in my best Darth Vader voice.

Buses in the developing world typically leave according to capacity, not timetable. If there are empty seats, they begin a deadly slow kind of curb crawl, circling the town while the bus wrangler stands in the open door, shouting the name of the destination. Sometimes the bus will pull up at a place where the driver remembers once taking on a fare, lingering wistfully by the side of the road for a few minutes in the hope that a former passenger might miraculously show up again. Sometimes a small child will come scurrying out of a house to say that daddy is just finishing his breakfast, and could the bus wait just a few minutes. Naturally, the bus waits - after all, there's still standing room in the aisle - while the Westerners aboard boil with impatience.

At each stop, people get on, sit in the wrong seat, argue with the man with the chart. Sometimes people get off and have to be rounded up before the bus can move. When they are cajoled into reboarding, it will inevitably turn out that someone else is now in their seat, resulting in more argument, and more appeals to the seating chart. In an odd reversal, the man with the chart is now totally indifferent, while the passengers who previously mocked it now believe that the seating plan has the force of Scripture. As often as not, the interloper will turn out to be someone's grandmother, who only boarded in order to say goodbye to her relative. Getting granny out of the bus is a slow process, not least because while disembarking she will inevitably discover a long-lost friend three rows forward.

After an hour of this, you start to feel a cold fear every time the bus slows. Teeth gritted, fists clenched, you will the bus to keep moving.

With the bus full to capacity, we moved off, only to become wedged in traffic.

"Bharatpur," said M. grimly. "Ten kilometers in an hour. Twice as fast as walking."

"But eight times as irritating," I added.

"You noticed," she said.

Clear of Bharatpur, the bus finally did begin to pick up speed, leaving us free to concentrate on the terrors of the road.

Highways in Nepal are of the same order as a poorly maintained rural road in the US - two winding lanes of unmarked asphalt, patched and potholed but carrying far more traffic and interrupted at intervals by minor landslips or stalled trucks. Buses and trucks creep along in convoy, jockeying for position and overtaking each other whenever the oncoming traffic thins for a moment, blind curves and steep grades notwithstanding.

The accident rate is horrendous. A French tourist on our bus described watching the dead and injured being unloaded from a bus that had collided head on with a truck. A few miles later, we passed a bus with its roof and sides shredded, apparently having just been set back on its wheels after rolling a few times. There was no sign of the passengers, but I guessed that for some of them that hadn't been a survivable accident either.

(Later, while walking around Patan, I saw a page torn from a child's exercise book on the street. The first sentence on the page read: "Bhawan saw that there was still a man trapped in the driver's cab.")

The best distraction from thoughts of death, aside from the scenery, is to read the slogans written on the other intensely-decorated trucks and buses. The rear of the vehicle often has the Indian favorite "Horn please", or a pithy parting shot such as "Catch you later" or "See you" (the latter usually written either side of a picture of a lotus, or, even more inexplicably, a flaming soccer ball). The commonest phrases on the front fender seem to be "Road king", "Speed control" and "Off-road express".

The cab and body show more variation: the ungrammatical "God is loves us" was popular, while the recurrent "1Love" testified to the global reach of Bob Marley. Many offered musings on the nature of love: "Love is drama" suggested one, while another opined that "Love start from the heart and end in tears". A scruffy-looking garbage truck simply declared that its owner had "No time for love".

The single strangest vehicle we saw was painted all over with Union Jacks and bore a large "England" across its tailgate. As we surged past it on an uphill blind curve, we could also dimly make out – through a wiperless windshield made nearly opaque by an ongoing cloudburst – an additional message reminding us that there was "No gurranty of the life". In smaller letters, lower down, was a final message: "I hate myself. I want to die".