I was barely two weeks into my first volunteer visit to SIRC back in 2013 and still getting used to travelling by local bus from Banepa to Bhainsepati … a bus ride complete with chickens flying for their freedom and majestic goats tied to the bus roof top. That gave many of you a chuckle, knowing my fondness for any of God’s creatures in close proximity!
But there’s another side to riding the local buses here and it’s not quite so funny. I’ve been heading in and out to Kathmandu for various reasons over the past 10 days or so and have recovered my knack for choosing which bus to catch in Banepa – the bus itself must look fairly decent and well maintained (although a lick of pain can cover up a multitude of woes), the driver must look more than 15 years old so that there is some chance he actually has a valid license, and the bus needs to feel relatively calm on board – if the driver and his helpers are hyper and not paying attention while the bus is standing still, these are not the guys you want in control of your bus while it is hurtling along the narrow twisty roads! It’s at times like this I pine for Peter’s Bus on Bowen Island!!
Last Sunday as I was heading into Kathmandu, I left one bus go ahead and hopped on the next bus (it fit all my criteria). As we neared Koteswor in Kathmandu, to my mind our bus was going through the large intersection a little too fast, and we got broadsided by an oncoming taxi. Now the bus is far larger than the taxi so the little white taxi suffered more damage than the bus did. The driver had a nasty gash on his forehead and what looked like a broken nose … not wearing a safety belt! Not that that would have been an option, the safety belts rarely if ever work in taxis. The taxi was pretty much a scrunchie.
Still, us folks on the bus were jolted around a bit. There is one plus of being considered ‘tall’ at 5‘ 7”, I am basically wedged into my seat so I didn’t really budge. My only damage was a wrench to my arm which I had put up to the ceiling to steady myself and avoid pushing the petite lady next to me, out the open window. Everyone was pretty much ok from what I could see, one young lad who had been standing, had hit his head off the overhead shelf and looked like he needed a few stitches on his forehead. For those of you who know the Koteswor intersection, you’ll know how crazy the traffic is there, it comes at you from all sides so it was hard to know whether we were safer to stay on the bus or get off it.
There’s a police station close by and a cop soon arrived, directing traffic to allow us off the bus and walk to the side of the road. The cop started to take photos of the taxi & the bus and ignored the shouting drivers, I am sure each one blaming the other. Once us passengers were off the bus, we were of no one’s concern so we all helped each other find other buses going to the bus park, to complete our journey. And life continued on.
We were lucky and others were not so lucky this week. There was news on Monday that shook the Kavre district. The story is the bus was not in great shape and was driven by a young driver, rumoured not to have a license. The bus was jammed backed with about 90 people on board a 35-seater bus. Many were on the roof, which is credited with saving their lives. The bus had broken down earlier and passengers had to help push the bus to get it started again. Further along the journey, about 55km east of Banepa, the engine stalled and the young driver lost control of his bus which ended up careening over the side of the road, down a steep embankment. The young driver and his helper (who takes the money) are nowhere to be seen, some say they saw them jump out of the bus before it went over the edge of the road, but people know who they are. God help them when they are found.
Many on the bus were young people, returning home to their villages to assist their parents in accepting the 1st installment of the reconstruction money that, some 15 months later, is only being handed out to those who lost their homes in last year’s earthquakes. I shake my head. A total of 31 passengers are now confirmed dead, with a further 25 seriously injured, two of whom are classed as critical. A further 22 have minor injuries and the rest remain unscathed (primarily the folks on the roof of the bus who could jump off before the bus went over the edge). I personally never travel on the roof, but I guess depending on the circumstance, it might indeed be safer.
It’s remarkable really, that there weren’t more deaths. I have not yet heard if there were any spinal cord injuries. Bus accidents are one of the key causes of SCIs in Nepal. You can see why that is.
The newspapers had fairly graphic photos of the carnage post-accident, but I’ve decided not to post any of them here out of respect to the families.
I am off on a bus again today, that’s how it goes. There is no other option. And I’ll continue to try to fit my criteria to whichever bus I choose to ride in. Don’t worry, I’ll be careful.
PS. I was safe today. In fact the Nepal Police were at Saanga checking every bus for overloads. I counted 9 people taken from my bus before we were allowed to continue our journey. Once I arrived in Banepa, there were lots of people there, waiting for onwards buses heading east. Most had been taken from overloaded buses by Police in Banepa. It will be interesting to see how long this vigilance lasts …. and if it is happening country-wide, or just in Kavre where Monday’s bus accident occurred.
PPS. I came across this article in MyRepublica and was shocked (but maybe not) to find out the cabinet two years ago approved new Commercial Driving License provisions for those who drive public transport vehicles. The new law had a provision under which a driver could be eligible to drive public vehicles only after s/he turns 25 and at least three years after acquiring a license. It was not implemented due to pressure from “transport entrepreneurs”. Must be a very powerful bunch!