Boarding a microbus in Kathmandu is like being whisked into the set of Slumdog Millionaire. Bollywood music wailing from the stereo, colored lights and stickers of Hindu goddesses stuck to the windows. You can barely see out to the street through the film of dust. Women with charcoaled eyes and nose rings pass their infants into stranger’s laps as they hitch up their skirts and wedge themselves on a stool between the tangle knot of knees, elbows and purses. The whole van hums and thrums to the vibrations of the road and fluid dance music.
A thin sinuous boy who cannot be older than twelve hangs out the door, sliding it open and closed as we drag passengers aboard. The driver just scrapes the van along the dust-covered shoulder of the road and the boy swings out like Tarzan, crying a string of destinations. They roll into a cadence, mixing with the beat of the street and the beat of the micro’s lilting Hindi music. From what I can tell, this form of transportation is less than formal. A man has a van and if he doesn’t have a son to work the sliding door, he finds a kid on the street and lets him buy fruit and sweets with the pennies passengers pass him throughout the day.
I am sitting behind the driver, riding backwards so I am facing the entire busload of people. This experience feels crazy to me and I can hardly keep from laughing out loud, but everyone else looks bored, kind of sleepy. Some are texting, turning out the windows, swaying to the horns, traffic and the cry of a Hindi singer stretched on a tape that never stops playing.
There seems to be no limit to how many passengers we can fit. Although there are a grand total of eight seats that does not stop us for packing in three times that many. At one time, I count over thirty people onboard. Four men literally grip the rim of the open door with half their bodies suspended out over the street. I have no idea how they do not get side swiped by the stampedes of mopeds.
The boy, who runs our micro, merely flicks his wrist, motioning for us to squeeze tighter when someone else wants to get on. We press closer, until our hips are locked, elbows in each others’ laps. He slaps the side of the van three times, the van stops, or almost stops and he leaps into the dust. Running alongside, he ushers passengers aboard, giving a boost to heavy women in long skirts with many bags. The bus never quite stops rolling. With a swift flick, the boy draws a wad of battered bills out of his pants, collects cash. Twenty-five Nepali rupees from each rider. . This is equivalent to a quarter. He jams them down his pants, slaps the van. Our vehicle grumbles, chokes and swerves back onto the street. The boy swings in, ducks to scan the passengers. He grins wickedly cool, like a wild prince and then hangs out over the street. Wind in his face, singing through his teeth like a dog. He has a sense of freedom and confidence I have never seen before. I can’t tear my eyes off of him.
Once when we stop, he manages to by some fruit from a vendor selling oranges and bananas from a wire basket on his bicycle. I don’t even see it happen, the boy is so fast. Never missing a beat, he is back on the bus casting the peel into the street where it is crushed under wheels.