The crowded bus climbed slowly up the winding road leading from Butwal in the Terai toward the Nepali hills. Peering out the window, I could still see the Tinahu River below. Beside me, a woman held a sleeping child curled up in a cotton sling across her breast. But instead of watching the bamboo groves outside give way to terraced rice fields, I kept glancing at a couple seated in front, uncomfortably perched on the hood of the engine next to the conductor. The woman was using her scarf to wipe stray tears running down her face.
I held my own kind of burden pressed up against my chest that Christmas Eve: my regret in not taking my parent’s offer to buy me a ticket home for the holidays. Out of guilt for the opportunities I had and the people I lived among didn’t have, I opted instead to help with a teacher’s training program in Butwal, and then to head back to the village where I taught English.
I boarded the bus early to get a seat. The conductor took tickets, persuaded skeptics that there was still plenty of room left inside the tightly packed bus. The driver was nowhere around. Likely because he was in a nearby tea shop, nursing a cup or two of raksi, a potent brew made from rice.
While we waited, a commotion outside the bus drew my attention. A woman was yelling angrily at a neatly dressed man, words in Nepali that I could barely catch. He had lost something important. “Money,” I heard her say. The man looked sheepish, hurried off. He soon returned, looking more disturbed than before, like he realized he had lost months of work and perhaps a certain future in one fell swoop.
By the time they boarded the bus, the woman’s anger had given way to inconsolable sorrow, the man’s guilty anguish to resignation.
And all the seats were full. Dusty, torn seats crowded with two, three people in a bus barely held together. Still, seats were luxury compared to standing the length of the trip, or God forbid, climbing up with the luggage on top of the bus.
The woman wore a simple, but elegant red sari befit for travel. Her black hair, bound in a red barrette, hung down her back. Her red bangles tinkled as she zipped open her purse to take out the bus tickets for the conductor.
Where were they going, I wondered? The bus went north to Pokhara, but my journey would end sooner. Just past Bartung, in a village bordering the highway. The bus bounced badly, no shocks left to soften the ride on rough roads paved by hard work and calloused hands, roads eroded year after year by landslides from heavy monsoon rains.
Just opposite me, a middle-aged man wearing a colorful topi, a traditional hat, sat beside his wife, I presumed, who leaned close to the open window, just in case she got sick.
Adobe-red homes with thatched roofs spotted the hills, front porches wetted down each day until the cool, clay surface felt smooth and soft to the touch.
Still, I observed the couple.
They must have lost a great deal for them to make such a spectacle earlier. I slipped my hand into my pocket, fingering the roll of rupees there. Not that I lived on much as a volunteer, but likely still more than most. The money would go far in Nepal. Buy many meals of dal bhat, the daily dish of rice, lentils, and vegetables, and pay for a room, too.
I glanced over at the woman beside me. She smiled shyly back. Why not give it to her? Or to the man wearing the worn topi? Or to anyone else on this bus, whose story or lives I no more knew than the couple in front.
I saw the familiar tea shop ahead that served tea and snacks during lunch. Was it relief or disappointment I felt in my return? I wanted to stop traveling backwards to a home thousands of miles away, to snow and stockings, and presents under a tree. To be happy here, here in the present.
“Stop!” I shouted in Nepali to the driver as I stood up, moving through the narrow aisle toward the couple by the door.
Before I stepped down off the bus, my hand reached down to take the woman’s hand in mine. The woman looked up in surprise as I closed her palm around the rupees.
“Leenus,” I said. “Take it.” Then in English, I added, “Merry Christmas.”
I don’t know if the money helped them get where they needed to go. But the belief that something so unimaginable became for a moment possible was enough for me to bring Christmas to Nepal.
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