The Price of Experience
This piece documents a journey I made by bus to Kathmandu. It could have been treated as a short story as the facts have been fictionalised. The travel agent philosopher is an invention to get a point across. 2,500 words.
The Price of Experience
‘You would like to go to Kathmandu?’ said the man.
Jimmy and I were seated at a battered wooden table drinking tea and eating samosas in one of the alleyways that cut through Varanasi like a cobweb. The man was wearing a jacket that looked as tired and dusty as the table but you get used to that in India. It was good timing. We’d grown tired of this town. Its beehive, frenetic pace, squalid, crushing streets and mysterious, deathly ghats on the banks of the Ganges had been a real buzz for a few days but now it was time to move on. Jimmy had renamed it ‘Very Nasty’. And this gaunt, life lined man was offering us a way out had we been able to afford the airfare.
‘Haven’t got the money,’ I said.
The man shifted closer to the table as a cow shuffled past and nudged him in the back.
‘You go by bus. Very cheap.’
‘Bus? That would take days.’
‘Yes,’ the man said, ‘two. Luxury coach, air conditioned. Very nice. You stay in hotel at the border. All included.’
He quoted a price which worked out at less than £20 for the two of us. We agreed it was too good a chance to miss.
‘I take you to the office. You pay for tickets there.’
After we’d handed over the money I said, ‘We’ll never find this place in the morning.’
‘I come to your hotel and bring you back here. We take tuktuk. All part of the service.’
The bus looked as though it had had a bad night. It was a British pre-war vehicle with body damage reminiscent of used kitchen foil. Most of the windows were cracked and held together with tape.
‘You said a luxury coach,’ said Jimmy.
‘Very sorry. Coach crash. This one takes you to border. You get nice bus in Nepal.’
‘If we get to Nepal,’ I said.
I imagined the thing was designed for pottering around English villages in the 1930s, taking housewives with wicker baskets to the local market. The seats were covered in a miserly, now mainly torn, cheap leather that barely concealed the steal frame, the seat back was fixed vertically and the leg room, for a standard Western male, was minimal. We found that the only way of sliding into the space was to twist slightly to one side though this meant that others had to hurdle Jimmy’s legs as they struggled to the back. Nobody seemed to care and, once the seats were all taken, they still piled on. They came with bags, babies, chickens, goats and assorted parcels and boxes. The chickens were trussed and hung from string still squawking and the goats were, I was thankful to see, very young and carried like young children. The aisle filled. By Jimmy’s legs, a woman sat down and exposed a breast for her baby. The last few tried to stand by the driver but were forced to lean over the gear box and place their hands against the windscreen. It was difficult to believe that they could stay there for two days.
Our main pack had been slung on the roof and tied down. Our daypacks were on our laps together with bananas, nuts and water. I tried to get a view of the passing scene, not easy when the windows were taped, yellowed and scratched. Village after village, they all looked the same. Even the sewer, a ditch of black fluid, had continued its path along the side of the road for over an hour.
I felt a tap on the shoulder.
‘You shouldn’t be here. You should have taken the plane.’
We turned our heads. Jimmy found it too difficult so he gave up immediately. The man in the seat behind bent forward. He was wearing a smart dark suit and an open neck shirt. Though his accent was thick, his English seemed impeccable.
‘We couldn’t afford it. We’re students.’
‘By the time you get there, you’ll be able to afford it.’
‘I’m not sure I get your meaning.’
‘I mean after two days you will dream of being able to afford it. You won’t want to see a bus ever again.’
‘Don’t we get a nice air conditioned bus at the border?’
The man grinned then chuckled thinly like a distant whinnying horse and threw his head back. He had several missing teeth and those that remained were yellow and crooked.
‘This bus goes all the way. It always has.’
Jimmy looked at me but said nothing. Words were superfluous. I shuffled slightly in the seat, pressed a different portion of my knees against the seat in front and took a swig of water.
‘Tourists are often told that,’ he went on. ‘They wouldn’t buy tickets otherwise. You met a travel agent?’
‘I suppose he was but if saw him again I’d ram these tickets somewhere unpleasant.’
‘What are the chances of you going back to Varanasi?’
‘Very true. That’s why he does it. Tourists should never buy from people who will not be there when they’ve found out what they’ve bought.’
‘You learn from experience,’ I said.
‘Ah yes, experience. Always feels useful when you get it. But the next time you need it never arrives.’
I looked at the man curiously.
‘The next time you need different experience,’ he said. ‘It’s really the next first time so experience is what you haven’t got.’
On any other journey I might have smiled at this point, turned away and tried to read. But the awfulness of the trip was being alleviated somewhat by this philosopher with bad teeth. It was entertaining if nothing else.
‘You don’t think you can learn from experience?’
‘In general, yes. In particular, no. You know people can lie to you, but you believe the travel agent. Now you know he lied, how does that help in the future? You won’t believe him again but that is useful only if you meet him.’
‘Christ,’ said Jimmy. ‘The baby’s shat over the floor.’
He turned as fast as he could towards me. His knees reached his chin in an attempt to twist round but he could get no further. The stench now reached my nose.
‘Jesus,’ I said.
‘She’s cleaning it up with paper,’ said Jimmy.
‘Where she going to put the paper?’
‘Looks like she’s passing it down the line.’
This was ‘pass the parcel’ with a difference. It reached one of several men sitting on the steps by the doorway. He threw it out.
‘Peanuts?’ I offered the bag to Jimmy.
‘Bugger off,’ he said.
The bus stopped at a roadside stall where we could get water from a jug. We declined of course. Being able to place my legs in a straight line with my knees at the centre was all that I needed. Such bliss.
Once we’d started off again, our friend from behind leant forward.
‘You had good rest and drink?’
‘We didn’t have any water,’ Jimmy said without turning round. ‘We need to get home with our stomachs intact.’
‘You mean experience tells you that the water is dangerous?’
‘Quite,’ I said
‘The water had been boiled. He is used to travellers.’
This man was beginning to annoy me. ‘So what job do you do?’ I asked.
‘I am also travel agent. I have office in Kathmandu and another in Varanasi.’
‘And you go by bus?’
‘The cost is too much by plane. I go back and forth every month. I am not a rich man.’
‘So that’s how you know all the tricks.’
‘Of course. But I do not play tricks.’
‘And how do you suppose we should react to that remark from experience?’
The man grinned and whinnied. ‘Yes, I can see that is a problem for you.’
Night fell and the pain in my legs was reducing to numbness. The baby at Jimmy’s feet was asleep, the men leaning over the gearbox had swapped positions several times and some were now crouching having staked a claim to some of the floor space. Outside appeared to be complete blackness without a hint of form or shape. The bus eventually came to a halt and we were ordered off.
‘This is the Nepalese border,’ said our travel agent.
As we scrambled down the steps I was grabbed firmly by the wrist. ‘Come with me,’ said a voice.
I struggled instinctively. Jimmy was immediately behind me and got the same treatment from someone else.
‘You go to Immigration.’
I still could not detect anything in the black of night. Disorientation was total. If we fought off these guys, whoever they were, what then? We looked around for our friend but could see nothing. Our wrists were being dragged off our arms.
‘We don’t seem to have any choice,’ said Jimmy.
I shrugged. As we were firmly escorted along the track and then taken on a sharp right turn, I started thinking about experience and how useless it seems to be. Now I could see a light dimly in the distance. My eyes were getting used to the darkness and I could make out other figures surrounding an oil lamp. It was standing on a cloth covered table in the middle of the road.
‘Immigration,’ said my captor and let me go.
A man in uniform was scrutinising passports by holding them under the lamp.
‘Have we got Nepalese visas?’ I asked.
‘Bit of a stupid time to think about that,’ said Jimmy.
Someone hadn’t. An Australian guy I hadn’t noticed in the crush on the journey was told to go away by the official at the desk.
‘Come on, man,’ he said. ‘Can’t you let me in? I’ve come half way round the world to see your country. I’ve got the money.’
‘No US dollars, no visa, no entry,’ said Immigration.
Something was said by a traveller in Nepalese. The official shrugged his shoulder, wrote something on one of the pages and gave the Australian his passport back. I looked round to see who could have issued a sentence of such magic potency. It was our travel agent.
‘Geez, thanks,’ said the Australian. ‘I owe you.’
‘That is true,’ said the travel agent. ‘You will pay in Kathmandu.’
We were escorted in small groups to the hotel. The blackness of the night was now being modified by a faint moonlight glow as my eyes grew accustomed and I could see that the building before us needed to be viewed with imagination before the word ‘hotel’ would suit. It was a single storey concrete block arrangement. The baggage had been taken off the bus and was now strewn around the edge of the street. Hot ovens under a row of large pans of dahl and piles of chapatti sat by the entrance. Someone led us to dormitories where we were told to dump our things and get some supper.
‘I’ll get the food,’ said Jimmy. ‘You claim the beds and watch our stuff.’
‘Fine,’ I said. ‘I think tonight I’ll have dahl with chapatti.’
‘Yes,’ said Jimmy. ‘I rather fancy that. I’ll see if they’ve got any.’
The place seemed to consist of a series of large rooms. This one held six beds, iron and wooden bedsteads each one supporting a grubby, soiled mattress, a thin, worn blanket and no sheet.
Jimmy came back with two bowls of dahl and a couple of chapattis tucked under his arm.
‘They had some,’ he said.
‘That was lucky.’
‘Not so much luck with the bedroom though.’
‘No,’ I replied. ‘But I’m not sure we’ll get a better view.’
Jimmy sat beside me on the bed. ‘We won’t have any trouble tomorrow with squawking chickens. They’re being cooked now outside. Didn’t notice the goats though.’ He looked around and grimaced. ‘I’m sure as hell not taking my clothes off tonight.’
‘I’d already decided that,’ I said. ‘Sleeping bags are going to be useful. God knows the size of the bed bugs round here.’
The wash rooms were similarly depressing but we eventually lay down and tried to get some sleep to the sound of Tibetan merchants playing haunting melodies on their flutes.
The morning looked fresh and the air was bright and sharp. The bus was struggling now as it climbed the 4,000 feet to Nepal’s capital city. There was a bit more room. The woman and her baby had managed to get a seat and there was now only one man hanging over the driver.
‘You have plans in Kathmandu?’ asked our companion as he leant forward.
‘Not yet,’ said Jimmy, ‘but I’m sure we’re about to get some advice.’
He handed us a card each. “Albert Shah. Tours and Treks. Equipment provided.” ‘It would be a pleasure to be of assistance’ he said.
‘After my great grandfather. He was English. He was named after Queen Victoria’s husband.’ Albert grinned through his awful teeth so proudly I thought his face might fall apart.
The journey seemed more bearable now. It was only a few hours of winding track to the end of our journey and the scenery, as we travelled towards the Himalayas, was threatening to become magnificent.
‘I take you round the city.’
‘No thanks,’ I said. We’d rather discover it for ourselves.’
‘Ah yes,’ Albert said. ‘More experience.’
‘You don’t think much of experience, do you?’ I asked.
‘Experience is good,’ he said. ‘But for memories, to keep in your head. Not good for re-use. You make mistakes when you think you know things.’
‘You wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning if that were true,’ I said.
‘You can get out of bed without help from me. But to see Nepal is different.’
I had to agree but said nothing.
As we neared the end of the journey, the bus made its convoluted way through the narrow streets, past temples top heavy with overhanging roofs and stopped in a market square lined with grain and fruit stalls. I began to get a sense of excitement. I suppose Albert was right in some ways. This experience was for filing away and retelling over a beer at the college bar. It was unrepeatable and unusable because that was the point.
We got off and were immediately accosted by a small boy.
‘I take you to see temples, carvings, very sexy.’
Albert shooed him away. Seeing erotic carvings with a 6 year old was never going to be on our “to do” list.
‘You have no hotel,’ said Albert. ‘I can arrange one for you.’
‘Hey, can you get a bed for me too?’ It was the Australian.
‘Certainly. When you have retrieved your luggage, just follow me.’
Jimmy and I looked at each other.
‘Why should we trust another travel agent?’ he said under his breath.
I held up Albert’s card. ‘We can call tomorrow if we don’t like the service.’
‘Maybe it’s a fraud. Maybe his office doesn’t exist.’
‘You’re in Kathmandu,’ I replied. ‘Strange things are going to happen. It’s an experience. Lie back and enjoy it.’
I slung my backpack on and walked over to Albert. ‘Okay, let’s go,’ I said.