The ride there was actually quite lovely. It was coming back when we realized just how harrowing doing something as basic as driving to town can be for the people of Nepal’s rural areas.
Pulitzer Center intern Anna Tomasulo and I arrived Monday night in Dolakha, a district in Nepal’s mountain region with picturesque mountains and lush green rice paddies. We set off Tuesday morning to visit a small village up in the hills. The area mostly consists of the Thami ethnic group, and the majority of those in this village marry their girls off as young as 12 or 13. We wanted to talk to one of these young women about her experience with early marriage.
Our team included a media officer from the non-governmental organization SOLID Nepal, a Kathmandu health journalist and two local community workers.
We drove as far as we could without getting stuck in the mud and then set off by foot. We only covered about 10 kilometers, but the journey took three hours given the rough terrain – and our fair share of chai stops.
As we trekked, we edged along the mountain, viewing terraced fields and small red homes in the distance. The sky looked like one large cloud, hovering above the mountains. One of our team members pointed to a school on the opposite mountain, explaining that kids in this village had to walk three hours to get to that high school.
We hiked down steep rock paths, carefully watching each step. In front of me, a villager dressed in a red sari and sandals walked down the rocks carrying a baby wrapped in a blanket on her back.
Eventually, we reached the village and found a line of women squatting in a field planting rice paddies. Our female community worker went to talk to the women and try to convince the one who married at 14 to share her story with us. We stayed on the dirt road, enjoying the crisp air and mountain scenery.
The community worker returned: the young woman is busy planting and doesn’t want to talk. If we can give her health care, great, but otherwise, she’s busy.
Thirty minutes later, after the community worker and our NGO media officer convinced the village’s health officer, who convinced the other village women, who convinced the young mother to talk – and after Anna and others from our team offered to help plant – she agreed to sit with us.
The young mother told us she had three children soon after marrying. During her third birth, her labor lasted 48 hours, and her family then decided to take her to the hospital in town. They put her on a bus, but the bus broke down.
Follow updates on the project page to learn this young woman’s story.
Meanwhile, we finished the interview and decided to head back to town. We met up with the others, who did not want to walk back because it would take four hours given the hills. We had tea and waited at the village’s one-stop shop-restaurant-home-bus stop. We waited and waited. The bus didn’t come.
The villagers decided to try to fix a massive truck that had broken down near the shop-restaurant-home-bus stop. Anna and I watched as men squatted on the ground and stuck various tools under the truck. Boys in school uniforms gathered to watch. A bad sign came when the SOLID Nepal media officer, who had no auto mechanic experience, also squatted on the ground and played with the tools.
Will they ever fix this truck, we wondered. And how will it be safe driving along the mountain’s edge back to town? We remembered the waterfalls we passed on the way here. We had watched in horror as a bus crammed full with villagers drove through the waterfall, bouncing back and forth against the rocks and water. How will this truck drive through the waterfalls? I laughed, finding the situation a bit too crazy to believe.
After two hours of waiting at the shop, the bus arrived. We jumped up with glee. Men jumped on top; we crammed inside. The bus was packed full with people, giving us barely enough room to fit.
We set off for town but quickly realized the bus was a horrible decision. We rocked back and forth as it tried to maneuver the muddy road and deep tire tracks. Anna accidentally looked down the mountain, and saw the green rice paddies and fields far below. She forced herself not to look down again. We gripped the railings above. I leaned my body towards the mountain and away from the cliff as I noticed the other passengers’ expressions. One woman in a seat miraculously slept, or at least pretended to, but another standing behind me looked as horrified as I felt. She clenched her teeth and closed her eyes with each turn. I remembered the countless news stories I had read about road accidents involving overcrowded buses in India, and I prayed this would not be one more such story.
Soon, Anna and I decided this was too much. Atul, we need to get off this bus, I said to the Kathmandu health journalist. Don’t worry, he said, we’ll be fine. No, Atul, we really need to get off this bus.
The others insisted we’d stop at the waterfall and get off there. No way were we going to drive with this bus along that waterfall. Don’t worry, the team said again and again, we’ll get off before the waterfall.
But as the waterfall approached, it became clear we weren’t getting off. It was too slippery to stop the bus.
Eventually, after what was probably 10 minutes but felt like an hour, the road improved, and we successfully convinced the driver to stop.
Our team jumped out – relieved we were still alive – and began to hike back to town. And then, it began to pour.
After a couple more hours, we made it back safely. It was a terrifying experience being on the bus, and difficult to trek in the rain. But as we hiked, one thought returned to my mind over and over: the young woman in the village did that trek nine months pregnant and after 48 hours in labor. I don’t know how she mustered the strength.
Follow Hanna’s journey through Nepal on Twitter: Hanna_India