By NOA JONES
Looking down at the bus from my window at the Tenzin Hotel, I can see my silver suitcase on the roof rack amid all sorts of other bags; the blue tarp has not yet been roped into place. I think maybe today we are going to die. Other passengers are milling around in the debris of the narrow parking lot finding lines of morning light to stand in against the cold. I count seven dogs sleeping in a pile of damp sand, still wet from last night’s thunderstorm. I’ve come back up to my room to double check that I haven’t left anything behind and now I want to stay here. Forfeit the next leg of the journey. Order some Wai Wai noodles and watch BBC with the curtains drawn. Instead I go down and climb onto the bus. Seat number four is behind the driver by the window. The driver wears his gho as an afterthought, wrapped hastily around his hips like an apron over jeans. He is a small man, his forearm a good length shorter than my own. He has affixed a plastic rose and a picture of a lama to the sun visor. I know this lama, he is my lama’s father. I have a small zip lock baggie of embalming salt from his body tucked away in a drawer somewhere. In the photo he raises his hand in blessing.
The air inside the bus smells strongly of a dirty diaper and faintly of vomit or maybe betelnut, or both. Vomit and betelnut have a similar nose—acrid, sharp, familiar. The bus pulls out of town with a groan and soon we are on the road. The road, the only road east. The driver stops frequently, adding passengers even after all the seats are full, luggage and legs block the aisle. I turn so that I don’t have to see their faces. The baby next to me sneezes in a completely relaxed manner letting the mucus run down his puckered lip. I turn from him too, not wanting to smell his baby breath. Why would you name a flower such a thing?
The driver is going very fast, hauling the steering wheel this way and that way with his short arms, frequently jamming on the breaks, which reply to his foot with a cry like a pterodactyl. As he shaves corners, bags and bodies shift side to side. With nowhere else to turn, I can only look out the window, down into the deep valleys below. The bald tires of the bus meet the gravel, grazing the disappearing edges of the road, which give way to nothingness with immediacy, dropping hundreds of feet down into the old growth jungle. I can’t see the bottom. I think we may die. But we don’t die.
After some time, the driver tilts his head back ever so slowly, nose to the ceiling, still speeding, and taps the contents of a soda straw onto his tongue, a brown powder like yeast. I can’t tell if his eyes are on the road. This is it, I think, but this isn’t it. He tosses the empty straw out the window and drives on and on. The road turns and turns again, always pocked with boulders and sink holes, tractors and mudslides. The old lady behind me is retching up the Radhey Radhey Cheese Balls she ate in the parking lot. We climb higher. A fog settles fast onto the road, we’ve plunged into a cloud and visibility doesn’t reach more then a meter in front of the grill. The driver tosses an empty bag of chips out the window into the blank space. He doesn’t slow down.
The old lady behind me is now upside down, standing on the ceiling of the bus, her face is a mask, she has amazing bone structure but very bad teeth.
Through the mist appears a man crouching at the edge of the road under a filthy umbrella, his clothes are stained with asphalt oil. He catches me looking, his eyes as black as tar, then turns his back.
We heave uneasily left and right into the white nothingness until the driver slams the breaks and comes to a full and shocking stop. The bus hisses. The truck blocking our way hisses back. Vehicles creaking on the cliff, there is only room for one to pass the narrow part of the road; a landslide washed away the rest. Diesel against diesel. But our driver has to face the rules, uphill wins these battles and so we back up, inching blindly towards the precipice. No, we don’t die, though it would have been easy.
The truck continues up with a honk of appreciation – all clear – and our driver toots back and pushes onto the road. But just around the bend is another truck, another stand off, only this time we’re in the winning position, uphill wins. The opposing truck backs up against the chewed out mountain side and our driver puts the bus into gear, puts weight on the gas pedal, and …does not move. The gear has slipped into neutral, it cannot pull with all the excess weight. We fishtail and then instead of accelerating we continue to slide back.
It is only now that we begin gently into our deadly descent and my feeling transforms into a knowing: We are going to die.
What did Rinpoche tell me when I asked him hypothetically what I should think if and when my bus went off a cliff, because I did ask him once, because I do live in this part of the world where things like this happen and now it’s happening. He said “remember the guru” so that is what I should do now as the trees swipe my window like car wash mops and the baby leaves the arms of his mother beside me. A packet of biscuits floats past my ear. I wonder what the rescue team will think of the brassiere I wore today. This is not what I should be thinking. I should be remembering the guru, remember? He sits on a tiger skin. Gravity is relentless and insane. Am I supposed to remember the guru as he was to me, a friend and a teacher, on the throne, at a coffee shop? Do I remember him as a man or as a thangkha painting? A shoe moves past. A cell phone. A bottle of mineral water. How big should the guru be? Real sized or above my head. Or maybe inside my heart or maybe I should remember that after all I am the guru. The old lady behind me is now upside down, standing on the ceiling of the bus, her face is a mask, she has amazing bone structure but very bad teeth, red stained nubs, I can see them all. Do I remember him as a deity? Or do I remember the words he spoke to me? Is this a trick? Will this be my last thought? …Or will this? …Or will this? Fear of this nature is known to me only in dreams which reminds me that sometimes in dreams I can wake up when I remember it’s a dream. I know this is not a dream but maybe if I remember something else, it will transform into a dream. Remember the guru. Is it as easy as that?
There is blue sky under the tires. The driver’s bowling shirt is caught by the branch of a tree and then he is gone, out the window. There are no birds in the trees. They must have seen us coming and flown away, up, which is now my down as we go down. I wonder if my suitcase is safe. Who will go through all of my stuff? Fear is replaced by sadness. My youngest sister will be so sad, probably the saddest of all my family to get the phone call. What will be the chain of information? Who will find out first? The sadness is replaced by curiosity. The Bhutanese system of scrupulous identity checks does have one benefit. They will know for sure I was on the bus after the check point. They will call the CSO and the CSO will contact the board and the board will contact Rinpoche and he will know how to get to my family through one of my friends, Lynn or Lowell, and either of them would be good people to break the news to my family. To say, less bluntly, she’s dead at the bottom of a jungle in a bus. They’ll call on the phone at whatever ungodly hour GMT minus plus plus minus. Minus me. Minus me. I am no longer. I wish I had practiced more because this is the real thing and I am simply not ready.