A world away

| November 30, 2006

Veteran truck driver Ed Main becomes a rookie again in the mountain country of Nepal.

Never in his wildest dreams did Ed Main think he would hear the words, “Welcome to Kathmandu.”

Main, a driver for Marten Transport based in Knoxville, Tenn., has spent the better part of his life on U.S. highways, hauling freight and talking to his wife over the CB. His daughter Crystal, on the other hand, is a globe-trotting linguist who has lived in Nepal for nearly two years, conducting research on a Tibetan dialect found in the mountains of Nepal. Crystal has traveled all over Asia, sending hundreds of pictures to her parents of the people, the country landscape and the bustling city of Kathmandu.

Main and his wife Linda treasured these strange and beautiful photos from another world until finally, in June 2006, they left all the comforts of home for a two-and-a-half-week trip to see Crystal’s new digs in the capital city of Nepal.

After an 18-hour flight, Main glanced out the window and realized, “This isn’t good old Rocky Top,” he says. “I looked down and saw monkeys on the tarmac. I turned to my wife and said, ‘Uh oh, Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore.'”

Nepal is a small country bordered by China and India. In the midst of the Himalayas, Nepal claims 10 of the world’s highest mountains, including part of Mt. Everest. The region’s breathtaking scenery of rolling hills, snowy mountain peaks and colorful Hindu festivals is a stark contrast to the severe political unrest that has left Nepal one of the poorest countries in the world. Half of the population lives below the poverty line, and agriculture sustains nearly 76 percent of the people.

Main, who had only traveled outside the country to Tijuana, Mexico, prior to his trip to Nepal, was amazed by the conditions of the roads.

“As a driver, you haven’t lived until you’ve had a taxi ride here,” Main says. “No street lines, no traffic lights, tiny roads and big potholes. And all the while you have to keep your eyes open for any wandering cow on the roadway, because cows are considered sacred.”

Holy cows often lie in the road or on the sidewalk, an obstacle that increased Main’s respect for the Nepali truck drivers. In Kathmandu, Main decided to meet up with fellow truckers to see what it’s like driving a rig on the winding mountain paths.

The young Nepali truck drivers greeted him warmly, Main says, and they were eager to show off their trucks, which are similar to old farm trucks – five gears, no air-conditioning, no windows, tattered interior and floorboards – except for one thing: the trucks are painted up “like a pimp’s car,” Main says.

Vibrant blues, yellows, greens and reds display paintings and English and Nepali words on the back, front and sides of the trucks. No two are alike.

“Every driver there was proud of his truck,” Main says.

The Nepali trucks are straight six-wheelers, made by Tata Motors company in India, two front seats and a bench backseat. The drivers pack each truck with lumpers who start work when the driver arrives at his destination.

Nepali truck drivers make a salary of 4,500 rupees per month, which equals $60.54 U.S. dollars. Long-haul drivers who drive outside Kathmandu also get a daily meal expense, about $1.45 U.S. dollars.

Driving in Kathmandu is fast and chaotic, with few rules about when to turn, pass and signal, Main says. The local drivers and pedestrians know the rhythm by heart, but Main was stumped. Drivers in Nepal honk the horn constantly, he says. During a conversation with another American living in Nepal, Main asked if the Nepali people could drive without a horn.

“The guy replied, ‘If your horn and brakes are busted, fix the horn first,'” Main says.

So when one of the drivers offered Main the chance to drive a local truck, he declined.

“They shift with the left hand, and there was a shoelace holding the wires,” Main says, laughing. “I’m just a rookie over there.”

To get a license, drivers have to take a written test and oral exam, as well as pay a fee of 1,500 rupees. The trucks never go faster than 30 to 35 mph on the dirt roads, so Main says the truck drivers were amazed when he described his own 379 Peterbilt, using pictures and numbers when words failed him.

“They speak trucking,” Main says. “It may be a lot different, but I felt like these guys were doing the same things we’re doing. I felt really comfortable with them.”

The Nepali trucks don’t have to stop at weigh stations, but they do have to stop at checkpoints so government officials can make sure the trucks aren’t carrying Maoist rebels, members of the Communist Party of Nepal established in 1994.

In 2001, the Nepali army began a campaign to combat the CPN, and the United States has also donated $20 million to the Nepali government to fight Maoist efforts in the region. The European Union condemned the CPN for using child soldiers in guerrilla warfare, called the “people’s war,” which involves strategic takeover of country villages to encircle the larger cities. An uprising in 2005 and monarchy instability allowed a temporary rise to power for the CPN, quelled only when the king relinquished power and helped establish a parliament and a prime minister. The current political climate in Nepal is still unstable as peace talks continue between the Maoists, the government of Nepal and the United Nations.

Main didn’t stay in Nepal long enough to get a clear political picture of the country, but his cultural impressions evoke vivid images. He describes the bright yellow blessing scarves children wear on their birthdays, clear blue lake basins and the green roller-coaster hills below the mountains.

“Seeing the gentle green rolling hills reminded me so much of Tennessee, but then the contrast of the snow-covered peaks of the world’s tallest mountains rose above them,” Main gushed in one of his letters to friends and family. “And I never tired of seeing the children all dressed in their school uniforms, clean and polite.”

The Nepali primary and secondary schools are large gray buildings with gray concrete courtyards in the middle. The 58-year-old trucker loved watching the Nepali schoolchildren row boats across the lake to school while he ate breakfast in a café in Pokhara. Main is part of the Trucker Buddy Organization, which teams up truck drivers as pen pals for elementary classrooms all over the country in an effort to teach the children geography. For Mrs. Konwinski’s class at The Holy Name of Jesus School in Wyoming, Mich., Main let the class mascot, a blue stuffed dog named Lucky Dog, come along for the trip to Nepal.

“I carried that little blue dog in my carry-on bag,” Main says. “It was too important to the kids to chance it being lost in the luggage.”

Everywhere he went, Main took a picture of Lucky Dog on a busy street, monument, mountain or anywhere he thought the kids would like. When he got back to the States, he mailed Lucky and the pictures to the class.

But how did Lucky Dog and Main like the Nepali cuisine?

“The tea was delicious,” Main says, describing a brew of bay leaf with a splash of milk. An authentic Nepali dish called dal-bhat is a dish of boiled lentils served with rice, vegetables and spicy relish. Main also enjoyed the Coca-Cola, made with real sugar like the old days instead of corn syrup.

In his final letter the day he returned to the states, Main wrote, “Namaste, my friends. I got home this week from my vacation trip of a lifetime.”

In his letters home, Main described each experience with excitement and candor. The people are unfailingly friendly and hospitable, he says, pressing their hands together and bowing to greet strangers, saying Namaste, which means, “I bow to the Divine in you.”

“When you go to their homes they will put huge amounts of food out and expect you to eat till you are in pain,” he wrote.

For a career OTR driver, his trip to Nepal was a sensory and spiritual experience. When asked if he plans to go back, Main smiles. “The idea is getting stronger,” he says. “If I can go next year, I will. Plus, I’d like to spend some more time with the truck drivers.”

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