Thank you India (CONTAINS 2 VIDEOS)
Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
115Trip End Mar 21, 2008
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With Jane's health back to normal, our focus turns towards making our way to Nepal. We are supposed to begin our two month volunteering stint today but we are clearly nowhere near Kathmandu. Fortunately, the chap at the hotel was able to pull a few strings and get us the last two seats on the bus to the Nepali capital, leaving tomorrow morning. Mind you, it's the least he could do considering we paid for four extra nights at his hotel when we weren't even there.
The bus is full of foreigners. Apart from our trainload of Koreans in Jabalpur, we have grown used to being squashed into vehicles bursting with Indians and the sensation of not having someone's backside on your face or elbow resting on your head is quite novel.
As this is our last day in India, at least for the next two months, this seems like a good time for some reflections on this wonderfully bizarre country.
The two most notable features about India are the amount of people and the chaos they exist in. The streets of any Indian metropolis are a never-ending stream of honking vehicles, lumbering animals and oblivious pedestrians. The only hint of order is a vague preference for the left-hand side of the road. Even this is completely negotiable and the frightening sight of an auto-rickshaw heading straight towards you on the wrong side of the road is not at all unusual. Even a three-second break in the traffic is so rare than you feel you should cross the street even if you don't need to.
Honking is not the angry rebuke of a dangerous manoeuvre that it is in western countries, rather an announcement to say "here I am". Given that "here" is an ever-changing position, every vehicle is constantly re-announcing its presence to everyone else. There are no sidewalks so pedestrians walk on the road, as do cows and goats, adding yet another dimension to the traffic. At least pedestrians generally follow the order of the road, however loosely. Animals, on the other hand, usually have no particular place to go, and have no concept of left or right. They can't distinguish one honk from another so they just tend to lumber around in a slow motion state of bewilderment, casually searching for a stick or a piece of newspaper to eat.
More annoying than the maniacal drivers are those people, invariably men, who just stand around. We don't know if they are working or unemployed or hanging out with their mates or what, but they are loitering everywhere, waiting for something vaguely interesting to happen. A couple of white people walking past is, of course, hugely exciting and jolts the loiterers into life. As we walk by the men stop their conversations and we are followed by slack-jawed stares. If, heaven forbid, we should pause to take a photo or to ask directions, the loiterers swarm around us like flies on a fresh cowpat. Before we have even pulled out the camera or finished our question, no less than a dozen men will have formed a fascinated circle around us. Even when we walk off into the distance we can hear the men behind us, chattering excitedly. We know that they will long remember the day the two white people stopped to ask the way to the bus stand.
During all this time than the men are driving like lunatics or staring at us like they've just seen the god Ganesh bowl Sachin Tendulkar with a wicked googly, they are chewing paan like there is no tomorrow. Paan is a tobacco-type substance that is sold in little sachets at every single store. You chew it for a few minutes, presumably deriving some pleasure, then spit it in dramatic fashion all over the nearest road, wall or unfortunate bystander. It leaves a bright and unsightly stain all over anything it lands on and, worse, on the chewer's teeth. Indians generally have nice white teeth but paan-chewers have disgusting, paan-stained chompers. Worse still is when one of these guys tries to talk to you with a mouthful of paan, some of it dribbling out like blood from a vampire's lips. We quickly formed a policy of not speaking with anyone chewing paan, as a means of protest.
Anyway, the bus full of foreigners crawls into the dark and dusty border town of Sonauli at around 8pm. We are herded with our luggage towards a small, nondescript office with a tiny sign reading 'Indian Border Control'. The guy stamps something then sends us further down the road. We pass a sign, only readable with the occasional light of passing vehicles, that tells us we are entering Nepal. No barricades, no armed guards, no barbed wire, only one small, unlit sign to tell us we have crossed an international border. Another office down the road serves as Nepali Immigration and, after a small delay there, we are pointed towards a guesthouse where our bus ticket entitles us to one night's accommodation.
Today is Jane's 30th birthday. For most of the day it was nothing too out of the ordinary - another 12 hour bus ride. But at the guesthouse, when most of the foreigners are sitting and eating together in the restaurant, we all sign her a rousing "Happy Birthday" and raise our drinks.