The India Nepal Border Crossing
The heat is punishing. The second I step from the bus it affronts me and does not relent. It wrings sweat from my every pore and within minutes by shirt is saturated and clinging to my back and my eyes sting as thick, salty beads run into them from my forehead. Back home in England, May is a pleasant month but away with these thoughts, no time to think of home for the road is my only home now.
This is the last major city before the border crossing and the bus station is a hive, alive with activity. Water sellers, fruit vendors and beggars all clamour back and forth peddling their wares or merely peddling their desperation. I am the only white face and consequently draw extra attention from the vendors, beggars and other passengers alike and I find myself waving the same ones away at 5-minute intervals. One beggar women, bent and aged with hardship, carries a miniature shrine to Kali and anoints my forehead with incense. Despite this unsolicited, intrusive contact I reach into my pocket and award her 5 rupees immediately regretting my mercy as the other beggars, sensing a mellowed heart and loosened wallet, descend on me with renewed fervor imploring me to extend them the same charity.
Border towns all seem to be the same. Hot, dusty, edgy warrens of activity, not all of it wholesome. The places act as magnets for those who would seek to exploit the overlapping bureaucracies, capitalise on the cracks between legal jurisdictions and authorities and take full advantage of the resultant vacuum.
I check the time. I have been here for over an hour and the bus is late. I survey the parked fleet across the lot and wonder which one of the battered, rusted tin buckets is mine. Whichever it is it is apparent that none of them have air con, reclining or even remotely comfortable sheets. I shudder at the thought of the journey ahead, the man at the desk told me 10 hours which means at least 12. He also told me the bus would be here an hour ago. Where is it?
The flies share the local’s sense of fascination with a foreigner. I am convinced they prefer the taste of my flesh (Fe Fi Fo Fum I smell the blood of an Englishman) to that of the other passengers and are singling me out just as the beggars and hustlers do. Flies are attracted to decomposing, dead things, perhaps they know something about me that I don’t? I certainly don’t feel particularly alive right now. At regular intervals, I swat them away although my strength is fast waning amidst the fierce mid-afternoon humidity. “Banni, Banni?!” I accept an offer of water and hand over 20rps but before I’ve even opened it paranoia sets in as I recall a word of a hustle whereby street vendors re-sell water bottles which are actually filled with the dangerous tap water. No way am I getting sick here, I decide to use the water to wash my hands, shoes and face being mindful not to swallow so much as a drop.
Bus Come After Some Time
I take up my heavy rucksack and feel the moisture on my back as it presses into me. I walk to the desk and eye the attendant. “Where is bus? You told me 3 pm at platform 7. It now 4.30”. The attendant is flanked by 4 colleagues none of whom look either busy or particularly pre-disposed towards doing any work whatsoever. My presence is clearly burdensome for him but my visible agitation and growing hostility forces a response from him. “The bus come after some time” and he motions me back to towards platform 7. This means the bus is late and that’s as much as he’s prepared to say. I just wish they would be fucking honest, tell me the bus has been canceled and that I should wait for the 6pm one, that way at least I can leave the station, seek out some shade and maybe get a shave. But this is India.
I attempt to make sense of the timetable myself looking for some kind of clue but the signs are exclusively in Hindi and because of its alien characters I can’t even make out the names of the towns. This is a first for me in India, so far all of the official signs have been in both in English and Hindi. Nationalism is however always more prevalent around frontiers, the towns feel the need to amplify their patriotism and no concessions are made to any foreign power whatsoever lest they lose their fragile sense of identity.
Adding further chaos to the disorder, this frontier town is also a holy city and is decked with pilgrims piling onto and falling off busses flocking in their droves to make offerings in the Sacred Ganges. They line the station floor awaiting transport back to their lives and routines now that their fleeting encounter with the divine is over. The presence of the pilgrims has sent accommodation prices soaring and a nearby hotel charged me 400rps for the use of a room and bathroom for only 3 hours. There ain’t no fool like a fool in love except perhaps for a fool in search of salvation.
The bus is now more than 2 hours late, I have thus far totally ignored the constant, unwavering staring from local men but now I choose to engage with one. His English is bad but we manage a basic discussion. I tell him my name, I am British I am not married and I have one Brother. I am headed towards the border and then Nepal. “This bus go Nepal” he says pointing to a bus docked at the next platform. I am doubtful but desperate enough to investigate as well as to escape the now tedious conversation so once again I pull up my rucksack and head over to inquire. The driver says no, not Nepal and not the border but a water vendor, a boy of maybe 13 who have offered me water countless times this afternoon interrupts the conversation. “Banbassa Sir – this bus. Come with me” and guides me to a rust bucket parked up at Platform 3 (not 7 as the desk attendant repeatedly advised me) which is fast filling with passengers. I shout through the window “Banbassa Ji?” and the driver nods affirmatively. I jump up and thrown down my rucksack at the front beside the driver.
Bus To Nepal
The bus begins its slow movement. We leave the station and proceed through the town. The water vendors initially give chase forcing dripping wet bottles through the window with breathless cries of “20 rupees Sir” before the bus picks up too much momentum for them to follow. The city is jammed. People everywhere, the roads full with pedestrians, tuk-tuks, bikes and pigs all clambering for pole position, for oxygen or just for enough space in which to exist for a moment more and all of them kicking up dust before and behind them.
I feel the refreshing breeze of movement drift through the open window, it soothes me as I grow conscious of my own reeking stench blending with those of the other passengers all of whom of course are male. This is India after all.
As we proceed through the city we cross bridges spanning the sacred Ganges and I watch devotees kneel to make offerings to its blessed, brown, discolored waters. We pass slums and roadside settlements in which children play naked save except for the dirt, kicked up from the streets of this holy city, that coats their brown skin. I try my best to settle into my harsh seat and hit my MP3 player. Music drowns out the grunting engine but still, I feel its vibrations through the seat rising up into my core. What I could use now is a cold, Kingfisher beer but this is a holy city and the sale of alcohol is forbidden and I was not able to to find it anywhere. Even if I could there is no way it would have stayed cold very long.
The Long Night
It’s a going to be a long night and a bumpy ride, forget any notion of sleep until at least Khatmandu. I could have taken the deluxe AC bus (complete with functional suspension and reclining, sleeper seats) to Delhi and then from there a flight or even a train to Nepal, but instead, for the sake of the £40 price difference chose to do it this way, to travel to some obscure border at the arse end of Uttrakhand via the cheapest and most wretched means available. Why do this to myself? Why put myself through this? Not even the other passengers can quite believe I’m here.
The veil of darkness has now fallen and a storm has started. The sheet lightning is relentless and lights up the countryside as we pass through it punctuating visibility every 2 or so seconds. Rain pours in through the windows, initially it is comforting but I soon realise the window will not close. I am thankful that I put my bag at the front and not on the roof rack like so many others.
I revisit my series of “Why’s?” and find my own answers. I know exactly why I am doing this, why am I doing the whole journey overland with no flights, crossing land borders and watching landscapes change with the colours of the nations flags. I do this because the earth is for men and the skies are for angels. I do this because discomfort drives personal growth because I want adventure and not tourism but maybe above all because that the £40 difference is a hell of a lot of money when you are a broke backpacker. Once again I try to relax into my seat. I close my eyes and think of England, anywhere but England.