Crossing the land border at Panitanki/Kakarbitta yesterday was interesting. A dry river-bed separates the neighbours which, as a kind of no-mans-land, is busy with people – presumably as a result of being under no-one’s jurisdiction.
Among the huge flat industrial tea-estates of West Bengal, the roads are filled with cycle-rickshaws ferrying goods back and forth across the border, the same advertisements for English Medium schools dominate the towns, and the shift from village to country happens perhaps faster, more abruptly and more often than in any other country.
Coming from an Island nation, it’s sometimes hard to remember that often nothing really changes over a land border. As we entered Nepal, there were… huge flat industrial tea estates, roads filled with cycle-rickshaws ferrying goods back and forth across the border, and advertisements for English Medium schools dominate the towns.
What does change is time – which shifts forward by 15 minutes in Nepal – in an attempt to establish different credentials from its huge domineering Northerly and Southerly neighbours.
A French girl and I booked tickets at the border for the 13-hour night bus journey to Kathmandu. We ignored the ominous position of our seats (firmly at the back of the bus with the potential for unintended levitation), and the horror stories of 40-hour delays due to hold-ups, bamboo raft river crossings, and generally awful roads. (One of the ironies in Nepal is that now the Maoists are in power, the threat from Maoist guerrillas recedes somewhat).
As 13 cramped hours predictably turned into 20, we reminded ourselves that pain is only temporary in this impermanent world, arriving in Kathmandu yesterday early in the afternoon.
I will spend a few days here, planning, in the peace and quiet of my guest-house’s garden. We are near, but not in, the central area of Thamel, where the multitudes of trekkers and the occasional mountaineer can load up on fake (and occasionally real) branded mountaineering goods and dine in restaurants of every hue. Kathmandu’s days as a hippy outpost are pretty much over; the easy streets of Thamel substituting the wonderfully named “Freak Street”, that used to serve the over-landers from Istanbul.
As you may have gathered, I thoroughly enjoyed India in all its diversity. There was however, one day I never wrote about…
The day from Indian Hell
I had arrived at the bus station late the previous night, following a long and tortuous bus journey. Despite the hour (past 10pm), the hawkers and touts were still there to greet me.
“Sir, sir, taxi sir? You need room sir? I have very cheap room sir…” Protestations that I knew where I was going to stay were greeted with equally firm protestations that sir could not ever HOPE to be happy in such a shabby hotel – “so FAR sir, very badly situated sir…”
Managing to fight through the crowds, I found my hotel. As all rooms were taken, I had bedded down in a large open 20-bed dormitory.
By 4am the following morning, I was tearing my hair out. I had been lying, awake, for the last three hours. The Frog Chorus of snoring from the vest-and-pants clad men lying around me was enough to register with the local Earthquake Monitoring Centre. What is it about Indian men that causes them to snore so loudly? Or am I imagining it?
I finally managed to zone out and fall asleep, only to be woken at 5am by a Mickey-Mouse type ringtone. It was answered. At FULL VOLUME. For the next 15 minutes, I could not believe that I was the only one who failed to sleep through this one-sided conversation. The lack of sensitivity to noise in India never ceased to amaze me.
By 6am, the snoring chorus had been replaced. All around me, men stretched, scratched their privates, and commenced the rumble of a series of seriously thorough throat-clearing exercises. (Despite the fact that this daily ritual is as natural for Indians as brushing your teeth is for Westerners, I never got used to it). This was the declaration that the day had now, officially, started. Grumpily, I had no option but to join it.
I had decided to take it easy on this particular day. My sole task was to post a parcel back to the UK. Sounds easy, huh?
I arrived at the Post Office as it opened, with package in tow. I approached the counter. Eye contact was clearly not part of the deal, so I started talking to a small bald patch in front of me.
Me: “Good morning, Namaste. I need to post this back to the UK.’
Him: “Stitch.” (Still no eye contact).
Him: “Stitch. You must stitch. Over there.” (Still no eye contact, but a vague wave towards a dark corner of the already dingy room).
(If you haven’t travelled in India, you should know that no package is allowed to leave the shores of the subcontinent without a covering of cotton, elaborately stitched, the stitches covered with dots of sealing wax. Once complete, the whole thing often resembles one of those muslin bags that your turkey comes in at Christmas).
I went over to the corner. A small toothless man looked up. “150 rupees for stitch.” As an opening gambit in a negotiation, this would have been acceptable, but as it became clear that, given his monopoly position in the Post Office, he was not going to budge from 150, I decided to seek “stitch” elsewhere.
As the sun’s intensity increased, I sweated my way around from tailor to tailor, musing on my ridiculous sensitivity to a matter of a few rupees, eventually finding someone to complete this simple job at a reasonable price.
I returned to the post office, my mood deteriorating as the sound of the horns and the traffic around me suddenly felt darkly oppressive.
I stiffened the sinews, walked away head held high, and decided that lunch was the only option, the owner of a tiny restaurant next door beckoning me in with a broad smile.
40 minutes after ordering (and while numerous Indians were served ahead of me) , the stainless steel tray of food was slopped unceremoniously in front of me and over my trousers. Nice.
Eventually, after the obligatory two hour lunch break in the less focused Indian post offices, I returned with my parcel and took my place in a rapidly assembled throng of twenty or so people around the sole counter that dealt with parcels.
Queuing is not something that has ever really caught hold as an idea in India. The general approach is to thrust your hand, full of rupees, through the grille at the assistant and hope that he decides, in his wisdom, that you are next. It took another hour of thrust and counter-thrust before I got to the front of the throng.
“SERVER DOWN. CANNOT SEND PARCEL.”
Trying manfully not to punch the man next to me whose sweaty forearm was slipping and sliding past my neck, I enquired through gritted teeth whether the system would be up later today? Or if I’d have to wait for tomorrow? The answer – “Yes” – didn’t particularly help. Half an hour later, with the server still down, the Post office closed.
As I walked back to my hotel lugging the unsent parcel, it felt for all the world as if the entire Indian nation was after my money. Rickshaw drivers and hotel touts shouted “Hello?” in the well-practised way that causes Westerners to turn in their direction involuntarily. However many times you say no, the pleas just keep on coming. As frustration coursed through my veins, my temper finally broke as a mother with a child of no more that 3 or 4 years old badgered me for 1 rupee. I broke with my policy of politely saying no, and snapped at her, immediately regretting it.
India was fantastic and has provided great memories which will last for the rest of my life. I have been particularly lucky with yogic introspection, familial exploration, and numerous incredible interactions with randomly interesting Indians.
But the day described above is not even that bad for India. After 6 months on the road here, I am ready to move on and open another chapter.