India and Nepal 1998 (with kids)
Buddies and Borders
Meeting people while traveling is one of the highlights of any trip. In a country as difficult as India, foreigners help each other out, with suggestions of things to see places to stay and places to avoid. Where else but on vacation would you find yourself chatting with six different people from six different countries with six completely different backgrounds but a common love for travel? Everyone has an interesting story to tell about their travels, some have been on the road for years, some for only days. There are many people we met who were simply wandering the World with no apparent schedule, destination or time frame in mind. How I envy them! We didn’t run into many Canadians (three if my memory serves), but we ran into the fellow from Hamilton repeatedly. As we prepared to depart Varanassi and head to Nepal, he expressed to us his plans to make it up to Kathmandu and we left him saying, "see you in Kathmandu." And the funny thing is we did! The World is a very small place.
We had booked a two-day bus ride to Pokhara Nepal, a princely sum of $11 per person, hotel at the border included, so we’re up at the crack of dawn. Loading all our gear and the four of us into the back of our old man’s rickshaw we head to the bus stop, or what is masquerading as the bus stop. A short ride through the tangle of streets brings us to a dead end and our driver points to a hole in the crumbling brick wall. Now, I’ve seen some pretty decrepit bus depots, but this looks impossible. The whole building looks like the aftermath of a World War Two bombing, jagged holes the size of small torpedoes riddling its lopsided walls, but our driver insists, so in we crawl. There are no lights inside, but as my eyes adjust, I discern a makeshift wooden platform with about fifteen wide-eyed foreigners crouched atop, drinking tea; it seems we’ve reached the bus stop. We crawl up the tangle of bricks to the dais and are handed a boiled egg (no plate) and a cup of tea-so nice to see breakfast is included. We cower on our packs, flinging eggshells into the rubble.
A sudden flurry of scrambling leads us to believe the bus has arrived. Back outside (the pre-dawn daylight dazzling our eyes), we board the bus and are directed to our "seats". There’s general confusion as they’ve sold more seats than seats available. We stay put, ignoring the melee, as we try to attach the seat back to the frame, using our Frisbee as a hammer. Finally, with the bus staff seated on the floor and our seat in a semi-stable position, we head off for a twelve-hour test of nerves.
Driving for hours on rural roads should be an endurance test in itself, given the lack of either springs or padding in the seats, but this alone would not constitute a true family adventure. There’s an added twist. An extremely old man, with thick glasses which make his watery eyes look like fried eggs, has seated himself in the aisle beside our sons and myself. Don is behind us by one seat. As we rattle off down the road, he stands up and proudly displays his I.D. card for the bus company, we nod and smile, figuring we have many hours to spend together, so we’ll make a pal. As I am smiling at him, he grins back, looks at our eldest, and proudly displays his rather erect penis. Now I am not sure, but I am pretty certain this isn’t some kind of quaint Indian greeting, so I give him a shove and quickly exchange seats with my son. Throughout all this, Don is blissfully striking up conversation with his companions, two Dutch girls, and is maddeningly oblivious to our plight. The saying "out of the mouths of babes", rings in my ear, as Roddy, giggling like a fool, asks me how I like sitting beside "Boner Boy"; the three of us erupt into a fit of laughter. Kids can find the humor in almost any situation. I am now not so thrilled at spending the journey alongside "Boner Boy", however, not much can be done, so I glare at him and hope to make my displeasure understood.
We bump along for a few hours, the scenery changing, strangely becoming more tropical as we head North. There are many roadside stalls selling fruits and vegetables, and we stop at one of these for chai and a bite. During this stop, I move our companion’s bag a little farther up the aisle, hoping he’ll bother someone else for the next eight or ten hours, and of course I relate the incident to Don over steaming hot mugs of tea. The boys and I convince him that all is indeed in hand, and we have a chuckle over yet another chapter in our adventures.
Back on the bus, ol "Boner Boy" is a persistent little cat, and he’s again squatted beside our seats I glare at him and a couple from across the aisle try to convince me that he’s just a sad little old man. I relate the earlier incident to the couple and they both shake their heads and glare at him with grins, chanting in unison, " You’re a dirty old feller!" This couple has been traveling for an amazing three years; they seem to be as one, moving in unison, anticipating each other’s needs, and seeming quite blissful in quiet companionship. I am struck by this bond that is almost tangible. I later (we meet up weeks later in Kathmandu), tell them of my observations and they acknowledge that the rigors of Asian travel either break a relationship or force you to become a strong unit of one. They’ve definitely achieved that contented oneness that is usually only seen in the elderly; they’re in their early thirties, another testament to the wonder of wandering.
We pass over the Ganges, where armies of people are loading sand with buckets perched atop their heads into an army of Tata trucks, gravel "factories" with armies of families pounding stone into gravel with small hammers, and the blue foothills of the mighty Himalaya arise on the horizon.
We finally thunder into the border of Nepal at about ten p.m., and if Indian bureaucracy can amaze, it has nothing on the joint effort of this border crossing. The bus lets you off on the Indian side, where everyone stampedes to fill out disembarkation cards in the dark, no pens, no tables, no building. The crush of people descend on the sleepy-looking souls at a table on the roadside, and I will not belabor the point, but once again I am some kind of an idiot with four people and two passports. Managing to perform the bureaucratic ballet in little under one hour, we walk, dirt track, no lights, about four hundred yards to the Nepal side, where we do it all again. While filling out the Visa applications (we have our photos ready), we meet two girls from Sweden, who were unaware that Visas were needed, and they’re out of funds. The Nepali Visas cost $30 US, cold hard cash, exact change please, no ifs ands or buts, and the guards with the semi automatics ensure compliance! We end up loaning the girls enough money for two Visas, and they ensure us they’ll leave us the money at the trekking office in Kathmandu. We’re either great judges of character or our karma is good, because the money (and more) shows up weeks later. My documents are finally in order, and I join the melee in front of a small wooden shack. I get to the front, and smiling, hand over a neat pile of all the paperwork, to have the official throw them all back at me announcing, "No Canadians!" Now, no, we are not at war with Nepal and we actually give a fair amount of aid money to this country, so I’m a trifle confused...and, I’ll admit, worried. Outside there are two sleepy children, a tired husband, and we’re in limbo between two countries where the officials will not talk to me...it can’t get much worse. Then again, it can always get worse. I gather the documents together and, painting the smile on my face, try again. This time I am herded to a "private" room under armed guard, and I mean armed! Now, sitting in the sweltering heat, surrounded by serious-looking guards with serious-looking elephant guns, after having just survived a grueling sixteen-hour bus ride beside a demented exhibitionist, and the Indian border shuffle, I am in no mood to be messed with. Plucking up my courage, I get ready for a fight with the official who saunters in. I start explaining that I have all my papers, I love his country, it is my second visit, I have come half way around the World to show his mountains to my children and ... he leaps up grinning. Hmmm. "Children? You have brought your children to Nepal? How wonderful!" The whole room erupts into smiles and handshakes; the Nepali love children. Things do an immediate aboutface I am whisked through the process in a matter of minutes and only need to give an extra $5US (for what I don’t know), and I’m back outside. The other passengers on the bus are happy to see me and explain a little of the situation. There is another Canadian here, his name is Singh, the officials feared he was an Indian trying to cross and confiscated his passport...he was not impressed and raised a little stink- just before I arrived. Assured that the other Canadian is OK, I look for the family. Another passenger directs me to where they are perched amid the chaos. He had advised Don of my "predicament" to which Don replied, "After that bus ride, they’d better not piss her off too bad!" So nice to have a concerned family!
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