The overland route from Old Delhi Station to Kathmandu was an exercise in endurance, patience, and outright will. If I am being honest with myself I can say that I took on the adventure simply so that I could say that I took the trip. As with most central Asian travel the things we do here we do just to say that we have done them. No one goes to Everest Base Camp for the views, there are none, but when they get home most friends and colleagues won’t know that and the ability to say you were there completely substantiates your swollen chest.
If I am concocting some high winded story for readership I can say that I wanted to see what the countryside looks like asleep at night as a juxtaposed tapestry highlighting the fact that at some point, even India sleeps. The only problem with the sleepy village story is that there are no street lights along the Indian countryside by which to view such sleepy villages. It is just a stretch of darkness with the occasional street crossing, gas lamp or burning pile of trash.
Starting at Old Delhi station I was once again reminded that the world in which I was situated was miles apart from the world that I had left in Chicago. Old Delhi Station, much like most of Old Delhi itself, was dirty, crowded, and a bit confusing. The air smells of something unappealing at all times and the pressure of bodies around you makes for an uncomfortable walk to any part of the the station. My first stop was the cloak room, a more mysterious sounding term for a left luggage room. I have stressed this before, but nothing in India is easy. Finding and using the cloak room was a bit of a challenge.
When I finally arrived at left luggage I was notified that I would need to have a lock for my bag. Simple enough for a traveller who has a duffel bag ready to go for the storing of his worldly possessions and a perfect little lock to keep my bag safe. Unfortunately my lock had decided at some previous juncture in my trip that it was no longer interested in traveling and would stay exactly where it had been left. Naturally, no one woirking in the room knew where I might find a replacement lock. You would think that with how industrious the people in India had been to that point someone would have had an under-the-counter lock scheme in place, but alas I was out of luck.
It is only by the kindness of strangers that I have been able to travel to so many places and survive. Another of my standard rants about India is that nothing is free and nothing is given. Today I would be witness to one of the few kinks in that rule. A very kind woman who had been witnessing my dilemma tapped me on the shoulder and handed me a very old and very small lock with two keys hanging from it. The only way to repay these simple kindnesses is to be mindful of your surroundings and bestow the same generosity on the next down-on-their-luck traveler that you meet. I am still looking for someone who might need that lock, but it is near me almost constantly while I travel.
An hour after my train was scheduled to arrive I began boarding my car as if it would come to a slow rolling stop just enough for passengers to jump on with their belongings. A couple of hours standing near areas where people openly defecate and a constant fear of being left by your train at Old Delhi Station will put some pep in your step. Being left behind at the station was not an option for me and I hustled to the entrance of my car and onto my bed.
Somewhere in my travel journal I had scribbled the phrase, “It’s a bit lonely here and someone who speaks English well sure would be a nice change of pace.” I got my wish on the train. Riding in AC2 on Indian trains means that you have four bunks that are enclosed by either a door or a curtain and you are assigned one of the four bunks. I and been given one of the top bunks. This is good since you are less likely to be bumped or bothered by people walking through the aisle. Being that I am at least four to five inches taller than most people in India my legs or arms could also hang off the side. Before the train had even pulled out of the station I was in a conversation with a London investment banker who had recently returned to India to care for his parents. I introduced myself as an NGO photographer who was traveling through India and Nepal in aid of a few groups in the child welfare sector. I mentioned that I do not make much and I am just trying to enjoy my little bit of leisure time while working.
For what seemed like hours of brutal punishment I was fed story after glorious story about this man’s banking success, out of this world client conversion percentages, reckless spending, and overall glory of the guy sitting across from me while down the train people who had next to nothing slept or attempted to sleep despite his best intentions to voice his success for all to hear. The profit percentages were Boiler Room like, party stories sounded more like plots to rap videos and a general screw the world style of this guy all seemed a bit too crazy to be true. I do not think that he connected his claims with the fact that he was now riding in the exact same shitty train rolling through the same countryside as I was.
Another constant in my travel writing is my apologetic pleas to accept the fact that I am not a miserable traveller nor do I hate everyone. I just wish so fiercely to experience other people who have a genuine interest in open discourse without a constant battle of one-upsmanship or riddling me with politically minded questions about why my country is so strange to them. The US is awesome and I am always reminded of this when I inevitably hit a point, usually two weeks into my travels, where I just want some Little Caesars. I am sure Nepalis traveling abroad throw their hands up after a couple of weeks and just want some dal bhat. We are not that different. While reading a book on the train the next morning I was reminded that travel is a constant yin and yang.
Indian travelers are incredibly curious about foreigners and they are very quick to introduce themselves and start conversations. From around the pages of my book I noticed the body of an older Indian man sheepishly hanging out in my area. After the previous nights talk I was in no mood to start another conversation, but I had a feeling that this exchange might turn out a bit different. I lowered my book, moved my feet, and offered the man a seat next to me. He quickly introduced himself and asked me where I was from. He was very excited to find out that I was from the states and the conversation was on a roll. He was a pathologist specializing in agriculture and his primary concern was in bugs that infect spice plants. He shared many stories of the Americans who helped to found his school, the buildings that they built, the funds that they gave, and the continuing partnership between the US and his school. He was a very interesting man but his excitement to share his stories with me was blocked by his English. Although we talked for quite a while I am sure that I only ended up with about thirty to forty percent of what he was trying to get across and he left very little space in the conversation for me to get much back in. Despite our conversational short fallings he was very helpful in making sure that I got off at the correct station and went to the staff several times to check and recheck that my stop was coming up. When the train arrived in Goarkhpur he helped me off the train. We shook hands said goodbye.
Gorakhpur, India is like a smaller, dumpier version of Old Delhi. This is the wild west, or east in this case, and I am a very lost and slightly terrified newcomer. Pollution and filth stick to you the moment you walk out of the station. The only difference between Gorakhpur and Delhi is that there are almost no tourists who come through Gorakhpur on their way to Nepal so some of the guideposts and conveniences that you might find in Delhi are nonexistent. I had prepared nothing to help me get from the station to a bus that would usher me to the promised land of Nepal. I somehow managed to walk in the relatively correct direction and by way of hand signals, stick figure drawings and the always trusted dollar I managed to get within striking range of a bus to the border.
My bus was already running and ready to go. The very new and very nice bag that was the safe keeping travel vessel of my new camera gear was stowed away in the bowels of a dirty, rusty and barely attached boot compartment at the rear of the bus with what I could only assume were lead bricks stacked on top. I quickly came to love the rust and dirt markings that I have collected on my bags while traveling. The seat that had been given to me was at the back of the bus. India is not built for people my size. It is built for the 1.2 billion smaller people that live in the country. This being said the standard seats on a local bus are not very comfortable. Having stated that, the last row of bench seats in the back of the bus is only reserved for the smallest, most petite of the subcontinent. I got a ticket for the bench in the back. This was compounded by the woman who insisted on placing a wooden plank between the last two bench seats, thus closing off the bench in the back from the front of the bus. I was in a clown bus and the three ring circus where all of us would pop out was a grueling four hours away.
Village after village rolled by in the afternoon sun. The train delay on top of the bus delay resulted in daytime villages turning into afternoon villages which gave way to dusk and evening villages. The impending potential of being lost in a border town over night was not yet known to me before I embarked in my clown bus. I assumed that I would safely arrive at my destination with plenty of time to cross the border in the daylight and make my way on to Kathmandu.
The border towns of Sunauli/Belahiya are actually one large town that is separated by the India/Nepal border at a main road crossing. Generally speaking Indians and Nepalis can cross the border at will and without much frustration. The roads are somewhat paved with a thick layer of dust and exhaust fumes that disperse the lights of trucks and busses thus giving the area a dim glow after the sun has gone down; almost like a constant fog cover that can give you cancer after enough exposure.
I was hoping that bag would be unloaded as gently as possible while ensuring that absolutely nothing was broken or lost. My bag was fished from the depths of the bus boot with a care the same care that is given to a sack of rotten potatoes. As with any other transportation hub there were plenty of taxis and rickshaws waiting to only offer their most humble services and good prices without a thought of ripping me off for whatever they could get. It was dark, loud, and hectic at the border and I was in no mood to fuck around. I picked a rickshaw driver who looked the least likely to drive me into a dark alley and stab me in the face
My first stop was the Indian immigration point to prepare my exit papers. This took longer than it should have, but the internet access is not the best on the border. I watched from across the room and through a door as they restarted the computer, waiting for a connection, starred blankly at the screen, and then finally just gave up and signed my papers. The government of India probably still thinks I’m there.