04 February 2008

To Darjeeling, Patience Limited

Friends, by now you must know how much pleasure it gives me to relate from abroad from tales of suffering and woe. They are, I suspect, the most popular. Today, I have another one.

Kathmandu, Nepal to Darjeeling, India. No problem. There's a direct route, easy bus connections, and a quiet border. Here's my story. I took a night bus from KTM to my first stop at Janakpur. There were no day buses available, so I had no choice but to sit nearly upright from 6 pm to 8 am. At least there was a blanket available (one for whole bus), but partway through the trip, someone stole it from me, claiming they were cold (like, I wasn't?). The traffic just getting out of Kathmandu was horrendous, and more and more people kept getting on the bus as we meandered our way through the fog back to the Terai. Closer to Janakpur, the bus turned on to a bumpy, barely paved road for the final bit. Luckily, the seat was padded enough to prevent too much damage to my bony butt, and I seem to have slept quite a bit. Once in Janakpur, I inquired about onward transport to the border at Kakarbhitta, excited to finally be getting out of Nepal. Oh, no bus tomorrow, there's a one day strike! Just my luck, and I've already been suffering the severe truth of Murphy's Law for days. Upset by this hardly unexpected turn of events, I wandered around town. Janakpur, like every other SLT in Nepal, was once the capital of now defunct kingdom, in this case Mithila, which also incorporated part of Bihar, India. Mithila is famous for the art the women there produce, which depicts the ordeals of domestic life. I may have said so before, but I'll say it again: I think women in the developing world are the only ones who do any work. And on top of that, they paint pictures--of all the work they do! In their free time?! I bought a nice cloth tapestry and a small bowl ideal for tea ceremony.

Janakpur is also featured in the Indian epic, the Ramayana, and this is where Rama lived with his wife Sita. There is an enormous temple dedicated to Vishnu in his Rama incarnation--please don't hold me to any of these details--and several other temples in town that have something to do with Rama/Sita. There is also a "big monkey temple" where a live monkey is worshipped as a god. Truly my tolerant multiculturalist sensibilities were put on trial by this, since I think worshipping monkeys is, well, ridiculous. But at least one of our Presidential nominees doesn't believe in evolution and another is a Mormon, so who am I to judge?

I asked another bus ticket seller-dude about the strike, since I heard it was only a possibility, but this one said it was definitely on--but for two days! My friends, I was at the end of my tether, but my tether had yet more to endure. Instead of waiting two more days for a bus, I reluctantly decided to take another night bus to Kakarbhitta. I had a feeling the trip would be completely awful.

I was right.

I hung around the "bus park" (huge, filthy lot) for about 2 hours waiting for the bus to arrive. Naturally, it was late and dark when it finally showed up after 7 pm. When it stopped, a gang of Nepalis just mobbed it, out of nowhere, and I did not know what was going on--the usual third world chaos, I assumed. When I saw someone official-looking, I shoved my ticket in his face, and he beckoned me on board, where I was assigned a lovely front row seat--right next to the door and with a bit more leg room. Such small blessings make all the difference, believe me. When we finally departed, I thought it would be, more or less, smooth sailing... because I am a fool! We'd gone no more than a quarter mile before we stopped at a traffic circle, where, I roughly calculated, half the population of Nepal tried to force its way inside. I was jounced, jossled, and jolted by arms, ankles, feet, knees, luggage, and peoples' butts. When stability returned, we were packed in like sardines. One guy tried to put his overloaded duffle bag on my lap, but the gentleman sitting next to me (a guy from Nagaland! Nagaland! Cool name, I thought, I want to go *there*!) told him, so I gathered, that I am a white man tourist and therefore entitled special treatment. And this, I felt, was correct. We made another stop a bit farther on, and then the other half of the population jumped on board. This continued for awhile. I was amazed at how much humanity could be crammed into such a small, steel box, was willing to be crammed into such a small, steel box, and I began preparing for my death. Anyway, I've been on buses like this before, and at least I had a seat, so I thought, with my earplugs and sleepmask, I could make the best of it as usual.

When we cleared the town, the ticket collector shut the door at last. The night chill was coming on, and I thought all the bodies would at least warm things up. But I forgot about Murphy's Law: when the door slammed shut, the entire glass pane fell out and shattered on the ground. So for the next, oh, 10 hours, we sailed along the highway subjected to the merciless blast of the cold night air. Don't forget! I had the good seat next to the door! Not only did I really think I was going to die at this point, my friends; I wanted to die. So, what else? The seat was uncomfortable, so I couldn't really sleep (as if the wind would let me anyway). The guy behind me kept putting his knees up, preventing me from reclining. We periodically stopped in the middle of nowhere. At midnight, we stopped for, I don't know, dinner? Not hungry, I instead sat by the hearth outside the tin shack restaurant, where a few other guys also warmed themselves at the little, dung-fueled fire. I got to see how chapati are made, at least: a true cultural experience, this was! I considered asking for one, but demurred when I saw the guy handle the bread and add more shit to the fire with the same hand. Appetite: gone! When we pulled out, I noticed that someone had put cardboard up over the door-hole, and this was a tender mercy. I managed to get a few hours sleep before we reached the border, where the bus sat for a few more hours waiting for it to open. With time to kill, I went over in my mind all the horrible bus journeys I've taken in my travels--quite a few--and determined that, yes, this was the worse. But I survived to tell you about it, my friends, and, as the opening title sequence of "Conan the Barbarian" informs us, whatever doesn't kill you only makes you stronger.

(PS - I also had diarrhea the whole time.)

Things were a bit easier in the morning. I changed money at the bank at 7 am, hurled myself across the border with no hassle (thereby traveling back in time 15 minutes), and left the year 2064 (in Nepal) to rejoin the rest of humanity in 2008, in Incredible !ndia. From the border, it was only another 5 hour journey to the hilltop town of Darjeeling, famous for its tea (and I hope you know that, you philistines), a place I've longed to visit. Darjeeling tea is my favorite! I already enjoyed high tea at a fancy colonial-era hotel, where I met British John, who edits things for the WHO and the Asian Development Bank. He lives near Manila with his Filipina wife and invited me to visit him there. Don't think I won't, John!

Now I'm comfortable again, in a country that speaks English, that doesn't lose power, that has passable roads, and where hot showers are actually available. I bargained my hotel rate down from 400 rupees to 250 (40 Rs. to the dollar in India) and spent the night watching the Action Network (I love the sunglasses dude on CSI: Miami) and HBO (!). February is "Hollywood's Best" month. Last night's "best of" offering was "Bicentennial Man" starring Robin Williams. Even better, there's a movie theater here. I haven't seen a movie in a theater in months. They're showing two destined-to-be-classics: "Rambo 4" and "Alien vs. Predator 2". Normally, I'd opt for the former, because Sly's my boy, but it's dubbed in Hindi (naturally). Since I didn't see the first "Alien vs. Predator" movie, I'm worried I won't understand the plot if I go see this one, but who can resist the tagline, which I might also apply to my trip: "On Earth, everyone can hear you scream." Priceless.

1 comment:

Jhenn said...

"... because I am a fool! "
the best part!
If cold wind were blowing on me, I would have died. Asthma, Raynaud's and probably pneumonia would have banned together to wipe me out. I want to go to India, so continue telling us allll about it.

I'm attempting to watch your video on Facebook. but I have to update and close my browser, which I am not ready to do yet!