**NOTE: The following events were in 2017. Catching up on old posts before I leave for another adventure in a couple of weeks! Stayed tuned for new adventures soon!!**
Day 767 – 6 April, 2017
When I departed Varanasi, I expected it would be an adventure. It would take me two days by rickshaw, bus, train, motorbike, and foot to arrive in Pokhara, Nepal. Not many people travel this route because it’s confusing and long and uncomfortable. Most people would fly the 470 kilometers, but I never claimed to be most people and my morbid curiosity about this notoriously difficult border crossing had me raring to go.
It didn’t start well. I hailed a rickshaw from the old part of Varanasi, which stopped and picked up several other passengers and dropped them off on the way to the train station. I had allowed plenty of time, but all of this rigamarole was grating on my nerves. As per usual, I was following on my map and knew we had made a few detours for our extra passengers, but after our third stop it became clear that we were going to the wrong train station. I couldn’t miss this train. I anxiously tried to explain to the driver that I needed to go to Varanasi City Railway and not Varanasi Junction. He stopped the rickshaw dead and turned off the motor right in the middle of an intersection so that we could renegotiate the fare. Suspiciously, I was wondering if this had been his plan all along, but it didn’t matter. He had me pinned between a rock and oncoming traffic so I agreed with whatever he said.
Standing on the train platform, I looked between the ticket on my phone and the signage that seemed to be pointing in opposite directions. The signs were meant to designate your train car so that you would board in the correct place, but I just could not figure out which way was up. I walked from one end of the platform and back again (which is no small feat!) trying to determine some kind of numerical pattern, yet I was stumped. For as much as I’m stubborn and prefer to figure things out on my own, I eventually identified a nice young man that looked like he might be willing to help me. I cautiously asked if he spoke English and if he could take a look at my ticket. He obliged by taking my phone and studying it intently. Within seconds, more people (mostly men) started to gather around to see what I could possibly be asking. The first man fired off some rapid Hindi, likely telling them that I needed directions, because soon they were all trying to see my phone and pointing and discussing amongst themselves. Eventually, one man cleared his throat and in his best plain English said that I only needed to walk about 100 meters. The rest of them all nodded in agreement, handed me my phone, and wished me a good trip.
It was about 3:00 in the afternoon and I was going to Gorakhpur. They said it would take 4 hours. This was the first leg of a multi-pronged journey. I would spend the night in Gorakhpur and then take an early morning bus to the border. Because it wasn’t a night train, the aisles were packed full with commuters, not enough seats for everyone. I was lucky and snagged a spot by the window as the train quickly filled up. It wasn’t long before I realized this 230 km railway would take considerably longer than 4 hours. The train would come to a halt and just sit still for an unexplained period of time. Vendors would come to the windows to sell snacks and the vendors who were already on board selling snacks would shoo them away. For all I know, there were cows on the tracks or the conductor was taking a nap, but the time just ticked on and on. I didn’t know where I was going to sleep in Gorakhpur when I arrived, but I had intended to just grab a hotel. I expected we were going to arrive much earlier so I wasn’t entirely excited about trying to find a bed in the middle of the night. Nearing midnight, I desperately had to pee (not wanting to give up my window seat I held it) when we finally puttered in to the station.
The entire train terminal was packed wall to wall with people preparing to sleep on the platform. Dusty bamboo mats were unfurled. Linen rucksacks were stuffed as pillows. Some people sat with their legs crossed, sharing homemade curries from plastic containers. For a moment, I thought about joining them. It would save me the hassle of finding a room at this late hour, not to mention the money for only a couple of hours of sleep, but then I noticed a flashing neon light immediately across the street. It said “VACANCY.”
When I walked into the hotel, the clerk was asleep on the floor. I gently rang the bell, but he didn’t stir. I rang it more forcefully the second time, yet when he opened his eyes, he didn’t seem startled or show any real eagerness to find out what I wanted. I asked the cost for a room – 700 rupees (about $11). My room would be on the top floor of this 4 floor hotel and as the clerk ever so slowly dragged himself up the stairs to show me to my room, I could hear Bollywood music reverberating in the walls. Unfortunately, as we climbed higher, the music was getting louder until we were standing directly outside of my room. The clerk unlocked the door and gestured for me to go in and take a look. The music was coming from the television, which was showing Bollywood music videos at near top volume. The room was fine – I just wanted this guy to leave so I could take a shower and try to get at least a few hours of sleep. He just grinned and said “color television, you like?” I concurred, “yes, thank you. Good night!” He left and the first thing I wanted to do was turn the damn tv off. Of course, easier said than done. The batteries seemed to be dead in the remote control and for the life of me, I couldn’t find the power button. I tried to unplug it, but the outlet definitely looked like a safety risk that I could barely see behind a table. Annoyed, I went back downstairs to enlist the help of the clerk just as he was snuggling back into the hard tile floor. “You don’t like the tv?,” he asked me. Disappointed, he unplugged it and scoured at me as if I was ungrateful for this amenity. I took a mediocre shower and went to bed.
The next morning I had set an alarm for 5:00am. It was meant to take about an hour to go from Gorakhpur to the border town of Sunauli. Buses departed regularly, but I wanted to go early to allow plenty of time to catch another bus to Pokhara after I passed immigration. I stepped out of bed into about an inch of water, my toes squishing in the spongy rug. I couldn’t immediately tell where this deluge had come from, yet the shower which was still making a rather annoying gurgling noise seemed rather suspicious. As luck would have it, my backpack was sitting on a luggage rack so I just splashed through the puddle to grab my stuff and walked out without a look over my shoulder. I looked for the clerk when I left, but no one was about so I left the large plastic key ring on the counter and walked out the front door.
The streets were still fairly quiet and empty save for a street vendor sitting patiently with a stack of samosas. I wasn’t sure when I would get my next meal so I asked him to wrap up three of these before my bus serendipitously rounded the corner and I climbed aboard. My row had two seats, but three of us were crammed in over the tire well so that our knees were effectively bent in toward our chests. I pulled out the first samosa and it was stone cold. Months of careful culinary choices had prevented me from getting sick the whole time I was in Africa and India, but now my overconfidence had me buying yesterday’s samosas. I took one bite and stuffed the rest into my backpack. Not today, India, not today.
Not until I reached the border did I realize I wasn’t the only westerner on board the bus. There was a Czech girl who seemed really nervous and uncertain as to where to go or what to do. I checked the map and acknowledged that we needed to walk about a kilometer to get to the immigration office. She asked if she could follow me. In passing, she mentioned that her visa had expired yesterday and she was hoping they wouldn’t fine her. She kept ringing her hands and biting her lip. Border control was a small concrete block house with one desk and big olive green armchairs so that when you sat for your border interview, you would forget it was an interrogation. My Czech friend went first. The officer scanned her passport and asked standard questions, like what she had been doing in India, where she had been, had she bought anything, was she carrying any illegal drugs or weapons, etc. He asked all of these after he already knew (and I knew he knew and my Czech friend knew he knew) that she had overstayed her visa by one day. She answered all of the other questions appropriately and then he said he could not stamp her passport, that she would have to go to Lucknow to pay a fine and obtain a new visa. Lucknow was about an hour away by train. I saw the color drain from her face and she was clearly distraught, begging if there was anything else she could do. The officer, like any good mafia don, grinned and said she could pay him directly…for an extra fee and it would be steep. The girl started to cry, saying she didn’t have that much money. He waved her away and invited me to sit down. He interrogated me with the same questions, all while the girl wailed and begged standing next to me. To his credit, he ignored her completely stone-faced. When I got up to leave, she took the chair again and began unloading her bag to prove she didn’t have any more money, but I think she had missed the point. I wished her good luck and left, although they both ignored me.
The Nepali side was equally painless (for me). I had obtained a 30 day visa in a matter of about 10 minutes. Small victories on this journey, to be sure. I had a short agenda for Sunauli – currency exchange, get lunch, and get a bus ticket to Pokhara. At the currency exchange, my Indian rupees were dwindling so it only equated to about 700 Nepali rupees (or $6). I would usually try to hit an ATM at the border to restock my cash, but didn’t see any first off. The manager at the currency exchange asked where I was going and when I told him, he said he had a bus going to Pokhara in a few hours. I forked over 650 of the 700 rupees I had to buy a bus ticket. He told me I had two hours in which I intended to eat and find an ATM, but first, where’s the toilet? Cost for use of the toilet – 5 rupees
I had no more than gone into the toilet stall and was precariously balancing my backpack so as not to touch anything while I squatted when someone (a man?) was banging on the door saying “come on, come ON! We have to go!” I burst out of the stall and he was already taking my bag and telling me to follow him – my bus was imminently leaving. I ran behind him, but could barely keep up as he dodged around crowds of people. I watched my gray backpack bouncing over his head as he turned down a row of mini-buses. When I finally caught up to him, I was wheezing in the clouds of dust. He left me with a driver, took my ticket, and was off again back toward his next fare. No seats were remaining on this mini-bus, only standing room. Seeing as it was much earlier than I had originally thought I would be leaving, I backed away and tried to implore to the driver that I would prefer to wait for the next one except he wouldn’t let me leave. My backpack was already being strapped to the roof. Another guy leaned out the window, amused by my distress, and explained to me this wasn’t the bus all the way to Pokhara. This bus was only meant to drive us from the border to the central bus station in town. Reluctantly, I held on to seats on either side of the aisle and tried to keep from falling over while we bumped and jolted over potholes in the dirt road.
The “central” bus station was really no more than a small shop with sundries. I had a sinking feeling this might be all of Sunauli I was going to see, but I still hadn’t found an ATM. I bought a bottle of water with 25 rupees. The remaining 20 rupees wasn’t going to go very far toward food for the day. A full-sized commercial bus pulled into the parking lot where a new attendant began taking tickets and ushering us aboard. I no longer had my ticket because the first guy had taken it. I pleaded my case. I was ignored. I pleaded some more and watched my bus filling up with passengers, a little panic-stricken with no money and miles from anywhere. By some miracle, my translator from the earlier bus recognized me and negotiated on my behalf. Eventually, I was waved toward the bus. I wasn’t defeated yet. I would find an ATM once we got on the road.
I sat next to a window a few rows from the front. I rolled the window down for the natural air conditioning. The man in the seat next to me, who introduced himself as Gautam, was wearing a short sleeve plaid button down, a blue baseball cap, and thick black-rimmed glasses. He politely greeted me and tried to make small talk, but his English seemed to get stuck in his throat and we finally gave up.
I settled in for a long ride and miraculously dozed off in spite of my head banging against the open window. Some time later I awoke to a lot of commotion. Additional people were boarding the bus and standing shoulder to shoulder in the aisle. This wasn’t entirely unusual so I would have ignored it except for the woman adjacent to us in the aisle had a rather severe oozing gash with blood dripping from her forehead; her lip was just beginning to swell. She seemed quite hysterical as she histrionically illustrated to Gautam what had happened. He betrayed no reaction as he listened to her, only shaking his head and clicking his teeth. When the woman finally turned her back to run through the whole story with someone else, Gautam leaned over and whispered that her bus had been in an accident, which is when I noticed that several of the other new passengers also had facial injuries. I looked at the hard metal seat in front of me and recognized that the seat back was at just the right height to knock a few teeth out should I be thrown forward. I carefully wrapped a sarong around the seat back, hoping it would provide cushion, knowing that it would not.
From Sunauli to Pokhara, the distance is about 185 km by the most direct route. After about four hours, we reached Bharatpur when our extra passengers disembarked, shaken, but with only minor injuries. Interestingly enough, Bharatpur is decidedly not on the way between Sunauli to Pokhara. It was a gaping detour that would no doubt increase our travel time by twofold. We were stopped in a rather precarious location on the side of the road. A few people got out to stretch their legs or use the toilet. It was a bustling business district, but it didn’t seem that there was a shop or ATM close enough for me to be willing to leave the bus for fear it would be gone when I came back. It was beyond lunch time now so I reluctantly fished in my bag for the day old samosas. It passed the sniff test and I was hungry enough to be satisfied that it was good enough. And so the bus continued on its way and I still had no money.
A couple of hours later, the bus stopped again. A woman held a bag of toasted peanuts up to my window. They smelled amazing and instantly my mouth watered, but I could only smile and say no thank you. Damn, where is that ATM? By now, I was full on starving. Gautam came back from the shop with a bag full of coconut cookies and offered me one. They smelled like honey and toasted coconut and glistened with sugar. I felt bad for taking a cookie without being able to offer anything in return so I declined, all while my stomach was eating itself. I told Gautam that I was trying to find an ATM if he knew where I might find one. He was eager to help, but there weren’t any machines nearby.
When I couldn’t take it anymore, I changed my mind about one of his cookies. I savored every bite, letting the sugar dissolve on my tongue. The bus had stopped again, but I was still afraid I would lose the bus if I ventured too far so I stayed put. Gautam returned and sadly told me he did not see an ATM, but he gave me a cold Mountain Dew as a gift. It burned my parched throat like battery acid, although when the carbonation subsided the sugar coated my mouth and gave me an instant jolt to keep me going just a little while longer.
Soon we were in the mountains, weaving our way up a tight narrow mountain pass when we entered a roadwork zone. Bulldozers hung precariously with one wheel off the cliff while cyclones of dust clouded the air. Gautam reached over me and pulled the window up before pulling on a face mask so that only his eyes were peeking out. Instantly, the humid sour air inside of the bus jumped several degrees and it was difficult to breathe. Sweat beaded on my brow. I fanned myself with a notebook and peeled my hair off of my sticky neck. The bus had come to a dead stop and we were still some distance from Pokhara. So now for anyone keeping track, I was hungry, tired, hot, suffocating, and I really had to pee again.
We inched a few meters at a time for more than an hour until we finally passed the roadwork. The sun was just disappearing behind the mountains. There was no moon. The driver pulled off on the side of the road for a bathroom break. Gautam coaxed me out of the bus this time and pointed to some trees up ahead where I could relieve myself. No other women needed to go (or perhaps wisely knew this place was no good). He assured me the bus would wait. The headlights of the bus illuminated the entire patch of trees, which was not ideal. I tried to venture a few steps out of the beams and nearly fell into a ditch in the dark. Meanwhile, the men were finished and had already boarded the bus. I was the last one so…you know, too much pressure. I returned without having gone to the bathroom.
Gautam said something to the driver, who nodded in my direction. When we were seated, he promised we would stop again soon. When we pulled over on the side of the road this time, the driver stood up, pointed only at me, and motioned for me to follow him. A hotel, standing lonesome on the highway, flickered a “free WIFI” sign. The owner was sitting outside drinking tea. The driver told her I needed a toilet and she gestured that I go inside. I walked in, but there was no lobby, only guest rooms. All of the doors were shut. I stood for a minute, utterly confused, until she brushed past me, opened up one of the doors and pointed to the bathroom. Two guests were sleeping in the bed, although they didn’t seem to mind that I had just invaded their space. They wished me good night when I went back to the bus.
I was still starving, but the series of bizarre events that had happened over the last 36 hours were kind of magical and I felt like the universe was providing in the most wonderful ways. We were nearing Pokhara, although as if on cue, the skies opened and a downpour turned the dusty roads into mud. Gautam was telling me that he would drive me to my hostel when we arrived. He had a motorbike at his office, but we would need to wait until it had stopped raining. I thanked him and said I didn’t mind the rain – I could use a raincoat. He said actually he didn’t like riding in the rain himself and would prefer to wait. In truth, I couldn’t thank him enough for everything he had done already to make my ride more comfortable, but I was still so hungry. The bus stop was close enough I could have walked to the hostel.
Ultimately, I couldn’t refuse his hospitality so he hailed a taxi for us to go to his office. He worked for the government as a statistician. He said his assistant would be there and could make us tea while we waited for it to stop raining.
My backpack was covered in mud, likely because of the puddles we had been bouncing through for at least an hour. The brown grit had saturated the straps and the entire bottom panel. When we got to Gautam’s office, he rang a buzzer on a tall metal gate. His assistant greeted us and they whispered together in hushed tones for a moment. I imagined his assistant was asking him “who the hell is this?” We walked into a sitting area where his assistant prepared two mugs of lemon tea with sugar on a plastic tray while Gautam took to cleaning the mud from my backpack. He poured water on each soiled section, being careful not to saturate the main body so that the contents inside would get wet. I tried to help, but I was only in the way. I stood helplessly just truly chuffed at what a kind person this man is.
While we sipped our tea, he gave me a tour of his office. It was a bare room, only with a computer, a desk, and a chair. A few books were on the desk, but otherwise the room was empty. Gautam was so proud. He solemnly touched his desk and said, “This is my desk.” Then he drifted his fingers to the chair and said, “This is my chair.” He repeated for each item in the room. It was very sweet. I told him it was a beautiful office and he bowed his head in thanks.
When the rain had finally subsided, we mounted his motorbike and he drove me a few blocks to my hostel. I thanked him profusely and he just said he hoped I enjoyed my stay in Nepal. It was 10:00 and I slid into a restaurant just before they closed the kitchen. They said the only thing I could order was fried rice. My stomach was not picky. It had been a wonderfully surprising strange long journey, but I couldn’t complain; I was eating fried rice and I had survived the road from Varanasi to Pokhara.