Kathmandu to Sauraha; In which I lose my temper (again); The return of Christian

I’m really getting tired of the route into and out of Kathmandu. It’s been what - three times? Four times we’ve been along it? This was the last time, at least. It was a very early morning bus and the madhouse of Thamel was blessedly quiet as we walked to the bus stand. How did my pack get so heavy? And why can’t I fit everything into it anymore? I’ve got the same amount of stuff as I had before. Have I just forgotten how to pack? Possibly. I really wish I didn’t have to carry the tent. I’ve been dragging it along with me since the beginning of the trip and haven’t so much as touched it once since South Africa five months ago. I’m seriously thinking about sending it back home, or forward to New Zealand.

The bus was too crowded to keep the packs inside, so they had to stay on the luggage rack on the roof. I hate keeping them up there, because I know just how easy it would be for someone to make off with them, or for one of the many people riding on the roof to open them. It’s not as if there’s anything valuable in them - anything that’s worth money we keep with us - but even dirty clothes have value if you’re poor enough. And we can’t afford to replace anything that’s stolen, so I like to keep them locked when I can.

The day was very hot and getting hotter the further south and farther out of the mountains we went. It was intolerable inside the bus any time it stopped and we lost the breeze. There was no bad traffic and no strikes, though, so the trip was as quick as it could be. We were offered a ride to Sauraha from the bus stand at Chitrasali by a man on the bus - an employee of one of the hotels in town. He asked for ten rupees - about sixteen cents - each, and a very good deal, we reckoned, because it would let us avoid the rumoured swarm of hotel touts at the bus stand.

A good idea, but it didn’t work. The tout scrum was worse than anything I’ve seen even in India. There were at least thirty of them all shouting over each other and pushing and crowding every tourist coming off the bus. It was made worse by the violently creepy Nepali habit of shoving their faces directly into yours and hissing into your ear. Sheryl got swarmed and I lost my temper, hair-triggered as it is these days. I snarled at them at top volume to back away from her. This was greeted by shocked silence and offended looks, and then a babble of “Why like this?”, “You are in our country” and the like. It’s true I was being rude, but they were being far ruder and if nobody stands up to men like this it gets worse and worse for tourists. This would never have had a chance of working in India, where shouting and pushiness are normal, but people are quieter and politer in Nepal. Even so, it didn’t stop them for more than a minute, but when they resumed they were a lot quieter and more respectful. They all kept trying to tell me not to go with the man who’d offered us a ride: “He is commission agent” (and what are you?); “There are rules” (like I care?) et cetera, et cetera. It all pissed me off immensely. This sort of thing is so completely unnecessary and costs so much of a traveller’s energy. All the rest of the time we were in Sauraha I was looking over my shoulder for a bunch of guys coming to teach me a lesson, but they never came.

The hotel guy, evil opportunist that he was, dropped us at his hotel and didn’t even bother collecting his payment - so much for his detractors. Sauraha was incredibly hot and humid, like being inside a greenhouse. It’s nothing much. One main street and two cross streets. All the guesthouses had safari or jungle themes. There were a couple of second-floor restaurants, a few souvenir shops and two or three little stores. The road was lined with out-of-control greenery and periodically strewn with elephant dung. The road was empty - maybe one vehicle every ten minutes. The elephant traffic along the road was heavier (no pun intended) than anything else. We hadn’t been in town five minutes before we saw our first one lumbering down the road, and there were one or two every ten or fifteen minutes. Sheryl was in heaven to see so many elephants - or she would have been if she hadn’t been hot, sick and cranky.

Most of the accommodations in Sauraha are ridiculously overpriced. Since it was early in the day and we weren’t in a hurry for once, we thought we’d shop around. It was so hot and humid, and the packs were so heavy, though, that we only looked at four places or so before we settled for a none-too-clean affair at the northern end of the village. It was cheaper than anything else and not actually that much worse except for the ant colony in the washroom and the spider in the toilet. We were the only guests there.

The only reason to ever visit Sauraha is to take a safari into Royal Chitwan National Park, and that’s why we were there. We shopped around at the various safari operators and “travel agents”, trying to find one we trusted and who had a good rate. The prices varied wildly for basically identical packages. For a combination one-hour canoe trip, two- to three-hour guided walking safari, and hour and a half elephant safari plus one-day park permit, the quotes were anywhere from Rs1750 to Rs2200 per person. That about CAD$35 each and a lot of money for us right now, so we took the decision seriously. Having (somewhat) learned our lessons, though, we didn’t go with the cheapest price - but rather the second-cheapest.

As we were heading back to the hotel we were very surprised to see the unmistakeably tall and gangling form of our erstwhile trekking companion Christian loping down the street in the opposite direction. After a week of watching people walk you get to recognize them from a distance, and I’d realized it was him by his gait long before I could see his face. He and the rest of our group had gone on ahead when we took an altitude-sickness-enforced acclimatization day at Thorang Phedi before attempting the mountain pass, and I hadn’t expected ever to see any of them again. You’d have thought we were old friends reunited after years of separation.

We went down to the river with Christian to catch up over tea. The muddy brown river with the dense, steaming jungle on its far side, the heat and the birdcalls, the elephants and the magnificent sunset all conspired to remind me powerfully of Africa, and I was swept away by a strong pang of longing and a feeling very close to homesickness. I hadn’t realized that Africa had taken such a compelling hold on me, that I could miss the place that much.

The gigantic thunderstorm that came smashing in reminded me of Africa, too. Huge winds laid the trees nearly flat and there was so much rain it seemed like an ocean was falling on us. The thunder was loud enough to deafen and the lightning bright enough to blind. The entire world was stunned and dripping after it passed, and the power was out in the whole village (the power cut was routine, though, as we were to discover. I’d swear the electricity was off more often than it was on the whole time we were there).

Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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