Tandi Bazaar to Kakarbhitta to Siliguri; Twenty-four hours of hell; Through strikes and civil unrest to the border; In which I have the most humiliating moment of my life to date

As much as I love travelling, the actual moving-yourself-around part of it gets very old. We knew we had a bus ticket for the early bus to Kakarbhitta on Nepal’s eastern border with India, but we didn’t know where that ticket was. All we had was the name of the guy who had it and a receipt from the agency in Sauraha. There were a couple of bus-booking agencies open in the early morning by the bus stand, and we asked around. I’m not at all sure that we went to the right guy, but he got us on the bus so I didn’t care very much.

We had no idea which bus we needed to take, because they all have their destinations written in Nepali script and we didn’t know which company it was anyway. The guy from the agency kept a watch for the bus, though, and waved to us when it stopped. The bus was incredibly crowded with the usual massive amounts of people and luggage, and the roof was covered with huge bags of wilted and rotting produce. It was insanely hot, even at 7:30 in the morning, and it just got worse and worse as the day wore on.

The bus had arrived an hour late, but we didn’t realize that that was as good as it was going to get that day. There were the usual fifteen-minute and half-hour stops for the driver to gorge himself on food, but after three hours we’d gone about 140km - pretty good time in Nepal. It all went to hell after that, when the bus stopped for four hours by the side of the road. Nobody on the bus spoke any English so we weren’t sure why we’d stopped - it wasn’t until three or four other buses and a long line of trucks had stopped that we found someone to confirm our suspicions that it was yet another of Nepal’s crippling strikes. Demonstrators love blocking the highway here - it’s their favourite way to draw attention to the cause of the moment.

It was so boring and frustrating to be stopped for so long, especially since we had no idea how long we’d be there. For all we knew we’d be there overnight. We nearly died of the broiling heat and the utter boredom. There was nothing to do except sleep, read and watch the flock of goats wandering around. I’m really glad we had a sharp driver - he’d turned the bus around the instant he sensed the blockade and had headed for the shade of a big tree. I can only imagine how awful it would have been if we’d been exposed to the fierce sun. We ran out of water in the second hour, but luckily there was a little village nearby that had a shop. They had no electricity - a fact which surprised neither of us in the least - and so there were no cool drinks, but we were happy enough not to be dying of thirst that we couldn’t have cared less.

I was overjoyed when everyone responded to some Nepali command that went over my head and piled back onto the bus, but I shouldn’t have been. We didn’t go more than two or three kilometres before we were stopped again - this time by the cops. This time nobody knew why and I never did find out a reason. While we were waiting to leave there were a lot of false alarms. Every five minutes people would crowd back on the bus and sit in the steamy oven-like temperatures with much shouting and confusion, and then trickle back off a few minutes later frustrated and annoyed. The peasants with their bags of produce on the top of the bus made good use of the time, at least. They spent the hours we were stopped in peeling, sorting and stacking their huge sacks of limp, squishy vegetables. When they were finished they dumped the bags over the edge and they squashed on the ground. It explained a lot about why the produce in Nepali shops is always so nasty.

At last there came a time when it wasn’t a false alarm and the bus actually started moving. But only for one more kilometre before it ran into the huge traffic jam that had backed up all day. It was 4:00 in the afternoon at this point and at least it was starting to cool down a little. The inside of the bus was still an oven, though, and we spent the time cowering in the shade of the vehicles and envying the scooters and motorcycles that threaded their way between the trucks and buses.

We finally got under way again after two more hours, barrelling along the highway at probably 100 kilometres per hour. I think that’s the fastest any vehicle has ever gone in Nepal. Still, we only got one more hour. When we arrived in Dhalkebar the whole tiny strip town was clogged with trucks and buses and the word banda (strike) was on everyone’s lips. Fucking hell, I thought - how much more of this bullshit do I have to put up with? I’d been steadily losing my initial enchantment with Nepal over the last two weeks and this was really starting to make me hate the place. I seriously couldn’t believe it. We’d been on the road for eleven hours and had gone no further than 150km. What is wrong with this country?

At least we were in a town and could get food and water. We walked around aimlessly, killing time as the sun was going down. We were the only foreign tourists in town or on any of the buses and we were novelties. Wherever we went a crowd gathered, with one or two speakers and a huge mob of mute, staring children. Some of the kids were cute and spoke good English as long as we followed the hello-what-is-your-name script.

Soon after we arrived a big black cloud of greasy smoke began to billow over the road ahead. There were stacks of tires burning and a huge screaming crowd, but that edge of panic and hysteria always present at riots wasn’t there, and so we walked up to check things out. We got buttonholed by a local man, a teacher at Nepal’s only university, and his grad student whose specialty is pig nutrition. Academics though they were, they still called rhinos “rhinosaurs” which still makes me giggle. They told us that this protest was in response to a traffic accident earlier in the day. Nepal’s accident-victim compensation laws are strange and horrible. If someone is struck by a vehicle and injured, the driver of the vehicle has to pay the victim’s hospital costs and compensation. If the victim is killed, though, the guilty driver pays not one rupee. Earlier that day a bus had hit a motorcycle and hurt two men. Not wanting to pay compensation, the driver had backed up over them to make sure they were dead. Sickening. This had sparked a riot and protest against the traffic laws. I didn’t ask what had happened to the bus driver, but I think I can guess. After finding all this out, I didn’t resent the delay quite as much.

And it was a long delay. We arrived in Dhalkebar a little after 6 and left it just before 10 at night, about 11 hours behind schedule. We’d heard bad things about Nepali night buses - crime and accidents - and weren’t looking forward to having to take one against our will. There wasn’t much choice in the matter, though. I made sure to chain and lock the packs to the luggage rack on the roof.

Nepali drivers die if they can’t eat their body weight every two hours, and so we only got in an hour and a half of travel before the inevitable stop for him to stuff his face again, just before midnight. The road was clear at last, though, and we only stopped for twenty minutes this time. Two hours after that I was finally managing to snatch a bit of sleep when the bus pulled into a nameless little town. Chaos and tumult erupted in the bus with everyone grabbing their bags and pushing and shoving to get off. I heard someone trying to pull our packs off the roof - the chain makes a very distinctive sound - and went up to check them. Somebody had definitely been messing with them, but it turned out to be the driver - when I got down off the roof they told me with gestures that we had to switch buses. Sheryl had made the same discovery and was frantically grabbing all the stuff from the seats while I hastily unchained the packs, painfully carried them to the ground and over to the next bus, and even more painfully carried them up to its roof and chained them down. I was disoriented and unhappy, having been woken up for all this at two o’clock in the morning. I’d hoped Sheryl had gotten us seats but we were too slow and the new bus was smaller than the old one and I had to sit on the floor in the aisle for a miserable half-hour until someone left. After so many hours on hard bus seats, concrete and rock-hard ground I didn’t think my arse could get any more sore, but I was wrong.

One more hour through a gathering lightning storm and we finally arrived in Kakarbhitta in the false dawn at 5:30, eleven hours late, half-dead, having taken 22 hours to make what was supposed to be a 12-hour trip and having covered no more than 400 kilometres. I’d worn out all my fury hours ago and was nothing but exhausted and sick and tired of Nepal. This only got worse in the next hour. There was nothing at all open in Kakarbhitta at 5:30am. We were very tired and not thinking clearly, and so we followed a nice guy that Sheryl had been talking to on the bus, because he said he knew where we could get breakfast. But it was just another scam - he took us to a hotel where he clearly knew the owner and tried to get us to take a room for “just a few hours”. Honestly, you let your guard down for just one minute…

We gave up on food and headed for the border. We didn’t have to wait long for it to open at 6, but all the Nepalis and Indians were streaming through the border while we waited to be stamped out, and all the taxi drivers were trying to hustle us into taking their cabs to Siliguri - they didn’t seem to realize that we had to clear passport control and couldn’t just walk through the border freely like they could. Neither the Nepali side nor the Indian side gave us any trouble, though, and we walked across a long bridge over no-man’s-land, a wide dry riverbed between the two countries. On the Indian side there were shacks along either side of a muddy road and a long line of trucks waiting to cross. Land border crossings are always the same everywhere you go.

It says something about how frustrating the last week in Nepal had been that I was overjoyed to be back in India, a country that I’d been desperate to leave only five weeks before. The Indian side of the border was identical to the Nepali side, though. Everybody looked and spoke Nepali. We grabbed some cheap puri bhaji at a roadside restaurant, trying to remember the exchange rate of Indian rupees to Canadian dollars. Sheryl went to change the leftover Nepali rupees so that we could pay for the food and the bus to Siliguri. The bus was Rs50 and we knew we were being taken - it should have been 30 - but we were just too exhausted and worn out to care. It was crammed full of people. We had to keep our packs stacked in the aisle at the back and everyone gave us dirty looks as they squeezed past them into the last couple of rows. I put my head down and slept most of the way.

On the way to Siliguri we passed a few tea plantations. Despite my exhaustion, I was excited. I’m a tea-granny of long standing and this was one of the big reasons I was in this part of the world - to make my pilgrimage to Darjeeling. We weren’t anywhere close to there yet, but the tea gardens we passed were still a taste of things to come. I’d never seen a tea plantation before. They’re very striking visually - the bushes are all plucked to have flat tops and their blobby shapes interlock like a leopard’s or a giraffe’s spots. It must look fascinating from above. Other big trees rose occasionally above the low flat green plain of the tea-bush tops.

It took an hour to get to Siliguri. The bus dropped us on busy Hill Cart Road, full of lots of noisy traffic. We were back in the land of constant honking, I realized, and also back to street-side sewers and that indescribably vile smell that only Indian cities have. Sheryl was feeling sick and vanished instantly to find a toilet. All well and good, but I was still in the throes of food-poisoning, suffering from diarrhoea, and was desperate to go myself. I couldn’t leave the packs, though, and I certainly couldn’t carry them both around looking for a washroom.

I had thought, after thirty-plus years of life and more than a year of that on the road, that at certain points I’d more or less reached rock-bottom. I don’t have much in the way of pride, shame, or dignity (as any of my ex-girlfriends would be happy to tell you), and I’d thought that at this point in my life I’d experienced the depths of humiliation already. I discovered right then and there, on the side of a busy road in northern India, that I was wrong. The future always holds new depths of unforeseen degradation. After 45 minutes of clenching, waves of nausea and cold sweats, I couldn’t wait any longer. All I could do was to build a barricade out of the packs to shield me from the passersby, squat down to hide behind it, shit in a plastic bag, and wipe my ass with a sock. I didn’t get caught, but the disgrace, shame and mortification nearly made me gag. Please remember this, all of you who have made casual remarks about how much you envy my romantic, footloose life.

Even at the time, I reflected that this would at least give me a new metric for examining my life. At any given point, I could say to myself Hey, today might have been bad, but at least I didn’t have to crap in a bag on the side of a busy street in India.

Sheryl finally returned, and we agreed with no argument at all that we weren’t going any further that day. Darjeeling had been the goal, and it was early enough in the morning that we could have made it without any trouble, but we had both had enough and weren’t going any further. We picked a hotel out of our guidebook based solely on the fact that it was the closest one to us at that very moment. It was none too clean, but there were fresh sheets on the bed and that was the only thing I was looking at right then. The desk guys were very rude and very creepy men and Sheryl lost her temper with them. I could have told them this wasn’t the day to mess with her.

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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