Thursday, November 17, 2011

Driving to India (Carolann's Story)

(Carolann's thoughts about our last few days in Nepal. This and other stories by Carolann can be found at Maturetraveler)

Our visas are expiring. It's time to leave Nepal. So we we're driving to India.

Drive? Why?

Because for one thing, we never like back-tracking. If we flew from Kathmandu to Calcutta, in order to be reasonably close to where we want to go in India's northeast, we would end up going south just to connect domestically to fly back north. Secondly, I've read some nasty things about the Calcutta airport and I want to spend time there as much as I want to sunbathe in the tar sands.

Most of all, however, my strategy has always been to ease Dan into India by avoiding the big cities, at least at first. Dan's been reluctant for many years to go to India. Too much distressed humanity. Too much chaos. Too much heat. But in the end, he's been getting too much encouragement from our friends to ignore India any longer. Our friends are coaching us on how to do India well. But the selling point, admittedly, is that it's inexpensive.

My thinking is that we'll first spend some time in West Bengal's leafy Darjeeling tea estates and from there into Assam's rhino-rich jungles. It's a good idea to seek out green spaces, elephants, birds, and try out a safari, Indian style. We'll deal with the grit and urban chaos later.

So I'm standing at the wall map in our Kathmandu guest house with Ganga, the owner, former guide, and our advisor.

"How long to get to here?"

"Five to seven hours."

"And after that, to here?"

"Five to seven hours."

"Perhaps, we can stop at this protected area. I hear there is good birding there."

"Five to seven hours to get there."

These are not large distances. Our first 200 km will take us a day because the road is so bad through the mountains. After the mountains, we're in the flat, arid part of the country, very much like India, which runs parallel at that point. Those further 200 km will take another five to seven hours because the road is so bad and busy. Whole chunks of road are regularly washed away in the monsoons. In the rainy season, there will be flash floods careening through the river bed, up and over the banks, water belching out of the Himalaya and surging into India.

But it's dry now, so driving over several sandy, rocky basins is possible, but slow going. We cross what in a different month is the life blood of India, feeders of the Ganges River.

Although driving to India is not most people's first choice, it's a gift that we can even move around the country like this. Until three years ago, Nepal was in the grip of civil strife. The Royal Family had been massacred in 2001 by a deranged Crown Prince, weakening an already tenuous future for Nepal's monarchy. The country disintegrated into factions, armed conflicts ensued. Maoists, notoriously anti-monarchists, disrupted tourism and violent crime increased. Atrocities were committed on all sides. While a peace was struck in 2008, the newly elected Maoist leadership still must bring in a new constitution by the end of November. The Canadian government posts a travel warning on Nepal suggesting that strikes and protests may precede the constitution.

Curiously, we're not seeing any volatility, but perhaps we're just insulated. Instead, weather is on everyone's mind these days. When these mountains get socked in by clouds and haze, tourism stalls. People lose money. Flights are being cancelled around the country because of the weather, not politics.

But back to the exit plan.

I see logic and value in driving out of Nepal. It will take three nights and four days. We'll see something of Nepal that's not about mountains. It will cost us each about $350 including our private jeep transportation, our hotels, meals; by comparison, if we flew to Calcutta and connected to another domestic flight, we might pay almost as must after incidental fees.

Over and above those costs, we're paying $300 for birding at Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve. This co-operative tent camp is installed within an important sanctuary where ornithological research is done. We will be provided with an expert guide for a three-hour jeep run through the jungle and guided walk at dawn. This is the kind of enterprise we've known in Costa Rica. It's important that Nepal be part of the international work being done in tracking bird DNA and banding. And a group of Italian birders have logged nearly one hundred sightings over two days here.


 An enthusiastic birder for 50 years, Dan's in his element. I couldn't care less but I'll tag along. I enjoy walking in nature. And in fact, I'll even source opportunities for Dan.

We have an understanding that for any uncomfortable jungle tripping to see birds, I get one opera. And as it happens, I've just found out from a vacationing sound engineer from Abu Dabi that Dubai has just opened an opera house. And since this visit to Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve has us sleeping in tents, and walking up a lane to outdoor toilets during the night, and that there's cobra in this area, and our camp is surrounded by electrical fence to keep out the wild elephants.... I expect dress circle seats at the opera.

(Note to self: figure out how to include Dubai on our flight plan in 2012).

 For two days we do not see one western tourist...nor one western toilet for that matter. But squatting is good for me, especially since I threw out my back the morning we departed from Kathmandu.

Two extra-strength Robaxicet tablets later, and a well-placed lumbar cushion, I sleep a good part of the way though the mountains. At each stop, I stretch and do exercises that I've been taught by my trainer. I know Lynn is shaking her head at this moment and probably thinking that I've not been doing my core-strengthening exercises as much as I should have. She's probably right. But it was bound to happen given the demands of trekking in this country.

While it's fascinating to walk around a Nepalese town that sees few tourists, it's challenging to find dinner in a Nepalese town that sees few tourists. Locals generally don't eat out. The two hotels of Hetauda are noisy, one less filthy than the other, and both have restaurants we cannot stomach. And that's the end of the restaurant options. There are a few stalls selling a kind of deep fried donut. There are some chicken skewers over coal - but meat handling and storage techniques here are fast making me into a vegetarian.

Still there's hope.

The first delightful thing we discover about Hetauda is that it's not just another crumbling, dusty, gritty mess of commerce with grey buildings, and grey air that you can chew and wear at the same time. It's main street is lined end to end with hundreds of large, leafy trees. The sun shines on a town that's green. The road becomes an avenue.

And the sun shines on us when Vider approaches. A young man in jeans and a nicely pressed shirt introduces himself and offers assistance to help us find a restaurant.

My senses are alert to touts. Likely, his uncle owns a restaurant.

"My uncle owns a restaurant, just down the road there. I will show you."

Dan and I exchange knowing glances but start enjoying Viber's company nevertheless as we follow him to his uncle's restaurant. The restaurant is decent enough and we order our safe egg-fried rice.

Viber is a journalism student and minors in English.

"Do you know that the ABC of journalism is: Accuracy, Balance, and Credibility."

Now I'm feeling uncomfortable. I've already flunked out of trekking in Nepal (another story). I expect I'd also fail the ABCs of journalism. I have always lacked credibility in Dan's eyes since we see the same world so differently. And Balance, well it depends on the day. Accuracy is linked to credibility. Maybe journalism is a matter of Faith. Do you believe the world through another person's eyes? But I don't want to confuse our young idealist by introducing the "F" acronym.

Our beer is served. Viber continues, looking for that spark of conversation that will turn strangers into friends.

"Do you know the meaning of life?

Dan quickly responds. "Forty-two."

Viber is puzzled but he's not the only one. Who would guess we'd run into a philosopher in Hetauda.

Dan tries to summarize the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (a novel in which it's revealed that the meaning of life is a meaningless "forty-two").

Viber grows thoughtful. "Maybe you're right and no one knows the meaning of life and never will."

Dan sees a potential convert to his godless belief system (I regularly remind him he's going to hell after he dies) and continues:

"You see that guy pushing the cart stacked with bags of rice? Does he ask himself the meaning of life? He's probably just focused on making enough money to feed his family."

Viber nods his head. Dan continues.

"And since he doesn't ask questions about the meaning of life, do you think he's a happy man or an unhappy man." Dan is trying hard for dialectic discourse.

"He is a happy man."

"How do you know?"

"He's my father's cousin. He smiles a lot."

Viber adds: "I know what you mean. I think that most of these people here are in the cave. Plato says they will never see the light. But I want to change that. I know that Nepal can be a beautiful place."

"I think so too, Viber. Just look at the trees in Hetauda and how they give beauty to the town. They stand out, like the pink and red saris that women wear. There are flashes of colour in the dust. And look at your future. You're young and educated and going to make a difference."

"Yes, I will do that. I'm a Maoist."

1 comment:

bigginsfish said...

Dear Carolann,

Thank you for another wonderful story. Driving to India? I can't wait for that story. The "trekking tales" are great. Dick and I are selectively envious of your adventures. We are skipping the cold, dark, uncomfortable parts.
Take care, Margaret