Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Crossing into India (Carolann's Story)

[From Carolann's Blog at Maturetraveler]

We enjoy hiring a driver and moving about in a private car. As we're older now, we're putting more of our money into door-to-door transport than in previous years. A private car eliminates complex and optimistic train and bus schedules, dirty waiting rooms, the crush of touts and beggars, all of those things you get in stations. And although on the road, we're limited to one snaking, overcrowded pathway, it's still easy to enjoy the passing landscape. I'm engrossed by the swell of the hills, surprise of mountains and drama of recent landslides, and narrow, rutted bridges that shake with bouncing vehicles.

I admit that touring like this gives you only a succession of images. You don't understand much of a culture just because you see rural people at work. As a passing voyeur, you're privy to a storyline that's much the same between under-developed countries: people assembling wares for market, or bent over mats of grain separating out pieces of chaff, or packing cow dung with straw and wrapping the mixture around three-foot sticks that will serve, cleverly, as easy-to-handle cooking fuel. I might as well be watching television without the voice-over. Framed by my window, it's hardly different than a twenty-inch screen.

I'm deep in such thoughts as we near the Nepal-India border. I've got a second wind now after a drug-induced sleep in the jeep. Earlier that morning, I'd thrown out my back yet again, this time worse than before. This is the earthquake which a few days ago had hit me like mere tremors. It happened in the hotel room, just before leaving. When I reached back for the toilet paper -which is all too often badly situated in these budget hotels - I felt that familiar and unwelcome pain. In order to avoid a full out seizure of the muscle, I hit the floor immediately to perform some breathing and stretching exercises.

We planned to leave at dawn in order to get to the border before the worst of the truck traffic. With no place to get breakfast so early (an acceptable breakfast that is), I took two extra-strength muscle relaxants on an empty stomach. By the time we were into the countryside, I was seeing pink piglets in the fields, wearing pink saris, marching into a pink spaceship.

Then it started to rain. Hard sheets of rain. The spaceship disappeared into mist, as I did myself.

The Border

Border crossings are always challenging, confusing, humiliating, or all of the above. It's never easy and Dan and I needed to have our wits about us to figure out how to manage this one into India. My back was sufficiently numb now after the pills, and provided I didn't sneeze or laugh, and stood or sat absolutely erect, I was ready for the crossing.

Our driver, Berinda and his companion Suriyanna (his fiancée had joined him for the trip with our permission) were very helpful. In fact, we had the power of a high-priced tour agency in our jeep. Berinda knew, for example, exactly where we would find all the jeeps waiting for people wanting to go to Kalimpong versus jeeps for other destinations. You could either pay 150 rupees per person (about $7 for Dan and I) for a shared jeep - meaning three or four people corkscrewed into the back seat and three in front - or you could pay 2200 rupees (about $48) for a private jeep. It would take about three hours from the border to Kalimpong. Curiously, all of these India-destination jeeps were lined up on the Nepal side of the border, counter-intuitive for me as I had expected to have to source our jeep once in India.

Dan chose the vehicle (his criteria is functioning seat-belts) and then Suriyanna used her cell phone to call our hotel in Kalimpong to get the owner to give direction to our driver in Hindi. As another precaution, Berinda took the license number of our Indian jeep and gave it to the hotel with notice that he would telephone again in about three hours to check that we had arrived safely.

We parted from our friends promising to keep in touch and wishing them happiness in their forthcoming marriage and emigration plan. Suriyanna would be leaving Nepal soon for Australia. As a recent nursing graduate from a university there, she was being sponsored by a hospital in Brisbane. Once there, she would in turn sponsor her new husband and, like tens of thousands of Nepalese, would make a new life in a foreign country and send money home. Within a year, Nepal will lose one of its very best mountain drivers.

We're off to India. But not yet. After about 100 meters, we stop. Our driver, who doesn't speak English, motions with a wave of his hand for us to go into an office at the side of the road.

It's raining hard. The dreary cement building is cold and appointed like a quarter master's office. This is the Nepal immigration and our visa is checked to ensure we've not overstayed the time limit and our passport is stamped. We also agree to dump our Nepalese currency with this official in exchange for Indian rupees. He offers an acceptable rate and gives us our new currency out of his pocket. Everyone has a sideline.

Then again, we're off for India. But not yet. Another 100 meters we stop again. The driver points to India customs and pulls over to park on the curb.

At the end of a gloomy, muddy path, we enter a one-room wooden shack. An official in army fatigues offers us two grimy seats opposite his desk, and pushes over two forms each (they seek identical information) and waits for us to complete our paperwork. He's rolling back on the legs of his chair, his eyes follow the strokes of our pen.

The room is dark. A single light bulb dangles on a thread from the wooden ceiling, either it's burned out or turned off. A pig waddles in crab grass outside the window. He's not smiling but he's not snarling either, the official that is, not the pig.

Twenty minutes later, our visa is in order, our destination is acceptable. We're dismissed.

Dan can't leave without trying to lighten things up. "Welcome to India. Oh, sorry. You're already here."

Something like a smile, or perhaps it's just a muscle twitch, crosses his face.

It's taken ten years of cajoling and scheming and throwing literature at Dan to convince him to come to India. Not that I'd been to India myself, but it's always seemed to me that I have too narrow a perspective on Asia. And since both Dan and I have proven we're able to get sick in a wide variety of countries, developing and under developed, we can't exclude India any longer for health reasons. So we're finally in. It's still raining. We're choking in the exhaust of idling trucks. I take another pill for the road and hope for the best.

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