From Nepal to India
It's the beginning of the Hindu festival, 'Tihar'. Kathmandu's wandering dog
population are ceremonially adorned with bright garlands of flowers,
wrapped around their xylophone bodies. Time too to leave the trappings of
this tourist mecca and say farewell to the community of cyclists gathered
here from all over the world.
Heading out of Kathmandu, we turn off the busy main drag to avoid the buses
trucks that hurtle by in close convoy. A fifty kilometre climb to Daman
offers us a spectacular vista of the Himalayas; a band of snow capped peaks
scratch at the Earth's ceiling. Reward for our toils is a blistering
descent to the lowlands, on a road that sweeps through neon-green valleys
that pass by in a blur of colour. After the desolate, stark beauty of Tibet,
Nepal seems all the more vibrant and fresh. Terraced farming clings to sheer
faces like details from a vast etching; waterfalls drape over hills like
silver threads, feeding the turbulent rivers that criss-cross this country's
soul. As the temperature rises, the jungle hems us in.
Our journey through Western Nepal is a cyclist's dream. A smooth and almost
deserted asphalt road skirts some of the country's most beautiful national
parks. We bathe in rivers; fortuitously, in one, we notice a crocodile
floating below the surface, like a dead branch. We are out of there in a
flash! Further upstream, elephants wash and monkeys scramble in the trees.
Nepalis exude a wonderfully laid back attitude of 'laisser faire',
surrounding us in gentle curiosity as we stop to refuel on the national
dish, 'dahl baht'. Children dawdle home from school. Old pencil-thin men,
scarves wrapped around their heads, watch the world go by with bemused
interest. Beautiful women work the land in colourful saris, ear and nose
rings glittering in the bright sun, tiny babies clinging to their hips. An
occasional speeding bus swerves round nonchalant cows, standing like
statues wherever they please, as if aware of their holy status within the
Hindu religion. These scenes unfold under a coat of golden light in the
afternoon sun, brought to life by the aromas of crispy samosas from
darkened eateries, where cooks doze around the embers of clay ovens.
One evening, we stop in a small roadside village. Over dinner, as drunken
Nepalese sway from one table to the next in celebration of a string of
festivities, we are approached by a quiet, English teacher from India.
At first we discuss our travels; then he broaches the subject of his
predicament. Kedar is in love. He's received a letter of proposal from a
young and beautiful Nepalese girl. 'I love her, she loves me. Is it not the
law of nature to be married?' But therein lies the problem. Neither of his
brothers are yet betrothed and as the youngest of the family, how can he
possibly set such a precedent? 'She has been away for a week, and I am
highly longing to see her. What to do?' he concludes, a look of worry
furrowed across his brow. We all agree that permission from his brothers
will have to be sought. But how can we really comprehend these archaic
traditions of the Hindu religion? It's not a question that I ever envisage
asking my older brother...!
India looms closer. Reaching the border, we check into Banbassa immigration
post where the officer looks up from the task at hand, tracking the soft
and lilting tones of the cricket commentary from a crackling transistor
radio. Outside, the volume of traffic crescendos. The peace and tranquility
of Nepal lie but a few kilometres away yet already we can sense change.
Within a few whispers a crowd of thirty have swarmed around us, touching
bikes, pointing, pulling at sleeves and demanding in rapid fire 'What is
your country. Your education? Your religion?' By now the road is blocked,
and the onlookers are reluctantly parted by encroaching trucks, whose ear
blasting horns seem to go unnoticed by all but us. Loaded as high as houses,
they battle with dilapidated buses to be kings of the road, swerving round
hollow hipped cows and lurching into non-existent spaces. A sub-section of
life that forge their own destinies. Tractor trailers inundated with families
overtake horse and carts, who slowly gain on water buffalo, their portly
bellies swinging in time with their hooves. A fingerless man waves to us, a
Sikh, in a canary yellow turban, powers by on his Enfield and enquire's about
our health... No doubt about it, we've arrived in India!
The sun is a deepening red globe as we pull into the town of Sitarganj. The
thin pavements are crammed with shops whose wares overflow into each other
to a soundtrack of Hindi music; samosas, padlocks, saris, 'Titanic' jeans
and spices. At a fruit store, we are commanded to sample various exotic
tastes and shake the hands that shoot out from a materialised crowd. We
pause for breath in a restaurant; outside a small knot of people await our
next destination. It's not long before yet another local English teacher
tracks us down and finds us sampling Indian deserts. We discuss Chaucer,
and the corrupt Indian government. 'Like a garden that has been badly
maintained,' he laments. Then he sings philosophical songs to us in Hindi.
It's suggested that we sleep in the local temple. Half an hour later, we find
ourselves filling out a ream of registration forms, photocopying our
passports in triplicate and spelling out our home addresses. We entertain a
flow of visitors who arrive, notebooks in hand, to take down our details.
Finally it's just us and the mosquitoes, who patrol the upper reaches of the
room, beyond swiping range. Our first day in India is all but over and we're
astounded by how much its managed to pack in. So close to Nepal, yet so much
more frenetic energy. India will be intense. Even mayhem, we agree, before
drifting off to a peaceful sleep.