November 17th: Arrival in INDIA! Day One, Banbassa to Sitarganj, India
We cross the border from Nepal and check into Banbassa Immigration post. The officer looks up from the task at hand - tracking the soft and lilting tones of a cricket commentary through a crackling transistor radio. He stamps our passports, and with a little coaxing, shakes our hands and announces in his thick accent, 'Welcome to India!' We adjust our watches, being 15 minutes behind Nepal, and take to the road.
Exiting the immigration compound, the volume of traffic crescendos. The peace and tranquillity of Nepal lie but a few kilometres away; already there's a definite feeling of change. We stop at a junction to await Ferry and within a few whispered moments, a crowd of thirty have swarmed around us, touching bikes, pointing, pulling at sleeves and demanding 'What is your country/education/religion?' in rapid fire.
We field questions, and in a scene reminiscent of China, one character questions David: 'And what is your good name of your friend?' 'Ask him,' comes the typically nonchalant French reply. The man headwobbles, (the Indian for nodding), and remarks, 'Askim. A good name.' By now the road is blocked, and the crowd is reluctantly parted by the encroaching buses and trucks, whose ear blasting horns seem to go unnoticed by all but us.
We flee this mayhem. Dilapidated Tata buses, ticket collectors dangling from their open doors, and trucks, loaded as high as houses, battle to squeeze into non existent gaps among other road users, who in turn swerve round hollow hipped cows. A sub section of traffic are fighting their own battles. Mahindra tractors packed with people overtake horse and carts, in turn slowly gaining on water buffalo, whose portly bellies swing in time with their hooves. A fingerless man waves to us; a Sikh in an electric blue turban, astride an Enfield, enquires about our health...no doubt about it, we're in India!
Following the banks of a lake, we stop and catch our breath. David takes a quick dip in its calm waters, and an ancient man in a canary yellow turban wanders over, babbling in Hindi. He's unconcerned by our failure to reply to any of his questions; his eyes are warm.
The sun is a deepening blood red globe as we pull into the town of Sitarganj. Its narrow main street is packed with rickshaws, buses, bicycles, Ambassador cars and groups of strolling men. The thin pavements are crammed with shops whose wares overflow into each other - samosas, padlocks, saris, 'Titanic' jeans, Hindi music, spices, sweet tea... Stopping to enquire about a hotel at a fruit store we are commanded to sample some exotic tastes and shake the hands which shoot out from the materialised crowd. Again, it's taken but a few moments for the street to be gridlocked. I've never experienced anything like it. It's chaos - cyclists, cars and rickshaws literally stop in their tracks. An old man, in a black turban with a long curved sword slung to his hip, approaches us for another discussion in Hindi.
We find the one and only hotel, offering a windowless room with a triple bed. Dubious, we decide to mull it over on account of its price and lack of size. As everyone points out, the Maharajah Hotel's monopoly in town has pushed up prices. 'Very costly,' agrees the cook downstairs as he offers us a taste of a delicious onion pagoda.
We contemplate this stalemate in a nearby restaurant, where the samosas are particularly spicy. ('There is no pleasure for me to eat such food' - David). I disappoint a turbaned kid with my terrible lack of cricket knowledge, who wants me to explain England's performance in the World Championships. A stream of visitors arrive and depart - outside a small knot of people await our next destination.
Once again, It's not long before the local Indian English teacher tracks us down and finds us sampling Indian desserts. (We seem to be attracting them lately!). He listens to our story of how we came to cycle together and discusses Chaucer, Shakespeare, the corrupt Indian government - a garden that has been badly maintained, he laments - and sings philosophical songs in Hindi.
Our new teacher friend suggests sleeping in the local Hindu temple. We set off, to make enquiries, down a tangle of backstreets which later emerge just a few metres from the restaurant. As we sweep through the town on a whirlwind tour, children jog along behind, feeding various tastes into my hand - peanuts, grains and vegetables - which they steal off the market stores.
Half an hour later, we find ourselves in a sideroom off the main temple, filling out a ream of registration forms, photocopying our passports in duplicate ('for our security and hence our betterment') and spelling out our home addresses, and strangely, the names of our fathers. More forms than in immigration, comments Ferry. Then the inevitable entertaining of the stream of visitors who arrive, notebooks in hand, to take down our addresses. Finally it's just us - and the mosquitos who patrol the upper reaches of the room, well out of swiping range.
Day One in India is all but over - we're all astounded by how much it's managed to pack in. India will be intense - MAYHEM - we agree, before drifting off to a peaceful sleep.