Writing this entry just before the bus is about to leave. Sticking out like a sore thumb – the only white person in sight – as I head out to the lesser-traveled-to town Nepalganj. All the buses to Mahendranagar were cancelled today because of transport union strikes. I hung out and had tea and snacks at a few local eateries whilst waiting for the next bus…if one ever comes through this godforsaken town. I never fail to arouse curious, somewhat bewildered stares from people, especially hauling a 30kg backpack with climbing gear in the middle of monsoon. I was served with astounding attention by a young man at one dhaba and was warmly reminded of the kindness that Nepalese people have shown me.
Well, to the Indian border at the western edge of Nepal was frigging exhausting. From Nepalganj I took a bus to Mahendranagar as the sun was rising, wiping sleep out of my eyes and really craving a strong coffee. Last stretch before Bharat. When the bus finally arrived, it trundled down the road for a whole thirty minutes, before clunking to a halt. All the passengers were then told to switch buses, although to a much smaller one…with barer looking tires and a somnolent driver. My bag was hauled onto the rooftop by a slinky little man with a clean-cut mustache and ginger hair, and along with about fifteen other guys we rode to the border…on the fucking roof!
Well, not quite to the border. It was still another 9kms to the actual Indian border crossing. A rickshaw was pretty much my only option. Alas, the rickshaw driver stopped a few kilometers before the customs post, so I had to catch another rickshaw over a muddy stone road to get officially stamped into India. This, true to bureaucracy efficiency – or the lack thereof – in this part of the world, took a while. The second driver, who had taken me to the border control, took me a little bit further and then started haggling for more money that I’d paid him.
The cheeky arse wanted double what the previous driver charged for a shorter distance! Screw him I thought. So I walked in the blistering heat to Banbassa, the first major town after you cross over from Nepal. Yet another rickshaw carted me a few more kilometers to the center of town. If it wasn’t for some locals protesting at how this driver was trying to overcharge me as I offloaded my stuff, I would’ve been ripped off again! Unbelievable! I hadn’t been in India a day and the haggling had begun.
The next seven hours were desperately uncomfortable. I was sweating buckets in the shade, hazily trying to keep the beads of perspiration from burning my eyes. And Banbassa is a bleak, dusty hellhole. I asked a hotelier if I could please, for the love of God, take a shower and rest for a couple hours before boarding a bus. Yup you guessed it; he wanted to charge me a full night’s rate. Son of a legless rickshaw driver. Incensed and on the verge of collapse, I bore the heat at a shop owner’s backroom in the company of a cantankerous one-eyed cat, who glared at me menacingly between snoozing.
I was initially hoping to catch a bus to Shimla, but even after getting to the bus station over an hour early for a ticket, it was jam-packed. The next option was to go to Haridwar, a shorter trip and the holiest city on Uttarakand, on the banks of the Ganges. Yeah, what the heck! The ride was crazy. Passing through town after town and dodging all sorts of traffic. The white lines on the road didn’t seem to mean much at all to the way people drove. India does not sleep! Life was going on at full pace and bustle past midnight.
I arrived at Haridwar at the ridiculous hour of 3am. As if I hadn’t been hustled enough already for cash in the space of 18 hours, the bus driver demanded an extra 200 rupees for storing my luggage. And the ticket was 220! I babbled away to him in Spanish and he soon walked off, disgruntled and most likely hurling a few choice words at me as well. Absolutely spent, I checked into the ‘Sleep Nice’ hotel and passed out.
When I woke up, about midday, I headed out into town to see the holy Ganges River, representing the Milky Way on earth in Hindu cosmology. It was particularly hot again and I couldn’t wait to get into the water. Beautiful old buildings, temples lined the west banks of the Ganga, as I strolled along the walkway toward Hari Phar Ghat, the main attraction down by the river in Haridwar.
People were bathing, washing clothes and splashing playfully, in a place where this holiest of rivers descends from the Himalayan foothills into the enormous Gangetic plain of India. Hundreds of people were also lazing, sleeping, and eating under trees along the cobblestone walkways. Sadhus walked by, some puffing cigarettes or hash pipes, some sitting in deep meditation, and some, of course, wrangling for money.
At the main ghat, I got my chance to swim in the Ganges at last! I met some friendly locals there who were eager to take photos with me and chat. Unfortunately, as I had already learned, friendliness seemed to be somewhat of a double-edged sword in India. After we had swum and enjoyed the atmosphere, the guys I’d met wanted me to pay for the whole group to go drinking. I mean c’mon! Give me break! I pulled out the 50 rupees I had in my pocket, shoved it in their faces, and watched in amused shock as they turned on their heels, apologizing profusely for the trouble.
I relaxed for the rest of the afternoon and waited for the next bus out to Manali, gateway to the Himalaya of Himanchal Pradesh. On the road again, finally escaping the oppressive heat and humidity, and finally…on the way up into the Himalayas, ‘the abode of snows’.