-Passage to India, Part II  Arva Bijaya, Nepal to McLeodganj, India

why is it that anything to do with India is so incredibly difficult and hassling? I decided to take a break from Nepal and head to India for the opportunity to learn from the head holy man himself, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. As the journey was daunting (not really, but a good excuse to tell the family) I enlisted some company for the trip, Devi and his sister Sarita.

So the three of us set out from Pokhara to Sunauli which is the closest stinky border town, but the start of the trip already didn't bode well, as all the seats in the bus were taken and we were granted the luxury of cabin seating. I looked at the ticket that Devi had scored and realized that cabin seating was pleasant euphemism for sitting with the driver and ten of his closest drunkest buddies. The experience is further enhanced by being separated from our fellow passengers with a glass wall and an alter complete with a neon Shiva picture.

Sarita and I squeezed next to the window and Devi provided a protective shield for us, but far worse was the view in front of me. You don't actually want to ever see what the driver sees and does. Sitting in the bus fishtailing down the road is bad enough, but seeing on-coming traffic swerving inches from you is ... As it was a night bus, we got no sleep and arrived bleary eyed at the border in the early dawn.

At Sunauli we crossed the border successfully, but only after reassuring the border officials that Devi and I were indeed, NOT trafficking Sarita to India to work as a prostitute. Seriously, it is a big problem.

We walked across the border into India as it was waking up. Chai selling were out and about brewing big pots of hot steaming tea. Others were frying batched of puris for the breakfast sure to follow. We walked along the street, past a mile-long row of trucks waiting to cross customs into Nepal. The short walk can be traversed, and they will try to convince you of it necessity, with a bicycle rickshaw, but take the walk. You see India in the early dawn hours, through misty eyes. Because the rude awakening at the end, comes all too soon. The bus station in Sunauli, is a mess of touts and hawkers yelling Gorakhpur, and trying to drag you to their vehicle. The state run vehicles, of course, are no where to be found. We loaded into a bus, and when the bus was full, the touts were just getting started. They rearranged us and our luggage and kept squeezing more people in until we were dangerously close to suffocating. It was a long two hour ride to Gorakhpur, the nearest train station and we got tickets and set out. It was Sarita's first time on a train and she was so amazed. We had before us, a twenty hour train ride to a town that was still six hours from Dharamsala by bus. So we loaded up on food and water and headed out.

The first few hours were uneventful, watching the countryside pass by in a blur, stopping at numerous stations where people rushed on and off. CHAI, CHAI, CHAI...the constant drone of the tea sellers lugging kettles and flimsy plastic Dixie cups. WE made friends with some of the people in our same compartment and the time passed quickly. At each station, I noticed kids and some adults were paint splattered clothing but I, lulled by intoxicating India, was in too much of a fog to put two and two together. I sat at the window, watching India, and was oblivious to the fact that I was presenting a target that was too good to resist...

The train had just started rolling out of the umpteenth station, when in my fog, my eyes focused on the young man that was running up to the train from the other side of the station. The urgency in his pace drew my attention, but my mind failed to register the pending danger. Planting himself ten feet from the slowly moving train, he raised the plastic bag in his hand and starting swinging it high above his head. What was he doing, i thought, my curiosity piqued. The bag swung high above his head and just when our compartment reached him, he let loose and, in an instant, our entire compartment and all fifteen people in a wide arc of the open window were covered head to toe in blue colored inky water. Oh my god! HOLI, the festival of colored water, where nothing is sacred, and best to wear your sunday worst. If I thought it was bad in Nepal last year, Indians take special glee in this one particular festival.

Assessing the damage, I realized my reflexes were just enough to draw myself back from the window, in time to share this wonderful surprise with all my new found friends. Had I stayed where I was, I probably would have taken the entire brunt of the attack. I looked at the shocked and very angry faces around me. The young mother in her new pink sari, completely ruined, the sleeping men in their suits, the crying babies with ink in their eyes. I looked guiltily around and noticed that every other window was closed.ohhhhhhhhhhh

ummm, sorry?

After profusely offering to wash their clothes in the sink by the toilet, and offering my small bar of soap to anyone who would listen, I washed my own face, mentally threw away the clothes I was wearing and sat in silence for a long awhile as my new friends melted away into their respective stations. At least Devi and Sarita were still talking to me, although new passengers took one look at the walls of our compartment and moved on to safer places.

Hoping to break the monotany a bit, at the next station, I suggested to Sarita that we take a walk and buy some provisions. I saw one young boy with a cup full of my favorite Indian namkeens, and we went in search. We finally found him after walking the entire length of the train, and we hurridly bought two cups and headed back to our train car. But amazingly, they all looked the same (duh) and we couldn't find ours. Then, toot, toooooot, the train started to rumble and slowly pull away from the station. We jumped on and I proceeded to the door leading to the next car, so that we could continue our search, but it was locked. Turning to the man next to me, he said, that I could go forward after the train left the station. Thinking the next car was ours, I turned to Sarita and said to wait in this car, while I went ahead in case Devi was frantic that we were still in the station and might do something crazy like jump off the train. So, while it was still moving slow enough, I jumped off, ran ahead to the next car and jumped back on. To my surprise, it wasn't the right car, or even the right class. It was filled with rickety wooden benches and the entire car was paint splattered. oh, third class. I had heard about it but only in legends. Well, by this time, the train was moving too fast to take off, so I went to the front, and waited til I could proceed forward and find our car, but too my surprise, there was no door! Going to the back again, I met with the same problem. No wonder, Sarita and I couldn't go forward. I turned around in shock and surprise and asked someone, how to go forward in broken Hindi. He managed to convey to me, that, as third class was pretty much scraping the bottom of the barrel, they were locked in and can never go forward or backward to keep them from sneaking into better classes.

Oh my god! what to do? Sarita is in a different compartment, by herself. Devi is in another, probably completely frantic, knowing we only have the equivalent of 25 cents and worrying sick that we might not have got back on the train. I grabbed the rails next to the open doorway and leaned out and caught the attention of the man in the car behind who was enjoying the breeze. I motioned to him to get Sarita and she leaned out, and I yelled in the wind, yaahaa parkenus! Please stay there, don't go anywhere! Then I went to the opposite doorway and tried in vain to scream Devi's name, hoping without hope that his head might lean out of some car ahead. Realizing the only thing to do was to wait for the next station, I sat down. One man, trying to be helpful, mentioned that the next station was an hour away. Great, oh, I feel much better. After an achingly long twenty minutes, the train made a strange whistling noise and I heard the brakes being applied. All the people in the compartment knowing my story, suddenly turned evil eyes at me. The man next to me, said someone on the train, stopped the train for an emergency, and it was probably my friend who was worried about me. Oh great, first I alienate all the people in my compartment, no w everyone on the train hates me. But at least it was my chance. I ran to the door and motioned to the guy to get Sarita again. I yelled to wait until it stopped and then to jump down and run as fast as she could in her platform shoes. The massively long train finally ground to a halt and of course, we were not at a station, so the jump was about six feet down. I landed safely and then saw sarita, standing paralyzed in the doorway. Ugh, so I ran back and screamed to her to jump, but she was still scared. JUMP! and finally she did, landing on me and dropping me to my butt. Up we scrambled, and ran forward, screaming DEVI! DEVI! Two cars ahead, a man, I vaguely recognized by his paint splattered clothes, was yelling at us, and hanging down from the door offering his hand to help us up. He was from our compartment, and Devi had sent him to look back while Devi went forward. Thank goodness. We guiltily walked through the aisle to our compartment and sat down, and then finally faced Devi when our friend brought him back. Now, Devi wasn't even speaking to me. I read a book the rest of the way to Pathankot.

The journey from Pathenkot to Dharamsala proved as torturous as ever: the direct bus to Dharamsala didn't leave for hours, the one we took made every stop in the book and lumbered dangerously across too thin a road carved into the sides of mountains, bouncing us up and down until Sarita started hurling out the side of the bus, good thing she was next to the window. We have to change buses in another town to get to Dharamsala and then finally take a last bus from Lower Dharamsala up to McLeod Ganj.

And we finally rolled into McLeod Ganj, some fifty five hours after we left Pokhara. Sangye was there to greet us and it was so good to see him again. More on him later, but first, to our room that he had reserved. With the filth of all of India on us, I couldn't stop thinking of a good hot shower. As we walked to the room, Sangye told us about the water shortage in Dharamsala now due to the very low snowfall this past winter. But, Sangye, good friend that he was had managed to secure one bucket for us to take showers. hey, the other tourists were bathing in mineral water, he said...

One bucket...for three people...with all of India to try and scrub away...

over and out

ann, sarita & devi

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