Paid 340 NRs for a combination bus and train fare from Nepal to New Delhi. Left Kathmandu 8 pm on Aug 4th; 12 hour bus trip to Sonauli on the Nepal-India border. Walked across to catch a 4 hour bus to Gorakphur, where I was told I had a connecting ticket for New Delhi. In Gorkaphur I waited several hours for a train to Delhi. Found a shower and a rest at a hotel adjacent to RR station (15RRs).
As I was preparing to board the train for Delhi, I discovered that my train ticket was not from Gorakphur at all, but was from a station 40 kilometres further along the tracks. Adding to my discouragement, my ticket was only good for an unreserved “hard seat”, not a “sleeper” as I had requested. Boarded the illicit train awash in a sea of Indian travelers jostling and pushing for a comfort advantage that everyone knew would be in short supply. I was shoved along to an absurdly overcrowded standing-room-only rail car. Unbearably hot, stuffy, wedged in and overflowing with sweating male passengers, all of us barely able to stand upright, never mind sit, bend, or squat. Mine was the only Western face within sight and, despite my best attempts to feign street-edged glares and macho posturing, my traveling companions showed little reluctance to copiously stare, even openly jeer and mock the novelty of my foreign presence.
Given the auspiciously difficult travel cues now shouting my name, I began to re-evaluate my intentions and designs for ever wishing to sojourn to India in the first place. Considering the monetary constraints of my shoestring travel budget, the now clear uncertainties and discomforts of my Nepal-India “economy overland travel package”, the doubt of whether I could upgrade to a reserved sleeper at the next station, and my encroaching confusion, fatique, and quickening impatience; I decided to disembark at the next stop, do an about face, and find my way back to comforts and familiarity of Nepal, whatever that might involve.
Thirty-to-forty minutes en route the train pulled into some-or-other station and I ripcorded out, taking one last moment to turn and glare back into the SRO train car with all the street edge and machismo I could muster. My body and the world heaved a freeing exhale as I stepped onto the platform. Yet within miniutes I was disheartened to find that I had gotten off at a small, bleak, provincial, hotel-less, and out-of-the-way train stop. I wandered around the poorly lit station for a good half hour and couldn’t even find an identifying sign in English. To this day I don’t know the name or location of that station, nor could I find it on a map if my life depended on it. I do know, though, I spent a solid two hours in a constant round of inquiries to numerous indifferent India Rail mandarins trying to purchase a train ticket to the nearest point along the India-Nepal border. I speculated silently that two hours to get a ticket at this station was probably no small feat…. The next train for the border was due to arrive at 1 am on August 6.
I spent what seemed an eternity that night walking about the No Small Feat Train Station (NSFTS), sometimes sitting or lying on the bare concrete of the boarding platform. This was my first extended exposure to commoners in India, and it was replete with my bearing witness to an intense flurry of insults between groups of platform squatters and a brief yet sincere fist-to-cuffs between a couple of incensed adolescents. A mysterious, enigmatic, poverty-stricken, and, at times, ostensibly menacing (at least from my culture-shocked and travel-weary perspective) community of fellow travelers, indeed. Many seemed resigned to spend hours, perhaps days, sitting and lying on the hard pavement, some with the scantest clothing and not even a blanket or towel to serve as ground cover. The waiting area of the station, crowded and overflowing with castaways like myself, had all the earmarks of a developing world refugee camp. Together we resembled a small colony of impoverished transients, half-starved, confused, and exhausted, not sure where we were going or from where exactly we had come. Or so I mused.
The “platform people”, as I came to call us, were from a number of religious and ethnic backgrounds, huddled together in small homogeneous groups with a few meager possessions. There were also lone individuals lying in solitude on the margins, idle and without possessions, seemingly adrift and forgotten by the world. Hushed tones within groups or between couples were punctuated by the sudden and loud intergroup report and retort of verbal challenges. Offenses were slung across the open terrace, bouncing distorted and incomprehensible off the platform walls.
The refugee motif was cross-cut by a a sprinkling of Indian “seekers” and “sadhus”, spiritual figures with flowing robes, shoulder length hair, unkept beards, and nearly emaciated physiques. It was further undercut by young families with infants and small children, and by the occasional Indian businessmen or public servant.
All-in-all my attempt to jetison out of a disconcerting train car crunch was only replaced by my being marooned for the night in a gloom-and- doom atmosphere fitting of a Steven-King-does-the-Indian-rails horror story. The sting of the barren and the bleak was compounded by the fact that I, a painfully obvious and awkward outsider, was continually eyed with hostility and suspicion by weary, edgy, sleep-deprived, and need- deficient travelers and indigent rail station residents, a waiting platform full of midnight’s children with little for comfort and less to keep resentment and disappointment at bay. As the night wore on, so too did my own fear, uncertainty, and confusion, at points reaching a pitched, even crisis level, crescendo.
When the train destined to take me away from NSFTS and closer to the assurances of Nepal finally arrived, I was enveloped and uplifted in an immense wave of relief. Again shuttled into a scale model train compartment that challenged body and breath, I found the atmosphere and conditions this time far less jarring. At several junctures, while passengers were boarding and leaving, I even managed to briefly sit on the floor, or to stand loosely and unencumbered with my back to a wall. Mostly rattled, yes, but more so happy that I was drawing closer to where I wanted to be. The train reached Gorkaphur at approximately 5am. I could not find a hotel room and fortunately happened upon a bus leaving immediately for the Nepalese border (16RRs). Another 2-4 hour bus ride, this time keeping company with a group of chatty young Nepalese soldiers who were returning from training exercises in India. Not surprising, I had developed a case of severe stomach cramps and was dog-tired. Despite the pain, rough road, continuous bouncing, and social graces of my companions, I managed to sleep most of the way. We arrived at the India-Nepal border between 8 and 10 am on 6 August; barely 48 hours had passed since I had set off from Kahmandu for New Delhi. It felt like a couple of lifetimes. Following suspicious inquiries on the Indian exit side by border officials who seemed genuinely slighted and wanted to know why I was leaving their country on such short notice, I crossed over into the pleasantries of the Nepalese side without incident.
The bus for Kathmandu departed at 8pm, so I was faced with yet another arduously long stop over, if on refreshingly unevenful terms with scenic views. I spent my day rustling up whatever indulgences I could find, eager to proceed with a full 12-hour bout of self-nursing. I rented a large hotel room, watched the two-channel tv, slept and ate well, strolled around town, chatted with the local money changers, and lavished in the peace and tranquility that emerges as one begins the trek into Himalayan Nepal. By sundown I had begun to reclaim my spiritual equilibrium.
The bus ride to Kathmandu was a dream. Before leaving, I registered an ornery complaint with the two Nepalese kids who had sold me the screwy combo bus-train bucket tickets to Delhi. They were sincerely apologetic and assured me my overnight trip back to Kathmandu would be something “special”. I was assigned a shared seat with a bright, alluring, unpretensious, and engaging French woman in her early 30s. I suspect the ticket-touting teens suspected that after several hours of customary travel niceties and non verbal nuances, she and I would “discover” each other. And so we did.
God banished me from India but handed me over to Dominique.