It was a night of much squirming and turning on the filthy beds of the retiring room at the Gorakhpur railway station and I wasn’t too unhappy when I was woken up from half-slumber by the hoots of a diesel engine. I packed my bags and went to the waiting room where the toilets were marginally cleaner than the one in my room. I was incredibly hungry having not had a proper meal in almost 24 hours. A row of identical dhabas lined the pavement opposite the Gorakhpur railway station and I chose the most patronized among them to hopefully have a decent meal.
A man in a wet, orange banian that stuck tightly to his hairy, paunchy pot belly came to take my order of parathas, egg bhurji and chai. Two small rats ran around the bowls of cut potatoes and onions that the man casually lifted from the ground to make my bhurjis and parathas. I was about to throw a fit and leave when a group of very old men entered the scene. They had a train to catch in the evening and wanted a place to freshen up and crash for the day. Two of them sat on my table and engaged me in conversation. They were ex-armymen who were on their way back from a pilgrimage to Gosainkund, a high altitude lake in the Langtang region, that requires an arduous week-long trek over the Laurebina pass at over 5000 meters. They were all septuagenarians and were proud to have done without much assistance what people half their age weren’t fit to do these days. They traveled simply and frugally and took whatever unpleasant came their way with good humour and put all my thankless whining of the previous night in perspective.
It’s usually relatively straightforward to find a jeep that goes to the Nepal border from Gorakhpur as there’s a long row of share taxis vying for passengers. I took the first one that implored me to get in and was thrilled at snagging the much sought-after front window seat. Taxis don’t take off until they’re full with passengers. So I waited and waited. It started getting bothersome when I saw other taxis being filled up while the driver of my vehicle was casually chewing paan, making small talk with street vendors and putting no effort to look for passengers. I asked him repeatedly if I should change the vehicle and his answer was a resounding no until amazingly an hour later, he ordered me to get my bags out of the dicky and look for another vehicle because he had a private “savaari” to Kanpur. There’s not much to do in these situations but take it on the chin and move on and I learned, if only temporarily, from the old armymen to develop a more benign attitude to ordinary misfortunes.
I hopped into another taxi which took off immediately as it had been just one passenger short. This was a beat-up Alto with a driver, two people squeezed in front and three at the back. There was an old, cranky, paan-chewing man sitting next to me who had to lean across to the window every 10 minutes to spit out the salival ingredients in his mouth. The driver, meanwhile, was whizzing past at the speed of sound, weaving between equally speedy vehicles coming at us and the slightly less speedy vehicles up ahead. My heart was in my mouth every time he tried to overtake a massive truck completely ignoring a speeding SUV cantering towards us with one hand on the steering wheel while chatting cheerfully away on his mobile phone with the other. The cranky old man and the driver did not get along with each other because the old man made him stop every 20 minutes to take a leak. When the driver refused, the old man started creating a huge ruckus accusing the driver of being highly insensitive to his “needs”. The driver was disappointed with us fellow passengers who, in his opinion, were too docile and non-violent in response to the old man and his peculiar demands.
Matters came to a head at a road-side snack stop where the old man was taking his own sweet time to finish 3 cups of tea and an array of snacks while we were waiting for the vehicle to get a move on. The driver protested angrily against the whims of the old man and threatened to evict him out of the vehicle if he continued in his eccentric ways. The old man asked him to go ahead and reminded him that his boss wouldn’t be very happy when he looked at the accounts of the day and noticed that one of his vehicles had done one of the trips with one passenger less. The driver now looked at us for help and implored us to share the fare of one seat between us. I didn’t mind putting in a 50 Rs. more but the rest of them said they would rather wait than pay more. The old man ordered another paan and chewed it victoriously leaving the driver red-faced and helpless.
An eerie silence prevailed through the rest of the journey as the Alto careened towards Sunauli, the heavily dusty and noisy town adjoining the Indo-Nepal border. The great thing about any Indian border town is that, if one had any doubts about leaving the country, the belching trucks, the honking jeeps and the grimy roads quelled them immediately. Crossing the border over to Nepal never feels like moving into another country though. Walking across the no-man’s land between the two countries is easier and less cumbersome than crossing some state borders within India. There were no questions asked, no bags checked and I was as free to roam about in large parts of this country as I was in my own.
A quick cycle rickshaw took me to the town of Bhairahawa and a quicker hotel hunt led me to Hotel Mount Everest. I took a dingy little room on the top floor which had a tiny bathroom and a little TV (for watching IPL, as the manager suggested) This was remarkably inexpensive compared to what I was paying for relatively spartan comfort in cities like Varanasi and Lucknow. I was paying less money for a little room of my own here than I did for a bed in a hostel dormitory in Varanasi. The Hotel promised free Wifi in the restaurant but the manager refused to switch it on saying it encouraged outsiders to lounge about the place without eating.
One of the reasons I manage to keep my long term travel going is because I also work occasionally. All I need to finish my work and send it across is my laptop and wifi that works. A few weeks ago in Kolkata, when I was merrily plonking away on my laptop in my room, I unwittingly spilled beer all over it. It immediately conked off but I had a backup in the form of a bluetooth keyboard. On this fateful day in Bhairahawa, my bluetooth keyboard stopped working too. I was extremely tired and was kicking myself for procrastinating on the script for 2 days. It was a Sunday too and most shops were closed. But some were open and I went into all of them, mobile stores, general stores, electrical shops, electronic stores, trinket sellers. Finally, two young boys in black leather jackets who ran a mobile shop hauled me to another section of the market which had a line of computer stores. Only two shops were open and only one of them had keyboards. I had to choose between a massive multimedia keyboard with keys for things like “email”, “music” and “My Computer” that cost 400 NR and a slim, sleek, classy, minimalistic piece that cost 2000 NR. I chose the former and have been using it to this day!
My situation was further complicated by the fact that the script that I was supposed to proofread and send was in a wrong format. The wifi in the hotel wasn’t working and my Indian numbers were non-functional. The script was due the next day and I had to get the word across to fellow traveholic MM. The manager was having a long flirtatious conversation with his girlfriend and I had no option but to listen to him finish his amorous exchange so I could borrow his phone. After what seemed like a life-time, he lent me his phone with a sheepish grin saying, “Nepali girls, you know. Not easy to manage. He he he.” I got a deservedly good rap on the eardrums from MM for a). delaying the script and b). not getting a local sim card and I recovered from it by having a couple of beers and watching IPL with the manager.
The next morning, I went to the Nepal Telecom office to apply for a local sim card because my Indian numbers stopped working here. I was expecting this to be a huge hassle that took all day but they only needed a photocopy of my passport and a photograph and my application was processed by the efficient staff at the office in a painless 5 minutes. No clueless customer service boys demanding electricity bills and “local address proof”. This thrilled me no end because I could now move on to Lumbini immediately and finally begin traveling in Nepal.