Goodbye Nepal, Hello India (Sunauli – Gorakhpur – Saranath)

Crossing overland borders is one of my very favorite things. It’s chaotic, messy, dirty, and you always get scammed – one of life’s absolute certainties. The thugs know that you are tired, stressed and confused about the value of their currency, so you’re a prime target. But the thought of leaving one country and entering another just a few meters away just blows me away.

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As soon as we entered India, one of those guys who just doesn’t stop talking latched on to us. He shared invaluable advice such as “This is the Immigration Office,” when we had already entered, and telling me today’s date when I had just written it down. We tried to ignore him, but he just didn’t go away.

“Here’s the minibus to Gorakhpur.”

Why we chose to take that minibus I don’t know. You should never take the first bus/taxi/rickshaw; you should ask a few for the price to get an rough idea, and then you negotiate with the fourth or fifth one. This time we didn’t.

Luckily, the driver was one of those really greedy guys. Not only did he want to scam us, but also every single other person in the bus. Halfway to Gorakhpur, the fee rose 50%. Of course a fight broke out, and that’s how we found out we had been scammed. .

“I’ll get our money back!” said Eduardo.
“Good luck,” I thought. “It will never happen.”

However, all our arguments in West Africa two years ago had prepared us well. We waited until we got off in Gorakhpur, making sure there were lots of people around, and then we started our scandal.

“Give us back our Rs. 200!”
“No, it was your guide who scammed you!”
“What guide? We didn’t have a guide.”

Throngs of people drew close. Everyone loves commotion. Our driver explained his side of the story to the strangers around us, and they tried to tell me that it was indeed our “guide” who had scammed us.

“He’s lying!” I pointed my finger at the driver. “You told us the price of the ticket, and we paid you.”

Miraculously, repeating this a few times worked, and after a quick phone call, the driver gave us back our money. We couldn’t believe it.

High on our victory, we bought train tickets to Varanasi, and that’s about when our good luck ended.

Eight years ago, we had traveled by train in India, and we had liked it a lot. So this time we were expecting another easy ride. It was anything but.

Maybe the cow sleeping on the Gorakhpur platform should have clued us in. Or the New York sized rats. If not that, the fact that our train was two hours late, and when it came it had no conductor.

At 1 a.m., we weren’t the only foreigners looking for car S1. With no one to ask, and no sign on the train, all of us finally decided to just board, pick a bed and go to sleep. A Russian couple took the berths next to us, and a South Korean couple a few meters away. With no sheets, no pillows, with windows that didn’t close, and a strong smell of urine from the lavatories, it certainly wasn’t going to be smooth. Eduardo and I lay down with our heads on our small backpacks, and feet on the big bags, away from the broken mirror that could send sharp projectiles our way at a sharp bend.

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Finally, the train started running. Then it stopped. Then it ran slowly. Then it stopped. It was freezing, and there was no one else but us foreigners and one Indian man in the whole car. At one point I woke up only to see a cockroach mere inches from my face. Disgusted, I moved over to Eduardo’s side for a while. The train kept running slowly, but mostly not running at all. Now and then, people would pass by, selling chai, or just walking. One of them stole the Russians’ backpack.

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At nine a.m., three hours after expected arrival time, the train just stopped. None of us really paid any attention, as it had stopped so many times before. But then, somehow, Eduardo found out that the train was going to be delayed there four hours, and across the platform was another train going to Varanasi.

The South Koreans and we quickly picked up our bags, crossed the rails, climbed up on the train, and found a spot to sit down just as the train started moving. The Russians didn’t make it.

In Sarnath, the town before Varanasi, Eduardo and I decided to get off. Enough adventure for one day. Time to relax in the village where Buddha gave his first lesson. Perhaps we would learn something.

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How to Crash a Nepali Hindu Wedding

The bride and groom were sitting side by side, surrounded by friends and relatives. Someone was pouring water in a constant stream over the bride’s hand, which was clasping the groom’s. Another person sprinkled red tika powder over both hands.

Eduardo sneaked closer. His big camera lens found its way in between shoulders and heads, and soon enough he was snapping away. One of the bride’s uncles followed Eduardo’s moves. He didn’t look pleased. Anytime now, I thought, we will be chased away. I sat down in the shade, trying to make myself invisible and watching the ritual from a safe distance.

“Where are you from?”
My vanishing act obviously didn’t work. I looked up to see a kind face to the earnestly asked question. Incredibly, the couple’s friends were neither surprised nor offended by our being there. Instead, they wanted to know all about us, and of course what camera Eduardo was using and how much it cost. I chatted away.

A change in the ritual pulled my new buddies away, so I walked over to watch the music act. Seven musicians blowing horns, drumming, strumming sitars. A female dancer dressed in a traditional Nepali costume enticed young men to join her. Again, trying to make myself seem unnoticeable, I found a place a few feet away from everyone else. But as soon as I sat down, an older man gestured to me: “go and take photos.”

What?

Feeling somewhat more welcome, I sided up to the dancers, trying to get a good shot. It was useless trying to hide my white face. Soon enough, I had everyone asking to see the pictures. Digital cameras are really a godsend when it comes to traveling.

“Why don’t you get up and dance?”

It was the groom’s father. I tried to decline. I’m too shy for that kind of thing. With only two or three people dancing in front of the crowd, how could I? I wasn’t even invited to the wedding.

“Come dance with me!”

One of the young men held out his hand. And I couldn’t refuse. If you crash a wedding and they invite you to dance, then you better dance.

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He led me to the middle of the crowd, gave me the great advice: “just move your hands and feet.”
Off I went, making a complete fool of myself and making everyone laugh.

But I loved it. It was the kind of day you dream of when you are planning your trip.

Perhaps making yourself invisible does not work, but approaching with respect, smiling and being friendly, and having a professional camera certainly did the trick.

And that’s how you crash a Nepali Hindu wedding.

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Almost Touching the Sky

It hits you like a frying pan in the head; those jagged white tops are not clouds – they are mountains. Almost impossibly high, the Himalayas both frighten and entice. No wonder so many people come to Nepal to do trekking; the powerful peaks lure you in, and call you closer.

We decided neither to climb not trek, just to admire the giants from the distance. In Nagarkot, some 32 kilometers northeast of Kathmandu, you can watch the sunrise over a 180 view of the Himalayas, and even pick out Mount Everest as a small dot in the distance.

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But it is in Pokhara where the grandeur of these peaks floor you. Perhaps because you’re at a lower altitude, looking up on the massive ranges. Or maybe because they are just there, as a backdrop to the very touristy Lakeside area, and you never really need to take your eyes off them. And you won’t. Your eyes follow them from early morning until late night when the sun goes down. Constantly, your eyes are drawn to the clouds, and then above the clouds, constantly upwards: the awe-inspiring Annapurna mountains.

The beckon. They call. They flirt. And then they hiss: come close, sweetie, if you dare.

We didn’t.

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Praying to the Toothache God

If you’re like me, afraid of the dentist, then Kathmandu definitely is not the place for you.

Near Thahiti Tole, in the Old Town, dentists compete for their customers with sometimes curious methods. If a sign of a smiling mouth isn’t enough, how about displaying a large glass bowl filled with pulled out teeth and a lower jaw? Or just row after row of dental implants? No need to have a tooth especially made for you. Just go to the dentist and have one fitted.

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My favorite, however, has to be the “Shade Guide for All;” a ring of teeth samples, each in a slightly browner shade than the previous. It makes you wonder, were the teeth samples once white? And if so, will your dental implant turn brown with time? Or is it just a given that all customers have discolored teeth?

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If I were unfortunate enough to have a toothache in Nepal, my solution would be much more practical. As many others before me, I would nail a coin to the wooden lump representing the toothache god. And then I would pray pray pray for a miracle.

Ouch.

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Ashes to Ashes, Dust to…the Bagmati River

A corpse entirely wrapped in white and covered by a saffron cloth is carried on a ladder-like gurney to the river bank. The family closes in around it, weeping, lamenting the loss of a beloved son who was alive only yesterday. On the other side of the holy Bagmati river, across from the Hindu Pashupatinath Temple, a crowd of locals have gathered to watch the spectacle, silently following one funeral after another. In a city where entertainment is scarce and religion is fervent, this show is as good as any.

The cocoon-like body is lifted off the stretcher and lowered onto a sloping stone, almost touching the water. The feet and face are unwrapped and the plastic bag underneath ripped open, so that the relatives can sprinkle holy river water onto the exposed skin. Sticks of incense are lit and placed around the body, and together with sacred red tika powder the soul is prepared for its final journey. After many blessings and prayers, the corpse is carried to a stack of logs where it will burn until only ashes remain, which will then be pushed into the river for the ultimate release.

Just like in Varanasi in India, this is where the Nepalese Hindus come to die. There’s even a hospice for the terminally ill right next to the cremation ghat. You know, just to make sure. Because passing away in Pashupatinath and having your ashes disposed of in the extremely sacred, but disgustingly polluted Bagmati River, guarantees your entry into Nirvana.

Body wrapped like a cocoon

Right in front of the temple, another funeral pyre is being prepared. Like a four-post bed, it is wrapped with silk and extensively covered with garlands of orange carnations. A bed is made with sheets of white, yellow and saffron cloth – a scene fit for a queen. From the distance, the body is carried forward. While completely wrapped in orange, the face of the old woman is left bare. Her three sons dip her feet in the water, and carry out a rite similar to the previous one, using incense and red powder. Before the corpse is placed onto the logs, and before the fire is lit, the body is circumnavigated clockwise three times around the pyre. Once laid onto the correct spot, her children kiss her forehead, and step back, so the untouchable funeral master can light the fire on top of her. Flames lick her face as throngs of curious villagers press closer to see her burn. And finally, the hay underneath her is lit, to start the cremation process.

Circumnavigation

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Two hours later, there is no sign of the body, and her ashes together with the remains of the logs are shoved into the river. A plastic bag, containing left over garlands, is also hurled into the water. And just like that, the souls become clean, while the river turns increasingly filthy.

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Kathmandu – Impression Overload (First Day in Nepal)

It’s funny, however you imagine a place before arriving, you’re always in for a surprise. Kathmandu, is not a small town with quaint little houses overlooking rolling green mountains. It’s a crazy, busy city full of noise, pollution, and yes, religious monuments.

Another God

As the plane was preparing to land, all I could see were four or five story houses, painted in shades of pastels; lime greens, rose pinks, aquamarines, daisy yellows and any variant of grays and beiges. Beautiful, but definitely not serene.

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With electricity cuts up to 14 hours a day, there are no elevators. And as luck would have it, our hotel room was on the fifth floor. Want to get fit? Kathmandu is your place! Just don’t expect to go jogging or biking, because the cars and motorbikes that are supposed to drive on the left-hand side, just use whatever side is convenient at the moment. If you’re a pedestrian you better learn to jump out of the way fast. Or, sorry, you’re mush.

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The negative aspects aside, it’s an amazing place. Walking around the old town, it’s difficult to walk ten steps without seeing a shrine, stupa, simple stone murti or an ancient statue several hundreds of years old. Look up, and you will notice a carved window, or wooden balcony, with the most exquisite designs. In the Durbar Squares of Kathmandu and nearby Patan, century old houses stand proud, exhibiting delicate (and erotic) details of gods, demons, animals and people having threesomes. In one day, you will see enough art to fill three museums.

Durbar Square

Although officially a Hindu country, the Buddhists will not forget that the Siddhartha Gautama was born in Nepal, and the two religions flourish peacefully side by side. In fact, Lord Buddha was a Hindu before becoming enlightened. Perhaps because of that, Kathmandu is rife with refugee Tibetans, selling their beautiful jewelry and paintings.

As with any place, it is the people that make it special. Apart from the drivers, the Nepalese are kind, respectful and for the most part honest. Sure, travellers pay more for almost anything than the locals. But walk into a crowd, and no one tugs at your backpack. No one digs their hands into your pockets. And if you tell a salesman you’re not interested in what he is selling, he will leave you alone.

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One day in Kathmandu is not enough. In two days, you can see the main sights. In three days, you will feel like you’re coughing up your lungs because of all the fumes. Then, but not until then, it’s time to move on.

 

To Give or Not to Give (aka The Guilt Trip)

“Please, I’m hungry.”

A filthy boy, perhaps ten years old, stretched his hand towards me, seizing me with his large black eyes.

He looked hungry. In fact, he looked desperate. He brought his fingers to his mouth, miming that he needed to eat, in case hadn’t understood him.

“I’m sorry, I can’t.” I averted my eyes and kept on walking, my heart twisted in regret. Of course I could. There was no reason I couldn’t help this young boy, or any of the many beggars I passed. A few coins, a little something, just to fill his stomach for the moment. But I didn’t, and I wouldn’t.

This Guilt Trip is old news to all who travel to third world countries. Of course you want to help. You are very well aware that in comparison to the people you meet, you are incredibly rich. Your weekly wages are most likely equal to a yearly salary for them. So why shouldn’t you help?

The answer, of course, lies in the shades of gray. Most countries advise travelers not to hand money to beggars because it keeps them on the streets. Children, such as the young boy I met, may find it easier to make a living on the street than go to school or get a job. It may actually be so cool to get money and gifts from strangers, that he encourages his friends to leave home, too, for a life on the street. But what happens when this cute kid turns 15 or 20, and his innocent pleading doesn’t appeal to tourists any longer? Will he turn to crime, drugs or perhaps even prostitution? And what happens if I don’t give him anything? Will he starve to death, just go hungry, or will another foreigner be more soft-hearted than I? If no one gives him anything, is there a chance he will go back to his parents?

In Kathmandu there’s a new kind of “scam” going on. Instead of asking for money, children ask you to buy biscuits from the store. Ladies ask you to buy milk formula for their babies. Once you buy it for them, they sell it back to the store for half price. Everyone wins, except you.

This dilemma can certainly ruin an otherwise wonderful journey. It’s true that I prefer to travel to poor countries because they are more interesting, there is more to see, and a dirty child is somehow a lot cuter in a photo than a clean and proper one.  Does this mean that I’m taking advantage of their misery? Or am I actually helping indirectly by bringing in foreign currency to their country.

Eduardo and I decided to remedy the issue (clear our conscience) by paying the education for a child in a third world country who would otherwise not be able to afford it. Who will be the lucky one? Not sure. We just know that we will make sure it is the child who profits, not an organization.

And thus one less child will go hungry.