Into India

On Sunday we walked across the border into India. We took a taxi from Lumbini just 26 kilometers down to the little town, Sunauli, which is on the border of Nepal and India, and where you can get across from one country into the other relatively easily.

Sunauli was a typical Nepali experience of tourists, and people catering to the tourists. Places to exchange money, places to book bus tickets and plane tickets and any other tickets that you wanted. Places to buy fruit. Places to buy anything else you wanted to buy, or for them to try and sell you any of the things that you really didn’t need to be buying. Places for everything.

The border crossing into India
The border crossing into India

We let the taxi drivers who were surrounding us trying to get us to use them once we got to India shuffle us over to the Nepali immigration where we got our passports stamped, our exit visas, and we were officially allowed to leave the country. And then we walked across the border. Down the road swarmed with trucks waiting to get through to Nepal, past the guard who glanced at our visas, and under the arch way. And into India.

India. Crowded, bustling, India.
India. Crowded, bustling, India.

India. Just one step over the border, and the place was different. Everything felt different. More crowded. More people, more dogs, more things being sold. More pushing, more shoving. Less space. Less air. Foggier, even, it seemed. Everything that Nepal was, but so much more. Like someone had taken the things that make Nepal Nepal and pushed them to the extreme. Where we had seen poverty by the side of the road it was doubled. Quadrupled. Where there were buildings that were falling down, India’s were suddenly bigger and falling down even more. Amplified. Everything was amplified. With no space to breathe, to move, to do anything.

It was a short 50 meter walk down the main road until we got to the immigration office on the Indian side, and after a quick check and a stamp by them we were officially, legally, in the country. The next stop was the local bus. We hopped on and waited for it to fill up and then we were on our way to Gorakhpur, a (relatively) short 3 hour ride through farms and swamps and extremely crowded villages, to the train station that was able to take us to Delhi.

The train station at Gorakhpur.
The train station at Gorakhpur.

It was strange being in a new country that was so close to Nepal. There was so much about it that felt similar: the writing on the shops, the shops and what they were selling, the dogs and the goats and the cows in the middle of the street. But there was so much that was different, too. So very much.

There were cows, more cows, more packs of cows than before. And more people. So many more people. People crowded in and out of the stores. Stores piled on top of each other, competing for attention in such a small space. People spilling out onto the streets and sitting by the road.  And in the rural areas, the big buildings that were built so long ago and are now crumbling to pieces. An ancient feel to the entire place. Where in Nepal there was so much construction and so much movement forward, the places that we passed felt the opposite. Like all of their movement forward had been done already, that the things had been built and then left there. Left there and started to crumble away.

Old station, old trains.
Old station, old trains.

And little things, too. Words that sounded familiar, but different, too. Where I had become used to certain words, and picking up pieces of what the people around me were saying, all of a sudden this ability was gone. I was again in a new, strange land.

It is a strange dichotomy here. There are the places that are poor. That are so poor. That are falling down, falling apart, worse than I had seen in Nepal. But then again, maybe they seemed worse because there is so much more.

And then there are the things that are so much better than what I saw in Nepal. The roads, for one. The roads are paved. So many more roads are paved, at least.

Trucks waiting to cross the border into Nepal.
Trucks waiting to cross the border into Nepal. And a dog.

And we come to New Delhi, where there are road signs and manicured lawns and nice houses and new stores with shiny fronts. Some of the things that you might see in Kathmandu, but probably wouldn’t. Bigger, better, newer, more advanced. More technology, more everything. The city is pretty. Very pretty! It is organized, there are cars (so many more cars than I ever saw in Nepal). And I want to compare it more to a western city than to Kathmandu. But then I remember the pieces of the country that we went through to come here. They are so different, so run down.

There is so much here that is moving forward, that is modernizing so quickly. And yet there is still so much that is not. There are the research centers, the universities, and the government buildings surrounded by high, fancy walls. There are the fancy neighborhoods. There is organization and structure to the city. There are paved streets. There are street signs. And there are also the areas of the city, and the areas outside the city that are full of run down shacks and overflowing with people. It feels like two different worlds smashed into one, at times, because the differences are so huge.

It is an odd place to be, and also a wonderfully interesting thing to get to see. I, for one, am intrigued.

A woman waiting for the train in Gorakhpur, India.
A woman waiting for the train in Gorakhpur, India.

New Beginnings

So I am sitting in a café in Pokhara, Nepal. I am surrounded by the mountains rising out of the horizon, the snowcaps poking up into the sky, so much clearer than they were in the big city. There is a lake here, and trees (!), and everything is slower. Slower and cleaner. It is such a contrast to Kathmandu, where the roads are fast and dirty, where the air is never clean and everywhere you go is crowded with people. People on bikes, in cabs, trying to sell you things or trying to get money. Of course there is some of that here, but much less. All to a smaller degree.

The lake and the mountains in Pokhara
The lake and the mountains in Pokhara

It is an odd thing, leaving a place. It is hard to remember how long you have been somewhere, how much you can grow attached to it, until you leave. I was actually pretty sad leaving Kathmandu: not that I didn’t think that it would be a sad thing to go, but I did not expect to actually feel it. I will be coming back, in the spring, albeit for a shorter period of time.

It was sad leaving the little alley off which I live. It was sad, passing the vegetable market for the last time, dark still in the early dawn with the street dogs asleep in the middle, where all of the sellers would set up their stalls later in the day. It was sad, too, catching the early morning micro bus, still half empty, filled with school kids making their way to college, and men sitting with bags of things to sell on the streets that day. I got so used to my routine, to seeing these simple things every day, that I forgot that it might be sad when I had to see them or sit with them a last time.

My last day at my NGO was also incredibly sweet. They had a little going away thing for me, said a few words and gave me a plaque to take home to remember them by! We took a lot of pictures with it, and had a dance party with the children. My friend, Stephen, got here last Friday (we will be traveling together for the next few months), so he came, too, to the NGO, and got to meet all the children. They sang their welcome song to him, they danced with him, and when all that was done we sat and watched them singing their evening prayers, and ate daal bhaat. It was a good last day. Sweet, and wonderful to get to share with a friend from home.

Me, my plaque, and Raksha Nepal
Me, my plaque, and Raksha Nepal

And now I am on the road! I have my frame pack, my backpack, my camera and my ukulele. All the essentials for being on the road. The next few months will bring many new countries, sites, people and foods. It is a different thing, being on the road. I wont be able to go back to my apartment every night, to the same things, see the same people, follow the same schedule. The things that I do will change every day, and the places that I am and the people that I meet will change every day, too.

Stephen dealing for a game of gin rummy at happy hour by the lake
Stephen dealing for a game of gin rummy at happy hour by the lake

So it is a different type of traveling. A more exciting one! But I will still miss my home in Kathmandu. The smells of the trash fires burning at night (which really does grow on you), the same dogs hanging around near my house and my local temple. The worn out streets and the people that walk along them and the little micro where I know the route so well. And the city that slowly became my home without me realizing it. That I will miss most of all.

On Making New Friends

There’s something so warm and wonderful about meeting new people while traveling. About making new friends. This tie that binds you to another person, another spirit. Just the little fact: that I am far from home, and so are you. There are the little things, like being able to share travel tips, take advice on where to go next, what to do, what beers to buy where.

And then there are the bigger things: where will we end up? Will we ever even meet again? And if we do, indeed, meet again, will it be the same? Would we be sitting here, together, if we had met anywhere but this dusty, foreign land?

At the table there are so many people. Three tables have been pushed together, and yet they still overflow. Beers and meals and pots of tea fight each other for space. iPads are taken out to look at what someone looked like before he was dared to grow his travel beard.

Everyone always looks so much more different in pictures where they are home, clean, and in clothes not caked in dust and travel and signs of wear.

A Dane teaching a Brazilian kid how to speak a new language, people laughing at little jokes in big corners, and a conversation shouted at the waiter who is always here when we are always here and knows us all by name by now. And games. Games of cards, on screens, word play riddles that stump the whole table for hours on end.

We have Tore and Mikkel from Denmark, Sean and Loch from America and Moksha (Jaja) from the Philippines. Joey from New Zealand, Hannah the Aussie, Maria is from Denmark, too, and Mireia is from Spain. Ivan from Brazil, Julian from Belgium, Jasmin from Germany, Happy from Nepal, and me.

Maria and I spent the afternoon today in the Garden of Dreams, reading in the sun
Maria and I spent the afternoon today in the Garden of Dreams, reading in the sun

It becomes so easy when you find others in the same space that you have become so content with simply being in. An old city becomes new again, old experiences become real again. It becomes about something more than simply you and the city. About more than just you trying to navigate, to tease the knots out of this little wound up, tied up city. More than the sleepless nights when you start to wonder where you are, why you are here, and what are you really getting out of it. Because then you wake up in the morning and you remember the faces and the streets and the pieces of the world that you are picking up all along the way as you stumble through the cities, the countries, the new voices and languages and sounds.

And then, like the rules of this thing dictate and require, they leave. They dissipate, off to new countries, new cities, new cafes to sit in with pots of tea and beers and games and languages spread from one end of the table to the other.

And you can ask yourself when you will ever meet again. And you can say that you miss it, but to say that is not being true to the essence of the thing. That these friends, these others that we meet wandering the trails too, are that. Those that we meet. And only that. They are those that we share something with, but just for a short time. Because that is what makes them special. That is what makes it all unique.

And if fate brings us together again, then that is what fate has planned. And then that city, that country, that corner tucked back in the middle of everything will light up, too, with our meeting.

But in the meantime we take these new friends, these new people and faces, and we appreciate them for what they are. A spot in the middle of the oh-so-foreign city. A new face. A newly familiar face. A companion for sleepless nights and empty mornings, busy afternoons and scary evenings where we do not know really where the future brings us.

And until then, we say simply hello and we say simply goodbye.

The Garden of Dreams, in the middle of Kathmandu
The Garden of Dreams, in the middle of Kathmandu