Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

North Tour: Howrah to Nagpur: Not the end – not yet, anyway

May 30, 2011

I leave India June 8.

Since I published my last entry, I’ve done a substantial amount of writing. I have 22 blog entries in the queue, some of which have been there for some time, and many of those can be split further into several entries. Many are over 1,000 words long. Chances are I won’t publish everything here in the coming days. But I’ll put up plenty of excerpts. Rest assured, I haven’t stopped writing, and I won’t stop for a long, long time.



Saturday, 26 March

NAGPUR: Friday was supposed to be the last day of the tour.

We were supposed to have left the day before at 8 p.m. We were supposed to have arrived in Nagpur in the mid-afternoon, greeted by searing summer heat. We were supposed to be all alone that evening, sitting at home and feeling sorry for ourselves.

Indian Railways, however, doesn’t always place much importance on prompt train timings. Thus we got, though not quite a day, at least a little more time together.

Even for a tour where nearly half the wakeups were before dawn, 2:30 a.m. seemed a ridiculous time of day for a wakeup call. But you have to do what you have to do when your train leaves at 5 a.m. After stowing my suitcase beneath the seat, I made my bed as quickly as possible.

I’m pretty sure I was asleep before the train even began moving.

I was awoken again at 10:30 for breakfast. Nikolas and I, the two gobblers, ate the leftovers from the other compartments, of which there were plenty.

I was back asleep within half an hour.

Sometime around four, I decided the opening and closing of the door next to my bunk would make falling asleep for the fourth time that day impossible. Sadly, our bunks were in four compartments of three different cars, a fact most agreed to be mood-dampening. I made my way between them for a couple hours in search of good conversation, occasionally finding some, but always in a group of five or less. We were 13. Why couldn’t we all stick together on this night, of all nights?

Then it happened.

Tears were rolling down my cheeks, but they were of laughter, not sadness. My face was contorted, but from hilarity, not rage. I don’t even remember what was so funny. But we’d managed to all fit in one compartment, someone had just told a joke, and my smile was in temporary paralysis. It was like being intensely tickled; I was laughing so hard it hurt.

I never wanted this train to stop. We had just an hour until 11 of us got off. Serenity and Olivia would stay on and continue to Jalgaon and Nasik, but for everyone else, Nagpur was our last stop. I knew I still had a day until I’d say goodbye to everyone here but Anaïs, Brii and Franzi for either a month or an indefinite amount of time. But that didn’t make getting off the train any easier.

Nagpur wasn’t as hot as I’d expected. Saket-dada was waiting on his moped to drive me home. I arrived home sometime after midnight, and it was as if nothing had really changed.

But the tour wasn’t over yet. Not really, anyway.



North Tour: Gangtok: A good place to have your passport

April 25, 2011

Tuesday, 22 March

NEW JALPAIGUDI TO HOWRAH: If there’s any life lesson I’ve learned from India, it’s this:

Nothing is impossible.

In India, it’s just that “not possible” very often means “very, very difficult to achieve”.

We learned this Saturday after dipping out of the Darjeeling hills and climbing up into those near Gangtok. Because of its proximity to China and Nepal, foreigners entering the state of Sikkim are required to present a passport. Thus we all had ours at the ready as we stopped at a checkpost across the border. We anticipated some paperwork, perhaps, but not anything that would give us trouble.

13 foreigners came to the border in our two jeeps, and 12 made it across without any trouble.

Nisha, however, did not share our good fortune.

Whereas America, Germany and France give its citizens one-year student visas, Canada only gives its students six months at a time. Thus in December, Nisha had her visa extended in India, a harrowing and nerve-wracking process. Though her passport was never officially re-endorsed, a handwritten note from her local police station was said to be sufficient.

Now we were at the Sikkim state border, and they were telling her it wasn’t.

We gave it every thought we had to get her through. There was no doubt Nisha was legally in India, so why weren’t they letting her into Sikkim with a passport and a photocopied visa extension? As someone able to get Indian tickets at a considerable discount, could she double back and enter as an Indian? Could she fake her way in and stay in the hotel the whole time? Could we go “Indian-style” in a country near the bottom of the world corruption index?

We mulled our options over lunch, deciding the risk of going to jail wasn’t worth it, even as most of us would rather stay with Nisha in jail than go to Gangtok without her. Without a plan, we weren’t about to leave one of our number behind. It was too important that we stick together.

Phone calls were made. Many phone calls were made. Every option was considered. In the end, it looked like everything would come down to the people who’d extended her passport in Yavatmal and whether their work would be sufficient for the Sikkim Government.

Timepass. We could only wait.

About five hours after arriving at the Customs Office, we did the only thing we could really do. It was decided most of us would leave for Gangtok, while three girls would stay back with Nisha as insurance. We were uneasy about splitting up, but there were no options left. Sunset had come and gone.

About halfway to Gangtok, the nine of us got a call. Nisha had been allowed in.

Half a day of tension, anxiety and paperwork had culminated in a curt, informal 30-second interview of Nisha by some higher-up.

“OK,” he said when they finished. “You’re free to go.”

There is probably nothing in India more frustrating than bureaucracy, its informality and the utter snails pace with which it moves here. Nisha was made to suffer for a wrong she never committed.

So we stayed with her. We shared her pain.

We’re exchange students. It’s what we do.


North Tour: Patna: Don’t look

April 24, 2011

Thursday, 17 March

PATNA TO NEW JALPAIGUDI: About a week ago, I watched the movie Inception with Nikolas for timepass. Its plot is too convoluted to explain here, so I’ll suffice by saying it has to do with dreams. In the characters’ dreams, the dreamee is always stared at. In the dreams, everyone is always looking.

I haven’t slept well on this tour, but I’m pretty sure I was awake at the Patna Railway station today.

I was reminded of Inception as our cars arrived at the station this afternoon, an hour after our train was supposed to have departed, but about four before it would actually leave. We had plenty of time to stand and do nothing.

So apparently, did dozens of other men in the parking lot.

We’d been standing outside our cars for about ten seconds when a crowd assembled around us. It wasn’t the Hollywood kind of crowd, where photographers and autograph seekers rush towards an opening limousine door and ask celebrities frantic questions. The rush was more a wide-eyed stroll. The speech was in low Hindi undertones, not high, exuberant English. But the Biharis may as well have just seen a celebrity – the excitement at seeing us was just the same. We were surrounded in a wide circle, anticipative wide-open eyes shamelessly looking us up and down from every direction.

Of the 13 students in our tour group, ten are teenage girls. Fair and lovely foreign girls do not mix well with horny Indian men.

Living in India for the last few months has done wonders for my body language. Whereas in America I’d slump, an unconscious attempt to conceal my height, here slumping does nothing to make me stand out any less. I guess I’m also more intimidating at my full height. While our group waits in crowded areas, Jordan and I often stand on the edge of it facing outwards, our chests puffed out and our arms tightly crossed. We’re willing and ready to glare down any Indian men. If men feel the urge to stare at members of our group, they usually suppress it when they catch our eyes. Our looks tend not to be friendly ones.

I suppose in a state like Bihar that seems so disconnected with the rest of the world, I can sympathize with wide-eyed wonder at the sight of white skin. The infrastructure is atrocious here, so even sites like the place where Buddha attained enlightenment and the beautiful surrounding complex don’t attract as many foreign visitors as they aught to. It’s a shame Bihar isn’t more tourist-friendly, because the lack of exposure to the outside world is exactly why we get the attention we receive here.

We’re on a train again. We’re moving on. Life is good.

We have each other’s backs.


North Tour: Varanasi & Bodhgaya: A picture or 1,000 words?

April 24, 2011

Wednesday, 16 March

BODHGAYA: I’ve had no shortage of things to write about on this tour.

We’ve been continuously on the move. Always having something interesting to see and finding something fun to do, writing has been easy. The eventful never ceases to occur. Today, however, I find myself stuck. For once, it seems there’s really nothing to say.

But I’m still compelled to write.

Even when it seems like there’s nothing to say, there always is.

This morning we went to a place in Varanasi where Buddha gave his first sermon. I don’t want to be – as Holden Caulfield would say – a “phony,” so I’m not going to feign knowledge of the history behind our location or exaggerate my on-site emotions. All I can say is how I felt later when I thought about all we’ve seen on tour.

We’ve been to locations straight out of history books on almost every day of these tours. India has a wide, diverse array of cultures, each with a long, distinct history of their own. But though we’ve been to temples, forts, monasteries and museums across North and South India, most of us have no knowledge of their significance. That’s why we’ve hired tour guides, whose broken, heavily-accented English makes paying them adequate attention a trying task.

Around these guides, we’re normally more interested in snapping pictures than sitting still. It’s as if it’s more important to show others “I was there” than explain why being there is so significant. Most people interested in our exchanges would probably agree. It’s easier to convey poignancy through pictures than through prose.

But poignancy escalates when it’s understood. It’s the difference between staring at the Ganges River in awe, and getting chills that have nothing to do with the cool temperature. There’s something to be said for understanding what you’re looking at. With history, what you’re looking at doesn’t stay still like a picture. You can rewind it like a VHS and replay the events in your mind. Pictures are illusions. Life never stands as still as they would have you believe.

That’s why it’s so important to keep a record of what happens in words, too. Why I don’t want to forget being accidentally locked on the porch of a hotel room with Nikolas this evening for ten minutes. (We were saved when Jordan unscrewed the archaic lock.) Why I don’t want to forget ordering the wrong meal for dinner – twice – and ending up with a satisfied stomach anyway. Why I don’t want to forget the white paper streamers coming from our room’s ceiling fan last night, and how four of us just laid down and laughed, unable to stop hilarity from mounting.

There’s no point in pretending our actions are as memorable as the Buddha’s teachings.

But damn, life is good. I want to remember that.


North Tour: Manali & Shimla: Driving through the Himalayas

April 19, 2011

Friday, 11 March

RISHIKESH: North India is a pretty big place.

Himachal Pradesh is about as far north as you can get in India, and it’s not an easy state to navigate. It’s beautiful, but like with most things in life, that beauty comes with a price.

In Himachal Pradesh, that price is its roads.

Most roads in India are of the 2-lane variety, but on the way from Manali to Rishikesh yesterday, there were never more than one and a half. Thus as we swerved through the mountains, rarely driving straight for more than a few seconds, our car slowed or stopped every couple minutes to let larger vehicles pass. Already forced to meander given the delicacy with which mountain roads are placed, it didn’t help that the roads were made of gravel and potholes which made our ride a jarring one.

Two eight-hour journeys sandwiched a 90-minute dinner break in Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh (H.P.). Something about the nighttime light and cool mountain air reminded Nikolas and I of Switzerland. It would have been nice to have more time there, but our stop was for no other reason than to satisfy our stomachs. Between two colon-jarring car rides, the brief rest was compulsory.

We slept on the bus to Rishikesh with as much legroom as we could manage. I was lucky enough to acquire two seats in the front, an arrangement that would make coach passengers on airplanes envious.

But aboard an airplane, you don’t have potholes and blinding lights jolting travelers awake at regular intervals. I think it’s safe to say air travel would be much faster, too. One 20-kilometer stretch of the H.P. roads took two hours to traverse.

Unable to do anything more than pull my Cubs hat over my eyes, I attempted to sleep.