[This story is the 2nd part of a 4-part series about my epic overland journey from Kathmandu, Nepal to New Delhi, India.]
[Continued from Taken For A Ride - Part I] 42 Nepalese men, a monk and I sat on a long, rickety bus as it weaved and lumbered through the grassy foothills of Nepal, as the sun lowered itself behind a curtain of distant trees. We were on what was scheduled to be a 34-hour journey from Kathmandu, Nepal to New Delhi, India. Whispers in muted Nepalese and Hindi and perplexed glances darted through the gaps between the seats behind me, as I’m certain the men (and the monk) were trying to figure out what I was doing on the bus, as I snuck back equally as puzzled looks trying to figure out exactly the same thing.
As night set in, we drove on over corrugated asphalt roads, motorcycles darted through the bus’s clunky shadow, and the headlights of the passing cars briefly illuminated the snoring group of men in the seats behind me. I had heard stories of sneaking hands riffling through bags stowed under bus seats as their owners slept quietly above, and when I eventually fell asleep the straps of my small day pack and a plastic bag with a few snacks were wrapped tightly around my ankle.
The bus came to a jarring halt three times during the night, twice for a pee break (literally pulling off to the side of the road, where we all just lined up behind the bus to relieve ourselves in the brush), and once for a late night dinner stop at a road side food stand (the Nepalese equivalent of a truck stop), where aromatic curries, dhals and rice were scooped onto dented tin plates for around 1USD and steaming chai tea was ladled into small glasses for 10 cents.
A bit hungry, I stumbled off the bus, but because I couldn’t make heads or tails of how the food buying process worked (and no one seemed to speak English), I wandered around the parking lot for a few minutes a bit afraid I would be overcharged or served something that might make my stomach regret my decision to sit on a bus for 34-hours (I was also admittedly somewhat embarrassed I didn’t speak a word of the language). As I kicked pebbles in the parking lot and my stomach growled quietly, most of the 42 men watched me as they scooped curries and rice into their mouths with their fingers. Soon the driver honked the horn and we all returned to the bus—most of the men were soon snoring soundly to the hypnotic hum of the road once again passing under the bus’ balding tires.
I munched on a strawberry cookie in the dark, hoping I’d awaken the next morning to find some indication that this was in fact the bus to New Delhi.
One thing I had learned by this point in my travels was to always bring along some food to make friends while on public transport, and fortunately, I had packed some cookies, bananas and some dried fruit for the journey. This tactic to meet strangers flew directly in the face of the often quoted guidebook advice to ‘never accept food from strangers’ (as it MIGHT be laced with drugs). I regularly ignore such advice, as I figure that scenario is quite unlikely, and it seemed the man with the polished shoes sitting next to me, had not read his guidebook either, because at our first stop the following morning, he returned with a handful of Nepalese sweets and handed one to me. I smiled at him and said a polite, ‘thank you.’ He nodded quietly before smoothing the wrinkles out of his pressed pants. Minutes later, I offered the man in the polished shoes a banana, which he quietly accepted with a nod.
As the clock rolled passed noon, 14-hours into the journey, we passed a sign for the approaching Indian-Nepali border at Sunauli and my stomach tightened, a bit out of hunger and a bit out of nervous anticipation for the upcoming border crossing—my first overland border crossing alone. As we pulled into the border town of derelict buildings and shady characters (my honest belief is that nothing good ever happens in a border town), our bus was boarded by four customs officials who were out to prove my theory true. They proceeded to interrogate the bus passengers one-by-one and then rifled through everyone’s bags. One-by-one, nearly each man would hand over a handful of money. One of the officers approached my seat and said something in Nepali, to which I replied, “Sorry?”
“Your bag?” he said as he pointed at my day pack full of expensive cameras and computer equipment.
“Yes sir,” I nodded.
“Where you from?” he asked with a puzzled look on his face.
“America….The UNITED STATES of America,” I replied, hoping my emphasis would somehow imply the authority of an embassy official or something.
The customs officer paused, looked me up and down and then waved me off.
“Ok,” he said, before moving on to the man with the polished shoes.
As the interrogation slowly moved to the back of the bus, the man with the polished shoes turned to me and to my surprise said, in broken English, “Those men, bad men.”
As I later learned, Nepalese have visa free-entry into India and everyone on the bus was likely illegally smuggling things in (or out) of the country, as a way to play the currency and trade markets for a profit. Because there was money being made, these corrupt border officials wanted their piece of the action. So as each bus crossed the border, they’d simply decide how much money they wanted, board the bus and demand arbitrary fines to be paid in cash, on the spot, until they were happy with the amount of money they’d taken. Once they wave the buses on, they simply divide up the take and slip it into their own pockets. Operating outside the law, it seems, is standard operating procedure here, even if you are the law.
The customs officials yelled in the face of a skinny guy with long hair, sitting a few rows behind me, and then dumped the contents of his suitcase into the bus aisle. The man in the polished shoes whispered to me, “They want 400 rupees more.”
After a pause, the man in the polished shoes asked me in a hushed tone, “You have 400 rupee?”
“No.” I replied, obviously lying.
After another round of interrogations down the bus aisle, the three customs officers exited the bus, sliding the wads of bills into their breast pockets.
“Welcome to the Republic of India” read the road sign passing just outside my window…
What you can do now:
- Leave a comment in the box below
- Go back and read Part 1 of this story.
- Read on in Part 3 or Part 4 of this story
- Another bus story: 1 Bus, 2 Motorbikes, 8 Cambodian Drug Dealers and A Run For The Border