Stuck on the road to Kathmandu.
On the road to Kathmandu, MATTHEW CLAYFIELD adjusts his clock and hangs on for the ride.
Iwas supposed to be in Raxaul, on the Indian side of the Nepalese border, at eight in the morning. There had been difficulties from the get-go. The Mithila Express, the train from Kolkata, had been fully booked until Muzaffarpur. So I booked a bus to Muzaffarpur and the Express to the frontier. A little fiddly, perhaps, but the timing worked – the bus was scheduled to arrive several hours before the train did.
What I hadn’t considered was that the bus might leave Kolkata two hours late, stop for half an hour on the edge of the city after leaving someone behind at the bus stand, and fall even further behind as it bounced and meandered its way north through the night. I was still new to India at the time, and hadn’t yet come to accept schedules as well-meaning but essentially meaningless expressions of idealism, utterly disconnected from reality.
Not that it particularly mattered by the time we arrived in Muzaffarpur. I hadn’t missed the train at all. The Mithila Express had been cancelled.
It took four-and-a-half hours for another bus from Muzaffarpur to cover the hundred kilometres or so to Raxaul. By the time I managed to cross the border into Nepal, I’d missed my chance to catch a day bus, or even a jeep, to Kathmandu. I would be spending a second night on a bus and forfeiting yet another in bed.
I waited in the office of the New
Angel bus company in Birgunj, the border town on the Nepalese side. Wires dangled from the office walls, garlanding portraits of Hindu gods so dusty it was difficult to tell whether I was looking at Ganesh or Shiva or someone else entirely. Which one of them gets about on a tiger?
From the moment the bus failed to leave Kolkata on time, I’d been trying to keep an open mind. I’d optimistically alter the schedule by telling myself: “So long as we’re in Muzaffarpur by six”, “I think we’ll be in Raxaul by midday” and “I only need to hit Birgunj by three”.
I addressed these hopes to a young doctor, Reyaz, who was travelling to Raxaul for a wedding. He smiled, indulging me, and said: “This is India.”
He meant it as an apology but also, I suspect, as a pre-emptive rebuke. Don’t complain. This is the way things are here. This is India.
He was right to do so, but needn’t have worried; years of low-rent travel with half-cocked companies have curbed the colonial instinct to denounce and demand, to insist upon one’s own standards, and so has seeing other travellers give in so spectacularly to such instincts of their own. Of course, I can turn on the indignation when necessary. I’d tried to do so in the New Angel office not more than an hour before, talking brusquely to fandangle a ride to the capital. But my heart wasn’t in it, and everyone could tell.
The other reason for keeping my head was that this was precisely what
I’d come here to see: what works, what doesn’t, how things operate. I could have flown, but how sterile, how elliptical. I could also avoid street food and refuse to use squat toilets, but then I might as well have stayed at home. World-class inefficiency is certainly burdensome, but to avoid it would be to embrace partial impressions. I don’t leave books half-read.
And so I spent the night on another bus, caked in dust from the open windows, worried about my inability to stop shivering. We arrived in Kathmandu at nine in the morning, three hours later than promised, and 15 hours later than I’d planned.
I stepped off the bus and into the mud and got roundly and predictably fleeced by my taxi driver. Kathmandu isn’t as elevated as you might think. I didn’t need to acclimatise to the altitude, and I’d already acclimatised to everything else. I’d done that in India. This is Nepal.