Stuck on the road to Kathmandu.

On the road to Kathmandu, MATTHEW CLAYFIELD ad­justs his clock and hangs on for the ride.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - Contents -

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.

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