Friday, December 09, 2005

Magical mystery tour

Too much, the magic bus

It's tempting to circumvent the tedious and often dangerous 10-hour bus ride to the 15-hour train ride to Delhi (total cost: about $20) by taking a 1-hour flight for just $80 - on Bhutan's only airline, Druk Air. Even more tempting to my crazed sensibilities is the idea of seeing Buddha Boy, the 16-year-old who was meditating and fasting for supposedly seven months in the jungles of southern Nepal. I have no illusions of seeing a halo around his head or even getting close enough to get a very good photo (thanks to his overzealous managers - uh, I mean devotees). But I just can't resist a pilgrimage to an obscure place to see freaky socio-religious phenomena.

However, I could be halfway to Delhi, on the train, even, in the time it takes to reach Bada district.

"Bada district? Not possible," said Bishnu, the good-natured, open-faced young Nepali Hindu man who runs Youth Travels, one room with faux wood-panelling, a phone, a desk and battered posters of Mount Everest Scotch-taped to the wall. His desk was surrounded by squat stools that look like those used for milking cows. In the West, this would be the reception area of a travel agency. Here, it's the entire operation. I plopped down on a milking stool and gazed up at the Nepali map in hope of finding some way around this verdict.

"Not possible! No, it's not possible that it's not possible. I have to go there. I must go there. "

"Well it is possible," he amended, "but it will take time. Some time, maybe ten, twelve hours on public bus. No taxi, no tourist bus. Only some big trucks are going that road." On a normal day, it takes nine hours on a bus to reach the border from Kathmandu. I was looking at a three-hour additional detour. "Actually," Bishnu beamed, leaning back in his chair and adjusting his leather jacket, "I am having lot of tourists ask to go there now. Today, two Korean, and one...well, two Korean, and you."

The jungles of Bada, newly populated by souvenir sellers and tea stands for the tourists, suddenly seemed more attractive than ever in their unattainability. Never mind that not even one report of the dozen I've read ever bothered to mention which town it's in in all of Bada district, the southernmost county of Nepal right on the Indian border. I guessed that a good place to start would be Kalaiya, the "capital." At the very least, there might be more English speakers there, and certainly more buses and taxis available.

"Look at the map!" I cried. There's a road, an actual road, running directly from Kathmandu to Kalaiya, making as near a straight line as ever happens on a road or what passes for one in Nepal. "What about that? Can't I just hire a car? It should take 5 hours max!"

"Yes, but this road not possible. This road very danger. Lot of problem is there, you must take this route." Bishnu rose and indicated a long, red oblong loop on the map, deviating far from the direct one, to the west through Bharatpur and finally southward through Chitwan. "You can take morning public bus" (at this point, visions of the 35 people killed in one day of Nepali road accidents last week flashed through my fevered mind) "and arrive there maybe 3, 4pm. You must spend one night there." It's dark by 5.30 these days - and remember, I don't even know exactly which town or village I'm visiting yet to see the Buddha Boy - I'm just showing up in the largest town and asking questions. In other words, once I get to the town, the fun is only starting.

The impossibility of it all began to appeal to my perverse side (admittedly difficult to distinguish from my other, equally twisted sides). A bona fide adventure - I mean, you can fly round Mount Everest now in 1.5 hours for $120, but this - this was really promising. Ten hours on a bus to the middle of nowhere. A day and half trying to find this freak, and then hopping a taxi to a bus to another bus to cross the border at Birgunj, Nepal to catch my train in Raxaul, Uttar Pradesh, India (described by no less than Lonely Planet as "one of the most god-forsaken places in the country").

THEN (pause to catch breath) a 20-hour train ride in 2nd class sleeper to Delhi!

Something really has to be done about all the new, superfast travel - before we know it Asia will be one giant express lane. I'm going to start a "slow travel" protest, in the spirit of the French and Italians who rebelled against the encroachment of fast food chains into their countries and responded with the "slow food" movement. At the very least, efforts should be made to preserve the bullock-cart. As long as there are bullock-carts, somewhere, Asia will still retain its basic character and traditions. Soon enough, I see a future in which the bullock-cart has gone the way of the horse and carriage or now, the hand-pulled rickshaw - a high-priced novelty ride in the country for foreign tourists, who are desperate to get away from the smog and rumble of the tractors and Tempos which replaced them.

Highway to Hell
The New York Times is running a series all about the new quadrilateral superhighway that's being built, largely by hand in Indian fashion, to connect major sectors of India. This project was begun by the previous government in one of their relentless attempts to make India just as boring and uniform as the rest of the world, in the name of progress and convenience. This writer predicts it will do exactly what the superhighways did in America - ruin small town life, increasingly homogenize the culture till you can't tell one freeway exit from another and everyone talks and dresses the same, then finally, destroy the train system, which has been the backbone of the nation since British times. At one time, you could take a train all across my country. Now it's all you can do to get anywhere by bus or train - it's either drive or fly.

So, Auntie's addvice (said in Indlish with emphasis on the first syllable) is: See India now while there's still something to see that can't be glimpsed at the local mall, or from your car window, anywhere in the West! While there are still people who don't look like the Backstreet Boys! The day is soon coming when vegetables and fruits won't be sold at all on the roadside, but in megamalls like Pune Central (see "New Indian Epidemic: Mall Rats"), and everyone will be wearing t-shirts and Dockers. At that point, you're better off watching Nat Geo.

1 comment:

Shinu Mathew said...

The story in the BBC south Asia is utterly biased and do little Justice to India's today's position. You can mock our accent. While westerners think thet English-fluency is what one should gauge one's ability, you are totally wrong. Why all these call-center jobs are shifting to India if we can't speak good english? Why We are the best in IT? Let me remind you that we possess a strong analitycal mind coupled with a flair for all languages. I challenge any westerner to learn any Indian Language from scratch and speak fluently within 3 months. An Indian can do that with English.
And as you said, You would see jeans-t-shirt clad men & women on Indian Streets, well that is already here. We are not blindly imitating the west, but we have our own style and way. The india that you think is still in the 19 century. But we have moved forward. India is no longer a cow-worshiping, Snake charmers land. Not of black magic and poverty. True still these are there, but soon the poverty and other epidemics will vanish. A new young vibrant India is emerging.
Just remember Swami Vivekananda and how he charmed the entire US by just one speech.
We have a great culture madam. A great one!