How the other half lives
Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
115Trip End Mar 21, 2008
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Having had three relaxing days hanging out in Pokhara at a comfortable guest house, eating tasty food at nice restaurants, browsing Tibetan craft shops and boating on the lake, we have summoned enough energy for our bus ride to India.
The fact that today is Friday the 13th should have been some kind of sign but I didn't notice the date until Jane told me on the bus, by which time it was too late. The first bus takes us from Pokhara, in central Nepal, to the westernmost Nepal/India border, a town called Mahendranagar. The bus pulls out from one dirty, noisy, sweltering dustball of a bus park at 1pm on Friday and pulls into one exactly the same, only 10 degrees hotter, at 8am on Saturday. That's nineteen hours of cramped, uncomfortable seats and a cassette tape of a wailing Nepali woman being played over and over and over again at high volume.
Saturday happens to be Nepali New Year. According to the Nepali calendar it is now the year 2064. It feels a little bit like living in the future, except that riding this bus feels like 1864, not 2064. Anyway, a bunch of young dudes decide they're going to party like it's 2063, so they should and carry on most of the night. Jane and I are the only westerners on the bus - for reasons that have become quickly apparent - except for this crazy-eyed, crazy-haired yoga instructor from England named Tim.
From the Indian border it is supposed to be seven hours to Delhi. The bus rocks up and leaves with commendable punctuality at 10am, meaning we should be in Delhi by 5pm. And we would have, had it not been for some inexplicable traffic jam that left us virtually motionless for three hours, without water, in the 42 degree Indian heat, inside a crowded bus with no air-conditioning and enough BO to scare off a skunk.
I've pretty much had it with India now. The initial excitement of visiting such a wild and energetic country has worn off and been placed with weariness and frustration. Especially having spent so much time in Nepal where the people are so helpful, all speak English and seem to live in a happy coexistence rather than as an enormous mass of humans all jostling, staring and honking at each other. India has many wonderful aspects but from a purely selfish point of view, I feel I have experienced it enough for now. We have only two more days to survive in the most chaotically Indian city of them all - Delhi.
It is after 9pm when the bus stops and empties out, leaving Jane and I to face the remaining horde of unused rickshaw drivers. They surround us like flies on a newly dropped poo, waggling their fingers in our faces and demanding our custom, just busting to charge us five times more than the going rate.
A former student of my dad now lives in Delhi with her husband, and dad asked them if we could stay. The contrast from the smelly, oppressively hot, dusty, noisy India we had just seen, to the air-conditioned, familiar, clean comfort of Elizabeth and Jim's spacious apartment is striking. To find ourselves suddenly relaxing on a squashy couch, sipping a beer, speaking natural English with fellow Kiwis and watching cricket on TV is like a dose of reverse culture shock.
Elizabeth and Jim have been living in this part of the world for about a year now but they live in a different India to the one we have seen. They take taxis, hang out with other ex-pats, drink wine, interact with English-speaking Indians only, and live on a street with gates at either end. They have tree-lined parks nearby, McDonald's, coffee shops, supermarkets. People around here wear shoes and look healthy, middle-class families take walks, people go for manicures and read English-language newspapers. This is an India I could live in, but I don't think it is the real India. The real India is infuriating but fascinating; this India seems comfortable but somehow fabricated. At this specific point in our journey, this is exactly what we need and the hospitality of Jim and Elizabeth is a real touch of home.
It is so nice, but a little weird, to wake up in such a comfy bed, with the climate-control system blasting enough cool air at us to negate the 40 degree-plus temperature outside.
Elizabeth and Jim take us and their friend Amy, another Kiwi, to the Hyatt Hotel for brunch. This is another wonderfully decadent experience for us. Silver service and an amazing array of western and Indian foods that we have only dreamed of for the last four months. Our stomachs are full after two helpings but we feel duty-bound to squeeze in a couple more platefuls. Plus dessert. The Hyatt is extremely posh and luxurious but I don't think I could stay here, because it isn't India. For a start, white guests outnumber Indians by about five to one and English is the only language you hear. If I didn't know I was in India, I would have very few clues as to where in fact I was. Overweight white bodies sloth around the pool squeezed into small and culturally inappropriate swimsuits, barking drink orders to obedient Indian staff. For us, it really is interesting to see how the other, richer half lives.
I know it sounds like I'm very hard to please: I am too western for poor India and too Indian for rich India. Both Indias are places I will never be able to forget. I think I am just lucky to have seen both sides and, in retrospect, I will love both. For now, however, different challenges and experiences lie ahead.