Departing the plane in Nepalganj, I was first off the plane and had no idea which way to go. The passengers following me were similarly confused. Everything at the airport seemed under construction. After attempting to exit past a few construction crews that waved us to other exits, we found ourselves in a building full of construction materials—perhaps intended to finish the yet to be installed doors and windows.
I picked my bags out of the cart that was driven over and proceeded out into the parking lot. No one to receive me as I had been told. I fished my phone out and turned it on to call my BASE contact, Pinky. She told me she’d call the local office and ring me back. I told her to hurry because my phone was running out of power. My phone ran out of power. Funny, it always seemed to run so long without a charge. Today, at the worst possible time, it ran out. For now on, whenever you have power, you charge the phone, I told myself.
I went into the airport proper—also under construction—and found an outlet to plug the phone into. Pinky informed me that a staff member was on his way with a motorcycle. I explained that I had a suitcase that would not fit on a motorcycle with me on the back. She said that he would help me find my way to a vehicle, or, if it was too late, he’d been instructed to put me up in Nepalganj since the trip could take several hours and it might get dark if I didn’t catch a ride soon.
Several hours. The map of Nepal makes Tulsipur look so close to Nepalgunj. It’s halfway between Nepalgunj and Butwal where the Fordham team was last week. It had never occurred to me that the trip would take several hours. The BASE staff member showed up and put me in a mini-bus (akin to a 12-passenger van), which shuttled me quickly to some stands by the side of the road where other mini-buses were parked. The staff member talked to the driver and his accompanying passenger/luggage managers. He explained my situation, and I was promptly instructed to get in the van. We exchanged a few broken exchanges that didn’t explain much. He asked if I had Nepali rupees. I said yes and asked how much it should cost. Before he could answer, the van took off. Everyone in the van stared at me. I smiled and felt oddly at peace.
I’d been feeling anxious all last week with essentially nothing I had to do and a project I knew little about ahead of me. But now, in this crowded van, I was on my way somewhere, had not mastered any Nepali beyond explaining my name and the fact that I’m a student, and the hot Tarai wind was hitting me in the face. Just that morning I’d read an article in the NYT about how not knowing generates anxiety such that people who know they have a high likelihood for genetic disease will feel less anxious than those that don’t find out. Indeed, I was in the Tarai, had no control over my situation, and felt great.
We stopped a few minutes later at a larger set of stands by the side of the road where hawkers ingrained the word for water in my mind, pani. Some passengers got out to buy some noodles. The scene reminded me of Guatemala and kids that would come on board the chicken buses selling rebottled water and fruit. I realized then that I hadn’t had anything substantial to eat and likely wouldn’t until I arrived. Having no food vocabulary and being unsure how long the van would stay, I stayed put. One man running a stand came up to me and asked if I wanted masala chips and water. One of the passengers must have told him about the foreigner. “Yes! And a mineral water.” No starvation after all. No discussion of prices. He appeared and charged me over the market rate but well below an American price and I happily received the sustenance. The bottle of water opened smoothly without any resistance of plastic breaking. I frowned and waved the man back over to ask for a Pepsi. Not in the mood to argue over fifty cents with the only person who spoke English. As I devoured my Lay’s Magic Masala and guzzled Pepsi, I thought, “How backwards: I refuse the home cooked meal and water and consume as much junk food as possible knowing that its processed homogeneity will ensure me a diarrhea-free ride.”
“Arrrrrrn,” a long, shaky groan of suffering beside me. “Aaarrrrrrrn.” an elderly woman rocks back and forth, emitting this universal sound of suffering. Another passenger takes an empty bottle of fills it with water running at the stop where children are being bathed. I suddenly feel guilty for not drinking the bottle of water I bought. For the next four hours she continues to groan and choke on the water poured in her mouth by her companion (her husband or son… age is so hard to tell here where the sun leatherizes skin rapidly). She doesn’t use any words that I can discern. I wonder if she has dementia having read another NYT article that morning about increasing research on why some very aging individuals avoid dementia. As the hours pass by, I wonder if she will die on our trip.
Nineteen people are crammed into the twelve-passenger van. It’s like a Guatemalan chicken bus with no head room (for me—see last post from Himalayan Times). Also, luggage goes on the roof as do the two passenger/luggage managers. While driving at something like forty or fifty miles an hour, one of these guys crawled out the window to climb up top as we moved—a sight not too unfamiliar. Except this time the bar he stepped on broke off. I’m not even sure how it was connected in the first place. Had his foot not fallen from the rod onto the window ledge, I think he probably would have fall off the van. The man by the window reached his hands out to grasp the leg. The van is falling apart in various places. I put my camera bag behind my head in the back row between the seat and the rear door fearing rain. The back door opens as I placed it back there and I realize the back door doesn’t close. It’s held shut by rope on the outside.
We make one more snack/restroom stop where I see people using an open top well. There’s a pump right next to it yet people are drinking from a plastic jug dipped into the open top well. My humanitarian field studies course really taught me to expect epidemic illness at this sight. Yet, everyone looks relatively healthy. Perhaps natural selection has eliminated the people who are non-resistant to the inevitable flurry of germs that exist over time in an open well.
We leave the paved road and engaged the rocky mountain roads as the sun sets. The darkness brings a strange feeling of being somewhere very different. Despite travel to various developing countries, I have yet to experience a place where there is no electric light in homes by the side of the road at night. It feels like time travel to see the candles in the doorways, the families huddled by fires.
We arrive in Tulsipur and I’m dropped off near the BASE office with the property manager. He leads me down a path in total darkness but for beautiful blasts of lightning from the approaching electrical storm. Shadows of trees and two story structures and walls illuminate every few seconds and return us to total darkness. We phone Pinky by candlelight. She said she hasn’t been able to eat because she’s been so worried about me traveling in the night. There’ve been robberies on the route, she reveals. We walk ten minutes to a guesthouse that looks a little like 18th century rural homes in New England. Candleholders are permanent fixtures in the walls. First meal of the day by candlelight. I have arrived in Tulsipur and feel excited to be.
Posted By Kan Yan
Posted May 25th, 2009