A few weeks ago, me and my cartoon husband braved leaving our glorious jungle bubble in Goa to go on a trek of epic proportions across mother India. Heh. We traveled 1700 miles (2700 km) by train, bus, and rickshaw to a funny place on the Nepal border, called Sunauli. . . .to explore a bit of Nepal and exit the country for my visa.
If you’re American, you get a 10 year visa, but you have to exit the country every 180 days (6 months). For this kind of visa, the 6 months begins when you arrive in India. For people other than Americans, the most common visa is a 6 months visa, but the visa begins when it is issued, not when you arrive, so make sure to check your dates when traveling. There’s not that much current information about doing the visa run to Nepal on land, so here it goes.
In India, you can’t just rock up to the train station and get a ticket. Nothing here is *that* easy. You see, there’s so many people trying to ride the famous trains, you can only go to certain stations to purchase tickets where they have “tourist quota.” So, our adventure began with a 2 hour drive south of Anjuna to the Margao station. If you’re in the area, that’s where you need to book your tickets. Not all of the trains run every day and some of them only bi-weekly. Btw, the Rajdhani Express is real nice.
Anyway, when we got to Margao, I was surprised to see the crowd waiting for the ticket room to open. As soon as it did, like in a classic parody of this quirky culture, the whole group ran to get in line first. I’m often amused at the opportunistic, sometimes rude/survival-of-the-fittest nature of people around here, but in a place with such a large population, how could it be any other way?
Living in Anjuna is much different from the rest of India. We don’t have the crowds or the same amount of pollution as in other places like Delhi or Mumbai, and the vibe around here is more like a holiday than the dirty, dusty, daily grind of everyday living. Out there, India offers a plethora of confrontational and beautiful lessons to anyone who can see.
A real good lesson to be learned in India? Personal space is a luxury. Really. People stand extremely close in lines, or in shops, or most public places, and it’s normal. Coming from a Western culture, I have to remind myself that the woman who almost stepped on my toe, or cut in front of me, isn’t being rude. She’s just making her way. Like the traffic rule. . . “Might is Right”. . .it applies to many aspects of life here.
With luck on our side, we got some of the last tickets available to Delhi, and jumped back in Dinky-Doo. There’s never a dull moment while driving in India. I know I’ve explained the traffic before, but one of my very favorite things is watching the trucks pass. You never know what is going to be in the back of it. . . . a pile of beautiful women in colorful saris, furniture, one man sleeping while standing, school kids in their matching uniforms. It’s really unpredictable.
A few days later, a rickshaw pulled up to the Chill-Inn and we set off on our adventure. . . .
A 28 hour train ride to Delhi awaited us. . . . but only after our favorite breakfast. . . masala dosa. . . .
Are you wondering what the heck that is? It’s like an Indian crepe, but even thinner and a bit crisp, and on the inside is potatoes and peas with spices. It’s a typical South Indian dish and it is served with a spicy coconut chutney and a vegetable soup for dipping or sipping. Mmmmmmm. Ooh, it’s a yummy meal for only 60 rupees, too. Dosa is also always made fresh so it’s a good thing to eat if you’re traveling.
After breakfast, we headed to the Thivim station just outside of Mapusa, pronounced Mop-sa by the locals. It is the main station in North Goa and it’s quite nice, by Indian standards.
In case you’re wondering, that is NOT my big roller bag. My bag is the tiny red back pack behind me. That’s right. We challenged ourselves to live out of small backpacks in many different temperatures for two weeks. How many things do any of us really need?
The Rajdhani Express arrived and we settled into our berth just fine. We booked the A/C sleeper class which has bunk beds and tends to be a bit cleaner than other compartments. The windows don’t open and sometimes it gets cold, but mostly, it’s nice and comfortable. On this particular train, they provide blankets, pillows, towels, and serve a lot of pretty good food.
If you’re looking for train tickets, the Upper berths and the side ones are the best. If you get either of those options, you can take naps whenever you want. The other beds are communal until it’s sleeping time.
For many hours, I stared at the motherland whizzing by. We passed so many bridges. Bridges that looked half done and then abandoned, bridges with men at work in sandals, bridges that didn’t appear to have roads attached to them at all, or even have anything to go over–a repetitive wasteland of bridges going nowhere; endless mounds of useless concrete. There was something sad, but, I don’t know, artistic about it?!
Underneath some of the concrete arches, people bathed and washed their clothes; kids played. The bridges provided a necessary refuge. In the end, I suppose all things can find a purpose. . . even the unfinished, forgotten, abandoned things.
Green fields with crops also whizzed by. I noticed many fences that looked like fabric barriers, but they were just random saris drying in the sun. When we went through cities, I saw kids playing Cricket next to heaps of garbage, people lying in rope beds near the tracks, and all different kinds of animals sniffing for food.
After a decent sleep, and almost 30 hours, we arrived in good ol’ Delhi. Delhi is not my favorite place, but it is an experience and it has some amazing restaurants. Dal Makhani and garlic butter naan are to die for in these parts. Do yourself a favor and get butter chicken with a heaping basket of naan. I guarantee a good time!
However, getting out of the train station in Delhi is an assault on the senses. I forgot to mention that a lot of the trains in India, well, have toilets that are just holes that go down onto the train tracks (newer trains have flushing toilets). I’ll give you a few seconds to imagine what that might smell like in an extremely high population city station. Heh. Got it?! Signs advise to not use the toilets at the stations, but not everyone is good at following rules.
We didn’t go to Delhi to go to Delhi. We went to Delhi to catch another train to Gorakhpur, but stayed a day to enjoy some of our favorite sights and foods. We stopped at a cute little hole in the wall on the main road in Pahar Gange Main Bazaar. That’s a good area in Delhi if you’re looking for a place to go.
The tiny restaurant had a low ceiling, quirky pictures on the walls, and a random assortment of travelers from everywhere. A cute, old lady with white, frizzy hair dressed in a floral skirt sat down at the table behind us. Her cigarette smoke wafted out onto the main road and blended in with the Delhi dust and she fed a hungry dog a piece of her buttered toast. I assumed, by her calm nature, that it wasn’t her first time in India, or Delhi.
We sat in the early morning sun drinking chai–watching rickshaws, bicycles, carts, tourists, and life pass us by–absorbing the typical honking sounds of the city.
The dust and dirt in the air quickly becomes a nasty phlegm in your throat. It’s all part of the Delhi experience. . . .along with the garbage. In fleeting moments, the dust and dirt is charismatic and beautiful. In a city with so many people, anything goes. Laundry hangs wherever it can, people drive however they want, and there are no boundaries for anything. The good, the bad, the ugly is all mixed together everywhere you look, so you have to confront all aspects of life. It’s amazing and horrible. . . but it’s so REAL.
In western cultures, we are too good at hiding things. We put everything and everyone in a specific place–behind walls, fences, or even buried in the ground–and forget it exists. But the garbage is still there. The crazy people still live. The poor people are still poor. When everything is out in the open, you can’t forget, and it’s sort of humbling. What’s that saying, “Airing our dirty laundry in public”?! Well, we all know it’s there, so what is the point of hiding it? Food for thought.
When you walk around in a place like Delhi, there are thousands of opportunistic people in every direction. For example, a guy walking past us noticed Amit’s broken shoe and asked to fix it. . .
He was essentially a traveling cobbler with a whole contraption he carried like a briefcase. He glued and sewed and buffed for 60 rupees. The locals watched and laughed as Amit got “overcharged” (they thought), but it was only one dollar, really. People are hungry for rupees and being observant, for this dude, paid off.
We were running late for our train to Gorakhpur, so instead of taking a rickshaw to the station, we were advised by locals to take the Metro (subway). It sounded like a good idea, so we happily joined the masses shuffling underground.
The first segment was fine. We got out of the metro and then had to run to another part. The next subway had such a large crowd trying to get on, I literally got swallowed into the crowd of people and moved by group force onto the subway. It was scary and kind of exhilarating.
Just after this picture was taken, and a few laughs were had, I felt something near my hip pouch, but didn’t think anything of it because we were all stuffed in together and figured someone just moved their arm next to me. But then, the train stopped, and Amit’s wallet was GAWN! Yep. Just like that. Note to self, opportunistic people come in all shapes and sizes, and an overly crowded subway train is the perrrrrfect place to pick pockets. Be on guard, people. Luckily, he didn’t have much in his wallet, so other than mourning the actual wallet, we didn’t lose anything important. Whew!
Back at the Delhi train station, we were once again accosted by the perplexing aromas. Another overnight train ride to Gorakhpur awaited us, and this time we got the side berths, so we lounged and binged on shows for most of the ride.
Our neighbors on the train were three men. They sat together eating weird spicy snacks, listening to funny Hindi music on their phones, and one of them was always crushing chewing tobacco with lime in his hand. They were nice enough. Sometimes neighbors on the trains can be a bit confused or judgmental at biracial couples, but these dudes were more like intrigued.
Close to Gorakhpur, one of them men stood up and pulled his shirt off his belly. The man behind him wrapped this back brace looking thing around his midsection. It reminded me of the olden time ladies helping each other with corsets or girdles. I asked if it was for his back and he laughed, making fun of himself, and then confessed it was to hide his belly. WHAT? I had to laugh. This was definitely a first for me. The man then explained he was returning home to get married and he wanted to look good at the train station.
Trains in India run on IST. That means they are late a lot. Our train turned out to be 6 hours late, and when we asked why, the attendant didn’t even know. It’s the Bermuda triangle time zone on the tracks, apparently. I don’t have many pictures from this part of the journey because the window was too dirty to take any.
By the way, there’s nothing in Gorakhpur. Unless you are going to Sunauli, I don’t think you would ever go to this place. It’s in the middle of nowhere, but we found out, you can get “tourist quota” tickets there. Varanasi is also a few hours south.
From Gorakhpur, we took a local bus. . . .blessed with being able to get a seat. . .and rode 3 hours to Sunauli. This was the kind of bus with sunken, old seats, and stuffed in the same manner as the subway in Delhi. I was totally amazed how people stood for 3 hours like sardines in the aisle.
The India/Nepal border was bustling with foot traffic, bicycle rickshaws, trucks, and a cloud of dust. I rode in my first bicycle rickshaw to the immigration office. You can get a Nepal visa on arrival and it’s $25 USD for a 15 day visa.
Forms filled out, passport stamped and Nepal visa put in, we got back into our bicycle rickshaw and crossed the border. . . .
On the other side, a whole new adventure began. . . .