DISCLAIMER: Before I left for Nepal, I had friends and family beg me not to leave the airport during my 14 hour layover in Dubai. Later, after experiencing three major earthquakes that left thousands dead, these same friends and family pleaded with me to come home. I’m really lucky to have a lot of people in my life that care about me. If you are one of them, you’re wonderful and I appreciate you.
But this post is not for you.
I feel like a lot people have misconstrued ideas about travel thanks to social media. We see epic photos and hear slivers of crazy stories, and come out on the other side with the idea that traveling is sunshine, rainbows, Mai-Tais and butterflies. But here’s the truth: there’s a lot going on behind the scenes that can’t be summed up in a photo. Here’s a more personal truth: I’m kind of a disaster. For those of you who know me, you know I’m prone to three things: falling, injury, and illness. This does not change just because I’m on the other side of the world.
So naturally, as my Nepali visa nears expiration and my 28 hour bus ride across the Indian border looms, I come down with a massive case of tonsillitis.
The bus ride is miserable. My tonsils have swollen to the point of closing my throat (1), and I’m traveling at the height of last summer’s concrete-melting heat wave. Worse, the monks have told me stories about the ride; it’s notorious for being dangerous and littered with bandits. I make the decision to take as little money with me from Pokhara to Mechinager as possible. I have on me 500 Nepali rupees, about the equivalent of five American dollars.
When I land at the bus park, I have only a crude map hand-drawn by my friend Dhaks to guide me to the customs check point. My first stop is the ATM. Card in once. Card in twice. Not wanting to strike out and get my card eaten at the border, I don’t try a third time. Instead, I scour my purse for any money I might have overlooked earlier. I find two ones and a five dollar bill.
A local notices me flummoxing about and takes pity on me. I explain my situation, and he leads me around to money changers in attempts to convince one of them to exchange less than their usual $50 minimum. We finally find someone who will take 6 of my 7 dollars (one is ripped), leaving me with a grand total of 1100 rupees, or about $11 dollars.
The local tells me I am very beautiful, and tries to convince me to come to his house, where he says his mother will nurse me back to health. Now would be a good time to mention that I still need to clear customs, tuk-tuk (2) across the border, bus to Siliguri, and negotiate a jeep to Darjeeling. Also, a reminder that I have tonsillitis, am in 100 degree weather, and am carrying my 30 pound backpack. I do not need this right now.
I promptly burst into tears.
“My friend is waiting for me in Darjeeling,” I gargle through my frog voice. “I need to meet him today or he will be very worried.” The nice man is startled by the crazy crying American and helps me purchase medicine (which ends up being useless–bye bye 45 rupees) and wrangle a tuk tuk.
Crossing the border is kind of a nightmare as I wait for things to be stamped, and it occurs to me on the ride that I should be more attentive to the amazing things I’m seeing, but I’m feeling too miserable to care. The tuk tuk driver is nice enough to stop me by an ATM, but this one won’t take my card either, so I decide to just get on the bus and wing it.
I tell the bus driver words that I’ve memorized from Dhaks: “I need a jeep from Siliguri to Darjeeling,” and I just pray I’ve been understood enough to get me where I’m going. The bus is jam packed, and I’m sitting right next to the engine, so my seat is unbearably hot, but woah, I’m in India and I definitely want to try to watch the road. The driver is kind, and drops me off exactly where I need to be. After the medicine, bus and tuk tuk, I have 500 rupees left.
The moment of truth comes at the jeeps. “How much to Darjeeling?” asks Mon the Muppet. “400 rupees.” Yes! Done! Thank you! I could kiss him, but I’ve hit my quota on marriage proposals for the week.
I’m seated in the back, alone, and sleep for three hours, going in and out as we scale up the 6,700 foot high city.
I’m still feeling pretty miserable as we climb in elevation. The driver indicates to me that we are now in Darjeeling proper, and that I should exit the jeep. Now’s the tricky part. A friend of mine had booked my hostel for me, but we failed to connect prior to my departure; I have no idea what the name of the hostel is or how to find it. Worse still, I need internet to let Kris know that I’ve arrived safely and where to find me, and I’m still broke. I expect to see several restaurants with wifi here, as there had been in Pokhara, but am shocked to find not a one.
An older man sees me floundering (this is a general theme of my travels), and asks if I need a hotel. I tell him I need an ATM more. He takes me to one, and—finally!!!—I have cash. At this point, I give up on my friend’s reservation and decide that wifi and bed are priority number 1. It takes a few tries, but finally I find a location that has wifi, though I won’t be able to use it until load-shedding (3) ends. I go to the pharmacy in the interim, where I buy antibiotics over the counter. Welcome to India.
The internet still isn’t up by the time I’m back in the hotel, and after trying and failing to use the hotel line, the nice hotel owner lets me use his cell phone to connect with Kris, who has apparently been worried that something horrible has happened to me. He rushes to the hostel, where upon Kris’s arrival, the hotel owner shakes his head grimly as though I have died. When Kris sees me, he makes this face:
Things start to look up once we’ve met up. I enjoy Darjeeling as much as I can for the two days we are there. We have high tea, explore a monastery currently under construction, and visit a temple. I haven’t eaten anything since I left Nepal because swallowing is painful and the meds make me queasy, but my spirits are higher than before. We have an overnight local train ahead of us, and some cool places on the agenda.
Our first stop is Varanasi, the Mecca of the Hindu tradition. It is right on the water by the Ganges River, and lined with colorful stairways called ghats filled with all kinds of shops, smells, and people. It’s overwhelming but incredible. I’m ecstatic when I wake up on the second day there with an actual appetite. We find a bakery that serves traditional German breakfast. We eat bread, and eggs, and juice, and I leave feeling energized for the first time in a week.
It’s mid-day, and the heat is high as we wander up and down the riverfront observing people and trying to dodge livestock moseying through the streets. I’m in the middle of regretting the breakfast sloshing around my stomach when I find myself face to face with one of India’s holiest creatures. The cow is large, horned, and apparently not very happy with me. It stares at me for a moment before ramming into me with its head faster than I can dive behind a motorcycle for protection. It then glances around and proceeds on its merry way, clearly unperturbed by anyone else’s presence. I have just been head butted by a cow. I am too stunned to process this immediately, and we continue walking.
The water front is divided into sections. Each ghat is unique–one is a palace, another a temple, another a school for meditation. Some house boats and others are adorned with art depicting different Hindu gods. Near the end of the line is Manikarnika, also known as the Burning Ghat. This is where bodies are cremated in the Hindu tradition. People make pilgramages here from all over the world to say goodbye to their relatives and bathe in the Ganges’ waters. In other words, this is the Holiest location in India’s Holiest city.
And this, friends, after days of punishing heat, miserable illness, and a minor altercation with a bovine, is when my antibiotic-ridden stomach finally decides to reject the contents of that morning’s breakfast, and I vomit all over the stairs.
I am retching, tucked away in a corner far enough from the public eye to avoid an international, inter-faith incident when a scantily-clad fisherman sits down next to me and awkwardly rubs my back. I firmly but politely shoo him away.
Kris glances at me, and he loses it when we make eye contact. He starts giggling. I look at him and then at the pile of bile I’ve just projected from my body. The last few days have been absurdly difficult. I start giggling too.
Sometimes you just have to laugh.
1. If you’re interested in just how bad my illness was, there is a photo at the end of this post. Be forewarned that it is pretty gross.
2. A bike taxi, like the one seen below.
3. In India and Nepal, power is often a limited resource. The government turns it off for large periods of time during the day. There were times in Nepal when we’d be without electricity for 12 hours or more.
4. The last photo above is the next morning, during a boat tour of the ghats. You can see a bit of Dasaswamedh in the back.