Nepal: A Helluva a Ride to Kathmandu
A Detour to Kathmandu: A Harrowing taxi journey with the inevitable result
By Denise LaFountaine
It was midnight and I had just drifted off to sleep when our mini-van came to a screeching halt. I heard glass breaking and the excruciating sound of metal on metal. Before I could see what had happened, we were backing up and burning rubber to escape the scene of the crime.
We were leaving the last village along the border with India before entering what we lat-er learned was the notorious subtropical Tarai region of Nepal. I held on to the passenger’s seat in front of me with one hand and the door handle with the other hand as I bounced from one side of the mini-van to the other on the verge of hurling the Dal and rice I had just ate thirty minutes before.
The Swede next to me braced himself against the seat in front of him. The two Germans in the seat behind us crashed into each other while cursing and yelling in English, the language that we all shared.
“Slow down,” we shouted in unison at our hired driver, Babu, but he didn’t. Eyes laser focused on the road and sweat dripping from every pore of his body, Babu held his foot full tilt on the gas to distance us from the rickshaw driver he had just hit. The single-lane dirt road in front of us seemed to disappear as our tires slipped over loose gravel barely avoiding vertical falls into the green abyss below.
Babu drove further and further into the darkness focused only on getting away. Suddenly, he stopped and got out to survey the damage. The entire windshield was shattered and there was blood on the hood of the van. Babu jumped back in and took off like a race car driver hell-bent to win the final heat of a life or death race.
Five minutes later, we were overtaken by a paramilitary army jeep that regularly patrolled this area searching for Maoist insurgents who hid out in this malaria-infested part of the country. We soon learned that this area was a rebel training ground. A no man’s land reserved for armed conflict between the Maoist rebels and government forces.
The Quickest Route to Kathmandu
We were here by default; It was the quickest route to Kathmandu. At first the jeeps passed us and appeared to be continuing on to look for guerrillas. Then suddenly they cut us off and forced us to pull over. The commander leaped out of his jeep and his solders followed suit.
In seconds we were surrounded by men in fatigues pointing AK47’s in our faces through the van windows. Babu’s eyes glazed over in disbelief as he was forced out of the van. His body appeared limp as the commander began to scream accusations at him, his red face spewing venomous spit in his rage. In the van, we sat stiffly and forced ourselves to breath.
We could not understand the Hindu exploding from the leader’s mouth, but Dipak, our Nepalese companion, repeated his words in English. “You killed a man back there and now you must pay.”
We sat frozen unable to keep our eyes off the frenetic movement of the man in charge wielding a massive assault rifle, his eyes darting wildly from person to person as if trying to find a reason not to blow us all away.
I had left Seattle twenty-eight hours earlier. This 2007 trip was the kickoff of a two-year leave of absence from my life in the United States. I was relieved to walk out of a ten-year marriage and exhausted by the subsequent three years of unrelenting work and school.
At 44, I ached for a complete change of pace. In my twenties, before I was married, I traveled the world. Now, I was ready to strap on a backpack and reclaim some of the spontaneity and boldness of my youth. In preparation for this trip, I read everything I could find on India and Nepal, I hoarded my pennies, nickels and dimes, and endured the recommended vaccinations. Everything was under control, or so I thought.
The previous Thursday morning, upon my arrival at Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, I found out that my flight to Kathmandu had been cancelled and no other flight would be available until Sunday. I formed a group with a few of the disheveled foreigners milling around on the fringes of the larger group; two Germans, a Swede, and a Nepalese man.
“I only get to visit my family once a year,” lamented Dipak, the young Nepalese man dressed up in a gray polyester Nehru suit. We tilted our heads back as the Swede in-formed us, “I’ve trained for Everest for over a year. My climb starts Saturday.”
The two Germans were traveling together and would start their trek whenever they got there, but they only had a three week window of opportunity. Together, our group of five took a taxi to the Royal Nepalese Airline headquarters downtown to see if they would offer us a solution. They didn’t.
To make this trek happen, I connected on-line through Trek Nepal with a group of independent travelers who wanted to hike the same route at the same time. We agreed to meet for dinner on Thursday night, the same night that my flight from Delhi would have gotten me into Kathmandu.
At 9:00AM sweat had already saturated my T-shirt and underwear as we crammed into a taxi and headed to one of the many tourist agencies located near Connaught Place in the center of Delhi.
Our taxi driver eagerly dropped us off in front of Delhi Tours. Without wasting time, the friendly gentleman behind the reception desk bobbed his head back and forth and said, “We are having a mini-van with driver, isn’t it?”
We looked at each other and shrugged. We were too hot and tired to take the time to do the required calculations of time versus money versus value. Instead, we agreed to this seemingly quicker, more comfortable, although much more expensive option of car and driver. The mini-van and driver pulled up to the travel agency five and a half hours later. After passing the time sitting outside the tourist agency inhaling dust, wiping sweat and grime from out foreheads and drinking an occasional chai tea we were eager to get going.
The white mini-van was clean with air-conditioning and plush seats. We calculated a twenty-four hour drive allowing for pot-holed roads, pit stops and border crossing. It was agreed that since I was the only one to get a few hours of sleep the night before that I would sit up front next to the driver to keep him awake since it appeared by his wet hair and food crumbs down the front of his shirt that he was regrouping after a previous job.
Babu, the driver, was a pleasant man who seldom spoke and rarely changed facial expression. He seemed genuinely happy to be our chauffeur and, I suspect, for good reason. I read in a newspaper before coming to India that 10,000 people had applied for the job of feeding rats in a rat temple.
Like Winning a Jackpot
Driving five sleep deprived tourists to Katmandu was like winning the jackpot in comparison. To stay on top of his game, Babu kicked back little packets of what looked like instant coffee. He sprinkled these magical little nuggets into the palm of his hand and threw them back with a swig of water every couple of hours.
At 7:00 PM Friday evening, 27 plus hours and one flat tire after leaving Delhi, we arrived at the Nepalese border. After processing all our paper work we headed over to a restaurant to eat Dalbhat and drink Kingfisher beer. I was exhausted from sitting awake in the front seat the entire time as if in a video game dodging on-coming cars, elephants, rick-shaws, motorbikes and sacred cows lounging in the road around every bend. I was in fight or flight mode for the entire 27 hours.
My body was so wound up from the unrelenting stress of being awake in the front seat that the squeak of a horn on a child’s bike set off the spastic jerk of someone with post traumatic stress disorder. I needed to sleep. Babu needed to sleep. Everyone else had slept on and off most of the trip.
It was clear that I was the only one wanting to rest. Babu wanted to make his money and get home to his wife and kids and my fellow travelers wanted to get to Katmandu as fast as possible. I was the only woman here. I tried to be the mother, the voice of reason, but I was out-numbered.
Now, with a Kalashnikov in my face, there was no time to think. No chance of doing things differently. This was it. All my preparation, saving, excitement, and anticipation was for nothing. We should not have been here.
This detour into the jungle was not part of the plan. Surely, they would think we were foreign sympathizers, or worse, gun runners in the Maoist movement with Dipak as our leader. On top of that, I was the only woman here and the only American; I tried not to think about what might become of me. If one of my goals in Nepal and India was to be present in the moment, here there was no chance of being otherwise.
Just as abruptly as the paramilitary police forced us to pull over, we were commanded to leave. The captain jumped back into his jeep while three of his soldiers crammed into our van with us. Two young soldiers in fatigues carrying automatic rifles almost as big as the boys themselves sat smashed up against either side of the Swede and I. The third soldier sat in the back between the two Germans.
No one spoke as Babu followed the jeep back to army headquarters. Ten minutes later we pulled up to command central, a couple of crudely built small cement buildings interspersed with a few bamboo huts set in amongst the lush green vegetation of the jungle.
The soldiers leaped out and pushed Babu over to a chair at the outdoor interrogation desk in the middle of the compound. We sat in the car for over five minutes unattended.
As I stared ahead unable to speak, the older of the two Germans leaned over and said, “Enjoying your vacation yet?” A moment of comic relief before a soldier stuck his head in the driver’s window and grunted something in Nepali. Dipak translated, “Follow me.”
Sweat Pours down his cheeks
We fanned the thick mosquito laden air in front of us with our hands as we were escorted to the cement banks surrounding the interrogation table. Babu sat starring straight ahead with sweat pouring down his cheeks, oblivious to mosquitoes sucking on every inch of exposed skin. His long wiry ear hairs turned into little balls of frizz. He never turned his head to look at us, and we never had eye contact with him again.
I was happy to see that the person in charge here was different from the man who pulled us over; this man appeared to be much more relaxed and friendly. Eight soldiers were sit-ting on the cement banks opposite us. Now, in the light of the single bulb, I saw that they were only teenagers, perhaps eighteen or nineteen years old. They followed the questioning with rapturous attention. Apparently, foreigners were a novelty in these parts.
“Passport, passport.” The commander demanded as he reached out his hand. He then went through each book methodically, looking back and forth from person to photo more in effort to see how we had aged over the years than to determine if the photos were really us.
The young soldiers gathered around him as if looking through a family photo album. He turned each page slowly to study the various stamps collected by each of us. It was clear that this was not protocol but rather curiosity. The pressure began to wane and instead of feeling like a criminal, I began to feel like part of a traveling curiosity show.
Suddenly, around three in the morning, after sitting there for three hours of heart racing uncertainty, the commander ordered one of his men to flag down transportation to Kathmandu. “Mother of God,” I whispered to anyone in earshot,
“They’re letting us go.” Within twenty minutes we were on an old rickety bus. “I will get to see my family today,” Dipak cried unable to contain his emotion.
It was uncertain if he would be set free with us since he was Nepalese and could have easily been detained.
This hadn’t been the end of the road for me and my fellow travelers as we feared it might be. Unfortunately, Babu wasn’t as lucky; he was forced to stay behind. Most likely our foreign passports were the ticket out of this certain hell, a privilege Babu didn’t share. I felt conflicting emotions for our hell-bent driver.
On the one hand, I was furious at him for not stopping to rest at the border, for not stop-ping after hitting the rickshaw driver and, as a result, getting everyone involved in this messed-up situation. On the other hand, I understood that self-preservation is a primal reaction, perhaps even more so in India and Nepal where corruption is rampant and survival is dependent on being clever and outwitting your opponent.
50 Hours Later
It was 5:30PM when we arrived at the bus station in Kathmandu, 50 hours after we left Delhi and 25 hours after our calculated arrival time. I was relieved to find the International Guest House where several of the trekkers from my group were staying.
“Your team is set to fly to Pokhara tomorrow at 8:00am.” Said the tour agent behind the desk. “You’re in luck. We have one more seat left.” I bought the last seat on the flight then proceeded to stay up most of the night with my two new German comrades.
They were trekking together and therefore weren’t bound by the same time crunches as the Swede and Dipak. We replayed the ordeal over and over from everyone’s point-of-view into the early morning hours over shots of cheap Nepalese rum. I needed to process the insanity of the past couple days with people who had experienced the ride with me and could relate to the absurdity of it all before I moved on to a new adventure.
A 16 day trek would now be easy. This brief but intense launch into my epic tour-de-force left me feeling both drained and more resilient than ever. Danger restored my sense of self and put into perspective the fragility of each moment. In many ways, this “detour” put me on the right track.
To my surprise it wasn’t Annapurna, but rather the journey to Annapurna that forced me to reclaim my confidence. At 7:00AM Sunday morning, I showed up in the lobby of the International Guest House to meet my fellow trekkers. As we drove to the airport, they asked me where I had been, and why I hadn’t contacted them. Taking a deep breath, I told them that I had sixteen days of trekking to tell the story.
When I got back to Seattle, I found the receipt from the travel agency where we rented the car and driver. I emailed them to find out what had happened to Babu. They wrote back and told me that the man he hit suffered a broken leg and extensive bumps and bruises but was essentially fine. Babu spent 10 days in jail in Nepal before returning to Delhi where he was made to pay for the rickshaw driver’s medical expenses and the totaled mini-van (over $3,000), a fortune in India.
Denise LaFountaine is a writer living in Seattle.