Going local: the India – Nepal border crossing at Sunauli
We recently, unintentionally, crossed from India to Nepal the very local way, and it was quite an adventure. Our plan was to take a tourist bus for the whole distance one day later, but our host warned us with his thick Indian accent, that we could risk overstaying our visa and having to go back to the ‘FRRO-office’ to apply for an extension. My boyfriend (mistakenly) assured him that “we would definitely prefer not to go to the ‘father office’”. So we took his advice and jumped on the local bus that leaves daily from Varanasi to the border at Sunauli.
Around 5pm we boarded the bus we would inhabit for the next twelve hours (picture). In front of us was a a young sweet Nepali guy who had just completed his Sanskrit exams in Varanasi. He spoke decent English and were heading home to Kathmandu. “Great, he can help us figure out everything on the border.” It is always nice to have at least one reliable person in the vicinity, when you’re a foreigner with no clue of what the trip ahead will entail.
Across the aisle was a person obviously suffering from psychological difficulties, with a carer next to him. In a country where mental health is not always a priority, and people with cognitive developmental disorders are highly stigmatised, the treatment of the mentally ill is very far from what we are used to. A group of men were helping the caretaker tying the patient to the chair, whenever he tried to get up. This same group of men were also laughing at the patient and spinning their finger around the side of their head, while looking at us in a way that signalled “don’t worry, he’s crazy”. Luckily, there was a guy we came to call Papa-Bear, who was always making sure we were OK. He was travelling with his wife and two kids, and the whole bus seemed to be counting on him to sort out whichever situation that arose. While also juggling his kids on one arm.
The bus ride was characterised by mild to moderate chaos, at the least.
The lights inside the bus, as with most Indian electric instalments, was not appropriately connected. And as with most Indian roads, the asphalt was far from smooth. And this road was indeed far below the average standard. Together, the hard-hitting bumps in the road made the electric wiring blink like a disco-light all through the night. It would definitely not help with our sleep, but then again, all hope of sleeping that night had been put aside already.
However, worse was the effect it had on the mental patient, who were placed directly below one of these epilepsy-triggering light-bulbs. On some occasions the lights stayed off for a longer while, and when it then came back on, after being reconnected by an unexpected bigger bump in the road, the mental patient went into a new episode of what looked like a psychosis, while realising yet again that he was tied by hands and feet to his seat.
We were rushing towards the border in record speed. I’m not sure exactly what it was the driver was rushing for. Maybe to make it to the border before he fell asleep behind the wheel. As we closed in on the border, the driver’s eyelids were getting heavier by the minute, and him falling asleep started to seem like a possibility.
So we were rushing with the speed of light through the streets that had now turned pitch-black in the cold darkness. The majority of the road from Varanasi to Gorakhpur is under construction. Which meant that in the most dusty and dark locations, there were sudden roadblocks and diversions onto other lanes. Most of which was indicated by nothing else than two concrete blocks placed in the middle of the road.
No lights, no reflecting signs, no warnings up ahead, just a concrete block placed in the middle of the road, in front of a speeding bus with a sleepy driver in the middle of the night. It is a miracle we survived. And even though I strongly started to doubt the driver’s ability to keep the sleep at bay as the early morning hours were creeping in, we got to say that he was indeed a skilled driver.
Read further in Part II here.