Saturday, March 7, 2009

A passage to India


Nepal's most popular border crossing to India is in Bhairahawa, in the village of Sunauli about 10 minutes from the city center. We decided to go there on a lark late in the afternoon to check the area out, after a trip to Butwal, Rupandehi's biggest commercial area (more on Butwal later). Nepal shares a porous border with India, meaning citizens of both countries can come and go as they please without documents. This is the reason why the Terai is very India, because there are many Indians who have chosen to live here, plus the fact that the Terai used to be part of India, before Nepal became the nation that it is now. In fact, one can be forgiven to think that Nepal is still part of the subcontinent. Turn on the TV and you'll see Bollywood and Indian channels. Look at the people, their physical features, the way they dress. Most Nepalis can understand and speak Hindi. Indian currency is accepted in Nepal, and Nepalese currency accepted in certain parts of India. Hinduism. The caste system. The food, the cows and goats. And the current Indian Idol, Prashant Tamang, is Nepali.

The Terai has many problems unique to it because of its proximity to India. Several Indian terrorist groups sow fear in the Terai, and they reportedly operate from across the border. At least three of these groups have threatened to kill (or might have already done so) candidates and party members, and even observers for reasons I still don't know.

(Then there is the problem of the Madhes. The Madhesis claim to be the original inhabitants of the Terai, with strong ties to Indians. From what I've understood, they want the Terai to be a separate state, complaining that they have suffered discrimination from the hill peoples of Nepal who have descended on the Terai for greener pastures. The Terai is a strip of fertile flat land from east to west, where approximately 50% of Nepal's population currently reside. They started settling in the Terai some time in the 1950s if I'm not mistaken, when the area became a safe place to live in after the government did some serious fumigation to drive away malarial mosquitoes. Up to that point, most of the settlers in the area are the Tharus, a group of Southeast Asian-looking people who are said to have a natural immunity to malaria. They can still be found in some of the most rural of villages in the Terai, living in their traditional mud huts. We've met some of them, and it's actually quite cool inside them huts.)

Less than a kilometer from the border crossing, Mukti advised us to close the car windows, hide our cameras, and not to say anything. I think the idea was, if we would act natural, nobody would notice that we were actually foreigners. We can probably pass as Nepalis and cross the border without problem, but we did not want to take any chances and jeopardize our stature as international observers.

There's a big possibility that we won't be allowed to cross, but really, all I could think about was stepping on Indian soil, my dream country, visited on a lark one afternoon.

We parked the car a few meters from the border, just close enough to take a photo (sshh.) of the Welcome To India sign. Wow. Can I just run from here? Mukti got off the car and crossed the border to talk to the border police about the possibility of letting us in since we are international observers. Bless Mukti. He did it! He got permission for us to go in, but on two conditions: we can only go in for a short distance, and strictly no cameras.

Our car started to go in. The place was chaotic. Lots of trucks coming in and going out. Cars, vans, rickshaws packed with people and their belongings. Small shops everywhere selling Indian stuff: textile, food, newspapers, household goods, underwear! The noise. The density of people. I was loving every minute of it. I was really tempted to whip out my camera but Mukti kept reminding us that we were given a special favor, a privilege, so we better not break the rules. Sucks. We drove for a kilometer into India. (Into India!) How I wish we could drive further. A short distance from here, there's a bus that could take people to New Delhi in less than 24 hours. My fantasy was to make a side trip either to Tibet or to New Delhi after the mission, and also to visit Agra where the Taj Mahal is. But Tibet is an impossibility, and I read that it takes forever to get an Indian visa in Nepal. The best way to get a visa to India is to get it from one's own country, for bureucratic reasons. We were already far from the Indian police (whom I like to refer to as the Bollywood police with their big bellies, funny mustaches, and greenish brown uniforms, just like in the movies!), so I asked Mukti again if I can just take one picture; he agreed, and I managed to shoot a bajaj, proof that we did cross the border as there are no bajajs in Nepal.

At this point, all I could think about was to get off the car, plant my feet on Indian soil, and maybe kiss the ground. We went back to the border crossing, put on our observer IDs, and felt the ground on our feet. I'm in India! Let's shop. Air promptly disappeared into one of the textile shops. I hung around for a while in the shop but there was nothing for me there. In fact, it seems that all the shops here do not have traditional Indian stuff for guys. All the textile shops cater to women, with so many varieties of textile for saris, and accessories like bangles, bracelets, bindis, and the like. Finally, I saw a shop selling scarves similar to what the Indian men in their bicycles wear. I bought two. There was also a store selling Indian shoes. I've always wanted to have a pair of those Mughal-style shoes with curls at the toes. Yep, finally I got one, a little too big for me though, but it was the closest one and it's either I buy it or go back to Nepal with only two Indian scarves.

We were looking for Bhimji and the car and realized that he had parked at the Nepal side, so we started walking towards the gate. The prospect of just walking into another country thrilled me. Just before actually crossing, yep, I whipped out my camera with Mukti's approval and took photos of us under the Welcome To Nepal sign. (We also took photos of illegal Maoist campaign propaganda, but more on that later.)

And just like that, it was all over.

(More photos.)

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