|Our Really Big Adventure|
Journey to Nepal
| They all stared as
I entered the bar. I was the only woman in the place, and I got the feeling
that my presence was not exactly welcome. This was the first actual bar
wed encountered in India all our previous drinking had been
in restaurants or our hotel rooms, and even then the beer had frequently
arrived wrapped surreptitiously in newspaper. Lacking competition, this
drinking establishment obviously didnt feel the need to go to great
lengths to attract customers. It was a seedy bar in an unappealing town
close to the border. The lights were turned very low, and there were risqué
pictures of naked ladies on the walls. This was not a place frequented by
women, and in a country where staring isnt considered rude, no-one
had any reason not to stare at me.
On trains especially, people just stare at me. Ive taken care to dress modestly, but just being western is reason enough for some. The record for the most people staring at me at any one time, though, was set the day we took 2nd Class Unreserved seats from Gorakhpur to Nautenwa, near the Nepalese border. 2nd Class Unreserved means what it says, and you would be amazed at how many people can cram onto one bench. Across from us, on a seat that we naively thought would hold three or, at most, four, were five exuberant university students, three old men, an old woman and a small child. One of the students struck up a conversation with us, while the rest stared at me & chattered amongst themselves. Although friendly, there was an undercurrent of something else too, something we couldnt put our finger on. Their questions about religion were a little uncomfortable on a day when there was a bandh, or strike, in the state, called by Hindu extremists. By saying we didnt believe in idol worship, could we be insulting one side or another? In particular, could we be insulting the crowd around us on the train? While fears as to their religious extremism were probably unfounded, I was relieved when Caelen (for once) told them we were married.
Throughout India, I have referred to Caelen as my husband whenever the issue arises. The behaviour of Malik, our guide in Agra, illustrates why when Caelen (despite my prodding) described me as his partner, Malik shook his hand and congratulated him.
You, Ill congratulate when you are married, he said to me.
In Gorakhpur, the hotel register instructed each male to list the names of any women travelling with him, and their relationship to him Wife, sister, mother, etc. Caelen (despite more vigorous prodding) again described me as his partner.
What does that mean? asked the hotel receptionist, Is that like friend?
More than friend replied Caelen.
Its like wife, I interjected, digging myself in deeper.
Ah, like wife but not wife the receptionist nodded, with a complicit smirk at Caelen.
In Nepal, I have no need of such subterfuge.
Its hard to imagine Nepalis behaving in the same contemptuous manner.
Even if they felt that way, which is unlikely, theyre just far too
polite and friendly to deliberately make a visitor feel uncomfortable.
We have met many lovely, friendly Indian people too, of course, but in
Nepal its more than that its the national state of
being, apparent as soon as you cross the border. Even the soldier who
searched our shared jeep out of town was the smiliest soldier we had ever
come across. On the final leg of our journey, from Bhairawa to Pokhara,
it seemed that everyone went out of their way to look after us, with no
expectation, let alone demand, of reward. The conductors kept a careful
eye on our luggage, moving it from the roof when it began to rain. A concerned
bystander remained on board the bus with us when the touts got on at the
end of the line, just to make sure we werent hassled too much. The
touts themselves, while understandably desperate in this terrible year
for tourism, were still somehow more polite than those in India. And yet
despite the smiles and the friendly Namaste from everyone
we pass, this country is experiencing the worst internal violence it has