Wednesday, September 25, 2013

In which we attempt to sneak across the Nepali border...

I came to India knowing that many legends of tourist travels are told through a certain lens, and I wanted to be wary of that. I respect the problem of having constant inappropriate contact and fear. But I also have not really encountered that problem here in India. I do have a male Indian guide who I am with a lot of the time, but not all of the time. From my perspective, I have been more harassed, grabbed and manhandled in the locker room at every ski resort I have worked in and at every Ice rink where Hockey players were in residence than I have driving across all of India. But hey, skiers and hockey players are my bretheren, so I guess I feel at home there. 

Granted, we have been robbed, I am out about $800, and Bodhi has contracted lice, but I haven't gotten sick yet, and I ‘m eating at the roadside all the time. (knock wood). 

We have visited seven of the eight holy sites on the Buddhist pilgramage, the last of which is the birthplace of the Buddha in Nepal. I am really, really excited about this one. 

We drove all the way to the Nepali boarder, got out to fill out the forms, and the Immigration man said, “You are leaving for your country from Nepal?” 

“No, we come back to India tomorrow.” I answered, itching to get across. Six days and over 3500km we have traveled. We are ready for some yak butter tea.

He looked at me. “You can not, this is a single entry visa.”

All the way through this trip I have been so grateful to finally see India, and so happy to be going back to Nepal. I have always wanted to return, I have always wanted to go back to the Thengboche monastery and shave my head and live there for a while. But I have kids, and it’s not really possible for me to live the life of a nun right now. 

As we got closer and closer to the border, something inside me was welling up, I felt a little bit like I was going home, something about me changed while I was in Nepal the first time, something significant. That was the beginning for me, the beginning of me learning that I could become whoever I was, and that I could take lifetimes to do it, and that I did not have to appologize for who I had been or who I wanted to be. I found permission, and freedom, and a lot of fear in Nepal on that first journey. 

I face different questions about myself and my journey this time around, and I was excited to cross the border and see who I was on that side. We stood there staring at the sign and listened to the Indian Immigration officer say no. 

I couldn’t help it, tears welled up, it had been a long a stressful journey, Bodhi had been talking about Sidhartha’s kingdom, the pleasure palaces, the town from which he first witnessed suffering, age, dying, sickness and birth, and we were excited to journey together to this country which is dearer to my heart than I knew.

I had asked Raju “How far is it to Kathmandu?” just thinking, just wondering... if I didn’t have to be back in Denver on September 30, I would stay in India for a month, and wander across to Nepal for a month or so, and then take Bodhi into Tibet for a while, and then head home when we were needed for work. We are here. And it is so fucking hard to get here. And it is so compelling to be here. 

So I am sitting in this tiny dusty office, and now I am just crying openly. Fuck it, there is nothing I can do about it. I wanted to see where he was born, I wanted to touch the place where he began to wonder, I wanted to share Nepal, the place where I woke up, with Bodhi, I wanted to ...

“Is there nothing that can be done?” I asked, thinking, well, in Indonesia when you have a visa problem, you pay the woman sitting at the cafe about 100 USD, and she goes to the immigration officer that she is sleeping with and gets your visa fixed. They put a new one in and stamp the old one and you are good to go. We are on a shoe string, especially after getting robbed, but I would have paid to go to Nepal. 

“Madame, are you weeping?” asked the officer, taking me into his office. 

I wasn’t sure what to make of this question, I had snot running out of my nose and I couldn’t stop the flood of tears. It had already been an emotional day. I fell asleep in a pit of loss that I think may be a permanent wound for me, one I will cary with me for a long long time, and try to learn from, and woke up holding the same feeling. I made what was a compassionate choice along the way, a difficult choice, and the depth of sorrow that choice brings with it feels unbearable. My task right now is acceptance. 

“Yes, I am, I’m sorry.” 

“Are you Buddhist?” he asked. 

“Yes” I answered. He stared at me. I don’t really know what people think of me here, I have blonde hair and a long haired son, no husband; and a huge tattoo of a pre-hindu balinese goddess on my arm. But I’m just me, and I follow the teachings of the Buddha the best I can not matter what I look like on the outside. 

“And are you on a pilgrimage?” he asked. 

I nodded. Bodhi sat in the chair and looked at me. “Don’t cry, mom, he will figure it out.” he said. 

The officer looked at him. The dust from the enormous line of trucks waiting to crawl across the border was thick and choking. Flies buzzed in the office, the one shitty fan oscillated ineffectively, having no effect other than to cause the flies to take off in annoyance and land again once the breeze had passed. 

We had driven about three hours on an elevated highway which was falling completely apart. More than once we had to back the car up and navigate our way around enormous pieces of broken concrete and sink holes. All this damage was caused by the flood we had avoided. The water stood in puddles still all around the bridge, trash ringing the edges. We crawled onward, people on bicycles, huge trucks, and ox carts all picking their way along. I was holding my breath just waiting for the bridge itself to come tumbling down. 

“Well, madame, I can close my eyes, and you can pass. An dthen when you come back across the border, you show your face to me, and it is a beautiful face, and I will again close my eyes and not see you pass. Many people pass this way, I have heard. Of course, I don’t know about it. But it is possible.”

My heart began to lighten we were oging to go, it was only a matter of price. How much could he possibly want? India is less expensive than Indonesia, maybe $100 USD total? 

“But it is very risky. I do not know what happens if they stop you on the Nepali side.”

I nodded my head, I was waiting for the part where he would just fix our Indian visa with a paper or a new stamp and we’d pay for it and get on our way. 

Raju came in. “Kate, a moment?” he asked. 

I went out. “We can do this if you like, but it is very risky. Risky for your son, risky for me. If they catch you in Nepal, you will be fined a huge amount of money, more than you have, and I will go to jail. Which is no problem for me, free place to sleep, the food is free, and my boss will come get me, but they will torture you for money.”

My heart sank. I can’t do this. Of course he is right. If it was just me, I would have gone in a heart beat. But was I really considering sneaking my 9 year old across the border? Yes. I was. But the answer was no.

Raju said, “Let me see if he can do something on paper.” 

We waited in the greasy seating area as a tour manager for a group of monks from Myanmar filled out the paperwork. I considered again shaving my head. And Bodhis. Maybe then we’d get through. What the fuck, Bodhi has lice anyway, might as well buzz it. 

Raju called me into the office. The Immigration man looked at me. “You are a single mother of poor economic condition and a Buddhist, right?” I nodded, hope alive again. 

“How much did you pay for your driver?”

Oh shit. He thinks I’m rich. We spent a lot on this tour. It cost about $1200 at the base price to gave the car and driver and reliable hotels. This is the last of our money. But after everything people had said to me about traveling in India, especially with Bodhi, I felt we had to do it. I sold my motorcycle to come on this trip. 

“Um, for the driver or the tour or what?” I asked, looking at Raju. He shook his head, that funny sideways shake that means “I disagree but go ahead and do what you are doing.”  He took over and started talking in rapid Hindi that I didn’t understand. 

Then he walked out.
The immigration man looked at me.

“Madame, are you in a position to give me one thousand US dollars?”

“What?” I asked. His eyes were still full of kind sadness, but he had taken in the gold ring I have on my finger, fine Balinese metalwork, and three big stones. They aren’t diamonds. But it is a pretty ring. He had looked at my blonde son and my driver and car, and decided I was full of shit.  “US Dollars? A thousand?” I asked, shocked.

“Yes.” he nodded with a smile.

I laughed. “No way, that’s more than I have in my bank account, I couldn’t give you that much if I wanted to. If you want say 100 US dollars, that is a different story, but a thousand? That is so much money. That is way more money than I have.”
He looked at me dead straight. “Then it will be risky for you to cross, but I will close my eyes.” He handed me back my passport. “Cease your weeping, madame, it is the will of God that you do not go to Nepal right now. You will come another time when it is right that you should take that journey. For now, find joy in your heart, and continue on your way in a new direction.”

I stuffed my passports back in my bag. A thousand fucking dollars. I was pissed. I felt robbed. I had paid the right amount. I had gone to Denpasar with Edi no less than four times to get the paperwork right. We had gone through an Indonesian bureaucracy to make it through an Indian Bureaucracy and we had won, I had thought. 

We left the office and crossed the sandy street, avoiding a bull, several goats, and a crush of people. We got back into our air conditioned suv. I pouted amongst the want at my own desire not being fulfilled. Outside, people were making samosa and wrapping them in newspaper for 5 rupees each, about 3 cents. 

“It is good that we didn’t go.” Said Raju, “This one, without a payment ahead of time, he would have let us cross, and then called someone on the other side to catch us, so he could get more money. We can not go across unless he makes a change by paper.”

I sighed and settled back into my seat. Of course he was right. “You need some tea, I think.” Raju said, with new purpose. 

“Yes. Tea.” We headed out, horn blaring, weaving our way through motorcycles and bicycles and water buffalo being led by kids. A handcart, a bicycle with hand pedals, full of apples bumped along in front of us. On the back, a couple of kids had hopped on to catch a ride. The driver had his shrunken legs tucked up and wrapped in cloth, on the top, he was strong and hearty. 

“Madame Kate, I am so sorry that you could not go to the Nepal today.” Raju said, as we pressed relentlessly on, the horn blasting, over the pothole filled road through traffic so thick we should be at a standstill not moving at 40km an hour. 

A few minutes later, we crouched under a tarp on the side of the road, brushing flies off of our chai. Bodhi elected to stay in the car. “I have an idea about how you can go.” said Raj, all smiles.

I looked up at him, “Yes?” I asked.

“We will dress you like an Indian woman. You can die your hair black, and put vermillion in your part, and pull the sari down over your face, and cast your eyes down. And DON”T SPEAK. And in this manner, you can pass the border, no problem!” he said, laughter filling his eyes. 

I smiled back. He was doing a good job cheering me up, and the Masala tea was very tasty. “We can sew Bodhi into a rice bag, but you have to carry him on your head, my neck isn’t strong enough.” I replied. 

At this, Raju broke out into the first genuine belly laugh I had heard from him, and we smiled at each other. Nepal would have to wait for another time. 

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