Thursday, 9 March 2017

Bandipur to Chitwan

A fitful night's sleep, as is always the way when you know you have an early start. Not helped by the rain, which at some point woke me due to its hammering on the corrugated tin roof outside our window.

It took us a car and 4 busses to get us to Sauraha, and if I thought that yesterday's walk was exhausting it had nothing on today's bus rides. Out of our hotel and past our sweet shop. It was six thirty am, l and I'm sure the donuts were frying, but the shop wasn't yet open so we walked on towards the bus. We were half an hour early, and so got tempted into a taxi to take us down the hill to Dumre. The driver didn't have any change for us, so he ran around to three different shops while we get shouted at to get on at least two different busses. One young guy in a leather jacket convinces us that we should get on his bus to take us most of the way to Chitwan, and he also provides the change for the taxi driver. He rushes us over to his 'delux' bright green bus and starts the engine, but he leaves the driver's seat too soon and, just as we are about to climb up the steps, the bus moves forward towards a parked truck. He dives back into the seat to apply the brake, and then we can safely climb aboard. Not the best start, and again we are confused as to why it was such a rush when we are the first aboard. This at least means we get decent seats on this strange bus displaying a star spangled banner/Union Jack hybrid with an eagle across it, and we wait as the bus starts to fill up with passengers. He sets off after twenty minutes or so, bus still fairly empty, but he doesn't seem to want to wait any longer. At Mugling we turn south and head down a highway that is currently being heavily worked on, and that is closed for four hours each day between 10am and 2pm. We beat the deadline, but the 45km takes us about two hours. They are widening the road, and while the sign says the work will be finished by April 17th this can't possibly be true based on the state of it. On one side of the road is the river, and on the other is a rock face that is being blasted to make way for the wider road. This means that not only is the road surface potholed and covered in rubble, but that the air is so full of dust it is hard to breathe. We both take an end of my scarf and use it as a mask to breathe trough, only it doesn't seem to help that much. Still, at least we are on a semi-comfortable, half empty 'Delux' bus. Except not for long, we were soon to be kicked off our semi-comfortable, half empty, 'Delux' bus and loaded onto a tin can, rattle box, mini bus from hell, with the angriest driver in the world. Our original driver has spotted a large group of people waiting to go back the way he had come, so he off loads us, does a quick u-turn and starts loading them. He then pays the angry new driver to take us as far as Narayanghat instead. On the new bus the seats are hard as rocks, there is no suspension, we have nowhere to store our bags so they are piled on our laps and as our knees are jammed in to the seats in front of us, the whole thing feels very claustrophobic. Angry driver, who is wearing a shirt with 'Chelsea Foot Rall Clur' in the back, seemed to start an argument almost immediately with another driver, and was constantly shouting at the bus boy, who seemed to be doing a good job based on the number of people he was jamming into this tiny bus. We were constantly overtaking trucks only to stop for passengers and then let them overtake us again. Always in a rush to make up every few seconds. One couple had some cargo of a huge wicker basket and bundles of brushes; they were hurriedly loaded on to the roof and we were off agin. The bus was full, well beyond capacity, and yet more people were crammed on at every halt. The bus boy and another passenger had to hang out the side door, as there was no more room inside. And then, finally, we were out of the construction area and the air and the roads improved, and eventually we were relieved to be off the shitty tin can bus in Narayanghat. Missing the donuts of Bandipur we found a little bakery and had some samosa and a chocolate cream -- that looked like polystyrene -- donut that was a poor substitute.

While we were in a reasonably sized town we decide to continue the search for a helmet for Michael. It's hot, but we make our way along the main road to an area Michael thinks there will be a cluster of bike shops in. There are not helmet shops, though, but a guy at the Enfield repair shops takes Michael off to search for one. I wait in the shade in the shop and they soon return. He has found one that sort of fits and will do the job, so we walk back and buy it, which involves risking life and limb crossing the main road twice. Then comes the task of trying to catch bus; to do this we have to stand at the edge of the road and shout 'Sauraha Chowk?' at the bus boys hanging out of the open bus doors as they thunder past, often in the far lane of traffic. When one eventually screeches to a halt we have to run to it, encouraged by the enthusiastically beckoning boy, who communicates what a rush they are in across the passing scooters, motorbikes, and rickshaws. It's only 20 minutes or so to Sauraha Chowk, and while Michael withdraws some cash I spot a packed restaurant. We both get a plate of momo and, finally, an insight into how these dumplings are made, as there is a little production line of three people to the side bundling them up. Then into the last bus of the day -- more like a tiny transit van with benches -- we squeeze in with 9 and a half other people and rattle down the road to Sauraha town. Some confusion regarding the hotel, as Michael's friend Nirmal helps us get a discount on a room far beyond our needs, but the constant hot water and thick mattress prove too tempting.

Later, while we were waiting for our food outside a little street restaurant, three elephants come past almost limping; one definitely had a damaged hip yet still it is out to work. These are trekking elephants,  strapped onto their backs are seats for tourists and a mahoot is sat high behind each head. They are so beautiful and graceful, and so sad. I couldn't bring myself to photograph them, not while they were cruelly being forced to work. I didn't want to add to their humiliation. Then two more came by, and another two? and a further two, controlled by rattling chains round their neck. No doubt finally heading home, their long working day over, walking along amongst the traffic instead of free in family groups. I wish tourists weren't so ignorant to how cruel this is. We see yet more, and even though I know it happens I am shocked to see one mahoot drive the spike of the elephant hook into the back of his elephant's head. The elephant hadn't done anything wrong, he was obediently plodding home, but the mahoot felt the need to remind the poor elephant who was in charge and who was the slave.

Back at the hotel Michael announces he is going to do something dramatic and disappears into the bathroom, I pay little attention and make use of the good wifi for a change. A few minutes later I am summoned into the bathroom and peer round the corner to find Michael fully clothed in the steaming hot shower, lathering himself up with the laundry soap. So that's one way of doing things. The nest hour or so spent doing more laundry, although I opt for the conventional bucket method rather than Michael's more revolutionary approach.

We hear the elephant cries into the night, and I wonder how the animal lovers that come to see the wildlife of Chitwan encourage this practice.