It was my 59th day travelling solo in India, so far my entire trip had been by train. I’d started out in New Delhi, and traversed around Rajasthan before finally making my way up to Rishikesh to stop awhile. With only one day remaining on my Indian tourist visa, it was time for me to make a swift exit up and out to Nepal.
So far, I’d loved the thrill of buying standby tickets. I enjoyed the exhilaration of laying in the hard, sleeper class bunks as the chaiwallahs passed by, and the night air streamed in through the non-air conditioned carriages.
Armed with apps, plans and a ton of research, I’d become adept at knowing which trains I would have a chance to ride on, without needing to book weeks (or months) in advance. This last ride would be no different – Haridwar in the Northern region of Uttarakhand, skimming across the Southern border of Nepal to Gorakhpur, a 17 hour train journey where I could then connect onto a relatively painless bus up and across the border into Nepal. From there, I would slowly work my way up to Kathmandu.
When good plans go wrong, time to head to Delhi
But this last ride would be the one that fell to tatters. Unbeknownst to me, it was an important holiday in the region and I would not get on any of the standby trains to Gorakhpur. After a full day of sitting in the muggy, open air Haridwar station missing train after train, admiring the magnificent Ganges, it was time to admit defeat, engage the backup plan and catch a bus to New Delhi instead. After an exhausting day, and heeding the urgent warnings of safety for the part of the city I was in after dark, I scrambled to find a quick bite before sunset. Slipping down into a street side restaurant, I accepted a plate of the curry special of the day. It was only a few bites in when the foul flavours intensified – like rotting drainwater, emanating from a chicken thigh swimming in curry not strong enough to disguise the stench. Immediately I put the plate aside, paid the bill and made for my hotel room.
But it was too late, the damage had been done. The wheels were now in motion for a horrendous case of food poisoning, or Delhi Belly as it’s far too affectionately called.
I was up at the crack of dawn, flying past the stinking trash piles and backed up, smoggy motorways of New Delhi in the back of a flaming fast and bounding tuktuk en route to meet my bus. It was not a bus station, nor even a bus stop to be honest. Just a rickety old bus, parked under a big bridge, in who-knows-where Delhi. But, there was a bus at least, and one I had a ticket for at that. Horrendously unprepared, with a single water bottle and no snacks, I took my seat on a cracked vinyl seat for the 25 hour bus trip I’d barely had time to plan for, one that a good friend of mine had taken just days before and sent dire warnings of windy roads and a long, upright journey.
The bus was full of Indian and Nepalese passengers, making their way between the two neighbouring countries. Behind me sat two Israeli girls, the only other foreigners on this journey.
Crawling out of Delhi, bound for the Bhimdatta border crossing
After a long while the sprawling neighbourhoods and slums of Delhi faded into rural villages and small farms, oxen roamed the roads and smiling men peddled cigarettes, candy, and tea through the open windows of waiting cars and busses. My stomach began to churn, innocently at first. Perhaps I hadn’t had enough breakfast, or maybe I was a touch carsick. I tried all the distraction techniques I could think of – napping, meditating, breathing, and finally just ignoring it and watching a show on my iPad. The sickness lingered, but didn’t seem to intensify.
As I was settling in to nap, the girl behind me fell ill to motion sickness from the windy, bumpy roads. Hearing the sounds of her vomiting did little to instil hope in me for my own digestive system state, and I tried to block the sounds out and focus on relaxation.
We lurched forward into our 1144 Kilometer journey, heading out to the East through the state of Uttar Pradesh, then up into Uttarakhand. We drove through stretches of jungle just before the border that I was later to learn exist as a hub of exciting wildlife – full of leopards, elephants, bears, tigers, monkeys, and snakes.
We’d been on the road many hours at this point, but the journey was just beginning. It was time to stop at Banbasa, on the border where Bhimdatta in the Western end of Nepal meets Uttrakhand in the Northern parts of India. If I’d made smarter choices, this is where I would’ve spent the night. I was also later to learn I could’ve caught a bus here directly from Haridwar where this all started, rather than backtrack my way around Northern India to Delhi. But, alas, we live and learn and don’t always find the best options in the heat of the moment.
I’m still to this day unclear why I made the choice to travel direct to Kathmandu. I think the distance felt like a grand journey, rather than a poorly planned misadventure.
The Banbasa Canal Range and Immigration Office
Banbasa is where we would stop the bus to make our border crossing into Nepal, through the Immigration India office placed quite incredibly overtop of the Banbasa Canal Range, no less. It’s one of the popular border crossing spots, thanks to having both Indian and Nepalese immigration offices on either side of the magnificent canals.
Nepalese and Indian nationals may cross at this border unrestricted, but for third country nationals such as myself, there is a customs checkpoint on either side. To make matters more interesting, the two offices were separated by large bridges that the busses were not allowed to carry passengers over. So we were let out of the bus, and asked to walk.
Not that I minded, of course. I was feeling quesy and stretching my legs & getting some fresh air felt excellent. The busload of passengers had a long wait time, as myself and the other two foreigners had to go through our own private immigration process in small offices on each side of the border.
Lions, Tigers, Bears, Oh My!
By the time we reached Nepal to catch up with our bus, my stomach was growling. I erred on the side of cautious optimism and assumed it was hunger, and stopped at a roadside stall for a hot bag of samosas to munch on. Our bus pulled out into the Western corner of Nepal, snaking through gorgeous little villages and around the edges of the Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve and Bengal Tiger Conservation Unit. The samosas were not easing my stomach, but I was thrilled and delighted to spy signs on the wild roadsides asking drivers to drive respectfully and not disrupt the tigers.
As the winding hills and altitude increased, so did my nausea. In an instant, I was vomiting into a plastic shopping bag I had nearby, nursing a warm back of sick on my lap. Everything went downhill from there (except the bus, of course – that carried on relentlessly through the snaking, hilly, Himalayan foothills of Western Nepal, whether I liked it or not)
I tied the bag up as tightly as I could, but not before managing to spill oh-so-much of its contents over my now disgustingly sticky lap. I was in cold sweats, slick with rapidly cooling sick and still heaving out the window I’d opened, much to the disdain of the other passengers as the air conditioning and fans wouldn’t work if a window was opened even a crack. Or so the incensed bus driver informed me.
From Bad to Worse, with 15 hours to go.
In no uncertain terms I let everyone know I would need to continue vomiting out of the window, unless somebody had a suitable vessel for me to procure. Which they didn’t, of course, so off we went – no air conditioning, and a continuous streak of pulverised samosas building a racing stripe down the outside of the bus.
And this is how thing went for many hours. I could not hold water down, and I was becoming more and more aware I may need a hospital. But more than that, I was terrified of getting off the bus and finding myself in a small, remote village without access to healthcare. With over 15 hours left in the trip, the only reasonable option seemed to me to wait it out until the end, and seek some respite and a doctor in Kathmandu.
The remainder of the journey passes in a blurry montage. I’m fevery and sticky, the girls behind my seat have taken a keen interest in making sure I’m okay, and trying to ply me with travel sickness pills and electrolytes from their travel medicine kits.
As it turns out, life is beautiful
Eventually we stopped. I have no idea where it was, or what time it was in this point. But it’s the most poignant memory from the Nepal leg of the trip.
It was time for dinner, and as usual, the bus driver had a pre-arranged rest stop for us to grab a bite, use the rest rooms and take a break from the road. This was my chance – a bathroom! A private space to change my pants to something clean! A wash basin! All my dreams of that night come true. I didn’t dare eat nor drink, save for a sip of a cold sprite I’d bought just in case it would stay down. But I relished the opportunity to clean up, get some air, and return to the bus a new person.
One of the girls turned to me, ‘you’re lucky you have vomiting food poisoning – can you imagine if it was coming out the other end like this instead?‘ I laughed, and laughed, possibly deliriously at this point. But she was so right, what a silver lining that was!
Right as expected the sickly taste of sprite found its way up to my throat, and I stumbled over to a large tree beside the bus where I could be sick in peace. As I was sitting there, hand on the tree bark, hunched over vomiting, I saw a small cloud of flickering fireflies – the first I’d ever seen. I was in absolute awe at despite seeing it through the veil of fevery haze, just how beautiful this incredible country was, and how kind the people I’d met along my way were.
I finally arrived into Kathmandu
Somehow we did eventually make it to Kathmandu. As the trip progressed, I managed to get more fever-dreamed sleep in and the time passed more quickly. The girls had decided I needed a hospital, and being the excellent and well prepared travellers they were, they already knew of one I should go to that came highly recommended by their books and insurance documents.
I spent a few days recuperating, resting, and getting tests taken at the CIWEC Hospital and Travel Medicine Centre where I was incredibly well taken care of. My Insurance company (World Nomads) really came through for me, and the staff at the hospital were beyond amazing. For all my fears of finding myself without adequate healthcare were unfounded in this case, and I was able to leave for my hostel just a few days later after they ruled out the nasties like malaria, and decided it was indeed a severe case of food poisoning, something they see often in travellers arriving from New Delhi.
Initially, I stayed at Kasthamandap Travellers Home which I also whole heartedly recommend. Not just because their rooftop views are amazing, but also because they learned I’d been sick in hospital, so upgraded my room from a large dorm to just a 2 bed room, where I mostly was on my own. When I did require company, they made sure to bunk me up with a kind and quiet lady who was wonderful company. In the first few days they had people come check on me to make sure I was eating, and in general they went above and beyond to care for me and make my stay as lovely as possible while I recovered from the ordeal.
All in all, I got very lucky. My trip was filled with disasters, yes. But also beautiful places, moments of intense gratitude and I experienced the enormous kindness of so many strangers.