This was the southern highway. Flat, streaming through rice paddies, over-populated, warm and humid, different tribes and ethnic groups. A fertile land which invited migrant farmers to join. Hence, here too, there is the characteristic mix of faces, religions and tribes for which Nepal is well known for. I wouldn’t find Magars nor many Gurungs here, but there was no lack of interest in the ethnic groups that we came across.
The hills, always there, served as reminder of where we had been and where we would be returning to, for to reach the far western corners of Nepal, there is only one road and that was this southern highway through the Terai, along the Indo-Nepalese border.
Here the paddies were no longer sculpted into layers rising upwards; they lay sprawled across both sides of the road, with an abundance of huts, houses, people huddled, bent over, picking and seeding.
Traditional houses were made of outer cow-dung walls, a characteristic which our driver, a Tamang strongly disliked. Unlike our guide, the driver was well experienced with driving through the Terai and the far west, for often he accompanied the UN and other NGOs when they went to those outer regions where farmers needed agricultural and health support.
Meanwhile, as we drove from winding roads to the flatter Terei, K., the guide, was becoming increasingly frustrated with us.
No, we did not want to go look for tigers. No, we did not want to go on elephant rides. No, we did not want to spend the night in the town he suggested. Patiently we explained how we needed to reach the far western hills. Patiently we explained how we had done many elephant rides in our lives and that spending hours holding our breathe to see a glimpse of a tiger in a national park was not high on our list of priorities. No, we didn’t want to rent a plane to fly in a circle over Mount Everest.
If only it had been his misplaced suggestions to us! When we first met in Katmandu, despite his off tangent musings on Hinduism and Buddhism, he seemed to have understood that we were going to the far west with a purpose. We were clear: we were teachers and were here in Nepal doing educational research. It was not the first time either of us had been in Asia, nor travelling less comfortably, nor eating at roadside vendors, a novelty.
As the day proceeded, and his suggestions regularly rejected, K. raised his shrill voice, pointing out our attention: LOOK! A RIVER!!! LOOK! CHILDREN PLAYING!! LOOK! A BUFFALO!!! LOOK! PEOPLE WORKING!!!
These were not exactly necessary nor required. We were well awake, observing the changing landscape and its people. K.’s discourse increasingly turned into a tiring babble of “this fruit is a mango” or “that is a banana tree”. The driver, who supposedly didn’t understand English, would grin, eyes focused on the road, every time I reached out for my iPod. Susan buried her head in a book or shut her eyes in exhaustion. With a sideway glance, I would catch his will to laugh but …. did he really understand what was going on? Wasn’t he, supposedly, a non-English speaker? And besides, didn’t K., the guide, insist that the driver needed his constant instructions?
Boundaries intertwine. Invisible borders parallel the highway we move on.
The space I want is lost in translation.
Evening spread across the sky and fields as we neared Lumbini. Women emerged from the paddies, faces burnt by a long day’s planting.
The men cycled along the road, others walked along side their buffaloes. Children too helped, chiding their goat or buffalo not to linger.
Lumbini. Finally. Barely a year old, the gate greeted us, reminding visitors that yes, this was a special, holy place.
Patience. A required skill when at the boundary of borders.