The same day I bid farewell to mum at Delhi airport, I later returned to greet Micha who had flown out to ‘patch up’ some holes forming in our relationship.
After a few days acclimatisation in fancy air-conditioned hotels (with pools!) in Delhi we made the move to Kanpur and the task of surviving the now 40 degree heat in my un-air-conditioned room. Micha spent a large proportion of the following few days sprawled like a lizard panting in the corner, only getting up to pour water on the floor at regular intervals – his attempt at cooling the place down.
After a week of this routine I decided I needed to move Micha out of this environment before he melted into my mattress. We escaped to Lucknow from where I had a devised a plan to travel “5 hours” (said google maps) to the Nepalese border, cross, and visit Bardia National Park in Nepal for the weekend.
Things did not go to plan. We traveled 5 hours. We did not reach Nepal. I hadn’t realised that the journey would be on small lumpy country roads, which we’d dared to attempt in un-air-conditioned local buses lacking in suspension, making it painfully slow jolt to a town called Bahraich, only about half way to Nepal. Here we hopped off and found a hotel for the night, only to begin again early the next morning for the final leg.
Finally after 10+ hours of offloading as many galleons of sweat on non ac forms of transportation, we were happily filling out forms at the border control under the watchful eye of an immigration officer who spoke little english, when disaster struck. After filling out the forms he first took Michas passport to stamp and read aloud “single entry visa”. Shit. We’d completely overlooked this fact, which meant that if Micha left the country, he would not be allowed back in.
Back out into the midday heat in the teeny border town of Rupaidiha, there was certainly no possibility of finding an air-conditioned joint for some respite. Our only option was to retrace our footsteps, disappointment written all over our sweat drenched faces.
Our supportive no-longer-future host in Nepal suggested we visit a national park (Dudhwa) on the Indian side of the border about 200km away. After one short bus ride in reverse and some frantic googling, we found ourselves at a small peaceful train station Nanpara, where the animals outnumbered the people. Donkeys, cows, dogs and monkeys (who stole our bananas) played in the shade of a giant tree on the single grassy platform. Our arrival at the station turned all eyes in our direction. Whilst talking to a young guy who could speak English about our desired train, a crowd gathered around until the entire platform’s population surrounded us with wide eyes. Foreigners were obviously not common place here…
The ticket price at 30p each for this 5 hour train journey to Palia Kalan (the closest town to Dudhwa National Park) with unreserved seating did not bode too well, and sure enough the first few kilometres saw us crouched on the floor of the hallway delightfully close to the toilet. Luckily for us, our direction of travel saw the train emptying out rapidly and soon there were enough free benches to even lie down (which Micha did at once). More enjoyable though was to sit in the doorway with the wind rushing past and watch as the train travelled through remote villages, forests, crossed huge rivers and even ran through part of the national park we were about to visit. It was truly mesmerising and probably one of the greatest train rides I will ever take.
We had accidentally stumbled upon a very authentic unique experience as we were clearly in a very remote corner of the country, with most stations resembling little more than a jungle pathway with people lined up between the trees. We even encountered a train with it’s roof full of passengers! Here was the real india!
We arrived in Palia Kalan in darkness where we were greeted by the owner of the hotel we’d booked online. He recommended an early morning safari the next day and so we went straight to bed.
On entering the park the next morning our luck changed and straight away we stubbled across a herd of wild elephants hiding in the bushes, followed by a herd of deer and some exotic birds. The elephant safari was the main attraction of this park and we put our names on the list without holding out much hope due to the crowd waiting. However as the last people returned on their elephants and with everyone else gone since it was park closing time, our guide slipped the elephant rider some dosh and we were allowed to board this mighty creature. We had mixed feelings about the whole idea but since we were here we decided to give it a go. On the back of an elephant was the only way in which you were allowed into the rhino enclosure, and it felt very exotic to be bobbing through the long grass or wading through swamps to get close and personal with several rhinos.
The rider however, hit the elephant constantly with his stick as he rode and we couldn’t decide whether an elephant trained from birth was any different to that of a horse given the same treatment or if the elephants were suffering. Overall compared to stories I’ve heard about other elephant safaris it looked like they treated the animals pretty well in this park and it also provides jobs for a lot of the local villagers.
Finally we had our last 5am start to catch a bus, Hindi music cheering us on, as we bounced our way through the villages homeward bound.
During our final few days together we took it in turns to develop severe food poisoning. I spent our last journey to Delhi (for Micha to catch his flight home and me to head to Bangalore for a conference/summer school) burning up in sleeper class (there were no ac tickets left). The train took about 5 hours longer than planned and I was so feverish I was amazed my insides hadn’t turned to ash by the time we arrived. And so our final hours together were spent alternating between hiding under the bed covers and running to the toilet.