Hi everyone! Hope you’re having an awesome Labor Day weekend! I’ve got a special treat for you today. A guest post by the Hoch….warning profane language ahead and please don’t make too much fun of me.
We wrapped up our time in Inle by sending out the remainder of postcards, revisiting some of our favorite restaurants, and relaxing at the guesthouse until a tuk-tuk picked us up at 6pm for the VIP bus to Yangon. The bus was nice and refrigerated but the entire bus smelled like naphthalene, giving me a bit of a headache. After a quick stop for an included meal (unremarkable rice and noodles) we watched a couple of episodes of Game of Thrones (Theon is so fucked) and called it a night. I slept relatively well with earplugs, unaware that next to me Kimberly was awake and battling her unsettled stomach that had bothered her for several days.
We arrived at the “bus terminal” which turned out to be a dirt lot quite a ways north of Yangon. Those headed to the city proper were provided free minibus transfer, but we were headed straight to the airport and left to fend for ourselves against the throng of taxi touts who quoted some insane numbers. This immediately pushed both of us over the edge, I think, because we had constantly dealt with being overcharged throughout Myanmar and all we wanted was to peacefully get out of the fucking country while retaining some of the good memories. We looked at each other after unsuccessfully trying to bring the price to “double the local” level, and said fuck it, we are walking. The airport is about 10-15 minutes by taxi and I estimated 1.5 hours by foot. Also we had decided to do a 10-day trekking in Nepal in a month’s time, and agreed on the need for physical preparation. The flight to Kolkata was not for another 12 hours and we were in high spirits. What could go wrong? (Spoiler alert – so many things.)
Armed with my trusty GPS map and 2 small bottles of water, we set out along the highway before quickly turning into a side street. Kimberly was still not feeling well and briefly considered relieving herself on the side of the road, but changed her mind as the momentary crisis passed by itself. It was a cool morning and we saw the neighborhood awake as we passed.
It was already remarkably hotter and streets bustling with commuters eating breakfast at street stalls.
We were walking along the northern edge of the airport runway (terminals were on the eastern edge). I tried to distract Kimberly from her troublesome stomach by engaging in conversations about planning for India and Nepal and she asked me questions about Game of Thrones in order to do the same herself.
Then I heard a quick, sharp gasp and knew instantly what had just happened. I believe the word she used was “sharted.” We turned into a side alley only to find there would be no privacy to deal with the aftermath, and there were people in plain sight going about their days. Then I looked up and saw an English sign for an inn, which was so fortunate in that the inn had no business being in that neighborhood. We walked to the desk and asked to use the bathroom, which the staff graciously allowed. They were definitely confused by a couple of backpackers, profusely sweating with looks of desperation on their faces, pleading to use the bathroom at 6:30 in the morning. I waited while Kimberly walked in with her longyi as replacement. When she came out, she was a pair of underwear lighter but clean and ready to continue our walk. We thanked the staff, and insisted on giving them some money for the troubles – not because they had a big mess waiting for them in and around the toilet (Kimberly assures me she cleaned up after herself) but purely out of gratitude. The rest of the walk was unremarkable except for a couple of unexpected detours.
We trudge into airport grounds. Great, we thought, we have almost 9 hours to unwind from the mess of a morning inside what appeared to be modern and sleek Terminal 2. We had to go through security with x-ray machines for luggage just to get to check-in counters, which was odd especially since no one asked for our passports but thought not much of it at the time. Once inside, we realized there are about 2 power outlets in the whole area which was not great since our phones were dying. Whatever, we had plenty of time once we check in and get to the gates. By standard, check-in for international flights don’t start until 4 hours before departure time so we settled down on benches and relaxed for a couple of hours.
I got an email (still had some balance left on my Burmese SIM card), titled “Informing for AI 228 flight cancel.” I rarely want to see the word “cancel” in a same (broken) sentence with my flight number. So I called the customer service agent who insisted I go to the airport to talk to somebody except I’m already there, jerkoff, and secondly there is no fucking Air India agent anywhere. While I was talking to this jackass, Kimberly went back beyond the security checkpoint to look at the flight status board and confirm the cancellation. What she didn’t realize was that now they were checking passports and visas to enter the check-in area, and she didn’t bring them out with her. Her attempts to get back was thwarted by some cop who refused to be helpful whatsoever.
After I had hung up on the most unhelpful agent ever (“you know what, fuck it, I’ll figure it out”), I saw she was on the verge of tears (clear glass separated us, as if to taunt us) and took the risk of leaving our big bags unattended while going outside with passports to fetch her. I was told by airport staff that Air India agents will be available at 11am since there is an earlier flight to Gaya (where Buddha achieved nirvana).
Air India, without notifying us, had arranged so that we would get to Kolkata by Gaya then Delhi. They couldn’t tell us what flight we would be on from Delhi or what time we would get to Kolkata, which was not very reassuring. All things considered, we made the biggest last minute decision of this trip and said “hello Gaya.” We hadn’t paid for any bookings in Kolkata so no money lost. I hadn’t read any glittering things about the city either. The agents were a little thrown off by our casualness but were happy to help getting us on the earlier flight to Gaya. The whole operation seemed at least a couple of decades backwards, with handwritten boarding passes and luggage tags but isn’t that the charm of traveling this part of the world? No.
We went through immigration where there were 8 total agents, 6 of them idle while waiting for imaginary Burmese travelers while 2 were busy tending to the rest of the lot. Once past that, I bought some duty-free whiskey, unsuccessfully tried to get Indian rupees at currency exchange (they are neighboring countries, goddamnit), and ate the most expensive and mundane meal of our entire time in Myanmar. We plugged our phones into an outlet on the floor but realized at the end of the meal that I had turned the switch off and our phones are still on the verge of dying.
We boarded the plane to Gaya. The flight plan continued to Delhi so half the cabin were Burmese monks on a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya and the other half were businesspeople and tourists to Delhi. We heard the now-familiar “Namaste” for the first time from Hindu flight attendants which I thought was neat. They also had dots on their foreheads. How exotic!
The flight was only 2 hours long but they served a full meal of gobi aloo (cauliflower curry thing), butter masala and rice with some other side dishes that I didn’t touch. They had run out non-vegetarian options which was unfortunate because I wouldn’t eat any meat until 4 days later. Side note, I fucking miss BBQ ribs.
The plane arrived at Gaya airport, and we followed the throng of monks out onto the immigration and customs area. Kimberly and I don’t really like crowds and lines, so we had decided to get e-Tourist Visas online instead of visiting the Indian Consulate in Yangon. The online process was annoying (they ask you 3 times if you are in any way related to Pakistan) and confusing (passport photo won’t upload unless within 100kb of the specified file size) but we had managed to successfully pay and be approved. Turns out that most people don’t bother with the eTV, which was evident by the fact that the airport staff went into full panic mode once they saw our printouts. Perhaps this wouldn’t be as big a crisis had it been a bigger airport, but the process involved half a dozen people and trying 3 different computers, all while telling us “no problem” repeatedly. They dedicated a lane to each of us, which I didn’t think was cool since dozens of monks were still waiting to get through behind us. But at the same time, Buddhist monks shouldn’t be flying anyway so whatever.
The immigration staff, while being helicoptered by their managers who are seriously micromanaging, finally stamped our passports so we could go through. Or so I thought. I had noticed earlier that there was an x-ray machine for luggage before exiting the airport. More importantly, there was a big placard notifying that in Bihar State (which we were now in), sales and consumption of alcohol (a 750ml bottle of which was in my carry on) is strictly prohibited and punishable by maximum 5 years of imprisonment. I thought to myself, well, it doesn’t say possession is illegal; this argument did not work with the staff when they of course found the bottle. I insisted I won’t sell it or drink it, but they said that’s not how it works. I then said their law needs to be changed and called it stupid, which would have gotten me at least detained if not tasered back in the States. I did calm down quickly when an army officer approached.
We were now in the Airport Manager’s office, with a dozen people circling around the evil bottle of devil juice. We did get to witness the famous Indian head bobble; an immigration staff member was explaining the situation to the manager, who was doing a sideways head bobble instead of the vertical nodding we are used to. He looked as though he was thinking “unbelievable, fucking foreigners” when in fact he was just urging the speaker to go on. I found it funny considering the predicament I had put ourselves in. The verdict was reached, and the bottle would be transported to the capital of Bihar in Patna where the department for destroying alcohol will handle the rest. I swear I am not making up any part of this. And all of this was happening the same day my girlfriend shit her pants.
We agreed to pay a man 600 rupees ($1 is about 67 rupees) to take us to our guesthouse in Bodh Gaya, which is the “old town” where all the sights are. I know we paid too much, but neither of us was in the mood for haggling and just wanted to get there. The drive was our first direct look at India, which happened to be in one of the poorest cities in the country. Being face to face with that kind of poverty certainly is a culture shock that takes time to process, and after the day we had had I was too overwhelmed to process anything in a healthy or meaningful way. I regretted being there.
We arrived at the guesthouse, which was not the welcome sight I needed it to be. Because why would anything good happen on this fucking day? Apparently Dalai Lama is going to be there in January for some festival, which just so happens will be held at the open field in front of the guesthouse, so it was undergoing some serious expansion and renovation in preparation. It was loud. It was dusty. Stairwells and walls were sprayed with errant concrete and mortar. I remember we just did a lot of chuckling any time a drill went off or hammering started. At least all of that was over once the sun went down.
We ate dinner at a restaurant next door (rather quietly) and went to bed.
Kimberly pooped herself.
Insert by Kimberly:
1 – Don’t ever trust a fart after having eaten Indian food.
2 – Thank God for that Inn.
3 – I told Hoch I thought it might be a bad idea to buy alcohol before flying to Gaya. I knew Bodh Gaya was alcohol free, but did not realize the entire state was.
Well hope you’ve had a good laugh. I still crack up thinking about our arrival to the guesthouse in Bodh Gaya. We walk into the lobby, step over a sleeping dog, see that sunken in couch, and hear all the construction going on upstairs and are thinking where are we?
Welcome to India, that’s where!
Until next post!
Kimberly and Hoch
P.S. ABC Trek Training Journal:
We walked close to 7 miles that day, a lot of it was in Yangon while carrying our massive backpacks.