Away from the heat, away from the crowds. On our bus ride, the snowy peaks of the Himalayas pierced the gray clouds, rising high above anything imaginable.

We had crossed through the Indian border town of Sunauli, a hot, dusty one-way fare with more than the usual amount of touts and scam artists. Finally we had arrived in Nepal — traveling from Hyderabad — a promised land of personal space, cold and mountains.

If you spend enough time in one culture it seems that actions that once struck you as foreign and idiosyncratic become normal. India, with all its oddities — intense crowds, cows, monkeys, slaughtered animals and men bathing on the same street — had become our reality, our normalcy.

At the Lucknow train station in India we had waited interminably for our nine-hour-late train. We received the usual stares from our Indian ‘groupies’ at the station. If there’s one thing I have learned in India, it is that you can’t fight the system. There’s nothing one can do to make that train arrive on time.
In our boredom at the station we began singing Beatles’ songs, “Amazing Grace” — any song we could think of.

Quickly a crowd grew around us. To these people, we could say we were anyone we wanted. A famous musician, a scientist, John Lennon, Richard Feynman. No one would know.

That moment when we entered Nepal provided an incredible relief. It was at that border crossing that I realized a tremendous difference between the two countries on the sub-continent.

In Nepal we foreigners were not asked the infamous litany of questions that we equate to a game of 20 questions.

Indians are fantastically curious about Western culture. We
always get the same exact questions: “From which country?” and “What’s your good name?” Sometimes we’re asked extremely odd questions, such as what we had for breakfast or “Do you feel it with your girlfriend?”

The bizarre personal questions about our relationship statuses or sexual preferences or even sexual advances take you aback. From being asked directly if we want to “fuck,” to having a man grab your crotch, point to his mouth and make sucking noises — it can be tiring, but also extremely entertaining.

While Nepal is in some ways more impoverished than India, the people ask less intrusive questions.

Like anything in India, the types of questions one gets is related to one’s gender. As a man, I frequently get sexual advances (blond hair also helps). Foreign women are usually avoided, perhaps the Indian men are afraid of seeming perverted.

There is such a cultural disconnect here between Americans and many Indians that it often makes in-depth conversations impossible.

I say these things with huge caveats. There is only a small segment of Indian society that we have these interesting interactions with.

It’s strange. The more western the area is in India and the more tourists that visit it, the more cultured and, well, Western, people seem. That is, the longer the British colonized the region, the more culturally accessible people are.

But that logic does not work with Nepal, where the British never colonized but the people are surprisingly normal. In Nepal we’re not asked these personal questions. For a foreigner, simply being left alone is a tremendous relief.

Nevertheless, problems of poverty and pollution in Nepal remain, and are even exacerbated compared to India.

I remember we passed a street child on the Nepali side of the border. He was lying face down on a wooden plank next to rubbish, in a most unnatural position, covered in dirt and flies — dead and ignored.

Nepal does a good job of covering up these faults. But only in tourist areas is it possible to buy steak dinners at sit-down restaurants on swept, clean streets.

If you can wake up early enough in Kathmandu before other tourists, you can see the homeless on the streets and the kids that have snorted glue.

At the end of our sojourn we crossed back into India through the same dusty, crowded town of Sunauli.

The touts, noticing our confusion as we waded through the bureaucratic mess of Indian immigration, offered to find us an overpriced taxi to the train station. The ringleader insisted on calling me his “Handsome Little Man,” along with some other creepy advances. Yes, I realized that I was back in India.

Oh, India.



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