The sweat that soaks my khaki shirt has nothing to do with the relentless heat that covers this land like a heavy, hot water-soaked, wool blanket. I'm at the border between Nepal and India. It's six in the morning. Skies ominously overcast with gray/black clouds that threaten monsoon season rain. It's been raining heavily on and off all night and the narrow road that accesses both countries is nothing more than a thick layer of gooey brown mud that, taken along with the ramshackle single and two-story wood, concrete and brick buildings that flank it, looks more like the setting for a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western.
My guide and I are stopped by a soldier dressed in olive green who bears a World War II era bolt-action rifle over his shoulder and a thick black leather belt around his waist. He tosses our backpacks onto a wood table and begins inspecting them inside and out. India's mega Hindu population gets along swimmingly with its smaller, but major Muslim population. However, no one gets along with the radical Islam component that has snaked its way into the country via Pakistan and other ports of entry. That said, the bags are checked thoroughly.
After looking us over ...up, down, and up again...the solider gives us the go ahead to proceed across the border. I've already made it through Nepal customs and received my stamp. But it wasn't Nepal I was worried about. What's in the back of my mind is all the trouble I got into recently at the American India Embassy back in the States. The short of it is that the embassy wouldn't issue my journalist's visa unless I met with them in person in Manhattan and attended one of their "press lectures" regarding the benefits of the "New Era India." An invitation I blew off entirely. I didn't come here for politics, but something else instead. Originally that reason was to research a new Chase Baker novel, and to write a couple of travel pieces while also writing for the Vox. But now, having spent a little more than a week in this part of the world that will slam you with a million different sensory alerts at once (from the persistent smells of curries to cow shit, from huge, colorfully decorated trucks speeding directly for you, to millions of people who peer at you with their dark, penetrating eyes as if you are the very first westerner they've ever seen), I'm not entirely sure I can put my reasons for being here into mere words.
Trudging through the mud past the many overloaded cars, 4X4s, and trucks queued up before the wood-pole gate, my guide points out the immigration office and, heart in my throat, I immediately go for it.
It's not much of an office. A couple of rooms in a very old building the interior of which is shaded by old wood shutters left over from the filming of Gunga Din. There's a counter on one side, and a wood table on the other. An overhead ceiling fan blows the hot humid air around somehow pleasantly, while behind the counter, a pot of tea boils atop a hot plate set upon an old wood desk that also supports a computer and a Royal typewriter from the 1950s.
There's a middle aged man manning the counter. He wears loose slacks and an even looser button down shirt. He collects my passport, along with those of a half dozen other people waiting to cross over the border. College kids mostly who look like they haven't slept or bathed in weeks. It makes me smile inside to know that I must appear as a much older version of their wanderlust-filled selves.
After filling out the immigration form, I hand the passport back to the counter man. He in turn hands it over to a second, smaller man, who takes it with him to the computer. As he runs the passport over a scanner I see my face pop up on the computer screen. This is it, I think. The moment where they'll ask me to accompany them into the back room where they'll spend hours lobbing questions about my intentions for visiting India. "Why did you not attend the lecture in New York?" the men will shout while blinding me with a single bright white light. Eventually, the tall one will turn to the smaller one. "See if you can get him to talk," he'll say. Then, as the tall man leaves the room, locking the door behind him, the smaller man remove his shirt, bearing a chest filled with scars from knife fights too numerous to count. He go behind a desk and pull something from out of a drawer. A pair of brass knuckles maybe. As he slips them onto his right hand, he'll smile at me, bearing a gold tooth. "So what's the weather like in New York this time of year?" he'll say.
But within a few minutes, something far different occurs.
The little man behind the desk takes hold of his stamp, and positioning it above the page that contains my visa, brings the inky business end down hard onto the page. The little man hands the big man the passport. And the big man, in turn, hands it to me. He smiles politely but genuinely.
"Welcome to India," he says. "I hope you enjoy your stay."
Check out the first Chase Baker adventure novel, THE SHROUD KEY, and look for CHASE BAKER AND THE GOLDEN CONDOR coming early this Fall.