The map of India between Bangladesh and Nepal gets reduced to a band, just a few miles wide, known as “the Chicken’s neck.” Siliguri is the main city on the neck, a communications hub where everything seems to be in transit. To what extent this constricted political geography influences the mood, I don’t know, but the fact is that the return to the plains, the heat, and the encounter with the mosquitoes affected my vitality immediately. I spent only one night at Siliguri, just enough to handle with the necessary bureaucracy that would let me enter Nepal, the birthplace of the Buddha.
For several years, Nepal was mired in a sordid civil war waged between the government and Maoist rebels, so the main road that gave access to the capital, Kathmandu, was sometimes the scene of skirmishes, kidnappings and sabotages. As a result of the political instability, the presence of a Westerner in the bus was quite unusual, and that’s why I guess the driver offered me the best seat, next to the door. The trip was going to be very long, and having the possibility to stretch the legs would be highly appreciated later on, as it was the case.
Two boys collected the money and signaled to the driver when to stop or start by knocking on the roof of the bus. Once the bus was full, the two boys sat on the platform next to the driver (not much older than them and clearly their idol). They inserted a tape of Indian music in an old cassette player, took off their working uniform (their shirts) and spent the next hours talking, laughing, and, above all, watching silently what the front lights of the bus (always short) illuminated ahead. Without hiding their humanity under uniforms and warning signs, those three young people inspired me great confidence. I went to sleep knowing I was in good hands, and not for a moment I worried about the military checkpoints, let alone a possible incident with the rebels.
Before knowing Kathmandu, if I had to choose the most appealing city I had known, I could have said Santiago de Compostela, perhaps, admittedly, with some patriotic bias. There are cities where the combination of architecture, history, culture, and even climate, are harmonized in a unique way. Santiago de Compostela, Kyoto or Mexico DF, are such kind of cities. Kathmandu as well, but on another level. There are many cities in the world more beautiful, comfortable, less polluted, better maintained, and even more exotic than Kathmandu, but none exceeds it in its magic quality, the only adjective that survived the initial string I wrote, which included: esoteric, mystical, supra-mundane, extra-ordinary, oniric, enchanting and fantastic.