Counting my blessings: How Sophie escaped Nepal as Covid 19 closed in

This is a letter BackPacking Granny received from a good friend of hers – Sophie Baker – which vividly describes how she managed to get out of Nepal as COVID 19 closed in…

Dear friends and family,
So many of you wrote to me while I was in India asking if I was OK. I have in fact had a remarkable 10 days, filled with an extraordinary variety of experiences so I’m just filling you all in.    

At the beginning of last week I was booked on to sleeper carriage for an 18 hour train trip to the border of Nepal. The intention was to visit a young girl which The Saraswati Scholarship Fund are hoping to support as she wants to study nursing. Chanchali (now 16 years old) had been trafficked into circus work and knew from her colleagues’ experience what laid ahead if she didn’t break loose. Fortunately she found herself in the care of the local Esther Benjamin Trust (closely linked with UK based Child Rescue Nepal) and now lives in a hostel in Hetauda in southern Nepal with ten other girls with similar experiences (some, victims of sexual trafficking) and is studying hard.    

However, I had been warned about moving around as the virus crisis escalated but was reassured by my good friend Yubaraj, a journalist living in Kathmandu that to date, Nepal was coronavirus free. I arrived at the border early Tuesday morning.  My passport was checked and stamped by immigration in India and I walked across the bridge to present my passport to Nepal for a 15 day visa where I had my temperature checked.  

Holi, the colourful Spring festival

Then I hopped into a shared motor rickshaw to get to the bus stop.  It was Holi, the crazy spring festival of daubing one and all with coloured powder and also a holiday so no buses, no taxis. Fortunately I was approached by a young motor rickshaw driver offering to drive me in his 3 wheeler the forty miles or so for a hefty fee – better than hanging around for another day I thought.    

All went fine with the Hetauda visit. Chanchali and her friends welcomed me royally with hand-painted cards and scarves.  I was ferried around town on the back of the scooter of Buddha, an employee of the Trust and planned to travel on to Kathmandu by bus the following morning.  However, I wasn’t receiving any calls on either of my phone networks and therefore impervious to warnings not to hang around.  

Fortuitously I woke early (4.30am) on Thursday, looked at my email to get a warning letter from son Harry that he’d read that India was closing its borders to all tourists within 24 hours. As I scanned the internet for more information, I realised that my MacBook was no longer charging and my battery was fading, so hastily decided to head straight back to the border emailing friends in Kathmandu that I wasn’t coming.  

I phoned Buddha at 6am and he insisted that he would be at the hotel in 15 minutes with a hire car.  I knew there was a train leaving Raxhaul in India at 10am. Buddha insisted on accompanying me all the way to the train station.  I didn’t know if I needed a passport stamp to leave Nepal but I knew there was a loo at their immigration office. That was lucky – I did need that stamp.  

At the small immigration office in India, the situation was completely different. With border shutdown imminent my passport was grabbed and a doctor called to check on my health.  I started to feel a little anxious as it was 9.15am and the doctor took his time to show up. Indian railways are a new law unto themselves regarding booking. All air-conditioned coaches have to be booked online days in advance.

Buddha was very nervous of me getting on to the train without the correct ticketing but I insisted, believing I could wing it.  I sat in an almost empty sleeper carriage waiting for the inspector and Buddha jumped of the slowly moving train as it was leaving the station.  

However, I was clearly told that I was breaking the law travelling without the correct ticket and would receive a hefty fine if I stayed there despite my obviously offering to pay.    

The inspector asked another English speaking passenger to interpret for him. I explained the situation on having to leave Nepal in a hurry but the gentleman quite rudely told me I was over-reacting and this only applied to people travelling from China (I knew this to be wrong). “You will have to travel in ‘pain’ “ he admonished.  “You will have to go in the ladies’ carriage at the back of the train. Get off at the next station otherwise you will be breaking the law.”    

So I did what I was told and an hour later found a quite crowded compartment with hard seats – essentially for ladies but it seemed a free for all.  Fortunately it wasn’t crammed as the long journey back to Kolkata had only just started. So I negotiated a forward facing position beside the window and settled down for the long haul.

Gradually the carriage filled up further and further and within a few hours girls were sitting crossed legged on the luggage racks and other people were sitting with their children literally on my feet. It was a cacophony of laughter and high pitched voices. I think I counted around 30 bodies in my seating area at one time. I didn’t dare move which included going to the loo for fear of losing my seat!

Fortunately hawkers selling all kinds of food bordered the train at various stops and I had biscuits and samosas purchased before I set off. 18 hours is a long time to sit in one position – I literally willed myself with a “5 hours gone, 13 to go.”  

We arrived half an hour late in Kolkata at 4.30am. Sujata (my hostess in town) had arranged for Dulu the driver to pick me up.  What a blessing. After a few hours sleep, I accessed the internet in the Future Hope office (where I had been working) and rescheduled my flight home, leaving a week earlier than planned.  

If I hadn’t read Harry’s email that Thursday morning I would have still been in Nepal, unable to leave until 15th April at the earliest. Instead, one week later, I was heading up the M1 to start my ‘self isolation’ in style in the self contained barn at their Derbyshire home.  Although I completed the sale of my London flat 9th March, I managed to get my sewing machine and some piano sheet music out of the Kentish Town storage, so with a few good books, Netflix and the possibility of being accompanied by JC the dog on twice daily walks in the Peak District, I am really counting my blessings. And amazed at the extraordinary contrast of that crammed carriage and the bleating sounds of the baby lambs in the field outside my bedroom window.

So many thanks to all who have supported and cared for me. I am aiming to be a useful and virus-free grandmother to help with dog walking and home schooling and possibly sewing seeds in the vegetable garden.

More travel adventures here