Shouts went up as four rickshaws crossed the border. "Woo hoooo, we're in a different country and we're driving a rickshaw," screamed Shaizia Jifri, of team Teesra Pahiya. Her excited cries were echoed by the boys riding the Orient Express, Vindaloosers, and Show Me Your Nepal.
The Nepal border crossing was the highlight of the third day of rickshaw ride during the 15-day Monsoon Rickshaw Run. As each team reached the border, they questioned the border guards about how many teams had come before.
The Rickshaw Run is organised by the UK-based League of Adventurists to raise money for charity. Particpants will be driving more that 2000km across India in their three-wheeled auto rickshaws.
<b1>Some of the teams ran into a spot of trouble with the Nepali authorities. "We have authorisation letters for your entry into Nepal, but you don't have permission to have a rally here," participants were told. The fact that seven teams had crossed earlier in the day was put down to human error.
The Catch-22 ended with the teams assuring the border guards that they were just sightseeing tourists, not rally drivers. "It was touch and go there for a while," said Jifri, with a sigh of relief. Barnaby chimed in, "We really thought they were going to turn us back."
As we drove into Nepal, finally clearing all immigration and border formalities, some Indian tempo drivers transporting goods gave us some friendly advice: "Drive very carefully madam. There are very few cars, but people cross the road suddenly. If you so much as touch them, you'll have to pay Rs 8,000, if they get hurt, you'll have to support their entire family. That's how it works here."
Further ahead, we ran into a blockade. Protesters had blocked the roads to all commercial traffic and public transport. The rickshaw riders were stopped as well, and cross-questioned.
"They asked us who we were and where we were going. They said there was a block and we couldn't go further. But when we said we were taking part in a rally, they let us go," said Owen, of the Orient Express. The teams encounters four such blocks on their way to Itahari, where they stopped for the night. Last heard, the teams that had cross earlier in the day were spotted by locals in Itahari, driving further along the Kathmandu highway.
"Since there were no buses, we were being flagged by people all the time. When we stopped for tea, two women bullied us into giving them a ride to Damak, 25 km down the road," said Akshay Mahajan, a member of Teesra Pahiya.
"I felt like our Saira Bano (the rickshaw's name) had become a bus," said Jifri who was squashed in the back with one of the women, while the other rode in the front with this writer. The women talked non-stop in broken Hindi about their daughters who work in Kolkata, and the granddaughter who "speaks fluent English." We were invited to their home, and offered masala chai, and shown old scrap books and photo albums documenting the progress of the prodigal grandchild.
As for Nepal, the teams were impressed with what they saw. The Mahendra highway to Kathmandu, which extends across the country, is pothole free, and each junction and bridge is clearly labelled. "It looks like a cleaner India," said Chris, who's seen both countries for the first time during the Rickshaw Run.
The day ended in Itahari, the biggest town along the stretch. Tomorrow, the teams will try to make a run for Kathmandu.
Follow Neha and her team on www.hindustantimes.com