Every morning on our trans-India drive started out the same way; we awoke from fitful sleep by our talking phone alarm clock to the suffocating weight of reality pressing down on our chests. It was a terrible feeling, as if we had accidentally burned down the house with the entire family inside. We were damned to this fate, and there was nothing we could do to change it. After oatmeal and coffee we would tidy Nacho’s insides and then pull away from our petrol station camp spot to rejoin the decaying ruins of National Highway 7.
From our captains’ chairs we would catch the “golden hour” in full effect—that is, the window of time in the morning when the sun casts its golden rays upon the dozens of Indians publicly shitting on the highway, an act they carried out as candidly as they brushed their teeth, stared at foreigners, or tossed giant bags of garbage over walls. Hugging their legs they watched cars go by while decorating the road with hundreds of runny little piles of poo. Sometimes they congregated in small groups to converse while communally crapping and watching us smash our oil pan on dilapidated chunks of highway.
On the third day, while approaching a small village on a rare but short stretch of pavement we were captured on a police camera—certainly the only police camera in India—traveling at an excessively fast 48kph in a 40 zone. That’s 5mph over for the metrically challenged. I was stopped, given an official ticket, and fined $8 for speeding on the only section of National HWY 7 where it was actually possible to speed. It was the first speeding ticket I’ve ever received in my life, which is ironic since I have never driven so many consecutive hours under the speed limit in my life. Just as we prepared to leave, a boy on a scooter put in a feeble attempt to escape after being told to stop. This enraged the officer, who took chase on foot. When the officer finally caught the assailant he very professionally punched him in the head.
In the evening we caught up with David and Regina at a dirty roadside thatched hut where truckers sat on cots watching an absurdly loud TV. We huddled on a cot and I leaned back against a wooden post, placing my head squarely in the middle of a gigantic spider lair tended by at least one and probably more giant squishy-butted arachnids. My flailing arms uncontrollably swiped the sticky spider net from my head and I looked up to see thousands—hundreds of thousands—of gargantuan plump spiders infesting the restaurant’s thatched roof, only a couple of feet overhead. This prompted us to move outside into the dirt parking area to eat our gruel.
David and Regina had become similarly disheveled and overwhelmed by the roads and the mindlessness of the people who use them, and had likewise been driven to the use of profanity to express their thoughts.
“They call this a forking highway? This is India’s forking National Highway forking System?! And did you see the dead motorcyclist?” We told him that we hadn’t. “A couple of miles back, he was hit by a car and was just lying there dead in the middle of the road with a crowd of Indian men staring at him.”
The next morning, against all conceivable odds, the road conditions worsened. What was once a bomb-blasted crater field had been reduced to a dirt track dotted with plateaus of sharp protruding tarmac, and at last into several deep ruts in the earth filled with deep, sludgy mud and rocks.
Within a couple of hours we reached a solid line of unmoving trucks. Our reconnaissance man, David, snapped into action and discovered that a six foot deep pit in the road had filled up with sludge after last night’s rain and become an impassible, chest-deep pool. The trucks had no choice but to wait for it to dry out—yes, to wait for a swimming pool of mud to evaporate—before they could pass. Just a common nuisance, much like the ones faced daily on the primary national highways of the world’s other leading economic superpowers.
I was just about to explain to Sheena how India could go fork itself, when I noticed David talking to a motorcycle rider. The rider offered to show us an alternate route, an offer that seemed dubious at best, but we had no other choice so we followed him onto a seldom used path leading into a rice paddy.
For thirty minutes the rider wound us through a maze of mud paths into the countryside and away from the highway. Finally he stopped, turned off his motorcycle, and sauntered over to David’s window wearing a face that said “now you’re really forked.” It was swindling time. What he hadn’t accounted for was the fact that we were happy to be swindled for his services, and he almost didn’t know what to do with himself when David agreed to his first attempt at extortion of 200 Rupees ($3.25). We paid up and continued down the diminishing mud path, through several tiny villages whose residents had clearly never seen a modern motorcar, let alone milky-colored faces, and finally into a section that seemed impassible for its mud and overhanging electrical wires. Knowing that this was the only thing standing between us and freedom, we put on our Navy Seals face paint and rally car hats, and a half hour later we reemerged on National HWY 7 to a flood of mixed emotions.
When evening rolled around David and Regina called in early while we carried on into the night. We stopped and filled our gas tank to an audience of staring men, as usual, and minutes later as we bumped along the road one of them gave chase on his motorcycle in a death-defying pursuit next to my window for a good fifteen minutes trying to get me to stop so we could be Facebook friends. He gave up and we stopped to camp at a nasty petrol station at a crossroads of two nearly impassible rocky roads, one of which was Highway 7.
The only place serving food was a dark mosquito-infested cinderblock hut with stained walls and no electricity, so we accepted our fate of dengue fever and Delhi belly, and reluctantly ordered. When it was time to pay up a boy brought us the bill, but when we tried to pay the hut’s owner decided that our white faces gave us a cheatability factor of 4, and the price was quadrupled. After a prolonged argument we paid his ridiculous price and tried to leave, but not before the socially-retarded bastard requested that we pose with him for a Facebook photo. Later on while we slept someone stole our bamboo mat, which had previously been half-eaten by a sacred cow. Un-forking-real.
David and Regina passed us early on day four. It looked like Regina was crying in the passenger seat, but I’m quite sure she was simply having a nervous breakdown just like Sheena. A few hours later we were startled to see them bouncing back toward us over the rubble. As they arrived David rolled down his window. He was looking pretty rough.
“We came back to tell you that you probably won’t make it.”
“I will fight you, David. You can’t make me go back.” The thought of going back was more than my frail mind could handle; the closest detour was a full day in the opposite direction, and was a secondary road, whatever the hell that means. I whimpered softly. This drive had killed my joy. I just wanted to go home. I wanted to sit in a cubicle, anonymously adding covers to TPS reports, for nine hours per day from here on out. I had just minutes earlier been daydreaming about the thrill of loading Nacho onto a truck and sending him to the nearest port to get the hell out of here. I wanted to go to Afghanistan to be captured by al-Qaeda. Anything but this. And now David was standing here telling me to go back. “You can’t make me!” My voice cracked.
“Well you can try, but we just tried it and almost didn’t make it ourselves. The road just turns into a series of deep mud lakes.” It was true that they had a 4×4 with enough clearance to drive over Nacho without high centering. But I was a desperate man.
“Turn that thing around. We’re going for a swim.”
The next two hours went by in a blur of desperate, adrenalin-fueled driving maneuvers through deep mud lakes, trenches, and freefalls into Nacho-sized craters. When things looked hopeless I would think about being stuck in India and let my survival response take over. We emerged through the whole 4×4 obstacle course by the skin of our teeth, pushing our powerful new engine to its limit and reshaping the road’s high center with our oil pan.
With 26% of the drive to Nepal still awaiting us, it was time for a pit stop. When we arrived in Varanasi—to be covered by Sheena in the next update—we had become mental basketcases. My conversation skills had long since left me and had been replaced by Tourettic outbursts of profanity. Sheena’s eyebrow twitching had gotten out of control and she spent most of her time staring at her feet, whimpering. I scraped Nacho’s side on a rickety old bus, but I didn’t even flinch. I was gone. But the time spent in Varanasi did do some good for our mental recovery. Just after leaving town our horn’s electrical contacts disintegrated and caused the steering wheel to seize up. Using nothing more than a Leatherman tool and a piece of bailing wire I was able to reconstruct new and functional horn contacts, verifying that we were at least mentally aware, and that I still clung to my American roots. Bailing wire! ‘Merica! Yee haw!
In the early afternoon we emerged from the dilapidated highway and into another featureless garbage heap of a town. We would have passed right through without incident if the villagers hadn’t taken it upon themselves to build a 10-foot high brick wall right across the highway in the middle of town, but they had.
“What the fork is this? What the FORK?!”
“Fork! You have to be forking JOKING!” It was Sheena. She too had snapped and gone off the deep end. I was happy to know that I wasn’t alone.
We consulted the Garmin as people quickly packed themselves around Nacho to stare at us. The GPS seemed to show a possibility of getting around this demonstration of idiocy by taking a small track along a levy. We backtracked and found the track—nothing more than a motorcycle path criss-crossed by deep channels where the levy had failed, and after some time we emerged down a steep drop off into the middle of a small slum. The occupants of the slum stopped what they were doing and stared at us as we drove through their front yards and back to the so-called highway, and in doing so smashed our oil pan in a cataclysmic way. I got out to check it and realized that, in addition to smashing the hell out of our delicate oil pan, the impact had caused our 3″ wide bumper support to sheer completely off, and now our bumper tilted backward at a 30 degree angle. Calling once again on my American roots, I attached a ratchet strap to the bumper and secured it to the top of our rear door.
The road from here onward proved to be the worst section of the whole drive. We continued on through the wasteland at 5-10 kilometers per hour well into the night, desperate to get out of India. We repeatedly smashed our oil pan, but by now I had stopped checking it. Subconsciously I knew that a split oil pan would cause engine failure, which in turn would give us an excuse to quit and go home. India had broken us.
As we ascended a hill in the dark we noticed two semi trucks that had driven together off the side of the road and smashed into the forest. This seemed pretty normal, as Indian truckers couldn’t keep their rigs on the road if their lives depended on it. We’d seen at least 50 accidents on this drive alone. As we passed, however, we noticed that they’d taken someone with them. Underneath one of the semis was a motorcycle, and its rider was dead on the side of the road. That made three motorcycle casualties in five days.
At around midnight we found a petrol station to camp at for the night. We were still 10 kilometers from the Nepalese border—an eternity. I was covered in grime and desperate for a shower, so I squeezed myself under the nozzle of a rickety hand-pump well in the corner of the parking lot and took a bath. Sometimes I have to look at myself and wonder, how did it come to this?
In the morning we set off at first light. Being that this section of road wasn’t all that important, to be used only for frivolous things like international trade, India had left it to be overtaken by nature. We crept through craters and over enormous berms for two hours to complete the scant 10 kilometers.
We reached Raxaul, India’s border town, and found our way to the customs office. We handed our Carnet de Passages and passports to the customs agent and watched him write out all of the information from all of our documents by hand, which took nearly two hours. It was as if he’d never seen the English alphabet before, and had to inspect and painstakingly imitate the curvature of each individual letter. In the end he photocopied all of said documents and stapled them to the page he’d just finished writing by hand. Is this man paid to be as stupid as humanly possible?
As we prepared to leave, David and Regina arrived and walked excitedly into the office. We gathered our things and headed out the door, and just as it closed behind us I heard Regina’s exasperated voice speaking to the customs man.
“Excuse me, but what is taking so long? This is a very simple task!” The corner of my mouth went up in an unfamiliar shape. For the first time in six days I was smiling.
We got in Nacho and headed north through no-man’s land, lost in a swirl of dust. Motorcycles zipped in and out of our view, and we bumped through deep potholes, and then we saw it. Through the dust an ornate arch appeared. It was beautiful. No, it was the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen. It was the entry to the Mountain Kingdom of Nepal.
When we crossed under the arch it was instantly quiet. No horns. No dust. No potholes. Nobody stared at us like we were in a zoo. A few people walked around smiling. Smiling. We parked and walked into the quaint customs house set back in a grove of green trees. I can’t be sure, but I would swear that the customs agent was wearing a white robe and glowing.
“Take a seat,” he said calmly, putting down his book. “I hope you’ve had a good trip. Welcome to Nepal.”
The Worst Drive in the World, in Review
Distance: 2,259km (1,412mi)
Driving Time: 64 hours, 35 minutes
Total days: 5.5
Driving hours per day: 11.7
Average speed: 35kph (22mph)
Oil pan hits: >100
The last word: India’s National Highway 7 can eat a bag of %!@*$. Okay, I’m done.