“Wait here. I’ll be right back.”
Nidup, our quick-smile guide with a Buddha belly, walked up to a bank-teller-like window and handed our passports and e-visas to a woman with maroon hair and the deepest shade of mulberry lipstick I’d ever seen.
Chris and I stood a few feet back and watched as the government official inspected our documents, and then us, from behind a bulletproof window. We were in Rangpo, Gateway to Sikkim. And no one crosses its border without officially stamped permission—in triplicate.
On occasions such as this, when I’m looked over like a criminal in a lineup (usually by TSA), I become inexplicably overcome with guilt. I hadn’t done anything wrong, that I knew of, yet I felt an overwhelming urge to appear as innocent as possible. Cue the doe eyes.
Then it occurred to me that, after a five-hour ride in a hot jeep on a hellish road—sucking in dust and diesel fumes from the lorries ahead of us most of the treacherous, stomach-knotting way—I looked like a sweaty, dirty, frizzy-haired American on muscle relaxants, wearing a salwar kameez. Worthy of suspicion, I’m sure.
The perfectly primped official asked Nidup something in one of India’s 440 million languages, none of which my barely bilingual mind could understand. But from the look on Nidup’s face, I knew it wasn’t good.
Nidup turned to us. “Do you have photos?”
“Photos?” Chris asked. But I knew already. I vaguely remembered reading in Lonely Planet that we needed extra passport photos as part of the Sikkim Inner Line Permit process. I thought the local tour company would handle this kind of bureaucratic minutiae. No one had said a word about it to us.
“No photos?” Nidup asked again.
“No,” said Chris.
Nidup searched our eyes back and forth. Then he drummed his fingers on the counter that separated us from the lipstick lady.
“Do you still have the copies of our passports?” Chris asked me, referring to the color copies I pack whenever we travel overseas. “We could cut out our pictures from those.”
“Yes! Why not?” said Nidup. We all double-stepped it over to the jeep, where our wafer-thin driver leaned against the hood, looking as sullen as the moment we’d met him at the Mile 7 handoff that morning.
Nidup had tried in vain to get the man to smile, saying he was a dead-ringer for Dustin Hoffman and punching him in the arm and slapping him on the back. But Dustin would just shift gears and stare at the merciless gravel road that coiled ahead.
As I dug around every hidden pocket in my suitcase, looking for our photocopied passports, Nidup apologized. “I don’t know what this is,” he said. “She say they change rule three day ago. Now you must have two photo and passport.”
He took the eight-and-a-half-by-eleven photocopies from me and returned to the lipstick lady, but this time he went through the doorway next to the window and stood in front of her desk. He said something and held out the photocopies. She said something back without even a glance toward his offering.
Nidup shook the papers at her, his face plum red. He let loose a Tommy-gun fire of invective, but lipstick lady just stared at him with dead eyes. Finally, he looked away. Then he laughed and gestured with open arms, tilted his head, and gave her the puppy-dog eyes.
Nidup let out a dramatic sigh, folded the photocopies, and stormed out shaking his head. “We have to have photos,” he said to us. “Don’t worry. I get them. Come.”
To be continued next Friday …