“Shall we have lunch in Nepal?” said Pramod.
We were in his office in the mountains near Darjeeling. Our passports, stamped with single-entry visas into India, were in our homestay three hours away in the Himalayan foothills.
“The parents of one of our students would like to offer you noodles and momos, I often eat there.”
“Thank you, ” I said, “but we have to catch the afternoon train to Kolkata tomorrow, and won’t be allowed back into India if we go to Nepal today.”
Pramod is the headmaster of R.I.B.S. school in Manebhanjang. It is one of three schools in the area sponsored by the Mondo Challenge Foundation, a charity with which we are involved.
That morning, in cold classrooms across the valley, we had met pupils aged from three to sixteen. At one point, Jamie and I walked in single file down a rocky path to a slippery stone wall over which we climbed into a playground. The ill-lit classrooms had no glass in the windows and no plaster on the walls. Unconnected to any source, electricity wires hung like jungle vines from concrete ceilings. The children, crowded behind simple wooden tables, wore neatly pressed uniforms and expressions warm enough to melt a mountain frost.
“Many of them walk for three hours to come here every day,” said Deven Subba, the young headmaster at Magno Vale Academy.
“They walk up through the fields and forests. Some come from Nepal.” He gestured across the valley. “Most of their parents work in the tea or quinine plantations and can’t read or write.”
We played games, swapped stories, and watched long and intricate dances. I led the youngest in a round of “Head, shoulders, knees and toes (knees and toes).”
In one class, six pupils, ranging in age from fourteen to sixteen, were more advanced. We asked if they had any questions. Hands shot up. We found ourseslves challenged to articulate arguments we had not practised for years:
“Do you believe in the Big Bang theory?”
“Has man finished evoluting [sic]?”
“Do you believe aliens have visited the earth, and if so what’s your evidence?”
Coming up with on-the-spot theories to satisfy our rampant inquisitors was exhilarating but exhausting.
The thought of momos in Nepal was making me salivate.
“No problem,” said Pramod. “you are with me, and borders in these mountains are for others, not Gurkhas.”
Fifty metres from the school we passed Immigration and Customs. A border official looked up from his daily news and greeted Pramod. I tried to look unconcerned, freezing my features into an approximation of what I hoped would pass for a relaxed expression. My fingertips were sweating.
“It’s OK, his cousin attends R.I.B.S.,” said Pramod, smiling at the man.
The official waved us through without looking at our passports. Or us. A hundred metres further along the road, we stepped over a storm drain into Nepal.