Friday, June 13, 2008
Clarity amongst clouds.
So finally I got into the train with my bags and sat on my unreserved chair, scheming of ways to bribe the TT and smiling at fellow passengers all the way through so they don’t mind me sitting on the seat while they sleep at night comfortably.
The journey had begun.
So here I was in the middle of 2 gujju women who only took a break from staring at me when they went to piss in the dirty toilet and this Bengali mother daughter combo who gave me cold stares from time to time. I made sure in my head that I will stick to my only saving grace, my book, to avoid any conversation with any of these women. But we in India are chatty by nature and so after a few hours I was asked personal questions like where do I work, why am I traveling alone and where will I stay. The whole day passed somehow and just when it was dinner time in the train and I was eating the terrible train food, we heard about the strike in West Bengal due to the oil price hike. I knew just then that my bad luck hasn’t ended by almost missing the train. More was to follow.
In conversation with the Bengali aunty, I was told that I will be stranded somewhere near Kolkatta (Tata station or some other) and will not make it to Cal so I must figure out a way to stay the night there. I was told scary stories and all the women joined in to target me. All this was bringing me down more so because I didn’t even have a seat to sleep on for the night. After dinner I knew that everyone will be pulling down their seat and resting their devilish minds until morning. While I would just be scurrying for space like a lonely rat.
As (bad) luck would have it, after a few hours I was on a berth with a village girl from MP who was traveling with her father. I slept sideways for some hours and so did she. In the wee hours of the morning she got down with her father and I had some space to myself at last.
The next morning I was sitting in the same compartment with new faces and the Bengali aunty had got down at a few station before Howrah because of the strike. She had her options ready. I was wondering what I will do incase I’ve to spend the night at some un known village before Howrah. But I couldn’t wonder for long because my plans were interrupted by this pesky Bengali guy. His name was Nasir. He chatted with me like he’s just out of a Vipasana course and hasn’t spoken to a soul since a long long time. I gave him hints by digging my nose into my really boring book (girls of Riyadh) but those weren’t signal that Mr. talkative understood. Nasir spoke to me about my work, got tea for me…and when we were stranded on Ghatipur station before Howrah for hours in the heat, he was my companion. He got me samosas and the price I had to pay in turn were conversations with him. Eventually the train left the station (I suspect we were stopped not because of political reasons but cause the train driver wanted to have lunch with his friends there!)
Reaching Howrah station after about 7 hours from the scheduled arrival time, I knew I had time enough just to get a roll before I catch the Kamrup Exp (my next train to New Jalpaiguri Station which was also running late thankfully!) so me and my new friend, went and got some rolls from the crowded station and eating those oil soaked rolls made me really sad. It reminded me that I had better plans if my train had reached on time (12:30 in the morning). If things were alright, I would drive past the howrah bridge and Victoria to eat a hearty Bengali lunch at the famous and modest Suruchi restaurant in Cal.
Anyhow, I got my next train to NJP station and this time I had my own seat. I was happy to see that my trip was already getting better. But I had no clue that it wasn’t until I reached NJP station and waited from 8:30 to 2: 30 for my friend Debabrat to join me there so we could carry on to Sikkim. (Apparently this time his train from guwahati was delayed because of the damn strike). =by the time he finally made it, I had made friends with the local shop keepers at NJP station. I had slept like the rag picker kids at the station and changed my t shirt in the waiting room there. However, I couldn’t get myself to eat, or crap there. (it takes a lot of courage to do those things at a railway station cause of the lack of sanitary conditions). But to kill time I read, spoke to the shopkeepers and slept sitting with my head on my bag. Finally my long lost friend arrived and I was just happy to see a familiar face so I didn’t complain at all…we just headed to Sikkim to meet his girlfriend…even though I was feeling sickly because my bowels were at war with me by then. So we haggled with the local taxi drivers outside NJP to take us to Rangpur (a village in Sikkim) so we could go to meet Debabrat’s girlfriend at her institute in Majitar (another village there where the ATM machines don’t work most of the time.)
We paid three times the usual fare to Majitar (the local guys were making all the money they could because of the strike) and reached her hostel in the evening. It was a beautiful campus but I was thoroughly bored in the company. The couple had met after 3 months and suddenly I realized that I was with the wrong company. From now on I was the official ‘kebab mein haddi’.
Finally after they met all their friends and I had showered and crapped in her hostel bathroom, we were happy and ready to leave. We went to this really shady hotel the girlfriend had booked. And after exchanging some pleasantries I headed to my single/dirty/scary/dark rat hole to retire for the night. The next day was going to be good… I prayed.
Early in the morning we headed to Darjeeling and from now on it got better. The journey was great…we were getting closer to the clouds, then we were amongst them and then finally in Darjeeling we were above them.
Darjeeling is like an over packed heaven that is eventually going to morph into hell after a few years. But for right now, it’s just a busy tourist destination which also happens to have the purest air I’ve breathed in a long long time.
We searched, trekked and lugged our luggage and ourselves to the hills and finally after a bit of searching we found this nice hotel which looked really ugly from the outside. It was called Silver Cascade and I know that when/if I go to Dj I will stay there again. I bargained with the sweet Tibetan owner and she gave us a good discount on the already cheap hotel rates she offered us.
After dumping our bags in the hotel rooms, we had a quick shower and headed to get a good lunch. That’s when we stumbled upon Shangrila..which is just down some hill.. (you can’t really remember the road names in Darjeeling unless you’re a Tibetan yourself). Well, there I saw this really interesting picture of the last supper. What made it interesting was that instead of Jesus and his disciples, this time it was these Tibetan monks. I had Dansberg (a beer that I had for the first time in my life…and it doesn’t taste like Carlsberg at all) and Thupka (the only way I can describe it is : a broth like dish with boiled bland veges or meat particles that look really suspicious and also smell like nothing else you’ve ever eaten. However, it’s supposedly very good for your health!) My friends happily ate it for me and I stuck to a safer option by ordering chicken the next time.
Lunch was over and we headed out to this temple. It was really beautiful and we were greeted by monkeys eating lice out of each others bodies and staring at us. One of them was even drinking 7-up out of a can. How advanced!!
The air was scented with incense and was amazingly pure and clam. If you looked up, all you’d see was colourful flags with Tibetan prayers written on them. It was as though the whole sky was one big colourful cloth. The Tibetans believe that the wind takes the prayers to the gods, therefore they put these cloth pieces on trees and ropes high above so that god (who might have some wax in his ears) might be able to hear the prayers sooner.
Our next stop was a rock garden where there was nothing to see. Absolutely nothing except for empty water bottles and chips packets etc..that the tourists had eaten and thrown away. We waited there for sometime for some sort o a cultural programme to start, but it wasn’t the right day. The love birds took a walk while I sat alone on a bench and gazed around. After sometime we left.
And on our way back to the hotel we went through the market.
Later at night we had our dinner at Gelnnery’s which is my favourite place In Darjeeling. (I know im talking like I go there often even though I’ve just been there twice.) There was a live band playing there and my new fav beverage, Dansberg was available easily there. (I don’t think there’s anyway a wide choicew in beers in this state). We ate some good food and clicked some pictures as we shook our heads to the local band playing some rock music. We left after a while when the music was over and some guys at a table near ours started talking about us girls, (my friend on the table understood a bit of the local lang and didn’t seem too pleased about what they were saying about us). So we headed to the hotel and slept. That was the end of day on in Dj.
The next day we woke up at 3 am to go to Tiger point which is famous for the sunrise. On the left are the Himalayas (the Kanchanjunga and the rest of the hills are covered in snow and are heavenly) and on the east is the sunrise.. The Tiger point is so high up that it’s said that you can see the sun rise from below your feet. But that just wasn’t my day. There was way too much fog to see the sun or the Himalayas. So we sat there until 7: 30 and had a cup of coffee in below 1 degree temp. And inhaled some really pure air. It was a treat for the diaphragms.
We went back disappointed to a famous monastry where we met these really cute laamas. A particular man who looked liked a goon, annoyed me a lot when he started harassing those laama kids by asking them to sing aloud their prayers. Of course they ignored him and later he made up his own version and started singing in his horrendous voice “ohm buddheshwaraay namah”. It was an insult to their religion and I didn’t take it too well… but my friend stopped me from giving him a piece of my mind. Later we noticed that those laama kids were chanting their hymns and I secretly hoped that they are praying for that shallow man’s sanity.
Our next stop was another monastery. It was beautiful and what really impressed me was the beautiful architecture there. The old priests sat there paying and rotating the big wheels and created an atmosphere of peace all around.
After all this we headed back to our hotel to get some sleep since we’d been up too early that day. The sleep was blissful. I didn’t remember how long ago had I been alone on this massive bed wrapped up in a massive quilt…just staring at the tv as I dosed off…to some unidentifiable music in the background.
After waking up we went to the market in search of a big meal. We were really hungry and the weather was perfect for some hot soup. So we went to this Chinese restaurant and this time I stuck with safe choice by ordering American chopseuy. However I was wrong about the soup. Remember not to call for veg wanton soup in the north east. It’s usually a clear broth with drops of oil floating on top (looks very unappetizing) and some leftover veg momos thrown in for effect… even they taste bad by themselves, so imagine the soup.
The lunch ended with a heavy downpour and so we ran to the nearest shop. Big Bazaar it was. Imagine the extent to which we’ve commercialized these exotic places…
I stood under a shade there a stared dreamily at the rain as I shivered. Later I walked alone to the market and bought some gifts for friends and family. The market was so colourful and you can really bargain so that’s a great thing. There were Kashmiri shops and Nepali shops. It all got me excited. By the end of this whole shopping, I was famished and decided to go to Fiesta (a small café at mall road) to get some hot DJ tea and a sandwich. I sipped my tea as I read my new fav book, Holy cow by Sarah Mc Donald. It’s hilarious and engrossing..just what someone sitting alone in a crowded market needs to avoid stares from families as they whisper and think aloud what a lonely little girl is doing in this holiday spot all by herself.
When my tea was over and I was done with the hushed voices and stares around me, I headed to meet the lovebirds in the hotel. It was a long walk when the sun was setting and I enjoyed the solitude. After all it was my last walk alone before we left.
Later in the evening we went back to our fav spot in DJ, Glennery’s. This time, we sat in the restaurant on top. The meal was great… although I must say that these guys do not know anything about making chapattis.
We went back to the hotel and chatted and my friend spooked me out by narrating something scary and so I crashed in their hotel room..(I must’ve crushed all their plans for privacy and felt bad, but couldn’t do anything else.)
The next day we were back in Siliguri and the drive to NJP made me sick so I threw up en route. We bribed the TT to give us seats and the train journey was okay but once we reached Guwahati (around 4:30 am) it was time to say bye to the lovebirds. After a few hours they went their way and I sat alone for 2 hours at the station to kill time before any cyber café would open so I could get a print out of my e ticket. I went outside and took a rickshaw to Cotton college, assuming that there will be a cyber café near the college… but it was too early for them to be open. The rickshaw guy dropped me off at a bus stop where I was to take a bus to the airport…and since there was too much time left for the bus to leave, we chatted up. I told him about my trip and how it’s unfair for rickshaw drivers to dupe innocent travelers like me. He told me how his only bad habits are eating Gutka cause he doesn’t drink or smoke or gamble. We were friends already, so we went to have tea together. He seemed very concerned that I hadn’t eaten anything since morning and I looked really sick. I bought him chai and he in turn got me 2 center fresh chewing gums (with the fare money I had given him). He had a big heart. When I was sitting in the bus, he tapped on my window and have me some churan before saying bye. Finally I left for the airport. By now I just couldn’t wait to get home.
As if the train delays I had been through weren’t enough, even my flight to jaipur from cal (I’d taken a connecting flight from Guwahati to jai) was delayed by 4 hours. It was great to be back home…when I did get back..after a long long wait.
And now I have a bad flu. I’m sick as a fly drowning in chardonnay.