I guess with most trips you feel like you leave in a huff, but this time as I locked my door with the giant padlock and hurried off to find a rickshaw I felt particularly huffed. Maybe I left unprepared; I hadn’t planned enough; hadn’t packed enough. In fact, the only thing I had any idea about was the wedding, the entire reason for my trip to Calcutta.
My flight is delayed an hour. No, three hours now. I receive a call from the airline saying one hour again. The IndiGo rep. at the counter says its back to three hours…perfect! I can perform my preflight ritual: sitting on the floor of the airport bookstore and frantically writing phone numbers and directions out of their newest edition Lonely Planet into the front cover of To Kill A Mockingbird. At least now I know I have to go to Sudder St. in Calcutta to find ‘cheap’ bedding.
I fly through the first half of The DaVinci Code in the three hour flight and find myself waiting in line for a prepaid taxi still with my nose in the book. I look up to see a familiar face. For the second time in an Indian airport of a distant city of millions of people I run into the family I am meeting later in the week who are at the airport to pick up someone else. (This happened in Delhi two years ago as well).
The city is covered in an ever-present haze, particularly evident at night, glowing in the streetlights. The taxi driver drops me on what he says is Sudder St, but I soon find out he only got me close. I wander around in the fog asking for a guesthouse no one has heard of. Eventually I figure out I’m not on the right street.
“Two hundred fifty.” The room is all right, but I’ve been told I can get much cheaper. “Full” “Full” “Three hundred thirty.” Well, ok. I’ll take 250. “Sorry mate, I got the last one.” 330 then. “We’re full now.” 400, full. 500 is the last. Guh, ok 500 rupees. It’s after midnight when I settle down into the single room with queen size bed.
I spend the next morning searching for a cheaper room, but the events of the night before repeat themselves. I settle for 350/- and immediately pass out on the bed. I wake by 3pm and hurry to start the errands I had planned to do that day. Taking a shinny metro and then rickety wooden busses. I arrive at the Nepal Consulate. In Wizard of Oz fashion, I little old man peaks through a giant metal door and tells me, “Go away. Come back tomorrow.” I am not coming back tomorrow.
Keep Reading! More photos and story!
Taking another rickety wooden bus (seriously, I think everything above the chassis is made from wood) I find myself at the main train station. I need to find the tourist reservation office, but no one seems to know. I stand in line for half an hour only to be told the tourist office is not there, it’s across the river but they’re closed already. I will have to try again…tomorrow.
I stop to eat dinner at a small dhaba not too far from Sudder St. The food is great and I relax, reading for a while. The bill is delivered and I slip a 100/- note into the black leather book. The server returns the book with the 100 note still in it.
-“What is this?” I ask
-“The note is broken.”
-“Ha! What? How can a piece of paper be broken?”
-“It has a tear.”
…For those of you know my stubborn side, it comes out now.
-“You willaccept this bill, it is legal tender, endorsed by the Indian government, worth 100 of these little coins. You either accept it or I walk.”
-“We cannot accept it.”
So I walk out. One of the servers catches up with me and says they will take it, so I return and give them the bill. A man takes it and returns with a wad of cash from somewhere outside. I ask for my change, “Twenty eight rupees you owe me.”
-“No sir, that note is not worth 100 rupees.”
-“What do you mean it’s not worth 100 rupees? It IS worth 100 rupees and I demand my change.”
-“We do not have any change.”
Just then three women come up to pay and receive their change from a drawer.
-“Sir, you have change and you will give me mine.”
-“Sit down, your change is coming.”
-“Just give me my change so I can leave.”
Enter the tall, burly, well-dressed man that the workers all start talking to at once. After they finish he turn to me, “What’s your problem?”
-“I gave them a 100/- note, I want my change so I can go.”
-“The note you gave is broken.”
-“Can I see another bill? Any bill will do.”
The man pulls out a crisp 100/- note. I take it and tear a millimeter into the middle. “Now is this one broken?”
-“Yes, and now you owe 200/-.”
-“So you are telling me that I could devalue the entire Indian economy by ripping all of their notes just a little? That is illogical. If you take this to a bank they will give you 100 little coins.”
-Towering over me, the man says, “What if I beat you head to toe? Would you still be the same?”
-“Yes, and you would be arrested.”
-“You could be arrested for ripping my bill.”
-“Really? Then call the police,” I reply.
-“You want me to call the police?”
-“Yea, I’ll call them,” as I pull out my phone.
The big guy turns to the workers and tells them to give me my change.
Today was pointless. Calcutta gets negative points.
An eclectic group of foreigners sit scattered about the comfortable red couches in the waiting area for the foreign tourist reservation center. A cute Israeli girl with big, bouncy, curly hair highly recommended going into Sikkim to Pelling and Yuksom and by-passing Darjeeling because of the strikes going on there. I buy my roundtrip tickets to New Jalpaiguri, the last passenger train station in the are of Gorkhaland, the northernmost area of West Bengal, bordering Bhutan, Nepal and Sikkim.
Tyler Lunberry meets me at the Konnagar train station and takes me by cycle rickshaw to the home of his daughter’s in-laws. I’ve been friends of the family since I was four and played alongside Dana and her siblings for several years till the family moved to Africa. Dana and Dev, her husband, married already in Chicago but decided to have a semi-traditional Bengali wedding as well so Dev’s family and friend’s could participate. The cycle rickshaw winds through the maze of skinny roads and past frequent rectangle ponds almost at street level. When we reach the house everyone is almost ready to head to the wedding venue.
The ceremony is completed in a small room overlooking a courtyard already set up for the reception. A few people look on as a single priest chants and directs Dev and Dana to perform certain rituals like walking around a fire multiple times while dumping flower pedals into the fire. A video crew with a very bright light records everything and “instructs me” when to take pictures.
There’s plenty of food at the reception, but even though I had not eaten all day one plate satisfies me. There is a noticeable lack of attendees in my age group and no one offers conversation. I eventually wander off into an empty room and fall asleep. I felt it here and most weddings I attend…I do not like weddings. I don’t know if there is more to it than that.
The overnight train to New Jalpaiguri provides me with a bed, but I did not bring any cover my jackets have to suffice. “Darjeeling?” “Darjeeling?” “Sikkim?” Taxi drivers bombard me as soon as I step off the platform. I play my usual “I pretend you don’t exist” game that somehow expresses the point that I do not want their taxi better than actually saying I do not want their taxi. I ask in a tourism office for the cheapest way to get to Kalimpong. A group gathers around me saying, “A taxi. Only 600 rupees.” One man steps out and says, “shared rickshaw, 10 rupees to Siliguri. Take a bus from there.” Another man starts yelling and slapping at the man that offered me advice. From Siliguri I take a bus for 60/- to Kalimpong and a jeep to Lava for 50/-, finally arriving at my destination six hours after getting off the train.
Driving in the mountains is a very slow process with an average speed between 15-20kmph. Around every blind turn are more pot holes determined to knock your from your seat. The mountains are completely forested with almost no sheer cliffs despite the extremely steep slopes. I had always thought the East Asian paintings of mountains were highly stylized; it struck me how much these mountains look like these paintings. Where the slopes meet the valley floor beautiful light blue water courses between and around giant boulders. I would love to have the chance to kayak this river when it is a bit warmer.
Lava came highly recommended from a friend in Mumbai, but I had no idea what to expect. And while I do not have a guidebook for India I have no idea what to do while here. I find a guesthouse and go in search of warmer clothes. I find a sweater, wool cap, and socks, but nothing for my legs or hands.
The village is situated precariously on the top and sides of a mountain. The road zigzags up the slope lined by restaurants and guesthouses. A gold and red Tibetan monastery sits at the bottom of the village and on the edge of the ridge, over looking a vast sea of mountains if you could see through the haze. Beyond the monastery the road splits, up takes you into the “deep jungle” and down leads to a beautiful waterfall.
These children were playing in the street below my guesthouse.
The bed bids me to enter for a late afternoon nap. I plan on going to dinner about 7pm but I do not wake up till 11pm. Being used to often having dinner later than 11 in Mumbai I venture out after food, but I find a completely deserted village. Even the stray dogs are hiding.
At 4am I expected a knock at my door that never comes. I had set up with a young man to take me to a vantage point where I could see the sunrise and the light reflecting off India’s highest mountain, Kangchenjunga, 28,169 ft. He comes at 5:30 and the light has already started so I decline. I had already decided I was leaving this morning, mostly out of not wanting to trek by myself and I seemed to be the only foreigner in the village.
I attempted to use my journal as a seismograph, recording the roughness of the road from Lava to Kalimpong.
Back in Kalimpong, I purchase a ticket for a jeep to Pelling, Sikkim, and leave the insanity of the “motor stand” in search of more warm clothes and food. The motor stand is where all the shared jeeps and busses come to pick up and drop off passengers. It’s maybe 40ft wide and 150ft long with jeeps and busses crammed into every square corner, but its constantly in motion with jeeps immediately replaces those that have left.
I hear it before I see it. Police are running this way and that on the road above the motor stand, barking orders. Then I see the flags and banners. It’s the people of Gorkhaland demanding their own state; thousands march by chanting slogans and fist pumping. They feel minimized and forgotten by the West Bengal government. They don’t get enough funding for infrastructure, schools, etc. They have almost no voice in the national government. Other parts of India still refer to them as immigrants. They speak Nepali, not Bengali and do not relate to the people to the south.
On the road to Pelling a jeep rolled over on its side blogged both sides of traffic. After the police arrive the men get together and push the vehicle out of the way. Just daily life in Sikkim.
The road to Pelling is much worse than any I have been on so far on this trip. Incredibly rough and slow. Even though I had been told I could not get a permit to enter Sikkim at the border I found that it was a quick ten-minute process. I’m ready to jump out of the jeep hours before I actually reach Pelling, but when we pull into the village, the first guesthouse I see is one from my list. I hear foreigners talking and someone playing guitar around a fire. I think I’ll stay here.
There’s more to the story! Keep reading part II!