Life was boring and Bombay was getting to me. Travel, they say, broadens the mind (my body is broad enough as it is), so when Chinmay and I met , we decided to go backpacking in the wild, wild east -- Calcutta, Sikkim and Assam. So off we went with a chaddi and a backpack -- no hotel booking, no travel booking, nothing. Just a one-way ticket to Calcutta!
For me the adventure started rather early in the proceedings. The night before ETD, I was down with cough and fever, and mom was on the point of vetoing the trip, but I held firm and insisted that I will go. Chinmay had faxed me the ticket (this was 1998!) and I read the train time as leaving at 6.30 AM.
So to be on the safe side, I decided to reach the station at 6.00 AM - half an hour earlier - so as to have a relaxed embarkation. Why run and huff and puff early in the morning? Board aaram se and enjoy the journey.
So I reached the station promptly at 6.00 AM and see a train puffing majestically out of the station.
'Wonder what train that was?' I wondered idly and imagine my shock when the porter tells me casually - 'Oh that? That was the Gitanjali express, going to Calcutta.'
'WHAT?!!' The porter winced as I screamed in falsetto. 'Gitanjali is my train! It was supposed to leave at 6.30!' I turned to see the schedule and it was written clearly 'Gitanjali...6.00 AM'
SHIT SHIT SHIT!
'OOOOOOO.....my train has goneee.....what shall I dooooooooo?' I wailed out there.
'Take a local and run after the train saa'b.' the porter advised. 'You can catch it at Kalyan or Kasara'
'Really?' I asked piteously.
'Yes of course - but hurry! See - that local is ready to leave! Run for it!'
I sprinted to the local and jumped in, and of course I couldn't catch the Gitanjali. No local can catch an express. The porter just wanted me out of there and not wailing in his ear.
So what to do? I didn't want to go back home and become the laughing stock of the house. Someone suggested going to the airport and catching a flight to Nagpur and catching the train there. but that struck me as a damn stupid idea - straight out of a hindi film called 'Parwana'. Which was a stupid film anyway.
Much better to catch a flight to Calcutta directly! I went to the airport and booked a ticket with my brand new credit card, and my wallet sobbed piteously at the cost - almost a months salary for me at the time and zoom! I was in Calcutta. Via Lucknow and Varanasi - because it was stinking hopping flight which took freakin' forever.
I made my way to Zahid's house - the friend with whom I was supposed to stay tomorrow! He was shocked to see me a day early, and then had a loud laugh at my idiocy.
The next day I had to run to the station to catch Chinmay at the train arrival, as if he slipped through my fingers there, there would have been no way to be in touch with him at all! This was 1998 after all - no mobile phone, no email, no internet. We had no reservations or itinerary, so it would have been impossible to catch him. Luckily I managed to find a short guy in the dirtiest clothes possible and rubber chappals - he was really taking this backpacking thing seriously - -and we retired back to Zahid's place for the night.
We stayed the night there and then we started out on the adventure. We had decided to go with the bible of backpackers -- the Lonely Planet. We moved out of his place and went hunting around for accommodation in the tourist part of town. We finally found a place on Sudder Street, the heart of the town for Rs. 300 per night, double room.
We went around Calcutta for a couple of days, seeing all the sights -- Alipore, Victoria Memorial, Fort William, Maidan, the theatre etc. Chinmay was very excited about going to see the Institute of Cost Accountants, of which he is an alumnus - and which turned out to be a shitty little building, like all buildings in Cal. The tallest building in Calcutta at that time was a 13 storey dump called 'Chatterjee International', which looked as if it would fall down in a stiff breeze.
Also, you keep on bumping into strange sights -- in Sudder Street, on a very dirty broken wall, with a pool of filth beneath it, I caught sight of a dirty marble plaque. It sparked my curiousity, so we went to take a closer look and it turned out to be a commemorative plaque -- "Herein so-and-so date was born the novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray." - writer of the famous 'Vanity fair' and regarded as an equal of Dickens in his hey day. His father had been a writer with the East India company.
In the US, they would have built a cubicle around it and charged $2 to read it, and another $3 to buy a T-shirt; but here it was just a forgotten plaque to a forgotten writer.
In another place, under equally dirty surroundings was a grotesque statue of Rabindranath, commemorating that he completed the Gitanjali in another (now) dirty building.
Another commemorative alcove was in the walls of Fort William, commemorating the fact that, in a laboratory at that location in the year 1898, Dr. Ronald Ross discovered that malaria is spread by the Anopheles mosquito and controlling the mosquito was the key to controlling malaria. Malaria was the number one killer in ancient times, and even contributed to the decline of the Roman empire - it was known as the 'roman fever'. The ancients thought that malaria was caused due to noxious gases emitted from swamps, and thus called it 'Malaria' from the words Mal = bad and aria = air. Malaria became a major health issue in the empire building era, as all the new equatorial possessions of the various new empires were a death trap to the European colonists as they dropped like flies in the equatorial heat. The first scientific breakthrough was in 1880 when Laveran, the french doctor, noticed malarial parasites in red blood cells in a hospital in Algeria, and people realised that Malaria was caused by little organisms rather than bad air. In 1881, Carlos Finlay, a cuban doctor in Havana notcied that this organism was spread by mosquitoes; and in April 1894 the scottish doctor Sir Ronald Ross proved the complete life cycle of the parasite while working in the Presidency hospital in Calcutta. This discovery let to the control of mosquito population to prevent spread of malaria, and the discovery of the curative powers on Cinchona bark let to an effective anti malarial medicine. This was a real triumph of science, and led to the virtual banishment of Malaria.
I found it very ironic that in front of that alcove was a stagnant pool, where presumably, those same disease bearing mosquitoes were breeding.
The feeling that one gets in Calcutta is that this place could have had so much potential -- the main city in the East, so much history, could be a gateway to the East Asian export traffic. Or tourism in the East and Far East or perhaps a regional production base. Or anything it wants. But 50 years of marxist rule and the natural non-productivity of the people have totally screwed the place. In fact, it seems to be still functioning only because of cheap labour from Bihar and Bangladesh. A pity, because in spite of everything, the city has a certain decadent charm. I had been there many times on official business, but this was seeing it from a new angle, purely as a tourist.
One evening we went to the discotheque at The Park Hotel. They had a performing band from the Philippines, which was quite good. The oddity was that there was a black student out there who was freaking out! Be-bopping to the music and trying to hit on the girls. We bumped into him in the loo and found that he was from Kingston, Jamaica! We were quite intrigued and asked him what the hell was he doing in Calcutta of all places; but the only answer he gave was, "Hunting pussy maan!"
Later we got a bit drunk and Chinmay insisted on entering the dance floor to eye the Bengali women in their disco best. There was a cover charge of Rs. 200 each, which Chinmay paid for both of us (he was that desperate)! But when we finally entered, there wasn't a soul in the place! We argued long and loud with the management, but they refused to refund the fee. There being no nothing more we could do, we spent an hour dancing alone in there and then staggered back to the hotel, getting hit on by the Calcutta pimps all the way back!
Then we decided to visit Shantiniketan, the Vishwabharati University founded by Rabindranath Tagore. On enquiry we found that we have to take a train called the Shantiniketan express and then get off at a station called Bolpur. So we went to the station to buy a ticket -- but you should see a Cal station current-booking counter! Terrible! So, to avoid the pain, we bought tickets from a tout and on his advice, we parted with some extra dough for reserved seats. When we entered the train though, the blasted train was empty! People filed in later, with hardly anybody with a reservation. We got rooked like anything!
Shantiniketan is very nice. We didn't stay in a hotel, but within the university itself. Though that day was a holiday, we piled on to the registrar (we are tourists from Bombay, can you help...) and he was good enough to put us up in the dorm at Rs. 25 per head, per night. We had a nice time, roamed around the campus -- very nice campus indeed, but decaying, like all of India's education system. Being a holiday, the place was empty so we went for a movie in that one horse town theatre, walked out half-way through the terrible movie and took a cycle rickshaw back, with Chinmay singing ghazals all the way back. That was a real magical experience - the dark of the night, the cool breeze, the rhythmic sound of the cycle pedals and Chinmays melliflous voice and the lovely urdy poetry...
Even the rickshawwala was very moved. When Chinmay stopped, he begged him to continue singing. 'Gaan boloon, gaan boloon' he begged, and no performer would have had a more heartfelt compliment.
Then we went back to Cal and from there took a train to Siliguri, which is the entry point to the North East. It's a little one-horse town, but a very important hub for the North East sector. Hats off to the Lonely Planet -- they actually have a map of Siliguri that even the Siliguri municipality do not have! From there, we took a venhicle to Sikkim, and got deposited in Gangtok.
A very nice town, though not yet completely commercialized (on the way there though) but the town is totally vertical! Point A to point B is only 4-6 km away, which is not bad, but when it is totally vertical and you are going with one fairly heavy backpack, it can get really bad, very fast. Huffing and puffing, we sweat it out even in the cool atmosphere.
We put up at a hotel -- clean and neat, with a friendly staff. Rent? Rs. 150 for a double room! Only, it was on the 5th floor and in the thin air, after walking for miles on those vertical roads, you again huff and puff up to your room. But it was worth it --high and quiet, with a nice view of the Kanchenjunga. The place had an excellent restaurant and bar attached and we spent the evenings eating away and getting drunk.
Being a Lonely Planet recommendation, it was full of firangs. We used to have interesting discussions all night long with everybody getting quite animated. There was quite a variety too -- French, Canadian, Israeli, Spanish, Aussies, Pommies...no yanks though. All these guys were vehemently anti-yank, so any yank male in that company would have got ribbed mercilessly. Chinmay got drunk and scandalized the French guy -- he first accused France of being a banana republic, then when he found that the gentleman's father had been stationed in French Algeria at one time, he accused him of being a member of the OSS . The poor frenchy was shocked out of his wits.
Roamed around quite a bit in Sikkim, seeing the tourist spots, taxi it one way and then walk -- fun, healthy and cheap. Occasionally we took lifts, even from an army truck once. We went white water rafting -- good fun and quite cheap (Rs. 600 per head for a 13 km stretch). It was even more fun because it was off-season and there were only 4 of us in a raft that normally takes 12-15! The other two were honeymooners so naturally there was something nice to look at.
We headed to Tchangu Lake, the highest freshwater lake in the world (3000-odd feet). The lakeside itself is like Chowpatty, with hordes of Bengalis all wrapped up in layers and layers of wool, eating noodles and drinking chai. Bengalis out there are the local equivalent of Gujratis here -- loud, irritating and numerous. So we decided to be adventurous and go for a trek up the mountain side which was extremely beautiful with huge varieties of wild orchids and rhododendrons. We went quite some way up, and found one abandoned machinegun post -- a relic of the China war. The China border (Nathula Pass) is only 16-20 kms away. Climbing at that height really gets you tired, I must say.
We came down and over a cup of chai, we casually asked the guide why people don't climb up to enjoy the beauty. "Well saar, there are still some old land mines leftover from the '62 war. Only last week a yak got its leg blown off." Abey saale, pehele nahin bol sakta tha! It's God's grace that we are still alive!
Then we went on to the Rumtek monastery of the Dalai Lama fame -- not very impressive, but the walk back is very nice. They also have a magnificent zoo / animal park close by. We were the only ones there, so it was like having your own private park. We saw rare varieties of animals -- golden civets, leopard cats and rare birds. Chinmay is a wildlife enthusiast and he got extremely excited. We found one animal keeper out there and made friends with him. As I said, not many people come there, and he was very pleased to meet people who have come from so far away and are eager to know about animals, so he gave us a personalized guided tour. The sky was overcast and it rained slightly, so the atmosphere was simply phenomenal -- green, refreshing and enchanting. We found patches of wild strawberries, gleaming red in the dark green surroundings and munched them all the way down.
Four days in Sikkim and the wanderlust hit us again. So we came back to Siliguri and decided to try Jaldapara National Park, a rhino reserve about 150 kms away. The West Bengal tourism offices in Calcutta and Siliguri flatly refused to give reservations, "Full up, saar." But we decided to go there anyway and give it a try.
We took a bus to the nearest point (buses there are ridiculously cheap -- Rs. 16 for 150 km) and walked over to Jaldapara. We went on and sweet-talked the manager and sure enough, there was a room free! An independent cottage in fact! It was a small cottage with attached an bath. That along with all meals and chai nashta, for Rs. 650 per day -- cool scene! Lonely Planet ki jai! We roamed around in the nearby village that evening and spent time chatting with the locals. We wanted to end up in Tezpur, Assam, so we went to the closest station (Madarihaat). It was narrow guage and you have to see it to believe it. Our Bombay local stations are bigger! Sure enough there was a train to Tezpur but as the stationmaster said, "I would not recommend it, saar. Scheduled time is 2.00 a.m., and yesterday's train has not arrived yet (it was 6.00 p.m. then)." So we dropped the plan.
Instead, we went for an elephant safari the next day. All in all, a great experience but we didn't see anything. Not surprising with a horde of brightly dressed, perfumed, cigarette smoking, chattering Bengali people for company. But anyway, as I said, it was a new experience and good fun.
Ab kya? Bhutan border is barely 15 kms away, so chalo Bhutan! (Honest ! that was how our decisions were being taken.) So we took another bus to the Bhutan border. Basically there are two towns separated by an arch called the Bhutan gate. There is no border security of any kind on the Indian side so you can come and go as you please -- baap ka maal. On the Bhutan side though there are very smartly dressed (and very tough and capable looking) guards and check posts with the works. Indian nationals can enter Phunshilling (the Bhutanese border town) at will, and can stroll into Bhutan if they have an ID (a Passport or a Voter ID card). If you don't, then show your driving license or credit card to the Indian consullate and they will give you a pass to enter Bhutan.
We had neither the ID nor the time, so we decided to stay in Phunshilling itself. Bhutan is a great place with a vast difference between the Indian Alipore and the Bhutanese Phunshilling -- it is clean, green and neat. Bhutanese people roam around in their Bakhus (their national dress, sort of a Toga and knee-length socks) and drive Toyotas. God knows why Toyotas are so popular -- only Toyotas and Marutis can be seen on the road. They must be having some arrangement with the king.
Bhutan is a monarchy, by the way, with no means of support save for selling electricity and support to rich nations. I dare say India pays all its bills, just to have a satellite country against China. So the citizens have a ball -- with some of them being very rich, and the others also doing not so badly. Only Bhutanese are allowed to carry on business, but all the shops are run by Indian Marwadis. The shop permit is filled out in some Bhutanese local's name, for which the Indians have to pay some consideration. Thus the locals are ensured free and effortless money.
Daru is amazingly cheap -- rum is 5 bucks a peg, whisky 7 bucks, beer 13 bucks a bottle! Drinking seems to be their national pastime. Any chai ki tapri keeps daru as a matter of course, and at any time of the day or night, junta drinks. The king had not allowed TV in Bhutan till about 6 months ago, so I suppose they had nothing better to do.
We went to a nearby monastery early in the morning. It was a very, very beautiful place -- much better than the Rumtek monastery, and far better than any temple or church that I have ever seen. Serene and calm, with a beautiful temple, garden and a wonderful view of the plains of Bengal. Refreshed by this, we went for a cup of tea and breakfast (8.00 a.m.) There was a Bhutanese family there, who had also come for darshan consisting of one male, two females, two children and a baby. After visiting the temple, they also came to the same hotel for refreshments. At eight in the morning, one would expect people to enjoy hot steaming tea. Instead, the male orders rum, the women order beer! After drinking a bit, they fed the beer to the baby (couldn't have been older than 8-10 months). Later, they got fed up with beer, so they gave it to a nearby soldier and ordered rum for themselves...amazing!
Ab kya? We had seen the poster of a palace in a place called Cooch Behar in the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation guest house in Jaldapara. And Chinmay was fascinated by the name -- Cooch Behar -- so romantic (!) and thus we took a bus to the place. We had tickets for the train from Siliguri to Guwahati. We thought that we would board it at the Cooch Behar station.
Cooch Behar is amazing. We got off the bus with relief, the driver was trying to imitate Ayrton Senna and had a simple way to clear the road -- sit on the horn -- all the way from Alipore to Cooch Behar. The bus station is unimpressive, like any small West Bengal town, so we asked for directions to the palace.
The palace left us open-mouthed! Huge structure -- bigger than VT station, out there in the middle of nowhere! The Raja must have really squeezed his people to build that thing. There were a lot of people there, feverishly trying to clear the unkempt lawns and painting the palace. Why all this activity? The Director of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was scheduled to visit. Ah!
We went behind the palace and it was in shambles. All the spit and polish was only for the front end. Talk about a Potemkin village!
There's a beautiful garden close by, with a boating pond and Bengali music playing from loudspeakers. At nightfall, the palace is lit up with concealed lighting and the sound of Saxophone music fills the darkening sky. Very romantic. I was very impressed. We were not allowed into the palace lawns though, as the Director was enjoying an evening drink, so we were admiring it from outside.
Later, disaster struck! We took a cycle rickshaw to the new Cooch Behar station and found that the train was a few hours late. Well, okay, we accepted it philosophically. We had with us some interesting books found in a treasure house of a second-hand bookstore in Phunshilling, so we waited. The train finally arrives at midnight and it's raining cats and dogs. We entered the train and the TC has cancelled our reservation, as we had not boarded at Siliguri. Oh no!
We tried to spread out newspapers and sleep on the floor, but the whole bloody train was leaking, so the floor was instantly turned to mud. It was leaking so much that it seemed to be raining as much inside the train as outside! The experienced travelers had actually brought plastic sheets with them, and had strung it over their berths. Others were getting wet while sleeping in their beds.
I noticed a tubelight in the train which it had a plastic case that was already half-full of water. I wondered how much would it have to fill up, before it finally short circuited and electrocuted everyone in the train! We stood around till 4.00 a.m., until we got one berth somehow -- I was too groggy to notice how. Both of us and our backpacks somehow squeezed onto that top berth and we manged to get to Guwahati.
When we reached Guwahati we were in a bad state. First thing we wanted to do was to take a bath and crap and feel human again. Kaun dhoondega... So for the first time we did not go by the Lonely Planet and generally walked into the nearest hotel that we found. And what a hotel ! A more uglier hotel can't be found anywhere. Rate? Rs. 120 for a double room. We hurriedly used the bathroom and freshened up (by torchlight because the bathroom light was not working; perhaps a good thing... nothing could have been worth seeing) and cut out.
As we had the morning to spend, we decided to see the Kamakhya temple, the nodal point of tantricism in India. The legend is that when Sati committed suicide when Shiva was insulted, he was lost in grief and wandered about the universe holding the body of Sati in his hands. To prevent the whole world from being engulfed by Shiva's grief, Vishnu cut up Sati's body into 1008 pieces with his Sudarshan chakra. Temples are there all over india where the various parts of her body are presumed to have landed, and the Kamakhya temple is where her Yoni (vagina) landed.
Well, that time was a particularly auspicious one for that temple, as it was the time of the Earth's menstrual cycle (?) so there was a huge crowd there. Also, animal sacrifices are in vogue at this temple, so we stopped for some time seeing goats and pigeons get the chop. Very soon we had our fill of this gory side of Hinduism and left without attempting to enter the sanctum sanctorum.
We had lunch at an excellent hotel serving Assamese food and took a bus to Tezpur where I planned to spend the next week with my brother, Deepak. We reached there without much of an adventure, though we startled Deepak a bit by landing straight at his place. He was expecting us to call him up from Tezpur and ask him to pick us up.
"How did you find your way here?"
"Arey, after the places we have been to, we can find our way almost anywhere."
In a last gasp of adventure for Chinmay, the flight out of Tezpur was cancelled. A lot of fun because there are flights out of Tezpur only twice a week, he had to get back to Bombay urgently and was stuck with only Rs. 500 in his pocket. And in Tezpur, no credit cards are accepted. Also, it was Sunday so the bank was closed and Deepak did not have that kind of money at home. Luckily I had some Rs. 7000 odd and so Chinmay could buy another ticket on Sahara Airlines and get back via Guwahati and Delhi.
I had a very relaxed time in Tezpur as compared to the earlier two weeks. In the Tezpur town, I went to a nearby tea garden and to a party in their mess. A last gasp of adventure for me too as my flight out of Tezpur was delayed by 6 hours, so when I finally reached Calcutta, the friend with whom I was supposed to spend the night had gone out somewhere, leaving me stranded! Luckily I was able to contact another batchmate of mine and stay the night there, so I was spared the Sudder Street accommodation, which was always there as an option.
The next day I visited old friends in the Calcutta office, took another boat ride on the Hooghly (it was for practical purposes -- the Rs. 2 five-minute ride saved me a half-hour, polluted, jammed and expensive taxi ride to the Hooghly station) and caught the train back home.
Back home to Bombay -- pollution, traffic jams and office! Aaaah...Sikkim!