Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Adventures of the Junga Junkies-- Part III

After intense pain comes a stage of utter numbness. It is where you don’t really feel any fresh pain, just a numb acceptance. So too in life. So it was for us, five days into our adventure. FB grumbled that Anil and I must have been on steroids, for the pace at which we were walking. It was just really the stage after the intense pain.

Rimbik is this nice little place where J finally got to eat the momos she was so craving for. Wearied bones et all, we hated the thought of being in the plains again and got into a shared taxi where the rest of the passengers looked a little like hooligans, the driver included. Past Maneybhanjang, a sad goodbye to Anil, some money for his guitar and promises to keep in touch, we got down at Darjeeling, that mecca for most hill-bound tourists. I instantly hated it, way too commercial, crowded, with a jaded aura of having seen too many people tread its lanes.

Some Darjeeling tea bags for the family, a plate of bad chowmein later, we head to Bagdogra, 3 hours away, completely in the plains (ugh!) and the airport town for almost the entire North East. Some hotel hunting there and J losing her temper rather violently, we end up in this place that looks very suspiciously like the Hotel Decent from the Hindi movie Jab We Met! (For the uninitiated, it is a place where the lead pair land up in after missing a train. The hotel turns out to be the hub of other kinds of business which is later raided by the police…and the story goes forth)

So well, the hotel was rather creepy, but the only one in the town available. The next morning, just hours before the flight to Imphal, the first thing we hear is D murmuring, “we are in trouble” and right after, S calls, asking what the heck is happening. There has been an insurgency attack and we can’t fly. To cut a very long, chaotic story short, we change plans, convince S, get to NJP again, wait a day and then travel to Sikkim! Yes, talk about chaos there! But at least we drive past the Teesta river and there are the beautiful hills again!

Gangtok is another of those quaint little hill stations with pretty houses and pretty people. We all loved the place for how it was modern and yet had the tinge of the untouched to it. Lovely shops, great food, the perfect weather. Just that, that very day, there was a water crisis and the whole of the town, including the hotel we were in, was without water. But lets overlook that for now.

May I very highly recommend M G Marg? For those of us who have, in browsing the net and flipping through travel magazines with a loud sigh of longing, seen pictures of European towns, French villages and paved lanes of I-don’t-know-which-town, M G Marg is that. The little street takes a gentle bend and goes before the prettiest buildings. Pity I don’t have a picture that justifies the lovely street.

By then, we are in love with the weather and the street. Gangtok is good. Before long, we head to Cacao, a coffee place that we hung out the most in. Two very pretty waitresses; the boys predictably tried to work their charms on them! Now, you know I have impossibly high standards for judging coffee. That said, even I was impressed with how good the coffee was. Plus, at a distance, there was a peak (literally, rather!) of snow capped mountains! Quite obsessed with the mountains that we were, and still are, we couldn’t have asked for more than coffee, conversations and a view such as that.

Gangtok was of Pub 25, this interesting place where we threw in an impromptu surprise party for S, on his upcoming birthday. Gangtok was of shopping on M G Marg and at Lal Bazaar, long walks, of the Rumtek Monastery, one of the oldest in Asia, supposedly, of more coffee, some glitches.

Utter chaos again. We head to NJP, the flight back home is the next day, there aren’t any buses and we hire a very expensive cab to go to Kolkata. Now that was quite a journey, all of some ten hours, across the length of West Bengal, cramped up, sweaty; its boiling hot. We hate the plains.

Taking turns at trying to be comfortable, we drive along the highway. The music playing, old and new Hindi film hits, isn’t too bad. Lunch is at the dirtiest dhaba I have ever seen. No, I am not being snooty. If I may say so, living in hostels and travelling and doing the kind of things that I have done, I am quite accustomed to looking past the plates and the spoons and dirty nails of the waiter. But this place, called, I think, Paradise Hotel, was the filthiest, the kind frequented by truck drivers and others of their ilk. I just had to be cheeky and call ma to tell her this! She of course was suitably scandalized, as she is with most things I do! The food wasn’t too bad though.

Further up, there is trouble again. There has been a storm two days ago, uprooting whole bamboo groves, destroying crops and huts. One village is especially angry, apparently only some have been given compensation. They have taken it upon themselves to protest, by blocking traffic for miles on end. I ask J whether the police even function in these parts, she says these things are common. I am surprised at the grudged acceptance of the rest of the people at such atrocious behaviour.

Someone tells us there is another way through the village itself. We have gone a little ahead on narrow mud roads, past huts and little kids who gape, before we are stopped by a block of wood across the way. It feels like a scene out of Satyajit Ray’s movie, the village, the children and the abject poverty. I am reminded starkly of ‘Pather Panchali’, the poverty we see nothing like the poor as we are otherwise accustomed to seeing.

A young man refuses to let us move. By then dozens of children are milling around the car and peeping in. J tries talking, it doesn’t work, until there, and still further ahead, we all bring out our press cards. The media, I hear, is greatly respected in WB. It did not matter to them that we were journalists in distant Bangalore. A man inspects, with and then without his glasses, S and his id card.

A heaved sigh later, and much further ahead, we stop at Bharampur for dinner. It is new year’s day, Noboborsho, for Bengalis and J promises us an authentic Bengali meal. Everything is fine till we are about to get into the car again when suddenly, all the lights go off, bulbs burst, plastic covers and papers fly in the air and tin roofs seem like they will fly away in an instant. D is telling us, peppered generously with profanities, to get inside the car or that we would get hurt. We are quite shaken. J is the only one nonchalant. “Its just Kal Baisakhi, the black storm”, she explains, “happens all the time. Sometimes it get worse and there is a lot of damage.” Oookay!! There is rain, trees lashing against each other, roofs and even huts threatening to be taken away by the black wind. Quietly, J continues telling us of how she associates the Kal Baisakhi with her childhood, how these things are common. That girl! Our laughter is shaky.

Troubles don’t end there, though we get out of the Kal Baisakhi alive. The driver has driven nearly 100 kms without the headlights on, he is constantly nodding off and yet refuses to stop for tea, the car breaks down but finally, finally, we reach the airport at 5 am, wait another half a day, send off J home, see off D and surprises, the flight actually takes off too!

Life goes on now, though I still hate the plains and miss the mountains. If anything, the trip was the impetus to my obsession with the mountains. There are too many things I leave out from writing, some sentences sound better in the head. The trip was mission accomplished for me after dreaming and planning it for three years.

What it did was just wet the appetite for more mountains, more travel. And I tend to look back at all the glitches and call them instead, experiences. That trip, I shall probably always refer to it that way. That which made us, more us.

What it most importantly did was what I want to use Edmund Hillary’s words to put it best. “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”