Monday, April 26, 2010

The Adventures of the Junga Junkies-- Part I

I have been hitting backspace for some time now on this, unusual for me. Normally, the words tend to flow when I am thinking with passion about something, as I am about this trip. But, to use a big word, I remain flummoxed now about where to even begin, whether I should bore the hell out of you, and myself, by recounting a chronological account of where we boarded the flight/bus/taxi and so on or to reminiscence aloud the little anecdotes that made up what was an unusually interesting journey for all of us.

The facts first before I embark on the account:
The ten-day long journey was one that was almost a trip-of-a-lifetime sorts for the four of us, one that we pulled off with what now seems a concoction of much patience, some screaming, crazy planning and a lot of chance. There was J, D, B and me. The rough itinerary (not much planned, served just the way we like it) was to ‘do’ West Bengal, a trek along the Himalayas and then fly into Manipur, drop by into Burma and get back. The plan, but of course, kept trying to escape out of the window.

There were flowers and long winding paths, local bars and wine made from flowers, “edible kids” --quote, J. Then there was chaos and wearied bones, more appropriately a tortured body each. There were surprises and the most friendly people. Tiny villages. Litres of very sweet black tea, more wai-wai (a variety of noodles) than I ever want to see in my life again, too much rice and yellow dal, cute girls and cuter men. There was the burning sultry heat of Kolkata, then the cold of 12,000 feet, the almost frost bite. Adventure and chaos. More than anything else, there was the utter overwhelming beauty of the Himalayas. Now that I think of it, it feels rather surreal that we were actually there, looking at the Himalayas almost beneath our feet.

And so we left the plains, all too glad. Stopover first at Kolkata was a nightmare. But the city gave me better vibes than I felt in Mumbai, a place that I decided I hated the minute I set my eyes on it. Kolkata is a place I wish to return to, there is much to see there.

Well, despite the lack of time, we got a bit touristy and drove past the Victoria Memorial, saw the Howrah Bridge from a distance, rode on rickety yellow taxis, took the tram, ate sweets, over-ate a most delicious authentic Bengali lunch, took in a nice Cha Bar, admired College Street, saw too many hoardings of aging Shah Rukh Khan and his Kolkata Knight Riders team and ended becoming baked beans in the heat.

My favourite part though was visiting the India Coffee House, one place I have, for some reason, always thought of as the representation of the city. The coffee was just so, but the whole place, dark steps lined with red paan-stained walls, the bustle of College Street outside, ‘intellectuals’ debating probably Buddha’s Communism and the interesting paintings, was a beautiful thing to do in the city. Buddha, by the way, is the chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. I also hear the ICH is The place for a date.

New Jalpaigudi (NJP) is what connects the entire North East with the rest of the country, a good 10 hours away from Kolkata. The train journey from Sealdah station to NJP, which was to be our entry point too, was another crazy one, with confusion over seats, cramped space, a bogey of Kannada speaking families, transsexuals eyeing me and J strangely and rounds of giggles and gossip between us two.

Oh, then there was this drunken man who came near the seat J and I were sharing, put on one of my slippers and walked away. Just one of a nice blue and white pair that I bought because it was from a brand called Ginger! Dear J hunted it out though for me in the morning; the man had abandoned it in the next compartment. After the heat, welcoming lush green fields with jackets on and cups of hot, albeit bad tea was ‘thank-God’ expression-worthy.

NJP is one of those towns whose name people know only as a point from where to move on. It is otherwise inconsequential, except maybe for a tall, copper coloured statue of Tenzin Norgay when you exit the town.

Our destination was someplace where we could start the trek from. If you should choose to plan something similar, do be prepared to be met with slightly blank looks at mention of names of villages in the northern-most parts of the state. We did not know then that the names we had got from Junga junkies whose footprints had fallen on the route before ours were in Nepal. The term Junga junkies was coined by S, I better give him the credit, he was to join us for the second leg of the trip.

Budget travellers that we were, taxis proved to be the largest of our expenses. There are what are called shared cabs to get around, but they take longer, though would probably be more interesting, given the motley mix of other passengers.

Another long road trip took us up north. The most beautiful scenery, pepped with a plate of delicious momos, with postcard-worthy little houses, shocking violet flowers framing the sides and the cottages, a toy train that criss-crosses the roads all along and of course, our first look at hills! A collective sigh of relief that we were finally in the hills!

Prakash, a young boy, barely out of his teens, was our driver, and soon into the trip, he shyly passed on a diary, a scrap book that he had filled with pictures of actors, little poems neatly copied out on straight lines, SMS jokes, some numbers and notes of expenses, reminders for birthdays and anniversaries, pictures of some female stars cut out and other matters of typical teenage obsession. On one page was a little photograph of what we gathered was his girl friend, a young thing with plaited hair and fashionable sun glasses on. I ask him about her and he bitterly says, “I left her”. From the diary though and the reams of teenage angst, it did not seem so.

We pass lovely sounding towns and villages like Kurseong, Sonada with the little railway station that looked more like a toy set that the neighbourhood children would rather play with, Ghoom, Sukiapokri and then, past pine forests and people smartly using the railway track to drag pushcarts of groceries and children along, we reach Maneybhanjang forest village, in the district of Darjeeling, Gorkhaland, a quaint, sleepy little town.

Maneybhanjang is from where we are to leave to finally begin on the trek, the next morning.
On that and more, do come back here to read about tomorrow. :-)