Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Varanasi to Darjeeling

After packing up and storing my luggage with the Varanasi Radisson bellhop, I tried to post my souvenirs to their various new homes.

Damn. Indian holiday. Banks and post office were closed. I was going to have to carry my souvenirs on to Darjeeling. I worried...what if I left them on a train or bus?

Cursing the hot sun and the holiday, I walked back to the hotel to leave my souvenirs with my backpack, then gamely went down the road to try the Chicken Maharaja Mac at the Varanasi McDonald's.

The golden arches aren't big in India, because, duh, they don't eat cows there. But various forms of chicken burgers seem to have a following, and it wouldn't be sporting of me to just eat a wrap or a salad, so I tried out the chicken version of the Big Mac.

I wasn't too impressed, though the Chicken Maharaja Mac was all right. It was what you might expect, like a Big Mac with chicken tikka instead of beef inside it. 

I spent the rest of the day in the hotel bar, working on my laptop while sipping on espresso (after my attempts at getting iced coffee resulted in an ice-cream-and-coffee concoction). True, I could have just ordered a glass of ice and some coffee, but I didn't want to make a mess. 

Then, at 7:45, I went out front to wait for my pick-up. I'd booked my transfer to Mughal Sari with the budget hotel next door because the Radisson's travel desk was pricey. 

But the Radisson's guy would have been there at 7:45. 

After 15 minutes of me standing there waiting, the hotel staff became agitated. 

"What time is your train? This isn't good. It will take an hour for your to get to Mughal Sari." 

"But it's only 20 kilometers away." 

"Traffic is terrible. Go to the hotel, and ask where your driver is." 

I trotted next door. 

"Oh, it's only 20 minutes to get there. Don't worry. Here, this driver will take you." 

We went back to the Radisson, where the staff gave my driver the evil eye. He was late. I was their client. They were pissed. 

With good reason, as it turned out. 

The drive through the exhaust, over the potholes, past cows, dogs, motorbikes, and people took an hour.

As we drove, the driver explained to me that India has Muslims, what a Muslim is, and pointed some out to me. I tried gently explaining to him that I had lived and worked in Kuwait, but he looked at me blankly through the rearview mirror.

I tried again. "You know, near Dubai."

No progress.

"My company is near Saudi Arabia."

He must have thought I was trying to say "You mean Muslims like they have in Saudi Arabia," because the next tidbit he offered was that Muslims were having a big holiday now.

I tired of this game.

"Yes. It's called Ramadan."

My train was scheduled for 9:20, so when we arrived just after nine, I hurried into the station and found a sign indicating that my train left from platform #2. I found #2, and was immediately approached there by a young man who was waiting with his mother and sister.

He took it upon himself to usher me into a waiting room where there were fewer mice and cockroaches than on the main platform. The old, rundown train arrived in the old, rundown station at 10. It only had a half a car full of AC 2-tier, and no soft sleeper car at all. No dining car. The reason there had still been berths even though I hadn't booked that early is that the Mahanandra Express is a crappy train in need of retirement.

"You are lucky today," said the bank manager from Gangtok whose berth was next to mine. "This train is only 40 minutes late. Usually it's 12-15 hours late."

I stared at him aghast, and only just recovered my composure to ask him where I could buy a bottle of water for the voyage. Mine was down to half a bottle.

He waved at the platform. I ran off, keeping an eye on the train in case it started to pull out of the station. I found a kiosk with bottled water on display, bought a bottle from the shopkeeper, and headed back to my compartment.

There was a full bottle on my bunk.

"Where did this come from?"

The bank manager was beaming in his tank top.

"I have gotten you this water," he said, pointing at the public tap on the platform.

"Thank you but I'm sorry—because my stomach is different that yours, I can't drink from the tap."

He looked crestfallen. I tried not to show my irritation at having my water be ruined.

I climbed up into my bunk, arranged the sheets, wondered how to get a blanket, but fell asleep too quickly to wait up for the attendant. I froze towards morning, but no one got hurt. I managed to sleep until six, then until 9, then bought some bread off one vendor and some nasty Nescafe off another guy who was wandering around with cups and a Thermos of hot milk. I used the last of my Bangkok Skippy on the bread and feasted not like a king, but peanut butter on bread isn't too bad a breakfast.

The problem with sleeper trains is that they're never as comfortable for sitting on as they are for sleeping on, plus I feel awkward sitting on a stranger's bed, so I stayed up in my bunk during the day, my legs stretched out as I read my Kindle.

The scenery outside had transformed overnight. We no longer rode through the squalor and chaos I'd seen around Varanasi. Now we were into rich green rice paddies and fields of vegetables of the state of West Bengal. India had transformed into something lovely while I slept.

Finally, we pulled into the New Jalpaiguri train station at 2:30.

"Only an hour behind!" The bank manager was gleeful.

I followed him and the other passengers out of the train, up the stairs, and across the tracks into the station. Outside, I'd find share-taxis to Darjeeling, according to the bank manager and the guidebook.

Wow. The sun was baking.

And there were many share-taxis, but no one was going anywhere in the lazy afternoon. Not a single other passenger had headed over to the share-taxis. Where had they gone?


"No other passengers yet. You want a private taxi?"

Darjeeling was still four hours of hard driving up a mountain. I definitely didn't want to pay for a private taxi.

"How can I get to Darjeeling?"

One of the taxi drivers thought a minute.

"There are many taxis from Siliguri." That's the twin town to New Jalpaiguri.

"Great. Let's go there."

As we drove, the driver sang to me for a bit, and then asked me why I wasn't married.

"I DON'T KNOW." I have gotten tired of this question. Fine, I'm from Mars, can you please stop reminding me?

He left me at the Siliguri share-taxi depot, an efficient parking area full of drivers, passengers, vendors, and an office. I bought seat #8 in a 4WD, then guzzled a Coke to try to offset my day's caffeine-withdrawal.

School kids in blue uniforms marched by waving signs as I waited. I couldn't read them and had no idea what would inspire school kids to protest in India. Later, a friend of mine read the signs from my photos. The kids were protesting corruption, supporting the man who was on a hunger strike.

India is in many ways, the extreme opposite of the other huge-powerhouse I'd been in a few weeks earlier, China. A Chinese backpacker in Chiang Mai had joked to me that in China "If we protest, the government will just shoot us." Here in India, even ten-year-olds could demonstrate for their beliefs, and at least in the case of state-corruption, saw it as their civic duty.

I waited 40 minutes for the last seat to sell, finally buying an extra one myself to get a move on. We pulled out of Siliguri under the protection of a Dalai Lamai photo hanging from the rear-view mirror, honking and rattling over the cracked roads, and eventually turned onto the mountain switchbacks that lead to Darjeeling. 

Up, up, up...progress was slow and anytime an oncoming car approached, we had to slow down and make way for it. The hairpin switchbacks were nerve-wracking, and as we rose, the sunny day turned foggy, cold, and then wet. 

We passed two landslides, both causing a slowdown while vehicles eased their way across, one by one. When I started to see the rails of the "toy train," I saw mud covered much of them. I was glad I hadn't tried to take the train up from Siliguri. There was no train at the moment. 

We pulled into Darjeeling after dark. The driver stopped in the center and we all got out. He waved and drove away. The passengers all dispersed, melting away into the darkness, leaving me standing there alone in the dark town. 

Once again, I regretted the lameness of trying to look at a map on a Kindle. I didn't bother pulling it out this time, and instead just started asking around. There's a Beatles-themed guesthouse in Darjeeling, but the kitsch-value of that hadn't sold me on it, and instead I'd snapped up a great bargain rate on Cleartrip.com, the Indian travel agency I'd used for my train tickets. They'd reimbursed me 50% of my total stay rate since I'd booked five nights.

"Dekeling Hotel? Dekeling?" 

People pointed me left at the passageway next to Bata Shoes, and onto a path that led up, up, up, higher onto the mountain.

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