Monday, August 29, 2011

Darjeeling to Jaigaon

 I was up and showered when someone knocked on my door at 7 a.m.

How sweet! The hotel clerk had brought me hot water in a Thermos because I was leaving Darjeeling too early for breakfast. I made instant coffee in my hotel room, sipping it alongside a stale pastry I'd bought last night.

I left my room, walked two flights down to the front desk, turned in my key, walked four more flights down to the street, zigzagged down some switchbacks to a path in between some buildings, and hiked down the hill to the old supermarket, where the buses leave from.

My bus was there, a large orange-brown and white striped full-size coach showing a sign with our destination—Jaigaon—across its window.

I handed over my ticket to the conductor and turned slightly to show him my luggage.


He motioned me onto the tatty bus, luggage and all, then placed me in a seat with leg room and stored my luggage behind the driver. Excellent. Now there was no chance of my bag getting dirty or wet.

The bus makes the seven-hour journey from Darjeeling to the Bhutan border daily, and leaves promptly at 8, even without selling all the seats. We weren't even half-full. What a delightful experience this was. India may be crowded and chaotic, but India has working infrastructure with systems in place. Which was why I'd chosen India to post my packages from.

We rattled out of town, alongside the train tracks, passing Ghum. We slowly followed the curving switchbacks along the narrow road down the mountain, stopping an hour in for a potty break.

"Toilet," commanded the driver, waving at me.

"Okay." He meant business. Later, I realized how right he'd been. I'd had to cover my mouth with paper to avoid the dry heaves, but this was one of the only toilets I'd see all day. (And here we thought the paper was for another purpose.)

After three hours, we hit the plains and started sweating. The roads were straight now but the potholes slowed us down. Lunch was at half-past-eleven at a roadside rest stop—I glumly looked at the enticing spicy foods and decided I shouldn't risk it, though the driver motioned me to the buffet and said "Eat."

I nibbled on some biscuits and a little pineapple.

The bus pulled through small, crowded villages, dodging cows and motorbikes all the way to Jaigaon.

Now I was watching out of the window for my hotel. I hadn't found a map anywhere of Jaigaon and had no idea where my hotel was.

Ah, there was a hotel. Hmmm, that didn't look so bad. Oops, there it went. Bye, hotel.

My Bhutanese tour operator—you can't go to Bhutan without one—had advised me that the hotels in Jaigaon were all "rather basic." He'd suggested I stay at Hotel Hill View, which was the least-bad of a sorry lot. That's not how he phrased it. That was my interpretation.

The bus driver stopped outside of Immigration. He motioned me out.

"Passport," he explained.

"No, I'm going there." I pointed across the street. Hotel Hill View was conveniently located across from Immigration.

"No, passport," insisted the driver.

"But I can't go to Bhutan now. I can't go until morning." I had to pay $240 a day to go into Bhutan. That's the government-mandated minimum tourist tariff, though it's only $200 if you go with a friend or group. I'd already spent most of the day on a bus in India. I certainly wasn't crossing the border tonight.

I climbed down from the bus and walked over to the hotel.

"Do you have a room for me? My name is Marie Javins." The clerk at the hotel started to answer when his phone rang. He answered it.

"It's for you," he said, handing me a cell phone.

"Hello, Marie, it's Ugyen." That's my Bhutan tour operator. I'd picked him out after emailing several local operators that I found recommended online, and his scrupulous honesty in his prompt email replies had sold me on his agency, called Bhutan Your Way.

"How is your room?"

"I literally just walked in. I don't know yet."

"Ah, well, there is a problem. They don't have the air con room for you. There aren't any available."

"Oh. Well, I'll take whatever they have," I said, thinking "and as a bonus, it will cost me less." I was still on a cash-basis today, but as of tomorrow I'd prepaid my Bhutan trip.

Ugyen said my guide and driver were nearby and would be over shortly. I went ahead and checked into my cheap non-a/c room and... really wasn't that bad. I've stayed in way worse. It certainly wasn't particularly *good* and the dirt on the walls where furniture had once been pushed against it annoyed me—would it kill them to paint?—but the room had a bed, no bedbugs, a shower, a fan, and a flushing toilet. And the staff was friendly—they'd changed my Indian money to Bhutan money (it's 1:1).

I ran downstairs to a little kiosk nearby to get a Coke. Today had been hot and I needed that quick fix of sugar and caffeine that can be so helpful when you're dehydrated and overly warm.

And when I went back later to get a bottle of water, the shopkeeper made me laugh. He whipped out a Coke as soon as he saw me, and looked surprised when I told him all I wanted was water.

My guide and driver still hadn't shown up when I got back to my room with my Coke. Where were they? I couldn't stand it any longer...I stunk from the hot day of bus travel. I peeled off my smelly clothes and showered.

The phone—there was a phone in my crappy room?—rang. I rushed over, dripping wet.

"Hello, Marie?"


"This is your guide. May I see you for a minute in the lobby?"

Oh hell. Now he calls, when I'm naked and dripping water all over the floor.

That said, the floor kind of needed it.

"Um, I need about 15 minutes. I just got out of the shower. I'll be down as soon as I can."

I was downstairs in five minutes, surprising even myself.

And there they were, two men of unclear ages, the taller one somewhere around 27-32 with an innocent, open, friendly face, the thin man about forty, more of a cypher. They were both in street clothes.

And the astonished look on both their faces is something I will never forget.

I looked down—had I forgotten to zip my skirt up? Put a giant deodorant stain on my Thai zebra T-shirt?

No, no. Nothing funny on me.

What the hell were they looking at? 

"Sorry, we were waiting for you in Immigration," explained the guide.

Damn, the bus driver had been right. AGAIN.

"But if we stamp me out of India today, is it okay that I am not really leaving until the morning?"

"Yes, it is fine," said Tsering Penjor, who handed me a slip of paper with the words TSERING PENJOR (GUIDE) written on them.

I studied it, while he introduced Tobgay, the driver.

"Can you write that on here too?"

Tsering wrote Tobgay's name on my cheat sheet. I was glad for the help as I never did learn the Tibetan driver's name, since I was introduced to him once and never heard his name again.

Tsering also handed me two magazines about Bhutan and a small Nokia with a Bhutanese SIM. Now he could call me if I wandered off or overslept.

"We will go now and get your India Immigration formalities done, and then is there anything else you'd like to do?"

"I'd like to use the Internet."

"There is a place in Jaigaon. We will take you in the car."

Tsering led me across the street, where I handed my passport and departure form over, letting him handle the details for a change. I was feeling kind of crabby today, so I was trying not to be too mean to this man whose job it was to escort me around for the next week.

When we headed to the Internet place, we learned that it wasn't open. Tsering Penjor and Tobgay conferred quietly, and then Tsering turned back to explain.

"I am sorry, but this side of the street is closed on Mondays, and that is where the Internet cafe is."

"What? Really? One side of the street is closed?" That was hilarious and weird. And we weren't even in Bhutan yet.

The two men left me back at the hotel. They were going to check a few options to see where they would stay tonight. (They ended up back at Hill View.)

"We will see you here in the morning. And...there is one more thing."

I waited.

"Tomorrow, we will not be dressed like this. We will be in our national dress."

Excellent. Two adorable plaid butterflies in black knee socks were going to usher me into Bhutan in the morning. I couldn't wait.

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