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The Homecoming
Claire Page in Nepal


It was a homecoming of sorts when I jumped down from the jeep in the bazaar and waited for my backpack to be dropped from the roof. I looked around at the usual crowds, my eyes searching for a porter. It was lunchtime and none appeared, so straining with the effort, I grabbed my bag and managed to heave it onto my shoulders before setting off uphill.
White feathered hens in wicker baskets clucked nervously as I passed. Strips of blood red meat hung from skewers, flies buzzed incessantly and the smell stayed in my nostrils. Shoe shine boys called out, "Polish, need polish?" Women in saris, brushed past me with their heavy blue plastic bags of vegetables. A skinny porter carrying two gas canisters spat as he overtook me near the hospital. At the top of the first hill, men smoking bidis sat on a low wall. I leaned my pack there, breathing in the pungent smoke and smiled in response to a look of sympathy from a young woman selling clothes on the stall across the road.
"Need a cab, ma’am?"

A smart looking Nepali boy dressed in western clothes waited for my response. I shook my head and he continued.
"If you need a cab at any time, you ask me, okay?"
I smiled and said; "Okay, but right now I need a porter more than I need a cab."
He laughed and walked away. I shouldered my pack and carried on uphill towards Chowrasta. I was sweating but everyone around me was dressed as if for winter. Indian holidaymakers wore baseball caps over balaclavas and gloves were pulled up over the arms of their fleece jackets. The women pulled woollen shawls tightly over their saris and small children wore thick socks over their trousers. The sun was shining but there was a cool breeze and heavy clouds swelling upwards from the plains were getting ready for a storm.

I turned left at the traffic police post, leaving the fumes of the bazaar behind. There were still stalls lining the sides of the road but now they were manned by young Tibetan women selling clothes. The women sat cross-legged in the midst of their merchandise, watching the passers-by and waiting for a sale. They called out to each other, catching up on the gossip, stopping occasionally to check their hair and lipstick in tiny mirrors and a few sat behind open umbrellas, discreetly eating lunch from torn sheets of newspaper. On the other side of the road, the shops were familiar; DAS photo studios, the pharmacy with its ISD telephone and Glenarys, the bakers. I glanced as I passed and noticed that now instead of cakes on display stands in the window; there was a row of computers and just inside the door, a line of young men with lottery fever. Behind the computers I saw a neon sign advertising a bistro and live pop music.

At Chowrasta, I stopped to look, pleased to see that nothing except the crowds had changed. Old men sat on the benches enjoying the sun, ponies walked up and down carrying excited children on their backs, dogs curled up in sunny spots to sleep and some boys ran after a cricket ball. In the Bellevue I drank my first cup of Darjeeling tea, had a hot shower and was finally convinced that fifteen hours on a train followed by a night in a cheap hotel in Siliguri and three hours on a jeep were worthwhile.I’d left Calcutta’s Sealdah station, the day before, at six in the morning. Faced with intransigent porters I ‘d finally agreed to hand over twice the amount I might have done to have my pack put on the train. I followed him from the darkness of the taxi rank, across the concourse, narrowly missing newspapers spread out on the ground where dogs and the destitute slept. A few would be passengers stood in groups around suitcases. Booksellers began wheeling their trolleys to the platforms and the cries of Chai wallahs echoed through the station.
In the dim light of dawn, the doors of the goods wagon were pushed open. Huge bundles in wicker baskets were pushed and shoved from inside, to coolies waiting on the platform. Three of them grabbed a basket and heaved it onto the head of a spindly man wearing nothing but a lungi. His hands grasped the edges of the basket; the muscles in his neck bulged and with his eyes fixed on the far end of the platform he staggered away from the train. Soon there was a line of silent coolies snaking their way among the waiting crowds. And then the unseen baggage handlers inside the goods train dumped enormous mailbags on the platform before the doors were slammed shut and it crept slowly out of the station.

Porters sat on the backs of the benches waiting, chatting, moulding tobacco in their palms and shoving it between their teeth and bottom lip. Beggars trawled the passengers. I watched as skinny waifs and wizened old men with huge eyes staring from a mass of white hair opened their palms in front of the travellers. As a coin was passed to them, their fingers curled around it, they nodded their heads and I saw gratitude in those eyes as they moved off.

The inspector checked my ticket with a nod as we pulled out of the station. I watched Calcutta’s dreary suburbs pass by and in this moment of departure felt that certain anxiety which always accompanies the beginning of a journey. Everyone around me looked calm and composed, clean and tidy. I imagined that they’d had breakfast and tea and felt resentful that it was too early for the hotel kitchen to be open when I left for the station in a taxi. We crossed the Hooghly on the Howrah Bridge with its metal arms reaching skyward and passed slowly through stations on the outskirts of Calcutta. We seemed to be following the river, which wove its way between derelict buildings before leaving the city behind.
"You are going to NJP, this is your bedding."
The blankets were thrown onto the seat and I watched in amazement as the man distributed them to the rest of the carriage. A sign on the wall near the window advised that the beds were to be put away in the morning and not let down until nine in the evening. I began to wonder if my journey was going to take more than a day. It was seven am and despite the early start, I didn’t feel like sleeping.

Rural India rolled by, skinny cows, goats, men pushing bicycles and women in saris walked the tiny paths between the paddy fields. On the train, people made up their beds and lay down, Some slept. Chai wallahs continued to pace the corridors. I tried to resist the increasing urge to sleep. On my way to the toilet, I stood by the open train door feeling the warm breeze on my face and watched the flat landscape pass by. In the next big station I bought food from the endless stream of hopefuls who boarded the train with something to sell. On the platform, people squatted in groups, watching us watching them. Disappointed porters hung around the doors and coolies carried sacks of rice to a waiting lorry. We were two hours into the journey and a family going home to Guwahti joined me in my compartment. The couple’s eleven-year-old son was full of life and engaged me in conversation immediately.

I answered the usual round of questions, "Where are you from, where are you going, what is your name, what job does your husband do and how many children do you have?"
I found out that he had been on holiday at his grandmother’s house, that he went to boarding school because his father, who is an office worker in a factory in Guwahti, thought it might be a better education and make him behave in a more grown up fashion. Then we sat quietly for a while watching India pass by through the window until the boy got up to speak to his mother.
She had lain down in her bunk immediately and appeared to be asleep. As soon as he disturbed her, she looked angry and spoke crossly to him. He returned to his seat, his father ignored the outburst and continued reading his paper. A few minutes later, he passed me an English paper saying, "All India news, you can read it." I thanked him and took the paper feeling a little foolish as if I too was being chastised for behaving incorrectly. Everyone else continued to sleep.

As lunchtime approached the boy’s mother got up and organised the food they’d brought onto plates. They sat together on a bunk and ate a big meal of rice, chicken and vegetables. She folded a newspaper and arranged it on the table along with the boxes containing the remaining food. They ate noisily and greedily with their fingers, she finished hers first and took some food from her husband’s plate without asking. Afterwards, they drank water from a plastic bottle and rinsed out the plates. Once everything was arranged tidily on the table, they all retired to their separate bunks and slept. The boy shifted restlessly, he farted loudly and waived his hand around as if to get rid of the smell. His mother glared at him from her bunk. He turned over and fell asleep. Soon he was snoring and his father looked down at me and said.

"He is becoming a naughty boy, he won’t apply himself to his work, I thought it might be good for him to go away to school. In the government school he was always off playing with his friends, never studying. It costs me 1000 rupees a term and I thought he would respond to the discipline. He doesn’t know what he wants to do, but if I can get him a government job, he will have to study hard now. It is difficult to know what to do."

As he looked at me waiting for my response I felt as if he’d lumbered me with the frustrations of every middle class Indian parent. I could feel his expectations not only of the boy but also of my answer and was at a loss. I managed to mutter something sympathetic about how children are the same the world over and that in the end as long as our children are happy, that’s what counts. At the same time I agreed that it was important to study especially as there is so much competition for jobs. I sat back, half pleased with my answer when I noticed that he was shaking the boy awake.
"Wake up, you must listen to your Aunty, talk to her, she says you must study, now is your chance to improve your English. Sit up, you should not be sleeping at this time of day."
The boy sat up reluctantly, his eyes still heavy with sleep he nodded at his father and then moaned, "But I’m sleepy, I’m too tired to talk."
This was not a good move, his father shook his finger at him and told him to listen to me and learn something for once in his life. Then he retired to his bunk, perched his glasses on the end of his nose and read a Hindi newspaper.
The boy sighed but we talked for a while about computers, the Internet, play-station games and cars. He wanted to know how much everything cost in England and asked the kinds of questions about cars that I couldn’t answer. This was what interested him, not the kind of lessons he was getting in school. The train came to a halt and we thought nothing of it because Indian trains stop for long periods of time for no apparent reason. But after a while the boy and I went to the open door. A few men had climbed down onto the track to stretch their legs and smoke. Towards the front of the train I could see a short empty platform and a wooden building, maybe it was a village station but there was no sign of life. There was activity at the front of the train; some of the men standing smoking made their way towards the engine. The boy leaned out and listened. Turning to me he said,
"The engine has broken down, they are waiting for another engine to come from another station. It will be two hours."

My heart sank, now I would not get to NJP before dark and it would mean spending a night in Siliguri. I returned to my seat and lay down to wait. As if from nowhere, a ragged group of youths now boarded the train with an array of smuggled items to sell. They showed us large plastic looking Yashica cameras and men’s wristwatches, which didn’t seem to work, tins of tiger balm and music cassettes. Cries of "Made in Japan" echoed around the train. This was the seal of approval but in fact all of these things were made cheaply in China and somehow found their way across the border into the hands of a few hawkers desperately scratching a living. Some small boys had one item only to sell to hopefully unsuspecting travellers who they would never see again but would put them on the ladder to economic success. The rest had nothing to sell and could only beg or look as if they were sweeping the dirt from under your feet and then ask for payment. In the end under the silent stares from other passengers I gave my cake to three tiny boys who had stood in front of me pleading for a piece of it. The guard had shooed them away once but they had returned and my resolve not to give in to beggars had failed. The engine arrived three hours later and even though there were no announcements or apologies for the delay, the other passengers said that we would reach NJP by about 9pm. I looked forward to a night in Siliguri.

I crossed the long footbridge from the platform and as I came down the stairs, a crowd of porters cheered and ran towards me shouting, "Taxi or Rickshaw?" I stopped half way down and shouted above the din, "Rickshaw" The man who’d reached me first was a rickshaw driver, the rest of the group walked away. He yelled the name of a hotel at me and after a bumpy ride clutching my pack we arrived at the Hotel Holydon where seeing I was satisfied with the room, the rickshaw driver thought I might give him a tip. He was wrong and I wasn’t arguing it was too late and I was tired. After an omelette, which I ate with my fingers, because the fork was filthy I went to bed and slept. I woke at dawn and the cold shower was the only relief I got from the itching mosquito bites I now had across my back. Back in NJP I waited for a jeep to Darjeeling and was the centre of attention among the jeep drivers who bored waiting for the Darjeeling Mail to come in, decided to try on my sunglasses and sing songs from the fifties for my entertainment. They gave me the front seat beside the driver, hoisted my pack onto the roof and told me it would cost seventy rupees.

We left at nine thirty and despite the front seat I was cramped. The prospect of a front seat and a good view had been destroyed when I was joined by a woman whose size and weight threatened to flatten me on every bend. She had a knack of spreading her legs so my feet were crushed together and I kept having to move my knee to avoid been thumped by the gear stick. The driver threw the jeep apparently carelessly at oncoming vehicles, between buses and cycle rickshaws somehow always managing to miss the cows which chose the most inappropriate place in the road to stand and stare. The heat from the engine threatened to burn my right leg while my armpits were soaked in a clammy sweat which trickled down the sides of my body. My left thigh was drenched with the sweat from the woman who leaned into me and frequently fell asleep until seeing a left hand bend coming I was able to lean against her and wake her. At which she shuffled in the seat, rearranged herself and promptly fell asleep again.

We climbed steeply, at each bend the turn was almost vertical. The driver rammed the jeep into first gear and we struggled under the weight of our collective luggage. As we levelled out from another slope, the driver stopped to pick up a young man standing on the side of the road. I was forced to push myself closer to the fat woman as this new passenger wedged himself between the driver and me. The only consolation was that he now had the gear stick between his legs. But everytime we changed gear, he was forced to push his left leg against mine crushing me against the woman who was determined not to give an inch. By the time we reached Kurseong where this man got out I had played all sorts of scenarios through my mind of the things that might happen if the door fell open on a bend and the fat woman fell out. It wasn’t that I wished her any harm, it was purely survival. Before I’d heaved a sigh of relief, she had shifted her bottom, straightened her back and somehow managed to retain most of the seat and so there I was again, perched on the edge fighting the gear stick. Perhaps she had read my mind.

We climbed less steeply now, joining the route of the railway line and passing through busy villages where traffic jams held us up. We practised emergency stops as people wandered aimlessly into the road and other vehicles pulled away from the shops without looking. But now, there were others looking for a ride. They stepped out into the road to flag us down and so we picked up an assorted group of women with children and shopping bags for short journeys. Luckily the driver drew the line at a group of men who queued at the roadside and tried to climb on. The women in the seat behind me sat on each other’s knees and the children stood squashed between them and the seat in front.

Occasionally a cool breeze found its way into the jeep and I began to look for the fluttering of faded prayer flags on tall poles in the hope of some relief. Then about 20km from Darjeeling, the air changed, it was fresh, almost icy as it brushed my face when we slowed to manoeuvre our way through the traffic. I watched as scenes from the tea plantations and women picking the leaves gave way to dark brooding hills rising into angry looking clouds. The weather changed, the sun disappeared making the wooden buildings on the side of the road look shabby and the villages seemed lost to decay.

At Ghoom I looked out for the Batasia Loop and saw a tourist toy train chuffing and clanking by. The hard seats had been replaced by plush looking chairs full of sour looking Indians on holiday. The train still announced its presence with the scream of a whistle and a cloud of black smoke and the thumping of its pistons as we waited for it to cross the road. We started our descent into Darjeeling only 7km away and signs warned "Down hills to Darjeeling."
I started to take an interest in the hoardings advertising hotels, shops and restaurants. There were some new and colourful posters, my first sign that the Queen of the Hills might be sprucing up her image. Most of the passengers got out at the railway station where others crowded round hopeful for a lift to the bazaar. I figured that this was a good place to get out but I was blocked by my companion in the front and the driver insisted that I should go to the bazaar. The woman had woken up and remaining glued to my thigh she now assaulted my ears by talking loudly to the driver. We pulled to a stop at the far end of the bazaar and it seemed as if she still had no intention of moving then either. She opened the door, sat upright and indicated that I climb over her. I looked aghast and gestured with my hand that this wasn’t possible so huffing discontentedly she got out.

At the back of the jeep my pack was hanging from the hands of the boy who’d spent the entire journey on the roof rack. My head was thumping and as I grabbed my bag, the effort of heaving it onto my shoulders made me feel as if I was going to burst a blood vessel. But with no other choice available I set off uphill to the Bellevue.

© Claire Page March 2003
claire@cpage.fsnet.co.uk

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