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, maam?"
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.Id
left Calcuttas 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 Calcuttas 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 theyd 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 didnt 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 couples 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 grandmothers 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 boys mother got up and organised the
food theyd 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 husbands 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 wont 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 doesnt 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 hed 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, thats 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 Im sleepy, Im 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 couldnt
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 mens wristwatches, which didnt 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 whod 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 wasnt 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 wasnt that I wished her any harm, it
was purely survival. Before Id 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 others 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 wasnt possible so huffing discontentedly
she got out.
At the back of the jeep my pack was hanging from the hands of the boy
whod 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
Journeys at Hacktreks
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