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India Revisited PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter Smith   
Monday, 20 April 2009 10:38
Article Index
India Revisited
Darjeeling - Malda
Malda to Calcutta
Calcutta to Bangkok
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Day 49: Thursday 9th November - Hotel Avocado to Darjeeling
 

After a good breakfast we left the hotel grounds but not before the bus became trapped by an overhead cable that hung across the entrance. Leighton and Emmett very quickly scaled the roof of the bus and freed it and we were back on the road again. The route once again skirted the foothills of the Hymalayas and after many hours eventually came to a stop in a large car park across from a modern looking hotel with an ATM machine in the wall.

After a delicious curry and copious amounts of beer it transpired that were to be driven to Darjeeling in smaller vehicle which turned out to be less comfortable than ours. The journey started well enough and we very quickly found ourselves high above the town looking down on the lights as they disappeared below us. The route then followed the tracks of the light railway that runs all the way into Darjeeling. The only thing I can remember of the rst of the journey, thanks to the copious amount of beer I had consumed in the hotel, was the bus rattling as it crisscrossed the railway lines. The rest of the journey was terrifying according to Anne who had not participated in the good beer and spent all the three or four hours of the journey looking at - as the bus veered away from the edge - the drop and the lights flickering thousands of feet below in the dark of the night. I regained consciousness as the bus bounced along the cobble streets of Darjeeling and suddenly stopped a few hundred yards below our hotel. I was still complaining about having to carry our bags up the wet cobbled streets to the hotel and stand around in the cold mountain air waiting for it to be opened when Anne's face told me worse things had happened whilst I slept. The room was gloom even when lit and distracted Anne from the horrors of the journey.

We awoke with some difficulty still very tired from the night journey up the foothills. Breakfast was served late and was a treat with cornflakes and cold milk, naan breads with a very tasty, mild, vegetable curry, scrambled eggs and to finish off a banana. Instead of coffee, which I have favoured mainly because of the milky, sweet and sickly tea they serve in India, I had tea. I couldn't sit in the heart of Darjeeling and not have tea. In fact it was so good I had a second cup.

After breakfast we set off to the market which was spread out all around our hotel and the immediate are. Unfortunately it was raining, the streets were muddy and the whole place was rundown. We set off to explore with JaenPol who very quickly went off to find a bar selling cold beer. We finished up in the local museum which was very run down and old fashioned but interesting in a strange antique type of way. All the exhibits were falling to bits and faded but nevertheless had a quaint appeal.

An hour later we bumped into JaenPol walking down the hillside and he had found a pleasant little bar overlooking the tea plantations. He was content to take us back to the bar and we spent a very pleasant hour talking to the waiter about the views down the hillside to the refugee camp, monastery and signed wall photos of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, BB King and Janis Joplin. According to the waiter all had visited Darjeeling at sometime but had not signed the photos.

We left JaenPol, who went back to the hotel to sleep, and made our way down the hillside to visit the tea plantation and the Tibetan Refugee Camp. We somehow failed to find the tea plantation which gave us more time at the refugee camp. The refugees had fled Tibet when China took over and were made welcome by the Indian Govt who gave them the piece of land below Darjeeling. The camp consists of a nursery, school and workshops providing the inhabitants with education, skills and self respect.

On leaving the camp and making our way back up the hillside to Darjeeling we met a group of women from Australia, New Zealand and Scotland making their way slowly back up the very steep hillside. The woman from Scotland was in her 60s and she told us she was teaching for three months in the town. It had cost her a lot of money to get here and pay for her own accommodation and she even told me she had gone out last week and bought new chairs for the kids to sit on in the classroom because the facilities were so bad. She admitted the young kids were very antagonistic but as they got older they recognised the importance of education and were a pleasure to work with.

Once back in the town our walking partners showed us to a jewellery shop in the square with the most amazing collection of stock. This was a cross between an antique shop and specialist jewellers. The shop which wasn't that big was a sea of hanging bracelets, necklaces, cases full of rings, brooches, lucky charms, all made of silver or gold and all unusual, different, novel as the lady from Scotland said. We spent a good £60 - 70 once again on our daughters. As we left the night was drawing in and preparations seemed to be a foot for Davali the Festival of Light. I asked the owner of the jewellery shop what would take place later and he replied nothing it is only the first night and he was right.

We had a meal in the hotel and very good it was just like the breakfast. As the meal finished Ozbus members slowly made their way outside into the street where young kids were setting off fireworks. They were lighting Catherine Wheels and dancing round them like Scots performing performing an intricate sword dance. The kids were amazing setting of cherry bombs, Catherine wheels and various fountains and all the time enticing the younger element of the bus into the antics. The whole series of events culminated in Marcus asking one of the youngsters if he had a firework he could handle and the lad gave him a cherry bomb which exploded his hand; causing serious burns. The rest of the evening was spent trying to quell the pain in Marcus's hand, which puffed up in great blisters, by holding it under the called water tap in the hotel. This was abandoned when the hotel staff complained about the amount of water which was being used. It seems that Darjeeling is constantly suffering from a water shortage.

We made our way upstairs back to our room. Once again we had been given a room that did not really endear itself to us. It smelt fusty and was damp. It did have plenty of room with an anti room consisting of a sofa, telly and chairs but was not very warm or inviting and was in an annex section two doors up the street from the main hotel which had good reviews from those staying in it and the Lonely Planet guide.

 





Day 50: Friday 10th November - Darjeeling to Malda
 

It was, once again, another very early start because of the length and nature of the journey. We left at 6.00am but unfortunately did not rise in time for breakfast. The journey back down to the plain 8,000 feet below was breathtaking. The road follows the narrow gauge railway line criss-crossing every few hundred yards. The first part from Darjeeling up to Ghoom was quite busy for the time of the day with four wheel drive Tatras providing transportation for everything from people, animals, products and materials. The more modern vehicle looks like a cheap version of the Land Rover Discovery. From Ghoom the road cleared and we made steady progress down. The 80 or so kilometres took three and half hours and at times the bus was very close to the edge of the road and drops of two to three thousand feet straight down into the tea plantations. Accidents must be common and the local government's way of dealing with it is novel. Every few hundred yards, usually at a bend or a precarious point a series of road signs were placed to invoke the consequences of dangerous driving.

 

These are the few I remember:

'If you're married divorce speed',

'Enjoy these beautiful hills at low speed'

'For survival make late arrival' and my favourite

'Give blood to the bloodbank not the hillside'

I have to say although it was a long way to drive to spend one day in Darjeeling the scenery coming back down made it all worthwhile. This is a spectacular part of the world and makes us realize and even more angry, about not going to Everest and Laos. I can't wait to talk to Mas and Mac about their experiences since leaving the bus.

Once back down onto the hot plain again we set off for our penultimate hotel in India at the nondescript Malda. The rest of the journey was uneventful, just a long weary slog along more appalling roads.

We pulled into the grounds of the hotel well before I expected: no asking the way at every junction. The hotel Park was modern (three years old) and looked impressive and the food in the bar restaurant was good and even more important, for Jaenpol, the beer was ice cold and only 80 rupees. However, the good points were far outweighed by the total incompetence and attitude of the management who just insisted on refusing to take any money and placed everything on your room tag. Later when everyone went to bed, not early after midnight, the staff came banging on room doors insisting on sorting out each bill. This did not go down well with many people who refused to open their doors shouting in the best cockney 'fuck off I'm in bed' when of course she was watching Arsenal.



Day 51: Saturday 11th November - Malda to Calcutta

 

The last part of our journey across Northern India started as farcical as yesterdays ended. Breakfast was scheduled for 7.00am but the hotel management insisted on serving it at 8.00am even though some had been sitting in the dining room for over an hour waiting very impatiently. Once it started it took over one hour to serve a breakfast of cornflakes and coffee and it only arrived when the Arsenal fan jumped up and stormed into the kitchen shouting 'how fucking long does it take to put cornflakes in a bowl? 'I want them fucking now'. When they did arrive, ten minutes later, there was no milk and no spoons to eat it or sugar to put on them.

The management also had the knack of increasing the price of things. My telephone bill went from a few hundred rupees to fourteen hundred. Once on the bus we couldn't get out of the grounds until everyone were forced to disembark and have their breakfast bills checked again. By this time poor old Leighton was pulling his hair out and shouting 'get me out of India'. This of course was a three star hotel.

The last bit of the long trek across this poor wretched country was no better with every conceivable obstacle: rickshaws, pot holes deep enough to destroy suspensions, diversions, a total lack of signs and just to make the journey longer a massive traffic jam created by a procession to celebrate the last night of Divali which just happened to coincide with a demonstration by the communist party and trade unions as we entered the outskirts of Calcutta.

Strangely enough the procession and demo made our entrance into this famous city more interesting with music, lights and placards demanding better pay etc. Things took a turn for the worse once we turned of the main central area of shops, lights and affluence and entered the seediest of areas and our last hotel before leaving India probably for good. It's sad that few on the bus have expressed a desire to return to India. The Hotel Himalaya did not help it was by far the worse hotel yet with no bar, an alcohol ban and unpleasant seedy rooms with tatty linen, cockroaches in the bathrooms and at least one big fat rat that chased the lads down our corridor. Not only did the hotel not have beer but this area had no bars or restaurants and once outside you could see why. Calcutta must have some of the cheapest hotels in the world and our friends back in London booked us into probably the cheapest in the city. What made this final administrative insult even worse was it totally ruined the groups plan to have a final big party with JaenPol and Marcus who were heading back tomorrow with the bus. This was the most upset I have seen Jaenpol and I felt embarrassed and ashamed that such an individual effort should be rewarded like this. I and the others were now forced to say thanks and goodbye to the man who had driven us single handedly 17,000 kilometres in the car park at the airport. This was without doubt the lowest point of the whole trip and one I will remember for its sadness and injustice. I can safely say that most people are now pissed off with Ozbus, some vowing not to use it any further.

 



Day 52: Sunday 12th November - Calcutta to Bangkok
 

The sombre atmosphere carried on into the morning. For the first time in forty years I couldn't wait to board a plane just to get out of this country and yet it was very upsetting to leave JaenPol after so many good nights shared drinking beers and stories. Even in Iran we shared Islamic non alcoholic drinks and pretended they were the best Belgium beers and in a strange way it helped to get through this period of the journey. Anne, on the other hand, actually liked them saying they tasted like English shandy.

The sign in the car park, as we drove in, said Calcutta International Airport and this conjures up Heathrow or Manchester with bars and duty free etc. Not the case here in Mother India. At this point we were innocent of the fact that this is probably the only alcohol free airport outside the Muslim world and this constitutes a major dilemma for people like Jim and myself who fear flying. Jim started his flight preparation as he played cricket with the lads and a young Indian boy by swigging out of a plastic Fanta bottle laced with half a bottle of Vodka. When we discovered that the only restaurant and presumably bar was situated upstairs in the departure lounge area and we were about to leave this part of the complex through Immigration and Customs he informed the Jet Airways Flight Manager 'no bar no flight'. We were only allowed to spend our two hour wait in the restaurant because Jim refused point blank to go through Immigration. It was at this point on our way to the restaurant bar that we were informed that Calcutta International Airport is a no alcohol zone. Drinking booze is illegal!

Desperate measures demand simple solutions. While helping to clean the bus two days ago I had noticed two unopened whiskey bottles rolling round the overhead luggage wracks. Furthermore, the bus was still in the car park and JaenPol was aboard and therefore all we had to do was get out, find the booze and then get back in.

Getting past the armed airport guards, both out and back in, was not the most difficult part of the exercise and neither was buying a bottle of orange to go with my half of the whiskey and a Coke for Jim's. The difficulty came as we tried to sit and drink the stuff in the restaurant like ordinary passengers and not desperate men drinking fals courage. As we poured and quickly consumed our first very large shot the restaurant' manager came over and pointed to the menu in the middle of the table. Jim quickly responded suggesting we were still deciding. At this point we decided to mix whole of the whiskey between the orange, coke and my water container. Unfortunately this coincided with the second appearance of the manager. This time he came to tell us about the law and how we were putting his job and freedom at risk. We apologised, retreated and implemented plan B; drinking the rest of the whiskey care of the Coke Cola Co and my water flask upstairs having smuggled it through customs. The woman at customs told me pointing to the orange that it must be consumed before boarding. I assured her with complete honesty it would be.

By the time we boarded I had consumed half a bottle of whiskey and a few mouthfuls of the vodka and orange Jim had brought into the airport. By the time we were airborne I was dozing and Jim was laying out across three seats covered with a thick blanket. He admitted to me later, as we compared headaches, he always hides under a blanket. I had to confess not being able to understand how a blanket can protect you from a 40,000 foot drop.

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By the time we were descending into Bangkok two and half hours later Jim, now able to join me on a seat of our own at the back of the plane, counted out loudly the last 30 seconds of the flight to perfection. I was amazed how the wheels touched the tarmac as he shouted one in triumph. Once on the ground I was so drunk I left my bum bag and camera while waiting for our luggage to arrive. As I went running back to retrieve them a voice over the airport communications system said one leather money bag and camera found. Phew lucky me! From what I remember the airport was modern (designed by Foster or Rodgers), very efficient, friendly and staffed by young attractive women. In practical terms only two and half hours flight away from Calcutta but in reality a world apart. In short very impressive.

After a longish drive from the airport and through some unbelievable congestion we arrived at our home for the next three nights: the New World Lodge Hotel. The hotel was modern, clean, well run and friendly and was surrounded by a vibrant area of outside food stalls selling everything from enormous prawns, squid, fried cockroaches, various types of noodles, fruit, sweets and beer etc.

A big notice in the hotel entrance announced a local religious festival was into its second day and the management apologised for any noise and inconvenience to guests. As we stood on our balcony a lion dance began to the loudest amplified drumming I've ever heard. Without the amplification the noise was audible in Calcutta. With it the walls shook.

Set on a square communal piece of land on the corner of two main food ways was a bamboo tower with a flat platform some thirty feet off the ground. After the lion had danced around the structure the performers made their way up to the platform and began by building a human tower five or six people high. On top were hoisted two young children who stood upright and waved to the crowd, some fifty to sixty feet below, who found it hard to even muster up a clap let alone a cheer. Once this combination had been played with for ten to fifteen minutes a large flag type post some thirty feet high was raised and erected on the platform. Then two men climbed to the top, now some seventy feet from the ground and were joined by two children again who stood upright and after being tied to the men by ropes were flung into the waiting arms of the crew below bungee fashion only to be pulled back at the last minute. This game was played three or four times before the children were released and lowered. Once again these dare devil antics took place to less applause than a traffic warden gets in England when handing out a parking ticket. The finally came with one of the men putting on the long flowing lion head again and dancing and swaying dangerously about at the top of the pole. All of this took place to the frantic head-splitting noise of the drummers. This performance took an hour and half in total and although none of the audience left very few clapped or applauded the life threatening antics of the group.

As I said earlier, this spare piece of ground stood at the confluence of two small roads consisting of food stalls. At one end I had six very large clams barbecued on skewers in a sweet honey sauce for 30 bahts or 40 pence. A little later we came across a street stall with a couple of tables where I had six enormous prawns for less than 100 bahts. As I broke the tail from the head and began to eat it I was reprimanded by the elderly, over weight female, cook for discarding what she considered to be the best  part. She immediately tore the head in two and shoving one of the inner parts into my mouth made sucking noises. She then poured herself a large whiskey and ice, lit a fag and sat by my side to watch me suck the contents of the other five heads. I have to say the prawns were the largest, best and cheapest I've ever had. Next to the stall was a general store that sold everything from beer and spirits to ice cream and ping pong balls. We ended our first night in Thailand in the pleasant company of this little, dumpy, whiskey drinking, chain smoking, grinning lady who derived such pleasure from a foreigner sucking prawn’ heads.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 25 May 2010 10:51