West Bengal: India
Following the rickshaw drivers across the bridge back into India I feel elated to be back in the country and simultaneously felt as if I had never left.
The jostling of people, lorries, tuktuks and rickshaws crossing over the river, all stopping and starting with fierce jabs on the brakes and the all important hands almost perpetually on the horn. The solid wall of sound and sudden proximity of so many people makes me smile and feel as if Im greeting an old friend. Ah India … your noise, your vibrance, your lack of personal space and privacy! I realise quickly that I’m contributing to the weirdly syncopated anti rhythm which the flow of traffic has because people are slowing to get a better look at me and the bike. Nothing I can do though. Im blocked on all sides and just have to be drawn along in that unremitting way that traffic has.
Its not too long a distance and Im soon across the bridge and through immigration with only a minor issue from an external security guard when he asks to see my passport. Since he is in plain clothes I ask to see his id and he is mortally offended by my temerity and rudeness! Soothing completed, ruffled feathers smoothed and Im dodging through the bustling market (which is squeezed into the land between the train track and the river border) stamped passport in pocket, avoiding vehicles, pedestrians and animals and looking for a quiet place for my first chai.
I find a little dhaba on the road out of the bazaar and top up on water and chai whilst watching a couple of men consume a startling quantity of raksi. I leave before they try and stand up and find myself on an immaculate piece of tarmac which carries me out of the more residential area skirting the border, initially along a main highway and then, as planned to the back roads which will be winding up to Darjeeling.
The day is hot and I find myself riding through little villages with the usual small multipurpose stores and dwellings along side the smooth road and unexpectly enormous houses. I feel a little like a tropical version of Alice or Dorothy with huge trees around me, 2 and 3 story homes all painted in the brightest hues and startling combinations and the winding road stretched out before me. This jungle is very much in evidence here and the houses are surrounded by tall coconut and banana palms. I wasn’t expecting such a level of apparent affluence here. The homes look more like Caribbean beach hotels and my understanding of how India functions is challenged again.
I realise that too often the concepts of poverty and lack are the lens through which I see India when in reality it is not this simple. The spectrum of wealth is much broader and more evident in specific places and it appears that here, near the tea plantations, is one of those places.
This area of jungle gradually clears as I cycle and on the open, flat land tea bushes then stretch out all the way to the foot of the Lesser Himalayas, a name that does nothing to diminish the fact that the road up to Darjeeling is incredibly steep and over the next 2 days I spend most of my time pushing Tilly and dodging out of the way of speeding taxis, with the occasional cup of real tea, grown in the local plantations, to quench my thirst and sooth my soul.
After a night camped in one of these tea fields, marvelling at the smoky, woody smells surrounding me, I am up before dawn and hear the sirens signalling the start of the tea field day. Its the wrong season for picking and the workers, mainly women, are pruning (hacking) at the tough branches of the bushes to encourage the new growth of tips to make our tea. The Makaibari estates produced the first certified organic tea in the Darjeeling region and continue to export several pickings each year, most of which are beyond my price range! However in the back streets of Darjeeling it is possible to find good priced bags of hand picked local tea and I found a delicious smoky picking!
Once up the ridiculously steep side of the hill and enroute to Darjeeling I camp over night in a shelter next to the tracks of the famous Himalayan Narrow Guage Railway. As I’m settling to sleep a car stops and there are excited sounding voices nearby. No one disturbed me but the sudden, rapid flashes of light and laughter make me wonder “are they taking Selfies beside the tent”?! The railway was a major feat in engineering in the 18oos and is still an amazing sight. train pass within inches of homes and businesses in some places as it makes its iconic way between Siliguri at 140m above sea level to 2,220m in Darjeeling, all within the space of about 30km. The tracks make notable twists and turns to accommodate the gradient (Agony Point anyone!) and the diesel and steam trains make their slow way back and forth daily, emitting the occasional whistle. I was lucky on a couple of occasions and threw Tilly to the ground, diving across the tracks just in time to activate my waving arm as the steam train sped past.
I immediately like Darjeeling. The steeply sloped town with multi coloured houses and red corrugated roofs gave me a feeling of home. Perhaps this is the reason for the British taking such an active interest in the place back in the day. The scenery is stunning and the 180degree view from the roof of my guesthouse gives me a glorious sunrise in the morning and sunset in the evening … with Kanchenjunga peak looking spectacular whenever it is not shrouded in cloud.
Walking around the town, especially the Chowrasta (central ‘square’) area gives me endless opportunities to people watch and drink tea. I’m still struggling with my diet and wheat and dairy don’t so much creep back in as dive bomb me. Eating out in any town is so much cheaper and easier if I don’t consider the implications to my health and go for the cheap and cheerful sweet, milky chai and deep fried veg samosas or circular, flat, fried pasty equivalent. Or the delicious and ever present veg moms with fiery red spice for dipping. The food is always delicious and street food is a big weakness for me.
Street food in all countries is so much more than just eating for sustenance. The close proximity of purveyors standing around or sitting and eating together lends an air of camaraderie and I always end up having hilarious conversations with the people I meet. The food is usually hot and in India and Nepal particularly, glistening with oil. Red, spicy chilli sauce is a staple and the amount I want or can handle is often an initial ice breaker with the locals all staring at the newbie in their midst. Fresh chilli makes me sweat regardless and whilst I evidently enjoy this I often see humorous twinkles in other peoples eyes as they see my colour rise and beads of sweat start to roll off my temples!
Spending time in any town gives me the opportunity to become a ‘regular’ with specific food and chai sellers. One place for puri subji in the morning. One woman for chai at the Chowrasta. One woman for chai in the afternoon. One place for my vegetable so I can cook on the guesthouse roof. Initially lurching from one meal to the next it usually takes a week of static living for my appetite to settle to normal. In a week I can go from being an open mouthed, novelty attraction sitting by the chai sellers fire or in the corner of the puri shop to receiving an initial cursory nod and food or tea without having to say anything.
Christmas in Darjeeling was a slightly surreal experience. Architectural visual prompts giving me feelings from England in the hills of India. Sleet and fog on some of the days, bright sunshine on others, the old British Colonial town houses old tea rooms which put on an extravagant display and since ‘Glenerys’ is famous in the region and all of the people I spoke to told me to visit I sit and happily consume several mince pies with my pot of proper Darjeeling tea.
Darjeeling is hotly contested place. The Gurka ethnic group in the region are actively protesting for ‘Gurkaland’, a region with state status and the ability to manage its own affairs.
After Darjeeling I decide to aim for Sikkim for the New Year. The road down to the river road is hideously steep and as always wish for disc brakes and a stronger system. Taking a side road in the hope of finding a secluded campspot on New Years Eve I see a suitable patch of ground in a tea plantation. Its got a great view of the Himalayas but has a couple of houses within shouting distance so I go and inform the first one of my intention to camp. After a quiet conversation with one woman who happily confirms I can camp I am setting up the tent when 6 Nepali/Indian women and assorted children from the nearby houses race down to meet me all talking at high volume and greeted with open arms I land squarely in the midst of a tiny but full on New Years Eve celebration.
In the course of the evening the women get hilariously excited by everything, stumbling drunk, dance like fiends and hug me like a reunited family member. A husband of the one of the women (most of the men were off having their own separate gathering) turned up with his car complete with huge soundsystem in the boot and the whole party vibe reaches a crescendo! Nepali pop played at high volume and frenetic dancing. I’m in heaven! In the morning before I leave I eat traditional rice pudding with the selfie pout-pulling children and we all laugh about the nights antics.
West Bengal is the gateway to Sikkim and so after a days continued downhill ride I camp by the river and enter the state the following day. I spend a month in Sikkim on steep roads follows before I am back in West Bengal enroute to Assam.
After that month in the Lesser Himalayas I am happy to be back on solid flat road for a while. The plains area is dusty and much hotter than the mountains but getting some decent days of cycling in rather than constantly pushing the bike is a joy.
Its a joy short lived because my stretched out cycle is punctuated with a spate of flat tyres. These continue with unfortunate regularity as I cross West Bengal and Assam and always happen at the most inopportune and most visible moment. I began to live in fear of the sluggish, wobbly sensation which denotes a reduction in tyre pressure and the likely hood that once off the bike and organising the repair I will be surrounded by a group of the ‘helpfully’ curious.
My road wound through Siliguri and Jalpaiguri. Outside Mainaguri I got caught up in a massive BJP rally which I had heard about and was attempting to avoid. Unfortunately my information about its location was incorrect and the groundswell of people and traffic all heading for the event carried me along. To be in that large a group of highly excited, pumped up people was not something I felt comfortable with. India’s prime minister Narendra Modi was helicoptered in for the event and men, women and children attended in droves. Flag waving and fist pumping, they came by all manner of vehicle. Crossing fields of crops from the road to get up close or hanging out by the newly erected loud speakers on the road or ‘festival ground’ as it now looked.
A night of camping in wet jungle, watching fireflies dance and listening to the sounds of the rally goes turn to night time revellers was followed by a wet day of temple visits and invitations to join in a different type of revelry. Today was the day of Saraswati Puja.
Saraswati is the goddess associated with the arts and education so all of the schools were shut and the young people were dressed in their finest clothes. Young women in stunning saris brightened up a dreary, wet day and somehow managed to look immaculate inspite of the mud and rain. I stop on the road to watch the antics of one class of young people jumping up and down to the sounds from the towering speaker stack, in the now muddy, wet ground next to their school. A plate of sweet fruit and rice prashad (religious food offering) is immediately thrust into my hands and I’m drawn in to meat their Saraswati. All along the road to Cooch Bihar on this and the following day I see people dressed in their finery, enjoying what I find out is not a 1 day but 3 day holiday thanks to the specific planetary alignment this year.
Day 2 of the holiday is thankfully a sunny one and is the day I reach Cooch Bihar. As I get close a huddle of tuktuks and a lot of shouting catches my attention. It has the desired effect because I stop to the delight of a young chai shop owner and his numerous customers. I am soon sat in the shade receiving a comlimentatry cup of sweet tea after refusing all the other options. Alcohol, hash, codine linctus … they work down the list but I think I will stick with my sugar addiction, not that sugar is much better than the others.
Stopping there seem to be a blessing because I receive detailed instructions and a map on where to go in Cooch Bihar, get free wifi, which places to visit and then demands for a promise that I will visit Guwahati and the Kamakhya mandir. I’m not sure why but I have been told this before and I seem to be drawn that way!
For some reason Cooch Bihar sets my teeth on edge. I feel uncomfortably visible and don’t want to leave my loaded Tilly alone for too long. Finding a lovely stall owner to look after her beside the Cooch Bihar Rajbari (Royal Families estate) I hang out by the gate and watch 100s of young people promenade, in the old sense of the word but with selfie sticks in hand, around the grounds. The women float about like so many graceful and colourful butterflies with the Palace as their backdrop.
Cycling away from the centre of the town I find the river at sunset and look around for potential camping but find the area to be suspicious and inhospitable to the point of people refusing me use of their washrooms. This was such an unusual position to be in that I left beautiful are at speed. As it starts to get dark I leave the town in one direction, then in the other then back again as a result of not keeping my phone and maps charged up.
The deafening noise from dozens of different sound systems and the flashing lights from a hundred Saraswati shrines, leaves my head spinning and adds to the unsettled confusion and drop in confidence that I feel. Its not a good mental place to be and eventually after cycling around for about 3 hours but getting no further than 3kms on the other side of the town I find an area of open agricultural land and camp. My ability to sleep through nights at festivals comes in handy as I am aurally assaulted on all sides by Hindi pop and dance music competing for dominance.
The road I am on goes close to the Bangladeshi border and I’m always nervous about being too close to borders with no visa but there are no problems and I continue to camp over the next few days seeing increasing evidence of both Hindu and Muslim in their different places of worship. Its important for me to keep reminding myself that India is the place for spectrums of belief and behaviour. Never exclusively one thing or the other. Poverty and Wealth; the Modern and the Traditional. When I am surprised by seeing modern machinery in the fields next to traditional ox and plough I remind myself that this surprise is as a result of my one sided, often romanticised view of tradition not the reality of India today.