Jun 19, 2008

Curse of the Rosewood Bracelet

The last 2 weeks have not been easy for your favorite travelers. India has done its best chew us up and spit us to the curb stained red from pan, a red chewing tobacco that is all the rage. Since Varanasi we have spent nearly 4 full days in transit, sleeping somewhere different every night. We have not seen nearly as much of India as 25 days should allow for. Instead we have been on the move, constantly attempting to find a place to sit back, relax, and enjoy India.

It all started with a rosewood bracelet. While on a 5 hour bus ride in the state of Bihar, India’s poorest. We sat next to an 18 yr old girl on her way to Patna to take an entrance exam for university. She was a joy to speak to. She offered me a wooden bracelet with silver roses as a gift to remember her. I happily and gracefully accepted her offer astounded by the generosity and kindness of every Indian not working in the tourist industry. I wore my bracelet with pride, it fit my girlish wrist perfectly and I didn’t have to barter for it.

Then we spent the night at the train station. After a 5 hour bus ride, we arrived to the station at 7 PM, 3 hours ahead of our 10 PM train which actually arrived at 3 AM. There was only one announcement in Hindi meaning we nearly missed it as we were both sound asleep by 3 AM. Our 10 hour train ride to Siliguri, a northern city in the State of West Bengal picked us up 5 hours behind schedule and arrived in Siliguri only 8 hours behind schedule. Next we caught a 3 hour taxi to Darjeeling, a beautiful hill station town where the temperatures are cool. Tibetan culture overruns this city which boasts 360 degree views of the three highest peaks in the world – Everest included. After 30 hours of traveling we checked into our hotel to discover that tomorrow is the beginning of a strike. It turns out, the mainly Nepali and Tibetan people of this hill region are demanding their own state, separate from West Bengal. It’s a 20 year old conflict that has waited until our arrival to culminate into a complete shut down for the region. This means no busses, no trains, no shops, no restaurants, nothing. Miraculously the taxi driver was able to find his way around all road blocks.

Our kind hotel owner kept his facilities open for us and the 6 other tourists who remained. We spent the day relaxing and strolling though the quietest streets India has to offer. Thick cloud cover obstructed our views of the Himalayas but we could feel their presence as the clouds swirled over our heads.

After a day of the strike the Hotel Owners Association organized an evacuation of all hotel guests. We were scurried into a jeep packed with 12 foreigners and part of a convoy of about 50 vehicles going down the hill. Our driver had to fight with every road block but the evacuation was a success, despite some vomiting children in the Jeep ahead of us.

Siliguri, the town we escaped to, was facing transportation strikes due to rising gas prices. Darjeeling and Sikkim, where we planned to spend 7 days where now shut from commerce. The Trains were all booked for 4 days solid as it is Summer vacation for India. Keeping all this in mind, we made the decision to get away from the craziness and move on to Nepal, only 1 hour away.
We walked across the border in the dark and found a guest house. Our 4 AM Kathmandu-bound bus left in the pouring rain on time. It was going to be a 15 hr journey. We stopped twice for food and dozens of times for more passengers. Then we stopped at a road block. No problem, it will be clearing in 30 minutes. This quickly turned into 2 hours, which turned to five, which turned to our entire bus load of Nepalise sleeping in the bus in front of a gas station. Miraculously, of the roughly 10,000 people stuck behind this road block, we were the only foreigners. The Canadians we crossed the border with must have been smart and flown to Kathmandu.

It was now 11 AM the day after our bus left. We had been stuck at the road block for 24 hours. The only good thing to come of the situation was the kind conductor who walked and talked with us and kept us feeling safe. The three of us decided to stroll to the front of the line of trucks, busses, and cars to find a group of villagers peacefully dismantling a cargo truck. Diesel fuel spilled though a punctured gas tank and pieces of the engine were scattered on the road next to bucket seats and deflated tires. A group of 5 young policemen stood and observed this calm yet destructive protest, riot gear in hand. It turns out a man was killed the night before by a bus, and a small child a few hours later nearby by this truck. This resulted in a block and now the entire country is inconvenienced. At least that’s the story we got. One has to wonder if the fact that Nepal changed from a Monarchy to a Republic only 2 weeks ago and is now in the process of building a new government has anything to do with the strikes. Wondering when our luck will change, we make the difficult decision to go back to the very country we ran away from to begin with. This meant boarding one bus and driving about 2 km until we reached a third accident. This one was getting violent. Amanda and I strapped our bags on and ran through the blockade to a bus on the other side heading to the Indian border. At the Nepal immigration office they wanted to know why we came to Nepal for only 2 days. They denied our accusations of problems on the highways and road blocks. We rolled our eyes and fled back to the country that we love to hate – India.

Another 5 hour bus ride through potholes that could swallow a Volkswagen brought us back to Patna. Somewhere along the way I chucked the bracelet out the window cursing its evil hold on our luck. We admitted defeat, checked into a nice hotel and booked a plane ticket to Delhi where we arrived, greeted by the earliest monsoon on record for 108 years. Its strange to find respite in such a huge polluted and dirty city but here we our, in the fifth day of Delhi and it’s not such a bad place. The rains have cooled things down a bit and we have been enjoying the shopping and dining that this city has to offer.

We are sad that India has rejected our advances of courtship. Yet, we are not surprised. In this vast country where most marriages are arranged, we now realize that when we return we must plan ahead and have a huge dowry to offer. The best matches in India cost a lot of money. Traveling here can cost as little as $8 per day and as much as $3000. Be prepared to get what you pay for. Next time we’re taking out an ad in the Sunday Hindustan Times: “Wanted, relaxing cultural excursion through the beautiful landscapes of India. Will pay as much as is necessary”.

1 comment:

alphasquirrel said...

Doesn't sound so bad- at least you haven't had to endure a swarm of locusts, fire raining down from the sky or the three horsemen.