So as a part of my travelogue series, the next city, or trip that I am going to introduce you to, is the one that we had very enthusiastically and earnestly planned in the wintry month of November. In fact it was our most earnest trip ever, considering the time that had been spent planning it and the extravagance of wild imagination invested while we mentally charted through the picturesque and beautiful landscapes of Darjeeling and Gangtok planning to visit these shrines of nature that had been thus far only witnessed from enamelled and glossy post cards and annual calendars. The green of these pictures had mesmerised us so that we almost felt as if it were calling out to us, the call had to be responded (also since the LTC had been due that year) so despite my initial reservations of taking on yet another mountain hiking, leg cramming hill station trip we nonetheless settled down on making a once in a time grand visit to the far east of our country, that secluded part of India that is only Indian by virtue of boundaries, and imaginary at that.
So we set out on a trip to Darjeeling/Gangtok in the early chill of winters around mid November. We had strategically planned our visit after diwali in order to avoid large flocks of tourists who brim and crowd the first rows of almost every sight-seeing spot as if reaching there, marking their presence and capturing it on camera was the sole purpose with which they had set out on their entire tour, after all covering each and every nook of all the tourist spots mentioned on the tour guide is a must if one has to eek the absolute benefit of a pre-planned tour. We could have chosen a tour plan but chose to do the exploring bit ourselves, only if we had chosen otherwise. Presuming this to be the best time to visit a hill station and with plans and hopes of being able to spot the snow covered peaks of Himalaya we set out for our trip, not knowing in the slightest of what awaited us on reaching there.
So we took the Jalpaiguri Rajdhani Express and treated ourselves to the continual services offered from the pantry of Rajdhani Express, the regular servings of timely snacks, soup, dinner, dessert and breakfast the next morning kept us busy and literally full throughout the journey. On reaching the Jalpiguri station we made the most erroneous choice of the entire trip. Gangtok and Darjeeling were equidistant, our trip was a 6 days affair and according to plan we had to halt at Darjeeling for 3 days before making way to Gangtok so that the trip could be on a upscale, with the relatively lesser beautiful place being followed by the one that was slightly better. We headed to Darjeeling in a pooled taxi with another family. So after almost 5 long hours of merry go round around the hills of west Bengal, and having spot the toy train at several places and cursing ourselves for not having opted for it while we had a chance we finally reached Darjeeling around late afternoon. Before entering the city our cab along with those that had left with us at the Jalpaiguri station were stopped at the mouth of the city. The deal and the prime reason for our trip to be the antithesis of what had been cheerfully planned was that the entire city had been called for a Bandh due to internal factions and civil turmoil. The Gorkha land issue was the pin that deflated our balloon of excitement and made this trip something to remember for lifetime for not so happy reasons. If i am to plot a line graph of the relative disastrousness of some of the bad trips we have taken, this one would be serving itself at the highest point.
As if the Bandh was not enough to squash our hopes there was news of tourists being apparently under the target of the protesters. My father got back some awful news of someone being stabbed in broad daylight, whether this happened for real or was amongst the several fallacious rumours doing round they didn’t tell him but it was enough to terrorise all of us. With our hearts in our mouths and our hands squeezed in our pockets we precariously stepped out of the cab so scared and bewildered as if right on the target. Spooked out as we were our father took us to the nearest and also unfortunately and presumably the stingiest and the most rusty looking inn of the entire city. He had been so freaked out with the talks of men with daggers that he didn’t risk walking us even a few meters to consider better options. So despite our constant ranting and reluctance we made way to the inn half heartedly. The shanty rusticity of the inn was draped in bright hues of red blue and green, the colours however did hardly anything to alleviate our dampened spirits. To add to that was the unbecoming and unpalatable food that the inn owner provided us that night. The inn otherwise had no catering facility and we couldn’t have stepped out for the fear of being stabbed to death (well the intent is not to gross out my readers, this was what they made us believe the situation was). The bitterness of the entire land was as if poured into that dinner that night, my brother says he can never disassociate a nauseating giddiness with the memory of that night. I had heard olfactory senses make way for associative memory but apparently the pungency and repulsion of the taste buds have a more lasting effect.
The next day was also called for a Bandh, the tourist guides, whose daily bread depended on the tourists, had the slightest concern for their livelihood, and declared with an audacious smug that the city was still closed to visitors and civilians. Their pale, dirt smeared faces as if glared at us with a mocking surge as if reminding us of the neglect that we inflict on them. One could almost sense their disapproval for our utter disregard of them as part of the Indian State. We nonetheless lanced our way out of the safety haven of the dingy inn and found a cafe that could provide us with some edible breakfast, lunch, evening snack, dinner, all meals in short; choice remained as elusive to us as the green valleys of Darjeeling that we had set out to see when we had the trip planned. The third day, my father desperate to make something of the LTC tour, went to one of the cab drivers and had to literally almost bribe him with extra money and sponsored lunch so that he showed us at least some part of the Bandh-free Darjeeling. So an entire day was spent visiting the rather average, but nonetheless exceptional (by tourist standards) tea gardens, a little venture at rock climbing on a mere 10 ft wall (well we did something at least despite the bandh!) and a visit to the local monastery where we spotted little monks who were exceptionally cute.
The same day we were also advised to take a cab to Gangtok because there was no political turmoil there and also the passage to that state had also been almost clear in the last 2 days. The next day as we packed up with our hopes soaring high so that we could make something of our poorly trip, we were told that the passage to Gangtok had been close and for the sake of our safety and well being we must at that very instant head back to Siliguri, a city unheard of otherwise, situated in West Bengal. All the mighty plans to visit Gangtok went amuck, I and my brother pulled the longest face we could and amidst ceaseless whines were shoved into the cab that took us to the plains again. The 5 hour merry go round was more nauseating than before now. As if the bitterness of that horrid inn food mixed with the bile of dissatisfaction was churning in our stomachs to give us belches of unrequited anguish. What was worse, was that in our cab we were accompanied my two Sikkimese men who wouldn’t stop raving about the beauty of that state and how it was so much better than Darjeeling well, they did nothing to cure us of our acidic belches full of discontent, they could have only heightened the agony. So we reached Siliguri and so trembled we were by a possible unrest there as well we lodged ourselves in the nearest available hotel (although choice would have not been unavailable, but that is luck we say).
So we dumped ourselves in another hotel of a city which we would have never planned to visit in an entire lifetime, even if we had pledged to do a Bharat Darshan of sorts. Clumsily sacked in that lone town of West Bengal we spent the rest three days cursing ourselves for having made the “3 mistakes of my (trip)”, the first being, setting out on a trip to one of the most sensitive parts of India without making sufficient enquiries about it, the second, not taking the cab to Sikkim from the Jalpaiguri station in assuming that any trip should successfully alleviate itself (ironically it did so but in only alleviating our melancholy) and finally in not leaving Darjeeling while we had the chance to do so only because we couldn’t wake up on time (fathers don’t scold you for nothing for being lazy bums). The soapy saga doesn’t even end here, as a perfect complement to the utter disastrousness of the trip, my brother forgot his Mp3 player in the shanty inn of Darjeeling and what is worse we have by hand of fate or by technical ghastliness lost all our pictures of that trip taken from our digital camera and saved on the C drive of our ill-fated computer (because every time you run the damned machine it needs reformatting).
However, we procured the Mp3 back from the inn owners through courier which resurrected our faith in humanity (pardon my exaggeration but the magnanimity of the trip demands it). Someday hopefully we’ll also recover the lost photographs, the only memoirs we retain of that ominous trip (other than the bitter taste of the inn food, of course, that still belches up when we recall the whole experience).