Day 600: Bad Day At Black Rock

25.08.10

SIX HUNDRED DAYS ON THE ROAD!! Do I win a fiver?

And so the train pulled into Calcutta’s Howrah train station around 11am.  The plan was to head to the border with Bangladesh, do a quick border hop and then come back in time for tea and a train up towards Bhutan and Nepal.

However, my first problem was that (after queuing up a five different booths) the guy in the ticket office told me that the late train that left at 11pm was full.  I would find out later this was a lie, but never mind, I’m getting used to it now.  Therefore the only option was the Darjeeling Mail train which left at 7.35pm.  This meant my trip to Bangladesh was going to be a bit of a race to say the least.

Sonu accompanied me across the Hooghly River that runs through Calcutta and together we went to investigate options for taking the bus to the border.  It took us a good two hours just to get to the bus ‘station’, and when we arrived, I was informed that all the buses for today had left, and that even if they hadn’t, I couldn’t get on board as the buses went all the way to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, and passengers weren’t allowed to get off early.

Or something.

I don’t quite know why India feels it must be so infuriating, but somewhere along the line somebody must have mooted it as ‘a good idea’.

So Bangladesh was a no, then.  In any case, I might not have got over the border, considering how much India’s security has been ramped up in the wake of the Mumbai Massacre.  The last time I was at the western border of Bangladesh, I could have just walked straight through and nobody would have noticed.

So Sonu and I grabbed some lunch and Sonu invited me back to his house so I could scrub up and go and see his local church.  The journey to his on a local train was so typically Indian it almost seemed farcical – far too many people squeezed into a carriage that hadn’t been cleaned since… well, ever.  And that’s something that blows my mind about India, the relationship with dirt.  I’m not one for living in a sterile bubble, but this place is the equivalent of my dad’s old carburetter shop in Liverpool only times 1.2 billion.  Everything – from the streets to the buildings to the trains to the temples – must must must be grubby as hell.  But the weird thing is how everything is meticulously ordered, like a freak who hoards his rubbish in his living room, but sorts it into neat piles first.

Sweeping up in India requires you to push the dirt somewhere else, the concept of litter bins are as alien here as being a vegan is to an Argentinean.  The mounds of rubbish, rubbish everywhere and the public health menace they pose would make anywhere else rise up and incarcerate the powers that be, but not in India.  Like Ethiopia, the concept of germ theory is an undiscovered country, if you get ill well you mutter something about it being the will of the god(s) and quietly die without complaint – after all, you’re going to get reincarnated… right?

One thing I just can’t fathom about the concept of reincarnation is this: what’s the point?  In Battlestar Galactica, the Cylons could download their memories – and consciousness – to a new identical body whenever they died.  That seems perfectly sensible (within the realms of science fiction) and I don’t see why not.  But to be downloaded into a completely new body (or even one of a completely separate species) but not retain your consciousness nor indeed any memories whatsoever seems, well, a little pointless does it not?

What exactly is being downloaded?  And what lessons can be learnt, given you don’t remember anything from your previous life?

Anyways, I’m going off-topic a little here, but after grabbing a quick shower and sending a couple of emails at Sonu’s gaff, he drove me back to Calcutta.  Unfortunately for me, his ludicrously optimistic view that he could get back to the city in 45 minutes was exactly that – ludicrously optimistic.  Even twice that time would be gilding the lily somewhat.  Try three hours, that would be a safer bet.

Needless to say, I missed my train.

As I had bought an ‘emergency’ ticket (at a 200rupee markup) my ticket was completely non-refundable.  My discontent at this situation wasn’t helped by Sonu’s reckless driving – when there is a heady mixture of cars, rickshaws, cyclists, pedestrians, potholes, trucks, buses and cows vying for space one would tend not to drive like Toad of Toad Hall – doubly so when there are no streetlights.  But Sonu’s over-optimistic appraisal of the time situation also translated into an over-optimistic sentiment that God was protecting his car and therefore it was impossible for him to crash.

I did point out that as a (rather militant) atheist, that if he did actually exist, this God fella has probably got it in for me, and that would seem to be the case as after a hair-raising two hours, Sonu managed to drop me at the wrong train station.  Thankfully, a guardian angel called George came to my rescue.  He worked for the trains and was on his way home when I ran into him running with all my bags along an unlit railway line.  “You’re at the wrong station”, he told me – “but don’t worry I’ll get you on the later train”.

“I was told it was sold out”.

“They always say that.  Come with me.”

So George and I hopped in a taxi and sped over to the correct train station.  It took the best part of an hour to get there, but when we did, he sorted me out with a ticket on the 22.35 up to Siliguri in the north of West Bengal – not far from the borders of Bangladesh and Bhutan.  The possibly of ticking off two countries in one day was a particularly sweet idea at this time.

With a hour or so to kill before I got on the train, I said my hearty thank-yous to George and bought myself a copy of Newsweek, very interested to read their list of the best 100 countries in the world and see how much it tallied with mine.

As they didn’t include rock n’ roll, lemurs or ladyboys in their criteria of what made a country ‘best’, the list was somewhat different from my League of Nations – with their top three nations being Finland, Switzerland and Luxembourg – three of the most boring places on Earth.  India is a lot of things, and I could go on all night about how nuts it is, but at the end of the day, at least it’s never dull – and that counts for a lot in my book, yes India – you’re that lousy friend that we can’t help forgive because they make us laugh, you’re the nasty spiteful Dr. House who we admire because he’s always frickin’ right and the vacuous blonde we tolerate because she’s got a cracking pair of norks.

My League is based on places that excite or surprise me – I guess that’s why the top ten includes the likes of Egypt, Bolivia, Thailand and Iran.  Finland, Switzerland or Luxembourg – godbless’em – are all very sensible and nice, but sometimes you need a little madness just to keep things interesting.

Day 601: I Feel My Luck Could Change

26.08.10:

Today started with a bit of a disaster when I awoke to find that my new laptop, Sony Jim, that I had cunningly placed between me and the wall the night before, was a lot more delicate than my old laptop, Dell Boy.  The screen had cracked in the night (I must have rolled over against it).  This was not a good start to the day and I was determined to not let it overshadow the rest of today’s shenanigans.  I had two – maybe three – countries to reach before the end of the day and a cracked laptop screen was the least of my worries – I had no visa for any of the countries I wished to visit.

The train pulled into New Jalpaguri station in Northern West Bengal at 8am.  After throwing my bag into the station cloakroom and a bit of negotiation, I managed to score a taxi to the Bangladeshi border at Chengrabandha.  It’s not that far away – perhaps thirty-five miles – but This Is India, so the trip took over SIX HOURS.  No, really.

The road to Bangladesh was the worst I’ve experienced in India so far, and was so chock-a-block full of gaily painted trucks there was no chance of escape.  And by ‘gaily’ I mean it in all senses of the word – happy, homosexual, a bit naff.  Come to think of it, India has to be the gayest country this side of Saudi Arabia (which is by far the gayest country in the world).  Funnily enough, being gay was illegal here until very recently, but let’s look at the evidence:

1) You often see men holding hands but never men and women holding hands.

2) Have you watched a Bollywood film?  They’re all musicals!  With song and dance routines!  The only people who like musicals are a) middle-aged women b) gay men.  There have been over 64,000 Bollywood films made since the thirties.  And all but three of them have been musicals.

3) The brightly coloured floral designs adorning each and every truck and look like something from a Gay Pride parade.

4) LOTS of men have moustaches.  Which are gay.

5) Everyone is gay or NOTHING MAKES ANY SENSE AT ALL.

A-hem.  So, er… yeah, Bangladesh.  Eventually my driver took me on the back road to the border and after a quick natter with the Indian border guards they let me go and have a chat with the Bangladeshi border guard who was literally three metres away – no big fence, gates, barbed wire etc. here – in fact the only thing that gave away that I was now in another country was the flag and the large ‘welcome to Bangladesh’ sign.

So I got to cross the border, touch Bangladesh soil and ask if I could take a photo (my request was denied).  Ack!  But the GPS showed I had crossed the border so at this point (and over 600 days on the road) I’m beyond caring.  After a good five minutes of jumping up and down going ‘whoop whoop whoop’ I came back to India and got back in the taxi.

“Back to NJP (New Jalpaguri) sir?”

“Nope. Let’s go to Bhutan.”

“We won’t make it before dark. The roads are very bad”

“It took us six hours to get here. Whatever happens, it will be quicker to go to Bhutan.”

After a bit of haggling, my driver relented and off I jolly well popped.  Again, the border was around 30 miles away, but it still took us three hours to get there.  The roads were indeed, very bad.

But the Indian countryside was magnificent.  So so green and yes there were ladies in saris picking leaves from tea bushes; paddy fields and cotton plantations: the rural idyll Indian-style.  Farms and farmers, villages and villagers, I guess what hacks would call the ‘real’ India.  Luckily for you, I’m not a hack so I won’t go down that road, but let’s just say that although the rural poor are the poorest of the poor, there was a measure of contentment that I found lacking in the big cities round these parts.  Isn’t that always the way?

Oh, I almost forgot – Bhutan – yeah, file it under the same heading as Sao Tome, Comoros, Djibouti and Kiribati – under “countries you didn’t even know existed.”  It’s a tiny, secretive kingdom in the Himalayas that has (successfully) shunned modernity for a long, long time.  I think they only got televisions a few weeks ago.  Lucky them – imagine wondering all your life what it would be like to own a television set, you finally get one and the only thing to watch is ‘India’s Got Talent’.  Urk.  Unlike Bangladesh, I would quite like to visit Bhutan, go for a tour, that kind of thing.  However, in this trip it’s just going to be a border hop I’m afraid, but for a very different reason than my Bangladesh innie/outie – like St. Petersburg, Samarkand and San Francisco, there are places that I don’t want to ‘do’ just yet and I certainly don’t want to ‘do’ them alone.

I need someone to nudge and say “wow – look at that!”  Yeah – sad but true.

So it was getting dark as I hit the Bhutanese border.  There was no Indian ‘side’, just a big Chinese-like gate announcing ‘Welcome to Bhutan!’  Fantastic!  I walked up to the gate, chatted with the border guard (a kid dressed in jeans and a t-shirt), showed him the article about me from The Hindu and he smiled, nodded and let me through!

Unbelievable!  It was so so easy!

So I found the first sign I could find that said ‘Bhutan’ and filmed as much as I could on the other side, ensured my GPS was getting a good signal and after about five minutes headed back.

Then I got into trouble.

The guard on the way back was wearing a uniform and he wasn’t happy about my little bit of international subterfuge.  I tried to explain, but he didn’t speak much English.  Luckily, at that very moment the kid in jeans came through to the Bhutanese side of the gate.

“He told me I could!” I said, much in the manner of a schoolkid ratting on his mate.  The kid in jeans smiled, explained something in Bhutanese to the uniformed chap, and then it was all smiles and handshakes and don’t do it agains.

But by then it didn’t matter.  I had done it.  Two nations knocked off the list in one day; 165 down, only 35 more countries to go – and I’d be hitting nation 166 tomorrow morning.  I walked triumphant back into India.

The taxi ride back to NJP was just as terrifying as the night before with Sonu, but with the added terror of the monsoon rains belting down so hard I’m amazed we weren’t washed away.  It was around ten o’clock by the time we got back.  I paid my long-suffering (and, hell with it, long complaining) driver, checked into a hotel and crashed out for the night.

For the first time in a long time I felt as if I was moving again.