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Guwahati (India: Day Two)

Started: 2010-03-12 09:09:30

Submitted: 2010-03-14 05:55:45

Visibility: World-readable

I slept fitfully on my first night in India; the room was hot, I was nervous about being alone in a foreign country, and I was fighting jet lag. My alarm woke me at 06:00, which I hoped would give me enough time to leave for the airport around 08:00 to catch my flight to Guwahati. I called to reception to ask for a towel, and took a brisk shower with cold water. (Apparently I was supposed to ask for the power to be turned on for my in-room hot water heater, but I didn't know that at the time.) I fought back a growing sense of dread at being able to get back to the airport in time. I ordered room service for breakfast; I didn't trust myself to order from the Indian half of the menu, so I ordered from the western half of the menu. While I waited for breakfast I headed down to the lobby in a futile attempt to connect to the hotel's alleged wireless Internet connection, and to talk to the front desk clerk about getting a ride back to the airport that morning. (He asked where I came from the previous night, America or Kathmandu, because there were only two international destinations Americans could be coming into India from.) I caught my first glimpse of India by day, looking out onto the alley-width street in front of the hotel and seeing the masses of humanity, on foot and on bicycle, wearing brightly-colored clothing, going everywhere.

I ate breakfast, repacked my bags, and headed downstairs for my 08:00 ride to the airport. I checked out and waited a few minutes for the ride to arrive. We headed back on roughly the same way I came in the previous night (I recognized some key landmarks) and I saw the route in daylight for the first time. My first impression was the masses of humanity; people on bicycles and scooters and riding in a vast array of unfamiliar motor vehicles. People cooking breakfast on fires next to the road. People bathing by pouring pans of water over their heads. People eating, walking, and talking. I saw shacks next to the road and entire shanty towns tucked into corners. I saw a bus full of Indian tourists from elsewhere on the subcontinent. The traffic was impressive; no one paid any attention to lane markers or right-of-way. Cars merged and weaved and passed, forming as many lanes as space would allow. Yet somehow it all worked; every vehicle had exactly the amount of space it needed without much to spare. There was very little order to the chaos, but I saw no mishaps.

While waiting at a traffic light (which seemed, oddly, to be the only traffic light I encountered on the journey), an eight-year-old beggar girl spotted me and tried to get my attention. She started by doing gymnastics in the median, then tried the more direct approach by scratching at my window, doing a fairly good impression of the main character in Salam Bombay. When that didn't work, she came around the car to my side and continued her attempts to get my attention. She finally gave up shortly before the light changed, uttering what I can only assume was a Hindi curse as she walked away.

On the way to the airport, I saw evidence of the not-yet-finished airport express metro line: I saw giant concrete viaducts in place with towers for the overhead power lines in place but not yet strung. Giant piles of rail were stacked next to the road where the viaducts ran above. The rail line is supposed to open later this year, in time for the Commonwealth Games this summer.

The taxi dropped me off in front of one of the domestic terminals, the shiny, new, and airy Terminal 1D. (With its high roof and open floor plan, divided by a security cordon between the check-in counters and the waiting area, it reminded me faintly of the central portion of the Jeppsen Terminal at DIA, if it were divided down the middle.) I had to show my ticket booking confirmation and passport to even get into the terminal. I surveyed the landscape, visited the ATM again, and checked into my flight to Guwahati. I passed security without mishap, though the song-and-dance is different from the one I'm used to in the United States (presumably being set to Bollywood music). Each passenger gets a personal wand inspection after passing through the metal detector, and my hand luggage needed a blank airline luggage id tag for the security screening checkpoint stamp. (My bag lacked the necessary tag, confusing the screener, who grabbed one from a stack and stamped it.)

I surveyed the terminal past security and got an uninspiring latte and a pastry for snack, then tried without success to connect to what seemed to be the wireless Internet access advertised around the waiting area. When my flight was called, I went down the stairs on the far side of the terminal to a line of queues waiting to catch shuttle busses to airplanes sitting on the tarmac. Out on the tarmac, I walked under the 737's wing to the stairs at the left rear entrance. I studied the in-flight magazine and its route network and waited to depart.

We took off presently and I got a good view of the not-yet-open international Terminal 3, spread out expansively next to the dingy Terminal 2, which I had flown into the previous night. It appeared that the new terminal was on the other side of the wall at the far side of my taxi's parking lot. I studied the unfamiliar countryside as we climbed out of Delhi to the east, then reached our cruising altitude above the Gangetic Plain. As we climbed, we passed through the layer of haze that covered the ground and I glanced up and saw snow-covered Himalayan peaks floating ethereally above the haze. I stared, transfixed, at my first glimpse of the Abode of Snow.

As we continued further east, I looked down at the Gangetic Plain and tried (and mostly failed) to recognize any of the things I had seen while studying maps and satellite images of the area. I spotted several massive rivers, at least one of which must have been the Ganges itself. Further east, the Himalayas resolved themselves into three distinct groups: the Annapurna massif to the west, Mount Everest in the middle, and the Kanchunga massif (India's highest peak, the third highest in the world) to the east.

We dog-legged above Bagdogra and Siliguri above the tiny strip of West Bengal connecting the main portion of India to the north-east, between Nepal and Bangladesh. I wondered why the plane needed to take the less-direct all-Indian-airspace route; I've flown on purely domestic US flight that flew over Canada. (Either the captain (over the intercom) or Willy made some reference to the "Siliguri Sector", and Willy's school principal mentioned that he had flown over the Garo Hills earlier, before Bangladesh stopped allowing Indian overflight.)

The Bramaputhra river valley was hazy, and in the north Bhutan was covered in clouds, but I was fairly confident I could see into the Indian state of Sikhim and beyond into Tibet. (Being on the left side of the plane, I couldn't see the Garo Hills and Meghalya to the south.) We descended towards Guwahati and I saw terraced rice fields winding through jungle and little villages dotting the terrain. We landed in Guwahati and I deplaned to take another shuttle a few hundred meters to the terminal. I waited to claim my luggage, then left the inner cordon to the main waiting area in the terminal. I didn't think Willy would have paid to gain access to the terminal, so I carefully surveyed the waiting area before leaving the terminal and emerging into the bright outside world of Assam.

I spotted Willy immediately, just outside the door. He beat me to the "namaste" greeting, but I quickly followed suit. He led me to the waiting Tata Sumo (an indigenous, endlessly-adaptable Jeep-like vehicle), owned by his school and driven by one of the school's employees, which the principal sent to ferry me to campus in comparative luxury. We left the airport and headed west, along the main road down the south side of the Bramaputhra River. I cross-referenced my view of Assam from the air with my view of Assam from the ground, and saw and endless variety of jungle, terraced rice paddies, minor tributary rivers, and temples to Shiva, both occupied and empty. Traffic on the road was nearly as crazy as that in Delhi, though on nominally-two-lane roads where human-powered carts outnumbered bicycles and sacred cows occasionally wandered into oncoming traffic.

We encountered a police roadblock halfway into the journey. It wasn't entirely clear what was going on but soon the word came that the roadblock would clear by 16:00. (It was 14:30 at the time.) We headed back a few kilometers to a roadside restaurant for lunch. Willy introduced me to roadside Indian food, ordering on my behalf, telling me to eat the small cubed raw onion for digestion, and instructing me in the finer points of food safety. The food was a variety of potato curries eaten with flatbread, representative of northern Indian cuisine.

(I was fascinated by the overt displays of military and paramilitary force I found in India: airport guards (and the security forces running the roadblock) carried rifles slung over their shoulders, and the airport in Delhi had sandbagged machine gun nests along the road and in front of the terminal. America may be the land of heavily-armed citizens, but while handguns are nearly universal down to the level of municipal police, except for rare occasions one seldom sees rifle-armed security forces on the streets. I expect a large part of this is the recent history of armed conflict in the subcontinent, and the continuing threat of both terrorism and domestic separatist groups.)

We headed back toward the roadblock around 16:00 and found it still in place, but it opened after waiting for a few minutes. Several towns later, as the afternoon light grew lower in the hazy sky, we drove through a town with large anxious crowds watched over by wary paramilitary forces; it appeared that an uneasy calm had taken hold after some altercation. I saw a Sumo with two holes in the right front (driver's-side) window and broken glass on the ground. Willy's principal later reported that there had been an exchange of fire between local separatist groups and security forces, but it was unclear who was responsible or what the outcome was.)

As darkness began to fall, we turned off the main road near Goalpara and headed south, toward Tura, into the Garo Hills and the state of Meghalya. Flat jungle gave way to hilly jungle as we climbed. We reached the town of Bagendoba and turned off the Tura road, crossed the Didram river, and drove up the west bank several kilometers until reaching the walled compound of Riverside Adventist Academy. Our driver dropped us off in front of Willy's apartment, a two-story concrete building divided into three apartments. I dropped my bags in Willy's room, met his German roommate Valentin (whom I had talked to on the phone), and tried to get my bearings. It was well after dark, and I was getting tired; not only was I generally short on sleep, but I was jet-lagged as well. Willy's school principal dropped by to deliver a mattress for me to sleep on and collect us for supper. Willy, Valentin, and I headed next door for supper, which featured rice (a staple food of the Garo Hills, but not as universal in India as Indian restaurants in America would suggest) and curries. It was quite good, but I was getting tired.

Back at Willy's apartment, I went to sleep on a mattress on his floor, having successfully navigated my first fully day in India.