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Multimodal transportation (India: Day Four)

Started: 2010-03-15 09:35:07

Submitted: 2010-03-16 20:20:02

Visibility: World-readable

We got up before 06:00 localtime on Wednesday morning to catch the school Sumo to market. While we were washing and packing, the Sumo filled up and departed early, so when we were ready to go Willy flagged down the school principal for a ride in his car. Market was set up in a field above the Didram river. When we arrived, it was still being set up. Willy took me around, showing the sights and layout of the market. There were aisles for local produce sold mostly by women, aisles for food brought in from further afield (sold mostly by men), people deep-frying baked goods in oil heated over cooking fires, and aisles for manufactured goods. Willy bought cooked rice wrapped in banana leaves, which we ate with our fingers for breakfast, then went back for rice cooked with sugar and poppyseeds. (This was quite tasty but left a sticky black residue on my fingers that lingered for hours.)

We stood next to the entrance to market and waited for a shared jeep (which function as one of India's many forms of public transportation) to take us to Krishnai, the first stage of our journey to Darjeeling. We found a jeep heading in that direction, down the Garo Hills and north into Assam, and climbed in the back. The jeep headed down the main, mostly-paved road, picking up passengers and dropping them off as it went. Our bags ended up on the rooftop luggage rack as the jeep filled. I had some trouble seeing the terrain we were passing through from my vantage point on a lateral bench in the back of the jeep; I had a reasonable view out the window opposite me, and a good view out the back, but Willy (seated facing me, on the other side of the jeep) and I kept pointing things out to each other that required us to turn in a desperate (and often futile) attempt to see them.

We reached Krishnai, on the road junction where the Garo Hills connect to Assam, and climbed out of the jeep, paying the conductor and heading in search of a bus for the next leg of our journey. Willy found one (across the dusty street) in a few minutes, and we climbed in and found seats at the very back of the bus, overlooking the bus and the countryside. I saw rice paddies, some of them already flooded and being planted; buildings with rebar sticking out for future expansion (the dominant construction technique was reinforced concrete frame with brick walls); and gentle hillside as we headed towards the Brahmaputra River. We changed busses in some anonymous town along the way; I was glad I had Willy to be my guide and make sure I ended up in the right place. The new bus was packed; I stood in the aisle at the front of the bus for a few stops until a seat opened and I sat in the front seat, with a reasonable view of the countryside. At one point, a boy standing in the aisle leaned over my backpack, clutching it to get a better view out the window.

We crossed the Brahmaputra River on a massive double-decker steel truss bridge. In the dry season, the river was low; I saw power lines sitting on giant concrete pilings on massive mudflats. The river was so wide, and the air so hazy, that I couldn't see the other side; the river seemed to go on forever. It was a singular experience.

On the north side of the river, the terrain changed; with rivers fed by melting snow from the Himalayas in Bhutan, everything was greener. We drove halfway to Bhutan and got off the bus in Bongaigaon, then took a packed auto rickshaw to the train station. (I think we ended up with five passengers, plus the driver, in the rickshaw; I sat in front, to the driver's right, trying to keep my balance on the tiny fragment of bench I was allocated while holding my backpack and hoping we didn't pass any other vehicles too closely.) We found the appropriate platform at the train station and waited for our train.

Our train, the 2505 Northeast Express from Guwahati to Delhi (a journey that takes several days), was scheduled to leave at 12:45, more than two hours after we arrived at the train station. We found a seat on the platform, shooed away some beggar children, and talked to an Indian Army soldier from Himachal Pradesh (a mountainous Indian state north of Delhi) who introduced himself, got us chai at the tea stall, and chatted for a while. (Things like this happened more than once; Indians are generally interested in talking to westerners and learning about the outside world.)

We ate lunch at the train station's lunch room; Willy ordered "veg rice", which turned out to be a large, sectioned plate with rice in the middle, various curries around the end, and endless refills.

Our train arrived on schedule and we found our second-class sleeper coach, somewhere towards the front of the very long passenger train. (This entailed walking a few hundred meters down the platform until we located the appropriate car.) We had upper berths in our open compartment; six people sat on two benches facing each other, and we had the aisle seats, which made it difficult to fully appreciate the countryside from the train windows. Our compartment seemed over-crowded; there was a family with four adults and one plump toddler, plus one other adult and Willy and I, for a grand total of seven adults in a compartment designed to fit six. It got worse a stop or two later, when an eighth adult arrived and managed to wedge himself onto the bench. an hour or two later, the family departed, leaving far more room in the compartment.

West Bengal village
West Bengal village
West Bengal farmland
West Bengal farmland

I saw only one tea plantation in Assam; I saw many more once we crossed the state border into West Bengal. In both states, I saw plenty of countryside: rice paddies, wheat fields, cities and towns, and lots of people. The train itself was an experience; sellers of food and manufactured goods roamed the aisle peddling their wares. By the time our train approached New Jalpaguri Station, I was ready to leave the experience behind.

West Bengal high-voltage power lines
West Bengal high-voltage power lines
Tista River, West Bengal
Tista River, West Bengal

We disembarked the train as afternoon pushed into evening and caught an auto rickshaw into Siliguri, the next city north and a major junction point for Darjeeling. We had considered pushing on to Darjeeling, but it seemed like a better idea to stay put for the night and get an early start into Darjeeling the next day. We roamed Hill Cart Road to orient ourselves and locate suitable food and lodging. My guidebook suggested one expensive-looking mid-range hotel (though Willy mentioned that "hotel" on a storefront often means "restaurant"; I saw some places self-identifying as a "hotel" include the disclaimer "lodging only") that was full, so we headed next door to a sketchy-looking but cheap place (Rs. 350/night for a double room, about $7.72) that lacked hot water but seemed acceptable for one night. We headed out in search of food and found an expensive restaurant attached to a hotel (where "expensive" means "dinner for two cost about $10"; lunch was something closer to $2), then stopped by an Internet cafe to connect to the outside world. I e-mailed Kiesa to assure her that I was still alive (and on-schedule, though I think I forgot to send her a link to my detailed itinerary), and verified that the outside world still existed, in some form or another.

Willy in Siliguri
Willy in Siliguri

After three full days in India, I finally felt like my jet-lag-induced haze was lifting, and I didn't feel desperately tired once the sun set. I even felt sufficiently awake to start documenting my trip before going to bed.

Money does not abide by the laws of thermodynamics.
- schwap, in a /. post