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Thank You India (India: Day Eight)

Started: 2010-03-27 12:33:20

Submitted: 2010-03-27 17:56:41

Visibility: World-readable

Willy's travel alarm woke us at 06:00 localtime in Darjeeling. Despite my attempts to prepare for a warm shower by turning on the hot water heater, it appeared that the power wasn't on overnight, so I settled for a brisk shower on my last morning in India.

I finished packing my bags and we set out to find breakfast and catch a Sumo to Siliguri. Breakfast was not forthcoming; there were plenty of people milling around early on Sunday morning, but not many restaurants were open, and Willy rejected one that did appear to be open. I pointed out that I had energy bars stockpiled for this sort of contingency, and we decided that the energy bars would suffice for the ride down to Siliguri.

After our rib-damaging experience riding up to Darjeeling, we resolved not to ride in the back of a Sumo. The vehicle we selected turned out to have a third row of forward-facing bench seats in the aft cargo compartment, but we rode in the second row of seats, after failing in our attempts to grab the front seats. I grabbed energy bars from my backpack, stowed our luggage on the rooftop cargo rack, and climbed into the vehicle.

The driver departed after a few minutes after collecting a few more riders, all of them Indian; most appeared to be locals based on their lack of luggage. This Sumo lacked a conductor to arrange the passengers and collect their fares, and the driver figured his vehicle was full even when other vehicles in which we rode would have stuffed additional passengers into the seats or standing in back, outside the vehicle, on the spare tire, clinging to the luggage rack.

This Sumo took yet another route out of town; the driver headed up to Nehru Road to head south, then joined Hill Cart Road somewhere between Darjeeling and Ghoom. In Kuresong, we turned off Hill Cart Road to the west, and it quickly became apparent that we weren't returning to the road. (I checked my maps later and it appeared that we followed National Highway 55 as it diverged from Hill Cart Road and the narrow-gauge track.) This road seemed in better shape, though I might not have felt every bump in the road as I did not have a seat digging into my ribs every time the vehicle jostled. We stopped for a snack at an unidentified roadside community and bought a small serving of what looked like curried potatoes over chow mein noodles, served in bowls made from pressed dried banana leaves. (In deference to our white skin, we also received disposable plastic spoons.) Two small servings, just enough to keep us going to Siliguri, cost Rs. 10.

After leaving Kuresong, the road descended steeply on switchbacks cut through tea plantations and gigantic groves of bamboo. The air warmed from the crisp early morning in Darjeeling to a pleasant mid-morning warmth as we left the Himalayan foothills, rendering our sweatshirts unnecessary.

We reached Siliguri by mid-morning, after a two-and-a-half-hour ride from Darjeeling. My flight out of Bagdogra didn't leave until 13:00, and Willy's train from New Jalpaiguri didn't leave until 14:10. We passed a giant mass of jeeps headed for a variety of locations, including Darjeeling, Gangtok, and the Nepali border, and found a place to eat veg rice and tea for brunch. We sat for a while after eating, savoring the lull in our travel schedules, before setting out to find a ride to the airport.

We found an auto rickshaw willing to take me to the airport and Willy took a picture of me standing with it. I bid him namaste, climbed in the rickshaw, and departed.

The ride in the rickshaw to Bagdogra Airport was my last good chance to see India up close before heading into the somewhat-more-controlled world of airplanes and airports. I saw people quarrying sand and gravel from a riverbed, shops of every description, and masses of people everywhere. The road was mobbed; my driver often pulled onto the soft shoulder to overtake busses and trucks. He stopped for gas (petrol?) halfway to the airport; it looked like the going rate was Rs. 50/liter, which seems to work out to something like US$4/gallon. (In Boulder in early 2010, I'm used to paying about US$2.50/gallon, down from a peak above US$4/gallon in summer 2008.)

At the Bagdogra airport, I passed a fully-operational machine gun nest past the checkpoint to enter the terminal, then had to get my checked luggage scanned by x-ray before I could check it. The x-ray caught my bronze Ganesh, wrapped in newspaper by the shop and packed in a stuff sack of mostly-dirty clothing for additional protection, and security staff asked me to produce it for inspection. He unwrapped it enough to see that it wasn't hiding anything nefarious inside and my bag was secured with a thin plastic strap indicating that it had been screened. (This strap was enough to make it difficult if not impossible to open suitcases without breaking the seal, but opening my backpack would not be difficult.) I checked in, went through security (and forgot to pull Hobbes out of my bag before putting my bag through the x-ray, causing a bit of a delay), and waited in a crowded waiting room for my flight to depart.

After twenty minutes, my aircraft arrived. They boarded the plane presently, and I walked down a ramp to the tarmac and walked to the 737-800 waiting on the tarmac. I was sitting in a middle seat towards the back of the plane, but the two other seats on my side of the aisle were vacant for the short hop to Guwahati, so I shifted to the window seat as soon as we took off.

I started my flight to Delhi going in the wrong direction; the cheapest flight I found was on Jet Airways flying from Bagdogra to Guwahati to Delhi. I couldn't see much out the window; it was fairly hazy and clouds obscured the Himalayas in Bhutan. We landed in Guwahati (flying over the same terrain I flew over a week prior on my outbound journey) and I stayed on the aircraft as additional passengers boarded, filling in the window and aisle seat on my row. We took off and headed back towards Bagdogra. We hugged Indian airspace over the Siliguri Sector and cruised over the Gangetic Plain to Delhi. Stuck in the middle of the airplane, I couldn't see very much, but I did spot another aircraft, in flight, flying in the same direction at the same speed a thousand feet below.

We landed in Delhi and caught a bus from where the plane parked on the tarmac to the arrivals terminal. I waited at baggage claim for my backpack to arrive, trying not to be crowded out by the hoard of Indians and their luggage carts crowding the claim. When my bag eventually arrived, I headed further into the terminal in search of the transfer bus to the international terminal. I found an appropriately-labeled desk with westerners queued in front. I showed my itinerary for my international flight home and my boarding pass for the domestic flight I just arrived on, and pointed out that my flight out "tomorrow" left fifteen minutes after midnight, so it was really tonight for all intents and purposes, and was rewarded with some cryptic marking on the itinerary and a vague pointer to one corner of the terminal. In the appropriate corner of the terminal I found another queue for the 17:40 transfer bus. (The busses were scheduled every twenty minutes.) A military or paramilitary guard checked the scrawlings on my itinerary and waved me onto the bus, which presently circumscribed a roundabout course to the international terminal by hugging the inner side of the airport fence, avoiding the major runway between the domestic and international terminals. (The whole process of getting the appropriate scribbles on my itinerary to catch the right bus struck me as a bit odd; in the US, all I'd have to do is show up at the right place and board the next shuttle without having my paperwork checked several times. I wondered if Kafka would have appreciated India.) We passed a group of Soviet-built IL-76 transport planes currently operated by the Indian Air Force on the way to the international terminal, and saw several planes take off and land.

The shuttle bus dropped us off next to an elevator below the international terminal, and the elevator took us up to a corner of the second-story vehicle drop-off for international departures. As I approached the terminal entrance, my options became clear: I still had three hours before check-in on my flight opened (and six hours before my flight departed), so the best place to be would be the departure lounge across the road from the terminal itself.

I ate one last dosa masala for supper, failed to find a suitable place to wash my hands, and sat and waited for check-in to open. I rested for a bit before continuing to read Escape from Kathmandu and trying (and failing) to get connected to the lounge's wifi.

(I thought about trying to do something in Delhi on my seven-hour layover but the only real option would have been to get a taxi into Delhi, drive around to see some sights from the taxi window, and head back to the airport, and the whole thing seemed like too much work and fraught with too much schedule peril to make it a viable option. I resigned myself to not actually seeing anything in Delhi and figured I would be back someday to see a bit more.)

After four hours in the lounge, I headed across the road to the terminal to check into my flight. I traded my rupees for dollars (US$16 for Rs. 750, rounding down to the nearest dollar; I kept coins but exchanged bills) and waited in the queue to check in. At one stage, an Indian checked my name and found a physical ticket and tried (and failed) to pronounce my first name; he rendered the "t" and "h" in "Theodore" as two separate letters rather than a single aspirated "t". (I knew I had plenty of problems pronouncing Indian names, so I was willing to forgive any failed attempts to pronounce my name.)

Once I completed checking in, I headed to departure passport control and got my passport stamped with an exit stamp and a "don't come back for 2 months on a tourist visa" stamp. (My six-month visa runs out in just over two months, so I'm not planning on coming back on this particular visa.) Next was security; the queue was short but disorganized so successfully navigating security and getting the appropriate stamp on my hand luggage took longer than I expected.

I had half an hour left on the ground before my flight boarded. I found a suitable spot to charge my netbook and read Escape from Kathmandu through the majority of the boarding process, until the queue diminished and I decided it was time to board.

I presented my boarding pass to the gate agent, hand luggage security stamp to the military or paramilitary guard, and walked halfway down the hallway to an additional security checkpoint where our shoes were inspected so the TSA could be confident Richard Reid wasn't going to try another trans-Atlantic shoe bombing. (Never mind that Richard Reid is currently in federal prison.) I bid India farewell at the end of the jetway right around midnight, localtime, when I stepped into the 777-200 that would take me most of the way home. (I recognized the gate as the same one I had entered the country through exactly a week prior, though everything looked different going in the opposite direction.)