Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride

View from Kalimpong window

I was dog tired on reaching Bagdogra (ha ha), India. The farmers tilling the fields 10 feet from the tarmac stopped to watch the plane land. It was mostly rice paddies, from the look of it, and made for a pretty approach. I descended the rolling stairs, walked to the airport, and got to the baggage claim. With some more aggressive shoving and ferreting, I found the bag: big red. Now it’s more like “big dirt”; fortunately I hadn’t had time to get particularly attached to it. I put everything on a trolley and rolled out to meet my fate or my driver, and I wasn’t sure which it was going to be. I knew I’d made that wire transfer to Heat Flexi tours, and had previously checked their bona fides online in several locations, but I still wondered: were they going to be there? They did not disappoint. I was welcomed with a company-stamped scarf, a kind word and a packet of paperwork for my hotels. We went through the packet and I found an error (no room for the night of the 21st), which was immediately corrected. The agent had to use two different cell phones and about five different connections to finish the call, but the job got done. The porter took the trolley, we made our way to a parking lot, and into a tiny TaTa I went with my bags, my room reservation coupons and a howdy-do from the travel agent. Then the real fun began. It defies description. I don’t even know if I can explain what it was like in Bagdogra or the road up here. It took three more hours, and I admit I slept for at least 30 minutes of that.

You can’t see from the pictures just what kind of a hole Bagdogra was. Man. Refuse everywhere, hideous fumes, people stacking over six feet of strapped stuff on a bicycle (I have no idea how), women carrying huge loads on their heads – loads of maybe 30 pounds it looked like. From the business signs and advertisements, it seemed to be a place where a lot of marble and concrete products found their way when they come down from the mountains, and also a place where needed goods arrived to go up into the mountains. As such, there were many large trucks spewing out black smoke and nearly hitting us head on. The driver had to pass everyone who was slow, and there were a lot of them, because most trucks were going maybe 15 mph. To pass, or to go around a blind curve, you honk. A lot. The trucks even have painted instructions on their tailgates telling you to honk before you pass. The horn is used more than the turn signal or maybe even the brake pedal. My driver was a nimble expert at the driving game of Indian Chicken, though, and he obviously knew the road. There were one of two times I swore we were going to have a head-on collision or maybe just roll right off into the gorge, but somehow we escaped death. Generally he did an outstanding job. I cannot imagine anyone renting a car here for self-driving, and in fact, neither can Hertz. They rent drivers out with their cars in India.

Then we got into the mountains. All the way up, I saw young men perched on top of buses and four-wheel drive vehicles, riding them down the mountain like bulls at a rodeo. It was a curvy game of passing, pothole dodging and honking all the way through the foothills of the Himalaya mountains, over some washed out road sections, hairpin turns, and narrow bridges over the river gorge, and finally up to the mountain summit town of Kalimpong, where I am now, trying to air the mosquito poison out of this room. I understand Kalimpong used to be used as a base camp for mountaineers attempting the nearby Khangchendzonga, third highest mountain in the world. It’s to my left from the room but rarely visible this time of year. How cool is that?

The hotel men knew my driver. I was told he was “very experienced” and made excellent time on the drive up here. I agree with them entirely. I am told most of the guests are stunned and terrified by the drive up, but I am guessing they don’t live near the Pacific Coast Highway, either. This is a beautiful spot and well worth the effort. See that picture with the window? That’s my room. It looks out onto the mountains, I am told, though it’s white from fog right now (update: yes, you can see the valley and opposing mountains from here – wow – oh wait, it’s white again so no new photo). I had not been here for five minutes when Heat Flexi telephoned to be sure that everything was all right. Nice.

Overall the thing that strikes me so much is the illogical contrast in India. On the one hand, you have guys like the folks at Heat Flexi calling to make sure I am okay. And you see some nice homes here that are freshly painted with pretty gardens. But on the other hand, everywhere there is this terrible grime, stink and poverty. Then rising up out of an apparent latrine will be a billboard advertising life insurance with a slogan of “All Will be Well”. Or the sign on a shop called “Skin Hygiene” as I read it through black smoke belched out by a truck, on a road lined with refuse. And then there are the many airport security guards carrying rifles and looking tough, but accomplishing only the stamping of paper, overly-long examination of obviously in-order documents, and asking for boarding passes after the flight is over. It’s as if no one even sees what I view as absurd, or notices that it is strange. Maybe I’ll understand later. Right now, it seems like wearing a seat belt on unicycle. Perhaps trying to make sense of this place would lead to madness.

This entry was posted in Far Far Away, India, Road Trips, Round the World Journey. Bookmark the permalink.

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