Archive for February 1st, 2010

Gorkhaland, India

The British were here: Christian Church of Dargeeling

Like tribal people everywhere, westerners are drawn together at Indian train stations like  Hindus to the Ganges. Thus, while Dargeeling is not a popular destination (cold) this time of the year, I met five others travelers trying to figure out what platform the train may be leaving from. We quickly formed a partnership, spit up and checked each platform and agreed we would share a private jeep to Dargeeling from the train station. Well all but one person agreed.  A new to India solo women said she preferred to travel alone as she was on a personal pilgrimage and would make her own arraignments. I informed the group that I was assured we could also catch an express train once we got to the NJP station.  “Never heard of that was the collective response”. When I was told this by the hotel manager in Varanasi I had my doubts as to the validity; could not confirm in the guide book or on line. But he insisted it was easy.  What he meant was it was an easy lie for him to tell me so I would not worry about how to get from the train station to Dargeeling, this is unfortunately a rather common occurrence: Tell em something even if you do not know or if it is incorrect; there is no such train. There is the historic steam train, that only leaves in the morning (we arrived in the evening) and it is far from express given it takes 8 hours to climb to the hill station. I was disappointed in Christopher for taking this approach as I had very much liked his little affordable hotel, found his other information to be valid, and like the guy. But I have told lots of travelers that the hotel is a bargain but unfortunately you can not trust he manager; wonder what that has cost him?  Not being vindictive here, it is simply a matter that I choose to do business with honest people; particularly important for travelers in a challenging travel environment. And by doing so, the good ones will also make more money and other will not – seems appropriate and helpful to me.

Municipal building; notices the Swastika -symbol of good luck in Hinduism and prevalent throughout Asia with similar meaning.  Mirror image stolen and inappropriately used by Hitler

Someone in our group, Sue I think, finally found and English speaker and got us to the correct platform; which was again not the platform listed on the board.   I had fortunately booked the right compartment this time as well and was in relative  luxury in a 3ac sleeper (complete with a sheet for my bunk and a blanket…wow).  Three bunks on each side, but separated in a cubicle sort of way.  Much cleaner, and the car had it own bathroom that was a far more manageable dirty….but not filthy. And I had some travel mates so was less concerned about my gear (it was still locked) as I slept.  In the morning I was due for a panic and so one materialized as I realized that either the lock on my gear had failed or more likely I had inadvertently (rather easy to do) changed the combo the night before. “Shit, we were arriving at our station in about two hour and my bag is locked securely in a Pack Safe stainless steel mesh bag“. Fortunately, because I had been with others I opted (something I never do) to not fully synched down the metal mesh bag and so after 20 minutes I was able to free my pack with only one small tear  “.Ok, relax, you have your pack”. Now the lock, cable, and mesh cover were securely attached to the bulkhead of my bunk.  I sat and looked at it for a long time, tried dozen of combinations and finally said “oh well”. Then Dave, and Electrical engineer from Alaska who had obviously been thinking about it for awhile looked at it for an equally long time. We ultimately determined that there was a “weak link” in the system  – actually an aluminum compression connector that made a loop in the cable.  If we could cut that we could get the bag and lock back even though it would still be locked.  Go McGiver. Dave had a silly small multi tool with an even sillier small file and off to work we went. “Hey, what else do we have to do”. After 20 minutes we had a small grove, and after 40 minutes we had a space big enough to get a knife blade into; after an hour and some bruised and bloodied fingers we were free. The guy at the coffee shop in Dargeeling cut the lock with nothing more than a hack saw blade (no saw) in about 5 minutes….so much for case hardened.

Economics is apparently not a widely taken subject mater by jeep drivers.  Outside the train station we started negotiating with an entire group of drivers who wanted to take us to Darjeeling (about 3 hours by jeep).  Each driver was asking 100rp (2 dollars) per person and they would take 15 people in their jeep.  Now I, along with others had experienced that nightmare before so we wanted to hire a jeep to take only the 5 of us.  “No problem, we take you 5 for 2000rp”.  Humm, 15 times 100 is 1500 but if we do not want to be packed like small fish in a can, we have to pay a 500rp premium, we have to wait for 9 others who want a ride, it will take more petrol….. this is odd.  We each tried to rationalize with the drivers and offered to pay a small but not 500rp premium but had no luck.  Ultimately we regrouped, the solo female traveling came running up saying she REALLY wanted to go with us now as she realized she was about to be stuck at the train station for the night, and we decided to pay the 2000rp and base on decision on our perception on the best driver, with the best jeep.  We choose wisely, and after a steady climb beyond the valley and into the steep tea country of Dargeeling and Gorkhaland we arrived safely. Humm, maybe they did take econ….we paid the premium and I am certain they new we would.

Three in our group had previous reservations and three of us did not.  So we followed the couple with reservations and figured we might all stay at the same hotel. Then as is often the case, our friends discovered that their reservations were good until someone else showed up and took there room.  While the hostilities began to rise, Sue, Dave, and I said our good byes and sent out into the cold night to find lodging.  In the process we met the solo women again who said her hotel appeared to be permanently closed even though she also had a pre booking. We did not have to go far as the hotel next door was happy to give us a room for a reasonable rate. When we told them we may stay for upwards or a week, the rate got even better.  The manager was fantastic in providing lots of blankets, and helpful honest service. Sue went directly to bed, and I happily bought Dave dinner and a tall Kingfisher (national beer of India) as a celebratory meal after a tough day of travel and a successful pack recovery.

Read Full Post »