Donna and Joe have finished their assignment in India. Occasionally they still travel somewhere.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Traveling in India

Donna and I took a four day trip to Darjeeling last weekend. Darjeeling is home of the world famous Darjeeling tea and you can see the Kangchendzonga Range of the Himalayas on a clear day. This picture shows the Himalayas as we saw them from Darjeeling...OK I don't actually know that there would be mountains in this view if it was clear. Because it was never clear while we were there! The main reason for going was that Darjeeling is cool; as in not 90 to 100F as Bangalore has been this week. We'll tell you all about the trip in several posts. This one is about getting there and back.

If you make a plane trip in the U.S. that involves a change of planes, the airline will check your baggage through to your final destination, even if you are flying on another airline for the second flight. In India you have to exit security, collect your baggage, have your baggage x-rayed again, recheck your bag, & go back through security. In Kolkata we took our luggage up to the Kingfisher counter without having it x-rayed again. The lady told us "You have a Deccan tag, you have to go get a Kingfisher tag." Donna asked where and she said "The same place you got that one". Not quite true in our case because we got the Deccan tag in Bangalore, but it turns out that the same people X-ray luggage for both Deccan and Kingfisher, with the same X-ray machine but put different tags on the bag depending on which plane your flying on. I'm sure everyone felt much safer when we had the correct safety sticker on our luggage.

From Kolkata we flew to Bagdogra which is the closest airport to Darjeeling. The hotel sent a car and driver to take us the 3 hour, 90 km trip up the mountain. Leaving the airport the road is flat, wide and well paved. That does not last long. As you begin to climb the mountain the road becomes narrow, winding and potholed. In the upper right corner of this picture you can see one of the many hairpin turns. The hill rises steeply on one side of the road and drops precipitously on the other. At the bottom you the picture (take from inside the car) you can see the edge of the road. Fortunately we only met a few cars coming down as we were going up. We traveled miles and miles on these roads, and you began to think, how could a city of any size be found further up the mountain? And as the fog got worse (not-so-low-flying clouds, actually) and dusk was setting in, we got more and more anxious to get there.
The last part of the trip takes you through a series of small towns on the way up the mountain to Darjeeling. The road, which is shared with the tracks of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, is wide enough for two compact cars to pass with room to spare. Of course, a compact car would never survive the potholes and washouts of the road coming up, so everyone is driving a large SUV or jeep. Donna took this photo a couple of days later to show how close we passed a large truck on our way into Darjeeling from sightseeing. The black diagonal line in the lower left is the edge of the window of our car. We passed with about 2 inches clearance. It was close enough that Kumar, our very skillful driver, had to fold back the side mirror before proceeding.

It is very common for traffic going both ways to come to a complete stop because two vehicles have met at a point too narrow for them to pass. Everyone gets out, surveys the situation and decides at what point the road is wide enough for the vehicles to pass and one line of cars backs up to a point where the truck coming the other way can get through.

Getting around Darjeeling by car is the same process and there are not actually that many roads which are wide enough for an SUV. So the best way to get around town is on foot. Here is is a view from one of the switch backs on the paved path which leads from a point just below the pedestrian "mall" (very popular with tourists) down to the taxi stand.

Not only people but also all kinds of material are moved by human muscle power. Such as this man carrying a cabinet up to a set of stairs connecting one street to a street on a higher level. In south India it is common to see people carrying everything from flowers to lumber to dirt, balanced on their heads. They often have a have a cloth pad on their head for cushioning. In Darjeeling, people carry things on their back, supporting them with a carrying device consisting of a length of rope with the ends tied to the two ends of a cloth strap. The rope loops under and around the object and the strap goes over the top of their head. The person bends far enough forward to balance the object over their feet and the head and spine carries the weight of the load trying to slide off their back.
While the tourist areas tend to be at the upper part of down, the locals tend to live down hill. This path started out as a paved walk way on the middle level of town, near the taxi stand. Winding down the hill it became more narrow and blacktop changed to dirt. During monsoons, June through September, Darjeeling gets about an inch of rain a day which must make walking this path to school or work quite an ordeal. Landslides are also a big concern during the monsoons. They happen fairly often, covering whole houses.

Going back from Darjeeling to the airport we took the same route as when we came, but we traveled much of it in the dark because of the taxi strike. The Darjeeling region is largely ethnically Nepalese and Tibetan, but it is part of the state of West Bengal, which is largely Bengali people. Their customs, needs and values are much different, and the people we spoke to felt that government was not watching out for their interests. So at least some people in Darjeeling think that they should be a separate state and they were having a one day strike from 6am on the day we planned to leave until 6am the next day. So we had to leave at 4am to get out of town before the strike began.

This put us at the airport more than two hours before it opened at 9am. We were the first passengers of the day to arrive, but more arrived over the next hour, all from Darjeeling.

Eventually we found a local taxi who would take us to Siliguri, the nearest city. Siliguri is flat and near sea level, so it is hot. It is a poorer city than Bangalore and one evidence of this is the prevalence of pedal powered transport. Bicycles rickshaws and pedal-powered "trucks" have disappeared from Bangalore, and motor powered two wheelers greatly out-number bicycles. In Siliguri bicycles out-numbered motorcycles, and lots of material is hauled as the plywood and machinery in this picture is moving--on a three wheeled vehicle pedaled by the driver. The shoulder in the lower right corner of this picture is the driver/pedaler of a bicycle rickshaw taking us back to the hotel were we rented the cheapest room available (Rs 600= ~$15) to leave our luggage in while we wandered.
Before we took our ride we watched a disagreement between a rickshaw driver and a traffic cop. The traffic cop settled the discussion of whether or not the rickshaw should get off the road by pulling out an ice pick-type object from the end of his baton and stabbing the front tire.

Here is a picture of some rickshaw drivers at a taxi stand. I missed a shot of a driver who seemed to be sleeping on his rickshaw, with his head and shoulders on the passenger seat, his hips on the bicycle seat, and his ankles on the handlebars; all lined up as straight as a board.

All bicyclists understand the principle of conservation of momentum...which is: it takes work to get yourself and your bike moving and you don't want to waste that momentum by using your brakes if you don't have to. Especially if your hauling two overweight Americans in your rickshaw. Our driver demonstrated his understanding of this at the beginning of our trip. I'm not sure why he choose the route he did, perhaps to avoid the cop with the ice pick. But the route started going the wrong way on one side of a divided boulevard, then made a U turn and traveled the other way on the other side until he turned onto a side street. Despite heavy oncoming traffic, he never touched the brakes. Instead he bravely pedaled forward continuously squeezing the bulb of his horn. And we all lived to tell about it.

It was, after all, life as usual in India.

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