Wander Woman, Marie Javins, discovers that the easiest way to get into Bhutan is to listen to the guy driving your bus
Darjeeling, India, had been a pleasant place to hang around for a week during my trip around the world, but it was time to move on to Bhutan.
Bhutan had brought me here to Darjeeling in the first place – I couldn’t get to Bhutan on my frequent-flyer-mile round-the-world ticket, and Darjeeling was a convenient, charming city en-route to the Jaigaon/Phuentsholing land border with India.
I wore my single pair of jeans every day in the rainy chill of Darjeeling, went on the toy train, drank a lot of tea, visited the zoo, and went to the nearby Himalayan Mountaineering Institute.I love mountaineering yarns and Everest stories. I also like yetis.
My bus would leave at 8am tomorrow for the seven-hour journey down the mountain to the heat of the plains. I had to show up early, so I'd have to be out of my room a bit before 7:30am, to hike down the hill from the Dekeling Hotel to the bus departure point. All buses left from what was referred to as the "old supermarket", but what was really a dilapidated old building full of small compartments that served as offices and shops.
I'd settled my hotel bill after dinner and now I had to pack up in my attic room.
I hate packing and will often delay it until the last minute. I always leave something out – and I have a fairly rigid packing order so that everything fits – and then I have to pull everything out again and put it all back together like a puzzle.
But finally, my rucksack was ready and so was I. It was late, nearly midnight now. I grabbed my laptop to go out into the common area where the wifi signal was strong.
I turned the key in the door handle.
And nothing happened.
The lock was stuck.
I pulled, turned, tugged, jiggled, coaxed... but the key wouldn't turn in the lock.
I considered my situation. I was six flights above the street high on a hill, locked in an attic.
When this had last happened to me, in Bolivia, my roommate Heather had stuck her head out the tiny bathroom window and yelled, "Help, help!" The hotel owner had then been there when I dismantled the door apparatus with my Swiss army knife, piling the handle pieces into his hand. We'd then switched rooms.
But I'd been overwhelmed when I'd left home this time (working, renting out my flat, planning) and I'd done a poor job of packing. My Swiss army knife was still in my garage across from Manhattan, along with some trail mix I'd intended to munch on when I crossed Africa.
Subduing my rising panic, I went back to the door and tried again.
"Hello? Is anyone out there?"
No one was outside my room.
I had a titanium spork. Maybe I could unscrew the door handle with that.
I rattled the door in frustration.
"Are you stuck?"
Finally. It was another solo traveller, a woman who would sit in the common area to use the wifi.
"My key won't turn my lock and I’m leaving early in the morning!"
"I'll go to Reception and get someone."
The guy from Reception couldn't do anything either – why do small hotels always seem to only have one key? He rattled the door for a while too.
How does one get out of a sixth-story attic without using the door?
"Listen,” I said. “I'm going to take the key off the key chain and slide it under the door. Maybe it will work from your side."
A second later, the door opened.
"Let's try it again," said the clerk. "Go back in and lock the door."
"No, you go in and lock the door."
He laughed, but he did it. And this time, the key worked fine.
I’m sure everyone assumed I had just done something wrong. I hadn't. The lock really had jammed up on me. But I shrugged. There wasn't much I could do to prove I wasn't just an idiot who didn't know how to use a door properly.
But when I went to sleep... I didn't lock the door.
In the morning, I was up and showered when someone knocked on my door at 7am.
How sweet! The hotel clerk had brought me hot water in a Thermos because I was leaving Darjeeling too early for breakfast. I made instant coffee in my hotel room, sipping it alongside a stale pastry I'd bought last night.
I left my room, walked two flights down to the front desk, turned in my key, walked four more flights down to the street, zigzagged down some switchbacks to a path in between some buildings, and hiked down the hill to the old supermarket, where the buses leave from.
My bus was there, a large orange-brown and white striped full-size coach showing a sign with our destination – Jaigaon – across its window.
I handed over my ticket to the conductor and turned slightly to show him my luggage.
He motioned me onto the tatty bus, luggage and all, then placed me in a seat with leg room and stored my luggage behind the driver. Excellent. Now there was no chance of my bag getting dirty or wet.
The bus makes the seven-hour journey from Darjeeling to the Bhutan border daily, and leaves promptly at 8am, even without selling all the seats. We weren't even half-full. What a delightful experience this was. India may be crowded and chaotic, but India has working infrastructure with systems in place. Which was why I'd chosen India to post my souvenir packages from.
We rattled out of town, alongside the train tracks, slowly followed the curving switchbacks along the narrow road down the mountain, stopping an hour in for a potty break.
"Toilet," commanded the driver, waving at me.
"OK." He meant business. Later, I realised how right he'd been. I'd had to cover my mouth with paper to avoid the dry heaves, but this was one of the only toilets I'd see all day. (And here we thought the paper was for another purpose.)
After three hours, we hit the plains and started sweating. The roads were straight now but the potholes slowed us down. Lunch was at half-past-eleven at a roadside rest stop – I glumly looked at the enticing spicy foods and decided I shouldn't risk it, though the driver motioned me to the buffet and said: "Eat."
I nibbled on some biscuits and a little pineapple.
The bus pulled through small, crowded villages, dodging cows and motorbikes all the way to Jaigaon.
Now I was watching out of the window for my hotel. I hadn't found a map anywhere of Jaigaon and had no idea where my hotel was.
Ah, there was a hotel. Hmmm, that didn't look so bad. Oops, there it went. Bye, hotel.
My Bhutanese tour operator – you can't go to Bhutan without one – had advised me that the hotels in Jaigaon were all "rather basic". He'd suggested I stay at Hotel Hill View, which was the least-bad of a sorry lot. That's not exactly how he phrased it. That was my interpretation of his more polite explanation.
The bus driver stopped outside of Immigration. He motioned me out.
"Passport," he explained.
"No, I'm going there." I pointed across the street. Hotel Hill View was conveniently located across from Immigration.
"No, passport," insisted the driver.
"But I can't go to Bhutan now. I can't go until morning." I had to pay $240 a day to go into Bhutan. That's the government-mandated minimum tourist tariff, though it's only $200 if you go with a friend or group. I'd already spent most of the day on a bus in India. I certainly wasn't crossing the border tonight.
I climbed down from the bus and walked over to the hotel.
"Do you have a room for me? My name is Marie Javins." The clerk at the hotel started to answer when his phone rang. He answered it.
"It's for you," he said, handing me a cell phone.
"Hello, Marie, it's Ugyen." That's my Bhutan tour operator. I'd picked him out after emailing several local operators that I found recommended online, and his scrupulous honesty in his prompt email replies had sold me on his agency, called Bhutan Your Way.
"How is your room?"
"I literally just walked in. I don't know yet."
"Ah, well, there is a problem. They don't have the air con room for you. There aren't any available."
"Oh. Well, I'll take whatever they have," I said, thinking "and as a bonus, it will cost me less." I was still on a cash-basis today, but as of tomorrow I'd prepaid my Bhutan trip.
Ugyen said my guide and driver were nearby and would be over shortly. I went ahead and checked into my cheap non-a/c room and...
...it really wasn't that bad. I've stayed in way worse. It certainly wasn't great, but the room had a bed, no bedbugs, a shower, a fan, and a flushing toilet. And the staff were friendly – they'd changed my Indian money to Bhutan money (it's 1:1).
The phone rang.
"This is your guide. May I see you for a minute in the lobby?"
I ran downstairs.
And there they were, two men of unclear ages, the taller one somewhere around 27-32 with an innocent, open, friendly face, the thin man about 40, more of a cypher. They were both in street clothes.
And the astonished look on both their faces is something I will never forget.
I looked down – had I forgotten to zip my skirt up? Put a giant deodorant stain on my Thai zebra T-shirt?
No, no. Nothing funny on me.
What were they looking at? It would be a mystery for now.
"Sorry, we were waiting for you in Immigration," explained the guide.
So the bus driver had been right. AGAIN.
"But if we stamp me out of India today, is it OK that I am not really leaving until the morning?"
"Yes, it is fine," said Tsering Penjor, who handed me a slip of paper with the words TSERING PENJOR (GUIDE) written on them.
I studied it, while he introduced Tobgay, the driver.
"Can you write that on here too?"
Tsering wrote Tobgay's name on my cheat sheet. I was glad for the help as I never had learned my Tibetan driver's name, since I was introduced to him once and never heard his name again.
Tsering also handed me two magazines about Bhutan and a small Nokia with a Bhutanese SIM. Now he could call me if I wandered off or overslept.
"We will go now and get your India Immigration formalities done.”
Tsering led me across the street, where I handed my passport and departure form over, letting him handle the details for a change. I was feeling kind of crabby today, so I was trying not to be too mean to this man whose job it was to escort me around for the next week.
The two men left me back at the hotel. They were going to check a few options to see where they would stay tonight. (They ended up back at Hill View.)
"We will see you here in the morning. And... there is one more thing."
"Tomorrow, we will not be dressed like this. We will be in our national dress."
Excellent. Two adorable plaid butterflies in black knee socks were going to usher me into Bhutan in the morning. I couldn't wait.