Wander Woman Marie Javins takes the long way from Varanasi to Darjeeling. And sees the country transform
After two days and nights of wandering the city of Varanasi, it was time to head to Darjeeling. My destination during this leg of MariesWorldTour.com was Bhutan, and my Bhutanese visa allowed me to enter overland from Jaigaon, India. To do this, I had to first make my way by train to West Bengal, the state along the border.
But the taxi driver for my lift to the train station was late. Quite late. So late that the hotel staff became agitated and concerned for me.
"What time is your train? This isn't good. It will take an hour for you to get to Mughal Sari."
"But it's only 20 kilometres away."
"Traffic is terrible. Go ask where your driver is."
I trotted to the travel agency where I’d booked the taxi. The more direct route from Varanasi itself was infrequent, and by travelling from Mughal Sari to New Jalpaiguri, I’d been able to choose from one of several daily trains. I’d taken a sleeper ticket on the overnight schedule.
"Oh, it's only 20 minutes to get there. Don't worry. Here, this driver will take you."
We went back to my hotel, where the staff gave my driver the evil eye. He was late. I was their client. They were irate. With good reason, as it turned out.
The drive through the exhaust, over the potholes, past cows, dogs, motorbikes, and people took an hour.
As we drove, the driver explained to me that India has Muslims, what a Muslim is, and pointed some Muslims out to me. I tried gently explaining to him that I knew many Muslims, that I had lived and worked in Kuwait, but he looked at me blankly through the rearview mirror.
I tried again."You know, near Dubai."
"My company is near Saudi Arabia."
He must have thought I was trying to say "You mean Muslims like they have in Saudi Arabia," because the next tidbit he offered was that Muslims were having a big holiday now.
I grew tired of the conversation. We were obviously having a hard time communicating.
"Yes, I know,” I said. “Ramadan."
The driver gave me an odd look and said nothing else for the rest of the ride. I chalked the conversation up to another one of those quirky road conversations between speakers with different accents and perspectives. Sometimes they’re gems, sometimes they’re incomprehensible, and sometimes they’re both.
My train was scheduled for 9:20pm, so when we arrived just after nine, I rushed into the station and found a sign indicating that my train left from platform #2. I found #2, and was immediately approached by a helpful young man who was there waiting with his mother and sister.
After a bird pooed on me, he told me it was good luck and ushered me into a waiting room. The old, rundown train arrived at 10pm. The Mahanandra Express was not as nice as the train I’d been on to Varanasi, and seemed direly in need of retirement. But that’s probably why I’d been able to get a ticket in spite of my late booking.
"You are lucky today," said the bank manager from Gangtok whose berth was next to mine. "This train is only 40 minutes late. Usually it's 12-15 hours late."
I stared at him aghast, and only just recovered my composure to ask him where I could buy a bottle of water for the voyage. Mine was down to half a bottle.
He waved at the platform. I ran off, keeping an eye on the train in case it started to pull out of the station. I found a kiosk with bottled water on display, bought a bottle from the shopkeeper, and headed back to my compartment.
There was a full bottle on my bunk.
"Where did this come from?"
The bank manager was beaming in his tank top.
"I have gotten you this water," he said, pointing at the public tap on the platform.
I summoned up the courtesy to thank him, even as I wondered how I would surreptitiously get rid of the water that was potentially unsafe for my foreign system.
I climbed up into my bunk, arranged the sheets, and meant to wait for an attendant with a blanket, but fell asleep too quickly. I froze toward morning, but still managed to sleep until 6am, then until 9. I sleepily stretched and woke up, then bought some bread off one wandering vendor and some Nescafe off another. I used the last of my Bangkok Skippy on the bread and feasted, not like a king, but peanut butter on bread wasn’t too bad a breakfast.
The scenery outside had transformed overnight. We no longer rode through the crowded urban areas around Varanasi. Now we were among rich green rice paddies and fields of vegetables. India had transformed from crowded to lovely while I slept.
Finally, we pulled into the New Jalpaiguri train station at 2:30 in the afternoon.
"Only an hour behind!" The bank manager was gleeful.
I followed him and the other passengers out of the train, up the stairs, and across the tracks into the station. Outside, I'd find share-taxis to Darjeeling, according to the bank manager and the guidebook.
Wow. The sun was baking.
And there were many share-taxis, but no one was going anywhere in the lazy afternoon. Not a single other passenger had headed over to the share-taxis. Where had they gone?
"Darjeeling?" I called this out as I passed taxis.
"No other passengers yet. You want a private taxi?"
Darjeeling was still four hours of hard driving up a mountain. I definitely didn't want to pay for a private taxi.
"How can I get to Darjeeling? I can’t afford a private taxi."
One of the taxi drivers thought a minute.
"There are many share taxis from Siliguri." That's the twin town to New Jalpaiguri.
"Great. Let's go there."
As we drove, the driver sang to me for a bit, and then asked me why I wasn't married.
"I DON'T KNOW." I have gotten tired of this question in my trip around the world, because it always made me feel somewhat inadequate, and I had also learned that most ways of answering only result in further questioning.
He left me at the Siliguri share-taxi depot, an efficient parking area full of drivers, passengers, vendors, and an office. I bought seat #8 in a 4WD, then guzzled a Coke from a nearby kiosk to try to offset my day's caffeine-withdrawal.
I waited 40 minutes for the last seat to sell – not bad – finally buying an extra one myself to get us moving. We pulled out of Siliguri under the protection of a Dalai Lamai photo hanging from the rear-view mirror, honking and rattling over the cracked roads, and eventually turned onto the mountain switchbacks that led to Darjeeling.
Up, up, up... progress was slow and anytime an oncoming car approached, we had to slow down and make way for it. The hairpin switchbacks were nerve-wracking, and as we rose, the sunny day turned foggy, cold, and then wet.
We passed two landslides, both causing a slowdown while vehicles eased their way across, one by one. When I started to see the rails of the "toy train," I saw mud covered much of them. I was glad I hadn't tried to take the train up from Siliguri. There was no train at the moment.
We pulled into Darjeeling after dark. The driver stopped in the centre and we all got out. He waved and drove away. The passengers all dispersed, melting away into the darkness, leaving me standing alone in the dark town.
I didn't bother pulling out my Kindle guidebook this time – looking at a tiny map had proven useless along this trip – and instead just started asking around. There's a Beatles-themed guesthouse in Darjeeling, but the kitsch-value of that hadn't sold me on it, and instead I'd snapped up a great promotional rate on Cleartrip.com, the Indian travel agency I'd used for my train tickets. They'd reimbursed me 50% of my total stay rate since I'd booked five nights.
"Dekeling Hotel? Dekeling?"
People pointed me left at the passageway next to Bata Shoes, and onto a path that led up, up, up, higher onto the mountain.