We fly to Bagdogra, in Northern Bengal. Walking out from our small plane onto the tarmac, the temperature was easily 5-6 degrees cooler, and half as humid, as it was back in the city.
The airport is tiny, but the entrance way is busy – jam-packed with taxi drivers shouting for passengers. Fortunately, we had already booked a car with the local tourist agency.
We somehow found our driver easily, but then waited for 20 minutes as he scoured the mammoth-sized parking lot searching for his decayed white SUV out of an ocean of similar vehicles.
On the roads, it became clear that the driver had a death wish. All he knows is speed. He seemed unaware that cars came with breaks and driving below 100 on curvy, windy roads seemed to make him physically unwell.
Most of the time, when I looked up from the front window to see the road ahead, my eyes were met by either a truck or jeep heading in our direction.
He was, of course, no different than every other driver we’ve seen out here. Dodging and weaving around traffic, driving in the opposite lane, and playing chicken with smaller vehicles is a way of life – it was all bordering on becoming a philosophical doctrine. Everyone adheres to it in one way or another.
The cities out here are much smaller, and looked more like long abandoned construction sites than anything we saw in Calcutta. The roads were dust, and piles of it gathered along the sides and in the ditches. Countless storefronts, open to the road, with floors covered in gravel, hawked identical bags of chips, hair products and suspicious sounding Indo-Chinese dishes.
One place claims “authentic” Chinese, but behind the counter is a bunch of locals tossing whatever meat and noodles they have into a vat of oil.
Past the towns, we drive through the mountains, on narrow, winding roads. Along the way, we spot families of monkeys sitting by the roadside, apparently content to watch the traffic as entertainment.
Down below, empty, dried out rivers have turned into stone bed where people wander and kids play.
Past the mountains and the valleys, we’re in tea territory.
On both sides of the road for miles, rows and rows of identical tea bushes. Massive, white and yellow colonial homes, some on stilts high above the ground, interrupt the greenery.
We check in to the resort – which claims to be a forest retreat. In one part, that’s true: behind the little rows of cabins is the woods. But the woods only goes a half kilometer before it touches the train tracks. Out front, on the other side of the resort, is a slim row of trees and the country road where trucks come and go.
We head out in the evening to visit an uncle named Raja who lives in the area.
In the darkness, we reach Raja’s home. The massive two-storied building looks a cross between a train depot and a Victorian townhouse. It’s half-finished, and still under heavy renovations.
Most of the rooms are bedrooms with adjacent washrooms. Each one half done and mostly empty. The tour de force of the place is the semi-detached patio with airconditioning, 14-foot roof, and as much spare space as a basketball court.
The other oddity is the dining room. It immediately reminded me of the house in Beetlejuice. White walls, checkered tiles, and eggshell coloured furniture. Thankfully, that’s not how our dinner turned out.
On the drive back from the plantations, there was a lightning storm high above the tea fields. Bolts of white light, thick like vines, crept across the sky. They were moving fast, but slow enough that we could see them creep.
The storms and winds became a torrential downpour, that covered us the rest of the ride back.
We rented a jeep and drove out to the nearby national parks first thing in the morning.
We caught and elephant by the side of the road in the morning mists. It was tossing mud on its back and paused only to give us a stink face, and mean stare, before calmly retreating back into the woods.
Elsewhere, I hoped for rhinos, but all we saw were wild peacocks ducking in and out of the treeline.
After returning from the safari per-se, we took a quick rest, a fast lunch and hit the road again – this time for Bhutan.
The Himalayan kingdom was only a two hour drive from the resort. Along the way we saw the scenery change from dense, primeval forest, to endless fields of tea plants all lined in perfect rows, to the distant mountains themselves seeped in clouds and mist. We reached Bhutan in the early afternoon.
Unlike other border crossings, Pheuntsholing was an open border town to foreign visitors – a gateway into Bhutan without further paperwork required. It was a sort of tourist outpost that linked the two countries. The roads further in were closed and barred to visitors, but at this entrance there was simply an open gate with dragons painted on the side to usher us into another country.
The streets in Bhutan were oddly clean, with traffic moving in a reasonably ordered fashion, and less noisy. The people also walked on clearly defined sidewalks, and crossed the streets on painted crosswalks. Stores on each side of the road had glass windows, and revealed neatly stacked shelves of goods on the inside.
Our driver took us through the town and up the hillside, which was essentially a low-lying part of the Himalayas. We paused at an overlook, seeing how the mountains wrapped themselves around the town and empty river bed below. Colorful houses – most of them homes, and not the corrugated iron sheds we often see in rural India – dotted the neatly lined streets and avenues below.
This slice of Bhutan looked familar and markedly different at the same time.
On the way out, we stopped at a grocery store, which looked remarkably like a depanneur only several times larger. We could roam the aisles and carry our purchases to the register. It was radically different than the open-faced garages in India where you shout at the merchant and he pulls items from the shelf for you.
Passing back into India was night and day.
The clean, relatively quiet and orderly streets of Bhutan were replaced with the mess and clamour that busy Indian alleys adore so much. There were beggars, merchants shouting about deals and bits of meat hanging from butcher’s stalls. Steam coming from street side chow mein. Literal piles of shit on the sidewalk. Cars honking everywhere.
In the light rain and the crowded multicultural mess, it reminded me of the streets in Bladerunner.
The sights along the drive back is a mix of wonder and horror.
The poverty alongside the natural beauty is nearly impossible to understand. Most of the homes are sheds, many with unfinished walls, or blue tarps keeping out the rain.
There’s garbage everywhere. Behind restaurants, the ditch is filled with used plates and discarded water bottles. At the edge of the tea gardens, shreds of rags and towels cling to the tea leaves. A man burns a pile of trash and wet leaves in the alley alongside his home.
We take a turn and up ahead a small bridge. It’s literally made of garbage, pressed in with chickenwire, and flattened with earth and years of use.
At a roadside restaurant where we paused to eat, there was an empty river running alongside the edge of town easily a half kilometre or more wide. It was filled with tiny grey / eggshell white stones. Beyond were the mountains and Bhutan.
A cloud formation rolled in, sweeping the mountains, and with it darkness and the winds. In a matter of minutes, the torrential downpours of the night before came in for a second round, and we ran to the car for another slow ride back.
At night, the temperature falls to 23 and it’s downright frigid compared to the 38+ that we’re used to dealing with.