The jeep from Darjeeling was, unsurprisingly, another white knuckle ride. We made it to Siliguri in one peace by some form of miracle and set off to find the train station on foot. I mention this seemingly boring information only because it was the first instance (of many more to come) where that quirky Indian trait sent us walking in circles for well over an hour.
The trait is, as I’m sure many of you are unaware, is that Indians cannot say no to you, or admit that they don’t know something. If you ask them a question – they will answer you, regardless of whether or not they know the answer – and while their desire to help you is honourable, they don’t realise that in some situations it is, in fact, incredibly unhelpful. We learnt quickly that instead of asking “Is this the way to the train station?”- in which, they would wobble their head enthusiastically in encouragement, regardless of whether or not they had the faintest idea what you were on about – we had to instead phrase the sentence along the lines of “Which way to the train station?” which required them to point in a direction instead of just agreeing with you.
So while we were wandering around in circles and trying to make sense of the conflicting directions we were receiving we eventually staggered across what appeared to be some train tracks. Thank God, I was starting to go mental.
Our train to the small village of Madarihat was not without its quirks. We squeezed into cattle class with our four bodies and four equally sized packs, and a group of young Bhutanese students immediately stood up and offered us their seats. Later as the conversation moved past where from, where going, what doing, the guy next to me asked the most pressing question of all. Understandably he assumed that us two Kiwi girls were travelling together, and the Italian boys were travelling together and we had just met up for a bit. When I then explained to him that no, in fact, that that one (Angelo) was my boyfriend, and that one (Corrado) was with Marni, his eyebrows perked up in a questionable fashion.
“So, you are travelling together?” he asks me.
“Yes, we are.”
“But do your parents know you are travelling together?”
“And, they are fine with it?” – he was looking pretty shocked by this stage.
“Yes” (they don’t have a choice really).
“And… Have you been intimate?”
The train really couldn’t arrive soon enough. We bundled ourselves off, got into a taxi and managed to negotiate a quadruple room in a dingy guesthouse. The owner clearly had never catered to foreigners before as he really took every possible opportunity to come down to the room and knock on our door. But not only him, the other workers, and probably the neighbours too. The following morning there were no less than five knocks on our door – before 8am. The first was ignored (and quite right too). The second was if we wanted tea (Yes, I did). The third was a guy who said “good morning” when we grumpily – and quite astonished-ly – opened the door, and then, failing to speak any more English just stood awkwardly in the doorway looking at each of our expectant faces, before just turning and walking away. The fourth, was our taxi driver from last night who had obviously ‘claimed us’ as his own. And finally, the fifth was the owner.
After lunch was organised for us we got some quotes for visiting the Jaldapara National Park, and retired back to our room to research our next movements in order to buy train tickets in advance. There were several more knocks on the door during this time, which was starting to test our patience somewhat, and which continued well on in the evening as well.
The following day we left the village to stay in a lodge inside the national park, which was surprisingly nice. Without so much as leaving the grounds we managed to see elephants, Indian gaur, peacocks, monkeys, deer, and what we had come to see; one-horned rhinos. They came amazingly close to the lodge and it was simultaneously exciting and petrifying to see them at such a short range. The following morning we took off on a elephant safari that took us through the jungle in search of more rhinos.
A small misunderstanding when it came to the taxi that picked us up (and the ‘nice’ family we had been talking to stole it, and wouldn’t consider sharing it, even though it meant we missed our train), was a bit of a glitch, but we made a quick getaway on a bus to the neighbouring village which had a more suitable trainline for our journey East to Guwahati.
What happened next was the single most freaky moment of my time in India – and if you consider the chaotic traffic, that’s saying a lot! We got off the train around midnight and moved through the mass of people waiting on the platform. We were getting stares from all directions, but this is not uncommon in India. We continue into the mall hall of the train station, where unsure how far the station was to the centre of the city, I stopped short to open the map on my ebook reader. After mere seconds I looked up and found myself completely surrounded, on all sides, by a large group of Muslim men. By no means do I intend to discriminate here, but I’m aware of dressing conservatively and acting appropriately in India, or any other conservative society – I was wearing a t-shirt and a floorlength skirt – but I was completely taken aback by this situation, and despite my acknowledging their stares, they did not move nor bat an eyelid. I pushed my way through and stood with my back against a wall. Men continued to walk past me, one stopped only a metre in front of me and eyeballed me from head to toe, without even trying to hide it. Angelo was getting a bit anxious and protective by this point and told the man to go away.
A Hindu man came to ask if we were OK, and guided us out to the rickshaws. He literally shooed away another forming group of staring men, as if they were animals, and we stood back a little inn shock at how different this area was to the other places we had been. We negotiated a single rickshaw for the four of us – with some difficulty – and once the driver had climbed in and removed his chicken, we were on our way.
With few guesthouses in the city to begin with, and none that we could actually manage to find, it took us some time to find a hotel that would even take us. The formalities for staying in Indian guesthouse are reasonably laborious. Each place requires you to fill out a form stating where and when you arrived into India, where you just came from, and where you are heading next. Photocopies of passports, and sometimes even photos are also required and the hotel must submit your registration either online, or by physically handing in your documents to the police. We discovered that many places in Eastern India either cannot be bothered with the fuss of taking in tourists, or are scared that tourists mean drugs, and therefore trouble to them, and so will tell you “no tourists” or “full.”
We settled in for the night, at a reasonably pricey hotel, and tried to make out our next plans despite the lack of internet. We decided to head south to the state of Meghalaya in search of rainforests and root bridges.