Saturday, April 17, 2010

FUN? NOT REALLY...

NEORA VALLEY: MARCH 31
And upward...
The small mountain town of Lava is dominated by a modern monastery. The track to Help Tourism's camp is to the right on the final bend before the village. The manager assures me that the track is very bad, better take the bike in the pick-up. As if I can't cope...I'll show him.
The track runs along the side of the mountain through a magnificent pine forest. The first few hundred meters are compressed dirt, easy. Turn a bend and I face a climb over large smooth river stones, first gear, bumpity bump bump bump. The stones kick the front wheel. Stay loose is the secret. Let the bike pick its own way as you would with a horse. A smooth stretch follows then more stones and a steep decent with a sharp bend. Imagine a mountain stream without water. Down hill is always worst. Put both feet down, you lose the rear break and begin to slide. Grab the front break and you're on your butt. So, however scared, you have to keep going - which isn't easy when faced with a 160 degree bend. The camp is twelve kilometers down the track. Twelve kilometers of and ninety minutes - enough time to get accustomed to the conditions and gain faith in your ability and the bike's ability. Fun? Not really...

Friday, April 16, 2010

JEEP GEYSERS

NEORA VALLEY: MARCH 31
The underfed driver parks the pick-up at a road side shrine - not to pray but to lift the hood on a mini geyser. Brave, I peek down the mountainside. Four women pick tea on the near precipice. Do they never suffer from vertigo? At least they are sheltered from the wind that whips over the crest. Wind in mountains is always scary. The driver removes the radiator cap and rests the engine five minutes before adding water. I drag a thick jumper from my backpack. Onward and upward...

HEART ATTACKS, ALTITUDE AND FEAR

NOREYA VALLEY: MARCH 31
The road turns uphill – or up-mountain – once more into tea gardens. The ascent is steeper than any I encountered in the Americas. At one point the road tunnels under itself to begin a 360o turn. I was sweating in my wind-proofs by the river. The sweat is chill now and I must fight a stiff breeze on my shoulder or be thrust toward the road's outer edge. How steep is the drop? How far is the drop? Don't know. Don't dare look. And what of the pain on my left side high under the ribs? Heart, muscular or too vivid an imagination? Scared? Yes. Having suffered a couple of heart attacks does that to you. Calmness is essential. I breathe slowly and draw comfort from memories of the first pass I crossed in Mexico, a climb from 60 meters above sea level to 3200. The pain was the same as were the fears – though with one added. Would the Brazilian-built Honda 125 fail? I rode 65000 kilometers through the Americas. I have ridden 12500 kilometers through India. Believe me, Honda 125s never fail...Not so the four-wheel-drive pick-up.

FAT QUACK AND WIFE

NEORA VALLEY: MARCH 31
A grossly fat couple enter the chai shop. He is a doctor and boastful that his weekly visits to these uplands are an act of charity. His wife waddles behind the counter and helps herself to a packet of biscuits. The chai-shop daughter serves them bowls of vegetables and dhal, plates heaped high with rice. The fat couple stuff their faces and leave without paying. As for us, down and down and down to a river gorge and a narrow village where tour agencies advertise white water rafting. We cross a bridge and back track along the river. White water foams through the gorge. Two inflatable boats rest on a gravel spit. Tourists exchange tales of valour. How do I know? Been there, done that – though in Ecuador.

FREE WOMEN AND MOMOS

NEORA VALLEY: MARCH 31
I have escaped the harsh heat of India's plains. Wisps of thin cloud or mist drift across the narrow road. Time to pull on waterproof over-trousers and a light wind-cheater. We stop at a tin and brick shack. A woman serves us sweet milk tea and momos (stuffed crescent-shaped dumplings) steamed by her mother on a wood fire. The women are of a different culture to those of the south. No humility here. These women own themselves, freedom apparent in every movement and in the openness of their smiles and chatter.
I urge the driver of our pick-up to eat more. He is thin, young, married a year, first child born. His wife teaches in a private primary school – monthly salary 1500 Rupees. The driver earns 3000 Rupees plus 100 daily for food when away from home. A monthly family income of 40 pounds Stirling, little wonder that he is under-weight.

TWO ROADS TO DARJEELING

NEORA VALLEY: MARCH 31
Two roads lead from Siliguri to Darjeeling. The direct route passes through Kurseong. We take the westerly road that climbs close to the Nepalese border. The beginnings are a gentle climb through almost flat tea gardens. Women pickers wade waist-deep amongst the deep emerald bushes. Shade trees guard the lanes to tea factories and manager's bungalows. We cross and recross the narrow gauge railway that takes Darjeeling's toy train north from Siliguri. Then up and up and up...

INTO THE HILLS

SILIGURI: MARCH 31
Help Tourism develops tourism within the community. They have built a camp in the Noreya Valley. The Siliguri office manager comes to the Cindrella Hotel in a four-wheel drive pick-up truck at 9 a.m. He has been instructed to transport me and the bike in the truck. I prefer to ride.
“The road to the camp is not possible.”
“So I will ride while the road is possible”

YE OF LITTLE FAITH

SILIGURI: MARCH 30
I lay the laptop and charger on the workbench. The non-newspaper reader regards it with deep suspicion. “It won't charge,” I say.
He pokes the charger with one finger. Nothing happens. I say, “It's not a bomb.”
Relieved, he opens the laptop.
I tell him that it has a Linux operating system.
Possibly he understands.
He plugs the charger into a wall socket. The charger falls out. He strips the ends from two lengths of copper wire, wraps the prongs of the charger with wires, no insulation tape, and prods the other ends into the socket with a couple of skinny ballpoints. Inserting a diagnostic probe into the cable end that connects to the computer produces zero. “It isn't charging.”
“Right,” I say.
“Do you wish me to mend it?”
“You can?”
“It is possible,” he says.
If only he sounded more confident.
Prying at the charger with a jeweler's screwdriver achieves nothing. A short discussion with my guide and the newspaper reader ensues before he takes a rusty kitchen carving knife from a drawer.
To me, “You wish me to open it?”
“You're the surgeon.”
Fifteen minutes with a soldering iron and the charger works. 300 Rupees. Old Man of little Faith...

WE SET OUT TO HAVE AN ADVENTURE

SILIGURI: MARCH 30
Oh God, why hast thou forsaken me? Last night the camera disaster. This morning the laptop won't charge. An underweight young man sits on a plastic chair in side-street shop that advertises lap-top accessories. The shop is the size of a small shoe-box. No accessories. Does he know of a computer mechanic? Yes, indeed. He pulls down the steel shutter on his empty shop and mounts the pillion - a right, a left, another right, a further left, each street marginally narrower than the last. I park in the courtyard of a three-story concrete building the builders of which had never met an architect. A side door opens to a squash court sized workshop, low ceilinged, no windows. Two apparently indolent male thirty-somethings are drinking tea. One of them has tilted a spotlight to illuminate a newspaper. I suspect that the bits of computer and computer shells have found a permanent home on two work benches at right angles to each other. At such moments I remember the mantra with which my companion of Hispanic American travels, Ming, met all dangers and difficulties: “Simon, we set out to have an adventure...”

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

SUE FOR MENTAL ANGUISH

SILIGURI: MARCH 29
My camera lens is dirty. I buy a cleaning kit at a camera shop, unpack the kit in my hotel bedroom and squeeze a drop of cleaning liquid onto the lens. The top shoots off the bottle. The entire contents flood the camera. Not only the lens but also the interior. Liquid bubbles float on the inside of the screen. Turn the camera on and the sole response from the computer is a request for the date. Were this the US I would hire a smart lawyer and sue the product manufacturer for a new camera plus an extra million for mental anguish - settle for one hundred grand. This is India. I weep.

BACK-ALLEY TAILOR

SILIGURI: MARCH 29
Three hours at a back-alley tailor designing a head band that will hold my camera.
The purpose? To shoot video as I ride. The shop is ten feet by eight, two sewing machines, two tailors. The younger, in his twenties, works on the camera headband. The older gives advice. The one-man chai shop opposite provides tea and further counsel. An elderly English speaker with a puncture repair shop (only for bicycles) translates. Add two or three onlookers and you have a street party. Why is Siliguri different? The people speak quietly, they don't jostle, they respect personal space. The only argument is financial. The tailor charges 50 Rupees. I tell him, Nonsense, and pay double.

TRAIN IS OK

SILIGURI: MARCH 29
Unloading the bike at Siliguri is a doddle. An employee of the Cindrella Hotel has brought a bottle of petrol. I lunch with the hotel's owner, Rajendra Baid. He founded, when only twenty, Siliguri's newspaper. The paper continues in profit despite electronic competition.
Lonely Planet describes the Cindrella Hotel as Siliguri's best, bedrooms with polished floor boards. Best, yes, but the floors are marble. Siliguri is cleaner than cities further south. The people seem different. In what way? I'm unsure. Give me a few days...

RAJEN BALI

What did I do in Kolkata other than watch cricket on TV, drink beer and over-eat? Talk with Rajen Bali - two septuagenarian chums sharing experiences and opinions and teasing each other. The teasing grows from affection and trust in a relationship. Rajen is a fine man, honourable, generous, determined in his principles. highly literate, widely read, widely traveled...and skillful in the kitchen.

DISGUST WITH LABOUR

KOLKATA: MARCH 28
Cooked by the Colonel, delicious prawns for dinner and one more sad good-bye.
The Kolkata edition of The Telegraph ran a flattering piece on me this morning. I am stopped twice by bikers on the road to the station.
Loading the bike is easy, the sleeper comfortable. I chat with an English woman, a child psychologist, member of a tour group off to trek in the foothills of the Himalayas. Where did trek originate? Is walk inadequate? Less sexy? Less commercial?
She has been a Labour supporter since childhood and a Labour Councilor. The present Labour hierarchy disgusts her. She will either vote Liberal Democrat or abstain.

FAREWELL TO KOLKATA

KOLKATA: MARCH 28
My last day in Kolkata and Rajen Bali promises me a treat. Off we march for breakfast, the Colonel leading, three swings of his arms, three claps. Come on, chaps. First the South India Restaurant, then to buy prawns for my farewell supper.
Crows and a few dogs pick at a heap of stinking refuse outside the market. Why isn't it cleared away? Ask the Municipal Government.
Rajen has shopped at this market for the thirty years. He barks witticisms at the stall holders, pokes at strange (to me) vegetables and fruit, explains their culinary usage – such is shopping with a two-legged encyclopedia of the subcontinent's food.
A small skinny fish merchant scoops prawns from a basket for the Colonel's inspection. The Colonel approves. Fish gleam on a slab, no ice. Trussed chickens lie silent. Two black goats wait the knife. A fresh carcass hanging from an iron hook drips blood into an open drain; a teenage butcher drags the skin from a second.
The Colonel selects limes, a red onion.
We are pulled home by a bare-foot rickshaw wallah.
Easy to salve your conscience and take a tuk-tuk.
Rajen Bali, ever practical, has pushed up the rickshaw wallahs' wages.
How?
By hiring them and paying 15% above the standard fare. Do this frequently and the raise becomes the norm.
KOLKATA: MARCH 26
I will take a train north to Siliguri, the transport hub for Darjeeling and Sikkim. 800 Rupees for a 2nd class a/c sleeper, 800 Rupees for the bike. A porter wraps the bike in straw and sacking, a further 300. The gas tank must be emptied.

MOI AMORE

KOLKATA: MARCH 27
The Colonel and I are invited to lunch at a new restaurant opened by Kolkata's prophet of fusion cooking, Pradip Rozario. Padrip trained with the Oberoi Group both in India and in Europe. The Kurry Klub at 176, Sarat Bose Road was his initial gamble. The first two years were tough. Next came K K's Fusion. Now Moi Amore on the top floor of a plush new shopping mall and cinema complex. The d├ęcor is light, smart and friendly. The food is delicious – giant tiger prawns lightly grilled.

BRIT BRITS ARE CRAP AT 20/20

Indian Premier League 20/20 competition is in full swing. Sadly no matches at Kolkata's Eden Gardens before April 1. Rajen and I make do with television. Sachin Tendulkar is God. Collingwood is the only Brit with Brit grandparents. The two other Brits have parents or grandparents from the subcontinent. Thank God for Asian immigration.

IS HOGARTHIAN TRITE?

KOLKATA: MARCH 26
I love Kolkata. Communist State Governments, unfriendly to business, have curtailed investment. One result: the city suffers from less industrial pollution than Delhi or Mumbai. A second plus: no arguments with cab drivers. Cabs have meters, drivers switch them on. Shopping in the markets is a pleasure. Stall keepers are friendly. The language is musical. More English is spoken. I can communicate.
I explore the city while Rajen organises the final stages of my journey into Sikkim and the North East States. Few relics of the Mughals survive. Those of the British Raj have done better. The Writers Building (1780), headquarters of the East India Company, now houses the Government Secretariat. Built to impress the natives, the palatial Government House in immense pleasure gardens is home to the Governor of West Bengal. The Governor is a political appointee. I haven't written of the slums, that vile Hogarthian world glimpsed down alleys. Nor did I photograph them. The denizens deserve more of us than serve as illustrations for a Blog.

CHINESE STREET MARKET

KOLKATA: MARCH 26
Street breakfast at the Chinese street market: a ten liter aluminum pot of chicken soup simmers over coals on the sidewalk. The squatting stall holder rinses bowls in a bucket – sufficiently clean for the Colonel and I. One of our party, a woman, has brought her own cup. Her husband talks on his mobile while Rajen discusses chicken stock with the cook. Rajen remembers her mother. Beyond the stalls, women chop piles of salvaged timber into kindling. One feeds a baby at the breast. A family have roofed a crack between two shacks. The mother washes two toddlers in the gutter. Our next stop, stuffed dumplings...

WOW!

First day with internet in over a week. Where am I? Just returned from North Sikkim to the capitol, Gantok. Neither phones nor Internet in the North. Here in Gantok heavy storms every day wiped out Internet connection. Now, finally, brilliant sunshine and clear skies. Sat on my balcony at the hotel at 4.45 this morning to admire the snow peaks - fabulous. And the Internet working. Wow!