Archive for April, 2011

North Tour: Gangtok: More to see than foreigners

April 25, 2011

Tuesday, 22 March

NEW JALPAIGUDI TO HOWRAH: We really stand out in Sikkim.

The strong East Asian influence in much of North India grows stronger the closer you go to the Himalayas. With so much Nepalese and Chinese influence, the natives don’t look like the Indians you’ll see anywhere else on the subcontinent. Entering Sikkim was almost like entering China or Nepal. The way of life is so different than in the rest of India.

See, no one stares at us there.

The contrast of our appearance is as striking in Sikkim as it is anywhere else in India. But unlike just about every other destination to which we’ve traveled on tour, we were shown no special treatment in Sikkim, not even given separate entry fees for our white skin. In a state where Western clothes don’t stand out as much – even on women – our fashion didn’t make as much of a statement as it normally does. No one even asked us for a picture.

I’d traveled a quick ferry ride from Sri Lanka. I’d stood a stone’s throw from Pakistan. Now we were just five kilometers from China, not much further from Nepal, and the world’s largest mountain range was right there in front of us. Had I not been to Manali, I might have called Gangtok the most beautiful place I’d been in my life. As such, our day trip to a pond and mountain near the border will have to settle for a spot somewhere high on my list. With the March heat having melted most of the snow here, I’m left to wonder how it would have looked a few months earlier – no stone left uncovered in snow, the pond in the valley below covered in ice thick enough to skate on. But I’m not complaining.

There was little we could do but soak up the view. Gangtok is a beautiful place.



North Tour: Gangtok: Not your ordinary Holi-day

April 25, 2011

Tuesday, 22 March

NEW JALPAIGUDI TO HOWRAH: I’ve celebrated a lot of holidays and festivals since coming to India. You rarely have to wait a week, or even a few days, for the next one to come around. Having spent eight months in India, I have a pretty large sample size from which to choose my favorite Indian holiday.

So when I say Holi has been my favorite holiday in India, that’s saying something.

Choose the clothes you’ll wear during Holi wisely. Because there’s virtually no chance they’ll come back looking like they were before going out. In fact, if they do, double-check the country you’re in. It’s probably not India.

Why bother? Because Holi is little more than an excuse to go color other people in public.

By “color”, I mean “throw powder onto,” “spray died water onto” or “smear color onto the faces of those around you.” The dye, while not permanent, doesn’t wash out easily, and after spending two hours outside, we were left looking like various combinations of zombies, the boogeyman, and the Hulk.

As we played in the Gangtok streets, our white T-shirts stopped resembling white T-shirts. So much red, yellow, green, purple and blue was splattered on our clothes, none of their original colors remained. The 13 of us had a mutual agreement to turn each other’s clothes into epic souvenirs. Each blank spot was sought out and filled in. Each patch of uncolored skin and hair was dyed. If any one color seemed too predominant, others were sprinkled in where needed.

Thanks to several water bottles and a new kind of powder, pink became the predominant color on our shirts. Because water intensifies the Holi colors, everyone was soon saturated in hot pink. After an hour in the Gangtok streets, I was unable to distinguish our nationalities from those of the Indians nearby. Our skin colors, hair colors and exuberance in celebration left us looking so similar to the surrounding locals that even a scintillating eye couldn’t tell us apart. Franzi, a natural blonde, didn’t have a single blonde hair left when we returned to the hotel.

I took no pictures or videos on the day, and most of us had decided the risk of our cameras getting ruined was too high. So I have nothing but my pen to describe the scene of Holi in Gangtok. Of small children squealing in delight and showering us in Holi water. Of men friendshipping us by hugging us and rubbing powder on our faces. Of a permanent layer of pink dust coating the main road when we walked the city hours later, all participants having gone home for lunch, an afternoon nap, and a compulsory hot shower.

I originally wished I’d been in Nagpur for Holi, so as to celebrate with my host family. But I take no issue with having spent it in the Himalayas with my friends. It could hardly have been any better than it was.

Holi is about having fun.

And as we danced in public together at the end of our outing, we couldn’t stop smiling.


North Tour: Gangtok: A good place to have your passport

April 25, 2011

Tuesday, 22 March

NEW JALPAIGUDI TO HOWRAH: If there’s any life lesson I’ve learned from India, it’s this:

Nothing is impossible.

In India, it’s just that “not possible” very often means “very, very difficult to achieve”.

We learned this Saturday after dipping out of the Darjeeling hills and climbing up into those near Gangtok. Because of its proximity to China and Nepal, foreigners entering the state of Sikkim are required to present a passport. Thus we all had ours at the ready as we stopped at a checkpost across the border. We anticipated some paperwork, perhaps, but not anything that would give us trouble.

13 foreigners came to the border in our two jeeps, and 12 made it across without any trouble.

Nisha, however, did not share our good fortune.

Whereas America, Germany and France give its citizens one-year student visas, Canada only gives its students six months at a time. Thus in December, Nisha had her visa extended in India, a harrowing and nerve-wracking process. Though her passport was never officially re-endorsed, a handwritten note from her local police station was said to be sufficient.

Now we were at the Sikkim state border, and they were telling her it wasn’t.

We gave it every thought we had to get her through. There was no doubt Nisha was legally in India, so why weren’t they letting her into Sikkim with a passport and a photocopied visa extension? As someone able to get Indian tickets at a considerable discount, could she double back and enter as an Indian? Could she fake her way in and stay in the hotel the whole time? Could we go “Indian-style” in a country near the bottom of the world corruption index?

We mulled our options over lunch, deciding the risk of going to jail wasn’t worth it, even as most of us would rather stay with Nisha in jail than go to Gangtok without her. Without a plan, we weren’t about to leave one of our number behind. It was too important that we stick together.

Phone calls were made. Many phone calls were made. Every option was considered. In the end, it looked like everything would come down to the people who’d extended her passport in Yavatmal and whether their work would be sufficient for the Sikkim Government.

Timepass. We could only wait.

About five hours after arriving at the Customs Office, we did the only thing we could really do. It was decided most of us would leave for Gangtok, while three girls would stay back with Nisha as insurance. We were uneasy about splitting up, but there were no options left. Sunset had come and gone.

About halfway to Gangtok, the nine of us got a call. Nisha had been allowed in.

Half a day of tension, anxiety and paperwork had culminated in a curt, informal 30-second interview of Nisha by some higher-up.

“OK,” he said when they finished. “You’re free to go.”

There is probably nothing in India more frustrating than bureaucracy, its informality and the utter snails pace with which it moves here. Nisha was made to suffer for a wrong she never committed.

So we stayed with her. We shared her pain.

We’re exchange students. It’s what we do.


North Tour: Darjeeling: Just an ordinary, everyday beautiful hill station

April 24, 2011

Friday, 18 March

DARJEELING: I feel like I’ve been here before.

First came Ooty. Then came Munnar. Already on this tour we’ve been to Dharamsala, Manali and Rishikesh. All high in the mountains of different parts of India. From the Ghats to the Himalayas, each hill station we’ve visited has something to offer.

Now I’m in Darjeeling, and I’m getting a strong aura of déjà vu.

The rides to each of these places have generally been the same. From foothill to peak, a long winding road takes us on a journey of at least 100 kilometers that would take about a fifth the distance could our jeeps or buses safely traverse 45 degree inclines. India’s hills and mountains are all home to spectacular panoramas, and the views from our rides up never cease to amaze. We’ve grown accustomed to rickety jeeps on gravel roads, potholes that appear to have come courtesy meteor showers, and turns so sudden, sharp and steep, the intimacy between you and your neighbors is unavoidable and inevitable.

But although today’s car ride dropped our jaws, it wasn’t because of the view. Moreover, our eyes were often closed, and our minds were typically turned off. We weren’t unimpressed by the outside view, just more deprived of sleep than spectacular things to see. The thin clouds below us blocked most of it anyway.

Darjeeling’s familiarity, however, doesn’t make it any less pleasant a hill station to visit. I’ve yet to go to one in India that I don’t like.


North Tour: Patna: Don’t look

April 24, 2011

Thursday, 17 March

PATNA TO NEW JALPAIGUDI: About a week ago, I watched the movie Inception with Nikolas for timepass. Its plot is too convoluted to explain here, so I’ll suffice by saying it has to do with dreams. In the characters’ dreams, the dreamee is always stared at. In the dreams, everyone is always looking.

I haven’t slept well on this tour, but I’m pretty sure I was awake at the Patna Railway station today.

I was reminded of Inception as our cars arrived at the station this afternoon, an hour after our train was supposed to have departed, but about four before it would actually leave. We had plenty of time to stand and do nothing.

So apparently, did dozens of other men in the parking lot.

We’d been standing outside our cars for about ten seconds when a crowd assembled around us. It wasn’t the Hollywood kind of crowd, where photographers and autograph seekers rush towards an opening limousine door and ask celebrities frantic questions. The rush was more a wide-eyed stroll. The speech was in low Hindi undertones, not high, exuberant English. But the Biharis may as well have just seen a celebrity – the excitement at seeing us was just the same. We were surrounded in a wide circle, anticipative wide-open eyes shamelessly looking us up and down from every direction.

Of the 13 students in our tour group, ten are teenage girls. Fair and lovely foreign girls do not mix well with horny Indian men.

Living in India for the last few months has done wonders for my body language. Whereas in America I’d slump, an unconscious attempt to conceal my height, here slumping does nothing to make me stand out any less. I guess I’m also more intimidating at my full height. While our group waits in crowded areas, Jordan and I often stand on the edge of it facing outwards, our chests puffed out and our arms tightly crossed. We’re willing and ready to glare down any Indian men. If men feel the urge to stare at members of our group, they usually suppress it when they catch our eyes. Our looks tend not to be friendly ones.

I suppose in a state like Bihar that seems so disconnected with the rest of the world, I can sympathize with wide-eyed wonder at the sight of white skin. The infrastructure is atrocious here, so even sites like the place where Buddha attained enlightenment and the beautiful surrounding complex don’t attract as many foreign visitors as they aught to. It’s a shame Bihar isn’t more tourist-friendly, because the lack of exposure to the outside world is exactly why we get the attention we receive here.

We’re on a train again. We’re moving on. Life is good.

We have each other’s backs.