SIX HUNDRED DAYS ON THE ROAD!! Do I win a fiver?
And so the train pulled into Calcutta’s Howrah train station around 11am. The plan was to head to the border with Bangladesh, do a quick border hop and then come back in time for tea and a train up towards Bhutan and Nepal.
However, my first problem was that (after queuing up a five different booths) the guy in the ticket office told me that the late train that left at 11pm was full. I would find out later this was a lie, but never mind, I’m getting used to it now. Therefore the only option was the Darjeeling Mail train which left at 7.35pm. This meant my trip to Bangladesh was going to be a bit of a race to say the least.
Sonu accompanied me across the Hooghly River that runs through Calcutta and together we went to investigate options for taking the bus to the border. It took us a good two hours just to get to the bus ‘station’, and when we arrived, I was informed that all the buses for today had left, and that even if they hadn’t, I couldn’t get on board as the buses went all the way to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, and passengers weren’t allowed to get off early.
I don’t quite know why India feels it must be so infuriating, but somewhere along the line somebody must have mooted it as ‘a good idea’.
So Bangladesh was a no, then. In any case, I might not have got over the border, considering how much India’s security has been ramped up in the wake of the Mumbai Massacre. The last time I was at the western border of Bangladesh, I could have just walked straight through and nobody would have noticed.
So Sonu and I grabbed some lunch and Sonu invited me back to his house so I could scrub up and go and see his local church. The journey to his on a local train was so typically Indian it almost seemed farcical – far too many people squeezed into a carriage that hadn’t been cleaned since… well, ever. And that’s something that blows my mind about India, the relationship with dirt. I’m not one for living in a sterile bubble, but this place is the equivalent of my dad’s old carburetter shop in Liverpool only times 1.2 billion. Everything – from the streets to the buildings to the trains to the temples – must must must be grubby as hell. But the weird thing is how everything is meticulously ordered, like a freak who hoards his rubbish in his living room, but sorts it into neat piles first.
Sweeping up in India requires you to push the dirt somewhere else, the concept of litter bins are as alien here as being a vegan is to an Argentinean. The mounds of rubbish, rubbish everywhere and the public health menace they pose would make anywhere else rise up and incarcerate the powers that be, but not in India. Like Ethiopia, the concept of germ theory is an undiscovered country, if you get ill well you mutter something about it being the will of the god(s) and quietly die without complaint – after all, you’re going to get reincarnated… right?
One thing I just can’t fathom about the concept of reincarnation is this: what’s the point? In Battlestar Galactica, the Cylons could download their memories – and consciousness – to a new identical body whenever they died. That seems perfectly sensible (within the realms of science fiction) and I don’t see why not. But to be downloaded into a completely new body (or even one of a completely separate species) but not retain your consciousness nor indeed any memories whatsoever seems, well, a little pointless does it not?
What exactly is being downloaded? And what lessons can be learnt, given you don’t remember anything from your previous life?
Anyways, I’m going off-topic a little here, but after grabbing a quick shower and sending a couple of emails at Sonu’s gaff, he drove me back to Calcutta. Unfortunately for me, his ludicrously optimistic view that he could get back to the city in 45 minutes was exactly that – ludicrously optimistic. Even twice that time would be gilding the lily somewhat. Try three hours, that would be a safer bet.
Needless to say, I missed my train.
As I had bought an ‘emergency’ ticket (at a 200rupee markup) my ticket was completely non-refundable. My discontent at this situation wasn’t helped by Sonu’s reckless driving – when there is a heady mixture of cars, rickshaws, cyclists, pedestrians, potholes, trucks, buses and cows vying for space one would tend not to drive like Toad of Toad Hall – doubly so when there are no streetlights. But Sonu’s over-optimistic appraisal of the time situation also translated into an over-optimistic sentiment that God was protecting his car and therefore it was impossible for him to crash.
I did point out that as a (rather militant) atheist, that if he did actually exist, this God fella has probably got it in for me, and that would seem to be the case as after a hair-raising two hours, Sonu managed to drop me at the wrong train station. Thankfully, a guardian angel called George came to my rescue. He worked for the trains and was on his way home when I ran into him running with all my bags along an unlit railway line. “You’re at the wrong station”, he told me – “but don’t worry I’ll get you on the later train”.
“I was told it was sold out”.
“They always say that. Come with me.”
So George and I hopped in a taxi and sped over to the correct train station. It took the best part of an hour to get there, but when we did, he sorted me out with a ticket on the 22.35 up to Siliguri in the north of West Bengal – not far from the borders of Bangladesh and Bhutan. The possibly of ticking off two countries in one day was a particularly sweet idea at this time.
With a hour or so to kill before I got on the train, I said my hearty thank-yous to George and bought myself a copy of Newsweek, very interested to read their list of the best 100 countries in the world and see how much it tallied with mine.
As they didn’t include rock n’ roll, lemurs or ladyboys in their criteria of what made a country ‘best’, the list was somewhat different from my League of Nations – with their top three nations being Finland, Switzerland and Luxembourg – three of the most boring places on Earth. India is a lot of things, and I could go on all night about how nuts it is, but at the end of the day, at least it’s never dull – and that counts for a lot in my book, yes India – you’re that lousy friend that we can’t help forgive because they make us laugh, you’re the nasty spiteful Dr. House who we admire because he’s always frickin’ right and the vacuous blonde we tolerate because she’s got a cracking pair of norks.
My League is based on places that excite or surprise me – I guess that’s why the top ten includes the likes of Egypt, Bolivia, Thailand and Iran. Finland, Switzerland or Luxembourg – godbless’em – are all very sensible and nice, but sometimes you need a little madness just to keep things interesting.