I have a few days to catch up…so I apologise for a longer overview in this post so I’m not always behind. I’ve had a bit of Delhi-belly despite all precautions taken…. All better now… so onward to Bhutan!
We visited the Sunderband National Park whilst Penny was clearing customs and although it was still hot and very humid, was an interesting insight into how people live in an area where we were told isn’t even a single book written about it.
Driving south toward the Ganges Delta system supported a more agricultural existence… and livelihoods were sourced more from the earth. Huge brick factory chimneys stood like giant cigars in the distance. Some had been closed to reduce the pollution in the area; yet some were still operating and producing bricks which were used not only for home and city buildings – but also for use on the banks of the islands to hold the edges of the islands from being washed away in the current from the raging waters in monsoon season.
Riding in a bus on quite a long, bumpy journey provided a different perspective into the lives of the residents in this river delta area. It seemed to me to be such a challenging existence… little reprieve from carrying water to their modest shelters; working in the fields or small stalls which lined the roads; and sourcing food for their families. Dust filled the air in the dry season…and flooding water in the monsoon.
We saw extensive areas of fish farming with rectangular plots of water often with people casting nets into them; and some which had been drained with people walking knee deep in mud; picking up the fish and placing them in baskets and struggling out of the mud to the edge of the fish compounds.
We visited the Sunderband National Park where the highlight and point of the excursion was to see a Bengal tiger. Hmmmm not much chance to see one due to regulations between the hours of 10am and 4.30 in the extreme heat; and if I was a tiger I would be sitting under the shade of a tree somewhere – not parading around in the midday sun for a group of sweaty tourists!
So… after a long bureaucratic procedure of collecting passports by ‘officials’…of which there seem to be a lot of officials who think they are very ‘official’ …. we were able to enter the National Park. I saw monkeys…. Spotted a few spotted deer… red clawed crabs…yellow clawed crabs… and a HUGE crocodile. That was great!!!.. although no tiger.. not even a sleeping one.
The boat ride was one highlight…being on the water with other freight ships and what seemed like precariously overloaded passenger boats; as we smoothly chugged on the glassy water in the breeze, with the dusky pinks reflecting on the water in our wake and an expanding storm head glowing in the east; was such a reprieve from the cacophony of noise of Kolkata which I immersed myself in over the past week.
Another highlight whilst un the Sunderband were two performances by the local community… one night there was a dance performance , and the other night was an incredible melodramatic performance of a local mythological story about the forest Goddess Bonbibi. It was brilliant!
I was getting a bit restless by now and was really ready to be re-united with Penny!!!
We flew from Kolkata to Siliguri and arriving at the Cindarella motel – there she was!!!! Penny …. Number “1” . The oldest girl in the pack… With a garland of marigolds and good luck trinkets on her bonnet and golden ribbons tied in bows around her blinker lights. I was a little emotional seeing her there. It was so good to see her. It wouldn’t be long now until I would be navigating through India, Bhutan and beyond and with the wind in my short hair!
There were Thunder Dragon rally banners everywhere and the rally was really about to begin. After a calibration test; Penny was keen to leave the compound and off we went to the highland area of Rongtang where we visited a primary school and were welcomed with such enthusiasm. We had a picnic and a specular performance by a Nepalese dance troupe where I joined in with a traditional dance. That was very fun.. and some of the high school girls who were on a School picnic day also joined in. The girls were interested in where I had come from and enjoyed practicing their English – which was exceptionally good. They all had picked some yellow flowers and placed them behind their ear… and did the same for me. I was welcomed into their world with such friendship.
Last night most went on what Max said was fabulous steam train ride…I was exhausted after having a couple of days not being overly well and still not able to eat… so I stayed at the hotel and instead I bought a Silk Saree to add to my collection of beautiful cotton clothing… and then tucked myself up ready for today… on the road up to Darjeeling.
We started our Rally to Bhutan and beyond with a beautiful ritual blessing and some chanting. I sang along with the Gayatri mantra; my favourite. As car number “1” we were the first to the start line where we were waved off with a checkered flag….and off we went up the foothills of the Himalayas.
OMG! What a difference. The cooler air brought with it such fresh smiles and enthusiastic waves from the locals whose facial features were most definitely from the highland areas of Nepal and Bhutan. Their smiles beamed across their wider faces; and jeans and shirts and mobile phones indicated a life that was perhaps less of a struggle to survive than for those further in the south.
The mountain drive up to Darjeeling was so much fun… and as we rose in elevation into the clouds the cool misty air where the road workers wore face masks and coats were shoveling piles of gravel and manually placing small stones into freshly melted asphalt being produced in machines which plumed black smoke.
Little villages emerged out from behind sharp bends where often only one car could pass; and although the mist prevented good visibility, we knew that it was often a sheer drop down the edge of the mountain; and I just couldn’t believe how communities could build so many homes on the side of such slopes.
Tea plantations lined the steep slopes and picking the tea were women who wore coloured clothing and cheerful smiles. We stopped at a very small tea shop and had the best black tea I’ve ever had. Delicious. The forests rose strongly on the mountain slopes. Small markets with brightly coloured adornments appeared from behind ageing prayer flags which not only traversed the road but gullies on the hillside where there were special or sacred places of burial or ritual. It was quite really lovely seeing the prayer flags. Some were white with sacred text…others brightly coloured.
Bright colours also splashed the landscape. Marigolds. Clothing drying. Painted buildings….. Clothing….. iPhone covers! …Large plastic jars of lollies and potato chip packets. I think the staple food in India has become potato chips! It seems as if everywhere has threads of joined potato chip packets hanging like curtains in their street stands.
Closer in the streets I could see that although this was a ‘tourist strip’; the locals were doing their own thing… and playing a game called ‘dice’ – I couldn’t quite understand nor spell what the locals called it; where you bet by tossing some notes on to a plastic sheet with pictures of one of the 6 faces of dice which were shaken under what seemed like a gigantic top hat and revealed to a chorus of cheers. Max had an absolute ball with the locals playing this game with them.
Todays drive didn’t seem so voyeuristic… because we were met with such interest; intrigue; and mobile phones were being raised up like a some sort of welcome salutation; to provide a pictorial record to remember the day that 22 Vintage and Classic rally cars drove past.
I so often didn’t want to spoil the moment of interaction by taking photographs of people waving to us… so often I just waved. I have included some photographs here – bearing in mind they are from a moving vehicle whilst I have a rather important job of actually navigating – using a route book and being alert for other traffic hazards along the way! Sometimes i get a bit carried away with waving and I have to quickly add up the km’s I have missed and then look out for the next ‘tulip’ to ensure I know exactly where we are.
So…tonight in Darjeeling and a walk at 5.30am in the morning…. perhaps to see the Himalayas in the distance if the morening is clear. Stay tuned.