Diwali in Transit: Day 178

From Darjeeling to Kolkata, Diwali erupted in my wake.

Descending the staircase of Hotel New Vaisali, my working boys were in the process of hanging strands of orange and yellow flowers over the entrance to the lobby, taking as much care in the presentation as they would placing a fallen baby bird back in its nest. I paid the bill to the main clerk while standing next to the big eyes of the youngest employee. Five days of my Western habits weren't enough to shake their culture shock, and I left their confused gazes with a wave and a thank you, once again feeling the weight of a bittersweet departure and my ever-growing rucksack.

I wandered on the snaking main road and simply lifted my eyes to tens of jeeps that all wanted my business. Cramming into a jeep for three hours this time was by far superior as I didn't have the burden of 26-hours-sans-bathroom issues. One thing I love about these sorts of tight quarters is the smashing of bodies that relieves the muscles of all their tension. No one needs to worry about keeping their legs from touching another's or remaining perpendicular to the road when pressure from all sides keeps you in place. It's hilarious, though, that even while sharing armpits and leg sweat, two people physically forced together are embarrassed to make eye contact or share pleasantries.

"RIDE? YOU NEED RIDE? MISS, RIDE? I TAKE YOU! MY RICKSHAW!" Ten men spit clumpy red liquid.
"No guys, thanks, I don't need a ride. I'm just wandering down this road."
"BUS STATION? TRAIN STATION? I TAKE YOU! 100 RUPEES, CHEAP CHEAP!"
"Guys, I'm walking to find dinner. No thanks on rides." I repeat my mime of the act of walking and point to the street I want to wander.

Ten men proceeded to watch me change from my fleece covering into a sweaty, stretched-out, white shirt. Privacy is a luxury in a country of a billion.

I certainly gave myself time in Siliguri before catching my train a few minutes away from town. Overland travel, or all travel, in India can be predictably unpredictable and often unapologetic. I used the down time to get some grub at a nondescript thali joint, where I simply said "veg" and got a meal for $0.20. The man delivered my meal and accompanied it with a spoon, looking at me with either disinterest or grandfatherly sympathy. I was a little hurt as I had already rolled my right sleeve up, ready to plow in with a bare hand. As much as I think I can mimic the ways, I'm a Westie. I need utensil help.

I chowed; I moved on and found an open-air market where I stuck out like a sore, curry-stained thumb. Already sweaty and uncomfortable, I entered another restaurant in which to rest and sit by a window, watching parades of personal floats go by in honor of different gods. How Indians are able to haul massive shrines on the back of their motorbikes is a skill unbeknownst to me.

I crossed a firewall of candles out the front door and met an old man, thin in stature and expressionless in visage, who would take me via cycle-rickshaw to the bus station a mile or so away. This ride was surreal. It was something so subtly tremendous it would be easy to daydream through or forget about. Darkness descended, and the world passed by at about 4 miles an hour. He took me across city streets clogged with celebrations, past speakers projecting stories and music, beside temporary shrines and flamboyant structures, and over firework displays. And by over, I mean over. He steered towards some little boys setting off explosives and rode over a Roman candle ignited in spitting flames. It was a slow realization on my part, and once I saw where he had gone, I began to giggle and be completely consumed in the joys of the passing merriment I joined for split-seconds.

I left a city smelling of burned sulfur and charcoal, surefire olfactory evidence of a party atmosphere, and boarded a train in the plush luxury of a third class train car. Thanks to another young foreign girl who wanted to sit with her boyfriend, I was pushed up to second class. It was unfathomable. The planets aligned, and I got to sleep with a thick blanket and air conditioning. I welcomed the frigid air with all-night shivers, but I still remain a believer in fresh air while in India. The shock to the system of going from AC to boiling hot B.O. is too much for one body to handle.

I awoke to a stopped train, commotion, and an empty car. Asking the passing train employee where we were, I jumped towards my bag and hit the bright sun and ominous air like a crash dummy to a brick wall. My transit almost complete, the only thing between me and my final resting place for the night was the city of Kolkata and a paucity of knowledge in how to get from A to B. I actually had no B., no decided-upon destination other than the region of town for backpackers. I had things to get done here, all which required being within reach of tourist resources.

It was 6:00am. I started walking. I joined a mass crowd of locals half my size in the struggle to not get hit by cars, avoid stepping on sewage, and navigate the active alleyways. I have no idea why I did this.