Continued from iBewitched | Them trains enroute Bhutan
After a somewhat not-so-comfortable second leg of the train journey courtesy the non-air-conditioned train ride with humidity levels shooting through the roof, I was now much closer to setting foot outside of the Indian borders for the first time. And yet it would take a while, a real long while for that to actually happen.
Still not the misanthrope, I was beginning to enjoy being in the company of the group – a happy-go-lucky bunch of about 80 odd college students (brain refers to them as ‘kids’). In their company it seemed slightly odd how distant my own college days seemed (even though it hasn’t been that long) and how the preoccupations with those ‘tomorrows’ seldom ever change for your average 20 year old who’s on the brink of graduating and figuring out ‘life’!
Off the train at New Alipur Duar, we were seated in buses that would get us to Jaigaon on the Indian side of the Indo-Bhutan border in West Bengal in about two hours. In spite of its proximity to the border, Jaigaon was all things India in every sense of the word – crowded, noisy, smelly, colourful and lively. This wouldn’t seem unusual until after two hours when we stepped into Phuntsholing on the Bhutanese side of the border to obtain our permits.
Why unusual? Phuntsholing, separated by a literal fence along the road located at a mere 15 minute walk across from Jaigaon is the exact opposite – quiet, orderly, clean (i.e. no odour, dustbins outside every store). I was expecting to be overpowered by a country where the measurement of happiness takes precedence over economic development. But did I anticipate that to happen so soon, so close to the border? Not quite. Our wait at the immigration office turned out to be a long one. Interestingly enough we had the permission to explore this little town even as we were waiting.
Phuntsholing was the sneak preview of all things Bhutan. Quaint yet fresh in its vibe, there was something already welcoming even though on the other hand it did seem like we were jaywalkers waiting for our visa permit. Some of us chose to experience the place by sitting at the local cafes while others chose to explore on foot.
With no end in mind I simply walked through the streets but not before making a dash for some refreshments. And with that I would experience my first exchange with foreign currency!
Walking around my first impressions were that Phuntsholing was just about everything – pretty with manicured gardens, sassy with chic cafes, orderly with its shops and stores lined up separately from where the residential areas were as well as thug-like with its back streets. Almost every local I walked past was in their official dress; even the students uniform was tailored such. I think it may have evoked within me a sentiment I’ve heard non-Indians echo about the saree – it makes them look very beautiful and graceful. Prayer flags adorn the public spaces such as gardens as do the prayer wheels – symbols that are typical of regions where Buddhism is practiced (and holds true even across different regions in India too).
Content with what I saw and still reeling under how stark the differences were just right there at the Indo-Bhutan border, I returned back to the garden where we were required to assemble as a group after the hour of exploration. Within moments we were informed that we were required to assemble at the immigration office. The long wait however would continue (for reasons I’d never know). After what seemed longer than eternity (because well, it really was) we had all completed the requisite procedures in about 4.5 – 5 hours. This did have a consequence on the schedule for the day according to which we ought to have reached Paro by noon. It was 5 PM Indian Standard Time and we were only about to get moving.
But move we did. And how.
Tired with the train journey from the past two days coupled with the wait for immigration, it was only natural that we were excited. We’d tasted what it felt like in Phuntsholing and had experienced how different it was from an India that was merely a few steps away – now we wanted more; in the heart of Bhutan.
Destination Paro took off on a rather unexpected note however.
No sooner we were docked in our buses we set off. And I would be in the bus that would first cross the border from the Indian side to the Bhutanese side. We’d only made it past the immigration office for the second time that day relieved that there was no more waiting for us to be done even as other expectant tourists/travellers awaited their turn when bam! our driver had hit the brakes – because another driver making his way for a U-turn collided with us resulting in the entire window pane being dislodged from its original location to landing on the road, without a single crack even as the two drivers were arguing over whose fault it was!
Slightly jolted but definitely amused by the twist in the turn of events we had to re-route our journey with the first detour – to a garage workshop and fix the window as we would be driving through the night and temperatures would dip for certain. I guess a garage on the Indo-Bhutanese was all that was left to be explored that day! However the worst was truly and really behind us as the mechanic was adept and deft in fixing the glass window.
Unfortunately the view from Phuntsholing to Paro could not be appreciated as the sun had already set. But it seemed like a trade-off of sorts to see silhouettes of the mountains somewhere in the distance with firefly like winged creatures dancing in the foreground!
While what happened onward once we got to Paro is a story for another post, this one wouldn’t complete with the brief description of what transpired when returning back to India.
After an 8 hour road trip that included dodging landslides triggered by the rains in Bhutan (more on this in the next post too), we were finally back in India. With a few hours to spare until we’d board the next bus to New Cooch Behar railway station some of us were itching to go across the border for one last time under the pretext of dinner. Given that you don’t need a permit to get there it didn’t seem particularly challenging until someone mentioned that entry and exit is permitted until 9 PM. A quick wrist check suggested that it was already 10 minutes past 8 o’clock already. Without another thought spared we hauled a rickshaw and got to the border. En route one of us was having this conversation with their folks back home, “Hey Ma, we’ve reached India. But I’m going back to Bhutan for dinner…” That’s exactly how bizarre it was. It was one last dash to before bidding adieu to the Last Shangri-La.
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