Wednesday, December 3, 2008

close encounters with the law

Sadly, the night before our departure from Darjeeling we found a food stall serving delightful egg buns, scrambled egg on toasted rolls with fresh vegetable garnish and topped with your choice of savory sauces. After 3+ weeks in India we both had finally succumbed to intestinal ailments and thought it wise to take a break from spicy and fried foods (not an easy task here). The egg buns were the perfect food. As we were planning to get a late start in the morning to avoid a brutal kick-starting session we vowed to hit the egg bun stall again before we left.
The morning brought blue skies with wispy clouds that provided a lovely complement to the Himalayas. IMHO, those sorts of clouds always provide my favorite backdrop for alpine shots. We did our egg bun run, loaded up the bikes, then set about for the torture session of getting them started. Jascha's bike started up fairly soon, but we each spent ~5 minutes attempting to kick start my bike. The guy at the guesthouse called his brother (who owns an Enfield) to assist, but by the time he arrived Jascha got the bike started.
The ride from Darjeeling to Siliguri travels down beautiful sweeping mountain roads, sections of which reminded me of my hometown in Washington state. Tiny villages cling to the sides of the hills, covered with giant yellow daisy bushes and wild poinsettia. We took our time to both enjoy the scenery and avoid getting slammed by a truck or SUV as we rode around the tight corners. At Siliguri we retraced our route through the tea plantations and across the plains to Malda.
In one of the towns we approached a red traffic light. Traffic laws are inconsistently enforced even with police officers manning the intersection, so we did our usual slow down and see what the locals do. The guy in front of me ran the light so I proceeded to do the same. I had to hesitate because there was a truck going the wrong way around the traffic circle in the center of the intersection (apparently perfectly OK). A police officer stepped out and demanded that I go sit in his office across the street. I was waiting to have to pay a bribe, but after thirty seconds he told me to leave. Moral of the story: if you're going to run a light in front of the police officers don't slow down.
Dusk came and we were still riding. We were growing weary of the endless game of chicken, made even more challenging with the nearly invisible bicyclists, livestock, and pedestrians and blinding headlights from the oncoming vehicles, many of which flash their brights to indicate they are passing. Instead of our previous hotel (with the musty blankets) we decided to check out the posher Golden Park Hotel & Resort on the outskirts of Malda. The snotty staff kept Jascha's driver's license for collateral even though he paid for the room cash up front, which was 1500 Rps (~$32), in other words not exactly the Oberoi. To compound things the hotel restaurant staff repeatedly acknowledged only Jascha, so I left before ordering. This was the only time I've experienced this in India and elsewhere only at the occasional U.S. auto parts store. The only upside to the hotel was centralized hot water. We had survived Darjeeling with bucket cold water, mostly because we were impatient about waiting for the guesthouse staff to boil water for us.
The next morning we got an early start for Kolkata and for once my bike started first. We stopped at a street stall in Murshidabad for a scrumptious breakfast of chai, puris and curry. The roads on this section are atrocious with deep rim tweaking potholes. Shortly afterward we hit the worst traffic jam we've experienced on the trip. There were trucks, taxis, and buses lined up for several kilometers in both directions. We wove in and out of the vehicles and on the shoulder, often directed by the locals. At one point a guy said something to me in Hindi, then reached down and adjusted my idle (par for the course here). Finally, we reached a point where the traffic was moving again in our direction. We never did figure out what caused the traffic jam, but we were happy to be on motorcycles.
We reached Kolkata before dusk, in time to enjoy the remarkably clear skies, a marked contrast from the smog belt we had ridden through starting south of Siliguri. I inadvertently ran another red light, but this time kept going. Jascha and another local followed me, and the police officer tried in vain to stop both with his (beating) cane. Theory confirmed. At another intersection another police officer stopped Jascha for no apparent reason and asked to see his license. Jascha told him that he would have to get it out of his backpack and the police officer told him to continue on. Before long we reached our hotel, showered, then braved the crowded streets for fruit, kesar pista kulfi, and south Indian fare.

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