Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Windy Roads and Stomach Bugs: My Time in Darjeeling

Before anyone jumps to conclusions, it's important to know that as I write this, I am feeling significantly better than I did this morning. That being said, the last 48 hours or so have been a real rollercoaster so let me start from the beginning.

It all started on Saturday night. We had come back from the hotel after the tabla concert and free dinner buffet. Mimi was complaining a little bit about her stomach, but it didn't seem anything out of the ordinary. After all, the food was delicious and both of us had gone back for seconds and surely over eaten. When I woke up in the middle of the night by the sound of Mimi wretching in the bathroom, however, it became clear that she had more than a slight stomach ache. Mimi spent most of the next day sleeping and recuperating while I went out and ran some errands and did a bunch of Internet. When I came back to the hotel, Mimi was doing significantly better. Vomiting seemed to have expelled most of the bug before it could really get to her.

I on the other hand, began to feel slightly nauseous and just a bit uneasy. I chalked it up to being nervous about the impending train voyage we had planned for that evening, as well as just from being worn down by the intensity of Kolkata. I rarely experience nausea, but when I do it is usually the result of anxiety or emotional panic. Surely I wasn't getting sick as well? 

At 8pm, we took a taxi over to the Sealdah train station. Our train's scheduled departure wasn't until 10:05, but we wanted to get there early to make sure everything went smoothly. As we expected, the station was crowded and chaotic. Beggars and makeshift tent dwellings lined the perimeter of the station, which reeked of urine and filth. The inside of the station was marginally better, but utterly swamped with people. People in lines. People sleeping in groups on the ground. People boarding trains. My stomach continued to bother me and the overwhelming nature of the station was only adding to the anxiety. Luckily, we finally found a more secluded waiting area that was specifically reserved for people with more expensive tickets. (I won't go into detail now, but we rode in AC2, which was comparable to the sleeping cars we had taken in China. Below that in descending order is AC3, Sleeper, Reserved Seating, and Unreserved Seating.)

At 9:30, we boarded the train. I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable and although the sleeper car was clean and comfortable, I was not looking forward to spending ten hours on a train. I kept thinking to myself: I never feel nauseous like this. This isn't normal for me. Once the train got on its way, we got to bed early. I normally find the  rumbling of the train somewhat sleep inducing, but this time it only made me feel dizzy and uncomfortable. As the hours passed by, the night devolved into a somewhat pyschedelic, confused journey of insomnia and nausea. No question about it, I was sick as a dog.

At one point I woke up, convinced that the sun had come up and we were almost there, but when I looked at my watch it was only 1am. It would be difficult for me to describe the thoughts I was having, but I was somehow convinced that my bed was infested with landmines, and there were only certain parts that I could touch. I knew that I was getting sick, but the delerium was turning concern into panic. 

Eventually, the sun came up in earnest and I woke Mimi up to tell her how awful I felt. She didn't comprehend my stories of landmines, but assured me that as soon as we got to Darjeeling that we could get some rest and everything would be ok. The only problem was that the train only went to New Jalpaiguri. To get from NJP to Darjeeling would require a three hour "shared jeep" ride up into the mountains. My stomach was churning but I wasn't about to use the bathrooms at the train station. I knew whatever my stomach had in store for me would not be pretty and a comfortable, clean bathroom was a necessity. As a precaution, I had taken some medicine the night before to ensure I wouldn't need to use the bathroom, and so far it was working smoothly.

When we arrived at the train station's parking lot, my adreneline kicked in and I became focused on finding us a good jeep. Yes, I felt crummy, but an Indian train station is not a place where you can let your guard down. We kicked into high gear, brushed aside the guys asking for Rs 2500 (about $55) and tried to locate one of the shared jeeps we had read about in the guide book. Eventually we settled for one that cost Rs 150 per person. The driver was a small ethnically Indian man who seemed slightly less obnoxious than all the other pushy jeep drivers.

When he led us to his jeep, it was already filled with nine other passangers, all of which I believed to be Indian tourists. A married couple and their baby shared the front seat with the driver, four people squeezed into the middle row, and two large men sat in the back row. After tying our bags to the roof of the jeep, the driver told us to hop into the back row. Are you kidding me? There was clearly only room for one. But we (like the other passengers) had already paid him and surely if we switched to another jeep it would be a similar situation. So, despite my intense nausea and discomfort, we crammed into the backrow of the jeep and got on our way. Welcome to hell. 

I spent the next hour holding on for dear life as our jeeped weaved through the traffic of New Jalpaiguri and its sister city, Siliguri. The traffic was an interesting combination of other jeeps, motor bikes, pedestrians, and cows. At several instances, I thought I would collapse and have to vomit out of the window, but miraculously, I held myself together. The road gradually cleared up as we left the cities behind us. I couldn't see much though because the back row was elevated, which limited my vision to just the immediate sides of the road. At one point, a soldier hitched a ride by clinging onto the back of the jeep. Apparently, this pushed the jeep beyond its weight capacity because after ten minutes we blew a tire and pulled to a stop on the side of the road.

Personally, I was extremely relieved because this allowed me to get out, stretch my legs, and urinate in some nearby bushes. The driver managed to change the tire in under five minutes, and before I knew it we were crammed back into the jeep and back on our way. After about half an hour, we began to slowly climb into the mountains. Darjeeling, afterall, is over 2000 meters above sea level. The Lonely Planet guide had said the trip would take 2.5 hours, but we had already hit the two hour mark and by my calculations we weren't even half way yet. As we climbed, the road became increasingly bumpy and potentially treacherous. At certain points, it even devolved into a one lane dirt road that hovered over steep cliffs. I kept my cool though and eventually we arrived at a town called Kurseong. The road here, despite the increase in traffic, was often only one lane and we had to wait for long periods of time to let cars going in the other direction pass us. More cows and pedestrians added to the chaos.

And then, something potentially disasterous occured. About half way through Kurseong, we had come to a standstill as the traffic in the other direction passed us. As a very large truck attempted to squeeze by us, I noticed it tilt dangerously in the direction of our jeep. I've seen trucks drive on angles before, but this truck's position seemed downright perilous. Sure enough, as the truck inched forward, its weight became too much and the truck fell onto our jeep. It happened too fast for me to react, but Mimi later confessed to me that she seriously thought the truck would either crush us or knock us off the road. Instead, it just sort of stayed there, leaning against the upper right frame of our jeep. Miraculously, however, our driver pulled forward and inched away from the truck, which somehow righted itself and continued on. Crisis averted. 

At this point, I thought we were in the clear. But it turned out that the three local men in the jeep behind us were convinced that the collision with the truck had damaged their jeep. The evidence: a miniscule scratch on the hood of their jeep. How this could possibly be our driver's fault, we didn't understand. Surely the person to blame would be the truck driver. Moreover, just about every jeep on the road was banged up beyond belief. I mean, these were not smooth roads. But these guys had a bone to pick. As the smallest of the three (it's always the little one, isn't it) screamed at our driver through his window, I began to sense that this confrontation wasn't going to end quickly. I tried to stay calm though because I knew their wasn't anything I could do. We just had to stay out of it and let things run their course. At the same time, the guys in the other jeep were being super aggressive, and at one point the little guy grabbed our driver, as if to yank him out of the car.

Eventually, the traffic in front of us loosened up and we began to move forward. I thought maybe at this point the guys in the other jeep would give up, but instead the little guy screamed something at our driver and then jumped onto the back of our jeep and clung on as we drove through the rest of Kurseong. After about ten minutes, the jeep behind us managed to pull in front of us and block off the road, forcing our driver to pull off into the Indian equivilent of a rest area. At this point, everyone got out of the jeeps and all three of the aggressive guys started pushing our driver around. I couldn't understand anything they were saying, but it was pretty clear that they wanted our driver to pay for the miniscule scratch mark on their jeep. Again, this was despite the fact that it clearly wasn't our driver's fault.

This whole time I was trying my hardest to keep my stomach and nausea in check. The ongoing scuffle and potential fist fight had forced me to clear my mind and stay alert, but at the same time I was battling with what felt like the flu. I asked one of the other passengers what he thought was going on, and he suggested that it was simply local boys weilding their power over our Indian driver. The area around Darjeeling has a very ethnically diverse population, and this was when I realized that there is real ethnic tension between the Tibetans/Gurkhas of the North Bengal Hills and the ethnic Indians of the South Bengal plains. Whatever the case, the "local boys" were being unreasonably aggressive. To put it more bluntly, they were being total assholes and basically bullying our petite driver into handing over some cash. In the end, our driver caved and forked over what looked like two or three hundred rupees.

The whole thing was a bit unnerving. I personally never felt in danger, but it made me realize that I definitely wasn't in Kansas anymore. Our driver used this break to patch up the blown tire, and after half an hour we were back on the road again. Fortunately, one of the two men in the back row had decided to stay in Kurseong, which gave us some much needed room. But unfortunately, after about twenty minutes another man hitched a ride with our jeep and crammed into the back row with us. Back in hell.

One of the coolest things about the road to Darjeeling are the toy train tracks that weave along the road. A toy train uses a very narrow gauge of maybe two or three feet, which enables the train to snake its way up the steep mountain. The tracks were initially laid in the 1860s by the British and still function to this day. The trains were originally propelled by steam engine, but these are being gradually replaced with diesel engines. A short two hour "joy ride" from Darjeeling to the small town of Ghoom still utilizes the steam engine and is one of the top tourist attractions in Darjeeling.

Anyways, keeping my eyes on the train tracks as they weaved back and forth across the road helped me keep my mind off of my upset stomach. After four long hours, we finally arrived in Darjeeling. We had a reservation at the highly recommended Hotel Tranquility. Our room was clean and cozy and I passed out almost immediately upon arrival. I could finally turn my adreneline off. Still, my sleep was restless and uncomfortable and after a few hours I was ready to make my first trip to the bathroom.

I will spare you much of the details of the ensuing twenty-four hours, but it will suffice to say that I'm pretty convinced I broke the record for most trips to the bathroom in a twenty-four hour period. I had clearly come down with a serious bug. Fortunately, the woman who runs the hotel is an absolutely amazing person. It's bizarre that I still don't know her name, but she has been an utter saint to me. I will refer to her as Ms. Tranquility. After an uncomfortable evening of mild stomach cramps and unpleasant trips to the bathroom, I eventually fell asleep. It was poor sleep though, and I often had to make return trips to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

When I woke up at five am, my pain had reached unprecedented levels. I hadn't felt this sick since I was a little kid. I had become delerious and incapacitated, but most of all, quite scared. My stomach cramps had gone from mild discomfort to extreme levels of pain. I woke Mimi up and told her it was an emergency. I needed to get to a doctor immediately. Mimi went to see if Ms. Tranquility was awake. Fortunately, she was and she immediately took charge of the situation. The next hour is a bit of a blur, but I know that we took a taxi down to a clinic. There, I met with a doctor who checked me out and prescribed me a set of medicine including antibiotics, probiotics, antibacterials, anti-cramps, anti-nausea, and oral rehydration packets. I was writhing in pain while at the clinic and wanted nothing more than to take the medicine and get back to our hotel.

Fortunately, the medicine took effect quickly and I spent the rest of the day recuperating in bed. The doctor insisted that I only eat rice and dhal (yellow lentils) for the rest of the day. Ms. Tranquility's assistant was nice enough to cook for me all day, for which I was quite grateful. That being said, I don't think I ever want to eat bland rice and dahl ever again. Yesterday was tough. The stomach cramps abated, but the incapacitating bowel movements and flu-like aches kept me in a state of true discomfort. Gradually, I began to feel a little better. At this point, I'm by no means back to 100%, but it's clear that I don't have anything more serious than a wicked stomach bug. Still, it took a real toll on my body. I slept for a solid 10 hours last night and I think this really helped me recuperate. After all, I had enough energy to make it out to the internet cafe!

So it's been a bizarre time so far in Darjeeling. I've been here for two days but haven't seen anything. Besides the 5 am trip to the clinic, this is the first time I've left the hotel. Supposedly, our hotel window offers a marvelous view of the surrounding valley and mountains, but the whole city has been under a giant fog cloud since we've arrived. Just walking around this morning I got much better vibes from Darjeeling than I did in Kolkata. As I mentioned, the population and culture here is very diverse. I'm not entirely certain about the distinctions between the various ethnicities, but I do know that Gurkhas and Tibetans make up a good chunk of the population here.

Today we witnessed a big protest in the downtown area where people were chanting and marching for an independent Gorkhaland. Indeed, there seems to be a real rift between the Indians and the local population in Darjeeling. Ms. Tranquility, as nice as she is, made no point of hiding her distrust and hatred for Indians. It seemed pretty clear that Indians were not welcome to stay at her hotel, and many hotels around town are explicitly advertised as foreigner-only establishments.

Mr. Tranquility is a tireless wonder woman whose plate can never be too full. In addition to running the hotel, she is also a full-time school teacher at a boarding school for underpriveleged children. In addition to her own two children, she also is a foster parent for a Korean/Israeli boy whose father died when he was only eight months old and whose mother still lives in Korea. It was a very bizarre story that I will have to go into another time. I am so grateful to her for looking after me. I am also super grateful to Mimi for taking care of me while I was so sick. Hopefully I can get back on my feet in the next couple of days and we go out and actually do something.

That's it for now. Until next time, godspeed.


  1. omg your narration of your journey to darjeeling had me on the edge of my seat!
    awful you had to go through such illness... glad you're feeling better now.
    keep well

  2. Ditto that! What a wild, incredible, scarey, awesome experience. I am soo sorry you got such a bad bug, maybe now that both you and Mimi have had a bug, you've built up immunity....I am so glad you are better!