If it’s Thursday, it must be Siliguri, a particularly grubby city whose populace seemed to converge on one long main road fringed by a myriad of market stalls, the road itself plyed by bicycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, buses, motorbikes, lorries – and in the middle of all that, men carrying piles of bricks on their back, school kids, and some daft bint and her limping mother, all taking their lives in their hands in an attempt to get to the other side of the road. Oh no, there are no lollipop ladies here! Anyway, the noise was ear-blasting. As I lay on my bed in the inappropriately-named Nirvana Hotel, located just off the main road, the auditory layer cake, if anything seemed louder than when I was outside in the middle of it. The base note was the thrum of traffic; on top of that there was a cacophony of horns ranging from what I would call a ‘pap’ to a ‘beep’ to a ‘honk’, some long and drawn out, others short and repetitive. Oh yeah, and intersperse all of that with dogs barking, babies crying and really nasty Indo-pop music. Thank God I only had one night here. The next day I was off to Northeast India.
In the morning I had an early train to catch from NJP to Guwahati, the capital of the Northeast region so I made my way to the rickshaw stand where there ensued a bit of a kerfuffle between the autorickshaw and the cycle rickshaw guys – over me! They all wanted to take me the 4km to the station. One autorickshaw guy said he’d take me for 200 rupees, then a barefoot cycle rickshaw guy, who must have been about 60, undercut him by 50 rupees and practically ripped my backpack off me and dumped it and me onto his rickety yet extremely colourful old contraption. He couldn’t pedal off immediately, such was the size of his load; he had to push me along for the first 50m until he could get some momentum. And as he headed off into the traffic, behind us, I could hear autorickshaw man gleefully shouting after us, I can only imagine words to the effect of, ‘you’ll never do it, she’s enormous’.
Well he did do it, although, it was quite possibly the most uncomfortable 30 minutes I’ve ever spent, reason being the rickshaw’s narrow seat obviously isn’t built for Western sized buttocks – I kept sliding off. There was one hairy moment when I thought we were going to attempt the flyover route to the station but thankfully, my driver took a less alarming road and we arrived intact although as we parted he did look like he’d need a long lie down to recover from the experience.
At NJP station where there were no platform numbers or signs saying where to go, who I should run into but the Muswell Hill Crustafarians. They’d missed their train to Guwahati and were arguing about whether to spend £20 on new tickets. ‘Just think’, I said, ‘if you’d got your horsebox here, you wouldn’t need to be taking the train at all’. I don’t think they appreciated my quip. Then I ran into two Americans from Alabama. They were both members of the ‘look at me, look at me’ brigade, togged out in ethnic attire and speaking way too loudly than was necessary. I had an hour long conversation with Madame Alabama about her asthma attacks, her dogs, her sister’s dogs and the fact that she couldn’t stand the dirt, the noise or the litter of India. Mr Alabama had a ponytail and spoke without opening his mouth so I had great difficulty in understanding what he was saying. ‘Honey’, drawled Madame Alabama, ‘where was the place that Eric got bitten by the monkey?’ ‘mmmmmmmmmnnnnnnnnnnsssssss’ inarticulated Mr Alabama. My train being late, we then had another long conversation about Eric and his rabies treatment. I never did find out who Eric was or indeed, if he survived his simion attack but thankfully my train arrived and I got on.
After an uneventful eight hour journey, I rolled into Guwahati after dark and, taking the advice of the Oliver Reed lookie likie in my first class compartment, went over the other side of the tracks where there were lots of hotels – and lots and lots of men hanging around gawping at the big woman with the big hair. Thankfully, I quickly found a hotel – the lovely Sagar which had a super king sized bed, a powershower and a wicker basket full of toiletries. What a treat. I got a big old lather going, I can tell you.
I had a day’s sightseeing the next day taking in a Hindu temple, Guwahati’s law courts and a cricket match. Feeling peckish at the ghat and not being putting off by the man having a strip wash at the water’s edge, I bought a bag of nuts off a vendor who sprinkled them liberally with chopped onion and masala. I’d been eating them for a good five minutes – with an audience, of course – when I realised I’d been using the wrong hand. I keep forgetting the bum wipe rule but then it does beg the question, what does one do if one is left handed or one has a gammy right hand?
I nipped into ‘Pauline’s Books’ as I’ve been gagging for something to read for days. There were lots of spiritual and self-help books but a smattering of classics and lighter reads. The owner, I’m going to call her Pauline, was trying to push a Jeffrey Archer on me but then I spied some Dickens, and then Hardy, and even Conrad. Of course, my choice was dictated by weight. I could have plumped for the Oscar Wilde short stories but it was a heavy tome so in the end I went for ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ – a paperback punctuated with curious line drawings that bore no relation to the story. Pauline was very curious, like most other Indians I’ve met, as to why I’m travelling on my own. She was baffled when I said I had no husband or children. She then wanted to know about my parents and my brothers and sisters, and why they weren’t with me. I think I might start saying my husband is round the corner buying a bag of nuts from now on, if only to avoid the probing questions.
That night, I went to the Guwahati Cine Club Film Festival to see Warriors of the Steppe, a Khazakstani film about stabbing and horses in the Middle Ages. I knew it was going to be an arty farty event because there was something resembling a red carpet outside the venue, and a lank haired middle-aged man in a grey cardigan with turn-up jeans and suede lace-ups was welcoming people and ensuring they got a biscuit. Anyway, I think the organisers thought I was Meryl Streep because they pounced on me as soon as I walked in and started taking photos of me in front of the festival poster, shaking hands with the man in the grey cardigan, sitting down drinking tea, and standing up eating a biscuit. I could just see the caption in the local paper: “Unknown foreigner with great height at glittering Guwahati film premier”.
The next day I went to Shillong which, to be honest, was a bit of a shithole. Situated about three hours’ drive south of the capital, Shillong is another hill station that was popular with the British during the days of the Raj when it earned its title as the ‘Scotland of the East’ because of its nearby lakes and forests of conifers. Unfortunately, it’s had its day and apart from the sylvan Ward Lake in the centre of town, it was another dirty, decrepid old town that seemed good for one thing only – shopping. I’ve never seen, not even in Oxford Street, so many people shopping in one place before. And Christmas is big here. Tinsel, trees, Santa, it’s all here together with a myriad of versions of ‘Walking in a winter wonderland’ and its ilk playing in every shop. I nipped into a cafe for a quick snack and there it was, a Perry Como soundie likie warbling away at full blast. Having come to India to get away from the schmaltz of the season, I wasn’t best pleased to have it rammed down my throat along with my vegetable pakoras.
The Meghalaya region, Shillong being the hotspot, is well known for its rich tribal heritage and there are a number of festivals every year where they celebrate their culture with spectacular song and dance. Unfortunately, the best I got was the Presbytarian Church of India Peace and Harmony Carol Service that took place at the town’s old Polo Ground on Saturday afternoon. The audience were all wearing Santa hats and there was a nativity tableau on the back of a lorry that everyone was taking photos of, plus a bouncy castle, courtesy of the Shillong Rotary Club. Unfortunately, the pastor’s Christmas message delivered from a huge empty stage, was severely compromised when a bunch of young kids spied me, screamed and started taking photos with all their mates. ‘You’re so tall’ they kept screaming as the audience all swung around to see what the disturbance was. One of the shepherds on the lorry left his post by the baby Jesus to implore the kids to be quiet but there were a lot of them, and they all wanted their picture taken next with me. Such is my celebrity!
I escaped my fans and headed to the extremely atmospheric Cloud 9 bar on the fifth floor of Shillong’s top shopping centre. It was like I’d stepped through a portal into another world. The lighting was candle soft, the furniture consisted of club chairs and rattan tables, the music was chill-out. And there were cocktails on the menu. This was bliss – and they had working Wifi to boot. I could even forgive the fact that the Thai green curry tasted nothing like Thai green curry. They had nibbles, they had beer, they had a big screen showing videos, they had a hand drier in the toilet. Personally, I would have taken down the picture of the woman on the bike that said ‘Put some fun between your legs’ but apart from that, Cloud 9 got a big thumbs up.