Bhutan Diaries (6)

I almost didn’t make it to my bus the next morning, what with the crippling exhaustion, the deliberate lack of sleep and everything else that happened the day before. They put me up on the seat just next to the driver and I have to say it was significantly more comfortable than what the people at the back were going through.

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The initial plan was to get off at Mongar and stay a night there but I decided to leave a day early, since the guys on the bus assured me that I was not going to get any seats in any buses for a week after that day. So I paid for a full trip to Trashigang. I spent the night at a cheap motel there, complete with its suplies of cockroaches and rats and antennae TV (they still have those??) and ran out the next morning quickly to catch my bus to Samdrup Jongkhar. Samdrup Jongkhar is the main border town to the west entrance to India. The border opens into an Indian town called Daarangamela in Assam.

The plan was to arrive there by 16:00 in the afternoon, have a late lunch, and catch another bus to Guwahati, where I would stay with a friend.

Fate had other plans though. There were six landslides along the road that day. The last one held us up for almost 5 hours! I ended up reaching Samdrup Jongkhar only by around 22:00 that night. I was in a hurry, because Guwahati was another hour by road and I wanted to figure out some transportation soon. Just before exiting the border gate I have to hand over my permit. It’s like a departure stamp on your passport to signify that you’ve left the country. The border guards, for some reason, looked at me like I was insane.

Now, I’d taken up this whole Bhutan plan and route on an impulse decision based on an obscure blog I’d read somewhere. The blog however, failed to mention some very crucial things: Daarangamela shuts down by 17:00 everyday. The markets close up, buses stop plying and people return to their homes and lock themselves in. This however I found out much later…

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From the border to the town, there is a long lonely road for about a kilometer, walled on both sides. It’s shady as hell. I’m walking along with my backpack trying to find someone to ask questions to when I come across this creepy old lady sitting in the shadows. She calls out to me, “Kahaan ja rahe ho, bete?” (Where are you going, son?). I said I was going to town to get a bus to Guwahati. Immediately she gets excited. “Abhi bus nahi milegi tumhe. Tum mere saat kyu nahi aajate, mere ghar? Mera beta bhi aata hoga abhi.” (You won’t get a bus now. Why don’t you come with me, to my house? My son will be coming home any minute now.)
This kind of conversation in India, should always set up red flags and so it did. I backed away slowly, thanked her and carried on.

When I finally got to town I saw this family sitting just outside on their doorstep, inside their compound wall. I walked up to them and to my surprise they looked scared as I approached them. When I asked the lady to help me find some sort of taxi or transportation to take me to Guwahati , she gave me the same look that the border guards gave me; like I was genuinely insane. She looked me dead in the eyes and said, “Tum Bhutan se aaya hai na? Idhar aana nahi chahiye tha. Chup chaap jaldi se waapas border cross karke chale jao.” (You came from Bhutan right? You shouldn’t have come here. Cross the border and go back as quickly and quietly as possible.) I was genuinely freaking me out now. Why were the people acting like this ?

The lady explained: Assam had Naxalite activity (anti-nationalists who engage in guerilla warfare) in some areas. These people had taken to dacoity and highway robbery. Just recently there was an incident where an entire bus was held up by men with guns and everyone inside was robbed clean. Not only that, there was a man who refused to comply and they cut off his hand! So most of the forested areas in northern and western Assam were usually shut by the time it became dark.

I was now in a complete dilemma. Problem was that I had already handed over my travel permit to the border guards. I couldn’t apply for a new on until the next morning. I didn’t have a place to stay and it wasn’t safe to just prop myself on a doorstep either, from what I just heard. The lady saw me looking worried and must’ve felt some pity because she asked her oldest son to take me to a nearby mechanic’s shop who might be able to help me.

The mechanic’s place was the only place that was open that late. He was a largely built, heavily bearded guy dressed in dirty overalls. I explained my situation to him and asked if he could get me a ride to Guwahati. He said he’d ask around and told me to sit down. I waited 10 minutes…15….20. No news. But every 5 minutes or so the mechanic would give me cold, furtive glances and then talk in undertones to some people outside his shop. I was convinced by that point that this guy was out to mug me. I even took out my emergency credit card and shoved it down my socks so that even if I did get mugged it wouldn’t be found.

After half an hour, I’d had enough. The wait was nerve-wracking and I was imagining situations that were spiralling way out of control. I decided to risk the border. I picked up my backpack and walked straight out of the shop, telling the mechanic to not bother and that I’d take the bus out the next day. I walked away without looking back as he protested and when I did look back, he was very agitatedly talking to someone on the phone. The creepy lady I’d met on the walk in, was still there and called out to me again, but extremely terrified by now, I rushed past. I didn’t stop until I reached the border gates. And guess what? I could’ve just walked right in. The only two guards manning the gate were tucked away in some corner busy on their phones. I could have simply snuck in!

But this being an international border and everything, I decided to do the right thing and go up to the guards. I explained my entire situation to them and they looked skeptical to say the least. They wouldn’t budge on letting me in though. I even begged them to let me stay right there on the guardhouse steps till the morning!

And then the best possible thing happened. The cab that the mechanic had called came up to the gate and two men inside started shouting out at me to come with them and that they’d get me to Guwahati, no problem. They were even in a Maruti Suzuki OMNI, which every Indian knows, is the only car ever used to kidnap people in the movies. The guard I was talking to, gave this guy a long hard look and then looked back at me and said, “Chup chaap andar chale jao. Inki suno mat. Kal subhe idhar 5 baje aa jana” (Go on inside. Don’t listen to them. Report here by 5 am tomorrow).

I almost hugged the man in relief! I thanked him and ran down the road towards the town. I stopped by an elderly gentleman’s house to ask for directions to a nearby hotel. He was just going out for a night-time stroll so he offered to take me along.

Every. Single. Place. Was. Closed. The man even took me to his friend’s hotel, which was unfortunately, already full. A lot of college students were passing through town that time of the year on their way back to college, so he said that all available rooms in all the hotels were booked. When I told the old man not to bother with me and that I’d just find a comfy doorstep, he shot me down saying it was illegal in Bhutan to do so. Finally the man just took me back to his place and opened up an outhouse on his property and offered to let me stay there. He even refused payment! All he asked was to leave the room as I found it when I left early the next morning. And remember, this is all happening somewhere around 1:00 in the morning. I swear to you, Bhutanese people are the kindest in the world.

So that’s it. It all worked out for me after that… I got to the gate at 5:00 am sharp. The guard smiled as he let me out. I caught the 6:30 bus to Guwahati and met up with my friend. Had a PHENOMENAL lunch. That same evening caught a train back to Calcutta, from where I flew back home…

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