It is unclear whether the wildfires we saw in Meghalaya were started on purpose. But there were always locals lingering on the fringes of the billowing flames. Whatever the case it certainly added to the atmosphere, making it a very dreamy place to cycle through.
One of many Hindu-style weddings proceeds through the streets of Siliguri. We saw about ten per-night and that was only going past our house. It seemed as if each party would try to out-do each others pyrotechnic demonstration. Firework-by-firework they would blast their way through the city.
It's the dry season in India and cycling 300km through the province of West Bengal is no walk in the park. Cycle touring can be tough in many different ways, but riding the planes of India is most challenging on the mind. Having nowhere to camp, and travelling on a budget, one is bound to check-in to one of India’s guest houses. They vary from lavish, tiled, AC rooms with hot showers to dank, bedbug-ridden sleaze-fests, where you can witness a cockroach cleaning shit of his legs while you endure a cold shower from a bucket. The price of the space seems to be totally irrespective of its quality. These rooms are situated in overcrowded villages where a foreigner quickly becomes the main focus of everyones attention nearby, which is usually bearable, but after four days the patience wears thin. Not to be totally against these places, they have a lot to offer too; delicious cheap grub, beautiful tea plantations, and enough chapattis to re-wallpaper a sleazy hotel room. But, in general, it seems to be all about making money. From my experience in India so far, peace can be found away from the flat-lands, in the mountain regions amongst the genuine hospitable people who inhabit them. There are, however, some grey areas, where the planes meet the mountains and two cultures collide. In the northern most segment of West Bengal, where the plains are abruptly thrusted skyward by the Himalayan fault line, I encountered one such area: Gorkhaland.
As we entered the village of Dipdara, groundhog day was grinding on. We set-up camp on the right wing of a football pitch after another long day’s ride. We were under the watchful eyes of an ever-increasing group of kids, awkwardly loitering just too far away enough to exchange conversation. Flat spaces as large as this are rare in the mountains, so Elliot and I decided to take full advantage of the situation via our frisbee. One by one the kids joined in until we made a solid circle. It made me think of the quote by Plato –
“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation”
Instantly, we could see the colourful personalities of the kids shinning through. Play was halted when a scooter pulled up, it was driven by an army official – this usually means trouble when camping. The man, introducing himself as Kailash Rai, firmly insisted that we acquired consent form the headmaster of the the school. Apparently he lived 10km back down the mountain. We were coming to terms with this daunting prospect, when the awkward silence was broken by a boy running though a nearby tea plantation with a volleyball – game on! At first Kailash didn’t join in – but, much to my surprise, acted as a referee. He shifted closer and closer, and before long he was pretty much captain of my team. The above quote held true and I quickly learned that he’s not a serious army dude – he’s just a serious dude.
The florescent-pink beams of morning sun hit my tent as I was awoken by a fluttering that would come-and-go every few minutes. At first I thought it was a bird, but when I emerged from the comfort of my tent I realised it was Kailash running laps of the pitch – much to the delight of a small assemblage of little’uns. After several laps, he started teaching martial arts to the kids, and after they all crashed he had them captivated in some fruitful fantasy story about an evil king who had a huge castle built overnight using 'devil power'. When the story was told he came to us and asked if we’d join him for breakfast at his house.
Once the huge meal was consumed, Kailash extended the invite to stay another night with them. I looked to Elliot then over to Mayu and back to Elliot. One of the best things about cycle touring are the rest days. And you never know when they will crop-up and treat you. With a flash Kailash called his commander and was somehow allowed to take the day off. He mentioned something about an old fort on the hill and returned minutes later with a huge jungle knife. We set off through the tea fields and Kailash began to tell me about his ancestry and the Gorkah (or Gurkha) warriors.
"Better to die than be a coward"...
... is the motto of the world-famous Nepalese Gorkha soldiers. Originating from the hill-town region of Gorkha, the army have a well-known reputation for fearless military prowess – they still carry into battle their traditional weapon; an 18-inch long forward-curving knife known as the kukri. Some 200,000 soldiers were recruited by the British to join the fight against Germany in WWII, and apparently Hitler once said “ If I had Gurkhas, no armies in the world will defeat me ”. Post-independence, many Gorkhas settled in northern states across India, including Sikkim and as far south as West Bengal. Today, the Indian Gorkhas are faced with a unique identity crisis with regard to their Indian citizenship because of the Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship that permits "on a reciprocal basis, the nationals of one country in the territories of the other the same privileges in the matter of residence, ownership of property, participation in trade and commerce, movement and other privileges of a similar nature". Thus, there are also many Nepalese citizens of Nepal living in India. Therefore, the Nepali speaking Indian Citizens are mistakenly identified as Nepali people. The Gorkha people of West Bengal are now rallying, against an opposed India, to be declared their own state.
After scaling the mountain and passing through the remains of Dalim Castle, we arrived at Kialash's grandfathers' house. There were loads of people around and everyone I met bore the surname Rai. On the way up there was talk of rice wine that they produce, and we were encouraged to have a taste. It quickly became clear it was not just a tasing session – we were dinking! We met Kailash's grandad – an ex-Gurkha warrior who has served in numerous battles from 1965–1971. He had wisdom in his eyes, it was hard to imagine him marching in to battle with his (still bloodstained) Kukri swords. We then went on to Kaliash’s other brothers house and had rice beer! It was a little weaker but definitely added fuel to the fire.
Bleary eyed, we arrived home and there was a feast awaiting. The kids now called me uncle and were endlessly tugging at my leg in a plea to carry on teaching them to juggle, and also answer questions about England. I felt part of the family. We drank into the night followed by dancing in a tiny side-room, just next to our bedroom. It's incredible how, when travelling, these kind of experiences can come out of nowhere, surprise you and remind you just how welcoming, kind, curious and full of love most people really are.