Driving to India

Posted on December 21, 2009

Final day in Bhutan and we've a 7 hour drive ahead of us. Journey from Trashigang in the far east to Samdrup Jongkhar on the Indian border. The road weaves and loops across the mountains, elevation ranges from 3000 to 6000 feet. The air is warm and the vegetation at times verges on tropical, then switches back to temperate. Terrain as steep as always, houses perch on cliffs, fields are terraced to hold the soil and the same house style dominates the landscape. The uniformity and cohesiveness of the architecture are remarkable. People traditionally did not stray far from their village but for infrequent excursions down the mountain to sell and buy at some spot 4 or 5 days walk away. But this would not have taken them more than 100 miles from home. So how is it that houses throughout the country look so similar? Today it's a requirement they be built in traditional style, but most of the houses we see are a century old. I suppose they sort of emerged organically from the ground, using the local materials in a manner that through the ages had proven best suitable for construction in this environment.

About halfway to the border we glimpse flat land for the first time. "India" Dorji exclaims. Bhutan begins exactly where the Himalayas rise abruptly from the plains, so say all the books, but now I am seeing this with my own eyes.

Rural Bhutan (about 99% of the country) is tidy and clean. For one, there are not many people to muck it up, but there's also (drumroll please) the government work program. During the day we see see groups of people or individuals miles from any sign of habitation, with scythe, shovel and hoe. They clear the culverts of dirt, push rocks off the road, (danger of falling rocks everywhere, the signs read "watch for shooting stones"), pull weeds out of the asphalt and cut the vegetation from the roadside. Trucks arrive to fetch them in the morning, bring them home in the afternoon. Anyone can participate, farmers when their fields need no attention, school kids on vacation, women with their kids, those without a job. Pay is $80. per month, the minimum wage. Stopping (again) for photos, we talk with 2 women and their kids at work. They grumble to Dorji how 80 dollars in not enough, they have 5 and 6 kids apiece. "What" cries Dorji, "didn't the queen come and talk with you about family planning?" "Sure she did, but she came too late for us" they laugh.

About halfway to the border we glimpse flat land for the first time. "India" Dorji exclaims. Bhutan begins exactly where the Himalayas rise abruptly from the plains, so say all the books, but now I am seeing this with my own eyes. We are still in the hills 2 minutes before we arrive in Samdrup Jongkhar. Then we are on flat land, in a small town planted with coconut palms. All 3 and 4 story buildings, still Bhutanese in style. The people a mixture of mostly dark skinned Indians, clusters of them squatting on the sidewalk, and Bhutanese whose appearance is the same as all other Bhutanese. There's a very distinctive Bhutanese look, across the entire sweep of the country. About half of them appear to be first cousins from some very good looking family. Not unlike Tibetans, with high cheekbones, strong jawlines, aquiline Roman noses. The others still very attractive, and identifiably Bhutanese, but not quite so cookie cutter in appearance.

India is a 3 minute walk away, so I mosey over to the border. An 8 foot whitewashed fence, topped with barbed wire separates the 2 countries. A big arch, decorated with Bhutanese motifs (though no penises) is the entry/exit gate. Samdrup Jongkhar is no rose garden, but what I see through the gate is a sea of shanties, constructed from woven bamboo and rusty corrugated metal, unpaved lanes, a feeling of haphazardness, and the look of poverty. My destination is Guwahati, 80 miles distant and the site of the closest airport. Tonight we'll stay in Bhutan, in the morning a car will take me into India. Dorji and Kinga will travel back to Thimphu across the Indian plain, and reenter Bhutan in southwest Bhutan, a 16 hour trip, as opposed to 30 if they had to return through the mountains in Bhutan.

Back at the hotel, Dorji has made contact with the driver, same guy he always uses to transport his clients (Non Indians not permitted to transport passengers). Together they speak Hindi, but the word 'problem' keeps surfacing. The Bodoland Militant Separatists have called a strike, and will permit no vehicles on the road after 5 in the morning. This for the next 2 days. So the driver wants to leave at 3 in the morning. Not to worry they both say about 10 times. I'm certain my blood pressure is spiking. I am not calm. Is is better to be in the grips of a militant separatist group you've never heard of, or one you know of? The conversation is again in Hindi, but the the words problem and Bodoland militant separatist group are spoken in English. Oh shit, now what? I'm not even in India and already it's traumatizing me. Dorji thinks I should go at 3, I ask him to come with me (big baby moment, I'm sure, just for the record, I never cried). Who are these Bodoland people, are they dangerous, armed, violent, do they hate American, would I make a good hostage, where can I get a FREE BODOLAND t-shirt??

Dorji offers to come with me if we go at 9, get to Guwahati by midnight, then he will try to find a ride back to the border by 6, I see this will be enormous inconvenience for him, the Bodoland people are not allowing any foreign vehicles, so he and Kinga now have to take the 30 hour trip home, and want to leave soon as soon as possible. OK, time to man up, I tell myself. I agree to depart at 3 in the morning.

Not long after Kinga comes to get me. The Indian border post is 3 miles into India, and at 3 it will be closed, so better we go now and get passport stamped. The Bhutanese give me the exit stamp, then we drive through darkness, but for smoky fires along the road, and homes so humble it's apparent their owners have few resources. The border post itself is modest, and the official and Dorji have a long talk in Hindi, again the word 'problem' needs no translation. The problem, is that I have already been stamped out of Bhutan, but will return there to spend the night, so if I get India entry stamp, and I return to Bhutan, the data stated on my passort will not correspond to my actual location. I'm certain the guy is angling for a bribe. Were I alone I'd likely have fished out my wallet by this point. Dorji is patient and polite, and the other phrase I understand is the anxiety producing Bodoland Mililant Separatist. Eventually my passport get stamped. No money exchanged hands. We drive back to Bhutan.

Dinner a somber and sad moment. I'm leaving Bhutan and Dorji, having spend most of every day these past 3 weeks with him, during which time I felt an already good friendship cement to an even better one. Our middle of the night goodbye occurs at the border gate.

Ninety minutes later I get a call from Dorji. I'm able to report I'm OK, and that we've passed the strikers blockage point. Have seen scarely a vehicle nor a person on the road. An hour later I am deposited at my hotel in Guwahati, capital of Assam state. I fall asleep in my clothes. Later in the day I learn about Bodoland. They want a separate state carved out of Assam, and have called several strikes, during which businesess and schools close, and traffic ceases. They are likely to get their own state, as this is happening throughout India, states fragmenting into smaller states (states get money from central government, so groups feeling they are not getting enough funds from their state are demanding separation, and the increaded money its brings to them). Had I known this 24 hours ago, it would have saved me a ton of anxiety.

I faced no danger, and lived to tell about it..