Sunday, 15 November 2009

Riding the Jeep...

On arriving at Jorethang, I treated myself to a couple of Samosas and a deep fried boiled egg. Trust me, it tastes better than it sounds, especially when dipped in a bit of chilli soy sauce. But I needed to get back to Darjeeling. And the sun was setting fast, had I missed the last bus. Well, the bus service does not really run in this part of India.

Okay, a little explanation is needed here for anyone who is unfamiliar with Asian travel. This is the world's most populated land mass. Six in every ten people live on this continent. They need to get around. Of course, buses will ply the major routes, the densely populated areas. But Sikkim, and other 'sparsely populated areas' do not have regular bus services, there is no money to be made. Plus the roads are almost impassable. We are not talking about long straight highways, or even metalled surfaces. We are looking at twisting hairpin bends in the Himalaya. So, there is a plethora of options available to supplement (and even surpass) the local bus service in most of Asia. Unregulated, untaxed and infinitely more fun, for those that travel regularly in Asia, hanging onto the back of a moving vehicle is not some unique thrill, but a way of life.

Being India, there was a cartel. Or a 'taxi driver's' association that controlled the route between Jorethang in Sikkim and Darjeeling in West Bengal. Some guy in a booth (in this case, a man with a pony tail) would take your money. This was one of the few times that I pretended I was from India (I can get away with it). I did not feel like getting conned and I was too tired of answering questions about where I was from. So this time I was a native of Cochin, that could speak Tamil, Malayalam and English. I do this in a lot of countries, pretend I am from a neighboring region, just to get better prices or sneak in and out on local transport. We waited, the other passengers and I. Oh, this is another thing to expect with travel (especially road travel) in Asia. A lot of waiting about.

Eventually 'Humlae' appeared. That was not his real name but our driver really looked like the character of Humlae from the film Ong Bak (the locals in this part of the world have exotic looks). The best way to describe our driver was easy - he was 'the dude'. Quite simply, he was one of the coolest people ever. Shaking hands and chatting loudly as he approached our vehicle, everyone knew him, and he knew everyone. He said hello to me, easily seeing that I was a foreigner, and leaped into the driver's seat, ready to take us back to Darjeeling. Any kids reading this (why?) do not worry about careers or cash, just be the coolest person you can be. And this person was definitely cool.

And we were off. Jolting up and down in the jeep, you must realise that any time spent waiting about is not in vain. It gives the driver a chance to floor it. Of course, 'flooring it' means no more than 40km/h on the roads of the Himalaya, and that is at a push. But this was Humlae's turf, as he greeted the border guards of Sikkim (more on that next month), he knew every bump and pot hole on this road, every twist and turn. Well, most of them. The sun was setting fast and there are no street lights in this part of of the world. You needed a guy like Humlae, you needed a cool person at the wheels.

We passed another checkpoint. It seemed that this part of West Bengal had its own unofficial, private police force. Unlike the Sikkim border guards, Humlae was more coy with these people, more fawning. They let us pass and onward we went. We went through our first village, dropping off a couple of passengers and on meeting another jeep coming towards us, it was Humlae who stormed through! We were the winners, and Humlae had the wheels to prove it as we raced through tea plantations and forest upwards towards Darjeeling.

Dusk was upon us, as Humlae decided to stop the jeep in the next village. he engine (unusually) was kept running as Humlae jumped out of the jeep, cigarette in hand, and took a bag with him. He lifted the bonnet and took his bag into someone's house. There, Humlae started chatting with the locals, and flirted with all the chicks of the village - hey, who can blame him - they're cute!

Humlae then came running out of the house with ONE jug of water and poured it into the radiator. Cap closed, he went back into the house and we could hear the lively conversation taking place alongside the illicit consumption of beer. Prohibition, whether enforced by the unofficial police or the real Sikkim border guards is useless. The village became a party zone and Humlae was at the centre of attention. Jovial and in his element, it seemed that everyone (except for the passengers in the jeep) knew his name. But Humlae was only there to kick off the party. He had brought the booze along, stayed for a drink, but he had a job to do! Off to Darjeeling we went!

Into the next village we arrived and Humlae knew everyone there too! As a jeep driver approached in the opposite direction, Humlae engaged him in some witty banter that put a smile on his face. Smiles abounded and we were off. And then we stopped! An old woman leapt out in front of us! Screeching to a halt, the old woman ran over to the driver's window and gave Humlae a letter. He was not just a transporter of goods and people but also the local postman! Whatever task you needed to get done, Humlae would do it. They chatted for a bit, Humlae as always, respectful to his elders before he floored it. And agan we stopped! A few more needed to squeeze in. We were probably the last jeep of the night, and obligingly, Humlae let them one, and we squeezed together, Humlae himself giving up his driving space to accommodate the extra passengers. Humlae was no mere taxi driver, he really was the dude, a pillar of the local community.

Kids, remember this, be cool, just like Humlae. Never have I seen a man more content in life, than our driver. It may have been the beer, but he was happily driving along. And his love was infectious. Whenever he passed someone by, he would stop and chat with them, putting a smile on their face too, before driving off. Forget about those crooked bankers, or idiots in suits that seem to be proliferating in this world. It is people like Humlae who keep the world going round. He may not have much, just the jeep and his wits, but he knew love, he knew how to spread it, and even though we were running well late, no one seemed to care. Hey man, this is India! Enjoy it, this type of thing won't be around forever...

And so, Humlae continued. By now it was pitch black outside. The bends were sharper as we climbed up towards Darjeeling. Vehicles were coming the other way, the road got rougher (a legacy of the monsoon) and Humlae concentrated on the journey ahead. But alas, we got stuck. We grounded ourselves on one of the bends. Now, travel in Asia, is not always smooth. It's the terrain, its pretty rough. And so we all jumped out, and all the men helped push the vehicle back onto the road surface. That was about ten minutes of revving and muscle, but at least I got to stretch the legs. Then we were on the way. Back through Lebong, the road that I had taken earlier that day looking familiar in the dark as we screamed towards Darjeeling.

And finally we arrived, in the lower part of town, where all the markets and stalls were located. Dusty from a full day's hike, where I got to see a world few other outsiders get to glimpse at, I stumbled out of the jeep. I wished Humlae good bye, and he warmly shook my hand. I do not know who he is, what is his history or personal life. But he was a cool guy. He was the dude! Like many other journeys that I have taken on this magnificent continent, he provided me with memories that were far more special than the destination itself. And you know what kids, spread the love. Be like Humlae. You may not be as wealthy as you had hoped, but you will be a lot happier. And that happiness is infectious!

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