It was a vacation under a cloud. Disinfectant. The man in the lower bunk of our train compartment continued to rub his hands with disinfectant apparently on time. The jhal-muri wallah who had put on was wearing a mask but offered no guarantee as to the hygiene of the cloth on which he wiped his hands. The ticket controller seemed to just make a call instead of physically examining the tickets. Traveling in the time of covid-19 is a kind of performance.
It was our first real trip since the start of the pandemic. After careful consideration, we had chosen our destination in the hills of North Bengal. We decided to travel to the state to avoid confusing the requirements for RT-PCR testing. The retreat at Jhandi was a lovely self-contained wooden cottage that could be a little bubble for our small group of friends. I bought fresh N-95 masks, travel sanitizer bottles, and surface sanitizer spray. The trains no longer provided bedding, so we had to invest in sleeping bags and air cushions. As I packed my bags, I realized that traveling, once second nature to me, was now so strange that I felt like I had forgotten how to pack my bags.
“DEALING WITH A NEW NORMAL, BEST WISHES OF THE JHANDI FAMILIES.” The yellow sign outside the cluster of huts at our eco-retreat looked more like a warning than a welcome. But it seemed reassuring “old” normal. The ubiquitous squash grew on trellises in home gardens. The purple and yellow cosmos flowers were in bloom. A woman sat outside her house with a baby goat on her lap. Shaggy dogs were napping on the road in the swirling mist. You could almost be wrong to think that at 6,000 feet, as the air was getting cooler, we had somehow escaped the realm of the virus.
Until this year, I had never heard of Jhandi. But the pandemic had fueled interest in undiscovered weekend getaways closer to home in Kolkata. The Dooars were all the rage as people looked past the usual Darjeeling. The government had even launched a vistadome train with floor-to-ceiling windows and a plexiglass roof to traverse the lush Dooars.
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I discovered Jhandi on the blog of a software developer who described his passions as “eating, sleeping and traveling”. It was a gem of a blog, with details on a driver named Babai-da who had kindly bought alcohol for them, a Sintu-da who handled the logistics of Calcutta and a Bikash-I have which could produce momos and onion pakoda for snacks. More usefully, the blog had a photo of the bathroom. When we entered the cottage, I almost got a feeling of déjà vu.
Jhandi’s USP was his take on the wayward Kanchenjunga. Every five minutes there was a new foster family in some state of construction – square candy-colored houses with flowers growing in black plastic bags outside the door. They all opened up to the promise of Kanchenjunga as the river valley stretched below – the Teesta sparkling silver in the distance as the Neora, Geet and Chel meandered across the plains. On a clear day you could even see the dam on the Teesta, informed us a host house owner.
“On a clear day” is pretty much the mantra in these areas. While homestay has promised rock climbing and show jumping (some intersect between abseiling and skipping ropes climbing), the real reason tourists come to these remote hamlets in the questionable infrastructure is the promise of sight. On a clear day you could see not only Kanchenjunga, but even the mountains near Nathu La from our chalet balcony.
We saw a solid wall of mist as we entered the chalet. Fortunately, the blog had also prepared us with the lyrics for this – “you can just grab a chair and relax, bird watch or experience the mist that pervades peaceful mother nature”. The chairs were sadly rather uncomfortable, cheap plastic, more suited to a Mamata Banerjee campaign rally than to wait for the haze to dissipate and reveal snowy grandeur. But in the “new normal”, you can’t be too picky. As a friend who is fed up with the WFH said, “I don’t care if it rains every day in the mountains. At least it will be a different view of the rain.
In the “new normal” we have learned to go adventures with very little. On the first night a huge beetle flew by helicopter to our balcony, hit the glass door and lay upside down until I saved it, to repeat the drama once more . The second night, I felt like we were a couple. One morning I walked out onto the balcony and saw a little white triangle appear above the clouds. By the time I picked up my camera and focused it was gone. But Bikash-I have confirmed at breakfast that it was indeed Kanchenjunga. I felt like I spotted a tiger in the Sundarbans.
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Places like Jhandi don’t come with a list of 10 must-see sites. The tourist attractions here are built up on the fly. Our driver mentioned a lake. As our car drove down a mountain road widened into a four-lane highway towards China, the drizzle turned to a downpour, the road turned to red slush. And at the end of a heartbreaking journey, we found ourselves in what looked like a community park with a modest man-made lake and swan-shaped paddle boats. But then the rain stopped, the sun came out, and a rainbow sparkled across the verdant mountains, even giving the swan boats a touch of a fairytale.
On the way back, we descend into a valley where the Geet river runs down over white stones. The mountains glistened golden green in the rain-washed sun. A thicket of white kaash phool, the harbinger of autumn in Bengal, was growing beside the river. Young girls in soccer jerseys getting ready to play and while soccer arched up on white kaash flowers, it was like Pather Panchali has met play it like Beckham in the Himalayas.
The beauty couldn’t quite hide the scars of the pandemic. Many host families were in limbo for lack of funds mid-construction. The monsoon and the confinement had driven tourists away. People were eager to make up for lost time, sometimes going out of their way to be hospitable. When we casually inquired about a pork curry our driver insisted he could handle it. If we pre-ordered it we could have it next to the Chel river, a farewell lunch. It wasn’t until we got into the car with our luggage that we realized we hadn’t just pre-ordered the pork curry. We carried the raw pork with us in a small plastic bag.
By then it was too late. We were engaged. We had to sit down and cool off our heels at the dhaba, counting the pressure cooker whistles, as a loud party at the next table blew cold beers. The sun was hot. The small outpost was noisy, with bikes, cars, chickens and goats. The appeal of pork curry quickly waned. But when he arrived with a bowl of thin Masoor dal and alu bhaaji, it was delicious and piping hot. As we settled in, the annoyance melted away. Somewhere in the hills it was raining and we could smell it in the air. The river bank was pretty, not littered with plastic. As we finished our meal, the driver appeared at the table. “Did you say you wanted to go to a store to buy some tea?” ” he said. “Here is a tea bag, from a nearby garden.” He showed us a large unsealed plastic bag filled with dark leaves. “All organic,” he says confidently.
In a leap of faith, I purchased the unnamed mystery tea. In these strange times, you just have to adapt. It turned out to be pretty good. I could call it the “first draft of the new normal”.
Cult Friction is a bimonthly column on the issues we constantly face. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.
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