Friday, April 01, 2011

India part 26b: Darjeeling

The next day we bought a paper - pretty much the only cash transaction on offer, apart from buying bandages and mineral water - and found out that two protestors had been killed by the police in Sibchu. Pondering this, we went on a long walk up to the northern end of the town passing, on the way back, a smouldering building, which we soon found out was the charred remains of the tourist office. Okay, then.

Within a couple of hours of arriving back at the hotel, we got word that the police were evacuating all foreign tourists from Darjeeling. With the good wishes of our worried hotel manager ringing in our ears, we checked out and joined about 10 other backpacked foreigners outside, where we were marched down to the police lines a kilometre and a half off, passing on the way a woman burning a shoe, presumably in homage to the Charlie Chaplin movie The Gold Rush. On arrival, we found a sizable gathering of cops in camouflage gear. Many had rifles, but some just had wooden lathis and charming wicker riot shields. It was amusing, amid the helmets and berets to see the odd police wearing one of those woollen Tibetan hats, usually seen on old women and stoned Westerners.

For some reason, given the apparent seriousness of the situation, I thought we'd be on the move quickly. But we were still working to Indian time and sat around for an hour until a police van drove us back up the hill we'd just walked down. We then sat in the van outside the Foreigners' Registration Office for over two hours, apparently waiting for more transports for the other tourists so we could drive in convoy (there were about 30 or 40 of us by this stage). And Sarah and I had thought we were the only ones left in town.

Passing the time, an Australian girl related to us how she and her friend had gone for a walk the day of the protests and, heading past the Magistrate's residence, she had taken a picture of a car, a White Ambassador. "For no reason," she said. "It was just a random photo, really." She showed us the snap on her digital camera. "And the next day," she said, "This was in the paper." She pulled out a clipping from the Times of India. It was the exact same photograph - same car, same angle, same size - except in this picture, the car was on fire, having been torched by protestors. We were all flabbergasted and wondered whether her camera had magic powers. I asked her not to take any more pictures of the van we were sitting in.

Just before we left, the man who'd taken our passport numbers for the embassies popped his head through the back door of the van and asked, "Finished?" This question was greeted with no small degree of hilarity, since we'd been sitting there doing nothing for two hours. "I think the question is, are you finished?" quipped the hairy Australian sitting next to me. After a long, bumpy drive, we got to the city of Siliguri at about 11.30pm, the police dropping us all at the roadside.

Although the afternoon's events had implied a certain gravity in the situation, the atmosphere in the town hadn't seemed that edgy. There were lots of people strolling around (usually in the opposite direction to me and Sarah), kids playing cricket and badminton in the empty streets, teens opting for hacky sack using what looked like rolled-up pan scourers, the benches of Chowrasta (the central square) filled with the usual bunch of old men, perhaps reading their newspapers more intently than usual, and the shutters down absolutely everywhere. Even the protestors' gathering point, which we'd visited the previous day, hadn't exactly been animated, with lots of people staring up wistfully at the Gorkhaland sign and a small line of women holding up the movement's distinctive green, white and yellow flag.

Gorkhaland protestors

The next morning, we'd peeked out the window to see a hundred or so protestors filing past, though we had been warned not to do this by our anxious hotel manager. "They get very emotional," he said, shaking his head.

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