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June 25th 2008
Published: August 1st 2008
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Fear not...she's back.....Many of you have expressed concern for my travels, for me personally and nervousness cause they haven't heard anything in weeks....months. No, I you haven't missed a blast, I simply haven't written any. This is my first email blast since March!!

I left the HODR deployment on the 17th of April, along with the other remaining seven volunteers who all went their separate ways. My friend from the project in Peru, Emma, and I took off for the eastern side of the country. After an adventurous overnight ferry ride across the water (sleeping on the floor with all the cockroaches crawling over my body), we spent the next couple of weeks taking in big city life in Chittagong (Bangladesh's third largest city), swimming in the crashing waves and warm water with other volunteer friends in the Bay of Bengal off Cox's Bazar, sitting idle and doing not much of anything on a beautiful tropical island near the coast of Myanmar (we got off the island literally days before the May 2nd cyclone struck, though at the time we were unaware what was brewing in the Bay of Bengal), and biking around the tea plantations in the far north near the border with northeast India. All the while, enjoying the country but itching to get a move on into India.

I crossed the Bangladesh/India border in the northeastern part, entering into instant hill country (Bangladesh is nearly all flat except some low hills in the east) in the Indian state of Meghalaya.

MEGHALAYA:

I traveled on a share jeep up up up on a windy windy windy road into the country of India, a place but for a fleeting few days before entering Bangladesh I had never had the chance to experience before. The countryside was amazing. It was green, full of massive trees and colorful wildflowers, gentle rolling hills, deep gorges plunging farther than I could see, waterfalls spilling off the mountainsides as we climbed higher and higher into the clouds. We passed very close to a place (Cherapungi) touted as the wettest place on earth (don't ask me to repeat the quote, but a few years back it got the world's record for the most rain that fell in a 24- hour period). It was raining when we drove through, er, barreled through, and even though I white knuckled it for most of the ride, the driver was confident; he knew the road, knew the turns and didn't hesitate to honk before rounding each bend. The only time I got a bit nervous was when he sped through the pouring rain and the deep-forming puddles, thick fog down to ground level -- and the windshield wipers didn't work. No problem. Yeah, for him! He just rolled the window down, getting his right side sopping wet and stuck his head out the window in order to see the oncoming traffic. See? No problem. There is always a solution. Even if it isn't the smartest one!

Many, many Indian tourists were in Shillong, a lovely hill station, to beat the heat of the plains. I saw two Western travelers.

ASSAM:

I spent time exploring in the Assam region of India for a few weeks, a part of the country not too many travelers take the time to go to (but should, it's lovely and much quieter than the rest of the massive state). I pulled my hair out in the main city of Guahati (ok, so it is relatively quieter than the rest of the state), saw one-horned rhinos in the beautiful Kaziranga National Park (one day later and the park would be closed for the season), sat for three consecutive days in a lovely raised bamboo guesthouse on the world's largest river island, Majuli Island (went with the intention of having peace and quiet and to try to get some work done that has been piling up, but ended up getting less done than I had hoped --caught up on sleep tho! -- and left with more work on my plate, or in my backpack, I should say. Don't ask.), and spent countless hours on local rattletraps and trains staring at the green countryside going by outside my window. Local ladies in their colorful dresses, homemade whicker baskets on their backs to hold the freshly picked tea leaves dotted the tea plantations that covered much of Assam. Very, very picturesque.

Majuli Island has been touted as the largest river island in the world, but I doubt that holds true anymore due to erosion taking it's toll on the river banks. It is by no account small that's for sure! It took over two hours to get there from the mainland by local ferry, cost only 28 cents, but I was packed in like sardine in the overcrowded boat. We had cars, motorcycles and cows on the roof of our wooden boat. On the way back, to catch some fresh air, I too rode on the top and watched river life float past.

There were few Indian tourists and even fewer Western travelers and I found myself often asked what in the world I was doing there. Yeah, sometimes I asked that very question to myself..... The only time in weeks I saw anyone with white colored skin was on Majuli Island. And all four of them stayed in the same bamboo guest house I did!

I checked guest registries at the guest houses where I stayed and sometimes only found one or two American citizens in the past few months. Certainly this is not a very popular -- or known -- destination, that's for sure.

Mirik, Darjeeling and Sikkim were next.

DARJEELING:

Darjeeling, though touristy and cloudy, was the first real hill station I have been to in this country, other than Shillong in Meghalaya and Mirik, a bit more southeast in West Bengal. This city, literally built on a hillside (ok, it spreads down the hill and down the other side as well...), sits at 7000 ft and offers quite a bit to do and see, but the seeing is the sole reason why I went there in the first place. I had never seen the Himalaya Range before, and to this day I can barely say I have achieved just that.

For those of you who have been, and seen the range, I'm sure it is pretty awe-inspiring. For those who have seen photos of what the East Himalaya Range looks like, especially from this vantage point of this town, it's beautiful, eh? So many gorgeous, clear photos, postcards, prints could be purchased or looked at in a multitude of shops in this town. I'm convinced they were all photoshopped. I never saw the sun let alone the mountains when I was there. And I waited three stinking days before I had to press on! I got a fleeting dreary view one evening at sunset time, but that was about it, the rest of the time the mountains were shrouded in clouds.

The famous Darjeeling teas come from this part of India. Tea plantations and gardens dotted all the hillsides on my ride up from Mirik, another hill station, though those too, were in the low-lying clouds and for the most part, difficult to see. Yes, I had tea, no I did not buy any. Many pretty packages of overpriced tea could be purchased, but it can be found the world over and I just assume get some from my local grocery store if I was really hankering for some.

SIKKIM:

I needed to get a permit to head into Sikkim, the Indian state with such intense natural beauty, pristine peaks and valleys, lakes, rivers, terraced paddy fields and majestic snow-capped mountain ranges, that lies on the border of Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. The scenery and the weather took a serious turn from the hot, flat plains of India to the cloudy, rainy and downright chilly weather of the mountains. Immediately I started thinking to myself all the lugging of my cold-weather gear since leaving the project in Bangladesh is now all worth it. Finally. This is where, for the first time in my life, I should be able to get some amazing views of the Himalayas. Or so I thought at the time.

I divided myself between 5500 ft Gangtok and nearly the same elevation in Pelling, two of the bigger cities in Sikkim; one on the east closer to Bhutan and one on the west closer to Nepal and that side of Tibet. I opted not to do any trekking, though there are loads of places to go and lots of beautiful places to explore. I did however take an overnight excursion to a lovely area in the northeast, called the Yumthang Valley, sitting pretty about 12,000 feet. Stunningly gorgeous and worth the long 8-hour jeep drive to get there, my group of 5 (myself included) and I lingered longer than the typical groups get to stay. We enjoyed the rushing alpine river, the fields of Rhododendrons, the mountain tracts circling all around us, and barely, just barely, we were able to catch some glimpses of the high mountain peaks of the Himalayas, in between wisps of clouds blowing through in the early morning light. We watched the ritualistic morning milking of the grazing yaks and the babies suckling some warm morning breakfast from their mother's utters.

The third tallest mountain in the world is in this eastern part of the Himalayas, visible from much of Sikkim, er, only when the clouds cooperate. I managed to see Kangchenjunga (this being the Westernized version of the spelling) from the rooftop of my guesthouse in Pelling one early morning. The clouds soon came and rain materialized, spoiling the view for much of the rest of the day. I'm glad I was able to get a few photos first thing!

I left Sikkim with too much I hadn't done, too many areas unexplored and too much left to see. The rain and the cold were getting to me. Not to get me wrong, I love the rain, and it sure was a wonderful change from the hot, humid conditions of Bangladesh and northeast India, but it cuts into ones ability to really enjoy what this state has to offer. The clouds come in early in the morning, so if one is not up before 6 am to maybe, just maybe catch a glimpse of the mountain ranges, it would more than likely be futile for the rest of the day to keep trying. And what good -- or fun! -- is it to trek in the cold and wet conditions? I see no point in it, especially lacking a view. Anyway, I'll go back some day, just in a different season. Monsoon is not the time to be traveling in this part of India.


OTHER:

Once down in the plains, it was all about train travel for the most part on my journey west. The trains were few in number in the NE but I managed a couple (no trains in Sikkim). I spent about $8.00 for two trips totaling 17 hours, which isn't a very expensive way to travel. Long bus journeys can get a bit monotonous, though I do enjoy watching the local life whiz by my window, and sometimes they are the only choice to get to where I am going. I just have to avoid the occasional puke or red betel nut spittle that comes flying past my window.

Meals for the most part cost about 50 cents to a dollar, depending on my appetite or my willingness to "splurge." Sometimes I have been known to spend two dollars on one meal.....God help me!

I have been able to find rooms as low as $1.20 but usually on my own, a single room costs between 100-150 Rupees a night, or $2.38-$3.57. The latter is pushing the budget a bit but sometimes can't be helped. There are benefits sometimes to traveling with someone, and sharing the room cost is one of them. Mind you, the rooms are often concrete boxes, stinky, with paint peeling off the walls or pitifully unclean, but it is a room for the night and as long as it is lockable from the inside, it's good enough for me.

India: dirty, stinky, overcrowded India is taking some getting used to........

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