Bhutan

Tuesday 10/23/07 - Crossing the Indian Border

We woke up at 6:30 am and took hot showers. We went down to the dining room for 7:30. I went out onto the porch and took some photos down the street. Tony was outside talking to locals and taking photos. He gave a pen to a young boy, and I got a photo from above of the boy receiving it with both hands in a gesture of respect. Dorji and Jigme arrived at around 8:15. Dorji told us that he had submitted our exit paperwork and had it approved last night, so we wouldn't need to stop on the Bhutanese side when we crossed the border.

As we ate breakfast, Dorji was nervous, and feared that all of his nightmares and bad luck would culminate in something happening to Craig and me while in India. He was afraid that we might not be able to export our statue even though we had the proper wax seal and paperwork. He said that sometimes people have trouble with the inspectors at the Guwahati airport. This surprised me, as I thought it was more likely to be difficult when crossing the border from Bhutan into India, rather than at the airport for a domestic Indian flight. Once we were already in India, why would they care what we were carrying from Bhutan? Dorji suggested that we declare the item right away when we arrived at the airport. If they gave us any trouble, we could hand it off to Dorji and he could ship it to us. I was surprised at all of this fuss, since Dorji had seemed confident that we had the proper paperwork when we purchased the statue. But I guess his dreams were powerful, and caused him to dwell on the issue.

Dorji returned Craig's thermal underwear that he had borrowed back in Shelmakha. He was reluctant to do so, as he liked them so much. These were Craig's favorites, so he was reluctant to leave them behind. We convinced Dorji that we would send him a pair which fit him better; Craig's were much too big. However, Jigme jumped right in, pointing out that Craig's would fit him quite nicely. We promised him that we would send him a pair when we got home as well, which we did.

Jigme was not going to drive us to the airport. Because of rebel activity in the border area, Bhutanese cars and drivers are sometimes targets of violence in thea rea. So we hired an Indian car and driver to get us across the border and to the Guwahati airport. Our Indian car and driver had arrived at the hotel, but no one had turned up to drive the Brits. We were planning to caravan together (safety in numbers, once again), so we had some time to spare while they waited for their driver to arrive.

Dorji needed to exchange some money, and we decided to go with him. All we had was U.S. currency, and we wanted to get some rupees prior to our arrival in India. (Rupees and ngultrums, incidentally, are equivalent. You can use either in Bhutan, and frequently Bhutanese banks and stores give out a combination of ngultrum and rupee notes). Jigme drove us to the post office, where Dorji thought the transaction could be performed. We walked through the lobby and were pointed around the back. The employees told us that they couldn't exchange U.S. money, so they directed Dorji to a nearby bank. We walked over (Jigme had gone to run an errand), passing a cricket game in a park area. Once we got away from the main city streets, there were smaller tree-lined streets.

We arrived at the bank and were led into a woman's small office. She had no computer, but there were stacks of papers and a small handheld calculator. The money exchange was a long process, just because it was all done by hand. There was a lot of paperwork. Dorji and I sat in the office while she changed the money for us, and Craig went outside to get a few more pictures of the cricket game. He snapped a shot as one of the players swung the bat and missed the ball. When the player realized that his whiff was recorded for posterity, he looked at Craig and laughed. Craig returned, and we finished up our transaction. We exited the bank, passed the armed guard, and saw the van. Jigme had figured out where we were, and had come to pick us up.

We headed back to the hotel only to find that the Brits had already left. After all of their confusion it seems that their Indian transportation was waiting at the border, so Ganesh had driven them to the border in the bus. We said goodbye to Jigme, which was sad. We had been with him for so long, and now all of a sudden, just like that, we were saying a rushed goodbye as we met our Indian driver, Uttam Kalita. We got into his compact but air conditioned car (he had to struggle a little bit to fit our large packs into the trunk) then headed toward the border, leaving the hotel at around 10:00. The car had a floral garland hanging from the rear-view mirror, and various statues of Hindu deities on the dashboard. Although we had been ready early, we ended up being perceived by the Brits as late when we arrived at the border due to the transportation confusion. When we got there, we needed to go into a small building containing a desk and a few chairs where our passports were checked and stamped. The immigration officer was quite pleasant and allowed Tony and I to take photos. Again, no computer here, just an employee and his paperwork. Craig took a photo of me in front of a yellow sign which read "FOREIGNERS CHECK POST Darranga (Assam)".

Once everyone was through the passport check, we got into our respective vehicles and passed into Assam, India. The contrast to Bhutan was immediate. Roads were suddenly straight as an arrow and the landscape was flat. This region had originally been a part of Bhutan, but then the border had been moved back to where the mountains end. We crossed a small bridge over a river wash, which barely had any water in it. We drove past tea plantations (where world-renowned Assam tea is grown) and small villages. The vegetation was very lush and green, dotted with palm trees. The rules of the road seemed to be to go as fast as you were able, while dodging whatever came at you. We joked that we should develop a video game called "Driving in India." Obstacles included cars, Tata trucks, rickshaws, bicycles, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, pedestrians, and cows. It was a wild ride.

Near Tamulpur the traffic stopped dead in its tracks. Motorcycles were pulling over and police were stopping people. Girls in bright green and yellow saris on bicycles were stopped next to us. Large military trucks were blaring their horns and trying to squeeze their way through the stopped traffic. We wondered what this could be about, and just hoped we would still get to the airport in time. Dorji got out of the car and talked to some folks. We wished we could have gotten out and taken some photos, but Dorji advised us against it. This was an unstable area, and we didn't know what was going on. Dorji reported back to us that one of the militant groups was literally in the process of surrendering to the government here and now. A government minister was flying into the nearby military base, and traffic was stopped while he landed. We sat there for about 20 minutes, reflecting on how we always seemed to get ourselves into the kind of situations that the U.S. government warns you against. But soon we were on our way as the re-opened the road. When we passed the military base, we saw a helicopter that seemed like it had just landed. I guess that was the government minister's ride.

By this point we were running behind schedule and the drive became even wilder. Uttam Kalita was frantically trying to get us to the airport in time. We passed banana trees and cloudy, stagnant rivers. The air was thick with dust and smoke coming from the smokestacks of kilns used for baking bricks. We crossed a bridge over the Brahma Putra River, which was much wider than I had imagined. He took shortcuts to skirt around traffic. As we entered Guwahati, we passed the biotech labs of the university. From there it was still another 11 km to the airport, and now we were in city traffic. By now I was very nervous about the time, and was looking forward to sitting at the airport gate. For a while the Brits lost us, but in the end they needed to stop for gas and we got to the airport just before them. Craig and I felt a bit like we were on the Amazing Race.

We put our luggage onto a cart and a man came over, pushed our luggage trolley, and led us to the check-in desk for Jet Airways. We weren’t sure if we should trust him but Dorji and the driver seemed marginally ok with it, so we just kept an eye on him and followed him. We said our farewells to Dorji. Goodbyes like this are always difficult. We've spent so much time together and grown so close, but we don't even have time for a decent goodbye as we are rushed into the airport.Dorji said he’d wait outside until we got approval for the statue. I said I’d try to signal to him when all was ok. We checked in for our flight and were sent through security. Security asked Craig to remove anything metallic from the carry-on. Out came the statue. He inspected it carefully. We pointed out the seal. He continued to look at it very closely. I offered to present the receipt. “That won’t be necessary.” He turned to Craig. Uh-oh, was he going to prevent us from taking it? But we had done everything above-board... “It’s a very nice one, sir” and wrapped it back up. Phew. I asked if I could exit the gate and signal to Dorji but they wouldn’t let me. I hoped he would assume everything was ok when he didn't see us again, and that after a few minutes he would head back to Bhutan. We didn't want him spending any more time in the border areas than necessary; we knew he was anxious about it.

We sat in the terminal, happy that we had made it on time and that we were able to bring our statue. The Brits arrived a few minutes later and we chatted until it was time to board. They were upgraded to business class while we were in coach, but this was a short flight and we didn’t mind. Our flight was scheduled to take off at 2:20, but was delayed for around an hour. We were served chicken, rice, spicy potatoes, custard and cake, water, and tea, dried mint flakes, and hard candy. The flight was 2 hours and 25 minutes to Delhi, and we passed over the white craggy Himalayas, getting some photos.
Dorji and Craig at breakfast

Dorji and Craig at breakfast


Driving to the Indian border

Driving to the Indian border


Indian border official

Indian border official


Steph at the Indian border

Steph at the Indian border


The drive to Guwahati


The drive to Guwahati


Assam fields

Assam fields


Oncoming rickshaw on the mad dash to Guwahati

Oncoming rickshaw on the mad dash to Guwahati


See more pictures from this day
Himalayas from the air


The Himalayas from the air




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