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With the West Bengal Fire Brigade

We have agreed with Rishi that he’ll meet us at 6am if it’s a clear morning, 8am if it isn’t, as a second opportunity to see the mountains lit up by the sunrise. At 6am the day looks clearer than yesterday but there is still a lot of cloud. We get to have a lie-in, leisurely breakfast, pack for onward travel, and meet Rishi at 8am in the lobby. Darjeeling has been wonderful. A bit sad to leave it but two days have felt like a lot longer here, we have seen and done so much. A friend of Rishi comes with us as far as Silguri, near Bagdogra.

The drive back takes us around four hours. At first we don’t seem to be descending at all, simply switching back and forth, but the towns and green hills and vegetation everywhere stay the same and we get glimpses of views far down below without seeing the valley floor or the plains at all.

We’re rewarded with a view of Kanchenjunga’s summit. The mountain peak seems to float in the air, as if decapitated from it’s mountain body. Clouds and haze create the effect. The mountain peak is much higher up than where I expected it to be; when told to look at Mount Kanchenjunga I scanned the horizon, couldn’t see any mountains, and only on raising my eyes much higher did I notice it. Rishi remarked that “half a bread is better than no bread”, old Nepali/Tibetan proverb, a bit of wisdom that's been recalled many times since.

On the way down I feasted my eyes on all the street life as we pass through the villages. All sorts of little things catch my attention or amuse me, as they have done on every road journey in India. While we’re at a standstill I watch two Tibetan-looking men sat in a “bar”. They’re playing a game on a wooden table with pockets in the in the corner. One offers the other some tobacco or something out of a tin. A bit further along the same road a jeweller is waving incense over his displayed goods. It’s still early and many people are grooming or washing themselves. You see people stood by a water pipe brushing their teeth and washing their hair, women in particular washing their long black hair wringing out the excess water, or brushing their hair, or grannies inspecting their grandchildren for lice.

The toy train track runs beside the road, crossing it frequently. The track is used by all and sundry. One man has spread out cloth across the track and is sorting through a large pile of red onions. Some people use the rails as a ready-made anvil and are hammering away at things. One woman has set up a stool on the tracks and is knitting away.

"Hurry burry spoils the curry!"

A bus load of young monks is ahead of us. We overtake it several times after making stops here and there. After driving for a long time we stop for a bite at a nice “tourist lodge” overlooking the hills and I have a chance to have vegetable momo after all. Just before we stopped, we pulled in at the West Bengal Fire Brigade and had our picture taken with the firemen, embarrassing Ness (but I know how much you like firemen really!) A road sign warns “if you believe in survival, don’t go for early arrival”. Another says “hurry burry spoils the curry”. Rishi and his friend recommend two Indian films: “Joggers Park”, a love story (older man falls in love with young girl) [Note: bought in the UK on our return – it’s a must-see!] and “Tere naam”, a bollywood extravaganza. The drive goes on and we start to descend, the air feels warmer and in the distance we can see the haze-covered plains. We drop Rishi’s friend at the cross-roads in Siliguri, and not long after that get to Bagdogra airport. Rishi can’t come in with us so we say bye at the gate. Promised to send him some “hagelslag”. He’s expecting a baby in January.

There is some confusion with our ticket. Turns out there is some misalignment between the printed spaces on the form and it’s soon sorted. The flight to Kolkata is delayed by an hour. The luggage scanning machine is kaput but soon fixed. We wait in the airport restaurant; more food with the excellent green chilli sauce they have here. Soon our plane arrives and we’re called to the security check and board our plane. Sat next to an American man, “Brad”, on the way. A bit of banter relieves the monotony of the flight. At Kolkata we remain in the airport, grab a seat in the small smokers area and read, drink tea, watch the people, let the time pass. The layout is composed of triangular blocks, even the announcement speakers and lights are triangular. Only spot one or two westerners, a few more past security. Some are clearly here on business, others are tourists, and some others are harder to place. The flight to Chennai is uneventful, we have decent exit row seats and chat with the Indian businessman sat in our row. Ness is piqued that he ignores her, not entirely but it’s clear that the conversation is between the men and Ness’s part in it should be to nod in agreement and smile politely, but not to be addressed directly by our Indian friend. At Chennai there is no TCI rep waiting for us (there should be) so we catch a black-and-yellow cab to our hotel. The driver has been to Mr. Lal’s master class! The Ambassador Pallava is a smart business hotel. Staff are very courteous and speak English more fluently than the past few places. Lime sodas and a beer in the room and then we both hit the sack. It’s been a long day and we’re driving again tomorrow, to Tirupati hopefully, if we can sort out driver and guide.

First impressions of Chennai: it stinks like an open-air sewer and the curly Tamil writing looks totally different from Devanagari.