June 8, 2017 – Winding up our site-seeing, we reached our cosy hotel-with-a-view in Gangtok from Lachung in Sikkim. Our intent was to shop, laze around, relax in the night, devour a leisurely breakfast buffet the next morning, drive down back to Bagdogra, and fly back home in the evening. In Gangtok, we heard murmurs of violence in Darjeeling, West Bengal. An agitation was brewing against the alleged imposition of Bengali language on the locals.
We were advised to leave early the next day to catch our flight from Bagdogra. Later that evening, at MG Road, jam packed with tourists, the atmosphere was tense. People enquired about the proclaimed bandh on June 9, and asked if they should drive back to Bagdogra in the night, instead of the morning. Tourists queued up at ATMs. It was difficult to get into the narrow offices of any of the cab-services providers.
Then, our pre-booked cab driver called; he wanted us to start at 4:00 am on June 9 for Bagdogra. We agreed as we caught more news about the Darjeeling bandh. Approximately 40,000 tourists were effected.
While we were shopping at MG Road, at 7:30 pm our driver called again. We had to start at 11:00 pm that night. It was a tall order but our options were none. He offered to book us a couple of rooms in a city guesthouse. We told him to go ahead.
When we reached the hotel by 8:00 pm the receptionists were watching a video of the violence. They agreed we should check out. They overcharged us for meal services, as we exchanged our breakfast buffet for dinner buffet.
The money minting machine was on overdrive; Air tickets, cab fares were shooting through the sky, guest houses in Bagdogra were housefull. We could not afford to miss our flight back to Delhi. The only way to ensure our transit was to leave Gangtok in the dead of the night.
It was adventurous and risky but I almost felt like a fugitive; even though we were victims held at ransom by the political dynamics of our country. Most of our country is always on some sort of a political boil. I was fuming and extremely worried. The tail-end of the journey was becoming a tail-spin.
Our drivers raced us through the night and dropped us in Bagdogra at 2:45 am at a shady, rickety guesthouse that was a few minutes drive away from the airport. In 2017, Bagdogra was one of the worst airports in India, with not even air-conditioning. Home had never felt sweeter. The mountains of Sikkim felt intimidating because of the truancy of its sister in the plains, West Bengal!
After a horrendous night of unplanned travel from Gangtok to Bagdogra, we spent tense hours in a guesthouse to reach a jam-packed airport filled with panicky and tired tourists. Travellers who couldn’t get a guesthouse near the airport went straight to the airport but had to wait outside until 10:00 am. Cab fares were humongous for many.
Traveling families with limited options had to brave this reckless atmosphere based on political blackmail. Our sweet summer vacation was not only cut short but our memories were tarnished. It takes a lot of effort and investment to plan trips and we all want to savor the much-advertised Incredible India experience but not all things go by plan.
Luckily, our decisions had been correct and while we sweated and cussed, we eventually landed at home, safe and sound. Today, as we crouch on our homes, sweltering in the summer heat of North India, photographs from the Sikkim trip bring nostalgia and desire. Humans are ultimately nomads at heart – a beautiful piece of nature and solitude always beckons us.