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India Blog 20: Bombing drinks and passenger trains

July 3, 2010

The driver let a few of us sit on the top of the jeep as many of the locals
do when there is no room left yet more money to be made. We stopped at a few decent places on our way through the mountains north to Sikkim. We got some fresh vegetables through the window from the side of the road and decent momos at a local tea plantation pickers hangout. We got to the border after 3 or 4 hours and crossed the bridge. Immediately, things were different. The first thing to catch my eye was the alcohol.

Indians don’t drink very much. Especially not foreign spirits. Well, they
do but not the majority. Drinking in India is very odd. I have met many Indians outside of India that have never touched a drop. Beer is prevelant, but it doesn’t seem to be a major issue, as it doesn’t have a high percentage of alcohol, and isn’t especially cheap for what it is and where you are. A 22 oz bottle of Kingfisher, the most popular national beer is $2-$2.30. I know that sounds cheap, but really, for India, it isn’t. That is because of the high alcohol taxes all over the country. The local and federal government does not want a country of drunks, so it taxes the hell out of it. My guess is because the British were the ones to bring beer and spirits to India and it was never fully embraced. Anyway, the taxes on spirits can be as high as 20-30 percent, making it just about not worth even getting. The only thing there is for the thirsty whiskey drinker is the Indian versions of whiskey, gin, vodka, etc. These are cheaper, with the taxes still applied, but they are only for the very thirsty because the difference is obvious immediately. Bagpiper is the most common one. I have spent a few lovely hours in the local drinking establishments of small towns and it was the most depressing thing I saw in India. More depressing than crippled beggar children. More depressing than ungodly amounts of trash. More depressing than honor killings, terrorist bombs, and military recruitment campaigns.

The places are always dark. Very little light gets in or out. The average age is 60 and the men, there are only men, look much older. A few younger men come and go, but the older ones don’t seem to leave. The stink is crusty and doesn’t seem to leave the nostrils for days. It’s quiet. People talk in low inaudible slurs as they shuffle from table to table making grunted acknowledgments instead of light banter. I was shocked by how townspeople observed them, calling them drunks but saying nothing could be done. Outside the bar, the people inside are considered useless. Nobody here is drinking after a hard day’s work. It’s not even cheap.

The cheapest hard alcohol we saw on our trip was in Pondicherry, and that is only because it is an autonomous city-state within Tamil Nadu and has its own laws that tend to reflect its colonial history more than the rest of the country. That is, until we got to Sikkim. It turns out that this mountainous state, with very few people and a slowly growing tourism industry mostly relating to backpacking, distills its own vodka, gin, whiskey, brandy, and rum. And there is no tax, or at least very little. We’re told there is a bit of a drinking problem in the state. A bottle of any of those costs about 3 or 4 dollars. It’s amazing, for good and bad reasons.

When we crossed the border, the entire town was 75% liquor shops. We
immediately inquired about price not knowing why there were so many vendors or about the locally made cheap options. After a few inquiries, we realized the magnitude of this and proceed to spend more on liquor here than the rest of our trip up to this point combined. Our greatest prizes were a Fireball of brandy in a shape you have in your head right now, well, it looked like a pokemon ball. It never seemed to end when we opened it, and got a few of us daring enough to go the distance, quite wasted. The other was a Knife of whiskey, which was gone quickly, but was in the shape of a KNIFE.

As you can see, our time in Sikkim went swimmingly, as in the state of my
head. I will only go into a few details of the state because we couldn’t do too much there. One reason was the time spent in Darjeeling past our planned departure. Another reason was that it takes forever to get anywhere in Sikkim; the whole state is mountains, giant ones, with road the only sometimes go over and most likely run along. This means every way is the long way. The last reason was that the capital, Gangtok, was very nice, much better than expected. We were waiting to find a small town with little to do except set up an expedition, but we ended up in a semi tourist trap filled with local flavor. Alcohol was so prevelant that they have a dry day once a week.

By the way, I am convinced that the western world needs a weekly dry day as well. Imagine a weekday (not a weekend day because people like to unwind) where you can’t buy alcohol. Imagine the example it would set to young people. I think it would be great. The only people I see objecting would be liquor stores and liquor companies. Any people and politicians objecting would be labeled alcoholics.

OK, back to it. Gangtok has a promenade where cars can’t drive. This is spectacular, and I cannot stress that word enough. This street was the nicest most user friendly street in India. I am convinced. It is lined with local businesses catering to tourists but without overdoing it. There is plenty of local cuisine, which tends to be heavily Tibetan, that is delicious. The first night there we ate decent mexican food. The next day, we got our palms read. Apparently, I am impatient (spot on) and that I will live to a ripe old age. I have an active mind and I will have 2 or 3 kids. Mary will also live long, have 2 kids, is confident and has gastronomical problem. Both of our lives, real lives, started at 24, about the time we met each other.

Our hotel, was about 300 stories high, no elevator, no lights on the stairs after 10pm. The place seemed to house all sorts of patrons as well as tenants. It had a snooker hall, which I tried for the first time and lost all 3 games, but liked it nonetheless. It had a restaurant on the bottom floor and a kitchen for general use on the second. And on the very top was our dorm room. Big enough for the 6 of us to have our own single bed, also big enough for us to tear the place apart.

So we drank heavily every night, ate great food, walked up to a temple and a
zoo that took forever, and that was about it. Oh, at the zoo, I touched a leopard that came up to us from behind its cage. The cage was big so I began running along it and the giant dangerous animal ran with me. I played with a leopard. One night we met a guy named Uncle Charlie that ran a karaoke bar. Everybody sang local songs and we felt very out of place. He invited us all to a disco the next night but Mary and I were leaving the next day. I want to go back to see more of it, because this place was great. I was sad to leave our new friends but it must be done. I wish we went west to see the better views of the biggest himalayan mountains or done a major trek, but for the time we had, I am content.

One last thing. We had no train tickets to Calcutta and everything was
booked for the next month. This was a problem until we foundout about TacTal. I think that is spelled correctly. It is a program in which a certain amount of tickets for every train all over the country can be purchased at 8am 2 days before departure. So if you show up early and wait in line there is a good chance to get any train you want. This is spectacular because there are a shitload of people in India. The cost is about 5 or so dollars more, which is nothing. So 2 days before, I got up early with Mary to get the tickets, but we are a little late and the line is huge. I am very worried about this until a train security officer, probably there to make sure there is no stampede from the throng of people (it happens), tells Mary to get in the Female line. YES!!! It doesn’t always happen, but some places in India have lines for men and women that are separate. Every time this happens, because women don’t really leave home and the whole country is filled with semi aggressive men, the lines for the women are short. With Mary along this is great. We get our tickets and go back to the hotel.

The next day, the day before we leave, Maoist rebels blow up a part of the
train track between us and Calcutta. A passenger train derails, which would have killed a more than a few people, but a cargo train happens to be coming the other direction at the same time, and hundreds die with many many more injured. It takes days to take out some of the bodies, which have begun to rot, and in some cases are in pieces. The story is the majority of the news for the rest of our time in India. Like I mentioned before, the Maoist rebels are constantly at work to undermine the federal and local government interests in their land. They are always in the news, and because India is a melting pot like nothing ever seen, they even have political representatives with seats in government. While the newspapers seem to tear into them everyday, there are activists in India that back them. This all seems to have changed after this incident. I don’t believe they knew that the cargo train was coming at the same time, but does that really matter? Their political representatives immediately started distancing themselves from these specific rebels and separating them from the Maoist rebels as a whole. This didn’t do much, and as we were leaving India, the onslaught against them had not even begun to die down.

As far as we are concerned, it is a bit troubling to see such a disaster on
a mode of transportation I am about to use in the same region, but with the amount of trains here, I liken it to those who chose not to fly after 9/11. Do you say to yourself that it is too dangerous, or do you say that terrorists are not about to attack every plane for the forseeable future? The danger is not properly placed when it comes to fear after situations like these. So we get on a train heading south, hoping we don’t explode. What can ya do?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Elayne Sawaya permalink
    July 3, 2010 6:36 pm

    Dear Dear Alex
    I wonder how your mom doesn’t experience a bit of cardiac arrest when she reads your blog.
    Doug swears that you are really living in El Monte Ca. and have never ever left the country.
    But He is a dreamer.
    Be safe both of you and enjoy the continuing adventure

    • Mama permalink
      July 6, 2010 5:51 pm

      i used to crack myself up as i would drive down wilshire in korea town about how funny it would be if alex was really in that neighborhood all this time and we just assumed he was in seoul

  2. Asparant permalink
    August 22, 2010 6:18 pm

    Nice article 🙂
    by the way it is not ‘TacTal’, it is ‘Tatkal” .. 😉

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