It was quite a shock to be back in the hustle and bustle of Darjeeling after almost a week in the mountains. The centre is absurdly choked with jeeps that can barely navigate the twisting streets and take no prisoners when it comes to pedestrians. Although it was not as cold as up at Sandakphu, it was still cool in the evening so I decided to spend only one night there and head down to the plains for a night before moving on.
Siliguri is just a noisy, dusty transport hub, but at least it was hot and I had a good hotel. My train left the next morning at the ridiculously early time of 5.35. I had decided to break the journey back to Kolkata by spending a couple of nights in Malda. There's not much to the town itself and I saw no other tourists while I was there. However, there are some great ruins just outside in the surrounding country at Gaur and Pandua from the time when this area was the capital of Muslim nawabs some 500 years ago.
The ruins were impressive, but what also made the day out fascinating was that they lie very close to local villages and so I got another great close up view of daily life; women herding goats through the fields or doing the laundry in the ponds, cow dung cakes drying in the sun to be used as fuel. Another curious sight you see all over India is people sweeping the dust around with a broom made from tree twigs. I could never quite work out the purpose of this as they weren't actually disposing of it, merely swirling it into the air and letting it settle in another place.
The day after I arrived back in Kolkata it was Holi, the festival of colours. I had planned to spend Sunday exploring the city, but most places were closed due to the holiday and I had never seen an Indian city so empty of traffic and eerily deserted. I walked past some impressive buildings from the time of the British, including the GPO which was the original site of the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta massacre and the very grand Writers' Room which was actually where all the clerks from the East India Company toiled away. The British very kindly bequeathed bureaucracy to the Indians who seem reluctant to relinquish it. As an example, when you check into a hotel, you don't fill in a form usually, but a huge ledger book which opens with a thud on the reception desk and sends dust flying. Very Dickensian.
Later in the day people started to appear on the streets with painted faces as part of Holi celebrations. Apparently, it's also tradition to throw paint and coloured dye at people but I escaped intact. I was sad to leave India after five wonderful weeks. It's a challenging destination certainly (and the same can't be said of Thailand) but the rewards are huge. The people are friendly to an incredible degree and genuinely curious about foreigners. The food is great and I didn't get sick once. For me, the biggest problems the country faces are traffic and pollution along with all the heaps of rubbish that lie uncollected everywhere you go and are a real eyesore.
I'm now starting my two week trip to Thailand in Bangkok which is so clean and well organised coming from India. It's hot and steamy and the food is terrific. I'm being very adventurous and eating at street stalls and had one of the best noodle soups I've ever eaten. Then it's time to head for the beach and have a little holiday from all this travelling.