From Sasan Gir, we went up to Ahmedabad, and from there caught a direct train to Kolkata, clean across the country. In Ahmedabad, a hotel had collapsed near the station, and it was complete chaos. Apparently 15 people had been killed.
Kolkata, when we got there, was different to the other large Indian cities we had seen. Sure, it's dirty, loud and teeming with beggars, but there are some redeeming features. It has a more present colonial heritage than Mumbai, with lots of crumbling colonial buildings lining the streets. And though it has less glitter and glamor than Mumbai, it has instead a more intellectual feel. Bookshops everywhere, universities, students.
We did a few days of volunteering for the Missionaries of Charity; Mother Teresa's organization. We helped out in a home they run for mentally disabled children. It was very simple and plain, without any luxuries, but the children seemed fairly well cared for. It was a brief experience, but rewarding and humbling all the same.
From Kolkata, we went to Darjeeling - former hill station and summer retreat for the British Raj. It sits on a mountain ridge at 2134 m. elevation (child's play after Bolivia). Darjeeling, of course, is famous for tea, and we certainly sampled lots of the local brew in the icy weather.
We went to see the sunrise at Tiger Hill, a famous view point, to see a majestic Himalayan sky line. Unfortunately, it was cloudy (very cloudy), and the sun rose as a pale disc in the grey, misty sky. We did get some clear, yet brief, stunning vistas of India's highest mountain (and third in the world I think) Kangchendzonga, as the clouds were blown away. So even without the famous panorama views, and the glimpse of Everest which you can get on a clear day, it was still worth it for the chance to see at least a tiny part of the Himalayas.
In Darjeeling, we also visited a nice little Buddhist monastery. The colorful decorations, hand painted on the walls, were amazing. This area of India is strongly influenced by Buddhism, due partly to the large influx of Tibetan refugees. It was very interesting to see an example of another of India's great religions, and get a glimpse of a version of Buddhism which differs greatly from what we have seen in Thailand and Cambodia.
All in all, Darjeeling was a charming, but freezing cold, little town, with a colonial history, its cute toy train from that era, and with a clear Himalayan history, in the form of its Mountaineering Institute founded by Tenzing Norgay (I think that's his name), who accompanied the English climber (don't remember his name) who was the first to climb Everest.
After Darjeeling, we went to Assam to visit the Kaziranga National Park. This park is home to the majority of the remaining population of one-horned Indian Rhinos. Around 1800 of them live in this park - two-thirds of the world's total.
We went first on a morning safari, which involved riding trough the park on elephants. This was truly amazing. To feel that enormous animal moving, as you float on its back through the tall grass in the misty dawn. Truly lovely. There were several other groups of visitors, and so we made up a veritable herd of elephants stalking around the plains.
We saw a huge male rhino close up straight away, and several others, including a mother and calf. The baby had yet to grow its horn, and looked quite comical.
In the afternoon of the same day, we went on another safari, this time by jeep, in a different area of the park. Here we once again saw lots of rhinos - in fact, they were everywhere. It almost seems that the park is overpopulated with them - perhaps they should consider transferring some of them to other parks? Apart from the rhinos, we also saw some birds, and a weird giant squirrel. Lots of deer in the park, and we came across a ranger station where they had a new born elephant baby, which we got out of the car to say hello to. It was so cute! All in all, Kaziranga park made for a great experience.
After the safaris, we stayed in the village of Kohora for a few days, and then went on to Guwahati, from where we caught a plane to Kolkata. We ended up staying in Guwahati a few days, even though it was a shit hole. We had planned to visit some other places in Assam, but there was a strike on, and no busses were running. So in order not to risk missing our flight, we stayed in town.
Back in Kolkata briefly, we went with a guy from the hotel to a poetry reading. Set on a breezy rooftop, it turned out to be a very interesting evening. It was held by a Bengali poetry group, and numerous poets got up to read a poem or two of their work. Some were in English, others in Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and other languages - a good example of how multi-lingual India really is, and another illustration of Kolkata's intellectual flavour.
We also went to see the Victoria Memorial. A huge marble building, shining white in the sunshine, it was built to commemorate Queen Victoria. It was impressive, and vaguely reminiscent of Taj Mahal, although not as airy or elegant.
From Kolkata, I flew to Chennai, while Alan flew back to Goa to pick up the dive gear that we had left there. My few days alone in Chennai gave me a taste of what traveling in India as a single woman is like, and there was definitely a marked difference. I got stared at and followed down the street, and one guy nearly drove his bicycle into the ditch because he was craning his neck to stare at me. And I did get annoyed and tired of it, but I never felt unsafe or really threatened - just annoyed. There were always lots of other people in the streets, and I felt certain that if anything serious was to happen, someone would intervene. You can say a lot about India and Indians, and it is definitely a frustrating country, but for every annoying or rude person, there is one (or even two) who are kind and friendly, and who go out of their way to help you.
After a few days, Alan got here with the bags, and in two days we fly out to Singapore. So its now goodbye to India, and I must say that I have really enjoyed it. Amazing country, incredible India.