Our time in Gangtok provided our team a wonderful opportunity to see a different part of the country. Upon entering Sikkim state, we passed through a border crossing and were diverted to an intake building. Sikkim borders frenemy China, and is considered a restricted zone; India records everyone entering or leaving the state, and gives foreigners extra scrutiny. After a half hour or so of filling out papers, copying passports and duplicating photographs, we were deemed legit, and we continued on our way to Gangtok.
Larger than, but similar in topography to Kalimpong and Darjeeling, Gangtok is extraordinarily beautiful, especially from above. We arrived in town just before dusk, and checked into the hotel. Nandu insisted that we hurry up the side of the mountain to see the city at sunset. We hailed two cabs – one was a Suzuki hatchback, about 70% as big as a Geo Metro. The other was what I call a Scooby Doo van, shaped exactly like the Mystery Machine, but about half the size and 96% less fun.
We darted and skidded up impossibly steep grades on two-way roads that, even when completely paved, are still only big enough for one car to travel comfortably and safely. As in most places we’ve traveled on this trip, it’s always something of a game of chicken. Two cars head straight at each other, and one pulls off the berm to let the other pass. The berm, unfortunately is usually either a wall of rock on one side or a thousand-foot drop on the other. Halfway to our observation point, we got stuck in one of those epic mountainside traffic jams where people actually stop their engines, get out of their cars and wander down the hill to see what genius move caused the tie-up in the first place. I never did figure out what had happened, but we finally made our way out of the jam. By this point, our drivers conveyed us with even more urgency to the top of the mountain. As night fell and we careened up unlit, occasionally unpaved roads I began to wonder if any view was worth the risk. When we arrived at the Hindu monastery at the summit, it was too dark to take any good pictures, but I had to admit it: it was pretty spectacular. The lights of Gangtok’s houses studded the mountainside and twinkled like stars. The sun, almost completely in repose, cast a pink and scarlet glow, silhouetting consecutive peaks, each one fading into horizon as the city fell entirely into night.
Unfortunately, the days of adventurous driving had caught up with both Tim and Carol. Carol had been sick for a few days, and had just started feeling better the day before. Tim, who had been rock-solid until that day, had the gibblies jostled out of him by the Himalayan road rally, and had turned a lovely shade of pale green. By the next morning, it was clear that the even-more-dramatic 6-hour drive to Bhutan was not going to be happening for either of them. We decided to send them back to Kalimpong – three hours away – and to have the rest of us continue on to Bhutan as originally planned. Our two taxis drove together to the Sikkim/West Bengal border where we checked ourselves out of the state and then we took our separate ways.
For much of the way, our ride was just fine. We’ve gotten used to blind curves and sheer cliffs and the occasional section of unpaved roads. In fact, when we stopped for lunch in some tiny town in the Teesta Valley, we all felt pretty refreshed.
Our driver dropped us off in front of a tiny storefront restaurant that I would have never picked out as a place to eat delicious and ostensibly safe food. We stooped through the low entry, squeezed around a rickety wooden table and ordered a thali – something like an Indian sampler plate – for each of us. The proprietress yelled something at a tiny girl who had been sitting at the other table in the restaurant folding napkins. The girl jumped up and began washing glasses which she then brought to our table. She was shy, but she smiled when I caught her eye. The lady yelled again, and the girl returned to her work at the table.
I asked Nandu to ask her age. She smiled shyly and shook her head. “She has no idea,” Nandu said. I asked her name. “No idea,” Nandu reported, “They call her small girl. She is a child laborer. Probably no parents.” I remember very little about the rest of the meal, and even today, Small Girl is in my thoughts day and night.
There are literally millions of children like Small Girl living and working in India today. In fact, some of the kids in our Kalimpong homes lived and worked in homes or restaurants, fields or factories before coming into our care. I don’t know if we can help this young girl, and I’m certain we will never even meet one tenth of one percent of the kids who would give everything for a loving home like the ones we’re creating in India, Cambodia and Thailand.
After lunch we continued on our journey. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves in another unexplained, half-hour-long delays, stuck bumper-to-bumper and door-to-door on a steep mountain pass. By nightfall, our 6-hour drive was already turning into an 8-hour one. The flattening landscape and brief stretch of excellent road gave our driver the opportunity to make up a little of the time we had lost, and I began hoping for smooth sailing the rest of the way out. About an hour before reaching the Bhutanese border things got bad. Really bad.
I swear that driving through the tea bushes on the side of the road would have provided a smoother drive. I’d venture to guess that you have never driven on “roads” this bad before. Not only were they not paved, they had not been maintained in anyone’s recent memory, and wore quite poorly the years of abuse inflicted by heavy trucks carrying rocks and construction equipment clearly destined for projects other than road repair. It was quite literally like riding over abandoned railroad tracks for the entire time. More than once our driver had to stop, back up and get out of the car just to determine the best approach to navigate a crater in the road. And just about when I thought I couldn’t take another mile, we hit the final stretch into the Indo-Bhutan border towns, and sailed smoothly to our rendevouz point in Jaigon.
If “rendevouz point” sounds illicit, that’s because it was. Nandu had developed a plan to get us into Bhutan secretly and without a visa. It was one of those “I know a guy” situations. We switched cars twice amid furtive glances and hushed whispers and made our way in a country that has a reputation among our friends in India as being a very unfriendly place for Christians. Greg, Keith and I broke the tension with gallows-humor cracks about our upcoming stay at the lovely Hotel Torturé. “Sir, this Bhutanese manicure is quite…aggressive…” and “Oh, look. They’re washing Keith’s face. But why there a rag over it?” and “I think that next time I’ll pass on the rattan cane foot massage… It was a tad firm for my tastes…”
Long story short, we made it in and out of the country with very little drama. The hotel that hosted us was owned by a member of the Bhutanese royal family and Nandu is good friends with him. “I know a guy,” indeed.
The next morning we checked out of the hotel and made our way back onto the India side of the border. We met with Pastor Benjamin Gurung and spent the day with the students of the Indo-Bhutan Mercy House of Prayer, a training center for young Bhutanese believers. They come for a month of classes, fellowship and worship intended to equip them for a life of persecution as church planters and evangelists in their home country. It was an honor to meet with them and offer them whatever words of encouragement we could muster.
Today we brave the bad roads and head back to Kalimpong. Tonight we’ll do an appreciation dinner for our staff in Kalimpong. Only a few more days here – I hope to spend as much time with the kids as possible. More pictures when better internet.