It is a rare thing to reverse engineer a portion of a nation’s infrastructure. Usually someone tells you how something works and that’s as far as it goes, or needs to go. Our trip to Siliguri in West Bengal was a long and painful exercise in reverse engineering which we hope to never have to repeat. Read at your peril.
As predicted, our journey south from Sikkim’s capital, Gangtok to West Bengal was in the nick o’time. It was, of course, raining hard and we were quickly extremely damp. We hit stationary traffic along the valley and in contrast to my usual learned patience, I overtook all the parked vehicles until I got to the problem. A huge landslide had blocked the road and the army were clearing the mud and directing traffic. Luckily I managed to sneak into the few vehicles slipping through and we were quickly on our way again to lower altitudes. The drenching did not let up, however, and as we were within 30km of our destination, the rain was so hard I couldn’t see any of the other vehicles on the road. It was mightily unpleasant. Because we blitzed the landslide and didn’t stop for smoko en route, we arrived a few hours early at our guest house. We parked the bike in the private courtyard and Nickiy rang the bell but couldn’t find anyone in the house. So to keep out of the rain we ducked into a shop-shack nearby and drank tea and ate hot roti. Whilst we were there a young man called Moshim came up to chat with us. He was doing some charity work in the area, something that he always did on his day off. Later the lady from the guest house came out and retrieved us from the shack. To almost everyone’s amusement, Nickiy had rung the wrong doorbell.
Thankfully our accommodation in Siliguri was awesome and we quickly cleaned up and dried up, as did the weather. We headed out to buy some engine oil and find somewhere to eat dinner. This is when a man on a scooter saw us and did a u-turn to see what we were up to. It was Moshim again. He explained we were going the wrong way to find restaurants and encouraged us to get on his scooter and he’d take us to a good place to eat. He wasn’t lying, we were going the wrong way but he wouldn’t let us feed him any dal and rice at the restaurant. Then, three-on-a-bike, he gave us a tour of the western side of his home town before plonking us back at our home with a bag full of local sweets. We liked Siliguri already.
The next day, a Monday, we jumped on the bike and headed to the FedEx depot to pickup our critical replacement clutch lever. To get a feel for how disorganised things are, the depot wasn’t even where the FedEx website said it was. Once Google had located it for us, we found that our package would still be a few more days (now at least a week later than expected). Later that week, it did turn up and that’s when they told me about the customs charges. After a 45 minute rant at FedEx, I rejected the package and it was sent all the way back to the UK. Apparently Indian Customs do not charge import duty based on the commercial invoice that is attached to the package. They calculate based on what they think the goods are worth and then, compounding, tax it twice. Then the courier pays the Indian government and passes the charges on to the customer. For our tax exempt vehicle, I thought £55 on a £99 order was a ridiculous ransom to pay. So I decided to stick with my zip ties thank you very much, India. No wonder you can’t purchase many high-quality items in India. The government profits so much from the importation costs that everyday people can’t afford to buy or stock those items. Why should an item on Amazon India be 3 times the price of Amazon US or UK? So the government of India can get rich whilst 40% of schools don’t have electricity? Fuck that.
But the real challenge for us was our Darjeeling post. We knew it wasn’t in Darjeeling as the Post Office was closed, trucks wouldn’t be allowed through and no one would be allowed to unload them even if they got there. I had tried to find out where post for Darjeeling was being held but found myself explaining to PO staff at the call centre about the strike in Darjeeling. All we had was the last known tracking location in Siliguri, so we rocked up there! I think we were lucky we chose to start where we did. An extremely kind Nepalese lady helped us enormously, staying on past her shift ending, to perform our search. From what we gathered, the Indian Postal Service works like this:
Your package arrives in the country or at the Post Office
It gets sorted normally
It gets injected into the Railway Mail Services (RMS)
It gets put on a train
It potters around the country
It gets unloaded into a RMS depot
It gets loaded onto a truck
It goes to a local Post Office
It gets re-sorted
It gets delivered to your door
This seems like a pretty normal distribution system, but the key here is that because the Indians have such an extensive train network, trains are used heavily by the mail services. We were standing in Siliguri RMS HQ.
The Nepalese lady explained that the room we were standing in was where all hill-bound (Darjeeling and surrounds affected by the strike) mail was being held. It was sorted into white plastic sacks by destination area and arrival date. Then it was piled up in no specific order. She could tell us how many parcels or sacks were in the room, but nothing but a systematic manual search would reveal the parcels we wanted. I fully expected that this would be what it boiled down to; us sifting through hundreds of bags looking for two little parcels. But there was a catch. Like many underlying providers, the RMS were not allowed to deal with or deliver mail directly to the public.
So our lady approached the waiting-for-retirement superintendent to assist with our quest. Because we weren’t staying long enough in town to wait for the strike to end, she could see that we would never get our parcels unless we searched the bags. He asked that I write a letter and so, under close dictation from our Nepalese lady, we formally requested a search for the two packages. Upon receiving this letter the super and his deputy decided that they couldn’t help. Our Nepalese lady hit the roof because he’d just told her that he would help us, and now he changed his mind. I knew I should have worn trousers that day and not shorts. It probably would have made the difference in this small decision!
The Superintendent of Siliguri RMS explained, that because the mail was destined for Darjeeling, it was not under his juris-my-diction. It was under Darjeeling’s jurisdiction, so they could not open sacks or help me unless the Darjeeling Post Master approved. I did not care for this line of pursuit, as how do you get hold of someone who works at a PO that is closed? But even so, why did I sense another letter was coming? Aha, someone exclaimed! The Superintendent of the Darjeeling region was working at the nearby PO at this very moment. So all you’ve got to do is go there and…..
Really?! So we jumped on the bike and navigated the chaotic streets to the head PO and walked in with a new person’s name on a slip of paper. I wasn’t queueing at this point, I wasn’t waiting at the counter, I just walked straight in to some side office, read out the name and said ‘need to see’. Very quickly we found ourselves inside the office of the Siliguri Post Master. With a quick chat, and a phone call, he asked us to wait outside. After about an hour his secretary appeared with the now-famous authorisation letter and the tea lady provided us with a refreshing drink.
Back to the RMS depot we weaved, to find the shift changeover was underway. Our Nepalese lady was explaining what was happening to her relief, and I took the letter to the Super, upstairs. Then we waited and through some miracle, a team of wallahs turned up and the searching of sacks began. Each sack was tied with string and sealed with wax so we could only open designated sacks. This is when our pocket knife came in useful. You couldn’t see into the bags or open them without approval. Many I could feel through as I had a good idea what size we were looking for. But now, mid-afternoon on our first day in town, I realised we wouldn’t get many shots at searching through sacks. So I slyly slashed a tiny hole in the side of each sack, enough for a couple of fingers, and peered in hoping to find our parcels.
Meanwhile the discussions in the room were escalating and I knew something was about to change so we hurriedly got through the final sacks and stopped, empty handed. It was all over, we’d searched the room as thoroughly as we could, with and without certain approvals. The workers asked us about the parcels again. Was it registered? Was it recorded delivery? New information arrived unexpectedly. Registered parcels didn’t come through this RMS depot, they went to another depot! So all I had to do was go there and….
Oh Jesus! There was another RMS depot right at the railway station in town. More mayhem ensued as we located the RMS office to one side of the station entrance. Two gentlemen there did a little computer search and said one of the parcels was probably at their storage depot, south of town. I wasn’t allowed to go there but when the boss was back tomorrow, they were pretty confident they could find the package for me. That was it, that was all we could do. It was now nearly 5pm, we’d had no lunch and had achieved very little. We went home feeling as though Kafka was smiling over us again.
The farce continued the next day at the railway depot. Clearly the staff there wanted to help but they needed approval.
– I have a formal approval letter from Darjeeling, so could you begin searching for my packages please?
– Where is the letter?
– I don’t have it. The Superintendent of RMS took it.
– You don’t have it?!
– If we could see it that would definitely help us get authorisation to retrieve the parcel.
– But he’s the head of this organisation!
– Yes but we really need to see it.
They really wanted to see the letter. So all I had to do was go there and…
Christ almighty! Through horrendous, dusty traffic we drove back to the original RMS office. All politeness and courtesy had left my body. I started taking names. Every person that approached me was asked “do you have my letter?” A lot of nods, waggles and shakes of the head. “Where? Where is it?” Eventually I ran up the stairs, knocked and entered the Superintendent’s office. Here he was napping at his desk after a big lunch. He woke with a start and I stared at him. “Where is my letter? I gave it to you. Do you have it?” This time I knew I was getting somewhere because he started blearily throwing folders of pointless paperwork around his desk. I sat, stared and waited. Eventually another one of his lackies came and said that they had the letter. I followed him to his desk and he opened a string-bound folder. “This letter?” he asked showing me the original letter I had written under instruction from the Nepalese lady. “NO! I wrote that letter!” Then he rifled until he found my authorisation letter and gave me a copy. I had to get this to the train station. So all I had to do was go there and…
Sweet baby Jesus and the orphans! The railway guys held the letter and read it. This seemed to be a relief to them as this was obviously a barrier we had just cleared from our path. Again they seemed very confident about finding the package and now the wheels could be put in motion. There was one more thing, though. Just a formality, of course. For the RMS people to search and retrieve articles from the out-of-town storage depot, they needed authorisation from the local Post Master. He was the guy who’s office we had stood outside for an hour the day before. What?! I slapped my head picturing this desperate vortex I was being sucked into. But to my relief, these guys would handle it. Their boss would write a letter to the Post Master etc etc. Days would fly off the calendar…
They assured me that within 2 days they would have the authorisation and would have found the package. Today was Tuesday. Come back Thursday. That was the end of it and once again, all that we could do.
So we managed a day or so of relaxing and managed to meet up with Moshim and do some almost-sightseeing. Each day that week that we had to go into town was 30-40km of back-and-forth crazy riding. We also started looking around for new tyres for the bike. This was a fairly tedious task involving a lot of guesswork and being at the mercy of stock levels. Eventually we bought some tyres, almost the right size, and got them fitted by a butcher who couldn’t even afford tyre levers.
Thursday arrived and our friends at the RMS rail station were having trouble finding the correct bag. From what I could understand, the registered mail was actually catalogued into barcoded bags. So this time the search wasn’t for the parcel in the bag, it was the search for a bag in a mountain of bags. Once they found the bag, they knew it would be inside. The RMS were slightly preoccupied as well, because the big boss was visiting for the day. “Wow” I thought, “these bosses are like clones of each other!” It was my sleepy friend from the other office; the man who wouldn’t share the letter with his own staff.
Friday came and our fantastic hosts called the RMS guy at the station. They had found the package and had sent it to the city Post Office. They weren’t allowed to give it to me directly. So now all I had to do was go there and…
Was this it?! At the Post Office we queued at the counter. Well, we elbowed people back as they tried to push in. The counter man said “Yes, you just have to wait for it to be delivered to your home.” NOOOOOOOOOOO!!! It is here and we have come to get it. So we walked behind the counter and the counter man left his crowd of customers and walked us through a maze of corridors into a room full of not-very-busy mail staff sorting and sealing post. We sat and waited. The time crept towards closing time. People were packing up and leaving for the weekend. I stood and waited. Then I paced and stared at people. Then I asked people. “Where is my parcel?” Oh, just wait. “For who?!” After some 45 minutes had elapsed a stress-laden man arrived and sat in a tiny side room. Typing slowly into a computer fresh from the Apollo space missions he took my passport copy. The dot matrix beside him stuttered and whirred. He stood and unlocked a metal cupboard next to him. His hand emerged clutching a battered brown box covered in stickers and scrapes. Signing the printout was the final step and out we marched. Not triumphant, just eroded to basic existence.
I had dreamt of working on the bike during our week in Siliguri. But now we just had one day remaining so, once more, the bike was neglected. Instead, Moshim took us out for a wander round the market and the university. Mango smoothies were followed by a walk amongst the fireflies in misty parks. We left to head west early the next day towards the state of Bihar. Moshim and Juni, our host, waved us off like extras from a Post Office soap opera. We’d had a great time in Siliguri, except the parts that had involved parcel logistics.