Having been unable to get permits on Friday we spent the weekend stuck in Jaigaon and Phuentsholing. On Monday I woke up at 6, reached the permit office by 6:20 waiting to pat myself on the back for making it early for an office which opens at 9.
Let’s do that again. The permit office opens at 9. I reached at 6:20. Early, right? Wrong. The queue had begun forming at 1 in the morning. Such was the desperation. You know shit is about to go down when people start queuing 8 hours in advance. It’s a goddamn permit, not mata ke darshan.
A token system was in place and a person keeping tabs of the token. Naturally we assumed the person to be an official. One member from each group had to write their names. We were 111th on the list. We assumed every group would have 2-10 members. Reasonably assumption, right? Wrong. We hadn’t realised tour agents had been standing in the queue long before us. Each agent had a minimum of 50 application forms with him. The concept of Master Ranks came to mind and I realised we were pretty much done for the day. It would a a miracle to get a permit before sunset. 800 applications to go.
We relaxed thinking that a secured place in a queue with a token number is anyday better than chaos. What we didn’t know was that the A4 sheet with all token numbers was quickly running out of space. Bring out another sheet, right? Wrong. This introduction of another sheet didn’t go down with people who had just started to arrive. But the list was official and has to be adhered to, right? Wrong. It wasn’t made by some official. It was started by an agent to deceive people into believing they had a chance at getting permits. Mind fuck.
As the day progressed and the clock struck 9, the officials arrived. The crowd had started to swell. Initially where there was one queue, now there were numerous. I tried to count but someone pushed me from behind and I lost the count. The pushing got worse every 10 minutes.
The officials were aware this would happen and were yet utterly unprepared for this. They started by asked politely to an emerging mob to move back or no permits would be issued. Some had hotels booked in Bhutan, some had marriages to attend and some had taken a week off after months of a desk job. Desperation was in the air. The following day was a holiday for the office so the idea of not getting permits didn’t go down well with crowd. As the officials pushed the crowd behind, people surged forward.
The queues melted into a throng of tourists exponentially increasing the size and force of it. Officials countered it repeatedly with their well tested but utterly useless strategy of pushing people in the front towards the back. Front of crowd got pushed towards the back without any warning to the people in the Middle. A number of people escaped injuries by pushing other people in turn. In this process I fell twice, and felt like a suffocating Jon Snow thrice.
A high ranking Indian Army personnel in uniform arrived with enough authority and swag to overthrow the Bhutanese government. The 400 odd crowd parted to let him through. I gave him way as well. Finally some semblance of peace. Great, right? Wrong. 4 hours hence I saw him making his way out and thanking guards saying “kaam ho gaya”. The asshole had application forms and permits in his hand. He had used his uniform to weed out the crowd.
In the meantime Bhutanese officials found peace in coming out and making videos of the crowd which I am certain was hilarious to them. I am surprised no stones were flinged. In that moment I wouldn’t have objected to the idea of breaking their phone with a well aimed throw.
After 4 hours officials managed to get hold of ropes and barricades to control the crowd. Till then they just had batons and inefficient security. The inadequately trained security personnel failed to secure the ropes and create barricades to control the mob. They didn’t know how to form a barricade. Several security personnel resorted to shouting and pushing. Some of the officials received well deserved karma marks on their faces. One by my fellow traveler himself.
Amidst this chaos agents found their way in and submitted forms. Now they had to call their customers inside for verification. 10 agents had to produce 600 people ASAP. The 600 had to chart their way through the suffocated crowd of people who by now felt cheated. *Gulp*
What ensued was patently horrific. Mindbogglingly barbaric. I’ve seen mad dogs showing more civility. It was an almost broken bone for some, near death experiences for others. No one was moving from their place, so it wasn’t a stampede. But people were swaying in all directions imaginable giving tiny heart attacks to the ones standing at the corners of the stairs. It was at these corners I slipped twice. Add to that 600 people attempting to make way through the crowd. Even if a couple of them would have died, the incident would have become an opportunity to submit forms a tad bit quicker.
I made my way inside. Albeit with my specs flying away in several directions waiting to stomped on by certain social animals, a verbal argument with a guard and several lies on my part. Hoping to find an air-conditioned room and organised chaos. A hall stuffed with 250 people and two windows. Four air-conditioners which refused to work and six of the eight fans taking their day off. Every person was dripping with sweat. I witnessed humidity. It was sweat evaporating from skin and condensing on roofs. Mind fuck. Add to that dropping levels of oxygen and it sounds like a scene from Saw.
Initially there was a single queue but as Bhutanese officials allowed customers of all agents to enter, things got out of hand and replicated what had happened outside. Several queues formed. The clock struck one and the counters started to close. Everyone was dumfounded. Inside we had formed queues (even if several), the emerging mob was outside, people were managing in the humidity humans are not designed to sustain under. So why close the office? Lo and behold the reason.
It was lunch time.
Giving up on Bhutan, we made our way out of the shithole.
In hindsight the officials should have demarcated queues themselves rather than asking the crowd to decide among themselves. If crowds could decide for themselves, they wouldn’t be called that. Security personnel with experience in crowd handling should have been used rather than baton wielding stormtroopers without the suit or the training. Lucky for the permit office no one was killed. Death was looming around the corner. Literally. Could have been a desperate applicant, could have been an innocent security personnel.
We are on our way to Siliguri now. Hoping to make our way to Namchi. An obscure hill station in Sikkim.