Thanksgiving in Darjeeling
30 Nov 2007
|After our busy weeks of travel and sickness, Matt and I were eager to get to Darjeeling for a restful and relaxing four day weekend. We flew into Bagdogra, West Bengal, which is the closest airport to Darjeeling. We were told at the airport that the road to Darjeeling was closed due to a communist strike and that we could go to the crossroads town of Silliguri, to see about further arrangements. A ten minute taxi ride gets us to a little crossroads of a town, with little else except for cycle rickshaws and taxis. Red communist flags line the streets. There isn't anything going on, but things feel slightly tense and I am feeling tired, hungry, and dehydrated. We learn that the strike is going to last four days and our hopes to reach Darjeeling are shot. We call our travel agent to see what our options are. That was our first mistake. I was really hoping that I could talk to a competent person who could tell us what we should do. After getting nowhere with the agent, we asked her to look for flights back to Delhi. Meanwhile, we have our seven year old Lonely Planet guide and we talk to a taxi driver about ideas. Can we go to Kalimpong or even Sikkim? The same road to Darjeeling takes you to Sikkim and Kalimpong. We asked how far to Bhutan and whether we could get visas at the border. He didn't know about the visas, but it was four hours to the border and then another four hours to the big town there. He said that we could take a 17 hour bus ride into Kathmandu. For a four day weekend? We decided to get a hotel room and figure out the rest of our weekend.
We found a dive hotel, called Hotel Manilla. It was basic. It was grimy. The sheets looked soiled. As a traveler here, you have to deal with this. You aren't always going to stay in nicer, mid-range places. At least this room had it's own bathroom and hot water. That is really all I need. It was pretty shabby, though. It looked like it had the first Hitachi-brand air conditioner ever made. There were two single beds pushed together with nasty-looking bedding. Anyhow, it would have to do. I just kept thinking in my head that I couldn't stay in this hotel room or this city for four days.
We discovered that you can't get a visa to the Kingdom of Bhutan at the border. You have to apply in Delhi and then fly there. That will have to be another trip. Sikkim is part of India, but you have to obtain a permit. We found out that you could get a permit in a day, but the road was still closed. You could rent a hellicopter for $800 one way to get to Gantok, Sikkim. So both of those options were out. There was a small game reserve nearby that we could visit, if things got desperate. We didn't want to take an uncomfortable 17 hour bus journey to Kathmandu. We could also fly to Kathmandu from the border, but it was too expensive. Basically, we were stuck and it didn't appear that we would get a flight home to Delhi.
What was the strike about anyway, you ask? Darjeeling wants to separate from West Bengal into its own state and call it Gorkaland. Darjeeling is also right next to Nepal and its Moaist rebel communists are very active. The northeast part of India can be unstable because many of the regions don't want to be part of India. Had we known this was happening, we would have just taken the train to peaceful Dharamsalla.
Thanksgiving evening, we ate at a silly, little cafe in Silliguri, which I began calling "Silly town." The cafe was well-lit and seemed like a good enough choice. It also happened to be a hookah "lounge" and our waiter (who seemed to be as high as a kite) couldn't figure out why we didn't want to smoke. We had two basic dishes and two cokes. We received a call from the guesthouse in Darjeeling, saying that the strike might be called off the next morning and that they could send someone to get us. We were overjoyed-- our weekend might be saved afterall. We ended up taking a taxi from Silly Town up to Darjeeling. It was 79 km and took us over three hours to get there. The mountain road was beautiful. The vegetation was lush and we meandered slowly up switchbacks.
Coming into Darjeeling was beautiful. Mountain peaks rose before us and we were suddenly in a mountain town and the air was crisp. When we arrived, the communists were closing down all of the stores and restaurants. We checked into our guesthouse and he said that stores and restaurants would be closed, but it was safe to walk around. Matt and I had brought more snacks than usual, which turned out to be a real boon. The owner of the guesthouse took us to his rooftop view of the peaks and pointed out Nepal, Sikkim, Tibet, and Bhutan. We had some granola bars and jerky and took a nap. Our nap came to an end when we heard the sound of glass breaking. Matt jumped up to see a mob of men with sticks. It appeared that they were smashing windows of any shopkeepers who were still open. It was a little confusing because people were still out walking and hanging out on the street. It wasn't violent at all, but they weren't allowing shops to open.
At sunset, we walked just in time to catch the sights of the town. There is one lookout road that has magnificent views of the mountain range and people were out walking the road with families, or walking and chanting prayers in hushed tones. We managed to find a little, tiny dhabba serving simple momos and vegetable fried rice. We got back to the room at 6 pm, with not a lot to do in the cold, dark night. I ended up reading Eat, Pray, Love in about three days time. Matt didn't feel like playing backgammon because I had proven myself to be a poor loser. I don't mind a good game of backgammon, but do you have to take someone's chip out at every single opportunity? he should be lucky he has never played Monopoly with me. The last time I played, I tipped the board over in a dramatic "game over" stunt because two of the players had been landing on my properties without paying and without my noticing. Anyway, we all have areas of growth and I can work on that. Matt is too mild mannered and sweet to have to deal with that.
The sunrises are supposed to be amazing here, so we woke up bright and early to see the sun come up and shine on the mountains. We got bundled up and got outside just in time to see the sun coming up. Men were out exercising and old women and men were walking and chanting. We walked and sat, looking at the stunning view. I don't sleep in very well and I love to get up early on a weekend or vacation day and then go back to bed later. It feels so decadent. We came back and went back to bed.
Trying to find food at 11 AM proved to be difficult, since all restaurants were closed due to the strike. Even the two fancy hotels we checked out had a lunch at 1 pm. We ended up having afternoon tea at the Windmere, which is a top end, old-school British raj hang out. It's perched high above the town and you can imagine how it felt in the days before partition when the British stayed at this hill station. We encountered an older British couple who were both born in India before partition and the husband was born and raised in Darjeeling. They were, of course, staying at the Windmere because it's where his parents used to hang out. They were a funny couple with an upper crust British accent and talked about the nostalgia of finding their old homes in Darjeeling and Shimla (another hill station in the western Himalayas). They were quite shocked that Darjeeling had changed so much but were happy to have found her grandfather's portrait at the Calcutta Deccan Gymkanna Club, where he used to be president. It was a very hoity toity conversation. We ate our little cakes and sandwhiches, drank our tea, and looked out over Darjeeling. We felt very above it all at the Windmere, both literally and figuratively. After our amusing breakfast and conversation, we set out to find the Happy Valley tea estate that was on the outskirts of town. This is where the seven year old guide didn't help us out. We enjoyed our walk, though. I love exploring the backstreets of cities and seeing where people really live. First we were looking for a Tibetan Buddhist Gompa. We actually walked right by it, not noticing it. We did see where a lot of the Tibetans live, though. There is a Tibetan refugee center there. There are lots of Nepalis here too. In fact, Nepali is spoken here more than Hindi. On the other side of town, we were weaving in and out of streets and alleys. We headed towards the zoo and ran into a cafe that our guide had recommended, the Hot Stimulating Cafe. It had been a few hours since our tea and we could use a little snack, and it happened to be open. We walk in the little road-side shack to find Bob Marley posters on the wall, Beck playing on the stereo, and the owners to be a hippie couple from Nepal. We ate momos and shared a coke. There were advertisements on the wall that they sold herbal products. I bet they do! India is such a fascinating place. You can find little dives like these for the people on their spiritual cosmic trips on the same day that you can run into old British aristocracy. India can be all things to all people. Whatever you are into, you can find it in India. By the time we found the tea estate, we were tired. We walked around a bit and just stood, looking at the views of the valley below. Kids were playing cricket in an old British cemetery. Women were picking tea leaves, with baskets strapped to their foreheads, and there was either mist or smoke in valley of green tea estates.
After another nap, we went to the other fancy hotel in town and had a crummy, over-priced Indian meal. We wished that the road-side dhaba was open. It was a lot better than this. Maybe we know what good Indian food tastes like and maybe these hotels cater to real tourists, but it was pretty bad. I know that I shouldn't be complaining because I was lucky to find a meal that night. When we got back to the guesthouse, we discovered that the roads would be closed again on Sunday and that if we wanted to get out in time, we would have to leave Darjeeling at 3 AM. We rushed out into the cold darkness with two American girls who were studying here in India. It felt a little like being refugees fleeing in the middle of the night. Our driver drove like crazy, going down the mountain super fast. None of us slept. None of us spoke. We all just concentrated on the road. We got to the Bagdogra airport at 5 AM. We only had to wait another 10 1/2 hours there before we would fly out of there. As you can imagine, Matt and I were desperately tired when we returned. We ordered take out from my favorite Thai restaurant and went to bed early. We were thankful to get back, though. We both realized that we don't have emergency sub plans at school and it would be difficult to arrange something over the phone for the sub.
Darjeeling is a marvelous place for scenery and I am sure it is lovely when everything is running smoothly. Another teacher was in Kathmandu with a big group of teachers from school. While riding in a taxi, she was in a car accident. She wasn't hurt at all, but in all the commotion of finding a new taxi, she left her passport in the other taxi. She showed up at the airport on Sunday, discovered the problem, and has been stuck in Nepal all week. That would be a nightmare to deal with. it's probably not that difficult to get an American passport issued for her, but the Indian visa will be tricky.
This week has been hectic. I had grades and comments due and I had my choir concert last night. My women's ensemble, children's choir, and adult choir sang last night. Between all the traveling and stress, I made myself sick with diarheah this week. The concert went well. When I perform on my own, I don't get nervous. When you direct a choir, you don't know what is going to happen. All the work has gone into learning the pieces and there is nothing you can do but enjoy the moment of making music with others. I have had enormous anxiety directing this adult choir. I have decided that adults are more difficult than kids. Adults don't show up, they waltz in late, they allow their cell phones to ring (even after reminders), and some even talk on their cell phones in rehearsal (without removing themselves from their seats). I have to be polite. This is also a community choir and a majority of the people don't read music. Some don't match pitch. When one of the singers asked if I would make a cd for all the parts for home practice, I said no, but I would start rehearsal with a 15 minute sight reading lesson. There has been a consistent group coming to that. Then there are a few skilled readers that help pull things along. I picked accessible repertoire that was diverse in time period, style, and tempo. We worked on these pieces and the concert was a success. I will continue to direct it this year because that is the right thing to do. I can't abandon it mid-year, but I will probably not do it next year. My real energy is needed in the classroom and it takes a lot of energy. I love that aspect of making music. I will also begin my thesis next year, so I have to make priorities. This is a good challenge for me, though.
This is also such a busy time. We were invited to two parties last night. We have two tonight (though won't make both of them), and engagements for the next two weeks of school. Matt is teaching me the art of down time and how important it is. He is teaching me how to slow down and not do so much. He's really a very special person. He is sweet, supportive, consistent, healthy, smart, goofy, and very loving. What else can I possibly want? I am a lucky, lucky girl.
I suppose that I won't write again until after winter break. I am sure that I will have many a story from our three weeks in the south (Kerela and Tamil Nadu). Peace, love, and happy holidays to you all!