The Road to Darjeeling
May 2nd, I flew to Bhadapur in southeastern Nepal. India borders Nepal at the flat, dusty, agricultural town of Kakarbhitti, thirteen miles from the airport. There is a free flow of Nepalese and Indians across the border daily; in cars, on foot, bicycle rickshaws and on bicycles over-laden with goods. The driver of the car sent by the hotel, although he lived 146 Km away in Darjeeling was also exempt from immigration, and when we crossed the broad Mechi River Bridge, the actual border between the two countries, he removed the Nepalese plate from the front window of the TATA Spacio and drove with only the Indian plate on the rear of the car.
One thing I observed, was that although Lord Shiva had declared that cows should be free, on the Nepalese border side people tethered their cows, while on the Indian side cows roamed free in fields, on roads, in traffic. As we went on our way the road remained flat until we eventually turned and began an uphill climb. Between the curves and switchbacks so tight they reminded me of coils of the west Indian cobra, I once found in my Dominica kitchen cupboard, sharp rock-sized unpaved gravel sections, super-sized potholes and the driver’s joy at passing the caravan of TATA SUVs and TATA Jeeps also Darjeeling bound, I felt like a passenger in the La Mans with added obstacles. It was while we were traveling higher and higher up this cliff hanging mountain drive, that we encountered stupid goats. Goats that just stood in the road seemingly unable to move unless the side of the car brushed their tails causing them to jump out of their animal ‘haze’ into reality. I have definitely decided that a goat will NEVER be a Rhodes scholar. Actually the nuances of the one cat we saw was much more clever. In what might be considered a game of chicken, he sat down on the opposite side of the road his back to the passing cars and his tail extended straight toward the side with the oncoming traffic. It was as if he had measured the distance and as we passed, he didn’t flick a whisker but just sat there and nonchalantly washed his paw.
After four harrowing hours of near carsickness, we reached Darjeeling in a cold rainy drizzle. Fortunately the comfort of the Snowlion Home Stay, a room service dinner, aglorious hot water shower, the room heater and a hot water bottle made for a cozy arrival.
Darjeeling, like Kathmandu and Timbuktu, has always had a mystical ora for me. But I found that it does not have the class of Shimla, (the British Indian Government’s former summer capital in northwestern India), nor the weather. Mainly because much of the old colonial architecture has been replaced with ugly cement buildings. Like many hill stations, it is chilly, hilly and riddled daily with afternoon rain which leaves the spectacular views and the cool summer climate the main attractions; a summer respite from the oppressive heat and humidity of Calcutta and its southern neighboring states.
I spent much of my time at the hotel recovering from my second respiratory infection, maintaining the same pattern as I did in Pokhara; a short walk daily to the Mall to look at the view and watch the kids take pony rides, then back to the hotel. Not my original plan but it had to do. As soon as I was better, I expanded my walks to the Zoo to see the snow leopard but he sat far away in his enclosure with his back to me. At the Mountain Museum, there is equipment on display used by Tenzing Norgay, the sherpa who guided Sir Edmund Hillary to the top of Mt. Everest summit, in 1953. During my walk to the zoo, signs on all the electrical poles screamed ‘LUZ COZI innerwear’ and I mused, ‘where are mine now that I need them.’ Even though I had long silk underwear LUZ COZIS sounded so, well snuggly. But I didn’t see any in the mall shops or stalls. What a tease.
On my last day I walked down the steep hill to the train stations, a dreary, dirty cement box, to get a ticket for Calcutta for May 16th. Then I walked the Mall up to Observatory Hill, a killer of an up hill walk, where I was rewarded with a small yet unique, round green Hindu temple surrounded by Tibetan prayer flags, magnificent views and renewed wheezing. Damn!
I had already seen a couple of baggers placed outside shops one without legs, and other smaller ones ‘rolling’ down the main Mall street making high pitched sounds to be more noticeable with tin cups in their hands. But walking up to the top of Observatory Hill was the first place I saw the traditional Indian/Hindu baggers who follow the seasons traveling from resort to resort lined up along a walkway. An obvious sign that Darjeeling’s tourist season had begun.
Many of Darjeeling’s locals are former Gurkha’s; retired members of an Indian/Nepali regiment of the British military. Darjeeling, India is one of the two recruiting stations (the other, Pokhara, Nepal). Entry into this crack military unit is so rigorous applicants often break limbs or worse during the selection process. Because of the area’s relationship with the Gurkhas, the locals have labeled this corner of Northeastern India, Gorkhaland and occasionally these inhabitants, fomented by the retired Gurkhas, cause strikes or minor insurrections in an attempt to secede from India and become it’s own country.
Darjeeling is also known for its excellent boarding schools, many started by the British so they would not have to send their sons back to England. Currently there are numerous boarding schools for both boys and girls, but St. Paul’s is the most famous with such a rigorous curriculum that children throughout India and as far away as Thailand are sent there to study.
Tea plantations surround Darjeeling and I had hoped to visit one, but my plans changed. Having already been to two, one in China, the other in Sri Lanka I was not too disappointed. Because of a festival at the Rumtek Monastery on May 11th and 12th, I decided to leave Darjeeling a day early for Rumtek and then go on to Gangtok, the capital of ‘Sikkim. Lama chham dances at Rumtek seemed much more exciting than a vat of roasting tea.