Saturday, March 23, 2013

Experiences

As is often the case when waiting for shared jeeps to fill up, it takes time. So I sat, listening to the drivers holler out the names of their destinations.
Darjeeling!
Nepal!
Gangtok!

The jeep left at 6 am. As we ascended on the road snaking through perfectly sculpted forests I felt as if I was driving through a picture postcard. The higher we went the colder it got. Soon, signs of waking life were visible on the sides of the streets. Young boys playing football on their school grounds. Women walking with empty wicker baskets strapped to their backs. Children going to school. Families brushing their teeth in the alleys by their homes. More children going to school. Shop shutters opening. Boys walking back from football practice with cleats dangling from their hands. The narrow tracks of the toy train flowing calmly on the right side of the road. More children going to school. The kids had ruddy pink cheeks, very squish-a-licious. The women were all extremely stylish, wearing some shade of brightly-coloured lipstick. As we approached the town of Darjeeling more vehicles and people came onto the streets which in India is a guaranteed formula for traffic jams. Nevertheless, I was distracted by the picturesque, colourful homes, the extremely good-looking people, and the natural beauty both above and below me.

I arrived in Darjeeling town at 10 am. Mission #1: find a place to stay. I figured the higher up I go the cheaper the accomodation. I wasn't exactly right. There were some nice places, but they were costly, and others were downright shabby. Breathless and after many unsuitable hotels I chanced upon Grace Inn. The rooms were clean, there was hot water, and a television greeted me. I'll take it.

Mission #2: Food. My stomach held the remnants of morning chai and little else, so I entered the first joint I stumbled upon. It was empty which meant service would be quick. The unsmiling potbellied owner of the six-table restaurant pointed to where I should sit. I ordered chicken curry and two chapattis. I also asked the gentleman for suggestions on what to see. This was his list:

- Himalaya Mountaineering Institute (HMI)
- Happy Valley Tea Estate
- Rock Garden
- Tibetan Refugee Center

The man was shaved bald, a tiny lock of hair remaining on his scalp. Framed photographs of Hindu gods and godesses filled his walls. He stared at me for a while before saying "I thought you were Anglo-Indian. People from Delhi are not as polite as you are." He proceeded to recount multiple instances of students from Delhi and Calcutta who were obnoxiously rude to him when they came to his restaurant. Calcutta, he added, was full of illegal Bangladeshis. Full of them, he said. I sensed some Muslim hostility. This was Mr. Gupta for you - a man with opinions and piping hot chapattis.

My first stop was to the Padmaji Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park which included HMI. It was a visual treat - parakeets, a black bear, blue sheep with curved horns, a panther, snow leopard, the list went on. People's fingers were permanently glued to the shutters of their cameras. I was thankful I did not have one. Watching the animals was sad and beautiful all at the same time; they were being held captive, but they were also being protected.

Lunch consisted of fried momos and Darjeeling tea at Hot Stimulating Cafe. Groovy music in a language I did not understand was playing in the background. I got to chatting with one of the guys who was waitering at the joint. It turns out he was a XLRI graduate who was visiting his friend in Darjeeling. I also met two Korean women who were on a journey from the south of India to the north. Now in Darjeeling, they were entering their third month of traveling. I wondered if I would have met these individuals had I not travelled alone. It seemed unlikely.

As I walked back the long, uphill road I bought a sweater, a fuzzy multi-coloured entity with fringes on the bottom. This granted me official tourist status as I now stuck out like a sore thumb. Along the walkway, three young men were sitting on the curb, playing incredibly beautiful music on sarangis. The man in the center was slightly older than the other two, and he was the lead singer and player of melodious solos. The two younger ones on either side were plucking and hitting their bows against the strings. A few bells attached to their bows functioned as jingly percussion. They were singing Nepali love songs in such harmony that I was fixated for quite some time. Others passed by. Some bothered to stop, only to take out their voice recorders and Ipads to document this event. I also dropped by a cafe cum bakery called Glenary's where an assortment of sweet concoctions awaited my hungry belly. Behind the glass pane lay chocolates, muffins, cookies and a variety of other goods. I ordered a coconut macaroon, a chocolate muffin, and a cup of coffee. So. So. Good.

Harshal, a TISS alumnus just happened to be in town, so we dined together, reminiscing of the days gone by. Around 8 pm I head back to the hotel, as that is when the city sleeps in Darjeeling. Stores were shut, streets were dark and empty, and restaurants were closed. I spent the remainder of my night buried in the warmth of my blankets, comfortably watching Players. Nothing beats a trashy Bollywood film to conclude a super awesome day :)
 

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