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The Long and Winding road (India: Day Five)

Started: 2010-03-19 20:08:39

Submitted: 2010-03-19 22:10:45

Visibility: World-readable

I awoke in Siliguri, made some attempt at bathing in the cold-water-only tap in the hotel bathroom, and Willy and I headed out in search of breakfast. We walked down an alley adjacent to Hill Cart Road and found a place serving veg chow mein under a large poster that Willy asserted was archetypal of Indian inspirational posters: it showed a mismatched composite of a road and rail bridge over water with a 747-100 flying overhead and random boats sailing around with the text "Bangladesh". The composite was so preposterous that we spent much of the meal staring at the picture trying to make sense of it.

On our way back to the hotel, I mentioned something that recently occurred to me: After two disastrous family vacations (Moab in 1998 and Rome in 2002), I needed to come to my current appreciation for travel (especially international travel to developing countries with under-developed hot water delivery systems) as an adult on my own terms. It took me several years after graduating from college to remember that I really did appreciate travel, and that I could carve out my own vacations under my own control. Willy confessed that he was surprised when I e-mailed him last fall to propose a visit and identified a turning point in my employer-sponsored trip to Cambridge in 2005. I returned home excited by my experience and went back to London on my own the following year. I contemplated potential lessons for Calvin and concluded that the best I could hope for was to drag him on vacation and hope he gets enough out of it that he can reconstitute his own appreciation as an adult. (I think that's the best I can hope for on any front; there's only so much I can teach him, and I have to rely on him to take care of the rest, on his own terms.)

We grabbed our bags, left our hotel behind, and caught a shared jeep heading to Darjeeling. We headed north out of Siliguri on a succession of roads through a military base, then begun climbing the Himalayan foothills. The road climbed gradually at first, through tea plantations under broad shade trees, then climbed aggressively up switchbacks on steep hillsides. We stopped for refreshments at a restaurant that seemed to be perched precariously halfway up the hillside, desperately clinging to the road.

The Sumo continued up the hillside; even after a dozen switchbacks I could still see the refreshment stop far below. We joined Hill Cart Road and the tiny-gauge Darjeeling Himalayan Railway at an unlabeled junction. The road was generally paved but suffered from large potholes and general wear. At various points the road was being resurfaced by hand; workers pounded stones into gravel, laid the gravel out on the roadbed, and sealed it using tar heated over roadside cooking fires.

We encountered Kuresong halfway to Darjeeling, sprawled across the hillside with a giant Tibetan Buddhist monastery. The locals seemed confident in their understanding of the railway timetable; the single track was used variously as a parking lot, a playground, and a bazaar.

As we continued up the road, the experience started loosing its appeal. I was seated in a bench parallel to the road in the back of the jeep, crammed into the hard edge of the seat in front of me by the passengers beside me. With every bump (and there were many bumps on the road) the seat would bang into my ribs. I wasn't sure how much of this abuse my ribcage could take.

The Sumo stopped to change a tire near Kuresong, and stopped again in front of what passed for a repair shop to change the tire back, apparently with a reinflated or repaired tire. This took some time, giving us passengers a chance to stretch our legs and enjoy the scenery and the chill mountain air. (When we boarded the Sumo in Siliguri the conductor warned that Darjeeling would be cold. Both Willy and I responded, "Good." The heat of the plains was starting to get to me; I didn't pack the right wardrobe for spring in India, and I hoped that spring in Darjeeling would be more to my taste.) We stopped above a tea plantation clinging to the steep hillside. Fog clung to the hills down the valley, and tiny houses dotted the terrain in every direction.

Tea plantation near Darjeeling
Tea plantation near Darjeeling

We bounced into Darjeeling at length and were deposited at the jeep stand in the middle of the city. Hill Cart Road was noisy, crowded, and polluted, just like most of the rest of India I had seen, and I began to wonder if I had come to the right place. Willy and I consulted our guidebooks to orient ourselves and set out in the general direction of the tourist districts, to the east and up the hill. We climbed stairs set between buildings past a group of children panning for valuables in the sludge in the open drains. (I quickly concluded that Darjeeling was a city that rewarded those with a strong sense of spatial orientation, and wondered the sense was the most important trait of travelers.) We checked one well-decorated mid-range hotel recommended by my Lonely Planet guidebook, which did not have any rooms, then stopped by Hotel Lunar two floors below, which rooms available for Rs. 1800/night. This was far more than Willy would have paid but well within my approximate per-diem, so we took a room on the second floor (excluding the ground floor) with a commanding view of one tiny slice of Darjeeling.

Darjeeling from hotel room
Darjeeling from hotel room

It was approaching mid-afternoon and we hadn't eaten since breakfast, so we headed up the main tourist axis to Chowrasta, a plaza near the apex of the city, and looked around for a place to eat. I saw the first white people I had seen in days, which was a strange experience; I was simultaneously fascinated by them (and the thought that they might have more in common with me than the average Indian) and jealous that they had found my private vacation spot. (I usually tried to unsee them as fast as possible. Darjeeling was, in fact, mobbed by tourists, but the vast majority of them were Indian.) We initially rejected one cafe as too touristy, then returned when we decided it was better to eat than have a totally-authentic experience. I ordered a pot of Darjeeling tea and a brand new (to me) south Indian dish, a dosa. Willy was not yet totally enthralled by the idea of Darjeeling tea but decided to try it in an attempt to broaden his horizons. We toasted to Gorkhaland and I tried to figure out how to eat my dosa. It resembled a giant crepe made out of lentil flour, folded in half, with a potato-based filling in the middle. I finally figured out that I could roll it up and fold in the ends, as if it were a burrito, and eat it with my hands. (This may or may not have been appropriate, but being in India I knew I was safe eating with my hands.) I was immediately taken by the dish, and demanded to know where it had been hiding all of my life.

We headed north to the temples on Observatory Hill but missed the turn and ended up taking a walk halfway around the hill. We stopped at a tiny shrine and Willy quizzed me on Hindu gods and iconography. (One of the downsides of listening to lectures on Hinduism was that I didn't see any visual representations of iconography.) We looped back to Observatory Hill, stowed our shoes at the shoe rack, and headed the rest of the way up the hill, ringing bells as we went. (The bells hanging from the entry arches made a satisfying clang in the afternoon air as I reached to ring them as I passed.) At the top of the hill we found a confusing mismatch of Hindu and Buddhist iconography under massed prayer flags. I'm used to seeing a single strand of prayer flags in Boulder, but here there seemed to be hundreds of strands stretched between every available tree, flying thousands of brightly-colored flags, fluttering in the breeze.

Temple entrance on Observatory Hill, Darjeeling
Temple entrance on Observatory Hill, Darjeeling

(Up to this point, the balance of the religion I had experienced in India had been Christian at Willy's school. This is not out of place in Meghalaya, where Christian missionaries converted the tribes a hundred years ago and Christians now dominate the state, but it seemed out of place in India as a whole. On Observatory Hill I studied the icons of Shiva and I knew I was a world away from the religion I grew up in.)

Prayer flags on stupa, Observatory Hill, Darjeeling
Prayer flags on stupa, Observatory Hill, Darjeeling

We descended the hill and headed towards the train station in hopes of finding more about the steam-powered joy-ride trains. We stopped by the post office on the way, where Willy picked up stamps for letters and glue to seal his envelopes. I headed across the street to an Airtel storefront where I inquired about getting a SIM for my mobile phone but learned that I needed proof of a local address (namely, a letter from my hotel manager verifying how long I would be staying) and a pair of passport photos. I had hoped that I would be able to use a mobile phone to post Twitter updates via text message and remain in somewhat better contact with the outside world. My earliest hopes of pervasive coverage were dashed when I learned that the Indian government restricts roaming across the states in the north-east, presumably to thwart insurgent groups agitating for autonomy. Once I settled down in one place for three nights, past the half-way point in my time in India, the remaining red tape was achievable but I abandoned the idea.

We stumbled upon the train station and found it locked for the day. Willy spotted the Dhirdham Mandir, which is supposed to be a replica of Kathmandu's Pashupatinath Temple. It took two tries to find it in the warren of streets and trails winding through the city. Temple was in session as we visited in late afternoon; we stayed outside, walked around the building, listened to the chanting, and enjoyed the view of the city.

Darjeeling from Dhirdham Mandir
Darjeeling from Dhirdham Mandir

We visited the Oxford Book & Stationary Company at Chowrasta and I barely managed to restrain myself from buying too many discount books. I didn't find any inspiring children's books for Calvin (Indians don't seem to believe in board books, which is all Calvin is into at the moment), but I found a vast array of familiar and unfamiliar books on India and its history. Cautious about the volume of luggage I could take back home, I ended up with a book about the history of Darjeeling (and the demand for an independent state of Gorkhaland) and a mediocre promotional guidebook with a detailed fold-out map of the city.

For supper, Willy and I ate at a Tibetan restaurant near our hotel that turned out to be mobbed by tourists. (The "free Tibet" map on the door included an optimistic outline of India, including all of Kashmir.) I wasn't quite sure what to make of the momos (dumplings) or the soup, but the "hot lemon" drink was quite good.

As darkness descended on the city, the power went out; we spent the second half of our meal listening to (and smelling) the tiny electric generator on the front steps of the restaurant. Our hotel's generator powered only the main overhead lights, leaving the reading lights, outlets, and hot water heater inoperable. I went to bed at a modest hour, having successfully flipped my sleep cycle in three days.

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