02
Oct
08

End of India

After roaming through the Sunderbans, home of the elusive, man-eating Royal Bengal Tiger, and not seeing anything, I headed up to Darjeeling.

Darjeeling kicked my ass. The colonial hill station is almost as good as having a personal trainer for a best friend. I didn’t realize on the Jeep ride up from Siliguri, into the Himalayas, that I’d too, have to motor myself to the top, evading monkeys, motorbikes and mamas along the way. My butt is sore.

It helps though, that I finally get to wear a sweater, and I’m even happy to wear socks for the first time in two months. The proprietor of the hotel where I’m staying offered me a red and white polka-dot umbrella, whose cane-shaped handle I gleefully swing as I pant up the hills. “Aunties” in salwar kamisas, the long shirt with matching pants, pass me headed up the mountainside. School girls in grey or blue skirts reply with a shy namaste; the feral dogs cast me empathetic glances as I huff and puff by them.

From my heavenly domain on the top of one hill, I can see much of the village below. When the clouds clamor in—and they do, quickly—the valley takes on a hushed tone, the kind that would encourage one to contemplate Nirvana while sitting cross-legged in front of a gompa (a Buddhist monastery).

I’ve taken to smiling at everyone I walk past. Most grin in return, the soft, narrow eyes of the locals squinting smaller still as they flash their teeth. All the walking must make for the friendliness of the people. Just yesterday, after chatting with Nikolai from Observatory Hill, an old man sat down on the bench next to me. “Chai?” he offered, and requested a school girl to bring two cups from the woman selling on the corner. The man and I chatted, sipping our sweetened tea. When our plastic cups were emptied, he insisted on accompanying me to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Center. Along the way, “Uncle” taught me how to say hello to different groups of Himalayan peoples; he bought me hard orange candies from road-side stands, and though he purported to know exactly where he was going (or was that a misunderstanding lost in translation on my part?) he stopped at every intersection and asked for directions.

At the final junction, I said goodbye to my new friend and wandered into the Refugee Center. Today, on my way to the Happy Valley Tea Plantation, I bumped into “Uncle” again, both of our umbrellas popped open under the afternoon sprinkle.

I’ve been doing my best to wake up at 3:30 a.m. to hop the Jeep to Tiger Hill, where the sun rises over the Kanchenjunga mountain range. Apparently, it’s a spiritual experience. But so is sleeping in. I’ll get up one of these mornings. I’m also trying my hardest to limit my tea consumption to less than two pots a day. Two pots. But it’s the thing to do here, and the steep and the steam get me.

Tomorrow I leave Darjeeling. I haven’t woken up at 3:30. I failed to see the gompas down the road. I never made it to the zoo; I’ve been unsuccessful at hopping on the toy train.

Instead, I’ve clung to the hillside and curled up with a number of books from the hostel’s magnificent library: Kingsolver, Krakauer, Tolstoy, Evans, Hemingway, Wharton, Marx, Desai. I’ve scribbled in my notebook, articulating indulgent algorithms of alliteration, listened to the rain and the pigeons outside my window, watch a man on a rooftop watch birds. Tried to determine whether it was sweat or rain dripping from the nape of my neck. Chatted with Tenzin, who shares her name with His Holiness, about the weavers at the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Center. I’ve composed my days around books and words, compiling lists of strong verbs lifted from Ursula Hegi’s Floating in My Mother’s Palm. Waited for my towel to dry, sniffed it for mold, rearranged my room’s furniture to accommodate my recently revived yoga practice. Sprung to my shower at 4:30 on the dot for my allocated hot water. Bumped into the same friends six times in one day as our umbrellas jostled for space down narrow staircases.

I wouldn’t say I’ve been lazy—I have to hike half a mountain just to return home—rather, intellectual. Here, where the mountains loft themselves towards the heavens, one has to do nothing to contemplate enlightenment.

***

I’ve had a mad four-day car journey in and out of Nepal and India, on my way to Katmandu, which you’ll hear about in a few weeks. I have a quick turn around—tomorrow at 4:30 a.m. I head out to Gorkha, a nine-hour bus ride and a three day hike out into the mountains. The village doesn’t have electricity or running water, so…you won’t hear from me for a few weeks. I’ll be celebrating the local Nepali festivals in the village, and recording the oral history of Nepalese elders. Stories, stories, stories to come!!

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