Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Random Notes From Darjeeling

Sunrise at Tiger Hill overlooking Kanchenjunga
This morning I awoke at 3:45 a.m. and hired a driver to get through some pretty rough terrain as we climbed through the outskirts of villages up these impossible dirt paths into the mountains up to Tiger Hill just above Darjeeling. (For all of you who don’t know, Darjeeling sits in the northeast corner of India in West Bengal) Here there is a serious fog and pollution problem and so the Himalayas, which are right above the ridge, are rarely seen. In the picture above, those are not clouds, but Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak. Mt. Everest, which is sometimes visible from here, would be to the left. We could not see it do to the fog.
Anyway, it was sort of a rush rush job as most things in Asia are. We sat in an observatory tower while the wind howled and sipped thimbles of chai while the “real” photographers with their ridiculous telephoto lenses barked at the other tourists not to mess up their shots. Anyway, a fine morning to watch the sunrise, they acted like I’d never seen one, and sneak a peek at this massive peak.
Ghoom Temple and Monastery
On the drive back we stopped at the Ghoom Temple just on the other side of town where the Toy Train has a station. I like touring Buddhist temples, and certainly Buddhism as a philosophy is interesting, but as I’ve stated before, this is not my belief as a man or father. Still, it is interesting to visit and compare. Ghoom Temple is a monastery, as are many of the temples I visited in India where traveling monks stay, pray, and study for long periods of time.
This particular Temple had many wonderful tapestries, musical instruments, and an authentic feel, but what most impressed me were the available prayer books they had on the shelves. This is unusual and means the monks are often in this inner sanctuary praying. I’ve seen many of these ceremonies and they are kind of mesmerizing and cool, but to see the cloth books hanging there in the cubbies was even cooler for me.
The Doctor Come Monday
Okay, total honesty time. I have worms. Or, what I think are worms. It’s not my first bout either. Years ago in China I got ringworm from swimming in the Li and Yellow Rivers and I fear my jumps in the Ganges has given me parasites. I am battling tough bowels and have developed a big rash on my back. So... I thought, okay, I’ll just go see the doctor. So I walked down into the Darjeeling village, there is a little clinic there I have passed the last couple of days and thought to check in. I enter, take a number sit. When all of a sudden it becomes night of the living dead. I mean they are bringing in legless, armless, faceless people. Just horrific. I wait retching for an hour for my number to be called. Nothing. Finally I go up to the counter and say to the nurse, “Hello. I want doctor.” I lift up my shirt to show my red back. She waves me off. “No doctor. We are only nurses. If you are having a baby we can assist but this, you need street clinic.”
Street clinic? Sounds safe and sanitary. So I go outside back up the hill and find a little open aired clinic with just a guy sitting behind a counter with a massive treasure trove of Viagra, pseudoephedrine, asprin, and all kinds of crazy vials on the shelf. His sign says he advertises EKG’s and is an excellent gynecologist. I bet. I lift up my shirt and point. “Doctor.” He grimaces. “Doctor come Monday.” Today was Saturday. “No, I leave tomorrow, doctor today?” He shakes his head. “Doctor come Monday.”
Well, suffice to say. I mimed out my problems and the guy gave me some calamine lotion with aloe and a couple of nasty pills he wrapped in newspaper. They wrap everything from cod to jewelry in newspaper, and he sent me on my way. Hurrah!
Death Defying Drivers of Darjeeling
This needs to be said… the Darjeeling drivers are amazing. We’re talking flying down these mountain switchbacks, one wheel hanging off a thousand foot drop, me in the back seat saying, “Dude… No, dude.” Other cars flying at us head on and the drivers just totally calm, keeping me alive, driving backward down mountain slopes. Just sick. It doesn’t matter if we are cruising to the Tibetan refugee camps to watch the old woman shave sheep, and spin it on old bicycle wheels into woolen caps and blankets, or heading up to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute to check out ancient gear Sir Edmund Hillary used or just tooling around the mountainside tea plantations, my driver was awesome.
In fact, he was so good, I actually got out of the car and hugged him, twice. I hugged another man because he was such a good (wait, not good, totally insane risked my life a million times) sort of masochistic maniac. I loved it.
Low Tech Savvy
Everyday ends with the same internal conflict. How in the world am I going to find internet? The main problem is that there are constant rolling blackouts. In Leh, the government shut the power off from 11:00 p.m. and didn’t turn it back on until about 7:00 p.m. the next day. That meant that everywhere you went, inside each little store, it was lit up by candles, which is wonderful and beautiful, but sort of annoying if you want to keep up with people back home. The same is true for Darjeeling. While lovely and romantic and sets this quaint mood in the village, I often had to just swallow my impatience and go with the flow, low tech flow, that is.
Viva la Gorkhaland!
Perhaps my favorite little oddity about the people of Darjeeling are the hundreds of flags, posters, signs, graffiti walls paintings saying, “We are Gorkhaland!” or “We will fight for India, but we will die for Gorkhaland.” I’d never seen anything like it. So I asked a local buddy and he explained. Gorkhaland is a word describing the native Gurkha people who have lived in these mountains forever. Currently their culture and language is under the rule of the West Bengali government and they would like to form their own Indian State with the local government in Darjeeling.
I admired their spirit and many of their stories of fighting in the hills over the last few decades. India is a country still settling in its independence and it feels current and relevant to be in Darjeeling among this beautiful people who have wonderful and passionate ideas of freedom and clear cultural government representation. Viva la Gorkhaland!

1 comment:

  1. you know what they say, you don't know how to drive unless you've successfully driven in India!

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