Our last overnight trip within India is over now and we spent it in Darjeeling (if you enjoy being pedantic like us, remember that Darjeeling rhymes with “gargling” when ordering your Darjeeling tea).
Once again we have defied death with a hair raising ride down from this 7000 ft Himalayan village and tea capital. On the dash of his car, the driver of our 4×4 taxi had an icon of Krishna, Ganesha, and a Buddhist monk that I didn’t recognise and 2 small statues of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus – one painted the other in jade. Together with a string of chili peppers, a cross and a goose or swan in flight, all hanging from the centre rearview mirror, these good luck icons I assume were meant to compensate for the lack of seatbelts in this vehicle which had a sign in large script across the top of the windscreen, “Lord Have Mercy”. Well the Lord was indeed merciful once again and we made it back from our trip safely.
Darjeeling is in a rather remote part of northeast India in the state of West
Bengal. It’s sandwiched between Nepal and Bhutan and doesn’t really feel like India at all. In fact, Raj, a young semi-lucid local man that chased us down to speak with us, told us in conversation that, “we’re not like them at all.” We had come to a similar conclusion as well just based on gut feel and the fact that the local inhabitants, who are mainly of Nepali ethnicity, look and act so different from the Indians we are used to seeing in the rest of the country. There is apparently a certain bit of enmity here with the Indian and Bengali governments as there were large rallies and protests on each of the 3 days of our visit, the last one holding up our downhill jeep ride by 30 minutes as the Gorkhaland movement members, apparently including their armed wing, peacefully marched down the main road.
Generally we avoided the daily rallies by trying to get views of the mountains in hopes of seeing Everest. One is led to believe that it can be seen from here on a sufficiently clear day – I’m guessing a certain amount of optimism, akin to winning the lottery or spotting a garden fairy is required also. Well we believe we’ll win the lottery one day and in garden fairies so we kept trying but to no avail. We did however spot some beautiful snow covered Himalayan peaks such as the very unmemorably named Mount Kanchenjunga.
We also met a group of Americans who were staying in the same hotel as us. They were with a venerable organisation called MercyCorps. A Part of the MercyCorps organisation is called the Phoenix Fund which does seed funding of locally managed projects in third world countries. The people we met were associated with Phoenix Fund and they were in town inspecting and considering funding some local businesses. We had some nice conversations and in talking to Joni Kabana who was photographing their trip (and who showed us some of her amazing photos) found out that we would be in Nepal again at the same time. We’re going to try and meet up with her then in Katmandu just for fun.
We stayed at the Mayfair Hotel which we thought was quite nice. The food was good as was the service. For some reason on the way up the hill upon our arrival I told Mrs. WMG that I was wishing for a hotel room with a fireplace, and sure enough we got one complete with a porter that came in each night to light it. Alas, because our overnight train from Varanasi was 8 hours late, we missed our connection and didn’t get to ride the Toy Train up the hill, but we did take a joy ride from Darjeeling to Ghum which takes about an hour and is worth the 5 bucks.
While our Toy Train ride was stopped in Ghum we had one of those “India Moments”. The locomotive is a coal-fired steam engine. When is stops in Ghum to turn around, they open two trap doors underneath the boiler and dump the ashes out. As soon as they did this, two men crouched over the small piles of smoldering coals and, using their bare hands, started picking out still-burning chunks that had not been completely consumed. When I asked our train conductor what they were doing, she said that those bits would be, “for domestic use”, in other words the men were scavenging these unburned coals to heat their homes.