inside/outside

Rachael and I keep talking, often joking, about “the real India”.  The one that isn’t on the tourism advertisements, all brilliant colours, clean air and precocious healthy children.  Apart from the mundane, grimy reality, the main gap between imaginary India and real India is cultural.  We are outsiders.  So, quickly enough, you learn that entering the core of India is pretty much impossible.  It’s more a question of getting closer, approaching through suspicions, feelings, assumptions.  And you learn the most, I think, from chatting with other people.

We met a fascinating travel agent on our train trip from Kolkata to Siliguri (New Jalpaiguri to be precise).  While keeping up a steady stream of salesman-speak, telling us how Australians were his favourite people (hmm…), he seemed to be genuinely taking us under his well-fed, middle-class wing.  He reminded us that India’s population is growing at the size of Australia every year!  At that rate, and with the extent of corruption and already existing poverty, it’s hard to imagine what this country will look like in the future.  The government and the people have a herculean task ahead of them.  Anyway, as it turns out, our train companion, as friendly as he seemed, disappeared soon after suggesting we get a taxi together.  Oh well.  Unpredictability is part of the fabric here.  So, Rachael and I wound our way through mercenary taxi touts and train-station homeless children tapping us on the arm, to find our way to the share taxi stop at Siliguri, where we finally start to leave the energy of Kolkata behind.

Ill health has reared its ugly mucus-smeared head.  Nothing serious, luckily.  I thought it was the leftovers of Kolkata pollution throat, but it was a potent little head cold.  I hit the worst of it – my nose becoming a river – in Darjeeling, which took the sheen off the place – and now (here in Sikkim) Rachael’s enduring it.  Still, the immense beauty of the hills penetrates pretty much anything.

We stayed at Andy’s Guest House again.  A simple place, Andy’s has a library stocked by fellow travellers, a fantastically friendly couple running the place (thanks Genesis for your shawl that morning I got up early to watch Khangchendzonga light up), and one of the best views in town from its rooftop viewing platform.  Cold, but worth it.

view from Andy's Guest House, Darjeeling
view from Andy's Guest House, Darjeeling

On our second day, the strikes began again.  As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the West Bengal Hills is still in the throes of the Gorkhaland movement, demands for more autonomy (or independance).  There had been violence surrounding two opposing marches in a town on the plains, so there was a sudden decision to shut Darjeeling down in solidarity.  Feeling sick and vulnerable, I just wanted somewhere to eat.  You realise, of course, that this is not your place.  Tourism is huge in this area, but really, it is someone else’s home, with all the cultural, political, economic, social complexities and complications.  So, we spend the next two days living off oranges and biscuits, but also managed to find two intriguing places to eat and socialise.

We found a hotel near ours that looked like it would have meals.  They didn’t but, almost whispering, they said they would ring their caterer and he might make us a meal.  While we waited for our order, the young assistant manager of the hotel, who looked late teens or early twenties, told us how he’d been studying marketing, is keen to try to save money so he can go overseas eventually (knowing it may take a decade or so), believes the gods will give you what you dream of if you keep asking.

The night after, we decided to approach the imposing black gates of the Elgin Hotel.  A sober, colonial institution, they do “high tea”.  Of course, the cakes were a little stale, the sandwiches bland, and it cost a thousand rupees, but the tea was great, and we met the owners of three other Elgin Hotels in India.  A wonderfully down-to-earth yet also managerial, somewhat elevated couple, they regaled us with eye-opening tales of the underbelly of the Hills.  Violence from police and Gorkhaland supporters was endemic in the 1980s; lax or non-existent building regulations leading to houses sliding down hillsides; corrupt government officials; monks acting in defiantly unenlightened ways…  Fascinating to get a glimpse into India we only suspected before.  Not being Bengali in background, they both had the insight of outsiders.  The impacts of colonialism, the caste system, government ineffectiveness, patriarchy, all seem to converge in India in depressingly potent effect.

While in Darjeeling, we didn’t just wander aimlessly hoping for the strikes (and my running nose) to end.  As it was for me when I was here a few weeks ago, one highlight was the breathtaking, expansive walk to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre on the outskirts of town.  This time, apart from browsing their store, we saw inside the carpet weaving workshop.  They were on a break, so we strolled around brilliant carpets and the resting tools with the patina of work and attention.  Something about it made me want to weep.  Beautiful and honest and rich and simple.

I also wanted to visit Observatory Hill again.  Strangely, it was pretty much empty – no tour guides, hardly any priests or monks, no beggars on the walk up the hill, not even a single monkey!  I’d built it up as being  pretty intense (see my earlier blog entry), but as usual, India does what you least expect.  A really palpable sense of the passionate devotion of people is here – webs of prayer flags, cave shrines, so much colour and sincerity embedded in the built environment.  And, in what’s becoming strangely, almost humourously common, we get asked where we’re from, then immediately offered grass!

The strike broke for a few hours, so we took the opportunity to head to Gangtok, Sikkim.  More about that next time – the majestic Teesta River, our smooth driver, the surprises of Gangtok…

skin

I’ve been back in Kolkata for over a week now.  I came back to meet my partner  Rachael, who arrived here on Friday night (2 days ago).  I am in a different city.  Well, I’m seeing it differently, at least.

I have developed a slightly thicker skin, I think, callouses over my soul, so to speak.  You have to.  Walk past just one family home of cardboard and plastic on the footpath, just one eyeless beggar, or be followed by a man whose pleading, broken mantra is “no money, no food”, would be enough, but it’s day after day, image after image, body after body.  In the face of it, your mind, soul, conscience goes into cramp.  And you get tougher.  And you mourn your own toughness, because you like to think of yourself as compassionate and able even to make some kind of difference.  India, especially the big cities, is bewildering.  It even makes you feel your own feelings of grief or neurosis or self-esteem are a bit of an indulgence.

Kolkata streetscape
Kolkata streetscape

While I feel tougher, I’ve also opened up so much.  Being with Rachael here, we’re of course talking voraciously and with awe and shock, so I’m being reminded of all my initial (and still continuing but held at bay) feelings about Kolkata.   Little brief weepings are unavoidable and useful.

It’s wonderful she’s here.  Someone who I can talk with at an intimate, passionate, fluid level, my dear partner who I feel such simpatico with.

It’s still a big effort doing anything, going anywhere, but I feel this visit, I’ve done so much more, because I’m starting to become vaguely aclimtaised, accustomed.

A few days ago I went to the Indian Botanical Gardens, then back again with Rachael yesterday.  It was created in the late 18th century, and includes a monumentally huge Banyan tree.  The tree feels more like a little forest – a whole colony of aerial roots, tendril-like but also elephantine and web-like – such energy and persistence.  It’s over 250 years old, supposedly almost a kilometre in circumferance; the main branch was infected by a fungus and was removed in the 1920s, but of course it persists.  It’s in India, after all.

The garden itself is of course strewn with rubbish, the trees are covered with a film of pollution, but to me it is a real oasis – families picnicking, kids playing, couples kissing on ancient concrete seats.  We also saw a small group of huge monkeys, nonchalantly sitting in the shade, waiting to be fed bananas from children who were much less unnerved by them than I was!

While I think of it, I’d like to put in a little advertisement for Earthcare Books – a tiny but so full store of environmental, feminist, political, spiritual books run by a very cluey and stylish woman.  It’s on Middleton Street, behind the Drive Inn (great outdoor restaurant-cum-used car dealership!!).

And, we finally found The Indian Coffee House.  I won’t write about it.  Just immerse yourself in this photo…

Indian Coffee House, off College St, Kolkata
Indian Coffee House, off College St, Kolkata

Oh, and why skin as a title?  Well, it’s not just because mine is thicker but because it’s very very pale.  Here in India, for the well-off, skin whitening products are very popular, which is so disturbing on many levels, but above all, for most people, white skin is a curiosity.  Rachael and I are both getting that clinical examination/stare, and for once (for me) it’s usually not about my spinal curvature but about my skin.  For her, it has that added layer of being a woman.  And this is very much a man’s world.  Men are not even bothered by the fact I’m with her, they will keep staring, sometimes quite openly ogling.  It’s not easy to cope with, and impossible to do anything about, really.  It just is.  In my vulnerable moments, it breaks my heart, angers and upsets me.  But so often you just have to get on with it.  India is non-negotiable.

One more thing – I went to the National Library here, the biggest in India.  The librarian I met really opened up when I asked him if they follow Ranganathan!  No, they use Dewey combined with AACR!  Getting a book is a very laborious, but pleasurably antiquated, process – card catalogue, request slips, duplicate copies thereof…  Beautiful buildings (really a colony of libraries, departments, not just one building), still ambience, and millions of books in dozens of languages.  Gorgeous.  I was exhausted getting there, though, so didn’t stay long.

Rachael and I leave for Darjeeling on Tuesday night.  I can’t wait.

photogenic

I’m writing this on my last afternoon in Malda.  Thank the gods.  Well, Malda’s been interesting enough, but for this tall white boy, five days is a little too much.

I’ve been feeling a little flat recently.  India seems to have lost some of its sheen (or, its grime seems to be prominent!).  I shouldn’t be surprised of course – I assume after a few weeks, the adrenalin wanes, the novelty becomes a little more everyday; and also, I went from the exquisite air and scenery of Mirik to the cacophany and hustle of Siliguri and now Malda.

Before I tell you about Malda, I have to mention my new friend Jay.  While I was waiting for the bus out of Siliguri, fending off precocious begging children (“biscuit??”) and my own sense of bewilderment and sadness, Jay came up and sat down next to me to chat.  He’s an English teacher from a town on the border of West Bengal and Assam, a lovely young gentleman – he gave me a few names of Bengali novelists and I gave him my little chapbook.  A beautiful human relief in the midst…

Malda is a town of about 150,000 I think.  At first it seemed like it consisted entirely of the highway, dotted with mechanics and roaring with trucks and buses.  A few steps off the main road proved me wrong.  It’s the market centre for the region.  An immense rabbit-warren of 4 sq.m shops selling fabrics and jewellery and rice, undercover stalls for produce and spices, and numerous laneways covered in dusty blue plastic sheets on which are carefully arranged a bounty of fruit and veg.  I’ve not been up early or late enough to see this place completely empty.  They sell by candlelight, flourescent light hanging from poles, and in the full sun.  There are even street-side butchers for chickens and goats.

Malda - boys playing cricket among the rubbish
Malda - boys playing cricket among the rubbish

Almost every eatery is a dhaba, those roadside snack stores that are one step up from a tent – canvas or bamboo walls, portable gas burner, flies – often fantastic food, but I’m not always confident…

My main reason for stopping at Malda was to explore some ruins nearby.  Apparently in the 13th to 16th centuries, Bengal was quite a centre for Islam.  Pandua, north of Malda, is home to Adina Masjid, the 3rd largest mosque in the world (or so I’m told).  It is indeed vast and majestically beautiful – the stone courtyard is about a hundred metres by a hundred metres.  A few kilometres from Adina is the Eklakhi Mausoleum, a stunning domed building housing the body of Sikander Shah.  Here’s where I got a call from Australia – great to hear your voices, Schnig, Norman, Annika and Katie!

South of Malda is Gaur (pronounced a bit like gore) – the area around the village contains four mosques from various eras, most around the 15th century.  Incredibly powerful places and that sober, muscular, austere yet ornate architecture you might expect.

Adina Mosque, West Bengal
Adina Mosque, West Bengal

I have at times felt like India has only one tense – a swirling, churning, irresistable, repetitive present.  But seeing these places has reminded me that it has a past – a complex past that still reverberates into today.  Which implies, to me, a future…

Another thing about this excursion I should mention is that the roads to get there are incredibly bad – more potholes than road.  The Ambassador taxi you get (thanks Raj, you drive a hard bargain but a fine car) will be surprisingly comfortable though (those old seats, I guess).  It’s a full day’s trip, so cost me a fair bit, because I went solo, couldn’t find anyone else at my hotel to join me.  Still, worth it.

The other thing I must mention about Malda is that at times I feel like a movie star.  Everywhere I go, people turn and stare and turn around again and look, even on bicycles as trucks hurtle past them.  I must have caused a few accidents at least!  And as I walk past, men yell out from across the street – “hey! what is your name!” or “where are you from!!”.  At those breathtaking structures, sobering historical ruins, groups of Indian men would gather round and want their photo taken with me.  Apparently, I’m of much more interest.  On my bad days, it irritates the hell out of me.  Mostly, it’s absurd and hilarious and just vaguely irritating.  I’m not sure if this is universal, but for me at least it’s impossible to travel to India and lose myself.  Mirrors of all kinds are everywhere.

Indian men, capturing the "sights" at Adina Mosque
Indian men, capturing the "sights" at Adina Mosque

Since Malda is pretty quiet, I’ve been reading a bit (Kiran Desai’s “The Inheritance of Loss”, modern Indian poetry in English, just starting Borges), and watching some television.  Now, TV is pretty astounding as well, in a kind of depressing way.  I’ve seen advertisements for skin whitener and back braces for pre-teens, some lurid 70’s disco Bollywood scenes, intriguing debates on terrorism, soap operas with the same framing and close-ups as the West, and after a few weeks in India, to see a woman in revealing swimwear is actually kind of shocking.  When I have more time and brain, I’ll ruminate about India’s particular version of patriarchy or conservatism or whatever is the right word.

seduced by Mirik

Ah, Mirik, no wonder the Indian middle-class flock to you in the winter!  You have seduced me (although I may be a bit easy 😉 )!

Path around Lake Sumendu, Mirik
Path around Lake Sumendu, Mirik

Mirik is a small hill-town of about 15,000 people, about 2,000 metres above sea level.  The older part of town is a gently bustling trading and farming village, but the town now also centres around Lake Sumendu, a man-made lake, surrounded by bamboo, cedar, ferns.  I wandered around the stone and dirt paths that circle the lake and criss-cross the surrounding forest for hours.  The Indian tourists ride horses around its perimeter, glide across the lake on paddle-boats, or (as I found out soon enough) set up picnics on the shore and play filmi (bollywood tunes) loudly and distorted through huge speakers.  Ok, that part doesn’t sound so wonderful, but even that was kind of beautiful.

Mirik, West Bengal
Mirik, West Bengal

The outskirts of Mirik, the steep and the gentle hillsides, are populated by orange orchards, cardamom groves, and plenty of tea plantations.  So, in spite of its tourist appeal, it has none of the tourist vibe of Darjeeling.  Let me give you a few snapshots…

I visited the island shrine to Parvati, and one on a hilltop to Durga.  The island is perhaps ten metres by fifteen, the shrine tiny, reached by a footbridge.  When I went there first, I was entirely alone, so sat on the steps and just absorbed, and wrote, and sat…

The hilltop shrine is actually a complex of shrines, around 6, connected by a circular path, which wound around a banyan tree.  I know next to nothing of the stories of Hinduism, and the images are still hard to access, but at some temples, there is a real sense of the spiritual, perhaps the patina of the years of accumulated devotion.  Both places were deeply moving and beautiful, sublime perhaps.

I have to say, of course, that when I left Mirik and arrived in Siliguri, I soon enough saw a small temple near the river, surrounded by dust and grime and bamboo shacks, immense poverty… and somehow I was reminded of Marx’s infamous quote about opium…  Easy to be “inspired” in a sublime environment…

There is also a huge monastery in Mirik.  On my last day there, I got up at dawn, walked the 15 minute hill road to get there, and on the way, it was the first clear day since I’ve been there, and there the Himalayas were, looming white and majestic on the horizon!  Breathtaking.  I’d been having a touch of the Western guilts, wondering what I was doing here, having my own little experiences, leaving behind empty plastic mineral water bottles, going home… It reminded me that in the midst of a transporting experience, there is no self to agonise over.

I hover outside the prayer hall for a while, a bit aghast at the building itself, an immense five-story crimson and saffron palace almost, intricately yet subtly decorated… but decided I should go in.  Hundreds of monks are at morning prayer.  I slip as quietly and anonymously as a non-robe-wearing, white man can, and sit in a corner.  Waves and currents of chanted prayer, gongs, the sound is like an orchestra, each voice a distinct voice yet disappearing into the whole.  Again, I can only enter the outer perimeter of the significance of what’s happening, so I sit and absorb, and attempt my own version of prayer, chant, meditation, presence.  I leave after maybe 15 minutes, and of course they’re still going…, walk down the hill feeling different yet the same…

I stay at Hotel Ashirvad, a tiny place off the main street.  I couldn’t get through on the phone to book, so was a little nervous.  I was greeted at the door by a 10-year old girl, who when I ask if there’s a room, she leaves, I assume to get the manager.  An 8 year-old boy comes out, shows me upstairs to a tiny single room, says it’s normally 200 rupees, but I can have it for 150, motions me to sit down, relax, then rushes downstairs to carry my huge backpack upstairs!  I meet Dad the manager later, but it’s so uncanny and unnerving to meet a child who is so confident and accustomed to the world of work.  At other times, I’ve been slapped back to reality, when after admiring the humble architecture of a village home, I’ve turned the corner to see a six-year old collecting wood or sweeping the path.  It’s not Australia’s reality, but it’s reality for so much of the world.

The only time in Mirik that I was approached by strangers who wanted something from me was when a group of young Indian men wanted their photo taken with me!  Oh, and I while I was sitting in my room one cool morning, with the window open, a monkey stuck his head in, his fingers gripping the window-sill, his face curious.  I shoo him away, as you do…

I spent Christmas dinner at Jagjeet restaurant, a family of one.  A portly bearded Sikh gent played with a small girl (better than Santa any day!).  She later wandered around the restaurant, running her toy truck across any improvised road she could find, including my leg.  I could weep, with a blur of contentment, yearning, melancholy and joy.

Thankyou Mirik.  A wonderful way to end my time in the West Bengal Hills.  But, Siliguri was about to remind me of another side of India, and bring up tears of a different kind…

someone else’s town

OK, so it’s stretching it a little to call my room at the Hotel Delhi Durbar in Kurseong a gaol cell. But after the giddy ecstasy of the toy train, I loaded my immense backpack onto my back, which is not really designed for 75-litre backpacks, and staggered up the hill, hoping to find the Hotel. It wasn’t “near the station” as my friends in Lonely Planet had said, but a fair hike up the main road, 10-15 minutes, which isn’t easy with your life on your shoulders.

Anyway, I have the choice of 3 rooms – each is pale purple, linoleum floor, exposed light fittings, paper-thin mattresses and doonas that look a thousand years old. The choice is basically whether I want to face the mountains or the road, and whether I want my toilet to have a window. Sigh. I’ve had pretty fantastic accommodation so far, and need to save some money, so Delhi Durbar it is.

Here is the point at which I almost cry out “stop it!!!”, as in the morning, I can almost visualise the viscous deposits that are being noisily hoiked up from the throat and lungs of the men in the rooms next to me.  The bathrooms back onto each other, and their walls don’t reach the ceiling, so the resonance is memorable, to say the least.  Wonderful wake-up call!

As it turns out, the owner is quite lovely, with his calm uncle demeanor and his coiffured almost-wig-looking black hair. He gives me a few hints on the town’s sights, and lights up with recognition when I tell him I’m a poet – “ah, you know Tagore?”. Of course I do.

Kurseong’s main street is the railway line, and most of its streets are narrow, winding and/or steep.  It’s not a tourist town; I feel like I don’t quite belong – there are no tourist shops, few signs, everywhere people are just getting on with their lives – it has a huge semi-covered market, where you can get fresh fish (filleted before your eyes), vegetables, spices, grains, clothes, shoes and lots of plastic.  The shops, which are often tailors, sweets stores, corner store-style shops, are usually smaller than a walk-in robe in one of those McMansions.

Off the main street, there are oceans of tea plantations, undulating hills, a pastel checkerboard of houses clinging to those hills, English-era boarding schools and churches.  When mid-afternoon hits, in winter, fog rushes across the town, so thick you can see only 10 metres ahead.

It’s not the season, so I don’t get to see any of Kurseong’s famed orchids, but I do take a long meandering hike up the main ridge to see the sights.  Half  way up, I’m a little lost, and am given an impromptu “tour” by 70-something-year-old local man BB Chitre.  Walking these steep, rugged streets, I’m panting, but he’s fine.  He takes me to see the reservoir (um, yes, that is a lot of water…), the officer’s quarters for the West Bengal Forestry Department (hmm, yes, interesting…), and the Forestry Museum (which is closed).  The streets, the hills, the houses, the air, though… sublimely beautiful and humbly gorgeous.

BB is a lovely guy.  Language is a gulf we struggle to cross, but something clicks.  He finds us a share taxi to go down the hill (twelve of us in a Land Rover…), and asks if I can help him get to Siliguri.  I give him money to cover his fare; he asks for more; I say I don’t have it; he insists; I say I can’t… eventually he’s happy, and bends down to nudge his forehead against my chest, gripping my hands and grinning.  We swap addresses.

Kurseong is a subtle town – it doesn’t need to impress you, doesn’t really need you, in fact.  But I got so many hellos and namastes and smiling nods of the head here.  There are no hassles, and it has a heart of gold.  On my three days here, I saw one other non-Asian, and she was leaving…

Kurseong
Kurseong

I also had some fantastic food.  Sadly, the great food is often in the places where you get the over-the-top, “everything OK sir?”, watching-you-like-a-servant-hawk service.  At first it grated on me immensely.  I’m not a sir.  I hate being reminded that I am the rich one, being waited on by people earning what I’d spend on food per day.  As time has gone on, it grates less.  Which makes me wonder if the accumulated centuries of castes and roles and heirarchies makes it easy for people who live here to switch off.  I don’t know.  It still grates.

Of course, not all the food is in pristine places.  Sometimes you get the best food in grimy, dimly lit hovels where the samosas are cooked over a portable gas burner, and the owner and his wife also run a tailoring business in the same room, and they chat with you about your travels…

proximity

Why proximity? Well, apart from the mellifluous sound of the word, it rather understatedly describes the toy train from Darjeeling to Kurseong and it’s scenery.

Last time I talked about Darjeeling and it’s undeniable cliche-factor.  Well, I went one up – the toy train.  I booked a 1st class seat because I wanted to make sure I got not just a seat but a window.  I am so glad I did.  144 rupees is a bargain in my book.  It’s a three hour trip, slow and meandering down the mountainside, past sublimely breathtaking scenery.  Dramatic plunges of hills, snow-draped Himalayas, lush fernery, roadside temples and prayer flags, shops and houses literally inches away – yes, inches – there were tree branches being snapped off and falling into my lap.  I have footage (thankyou Norman, the camera is superb!).  It made me giddy like a schoolboy, I am not ashamed to admit.  The carriage itself is just three seats and an aisle wide, with detailed pressed-tin inlay ceilings and rickety fixtures.  We all have our windows open and our beanies and scarves on tight.

yes, this is how close the toy train comes
yes, this is how close the toy train comes

That’s it for this post.  I’m in a beautiful small town called Mirik, but it has dreadfully unreliable internet access.  Next time, the run-down on my time in Kurseong – the prison-cell-like hotel room, the aggressively friendly local improv tour-guide, monkeys, and more (really?!) mountain views!

The one other thing I’ll just slip in is that I’ve really felt poetry starting to come out so cleanly and freely recently.  At first, the words were frozen in a kind of shock, I guess.  India is, in a way, indescribable.  Not in an “Incredible India” tourism campaign type way, but just monumentally complex and confounding, full of facets that you just don’t expect to harmonise, but of course they do.  Anyway, I’m beginning to write more, make attempts to approach the indescribable….  a bit like this, but with line breaks, and able to be shaped into ghazals!

Oh, yeah, and Merry Xmas, internet people!  Today, I strolled around two Hindu temples, one on a tiny island in the middle of a lake, and felt a tear of uncanny sublime resonance lodge in my chest….  and later, gorged myself on mushroom butter masala, an 8% Sikkimese beer called “He-Man”, and assorted mithai!

undeniable cliches

First, sorry for those pedants out there (myself included) – I couldn’t work out how to insert an accent over the “e” in cliche.

Now, for Darjeeling.  I have probably seen more non-Indians here than everywhere else I’ve been combined.  It’s tourist central – and not just people from overseas, but many Indian middle-class people make the trek up here.  And who could blame them?  A cliche is a cliche because it’s so compelling.  The town is a cluster of homes, shacks, shops and hotels around a steep ridge, around 2000 metres above sea level.  Many centuries ago, it was home to the Buddhist kings, then to the Gurkhas, and in the 19th century a few pasty white people decided they really liked tea (and the strategic and scenic location), so Darjeeling became firmly entrenched as the archetypal hill station of the British Raj.

I stayed at Andy’s.  Of course I did.  It’s actually run by Andy’s very fatherly dad Genesis.  Andy moved from India to marry an Australian woman, in Melbourne, would you believe!  So, I was meant to stay here (who knows, maybe I’ll move to India with Rachael ;)….)!  From the rooftop viewing platform at Andy’s, on a clear day (and they all were, while I was there), you can see the Himalayas, including the breathtaking sight of Khangchendonga, the 3rd highest mountain in the world.  I got up at 5.30am to watch the sun slowly illuminate the peaks, pink-orange sunrise wash to the right, soft wisps of mist rolling across the foothills.  Cameras can’t capture it, but of course we all try.

Himalayas from Darjeeling, the path to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre
Himalayas from Darjeeling, the path to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre

I met some interesting people here, too, the happy compensation for Darjeeling being such a tourist mecca.  I could feel the bunched up words itching to get out of me – finally some conversation!  So, just in case you’re reading this, “Hi!” to Phil the Brit who drinks the local water, Andres (best of luck extending your stay here – your thesis will be much richer and so will you!!), and Kasja!

One of my highlights of Darjeeling was definitely the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre, a few k’s from the centre of town.  It was founded in 1959, the year the Dalai Lama fled Tibet for India, by a handful of refugees.  It’s expanded hugely now, and includes a school, medical clinic, and a variety of workshops, which feed the shop, selling carpets, shawls, jewellery, etc.  A beautiful place.  For the first time since I’ve been here, I decided to turn the line of prayer wheels, walk around them…  I can’t describe it really (yes, I’m a writer, I should be able to, but…).  While I’m still an outsider to so much of the acrued traditions and rites of Buddhism, there’s a kind of resonance in this place – deeply human and open.  And politically aware (unavoidable really)  – the centre includes a moving photographic exhibition and a printing press which was used in the early days for a Tibetan newspaper.

The other highlight was Observatory Hill.  Another well-trodden path, but for a reason.  A monk named Dorje originally lived here (hence, Darjeeling…), and the site is sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus.  I’m not sure of the whole story (it’s a blog, dammit, I can be slack with my research, I’ll read up later…), but somehow they’ve managed to have a joint temple – you enter the front gate and to your left is a monk, to your right a Hindu priest, sitting side by side.  The hill is covered in prayer flags, swimming in incense, and has many small shrines, including one inside a cave which is both a little eerie and deeply moving.  Since one of the Hindu gods worshipped here is Hanuman, the monkey god (to grosslyl simplify…), the hill is also home to a large number of marauding monkeys (who are very happy to eat offerings presented at shrines!).  I was a little nervous, but they’re more focussed on fighting each other than hassling humans, though I’m told they’re keen on stealing….!

Observatory Hill, Darjeeling - many, many Prayer Flags
Observatory Hill, Darjeeling - many, many Prayer Flags

I’ll leave it at that for now.  Darjeeling’s pretty amazing, and I’m wondering why I left after only four days.  I guess I just have perennially itchy feet at the moment.  My current challenge is to try to direct my meagre rupees to businesses other than those listed in the Lonely Planet.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some fantastic meals in restaurants that the guidebook-bible lists, it’s just that I know that such listings almost guarantees success – there are other amazing places, and to try to find them is part of the adventure.  Oh, but now I’m starting to talk about Kurseong….  which is my next post (plus a rave about the Toy Train!).

Miss you all (apart from those reading this who I don’t know, but maybe I’d miss you too if I knew you…).

the second Switzerland?!

I’ve just left Kalimpong, having spent a week in what one young Indian man told me is “the second Switzerland”.  Leo also said that Kalimpong is Heaven, whereas Kolkata is Hell.  It’s not heaven, but it’s been a huge oasis for me, in spite of a few little scares.

I took a share jeep from Siliguri to Kalimpong – it takes about 3 hours, up steep, potholed mountain roads, with 12 of us in one jeep, hips bumping against hips, legs crammed in.  Deep-vein thrombosis is not a risk on long-haul flights, really, compared to this.  Still, amazing trip!  As we stopped for fuel at the outskirts of Siliguri, the local India Oil servo was preparing for a celebration – the entire place was covered in orange flower garlands, Hindi pop music blared from loudspeakers,  a hundred plastic chairs were lined up in front of a podium – the banner proclaiming welcome to the CEO for the grand opening of an automated service station!  On the share jeep ride, I also saw many roadside shrines, monkeys, cows, more tiny shacks selling paan (of course!) and car-exhaust-stained vegetables.

I am slowly becoming accustomed to poverty, I think.  I expected to be thrown into despair, but I just feel somewhere between stunned, speechless and cold.  In Kalimpong, there is definitely poverty but not to the extent of Kolkata.  I had people say hello, ask me where I’m from, etc but no-one hassle or beg or try to drag me into their store.  Of course, it seems there’s no work in town, so all the local teens are fairly surly and preparing to get out.  I met a few of them, and they wanted to smoke dope and talk about rock music, and who they might marry.  Some things are the same here, some things so different!

My first night here, I found a little restaurant, ordered a great Malai Kofta, and as I was feeding myself,  a small group of about eight men gathered about ten metres away in the darkness.  They started hitting and kicking one man, knocking him to the ground.  A woman was screaming.  It was dark, and cars were passing, so I couldn’t see, but it all stopped soon, and they all seemed to leave.  As I was leaving, I asked what it was about, and was told “oh, they’re just drunk, it’s safe here but…”  After that, I didn’t see any violence or drunkenness, but while it’s certainly a friendly town (I had so many people just smile, say hi, etc), there’s a complex history and a real sense of uncertainty about the future.

I have to say I have at times felt very romantic about the architecture and vehicles of India – there are Vespa-style motorbikes, gracious curved modernist/art-deco houses, signs that are hand-painted (and often misspelt).  So much seems to have come from the first half of the 20th century.  Indian people, from what I can tell, would take the new any day, but this is a subsistence, getting-by economy.

Stickers, posters and murals everywhere declare the demand for an autonomous Gorkhaland.  The West Bengal Hills were taken by the Nepalese Gorkhas in the 18th Century, then by the British in the 19th.  Kalimpong is primarily Nepali, but there is also Indian, Tibetan, and many others.  It’s a real mix of people.  But there seems to be a strong desire for autonomy from the West Bengal State Government.  Conflicts, even killings, have resulted from differences over the degree of autonomy that is acceptable, and the means to achieve it.  While I was there, there was a day long strike.  Women congregated at the Rotary Club-built lookout park, and men around the Police Station, holding placards and flags.  No conflict, just I think a reminder that’s what they want.

Kalimpong is also a mix of religions too – catholic churches, Hindu temples and Buddhist gompas.  I spent a bit of time in the latter two.  The Krishna temple was interesting – a huge, almost gaudy white and pink structure, with a tiny room where devotees prayed, circled the shrine and made offerings.  I have a long way to go before I know anything of substance about Hinduism.  It seems an immensely complex, malleable, ambiguous religion – a religion of stories rather than truths.

The gompas in Kalimpong are beautiful.  As I walked around two of them, I was immediately invited inside.  Interestingly, the gaze the monks gave me was neither welcoming nor unwelcoming, just a quiet constant regard.  At both, I sat in the main hall for a while, but within minutes a young adept would be by my side looking at me mutely.  The halls are explosions of colour, murals of various Buddha incarnations, worn crimson cushions and wood bench tables.  There is a calm in these places, but it is not hyper-spiritual at all.  Young monks play hacky-sack, kids tease the local dogs with sticks (shades of “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…”!), other monks carve and saw wood, building things.

I’ve had such ups and downs here.  I’ve walked the beautiful, busy, lively backstreets, and wept out of loneliness.  I’ve sat in calm awe on the balcony of Deki Lodge (where I stayed – a lovely little Tibetan-run place – the owner is a 60-year-old matronly saleswoman – as I left she showered me with mandarins and biscuits for my trip!).  I’ve also met many lovely people, with a kind of aggressive friendliness – “MP” who gave me a list of local Nepali bands I should track down, Leo and Bakash who took me out for Tea and sat with me at the local park around a makeshift fire, and Charlie an American Buddhist who’s been travelling around India for about 2 years now.  There is no replacement for friends and home.  Homesickness persists, but it is abated, eased, replaced even, by the immense warmth and calm of this place.

Two poets in Kalimpong
Two poets in Kalimpong

PS.  This photo was taken by a precocious local 8-year-old boy, who was fascinated by my camera, took dozens of photos.  I had to pry it out of his hands, even though three of the fingers were missing.

little victories…

Hello rest-of-the-world!  This post is a little later than I’d planned, due mainly to a one day general strike in Kalimpong.  The strike is to highlight the region’s demand for greater autonomy from West Bengal state government.  Of course, there are many factions and complications, but that’s what I can glean so far.  Kalimpong is a beautiful town of about 50,000 people, perched on a ridge 1500 m above sea level.  For the first time since arriving in India, I need more than one layer of clothing, and I’m seeing trees and flowers (without a patina of pollution!).

More on Kalimpong in my next post.  For now, I want to tell you about Siliguri.  I said last time there are no touts.  That’s not true.  The call in Siliguri is not “Hello, sir!!” but “Darjeeling??!!” – from the endless lines of taxis, jeeps and buses ready to go to where all Westerners around here want to go!  I felt a little smug saying “nai”, one of my few Bangla words, as I had decided to go to Kalimpong first (it’s further east, but just as close).

Speaking of language, that’s been a huge reality check.  It’s true, if all you want to do is buy things, rent a room, eat, take photos, English is fine.  But if you want anything unusual, or if you want a conversation, you’ll need some Bangla, and I’ve certainly been feeling the lack.  So, I worked out how to say hello, no, thankyou, walking and I don’t speak Bangla.  OK, that’s nothing, but it’s a start.  I miss conversation, especially easy, fluid chat.  India, so far, has brought me out of myself but also further in.  It’s definitely a place of paradoxes.

By the way, thankyou Maurice McNamara for giving me Jonathan Harley’s book “Lost in Transmission”.  I was skeptical at first, but it’s a real page-turner, and unexpectedly moving at times.  Harley was ABC’s corrrespondent in New Delhi from the late 90s onwards, and the things he finds amazing and shocking and odd and beautiful are the same things I did.

Anyway, Siliguri’s shops are mostly either chemists or motorbike repair stores.  Hmm, I can’t help thinking they’re related.  The air is clearer than Kolkata, but it’s still filthy.  I’ve had cause to visit a doctor here (no big deal, really…), and the health care system is one step up from third world.  Drugs are plentiful and cheap (for me), but the infrastructure is minimal, sanitation is so-so, and the demand is immense – always queues of coughing and limping people.

From the balcony of my hotel room at Siliguri, I could see a huge makeshift series of stalls – selling books, mostly empty.  Sadly, they weren’t setting up but down – it finished last week!  Ah, timing.  I found a bookstore, and a reasonable translation of Ghalib’s ghazals, though.

As part of wanting to challenge myself, especially with language, I decided to get a haircut.  I asked the waiter at the hotel restaurant what were the Bangla words I should use.  He didn’t understand, so brought the manager, who said he would get someone to take me to a good “Men’s Saloon”!  So, he leads me down a little alley, to “His and Hers”.  We climb a thin concrete stairway, and I bob down to fit my head through the door.  Three brown barber’s chairs, mirrors everywhere, blue wooden panels.  The TV in the corner is on, alternating between “Lagaan” an epic about cricket pre-independance, and VH1 which is playing Eminem.  The young man who cuts my hair is about 5 foot tall and maybe 20 years old.  In broken English (not broken Bangla – I’m nowhere near that), he works out I want my head shaved to the length of my 2 day growth.  He does a great job.  Next, the shave…  which is also spectacular.  I was nervous, I must say.  I’ve never had someone else shave me, not in Australia, let alone India.  It was such an experience – sprayed with water, moisturiser, massaged with a motion somewhere between kneading bread and sensual attentiveness, one close but never too close shave, then the whole procedure over again.  Oh, and in between the two shaves, a small cup of coffee.  We attempt, half successfully, to make small talk, though he doesn’t know what a poet is, and I can’t work out how to explain it.  I go back to the streets of Siliguri beaming, and run into an 18 year-old who asks me where I’m from, asks me about (guess what?) cricket, looks a little confused when I can’t offer much, then asks for my number – he hopes to get into an engineering course, maybe go to Australia one day!  This is West Bengal.  Friendly, aspirational, and bemused at a tall white boy like me.

His'n'Hers Saloon, Siliguri
His'n'Hers Saloon, Siliguri

That same night I find what I like to call the Jain Good Morning Captain.  The Jains are an offshoot from Hinduism who (among other dietary restrictions) don’t eat any meat, so when I see a sign pointing to a Jain restaurant, I’m intrigued.  I go down a dark corridor next to a building which is solely concrete frames, feeling increasingly lost and unsafe.  A man nearby shows me to the lift, which has room for me and the very old lift man.  On the 3rd floor is Jain Jaika Bhojnalaya, an open plan room with maybe 4 tables and about six waiters, who continually fill your plate (it’s all you can eat, just 40 rupees), offer you more daal, bread, pickle, and so on.  The owner swaggers over from the next table, asks how I found them, where I’m from, tells me he has another restaurant in Darjeeling.  He has the air about him somewhere between gangsta hip-hop tough-guy and a gentle Uncle or big brother.  And the place is reassuringly amateur.

Feel subtly ecstatic to have had a haircut and a shave, and to have found a restaurant that’s not in the Lonely Planet that’s so good and human.  So, yes, little victories, but they’re victories nonetheless.

Next blog, the incredible jeep ride from Siliguri to Kalimpong, and some impressions of the town…

Miss you, my friends.  Send me some emails, or post a reply, please.

among the indians

I’m typing this in an unnamed intenet cafe in Siliguri, about 575 kilometers from Kolkata.  Siliguri and New Jalpaiguri are really one huge trading town for this area – about half a million people. I’ve only been here a few hours but already the atmosphere is very not Kolkata. I haven’t had one “hello, sir!” yet.  This is the call you hear as you walk along the street – 9 times out of 10 it’s an invitation to look at their shop, not just a friendly greeting.  Siliguri, like most of India, I guess, is still diesel city, but nowhere near as polluted and filthy as Kolkata.

There must be stages to culture shock.  First, survival mode – that was my last post.  Second, the challenges and little thrills of exploration.  Third, the discomfort and criticism.  I’m alternating between the 2nd and 3rd.  I’ve left Kolkata, partly for some fresher air, but also to take a break from its relentlessness.  Lots of beggars, lots of touts, some beautiful people, and some incredible scenes .  A few snapshots –

On Tuesday, three schoolgirls (maybe 12 years old) come up to me while I’m taking a drink of water, ask me where I’m from.  One says “you have very beautiful eyes!”. 

I go to the Indian Museum.  Incredible.  Huge colonial 2-story building with inner courtyard, it is a museum to museums.  Immense rooms filled with dusty display cases – the type-written labels detail every kind of rock, mineral, seed, plant, oil, animal…  Life size displays show models of various Indian tribes, moths and butterflies are crucified behind glass, boxfish in formaldehyde, and quite a few watercolours by Tagore.

I am noticed everywhere I go.  Mostly, it seems, because I am anglo and wealthy.  I retreat to western-style cafes and bookstores (the sort I wouldn’t go to in Melbourne) for solace now and then, but mostly walk the streets, looking (often unsuccessfully) for artistic centres.  It makes me wonder about community – it is easier to make connections with the well-off Kolkatans.  Class?  Language? Both, I think.  Class and Language tend to work together; English, the language of the empire.

On my first morning here, I spot a beggar with a heartbreakingly severe spinal curvature.  He waddles over to me, his hand out beseechingly.  I walk past, a little in shock.  I see him the next morning sitting on the footpath (his spot), and give him a few rupees, motioning to my back, nodding.  It seems like some kind of connection.  The next time I pass the same spot, he is louder and follows me, “hello, friend!”, his hand urging towards me. 

I rarely hand out money.  I know often the most aggressive are actually just collecting for others.  There is a wall of poverty here.  I can’t write about it.  I’ve seen too many people sleeping on the footpath, men slapping their amputated limb against the road to attract charity, young women holding their baby in their arms while they stare into the restaurant you’re in and make an eating motion with their hand, shoe-shine-wallahs, shave-wallahs, even men with manual typewriters who’ll type for you, barefoot scrawny rickshaw drivers.

Why is it like this?  Is it Hinduism?  The caste system?  Colonialism?  Capitalism?  Is it in the nature of the mega-city?  Is it really inevitable?

A man in his mid-30s approaches me while I’m sipping my espresso in a chain cafe “Barista”.  “Good afternoon”, he says, then, “are you a writer?”.  We get talking, he introduces me to his wife.  He writes novels and “self-management”; she writes poetry and paints.  SS Roy and Daisy both also work for Herbalife; SS’s mentor/guru is high up in the company in Sydney.  While we sit and chat, SS feeds Daisy cake, in between telling me how lucky he is to have her, how before her he was like the orangutan in the zoo.  Daisy asks me about my back, because her daughter’s is starting to curve a little and the doctors want to operate (Daisy wants me to say no).  I tell her, maybe not, just keep an eye on her – if it’s not too bad, don’t worry, especially if she’s not in pain.  Later, she tells me I am a wonderful human being.

There is so much else I could write, but will leave it at that for now.  Just one more thing – Indian bureaucracy is incredible.  To get a ticket to New Jalpaiguri, I need to find out the codes and names of the train, fill out a long form, which then gets transferred into a huge ledger, and typed into a very early 90s looking computer by a public servant who manages to seem both friendly and arrogant.  There are no 3AC seats left, so I have to cross that out on the form, and write 2AC (more expensive, two tiers of sleeping instead of 3).  The 10pm to 8am overnight train from Kolkata was fantastic.  In spite of the snoring through the carriage, and albeit curled up in foetal position in my bunk, I got sleep!  I woke up to the sight of village farms just outside New JP, and a sense that the next stage of my being among the Indians is ahead of me.

Checked into Hotel Skylark, took a shower, and sat on my little balcony on the 3rd floor overlooking the sportsground and many bookstores!  Siliguri for me, I think, will be for regathering strength, a short stop before heading to Kurseong, maybe Mirik, Darjeeling, Kalimpong, who knows…

I miss my partner and my friends.  Love to you all.  Postcards are coming!