No, this is not your typical writer’s residency. It’s in India. So, having been in Chennai – the bustling, matter-of-fact capital of Tamil Nadu – for just over 3 days now, I’m still adjusting. Having done a few residencies in the last few years, I’d gotten used to the idea of just turning up and sipping coffee while writing, then going for relaxing walks. Not that I thought it would be like that here… I think I was just so focussed on the content of my project – the personal and inter-cultural dimensions of “medical tourism” – I’d forgotten that travel always implicates the traveller. You are no neutral observer.
A few examples. I was on my way to an internet cafe when a man, about 60-ish, approached me, and started walking with me. He said he worked at the airport and recognised me from when I arrived – he gestured to his lower lip to where my facial hair is, then stooped over to imitate my posture, smiling. We chatted in broken English for a while, until he stopped, leaned towards me, and whispered “can you help me?”. He had a bag from an eye hospital and a print-out of the costs of some procedure or prescription, running to the thousands of rupees. I am not proud to say I gave him a tiny amount, then refused when he pleaded for more. I still don’t know how to feel. I can still hear him saying “I don’t ask anybody!”, then myself saying “but you’re asking me…”. I still don’t know how I feel about how I responded, or even what exactly happened, or what problems this man has, if any.
Who is responsible for the health of the Indian people? What happens when someone’s social circle can’t help or support him (or her)?
Example two, a little less significant. Just after this encounter, I popped into a little supermarket to buy a few supplies, and thought I may as well buy a few oranges as well. Only after I got back to the hotel, did I notice the sticker on them – grown in Australia. Does India actually need Australian oranges? I don’t think so. I don’t either. But they’re here.
Anyway, here’s a few photos that somehow reflect my first impressions of Chennai – well, of Mylapore anyway, the suburb where I’m staying. The traffic is a self-organising cacophony, the people are gentle and subtle and (for the most part) leave you to your own devices, it’s hot as hell (an overnight low of 25 is considered “pleasant”), and the locals love their little oases (the beach, parks, AC restaurants, the mall…).
This whole post won’t be about mucus and tremblings and edgy bellies, don’t worry. I just like the anagramatic irony of being sick in Sikkim. I had a dreadful head cold in Darjeeling, which I of course passed onto my partner Rachael. It hit her in Gangtok (Sikkim’s capital, and it’s most popular entry point), so we laid low there for a few days, saw as many of its sights as health and energy would allow. Both fine now, just the occassional flare-up of spiritual ennui.
Gangtok is, like many of West Bengal’s hill towns, a jumble of multi-coloured concrete block buildings crammed onto the line of a breathtaking ridge, steep drops of mountain on all sides. What stood out immediately was the relative wealth – Sikkim joined India only in the 1970s, and since then has been courted by the Centre with tax concessions and infrastructure. Consequently, there is much less visible poverty, actual footpaths next to some roads, lots more cars and industry, and (due perhaps to one of its biggest industries, liquor) high rates of alcoholism. We didn’t see drunkenness, but on the day when all the shops were shut (Tuesday!), the only places open were drugstores/chemists and liquor stores. By the way, for my beer afficionado friends, pretty much everything in the north east is 8% lagers – strong, dense, sometimes honey-sweet, but fairly unmemorable. Kingfisher is still the king.
And, in our brief few days, the best food in Gangtok is at Taste of Tibet, on the south edge of Mahatma Gandhi Marg. Fantastic thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup) and spinach momos (dumplings), and very popular with the local monks and families.
Enough about my epicurean belly. The real highlight of Gangtok for me was our first day – we took the cable car ride from the hilltop over the centre of town, to the Institute of Tibetology. An amazing, vertiginous, giddy view. Sprawling buildings, gracious dramatic hills, huge strands of bamboo and patches of rice fields built into the hills. Gorgeous.
The Institute holds a rather large collection of Buddhist artefacts – devotional paintings, coins (from a country that doesn’t quite exist, tragically), yellowed and weathered manuscripts on paper and palm-leaf from around the 12th century. And, strikingly, bowls made from human skulls, and trumpets made from thigh bones. To remind the user of the transience of life. Nothing like that would happen in the West, I feel. The closest we would get to such a visceral treatment of the body is either symbolic (like the “body and blood of Christ”) or in transgressive art. The building is certainly worth spending a few hours in.
On that note, Rachael and I are both reading a book called “The Monk and the Philosopher”, a conversation between Matthieu Ricard, a French scientist turned monk, and his philosopher father. Fascinating on an interpersonal level (dad always seems to want to remind his son of what he was like when he was young!), but mainly it’s been interesting to ponder Buddhism as we experience it close-up. I can’t say I understand it more. Probably less, in fact. In it’s indigenous context (well, more indigenous than in Australia), there is so much accumulated ritual, symbolism, extravagant visual imagery, which is very hard to access without fully immersing yourself in study. One of the owners of Holumba Haven (an almost unnervingly calm collection of cottages in an orchid nursery in Kalimpong, where we stayed one night, on our way back to Kolkata from Gangtok), a beautiful, talkative, eccentric, intelligent man, said monasteries aren’t churches, they’re more like boarding schools. Useful metaphor, I think.
On the note of accommodation, if you can afford 1000 rupees a night, plus 250 per meal, Holumba is worth it – it’s very calm, yet gently sociable. Talk to the pea-hens, too – they’re a bit crotchety, but really lovely ladies. And, in Gangtok, we stayed at Mintokling Guest House – very helpful and professional managers, fantastic view of the Himalayas from the room when the sky clears, average food, and since the last Lonely Planet was published, the price has gone way up to pay for renovations (which I sense has taken some of the character from the place – not as intimate or homely as we’d hoped). Still, again, a good place to recover, rest, put shallow roots down, explore. You certainly need that in India, we’ve found. It’s exhausting, overwhelming – you need to take small steps sometimes, make little journeys.
It’s been a while since I’ve blogged – we’ve been doing so much travel these last few days, and internet access and time has been a bit scarce. There’s much more to say, but I’ll leave it at that for now. Next time – transport (jeeps, autorickshaws, trains, cycle-rickshaws), religion (temples and money), dense fog in the humble hill-town of Lava, and yes the beach in Puri!!!… If I can fit it all in… 😉
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.
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…