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.