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!