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…