Made it back safely from Darjeeling! The temperature difference between there and here is startling. Being up in the mountains (which they call hills) makes the temperature drop by about 20°F most days, compared to at the base of the mountains. The only bad part about escaping the heat was coming back and readjusting to it!
On the way to Darjeeling we took an AC sleeper bus because there were no trains available, and it definitely was not worth the price we paid. A 2-person sleeper berth was smaller than a twin bed, and the AC was so cold that we were shivering all night! Coming from 100° weather, we were definitely not prepared for that. We covered up with anything we could find in our bags, from scarves to towels to the bags themselves. To make matters worse, we stopped for food and gas every 5 hours, which means we had a dinner break at midnight and breakfast at 5am.
Luckily we were able to get a train for the way home. The main reasons I now prefer the train (having learned from the experience) are the speed and the smoothness. The bus took close to double the time of the train (16 hours vs 9, although it was only scheduled to take 12), and the roads were so uneven that we were constantly being jostled and hitting our heads. I was seriously afraid of falling off the bunk!
I am happy to say that the trip only improved from there. The trains and buses do not go all the way up the mountain to Darjeeling, so from Siliguri where we were dropped off, we had the option to take a shared jeep or a local bus. The bus is slower but cheaper, so we chose that. Although the way was long and windy, causing me to feel a little seasick, it was amazingly scenic. In the 5 hours it took to reach the top, we passed numerous villages, temples, and tea estates, all set amongst beautiful rolling hills.
By the time we finally arrived in Darjeeling, we had been traveling for over 24 hours. We were exhausted, but still had to climb up through the city to the top ridge, where the backpackers’ accommodations are. We found a nice place that was fairly cheap, then set out to taste some of the famous Darjeeling tea! Luckily it was easy to find, since it’s served almost everywhere. When we finally turned in for the night, I slept better than I had in weeks.
The next day we set out to explore the town. The center of town is very touristy, which has its upsides and downsides. It was easy to find familiar food and to shop, and almost everyone spoke English. On the other hand, all the shops were overpriced and the Western food was usually subpar. One night I tried the “pasta primavera,” which turned out to be buttered noodles with carrots and black olives. Odd, to say the least. After that we mostly stuck with Bengali food.
The people in Darjeeling look quite different from most Indians. There is a large community of Tibetans, but the natives also look much more Nepalese or even Southeast Asian than they do Indian. Everything about the place seems somewhat removed from the rest of India.
We visited the Tibetan Regufee Center, where a community of Tibetans live and work, producing very high quality shawls, rugs, and other crafts. You can wander through the workshops and see the craftspeople working, then end at the show room (where you could conveniently purchase all the goods you’ve just seen. Naturally I bought some.). They also had a small museum explaining the history of Tibet and of the Refugee Center, which I found fascinating. We learn a lot about American history in school, but it’s easy to forget that every nation has an equally rich history of their own, most of which we know nothing about.
As we were wandering around trying to find a taxi back to town, we stumbled upon a tea farm. We were at the top of the hill taking pictures down when we noticed that some of the workers were waving at us. At first we thought they were just saying hi, but quickly realized that they were motioning for us to come down. When we made it to where they were in the fields, we discovered that it was a group of elderly women on what appeared to be their lunch break. They didn’t speak much English, but they knew enough words to tell us that they were picking what would become black tea and show us the difference between some of the leaves. We took a few photos with them, then they pointed us in the direction of the taxis.
We arrived at the taxi stand a few minutes later, only to discover that they were all reserved for the day. Disappointed and unsure what to do next, we did the only logical thing one can do in Darjeeling- drink tea. There were about a dozen little tea shops (all selling the exact same tea, something which I still do not understand), and one lady motioned us in and poured cups. When we explained to her our predicament, that it would be a steep hour’s walk back to town, she said she would help us find a driver. After the third or fourth cup of tea, she ran out to the street and then came back in and told us to follow her. To my surprise, the car she had flagged down was an ambulance and he had agreed to drive us back for free! I don’t know whether he was on his way already or just bored, but whatever the reason, we were very grateful.
One morning we woke up at 5 to join Buddhist monks at a nearby monastery in their morning puja, in which they sit and chant mantras and prayers for hours. We decided to go to one of the smaller, more remote monasteries, and were definitely rewarded by our choice. We were the only visitors there, and the monks made us tea and breakfast. It was butter tea, which was very strange and basically tasted like I was drinking melted butter, watered down and with some spices. Later one of the monks asked if we liked the tea, and I told him it was interesting and I’d never had anything like it before. He just laughed, because he could see from our faces that we hadn’t enjoyed it. The food was good though! After puja, an older monk gave us a tour of the monastery and told us the story of Siddhartha’s life through a series of murals. From there we visited two other monasteries, then returned to town.
Usually I am not a fan of zoos because the animals all look so sad and the habitats depress me. The Darjeeling Zoo, however, impressed me. All of their animals are native to the Himalayas, which means they are suited to the climate and terrain. The enclosures are spacious and natural-looking. At least a quarter of the animals currently have babies, which I have heard is a good indicator of captive animals’ happiness and health (not to mention that they’re adorable). I wish more zoos would follow their lead and try to keep animals in much more natural environments.
Inside of the zoo is the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, which gives courses in mountaineering and jungle survival. Unfortunately we did not have time for those, but we did visit the museum, which houses information and artifacts about all of the Everest exhibitions as well as other Himalayan mountains. Besides the eagle carcass that was carried down from one of the exhibitions (as if they didn’t have enough to carry!), the thing that struck me the most was the language used in the descriptions. There was a plaque commemorating the first people to make it to the top, but it only spoke of how those of “British breed and blood” had “conquered Everest,” not mentioning anything about the local guides without whom they could not have done it. The language reeked of colonialism, even though it was years after the British left India.
On our final day, we went to an early morning yoga class. There were ribbon windows on three sides of the studio overlooking the mountains and valley beyond, and even though it was too misty to see very far, the setting was serene.
From there we visited Happy Valley Tea Estate, where they give tours and explain the tea making process. It was really interesting, and I was surprised to learn that white, green, and black teas all come from the same plant! The differences come in the processing, and the time of year that they are plucked.
As I said before, we took the train home, which got us there much more enjoyably. It was my first experience on an overnight train in India, and I have very few complaints. I felt a little uncomfortable at first with all the people around me staring incessantly, but I (sort of) got used to it after a while. Staring is considered rude in the US, but here almost everyone does it. I have to keep reminding myself that they are just curious because we look so different, and that they don’t mean anything by it.
All in all I had a really great week, but I am definitely ready to start working again! It hardly seems possible that I have already been here for over a month, or that I only have two weeks left at Human Wave. Have to make these weeks count!