I wrote these thoughts while on the "road"..."A nervous dog pacing for a good, sunny, uncrowded spot to bathe and relax A little boy snorting and scaring girls (including me) to impress his buddy between swings on the monkey bars Old women with elephant wrinkles thumbing 109 prayer beads"
This "road" could have be anywhere. And then... "School boys and older men standing right in my sightline of the 8000m high mountains, staring hard back at me or posing with nonchalance Faces beam, evident of an eclectic mix, where the South, East, and Southeast become a passionate blend The world's chimneys billow the breath of the skies"
I was in a fascinating nook of the world, a nook I used to dream about being tucked into. And then I got there…the West Bengali Hills of India.
The Way back to Enlightening Elevations It took a sixteen hour train ride, filled with traveling bands, beggars, and more chai salesmen than one could shake a stick at, until I felt a cool breeze once more. Befriending the Germans below my sleeper bed gave me an always-appreciated price cut on the $1 rickshaw ride from New Jaipalguri station to the Siliguri bus terminal, and knowing far too well the antics of the transportation biz in India, I anticipated and enjoyed a small fight with our driver, who claimed sudden inflation by the time we reached our destination.
It was a battle fought with smiles and a constant handshake, and the Germans watched patiently. I saw the driver rack his brain quickly for a way to get more money from our pockets, and an audience began to form, though they were relatively uninterested with this common scammer occurrence. A tip to those who encounter this situation with annoyance: write the agreed price on your hand in front of the driver and proceed to strike a creepy pose towards him or her, smiling for the entire ride until he caves in hopelessness, knowing you are a rupee-pincher 'til you D.I.E.
If I feel anything towards policemen in my own country, it's fear, even when I'm not doing anything wrong. Must be a Pavlovian dog response from years of conditioning. However, in any other country, it seems police are hired to just stand on street corners and chew unknown substances along with the "every man," except the "every man" doesn't carry a big stick. I use these statuesque resources for help around town, though they are almost always the ones who cannot speak English. There's always that lingering obligation, though, that causes these civil servants to help you, and this is how I was introduced to two travelers in desperate need of a ride to Darjeeling.
All buses had stopped service, no trains could rise into the mountains, and all jeeps were seemingly hired. Down the road, we saw a sign for the last ride of the day, jumped into a Jeep after about seven seconds of thought, paid $2, and settled our minds and bags into the already packed vehicle. Enter two or three more bodies and a second driver hanging onto the spare tire rack in the rear, and we're off. The driver stopped the Jeep to place some kind of sailor hat on his head and then booked it up the switchbacks into the Himalayas. It was such flavor for a simple three hour car ride. This is how it always is in India.
With a Chinese man sitting on my left leg, an Israeli's knees pressed against mine making sweat sandwiches, a greasy head laying on my right elbow, and a backpack compacting my stomach, I could do nothing but submit to my discomfort. Not only was I in a clown car, rising in altitude, and bumping from pothole to crumbling pothole, I hadn't gone to the bathroom in 26 hours. I didn't trust anyone with my bags in the sleeper car, nor did I want to experience the sum of the food poisoning + rocking Indian train equation. My body was not amused, and it slowly began to drain me of all vivacity and life to the point of being an empty shell by the time we hit Darjeeling.
For the first time, I wasn't bombarded, or even approached, when I walked around the town. It was dark, shops were still ablaze and selling assorted wares, and I wandered nearly unconscious by my distressed bowels. I stood outside a parked taxi and stared at the relaxing driver like a beaten puppy, hoping he would give me quick and easy directions to a hotel I heard of but hadn't booked ahead. He insisted on taking me at a ridiculous price ($2.50), refused to cave because I wore my vulnerability on my sweaty sleeve, and I flopped into the vehicle in resignation.
It was as if a friend or family member from home popped out from around a corner and came running to me, embracing my weary soul in a monster hug. Alice Villa Guesthouse opened their gates to my taxi, and the head boy in a bellhop's uniform took me in with a smile to the front desk. Every employee at this establishment treated me with the utmost care and concern, showed me a luxurious room with two beds, a fireplace, a personal bathroom, and cable television, and walked me into town to make sure I knew where to get a good meal. This hotel experience surpassed virtually every other one I had on the entire journey (minus the Kashmiri houseboat), and it all ran me a total of $15 a night.
"So you are traveling alone?" "Yes." "No one is with you or meeting you?" "No." "What are you going to do here?" "Hang out." "You really are alone?" "Unless I'm being followed." "And you're American…" "Indeed."
I can imagine what it's like to be a celebrity, or notorious, or a notorious celebrity. Being a spectacle for just being oneself can be amusing or quite unsettling. Who ever heard of a typical Midwestern American girl being considered "exotic?"
After bringing a close to my bathroom record, completely unpacking my smelly bag, grabbing a noodle meal to eat in bed with my hands, and watching numerous episodes of Seinfeld and Friends, I passed out in between some clean padding and a blanket. Simple pleasures.
The following morning I emerged slowly to shiver in the new air and see what the mountains looked like. The blank canvas of sky the night before gave me no smidgeon of an idea as to how gargantuan the landscape was, and I could only get a sneak peek by viewing the photographs adorning the guesthouse walls.
The first step outdoors brought me fresh air, with a hint of trash and incense, and a view of the tea hills. They undulated like a heart beat or the bathwater from a rowdy tub session, and the green kiss of chlorophyll in my eyes made me feel natural again. I crawled up a hill to the main square and found the fork in the road that leads to the town's best observation deck. Strings of prayer flags decorated or replaced power lines. Stray dogs walked past me as if they were running errands and checking off their "to do" lists. The road was seemingly endless as it snaked around the tip of Darjeeling, until I saw some benches and a turn ahead. The Himalayas appeared.
I thought they were clouds billowing and blowing across the hills. But these clouds were too pointy and shaded to be clouds; these were rocks. There was such a gap between the feet of the range and the snowcapped beasts themselves. Just looking at the mountains from hundreds of miles away, I could hear the winds at the summits, imagine the bite in the air and the number that could be done to my lips and fingers.
The observation decks were littered with more stray dogs, all looking almost pet-able and serene, and I looked at them, looked at the mountains in the background, and wondered if they sensed any inspiration from their daily majestic sights. It certai nly seemed as though the local inhabitants appreciated these visual luxuries, kids coming straight from school to the outlooks to chat or older couples enjoying an afternoon with sun on their backs and amazement in their pupils. I tried to blend in, but a little boy pestered me every time I looked away from him, sneaking up behind me to poke my sides, making startling sounds. I would scream like Lucille Ball, laugh in awe, and look around to see that everybody around was grinning, too. Innocent harassment felt like a big community handshake. Being picked on made me feel welcome.
"Altering my geographic placement upon which to reflect The audacity of the gesture and the potential for more as the main thrill and focus Making that presence truly felt by interacting and letting my personality subtly mark someone from that place Leaving an unconscious and feather mark legacy that seems greater and more romantic than a momentary dent and an activity list It's enough to mark a pin on a map or put it at the bottom of a running list Since I'm young and think I've got abundance in the future, I take it all in as a global pupu platter But this could also be it, and I could only know the skin at most, but I do know the fuzzy, ugly, stale, comforting, brown, flat, giggling realities of a small town that feeds the material of my most frequent dreams"
These are the sorts of thoughts that flow from a mind high on the Himalayas. I was tingling at my proximity to such grandeur and slapping myself for having this desire to see them. I couldn’t tell whether such a thirst came from soul searching depths or just the need to do something laudable and not have to fight anymore for a legitimate voice. My traveling mind always conflicted, it was impossible to ever feel pure emotions. Some day, I sincerely hope I acquire that ability once more.
After peeling my eyes away from the craggy range and getting harassed again by the comedic little boy, I just started walking. I followed every snaking road lined with street markets, tea shops, and Indian-style convenience stores. The grade of the roads varied from semi-flat to 45 degree angles. Thank you, Merrell Sports Shoes, for your adequate development of sole traction. It felt so wonderful to wear a scarf and a fleece, comfortable shoes and socks, layers and jeans, and not sweat profusely or accumulate visible, tangible filth on my legs and toes.
At the bottom of one hill, I found myself in a small neighborhood and amongst tens of school girls playing games like "Ring around the Rosy." My vision was cut slim by the surrounding buildings to only see an extreme vertical image of children under towering homes clinging to a hillside. I almost ran through their human tunnel, clapping and giggling all the way, but the sight was too perfect to disturb. It took me back to the days when the idea of "playing" gave me the six-cups-of-coffee jitters and my partners-in-crime were all I needed to be happy, back when I wasn't ruled by insatiable desires and nonsensical world missions. They looked at me once, I smiled, and then we all continued on with our days, I ascending the hill again and they sending the next girl through the tunnel of hands.
Branching off the main square at the top of Darjeeling was a road designated for foot traffic and booth browsing. Shops selling winter accessories, Kashmiri goods, and anything tourists or locals could ever need were abundant. A puppy the size of a lemon slept without bother next to 90 year-old saleswomen and her wares. The universal mission in this community to be content was palpable. After six months on the road, the only take-home items I purchased were a Masai bracelet and a few clothing items. It seemed as perfect a time as any to do a little shopping. Withholding until India gave me thrilling backpack space to work with, so I walked into the only shop that appeared remotely unique and just stood still inside.
The owners smiled and stared in anticipation of a big sale, but I remained rather motionless, my eyes scanning the big paintings of mountainous landscapes around the room. The "fixed price" sign drained a little fun out of the moment, but instead I let the right piece yodel down to me, asking me to take it home. As a Californian hippie in Brazil, a.k.a. the "Vege-Nazi," once told me, "If something calls to you, just buy it. If it doesn't, move on." One large painting worked its magic on me, and I walked away smiling, envisioning the blank wall in my future abode the painting just filled.
One very early and quite frigid morning in China, I experienced the delight of real Tibetan dumplings, the chewy yet crisp sensations almost as comforting as the salty, homemade quality of the flavors. It was one of the best meals I can ever remember having, and the ambiance of sitting on a deck overlooking an historically preserved Southern China town with my best friend pumped the moment up to perfection. This lingering memory of great veggie-filled dough balls led my nose to a place with "Tibet" on the window and one woman by a stove.
Steam from a vegetable broth condensating on my face. Perfect noodles splashing trickles on top of my nose and around my cheeks. Hand-crafted lumps soaking up soy sauce and spices, layering the dumplings' flavors with extreme contrasts. I scanned my Lonely Planet for the next best thing to do, but all I wanted was to have this meal again and again. Soul food for the feeble and relaxed.
Darjeeling, in one day, had become a place where I could talk to no one and feel I was amongst friends. I still felt completely independent, but I was lifted up by a community that wanted me to be there. With a pair of fingerless gloves and a notepad, this is the perfect town to be a writer.
I stayed for a week.