This is Why I Travel: Day 174

BANG! POW! CRACK!

These are not the captions of a Marvel comic but the sounds that reverberated off the walls in my all-marble hotel. They were unexpected, oddly timed during the day, and seemingly arbitrary in the grand scheme of normal life in Darjeeling, India. I had no idea why the boys that worked in my hotel were setting off fireworks INSIDE the building where I slept.

And then I realized…Diwali; a Hindu holiday I had never heard of until July when my Italian hosts got me amped about being on location during a major celebration. The memory must have slipped by me, what with all the gastro-intestinal fireworks of the last week, and the only evidence of this special time of year was the spontaneous explosion during dinner that would send my hard-boiled egg sliding across the table.

There must be something in the water, or maybe it's the air at 8,000 feet, but the boys in Darjeeling who work in hotels are ever so special. Hotel New Vaisali was staffed by some pre-adolescent and full-grown teens who all expressed intrigue in my lone American quest. While reading or relaxing in my room, I would get knocks at the door by three or four anxious boys wanting to steep a nice pot of tea for me. I often took up their offers because: A. they found me to be an exotic species of human whose every move was worth watching, and B. I was in the process of documenting my African memories and felt drinking steaming tea and eating biscuits while writing instantly produced Pulitzers.

One day during my five night stay, I went nowhere and did absolutely nothing of note. I took a shower, watched TV, read my novel and wrote extensively. The boys came looking for me, worried/utterly riveted by my unusual habits. When I told them I was just resting and reading, you would have thought I said, "I'm on the phone with Mother Teresa, shaving the TV, and trying to slingshot a cookie at Kangchenjunga Mountain." I smiled at their confusion, closed the door with a wink, and let the intrigue beget a little more mystery. When you have a view of the world's third tallest mountain out your $15 per night hotel room, sometimes there's little reason to actually go outside. Plus, I was almost caught up with my sleep, my laundry, my book, and my journey notes. Cha-ching!

Every one of these Darjeeling boys, whether hotel worker, waiter, or bracelet maker, passionately possesses a belief in a common community denominator. Whether its exhibition is in the military hat atop their head, the simple sign on the shop window, or their participation in a demonstration that occurred outside my room window, they believe in their birthright of an independent nation called Gorkhaland. The original inhabitants of the West Bengali hills have made some bloody attempts in history to retake the land of the Nepali/Lepcha/Bhutia-blend people, but India, just as it does with its top hat of Kashmir, claims ownership. Not only were these boys universally hooked on romance but also on the impassioned game of politics there in the clouds.

The legendary hilltop train station, a rolling tea plantation, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute; all things I wanted to experience before the calendar sent me running to Kolkata for a flight eastward. I hit three of the city's major points of interest in one afternoon by way of my Merrell trekker shoes. Most taxi drivers charge over $20 for transportation to these hot spots, but it seemed unnatural and akin to defacing a world wonder to ride in a car when you could instead witness every inch of this city on foot. I dodged overstuffed taxis and walked by kitchen windows wafting relatively unpleasant smells, which always seemed to make my stomach gurgle in hunger. An hour or more later, all I could see was tea.

Happy Valley Tea Company is an old establishment that sells their products to visitors at the factory or in wholesale only to the retail giant, Harrod's. The snaking path down into the plantation from the street was a good place to sprain an ankle from all the necessary rock-hopping. But I landed at the bottom to find a woman with two teeth and beautiful skin grinning at me. She worked for the tea pickers, ladies who have yet to be replaced by machines or even primitive shears of any kind. The woman spoke English in staccato but quite well and offered to give me a lesson on Darjeeling tea.

I was plucked like a lucky little leaf to be chosen into the tea workers rest house. Not everyone gets the pleasure of seeing this woman first, sometimes only after spending loads in the factory and learning little. She brought me in and gave me a test, one-on-one, to see if I knew good tea from swill. I think I got two out of three correct, and she proceeded to describe picking seasons, leaf quality, steeping instructions, and impress further with the big Kahona of the tea world, Flowery Golden Tippy Orange Pekoe One. This ultra-high grade tea sat next to me, bulging like bags of Sam's Club kitty litter. My tutor grabbed a handful out of the bag, dragged me into the adjacent room with rolling hot water on the stove, and threw the leaves in for a grand total of five seconds.

With America as the birthplace of Starbucks and, as a result, constantly wired, we aren't big on tea. After going to the Boh tea plantation in Malaysia last year, I grew to appreciate a good cup and began to prefer it against its harsh opponent. I still cannot distinguish the good from the marginally bad, but this tea, FGTOP1 as they call it, was superb. Colors seemed brighter, my cushion seemed more welcoming, and the two-toothed woman and I became a little more chummy. She told me her beauty secrets and how she was able to have the skin of a forty year-old when she was sixty. I was shocked to hear her age, but when I considered her forty year-old skin and ninety year-old teeth, it all seemed to average out.

I walked away from my new friend with two bags of high grade FGTOP1, and the best part was her supply came from the tea pickers' ration. The factory pays them dismally but supplements their salary with weekly amounts of the tea that causes their carpal tunnel. Instead, they sell what they receive to make monetary compensation and make this monotonous life of slowly scaling hillsides worth it.

Mountains? (long pause) Wabash, Indiana. (long pause) Yup.

I guess it makes sense why I like the craggy, snow-covered beasts of the world and maybe even more sense why I am intrigued by those who climb them. Meandering up a hill and past oodles of street-side restaurants, I emerged from the foothills to the gates of the Darjeeling Zoo and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. Tenzing Norgay presides over each day from his tomb above the Institute, and I went to give him a bit ofmy time. India's pride and joy, the second (according the Sir Edmund Hillary) person to summit Everest, is the celeb of the century in the West Bengali Hills as his 'hood was in the surrounding area. I snuck around the halls of the low-key museum and shivered at the thought of wearing the animal hides and tin cans they used in the early attempts at mountaineering. I searched for a tribute to the expedition with Jon Krakauer that inspired the book Into Thin Air in order to make myself feel somewhat "in the know," but alas, I saw none.

Even though I had numerous teachers in high school and college tell me I should pursue dance as a career, I knew I didn't have the build of a waif under this shell, nor the catty, competitive edge. And even though I am drawn to peaks like a moth to a very cold and dangerous light, I know I cannot pursue anything serious with mountaineering when my heart burns from lifting weights or running in place. Darn you, mitral-valve regurgitation and lousy cardio fitness, darn you to hell.

However, I think to a more subtle extent I am an adrenaline junkie. I go to unknown and risky places regardless of my hesitations. I embarrass myself or expose my most vulnerable thoughts because it's invigorating to be honest. And I like a steady climb below the tree level, when my hips feel as though they will dislodge, my scarf is icing over, and a blizzard is blowing past me on the right. I take on mini-mountains regularly in hopes all this effort will get me to a more informed self-realization. Because if I die without knowing the real me, my last moments will be the definition of depression. This is why I travel.

दार्जिलिंग इंडिया। अ मिड-लेवल मक्का।