Alice Villa and her crew kicked me out with a smile and a tear. My beloved guesthouse was overbooked, and my sorry load needed to relocate for the remainder of my mountain adventure. It was a bittersweet parting with an establishment that saved me from extreme bowel distress, gave me food and impeccable shelter, and created an inexplicable feeling of comfort and acceptance that sped up bodily recovery time and revitalized my withering appreciation for the Indian nation. The desk clerk and bellhops appeared regretful to see me toting my earthly possessions out of their gates, and I left without an idea as to where I would go next. I knew Darjeeling and I clicked. More wilderness trekking opportunities announced themselves around every corner of this town. And Sikkim, a.k.a. Shangri-La, was only a short, albeit treacherous, ride away. However, I couldn't ignore that I had finally tapped into something really rare here, in this nook of the world.
When experiencing the world in quantitative form, maximizing the number of locales and tight-wad tendencies but risking pinnacles of quality, seldom does one develop a connection with the people, the local mentality, or the offerings of the destination. My Lonely Planet runneth over with restaurant recommendations and beautiful ways to spend an afternoon. I saw few tourists, none of which represented the toxic species I hated from Varanasi, and the prospect of having another high altitude sunrise grace my retinas kept me lingering for more from the legendary hilltop station.
$15 was the new $2.50 in my spending habits for shelter. After such a satisfying three nights in a joint that merited even one star, I stuck with my new standards of living (e.g. not squalor) and searched for anything that had a personal bathroom, moments of warm water, a TV, and bedding. Hotel New Vaisali did the trick. To illustrate the ease of this search, I'll paint an experiential picture. Imagine all hotel options being within a three minute walk of each other and your favorite spots in town. Picture yourself staring at a sign for a few seconds, working on your Nepali translations, then being approached by a helpful man with a Gorkha hat atop his noggin. Pretend said helpful sir decides to inquire about your requirements and acts as translator/negotiator for each establishment you both enter. When attempt #3 is successful, you find yourself uttering, "Thank you, India. I take note of your incredible hospitality."
A comfy king size bed, a shower head, functioning cable TV and a wall length window with a view of the mountain range; these are a few of my favorite things. I broke a rule within the first five minutes and did some laundry inside my room, hanging the dripping clothes on the glass to billow in the thin, fresh breeze. Performing this act at home is a monotonous chore that requires no elbow grease. However, on the road, I was someone who wore clothes until they rotted off the body and needed to be quarantined inside a backpack; any chance to launder my wardrobe relieved numerous troubles and tripled my daily clothing choices, amounting to three options. Using my shampoo to generate lather for not only my hair and body but the clothing still hanging from my frame made shower time not so relaxing, but, boy, was I gettin' everything clean! And I'd probably round the number up to 750 for the amount of people around the world who have seen my undies flapping in the wind outside out of my various domiciles.
Only in Darjeeling… …do boys carry two different love letters in their back pockets…one in Nepali and another in English. …does the train get caught in a traffic jam. …do you walk through the town once and meet the same people ten times. …can you jump off the train, take a leak, and catch the train again. …do people sit in the fog and watch an entire soccer match, without knowing what the hell is going on on the field. …do the unemployed dress better than the employed. …do you find distances in kilometers and places in miles.
I found the following adorable list on my menu at a bakery in town. This wasn't a spot on the typical Lonely Planet trail, but it had a menu in English with humor to delight the foreign masses. I read the long list and smiled, pulling out my notebook to copy the most location-specific and oh-so true phrases. Writing them down brought flashbacks of all the hopeless romantic boys that work in Alice Villa and New Vaisali, the ridiculous train track that braids itself with the road on the route up to Darjeeling, the little boy on the observation deck that would sneak up on me multiple times a day to scare me and make the local elderly laugh at me, and the road signs in kilometers I desperately searched for when my body was in deep digestive distress on the ride up. Darjeeling and I seemed to grow more and more alike, our interests unmistakably tied with a humorous string.
Alain de Botton, in his book The Art of Travel, covers a vast array of topics not commonly discussed in guidebooks or Samantha Brown specials, topics which speak straight to the one half of my soul that is eternally nomadic. One of his chapters brings up the connections between people and their beloved destinations, those places that bring people to life even though they may be thousands of miles from their home soil. De Botton develops on the idea that there are inexplicable reasons why I love the city of Florence, why Anthony Bourdain is at times persuaded to move to Indonesia, and why the world's travelers feel compelled to hit certain places over and over again. I was born in Wabash, Indiana, and though my childhood friends are the coolest people on the planet and my other half is all about small town values, my birthplace does not satiate my soul.
I don't know if this idea falls under the jurisdiction of reincarnation or the mystical, but I think people don’t just have "soul mates" but soul cities. This relationship cannot be determined by how good of a time one has at a destination. I met some fantastic people in Delhi, but that crap hole and I are not an item. I enjoyed some fantastic wine and thermal bath sessions in Hungary, but I, for some reason, loathed that place. Florence, Italy and I have had a multi-faceted history, one filled with complete immersion and dreams becoming occurrences but also rejection and sorrowful, emotional pain. I don't know if it's the colors, the landscape, the smells, her age and past, the art, the possibilities, the wine, the gastro-pleasures, or the fact that I know her secret gems. All I know is she has a spirit that I can see, feel, taste, and sense even when my eyes are closed in sleep.
After this trip, I realized that I cannot be exclusive with the cities I court. Florence and I aren't meant to be legally bound. On this big journey, I got around, saw a few different cities, and realized my soul connected with many places for different reasons. Along with Florence, Jinja, Zanzibar, Krakow, and to some extent Srinagar, Darjeeling and I fit. It's the sense that these cities or islands WANT me to be there, and even if there are massive problems, physical hardships, or money issues, I know something is right in our close physical proximity. I knew this as I sat once again on the observation deck for Kangchenjunga, delighting in the sensory overload that coated my consciousness.
Prayer flags and drying clothes flapping on lines Palm trees and cedars intertwining their phalanges The smell of wax, trash bonfires, dirty cement, incense and body soil All mixed with sweet mountain air.
This place wasn't a bucket of fries, it was a stew. It had to simmer in the bowl of my mind and get better with each hour and each bubble of thought. I planned to satiate another sense the next day and follow the need for a hot cup of honest tea.