Saturday, June 11, 2011

Heading to Darjeeling: Share Jeeps Suck, I Like Taxidermy

The Darjeeling style aesthetic in a nutshell. Raj, baby, raj.

Today was the day I headed for Darjeeling, that Indian hill-station with the fabulous tea, the one in that indie movie I refuse to see, you've doubtless heard of it.

I was going to do this by means of a share jeep, which is how everyone gets around in Sikkim. Sikkim's incredibly rough terrain, lack of infrastructure, and remarkably vertical nature mean that a good-sized SUV with the ability to traverse a bit of water if need be is a necessity. Really clingy tires also help (as I was very soon to find out).

I woke up early and had breakfast at the same small restaurant again - I remain amazed by how the trek suddenly and entirely converted me to enjoying eating eggs, which I had previously found repulsive. I had scrambled eggs and talked more with Suman, who was also there and waiting for a ride somewhere or another, the manager of the Yuksom Residency. The two Dutch boys I had met on the way down from Dzongri were there too, also waiting on their ride to Darjeeling, and we conversed in a half-asleep way, and waited.

The trip would take about six hours, Suman mentioned. I would have to switch jeeps in Jorethang, a small city located in the bed of the river Teesta. He seemed remarkably positive about all this. It was raining outside, but everyone was used to this. The art on the walls of the restaurants, as it is everywhere in the Himalaya, was of the Swiss Alps, which I presume have attained some platonic ideal of mountainhood denied to their taller brothers.

The jeep arrived ten minutes late - not so bad - and I jockedyed for a window seat (fool) and then off we went. Sort of. We stopped every mile or so to pick up someone from their house or what have you, in the secret code of Asian shared vehicle rides, and then finally we had managed to fit 12 people into one jeep (snugly, sitting on laps), and off we went. The terrain was verdant and green and steep, and we dropped rather deeply towards the river, which was full of snow-melt and looked excellent for white-water rafting. (As previously mentioned, you used to be able to do this in Sikkim, but then a lot of tourists died, but you can probably do it again, as per the fluid motion of Indian law).

Some sadist had decided it was all right to blast the same three Black Eyed Peas songs out of her cell phone over and over again at a tinny volume. But at least there was the view. We passed by tiny stupas that clinged to the side of cliffs and overlooked the water, and quarries and hydroelectric projects (part of the Indian government's efforts at convincing the Sikkimese to stay happy and not become malcontent like those OTHER Northeastern states) and many people standing along the side of the road, craning their necks with mild interest as we went by. And pretty little Sikkimese style houses, too, stuck right on the edge of a yawning precipice and colored in blues and whites, usually with a number of porch chairs with someone old propped up in them. This was nice.

We got to Jorethang. It was terrifically hot. After Yuksom and the trek, this was somewhat of a shock to my system, but I endured: we waited in a small shopping-arcade thing (of Jorethang's variety, which was limited) and I felt a bit bad because the Dutch boys wouldn't talk to me. I suppose they were only friendly under the influence of chang. I felt bad as well because I had two bags with me, which no Real Backpacker would ever do, and was wearing a pair of slightly high heeled sandals, which I had also been forced to wear because my toenail was still threatening to fall off. I wondered if they were judging me. I wanted to collar them and say "I HAVE ALL THESE THINGS BECAUSE I AM MOVING TO CAMBODIA, AND MY TOENAIL IS FALLING OFF, AND WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE IT WIGGLE? THIS IS WHY I LOOK LIKE SUCH AN IDIOT." But I didn't. I didn't want them to think I was crazy.

We got back in the jeep. This jeep was fancy and had assigned seats and tickets. I still had a window. From Jorethan, we climbed out of the Teesta river valley. We stopped at the Sikkim/West Bengal border to have our passports checked. I did not have my inner-line pass (needed for Sikkim) as the Yuksom trekking office had somehow lost it, and I was concerned, except I figured I was leaving the country, and I doubted they would make me stay, marry me off to a Sikkimese man, and make me take up a life of porting.

They didn't.

We kept on going up. Up and up and up and up. We had entered the realm of the tea plantation, the real burra-sahib area, where the British of the olden days kept their massive estates and their stables of High Spirited horses and their massive contingents of pretty-much-slaves, all of them picking tea for them. We had also entered Gorkhaland, which is how the healthy majority of the natives would prefer you think of it rather then West Bengal. The Gorkhas are people of Nepali descent, who, through the tender ministrations of surveyors, found themselves part of India: this does not please them. This would be an issue of fairly minor import to India as a whole if they were NOT Gorkhas, who happen to be renowened world-wide for their fighting spirit, bravery, and their love carrying around immense and sharp curved knives. (Or, as the former chief of staff of the British Indian Army, Sam Manekshaw said: "If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or is a Gorkha.” You can see where this is going.

The proposed map of Gorkhaland.

The Gorkhas and the Dooar people want to seperate from India and form their own state, Gorkhaland, which becomes glaringly obvious as soon as you cross into Bengal and see Gorkhaland signs fluttering from every house. (I have been told that business or houses who do NOT put up Gorkhaland flags are often threatened, but, who knows).

It is worth mentioning that this entire region, including Darjeeling, was once part of the domain of Sikkim's Chogyal, who was constantly (and usually unsuccessfully) at war with the Gorkhas, who had taken most of this region by force by the start of the 19th century. The British arrived, won the Anglo-Gorkha war, and by means of two suceeding treaties, gave Sikkim back the land and reinstated the Chogyal. All sounded good until Sikkim somewhat suspiciously "gave" the British Darjeeling, while Bhutan handed Kalimpong over to the Brits as well. Still, the Gorkhas still wanted the region and considered it their ancestral home, and once Britain cut out, there was bond to be trouble.

The Gorkhas got violent in the 1980s, with the creation of the Gorkha National Liberation Front, and fought tooth-and-nail until 1988 when the Darjeeling Hill Accord was signed, instating the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, a semi autonmous body of governance. It's gone on like this, with a passle of controversy and a lot of argument, until today, but the Gorkha's still want their own state and they are busily engaged in figuring out how to get it.

A rally for Mamata Banarjee I stumbled across my first day in Darjeeling. This affair featured a singer, uncomfortable looking children in shiny costumes performing a song n' dance routine, a lot of pro-Gorkhaland fist pumping, and a horse. I enjoyed it a lot.

That got a little technical, but anything involving attempting to explain Indian politics quickly turns into a Borges-like exploration of an endless series of labyrinths populated by corrupt and corpulent officials, and so you see the problem I face. (Another interesting political figure in West Bengal is the singularly fearsome Mamata Banarjee, if you're into that kind of thing).

The fact of the matter is, this is technically India, but don't go throwing around the word too much. Darjeeling is a strange little entity, and has been so since its inception. More on that.

As for the jeep ride, as we gained in elevation and began to be able to see down down down into the hills and plains below us, I began to grow a little concerned. As the road got narrower and even more rocky and pot-hole ridden then before, I got more concerned, and I got really really concerned when another jeep, bearing 12 people, decided it needed to pass us.

Our jeep driver, listening to his iPod and squashed up against the left side of the car, obligingly backed our vehicle as far to the side as it could possibly go and let the other guy pass. I looked out the window. I looked down. "Down" was an absolutely vertical drop into oblivion. There might have been a cloud. I looked away as quickly as possible. I considered getting out of the jeep and walking.

(You might consider me a big-fat-wuss, but it happens that these jeeps go over the edge of cliffs all the damn time in the Himalaya. A cursory google of "jeep accident" and "Himalaya" reveals a constant litany of accidents and deaths ending in flaming wreckage and screaming and falling for way longer then anyone could or should possibly fall while in a big heavy vehicle. Here, a horrible jeep accident is dust considered one of those Things that Happens, like malaria and occasional wild dog attack, and what can you do about it, really? So maybe I was not overreacting after all).

We passed through tiny and precarious looking hill planters towns, full of brightly colored and almost Caribbean looking houses, and exceptionally scrawny chickens, and a bunch of bored looking kids. Women - almost all women - were bringing in the tea on their heads, wearing exceptionally colorful prints and waving at us when we went by. We passed by the massive headquarters of the tea conglomerates, which seemed to have retained to some extent the kingships of old - they had hospitals, and rule boards, and dormitories, and educational centers, and God knows what else, and everywhere horrifyingly steep and well cultivated hillsides full of pert little tea plants.

The Dutchmen were, I could tell, growing annoyed by my tendency to murmur OH MY FUCKING GOD OH FUCK whenever we had to pass another car or were forced to squeeze through a small gap just a tiny bit smaller then our actual car, but they were sitting in the middle. They could Not See What I Saw. (And can never unsee. The nightmares still, occasionally, come.)

I attempted to read one of the Dutchmen's Murakami book over his shoulder because for some reason this was less scary then reading my own book. I believe it was a story involving a unicorn skull. I don't think he appreciated this very much.

Hours passed. It got very cloudy, but the road got better, which was encouraging. The driver ground to a halt and everyone began getting out. "Is this...Darjeeling?" I said, looking around at the desolate side-of-the-world we had stopped at.

"No, there has been a landslide. So we switch jeeps," a woman cheerfully informed me. Apparantly we had to do this quickly.

Swearing, I collected my two extremely heavy bags (Why HAD I bought all those fucking books?), arranged them around my shoulders, and teetered on my completely impractical girly shoes about half a mile uphill to the other jeep, all the time praying my toenail wouldn't fall off. (It hung on. Mostly).

Kiran did this same trip at night and told me that no one bothered to inform him that it was a massive, sheer drop off to the right and that he might want to avoid it. He also said he did not bother to turn on his headlamp, being unaware, and no one else had lights either. They Lose More People That Way.

The view from the Planter's Club. It's foggy. A lot.

We got to Darjeeling.

It was lunchtime and I wasn't really sure where my hotel was, and the entire city was, perhaps not surprisingly, built on a hill and seemingly in the process of falling OFF that hill. Darjeeling is in a state of truly impressive disrepair, a hill-station falling into ever-more dramatic entropy. It's all jammed together so tightly and has been so since the 1800's that it's pretty much impossible to build anything new - there's little land to work with and gravity is a constant enemy, and most buildings sort of sag.

The old British buildings are covered in a thick coat of grime and on occasion lichen, and the constant mist that blows through town keeps the air cool and everything slightly dampish - the Seattle of India, in its way. Like in Mussorie, there are a bunch of high class private schools here and a bunch of kids wearing English style school uniforms slouching through the streets looking for whatever trouble Darjeeling can accord them, which probably isn't much. (Everything shuts down by 8:00 pm. EVERYTHING. Well, pretty much).

I will warn all women now that there are roughly three actual bathrooms in Darjeeling. This will come up later.

I was staying at the Darjeeling Planters Club, mainly because I'd read about it in my guidebook to Sikkim (the only one we could find anywhere, far as we knew) and it sounded....interesting. The Planter's Club was (and theoretically still is, although all the members may be dead) the old HQ of the raj-era tea planting industry, positioned on top of a hill with a reasonably commanding view of the city below. It was definitely majestic sixty years ago, that's for sure. Maybe longer. The club, after all, was first formed in 1892 and it shows. The decor is themed in "majestic wildlife that used to be abundant here but now no longer is, for reasons directly related to British dudes with muskets." It's a decor scheme I happen to love, though keeping moths out of resplendent tiger pelts is more difficult then perhaps the Brits had anticipated.

More Wildlife That Once Was Common and Now Isn't, Heavens Knows Why.

The Planter's Club is now a rather moldy wreck like most things in Darjeeling, and a fascinating wreck it is - though not exactly the most pleasant place to actually stay. The room was large all right, but had curtains that didn't entirely close, a rather warped floor, a bed composed of two beds shoved together that creaked a lot, and a TV that didn't actually work. The corridor itself was long, misty, and was almost certainly haunted by the ghost of Mallory. I'm not exactly a supernatural believer but this was the kind of place that would make you INTO one.

There was a guestbook on the side-table with a lot of comments regarding mold, pervasive chill, and the woeful lack of updating. Like so many things in India, if someone would sink a spot of cash and care into this place, it would be an incredible and historical lodging (and they could probably jack the prices way up, too). I'd buy it and do it myself if I had any money. I don't.

I had not eaten actual meat in about two weeks, give or take, and the idea of devouring a tandoori chicken was veering on the semi-transcendental for me. I immediately headed for Glenary's on Nehru Road, which is Darjeeling's grande-dame of English style restaurants, and also contains a bakery/coffee shop, a basement and vaguely "rock and roll" bar, and an upstairs restaurant with a full complement of Indian and Western dishes. (And a working bathroom.) Whatever one's opinion on Glenary's, you'll probably end up coming in here a lot if you're in Darjeeling, mostly because it has an internet cafe and it's in a curiously central location, so you're always walking by anyway.

The tandoori chicken was excellent, and so was the vegetable curry I ordered to go with, and I ate myself into a minor stupor. I looked like hell and had not had time to take a shower - and wasn't really looking forward to it, judging by the Shining-like state of the Planter's Club bathroom - but at least I had food. I tried to pretend the well-turned out Indian families having lunch around me didn't notice that I looked exactly like someone who had just ridden in a jeep all the way from Sikkim that day.

I went to an Internet cafe - the only one, really - at Glenary's, to assure my family I was alive. While I was there, I made a new friend. Which I will discuss in the next post, since this one is getting exceptionally long.