Thursday, August 25, 2011

Blind Date - Himalayan Food, Darjeeling, Cheese Curry is Awesome, Really

Blind Date Restaurant
Fancy Market (Top floor - watch for the sign from the street.)
12, NB Singh Road
+91 35 4225 5404
Darjeeling, India

Blind Date is a small, somewhat creatively decorated restaurant in Darjeeling that specializes in Himalayan food - the common cuisine ground in between Nepal, Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan. The constants? Momos (dumplings), Thukpa (noodle soup), fried bread and fried rice, and more dairy products then are usually encountered in East Asian influenced cuisines. Most importantly: Blind Date is both dirt cheap and delicious. For your buck, it's just about the best eating experience in Darjeeling. Don't miss it.

Just be sure to use the bathroom first, since, like every restaurant in Darjeeling (just about) there's nowhere to go in the restaurant. Not a problem for men, who may exert the Indian males God-given right to piss on anything wherever he pleases at any time, but ladies may want to hold back on the beer. Watch this space for an upcoming screed about Darjeeling's discriminatory bathroom facilities, but, writing about food right now.

I believe this was Chhurpi, the Himalayas' somewhat weird but delicious variant on the West's hallowed cheese soup. (The fact I am unsure irritates me - I lost my notes somewhere, and Google is proving unhelpful). We ordered it with pork, which was the way to go. Although it's made with Himalaya-style fermented cheese - pretty much cottage cheese with a weird name, don't need to delve into it further, do we? - the taste is somewhat equivalent to cheddar. However this stuff is made, it's ideal for a foggy day at high altitude.

Ting-mo, or Tibetan bread rolls, are often served steamed (like the Chinese do) and are a rather inoffensive and basic carbohydrate. Good at high altitude to keep you hiking but not something I'd pick out of a police lineup for supper. Thankfully, deep frying turns the stuff into golden-crispy Grade-A deliciousness. Get two orders.

I don't have a picture of Blind Date's variant on the theme, but momos are just what people in the Himalayas - and at various restaurants in India - call God's Chosen Food, the dumpling. The main way you can tell them apart from East Asian variants on the classic is the shape - momos tend to be rounder. Other then that, they're filled with various kinds of things and served in a dizzying number of ways. I happen to like the variety that are pan-fried and served with a thick chili sauce the best, but I'll eat and adore pretty much anything pan fried and served in a thick chili sauce. You can never go wrong with momos in this part of the world, and thankfully, you'll never be forced to live without em'.

I should add that Blind Date has some of the best chili chicken on the subcontinent. Chili chicken is a much beloved Chindian dish (You know, the bastard love child of Chinese and Indian food) and is sort of like a spicier, harsher, variant on General Tso's chicken. This being India, the chicken is usually served bone-in and stir-fried with a not-fucking-around chili sauce, some whole chilis, and some vegetables. My friend Kiran and I are nuts for it, and this was great.

Fried rice is what Asia runs on. The world will probably run on fried rice in a hundred years. I'm cool with this. Blind Date, true to form, has excellent fried rice. They keep it in the pan long enough to get a little nutty crisp on it, which is essential, and there's plenty of stuff in it, which is also essential.

Gobi Manchurian, another beloved deep-fried and spicy Chindian dish. It's deep-fried cauliflower in a sweet and spicy sauce. Just about ubiquitous and pretty good if you, like most people, prefer your vegetable products crispy and delicious.

I've got a thing for fried greens, which most people think is kind of weird. Whatever. These were really good, and a nice mix of various local-greens varieties - not over or undercooked, nice and fresh, a simple and slightly spicy Chinese-style sauce with some vinegar.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Post in Memorial: I Walked Around in the Mist Thinking a Lot

I continued hanging out with Patrick. Kiran was still up on the mountain and -hopefully - coming back down in a timely fashion, if altitude sickness and yetis hadn't got him first. I had nothing to do and was very much enjoying it. I visited Darjeeling's Top Tourist attractions a bit half-halfheartedly. I ate a lot of meat since I had grown to miss it in the mountains. I went for long, hilly walks to nowhere in particular. I failed to wake up early enough to go to Tiger Mountain.

I checked out of the Planter's Club at the earliest possible opportunity and booked myself into the more salubrious, if pricier, Shangri-La Regency, which did not have the ghosts of centuries past knocking about and a functional cable television, where I laid sprawled out on the bed and watched Indian intellectuals complain about the Commonwealth Games.

And I'm going to get these introspective posts about the nature of life and death out of the way in a chunk here, because I guess it seems right. Darjeeling was for me, a lot about wandering around on misty hills and ruminating - somewhat against my will - on existence. Looking back on it, almost a year on, it all seemed prescient, in light of what was waiting for me in Cambodia.

After I met Patrick, I met his traveling friend, a Dutch 27-year-old who used to be a competitive cyclist, a real athletic hot-shot. Bert was smart as hell, and he and KIran took to each other immediately, once Kiran actually arrived. They argued geo-politics and Patrick and I talked about packed-to-the-gills buses and hot days in India and what happens when you're trying to make a flight for the Congo. The four of us had dinner together. I'll talk about that later but right now I'll talk about this. Putting a food blog post in here doesn't quite seem right.

There's a cafe in Darjeeling you should find, or perhaps you won't avoid finding it, because far as we could tell it's the only place in town that stays open past 9:00 PM.

The design aesthetic is about what you'd get if your seventy-five year old maiden aunt with a proclivity for knick-knacks happened to be a Tibetan Buddhist monk: lacey things, images of Buddhist saints, lamps in awful taste with dangly things coming off of them and lots of Thangka paintings - there was a scent of incense and perhaps mothball in the air.

The menu, this being Darjeeling, featured nothing stronger than black tea and hot chocolate. I defaulted to hot chocolate in deference to the mist. I settled into a puce cushion. We talked about everything.

It is odd for me to write this now, to think that I would be reading (not much later) of Bert's suicide in January, only a week or so before my second Phnom Penh tragedy - that I will not talk about here, but maybe someday. I went online and noticed a sudden flurry of postings on his Facebook page, which is how death is announced nowadays.

His family had put up an obituary site and I went there and looked. I couldn't figure out how he'd died, since most of the postings were in Dutch. I got a Dutch friend to read a news report I found with his name in it. A suicide. No more details. None I'll ever get, probably. Don't want to pry further.

Had something in him already begun to become undone, despite how normal he was and how charming he was, and how he was telling us about his impending degree in sport's health? He was out here traveling, as many young people do who have some time and a bit of cash on their hands. Some of them are on holiday and that is all they are out for.

Some of them are both on holiday and also looking for something, a purpose, which is the category I like to think I fall into (and fall short of). And then there are the ones who are looking for something far more dire, a reason to root themselves to the earth - a trip that can turn into a farewell tour, I guess.

Did he find what he was looking for up in Sikkim and Darjeeling? Was it the failure to find (whatever it was) that drove him to kill himself? Or were the Himalayas nothing at all to him, a blip on the radar of a mind that had already begun to descend downwards and downwards, again?

Winston Churchill called depression the Black Dog. It follows you everywhere. Churchill strong-armed it, but that's luck, as much as strength. And many don't strong-arm it, let it take them away.

He was young and fit and ordered tea alongside us. He was very blonde and had freckles and was good looking, and spoke with only the faintest hint of a Dutch accent. We had breakfast with him and Patrick at Glenary's, and he complained about the quality of the baked beans.

I have forgotten where he was off to beyond Darjeeling, but the photos remain on his Facebook, which no one has aced out yet. These are things I did not anticipate in a pink-and-mauve Tibetan Buddhist cafe around 11:00 PM at night, when we had conversations we ought to have been having in a dirty bar.

Maybe that's the thing of travel alone,the particular quality - the wisdom that's imparted, the things you get left behind with, the people you meet who steer you along out of some sense of duty.

Bert is dead now, but I'll remember him and that surrealist Darjeeling tea-shop forever, and that provides a hint of comfort to me.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Things I Thought about in Darjeeling; Fortitious Meetings

Skull at the Darjeeling Planter's Club. The Raj; you know.

When I met Patrick; it was one of those moments that occurs to me occasionally when I travel alone, this particular quality of understanding. What do I call it? Kindred spirits is cliched and stupid. It is what happens when two people get to talking and realize (usually quite quickly) that they are very much the same, that their minds inhabit the same space and have walked around and sniffed around the same possibilities.

I took him to the Planter's Club because it was grand and horrible, and I thought he ought to see it. We ducked surreptitiously into what was the old club-room, which was hung with moth-eaten leopard and tiger skins, and engravings, and had a fireplace that was perhaps last lit in the 1960's.

The chairs looked as if they would dissolve into nothing if you sat into them, and were perhaps at one point a sort of off-magenta shade, and everything smelt of dust.

"I bet it was really happening, back in 1925," I said. "Emphasis on 1925."

George Mallory (back in better days)

"Shit, I can only imagine," he said, gazing around the room at the slowly-dying taxidermy, the ladies powder room in fading teal out-behind. It was a room where Orwell would have staged a scene from Burmese Days in, the sort of shit Kipling probably lived in.

George Leigh Mallory sat here, in one of these chairs, and maybe they made him a stiff drink. (Mallory, the doomed mountain climber, the dandy, who disappeared in an attempt on Everest in 1924, the one whose white and bleached corpse was found by Conrad Anker in 1999.)

He would have needed a drink, before he took off on his final journey, up to Everest and to that final oblivion. Patrick and I had less of a rendezvous with destiny ahead of us (to an extent), but we needed one too. No one was behind the bar, so we couldn't have a drink.

When was the last time they'd had someone behind the bar?

I walked with Patrick outside the bar room and down the outside corridors, which creaked and moaned a bit horribly in the evening-time, and by the heads of antelope mounted along them, and the library, which we could not get into at this time of night—and was almost certainly staffed by the ghost of tea planters.

I like to imagine them going over their ledgers around 4:00 AM in the darkest points of evening, ghostly specters wearing little visor caps and jodhpurs, and bemoaning how India has all gone to shit in the absence of their rule. (Debatable).

"That's the grand tour," I said, after we got back to the lobby of the Planter's Club. "Is there anywhere we could go to get a drink?"

"It's Darjeeling," he said. "There isn't." This was truth: It shuts down at eight, and then, the stray dogs take over.

We stood on the porch at the Darjeeling Planter's Club and looked down over the city, which had few lights in it and was begining to settle down for the night, nice and early, as it always down. Sir George Mallory's oxygen tanks were behind us.

"Yeah, it's nice talking to someone, who's actually been somewhere," he said.

" Most people where I'm from, they don't really travel. Or they do it wrong. I have this friend of mine. When he goes on vacations, he and his wife rent an apartment in France somewhere. The preppy kind of travel. Not like this. " He nodded his head out at Darjeeling, where there were stray dogs yapping out in the distance and the third-largest-mountain in the world hidden out in the mist somewhere, just something we could imagine, at this point.

"I don't know why I do it," I said, truthfully. "It's something we do in my family, it's just what we do."

Old Delhi bazaar.

We turned to Delhi. Every traveler who's been to India turns to Delhi and the black pit inside of it - we get around to what is I think that dark and eternal mystery inside Delhi, the smell of it, the twisted contortions of it, Old Delhi the only place that ever frightened my ass, and we both went there, in our conversations and in our memories. Delhi renders me a goddamn coward. Or, at least, it did.

"And how'd you find it?" I asked him. "Me, I picked up a big ass stick, and I wandered the bazaar, but that's about it." (Felt like a pussy too, but the boys all grabbing at my chest, you know, and how I was an alien from Planet Zarg there.)

"I played the black market in Delhi, for a while," he said. "In the 1970's. Supporting myself. We'd buy American goods from the diplomatic commisary and resell them to the Indians. It was a pretty good living. I was 22 years old. A real brat. I guess doing this now is sort of atonement. I must have broke every law on the book in India."

He was headed down to South India with Habitat for Humanity to build houses. A lot of us are atoning for something with travel somehow. I know I am. Nothing like a crime or some shit like that, just something intrinsic inside of me. Some of us are born with a sense, undeterminable and unidentifiable, that we must atone. Some turn to self-destruction; some seek out danger; some go on long and solitary trips and wonder if we'll ever get that final absolution. (And I think it never happens, and that is the sweetness and the sadness of it).

And I never played the Delhi black market but the idea of it makes my eyes shine, and makes me wish I could still play that game, that maybe I could if I had the balls. And if the game can even be played anymore, or if there are other games out there.

Can you do this stuff anymore? Or do you have to go to Libya and get yourself shot up ala-Chris Hondros, a warrior on the front-lines, bleeding out in an alley somewhere when your luck runs out? Is this how martial it has to be, to finally atone?(I think about this a lot - how far I have to go).

And we talked about blood, too, how we both just didn't seem to shy away from it, like it attracted it almost (dance of death, whatever, maybe this too is part of what makes us what we are, the kind of assholes we are). This was a full few months before I'd get my full real taste of death and what it meant, and stacked up bodies—the Cambodian bridge stampede of last November, which you may have forgotten about if you don't live in Cambodia, but that's how world events work — so I didn't even know what was coming for me, then. We never do.

Patrick and I talked about bull-fighting, because blood leads into bull fighting, and martial thoughts like that. I told him about that time my dad and I had been walking through a small Spanish town, and walked into a bar where they hung up little pale piglet carcasses by their snouts on meat-hooks for future roasting, and they were playing a bullfight on TV. There were five or six old Spanish farts in their with greying whiskers and they were smoking cigarettes, and they were all watching the fight intently, the bartender cleaning a glass absent-mindly and watching as the bull dripped blood from all the pinpricks in its back. My dad and I watched intently too. We couldn't tear ourselves away.

My mother appeared at the doorway at some point, following us down the alley. "Jesus, why are you watching that?" she said. My father and I found it hard to articulate, but all we knew is that we were interested, would stay interested.

Patrick knew why we had been watching.

"A real bull fight is a work of art," he told me. (When he'd been in Spain, when he'd wandered, when he'd taken a job at a Spanish guesthouse of some kind with a middle-aged lady who taught him the language, another story, another venture) "
" Not - these cheap Mexican jobs. Where nine guys can't kill the bull and they end up taking an ax to it. Not that. The Spanish stuff," he reiterated. "That's how to do it properly."

The bull with the points sticking out of it and all the bar men sitting there silently with the pig carcasses in the window,and how it shut me and my dad up along with all the rest of them, for that good ten minutes or so. I remembered that.

"And what about dog fighting?" I asked. "What's your stance on that."

"Yeah, dog fighting," he said, calling back the memory. He laughed.

" Everyone was into it back in the sixties. Well, certain types. Now, you can't even talk about it. I had this dog - her name was Molly - and she won me a lot of money," he said. "Bought her from a friend of mine. You know the type. Wifebeater, big arms, wife with a boob job, and a pit bull."

You can't even pretend to talk about dog fighting anymore but he did it anyway. (The pits and all the shouting and holding back your dog and game, how game your dog is, this is stuff I researched under the guise of my love of pit bulls, but also because it fascinates me. These are the things that are dying out.)

"We did all those gauche things," he said, a little wistfully. Atonement again.

Mallory's oxygen canisters.

We were leaning over the porch. I kept on wishing that George Mallory was hanging around the building somewhere, some little particles of him still in the air, and listening in. Not that he'd be interested maybe - he had that fucking mountain to scale, you know, that had invaded his brain - but maybe he'd have had a drink with us.

He walked up the mountain and never came down, and I've been dreaming about him since I was a kid, since I first heard about the re-discovery of his pale white body, after I looked at photos of him when he was young and fool-hardy (like me). I drink to George Mallory when no one is looking, to his contorted hands and pulled back, frozen lips on the cliffs up on Everest god-knows-where. (I wrote about him a while back, if you want to click that link).

I drink to him when he was young and handsome, and hung around with Robert Graves, and climbed and died because it wasn't like he had a choice.

George Mallory wrote an article on a successful climbing expedition to Switzerland's Mont Blanc, for a magazine.

It contained the rhetorical question: "Have we vanquished the enemy?"

Mallory replied, "None but ourselves."

(Why do we want to stare into the frozen and dead and whitened eyes of our idols? They'll bring us nothing, and tar us forever. But then again - I like the cycle, that of handsome youth and dead and stiffened corpse. it is inevitable. It is how it works.)

Streets of Darjeeling.

We kept on talking about travel because we couldn't get a drink and there was nothing else to do. Fog was moving in over the mostly-extinguished lights of the city. We were leaning over the railing, and everything was very quiet.

"My son doesn't have it, the travel thing," Patrick said. " When he graduated, I bought him an Eurail pass. He was going to go to Australia, but his buddy went to Europe, so he came too. It was only for six weeks or so, not too long. He got back. I asked him, "So, did you like Hamburg? Did you go to Italy?"
"No, no, I don't know about those places. There's some great cafes in Amsterdam though, man, great cafes."
Well, you get the idea. He spent six weeks in Europe in Amsterdam, smoking up. Face it, he just hasn't got it in him."

We laughed about that. You have it, you don't. You explore, you don't. You atone (some of us) and we find each other. I feel like a fool a lot of the time traveling, but I do it anyway.

We talked about love, and the people we had, and soon enough I found out that he was the second man traveling I had met in a month that had just lost a wife. "She was tall," as he described her to me in passing, to give me something to hold onto, and she liked to have adventures, like he did.

They lived together in Mexico for a while and attended the mata-cubra wrestling matches, and bet on them. She got pregnant in Mexico by accident and they had their son. That was how it goes. Not that this stopped them - they were in California but they kept on moving.

I didn't ask him what happened to her or why because I knew he'd tell me. They almost always do.

"It was cancer," he said (a brief emotional shrug of the shoulders, a twinge)."She got cancer and died last year. Now I'm traveling." This was the sum total offered at the time, and I didn't want to know more, or need to. She got cancer and she died.

Clocktower in Darjeeling.

I sit here writing this now and wonder why I am so attracted to these people who are traveling no just out of adventure, but also out of bereavement, to fill in a gap. When I met Patrick, in September of 2010, I was not in love and had a certain sense - a worrying one - that I never would be. I idolized T.E Lawrence, who, as they said, wandered the earth and never alit anywhere, who avoided all romantic relationships and (pretty much) all sexual ones as well. I liked D.H Lawrence, and I wished I had a man in my life, but I also felt that such a thing was pretty much doomed - as odd as I am - and if I could just work past it, the need for it, I'd be better off. To wander the earth and never alight.

Now I am in love, these days, the kind of love that I think I can with confidence call the Real Thing. I have this sense that I am going to be with this man for a very long time. Neither of like to speak in absolutes - we are scientists, him of the degree holding sort, me of the armchair variety - but we have certain visions of an extended future. I have to some extent alit, albeit in Cambodia, albeit living what is still a reasonably exotic life. But I've alit.

And when I think of the sharp love I feel for this extremely tall blonde man with steel-blue eyes (from Iowa, fixes bikes, tells long winded jokes about ice-fishermen, who-I-would-crawl-over-glass for ), I keep on thinking of Patrick wandering the world, because he's got no one left in his bed.

And I keep on imagining what I'll do when or if that's me, if Patrick's is also my future. Grieving, and thinking on it, and acutely aware of the loss (that cuts so fine, that penetrates your veins), but he has not yet pulled down all the blinds and receded into himself. He is on the move. He is volunteering for Habitat for Humanity. "It's an act of atonement," he told me. "I mean, I must have violated every law in India."

This is the final summation of love, maybe. To continue to be what you had been when the other is gone.

In a different fashion, and with that portion of yourself you had ceded (perhaps at first grudgingly) to the other missing, and aching in the night.

You grow used to the person you love there when you roll over, the scent of their hair, the way their breath sounds when they are shallowly breathing and when you yourself are staring at the ceiling, an affirmation of life. And then that affirmation is taken away, and what are you left with? (Mallory died. You will; too, and probably not as well.)

And I suppose you keep on walking anyway. There is nothing else.