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.

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