Saturday, April 28, 2007

Tea Time

Darjeeling is awesome. I am so happy to be out of Kolkata, and so elated to be in this adorable town, I can hardly contain my excitement. Getting out of Kolkata was quite the feat. Like the rest of Kolkata, the railway station was an overwhelming, chaotic, swollen mass of people, beggars, and filth. Luckily, the driver from the organization that I was volunteering with drove me to the station and walked me to the precise spot on the tracks that I needed to be at. A group of young beggar children surrounded me and one kept aggressively tapping my hand and looking up mournfully at me, asking for money and food as his friends watched, edging in closer and closer. They were all dressed in ragged clothing, and had streaks of dirt covering their dusty bodies. Finally, when I continued to say no, they moved on from me and started begging from an Indian tourist who also said no.

The train arrived and the Indian family nearby confirmed for me that I was in the right spot, in front of the right coach. I had purchased a ticket for a sleeper bunk and got on the train expecting to see a roomy coach with a door that I could shut behind me. Ha, ha, ha. Getting on the train I was greeted with a narrow walkway, about a foot and half wide, with blue-curtained, double-decker bunks lining each side of the train. I found my bunk number, number 19, and opened the curtain to find 4 bunks facing one another in an extremely small space. No. 19 was the ground level bunk and I sat down on it, clutching my bags to me, to get my bearings. Not a foot away from me was the next bunk over, with a family of four sitting there staring at me. If I had held out my arm I could have touched the their little daughter's face.

I observed the family closely and did everything they did, including chaining up my bags underneath my bunk, and locating the sheets and blanket and making my bed. The little children kept saying "good morning" to me and smiling. It was 10:15 pm. A few minutes before the train was to take off, another Westerner appeared in the space, toting a back pack and a guitar, and took the bunk above me. His name is PJ and he's from Belgium, and it was also his first experience on a train in India. We became fast friends in about 2 seconds, both of us sharing a mutual delight to be getting the heck out of Kolkata. (Since leaving Kolkata and meeting several more travelers in Darjeeling, it seems to be the unquestioned sentiment that Kolkata is the worst city in India, if not worst city ever. I no longer feel the slightest bit guilty for getting fed up with it, and I actually feel quite proud that I made it 10 days - 10 relatively good days. The consensus is that if you can do Kolkata, you can do anywhere).

Eight hours later, after a fitful sleep punctuated by strange noises coming from the bunks around me and the sound of the train running along the tracks, we arrived at our destination - a large city 3 hours away from Darjeeling. A family friend of one of PJ's colleagues was going to pick him up, and after meeting me, arranged for another friend of his to help transport PJ and I to another city where we could arrange for a jeep to Darjeeling. Get this, in order to get from the train station to the other town PJ and I had to ride on the back of two motorcycles while carrying all of our stuff. I had my big backpack on my back, my little back pack clutched in my left hand, and my right hand holding on to the back of the motor cycle for dear life. I was clenching my stomach and thigh muscles so hard in an effort to stay balanced that I could hardly walk for a few minutes after we arrived at our destination. On the way we passed speed bumps, dump trucks, tuk-tucks, men carrying enormous loads of stuff on their heads, cows, sheep, children, and people on bicycles. I tried really hard to stay perfectly still and not to think about the fact that I don't have health insurance at the moment. (I know, I know, it's awful but relax. I just prayed to Tara, tried to meditate myself into calmness and trusted in the Universe that I would be ok. It worked!).

After that, there was an hour and a half long wait for our jeep to get ready to go, and then a 3 hour trip up the mountains to Darjeeling. The trip into the mountains was fantastic. The terraced hillsides are filled with tea and houses perched precariously over the valleys below. Darjeeling itself is awesome, as a I mentioned. It's an adorable maze of tiny shops, cute places to eat, and lovely people. There's hardly any Westerners, PJ and I weren't accosted by anyone trying to convince us to go to their hotel when we arrived, and I've only seen about two beggars. It's paradise! Within 20 minutes we had found another Westerner, a girl by the name of Polly who's from the U.K. who was in the midst of buying shoelaces from a street vendor when I asked if she knew of any good coffee places. Turns out she did, and she offered to walk us up the mountain to the perfect place. We ambled up the mountain passing row upon row of little stores selling almost anything you could imagine including guitars, bags, clothes, jewelry, statues, etc. PJ bought a guitar string.

Sipping my coffee a few minutes ago I was thinking about my plan for Darjeeling. There's a lot to do and I have until May 2nd when I have to fly to Delhi. Rather than planning, I think I'm just going to go with the flow here and chill out. I realized on the drive up here that I love mountain towns. They're usually laid back and filled with cool people, and so far Darjeeling is turning out to be exactly that. Oh, I didn't even mention the temperature. It's a glorious 12 degrees Celsius here, I think about 55 degrees Fahrenheit. That's almost twenty eight degrees Celsius lower than in Kolkata! It's marvelous. I'm wearing a long sleeved top over my yoga pants. Also, I just realized the people at the other side of the cyber cafe are speaking Swedish! I love it when I hear Swedish. Ooooh, should I try my Swedish out on them? We'll see if I can work up my courage.

I'm headed back to the cafe. I can hear PJ strumming his guitar across the street. His Belgium accent is so cute. Later this evening a bunch of us are meeting up for drinks at a local bar. I'm totally loving this place.


gravelly said...

I can breathe again.

Karianne said...

BC, I'm in the middle of reading all of your posts, starting with the leaving for India. I just finished your post about your volunteering. Please email me when you get home with some more info. as I would love to help out with this project.

Be safe and thank you so much for writing.

Gypsy said...

Oh, it sounds heavenly! And all that tea! :)

Starshine said...

So glad you're in a less stressful place! Enjoy the beauty and the cool temps and the new friends!

Prue said...

What an awesome travel story. I am so enjoying following along with your journey!