Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Gompas, Tea, and Almost Tibet

Since arriving in Darjeeling three days ago, I have had a wonderful time. With my friend from Belgium, P.J., that I met on the train from Kolkata to Darjeeling, I hiked around the town, visited a gorgeous Buddhist monastery, toured the Happy Valley Tea Plantation, saw Snow Leopards and a Siberian Tiger in the zoo, sampled delicious Tibetan steamed momos and tea, and took in the peaceful beauty of this hill station. P.J. left yesterday to return to Kolkata where he will be working for an additional month. He was so sad to have to leave the cool weather an laid back vibe of Darjeeling for the heat, stench and filth of Kolkata.

After P.J. left, I wandered around town and discovered a beautiful old English hotel called the Windemere. It has been preserved down to the bedding and furnishings to what it was in the early 1900s at the height of the British presence in India. Stepping in to the hotel I felt as if I was stepping into another age. I had "high tea," complete with tea, cucumber sandwiches, ginger cookies, and lemon cake in a room of dark wood furnishings, rich red brocaded curtains, and luxurious hand woven Tibetan carpets on the floor with a fire crackling in front of me. On the walls were black and white pictures of British visitors from the 1900s dressed in high-collared white lace dresses and hunting jackets and trousers tucked into knee high black leather boots. Everyone in the pictures, men, women, and children are wearing hats that make them look like they're on safari, though it was probably just to protect them from the sun. Also on the walls are black and white photos of Tibetans in traditional dress and sherpas, many of whom befriended the British visitors. Along with the photos are framed hand written letters from all over the world dating back over 100 years ago from visitors to the hotel.

After high tea I walked up Observatory Hill and checked out an ancient Buddhist and Hindu shrine on top of a small hill. The hill was bedecked with thousands of prayer flags, so much so that from a distance the hilltop appeared a riotous mass of red, blue, yellow, and green. It was like Buddhist monks had TP-ed the trees, but not with toilet paper, and not with the intent of making an mischief, but instead with a thousand brightly colored prayers. Walking through the paths underneath the canopy of prayer flag covered trees, it felt like you were walking in another world somewhat reminiscent of Disney Land but with a beauty and serenity not found in the typical amusement park.

To cap off my day I decided to eat at a Tibetan restaurant and try the local food. Not to be swayed from my mission, I insisted on ordering Tibetan tea despite the fact that the hostess told me I wouldn't like it. Tibetan tea is basically heated butter with salt. I got the steaming cup, tried one sip, and promptly decided that the hostess was correct. Luckily it was only 25 cents for a cup. I also tried their steamed momos, which are basically dumplings (like dim sum), and a Tibetan vegetable soup. The momos were good but not as good as the momos that P.J. and I had at the "Hot Stimulating Cafe" on the way to the zoo, and the soup was tasty. Unfortunately, towards the end of my meal I saw a cock roach on the table which soured the dining experience somewhat.

A half hour later things got worse because I started to feel ill. I had been in India for almost 2 weeks without any stomach issues so it was bound to happen. I don't think it was the Tibetan food. Instead, I think it was the soup that the nice woman just outside of the Happy Valley Tea Estate made for P.J. and me. The woman was very sweet, but she wasn't living under the most hygienic conditions, and fairly certain she didn't use pure drinking water to make our soup. But she was so hospitable and sweet and she boiled the water so P.J. and I had decided to risk it. Bad move. I won't be accepting any soup from women in little huts in the future. Luckily the bout of illness lasted only about 2 hours. It meant I had to stay in my room - mercifully close to the toilet - and had to forego meeting up with some other friends at the local bar, The Buzz. However, it was good because it gave me some time to read (in between trips to the loo) and resulted in me going to bed early. I just picked up "The Power of Now," another book in the vein of "The Alchemist," and "The Four Agreements," aimed at discovering the inner peace that resides in all of us. It's pretty cool so far, and keeping me on track in terms of my inner journey.

This morning, I had breakfast at a cute little cafe called "Sonam's Kitchen." The cafe seats about 8 and is run by an adorable, hip Tibetan woman. She makes terrific coffee (nice and dark) and a sublime porridge, otherwise known as oatmeal, with bananas and nuts. I haven't yet discovered exactly how she makes the porridge but I know for sure that she flavors it with cloves and cardamom. It's absolutely delicious.

For my last day in Darjeeling I'm planning to hike around the area visiting all of the major Buddhist gompas (temples) and monasteries. It's very funny to me that after months of trying to decide whether I should visit India or Tibet I decided on Indian only to find myself drawn to the "little Tibets" (such as parts of Darjeeling) in India. So as not to miss India, I'm going to make sure to visit the Taj Mahal in Agra, and may go through Rajasthan (I keep going back and forth on that because it's so freakin' hot) on my way to Mumbai (and my flight home). But, what I'm really excited about is my time in Darjeeling and my upcoming trip to Dharamsala, the official "Little Tibet."

On another note, I've met several travelers who quit their jobs to travel around indefinitely. Many are hippies, but some are quite normal, fascinating people such as the couple from Oklahoma that I met yesterday. They quit their jobs in 2004 and travelled for two years, then went back to the States to work for 9 months in order to earn enough money to travel again. They've been travelling for a few months and plan to travel until their money runs out. Listening to their story I was pretty much green with envy. I want to do that. I want to spend a year of my life travelling and being absolutely free! What I'm doing right now, travelling for a month, is wonderful, but can you imagine traveling indefinitely??? I just think that would be unbelievably awesome. To be free, to see the world, to meet people from all over... how awesome would that be?


Random Magus said...

"Listening to their story I was pretty much green with envy. I want to do that. I want to spend a year of my life travelling and being absolutely free!"

That is my ultimate dream... I loved your post it was like I was there.
You write wonderfully.

Buttercup said...

Random Magus - That is so sweet of you to say. Thank you! If that is your ultimate dream you should absolutely do it. (I know I should take my own advice).

Anonymous said...

Where to start with my comments?!!

High tea and snow leopards! How neat-o. Are you sure you aren't in London having tea at Harrod's and visiting the zoo?!!

I adore the idea of tp'ing a tree with prayers. It reminds me of seeing Christmas trees in Hawaii decorated with origami birds and that's all. I feel so comfortable with the world when cultures combine in postitive, unique ways.

Yuck to Tibetan tea. Yuck to stomach probs.

Yum to oatmeal with clove and cardamom. I never thought of that and will try it tomorrow as I adore those spices.

And a double yeah to those who can travel for months and/or years on end. I'm much too rooted in my world to do that, but I adore being an armchair traveller. Thanks for posting about your travels. I'm really enjoying them.

Starshine said...

So great to read about your travels, Buttercup! I can't wait to talk when you get home.


Prue said...

You might enjoy a book called "Honeymoon with my Brother." I can't remember who wrote it, unfortunately. It is about two brothers who end up traveling for a really long time all over the world. Great read. Really light. It'll make you want to travel indefinitely even more.

mist1 said...

That sounds like the kind of soup that I make.

InterstellarLass said...

I've often considered how to 'run away' once my chicks are out of the nest. To get rid of all my crap and be a vagabond-nomad? Priceless.

Bubbles said...

So Hippies aren't "normal"? Humph! (J/J)

Gypsy said...

Sorry about the tummy issues, but it sounds like aside from that everything is going very well. :)

I know several people who have taken off to go travel around, who only worked to earn enough money to start traveling again. Although, most of these people have been in their early- to mid-20s.