I had a preconception of Darjeeling – a leafy green colonial hill station, pollution free vistas of tea plantation valleys below and snow capped mountains above, aromatic Darjeeling tea served in delicate china tea sets. But we knew better, having seen contemporary pictures of the town, but still the nostalgic image of 100 years ago held fast in my brain. The harsher reality set in as our shared taxi climbed higher up the mountainside, the haze engulfing the valleys. When we finally got dropped off at one of the many taxi stands in town, the sky threatening rain, we had no idea where to find the fairy tale guest house I desired. Then the rain began in earnest and Gerard grumbled, “You know how I feel about walking in the rain.” So we checked into the nearest hotel that was remotely acceptable, never mind the fact it overlooked the noisy taxi stand and the room had that gloomy brown paint look of a British railway station. It didn’t help when during the night, a mouse nibbled away at my last chocolate protein bar that I was saving for a rainy day. Darjeeling had not put on its best face for our arrival!
But as many times before, a gradual process of letting go has to happen before I can move beyond an initial negative reaction and start to enjoy my surroundings for what they are. The next morning we set off in search of another hotel. As we climbed further up the hill and away from the bazaar bustling with Indian tourists, the sun broke through the clouds revealing the valley below in patches of emerald green, and my mood lightened. We stopped for breakfast at a restaurant and struck up a conversation with a very friendly Australian couple who’ve taken a year off from their careers to travel. When we asked where they were staying, they said, “the Aliment,” and I’m exclaimed, “That was my original choice!” They let us use their phone to call to check for vacancy, and we were in luck! So we hustled back to our mousetrap, picked up our bags and started the long winding ascent up to the Aliment.
The quaint apple green and blue painted guesthouse is managed by a 70 year old man who claims he has retired from 30 years in the British army. But the British disbanded their army in India over 60 years ago?? He runs the Aliment with the discipline of an army barracks – no clothes washing in the rooms, front door closed at 10 pm. A jolly little man, he sits in his restaurant, recording orders in a large ledger and freely dispensing advice across the counter. One long wall of the dining room is filled with a multi-language library of books, a frieze above the shelves declaring in bold print: “Sorry! Books Not for Sale or Trade”. Instead you can borrow one for a 500Rs deposit which is carefully recorded in the ledger. There are too many books to have been purely discarded by travelers – who knows where he’s found them all – hardback, paperback, in varying conditions and age. While waiting for dinner each night I read from Geoffrey Moorhouse’s Calcutta: the City Revealed, an illuminating account of the history of the city.
The guesthouse would have a spectacular view of Kachenuga the third highest mountain in the world if the air ever cleared. If a view is likely from the rooftop the proprietor knocks on your bedroom door at sunrise to let you know. But at this time of year, that doesn’t happen often. In our six-day stay, he only knocked on our door once and even then to see only the faintest outline of the highest peak through the clouds. We need to return in October after the monsoon rains have washed the air clear.
The hotel restaurant is convenient for dinner, the food is ok but the biggest appeal is the young waiter who has the prettiest face and gayest manner – and if he really is male, he’s still waiting for his voice to change! Gerard and I continue to speculate. Looking for something better for breakfast and lunch, we chance upon the perfect family eatery, the Mystic Mountain close by – no frills home-cooked food (why do they bother with a menu when the same few items are all that’s available – unless you request an hour ahead of time) and darjeeling tea served in a delicate china tea set with a Queen Anne teapot (just as I’d fantasized!).
The Mistyc Mountain is in the midst of a renovation and most of the time we’re the only paying customers – those eating with us are either working on the renovation or family members. I almost feel as if we’re interrupting by requesting a meal. But they’re happy to serve us and on each return visit give us a little something extra – fresh coriander salsa with our papads, cashews and raisins in our porridge… A common practice in family-run restaurants in Morocco once you became a regular customer – but we’ve not experienced this in India before. Over time we get to know the family better – the owner’s son died from a heart attack three years ago during the earthquake that was epicentered in nearby Sikim. He was only 30 years old. “Slowly, slowly, she says, “We’re putting our life back together again.”
At this time of year, the sun shines most mornings, but by afternoon clouds roll in, the wind picks up and rattles the wooden window frames of our room, and then rain drops spatter the glass. Neither the weather nor our fragile bronchial condition are conducive to trekking too far. But one morning, while the sun’s still shining, we walk to the nearest town, Ghoum. The lanes with their hedgerows and spring flowers would seem like England if we weren’t 2200 meters above sea level. Along the way, we stopped at the Alubari (potato field) monastery. Another morning we make the long descent to the bottom of town and roam around the Botanical Gardens. Amidst tall pines, willows and maples, walkways zizag down to a slightly dilapidated Victorian greenhouse but it’s awash with the color of spring flowers and most prominently, two thick ropes of wisteria in full bloom. On afternoons when it’s not raining, we stroll on the Mall with its Victorian wooden cottages housing tea rooms, a well-stocked Oxford Bookstore and a family-run photographer’s shop that displays 60 year old pictures of colonialists in riding jodhpurs looking in the very same shop window.
They say familiarity breeds contempt, but in this case it’s the opposite; the more we get to know the town the more we like it – the footpaths climbing up the mountain, past little houses fillws with window boxes of spring flowers, a boys boarding sch
ool, a cricket field; the whistle of the toy steam train as it echoes through the whole hill station – nostalgic of an old black and white British movie; the friendly Nepalese immigrants their striking features a mix of Indian and Chinese, the young women with their almond-shaped eyes accentuated with kohl and flowing black hair, the round faced, pink cheeked children in their oversized school uniforms. Darjeeling is famous for tea and its vistas – we’ve had plenty of tea but almost no vistas. Inspite of this we’ve grown very fond of the town and talk about coming back after the monsoon when the mountains are clear.
As a political footnote: The Ghorkas, the indigenous people, have been agitating for an independent state from west Bengal for many years, and waged a particularly violent and unsuccessful campaign during the 1980s. (Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai). Even in more recent times, they would throw up blockades stopping traffic from entering and leaving Darjeeling. On our last day, a rally was staged down in the bazaar which resulted in almost all the shops and restaurants in the town closing. The most reasonable explanation we could get was that the shopkeepers were nervous of an outbreak of violence. But in this case, it didn’t happen.