India: The Arc of the Himalayas–Dispatch 5

What a difference one letter can make:  I was standing at one of the typical cookies, sweets, soda and juice stalls in a small village somewhere in the center of India.  As in all such villages we passed, white faces were seldom seen, so I attracted quite a bit of friendly attention. An oldish gentleman wandered over to me.  I could tell from his expression of concentration that he was digging out the few English words he knew, in order to speak to me.  As I always did when we walked around in villages, I turned to him with a smile and said hello.  At this, his face lit up and he asked “Where from?”  To which I replied, “America.”  Well, his smile broadened to enable me to count all the teeth remaining in his mouth, crinkling his face into a myriad of wrinkles, his eyes disappearing into slits of delight.  Oh, he was happy.  He rocked back on his heels, clasped his hands together, thought hard and then came out with one word of huge significance.  Looking at me with great joy, he slowly enunciated “Osama” and then chuckled with glee.  He was consumed with pleasure that he’d been able to say this to me. I, of course, was a little taken aback.  But I was only stunned for the briefest moment.  I waggled my head with shared pleasure and, smiling broadly, queried, “Obama??”  “Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,” he replied and began to cackle joyfully.  “Obama!!”  We nodded happily at each other for a minute, repeating “Obama” and smiling warmly.  And then he wandered off.

OK, so I lied:  Well, I didn’t lie, actually, but I misspoke.  At the end of my last bulletin I said we were off to drive through Nepal.  After I sent that, we learned that it’s not possible to drive clear to Nepal’s border with Darjeeling as we’d planned.  The horrendous flooding of the Kosi Tappu river, which caused such devastation in Bihar last year, also destroyed Nepal’s eastern highways and the bridges that cross them.  None of this has yet been repaired.  It became apparent that to get to Darjeeling, we’d have to cross back into India south of Kathmandu (barely halfway across that country) and then have a long, hard slog of daily pedal to the metal driving to get to Darjeeling.  Given the number of days it’d take us to finally reach Darjeeling, we’d have next to no time to spend there or in the area before having to push on to Nagaland.  So we made a spot decision to ditch our luggage van in Delhi, where the rest of rally was heading for its final goodbyes, and start taking airplanes.  

We’ve re-organized our itinerary in a way that makes us very happy.  Now we have 6 days to spend in the area of Darjeeling and, even better, Sikkim (which before we didn’t even have time to see).  We’ll still have 7 days in and around Nagaland and the Burmese border, plus we can do a long drive up the Tawang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh to the border with Tibet, to see some of the remote and fabulous monasteries up there.  To get there we’ll have to cross a very high pass and may even see snow!  At the end, we’ll have a full week to explore Kolkata (Calcutta) and, during that time, may also rent a car to drive north to the area of the Murshidabad, where the famous battle of Plassy took place.

My latest thoughts on driving in India:  I recall in the dim reaches of my memory that earlier in February I felt pretty happy and smug about our driving.  All was well at that time, as we were making our way like oil on water through the bustle and clamor of small town India.  After my initial euphoria on how well things flowed on the road, I learned that traffic etiquette, street congestion, pedestrian deafness, truck machismo and rickshaw insanity grow inexorably worse as one drives north.  As we got closer to Delhi, street congestion became utter madness. None of this was helped by the fact that the route book we were given by our rally organizers was riddled with errors, and we were often uncertain whether we were making the proper turn to stay on the designated route to reach our final destination. I literally girded my loins as we approached towns and cities, all of which were so over-burdened with vehicles and the need of everyone to move in different directions at different speeds all at the same time, that I was convinced we would have to smash someone, run over something or in some other way do terrible damage to a living thing before we could escape back onto relatively less-congested roads.  As the landscape itself became bland and monotone, with little of the driving on tiny village roads that we’d done earlier, our days became somewhat unpleasant.  If I were to return to India with a car, I would steer clear entirely of the country’s mid-section, which has become so heavily populated and industrialized, and stay in the south in states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, or else in the west in Rajasthan.  All in all, it’s a huge relief to have a hired car and driver taking us around, with Bernard and i sitting snugly in the back holding hands, photographing and absorbing the scenes along the way.

A bit on  Darjeeling and Sikkim:  Darjeeling was rather a disappointment to us.  We’d both imagined that a good deal of the beauty and charm of this famous hill station and tea area would remain.  If it does, it’s so well hidden that we couldn’t find it.  The drive up to Darjeeling was lovely, climbing thousands of feet up the steep hills  through towering forests cloaked in the soft brown tones and fresh pale green of early Spring.  BUt the town itself is over-developed and near-claustrophobic.  Our hotel, one of the much-vaunted Heritage hotels, which use formerly graceful private mansions and palaces, was so far from its days of glory that even its faded elegance had faded.  

Sikkim is another story altogether.  What a place!  Most of the residents/citizens of Sikkim, formerly a kingdom and now a state of India, are either Tibetan or Nepalese.  We have been staying in a tiny remote village called Pelling, with spectacular views of Kanchenjunga which we didn’t see because the whole country seems cloaked in an uncharacteristic fog.  Next door to our inn was Pemayangtse, one of the oldest Nyingma Buddhist monasteries in Sikkim.  We walked up a short steep paved drive flanked by long prayer flags flapping on their tall bamboo flagpoles, to visit the monastery.  Luck smiled on us once again, as we arrived as the monks were chanting their prayers in the magnificently painted main hall.  Unlike the austere coldness of Gothic churches, every inch of a Buddhist ghompa is carved and then painted with crimson, blue, green and yellow designs, with ravishing brocades hanging from the ceiling.  The older monastery students sat in the front rows of the hall, chanting, banging the drums and blowing on basso profundo horns and conch shells.  Behind them sat the young novices, boys of 9 or 10, who kept turning around shyly to look at us and smile in our direction.  Every once in awhile, one of them would jump up, go behind a curtain and return with candy or cookies for us (and also for himself).  Turns out one of the lamas of this monastery was there dispensing special blessings, and, for this special occasion, there were plates laid all around the hall piled high with fruits, chocolates, biscuits and more.  The young monks were having the time of their lives, cleverly using us as a good excuse to keep refilling their stash of sweets!  

We’ve spent two days now driving the extreme, winding roads of Sikkim.  The country is made up of inconceivably pleated and wrinkled hills, rising easily 5,000 feet nearly vertically (no exaggeration) from deep river beds. These hills are home to an amazing array of vegetation, with stupendously tall trees, gigantic ferns and rice terraces scratched into slopes that an ordinary person could only rappel down with ropes.  It’s not quite planting season yet, so the colors again are bronze and Spring green, spiked now and then with the vibrant red blossoms of a poinsettia tree.  The roads themselves are engraved into the slopes, twisting and writhing thousands of feet up only to descend just as precipitously down the other side. Thankfully, there’s almost no traffic, except for the occasional shared jeep crammed with 8-15 people needing a ride to their village. It’s a big relief not to have to dodge trucks and bullock carts!  The road surface itself is just potholes crocheted together by threads of pavement, meaning that even a short 30km drive can take several hours.  Driving along, we passed isolated collections of 3-4 Tibetan-style houses, half-timbered concrete homes painted in jewel tones of turquoise, amber, amethyst and garnet.  In the remote, tiny hamlet of Yuksam, jumping off point for the 7-day treks to Kanchenjunga, we climbed a hand-laid stone path through deep, misty forests, to the hilltop aerie of Dubdi, the oldest monastery in SIkkim.  No one else was around when the young Nepalese gate keeper unlocked the prayer hall door and let us wander around on our own.  Going up the smooth stone steps to the second floor, we entered a room illuminated only by the  light filtering through scrolled window panels.  The wide, chocolate brown floor boards flexed and creaked as we walked around, marveling at the hundreds of prayer books wrapped in red, blue or yellow silk stashed in their individual cubbies, with the statue of Buddha watching them…and us. I took a forbidden photograph, which I share here.  

Today we were fortunate to arrive at a tiny monastery of the Bon sect of Buddhism while 8 students were praying for the return to health of their lama.  We sat down with them in their prayer hall and they offered us butter tea, which made Bernard gag so I had to drink both of our cups in order not to give offense.  We had an interesting talk with the oldest student, who spoke English well.  Our driver, whose family came to Sikkim from Tibet over 40 years ago, took us to a Tibetan settlement, where we stopped briefly to look around. Free Tibet sentiments are very much in evidence in Sikkim, where the populations from Tibet speak Tibetan and consider themselves Tibetan, not West Bengali. Those who are able send their kids to the school in Dharamsala where Tibetan is taught.   After that visit, we refreshed ourselves at a stall with a snack of vegetable momos, the local version of potstickers.  Momos–the vegetarian sort– are made from a fine noodle-like dough wrapped around diced vegetables perfumed with minced garlic and ginger, and then steamed. They’re delicious.  Two big plates of these, plus a cup of coffee and my favorite masala tea, cost us 90 cents.

Later in the day, we arrived at Rumtek, a large monastery with its own village, where again the monks were praying.  We sat in the back of their hall and listened.  In front of us sat 60 monks at 6 long, low tables, set in between tall square scarlet pillars. All had blood red cloaks with fur trim around their shoulders.  They chanted in deep tones, over which rose the clear bell of a soprano from one of the young novices.   As we listened, 16 sky blue drums were raised from the tables, the special horns were extended their full 6-foot length, and with one simultaneous bang of the drums, the deep braying of the horns began.   Wandering to the back of the hall, we could view the various incarnations of this particular sect’s Buddha, along with ornately carved butter sculptures and a photograph of the latest Karmapa of the monastery, a young man presently living in Dharamsala with the Dalai Lama, since the Indian gov’t won’t allow him to be installed at Rumtek for fear of angering China.  While there have been a few Indian visitors in the places we’ve been to, we’ve been the only foreigners.  Sitting in the dimly lit ghompas during these prayer sessions is utterly mesmerizing, taking us out of our mundane thoughts and giving us the feeling we’ve been privileged for a short time to enter another world. 

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