Calcutta (Kolkata) – an urban city over crowded beyond belief, erupting with people, garbage, taxi cabs, buses and life so far removed from ours.
In the shadows of glorious and stunning Victoria’s Memorial, sidewalks are overflowing with people – sleeping, visiting or working at their squat business (a 3′ by 1.5′ shop set up on the sidewalk) that the only place to walk is on the overcrowded streets hoping to not get knocked over by a car’s rear view mirror. Continuous horns blast… warning danger is only millimeters away.
Buildings are covered in mold – paint a faded memory. Drying laundry is hung like graffiti from anything that keeps it off the ground. Water pumps on the street side edge of the sidewalk are surrounded by bathers, clothes launderers and dish washers – all competing for space. Backs of men are lined up at the public urinals (women you’re on your own).
I try and imagine this happening around Union Square in San Francisco…..
Women dress in colorful sarees and men wear western clothes or longyi (skirts like their neighbors in Burma).
The streets are filled with thousands of little yellow taxis (sturdy, diesel and built like a London car from the 50’s), busses lined with scratches from accidents past and puffing black smoke, an occasional personal car, tuc tucs and old fashioned rickshaws – powered by leathered, skinny men sweating from pulling a family in the thick humid air – all competing for space.
Our eyes burn from the heavy monsoonal air – exhaust and street smells are trapped by it.
We needed to clear our lungs and the fresh Himalayan air of Darjeeling sounded perfect – one would think we had enough of that in Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal.
The journey started with a 13 hour overnight train ride, the only gringos on board. Our train compartment was a series of bunk beds divided by curtains. They provided sheets, a pillow, blanket and the rankest toilets imaginable. For the first 3 hours every 30 seconds or so a vendor would walk up and down the aisle singing their wares: chai, coffee, food with names we do not know nor could repeat, toys, sarees, nail clippers, toothbrushes and more.
We rocked and weaved our way to the town of New Jalpaiguri where we were besieged by taxi drivers and begging women dangling their infants all in mysterious need of medicine. Bill negotiated the best driver and jeep – off we were for the next 3 hours climbing 7,000 feet through lush, tropical, jungly mountainous terrain where waterfalls were plentiful and tea trees grew thicker than grapevines in Napa.
Again, one lane roads with drop offs measuring thousands of feet – this time paved. I am starting to think Bill is trying to rid me of my fear of flying.
Ah… the fresh air of Darjeeling…. where the British Raj had reared its ugly head leaving the town with the beautiful architecture of yesteryear. Indians, as well as, Tibetans, Nepalis, Sikkims and monkeys live here. They practice Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and banana worship – I feels as if they have their own state or nation.
The monsoonal fog looms low and makes Darjeeling feel a bit eerie. The rain falls heavy through out the day making room for the sun only minutes at a time.
We stayed at the historical Windamere Hotel where 5 course meals are served by gloved waiters and Cole Porter played in the back ground. Afternoon tea was had in the drawing room by the fire – a drastic contrast to the sweltering heat of Calcutta.
The Windamere was built in the late 1880’s, initially a boarding house for bachelor tea planters from the UK aiming to make it big. Later becoming a hotel only after the Raj transferred the Bengal State seat of government from Kolkata to Darjeeling to seek relief from the hot summers – ironically run by a British Canadian women for the past 24 years.
Today 87 different tea farms grow and harvest in the hills. It is also home to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute – training camp for the brave climbers of Mt. Everest and home to the first Sherpa to scale Everest.
We were blessed by a Hindu priest and Buddhist monk at their proudly co-shared temple and hiked in the pouring rain
The old, aristocratic Nepali owner of the hotel told us that his niece is an internist in Ross, Marin County. Although quaint and with a bit of a British hue to it – this area and Ross could not be from more different worlds – weird.
So now, we must go back down the mountain, through mist, clouds, monsoon rains, washouts, turn-outs, ruts and traffic jams – 2 1/2 hours to go 50 miles.