Darjeeling, India (April 13). We are so lucky to have seen places like Venice and other western icons before the rest of the world woke up and started traveling. We were not as lucky in India, but in most cities here, who can tell that another couple thousand people have arrived?
Not so in Darjeeling. I had pictured this as a quiet town clinging to the side of picturesque hills with gentle walks around a small central area. There seems to be only one main road in and out, and an active train track meanders here and there across it. The road fits my description of a U.S. one-laner, but even here they can’t always squeeze two cars side by side.
Yesterday, we got to the edge of this small town, and it took us an hour to go approximately two miles to our hotel. Traffic is so bogged down that our driver turned off his car at least five times while we waited for police to try to unsnarl the congestion. The thought of leaving the hotel – once we finally got here – was beyond our imagination. There happens to be nowhere to go near this fancy place, and it is so embedded into a hillside that it takes almost ten minutes to climb down ramps to get to reception. Yes, it is a lovely site, though a bit tarted up. The views are great and one can always play pool here – as opposed to swimming in a pool.
However, it is amusing that we spend some time and effort to bring back lovely effigies of Shiva, Parvati and Ganesha, and the owners of this hotel got equally excited about souvenirs from Disneyworld’s Country Bear Jamboree, in addition to some other items too ugly to photograph.
We started today by visiting the Happy Valley Tea Estate, down a steep road so treacherous that it made you think they didn’t really want visitors. It was developed in 1854, and has the highest elevation of all the tea plantations – essential to consider if you are growing tea. It also has the oldest tea tree brought to India from China. The hills are alive with the sound of tea growing. We had a brief tour of the plant and the process, and also had a tea tasting as part of our education, none of which could be photographed.
Then we were off to two Buddhist monasteries in town, and both were lovely. The first has gorgeous views and busy monks with cell phones. The second is so sleepy that the dogs are practically paralyzed as they nap in the center of the courtyard.
Then it was off on a very long ride (unfortunately, our driver loves to drive) to an eco-tourist park, Lamahatta. It is pretty and the trees are dramatic, but after an hour drive, we were surprised that – unless we had trekked through the woods – the park could be viewed from the street in two minutes. Oh well, it started raining then anyway, so we went one hour back to Darjeeling and took care of some errands before we had lunch and retired to our own private monastery.
But here’s a funny story about Lamahatta, which, trust me, is in the middle of nowhere, though there are lots of potato chip stands. Don was standing on the side of road when a motorcycle zoomed by and then “STOP!!” rang out. A young woman got off the back and ran up to Don. She had been on one of those crazy morning tours in Kolkata with him, and recognized him as she and a boyfriend from Manchester were zooming by. She’s from Cornwall, and we fully expect to run into her again somewhere in England soon.
What are odds? In India, they seem to be pretty high. Magical things happen here.