Sitting under the seemingly timeless and stony gaze of Mt. Khangchendzonga (at 85oom), whose only display of age is the movement of shadows across its face, my worries are mocked and grow insignificant.

A man, a beggar to many, happily waves the stump that was his right leg at me to attract compassion and generosity. His ‘hellos’ give no explanation of amputation, but echo across the valleys.

The movement of clouds in submission below the peak of Mt. Khanchendzonga, the ravines that pour of the face of the range into stretches of valleys, the visibility of my breath in the cold winter air, reduce my concerns to pieces of broken snowflakes – perfectly formed and intricate, but ultimately transient. Worries, thoughts, ideas, and feelings tumble as I sit on the rooftop of Hotel Aliment (I think a spelling mistake of ‘Ailment’) and are caught by the wind as the prayer flags snap.

In Chowrasta, the public space of Darjeeling, a child delights in disturbing a flock of pigeons grazing, dispersing them momentarily only to reform for the child to continue his pursuit of happiness. The Clock Tower chimes it discordant, mournful tone of dings and dongs, announcing that time does not wait nor care for the arrogance of Mt. Khangchendzonga.

Question:

Two trains leave Kolkata for Siliguri/NJP (from where we would travel to Darjeeling by jeep). One at 7:30pm the other at 10:05pm. The distance is about 550km, and both trains travel at an average of 50km/h. Which train arrives first?

Three train accidents (which we were not involved in ) and 17 hours later the 10:05pm train arrives first at 2:30pm at NJP  and the 7:30pm train arrives at 2:30pm at Siliguri. Ollie and I were on the former and reached Darjeeling by 6pm. Marie, our newly-acquainted friend from Ireland, on the latter, arrived in Darjeeling at 6:30pm.

Darjeeling is just coming off a two-week strike, which forced most travelers out of the region as all shops and forms of transportation cease to operate. The West Bengali government were scheduled to grant the formation of the Gorkhaland state (residents of this area are mainly the Nepali speaking Gorkhas. who want to improve their socio-economic conditions through autonomous statehood. The money brought in by tourism in this region does not translate into improvements in education and health services or infrastructure, as the suspension of the cars will attest) by December 14, 2009. In protest, the people of this region have stopped paying taxes and have enacted prohibition laws. The negotiators for both sides are scheduled to meet again in February to decide the overdue fate of the Gorkhas quest for statehood. Thus, it was only fitting that our train was running late.

As this is my second time here in Darjeeling, the familiarity of the place is hard to overcome. As we arrived in the cover of darkness, I powered through and up the ascending paths and stairs with GPS-like  ease. Although blinded by the blackout, I waked the familiar paths of a blind man, knowing the feel of the ground beneath my feet as it changes direction, inclination and surface. After nearly 24 hours of travel since we departed Kolkata on the 1st January, we arrived at Hotel Aliment, a Nepali-run family guesthouse that towers intimately over Darjeeling.

Familiarity struck again like deja vu, but not in the strange sense. It felt more like reincarnation, in the sense that I had already lived these experiences, and was acutely aware of it, but was reliving them: the hospitality; the Tibetan Thukpa (noodle soup) and bread; the hot water bottle tucked tightly against my chest in bed hiding under three layers of blankets;  the sunrise on soaking Himalayas and pushing back the long shadows of geological time; and the reassuring pot of Darjeeling black tea, which eases one into contemplative silences and murmurs of superlatives.

After a brief stopover in Taipei, where we stayed at the brand new (brand new brand new) Novotel (replete with hot shower, warm bed and buffet breakfast for $15), we arrived in Delhi on the 31st at 2pm. The first nostalgic sense to be reignited was smell. India has a very particular and peculiar smell. A deadly mixture of smog, cardon dioxide, dust and human sweat.

Although we had a wait-listed ticket from Delhi to Kolata (1500kms and 17 hours) by train at 5pm that same day, we only found out at 4pm that we were given one berth between the two of us. Ollie and I have shared a double bed (twice to date), but not a single bed (let alone a single berth on a train, which measure 1.6m in length and 1m in width [generous]). So, we discussed with the official ITDC (insert acronym menaing here…) about our options, which were threefold:

1) Fly to Kolata that night for $200 (8300Rs)
2) Take a train the next morning for 24 hours and $100 (3700 Rs)
3) Fly to Kashmir and spend a week exploring the disputed state of Pakistan/India

Turns out the travel agents at the ITDC were all from Kashmir.

We decided to fly to Kolata, despite the fact that we has just arrived in Delhi and had spent money and time coming into Delhi from the airport. We caught the 8:05pm flight from Indira Gandhi airport to Kolkata. A sign from the heavans (Mt. Kalish in Hinduism) was receievd on our way to the airport. In the traffic log, a non-descript man on a motorcycle was spotted sporting a Minnesota Vikings jacket!!! (I am a committed Vikings fan) I shouted my approval and despite his obliviousness to the team’s recent losing record (3 losses from 4 games, but we are in ther playoffs), he offered to give me the jacket! I would have worn it with pride but asked him to keep it because of the cold. This even was equidistant between surreal and surriptious.

arie, an Irish traveller, whom we shared a ride into town with. The three of us arrive in the city centre at 11:15pm on NYE and checked in at the Paragon Hotel at 11:30pm. NYE was spent outside one of the few bars in Kolkata negotiating the prospect of standing up (only seated patrons were allowed). Consequently we were caught between dry land and the endless sea, much like Kevin Costner. Although NYE was anticlimatic, our new year’s day was eventful, if not repetitive for myself, as I played tour guide to my traveling companions.

Darjeeling is the next destination: former British hill station, tera captial and site for Gorkhaland.

A pond, with a paintbrush and a dead fish suspended from a rudimentary fishing pole, greets us as we cross the bamboo bridge, retreating from the sensory force that is India.  The Darra Gaon Retreat, nestled in the small village of Darap, is only 7km from Pelling, Sikkim, yet a world away from the comforts and callousness of modernity. A year and a half complete, we are the first guests of the new year and possibly first guests period. We are offered accommodation in either a traditional Limboo house of Lepcha house  (or a tent). Wood or stone? We immediately set off around the hills to visit two Limboo families, who kindly treated us to maize (un-popped popcorn) and boiled milk. The encompassing gloom that accompanies the interior of these houses blurs what we would percieve as ‘scarcity’ or even ‘poverty’. However, what we value and what they value in terms of materialism differ immensely, and their ownership of two houses, chickens, buffalo, and fields that produce enough to sustain them, contradict our initial impression of their livelihood. Our arrogant we can be.Darap village, Sikkim - cooking momos

The half-constructed state of the retreat only adds to its appeal and charm, knowing that you are some of its very first guests. New car smell. The windowless communal room, with kitchen attached, is where our meals are generously served (dahl bhat). The library contains literary classics such as ‘Some basic rights of Soviet citizens’, and empty Barcardi Breezer bottles are recycled as candle holders. Trickling into the pond is a stream cum garden, resembling the moguls of a ski field. The construction-site vibe does not spoil the quiet, flapping whisper of OM MANI PADME HUM on the wind of the prayer flags. I contemplate my own presence there, thinking to myself  ‘is it the prayer flag that moves? Or is it the wind?’ The sixth patriarch of Ch’an Buddhism, Hui Neng replied, ‘Neither. It is your mind.’ There is an almost perceptible stillness in the countryside. Amongst the bleating of the goats, the doddle-do of the rooster, the mooing of the cow. The attraction of such places, of the countryside, away from our hurried, time-constrained lives, lies in the fleeting feeling of the now, of the present, that I can almost realise as I sit here. Relaxing. Peaceful. It goes by many names, descriptions. It is a brief re-discovery of our true nature. Gone is the armour of our self-consciousness, our business card, yoga classes, detox diet, gym membership, Friday night drinks, favourite TV show. All the distractions, intrusions, worries that trouble our life. My life.  Fear of the future sneaking up from behind and then nostalgic trap of the past in front. Both by-products of our imagination. Such ‘countrysides’ represent a temporary release from fear, from our attachments.

The retreat itself is an experiment in eco-tourism, in which, according to Manoj Chettri (of the Tourism Department of Sikkim. Friend. Singer. Entrepreneur), aims to implement home-style accommodation that is ‘clean in bed, clean in bathroom, clean in hygiene.’ The hygienic difference between Sikkim and India is very noticeable and appreciated. Not only are plastic bags extinct, but each squat toilet is ultra clean and washed after every use. Although street trash is ever-present and everywhere, it is after all India, it is not as widespread in its quantity and awareness has been generated among the state’s people as to the value of of keeping green clean. The senses delight in, including our sense of environmental moralising, such government policy implementation. I am made acutely aware of my otherness in Darap, as every child can and will call out ‘hello tourist!’, in a very charming and non-ironic way. ‘Hello nani!’ I reply with an ever-present smile now. Giggles and little voices repeating my greeting follow in my wake. The fields are fallow, with the exception of a single man and his two bovine companions ploughing, preparing for spring. Every public building in Darap, and in Sikkim for that matter, has an official commemorative stone tablet, recording the name of the construction, its cost, the start and finish date (or rather, a back date for its construction). An empty building designated  as a pharmacy stands empty. Its cost = 200,000 Rs. I can only but laugh.

Darra Gaon family

We decided to charter a jeep to ourselves (Tata Sumo) for our ride to Pelling, Sikkim, as they usually represent horizontal difficulties for those who are vertically unchallenged. In a vehicle that carries 12 seated (+ hangers-on), the luxury of having such available space soon wore off, as the jeep became oblivious, and we aware, to those wanting a ride, standing patiently on the side of the road as if conventional time was meaningless. We descended a one-lane road that has two-way traffic, experiencing what it must be life to drive on the surface of our moon. Through tea plantations that happen to be on a mountainside, which display their winter coats, cut-back, harvested, the most recent flushes sent to a processing plant nearby, packages, sold on the side of the road, in tea rooms, by mail-order, all over the world. The only presence of the tea-pickers in these fields are the well-worn paths beaten by their slow, eternal tread. As the sun breaks through, and I think of tea, its energy refracts off the leaves that remain, bringing to life and otherwise dull, dusty, winter-streaked mountainside.

Cottages, with bamboo picket-fences, pot plants of such quantity that they give the illusion of being one of four walls to the home, accompany the road as it snakes along the mountain towards Jorenthang and the border of Sikkim. However, such idyllic countryside is betrayed by the collection of small and large Tata TV satellite dishes clumped together, bringing such remoteness into digital face-to-face contact with our modern notion of civilisation: Indian Idol, advertisements for luxurious soap, car batteries, cricket, 24-hour news reports, and soap dramas. Such technology eliminates ‘remoteness’ and rodes the relativity of time, creating schedules, time slots and 30 minutes episodes of our life. Although I am not surprised, I am at once disappointed and reassured.

The mountains soon cast off their cloak of mist to reveal their geological history in the form of gullies, ravines, and valleys created by the sharp, slow and powerful nature of water. A state of constant change is occurring here, of infinite change, not visible in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks or even years. What we define as the past, and future, is all present here and now – in a constant flux of change cause by people, irrigation, erosion, pollution, geological activity, etc. It is beautiful and sobering.

Kids in New York Yankees baseball beanies dash up the road, oblivious to the declining fortunes of the MLB team, the firing of Joe Torre, their poor 2008 season, happy just to keep their head warm, unconcerned with their implicit support and representation of such a storied and hated franchise in ‘America’s favourite past-time’. Our unceremonial entry into Sikkim was that of crossing an international boundary. Tea gives way to terraced rice fields, maize, corn and haystacks that, given the right light, would even leave an impression on Monet. Signs on Sikkim’s well-paved roads (a by-product of the diplomatic tension between China and India in this region) indicate ‘Damage bridge ahead, drive slow’, ‘Leprosy is curable’, and ‘Save our environment’. You are then told ‘Thanks’ for driving through such a stretch of road and for considering whether you should see your GP about leprosy. Although the signs do not instill the greatest of initial confidence, such is restored by the state’s eco-tourism policy and village-by-village campaign for sanitation and education: the best we have encountered in India so far.

As you look onto the Thongsa Gompa, a profusion of colour delights the eye. Lines of Tibetan prayer flags in bright blue, white, green and yellow billow in the wind and the gompa structure itself overwhelms with intricate paintings on its roof and walls. When we arrived the gompa is quiet but for a few elderly Tibetan women chatting amongst themselves as they finger wooden prayer beads. After discovering my poor Tibetan language skills, they motion us to make a walk around the building to whirl the 219 multi-coloured prayer wheels that encircle the building. Each lap of the gompa is thought to earn you merit.

brendan-and-prayer-wheels

Kalimpong, famed for its majestic Buddhist monastries, is a melting pot of different cultures - and  the gompas are no exception. Once belonging to the chogyals of Sikkim, the area fell into the hands of the Bhutanese in the 18th century and later passed to the British, before being annexed by the newly independent India. Like the rest of north-east India there is a large Tibetan populution – hence the prominence of Tibetan Buddhism. Thongsa Gompa is a 300 year old Bhutanese Monastry that demonstrates what we seem to keep witnessing in India – the ability of different religions to aborb other religious practices and make them their own. The colourful prayer wheels and flags that makes Tibetan Buddhism so distinctive are actually remnents of the ancient animistic Bon religion practiced in Tibet.  The different sects around Kalimpong have differing proportions of pure Buddhism and Bon spirituality and practice which boasts a wealth of demons and erotic portrayals of deities.

In the midst of gazing in awe at the two metre high prayer wheels outside the gompa, a gong is sounded and monks from about five years old to those in their mid-twenties mill towards the monastry. The same elderly women motion us to enter and so we make our way to the prayer hall upstairs.  By the time we get there most of the monks are seated on the floor in four rows, not unlike a class room. An older monk, Deva invites me to sit next to him and join in the daily evening prayers.

The repetitive murmuring of mantras begins and is broken only by the the playing of drums and two trumpet and flute like instruments. There is no order to the praying and the music sounds like an unrehearsed orchestra. As our hotel owner said to us, the monastries have a school-like atmosphere. Most  of the scarlet robed monks are deep in prayer but some boys chew gum, check their mobile phones, and chat to each other.  In essence, their prayers call  for the well being of all sentient beings. This ritual is carried every morning and evening.  Although Deva tells me that once during the year they pray for seven days straight, taking three hour shifts at night so that the mantras are continuous. 

The atmosphere is relaxed and carefree as they have just  finished exams  and have three months of free time.  Typically,  their days involve lessons in Buddhist history and philosophy, Bhutanese, Tibetan, and Pali and a little bit of English. Like all the monks that enter the monastry, Deva has taken a vow to leave behind his former life and family. The monks who come from Bhutan, Sikkim, and Kalimpong enter for different reasons.  Some enter due to economic imperatives whilst others come voluntarily.  It seems like those who do not enter voluntarily will relax this rule and return to their homes on vacations.  One serious boy I met at a different monastry, however, said that he will never go back to Bhutan despite the pleadings of his mother. Apparently, she wanted him to be an engineer or a doctor and she spoke to him only the day before, crying, and asking him to return home.  If he was emotional about it he did not show it – he was resolute when he told me that their paths were different now. When he passed away he would not go to the next world with his family – he  would leave with the other monks.

I became kind of emotional listening to him talk about leaving behind his family forever.  Certainly, in Australia (from my knowledge at least)  entering religious life does not mean never returning home for Christmas! It was amazing to witness such unquestioning acceptance of what appears to be quite an austere requirement, but I suppose it enables cultivation of discipline and devotion to spiritual discovery?  We definately left the monastry with more questions than answers.

To realise the light

Release the darkness within

Spring will soon follow

Illuminating, eliminating

The long shadows in the forest.

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