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.