Darjeeling was our first escape from the madness of Kolkata. It was a much-needed break from the heat to be up in the Himalayan Mountains, to hear nature instead of honking and to be away from the congested population of the city. We had only been in India for about a week and I already needed a vacation from my travels.
This was to be our first of many train rides in India, we left on a Thursday evening for an overnight train. A group of caucasian women stood out no matter where we went, however, the trains always seemed to bring out the most obvious and uncomfortable gawking. For example, waiting for the train we entertained ourselves with a simple game of UNO, which drew a crowd of men hovering to watch.
On the train our group shared two sleeper cabins, these were not private cabins, rather to the isle. The cabins contained two blue, school bus style bench seats facing each other. Above each bench two additional bunks would fold from the wall and attach to each other with chains, creating a total of six beds. We knew to be aware of theft on such public trains and for this reason used our backpacks as pillows and kept all valuables in a tight grip for any measly slumber we might have gotten. Somehow my travel mates were always accommodating as I snagged the top bunks – climbing three beds high – on each sleeper train we rode. In the morning there would always be one or two travel-mates who wouldn’t have slept at all and observed the creepers who came by to gawk at us, strolling back and forth through the open isle.
Following our first train adventure it was a three-hour drive up the mountains to get to Darjeeling. Though it was overcast for much of the weekend the scenery was beautiful, already it was evident how much friendlier the people seemed by smiling and waving. On some mountainsides you could see tea plants covering acreage and I wondered how dangerous it must be to work those fields.
After checking into our accommodations we explored the town, shopped and relaxed. Most of us purchased scarves and wore them frequently the remainder of the trip, as well as saving some for souvenirs for family members. Some bought jewelry, books, and tea to bring home, we visited an internet cafe and enjoyed macaroni and cheese for dinner with beer. Some of the girls were thrilled to order mac and cheese and devour something similar we could find back at home, it was a let down since India doesn’t really have our American taste for cheese.
One early morning we woke up to journey to a location called Tiger Hill, it is a spiritual sight to witness the sun rise. Only 11 km from Darjeeling, I read there are over 400 taxis used on busy days to drive tourists to the sight. We had to park far from the viewing location and hike up the remainder to join the crowd of spectators. From this high point in the Himalayas, Mount Everest is visible, although on our morning it was too cloudy yet still crowded with spectators.
When the sun was well risen, our group of light-skinned women once again became the attraction. Tourists to Tiger Hill were requesting us to pose in their vacation pictures. Of course with a language barrier there was no way for them to explain to us what the relevance was in having pictures with us. I wondered whether they were hoping we would be of some celebrity status back home or if we were really that much of a novelty to be seeing in person. Whatever it was, I declined posing in pictures. My travel mates who accepted ended up getting lines of people waiting for the next shot.
After the shopping, relaxing, admiring the animals and visiting Buddhist temples in Darjeeling it was difficult to leave. I regained my ability to take a deep breath and then it seemed we were headed back to Kolkata again.
On our way back down the mountain to get to the train we were invited to visit a tea plantation for lunch and a tour. We met the manager and his wife who lived on the property, they showed us their factory and around the crops. I was lost in the process of how tea is made and instead focused my thoughts on the workers who take care of the field. On our tour we stopped at one location in the crops where hundreds of women were picking leaves. They strap a bag to their head which rests on their backs and fill the bag 20 to 26 times per day, six days per week. The workers make very little in take home pay, though the company provides housing, health care and schooling for the children of the workers. Consider how far your tea traveled next time you brew and who may have contributed to your cup?
When I returned home from India I was asked many times whether I would want to take another trip back. Without hesitation I’d answer “I’ll go back to Darjeeling.”