On my third full day in Darjeeling, my new friend Swiss friend Mats and I went on an adventure to find a Buddhist gompa in Darjeeling. Darjeeling is built on a hill, and unfortunately it turned out to be at the bottom of that hill.
It was definitely worth the walk, though.
There was this delightful old monk there, wearing a horrible red fur hat that from a distance I worried was his hair. As we approached the gompa, he beckoned to us excitedly as though we were old friends coming by for tea rather than two dirty foreigners staggering in from the fog. He then took us on an enthusiastic tour of the inner sanctuary. His English wasn’t great and I missed every third word, but it was still one of the best tours I’ve ever gotten in India because the guy so clearly loves the monastery dearly and just loves sharing his excitement for its every detail — “Look at paint there. You see shining?” and indeed, a silver lacquer on the Buddhist demons dancing on the north wall across from the shrine to the thousand-handed deity.
Most “guides” ask for money after pointing out so much as a cobblestone, but this guy said clearly, “If you want, leave donation here” — pointing to the altar — “but not for me. For monastery.”
After our tour, he pointed out the way to the Tibetan Self-Help Center, which is part refugee community, part hospital, part school, and part crafts workshop and store. Mats and I bought some handpainted cards and prayer flags at the shop.
We had some of the best views on our walk there and back that I had the whole time I was in Darjeeling:
A couple of days later, we set out on another adventure to find the Happy Valley Tea Plantation. And after having to ask about 71289301 people for directions, we found it!
A Happy Valley staffer who spoke very good English gave us a great tour of the factory there. We saw pickers come in with huge bags of leaves and watched them being laid out to dry on long racks. Cold and then hot air is blown over them for 18 hours. Then they’re run through a machine that rolls and lightly compresses them. Black tea leaves are then allowed to oxide for a few hours before being heated to 120 degrees Celsius to fully dry them out. Then they’re sorted and packaged. Green and white tea leaves are processed for a shorter amount of time, and don’t oxide.
This is how strongly the place smelled of tea: I had a very strong caffeine buzz just from breathing inside the factory for 45 minutes.
He also told us that the farm is certified organic and biodynamic — cool! — which is why they can only sell their tea abroad, because “Indians don’t care about this.” Less cool. He also said they pay their workers 90 rupees a day (less than $2), which I found appalling, until he added that they also give all the workers food, clothing, housing, health care, and pensions. Still made me a little uneasy.
After our tea tour, I hustled back to my hotel, packed my bag, and swung down towards the traffic circle to grab a Jeep back to Siliguri for my train to Kolkata. I was worried about finding a Jeep, but before I’d even gotten to the circle, a skinny man called from a passing packed Jeep: “Siliguri?” I nodded, the Jeep screeched to a halt, the man swung down from the rear door ladder, whirled onto the roof to strap on my backpack, pushed me into the car, and we were off.