Tag Archives: Darjeeling


I wanted to post this one a little while ago.  I feel like many of my blog entries are dark and heavy and about serious things, like mentally-ill homeless people or starving children.  I am actually also doing and seeing fun, light-hearted things in India.  A quick photogallery of some of those things:

IMG_5402 excellent shirt smallA hilarious shirt that I saw for sale in Delhi.  I have seen some prize-winning shirt slogans here, including several sightings of “Being Human” as well as below a small cartoon of a pregnant woman, “Mary Had A Little Lamb. The Doctor Was Surprised.”

IMG_5567 MBA small

There was also this excellent book title on a shelf in Darjeeling, i.e., the one about MBAs.  Paging Becca Russell-Einhorn, Natalie Rubin and Rhiannon Kopynec… 🙂

IMG_5654 kati roll smallerHere’s my favorite local kati roll maker in Kolkata whipping up my lunch, a double egg roll.  It’s not an egg roll like you’re picturing: it’s a thin layer of bread, roti, cooked with scrambled eggs inside it, then rolled up with onions, chilis, and hot sauces.  Delicious.  Cost 22 rupees (about 40 cents).

IMG_5671 menhdi dry small


Mendhi design!  Aka henna, as we call it in the States.

This story is slightly less fun as I was pretty badly ripped off for this design and also was told I was buying food for hungry children only to realize I was falling for a pretty routine scam run on Sudder Street (in Kolkata) and that the food would probably be resold and the money would likely go to an organized crime syndicate of some kind.  But — I did want a good menhdi design, and I did get a good menhdi design.  It’s only really fully disappeared in the past day, so it lasted about 2.5 weeks, which is pretty good.

IMG_5659 rooftop chill 1 small IMG_5663 kevin idaho shakes it small IMG_5665 chloe kevin circus hoops smallThese are some pictures from a night in Kolkata, on the rooftop of some friends’ hotel near the motherhouse, when we met the girl from the traveling circus. …really.

It was Wed. night, the night before the volunteers’ day off, and we were celebrating with a few beers on the roof when one of the sisters materializes with a rail-thin white girl.  Draped over her shoulders, in addition to the requisite backpack, are two huge sparkly hula hoops.  Somehow — I really don’t remember the story — she was in Kolkata without either money or a room to stay in.  Maybe she had a couple hundred rupees.  Anyway, she found the motherhouse and the nuns helped her by directing her to my friend who had a spare bed in her room.

So this girl sits down.  We start with the standard traveler questions:  What’s your name?  Chloe.  Nice to meet you, Chloe.  Where are you from? “That’s…complicated,” she says in a light British accent.  She has an English passport but mostly grew up in France.  Several of us on the roof (the group is two Americans, a Mexican, a German guy, and a Swiss guy) speak French and the conversation flows between English and French for the next few hours.  We offer her a drink.  She offers us weed that she picked by the side of the road somewhere in northern India.  Of course.

We are wondering how Chloe has ended up on the roof of our hotel here in Kolkata with enormous sparkly hula hoops and virtually no money.  She explains that she spent the past year traveling across Asia with two friends, earning money as they go through street performance.  She refers to the group as a small traveling circus.  Hence the sparkly hoops. We ask Chloe for a performance.  She’s pretty good.  Kevin,  the other American, gives them a spin too.

Chloe explains that she’s due back in Bangkok in a few days.  I’m a little fuzzy on how she got to Kolkata with almost no money or awareness that rooms here generally cost more than 100 rupees (about $1.80) a night.  But it doesn’t matter, because this is the quintessential Indian travel experience and one of the things I love about India.  These are exactly the kind of people you meet here.  You’re just having a drink on the roof with some friends and someone materializes with a circus act en route to Thailand.  Sure!  Of course!

Oh.  Did I mention that Chloe the traveling circus girl, with the homepicked weed, is 18?  Years old?




A Gompa, A Tea Plantation, Farewell Darjeeling

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.

Bustia gompa gateBustia gompa 2

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.

IMG_5586 bustia gompa door 2Most “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:

Mats look 2

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!

IMG_5591 chelsea tea 2A 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.

NEWSFLASH: Darjeeling Is In India, Not A Wes Anderson Movie

I realize this shouldn’t have come as a shock. But the city and The Darjeeling Limited had some gotten linked together  in my mind, so that when my brain opened the file marked “Darjeeling,” it found only  images of preposterous brothers train-tripping around a Hindu landscape charming snakes.


Well, the real Darjeeling has neither Adrian Brody (truly a real shame) prancing about in kurta-pyjama nor forlorn American widows staring out monastery windows in ironic, Wes-Anderson-fashion. It actually doesn’t have much in the way of Hindus (except the Indian tourists) or snake charmers, either – the bright colors and Hindustani aesthetic of the movie is much more reflective of the desert state of Rajasthan or the Hindu heartland of Utter Pradesh than Darjeeling.  It does have a train, but it’s tiny and slow, not the express service with chai-wallahs and luggage racks that dominates the rest of the country.


What IS Darjeeling, then? It’s a Buddhist-Christian enclave tucked into the folds of the Himalayan foothills – a 110,000 person slurry of Nepali-Hindu-Tibetan cultures spilling down long, steep hillsides. The town could give San Francisco a run for its money on the score of severely pitched streets.  You quickly learn the flattest routes around town.

Darjeeling view

Darjeeling view


Darjeeling church

The town has two main industries – tourism and tea – and these are visible everywhere in the central part of the town, which is laden with hotels and restaurants.  (The most popular backpacker hangout is a cafe called Sonam’s that serves pancakes, French toast, and omelets for breakfast, complete with hashbrowns.  It’s good to know where the backpacker hangouts are—on my second day, I meet a fellow lone traveler American, Nick, and we join forces and tour around Darjeeling together for a few days.)


There are also a few dozen tea parlors and shops selling bulk tea leaves.  I had no idea there were so many kinds of tea beyond black, oolong, green, and white.  Beyond that you have specifications about when it was picked (“first flush” are the first leaves taken off the plant, while “summer” teas are picked later and are stronger, and “autumn” teas are stronger still) and specifications about what part of the plant it was picked from (“silver tips” is a term I see thrown around a lot, although I’m still not sure what it means).


There is also a fairly good zoo, with a couple great signs…

Bear at the zoo



Zoo sign


…and a fairly bad natural history museum, which is less a museum and more a physical catalog of poorly taxidermied birds and mammals.



(Media Matters people, especially Justin Berrier, this picture of a loris is totally for you.)


A few days ago Nick and I went for a joy ride on the “toy train,” a tiny locomotive that takes about an hour to motor the 11 km betweeen Darjeeling and nearby Ghum.  The tracks are about 2.5 feet wide and the train seats four across, with a narrow aisle.

Me on Toy Train

Train front

The train weaves in and out along the main road between Darjeeling and down-country transport hubs Siliguri and New Jalpaiguri, chugging along inches from storefronts and houses.  The ride was enjoyable enough, but Nick and I agreed that the continual horn blowing—every motor vehicle in India blows its horn as it approaches pedestrians or other vehicles, to indicate, “Hey, I’m coming through, so get the #@%@ out of my way”—detracted from the trip a lot.  I laughed out loud when I later opened an email from my mother:


“[I am reading about Darjeeling] on Wikipedia. ‘Did you know that The Darjeeling Limited, a film directed by Wes Anderson, features a trip by three brothers on a fictional long-distance train based loosely on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway?’ 🙂 … Here was another interesting tidbit: ‘To warn residents and car drivers about the approaching train, engines are equipped with very loud horns that even drown horns of Indian trucks and buses.’ ”


Very loosely, Wikipedia/Wes.  But dead-on about the horns.