Category Archives: India

India Part 3: Pelling, Sikkim and Darjeeling

View from our hotel in Pelling, Sikkim

View from our hotel in Pelling, Sikkim

When we visited Darjeeling six years ago, people constantly told us, “Oh you love it here? You have to visit Sikkim.”

Pelling, Sikkim

Pelling, Sikkim

Sikkim is a part of that weird region of India between Bangladesh, Nepal, and Tibet that looks like it shouldn’t be India. Resting in the shadows of the world’s highest mountains, this region of the Himalayas is culturally more Nepali than Indian (which it joined only 40 years ago). The Lonely Planet listed Sikkim as the #1 region to visit in 2014, and with good reason. It offers a tranquil respite to a the rest of India which tends to be hot, hectic and (sadly) polluted.

And if those clouds were to get out of the way, you'd see Kanchenjunga, the 3rd highest peak in the world

And if those clouds were to get out of the way, you’d see Kanchenjunga, the 3rd highest peak in the world

Breathtaking views everywhere. But it's the Himalayas... what'd you expect?

Breathtaking views everywhere. But it’s the Himalayas… what’d you expect?

Corny as it sounds, there's an almost magical feeling in the air here

Corny as it sounds, there’s an almost magical feeling in the air here

Getting to Sikkim proved to be an adventure in itself. We flew into Bagdogra Airport. From there we caught a taxi to Siliguri bus station for 350 rupees. Unfortunately, the bus to Pelling (our destination in Sikkim) only leaves once a day at 10:30. The tourist office recommended we hire a jeep. A kind older man at the jeep lot helped us figure out that we were at the wrong jeep lot and put us in bike rickshaws to the right jeep lot.

If an old Indian man tells you to get on the bike and go to god know’s where, you do it without question.

The bus station to Sikkim

The bus station to Sikkim

The shady man who ran the next jeep lot (and clearly trafficked drugs on the side) told us that the next jeep to Pelling left at 2:30, so we hunkered down for a few games of Rummy. We instantly became the primary entertainment for everyone else waiting for a jeep. 2:30 came and went. Around 3:30 they began loading up our jeep … with bushels of fish that were leaking blood everywhere. Let me tell you, nothing improves a 5-hour drive along dangerously narrow Himalayan roads like the overwhelming reek of dead fish. We finally rolled out around 4:30. The driver was kind enough to stop half-way in Jorethang, offering Sara and I some much-needed relief for our Delhi-belly. By then it was dark out, limiting our ability to see much of our surroundings–and considering the way the driver was ripping around the hairpin turns, I’m not sure that was much of a bad thing. Nevertheless, we made it to Pelling safe and relatively sound.

Playing cards and entertaining the locals

Playing cards and entertaining the locals

The next morning we awoke to a view of Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world. After breakfast we went out looking for something to do. We noticed a Sikkimese man sitting outside of one of the tour booths. We approached him and asked him to take us to the Changey Waterfall. After some hesitation (which confused us) he offered to drive us there for 300 rupees. We negotiated him down to 200, to which he reluctantly agreed. We hopped in the jeep and sped off.

IMG_1985

Changey Waterfall

Sara enjoying the refreshingly cool, clean water

Sara enjoying the refreshingly cool, clean water

IMG_2012

What’s the only thing that can improve an impressive waterfall? Duh. Beer.

When we got to the waterfall, he went into a nearby shack and emerged a few minutes later with two bottles of HIT, a surprisingly-delicious Sikkimese beer. He handed the bottles to us and shooed us off towards the waterfall. We spent some time playing around in the water, taking pictures, and sipping the beer he gave us. We eventually figured out that today was Sunday, meaning that it was probably our driver’s only day off. Feeling guilty, we decided to find him and head back. When we entered the shack we found him at a table with four of his friends and three more bottles of HIT. They invited us to sit down, poured us cups of beer, and started talking to us. When we were about finished, a woman appeared from the back with four more beers.

It would have been rude to refuse.

Our newfound friends

Our newfound friends

A dozen-ish beers later our guide stood up and announced that we were going to the river. We piled back into the jeep and zipped off down the road again. For the most part everyone was enjoying themselves. However one of our guide’s friends was clearly displeased that these three random foreigners were crashing their party on his day off. He was polite enough but clearly disinterested in us. When we got to the river, we timidly waded in. Standing knee deep in the river, I plunged my hands in and splashed the clean, icy water on my face. A minute later, Mr. Not-Jazzed-About-The-Foreigners splashed a handful of water on my face as well. I returned the favor. The ensuing water fight broke the ice between us and him. We spent the next several hours laughing, swimming and soaking in the sun. It was the first time I had felt clean, cold and refreshed since arriving in India.

Nothing breaks the ice like a splash of icy-cold water to the face

Nothing breaks the ice like a splash of icy-cold water to the face

Playing in the river

Playing in the river

IMG_2029

River romp

IMG_2042

Dentam River

This spontaneous experience was the highlight of the trip for me. I usually feel obligated to partake in the significant historical and cultural experiences that a destination has to offer (Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, Times Square). However, my favorite experiences are always the ones where we make real connections with the local culture and have little to do with anything marketed to tourists.

IMG_2041


Sara, getting some much needed solitude on a rickety, wooden bridge

We were a little disappointed when we woke up the next day to clouds and scattered showers blocking our view of the mountains. The town of Pelling offers amazing views and incredible hiking, but on a rainy day there’s not much to do. After putzing around for a few hours, we decided to head to Darjeeling a day earlier.

This was the right decision.

Saying goodbye to Pelling

Saying goodbye to Pelling

We found out later that the clouds and scattered showers were actually the precursor for the first monsoon of the season–a whole month earlier than anyone anticipated. (Monsoon season usually starts mid-June). The drive from Pelling to Darjeeling was already tricky enough. There were several times when our jeep required two or three attempts to make it up a hill, as the red dirt had turned to slick mud from the rain. One time we actually started sliding backwards down the hill, a startling prospect considering the 150-foot drop to our left. However, had we waited until the next morning to leave Pelling like we had originally planned, the rains would have certainly made the trip impossible. We would have been stranded and missed our flight home.

Leaving Sikkim

Leaving Sikkim

"Wait, we're going to drive across that? I can feel the bridge moving under us. Are you sure this is safe?

“Wait, we’re going to drive across that? I can feel the bridge moving under us. Are you sure this is safe?

We made it to Darjeeling only to meet another challenge. With the scorching temperatures across the rest of India (108°F in Kolkata, 114°F in Jaipur), May is high-tourist season in the comfortably mild Darjeeling. Our driver Roman ended up driving us all over the city looking for a hotel with a vacant room. We went down one street, then another, then another, looking anywhere for a spare room. As we turned on the last street, high above the city center, he turned to me and said, “Last chance. I have wife and son. If no hotel, you stay with me.” Thankfully, the second-to-last hotel on the last street had a room. We checked in, relieved to have a place to sleep.

Roman, our awesome driver who offered to let us stay at his house if we didn't find a hotel

Roman, our awesome driver who offered to let us stay at his house if we didn’t find a hotel

The next couple days were lazy and restful. We did some shopping and tried (unsuccessfully) to stay out of the rain. At one point we got stranded in a cafe that was a 20 minute walk from our hotel. After hours of waiting for the rain to stop, we gave up and asked an employee for three trash bags. The entire shop watched with astonishment and amusement at us as we made our grand exit.

Thukpa hits the spot on a rainy day

Thukpa hits the spot on a rainy day

Eating momos and avoiding the rain

Eating momos and avoiding the rain

One final memory from Darjeeling. We went back to our favorite momo restaurant, located just off the city center where the jeeps leave in the morning for Tiger Hill. It’s hands down the best food in the city. After much anticipation and a little trepidation, I finally mustered up the courage to try the regional specialty: butter tea (or Tibetan tea). Made from salted, fermented yak butter, this beverage is essentially like sipping on a thick, rich cup of gorgonzola cheese. I realized that salted beverages are rare in western cuisine. In that sense, this drink takes a bit of mental preparation. However, I actually found it to be pretty tasty. Unlike other weird foods I’ve had (century eggs, baluts), I would voluntarily have this one again. It’s milder than your average blue cheese, so if you like strong cheese, be brave and try this drink.

Getting more momos and thukpa at our favorite restaurant. Notice the butter tea which I am about to partake in

Getting more momos and thukpa at our favorite restaurant. Notice the butter tea which I am about to partake in

After Darjeeling we headed back to the Bagdogra Airport and began our harrowing 36-hour journey back to Chicago. (We accidentally got stuck in one room in the Delhi airport for 8 hours. They wouldn’t let us leave. Sigh… you win again, Delhi. Every. Time.) It was unfortunate that we happened to be in Darjeeling and Sikkim for the unexpected monsoon. However the day we spent drinking and swimming in the Dentam River made the entire experience worthwhile. It’s certainly one that Sara and I will be telling stories about for years to come.

IMG_2069

On the side of the road in Pelling

Visiting Sikkim:

Sikkim is considered a protected region. In order to visit there, you need to obtain a Restricted Area and Inner Line Permit. You’ll need a photocopy of your passport and a passport-sized photo when filling out the form. You can complete the paperwork at any Indian embassy, in several major cities in India, and in Siliguri, Bagdogra and Darjeeling. Visit the Sikkim Tourism website for more information.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

India Part 2: Kolkata and the Missionaries of Charity

May 2006 was my first trip to Kolkata, India. I went with my now alma mater, Anderson University. I did not have a clue what I was walking into when I signed up for the trip, but it was love at first sight for Kolkata and me. I worked with the Sisters of Charity, founded by Mother Theresa, in a home called Shanti Dan meaning “to give peace” in English. Working with mentally challenged older adult women was a huge stretch for me at my 19 years of age, but those two weeks of my life served the catalyst for a revolution in my world view. I came back an entirely changed person and my family witnessed my less than graceful transformation in an up close and personal way. I begged my family to return with me, but the only person who was crazy enough to entertain this idea was my youngest sister Sidney, who was 11 at the time.

Catching the bus to Shanti Dan

Sidney catching the bus to Shanti Dan

During my senior year of college (2009), I returned to Kolkata with a group of near and dear friends and my—at the time—fiancé Davo. I had the pleasure of bringing 4 of my closest friends with me and experienced the city and Shanti Dan for the second time through my wiser, more-traveled eyes. My love for the city and Shanti Dan only grew, and I knew that I would never grow tired of returning. Kolkata would be a lifelong home for me.

IMG_1953

Still fresh off the plane and jet lagged, I am writing about my third experience. As I have grown and developed in the past 4-and-a-half years, so too has Kolkata. This was apparent upon arrival at the airport. The airport has been remodeled since 2009, and what was once an extremely hot, un-air-conditioned, crowded and outdated mess of a space is now orderly, cool, and modern. Before arriving, I instructed my sister to run from the airport to the taxi without engaging with any of the mass quantities of beggars. I realized these instructions were laughable when we exited the airport. No chaos, no hordes of people, no beggars. We arrived at Hotel Circular to find it newly painted hot pink and purple (although much to my relief the lobby was still eerily dark, damp and green.) I slept well in great anticipation of being able to return to Shanti Dan the next morning.

IMG_1952

Saying the Morning Prayer with my sister and husband at the Mother House before volunteering gave me an incredible sense of peace and belonging. In some ways it felt like a homecoming. Upon arrival at Shanti Dan that morning, I immediately had goose bumps. It was all so familiar but different at the same time. Some of the women were the same; many were different, but love and light radiated from the place the same as I remember. I was overjoyed to be back.

IMG_1957

One woman whose face and spirit was most etched in my mind heart was still there. I named her “granny” because until this trip I did not know how to ask her name in Bengali. Although smaller, older and slightly more frail, her face lit up when she saw me. She immediately greeted me with the same greeting I remember so well: one “Namaste,” one kiss on the hand, one kiss on each of my cheeks, and a back rub. It is up for debate whether or not she remembered me among the endless cycle of volunteer faces; however my sister swears—and I agree—that she did interact differently with me. I relished the time I got to spend with her over the week and received one incredibly soft back rub from her tiny frail hands each day.

IMG_1951

This extraordinary women and her back rubs are a small story that parallels the larger narrative when working in the homes. Thousands of volunteers flood in every year with great hopes of “serving” and bringing Jesus’ light and love to these people. Yet every time I am reminded that Jesus is in fact already very present, and the light and love is already there. While at Shanti Dan I receive a level of joy unmatched by any other experience. Even though I am the person who makes beds, does laundry and feeds people lunch, the women at Shanti Dan serve me. With the women I am able to be fully present, engaged, joyful, and at peace. When I am at Shanti Dan, I am receiving a back rub and am refreshed by the beautifully simple things in life like doing laundry by hand. I am the one who receives and for that I am humbled and eternally grateful.

IMG_1961

The city of Kolkata appeared to be modernizing at a rapid pace. What was once a city thick with children and adults begging around every corner, people sleeping on every surface imaginable, and obtrusive grinding poverty is now a much more orderly and manageable city. I was shocked to find Park Street has many air-conditioned fancy restaurants and even an Au Bon Pain cafe. I am hopeful that this is positive development and that there has been social change for the better, however in the back of my mind, I am fearful that the streets have merely been swept and the poor are hidden away somewhere or maybe incarcerated.

Fine dining at Peter Cat

Overall our time in Kolkata was incredibly meaningful. It was a shorter trip, which was difficult, however we all know we will be back. This is what makes leaving bearable. Shanti Dan is not going anywhere, life will continue on at its rapid pace, but I can always return for refreshment. I eagerly anticipate the growth that will occur between now and my next visit. Each time I visit there are new lessons to be learned and each time I am further molded by the “City of God.”

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

India Part 1: Delhi, Agra and the Taj Mahal Blitz

The adventures began even before landing in the Delhi airport. As we were beginning our approach, the pilot came over the intercom and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I just wanted to inform you that the preliminary results from the elections are in, and it looks like Modi will be the winner.” Like a rookie, I was ignorant of the fact that elections were underway. It made me nervous. How did the Indian people feel about these results? What if they disliked them? Would there be protests, demonstrations, unrest, or riots? I was especially nervous about the situation in West Bengal, where Kolkata is… a primarily communist state.

Upon leaving the airport, we were able to more accurately gauge the reaction to the election. The streets were mayhem… in a good way. We quickly learned any anxiety we had in this regard was baseless. Modi had won the election with 80% of the popular vote. Celebratory parades wound through the local thoroughfares. A random man on the street bought us gulab jamuns (honey-soaked donut balls). Flowers and fireworks abounded. (I feel like my ears are still ringing from a near-miss with a firework). Music blasted from every corner, and the streets were painted in orange, white and green.

Monkeys on the rooftop in Agra

Monkeys on the rooftop in Agra

This was my second trip to India, Sara’s third. This time we brought Sara’s sister Sidney with us, who has wanted to go to India since Sara first visited there 8 years ago. Our first night in Delhi we stayed near the New Delhi Station since we were taking a train the next morning to Agra. We spent the afternoon window-shopping, eating, and trying to avoid jet lag and being blown up by fireworks.

IMG_1883

I wish the doors in my house looked like this.

The next morning we made our way to the train station. During the train ride we were befriended by an English teacher who wanted help with honing his American pronunciation. After meticulously picking through the finer details of every phonetic sound in the English language, we pumped him for recommendations about traveling in India. A local opinion will always trump the travel book, in my opinion. He told us more about his hometown and language (Malayalam).

At the train station

At the train station

View from our hostel in Agra

View from our hostel in Agra

We arrived in Agra late morning and caught an auto-rickshaw to our hostel, which had a stunning view of the Taj Mahal from the rooftop. After dropping our bags, we headed to Agra Fort. Overlooking the Yamuna River and the Taj Mahal, this millennium-old for was briefly a luxurious prison to the creator of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan, after he was deposed by his son. The fort’s beautiful architecture is a mix of red sandstone and the same white marble used to construct the Taj Mahal.

IMG_1870

Red sandstone from Rajastan at Agra Fort

IMG_1872

Soft light filtered by white marble in Agra Fort

IMG_1882

Some much-appreciated shade at Agra Fort

IMG_1869

If I’m ever imprisoned, I want to my view to look like this.

Next, we made our way to the Taj Mahal. I’ll admit: I had high expectations of the Taj Mahal. But even with the punishing heat of the afternoon sun, the building did not disappoint. I can’t decide what is more impressive: that the entire mausoleum is constructed of white marble, or that it was constructed in the 1640s. The central dome is estimated to weight over 13,000 tons. All of the walls (inside and out) are inlaid with precious stones, a process demonstrated for us by a nearby shop owner. Craftspeople would cut the precious stone into the desired shape and trace the outline on a piece of marble. Then they would hand-chisel an indentation barely 1/8″ deep into the marble before cementing the stone onto the marble. It’s no wonder the structure took over a decade to complete.

IMG_1888

Taj Mahal

IMG_1908

Minaret

IMG_1905

Intricate, hand-chiseled inlays in the marble

IMG_1901

Beautiful designs on the interior

IMG_1898

Door to the central tomb area

IMG_1897

Mandatory shoe covers to keep the white marble pretty

IMG_1889

Obligatory group picture

IMG_1918

My tomb probably won’t look like this

There was one unpleasant aspect of visiting the Taj Mahal: everyone taking pictures. The odd thing was they didn’t want to take pictures of the Taj Mahal. They wanted to take their pictures with us. At first it was funny and endearing. But after the 250th person asked to take our picture, it got a little old. Apparently, it’s good luck to take a picture with a tourist. Still, we felt compelled to point out that, while we may be worthy subjects for a photo on an average day, behind us is one of the greatest buildings ever constructed. Sidney suggested we start charging 5 rupees a piece. We could’ve probably funded our entire trip that way.

Excuse me, may I take your picture?

Excuse me, may I take your picture?

After a long, hot (104°F) day, we headed back to the hostel for some rest. The next morning we took the train back to Delhi. After getting a little lost during a frantic search for anywhere that had AC, we settled into a Nepali restaurant and killed time before our evening flight to Kolkata. Our time in Delhi and Agra was short. I would have enjoyed spending another day or two exploring each city. However, we were all anxious to get to Kolkata.

Ahhh. Relief! Air conditioning and frapaccinos

Ahhh. Relief! Air conditioning and frapaccinos

Tagged , , , , , , , ,
Advertisements