One tends to create an idyllic picture of a distant place in your mind sometimes, hearing stories and watching movies, and the true picture is often distorted. Darjeeling is one of those mystical names, and when you hear that name, you think of Tea, picturesque Old Trains and Mountains.
I had always imagined visiting the place one day, but what I never imagined where rivers of garbage running like ugly, sad, slow glaciers down the sides of those magnificent, ancient hills. It struck a nerve.
Jim Morrison’s words sprang to mind: “What have they done to our fair Sister? Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her…” As a tourist in India, garbage is probably the number one thing that ruins the experience.
Nevertheless, even a monstrous trash glacier isn’t enough to deafen the deep voice of the mother of all mountain ranges. K3, or Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak in the Himalayan range is visible from parts of the town, and when the mist finally cleared, we were treated to a glimpse of her otherworldly beauty. I was transfixed, and a deep, serene feeling seeped into my bones. I’m home, I thought.
Darjeeling is a maze of switchbacks, hairpins, narrow alleys, steep staircases and winding pathways. The crowded downtown marketplace is filled with tea, spices of all colours, and warm mountain woollies. Up on the crest there is a temple, and in the mist it is quite a wonderland. Lazy monkeys snooze on the pathway, while prayer flags move gently overhead, adding bright colours to the hazy air.
The thin air and steep gradients challenge the legs and the lungs, but the views and the tranquillity are superb. We spent many of our days wandering the mountain pathways on foot, discovering old monasteries, breath-taking mountain vistas, hidden meditation caves, and Joey’s pub, where we spent many of our nights.
We stayed more than ten days, enjoying the cold air and the fantastic photo opportunities. It was World Cup Cricket season, and so the entire country had only the one thing on the brain.
Tensions were high as the final match approached. India was playing Pakistan, and kids and adults alike tested their cricket skills in the narrow tiered streets, while colourfully clad fans watched and cheered from the windows. On the night of the final match we sat at Joey’s drinking Kingfisher beer and cheered for our host nation, who ended up winning the match and the series. The win was celebrated with as much feeling as any religious or cultural event. Fireworks lit up the deep valley in the eerie mist.
Cricket is pretty close to a Religion here.
We stayed right on the crest of the hill, at a budget hostel with really bad carpets and really good food. From an amazing perch inside the communal lounge and library, looking out over the hills, I had time to read, think and write some notes, while sipping the famous Darjeeling tea. I discovered some gems in the shelves, including a copy of Richard Bach’s One and a book by master Yap-Soon-Yeong (sounds like an invitation to a conversation) about a meditative Tai Chi practice. I was fascinated to follow as he wove all my favourite subjects together into a simple, down-to-earth explanation of how breath, body and mind flow together or become separated. As usual, my thoughts were drawn to metaphysical themes. Here are some of my notes:
What I have personally found is that there is a realm of being, or consciousness beyond intellectual thought. I am not my thoughts. I am not what I may think I am. At times it is possible to pierce the membrane that our habitual thinking creates. We can escape the bubble of our moods, our beliefs and our ideas about identity. The process involves a physical sensation in the heart area – a change from ‘inward’ to ‘outwards’ – a radiation of something natural and good, something that has been set free, and all thoughts are ultimately resolved. This is more than simple good-nature or compassion; it is more like an explosion.
It involves an extreme intention,
And literally putting your heart into it,
It is opposed to dry, heartless cynicism, but it isn’t sentimentality either, rather
A kind of exquisite balance.
The cynicism kills off the delusion, and the ‘sentiment’ is polished
Pure and impersonal, unconditional warmth.
A strange inner metamorphosis of the breath, the body and the mind follows the moment of piercing through the delusion. It can be painful and disorientating, and I suspect that some part of us knows this instinctively, and that is why few people will truly embark on the path of cultivation.
Darjeeling might not be litter free, but it lived up to its dreamy expectations in my book. Although its not the first choice for a meditative mountain retreat, it heals the soul and refreshes the perspective. I would highly recommend a visit, should you ever find yourself travelling to Mystical India.
Thanks to all of you following, and since I missed posting anything last week, I hope you’ve enjoyed this weeks extended post. (Freelance Writing doesn’t equate to lots of free time!) Next time it’s on to Varanasi, with “Things floating on the Ganga.”