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India Blog 19 includes an assassination

July 1, 2010

We had a great time the last few weeks in Delhi, Agra, and Varanasi but the
weather was getting to us. We had spent so much time in the humid south that the dry north was making us sick. We needed trees, anything green. So we planned out our last few weeks deciding what to do and where to do it. East of Varanasi, overnight on a train, is West Bengal. In between these two destinations is less touristy, tribal land not quite developed yet. Not that the government hasn’t tried. India wants to open Orissa, Jharkhand, and Bihar to much more commercial interests. This includes the same damage brought upon so many other regions, but also a common sense interest to supply a more than quickly growing population. Orissa has large problems with the Christian missianaries that seem to flock there in droves, as well as the steel plants located all over the state. Bihar, which was split in two to create Jharkhand is worth visiting because, like Varanasi, it holds spiritual value beyond belief. It is THE birthplace of Buddhism. But, once again, it is one of the poorest places in India, which is already a third world country in so many ways. Government corruption, kidnapping, and bandits are frequent, but the biggest threat if you read the news is terrorism. Bihar, like Orissa, is home, along with West Bengal to Naxalite and Maoist rebels. These are freedom fighters, if you read Arundhati Roy, which I do and love, but I have seen some of their tactics on the front page everyday (news is to be believed?) and it is tough to back them, especially with what will happen not far from us later on.

So we skipped over those states to go to West Bengal. Home to Calcutta, the
crumbling former British Indian capital, a lot of skinny middle space I have no desire to visit, and a northern area lush with rivers, mountains, and jungle above cultivated land of all kinds. The northern part wants to be its own state, Gorkhaland, because it is relatively self sufficient and home to a very different sort of people from those in the metropolitan Calcutta.

In the north, our plan is to spend some time in the famous tea plantaion
laden town called Darjeeling, wander around the region going hiking, rafting, elephant riding, rhino sighting, and just generally living it up for our last two weeks in India, then going to Sikkim, the state just above for a view of some of the biggest mountains in the world and some alternative forms of relaxation, before visiting Calcutta for a few days, then flying out.

This was our plan…but plans change. We arrived just south of Darjeeling
from the overnight train, rested and excited. We took a rickshaw to a place where we could get a shared jeep to Darjeeling, about 3 hours away high up in the mountains. I can’t quite explain the size of the smiles on our faces as we left the dusty train station town and the rest of the dusty north behind us and gazed upon lush green for as far out and up as we could see. Climbing higher along winding roads, up and over and into mountains. Small little shacks lined the road every few miles to sell the same food and supplies. Our vantage point was high and we could see where we had driven from and were ecstatic to be out of it. When we arrived, the mountain town was quaint. The differences in the faces of the people were staggering. They no longer looked like Indians. They were looked like the western Chinese people I saw in Yunnan Province. They had round faces and dark black hair, like the mane of Black Beauty. There were women. Walking around. Unaccompanied. Amazing.

Small restaurants and shops were obviously doubling as homes, but there was also money in this town. It is a huge tourist destination and expensive hotels and restaurants are around many corners, some of which are over 100 years old. The British built most of the place, seeing its strategic importance, and eventually, tea plantations and colonial houses. When the Raj left, the local government took over and had some problems with Calcutta, calling for an independent state. There have been a few major uprisings here, causing it to be semi autonomous at the moment. Visually, the tea plantations surround Darjeeling, which is a town of small uphill (or downhill) walkways sometimes driven on but mostly navagated by foot perched high above some semi flat ground where the majority of the commerce is located. We stayed up at the top near a tv tower because there was cheaper housing.

Darjeeling is noted for its superb view of Khangchendzonga, the world’s
third tallest mountain (8598 Meters) and a decent view of Everest. This is the Himalayas.

We saw none of this. We walked around for the first few days in deep fog
that seemed to seep into everything. Each morning and night I could see it coming through the windows, not quite floating, but permeating. Luckily, the food is great, and we ate each meal moving from geographic cuisine to cuisine. Everybody was merry, like it was an untouchable town full of life bursting at the seams. Horse rides from the center of town took people by cold weather clothing shops (it’s summer), local food sellers (momos, local style dumplings are spectacular), up and down small walkways overlooking the valley filled with tiny towns and endless tea, and a center square where old men and women spent their days sitting on benches chatting like old New York was moved to to a higher elevation.

We decided to go rafting on a tour from town with a group of Russians we had met, but right before Mary felt sick and I went with them alone. We drove hours to the Teesta river and were about to exit the jeep when 5 people with our rafting gear walked up and informed us that we had to cancel our plans. Earlier in the day, a man had attempted suicide by jumping into the river from a high cliff, he was seen doing this and a rescue team was summoned. A group of 8 men went down the river in a raft to save the man but on the way they hit a piece of a unfinished dam and overturned, killing 2 of them quickly and sending another missing. We felt horrible about the accident, but were also wondering what we should do now. The mountains looked inviting, but getting lost in the multitude of valleys far from our bags did not seem fun to me, especially if we had to come back in the dark. I could see the remnants of landslides along many of the roads, trees and branches jutting out everywhere and long drops laid just beyond small roadsides, always in use because the roads could barely manage two way traffic. I definitely didn’t want to be on these roads if I didn’t need to, so we decided to go back to Darjeeling, where the fog covered a lovely people ready to help us enjoy ourselves.

Everything was great that night, so we decided on a morning stroll around
the outskirts of the town hoping for a break in the fog to invite a breathtaking view. But abruptly, things were changing as we walked around town. Businesses
closed early, restaurants weren’t operating when they should be, and all street vendors disappeared. We had been spending our nights at a local backpacker hangout because of the festive mood, and we went there for answers. It turned out, the government, which wants to be an autonomous state, like I mentioned above, has two political parties intent on making that happen. One wants to do it peacefully and the other doesn’t. The leader of the peaceful party was about to give a speech near the town square when 6-40 (depending on what you heard) men clad all in black and armed with SWORDS, attacked the politician and sliced him to death. This sent an uproar through the town and police went on a search for the culprits, most of which had escaped inital capture and were hiding somewhere in this labryinth of a valley. Everything shut down instantly. Our nighttime hangout was the only place we could find to get anything.

Suddenly the fog wasn’t so comfy. It ceased to encapsulate us in the warmth
of a friendly people and began to saturate small walkways lined with closed doors and windows. It began to guard the doors of important businesses like places that sold food, water, medicine, alcohol, and most importantly tickets out of town. The fog was the glue that kept every possible option sealed, it was the weight from all around that made me feel a bit claustrophobic for the first time in my life. It made everything and everybody more tense than they already were. It was hard for me to gage the feelings of the people there without speaking their language, but it was easy to see the tight nervous looks on their faces as the days passed without change.

5 days passed without change. We were able to find a breakfast place that
stayed half open (We had to walk through a small kitchen entrance into a room with no open doors or windows). The owner was afraid of getting caught because local groups of men were enforcing the closing of the town and there were consequences for staying open. Eventually, the pharmacies opened, and a few more of the hostels had open front doors because while businesses were closed, most people couldn’t leave and needed a place to sleep. Everyday, we walked around town listlessly, watching local drones walk by, going to vantage points and looking hopelessly at a wall of fog, trying every restaurant for one that would sell us alcohol, and visiting every expensive hotel/colonial house in the area for some semblence of normality, civilization. Each night we went to the local backpacker hangout and drank until 10 or 11, depending upon when our hotel was boarding everything up for the night (they were afraid of the consequences of staying open too late). We met 3 Brits, a local, named Wind, with a Welsh girlfriend, and a somewhat steady supply of food and beer. After 4 or 5 nights, the food was running out and the beer was totally gone, but we still stayed up talking about how ridiculous this all was as well as anything else that came to mind while we were stuck here, as one does. We discussed playing punk music, trouble with university, drunk uncles, college debate teams, good and bad movies beer and music, Irish, English, Korean, American, and every other country’s stereotypes among many other topics.

Others were leaving over the days. Dissappearing really. They might have
been hiring expensive private cars or jeeps out of town, but perhaps the fog took them. Walking around at night, the sounds of stretching shadows creaked. Audible from all directions eminating out of the old wooden buildings, the sounds bounced up and down the skinny walkways, causing me to turn around and look for the source more than a few times. The buildings were 3, sometimes 4 stories tall, and while laughter fell on us from above for the first few days, it was soon replaced with high pitched whispers and low monotones drowning in a cloudy sea. The wind and fog were the only constant and the trees grew louder as the town became silent, but there would be more commotion ahead.

The candlelight vigils began, newsvans arrived, interviews were given, and
pictures of cute little girls crying next to a patch of blood on the concrete were taken. This was getting out of hand and we needed something to take our minds off of our confinement.

The next morning, we planned to get up to a high peak and try to get a good view, but this called for a 3am wake up and we just couldn’t do it. Luckily, the people who did go saw very little. Instead we spent the afternoon at a local Tibetan refugee center that had been around for 60-70 years. We met people who had been there the whole time, having left their homeland when they were 2 or 3 years old. We saw how they lived, making carpets, metal handicrafts, jewelery, fabrics, clothing, and wood carvings. They had a basketball court where we shot around with the kids. We learned about their plight from a museum on site. We bought some of their handiwork to give them some support and left having had an amazing time.

I could give you a history/current affairs lesson right now but I don’t think it is my place to do so, nor do I consider myself to be aware enough to write something without research to back up what I think I know. I will say this. These people are amazing and have been persecuted beyond belief for decades but when it comes to China, it is all business. The country is Atheistic because religion is societal structure separate from the governmental one they currently have. My main problem is with the lack of religious freedom, not the land grab. If China claims the land, that is another issue that dates back to dates I don’t know. But I do know that I am never for persecuting people for believing in something different, especially if they do it in a passive way. The day had its somber moments, but the lively nature of the people there and the genuine joy they all exuded was inspiring.

Anyway, on our way back, all we could think about, other than the refugees that had escaped slaughter, was momos. The local dumplings that were cheap and delectable. We searched everywhere but found nothing until we got back into town. Luckily, a guy was just setting up. We waited 20 agonizing minutes and then ate as much as we could.

The next morning, we were determined to see a good view. We had heard that
the clouds might dissipate in the morning so we decided to wake up early and go for it. We also heard that the town might be open when we got back so that was exciting, seeing as we had been there a week and were running out of time in India.

The 7 of us woke up at three and scoured the town for a jeep that would take
us to Tiger Hill, a high peak on an adjoining part of our range. Our driver was less than chipper as we left because he wanted money from 10 people, though nobody else was around. Eventually, right before the last possible time for us to leave, a Korean couple arrived and this convinced him to take us. When we arrived, the place was packed. It was disconcerting to see so many people in such a small space until we saw what they we looking at. HUMONGOUS, directly in front of us, lay Khangchengdzonga, the third largest mountain in the world, as big as anything I have ever seen. A monstrous snow capped peak lay right ahead with nothing blocking the view. The valleys below were still hidden because the sun wasn’t quite up, yet the mountain was right there, lit by its white exterior. As the sun rose, the smaller peaks lining the horizon appeared and a whole Himilayan range, frequented by sherpas more often then Everest because of the fun factor and general disinterest by foreigners, came out of nowhere. Now that the sun was up, we could see more than we expected. Far to the left of the range from our vantage point, peaking just over the closer mountains, lay the Three Sisters, Everest, and its two adjoining peaks. We spent the first 30 mintues confused as to which was which, but once we figured it out, it was like the magnitude of what we were seeing kept dawning on me every 5 minutes. I wanted to jump up in the air and yell, call everybody I gave a damn about, take as many pictures as possible, but also stop every other pic to gaze with my own eyes. I could only do the latter but that was enough.

On our way back into town, we made the driver laugh by yelling nonsensicals
out the window at everyone. This included the name of a local town called Ghoom, which had the unfortunate meaning, turn around. Our excitement was contagious as the driver decided to join in on the fun. When we arrived back in town, everything was about to open.

The locals wanted their businesses open, but they also wanted to observe a
few days for their fallen citizen. The military, sent by the state government, which had arrived a few days before wanted the place open, not to mention more control over the crazed local political parties. Things were opening, but the town was still tense. We figured we better get out while we can, so we quickly gathered our things and went to find permits for Sikkim, the northen state from here, and a ride out of town. The permits were easy, but the ride proved difficult. The military was cracking down and I saw many being arrested as throngs arrived to take up any room they could get in the jeeps leaving in all directions every few minutes. After trying a few different directional options, the three Brits, a new Korean friend, Mary, and I left for Sikkim.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. elayne permalink
    July 2, 2010 1:16 am

    great post as usual. I wish I was with you. Glad you are safely on your way.
    Hope to see you soon
    Elayne

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