North to Kalimpong

India 2013

Friday, March 1, Kolkata:

Street food or not street food? That is the question. Emma Bryant says the only difference between street food and a 'normal' restaurant, is that in the restaurant you can't see what goes on in the kitchen. After my visit to Kolkata's Indian Museum, I'm feeling peckish, so I start looking at the handwritten menus at the various street stands. One aggressively friendly restauranteur at the corner of Sudder & Park somehow cajoles me into having a seat. I feel like I'm at a sushi bar. The guy is showing me the various dishes, explaining them and giving me small samples from which to choose. I end up getting a very excellent meal for ridiculously little money, and there's not even a hint of upset tummy. Maybe it's the grapefruit seed and probiotics I've been taking every day.

Before catching our 5:00 cabs to the train station, Dennis & Emma take me to this super fancy bar in the 5-star Park Hotel. It's called "The Street." How pretentiously unpretentious. Oy. Just like home. In planning this trip, I had imagined that after staying in mid-range accommodations for so many weeks, I might want to treat myself to a night or two in a luxury hotel. But sitting here, right now, over two weeks into the trip, the thought is pretty repulsive.

Today is day 19. In 5 days, I'll be saying goodbye to Darrol and everyone and see what it feels like to navigate the subcontinent on my own. I'm starting to feel like I might know what I'm doing, but I also know complacency will get me nowhere but disappointed. I will have to be on my toes and expect the unexpected. For example, our arrival at Kolkata's Sealdah train station presents us with a surprise. The Uttar Banga Express is EARLY. Fortunately, so are we, so all is good.

Another surprise: passengers actually lining up to board, instead of herding in the usual gaggle.

A parade of milk can hats. I bet one of those cans would fetch $75 in a Toronto antique store.


Saturday, March 2, Kalimpong:

The Uttar Banga Express pulls out of the station at around 7 P.M. and arrives in New Jalpaiguri Junction (NJP) about 12 hours later.

From NJP, we are getting two jeeps to Kalimpong. Google Map says it's 72 km, 1 hr 30 minutes! It takes us about 3 hours including a 40-minute stop for some food.

Jalpaiguri (A) to Kalimpong (B). Note how the purple line starts out smooth, then gradually starts to look like a 3-year-old's squiggle.

Here's a closeup of the last few winding kilometres. Kalimpong is the green A on the far right of the picture. That's the Teesta River on the left.

Packing up our jeeps "Siddarth" and "Jai Maa Kali". Perfect names for the multi-denominational bent of our journey.

Jeep's-eye view

"Siddarth" and "Jai Maa Kali" are hardly unique.Decorating a vehicle with one's favourite religion seems to be a favourite pastime up here in the north. If I were driving these roads all the time, I'd likely be looking for all the help I could get, too. Here are a few interesting examples:

Say no more.

The Commander

Something I often say in traffic. Just add exclamation mark.


Gotta love the stuffed Sai Baba bunny and bangles on the rear-view.

My personal fave

Is there a group that worships a "Jojo"?

Anyone in the market for a 2010 Prius? I'm going to get myself one of THESE.

Sign on Jeep's lower right: perhaps the most popular of all India's religions.

Our Jeeps have been organized by a very special young man. Samdup Tsering! He will be our host for our four-day stay in this hill station of about 43,000, many of whom are Tibetan, having fled China's attacks in 1959. (The attacks are ongoing - physical, political and cultural - and thousands still flee every year, but more on that later.)

The thing that makes Samdup extremely special is his life-long connection to Darrol. It seems that about 25 years ago, a Tibetan friend of Darrol's, Doboom Tulku, (a tulku is a reincarnate lama) asked if he and Susan would be interested in sponsoring a Tibetan child's education. The answer was yes, and over the years, the two families traded letters and photographs on a more or less annual basis, but they never met. Samdup, now 34, got an incredible education, judging by who the man is today, but in all of Darrol's 21 trips to India, he never made it to this part of the country. And so, we are the privileged travellers who happen to be accompanying Darrol as he first meets not only Samdup, but his father Dogah, mother Dechen, and younger brothers Lhundup (Wong Dhen), Lhundup (Dradul) and Leg Sang. This is absolutely the best thing on the trip so far. The gratitude and joy are palpable and absolutely overflowing.

Humility permeates Samdup's being. It's in his handsome smile, in the way he walks and speaks. He plays the dranyen (Tibetan lute), flute, and hammered dulcimer. He sings, dances, acts and paints. He is part of a touring Tibetan Opera Company, Gangjong Doeghar, whose purpose, since 1995, has been to "preserve, revive, develop and promote Tibetan culture". They have performed in Europe, Australia and Asia.

This is Samdup preparing the stage for a concert that will be held in our honour (Darrol's, really.) The backdrop is of Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama's ex-residence in Lhasa, Tibet. Samdup painted it. How you have such a wonderful smile when your people have been through such hell is pretty well unimaginable to me.

Samdup and his father (and perhaps more of the family, too... I'm not sure) are very involved in teaching at and running the ITBCI. The weighty acronym spelled out is the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Institute. The school's purpose is to teach Tibetan language and culture.

The courtyard of the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Institute is between the two yellow roofs.

Stairway leading out of the school courtyard.

"Art Designed - Sri Dogah, Dance - Music Teacher"

We spend the remainder of Saturday morning getting settled into the Hotel Tress, which is within a stone's throw of Dogah's three-storey home. Not that they're wealthy. Much of the home is devoted to housing students of the ITBCI.

In the afternoon, Samdup leads us on a brief tour of Kalimpong, including the Jangsa Dechencholing Monastery.

A series of stills from this beautiful little monastery, set to some chanting I had recorded elsewhere:

These Incredibly steep and narrow steps lead from one street down to a parallel one.

Market days in Kalimpong are Wednesdays and Saturdays.

A trio of skeptical kids. They're not buying our shenanigans.


The Party

This evening we are all invited to dine with the family. The ten of us arrive at 7, and head up to the second floor living room, where we are met by Dogah, Dechen, their 4 sons, 2 daughters-in-law and grandchildren. Cocktails and delicious hors d'oeuvre are there, too.

Dogah, Dechen holding her grandson, and son Lhundup.

After a round of greetings and salutations, the conversation turns to Tibet, and Dogah's flight therefrom in 1959. It was the first wave of refugees, and included His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. 13-year-old Dogah, youngest child, left behind his parents and two sisters. One brother was imprisoned and died there, and second was killed in the fighting. Dogah was 15 when he finally reached Kalimpong. About 80,000 came that first year, crossing the mountains with no proper trails, and Chinese snipers waiting on high as they scraped their way through the valleys.

This particular story has a recent bright spot, however. In July of 2011, Dogah, Dechen and Samdup took a trip home to the province of Kham. The mountain of paperwork involved in this trek was almost as insurmountable as the Himalayas of 52 years prior. Luckily, this crossing was facilitated by 1) Samdup having met some influential people when Gangjong Doeghar was performing in London, and 2) a nephew in Tibet having connections. (I daren't be more specific. The dangers to expat Tibetans and their families back at home are still very real.) Even with all the right paperwork, they were still detained and questioned for five hours in Lhasa before being allowed to proceed to Kham.

We spend a good portion of our pre-dinner chat pouring over two photo albums of that trip. Dogah tells of reuniting with his two sisters and their offspring, with translation assistance from Samdup and one of the Lhundups.

Lhundup helps Dogah explain the photos to Emma and Heather.

Dinner is served

We are led down to the first floor to a multi-purpose room of about 12 x 25 feet. There is a long table down the centre set for dinner for 20 or so, and a buffet table along one wall manned (or womanned? personned?) by six young women, 16 to 18 years old. They are students at the ITBCI and have been living with Dogah & family for anywhere from 2 to 14 years, attending regular school, plus late afternoons at the Institute.

Three of our wonderful servers stand at the ready along with Dechen, her daughter-in-law, and granddaughter.

Four of the girls are from Mustang in Nepal. They are all anxious to practice their English with us. Besides being incredibly sweet, lovely and accommodating, they are seriously curious and seem to intentionally make time to speak to each of us one-on-one and ask questions.

Dinner is served. (thanks to Heather for this pic)

All stand for a special photo op.

This is the op.

Lhundup, Dogah, Darrol, Samdup & Dechen.

Emma & Samdup. Two thirty-somethings finally meet. Darrol & Susan have been a huge influence on these two lucky people.

Before ending the night, both Darrol and Dogah make a more or less formal acknowledgement to each other - and to all - of the happiness they both feel as a result of Samdup's education. It is apparent that the joy of giving is no less, and no more than the joy of receiving. It is said that anger is like a fire that burns both the sender and receiver. Tonight I see that generosity is a fire, too, and it lights joy equally in both hearts.

The party's over. Kalimpong looks like a Disney set as we head back to our rooms at the Tress. (I think I see Tinker Bell in the lower left corner.)

Two busy, busy days. I am so loving this trip. Tomorrow, Sunday, we are supposed to get out to see the sunrise over one of the Himalayas' biggest: Mount Khanchendzonga. It's a 4:30 wakeup for the half-hour (9 km!) drive to famous Deolo Hill. Sure hope it's not going to be cloudy.

Happy reading!

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