Darjeeling My Darling is the name of a poem Katie, Darjeeling’s biggest fan, wrote about her favorite place.
When we arrived in Darjeeling it felt like someone had taken a weight off our shoulders. It was relief in a place akin to a ski town in our jostled minds. People were nice, and unobtrusive, we bundled up in wool scarves and socks and drank hot tea with views of snow capped K3 out the window. While we were there we went trekking and unknowingly embarked for Nepal, we paraglided off the side of a mountain, we saw the town from a new perspective on a cable ride with Caroline and the Aussies boys. We spent Thanksgiving there, and I didn’t expect to do anything in honor of the strange holiday, but I ended up enjoying it more than many years previous. An American, three Canadians, two Australians, and one Brit, we had a delicious Indian dinner and a hot toddy or two and went around the table saying what we were thankful for. Some said the beer, I said I was thankful to be traveling in India and to have met such amazing people to share my travels with.
These images were taken at the Kurseong Macaiberry Organic Tea factory. It was an off season, so the place was a bit desolate. The quiet machines made for a semi-poetic stillness as we walked through the dusty rooms. There were a few men and women still at work, but the place was settling into the winter months when the Pekoe blooms are left untouched. The later pictures are of the family I stayed with in Kurseong. The young girl’s name is Shinju, which her father told me means Lotus in Nepali. She was quite a little character, always running into out room looking for the “makeup,” that we never wore.
My last post was about the ghats, and Varanasi’s dealings with death and life side by side. In these images I hoped to capture the vibrant people, the spirit of the nightly puja, and the candidness I saw in this dualistic, enduring, city.
View of the burning ghats from a rowboat.
Varanasi, the place where people come to die. In the narrow streets bodies covered with colorful silk, lined with carnations and roses are carried past on the shoulders of their male relatives. I stopped walking outside the break in the wall, where men weigh the massive pieces of scented wood they use to build funeral pyres. Just past the gates, where photography is prohibited, are the cremation ghats, steps to the river laden with burning bodies. Varanasi is the Hindu capital of India. It is said that if you die on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, you are absolved of sin, and your soul is released from Maya, the painful cycle of death and rebirth. It was a very intense city, the air weighs down on your body in a different way. I avoid the subject of death. In Varanasi, death confronts you. It is natural, not something to be overlooked or dressed up, just the end of maya, the end of pain.
In Khajuraho we met a few boys around our age who, when they witnessed our love of Indian food, decided it was their responsibility to give us an authentic experience making chapati. On our last day Laki brought us to his grandfather’s house in a village a few kilometers outside of town. The house had the exceptionally clean feel that I have noticed in smooth mud and clay based structures in North India. A modest home with a simple, mostly outdoor kitchen, Laki’s grandfather’s home was the perfect place to spend the afternoon beneath the shady branches of Neem trees, peeling and chopping aubergine, peppers, potatoes, garlic, onion, and tomato and roasting them over the fire as the chapatis heated on the embers underneath. This simple fare tasted as fresh and delicious as the most elaborate spreads I’ve had in India.
In Darjeeling tea is as abundant as it is flavorful. The hills are lined with verdant tea bushes, and sparse fruit and coffee trees, planted to fix nitrogen. The Macaiberry Tea Estate was one of the first Organic tea plantations in India. I spent 3 days on the plantation in a quaint homestay with a Indian / Nepali family and a few friends I met traveling. The estate primarily employs women in the field and in the factory, partly because of their “nimble fingers” and partly because Kurseong is a comparatively progressive village. Kurseong is one of the only villages in North India that has recorded a negative birth rate in the last 5 years. The women’s counsel works to make birth control more readily available and morally accepted in the village, and it has been somewhat effective. The women I photographed this morning were pruning the tea bushes, the winter task that is done when the harvest has ended for the season. I tried to bridge our language gap as they flitted their scissors over the branches, and though I do not understand Nepali, I observed their closeness and their jocularity. The three women below managed to say in fragmented English that they particularly enjoy pruning because they don’t have to be careful or delicate, they just work away, talking and teasing till the sun sets.
The Temples in Khajuraho are known because of their sexual carvings, as the Kama Sutra Temples. The walls of the many edifices depict elaborate scenes of women engaging in sexual acts with men, dragons, and other erotic beings. The one I found most seductive I would not have seen on my own. Marina, Katie, and I rented bicycles and rode out with some new friends to the farther Eastern Temple where our friend Aashtosh showed me a massive wall of carvings. About half way up the wall was a 2ft carving of a woman in an upright sexual pose with a large, intricate scorpion crawling up her leg. She was remarkably preserved, and her body language spoke through barriers of time and spirituality that represent a past I am fascinated by. I don’t think our obsession with sex is modern, temples like this teach me again and again that the world has always been wild.
Agra Fort was the first time in my travels that I have solicited the service of a guide. Our guide was technically retired, he said he still gives tours just to stay sharp. His hair was dyed with henna, and his glasses magnified his kind eyes by twice their size. My friends and I were grateful for him because there were countless details about the place that we would have been oblivious of, such as which room the Shah was imprisoned in by his own son when he was placed under house arrest. He told us of the King’s 260 concubines and I saw traces of them as we walked in the gardens below their quarters. In the marble bathing pool, I imagined the king surrounded by his ladies, one in each of the 36 curvy carved seats lining the ivory pool. The Fort was an impressive representation of the lavish life a king lived in early 17th century India. It took my mind back in it’s jeweled arches and time stained walls.
A few weeks ago I, and my wonderful travel partners Katie and Marina set forth on a 2 week adventure around Northern India. Our rambling began with a sunrise train from Rishikesh to Agra. We booked the sleeper class which is far more affordable than the AC trains, but is known to be somewhat uncomfortable. Luckily, we didn’t mind it and I’d say I preferred it thanks to Katie’s ukulele. We played it for a moment then an elderly man in our compartment asked to try the small instrument. He completely retuned the uke, which would take us about a week to reverse, but it was worth it. Our compartment became the life of the sleeper. Four older men sang and danced and the women below my bunk clapped to the tune of the Indianized ukulele. Even the busy chai carriers stopped beside our bunks to partake in the enjoyment.