The vagabond in me once again was out to explore the world with other like minded people. And the soul searching once again began. This time nestled between the hills in north of West Bengal’s window to the Himalayas, I spent a beautiful five days in Kalimpong.
This was just after the West Bengal elections and despite the uncertainty in the air we chose to explore for ourselves the life of these people nestled amidst nature’s beautiful scenery. We took a budget carrier from Kolkata airport to Bagdogra and from there we made it via a rented car to Kalimpong. The drive was only two hours long and was hugely scenic. As our flight was delayed by a good two hours we caught the beautiful sunset while churning our way up through the mountains. On the way one saw the snake likeTista River dancing away to her own whims.
Monsoon had not yet set in and hence despite expecting it to be a little chilly we were actually received with just pleasant temperatures. Hmmmmm…….So much for coming to the hills I thought to myself.
We checked into the beautiful Himalayan Hotel. We had seen the pictures online and I had very much forced the others to choose this as our place to reside. I can tell that disappointment was the last thing they had currently on their minds. In fact the pictures on the website did very little justice to the actual place. It was the home to a Mr. David MacDonald from the year 1904 and what a lovely tastefully done up place it is. The grand children are doing a great job of maintaining the standard of the place. It’s not overwhelming and yet it has a quiet sedate statement that it makes with its wooden floor boards and very much still functioning fire place in the rooms. We had a choice to stay in the new wing which has smaller rooms and was built to meet the needs of the growing number of visitors, or the classic old wing. The choice was very clear for us. These rooms came with common verandahs that opened to the view of the hills in front, which I was to actually explore only the next morning.
A quick dumping of belongings and the urgent need to explore the town got us walking down from the hotel area to the town centre which although was a hilly walk up and down was only a decent 10 minutes away. While we were walking we heard pub like sounds from a building sporting a restaurant on its second floor. Most other shops were closing or beginning the process to shut down. In the Hills I realized life in the evening can be very sedate. We walked a bit more lower to discover that this was it……there was not much happening on the streets. Some of my companions chose to try some local food being sold on the cart which was not suitable for vegetarians like yours truly. We then made our way back to the Pub like joint. We had to climb a few flights of stairs and then we were greeted by this dimly lit restaurant which had a bar area to it. It had this whole retro look about it. With huge Bob Marley and John Lenon Posters it looked like we had found our place to hang out. Very colorful but the music was very much to the taste of the locals. Between some Eminem and Hindi music we just relaxed ourselves and got to know the lovely Prerna our waitress, who was a young sweet and Kalimpong local. We had an amazingly satisfying dinner with too much being ordered between the vegetarians and the not. Good food, good company and the hunger to explore more the next day made us so very happy that we did not realize we were the last people to leave the restaurant. It was almost 11 then.
The next day I woke up early and went to the window to see that light broke out at 5 or prior. I could not see much as the clouds were all settled in. I went back to bed only to wake up at 6:30. This time I walked out of my room throwing over my dressing gown and just sat there to take it all in. In front in the lawns that faced me were two beautiful Pines, and below them the sloping layers of kalimpong town lay before me. Then the town receded to the foot hills. There the foothills started to climb and tell their own story. The clouds kept coming into play and distract me from talkiing to the hills. The colours were largely green and blue due to the early morning mist. On my right the view again sloped upwards to higher hills and from there one could hear bag piper sounds being played…or was it. I was later told they were the sounds of the Monastery that found its way to the valley. I just sat there breathing all this in. So different and far away I was from the life I know in a City country called Singapore. Here there was a sense of nothingness in the air. A sense of just being completely, wholly and totally in the moment. I was just there as part of the embellishment of this vast view I felt.
As the sun began to peak and while the cloud argued with it….I rushed in to get my sketch book. I did a quick pencil drawing of the scenery unfolding but I was so taken in by the splendor I just deiced to keep my tools aside and meditate. And meditate I did. It was one of the best. Wait a minute I said one of the best there is more to come.
As my companions rose and we all had our verandah ada commencing we decided it was time for some breaky and cha! The one thing one does around these artisty Bongs is have a lot of cha along with ada. Of course the drink changes as the day progresses. We made plans for the day and we decided to walk around Kalimpong and experience the town and its people. This we did equipped with our cameras. It was fun as it was market day hence it seemed like as though the entire town had descend to do their needful marketing. Loads of colours, people and sounds, it was a hay day for the photographer or aspiring to be. It also was a great way to mingle and experience the people and their lifestyles. We all went our ways and did our own thing. Then we again had a cha and pakoda break. The place we stopped in I would not have normally given a glance. Then again I was out to experience and I wanted to do everything out of the norm. The pakodas were good and so was the tea. It was also fun observing the locals and their eating habits.
Back again in the market we saw the local feta cheese being sold and I must say it did not look appetizing. They were strings of hard blocks of cheese. They were dehydrated for preservation. Colorful as these markets were, I hardly found anything to take back for myself. Oops I spoke to soon. We did find this shop selling a lot of Chinese imported textile, and while the Kolkata residents were happy choosing that, I found my chunky necklaces in the same shop. Their choice was very limited. I thought I had made quite a deal only to be told otherwise by my companions. Too late I had already paid. We continued exploring the up and down allies of the town.
We then heard of a rice paper factory and were just not able to find the correct person to guide us to the whereabouts of the same. While the others were still trotting up and down the street I found my way into an antique store. There they had some lovely prized items. However the person who really likes antique shopping was not with me so I decided to save this for when he comes with me to Kalimpong. Yet the shop owner was so gracious and happy to show us knowing we had very little intentions of buying. I almost narrowed down on a silver bangle but then I had made a decision to live simply and the price of this one did not really fit in the simple range. So I said to myself I have a drawer full of these and one less will only help the drawer close better. One of us however was smart enough to ask the shop owner the directions to the paper factory. We then struck a deal with a cabbie and made our way to this out of nowhere paper factory.
On the way I did spot some interesting ladies standing by their doorways. I was asked by my companions if I knew the nature of their profession and I told them I have been away from the country but not away from this world. That color of lipstick could only mean one profession. I was then told, it is a common lively hood for many up here in the hills with the bad situation of jobs due to declining tourism. That again was due to the political environment created over the last few years. Also many girls from this region were wooed with city jobs only to be taken into the city racket of flesh trading. Sad but such is the hard life of these innocent people from a town that has only tourism and schools to help its economy.
We were dropped off by our cabbie to the destination with no sight of any paper factory. We then had to go looking around people’s houses and I had a feeling we were going to be scolded when one of us found the small and hidden paper factory. Its only sign that it was different from the rest of the houses was that it had yellow walls.
We were then taken through the paper factory and I saw for the first time how handmade paper was actually made. The entire place had an extremely damp and slimy feel to it. After seeing the entire process and asking the necessary questions we were then taken to the room where they sold their ware. All of us ended up choosing quite a lot of paper over here. I still don’t know what I’ll make with those but just looking at that roll amidst my supplies makes me happy. After our purchase we made a walk down to our hotel. On the way we spotted this huge field and all the town youth gathered to see a football match. We too became a part of the spectators along with our shooting cameras.
It was five and I would have actually loved some tea but being a rather warm day I tucked into a cool nice refreshing drink while the others chose chilled beer. Prerna chatted us up and also gave us tips as to what we should visit on the next day. Motivated about the next day’s adventures to explore and with tired feet we went back and crashed in the hotel for a bit. We just lazed and all did our own thing to accumulate again in the verandah with rumbling and hungry stomachs. We decided to meet again in the lobby in fifteen minutes. I was ready and walked down. Our hotel had this cute little dark stairway and the entire colonial air about it. The staircase was adorned with water color paintings of birds. It was quite dark and I chose to be in the lighted area of the lower verandah waiting for the others to join me. We then started our descent down to the town centre happy in the knowledge that we would be tucking in to our lovely Retro Pub food. Their menu had everything, Chinese, local food, Thai and north Indian fair too. Drooling when we climbed the stairs we were greeted with an exiting staff. They were closing down for the day as there were no more clients. Hungry and the prospect of having chocolates and biscuits on a holiday kept us out on the hunt for food. Most carts with food were also doing the disappearing act. Just then we saw this other guy just setting up shop on his road side cart. The downside for the masahari’s was that he only had vegetarian stuff. I was thrilled and happily tucked into his momos. The local dumpling. Its vegetables all rolled with garlic and cheese and put in a thin flour coating and then steamed. To be had with some hot sauce these hot dumplings seemed like a treat for the gods with our rumble grumble roar tummies. My companions had some other puri and chana thing which I must say I was tempted to have but decided to give a pass keeping in mind that we had a few more days to our trip. Completely satisfied we went back and had a nice music session back on our famous verandah to the hotel. Before retiring I was appointed the morning alarm for the rest of the group.
It was also a total lunar eclipse that night……..I woke up at 3 a.m. at the peak to see it and saw an overcast sky and hit the bed again. The next morning did the dutiful bit of waking all and getting us all out of the hotel by 8 a.m. Early by our lazy morning standards.
We then got into a cab and made our way to the morning destination a Monastery called Durpin. It was an uphill drive and a lovely one. We passed by the army camp en route and then we reached the Monastery gates. It was a beautiful clear day with bluest skies I had seen since we had got there. We had our cha at the local auntie’s store and bought some biscuits to go along with it as there was no other breakfast option. After satisfying the cha urge we hit the Monastery and then began, a few hours of photography only stopping in between for another round of cha. While in the Monastery and experiencing one the most beautiful prayers sessions I went into a trance meditation. The sounds were as beautiful as was the place. Once the round of prayer was done I went up to explore the different corners of the place and soon mist started to roll in. The entire place started having a dream like effect on me. It was like being lost in the super consciousness. This is how it must feel I thought to myself. Totally content and being in the moment I forgot who I was and what I was doing there. It was a magical morning for me and one of the most beautiful ones in this lifetime. I was quiet and withdrawn as were my other companions. There was little need for words as we were all experiencing the moment. When we had enough of Pray, we thought we needed some Eat and decided to head back towards Kalimpong. There were no cabs and we started to walk down in the mist. The dampness enveloped us and we kept walking while some kept clicking. I had lost all urge to click. I just wanted to breathe it all in.
After walking down for almost 20 minutes we found a cab that brought us down to the town centre where we did some pet pooja. After a very satisfying Lunch we went for a snooze to the hotel. The meal was heavy and so was the experience earlier. After a 2 hour rest we head to Daelo one of the sightseeing points of Kalimpong. This was another recommendation by our dear Prerna. I am glad we listened to her. We discovered an area which was quite and secluded and this is where the senior artist began to give us some live demonstration in water color. The scenery kept unfolding before our eyes and it kept playing tricks on my artist friend. The clouds were happily playing with mountains and softly telling us their secrets. It was yet another moment I shall cherish. Some other tourists also found the spot and wanted to express their excitement in their personal way.
It then started to drizzle and we were caught up there with no vehicle. We had to request the coffee shop owner to call and get a taxi for us from the closest town. While we waited for our cab we had a nice rain filled coffee. I just sat there in the growing rain filled darkness and thought to myself, would I have taken these risks if I was here as a mother, wife or daughter. No, would be the answer. Much of the things I found myself doing was because I was traveling on my own as Joyotee. Just an individual without any relationship tags. The rest of the days continued to be an exploration of not just Kalimpong but me as a person, me wanting to be who I am as an individual even before I am an artist too. We visited some more monasteries and did a lot more shooting various Kalimpong highlights. We were even threatened to be stuck there due to road closures and bad rains ………yet through it all I felt I found what makes me happy. Being adventurous and trying new things I normally would not dare to. Back at home I have been satisfied at my hand at photography and also been trying some of the water color tips I picked in this trip. However very often I just drift off to the sounds of the monastery and the healing effect it had on my mind and body. Standing there at that moment I had wanted to just stay there forever. In a sense I did stay there in that moment as I brought it back with me. I close my eyes on a busy Singapore day, and think back and it comes floating back like a dream.