The Land of Stairs and Tea

At the beginning of this month, I switched my sandals for wool socks and sneakers, packed up my backpack, and left Jharkhand for the foothills of the Himalayas. My Indian visa was about to expire—meaning I had a little over a week before I legally had to leave the country. Before leaving, I wanted to see the city of stairs and tea: Darjeeling.

After an auto-rickshaw out of Hutup followed by 15-hour train followed by a bumpy jeep ride into the hills, I arrived past dark, too road-weary to care that the ceiling of my $2 hostel room was crawling with mold. So it wasn’t until the light of morning that I was able to walk outside and see this:

Darjeeling! The old British hill station, world-famous for its tea, sprawls across steep hills. It’s a wonder that the city has grown so extensively on such intense slopes.  Tiny, colorful houses perch one on top of the other, some precariously teetering on stilts. Narrow streets wind here and there, and crumbling stone staircases lead endlessly upwards. Prayer flags hangs over alleyways and marigold flowers adorn window ledges. Climb high enough on a clear day, and the snow-capped Himalayas rise above the clouds. She’s a beautiful city.

Coming from the dusty and flat landscape in which I was the oddball foreigner, Darjeeling and the people in it were a radical change of pace. The city attracts tourists—both Indian and foreign—hence the crowds on the main streets are an eclectic mix of trendy Nepali kids, tall, athletic Westerners dressed to climb mountains, families of middle-class Indians, and honeymooners. Exploring the city was an adventure that left my calves aching after a single day. Local people must have legs of steel. I kept marveling at how clean and functional Darjeeling was in comparison to Jharkhand. Then, of course, I would find scenes like this one that would remind me to stop idealizing the place:

Border Hopping

Franz arrived a couple days after me, and we arranged for a three-day trek on the Singalila Ridge: a route that would take us high into the land of red pandas and guaranteed views of the Himalayas. Everyone who enters the national park is required to have a guide. We were assigned to a young man named Jamyang, who wore black corduroys and never once looked winded or tired during the time we were together.

Our guide, Jamyang

As the three of us prepared to leave for our first day of trekking, Franz and I were surprised to see a sign welcoming us to Nepal. The sign overlooked a small town market, and there was no discernable line marking where India stopped and Nepal began. We asked, and Jamyang pointed to trash-filled gutter. This, apparently, is the official border.

Official India/Nepal Border

As it turns out, Nepal and India “share” the Singalila National Park. This isn’t an advertised feature of the park, and India controls all the tourist traffic. I still don’t understand how it’s divided, but every now and then over the three-day trek, I would ask Jamyang which country we were in. Without realizing it, we were continually hopping back and forth over the border. One swell of hill could be India, while the small farm nestled in its valley claimed to be Nepal. It seemed appropriate that in this place of remote and immense beauty, borders didn’t tangibly exist or seem to matter.

We spent most of our days walking uphill—with the notable exception of some intense downhill on the third day. When clouds drifted over the land, our world would become an eerie, cold fog. When the clouds left, the sun would bring colors and the distant mountains to life. We took breaks in tea-houses—family homes that host trekkers—and explored monasteries, shrines, and sacred ponds that (apparently) never freeze.

Note the steam coming off of Franz’s back.

Nights were cold. Very, very cold. The tea-houses provide beds with blankets that are more like thin mattresses. The real saving grace once the sun went down was Honeybee Brandy, which mixed very well with hot tea. It was a strange pleasure to hunker down with a steaming cup of Honeybee, wearing triple layers of clothes, and share stories with other trekkers. One memorable English couple—named Seb and Lizzy—were taking an extended detour during their move to Australia. Ironically, it had only been two days earlier that Franz and I had had dinner with an American couple named Zeb and Lindsay.

Seb and Lizzy, not to be confused with Zeb and Lindsay

Lays at Xtreme altitude

One the final night, we stayed in the village of Sandakphu (which has an elevation of 3636 m; 11929 ft). From here, the peaks of Kangchenjunga and Everest were visible in the distance. We were above the clouds and higher than I’ve ever climbed, but we were still dwarfed by these majestic mountains. The moment was very deserving of our celebratory chocolate binge.

Leaving India

It was bittersweet and difficult to leave India. As I sat alone in the Darjeeling airport café, I couldn’t help replaying all the best moments from the past few months and wishing I had more time to stay in this wild country. I ordered some vegetable soup and roti, and allowed myself to be melancholy.

“I sit here?”

I looked up to see a middle-aged Indian man wearing glasses and a sweater vest. I didn’t feel like chatting. But all the other tables were occupied by families and old British tourists, so I nodded my agreement. Surely we could sit together in silence.

“What country you from?”

“America.”

“Obama!”

“Yes, Obama.”

I couldn’t have been giving off more standoffish vibes. Surely he would get the message and stop talking. Five minutes passed.

“You married?”

“No.”

“When you get married? You marry my son.” He proceeded to describe his son’s dashing good looks, enticing annual salary, and job in Delhi. I told him I would be a terrible wife because I never listen and can’t cook. He told me that as my father-in-law, he would teach me all these things. I said no, and ate my soup as quickly and mannerless-ly as I could.

As I waited for my bill, the man continued to ask questions about my life. I retaliated by giving the most outrageous answers possible, which he earnestly accepted. I have eight sisters. My father is a truck driver. My family and I all live in a tent and constantly move around the country. We steal food when we’re hungry.

And despite my best efforts, he continued to return to the offer of teaching me wife-skills as a father-in-law. Finally I just left money on the table and told him I never wanted to talk to him again. All in all, I was left feeling decidedly less melancholy about leaving India. 

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Girls Got Confidence

The Field as a Stage

The girls who play for Yuwa make eye contact when they speak. Talk to other girls in the village, and they demurely drop their gaze and tend to mumble. Participating on a team gives girls a very noticeable boost of confidence that is made all the more apparent because it’s such a contrast from their peers. I didn’t realize the extent of Yuwa players’ confidence until I watched them play in a match in another district of Jharkhand. This event took place in mid-September, but even if this post is belated, it’s a story worth relating.

At 6:00 on the morning of the match, about 25 girls arrived at the Yuwa House, ready to go. Coach Anand informed me that the mini-bus would arrive any minute, and that the match was about “two or maybe two and half hours away.” Not bad. Regardless of the cramped conditions of the bus, it would be a chance for me to see more of Jharkhand countryside. The girls charged around the house, eager to get on the road. Based on their energy, you never would have guessed it was so early in the morning.

The mini-bus didn’t show up until 9:30. Yes, that’s three-and-a-half hours late. This didn’t seem to faze anyone, least of all the girls, who took the extra time to do each other’s hair in elaborate braids and show off their dances moves. About 40 of us (including the players who wanted to come along to cheer for the competing team) piled into the mini-bus that was meant for 18 passengers. Several of the older boys rode on the roof when no more could fit inside. We heroically defied designated vehicle capacity, and set off on our journey. One girl sat on my lap, and the two girls on either side of me promptly borrowed my arms as pillows and fell asleep.

Including a handful of stops to pick up more passengers and buy bananas, we drove for six hours. It got a bit stuffy and I lost feeling in my legs, but the girls were admirably free of complaints and still buzzed with the same anticipation they had had at 6 am. I kept thinking about Anand’s original estimate of this trip lasting “two or maybe two and a half hours.” It was at this point that I made a mental note never again to trust Anand’s judgment of time or distance.

Just when I thought we must be arriving at the field, we stopped at a roadside dhaba (a diner for truck drivers and travelers) for lunch. Apparently the political sponsors of the match were paying for the players’ meal. Although it seemed like a bad idea to eat a lot of food immediately before running around, the girls all ate their weight in rice and vegetables. I still marvel that girls so small can eat so much rice.

Bellies filled, the girls and I piled back into the mini-bus and set off once more. I had imagined that this match would take place in a stadium, but our vehicle turned onto an unpaved road and began a long and bumpy trip past villages and rice fields. And suddenly, when we were seemingly in the middle of nowhere, our bus came upon a clearing with a massive gathering of people. My jaw dropped. The crowd was improbably huge and packed around the designated football field. Without any proper bleachers, people had improvised by stacking themselves in rows to watch the match, climbing onto surrounding roofs, and even taking to the trees to get a view. At one end of the field sat a stage with premium seats for politicians and other big egos. Police officers wearing red berets and wielding sticks patrolled the area to keep order. All of this, to watch the Yuwa girls play some football.

 I was reminded of something Franz had told me about Indians. Their most impressive displays of organization came from two things: religious festivals and sports events.

The Yuwa girls and I were ushered out of the bus and guided through the crowd by the police officers. Everyone had been waiting for our arrival. I felt like we were extremely important. I was also very conscious of being the only foreigner in a crowd that must have numbered in the thousands. I wasn’t the one about to play a match in front of this crowd, but I couldn’t help but feel jittery and nervous at the prospect of so many spectators. The girls, on the other hand, seemed utterly cool and composed. They held their heads up and focused on their warm-ups. Their body language was all confidence: of course there should be a crowd this big to watch their match.

After the Big-Shot politicians had their chance to flamboyantly and gratuitously introduce the match and its participants, the game began. The opposing team of girls was noticeably older and bigger than the Yuwa team. I prowled around the edge of the crowd taking photos and marveling at the intensity with which the girls were playing. They were awesome. Despite the obvious disadvantage of their size, the Yuwa girls were out-playing the other team in every one-on-one situation. And the crowd, like most crowds, loves a tough underdog: the cheers were almost entirely biased for Yuwa.

The final outcome of the match was 0-1, with Yuwa scoring the winning goal in the last five minutes of the game. The crowd, which had otherwise been impressively orderly, collapsed onto the field in celebration. The teams were quickly surrounded by the police and chaperoned over to the politicians’ stage for the presentation of awards. I thought this award ceremony would be a quick ordeal, considering the fact that we had over six hours of driving in the mini-bus to get back to Hutup. I didn’t realize that the ulterior motive of this entire event was the local politicians’ self-inflated need to speak in front of large groups of people. Thus, we all sat quietly for the next hour and a half while each of the Big Shots blathered on about things that could not possibly have been important.

We didn’t get back to Hutup village until almost three in the morning. Our ride home involved Hindi sing-a-longs, a wrong turn that cost us about an hour, many failed attempts to sleep on the cramped floor of the mini-bus, and a 1:30 am stop at a dhaba for dinner. The team filed into the Yuwa house and promptly crashed on the floor to sleep. Not once in this entire day did I hear one of the girls complain about being uncomfortable, hungry, intimidated, or tired. It was tough imagining how a group of American 12-year-olds might have dealt with a similar situation.

 Bedazzled

The girls’ confidence I witnessed in the match isn’t confined to the football field. After noticing the near universal enthusiasm for Hindi music videos and dancing, I thought it’d be pretty easy to organize a Yuwa talent show. This was definitely an accurate observation. The kids were so eager for a venue to show off their moves, I didn’t need to explain the concept of a talent show more than once to get a startlingly enthusiastic response. My efforts to arrange the event quickly took on a life of its own.

Pictures can speak louder than words, so I’ll just share some of the photos I took during the talent show. The performances were 90% dances, plus a couple of comedy skits and speeches in English (two about Ghandi and one about football). I led a group of girls in a clumsy rendition of the “Cha-Cha Slide”, which went over well with the audience despite being repetitive and not nearly as exciting as the girls’ Bollywood dance sequences.

 Fake Snakes: The Ultimate Confidence Killer

To conclude this post—which is meant to be a salute to the confidence of Yuwa players—I want to share with you how to obliterate confidence in rural India. Buy a realistic rubber snake. When Franz came back from the U.S., he brought an exceptionally convincing fake cobra. The kids’ reactions to finding this thing in various places around the house were priceless. They would scream and sprint out the door, sometimes running all the way down the street. Once convinced to come back, however, they were eager to pull the prank on their friends and elicit similar over-the-top responses.

By far the best fake snake reaction came when a group of about fifteen Yuwa players were waiting for their auto-rickshaw in the house. Out of pure coincidence, the kids were all gathered around a National Geographic picture book about snakes. Franz quietly approached the group holding a basket covered with a shawl. Once in the middle of the circle, he lifted the shawl to reveal the snake. It was like a bomb went off. Everyone screamed, some fell backwards, and those who kept their balance were outside within seconds.Unfortunately, I don’t have a video of this moment.

Bottom line? Given the absence of fake snakes, Yuwa girls got confidence on stage, on the field, and off the field.

A note on the backlogged-ness of the blog: I am currently OUT of India and in Battambang, Cambodia. I’ve got another post in the works about Darjeeling, but I’ll catch up to the present moment eventually.

A Cup of Chai

Reflections on Indian Hospitality

Credit where credit is due: With a couple exceptions, most of the photos included in this post were taken by students in the English class I’ve been teaching. I let the kids use my camera, and told them to take photos of an important place in their life (they all chose their home) and an important person in their life (they all chose one or both of their parents).

This is what happens when you are welcomed to visit somebody’s home in a village:

The person you know greets you enthusiastically—sometimes shaking your hand, sometimes giving you the two-handed Namaste bow, and sometimes bending down to touch your feet as a sign of respect. The house is made of mud, its smooth walls painted white. There’s a goat or two standing nearby, and chickens casually stroll in and out the front door. Your host invites you inside, and leads you to the nicest room in the house: usually a bedroom, the walls adorned with various religious icons. A child quickly appears carrying a plastic chair, which they set next to you and command you to “Sit!” Other children peek around the corners of the door to get a glimpse of you. There are lots of children. It’s not clear which of them belong in the immediate family, which are cousins, which are nieces and nephews, and which are neighbors. There is always a baby or toddler present. If you watch carefully, you will likely see an adult discreetly give one of these children a handful of rupees so they can sprint off to the nearest store to purchase sugar for chai and a package of snacks for their guest.

 It’s rare that there are enough plastic chairs for everyone present, so there will inevitably be people standing around you. Long periods of silence aren’t regarded as awkward or a social problem that must be fixed, the way they might be in other places. If there is a television, however, it may be flipped on with the assumption that a background of Bollywood music videos will make the visit more entertaining for you. Your attempts at conversation will be appreciated, even if your Hindi is abysmal and their English is limited. Charades will make everyone laugh, and will only sometimes be effective. Any son or daughter that takes English classes in school will be proudly presented to you, and goaded into making introductions and reciting numbers or the alphabet.

After a while, the women of the house bring out a metal plate with a cup of chai and an array of snacks. This will probably be the only time you see some of the women, unless you insist on helping out in the kitchen. The chai is made with milk and saturated with sugar: I dare you to find an Indian household that willingly chooses to drink their chai without sugar. The food will include biscuits (sugary, processed cookies available in every Indian store), namkeen (a salty, fried chip-like mix), and some homemade fried snack. You will likely be the only one eating and drinking, and it will be difficult to share the food you’ve been given. Your best bet for sharing will be to pick out the youngest kid, and start handing them biscuits. Your hosts won’t consider this rude, and you won’t have to eat the entire plate by yourself.

After eating, unless you’re really entranced by the Bollywood music videos on TV, it’s a good idea to ask for a tour of the house. This way you can see their garden and its spread of pumpkins, radishes, a plot of corn, a papaya tree, cabbage, and potatoes. The other rooms in the house have multiple purposes, but almost all of them act as bedrooms: the majority of the home’s occupants sleep on mats that are rolled up and put away every morning. You may choose to invade the kitchen, which will endear you to the women after they get over the initial humor of a guest wanting to hang out in the kitchen. The stove is made of mud, and its fire is fueled with leaves and dried cow dung. The women squat near their cooking on tiny wooden stools that are more comfortable than you first thought they would be. The walls and ceiling above the stove are blackened from the daily smoke. If they are cooking a vegetable dish, it smells fantastic. When you try to help make roti, you will be corrected because roti must be perfectly circular. Your roti will never be perfectly circular, but you will always be encouraged to try again.

If you just came by for a brief visit and a chai, the family will insist you stay for a meal. You insist that you need to be leaving. This will go back and forth for a while, but eventually the family will gather by the door to see you off. They will invite you to come back again soon—to celebrate an upcoming festival day, to have dinner, or to help their child practice English. You say you would love to.

Over the past two months, I’ve been in more village homes than I can count. I’ve spent the night at a number of Yuwa players’ houses in nearby villages and had small glimpses of their daily routines. It’s difficult to convey what this experience has been like, and I realize I’m characterizing the villagers by grouping them together in the description above.

If you travel for an extended period of time, you must learn to be a good guest.  I am still learning this lesson. It’s not always easy to be constantly receiving the generosity and hospitality of others. After a while, I start to feel like a freeloader. Sometimes I can’t help but reflect on the stark difference between a village family’s lifestyle and my own lifestyle, and I’ll feel guilty about the sacrifices they’re making on my behalf. As a guest, I am always placed on a pedestal—given the only plastic chair, the biggest serving of food, and the best sleeping arrangement available. It’s times like these that I’ve got to check my own pride and recognize that hospitality is not something reserved for certain income levels. The villagers I’ve stayed with have been happy and proud to treat me as their guest. And it’s been an honor to be in their homes.

That said, I’ll have a ton of guest karma built up by the end of this trip. I know when I eventually pay it forward by hosting others—wherever I may be—I’ll be thinking of the lessons on hospitality I’ve been learning in India.