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