I might have laughed at the pure Indian-ness that made my journey to Darjeeling so harrowing, but then I would have started to cough, and, not being able to breathe, started to cry.
The journey began 4am last Sunday, as I cast one last look at the Golden Temple and headed out of the archway and away from the astounding generosity of the Sikh’s. Even as an autorickshaw driver tried to rip me off outside the temple, some old women gestured me into a different, larger rickshaw, which I shared with them for 10 rupees. The train was a luxurious 2nd class AC variety, meaning we got tea, snacks, and the windows were tightly sealed so that it was perfectly warm. Despite this comfort, a cold that would get progressively worse over the next couple of days descended on me.
When I reached Delhi I was a woman on a mission: find the hostel, shower, shop for slippers and gloves (so that I was semi-prepared for the cold weather I was headed towards). I was lucky enough to meet a fabulous American woman at the hotel and we joined forces for the afternoon. I was pushing that luck, however, and ended up feeling woozy with exhaustion and super sneezy by late afternoon. INDIAN MEN: WHY are you taking pictures of me while I blow my nose? I WILL CUT YOU. I pressed on, and by evening time I was a hot mess with a vicious cold.
Fast-forward to the train I caught at 6:40am: the normally dirty sleeper train was an absolute disgrace. Already the floor was littered with “ground nuts” or the shells of peanuts, which Indians eat in massive amounts. The seats were ripped at the seams and stuffing was coming out of them. A mouse scuttled across the floor and some small cockroaches chased the flickering flourescent lights. I carefully climbed to the “top bunk” where you can’t sit up straight so your head is perpetually tilted to one side.
My saving grace: a Delhi university student named Sanjay who advised me to bring my shoes up with me and balance them on top of the ceiling fan, lest they get stolen. Sanjay, like most Indians, traveled with a massive, quilt like blanket. His was in brown and white, with giant flowers, and incredibly fuzzy looking. Unlike most Indians I had met, Sanjay spoke deliberately about topics ranging from conservative Indian family practices, the caste system and dowries.
“They taught us about Abe Lincoln in school,” Sanjay said. “They called him, ‘Honest Abe.’ He was, what, 6 feet tall and wore a black hat.”
“He was from Chicago,” I said.
“They also taught us about George Washington,” Sanjay said.
I wondered if there was any Indian history in the depths of my memories about primary school, but I doubted it.
“The only place I have been outside of India is Bhutan,” Sanjay said.
“I haven’t been. It sounds lovely, but for foreigners it’s $100 in tourist tax a day!”
“Not for Indians,” he said, and smiled. “In Bhutan, they don’t save any money for the future. Their government takes care of everything. They know the government will pay for medicines if they get sick. So they buy expensive clothes and cars.”
“Sometimes,” Sanjay said, “On the way towards my home on the border of Bhutan, the train has to stop because elephants are crossing the tracks. Before, the trains were going so fast through the jungle that they were having accidents, hitting elephants at high speeds. Now there are fines for this, so they go slower. You don’t have elephants in America?”
“No. No elephants. Or camels, or lions or tigers.We do have bears. And turkeys.”
“The elephants are quite dangerous. Sometimes they stampede into the small villages and destroy everything. But the villagers who live there, they know this is a risk and they stay, and rebuild. It’s not the elephants fault. It’s a human problem.”
As my feverish cold worsened, I slept and woke, climbing down to use the bathroom and pushing through the masses of Indians squatting in the sleeper class car instead of general class because the latter was too packed. The bathroom was something from my nightmares, with water sloshing on the floor, cigarette butts, and various substances that probably should have gone done the toilet shoot but….someone missed the hole.
When I finally got off the train at 12:30am (instead of 3pm) my legs felt wobbly and my whole body ached. I stayed at a crummy hotel next to the train station and woke the next morning to haggle myself a jeep to Darjeeling. I found one without too much trouble, an Indian couple from Kolkata and their 1 1/2 year-old already inside. The husband started talking to me right away.
“I don’t speak Hindi,” I said. Then I realized he was speaking the local Bengali language. “I don’t speak Bengali.”
But he wouldn’t stop. He smiled widely and continued to talk to me. He called his friends and handed me the phone, gesturing fanatically that I say hello, until I firmly told him to stop. I am not a monkey in a zoo.
The car filled with teenagers from Kolkata. I smushed in next to them, and we got underway. Halfway up the mountain the jeep over-heated and we sat outside it while the driver poured water over the engine. The Kolkata boys snuck photos of me while I admonished them and wondered how long this surreal experience would last.
Without further delay, we arrived in Darjeeling around 2pm. I proceeded to get lost and wander around at high-altitudes without lunch looking for a certain hotel. All around me the Himalayas rose up in the mist, the cool air whipped around the steep curved streets, and I huffed and puffed and coughed.
I finally found a cute room with wood floors, hot water!!! and a view – all in my price range. I rejoiced and pulled my new hobo gloves (you know, mittens on the outside fold back into finger-free gloves on the inside) only to find that my soap bottle leaked all over my pack, and most importantly, my new and never worn Nepalese slippers.
Later, I drowned the day in Tibetan food. Tibetan food is, as you would probably guess, built on simplicity. The make momos, which are dumplings, steamed or fried, and stuffed with veggies or meat. They are amazing. You can spend anywhere from 20 to 80 rupees on momos. They are also famous for their soups, called Thenthuk, which, at their best, have homemade flat or round noodles, sometimes dumplings, and vegetables or meat. It is the perfect food to ease the soul of a solo woman traveler in the mountains with a cold.