The following piece is not wedding related, but it is about a photography assignment I received a few years back. Since I love writing almost as much as I love taking pictures, I thought I’d post it.
JANUARY 31ST, 2005
I’m on the way to India right now, aboard Lufthansa Flight 433 from Chicago to Frankfurt. India! This completely out-of-the-blue trip was finalized last week, after a flurry of last minute preparations. The original invitation came to me via email, when I was in Philadelphia visiting my mother; she had been admitted to the hospital with chest pains (which I also heard about via email!) and I immediately flew there to visit. She was out of the hospital and back teaching in her classroom by the time I arrived, seeming both chagrined and happy to see me. Some days later, sitting in front of her iMac checking my emails, I came across one from my friend Alice, whom I’ve known for the last 15 years, that simply read “Wanna go to India?” Ignoring the following 12 emails (all from Alice), I called her to say, simply, yes! and here I am, not quite halfway through the 20 or so hours of flying it will take to reach Bombay…and we’re only in that steamy city for 15 hours before we have to fly another 1000 miles to Calcutta. I’m also not sure what we’re doing for nearly a week in Sikkim (the province located smack between Nepal and Bhutan), which is the stop after Calcutta. I do know that on the way back from Sikkim, on the flight from Bagdogra to Delhi, we make one stop in Assamm. Reading in the guidebooks about Assamm, I’m inclined to follow our Dutch tour leader’s (more on him later) advice: he said it was too dangerous to get out. The guidebook was a bit more descriptive, offering a tastier morsel of information shocking enough to catch my eye. Here’s a colorful quote of why foreigners should stay on the plane while waiting in Assamm: “Massacres are commonplace.” Yeah, that’s enough for me; I don’t need to see it that badly. We’ll be seeing enough amazing stuff as it is.
Why am I going to India? To photograph it, of course. More specifically, I’m photographing the Calcutta Flower Show, the oldest flower show in the world, at which Alice has been asked to be a judge. See, Alice (who owns and runs a wholesale plant nursery) has this Dutch friend named Kees (pronounced ‘case’) Sahin, a real guru in the plant world. Kees has been judging this show since 1964 but he has cancer and liver disease; this might be his last year. So he invites Alice along to keep him company; I guess they go way back, although I’m not sure exactly how far. Anyway, Alice invites her friends Bob and Derry (he’s in Seattle, she’s in England) to come along as well… I guess the four of them, Kees included, have done a bit of traveling together over the years. I’ve been photographing Alice’s plants for years, publishing them in various magazines and catalogs, and she thought I should be the one to photograph this trip to India. Alice and I are flying together to Bombay and will meet Bob in the airport (I hope!).
FEBRUARY 2nd, 2005
Our whirlwind tour of Bombay is nearly over; we’re sitting in the domestic terminal, waiting for our flight to Calcutta. Across from me are two Indian teenage girls, gushing over a beauty magazine. I didn’t know that was done anymore; they seem a caricature of teenage girls worldwide.
Bombay was a trip, that’s for sure. It felt like a combination of Bangkok and Kathmandu. Bob hates it when I compare places like that; he thinks each place is completely unique and making such comparisons belittles them. Not me; I always seem to see similarities between places. Like how New Zealand is a cross between Alaska and Hawaii or how Tokyo is a cross between Las Vegas and New York City. I mainly noticed the Bangkok-ness of India in Bombanians’ driving habits: make your own lanes, go as fast as you possibly can at all times, and avoid the hundreds of tuk tuks swerving in and out of traffic like parasites…not to mention the bicyclists, motorcyclists, farm animals and pedestrians that feel no fear at sharing the road with us, despite the complete lack of stop signs, traffic lights, brake lights or turn signals. My kind of drivers, in other words. The Nepali influence was evident in how poor the country is: I walked out of our hotel room this morning at dawn and had to pick my way around the broken concrete chunks that passed for a sidewalk, over mounds of open trash and random small fires, and past makeshift domiciles while packs of feral dogs lay around listlessly in the tepid morning air.
I felt amazingly awake, considering how little sleep I’d had in the past 24 hours. Seven a.m. in Bombay, however, is five-thirty p.m. back in Eugene, so my body clock was up and alert. At first I was a little anxious walking around a strange city of some 16 million people, carrying over $2000 worth of camera gear wrapped around my wrist, but I felt safe this morning, as if I was still in a dream and nothing was real or dangerous. That would change soon enough. I’d just read an amazing novel called Shantaram, all about this Australian convict who escapes prison and flees to India, only to join up with the Indian mafia and become involved with the underside of Indian and Middle Eastern culture. In the book (based on the author’s life story) the main character describes some fairly hair-raising situations and, that being my most recent source of Indian information, I was anxious not to experience them. However, as I said, this first morning in Bombay I felt the detachment that only comes with the jetlag-andrenalin combination.
It was still cool enough to wander around in long pants and a light fleece jacket, although I could already feel the heat that would be upon me by lunchtime. As I zigzagged back and forth across the street, taking pictures of anything and everything, I was caught up in a steady stream of Indian women and girls. The women were going who-knows-where while the girls were all obviously dressed up for school. What kind of schools do these girls go to and how long do they stay? I had no idea. The number of men under age 65 were few and I wondered if they were already at work or still asleep. The women all wore colorful silk saris and some carried large bundles on their heads as easily as I might wear a hat, while the men wore white tanktops and chinos. I thought I’d be stared at, a white interloper amongst the normality of a workaday Indian morning, but nobody seemed to think I was out of place. No mobs of children accosted me and nobody was eager to practice their English with me; I felt at ease and began to see through the lens of my camera. I walked up and down the street, looking for “Indian” shots. One man was selling chrysanthemum leis on a string from a little homemade booth no bigger than a closet; whether they were for decoration or religious purposes I had no idea. I approached him and mimed a request to take his picture since I don’t know a word of Hindi (or any other of the 15 languages spoken here). He acquiesced, in English. It seems everywhere I go, I hear English being spoken. This wasn’t really a surprise here though, as the British occupied India for so long. If only the British had picked up a few culinary tips during all that time! The morning smells of breakfast reached me through open doorways and I returned to the hotel for some food.
Alice, Bob and I were all sharing a room. We’d only planned to stay in it for six hours; long enough to sleep and catch our breath before heading back to the airport this afternoon for Calcutta. It took us quite some time to convince the hotel staff we wanted three beds in the same room, even though none of us were married. After escorting us into our new 5th floor digs (three twin beds each graced with a single starchy sheet, under fluorescent lights and a fan that put out more noise than air) the three bellboys stood around, waiting for a tip. We had each carried our own bags into the room and were unsure of the tipping policies here, especially for three bellboys who had simply followed us around like shadows. No sooner had we tipped them a few rupees than a fourth employee came in holding a small electrical decvice. Was he going to prod us with it in the hopes of extracting more money? No, it was a mosquito repellant contraption I’d never seen before. Enclosed within the red plastic body of the thing was a tiny chip of some sort. Reading through one of the four guidebooks we’d brought I learned the chip contained nerve gas. Nice.
Breakfast this morning consisted of Clif bars and bottled water (in fact, the first Indian food we ate was on the plane leaving Bombay!). We ate them the rest of the day whenever we got hungry; none of us wanted to spend a plane ride to Calcutta with stomach cramps resulting from a spontaneous binge from one of the local street vendors in Bombay. I brought 48 of the things with me so we have enough to last us the entire trip, although we were all anxious to experience authentic Indian food for the first time.
Our hotelier arranged a “cool cab” (a private car and driver in an air-conditioned vehicle) for us to take a quick tour of Bombay before we had to head to the airport. Pulling out into traffic with a few honks on the horn, Sanjay (our driver) melded into the Bombay traffic like a loose stone joining an avalanche. The potholed streets were jammed with thousands of Indian taxis, every one of them an old British Ambassador. It was like being in an old black and white movie. There were also herds of tuk tuks and quite a few motorbikes. None of the taxis had side mirrors, as they would’ve been clipped off within five minutes’ worth of driving; the cars on both sides were close enough to touch. Amazingly I didn’t see even the smallest fender bender despite the fact there were hundreds of cars, etc, on any one street, all vying for pole position at the next intersection.
After many heart-stopping manuevers by Sanjay we arrived at the Gateway to India, an Arc-di-Triomphe-kind-of-place built smack upon the banks of the Arabian Sea. It was surrounded by teams of grade school kids on field trips while below, in the murky green water, were colorful rowboats all strung together and bobbing like toys. Small and brightly painted they looked like they belonged in a Dr Suess book. Further out, towards the horizon, was a host of tour boats and beyond those, vanishing in the haze, were a few yachts at anchor, no doubt filled with folks who would see India quite differently than our little group will. Aside from the scores of people milling around the gateway, there were a few thousand pigeons and seagulls circling the façade, lending their raucous cries to the hubbub below. Exiting the cool cab, into the heat, we were immediately approached by touts of all ages. Very small children, dressed in rags and without shoes, tugged on my wrists as an older man stepped up and began applying the red paste of the Krishnas on my forehead. He then tied a multi-colored piece of yarn around my wrist, gave me a handful of flower-shaped sugar pellets and demanded a “donation” for the Krishna temple nearby. Avowed agnostic that I am (thank God for atheism!), I kept walking, going past the man selling giant, phallic-shaped balloons and another man selling postcards that must’ve been 40 years old. The gateway was in front of me and I approached it rapidly, seeking its shade. I turned around to see Alice and Bob being pursued by the same religious folks and was not surprised to see Alice hand some rupees to a little girl. From then on Alice was a magnet; it was as if she had activated some kind of homing device on the girl, one that sent out a signal to all the homeless children in Bombay saying “here is our salvation.” Sanjay came to the rescue, shooing the children away with much cursing and gesturing. They relented but continued to gaze at Alice, hoping she might reconsider. For the rest of the day Alice was pursued by small girls, even after we left the gateway and went to the beach and then to Crawford Market.
The beach was rather depressing: full of trash and unswimmable, no matter that it was hot outside. There was a cool soda fountain shop set up on the sand however, a concrete affair with a scalloped roof that looked right out of The Flintsones. We were still a little wary of drinking the water though, so we left it alone despite the icy relief it could’ve provided. Further along, as on every other piece of public land I’ve seen in India so far, I saw whole families living an existence of such poverty it’s hard to describe. Tin shacks appeared to be a luxury; most places were just scraps of cloth draped over whatever framework the builders could find. India does indeed have a caste system and there appeared to be no awkwardness at having such squalor juxtaposed against gleaming new skyscrapers; everyone had their place and would simply hope for a better life next time if they had a difficult one this time around.
After the beach we were driven to Crawford Market, which is in an old building in the old part of Bombay. Dark and damp inside, it’s full of vegetable, fruit and meat vendors. Like most of the other large buildings I’ve seen so far, this one was also made of concrete and had been left unpainted and unadorned. The large, open archways leading into it issued forth draughts of cool air and we hurried inside. Once inside we were given a tour by the self proclaimed ‘manager’ of the place, who popped out of nowhere like a Lewis Carrol character and officiously pointed out the rules to us, helpfully emblazoned on a large wooden sign that read “Rules of the Market.” No doubt this sign was erected soley for tourists like ourselves, but nowhere did it say a guide was required; nonetheless this guy pointed to the sign and said it was a rule that we had to be escorted. We all bristled at being given a forced tour; like American tourists everywhere we preferred to wander around on our own and discover things as they came up, spontaneously, not to be led along like sheep, getting yelled at if we attempted to wander down an intriguing aisle or stopped too long to take a picture. After about 30 seconds of this ‘tour’ Alice came up with the magical words to make him leave us alone; she said, “We’re not buying anything.” From then on we perused the market the way we wanted to, and everything looked perfect. I came across a large netful of live chickens, waiting for someone to buy them. They were all jammed in together, like the world’s largest feather pillow. Could you buy a whole netful of chickens, or could you just point to one or two good looking ones and leave the rest? Again, my lack of Hindi was disconcerting but the merchant’s flawless English was helpful enough. It seemed you had to buy the whole netful; was I interested? Um, no; how would I get them on the plane?
Either Bob or Alice had heard of some restaurant we just had to visit so we left Crawford after a brief stop at the adjacent flower market (only to discover all the flowers were silk and plastic!). It took Sanjay nearly an hour to get out of traffic, however, so we decided to skip lunch (more Clif bars were broken out) and concentrate on getting to our plane on time. It seemed time, or my sense of it anyway, wasn’t as big of a deal here in India. Nobody seemed rushed. Put another way, everybody was rushing around but nobody seemed in a hurry to get anywhere. We had a plane to catch though, and I was feeling like every second we spent in traffic was a second more we’d have to make up by sprinting to the gate. Sanjay was cool, though, and we arrived in plenty of time. Our time in Bombay was over just like that.
The flight to Calcutta took nearly three hours and we slept most of the way. We arrived at seven-something in the evening and got into a cab to bring us to Derry’s friend’s house (again, Derry is Alice’s friend from England; she stayed with Bob, Alice and me at my mom’s house in Philadelphia in the fall of 2004). Derry has been to the Calcutta plant show before and has kept up some friendships over the years. The address of the house where she’s staying is somewhere on Southern Avenue and, 45 minutes of nail-biting traffic later, we turned onto it. The driver raced up and down the street looking, as we all were, for #16. Southern Avenue is a two way street divided by a tree-filled, grassy median which meant we could only look at one side of the street at a time, in the dark. After figuring out which was the even numbered side, our driver continued to race down the street so fast that none of us had time to make out the addresses flashing by like Morse Code. We made five or six laps of Southern Avenue until, by sheer luck, Bob saw the sign for the beauty salon that occupied the bottom floor of Mandira’s building (Mandira being Derry’s friend). As we stepped out of the cab, happy to be alive, Derry yelled down to us from a top floor balcony and we were home. Bone tired from so much travel we went to bed shortly after meeting everyone. Bob and I were going to stay in a hotel down the street the rest of the time we were in Calcutta but for that first night, it was a tile floor and a mosquito coil. And more Clif bars, of course.
FEBRUARY 3rd, 2005
Mandira’s house is four stories high and has its own elevator. She owns the whole building, including the beauty shop on the first floor. The top floor has a large baclony, as I mentioned, and Mandira has stocked it with all kinds of plants. This morning, before breakfast, I awoke just after dawn and went up there. The air was muggy and still and the street noise was muted. All I could hear were birds singing to each other as the sun came up and cast its reddish light halfheartedly through the haze, as if it were saving itself for the heat of the afternoon. There weren’t many buildings higher than ours so I had a decent view of the surrounding neighborhood. I saw lots of trees but none were very large; nothing like the evergreens I’m used to in Oregon. Many people had laundry hanging on lines, flapping listlessly in the ocasional breeze like old kites left in trees. One lone crow flew overhead and began to cry out to me in that almost human voice crows have.
After breakfasting with Mandira and her husband, Ahmet, we all piled back into another cab to take us to the Calcutta Flower Show a few days early. We had Derry along with us, as well. The oldest flower show in the world, dating from 1828, the Calcutta Flower Show takes place at the Royal Agri-Horticultural Society of India, now known as the Agri-Horticultural Society of India, or AHSI for short. When we arrived, late as usual what with all the crazy traffic, I finally got to meet the inimitable Kees Sahin. Although I’d imagined him to be tall and dark haired he was just shy of portly and had thinning gray hair. His eyes, however, were still a bright blue and looking into them I knew I was peering into a soul of reckless abandon. They were the eyes of a mischievous child who just wants to have some fun. It was going to be a memorable journey.
Kees began telling stories of his previous trips to India, where he’s been a Flower Show judge since 1964. On one such trip, after the show was over, he was headed north to Sikkim to try and gather rare plants and seeds. He’d called ahead and heard there was no champagne in Sikkim so he arranged for a separate taxi to follow them all the way up, some 700 miles, loaded with 200 bottles of India’s finest. “Unbelievable. Fantastic,” I thought, which are also two of Kees’s favorite expressions. He was then telling us of his driver from last year, Pollay Singh, and what a “monster” he was, when Pollay himself walked through the door and began to laugh like a demented Santa Claus. After knowing me for ten minutes, Pollay proceeded to take off his shoes so I could photograph his feet. I’d seen better examples of the human foot but not many worse. After 20 minutes he was pulling up his shirt and trying to get me to take a picture of his belly button, one of the biggest ‘outies’ I have ever seen. His mouth was stained red from all the betel nut he constantly chews.
Chewing betel nut, or paan, is an Indian traditon with some unusual side effects. According to Wikipedia, “Betel chewing has been claimed to produce a sense of well-being, euphoria, heightened alertness, sweating, salivation, a hot sensation in the body and increased capacity to work.” The way Pollay was acting, I would have to agree wholeheartedly.
Kees had just arrived from Quito, Ecuador along with two other plant people. Twenty-two year-old Maarten worked for Kees’s wife, Elisabeth, at Sahin Seeds and is considered something of a prodigy, while Peter owns his own cut-flower business in Holland and has been accompanying Kees to India for the past few years. Both are judges in the upcoming flower show. All three looked remarkably well rested considering they had just flown from South America to India, via Amsterdam. I’d already been in India for three days and still felt like the clock and the sun weren’t speaking the same language. But then again, I’d flown coach:-)
After spending some time in the flower show’s interior offices, going over everyone’s assignments for the upcoming event, Kees wanted to go for lunch. Alice, Bob, Derry and I went in a separate cab from the one Kees and his entourage were in; the one with Pollay behind the wheel. We missed out, therefore, on Pollay’s attempt to get to the restaurant in record time: he was stuck behind another car waiting at a traffic light (this driver apparently not a fan of the betel nut) and decided to take matters into his own hands. Driving up onto the curb he was able to position his car higher than that of the car in front of him. Still maneuvering with two wheels on the curb, he then drove up on the other man’s bumper while, at the same time, bringing his own car back down onto the street. With his bumper thus securely latched on top of the other fellow’s, Pollay threw his cab into reverse, effectively wrenching the bumper from the other guy’s car. He then proceeded to push the other car out of the way and drove to the restaurant as if this were a perfectly normal way of driving. The thing is, it wasn’t that out of the ordinary. I heard all this from Peter when we finally arrived at the restaurant.
I was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt and felt a little conspicuous sitting across from Kees in his suit and tie, but what could I do? I soon forgot about my attire however, blissfully ensconced in the olfactory pleasures emanating from the kitchen. The food was wonderful and any thoughts I might have been entertaining about the effect of raw Indian vegetables (rinsed in Indian water, that was the thing…) on my intestines were soon washed away by the glasses of very nice champagne Kees ordered. While Kees’s liver damage precludes him from ever drinking alcohol again, he spares no expense when it comes to keeping his guests (for that is what we all were, I felt) well lubricated. During the meal, however, I saw another side to Kees, a flip-side to those mischievious child’s eyes. A petulant, I-must-have-everything-my-way side appeared when the waiter arrived and told us some of the vegetable dishes Kees had ordered were currently unavailable. Kees proceeded to berate the poor man in front of all of us, tripling the amount of humiliation the man might have felt if it were just him and Kees alone. I felt very uncomfortable and I’m sure the rest of us did as well. At first I thought it was just Kees’s way of keeping himself in control and at the center of attention, but perhaps it was irritation at the way in which he saw the India he loved falling apart; exacerbated in some way by the allusion that his health, once so vigorous and impenetrable, seemed to be failing him, too. If he could make it seem like the country he so loves is devolving into something less than it once was, it’ll make it that much easier to renounce; to say no the next time he’s asked to come be a judge.
Personally I find Calcutta to be invigorating and full of life. From the sidewalks to the streets the people are always in motion, and always vocal, either shouting at you to come see their new shop or honking at you to get out of their way. Being in Calcutta feels like being in an ocean current without the water; there’s just a feeling of everything streaming past you, around you. The cars, for example, drive wherever there’s open space and the people will set up shop (or home) wherever there are no cars. It really is indescribable how it feels to sit in the front seat of an Ambassador taxi, wishing the seatbelt would work, watching as a vast array of other cars, trucks, tuk tuks, bicycles, rickshaws and pedestrians come floating or racing into the 3-D, movie-screen-like-view of the windshield. I say movie-like because it seems so incredibly unlikely that one isn’t involved in an accident, it must not be real.
After lunch I asked if I could ride with Pollay; I wanted to see if Peter had been pulling my leg about his driving habits. Pollay, even measured by Calcuttan standards, is a truly crazed individual. We were approaching a long line of traffic (which, in Calcutta, only happens 23 hours a day) and Pollay would have none of it. India nominally follows the British rules of the road, driving on the left, and the right hand side of the road (I can’t say the right “lanes;” there are no lanes) was full of oncoming traffic at this time. Without pausing, still talking to the folks in the back seat, Pollay swung out into the oncoming traffic and lay on the horn. The other cars each swerved out of our way at the last second like boxers avoiding a volley of punches, or like a school of minnows making way for a shark. Pollay continued along with this insanity until we approached the reason for the long line of stopped traffic: a red light. Lights are rare in Calcutta and the locals treat red ones the way hounds act if they get a scent while still tethered to the leash: lunging and stopping, lunging and stopping. As the big dog in the group, Pollay simply forced his way back into traffic, then meandered even further to the left, into a park that ran alongside the road. He kept driving on a dusty, grassless footpath until we came to a cement post at the corner blocking our way, at which point Pollay yelled something at the astonished driver on our right, forced his way back into traffic again, and gave us pole position. He was laughing that Santa Claus laugh the whole time and I really felt we were going to get into a wreck every second I was in the car. Kees actually seeks this guy out whenever he comes to India; he says there’s no faster way to get around.
We stayed with Kees and his small entourage after lunch, accompanying them to a famous seed company whose offices were the size of a broom closet. I’d gotten used to the traffic by then and we had a driver, Salim-bai, who wasn’t as crazy as Pollay was. He seemed, in fact, the exact opposite of Pollay: quiet and cautious. He also had a habit of pointing out the most mundane things from the window of our cab; so mundane, in fact, I can’t think of a single thing he mentioned, I’m sorry to say. It was nice, however, to go slow enough to be able to take decent photos from the car, and to be able to have him stop whenever any of us saw anything we thought remotely interesting. We all thought Salim was a nice change from Pollay and agreed to keep him on as our driver while we were in the city. I guess hiring a taxi driver for days at a time is not unusual here. This fellow dropped us off at Mandira’s tonight and agreed to pick us up tomorrow morning.
Mandira and Ahmet’s house is in a nice neighborhood in central Calcutta, if Calcutta can be said to have a center. On our drive today we saw what looked like a fair, surrounded by makeshift walls. Upon returning to Mandira’s, we asked her what we’d seen. She said it was a book fair and that it attracted some half million people a day. We all agreed we had to go, book lovers that we were. Forgoing the car and driver (Salim had to sleep sometime, we reckoned) we took the subway to the bookfair. I wasn’t even aware Calcutta had a subway system but the nearest station turned out to be five minutes away by foot. Down on the noisy, crowded platform, smelling the same pungent smell of electricity, cigarette smoke and urine that seems to permeate every subway platform I’ve ever been on (except Shinjuku), I spied a huge sign in English that simply read “Photography Prohibited” as well as something else, written just beneath it, in an alphabet I couldn’t make out. I’ll have to ask Ahmet what it means when I show him the pictures I took:) What would they do, I wondered, arrest me? Anyway, we got on the subway without incident and once again I felt the weight of all those American dollars strapped around my wrist in the form of a Japanese camera; I felt like I was wearing a flashing neon sign that said “rob this man!” It’s funny how I can feel poor in one country and wealthy in another.
The Calcutta Book Fair was huge and it did feel a lot like a fair. The uneven walkways were all packed dirt, strewn about here and there with bits of hay. The booths were lit up by bare incandescent bulbs hanging from wires which criscrossed the wide lanes like schizophrenic washing lines. They didn’t do much to dispel the dark night but I liked that; it didn’t feel so commercial. I wanted to explore on my own and the others felt the same way so we agreed to split up and meet in an hour. I wandered around aimlessly, occasionally stopping in a booth to see what they were selling. Books, mostly…imagine that. The real fun tonight was out in the pathways, watching the people. I saw no other Westerners there but did see quite a few characters that found their way into my frame. At one intersection was a man on stilts, playing tag with a group of children who ran away, screaming with delight, as the impossibly tall man tried to reach out and tag them with his normal sized arms. At another wide space in the road was a man dressed up in what looked like a Little Caesars Pizza outfit, complete with toga, holding what looked to be a giant piece of pizza. I think he was supposed to be an artist holding his easel or something. Further along, underneath an old-fashioned gaslamp, was a fellow blowing bubbles into the night sky, each bubble catching the soft yellow light and floating away in the mild breeze that seemed to blow up from all around. The group of us closed the place down then headed back for the subway for the return to our beds.
FEBRUARY 4th, 2005
We had a free day today and were excited to see more of Calcutta. Kees insisted we meet him, Peter and Maarten for breakfast at the Oberoi Grand Hotel, where they are all staying, and it is grand indeed (the place Bob and I are staying wouldn’t pass for subsidized housing anywhere in the States but hey, we’re in fucking India!). I liked breakfasting at Mandira’s place better; the morning sun coming in through the 3rd story kitchen window as the mushrooms and rice heated up was a great way to start the day yesterday. The Oberoi felt like just another expensive hotel but the breakfast itself was good, I have to admit.
Kees was having health problems, unfortunately, and wouldn’t be joining us until later today. The area around the Oberoi seemed much different than Mandira’s neighborhood and Bob, Alice and I wanted to explore it. We agreed to leave one person in the lobby in case Kees decided to join us; I volunteered first and sat in the vast marbled hall writing postcards until Bob came to relieve me. I walked out into the hot, dusty air of Calcutta and saw a man on the sidewalk getting a shave from another man; both scowled when I raised up my camera so I put it away and continued walking. Presently I came upon another outdoor market and began to surmise that all markets in Calcutta are outdoors. I don’t mean right out in the open, under the blazing sun, but rather that all the stalls have no fronts to them, no doors or windows, just a couple makeshift walls with a tarp thrown over as a roof. At one such place I saw a man selling spices, hundreds of them packed in clear glass jars which surrounded the man as he sat on a cushion amidst his wares. He was blind, I think, and another man was there to help the customers. Again my lack of Hindi prevented me from asking him about himself and this time there weren’t any English speakers around to help me out. I left the market and headed back to the Oberoi, hoping I’d remember how to get there, suddenly realizing I had absolutely no Indian money on me and no way to telephone the others if we got separated. Luckily the opulent Oberoi is pretty hard to miss in a city where most of the buildings are plain concrete that’s the color of years’ worth of exhaust.
Kees was still upstairs in his room when I got back to the lobby so I joined Alice, Bob and Derry and we headed back out into the streets. Our driver, Salim, was waiting for us at the curb and we wanted to go the Royal Gardens and see the banyan tree that grew there. Kees, Peter and Maarten were going to meet us there later if they could. It took the four of us over an hour to get there and I wondered why anybody bothered driving at all when there was a subway system in place, although maybe its coverage wasn’t all that broad. We passed the Victorian Monument along the way and debated stopping in for a look. It was across a busy street, however, and traffic had finally begun to pick up so we opted to stay in the car and keep on towards the garden. Kees must’ve felt better because he was there to meet us when we arrived. I didn’t need to ask how he had managed to beat us there: Pollay was standing right there with Peter and Maarten.
The Royal Garden is vast and it was nice to be able to walk under some shade. It seemed like we’d just eaten breakfast and here it was already mid-afternoon; waiting in the hotel lobby and then in traffic had taken a good deal longer than I’d thought. Good thing I still had those Clif bars. I wondered where this famous banyan tree was, and if I’d recognize it when I saw it. Kees can’t walk very fast and I hoped we’d get to it before the gardens closed. We came across a huge red, amphitheatre kind of building with Greek columns, also the same shade of brick red, and Kees wanted to go inside the small office, tucked beneath it like a hobbit hole, to speak with some of the garden staff. They showed us lots of flower photos and it felt like we were their first guests of the day, possibly the week; they talked our ears off. It was nice and cool inside though, so I didn’t mind the wait.
After leaving the office it was only another 10 minutes’ walk to the banyan tree. I can’t believe I thought I might miss it; it was huge! Spreading out at least 100 yards in diameter, supported at various points by wooden posts, the tree seemed a sentient being that was only resting for the moment, waiting for the sun to go down and the cool evening breeze to come nuzzle it awake. Along one side was a grassy field where some two dozen children were playing soccer. Nearby was an ice cream stand and it was there that Kees made his presence felt. Calling the children to him like Pan, he asked if they wanted ice cream. I wasn’t sure if they’d understand him but the enthusiastic chorus that went up in reply to ‘ice cream’ convinced me otherwise. Kees walked right over to the ice cream vendor and said he’d like to buy a cone for every child in the park. That set the kids off and they stormed that tiny little ice cream stand like fans fighting over a home-run ball in the World Series, knocking each other over in their haste to be the first ones at the counter. The counter, naturally, collapsed under their combined weight and the ice cream man began to beat the kids back with a stick. They persisted, however, until the entire ice cream stand was in a shambles. I stood behind the ice cream guy and snapped photo after photo…my favorite being the one where Kees is laughing in the background as all the kids are pouring over the counter.
I was looking over my pictures (the joy of digital) after the ice cream vendor and the band of children had reached a truce and I immediately became the target of the underage crowd; they all wanted to see what I was looking at. As soon as one of them spotted himself in an image they all wanted to be photographed and began striking hilarious poses; some went so far as to begin doing back flips. The boys, of course, tried showing off how tough they were by beating up on each other while the girls kept jumping in front of them, just as eager to be photographed. I took over 100 images of the children in the golden evening light and had to stop after each one so they could see how they looked. If they didn’t like the picture, they begged me to take it again (and again and again). I even went so far as to let some of the boys use the camera to take pictures of their friends, who then began doing such insane stunts I had to take it back before someone really hurt themselves. My favorite picture was of two girls cheek to cheek, faces towards the lens, as they held out their ice cream cones. It was hard to leave all those kids; I wanted to ask if any of them had email so I could share the photos with them later but decided not to. I always connect with a place when I meet its children and India is no different. It was time to go, however; we had a dinner to attend and hours of traffic to deal with.
The dinner was at some ‘important’ woman’s house, important being in quotes because I don’t really know who she is but her house is amazing. When we first arrived I thought we were at a resort and when I found out it was someone’s home I couldn’t really believe it. There was valet parking out front and a huge banquet out back. Imagine being in one of those Las Vegas hotels, in their dining area, where all you see are row after row of linen-covered banquet tables. Now imagine that set up outside, under the stars, with warm Indian air blowing in your face. The whole thing could’ve been in Las Vegas, for that matter, with some made up Indian name. I feasted until I thought I would burst. I’m not really sure what the occasion was, or if that’s how they ate every night, but I made the most of it.
Kees knew this mystery woman (of course he did) and we were invited inside. Alice thought the place (and the woman) ostentatious but I loved it because it was so ostentatious. While the others were sitting around the drawing room, trying to decide how best to politely refuse the paan being passed around, I was off on a self-guided tour, photographing the place as if it were a museum. The woman’s husband found me and escorted me back downstairs; perhaps he felt my photographing his bedroom was a little too invasive?
FEBRUARY 5th, 2005
The Calcutta Flower Show is today and the lot of us left Mandira’s early to get into a non-Pollay-driven taxi. Bob and I walked over to Mandira’s at sunrise to make sure we were in time to meet Alice and Derry for a breakfast of toast, chai and some more wonderfully cooked mushrooms. The streets around Mandira’s neighborhood were quiet at that hour and the light, always hazy from various cookfires, drifted down upon us like a soft sheet right out of the dryer. I saw one man painting the doorway of his house in pastel shades of green and red that seemed to catch the morning mood. A little ways down the street I saw a child squatting in the gutter, using the runoff of water below the curb as a sink while he repeatedly jabbed one finger into the foul stream and then back into his mouth; he was brushing his teeth. It hit me at last: I was Somewhere Else. All the previous days’ adventures hadn’t convinced me of that; either the jetlag or the unreality of Calcutta traffic had me believing I was in a dream or a video game. The image of this little bronze-colored child of eight or so, squatting down by the curb to brush his teeth in the early morning light, dressed only in a filthy pair of once-white shorts finally brought it home to me that I was thousands of miles away from home. This is the feeling I long for when traveling but I can never just conjure up; it always hits me unexpectedly. I feel very much alive then, and gratuitous towards whatever gods have led me to yet another unique, unreplaceable event in my life. And so it was that I arrived at Mandira’s, ready for breakfast and whatever else the day might bring.
Maybe it was the time of day but the drive over to the flower show was remarkably unremarkable. We arrived early and the heat was already flexing its muscle; I hoped the plants would live through the day. I was ready for an all out, lavish display of riotous color nonetheless. When we checked out the grounds a few days ago, it looked like there was no way a huge flower show would be going on today. All I’d seen then was a vast expanse of lawn with a few oases of plants set up sporadically here and there like friends who’d had a falling out and were only just beginning to reconcile. The flower show itself was not very different; there were a few more displays up on the lawn but for the most part it still looked like a football field. Some folks were still setting up their displays and I got to see how they achieved the staggered heights of each potted plant. By placing their entries on empty pots of various sizes, turned upside down, they were able to give each display a tiered effect so all the plants could be looked at head-on, regardless of their natural height. Looked at from the side, the effect was obvious but I guess they were only meant to be judged from the front. This also made them much easier to photograph.
I ran around taking all the photos I could, stopping to use slide film for Kees and Derry (at their insistence) whenever I came across a particularly unusual specimen. Of course my plant knowledge being what it is, I may have taken dozens of pictures of weeds and ignored the rarest plants altogether! I did manage to catch Alice on film with the mayor of Calcutta though; he had dropped in to make an appearance and ran into Alice next to the largest dahlias I have ever seen. The gaggle of press that surrounded him must’ve thought Alice was a VIP when the mayor stopped to talk with her. She and the mayor posed in front of a dahlia display and no less than 15 photographers were shooting away, flashbulbs firing and guys trying to get the best angle. That was great. Alice was invited to dinner with the mayor; I wonder if we’ll go. I remember a similar thing happening in Thailand and the group I was with ended up waiting for two hours the next day for the mayor to see us; we finally got fed up and left.
Of the seven us who were now traveling together, I was the only one not judging one part or another of the flower show. This gave me great flexibility and I was able to see everything. Although the place wasn’t as jammed as I’d expected, it was still busy. Taking a shortcut through the employee walkways behind the walls of the show, I ran into some locals cooking lunch. They were all under a tree, some 15 men or so, with a smoky barbecue between them. When I began taking their pictures they turned into clowns, not dissimilar to the kids I saw in the park yesterday. One of the men ran up to the barbecue, raised the flames to blistering levels, then put his head in the smoky outburst to the delight of his compatriots. They offered me some of their lunch but I declined, thinking of the lunch I had waiting at the VIP tent not 200 yards away. Their lunch did smell great, however, flames or no flames.
Making my way back for the early lunch I ran into Kees and Derry. Kees was judging some cacti today I believe, but I ran into him near a beautiful display of blue lupines. I began photographing them and Kees wanted me to get on my hands and knees to photograph them with the light streaming in from behind. I obliged and those images were some of the best I took today. Glowing, blue and translucent, the lupines looked as if they were ice on fire. Suddenly the sun and heat didn’t seem so intolerable. I must admit to spending a considerable amount of time in the cut-flower area earlier though, as it was indoors and offered a much better chance to capture windless, non-glare photos…not to mention the blessedly cool shade it provided.
It was for this reason, spending two hours in that shaded tent, that I missed the riot which occured fifty yards away. The communist party is quite active in India, especially here in West Bengal. Apparently the AHSI employees were fed up with the lack of pay raises over the last 10 years and began to voice their discontent. The combined presence of the heat, the foreign press and the mayor may have been enough to change what happened from a peaceful assembly into a physical show of force. Whatever the reasons, a vocal demonstration soon turned into a melee. Shouting led to pushing which led to some fighting and a few people yanked up the stakes which supported the various plant displays and ran, swinging them wildly, back into the crowd. This is what I heard, anyway. When the whole thing started, the crowd in the cut-flower tent where I was all ran out to see what was going on. I’d heard the shouting, too, but thought it was just more people shouting in Calcutta; I’d heard enough of that in the previous 72 hours to have already tuned it out (of course, I couldn’t understand what they were saying or I would’ve known what was going on). Instead, lost behind my lens, I thought everyone had simply rushed out for lunch and I was glad of the opportunity to finally shoot in peace and quiet.
The riot never got truly violent and the seven of us left soon afterwards in search of a meal. Lunch hadn’t been all that exciting, simply some boxed lunches, and Kees wanted some real Indian food. Just like that it was over; the whole reason I’d officially come to India was finished and I still had 10 days left on my itinerary. I thought the flower show might last more than one day; I’d imagined a long weekend. Maybe it did but that one day was all we spent there. How cool, I thought, and felt like I was playing hooky and getting away with it, too. Pollay, fresh from the middle of the outbreak (where else would he be??), nonchalantly rustled us up some cars and we were soon headed to another of Kees’s favorite restaurants.
It’s nice to travel with someone who knows a foreign city so well that he can be a tour guide. That’s how my father must’ve felt when I showed him around Tokyo, I guess. Kees didn’t show any belligerence towards the staff this evening; he seemed rather happy at the day’s events (one more story to tell…and he’s a great storyteller with quite a few under his belt). Ordering champagne and beers for the table, he started telling us how he got into the plant business. I guess he lived in Japan for awhile and is fluent in Japanese. At least he sounded fluent when he began asking me all kinds of questions in Japanese and I had the barest inkling of what he was talking about. That, or the Japanese he was speaking was so antiquated I couldn’t understand it. Either way, he’s a polyglot and had visited all but two of the world’s countries before he’d turned 30. From what I gathered, Kees has a friend from Japan who has a huge garden and provides all the plants for the palace in Tokyo. I’m not sure if that’s where Kees got his start in the plant world, but it was an interesting story.
As the drinks flowed and the food kept coming I grew very tired and even fell asleep at one point, missing the part where Kees told of the path that led him to become one of the world’s leading plant experts. I’ll have to ask Alice or Bob later. I had been trying to figure out Alice’s tape recorder, in order to continue documenting Kees’s incredible stories, and simply nodded off with my hand still on the Record button. Nice. Nobody seemed to notice and I was happy to see the tape heads still spinning when I jerked back awake sometime later. I don’t know how Kees does it; he’s been doing this for so long and he never seems to get exhausted by it all. I was ready for some quality time on my narrow little bed, mosquitoes be damned.
FEBRUARY 6TH, 2005
I awoke this morning refreshed and feeling like I was finally on India time. Maybe it’s because the flower show was over and all we had stretching before us was free time. I feel like we’ve been here for over two weeks so far, but it hasn’t even been five days yet. I love that part of traveling: each day is so jam packed, it seems impossible the days are only 24 hours long. When I’m at home, five days seems like a very short time, as if I couldn’t really do much. I suppose I could drive from Oregon to Pennsylvania in that time, but I never do, and that’s the thing that makes traveling in an utterly unfamiliar place so special: even the mundane seems sublime. Like taking a taxi ride, for example; I’m sure the locals see nothing particulary special (or terrifying) about it, but each cab ride here means I get to see something I’ve never seen before and I love that!
Our first cab ride of the day today took us to a large outdoor (what else?) market where we saw, among other things, literally hundreds of marigold garlands, the same thing I saw in Bombay. I only saw one man selling them in Bombay that morning but here, at this Calcuttan market, I saw many men and women weighted down with the things; they wore them around their shoulders and unraveled them each time they made a sale. The amount of time that must’ve gone into the making of each garland, assembled of hundreds of marigold heads strung together, is extraordinary. To see so many of them at once was to understand how much time these people have on their hands. They were not families who spent their evenings gathered around the television. Not only were people wearing them around their shoulders but I saw tables of them piled high.
The marigolds weren’t the only thing being sold at the market but they were the most colorful. There was also a large number of stands situated along the dusty road, overflowing with ripening fruit. Each stand was occupied by a family, it seemed, and the women all wore the most amazing saris; colorful enough to rival the marigolds for pure visual stimulation. Gap toothed and sandaled, the women smiled at us as we passed, offering up their wares. I wanted to try some of the fruit but remembered it was washed in river water and I knew that wasn’t the cleanest place.
The Hugli river was just adjacent to the market and it was also a place for communal bathing. There were steps leading into the water, long narrow rows of them, and they were filled with men performing all manner of washing. These ghats, as they are called, are common throughout India. All the men were wearing their lungis, a kind of skirt-like garment that can be tied in various ways, depending on the need. Watching the men in the ghat, I noticed they’d all tied their lungis strictly around their waists and didn’t seem to mind getting them wet. Indian men wear these at all times, even while bathing at home. I’ve heard they never take them off. The women were just above the steps, separated from the men. From what I saw they were sponge bathing but I didn’t really get too close a look; the first woman that saw me saw my camera as well and gave me a nasty look. I wasn’t aiming the damn thing at her but I could see how it looked from her point of view and didn’t want to rile up the men nearby.
Stretching out over the Hugli was the vast Howrah bridge. The view of the bridge from the ghat was fantastic and that’s where I stood while taking pictures of it. It looked brand new and in a city where everything looks like it was built before World War I, the bridge really stood out. Perhaps that’s why that particular ghat was so crowded; or maybe it was because the Hugli is a tributary of the holy Ganges River. Or both. The image of the brand new bridge in the background, fronted by a bunch of men in colorful lungis bathing in the water, was irresistable to us all and we started taking pictures in earnest. Salim wasn’t with us at the moment; he’d held back from approaching the ghat…maybe we shouldn’t have been there unless we intended to bathe, and I’m not sure about Alice and Derry at all (Kees and his compatriots were not with us today). Anyway, nobody told us to stop taking pictures of the bridge until we walked back to the market and met up with Salim. He immediately told me I wasn’t allowed to take any photos of the bridge. I asked him why and he said it was holy. Oh, I thought; I guess it does span a tributary of the world’s holiest river. He went on to say that we could all be arrested if we continued. I was sure Alice heard this as well but she coudn’t resist and kept taking photo after photo as we climbed the stairs up to the bridge itself. As soon as we were on the pedestrian walkway we were approached by a cop who began shouting at us. Salim hurried over to tell him, I was certain, that we were a bunch of ignorant Americans and to please leave us alone. The cop continued with his bluster and I saw Salim reach into his pocket and pull out his wallet. Removing all the bills it contained, he handed them over to the cop. The bluster ceased and we hot-footed it back to the car, glad not to be thrown into an Indian jail; I’d read very bad things about them in Shantaram.
I felt like we’d narrowly avoided a potentially disastrous situation but nobody else seemed to feel that way (except the driver, I am sure) and we were soon back in the cab again, cruising around Calcutta. Indian food being what it is, we were all hungry and wanted to stop in somewhere for lunch and air conditioning. Someone (Mandira, maybe?) had told us of a bookstore and coffehouse that sounded intriguing and we set out to find it. Salim seemed to know where it was and took us there directly. The bookstore turned out to be a bunch of little bookstores, all lined up in stalls along a narrow street. They were all boarded up for the day, however, or maybe they re-opened at night. The coffeeshop was at the end of the street and we strolled in, looking for a little caffeine. The place was on the second floor of the building and consisted of one vast, blood-red room with large windows scattered along one wall. All the tables were empty, save one by a window, at which sat a man smoking a cigarette, his empty coffeecup before him. It was a great picture; he was backlit by the window and his cigarette smoke enveloped him completely. The reddish hue from the walls lent the whole place a warm feeling and I wish we could’ve stayed for awhile but we were told it was closed. Back into the cab again, and Calcutta traffic.
We finally found a place in the heart of what seemed a wealthy district and were seated near the window. I ordered a beer, still wary of the water, and let the morning’s events roll around in my head. I simply love being in a completely new place with no itinerary and money in my pocket. The possibilities seem endless. I was brought back to reality when I looked out the window and saw a teenaged girl holding her infant daughter up to the window; the daughter’s head was wrapped in bandages and the two simpy stared in at all of us, eating. India is full of beggars as I’ve said, and I saw my fair share of homeless while growing up in Philadelphia, but these two just looked so forlorn I lost my appetite. Kees had told me not to worry about it a few days ago, that there were beggar-pimps who gathered up the most endearing children and sent them out in the streets to try and guilt tourists into giving them money. Still, there I was in a nice restaurant, eating whatever I felt like trying, and outside were those two pathetic individuals, simply wanting a meal. The waiter saw what I was staring at and immediately raced out the door to shoo them away; I had been planning to give them my meal.
Lunch was insanely cheap and we walked back outside only to see a dessert place across the street called Flurys. It looked appealing and we braved the cross traffic and jaywalked over to the front door. Flurys didn’t feel like it belonged in Calcutta, at least not the Calcutta I’ve seen so far, but what do I know? Just because there are beggars and poverty visible on every streetcorner doesn’t mean everyone in the city lives that way. All the apartment buildings we’ve passed must have folks living in them, too. My appetite returned as we opened the door and peered in; the smell of chocolate and chai was overwhelming. I had a biscotti and a large chai and it was delicious. Thoroughly sated with sugar and caffeine, I was ready to hit the streets again.
Our next stop was in a neighborhood whose shops specialize in making effigies of various Indian goddesses which are carried to the river and burned after a death in the family. I’m not real sure which goddesses in particular, but many had eight arms and all were bare chested. Made from clay but not fired, each effigy was painted and bejeweled (also in clay). The detail in the face is exquisite, especially for something that’s just going to be thrown into the river. We walked along the winding streets, looking at hundreds of these things being made. Some were completely finished (and waiting for someone to die?) while others were not much more than lumps of gray clay. I guess the ones that don’t sink are reclaimed, melted down and used again. The effigies may also have been of the Indian goddesses Durga and Parvati, but since Navarti isn’t celebrated until October, when those effigies are usually burned, I am not sure. As a purely aesthetic experience it was great. I saw another large ‘Photography Prohibited’ sign and just had to take a picture of it. I can see having such a sign in a place like this, or near a sacred bridge, but I still don’t understand the one on the subway platform. None of the men making the effigies seemed to mind when I took their picture; many modeled for me or wanted me to shoot them while they worked.
It was near dusk when we got back into the cab, our faithful Salim waiting and willing to take us somewhere else. We were supposed to have dinner at the Oberoi with Kees so we asked to be taken in that general direction. Along the way we passed the Victorian Monument again and this time we asked to be dropped off. The light was almost gone from the sky and what was left was entirely pink. The monument, definitely of Western design, looked like a cross between a castle and a museum. It was huge and looked to be made of blocks of marble, all glowing in the sunset. The walk around it took nearly half an hour and I was reminded of the time I was in Khon Kaen, Thailand, walking around a Buddhist temple at sunset during a raging storm; three times in a counterclockwise direction for good luck. By the time I finished my circumnavigation of the monument here in India, it was dark. I found Bob, Alice and Derry and we started walking back towards the car. We were interrupted by an Indian family that wanted to take their picture with us. It was a rather large family and one of the young women was carrying a baby, which she promptly thrust into my arms as we lined up for the shot. In the picture the baby is clearly put out, crying for his mom and reaching out towards the camera as if he’s trying to fly back into her arms. There’s a large patch of drool stretching from the kid’s mouth to my shirt. Kids usually love me.
The Oberoi wasn’t far away and we were soon back in its lobby with drinks in our hands and dinner on the way. I thought it would be a nice dinner in Calcutta’s finest hotel but it was much more than that. When Kees told the hotel dining staff how many people were going to be at the dinner, they said they didn’t have a table big enough for us all. For it wasn’t just the seven of us (Kees, myself, Alice, Bob, Derry, Peter and Maarten), but a whole slew of folks from Calcutta as well, most of whom had been at the flower show and have known Kees for 20 years or more. In the central courtyard of the Oberoi is a huge outdoor swimminng pool, one of those kinds where the water reaches right to ground level and actually spills over the top a little, being reclaimed through a drain surrounding the entire length of the pool. The pool itself is surrounded by little cabana-type tables at which to eat and drink, palm trees and, of course, the hotel itself on all four sides. It was dark when we arrived and the water was lit up like a giant sapphire, contrasting nicely with the amber yellow light of the guest rooms that rose to 15 stories. As my eyes took in this decadent splendor, wondering at the juxtaposition of the beggars and shanty-towns that I knew existed (just out of sight) across the street, I saw where Kees had finagled a table: just at poolside, near the shallow end. Surrounding the table were enough chairs to seat 25 people. We ended up with 18 or so and were all treated like royalty for the duration of the meal. The food was stupendous and I asked a waitress if I could obtain a copy of the menu so I could give it to my mother. The chef himself brought it out to me, thrilled I guess to have someone take an interest in his endeavors, and I counted 23 items on it. Wow. I’m not sure where that menu ended up; I sure would like to give it to my mom (she was a restrauteur for years in Philly).
I forgot to mention today’s the big day, the Super Bowl. I guess it’s not until tomorrow, here. My home team, the Philadelphia Eagles, are playing in it for the first time in over 20 years. I almost turned down this trip because I thought there’d be no way I’d be able to see the game live. I asked Kees today if it was being broadcast anywhere in his hotel but he didn’t know and neither did the hotel staff. If the Oberoi staff didn’t know what was on their televisions, how could I find out? I asked them if they could look up the schedule for the next 24 hours and they looked at me like I’d just asked them to sprout wings and fly to Pakistan, so we’ll see.
FEBRUARY 7TH, 2005
I woke up in my narrow little bed at seven this morning and switched on the television, hoping against hope the Superbowl was on. It was and the score was tied, 7-7! I couldn’t believe it was on! I remember waking up earlier, around four-something, and flipping on ESPN. They were broadcasting highlights of the NFC championship game and I prayed this meant they were doing a pre-game show. Too tired to stay with it I fell back asleep but some internal Eagles alarm woke me up just as they scored to tie it at seven and I watched the rest of the game on my bed. Suddenly India was gone and I was back in the States with my brother, cheering on McNabb, T.O. and the rest of the NFC’s winningest team over the last five years. I wonder what Bob, in the room next door, must’ve thought as he heard screaming, cursing and cheering come pouring out of the walls…not to mention the hotel staff, who must’ve thought I was stark raving mad (but they never knocked to check, either). The rest of the gang had planned to go to a temple this morning but I told them if I wasn’t at Mandira’s place on time, it meant the game was on and I’d be out of touch until it was over, around 11 or so. The Eagles lost 24-21 and, ungluing my eyes from the televsion, I felt like I’d been transported to some fantasy land called America and they played some weird sport there called football. I mean, here I was in India; how could I care that my team, the team I live and die with each week, had lost some silly game (especially against a team that’s been convicted of cheating)? It’s a good thing I was where I was when they lost; anywhere else and I would’ve been in a funk for at least a week. As it was, I had no time to worry about the game; everyone else would be waiting for me at Mandira’s.
The seven of us were flying out that afternoon for Bagdogra, in the northern part of the country. Kees and his fellow Dutchmen were leaving from the Oberoi, with Pollay, while we four were to be driven by Salim; the one I think is a little too slow, who takes too much time slowing down to explain every little thing. Anyway, it’s not in his nature to go fast and we should’ve realized that and not rushed him like we did. Had we known the plane would be delayed by an hour we never would’ve pushed him so hard. As it was, every time he would slow down to point out something interesting, Bob would yell “faster!” from the back seat. Traffic was a mess in town and it took us quite awhile just to get out of the city. We eventually reached one of the ‘flyovers’ (aka, expressways) and gained a lot of time. About 2 kilometers short of the airport we came upon a stretch of road that had narrow lanes splitting off from it; running parallel to the main road but separated from it by a slight stone curbing. Taxis were supposed to use this lane, I think, and the only way to access them, short of jumping over the curb, was to swerve into them when their entrances would suddenly appear. Traveling slowly this would be an easy task but we were hurrying and the car lurched to the left every time we swerved into one, looking like a ski racer hugging the gates, before Salim was able to reestablish forward momentum. On the very last of these turnouts I saw a man walking down the left hand side. As soon as we made the quick jog-turn, I knew this guy was in our way. Salim laid on the horn as the tires locked up and we slid along the sand and dust which coated the left shoulder. The man, apparently desensitized to the sound of cabbies’ horns, didn’t turn around or get out of the way. I was sitting in the front passenger seat, on the left, and could only stare in horror as time entered that slow motion mode which seems to occur just before an accident. “Move!” I thought to the guy, even as the left front bumper of our car hit him squarely in his ass. He moved for sure then, pitching forward into the air a bit before sprawling on the ground in a heap. The taxi came to a stop and I think Derry said “Oh my God!” The man got up off the ground and approached the car, still in shock I’m sure, and began to talk to Salim in an angry but not pugnacious way. My very first thought, I am ashamed to say, was for our own safety; I remembered reading in Shantaram about what happens to cab drivers (and their passengers) if they are involved in an injurious accident: they are pulled from the car and beaten, often to death. Even as I thought this, a crowd began to gather ‘round the cab, all of them yelling at Salim. He was scared but didn’t yell back or get out of his seat. As surreptitiously as I could, I locked my door and rolled up my window and asked the others to do the same. Both Alice and Derry were staring at the angry mob outside, perhaps unsure of the challenge this implies in such a situation. Or maybe that’s only a guy thing. Bob and I stared straight ahead, waiting to see what might happen. One of the men began shouting more loudly at Salim and reached into the cab to try and take away the keys. If he reached them, I knew we were in for a world of hurt. Salim fought with him and the guy backed off a bit. The conversation was growing more and more heated and I felt it might turn violent at any moment. We were fully surrounded by then and I was prepared to offer a bribe and, if that didn’t work, I would unclasp the heavy tripod from my pack and start swinging. Salim suddenly wrenched his arm back into the car, jammed it into first gear and took off down the road, scattering the crowd around us. I expected them to chase after us and try and rip us from the cab, or to find some heavy objects to begin launching at us. A few men did give chase but gave it up after a couple yards. We arrived at the airport two minutes later and staggered out of the cab.
The Calcutta airport is nothing to look at, really, but it seemed an oasis of calm at that moment. I could feel the adrenaline overload dumping into my system and all I wanted to do was sit down. We said goodbye to Salim, tipped him extravagantly, and hoped he would take a different route back into town. Lugging all our bags into the airport we looked up at the reader board only to find out our flight was an hour late. No need to have rushed at all. Still feeling a little jittery we made our way upstairs to the airport’s lone restaurant and fell into some chairs. I ordered a large beer and drank off half of it as soon as it was set down before me. None of my fellow travelers have read Shantaram so they didn’t really think we’d been in all that much danger but I knew.
Kees, Peter and Maarten were already at the airport, in the executive lounge (some plastic chairs downstairs by the front door). We caught up with them and relayed our story. Kees laughed. I wonder what would’ve happened if it had been Pollay driving? Would he have gotten out and started whaling on the crowd? Oh wait, there wouldn’t have been a crowd; Pollay would’ve hit the guy hard enough to kill him and we would’ve kept driving to the airport like nothing had happened. Pollay wasn’t at the airport though, which is too bad; I would’ve like to tell him goodbye.
As it was, we were leaving Calcutta and headed to Bagdogra, in the northern province of Sikkim, which is situated between Nepal on the west and Bhutan on the east. It’s not that large a province but the terrain it encompasses is incredible: from its lowest point at 800 feet above sea level, it rises to 28,169 feet at the peak of the world’s third tallest mountain, Mt Khanchendzonga. Snow leopards and red pandas make their home in Sikkim, as do more than 1000 species of orchids. There are valleys in Sikkim that are higher in elevation than the tallest peaks in the contiguous United States. I have grown to love Calcutta but can’t wait to see what rural India looks like, especially a place as diverse as Sikkim.
The flight to Bagdogra didn’t take long but the difference in climate was astounding. I’d been sweating in Calcutta, even at night, but here in Sikkim, at one in the afternoon, it was chilly enough for me to be glad of long pants. I had to put on my jacket before we began cruising down the road to Darjeeling in one of the two 1946 Land Rovers Kees has rented for the journey. Like I said, he likes to remember things as they were when he first started coming here, and I guess these old vehicles are the authentic way to go. Two sherpas escorted us all the way to Darjeeling, some seven hours away. They tied all our luggage on the roofs of the two jeeps and we raced out of Bagdogra at a top speed of 44 miles per hour, diesel exhaust spewing out behind us the whole way. I was in the second of these vehicles, mashed in with Bob, Alice and Derry, and I had to lean my head out the side for some fresh air. Being as old as they were, the jeeps had very few amenities but did come equipped with open-air windows in the back, where I was sitting. If we’d been able to go any faster I would’ve frozen to death before we reached Darjeeling. My stomach lurched a little from all the curves in the road, and from all the diesel exhaust being funneled directly into our seating area so I reached into my pack for…a Clif bar, what else?
Even though we were headed to Darjeeling, and had hotel reservations there for tonight, we had to make some stops along the way. Kees has done this drive many times and has amassed a few friends along the route over the years. Our first stop was in the town of Siliguri (which sounds like Silly Girlie, which I love). I don’t remember why we stopped; I only remember being glad that we were doing so. I was beginning to feel a bit like a contortionist in the back of that Land Rover and I needed to stretch my legs. We pulled into the gates of Kees’s friend’s house in the late afternoon, ready for a quick hello, only to be invited in for a feast.
The feast was actually being prepared for a wedding that was due to take place in the front of the building that very evening. The fellow who owns the property rents out some of his space for weddings and the entire backyard was festooned with wedding decor. Since I’ve been shooting weddings for years, I was interested in the setup and asked if I could look around a bit. No guests had arrived yet so I was free to wander as I pleased. I wonder when Indian weddings take place; the food was being prepared and the grounds were all decked out but I didn’t see a single guest and it was already late afternoon. Maybe they start late and party into the night. The altar, or maybe it was a post-nuptials receiving area, consisted of a giant red stage on top of which sat two very ornate looking chairs. They were upholstered in gold cloth and each had a large red circle stitched onto the chair back, as well as a fringe of red cloth curving up the frame. The stage itself was strung with many flowers including, lo and behold, marigold garlands which were laid over a wall of ivy that covered the front of the stage. It all seemed very formal and elaborate. I saw a similar chair, but only one, inside the building and wondered if that’s where the father of the bride sits, waiting with his shotgun.
The group of us stayed at that place for over an hour. We were given a tour which included the room of their 17 year-old son. I didn’t know what to expect, certainly not posters of scantily dressed American pop and television stars, but what I saw was even more odd to me. Stapled up on his walls this boy had given pride of place to American fighter jets and told me how much he loved the American military. We were escorted back outside, into the kitchen where the wedding dinner (breakfast??) was being prepared. Man it smelled good! Calling the area a kitchen may in fact be a bit too generous; it was really a large room with no furniture and a bunch of men sitting around on the dirt floor in jeans and bare feet, unwrapping the fine china from the same blue tarps that held the cookware. They used giant woks as well, placing them atop large, kerosene fueled burners that made the room hotter than it was outside. The pungent aroma of peppers stung my eyes and made my mouth water; if the bride and groom didn’t show up soon, I was going to eat their main course.
Leaving Siliguri, we got back on the Old Cart Road to Darjeeling, still some 60 miles away. The name Darjeeling is a combination of dorje meaning ‘thunderbolt’ and ling meaning ‘place’ (aka ‘The Land of Thunderbolt’). Although the sun had just set, the drive took us another four hours as the old Land Rovers wound their way up and up and up into the hills of Sikkim. Hills. Anywhere else they’d be called mountains but in Sikkim, with Darjeeling’s elevation only being 7000 feet, they were hills. It was freezing outside and frigid air flowed through the open back end of our vehicle, slipping its cold fingers into any exposed areas of my body. The Land Rover in front of us, the one with Kees and his fellow Europeans, broke down along the way and we pulled up behind it on a deserted two lane road in the middle of nowhere. As our headlights (the only light for miles around) illuminated the rear of the other vehicle, all I could see were Maarten and one of the sherpas huddled against the wind in the back seat. It struck me: there I was, in a place I’d only read about (the Himalayan region of northern India), looking up at unfamiliar constellations as two men speaking a strange tongue tried to prime the carbeurator on a 60 year old British vehicle. Yeah! Again, the unknown was all there was.
The sherpas, for what else could I call them, got the old beast running once more and we passed through the small hillside town of Ghoom, whose entire population was out on the streets celebrating the Chinese New Year. Bam! another explosion ripped through the chill night air, followed by much laughter and applause as the men began to sing. They waved to us as we passed and I marveled at such a glimpse into a millenia-old tradition. I wanted to get out and walk with these families, just walk up the road with them (there were only two directions in Ghoom, up or down) and throw firecrackers up into the night sky. As quickly as we’d come upon them, however, they were behind us as we rounded the next curve in the road and left their town behind.
The night was pitch black behind me and to my left, running alongside a cut in the hillside, was a very small train; it looked like a toy. I thought it was a toy train, some kind of amusement park type of ride set up in a most unlikely place. But the train, known as the Darjeeling Toy Train, aptly enough, is a real working steam train dating from 1881 and it runs all the way into Darjeeling. I was really enjoying the ride in the Land Rover but, if I ever return to this ethereal place, I will definitely have to ride the Toy Train. If it was good enough for Mahatma Gandhi, it’s good enough for me.
Just when I thought we’d never reach our hotel we made one last hairpin turn into the driveway of The Windamere Hotel. Kees made a brief mention of it in Calcutta, when I was extolling the virtues of the Oberoi, but nothing he said prepared me for the place. It looked right out of the movies, old movies. I’m pretty sure it’s been in old movies, more than once. Originally established in the 19th century as a mountain retreat for British tea barons, it became a hotel in 1939. The Windamere was run by the same woman from that date until last year, when this amazing woman died at the age of 96. From the looks of the lobby, she hadn’t changed a thing in all those years. The main part of the hotel, quite small really -more like an old cottage – was a mass of dark wood trim and blood red carpet and upholstery. There was a main stairway leading to the second floor guestrooms, maybe three in all; while the first floor held the kitchen, dining area and three more guest rooms.
The kitchen was closed for the night but the tea room was open if we’d like some hot tea, we were told. ‘Hot’ was the right word and soon the seven of us were ensconced in a cozy little room below the main stairway, clutching steaming mugs of real Darjeeling tea while lounging in cushioned teak chairs. The red upholstery/red carpeting theme continued in this room, lending a warm glow that was further enhanced by the crackling fire blazing away from behind the ottomans. It was perfect, like we’d slipped back in time. There was nowhere else I wanted to be at that moment.
As there were seven of us, the hotel staff decided to double six of us up and give Bob, per his request, a single room. Peter and Maarten were bunking together downstairs while Alice and Derry were across the hall. Kees’s quarters were at the top of the stairs in the hotel’s largest room. One of the many helpful hotel staff grabbed my bag and carried it into Kees’s room. Kees asked the man what he was doing and the man said Kees and I were roommates. “No!” Kees said loudly; “I must have my own room!” The hapless man carried my bag back down the rickety stairs (as I wondered, is there tipping in Darjeeling?) and I sat shivering in one of the old wooden chairs near the open front door while the rest of the staff tried to find me a room. There was no central heat in the hotel; each room had a fireplace. They were all booked, they said. “Nonsense,” said Kees. They conferred again and one of them had an idea. It seemed there was a room after all, in the back; would I please follow them? Looking forward to sitting in front of the fireplace and writing in this journal, I eagerly followed two of the men back outside the hotel (stars, so many stars!) around to the rear. They fumbled with some keys for a moment before finding the right one, a big, old-fashioned brass key, and opened the door to my room. It’s smaller than my apartment in Tokyo was, and that’s saying something. Still, it has charm; it looks just like a room you’d expect to see after arriving, via a 1946 Land Rover, in an historic hotel perched at the foothill of the Himalayas. A narrow twin bed runs alongside the right hand wall, not two feet from the front door, and a desk occupies the other wall with less than a yard to spare in between. The bathroom (I wasn’t sure I’d have one at all) is at the end of the room and no matter how long I run the faucet, no hot water comes out. There isn’t a fireplace, either. I sat here, teeth chattering, and wondered how I’m ever going to sleep in such cold. I’d packed my REI thermals with me, thinking in tropical Calcutta that I’d overpacked, and quickly put them on then crawled under the six inches’ worth of blankets and got into bed. Brrr! Even scrunched up in a ball I couldn’t get warm. A knock sounded on my door and I had to get out of bed to answer it. Maybe they don’t accept tipping here, I thought, and were here to give me back my rupees. It was the hotel staff alright (nobody else knew I was here, after all); they brought me a hot water bottle to slip under my covers. Wow, what a difference that made. I was asleep soon after they left; one of the longest days of my life finally over.
FEBRUARY 8th, 2005
My first thought upon waking was that the ceiling had leaked. How else to explain the soaking wet mass that had been my blankets, which were now molded to my legs like stockings? I was beyond cold and sat bolt upright in the bed, wondering what time it was. I threw the wet blankets off of me and fumbled in the dark for the light. When it flicked on I saw what had happened: the hot water bottle had opened in the night and leaked out all over me as I slept. No wonder I was so cold! Still, I’d hoped to be awake this morning before sunrise anyway and probably wouldn’t have made it if it hadn’t been for that leaky thing. Throwing on some dry clothes and grabbing my camera and a Clif bar, I headed out the door to see if the view Kees promised was all he’d made it out to be. The Windamere is situated on top of Observatory Hill, one of the highest points in Darjeeling (the only thing higher is the temple, next door) and the view really was stupendous. The morning sun was just coming up, turning the sky from a sleepy gray to a subtle pink. I looked out over the Chowrasta, Darjeeling’s promenade, onto twenty of the highest mountain peaks in the world. I left my camera in my hand for awhile and just drank in the beauty. Morning birds were calling all around me and saffron-robed monks were making their way up to the temple as I gazed upon Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet and the rest of Sikkim. Mount Everest was off to my left, too far to see with the naked eye this morning. I was lucky to see the peaks before me; less than an hour after sunrise the mountain clouds rolled in on the warm morning updraft and obscured all but Mt Khanchendzonga. I watched as a native Darjeeling woman, looking more Tibetan than Indian, set out her wash to dry in the morning sun; she was easily 400 yards below me but the bright fabrics of her family were clearly visible as they whipped about in the mountain air.
If Sikkim is a study in vertical feet, Darjeeling is the same but in microcosm. From my vantage point on Observatory Hill, apart from the amazing display of mountain peaks rising in front of me, I was also able to look down and see the entire city falling below me. The Chowrasta, as I said, is the open air promenade of Darjeeling, and it may be the only flat ground for miles around. Above me was the Mahakal temple, a Hindi temple abutted by a Buddhist shrine. I saw Peter and Maarten emerge from their room and asked them if they’d like to join me for a walk up the path to the temple. I’d never been to a Hindi temple before (I don’t think) and wanted to see how it differed from all the Buddhist temples I’d seen throughout southeastern Asia and Japan. The first thing I noticed were all the colorful prayer flags blowing in the wind. There must’ve been a thousand of them fluttering about, all tied to thin cables that criscrossed the temple grounds. The temple itself was built right into the trees but the bright reds, blues and yellows definitely made it stand out. The second thing I noticed were two small monkeys squatting directly above a sign that read Beware of Monkeys. They were peering down at the sign as if offended; with so many bright prayer flags to play with, we humans weren’t in any danger at all. I suppose they might’ve gone after my shoes, however, if I would’ve taken them off to go into the temple proper.
I told Peter and Maarten about the view of the mountains and the three of us walked back down the tree-lined path, past beggars and folks selling shrine offerings, to see if the westering clouds had lifted. They hadn’t and I’m not sure Peter believed me when I told him of what I’d seen. It was still quite early, maybe just before eight, but I was hungry and ready for some breakfast. I walked over to one of the Windamere’s outdoor seating areas and ran into some Americans sitting in the patchy sun. They were two retired ladies and they were from Idaho. When I asked them where in Idaho they said Boise. Upon further inquiry I found out they lived not three blocks from my old house. There we all were, literally halfway around the world, talking about our favorite pastimes in the City of Trees. We all agreed that floating the Boise River was the most fun. They wanted me to join them for breakfast but I declined, feeling that same old feeling I get when I meet other Americans in a far away place: it feels like some of the uniqueness of my experience has been diminished, like anybody could be where I was, seeing what I saw. Absurd to be sure, but I’ve always felt it when traveling; that need to feel like nobody else has seen what I’ve seen. Like Columbus ‘discovering’ America, I suppose.
The sun was warming me up and I came back to my room to shed my thermals and go meet Alice and the gang for breakfast. They weren’t quite ready so I borrowed Alice’s laptop with the intention of transferring all my digital files to her hardrive. It’s so nice to be able to take 300 photos a day and know that I can see them whenever I like. I can’t wait to get home and see them all on my G4. My room was still ice cold so I thought I’d explore the hotel a bit and see if I could find a good place to sit and wait. I found just such a place near the kitchen; it was a small, high-ceilinged room with a dark wooden bar at the far end and comfortable rattan chairs towards the front doors, which looked out at the Himalayas. Someone from the hotel came in and asked if I’d like some tea. Perfect. More Darjeeling tea in Darjeeling. I sat in one of the chairs, sipping my tea, and tried hard to focus on getting all the pictures onto Alice’s computer. It wasn’t easy, what with the view and all; there aren’t many like it in the world. Kees came in while I was just finishing my second cup and asked how I liked India so far. What to say?? I love it! I like not having an itinerary, just going from place to place when I travel, relying on tips from people I meet along the way; a great way to see the out-of-the-way places not mentioned in the guidebooks. Traveling with Kees we’re all following his itinerary and he definitely knows the best places. The 1946 Land Rovers (‘Landies,’ as the locals call them) are getting a little stale but other than that, I’m hooked.
It was getting on ten in the morning and Kees had tracked me down to ask if I wanted some breakfast. You bet I did. I haven’t had a real Indian breakfast since Mandira’s and I wanted to see what morning fare was offered in this part of the country. The seven of us were seated at the only table in the dining room and it was soon laden with all the yummy condiments of an American breakfast: salt and pepper, sugar, honey and jam, and butter. Condiments are the same the world over, I thought, but breakfasts are unique. There was no menu and I was looking forward to whatever native delicacies the chef had in mind. Tea was brought out, weak as usual, which is apparently the way Indians like their tea; the water barely opaque. Kees took the tea cozy off the teapot and put it on his head, which looked quite hilarious contrasted with his suit and tie. After tea and a few good-mornings, breakfast was brought out in an array of steaming copper pots, all laid out on the table before us. I removed one lid to find a pot full of oatmeal; the others contained eggs, bacon and toast. This was the Indian breakfast I’d been waiting for? It seemed so incongruous, like eating baba ganoush at Denny’s. I asked Kees if they had any Indian food for breakfast here and he said no, they always served it like this. I hoped lunch would be more ‘Indian’.
The sun was still out, the only clouds the ones that surrounded the mountains across the valley, and we wanted to go into Darjeeling to have a look around. We took the Landies down into the main part of town and were dropped off at the Chowrastra promenade. Prayer flags were strewn across the courtyard, the same as I’d seen at Mahakal. It felt very touristy, like it was designed for Westerners in search of a good place to go trekking. Climbing shops were everywhere, as were outfitters and jeep rentals. There was a large bookstore with a plentiful supply of used texts in English. It could’ve been the Thamel part of Kathmandu, which a lot of backpackers use as a base for Himalyan expeditions. Strange to be on this side of them. I wanted to check my email and knew I’d find a place nearby. Sure enough I found an internet lounge in the first hotel I came to. Nobody was at the front desk so I just sat down and logged on. Reading the post-Superbowl commentary felt surreal, and was that really only a few days ago? Calcutta itself already seems like another country with its crowds and wide streets.
The streets of Darjeeling are winding and narrow, snaking through the city in a downward spiral, fronted on all sides by shops selling everything from stamps to sweaters to spare flashlight parts. The shop owners live above their shops, their laundry hanging above the awnings on this bright winter day. Above the one and two-story buildings are dozens of telephone and power lines, all jumbled together at their poles like a cat’s ball of string. It looks like everyone just patches in their own line as they need it. At one such junction the pole itself had become a shopfront: bunches of green bananas were lashed to it with string, the produce vendor herself squatting alongside with a handful of white plastic bags.
Alice, Bob, Derry and I broke off from Peter and Maarten and agreed to meet up later for lunch. The four of us had to walk single file through the throngs, for even though Darjeeling isn’t as large as Calcutta or Bombay, its streets are too narrow for us to walk side by side. The few vehicles I saw brave enough to navigate the road were all moving in the same direction, uphill. I guess the major road through town only runs one way; when you reach the end, near the Windamere, you have to continue on and take another road back down. Perhaps this is why Kees elected to remain at the hotel and wait for us; too much walking would be bad for him (and I’m sure he’s seen it all before). We came to a point that looked out over more of the town below and stopped for a breather. Stretching out in front of me along the hillside was a vast array of grey concrete buildings covered with corrugated tin roofs, some of the roofs so rusty they looked painted. Despite the paucity of materials the whole town was ablaze with color: hundeds of prayer flags fluttered in the wind, the shop windows were filled with colorful displays and the locals were decked out in bright fabrics. Perched on such an incline the city seemed to defy the laws of physics; one good rainstorm might wash it all away. Mixed in amongst the modest houses and hotels was a bright white temple, its round ridged roof and gold-tipped spire making its neighbors look even more dilapidated. I climbed out along the ledge of a nearby window to get a picture of it and suddenly I was looking down a hidden stairway that ran some 300 feet straight down into the city. Vertigo seized me and I had to grab on to the wall and ease myslef back to the street with one hand, my other hand in a deathgrip around my camera. We decided those stairs were the way to go and were soon at the lower level of Darjeeling.
The street was just as narrow at the bottom of the city as it had been at the top and we were quickly lost in a maze of dark alleys and darker windows. A few hundred yards up the road we spotted a patch of sunshine beaming like a beacon in the night and made our way towards it. It turned out to be a farmers’ market and the slanting sunlight lit up the produce like it was holy. There were gigantic casks of spices and dried chilies, and garlic and shafts of wheat wrapped up in New Year’s bands of color. Bushels of corn, tomatoes and radishes gave the air a ripe smell and I knew it was time for lunch. Ahead of us was a steep climb back up the stairs and then another mile or so walk to the restaurant where we were to meet everyone else. Along the way we passed an expedition getting ready for what looked to be a long excursion, maybe to Everest. Some nine Landies were being filled with people and gear and none of the people looked as old as their vehicles. Across one windshield was a handpainted sign that read JESUS LOVES YOU; hanging from the rearview mirror was a small stuffed bear with a red Sherpa cap. The real Sherpas were climbing all over the Landies, tying down bags and checking tires. What a treat to be so close to the world’s highest peaks!
Fittingly enough, the restaurant where we met the others is called the ‘Tenzing Restaurent, ’ perhaps named after Tenzing Norgay who was the Sherpa that accompanied the first successful Everest expedition; there is still some dispute that Norgay, not Sir Edmund Hilary, was the first person to summit. Nobody at the restaurant seemed to know the answer to that but they served a great lunch. I thought it was great but I didn’t have the same meal Derry did. Or maybe it was the Sprite-like drink she ordered, laden with ice. Whatever it was, she was feeling pretty awful this evening; I hope I don’t get it. We’re all getting up at the crack of dawn tomorrow to make the journey up to Tiger Hill, which is supposed to have the best views of the Himalyas, including Mt Everest, in the Sikkim region. From there we’re headed to Gangtok (I believe) to meet some more plant people Kees knows. That means I’d better pack and make sure not to sleep with the water bottle.
FEBRUARY 9th, 2005
It was very cold and dark when Maarten knocked on my door this morning; I had half hoped the Tiger Hill trip would be forgotten while everyone was asleep. Walking out into the starry morning air woke me up in a hurry; it was bracingly cold. The thought of riding in the back of the Landy, which has only a tarp overhead for weather protection, made me even colder. I broke out a Clif bar and went looking for some hot tea to wash it down with. Peter was already up, sitting by the stone wall that looked out onto the mountains which were still quite invisble at that hour of the morning. Kees was awake as well, so were Alice and Bob. Derry was awake but in bad shape. She had the Central Asian Stomach Thing that I’d worried we’d all get sooner or later. Amazingly her doctor in England hadn’t given her anything for it; Derry had none of the Cipro that Alice, Bob and I had all brought with us (hell, I packed two full doses of it). She was dehydrated and felt bad at both ends. The fading affection I had for the Landies was nothing for how they must have made Derry feel. An hour of bumpy, winding roads, sucking down the diesel exhaust from Kees’s car in front of us was enough to make me feel a little nauseous but Derry simply slept the whole way.
The view from Tiger Hill was nothing short of spectacular, worth every pothole and hairpin turn. It felt like I was in one of those National Geographic photos, the one where all you can see is mountain range after mountain range. The sun was just coming up and the peaks were awash in an orange glow fast becoming pink. I couldn’t take pictures quickly enough; everywhere I pointed my lens was another awe-inspiring shot. My fingers grew so cold I couldn’t feel them. I lined the bunch of us up at the edge of a cliff, with the perennially white peaks towering behind us, and set up my tripod for a timer shot. Derry waited in the car, welcoming the cold air and lack of movement. I clicked the shutter and ran towards the cliff edge; it felt like we were all climbers who had just completed an arduous journey up some hitherto unknown summit. I wanted to watch Mt Everest change color as the sun rose but it was too cold for that and I worried Derry might not make it in the unheated Landy for much longer. The sun warmed us all up and I was in buoyant spirits as we got back in the Landies and headed down to Gangtok. Derry, however, looked near death, and I hope she has a chance to read this and laugh about it later. I can remember when I was in Nepal and got giardia; all I wanted to do was go home and be in my own bed. Later on, looking at the pictures, Nepal seemed amazing, which is how I hope Derry will remember Darjeeling when I give her a DVD of all my photos. The road to Gangtok took us down one mountain and up another…with switchbacks all the way. We stopped once at a place called The Cockpit Cafe which was really nothing more than two picnic tables set up at the edge of a cliff, overlooking the Teesta River some 1000 yards below. The fare included boiled eggs and tea. None of us tried either one; Derry’s prone figure in the back of the second Landy was warning enough.
At the border of the Sikkim region we had to pull over and show our papers, which meant waiting around for an hour or so until everyone’s visas were in order. Alice, Bob and I had all gotten our visas in the States but Derry hadn’t (maybe her doctor was also her travel agent??). I took the time to stretch my legs and look at the colorful border town of Teesta Bazaar. The single road through town was surrounded by forested hills, the trees mostly barren this early in the year. The sun was out and the air was warm, near 60. All the houses that fronted the road were painted in bright, pastel colors; most had second-story balconies as well. As in Darjeeling, the telephone and power lines seemed to have been erected spontaneously, or maybe they followed a straight line and only seemed haphazrd because the road itself was so full of twists and turns. I watched the locals going about their business and they watched me. One man was walking down the street with a large bundle on his head; where he was going and what he was carrying will forever remain a mystery. Most of the other residents seemed to spend their morning standing outside their homes, simply standing in the sun and watching the world go by. I guess this can be entertaining in a border town where everyone has to stop for one reason or another. I saw the remains of a car that must’ve been broadsided by a truck; it was so completely smashed up that it was hard to tell which end was the front and which was the back.
Soon enough it was time for us to get back in the Landies and make our final push to Gangtok. The vehicles were dieseled, the luggage securely tied on top, and everyone had used the bathroom. Everyone except Derry, who hadn’t moved from her position in the back of the vehicle since the ride to Tiger Hill. I took advantage of the weather and stood on the back of the Landy, holding on with one hand and carrying my camera in the other. We passed entire hillsides dedicated to the tea industry; one plantation after another were covered in low growing bushes. I learned that there are at least two crops harvested from each bush each year and the first crop, with the younger leaves, yields a much milder tea. This must be the tea I’ve been drinking while in India; it’s not that they don’t steep it as long as I do at home, it’s that the tea leaves themselves are less bitter. I wonder if this is a personal preference or if the Indian tea industry is economically motivated to export their higher quality product, much as the Thai people do with their best rice. Anyway now I know why, no matter how long I let my tea steep here in India, it isn’t as dark and flavorful as the Darjeeling tea I drink back home.
We drove right down alongside the Teesta River and watched as laborers gathered up river rock for road building: they had to break up each rock, by hand, into gravel and cart it (also by hand) up the bank to a line of dumptrucks. The road to Gangtok was, as I’ve said, in very poor condition and we passed many a road crew filling in the potholes with loads of gravel. One such pothole was half the width of the road, causing a major traffic jam. We stopped in a long line of Landies and I knew it was going to be a long wait when our driver turned off the igniton. I didn’t want to leave the vehicle, in case we suddenly started moving, but Alice, Peter and Maarten hopped out as soon as we’d stopped and began walking alongside the road like they’d just gotten off a city bus.
Derry awoke suddenly and ran over to the side of the road, using a nearby bush for cover. She had only intended to pee, she told Bob and me upon returning in her underwear, but had ended up soiling her pants completely as soon as she’d squatted down. She used the remaining dry parts of her pants as a towel, then buried them near the bush. She was completely miserable when she came back to the Landy. I gave her some more of my cipro, hoping again I wouldn’t need it. The line of vehicles began to move at that point and the driver asked me where Alice was. I had no idea, I said. I was pretty sure I’d seen her heading away from us, back the way we’d come, and thought if we waited just a bit she’d come running up once she noticed the line was moving again. Nope. We waited for maybe five minutes, other drivers honking their horns and squeezing around us, then decided maybe she’d gone on ahead of us. Bob and I couldn’t believe someone would just leave the group in the middle of nowhere without telling someone where she was going or where to meet up …but that’s Alice:-)
We drove on for 15 more minutes and with each passing minute I was more certain Alice was still behind us and getting further away. Unbelievable, as Kees would say. Finally, some 20 minutes after we’d started, we saw her waiting alongside the road. She seemed unaware that we didn’t know where she’d gone and said she knew we’d find her. We didn’t know we’d find her at all; the same was true of Peter and Maarten. How exasperating. What would they have done if we hadn’t found them, I wonder? They had no phone and, as far as I know, no name or contact number with them; their bags were still in the Landy. Amazing. But I guess I’ve done the same thing in my travels: I can remember randomly hopping trains in Japan and not telling anyone where I was or when I’d be back (although I did have a cell phone).
We reached Gangtok in the late afternoon, all of us anxious to get out of the Landies and into a shower. I had my own room again and immediately took a hot shower followed by a nap. All day in those Land Rovers had taken its toll and my nap turned into a night’s sleep and I felt quite rested the next morning.
FEBRUARY 10th, 2005
We came here to Gangtok to visit one of Kees’s old friends, KC Pradhan. Peter brought along a whole suitcase of plants for KC and I’m sure he took some home in return. KC was like a child at Christmas, opening each newspaper-wrapped package and exclaiming over it excitedly. He used to work for the Indian Department of Forestry and has a garden full of rare and exotic plants (well, rare and exotic to me, maybe not so much here in Sikkim)…including a rather large marijuana plant growing amongst his cauliflower. He said “oh, that’s just a weed.” I laughed and took a picture of it; my friends back home won’t believe the stuff just grows wild here. I haven’t seen anybody smoking it, that’s for sure; I guess the betel plant is more popular.
Lunch at KC’s house today was quite a feast. The ten of us, inlcuding KC and his wife and son, ate outside even though it was chilly. I can’t really say exactly what it was we ate except that it was all vegetarian and delicious. I passed on the dal (I still associate it with the giardia I contracted in Nepal) but everything else was fantastic. I’m pretty sure we had a raw potato or something that looked like a potato on the inside. The outside of it looked like a rough, hairy pear. It was good though, as was the fresh fruit salad. I haven’t eaten fresh fruit for a long time and was glad of the chance to eat some from a place where I knew the water was good.
KC’s son, Silesh, was our guide for the rest of the day. Traveling with Silesh was great; his vehicle had all the niceties missing from the Landies: windows, seat belts…shocks. That, and he speaks English quite well. After the extensive tour of his father’s place, Silesh took us back to our hotel and asked if we wanted to go out for a drink on the town. Everyone but Derry and Kees agreed and we were soon racing into downtown Gangtok at speeds upwards of 50 mph, which seemed incredibly fast after being in Ambassadors and Landies this whole time. I was dead tired but thought to myself, when else am I going to experience the exotic nightlife of Gangtok, India (a place one needs a special permit just to visit)? We cruised down a completely deserted street, looking for a spot where Alice could call the States, when Silesh suddenly pulled over and said “we’re here!” Here? All I saw were boarded up shops. The few streetlights showed not much else, save for a little rain that had just begun to fall. Unperturbed, Silesh started walking, sure we’d find a place.A few blocks down we happened upon a hotel/lounge that had apparently forgotten to turn off its light for the evening. The five of us (Alice had found a phone booth she needed to use and agreed to meet us later) walked upstairs to the bar and were told it was already closed. Of course it was; it was already half past eight. Down but not out, Silesh led us back downstairs and into the deserted street. We walked past a place that had music blaring from an upstiars window, the only sound for miles around, but Silesh appeared not to notice. “Hey,” I said, ‘how about this place?” We climbed up the stairs to find a real bar and it was still open. Upon entering, the five of us immediately doubled the place’s occupancy. We took a table towards the back and ordered some beers, all of which, according to their labels, contained “not less than 8% alcohol.” Did that mean it was 9%? 19%? Who knew? I only had half a glass and was ready for bed but Silesh was determined to show us a good time and besides, Alice was still on the phone somewhere. We formed a pool, betting when she’d show up, with the winner earning the right to pay the tab. It was just past nine o’clock. Maarten won the bet with a guess of 9:50; Alice strolled in at 9:46 and we all got back into Silesh’s car and headed for our beds. I hope Derry feels better tomorrow.
FEBRUARY 11th, 2005
With Silesh as our guide again today we drove all over Gangtok and learned a little of its history. It became the capital of Sikkim in 1894 and was originally the base of the caravan route to Tibet. Only 36 kilometers from Nepal, the trade road was still used until the recent uprisings at the Nepali palace a few years back. Silesh took us all over the Ridge Road, stopping whenever Bob, Derry or Alice saw something of interest. I’m happy to say Derry is feeling a lot better. We parked along a hillside at one point, stopping to look at a majestic building set into the hill itself and surrounded by white prayer flags. I walked along the road to get a better view and was quickly surrounded by half a dozen youngsters, all eager to tell me what I was looking at. I didn’t understand a word, but one of the kids seemed to have learned how to flip the bird, although I doubt he knew what it meant: he just laughed when I returned the gesture in a spirit of international harmony and goodwill. I’m not sure what the building was but it appeared to be a monastery, one of many in Sikkim. It was painted bright yellow and supported by concrete stilts in front, the mountain iteself in the rear. Some thousand stairs led up to it and the white prayer flags fluttered all around it, giving the whole edifice a feeling of life and movement. Glass windows dominated each section of the building, of which there were five, all semicircular and joined together like a cartoon bubble. I only saw it for a minute but it was impressive.
A little further down the road we came upon another bunch of prayer flags, smaller ones this time. They crossed the road entirely and were strung from another temple (shrine?) jutting out from the road along the cliff face. We got out to look and to climb up and out onto the topmost point. Gangtok was spread out far below us; I couldn’t believe we’d gained that much altitude. A lone tree, bent against the wind, had been fitted with a long red prayer flag along its slim trunk and seemed to speak out for the spirituality of the place.
Continuing along we passed a cluster of small houses that were a makeshift of mud, woven fibers and corrugated steel. Young saplings had been employed as drying racks and there were bales of grain stacked here and there. I’m sorry to say my first thought was of The Blair Witch movie; this is how that place would’ve looked in the daytime, I thought. Walking up the hillside was a family of four, probably the ones who occupied the houses I was photographing. At first I couldn’t tell if it was a family or if four bales of grain had sprouted legs and learned how to walk. Each person was carrying a load that must’ve weighed more than they did. They carried them on their backs but the strap to hold each load was wrapped around each person’s head. They appeared out of nowhere, looking like so many piles of moving grass, and continued on their way.
Silesh kept us on the Ridge Road until we arrived at the Rumtek Monastery, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery that looked enormous as we approached and only seemed to get bigger as we got closer. The front doors were massive. Made of wood and painted red, they were adorned with gold braces and gold door knockers. A bright red and orange cloth was draped over them, gathered in the middle and tied off to allow passage in and out of the main building. Once inside I saw lots more red and orange; the whole place seemed to bleed with it. There were blues, yellows and greens too, but red was the primary theme. Against the back wall were dozens of photos of the Dalai Lama who apparently visits a lot. I asked one of the monks if photography was allowed inside and he said yes, of course. There was just so much color! It felt very alive in there, full of energy. Much different from the large Christian churches back home and in Europe, where the worship of a crucified man gives them all a rather somber atmosphere. I had to go to the bathroom and was shown a footpath that led along towards the monks’ quarters. Standing at the urinal, peeing next to a saffron robed monk doing the same thing, felt a little surreal.
FEBRUARY 12th, 2005
This was our last day in Sikkim; we flew out to New Delhi this afternoon. Upon arriving in New Delhi, via the infamous Assam region where they have frequent massacres, we immediately drove eight hours to Ludhiana so we could meet up with Kees’s friend Avtar, whom I haven’t seen since the flower show in Calcutta. Avtar lives in Ludhiana and has massive amounts of land full of plants that I know Alice can’t wait to get her hands on. But all that’s tomorrow. It’s beditme right now and I’m at the Park Palace Hotel in Ludhiana. I want to go to sleep but have to write about the ride we had from the New Delhi airport to here before I do. We spent 4 hours getting to the airport in Bagdogra, then another 4 hours on the plane to New Delhi. The air in New Delhi felt hot when I walked out of Indira Ghandi Airport; after all that time in the mountains 75 degrees felt great, especially at 8 pm. Kees had arranged for two taxis (Ambassadors, of course!) to take us from the airport to Ludhiana. There were only four taxis in all of New Delhi that had the proper licenses to leave the area and we had just hired half of them. The problem was, only one of them showed up. The driver said we could all fit in one car, eight of us counting him…plus luggage. I thought we might be able to do it; after all, I’d seen bicycles ridden three abreast here and loaded with all kinds of luggage, so why not? Kees flipped out, though, and said we weren’t going at all if that’s how it was going to be. Within 10 minutes another car, also with the special license plates, had arrived. I think the driver had fallen asleep but didn’t want to admit it. They drive 24/7 here and I wonder when they do sleep. Alice said she, Derry and Bob wanted to ride with Kees so I rode with Peter and Maarten in the front car.
The road from New Delhi to Ludhiana is a major highway and was the best maintained of any road we’d been on so far. It ran straight and I even saw dotted lines down the middle in some places. Given this kind of racetrack to play on, the majority of drivers chose to practice the Indian Driving Code: go as fast as you can all the time. My kind of driving, in other words. For some reason, however, this code wasn’t applied when it came to crossing the highway. At any given moment a bicycle, pedestrian or slow moving tuk tuk would leisurely waltz into traffic, giving no apparent thought to the hundreds of tons of metal rushing at them from both directions. One such tuk tuk decided to do this directly in front of us; the driver looked up in real puzzlement as our own driver blasted his horn and locked up the brakes. We swerved to the right, missing the tuk tuk by an inch, and squealed to a stop just shy of the dividing wall. I positively knew we were about to be rear-ended and I braced my neck with my right hand, gripping my camera bag with my left, waiting for the impact. It came in two seconds and our car lurched forward. Expecting a repeat of what happened to us in Calcutta, I turned around to see who had hit us, and whether a crowd had already gathered around the unfortunate driver. To my surprise, it was Alice’s car that had hit us. Kees was leaning out the window, shouting at me to “take pictures, take pictures!” He was practically beaming he was so amused by the turn of events. No matter that we’d already been traveling for nine hours, and had at least seven more to go, this was an event, another Indian story to add to his vast collection.
EDIT: Kees passed away in 2006, as I was writing this. I went to Holland to visit him and his family a week before he died and he will be missed:-(