Sunday, September 23, 2007

Darjeeling...Our Intro Into India

Varanasi, India - We had planned to hire a row boat to take us out on the Ganges this morning, but the weather turned nasty last night and it's still wicked blowy out there right now. So, we'll take this time to tell you about our first impressions of India and our time in Darjeeling.

Coming into India from Nepal, the first thing we noticed is that the Indians seem to hold the same high regard for random, ear-shattering noise that the Chinese do. It wasn't even 7 in the morning when we crossed the border, and the shop keepers already had the speakers set up outside blaring music so loud, and so distorted (due to blown out speakers) that it was hard to recognize as music.

The next thing we noticed was the sheer amount of people. Its hard not to notice them when they stick their butts in your face while trying to clamor over sacks of garlic, our backpacks, and us to get to the one free seat on the bus. In India too, they all seem to be moving. We didn't see as many people passed out asleep in the heat as we saw in eastern Nepal.

That said, we were still pleasantly surprised. After listening to Barb & Ted's stories of Fear & Loathing in India, we half expected monkeys to be lunging for our heads with the intent of stuffing our ears with feces, while we trod on crippled child beggars and beat clingers (touts, taxi drivers & the like) off with our umbrella. To be honest, we really haven't seen that many monkeys. Then again, we haven't been to Delhi yet.

Darjeeling From Our Sweet Hotel Room

Darjeeling, however, isn't the best place to make generalizations about India. Darjeeling first showed up on the map in the early 1800s when the British decided it would be a good place for a sanitarium for soldiers of the East India Company. Soon after that they started growing tea in the region, which is how most people know the name. It still serves as a sanitarium of sorts, as many Indian companies & government offices have set up "holiday homes" along its ridges. And, it definitely still produces tea, accounting for 25% of India's tea production (most of it is sent overseas). With an elevation of over 2000 meters, cool weather, tea fields & mountain views, Darjeeling was a pretty nice place to be.

When we arrived, there was still plenty of people shooting in every direction and plenty of noise blasting from car horns, two-stroke motorcycles, generators, & of course many large, blown-out speakers. It seems "Indian Idol" (just like American Idol) is quite the phenomena in India, and especially so in Darjeeling. It was the final week of the season and the contest had been whittled down to two singers, Amit Paul from Shillong & Prashant Tamang, the local darling from Darjeeling. Darjeeling was going nuts, blasting his hit song on continuous repeat from 7 in the morning till 8 at night. (It will prove to be a serious earworm for the rest of the trip.) There were call booths set up every couple of feet throughout town to allow people to call in their votes in support for Prashant. Everyone was talking about it. We read in the newspaper that the sale of alcohol in Darjeeling had been prohibited from the 22nd to the 24th for fear of what might happen if he won...or lost.

Indian Idol call booth, sponsored by the Darjeeling Police. Prashant, the Darjeeling local contestant, was working as a police officer in Calcutta.

We, on the other hand, were there for more touristic reasons. We spent Thursday getting up very, very early and catching a taxi to Tiger Hill. We didn't see any tigers, but we did catch one hell of a sunrise. We spent most of the morning walking the seven miles back to town along the ridge that Darjeeling is perched upon.

Sunrise at Tiger Hill

Friday, we visited the Zoo. Not that I like zoos, but the Himalayan Mountain Institute, tucked away in the back of the zoo, had two nice museums located inside, the Himalayan Mountaineering Museum & the Everest Museum. Both managed to be quite we got to see a tiger. So, it was all good.

The Darjeeling Zoo. Not a tiger. This, however, was a better zoo photo. If you want to see the tiger, go to the slideshow.

That afternoon we learned all there was to learn...scratch that...all we cared to learn about Darjeeling tea. While wandering the Happy Valley Tea Estate, we happened upon a small snack shack amongst the bushes, and met the "tea lady." The Tea Lady was a pure pleasure to listen to, even if we didn't understand half the stuff she was telling us. Just remember SFTGFOP. Darjeeling teas are considered by many (including the British, who seem to know a lot about tea) to be the finest of the black teas and the highest quality of Darjeeling teas is graded as SFTGFOP...or "Special, Fine, Tippy, Golden, Flowery, Orange, Pekoe." I wrote it down because I knew I would never remember. Anyway, we had a cup...and yes, it was pretty damn tasty. She was quite proud that she could make a cup of "5 second" tea in about 3 seconds.

The Tea Lady

The Happy Valley Tea Estates

We really liked Darjeeling. the way. Prashant won Indian Idol last night, but we were already in Varanasi so we missed any potential craziness.

Here is the slideshow with some more Darjeeling photos:

Darjeeling, India

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