Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Fresh air and ganja


Here in darjeeling, the foreign influence by tourism can be seen through the very western choice of pastries on offer in many shops and restaurant. Chocolate cakes and brioche, brownies or croissants available everywhere. The slogan "Don't drink and drive, smoke and fly" is on a few tee-shirts and painted at the back of trucks. Some youngsters listen to reggae music and wear Ethiopian flag coloured necklace (green, yellow, red) and smoke weed occasionally.

To travel the 45 kilometres, 3 hours and 2,300 metres of altitude from Siliguri train station to Darjeeling, I board one of those shared Jeeps available outside of the station. The guy at the "Pre-Paid Taxi" booth confirms the price announced by the Jeep driver ; It'll be Rs140 for the ride. With me in the trekker are three men, including a Bengali doctor who's been working at the Darjeeling Hospital for the past fifteen years. A couple with their two children are in the middle seat, and a Nepalese looking woman is at the front with the driver and one of his colleagues. The journey requires two conditions: 1) A good four wheel drive Jeep, 2) And a good driver. Indeed, the vehicle and the road, and the vehicle and the other cars coming from the opposite direction are rarely separated by more than 10 centimetres, and often by less than that. After two hours, we're above the clouds! The Ghum station, a few kilometres before Darjeeling, is the second highest train station in the world, at 2,257 metres above sea level.

Heavy rains have damaged the road. We witness the result of a land slide that happened recently : a house has collapsed on the side of the road, some twenty metres down. Some workers are already at work to rebuild it up where it was. Further North, in the state of Sikkim, the weather is frequently causing road blockages.

Wandering around Darjeeling all the way up to the hills, I find myself at the Monkey Temple, about fifteen minutes away from The Mall, the main square where people are hanging around, enjoying the view while chatting with friends. Some benches are under a shelter to cover from the rain. Up there, I hear music and singing from behind the temple, coming from a small hut hidden by the prayer flags hanging everywhere between the trees. I open the door, ask if I can enter, leave my shoes outside and step in. Seven men are sitting around a camp fire above which a huge iron teapot is resting. We share a tea, the inhabitants are playing tabla and drums. They chant to the glory of Shiva, the Supreme Deity and God of Destruction. They sing and smoke the chilum. They often prey "Om Namay Shiva" and "Jai mata", raising the smoking herb-filled chilum in the air and on their forehead. Woodfire, steaming-hot tea and weed smoking.

Part of the team, I find Dilip, who offers me to be my guide and take me to Tiger Hill, from where the panorama over the Khandchendzonga mountain is supposed to be one of the best in the region. It is the third highest mountain in the world. The four hours Jeep ride will cost Rs500, a fare that I can share with three others.

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