Saturday, September 20, 2014

Darjeeling!

There’s something to be said about traveling alone to new places that you end up forgetting when you haven’t done it for a while. While the pleasure of good company while traveling is undeniable, there is something very satisfying about discovering a place as per your whims and fancies and eccentricities. The last bit is especially true for me!

The good part is that work offers these opportunities on a fairly frequent basis, and doesn’t leave me with much of a choice - I can either experience the place on my own, or stay cooped up in whatever hotel I am putting up in, really a no-brainer.

And so, after an incredible day and a half in the picture-postcard stunning town of Geyzing in West Sikkim to kick start my visit to what WWF calls as the Kangchanjunga Conservation Landscape, I moved towards more mainstream Darjeeling, another hill-station which lays claim to the title of the Queen of the Hills. Mussoorie definitely calls itself that, as does Ooty. The king sure does have quite a harem!

After settling down in my room at the Darjeeling Gymkhana Resort (which basically consists of filling up every horizontal surface with my clothes and other stuff and pulling apart the half a dozen bedsheets and blankets and what not tucked into the sides of the bed with what I imagine as considerable violence and excessive enthusiasm - I think the first thing that they teach housekeeping staff in the hospitality industry is how to fix the sheets and blankets into the sides of the bed such that only a sheet of tin can enter between them) and having a shower, I came to the swift and extremely terrifying conclusion that this place was an allergy nightmare. The whole thing reeked of paint and other such nefarious building material. As if in cue, my nose started tingling. Unfortunately, I had a considerable pile of reports and documents to go through in preparation for the next few days, which I gamely struggled with for an hour, before giving up. Putting on a pullover, I headed out, my respiratory system gulping in the fresh mountain air outside with the relief that only my unfortunate tribe of allergy sufferers know.

It was early evening by then, but the clouds had started moving in. Exiting the hotel, I promptly went off in what I later realised was the wrong direction, ending up slightly far away from the centre of the town, after a delightful albeit slightly spooky walk through thick clouds, tall trees and walls covered with a dazzling array of colourful fungi, and a street called ‘Hooker Street’, with a straight-faced explanation of how it got its name, which amused me a bit (though I have a feeling that my boss, who commented on the picture I posted on Facebook with a you-gotta-read-up-young-man-about-this-great-guy-called-Hooker line, did not quite see it the same way). I realised that I was headed the wrong way after I saw a sign which welcomed me to the zoo, which is sort of in the outskirts of town. Turning around, I made my way back, crossed my hotel and promptly got lost again in the smaller by-lanes and side alleys of the town. Google was helpfully telling me that I was somewhere within a 10 km radius from the centre of the place. As it goes, the translucent blue circle that it uses to surround the location pin on the map was so large that I failed to realise this fact for a while, wondering why what was supposed to be a largish park on the western end of the town had so many buildings and shops and people mulling around in a distinctly un-park-like way. After wandering up and down and around a few streets, skirting past small groups of extremely happy - and drunk - men celebrating karma puja by dancing to none other than Honey Singh, I found myself in front of the Rink Mall, located appropriately on Mall Road, although the road, with its name, precedes the ugly imposition by a considerable margin.

Malls in small towns are fascinating places. They have the slightly brash air of somebody who knows that he is quite important, although not universally liked. Like most malls, they are undeniable eyesores. Unfortunately, in these towns, and especially in hill stations, they are usually located close to the centre of the town, which means that they end up in the middle of a few heritage structures, significantly adding to the overall beauty and aura of the place. In this case, the mall was located bang opposite a picturesque building with grim warnings on its walls attempting to discourage any desperate poster affixers with a target to meet and time running out, which on further inspection turned out to be the Post Office. 

By now, I had trooped through a fair chunk of the town, and was beginning to get a trifle annoyed at the lack of what I perceived as any progress towards where I actually wanted to reach - Keventer’s, a popular eatery in town. Most people, by this point in time, would accept their inability to figure out the way on their own and ask for directions, but that is one idea which has never really caught on with me, for a number of perfectly sensible reasons, such as never-ending faith in my sense of direction (never mind the fact that it was when I was finally leaving Darjeeling for Gangtok a solid 3 days later, that I actually realised that I'd gotten it all wrong by a healthy margin of about 180 deg - what I thought was the North of town was actually the South). And so, I gamely kept on walking, until I reached the point from where we had entered the main part of town a few hours earlier, which meant that I had now successfully managed to reached the outskirts of the town again, albeit on the other end, having miraculously managing to circumvent everything half interesting (the mall does not count). Now, in addition to having still not made any real progress towards my goal, I was also beginning to feel rather tired and quite peckish, having walked up and down for the better part of an hour. After walking back for a while, I finally caved in and decided to ask for directions, after which I reached my destination in a few minutes without any fuss.

After a fairly decent burger and a chocolate drink served by a waiter with this amused why’d-you-come-here-and-order-veg-food look on his face, I proceeded to walk back, stumbling upon the main square in town, the Chourasta, from where the walk back to the Hotel was a fairly straightforward (and short) affair.