A Travellerspoint blog

Sikkim

I knew I'd be a crap bloggist: I lack the required discipline.

33 °C

So, 12 weeks in Makaibari have passed, and I've told you virtually nothing about it

A lack of valid opportunities to spend a long time online, combined with my general ach-it-can-wait attitude, have resulted in this being my first entry for about 7 weeks. I'm in Darjeeling town now (for various boring reasons) and I've got some time to kill, so I'll have a bash at writing something interesting about what I've been up to since the stuff I told you about last time. Update after some time writing: this episode will only cover my trip to Sikkim. See facebook for photos - i can't be assed uploading them to this as well

Better quickly have a look at the last episode to see where i left off

Done. So, at the end of the 3rd week, Melanie's time was up, and off she went back to Germany, amid tearful goodbyes (no doubt) from her homestay family. Melanie lives in a small town where they make the best part of the world's best party drink: Jagermeister. Apparently she wasn't aware of this until quite recently. Shocking eh? (Melanie, please correct me if some of the details here are wrong. If it's all totally wrong, just keep that to yourself).

Callously abandoned, I decided there was no point feeling sorry for myself: i had to suck it up and soldier on. In practice, this meant getting drunk with a couple of cool American lasses (see episode 2). Sadly, this was not a long-term solution: i had to go back to Makaibari and finish the Library! My enthusiasm was matched by 5 days of intensive painting, interrupted by occassional trips to Kurseong, for more paint. I listened to my i-Pod A LOT during this period. Here are some of the highlights (shout out to Kim):


    Broken Bells: The High Road
    Miike Snow: Black and Blue, Silvia (the guy is good, i wish he'd take out that stupid extra i)
    The Temper Trap
    The Cure: A Forest, Just Like Heaven
    The xx
    Hot Chip: One Life Stand
    Smashing Pumpkins: 1979
    REM: Laughing
    Fleet Foxes
    Florence & the Machine: Rabbit Heart, Dog Days Are Over
    Groove Armada: Paper Romance
    Calvin Harris: Flashback
    A Tribe Called Quest: Can I Kick It?
    Outkast: So Fresh, So Clean

At the end of these 5 days, I had painted everything i could, and was waiting for the dudes to finish the plastering. Long-term, I was also thinking about doing the brick on the east wall - the "backside", in local parlance - but access was tricky and people were hinting it couldn't be done, so at this stage the project was only 3-sided.

Off to Sikkim

India is run on similar lines to the US: it's split up into states, each of which has its own government and largely takes care of its own affairs. Each state falls under the overall control of the central government in Delhi. The Darjeeling region (highly controversially, but now isn't the time) is part of the state of West Bengal, the capital of which is Calcutta. And it has a border with the neighbouring state of Sikkim.

The Lonely Planet gives Sikkim a brilliant write-up, but doesn't really say much about what you should actually do there, apart from trekking. I got round this by tagging on to a pre-arranged 4-night guided tour, so i didn't have to think at all about what to do. It happened like this: 2 English ladies from London, Barbara & Claire, had got in touch with Nayan and pre-arranged a guided tour of Sikkim, book-ended with a few nights in Makaibari. Nayan's friend & fellow VIM worker Passang works freelance as a tour guide, so he'd be in charge - it's kind of a side business right now, but they're hoping to make a living at it one day. I'd mentioned i wanted to go to Sikkim, so Nayan & Passang invited me along, on a costs-only basis. tidy.

Bright and early on Saturday April 3rd, I was perched on the edge of the road in the ungodly heat of the umpteenth week of drought. Eventually the jeep arrived, and we set off for Gangtok, capital of Sikkim, via Darjeeling, where we were due to meet up with Barbara & Claire. They'd left the day before on the toy train, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site. (I'll let you decide how a train can be a 'Site'.) It's about the only commercial line in the world that still runs steam trains, and despite a shit reputation for reliability (the trains were built in Glasgow) is one of the top things to do in Darjeeling. Actually, this damned train is currently a bit of a sore point for me. I'm leaving Darjeeling tomorrow, and for the 2nd consecutive trip here I've failed to get a ticket - it's a bloody nightmare, don't get me started.

Anyway, the jeep broke down before we even reached Kurseong. After the driver had fiddled with the fuel system for an hour in the ungodly heat, the culprit turned out to be a blown fuse on the starter motor - we'd stalled when a giant truck forced us back down hill on a narrow section. To be fair, the fuel system had form, apparently, so it was a reaonable suspect.

From Darjeeling, the trip to Gangtok was surprisingly uneventful. Due to India's understandable paranoia about its border with China, you need a permit to enter Sikkim. We stopped at the border town of Rangpo to pick these up, and apart from the slightly unsettling experience of watching some little guy disappear with your passport, the whole thing was smooth as. I did nearly mess things up by not having a hard copy of my passport handy; there's a pic on FB of me on the roof of the jeep, where i was rooting around for it.

Shortly after checking into our hotel it became clear that there was no room there for Nayan, Passang and the driver. As luck would have it, i'd been given the biggest room in the place, which had a kind of living room separated by a door from the bedroom. So the three of them laid the sofa cushions on the floor, borrowed some spare blankets and pillows from my wardrobe, and made the best of it! We went for a wander around Gangtok, which i really liked, it's much more chilled out than Darjeeling and the main drag is car and bike-free. In search of momos (a local delicacy similar to Chinese dim-sum dumplings) we tried a couple of places for dinner, before winding up in the Hotel Tibet, which had the best Chinese food i can remember, except for the sketchy places we used to go in Edinburgh. It also had Dansberg Blue, made in Sikkim and probably one of the best lagers in the world. Certainly the best that ends in "sberg".

The sights, from Gangtok

The plan for our first day in Sikkim was to head out east, up into the mountains near China, to see Tsomgo lake. I don't understand why we can't just spell words phonetically when we translate them out of non-latin alphabets, but for some reason Tsomgo is pronounced "Changu". I know... Anyway, you need yet another permit to go to Tsomgo (if you have enough permits, this is proof that you are not a spy). Once that was sorted, we hit the road. And what a road - an incredible feat of engineering that clings to ridiculously steep mountain sides and at all times gives you the impression that it's about to fall thousands of feet into the valley below. And damn rocky. I put a picture on facebook last week - Vickie said she expected to hear a cocky "neep-neep" sound, which gives you a good idea of it. Unless for some reason you didn't watch WB cartoons as a kid. In which case this isn't for you.

The lake itself was truly spectacular, and a bit bizarre. It's about 3800m above sea level, and nothing during my time in India up to then had prepared me for the cold, or the amount of snow (it was a couple of feet deep everywhere), or the yaks. The pictures on facebook are better than anything i could write, and to be honest I didn't really do much there except walk around the lake a bit, take photos of yaks, get wet feet climbing up to a rock, and eat spicy fried rice. Passang and i took a bunch of photos of some paw-prints - looking at the caves in the rocks abve the lake, you could easily convince yourself they belonged to a snow-leopard. But on reflection, it was probably a dog.

That night we had another great dinner in a modern restaurant in Gangtok (memorable for the fact that you could have anything you wanted as long is it was the chicken kind). On heading back to the hotel it was already fairly late at the end of a long day, but hopes of going straight to bed were dashed. This big old guy was sitting on the terrace with a tumbler and a near-empty bottle of Johnnie Walker black label: turned out he was the owner of the hotel, had been drinking since 2pm, and insisted we join him. You absolutely can't refuse hospitality in this country, so of course we said "okay, just one". Another bottle of Black Label appeared, and two-thirds of it later Claire, Barbara & I were engrossed in the history & myths of Sikkim, plans to build a golf resort near the proposed airport, and ancient books from Edwardian times that the British used to keep track of who was king of what in this neck of the Empire. The old guy had very good English, and wasn't afraid to use it - eventually we were freed when the whisky ran out.

The next day we rounded up the sights in & around Gangtok. I'll stick to what was memorable. At the Institute of Tibetology (basically a little museum about Buddhism in general, and in Sikkim in particular) there are signs requesting silence, and forbidding photography. Of course the Indian tourists ignored all this: Indian tourists are unreal. When one of them used a flash powerful enough to host the Champions League final under to take a picture that actually INCLUDED the 'no photography' sign, Passang (a knowledgeable Buddhist) snapped and practically chased two or three of the buggers out of the building. Brilliant. Rumtek monastery was next, which was large. It is the seat of the 17th Karmapa, leader of a certain sect of Tibetan Buddhism. But his identity (ie reincarnation) is disputed: long story short, the Indian government won't let him move in because that might piss off the Chinese. So the kid's just hanging with the Dalai Lama - exile loves company. It was very hot when we were there. There are lots of monks living there and going to school and stuff. We had to get our photo taken with some huge Indian family - apparently it gets them kudos to have pictures taken with white folks. The head of the family was wearing a black double-breasted suit, and a tie. It was like 40 degrees. Indian tourists are unreal.

West Sikkim

After Rumtek we had a five-hour jeep journey to Pelling, in West Sikkim. This was rough, including a 20km stretch where the road was made entirely of sharp jaggedy rocks - it's amazing we didn't get a puncture. The whole point of Pelling is the view: the village is built so that every building points at Kanchenjunga, the world's 3rd highest mountain. But I wasn't optimistic: anyone that's seen my photos will be familiar with the ubiquitous haze, caused by dust from the long hot drought. Dawn is the best time to see it, so at 5am on the first morning, up to the roof terrace I went. Nada. Dawn was very pretty, but no mountain. [No luck on my two subsequent trips to Darjeeling either - haze the first time, monsoon cloud this time. As far as I know the damn mountain doesn't exist.]

On our first day in West Sikkim we headed off early to Keochalpri Lake. In another crushing defeat for common sense, this is pronounced "catch-a-perry" lake. Passang said you had to get there early before the Indian tourists ruined it - we were the first jeep in the car park. It's a beautiful spot, very peaceful and surrounded by steep green hills, one of which has a monastery on top that you can climb up to (we didn't though). You can easily see why it's so spiritually important to local Buddhists, but of course all its virtues were lost on the Indian tourists. They turned up in droves about 45mins after we did, and the whole experience became a ridiculous competition to see who could take the largest number of shit photos of carp eating biscuits. I'm sad to say that Barbara and Claire joned in: I suffered a slight sense-of-humour failure, and would've been happy to leave 20mins before we did. I had to laugh with this one Indian teenager though, who was reluctant to get her feet muddy in the fish-watching contest, and told her brother in perfect Indian-accented English: "Are you kidding me? This is stupid - those things are disgusting!" I told her she was damn right.

On the way back from the lake we stopped off at a waterfall, called Kanchenjunga Falls despite the considerable distance from the alleged mountain of the same name. I love waterfalls, and this was a belter; i paddled for ages and forgot all about the fish photo contest. I was gutted I didn't have swimming kit with me, it was crazy hot and the water was cold and perfectly clear. Eventually they dragged me away, and we headed off to Yuksom. Here we sampled the delights of the famous Wrecked Jeep, star attraction on the Lonely Planet map - Yuksom is very small, and a little light on landmarks. There's a monastery above the village, but the road was out of commission and the ladies didn't fancy the walk. Given the very high likelihood of seeing another monastery fairly soon, I wasn't that keen either.

That night we had a quintessential Sikkim experience: drinking tongba, the local moonshine made out of fermented millet grain. Our guides couldn't find a bar that did it; undeterred, they arranged for a local family to have us round to their house! It's basically millet grain (a cereal) and water in a big bamboo mug, with thin bamboo as a straw. The drink gets more alcholic as the millet ferments, but i doubt it ever gets that strong; when the water's gone you just add some more. I wanted to like it, but didn't much - it was like very raw-tasting cider, and coupled with the millet grains that kept making it up the straw, it was hard to love. I was glad to have tried it though, and the couple of times i've had it since i liked it better.

Interruption: So, I'm in Hanoi now - I am terrible at this. Just got back from dinner and i saw the internet in the hotel is working for once. It's gonna be bare-bones from here because i want to go to bed

The next day we headed up to Pemayangste monastery. Monasteries are nearly always up. The monastery itself was most notable for an incredible carving of earth, heaven and hell. It's about 10 feet tall, probably more in circumference, and all carved out of a single huge tree trunk, and brightly painted. it's incredibly intricate, and was essentially the life's work of a single monk, who worked on it, entirely alone, every day for 18 years. of course, my attempts to appreciate this achievement were compromised by one of my favourite owen wilson quotes from 'Meet the Parents'. Regarding the ill-fated wedding gazebo: "yeah, i carved it myself, out of a single piece of wood."

Other than the carving, the best thing about Pemayangtse was the ancient hill-top village that gave it its name, a peaceful ramshackle collection of wonky wooden houses, a few monks, and a cat. Peeping between the houses i could see our next destination: the ruined city of Rabdentse, seat of the royal family of sikkim from (let's say) the 13th to 17th centuries. This was quite good; the views were the best thing but of course my photos are largely haze.

and after this we drove home and it was hot and there was a river and i wanted to swim but i couldn't because i was sure no-one else wanted to so i didn't say anything and instead i tried to sleep but i couldn't. and it took a long time but eventually we were back in makaibari and that was that.

the end.

(i'm reading "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time").

Posted by dan226 08:29 Archived in India Comments (0)

The first three weeks: part two

Now with extra weeks!

sunny 27 °C

Hello again

It seems at least 2 people read the first edition, and now apparently i'm obliged to do another one. I've also had a request for photos. I can upload photos to this website, but the bulk uploader won't work on this machine. The single uploader is painfully slow, so i've only put a few photos on here. There should be a link somewhere around here where you can view my photo gallery. I'll try and put more photos on facebook.

Anyway: in this episode I'll try and give you a sense of what life has been like since I got here. I'm sticking with this fairly arbitrary "first three weeks" cut-off: you should get the picture after that, and i'll be free to only write about stuff that was genuinely interesting (like my trip to Sikkim). But I'm not going to be too strict about it: i might refer to stuff that happened in weeks 4 or 5, it won't make any odds to you lot.

Basics

As i said before, i'm doing community work on a tea estate called Makaibari. The tea estate consists of a whole load of primary rainforest, a whole load of tea bushes, and seven (ish) villages of varying sizes (between 30 and 70 houses in each). The tea is certified organic, biodynamic, and Fairtrade, and one of the teas they produce is the most expensive tea in the world. Makaibari is unlike most tea estates in that they practice permaculture, which basically means that lots of different plants grow on the estate, not just tea. Apparently only around 40% of the land is under tea. Blah blah blah - if you want more facts google "makaibari tea" or something.

Community work sounds pretty vague, but basically it covers health, education, building/infrastructure and agriculture projects to beneft the inhabitants of the 7-ish villages that are dotted up and down the hillside (Makaibari village being the highest). So far I've been staying in a house in Fulbari village, which is a steep 25-minute walk below Makaibari - it's probably about halfway up the land that forms the tea estate.

Settling into a routine

I woke up on early on my first morning in Fulbari with no clear idea of what the day had in store. The first thing i heard was cockerels crowing. This was cute at first, an authentic rural sound, cockerels greeting the new day and all that. After I while i started to think: 'hmm, there are quite a few of them, eh?' Then, a little later, 'Hmm, they're really quite loud.' Then, a little later, i thought: 'Damn cockerels! No-one's impressed! Shut the hell up and let me sleep!'. I was just drifting off again when there was a knock on the door. Not sure of the form, I jumped up, threw some clothes on (causing massive offence to my hosts sensibilities about attire was not on my day 1 to-do list) and opened it. It was someone I hadn't yet met, bringing me a cup of tea - black, no milk but very sweet. I sipped it down, and then became aware of another inevitable morning call: nature's. (Translation for Vickie: "I needed to pee.")

I ventured out of my room and outside, unsure where i was heading or what to expect. i recognised the gate i had come through last night on my left, so instead i headed right, blinking in the sun. the girl who had brought me tea was busy with some indeterminate chore outside. "You need bath?", she asked. "Em, no, uh, i just want to go to the toilet". Amused grin: "Ah, ok. It's that way", pointing, "bath also". i must have still looked unsure, because she came and showed me around the corner, where there was a lean-to type structure with two doors. "This is bath, this one toilet. My name is Bawana." "Em, thanks very much. Nice to meet you. I'm Daniel." This elicited a smile and giggle: "Yes, I know". I pulled back the bolt on the second door and opened it. I was distinctly glad that my first experience of a rural Indian toilet would be for a number 1 only, but to my relief the commode in front of me looked very much like the ones at home. I did wonder what the water bucket and jug on the floor were for; when the flush handle elicited no reponse i had my answer. forearmed with knowledge gleaned from the Lonely Planet but still convinced i was probably committing some dreadful bathroom faux-pas, i poured a jug of water down the toilet and quickly snuck out. the other room had a tap in it, and a shelf, and not a lot else. I nipped back to my room for my toothbrush and toothpaste. then i had my doubts about the water from the tap, so i grabbed my tiny bottle of Listerine. i found a big bucket of cold water in the bathroom; i considered asking about hot water, but since 1) i was mortally afraid of being rude and 2) i had no towel anyway, i decided to skip it. i'm not proud of it, but my first attempt at washing in India consisted of brushing my teeth without water, and doing the best i could on the rest of me with a couple of babywipes and some Lynx. Nice. I think it was at this point that i gave myself the nickname "stupid white boy" that stuck in my head for a good couple of weeks...

Happily, I've adjusted somewhat since then. The toilet had been isolated due to a leak: if i need to flush it i just have to turn the tap, and wait. Hot water is achieved by dunking this lethal heating coil into a bucket, and waiting. (Are you seeing a pattern? It seems most things in India are acheived only after a certain amount of waiting. This teaches you patience, is how i'm trying to look at it.)

Volunteering-wise, it took Melanie (my fellow volunteer & Fulbari resident) and I a few days to find our feet. On the first day we went up to the VIM (Volunteer in Makaibari) office to fill in some forms, then headed up to Kurseong to buy some clothes to tide me over till my bag arrived. Eventually i got hold of BA in Delhi, and was extremely fortunate to get hold of the only competent and willing BA employee in the world, who arranged to have my bag sent on to Bagdogra; I went to collect it the next day whilst Melanie attempted (unassisted!) to teach maths at Kodobari primary school. In the afternoon we accompanied the health workers (Renu and Dawa) to Thapthali village (a good trek through tea bushes and jungle) and watched/wrote notes whilst they administered physiotherapy and measured blood pressure. The people here were very poor, and a couple of them were very sick. The experience was made all the more humbling by the amazing hospitality of the villagers; we were offered a cup of tea at almost every home we visited. On the third morning we helped Renu teach her basic hygiene class to the youngest kids at Kodabari.

All this was very interesting, but it was clear that without specialist skills it would be difficult for us to make a lasting difference - the kids needed qualified teachers and the patients needed qualified doctors. Melanie and I needed a project we could get our teeth into.

On the morning of day 4 we walked up to the factory in Makaibari to see Nayan, the VIM co-ordinator. He took us to see the Makaibari Community Centre, known to all as the library. It was built in 2007 by two American volunteers, Mike and Denna, with money from a development project founded by Mercy Corps and Tazo/Starbucks. A mixture of concrete, brick, wood and corrugated iron, the library is on 2 storeys. On the ground floor is a creche for the children of tea-estate workers and other villagers, and on the second floor is the library. There are plenty of books for adults and children, mainly donated by foreign visitors (starting with Mike & Denna, I guess) and mainly in English. There are also 2 computers, and a box of toys (the presence of which is dubious in a library, but hey, it's India).

To us, the most interesting thing about the library was that the exterior was unfinished. It had never been painted, and in places the elements were starting to take their toll on the brickwork - it needed us! The plan was to paint the wood, paint the concrete, and get the brick plastered over and paint that - hopefully then it would all be a bit more weather-proof (and look a bit nicer even). A trip to Kurseong secured us the supplies we needed, and overnight some rickety bamboo scaffolding appeared. The job looked as though it would take about a week, depending on when we could get the cement, sand, water and labour for the plastering. The next day we were underway, and settled into the daily routine of walking up to paint the library which continued (on India time) right up until Melanie left, and beyond. I think there are some photos on Facebook of work underway, and I'll put more up later. Update: yesterday (April 15th) the last lick of paint was applied to Phase 1 of the project - the north, west and south walls are now finished. I'm hoping to get phase 2 (plastering and painting the east wall) underway later this month.

Melanie and I also got started with building a basic rainwater collection system for a house in Makaibari. This has stalled at the moment due to a supply issue, but is nearly complete - I'll put photos up when it's done.

Things I've done other than paint a library Or: what do you do for kicks round here - play Uno?
Seems like i should also fill in some details about what I did when it was too dark to paint, or when when it was a weekend and i didn't want to. Fulbari is not renowned for it's nightlife, and people tend to hit the sack pretty early (around 9, 9.30 is the norm). So I read books, often by torch or candlelight in the regular power cuts. If you're interested, in chronological order and with the source in brackets:

1. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (Kurseong bookshop) (Subsequently donated to Makaibari library - i was unsure about that until i saw they already had 2 copies...)
2. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (Darjeeling bookshop). What a pile of shite this is; the recommendation from Madonna on the back should have given it away. Which is what i did - donated to Mkb library.
3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (Darjeeling bookshop). Utterly brilliant - thanks Louise. I'm keeping this.
4. The Outsiders by SE Hinton (Makaibari Library). Also very good, would like to see the film (by FF Coppola).
5. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Marukami (Mkb library). One of my favourite authors. Huge book and pretty weird.
6. The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith (Mkb library). Some light relief from a law prof at my alma mater.

Other than that, weeknight activites have included a memorable couple of evenings at Mr Bannerjee's bungalow, to make up numbers when he's had groups of guests; dinner at Nayan's house; dinner at Melanie's homestay a couple of times, for momos (a local delicacy); and a few beers at Pasang's house one night this week with a couple of French-Canadian girls (i got hell from my homestay family for not being back until 8pm...)

On the two free weekends Melanie had, we went on excursions. The first was to Darjeeling, just for one night. We had pizza, tea and cakes with Chitra, the i-to-i regional co-ordinator, and went to the Himalayan Mountaneering Institute and the zoo. We also met Mr B and had a trip up to a famous boarding school called St Pauls, which has a large-scale rainwater collection scheme - the Estate Manager gave us lunch, which subsequently made me feel a bit rough. On the second weekend we went to Mirik, where we walked round the lake and up to the monastery. We had lunch in a small Tibetan restaurant, which subsequently made Melanie feel a bit rough.

People I've met
This blog is far too long already, but since i'm as fed up with the subject matter as you are, I'm damned if i won't finish it now. One of the best things about my time here so far has been the opportunity to meet a steady stream of interesting people who pass through the tea estate, usually right through the VIM office, where Nayan hooks them up with a homestay. A few special shout-outs are required. Susan was a volunteer, our predecessor; our first week was her last, but she showed us some of the ropes, and when she passed through after visiting Kalimpong with her boyfriend George, we all went for a picnic down at the river. The Quilliam brothers, Tom, Patrick & Sam, were the first guests at Nayan's homestay. Three Manx lads from Newcastle (which makes as much sense as a Welshman from Aberdeen), they had taken some time out from setting up their tea shop / arts centre / cool-person-hangout in Newcastle to sample some tea and generally hang out in Assam, Darjeeling and Sikkim. We had a good evening drinking gin & gin at Mr B's, and Sam's banter with the Tea Guru amused us all at the tea tasting the next day. Randy and Avi were two cool Canadian guys who also stayed at Nayan's; they arrived with Karel, a german lad they'd met in Darjeeling. Melanie and I had a great dinner at Nayan's with them & Karel, and fate created a chance encounter later (a cliffhanger for the next episode? Don't get too excited). Finally, (invoking the 'first 3 weeks' rule) there's Jessica and Kate, two American lasses who were supposed to stay in a homestay at Makaibari, but ended up eating great food and getting drunk with me instead, at Cochrane Place, a nice wee hotel between Makaibari and Kurseong.

Right
I'm done. Screw the neat, witty conclusion: I'm gonna publish this thing whilst we still have electricity.

Dan out.

Posted by dan226 00:30 Archived in India Tagged volunteer Comments (1)

The first three weeks: part one

The journey

sunny 25 °C

So

It seems i'm writing a "blog". These cheesy made-up words which mock the English language in order to neatly label the 21st century tend make me curl up inside, so i have mixed feelings about it. But i guess it's better than Hotmail.

At this point, i should come clean and admit that i'm not going to use as many upper-case letters as i should. If that's lkely to irritate you, please feel free to give this a miss: it's not like i need the pressure of any extra readers. I might also use un-ladylike language occasionally. But only for emphasis.

For those of you whom i didn't bother to tell exactly what the hell i'm up to: i am doing voluntary community work on a tea estate in darjeeling, north east india. the tea estate is called Makaibari, and is near the town of Kurseong. Kurseong is at an altitude of about 1500m; the tea estate stretches up the hillside from (i'm guessing) about 800m to 1400m. There are 7 or 8 vilages dotted around the tea estate. Some of the inhabitants work for the tea estate, some work elsewhere, and some don't work at all. All the people are poor by Western standards, and some are poor by any standards, which is why they need volunteers.

I've definitely waited too long to start this "web log" (i'll ease myself in). as a result of my procrastination i can't cover the whole of the first three weeks in one go - it would be too long and boring. so the plan is to tell you how i got here first, and then cover the rest in subsequent instalments. once i'm caught up on the first three weeks, i'll try and do regular updates from then on. on re-reading, this one still seems kinda long: apologies, and again, feel free to give it a miss. or just skim it, and then send me an encouraging email so you don't feel guilty. all good.

The journey

I'l start at the beginning, although it isn't particularly interesting. By and large the journey was pretty smooth, right up until the end. I had been looking forward to a nice lunch in Heathrow Terminal 5, and i was going to at least find and consider buying a money belt (shout out here to Vick & Maeve, in the yes camp, and Nick and Dave, in the "are you retarded?" camp). these exciting plans, however, were scuppered by the idiot woman at the Travelex desk. In fairness, she did explain that it was her first week on the job, and perhaps not all the technical problems were entirely her fault. But it still shouldn't take 45mins to sell me $200 in cash and put $200 on one of those currency card affairs. I skipped the dumb money belt, bought a couple of extra adaptors and hot-footed it to the nice restaurant/bar at the far end of the first floor. And picked up a menu, and heard them calling my flight - apparently they do that a lot earlier for long haul, because i sat for ages at the gate before sneaking on via the unattended "members only" queue.

On the plane i watched: flight of the conchords (ace as always); the big bang theory (i'm getting into it Jonny); a documentary about a guy that does slacklining in yosemite (pretty cool, it was the same C4 series as that maniac who flight-suited the Matterhorn); and Up In the Air with George Clooney (decent film, unforgiveably shit ending). I didn't sleep much.

I arrived at Delhi international terminal (at some ungodly hour like 4am, but it was all the same to me at that point) and went through the motions of immigration; despite temptation i trusted the BA guy in Aberdeen and ignored the baggage carousel. i followed a sign for the domestic terminal and sat down to wait for a shuttle bus, skilfully ignoring the shady looking kids who tried to talk to me - i was at defcon 1 for unsolicited attention. prior to going through security at the domestic terminal, i learned how unnerving it can be when a guy with a gun and no English takes your boarding card and completely disappears for 5mins. It felt like an hour, but all was well in the end. All that was left then was to wait out the hours until my connection to Bagdogra, the regional airport for the Darjeeling area.

On arrival at Bagdogra i expected that i'd collect my bag and then look for a little guy holding a card with my name on it. instead, the little guy was already at the carousel, and knew well enough that the only white person in the building was his man. so i had company whilst i stood there waiting for my bag to not arrive. at this point i'll impart the only useful information in this "online public diary". if you are arriving in delhi from outside india, you have to collect your baggage from the carousel in the international terminal. you must do this even if you have another flight to somewhere else in India and have been assured by your airline that your bag is checked through to your final destination. my opinions about BA are fairly well known to some of you, and do not require another airing here.

I reluctantly dragged myself away from the empty carousel, and met Chitra Datta, the regional contact for i-to-i. (i-to-i is the agency that matches volunteers from rich countries with local NGOs in poor countries; i booked my volunteering with them). she was a star, and dragged me to the Kingfisher Airlines office. she made them promise to do all they could do get my bag, but in truth it was only BA in Delhi that could help; they gave me the number. gutted, but knowing there was nothing i could do right now (and too tired to anyway), i waited with Chitra for 2 hours in the airport cafe for the other volunteer, Melanie, to arrive.

The drive up from Bagdogra to Makaibari was intense. I'm kind of used to Indian driving now, but my first exposure left me in shock. I still feel stupid for having looked around the tiny Hyundai for a seatbelt. Notionally, they drive on the left, but it makes little difference when the traffice is 3-abreast on a single-carriageway road. It was dark: none of the bicycles have lights and the lights on auto-rickshaws mainly don't work. pedestrians believe they have as much right to the road as cars, and apparently have no regard for their own safety. ditto animals, and apparently it's considered much better to risk a head-on crash with a 3-ton truck full of rocks than run over a chicken. the whole thing is prevented from descending into mass slaughter by use of a complex and frankly bewildering language where identical-sounding blasts of the horn are used to mean a variety of things, including "get out of the way", "overtake now", "don't overtake", "look out, i'm coming through", "hi there" and "screw you, asshole!". after half an hour my numb mind couldn't take it anymore, and i fell asleep.

i woke up just as my ears were popping during the climb to Makaibari. when we got to the factory, Chitra handed us over to Nayan, the homestay co-ordinator. we piled into a jeep and were taken back down the hill to the village of Fulbari: calling the last bit of this route a road is a massive exaggeration. i was shown through a door and introduced to some nice people, and then was sat down in a room and stared at for a while. some drunk guy wandered in, introduced himself and spoke to me at length in pigeon English before eventually giving up - i had barely understood a word. the importance of remembering names got through to me - i wrote some of them down.

there was a type of square blanket thing on the huge bed, and 3 pillows. no sheet. my sleeping bag was in delhi, (probably...) i dimly regretted not having slept on the plane (damn George Clooney!). I folded up the blanket into a rubbish makeshift-all-in-one-sheet-duvet-combo, got in, and shivered. i got out and put on my manky t-shirt, and was trying to work out how long ago i'd left home when i fell asleep.

Posted by dan226 00:50 Archived in India Comments (1)

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