Giving and receiving

I’m still in India, somewhat hiding from the travel scene for a bit. I’m staying with friends who have hosted me each time I’ve been in India, at their home here in Kolkata. Amid the traffic, pollution, people and general craziness, their home is a loving refuge, and they’re a large part of how I came to hold so much love for this country.

Nine years ago I was doing research on coming here. I started talking to someone on a photography website about the area, and after much correspondence, he invited me to stay with his family when I arrived. He met me at the airport and brought me to their house, his wife fed me to the gills with delicious food, and his family welcomed me in, truly making the trip. They showed me around Kolkata and gave me a gradual immersion into the culture here. I now call them my Bengali family.

For the last five months I’ve been traipsing around India, mostly on my own. And while I will certainly remember the beautiful places and rich experiences here, it’s been the kindness of so many people like these that have kept me going. People who have temporarily “adopted” me; feeding me, looking out for me, giving me advice and generally taking me under their wing. Sometimes it was just simple honesty from a rare rickshaw driver who asked for a fair price instead of charging the tourist three times the going rate, or a local stepping in when the drivers weren’t so honest. Very often it was simple curiosity and being friendly towards a lone stranger in their midst.

All these things will not be forgotten, and I am very grateful.

Here in India there aren’t the usual Christmas cues that one gets in the west. It may be snowing up in the Himalayas, but certainly not here. Temperatures are low for Kolkata, but still practically balmy. I haven’t heard any Christmas music on the taxi radios, and have seen very few Christmas decorations. 

But what I have received throughout the trip is more consistent with the meaning of the holiday season, which is good will, love and generosity of heart.

In that spirit, I have also been able to see the results of generosity given to others.

I first visited a school set up by my friend and others for disadvantaged children near Kolkata. The students, who might not have a chance otherwise, are being trained in regular school subjects as well as trades, and are given room and board also. My friend and his colleagues volunteer their time to teach these energetic young students, and it makes a great difference in the lives of the children.

I also was able to meet a child I’ve been sponsoring through Children International for the last few years. For about $1 a day, CI helps to provide tutoring and school fees for the children in their program, along with medical check-ups and some helpful gifts throughout the year. I’ve been slowly getting to know this girl through letters, but it was wonderful to see her shy smile in person, and to meet some of her family members. The day started with seeing the CI center, then visiting her house and meeting her family. We all went from there on a shopping trip at a local store, where her family was able to receive some household items and a toy for her. I can’t tell you how wonderful it felt so see them be able to get these things that we take for granted. 

So for this holiday season (and always) may you be both the recipient and donor of an abundance of love, generosity, and good will, no matter where you are.


Days in Darjeeling

I arrived in Bagdogra airport and started looking for a shared jeep to Darjeeling. No luck, but I found a friendly couple who offered to take me in their taxi to nearby Siliguri, where the shared jeep stands were.

Sure enough, I quickly found a very shared jeep (ten people plus the driver), and we soon headed through traffic into the forest, and up over hairpin curves into the hills. Temperatures dropped, and the sun slowly set on the horizon casting colorful shadows into the hills behind us. For the first time since I’d left Ladakh, I felt pleasantly cool.

This was the first time I have arrived somewhere at night without a booking, but fortune (or good kamma) was with me. The hotel I had as my first choice had rooms. It’s a budget hotel, and the rooms are a bit musty, but the room I’m in has a big bay window overlooking the mountains. For about $10 a night, it’s just fine.

OK, so you can’t really see them here, but there are beautiful mountains in view from this window. Trust me.

Darjeeling is a hill town in northern West Bengal. It was named after the local Dorje Ling monastery, which has since moved and changed names. The land was leased by the East India Company (aka, the British) in 1835, and they soon started planting tea and taking vacations there. It continues to be a popular vacation spot, and of course, the tea is known worldwide.

Just as an aside about the tea. I discovered that the Darjeeling tea served here is a lighter tea that almost looks like green tea. It is typically drank without milk, which enables one to really taste the flavor more. Going without milk was a bit of an adjustment, but I got used to it.

The first day I spent wandering about, looking around, going the wrong way and turning around again. It’s a pretty safe city to get lost in, so there was no stress. The next day I woke early to walk down to the taxi stand to get a shared jeep to Tiger Hill to watch the sunrise. Even though mornings at Tiger Hill are incredibly crowded, with jeeps thick over the single road honking and spewing diesel fumes, the sunrise was spectacular, and to see the morning alpenglow on Khangchendzonga and its sibling mountains made the trip seem worthwhile to make at least once.

Fueled by a good start to the morning and breakfast, I walked to the Darjeeling Zoo. After the experience at Trivandrum, I was a bit hesitant to visit another zoo here, but was drawn by their having red pandas. I was pleasantly surprised, as this zoo had spacious enclosures for the animals with native vegetation and other enrichments for the animals. Heck, I’d stay in some of the enclosures they had if I had a tent (maybe not in the same ones with bears or Bengal tigers, though). And as for the red pandas, they pretty much topped the cuteness scale.

Bear enclosure. And there’s more space around back.
Himalayan bear nap
Red panda, AKA Firefox (yes, the search engine logo is a cartoon red panda)

The zoo was also the home to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, which has courses mostly for the military, but select civilians can benefit. It was first directed by Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who with Sir Edmund Hillary, first scaled Everest in 1953. The institute has a mountaineering museum, with interesting displays on the mountains nearby, Everest expeditions, and mountaineering equipment.

I was planning to leave a few days after I came, but I’ve kept extending my stay. I’ve enjoyed spending my time here just looking and walking around, gawping at the views, enjoying Tibetan and other various restaurants, and of course, drinking lots of tea. The road and the mountains beckon though, so tomorrow I’ll head further north by another shared jeep. See you soon!