If you were worrying because you haven’t heard from me since my post about the endless journey home, I apologize. You’ll be happy to know that I made it back to Philly without a hitch, and I’ve been running around ever since. Also, in hindsight, the Frankfurt shower was probably the best idea of the entire trip. Instead of landing in Philly and being completely repulsive, I was actually presentable and scared zero people away with my smell. Success!
Now, I’ll be home for the next three weeks, so if you want to get in touch, this is a good time for me! I’m taking full advantage of the reliable internet here and have a lot of things to catch up on before I leave again.
I don’t have much to say… mostly I just wanted to confirm that I made it home without any trouble. Also, a note for those of you who are in the Philadelphia area…
Save the Date
What? A talk about my experiences thus far, especially in Peru and India
When? Sunday, June 11th, after church (around noon)
Another day, another airport. I think that I need to start keeping a list of all of the airports I’ve been in. It’s getting to the point where it’s actually quite impressive. Or maybe I’ll just start keeping track of how many hours of my life I’ve spent sitting in airports. That’s probably even more impressive.
The trek home is a long one, and I’m still very much at the beginning of it. Let me give you the full schedule:
This, of course, is assuming that all of the flights go as planned. Already, my first flight was delayed by about half an hour, and my flight to Frankfurt has been delayed an hour and 15 minutes so that I’m leaving at 4AM instead of 2:45. Just what I needed… a couple more hours in the Delhi airport.
I’m currently sitting in the Starbucks outside of the domestic arrivals baggage claim because I don’t want to exit the airport and be stuck sitting on the floor outside of the check-in counters until I can check my bag for the flight. I’m also inconveniently sitting underneath an air-conditioning vent (this always seems to happen to me), so I’m all hyped up from the hot chocolates I’ve been buying to keep warm.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The worst part of travelling by yourself is when you have to go to the bathroom in the airport. It’s a huge pain in the butt to lug all of your bags around wherever you go and forfeit whatever seat you managed to claim, so I’ve been holding it for the last couple of hours. I know, I should just go. I will. Eventually.
Usually by the end of a long airport/airplane trek like this, I feel disgusting and unwashed. I’m trying a new strategy this time which includes 2 changes of clothes and, assuming my flight out of Delhi doesn’t get delayed even more, a shower in Frankfurt. I’m not interested in looking and smelling like I’ve been travelling for a century by the time I get to Philly. I’ll let you know how that goes.
Well, I think it’s finally time for me to go check in for flight #2. I’ll be happy to trade in the stool I’ve been sitting on for the last 8 hours for a new, hopefully cushioned chair. Wish me luck!
Now I’m sitting in Frankfurt airport. I couldn’t find any functional wifi in Delhi, but you’ll be happy to know that I did find a more comfortable seat. I also had fun spending the rest of my rupees on snacks.
The flight here was a blur. I passed out within 5 minutes of sitting down and was out cold for 5 hours. I guess I was tired…
When I got here, I felt horrible. My back and shoulders were sore and tight, so I went to one of the yoga rooms they have here! It was awesome! I had to go on an adventure across the universe, but I found my way there and spent about 45 minutes stretching out and “meditating” (napping on the floor on a yoga mat). After that, I took a shower! And I don’t know what kind of body wash they had, but I smell amazing. This has been the best layover ever! The best part is that my flight home leaves in less than an hour… so only 10 more hours in this seemingly endless trek across the globe.
Why does this always happen? Why, at the very end, do things always start falling into place and being so perfect? It’s like the goodbye is laughing at you and trying to make things as hard as possible. My last couple of weeks, and especially my last few days, have been the best ones. It’s not like things weren’t good before, but I finally had that feeling of belonging. I felt comfortable in the city and less like a caged animal. I had friends who were funny and goofy and reminded me of my friends back home. I went places and did things and hung out with the aforementioned friends. It was like I was just another person, woven into the fabric of the city, rather than an outsider. It took almost my entire time there, but I finally felt fully at home.
At the very least, the joy of having achieved that feeling of belonging outweighs the sadness I feel in leaving it. Again, it felt like the goodbyes weren’t permanent. Maybe I’m getting better at lying to myself and making my heart believe that I’ll cross paths with these people again, or maybe it’s true. Only time will tell! Everyone was talking like there’s no question that I’ll be back, “The next time you’re here, we’ll have to do x, y, and z.” I guess that means it’s settled. I do have a 10-year visa, after all. It would be a shame to let it go to waste…
Anyway, the last couple days were a whirlwind, as you might expect. The impending “end” is always just what people need to kick them into hyperdrive. “Well, you HAVE to do this before you leave.” “We can’t let you go home without going here.” “You’ve been here for two months and haven’t tried this?? You can’t leave India without at least TRYING it.”
So that’s what we did! In three days, I did more travelling around Jaigaon than I did in 7 weeks. We went to Bhutan and visited a bunch of different monasteries, I tried some foods and drinks that I couldn’t even begin to name if I tried, I hailed and rode an auto on my own, and I finally started feeling like I was a real person.
I also made a mad dash to wrap up the architecture drawings for the Bible school, and I finished on Monday morning, my last day, at noon. Pretty good, I think. I didn’t even have to stay up late to get everything done. Packing was also surprisingly easy. If there’s one thing I’ve learned how to do quite well over these last 10 months, it’s how to pack a bag. If there are two things, the second would be how to say goodbye.
By the time I went to sleep Monday night, everything was ready. I don’t think I’ve ever been ready so far ahead of time. It helped that we had to leave at 7AM Tuesday morning. The only thing I hate more than packing is waking up early.
Now here I am, sitting in another airport (we have to stop meeting like this). Just wait until I tell you about my travel schedule to get home… I would do it now, but you’ll understand when you see it. It needs its own post.
My teaching responsibilities here are officially finished! I won’t pretend that I’m terribly upset about that, but I am sad that my time here is coming to an end. I’ve made some great friends, and it will be hard to say goodbye to them.
The last days of extra classes with the class 9 kids were good. We made it through two dramas in their book, and I think that the kids understood the main ideas of both. With our foolproof story-teaching formula, how could they not understand? As long as you explain the story 5ish times, you’re set.
I’m glad that Jenrika and I are on the same page about the kids needing to be able to think for themselves. We’ve both been trying to work on that, and it makes me feel like everything I tried to teach them over the last couple months isn’t going to go completely to waste after I leave. I feel bad that she’s going to have to continue the efforts alone, but hopefully we’ve laid some sort of foundation… maybe?
My afternoons have been spent working on the architecture plans for the addition at the Bible school. Okay, not all of the afternoons. I’ve also spent some time reading and swinging on the roof, but now I’m running out of time, and I really need to get those plans done. It takes SO long though. I don’t have the computer programs that are usually used to make plans, so I’m drawing them by hand. As if that didn’t already take forever, I also don’t have all of the tools that you would normally use for hand drafting. I have a pencil with those points that you take out and stick in the back of the pencil when they go dull, an eraser, and a ruler. That’s all. Fully equipped, I would have a drafting table with a slide rule, a ruler, multiple pencils of various hardness, a sharpener, a triangle, shape stencils, an architecture scale, and a thin eraser. At the very least. Since I don’t have all of those things, it’s taking me much longer than it otherwise would, and my drawings are definitely not going to be as precise as they should be.
I am enjoying working on them though. I have everything mostly figured out, so now all I have to do is draw lines… well, and covert dimensions so that the drawing is to scale, but that only requires a little thought. Even with that, it’s a relaxing task, and it will fun to see the finished product… assuming I ever manage to finish.
Today, however, was an exception! To celebrate our last day of extra classes, I went to lunch with Jenrika, the other teacher who’s been teaching this week, and two other teachers from school. It was so much fun! I really did feel like a normal person, and even though they didn’t speak in English all the time, they at least TRIED to. If a conversation went on for too long in Nepali, someone translated to clue me in. It was really nice.
We were going to go for a walk after lunch, but the wind started blowing dust around (I’m telling you, the dust is one of the worst things about being here… If you were here, you’d understand why people sometimes wear face masks. Breathing that stuff in is not good) and it looked like it was going to rain. We went back to Jenrika’s house instead and just hung out. I felt like I was back home hanging out with a bunch of my friends. It kind of stinks… I finally feel like things are really coming together for me here, and I’m leaving in a couple of days. Well, all I can do is enjoy the time I have left and celebrate the fact that I achieved my goals of making real friends and feeling like I belong.
We also played dress up, and who doesn’t love that? Jenrika is from Bhutan, so she has a bunch of traditional Bhutanese clothes. They dressed me up in a kira… and when I say, “they dressed me up”, I literally mean that I was like a doll. I don’t know how anyone dresses themselves in these outfits. First, I put on the wonju, a long-sleeve, sheer blouse (long sleeve like it went about a foot past my fingertips). Next was the kira. It’s just a big, rectangular piece of fabric that you wrap around you. They put a “half-kira” on me which means that it only went up to my waist instead of all the way to my shoulders. The toego goes on top of that. It’s like a jacket with sleeves that go about to your fingertips. The sleeves of the wonju and the toego are folded up together, the toego is secured with a brooch, your hair goes up in a bun, and you obviously also need to add a necklace.
By the time they were done with me, I felt like a queen. I also felt like I was going to melt into a puddle because the kira was like a blanket and the toego was NOT lightweight. Jenrika also had a traditional Tibetan dress, so one of the other teachers put that on and it was like an international clothing party. It’s really cool visiting these places where the culture and traditions are so strong and SO different from home. What would the traditional dress of the United States be? Jorts (jean shorts, for those of you not down with the lingo) and t-shirt?
We’re supposed to hang out again today, so cross your fingers for good weather! (I know, how weird is it that I have actual PLANS! To hang out with friends! As if I’m a normal human!)
Extra classes started this week, and the kids aren’t any happier about it than I am. Jenrika asked them if they had a good break, and they all just stared at us and then grumbled. When she asked if anyone did anything fun, they all said no and “we only had a week!”. Eek. I don’t blame them though. I thought that they had a week off, two weeks of extra classes, and another week off, but I was wrong. They had just that one week off and now have THREE weeks of extra classes before the “holiday” is over. Yeah, they definitely have a right to grumble. Everyone else in the school gets a month off, and they get a week. Brutal.
I thought it was hard teaching on a normal school day, but the extra classes are even worse because it’s THREE hours of the same class. If I didn’t have Jenrika to split the time with me, I would be losing my mind. Even so, by the end of each school day (noon), I just want to collapse into my bed and sleep until morning.
We were with class 10 for the first three days and used the time to tackle Julius Caesar. Shakespeare is hard enough for students when English is their first language… so we knew that we had some struggles ahead of us. The first day was a total nightmare. It’s like the technology gods were conspiring against us. We wanted to show the movie first so that the kids could be introduced to the plot that way, and we would fill in the gaps and details later.
The video file refused to play on the smartboards, so we eventually stopped trying and relocated to the chapel to play it on the projector there. Okay, great! We got it to play… but the sound didn’t work. I got my bluetooth speaker and connected it to my computer (since we didn’t have the cable to connect the chapel computer directly to the speaker), and we tried to press play at the exact same time on both computers so that the sound and video would match. So the chapel computer was playing the video on the projector, and my computer was playing the sound on my bluetooth speaker. Ideal, right? If you’re thinking that’s the end of the struggle, think again.
With about 40 minutes left, the power went out… which means the projector stopped running. At that point, I was determined to finish the stupid movie. I just wanted to get it over with so that we could move on and never have to deal with the video file again. My horrible solution? I held up my tiny computer and had the kids crowd around for the rest of the movie (but what other choice was there?). I chimed in whenever something important happened to explain it, and we somehow managed to slog our way through. It didn’t quite go as we had hoped, but a horrible first day meant that things couldn’t get worse.
The other two days went quite well actually, and I’m not just saying that because I’m comparing them to the first day. I think that we’ve mastered the story teaching technique. This is how it goes:
Introduce the story and give any important historical context, etc
Talk about where in the world the story is taking place. Show a map.
Introduce the main characters and give the most important information about them.
Define the most important vocabulary words… the ones that, without understanding their definitions, the kids won’t understand the story (for Julius Caesar, examples would be: assassinate, betray, democracy, dictator, etc).
Give a brief but thorough plot summary.
If you’re thinking, “Wow! That’s a long process, and you haven’t even started reading the story yet!”, you are correct. Okay, continuing on:
Read the story, pausing every few lines to explain in different words what is happening.
Ask questions about what happened in the story, walking the kids through the plot again.
Show a video that summarizes the story again.
Talk about the character traits.
Have the kids answer some questions in the textbook about the story.
Write out a plot summary for the kids to copy into their notebooks.
In case you weren’t counting, that’s about five times that you go over what happens in the story. FIVE TIMES. At least I finally figured out what works, just in time for me to leave. Jenrika said that she likes my strategy though, so maybe it will live on in my absence.
By the end of the third day, they were doing a satisfactory job of answering our questions about the story, how the characters must have felt, and why different people decided to act the way they did. It only took 9 hours of class, but we did it! That’s nothing short of a miracle. I also learned a lot because I never read Julius Caesar in school, so I had to learn the whole story along with the students. Thank you, sparknotes! Though I will admit, understanding Shakespeare was surprisingly easier to do now than it was back in high school. I guess I have learned something over the last… 8 years…
Next up, three fun-filled (said with much sarcasm) days with class 9! I have my fingers crossed for a pain-free experience.
Lizard roommates are now the least of my unwanted roommate concerns. Last night, I encountered a horrifying… spider roommate. I know what you’re thinking, “Come on, Lara. That’s so lame of you to be scared of a spider,” and yes, normally, I would agree with you. This, however, this was not just any spider.
I got back to my room after dinner, and as I stepped into the darkness, I had a feeling that I wasn’t alone and should turn the light on before going much farther. Believe me or not, but I’m telling you, I felt that prickle on the back of my neck, and I listened to it. The instant I switched the light on, I heard a clicking, like the sound of fingernails on a desk, coming from the middle of the floor, and I turned my head just in time to see a blur disappearing under the fridge. Okay, no need to panic… but also no need to get to close to the fridge without seeing if whatever it was would come out on its own first.
I waited maybe 30 seconds before a shape crawled out from underneath the fridge and started scurrying up the wall. A spider. The biggest spider I have EVER seen, aside from maybe at the zoo. Its body was probably at least an inch in diameter, and with its legs it was at least six. Probably more. I’m still the world’s worst estimator. I stared at it, unmoving, and plotted my next move.
Doing nothing was not an option because there was a zero percent chance of me going to sleep with that THING in my room. I tried to decide if it was reasonable for me to call for reinforcements. I don’t know what the spiders are like here… maybe people see ones that big all the time. I didn’t want to sound like a child. Also though, I know nothing about spiders. I know that the ones at home are nothing to worry about and won’t kill you, but what if this was a killer spider in my room?! I know that’s dramatic, but like I said, I know nothing about spiders and even less about Indian spiders. Death by spider bite? No, thank you!
I finally decided that I would go ask Neha (the girl who helps Ruth with cooking, kids, and cleaning) for help. I ran downstairs, scared the daylights out of her since she’s not used to seeing me again after dinner, and showed her the picture. Her eyes got wide… I guess those spiders aren’t normal around here… and she said, “I will kill it.” She’s much braver than I am. She grabbed a broom and some insect spray, and off we went.
Thankfully, when we got back to my room, it had barely moved. As soon as Neha started getting close, it sprinted across the wall until it was right over my bed. That thing moved FAST. She climbed onto the mattress and gave it a big smack with her broom, knocking it off the wall and eliminating at least one leg. But no, it was not dead. We couldn’t find it, and I started panicking that it was going to run across the floor and onto my foot and up my leg before I could even blink. With that, I did what any sane person would do, and I leapt onto the closest chair.
Like I said, Neha is much braver than I am. She started looking for the body, poking around under the bed, pulling off the sheets, moving the mattress… until finally she found it hiding in the corner.
“He’s very smart,” she said, as she picked up the insect spray. She blasted him with it, and when he ran, she gave him another whack with the broom. Dead, at last. And also leg-less. I still haven’t found any of his legs yet, but if I’m being completely honest, I haven’t looked that hard. As she swept the body out of the room, a roach flew into the wall and she whacked that too. What the heck is going on in this room?
I barely slept last night. I just kept imagining its creepy long legs and the click click click they made as they tapped on the ground. I would rather wake up with a lizard in my mouth than a spider on my face. I was a wreck. Every sound made my heart stop. I slept with the light on.
At 3AM, I woke up to go to the bathroom, and I saw a dark shape run across the floor. Another roach. If it was a different night, I might have let it live. Not last night. I smashed it and flushed it down the toilet before going back to bed.
In conclusion, I hate spiders, especially ones as big as my face. I have an overactive imagination that is very unhelpful in situations such as these. Neha is an assassin when it comes to insects and arachnids. Still missing: 8 spider legs.
I’ve been on high alert all day with no other spider sightings. Hopefully that means I’ll be able to convince myself to sleep tonight.
Jenrika and I met up earlier this week to get ready for the extra classes we have to teach, and I learned something VERY exciting. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that Jaigaon is right on the border of India and Bhutan. It’s very easy for Bhutanese and Indian people to cross between the two countries. It’s complicated and expensive for most other people to get into Bhutan because they’re trying to minimize Western influences in the country (“high value, low volume” tourism… people have high-quality experiences, but it’s expensive so the country isn’t overrun). I had pretty much accepted the fact that even though I’m right here and can see Bhutan from my window, I would never get the chance to cross the border.
Here’s the exciting part… I met Jenrika at the Bhutan Gate, and she started walking like we were going to go into Bhutan. I said that I didn’t think I was allowed. She said she thought I was. Sure enough, she asked the guard, and anyone is allowed to go into Phuentsholing, the city on the border!! They check your documentation if you try to go farther into the country, but no matter… I went to Bhutan!!!
Bhutan is an interesting country. It’s very small, recently (2008) changed from being an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, and Mahayana Buddhism is the country’s official religion (it’s around 75% Buddhist and the rest Hindu). India gives them a lot of money and military support because as it was explained to me “if India doesn’t, China will”. India and Bhutan have had special treaties for years because Bhutan is like the buffer zone between India and China, and India doesn’t want the Chinese army camping out right on its border. The main export is hydroelectric power, and much of the money for that development has come from India. The rest of the economy is built mostly on tourism and agriculture.
Most of the country covered in forests, and the government has made a strong commitment to preserving and protecting the environment. There’s a big push for electrical cars, and between the hydroelectric power and forest cover, the country is carbon neutral. The government has committed to keeping 40% of the country’s area as national parks and protected areas and 60% covered by forests. That’s pretty awesome!
It is considered a very happy country and attempts to measure its “Gross National Happiness” level. The pursuit of gross national happiness is even included in its 2008 constitution. The caveat to this is that happiness is hard to measure because it’s subjective, and just because people say they’re happy doesn’t mean that there’s no more work to be done. Many people are financially poor (about 30% live below the poverty line), and about 70% don’t have access to electricity.
It’s interesting walking from India into Bhutan because there are some differences that are immediately clear. The biggest one – trash. Bhutan is impeccably clean. There are trash cans everywhere. In India, the street, forest, river, etc. is your trash can. The second biggest one – rule following. In Bhutan, people use crosswalks. They wear helmets on their motorcycles and don’t put 15 people on one. No one is sitting on the roof of the buses in Bhutan. In India, especially outside of the big cities, don’t expect any of those things to be true. When I saw a park and no trash on the ground, I almost cried. I wish I knew about the whole entry situation earlier because I would have been taking weekly mental health trips across the border!
We went to a café, I drank strawberry lemonade and ate a chocolate lava cake, and we threw some plans together for classes this week. It was like being in a wonderful alternate reality.
It’s amazing that it’s taken this long, but I finally got hit with a little wave of culture shock/homesickness. The trip to Darjeeling is definitely what triggered it. Four straight days with a combination of not much “me” time, lots of people not speaking in English, being in an unfamiliar place, constant miscommunications and misunderstandings, and limited contact with friends and family back home added up to me having a VERY grumpy couple of days.
Most of the time, I don’t mind not being able to understand anything. Sometimes I treat it like a (lame) game because even when people are speaking in Hindi or Nepali, they say some words in English, either because there’s no translation or just because that’s how everyone says it. Usually, I think it’s fun to try to piece together the sporadic English words and people’s hand motions and imagine what the conversation is about (the conversations that I imagine are probably way more fun than what’s actually being said). It’s good because then I’m paying attention to what’s happening, and people don’t feel like I’m bored or ignoring them (instead, they often think that I understand since I look so engaged… but that’s a whole different problem).
Anyway, as I said, most of the time, I don’t mind, but I learned that even I have my limits. This was DAYS of never knowing what was happening, and any translations were either an afterthought or because I begged someone to tell me what was going on. As a result, I never knew what the plan was, and on the rare occasion when someone did tell me something, it usually changed and then the new plan was never communicated. Kind of exhausting.
I also got especially frustrated when I heard someone say my name, so I knew that they were saying something about me, but then no one translated. I’m sure that no one was ever saying something mean; that’s not the issue. It just gets old very quickly, and it starts making you feel a bit like a child and a bit isolated… as if I didn’t already feel a little of that ALL the time.
Combine that language isolation with the feeling of separation that comes from being a guest who isn’t asked to do anything, and you’re like a forgotten island. Like imagine that all of the other women are in the kitchen helping to make dinner, but you’re not allowed to help because you’re a guest… so they’re all laughing and having fun working together, and you’re left on your own. It’s nice that they don’t want to make their guest work, but in that moment, you would do anything just to feel included (hence me forcing my way in on momo-making night).
Another thing that starts to get tiring is the politeness of people always telling you to sit or come or this or that. This really threw me off during my first couple of weeks in India when the school coordinator would summon me and tell me to sit in her office. I’d go and sit, thinking that I was in trouble or that she had to talk to me, but then she’d leave the room and never come back. I finally realized that she was just being polite and trying to give me somewhere to go. This happens everywhere though… every house you visit, every public bench that you happen upon, etc. I’m going to give a bold, 100% guarantee that the person you’re with will suggest you take a seat. Sometimes I just want to stand, and when I say that, I get these looks like, “You should really sit. Your legs must be tired. You should sit. Just sit. SIT!” And I’m looking back like, “PLEASE JUST LET ME STAND. I WANT TO STAND. PLEASE. PLEASE. I WANT TO STAND.” And then it’s a… wait for it… stand-off. Hahahahahaha that was great. I’m hilarious.
People are also always asking me if I’m bored or tired. It’s fine sometimes, but then it will happen when I think it makes literally zero sense to ask. For example, when we were walking around the zoo, someone asked me if I was bored. Huh??? No! I love the zoo! Do we have a different understanding of what that word means? Is this just how they teach “small talk” in India? Or if not, how much stimulation do people think I need to feel interested?? I’m very rarely bored, actually. Of all the people in the world, I’d venture to say that I’m up there with the most easily entertained. Put me and babies right next to each other.
So those things started adding up, and you know how once you’re annoyed, EVERYTHING annoys you? That’s pretty much what happened. My irritation level grew and grew until the slightest thing made me want to snap. I knew that it was ridiculous, but sometimes it’s hard to control how you feel. Then, there were ENDLESS pictures and selfies which made it all worse because 1) I don’t love being in pictures anyway, 2) the selfies felt excessive and that annoyed me as well, and 3) I felt like I should smile because that’s what you do in pictures, but I was SO unhappy that my smiling just felt like a lie. That made me definitely not want to be in any pictures (to avoid the risk of my grumpy face breaking the camera), and when you’re already annoyed and people are still trying to take pictures even after you’ve said “NO!”… anyway, it just wasn’t very good.
Thankfully, after a couple of days of being back in a familiar place and self-imposed solitary confinement, I managed to get my head on straight. I’m okay now, but I’m not going to let myself forget that feeling. It all stemmed from me feeling isolated, and that’s a good reminder to always be thinking about making people feel welcome and included in situations where they don’t necessarily fit in.
Darjeeling– explore the mountain town of Darjeeling, India… without the risk of homesickness
Road to Sonada – join me on the trek across West Bengal, India from “home” in Jaigaon to Sonada, a town near our vacation destination of Darjeeling. Always an adventure!
So Many Languages – what makes India lingustically even more confusing/stressful than other countries? Learn about my language discoveries as I tried to make my way as an English Literature teacher in Jaigaon, India.
India Friends! – come along on some adventures with the friends I finally managed to find in India who made me feel like a normal human instead of an alien
Bath– want more flower pictures? Fly on over to Bath, England to visit the botanical garden… and a few other sites along the way
Darjeeling is beautiful!!! I already feel like I need to come back here to do some hiking. The crew I’m with right now is not exactly the hiking type, so I don’t think we’ll be uncovering any of the town’s hidden gems while we’re here. Anyone out there want to come and trek across northern India with me?
Darjeeling is a popular tourist destination for both Indians and foreigners, and its tea industry is internationally recognized. If you’re a tea drinker, you’re probably familiar with Darjeeling tea, especially the classic black tea that is popular worldwide. The town’s recorded history began in the 1800s when the British set up a health resort and military depot in the “Lesser Himalayas” (the shorter mountain range containing Darjeeling that runs parallel to the High Himalayas aka where Mount Everest is located). It became a popular summer escape for the British residents of Kolkata (then Calcutta) who were seeking relief from the heat. The tea growing began in the 1850s when the British started seeking a tea source outside of China. After some trials and hybridization to create teas that would thrive in the Darjeeling climate and elevation, the industry took off. This was good for the town’s growth because it created jobs and motivated the development of infrastructure to transport the tea to Britain.
We enjoyed one of the benefits of that development when we took the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (also called the “Toy Train”) from Sonada to Darjeeling. It was built from 1879-81, and in total, the tracks are 55 miles (88km) long, running from New Jalpaiguri at 328ft/100m elevation to Darjeeling at 6,700ft/2,000m. It’s smaller than a normal train… the tracks are only maybe 2’ apart, and to manage the dramatic elevation change, there are loops and switchbacks (it’s like a zig-zag, and the train goes to the end of the track, stops, and then reverses direction to go up the next run of track, stops, and reverses direction up the next, etc.) to keep the tracks from getting too steep. It’s very impressive! It also has India’s highest elevation railway station (in Ghum) and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
After probably an hour on the train (it doesn’t go very fast, plus it made some stops along the way), we arrived at Darjeeling Station. The views for the entire ride were great, and at the station, we got another glimpse of some of the awesomeness that lay beyond (I say “a glimpse” because there were power lines galore blocking us from getting an unobstructed view). I personally am all about mountain views. I’ve seen a lot of them, but I don’t think they’ll ever get old for me. Plus, they’re all so different. The mountains in Peru are green and awesome, and these are also green and awesome, but they look NOTHING alike. Earth is the coolest. Apparently, you can see all the way to Mount Everest in Nepal on a clear day! But I don’t know how often those kinds of days actually happen with all of the smog… maybe after a really heavy rain.
From there, we headed to the zoo, aka the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park. It opened in 1958 and specializes in the captive breeding of alpine animals. They’ve successfully bred some critically endangered animals like the Himalayan wolf and red panda and the vulnerable snow leopard. I was VERY excited about this because snow leopards are my absolute favorite animal, and any day when I get to see them in person is an exciting one. I stared at them for a long time. It was just as magical as it always is. Side note though, the best place I’ve been to see snow leopards is the San Diego Zoo. You may have heard about how amazing that zoo is, and I’m telling you, believe it! The zoo is beautifully designed, it’s HUGE, they have multiple snow leopards, and you can get so close to them! Anna (the snow leopard) and I made eye contact and instantly became best friends. Sorry this is a huge aside, but seriously, you should go. Also, they have koalas. And Tasmanian devils.
ANYWAY, back to Darjeeling’s zoo. It’s always interesting visiting zoos in different parts of the world because they have different types of animals… like this one had a lot of local fauna which included things like yaks which I don’t think I’d ever seen before. It felt like we were just strolling through the forest (because we were), and as we were leaving, everyone was looking up at a red panda that had climbed up into a tree that was probably (maybe) 100’ tall (at least). It’s nice that they have the space to give them such a big habitat! Or maybe it escaped, who knows.
After the zoo, we did some wandering. We walked farther up the mountain, somehow managing not to get hit by a single car even though we were basically walking in the middle of the street. I frequently feel like I’m some sort of safety nut here because I’m like “hey, maybe we shouldn’t walk in the middle of the street” and everyone else is posing for selfies right in the path of oncoming traffic. I think I’m just being reasonable though, right?
Ah, yes, that’s another cultural difference you can add to the list. People here love selfies. I know what you’re thinking… “Is that really a cultural difference?” But trust me. Their love of selfies goes beyond anything I’ve ever experienced before. Maybe I’m just not running in the right crowds at home. It’s not just selfies though, to be fair. It’s all pictures. People take SO MANY pictures, and most of the time, they’re of very underwhelming things. Like we’ll take a selfie in the middle of the street with nothing interesting in the background. Then we’ll take a selfie on the train. And next to the train. And sitting at the train station. And walking down the street. And and and and and… the list could go on forever. I’m more of a “take pictures for the memories, but also use your eyes and just enjoy the experience” kind of person, so I quickly grew weary of the constant picture-taking. Luckily, everyone’s phones except for mine were dead long before the end of the day. Life’s little blessings.
By the time we finished our wandering and made it down the mountain, dark clouds were starting to roll in. Oh, rainy season, how I hate you. The rain comes frequently, quickly, and heavily. We snagged a bus back to Sonada before the worst of it started, thankfully. Oh, and we also ate more momos… yummm! I ate beef ones this time, so now, in two days, I’ve checked off three different kinds. That’s pretty good, right?
**Note: Post has been edited since its original posting to include more information and photos.
Road to Sonada – experience the joys of traveling across India and come along on the trek from where I lived in Jaigaon to Sonada.
Machu Picchu: The Citadel– enjoy the double fun of seeing Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains AND ride back to Cusco, Peru on the train… via ridiculous switchback train tracks, just like the Toy Train’s.
Lima Zoo – if you like zoos, say hi to the baby tigers at the Lima, Peru zoo! (Plus some bonus material about my life in Peru.)
Mount Aragats – it’s no Everest, but hike to the top of Armenia’s tallest peak, Mount Aragats!
Laguna de los Tres – for some completely different mountain views, hop on over to Argentina!
For the next couple of days, Anisha, Neha, and I are on an adventure! School is closed for the summer holiday (which is a month long because it’s in the middle of the school year… and for the class 9 and 10 kids/teachers, it’s only a week long because the school decided that the kids are behind and need those other three weeks to catch up. Talk about a bummer), so we’re taking advantage of our brief freedom and going to Darjeeling, a popular tourist town in the mountains! Well, we’re actually staying with Anisha’s aunt and uncle in Sonada, a town about 17 km away. We’ll go into Darjeeling tomorrow, but just getting to Sonada from Jaigaon was enough of an adventure for one day!
We left Jaigaon this morning at 5:00 and drove to the train station in Hasimara, about a half an hour away. From there, we took the train to Siliguri. The train took 3-4 hours, and we still had a looong way to go after that. The train was MUCH different from the trains at home. In India, there are usually different classes of train ticket that you can buy, but I’m not sure that our train even had a first-class-type car. We got our tickets (which cost about US$2) and found some space in a car with bench seats, broken fans, and glass-less windows.
There was no conductor or anything in our car, so after the train started moving, no one closed the door. It was just flapping around as we chugged along, and I don’t think anyone else even thought twice about it. The windows had shutters that you could slide up and down to block the sun, plus a glass window that you could also slide up to open. Can you imagine a train in the States where you could completely open the window?? There were a few horizontal bars across the opening, so it’s not like you could fit your whole body through, but there was certainly enough space to stick your arm out. Crazy!
On a separate note, one of the things that I CANNOT get used to is the way that people dispose of garbage in this country (to be fair, it’s not just here. There are a lot of countries/places where litter is a huge problem). When I’m traveling and eat a snack or something, I keep the wrapper in my bag until I can find a trash can. Here, you just throw it out the window. Anisha and Neha got some tea, and when they finished, out the window their cups went! Every time I see someone litter without a second thought (probably without even a first thought), it physically pains me. I want to just go and pick everything up! All of the trash cans here say “Use Me” on them, and at first, it’s kind of funny because you’re like, “Uhhh, why does the trash can have to tell you what to do?” Then, you realize that it really does need to be said, and it’s not quite as funny anymore.
When we finally arrived in Siliguri, we took a car the rest of the way to Sonada. It was basically the same concept as the mini-buses that I took in Ghana and Peru, but this was clearly made for the mountains. I’m not fully informed on car terminology, but I think it would be an SUV? I have no idea. It reminded me of an army vehicle or a hummer or something. Ugh, I don’t know. Just look at the picture. Ours also had caged chickens strapped to the top, so that’s fun.
Leaving Siliguri, it was hot, dusty, and miserable. About half an hour into the drive, we started climbing up a mountain, and the air started changing. It got cooler and cleaner (or so it felt), and I felt like a new person. The drive took about 2-1/2 hours, including a lunch stop along the way at a little roadside shack. We got vegetable momos (steamed dumplings… sometimes also fried, but not most commonly… and stuffed with either a meat or vegetable filling), and I was in heaven because momos are quite possibly my favorite food in all of India.
I had no idea at the time, but momos are one of the most popular local foods in the Darjeeling area which means that even if it had nothing else to offer, I would strongly recommend that all of you go there. Of course, there are plenty of places where you can find momos in Southeast Asia (especially Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and parts of China), but man… the ones in Darjeeling are GOOD.
We finally made it to Sonada a little before 1PM, and all I wanted to do was go to sleep. I don’t understand why traveling is so tiring when all you’re doing is sitting for hours and hours! But of course, I couldn’t go to sleep quite yet. After we got settled, we wandered around town a bit and went to pick up a chicken for dinner.
The dinner plan was chicken momos, and I was THRILLED. Yes, we did just have momos for lunch, but those were COMPLETELY different… vegetable vs. chicken… duh! Anyway, while we were out, we went to the butcher to get the meat. This was at another little roadside shack, and it was one of those times when I would have been okay with not knowing exactly where my food came from. The meat is all sitting out, and the flies are taking advantage. Eek.
After we bought the chicken, the guy chopped it up for us because it was being used for momos… and he did this with a cleaver on his chopping block aka tree stump, and I’m 100% certain than little pieces of wood ended up mixed in (because I pulled a tiny piece out of one of my momos later that night)… It was fine… But like I said, I would have been okay not knowing.
Since I love momos so much, I was determined to learn how to make them and saw this as a perfect opportunity. I’ve been trying to force my way into the kitchen this entire trip, but no one ever lets me help with anything because I’m a guest. Little do they know that my desire to help is completely selfish… I want to absorb their cooking knowledge so that I can enjoy momos for the rest of my life!
This time, I refused to take no for an answer, and I talked my way in just in time to learn how to wrap the momos! They had already made the dough and the filling by the time I got there, so that will have to be a lesson for another day.
The first one I wrapped looked horrible, and everyone (myself included) spent a solid 5 minutes laughing at it. I watched Anisha’s sister make about three more before I was convinced that I understood the technique, and from there, mine got better and better! By the end, Anisha’s sister said that mine were better than hers! Which, of course, I protested against, but I will say that I made vast improvements. Of course, each one took me about 1 minute to make while hers took maybe 15 seconds, but you have to start somewhere!
Tomorrow we’re going into Darjeeling, and I’m excited for more mountain views! The views were amazing on the drive up to here, and Darjeeling is even higher in the mountains.
** Note: This post has been edited since its original posting to include more information and photos.
Darjeeling– admire the mountain views from Darjeeling!
The Long Trek Home – join me on my longest travel day… 42 hours!… as I made my way home from India.
The Ride Home from Kokrobite – traveling in Ghana took FOREVER, especially when going and coming from the village where I lived. Come along on the endless adventure home from a weekend trip to Kokrobite!
Zakopane – if you’re a fan of mountain views, you’ll love Zakopane, Poland. These mountains are enough to take your breath away!
Machu Picchu Hikes – for a completely different mountain landscape, check out the Peruvian Andes and visit the incredible site of Machu Picchu.