Along with a motley crew of travelers from Israel, Poland, England and Germany, we hired a jeep to take us from the city of New Jalpaiguiri, where we disembarked our train, to Darjeeling – 80km, 3 hours and 7,000 feet of elevation away. In our mini-UN of a jeep, we discussed, as we always do in situations like these: American politics, health care, Michael Moore films, George Bush vs Barack Obama and why Americans don’t travel outside of the US (almost invariably in that order). The new wrinkle in the conversation came from the German who warned us that Obama is “a master hypnotist” and that we needed to be careful because, as such, we can easily be controlled by his cadence and manner of speech “to do things.” Thank you, duly noted. This is to say nothing of the variety of drugs and personal oddities you can find in India. This place is full of them. Most prevalent are the 30 year Goan veterans who moonlight as yogis/dealers/preachers and daylight as just freaking weird.The journey up was more than I reckoned we were in for. I, for one, am afraid of one thing only in life: heights. Not being in a plane or a big building kind of heights, but the “Holy crap, our driver looks to be about twelve, there are no guardrails, these roads are way too narrow for two automobiles, why are so many people walking alongside the road with huge burlap sacks when these roads are too narrow for two automobiles” kind of heights. In short, I was freaking out. Why, I asked myself, did I pay so much to skydive in New Zealand when I could get the same feeling for $3 here? Laura, normally my rock in these cases, was beyond freaking out. Grabbing my leg, gritting her teeth and alternating a sour face with brief sighs of relief, I realized that I had to be the strong one here. To assuage my fear, I just had to concentrate on that kid in front of me who was smiling broadly and hanging onto the back of the jeep in front of us. Wait, what? Yep, here I am hyperventilating while this youngster is teeming with delight while he freeloads a ride on the back of some jeep bounding 7,000 feet up some very steep cliffs! I console myself, thinking that maybe he’d begin to hyperventilate if he were put in an office cubicle like mine back in Chicago. Err, wait, after 5 continuous months of traveling the thought of that is making me a little queasy now, too. Halfway to the top, we stop for no logical reason, other than that logic and reason don’t apply in India. I use the moment to take stock of all the changes 3,500 feet of elevation has brought us. For one, the people look incredibly different. Laura said it best, “It looks like you took all of Asia and put it into a blender and out came Darjeeling.” The people’s skin is lighter, their eyes squintier and their heads are only slightly wobbling. Women had exchanged saris for jeans and silk tops. Men are not wearing colorful turbans. The rickshaws – gone. The acrid smell of burning trash, fecal matter and stale urine – still there, but less so. The intense stares that we’ve become accustomed to in India– nowhere to be found. I’ve been standing here now for 30 seconds and haven’t been accosted yet to take a boat or a rickshaw or been solicited to buy hashish, ganja or chora? Jesus, is this heaven? No, it’s Darjeeling. Our introduction to Himalayan culture was made very apparent as I sat down, not to a spicy curry, but to a delicious lunch of steamed, chicken momos. After this, it was back into the jeep for the rest of the climb up to Darjeeling proper. After another hour through the dense fog that we’d get to know well in our time in Darjeeling, we arrived, as I had hoped, in one piece. We exchanged contact information with our fellow travelers (minus the German whom I didn’t want to share more life details with) and said our goodbyes for the moment (Darjeeling’s “strip” and the Bible that is Lonely Planet would ensure that we’d see each other again several more times in the city).
Darjeeling is not heaven, but after a month in India it seemed close enough. Having read that, you may think that I hated India. You’d be wrong. You see, India is a complex place that will make you feel. At times – wonderful, happy, joyous, excited and yearning for more. And other times – sad, tired, broken and wanting to give up. We were not crossing any literal borders, but it was obvious, on the road to Darjeeling we were leaving behind a country, and with it, a piece of ourselves. And, at least for the moment, this was OK.