Tuesday, October 13, 2009

From Darjeeling to Kathmandu

Wow. Simply put, Kathmandu is totally awesome. I love it here! But before I get to my time in Nepal, it would make sense to write a little bit more about Darjeeling and our voyage from India to Nepal.

Looking back at the time we spent in Darjeeling, I realized that we didn't really do all that much. The funny thing is, it didn't really matter. Darjeeling was just one of those places that is amazing to be in even though there aren't very many "sites" to see. You just kind of walk around and soak up the vibe. The main attraction for most people is gazing at the mountains. That was a problem for us though because we didn't get one day of good weather while we were there.

We spent six nights in Darjeeling. That's longer than we've spent anywhere else on this entire trip. And yet, I can't really figure out where those six days went. Of course, I was sick for half of it, but even after I got better, we didn't really push ourselves to do that much. I've spent the last five weeks aggressively travelling and doing as much as I possibly could wherever I was. I may never get to come back to some of these places so I'm not just gonna sit on my butt and let the time go by. Looking back, during our time in other big cities, we would usually head out at about 9 or 10 in the morning and often wouldn't come back to our hotel until 8 or 9 at night. But Darjeeling was all about catching up on sleeping and relaxing. And I think we did a pretty good job of that.

Darjeeling is also very interesting because of its politics. There is an active independence movement that can really be felt throughout the region. Darjeeling is the biggest city in the hilly region in the north of West Bengal. The majority of the people are Gurkhas, which is from what I understand an ethnicity that is very similar to Nepali. In other words, the people here have infinitely more in common with other Himalayan people in Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan than they do with the ethnic Indians that run the government of West Bengal.

As I looked into the history, I learned that the Gorkhas have been pushing for self governance for over a century now. At this point, they aren't asking for their own country. They just want their own state within India. From my perspective, it seems like a pretty reasonable request. Within the last twenty years, several new states such as Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh have broken away from other states, so the concept of Gorkhaland isn't totally out of the question. The region is only part of West Bengal as a result of British colonial policy. And like so many other post-colonial situations, ethnic tension still festers long after the colonizer went home.

"We Want Gorhkaland" banners were ubiqitious throughout Darjeeling. Groups of young men and woman walk around in green Gorkhaland track suits and red berets. It wasn't a military uniform. It was more like a national pride uniform. Ms. Tranquility was also very vocal about Gorkhaland. It is a bizarre thing then that a signigicant portion of Darjeeling's economy is based on tourism, and that the vast majority of these tourists are Indians coming up from the south. It wasn't as if ethnic violence was about to break out, but there was always a slight bit of tension in the air between the Indian tourists and their hosts. For example, although she didn't say it in so many words, Ms. Tranquility made it abundantly clear that Indians were not welcome to stay at her hotel. "We just can't trust them," she said.

Mimi and I kept thinking back to the fight between the Gorkha bullies and our Indian driver. At the time, we sided with our driver. The guys from the other jeep were clearly jerks who had a bone to pick. They were the aggressors. But perhaps in this microcosm moment, they felt justified in their aggression. They see Indians as neo-colonizers. They feel like second-class citizens. They feel like they are being culturally and linguistically suffocated. Obviously they weren't justified in hard-charging our Indian driver for 200 Rupees. They were clearly in the wrong. But I thought back to when one of the other Indian passengers explained to me, "They are just local boys trying to prove their power." There was something condescending in his explanation. It implied that they didn't have a valid claim to the power they were trying to obtain.

This one little skirmish isn't a perfect microcosm of the political situation. But it was still a very interesting moment and I didn't really recognize the political significance of it at the time. I didn't even know what Gorkhaland was before I came to Darjeeling and I certainly didn't know that there was a century-old political movement behind it. India is a vast, complicated country that we as Americans know very little about. Reading the newspapers here I am learning about things that just don't ever make it to the United States. For example, as we speak, the Indian government is contemplating using massive air force retaliation against a group of violent Maoist rebels that are terrorizing the countryside in an unstable province called Bihar. In the past few weeks alone, the Maoists shot sixteen farmers in cold blood and also beheaded a local police officer. Before I came to India, I didn't even know where Bihar was!

Anyways, I am officially rambling. Where was I? Oh yeah, I wanted to talk about the last few things we did while in Darjeeling. Ready for a big topic shift? We went to the zoo! We got to see some really cool monkeys, tigers, and birds. Within the zoo grounds is also a mountaineering institute that was founded and run by Tenzing Norgay, a native of Darjeeling who along with Edmund Hillary was the first man to reach the top of Mount Everest back in the 50s. The mountaineering institute is still active, but also has a historical museum that I found pretty interesting. The coolest part was a model replica of the Himalayas. People in Darjeeling love Tenzing Norgay and many things are named after him.

Traveling from Darjeeling to Kathmandu took one full day. Inititally, we had planned to take a bus all the way, which would have taken two full days, including a seventeen hour bus ride through Nepal. After asking around, we decided it was worth the money to take a short plane trip from the Nepal border into Kathmandu. To do this, we had to get up early and take another shared jeep back down the through the hills to a crummy town called Siliguri. From there, we took another share jeep to the border. The driver of the second jeep was definitely one of the crazier drivers I've ever had the pleasure of riding with.

As he weaved through the traffic with reckless abandon, he told us how he thought Darjeeling was a dirty place. "Siliguri is so much more beautiful! Look!" I looked out the window and saw one of the uglier cities I can remember. You can never discount hometown pride though.

The border itself was virtually non existant. When we arrived at the border town, our driver pulled over and told us to go through immigration. Immigration turned out to be a little bamboo hut on the side of the road. The border guard was definitely not guarding any border, for there was nothing to have stopped us from just driving straight on through to Nepal.

It was the same on the Nepali side. We actually had to look around a bit before we found the immigration office. It was off on the side of the road and there was a big fat cow hanging out on the grass in front of the building. We went inside and got our Nepal visas, but again, there was nothing from stopping us from heading straight onto Kathmandu. We decided to play it safe and go the official route.

After getting our visas, we took a final taxi to the airport, which was about half an hour away. It was definitely the smallest airport I've ever been to. We had the pleasure of flying Buddha Air, which is one of Nepal's domestic airlines. I was very stoked about flying on an airline with such a cool name. I must admit though that I became quite jealous when I found out that the other option in Nepal is Yeti Airlines. What cool names!

The flight was short and uneventful. It was still cloudly so we didn't get to see any mountains from the airplane. We arrived in Kathmandu in the late afternoon and a nice man from the Kathmandu Peace Guest House met us at the airport. I think it's so funny that I can pay $6 for a room and have someone waiting for me at the airport holding my name on a sign. Only in Asia.

That's enough for now. I have a lot to say about Kathmandu, but I'll leave it for another post.   

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