I’ve just left Kalimpong, having spent a week in what one young Indian man told me is “the second Switzerland”. Leo also said that Kalimpong is Heaven, whereas Kolkata is Hell. It’s not heaven, but it’s been a huge oasis for me, in spite of a few little scares.
I took a share jeep from Siliguri to Kalimpong – it takes about 3 hours, up steep, potholed mountain roads, with 12 of us in one jeep, hips bumping against hips, legs crammed in. Deep-vein thrombosis is not a risk on long-haul flights, really, compared to this. Still, amazing trip! As we stopped for fuel at the outskirts of Siliguri, the local India Oil servo was preparing for a celebration – the entire place was covered in orange flower garlands, Hindi pop music blared from loudspeakers, a hundred plastic chairs were lined up in front of a podium – the banner proclaiming welcome to the CEO for the grand opening of an automated service station! On the share jeep ride, I also saw many roadside shrines, monkeys, cows, more tiny shacks selling paan (of course!) and car-exhaust-stained vegetables.
I am slowly becoming accustomed to poverty, I think. I expected to be thrown into despair, but I just feel somewhere between stunned, speechless and cold. In Kalimpong, there is definitely poverty but not to the extent of Kolkata. I had people say hello, ask me where I’m from, etc but no-one hassle or beg or try to drag me into their store. Of course, it seems there’s no work in town, so all the local teens are fairly surly and preparing to get out. I met a few of them, and they wanted to smoke dope and talk about rock music, and who they might marry. Some things are the same here, some things so different!
My first night here, I found a little restaurant, ordered a great Malai Kofta, and as I was feeding myself, a small group of about eight men gathered about ten metres away in the darkness. They started hitting and kicking one man, knocking him to the ground. A woman was screaming. It was dark, and cars were passing, so I couldn’t see, but it all stopped soon, and they all seemed to leave. As I was leaving, I asked what it was about, and was told “oh, they’re just drunk, it’s safe here but…” After that, I didn’t see any violence or drunkenness, but while it’s certainly a friendly town (I had so many people just smile, say hi, etc), there’s a complex history and a real sense of uncertainty about the future.
I have to say I have at times felt very romantic about the architecture and vehicles of India – there are Vespa-style motorbikes, gracious curved modernist/art-deco houses, signs that are hand-painted (and often misspelt). So much seems to have come from the first half of the 20th century. Indian people, from what I can tell, would take the new any day, but this is a subsistence, getting-by economy.
Stickers, posters and murals everywhere declare the demand for an autonomous Gorkhaland. The West Bengal Hills were taken by the Nepalese Gorkhas in the 18th Century, then by the British in the 19th. Kalimpong is primarily Nepali, but there is also Indian, Tibetan, and many others. It’s a real mix of people. But there seems to be a strong desire for autonomy from the West Bengal State Government. Conflicts, even killings, have resulted from differences over the degree of autonomy that is acceptable, and the means to achieve it. While I was there, there was a day long strike. Women congregated at the Rotary Club-built lookout park, and men around the Police Station, holding placards and flags. No conflict, just I think a reminder that’s what they want.
Kalimpong is also a mix of religions too – catholic churches, Hindu temples and Buddhist gompas. I spent a bit of time in the latter two. The Krishna temple was interesting – a huge, almost gaudy white and pink structure, with a tiny room where devotees prayed, circled the shrine and made offerings. I have a long way to go before I know anything of substance about Hinduism. It seems an immensely complex, malleable, ambiguous religion – a religion of stories rather than truths.
The gompas in Kalimpong are beautiful. As I walked around two of them, I was immediately invited inside. Interestingly, the gaze the monks gave me was neither welcoming nor unwelcoming, just a quiet constant regard. At both, I sat in the main hall for a while, but within minutes a young adept would be by my side looking at me mutely. The halls are explosions of colour, murals of various Buddha incarnations, worn crimson cushions and wood bench tables. There is a calm in these places, but it is not hyper-spiritual at all. Young monks play hacky-sack, kids tease the local dogs with sticks (shades of “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…”!), other monks carve and saw wood, building things.
I’ve had such ups and downs here. I’ve walked the beautiful, busy, lively backstreets, and wept out of loneliness. I’ve sat in calm awe on the balcony of Deki Lodge (where I stayed – a lovely little Tibetan-run place – the owner is a 60-year-old matronly saleswoman – as I left she showered me with mandarins and biscuits for my trip!). I’ve also met many lovely people, with a kind of aggressive friendliness – “MP” who gave me a list of local Nepali bands I should track down, Leo and Bakash who took me out for Tea and sat with me at the local park around a makeshift fire, and Charlie an American Buddhist who’s been travelling around India for about 2 years now. There is no replacement for friends and home. Homesickness persists, but it is abated, eased, replaced even, by the immense warmth and calm of this place.
PS. This photo was taken by a precocious local 8-year-old boy, who was fascinated by my camera, took dozens of photos. I had to pry it out of his hands, even though three of the fingers were missing.