OK, so it’s stretching it a little to call my room at the Hotel Delhi Durbar in Kurseong a gaol cell. But after the giddy ecstasy of the toy train, I loaded my immense backpack onto my back, which is not really designed for 75-litre backpacks, and staggered up the hill, hoping to find the Hotel. It wasn’t “near the station” as my friends in Lonely Planet had said, but a fair hike up the main road, 10-15 minutes, which isn’t easy with your life on your shoulders.
Anyway, I have the choice of 3 rooms – each is pale purple, linoleum floor, exposed light fittings, paper-thin mattresses and doonas that look a thousand years old. The choice is basically whether I want to face the mountains or the road, and whether I want my toilet to have a window. Sigh. I’ve had pretty fantastic accommodation so far, and need to save some money, so Delhi Durbar it is.
Here is the point at which I almost cry out “stop it!!!”, as in the morning, I can almost visualise the viscous deposits that are being noisily hoiked up from the throat and lungs of the men in the rooms next to me. The bathrooms back onto each other, and their walls don’t reach the ceiling, so the resonance is memorable, to say the least. Wonderful wake-up call!
As it turns out, the owner is quite lovely, with his calm uncle demeanor and his coiffured almost-wig-looking black hair. He gives me a few hints on the town’s sights, and lights up with recognition when I tell him I’m a poet – “ah, you know Tagore?”. Of course I do.
Kurseong’s main street is the railway line, and most of its streets are narrow, winding and/or steep. It’s not a tourist town; I feel like I don’t quite belong – there are no tourist shops, few signs, everywhere people are just getting on with their lives – it has a huge semi-covered market, where you can get fresh fish (filleted before your eyes), vegetables, spices, grains, clothes, shoes and lots of plastic. The shops, which are often tailors, sweets stores, corner store-style shops, are usually smaller than a walk-in robe in one of those McMansions.
Off the main street, there are oceans of tea plantations, undulating hills, a pastel checkerboard of houses clinging to those hills, English-era boarding schools and churches. When mid-afternoon hits, in winter, fog rushes across the town, so thick you can see only 10 metres ahead.
It’s not the season, so I don’t get to see any of Kurseong’s famed orchids, but I do take a long meandering hike up the main ridge to see the sights. Half way up, I’m a little lost, and am given an impromptu “tour” by 70-something-year-old local man BB Chitre. Walking these steep, rugged streets, I’m panting, but he’s fine. He takes me to see the reservoir (um, yes, that is a lot of water…), the officer’s quarters for the West Bengal Forestry Department (hmm, yes, interesting…), and the Forestry Museum (which is closed). The streets, the hills, the houses, the air, though… sublimely beautiful and humbly gorgeous.
BB is a lovely guy. Language is a gulf we struggle to cross, but something clicks. He finds us a share taxi to go down the hill (twelve of us in a Land Rover…), and asks if I can help him get to Siliguri. I give him money to cover his fare; he asks for more; I say I don’t have it; he insists; I say I can’t… eventually he’s happy, and bends down to nudge his forehead against my chest, gripping my hands and grinning. We swap addresses.
Kurseong is a subtle town – it doesn’t need to impress you, doesn’t really need you, in fact. But I got so many hellos and namastes and smiling nods of the head here. There are no hassles, and it has a heart of gold. On my three days here, I saw one other non-Asian, and she was leaving…
I also had some fantastic food. Sadly, the great food is often in the places where you get the over-the-top, “everything OK sir?”, watching-you-like-a-servant-hawk service. At first it grated on me immensely. I’m not a sir. I hate being reminded that I am the rich one, being waited on by people earning what I’d spend on food per day. As time has gone on, it grates less. Which makes me wonder if the accumulated centuries of castes and roles and heirarchies makes it easy for people who live here to switch off. I don’t know. It still grates.
Of course, not all the food is in pristine places. Sometimes you get the best food in grimy, dimly lit hovels where the samosas are cooked over a portable gas burner, and the owner and his wife also run a tailoring business in the same room, and they chat with you about your travels…