These Are (not?) Indians: West Bengal & Sikkim Edition

From the mountains of Nagaland to the plains of Assam to the mountains (again) of Arunachal Pradesh to the moors of Meghalaya to the flood plains of West Bengal to the mountains (again, again) of Sikkim, no matter how much the landscape changes and changes back, one thing remains constant: everybody loves to gawk at, chat with, and take care of a cyclist in need.  Or even not in need.  Being in the vicinity suffices.  Here are some shots of various strangers who fed, sheltered, and befriended me during the last leg of my travels in !nd!a’s !ncred!ble northeast.

West Bengal

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Behind the counter at a fast food hole-in-the-wall, Phulbari.  It might be technically in Meghalaya, but the feel is 100% West Bengal.

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By which I mean: hordes of dudes, hardly a lady in sight.  Dark skin, piercing stares, and some freaky beards.  West Bengal is yet another province where though a good chunk of the residents are technically Indian, most of them are culturally Bengali – that is, from Bangladesh.  They speak the Bangla language, which uses a different script than Hindi, and practice a different religion.  Most are Muslim.  As immigrants, they are an ethnic and religious minority and, from all appearances, economically underprivileged as well.

2014-08-19 to Phulbari 005 (res)

I’d really like to pull apart the above factors and figure out which is responsible for the locals’ frustrating if well-enough-meaning mob quality.  I was politely asked to leave the restaurant because the human traffic jam caused by the gawkers.  Funny thing is, only the very front row of which could see me, since I was seated in the back corner.  The rest was pure rubbernecking.

2014-08-19 to Phulbari 007 (res)

As anyone (who looks like a foreigner) who has ever been to India knows, it’s not always easy to maintain a friendly disposition when the mobs set upon you like this.  One wonders: am I really so weird?  Am I really such a sight?  Am I really so….white?  I guess the answer is “yes.”

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Some new “friends” from the 2-hour boat ride across the Bhramaputra river.  I spent the first 30 minutes of it squatting on my helmet politely answering the same brief gamut of questions (sometimes as short as “Where are you from?”  “USA.”  [wordlessly wobbles head, walks away]), trying hard to keep a smile on my face despite feeling like an animal in a zoo.

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Eventually Saddam Hussein (real name) took pity on me.  “I’m sorry about them.  They have never seen a foreigner before.  Please don’t mind.”  We spent the remainder of the trip chatting about this and that.  Somehow he steered the conversation towards religion.

“Are you a Christian?”

My evasive answer: “Uhmmmm…my family is Christian.”  This is not a total lie, if you go back a couple generations.

“But are you a Christian?

(Getting slightly terrified): “Uhm…no.”

“What religion are you?”

“I don’t have a religion.”

“But aren’t you grateful to be alive?”

Wow, that’s a nice sentiment.

“Yeah, I’m grateful to my parents, family, friends, farmers, rivers, forests, nature.  I think it’s important to be good to all of them.  I don’t know anything about God up there [point to sky.]”

[Awkward silence].

“It seems like my answer shocked you a little, Saddam.”

“You remember my name?”

“…yeah, it’s a pretty famous name in my country.”

“Yes, I know.”  [Good nature chuckle.]

Phew, near-crisis averted!

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Two other young gents who sat with me and Saddam for the duration of the ride, chiming in with questions every now and then.  All three of them were on their way back to college on the other side of the river.

The Sinhas

Already mentioned several times on this blog, my and Chris’s dear friend Indrajit.  Mom from one province, dad from another, he lives in a third, speaks two languages on top of those (English and Hindi), runs a youth-empowerment NGO, and hosts vagabond cyclists in his downtime.

(Photo courtesy of Chris Buchman @ www.fromatobe.com)

He loved us so much that he even set us up with his super-sweet relatives in Siliguri, a few hundred kilometers west.

Choice quotation from uncle (far right): “I will remember you two for the rest of my lifespan.”

Choice quotation from Grandma: “Take tea.  Guests are next to god.”

Choice quotation from Auntie: “Take rice.  Take more rice.”

Choice quotation from Granduncle: “God bless you.”

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Sinha family, some forty years ago.  That’s Grandma and uncle there in the center.

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Grandpa and Grandma, before they were even mommy and daddy.

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The family photos on the mantle reminded me – what better pastime when visiting your friend’s folks than poking through old albums in search of something embarrassing?

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India or not, the 70s were the 70s.

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Priceless Portrait c/o CB@ www.fromatbe.com

Darjeeling (West Bengal / Ghorkaland)

(depending on whether you ask the government or a local)

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The eponymous Sonam and her husband, Puran, whose restaurant serves up Darjeeling’s most kickassest hashbrowns and whose homestay’s walls are decorated with photos of scenes from Seven Years in Tibet…with one of Puran’s uncles playing the lead Indian Army officer!

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Monklets at a Darjeeling monastery.

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I awoke one morning to what sounded like a gang of Gen-xers sitting around playing everything they could remember from “Now, THAT’S What I Call Music, Vol. 1.”  I wandered up and down the backstreets of Darjeeling looking for the source, expecting it to be a bunch of 30-ish bearded (or at least relatively shaggy) travelers like myself. Instead, it was a class of Nepali teens employing the universal student tactic of finding any excuse at all not to have class.  In this case, it was Teachers’ Day, so the kids took turns playing songs for theirs.  And jumping on tables.

2014-09-07 Darjeeling 007 (res)

Seeing a cake, my always alert food-mooching instinct kicked in and I announced “You know, I’m a teacher, too.”  Ten minutes later my mouth and beard were both treated to a taste.  Then they washed my face off firehose-style with a nice spritz of shaken-up Sprite.

As if by way of apology, the kids then invited me to meet them up by the monastery for a joint after class.

“Darjeeling weed is the best!”

That’s a quotation from them, not my own appraisal.

Sikkim

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Please let me in to your remote Buddhist kingdom!

The officers were more interested in trying out a round of hacky-sack with my rattan ball and chatting me up than they were in checking my permit.

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Chandra (back right) and family, Legship, first night.  I met Chandra in a gazebo while trying to take cover from the rain.  A mere thirty minutes before I had refused the police’s offer of a volleyball court to sleep on, not wanting risk setting up camp in place open to both the public and large projectiles.  I began to regret the decision about five minutes after when the sky darkened and the clouds opened up.

I awkwardly waited for Chandra and his friend to vacate the gazebo so that I could set up camp, but before long I got a bright idea: why not try to instigate a homestay?  I asked for permission to camp somewhere near his house, and he said that actually they had an extra bed I could take for the evening.

Their home was a simple one: one room for grandma, one room for the three sisters, one room for Chandra, his guitar, and his amp, and one room for his parents, all in a building about the size of my parents’ living room.   The kitchen was a separate shack a few feet away to one side, dad’s workspace – he made knives and machetes – was a similar distance on the other side.

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The lone lama that morning at Sanga Choeling monastery, one of the oldest in Sikkim.  He let us into the main hall, the centerpiece of which was a 3-foot tall turquoise Buddha in the midst of unambiguously amorous relations with a the turquoise lady on his lap.  (“Tantric Buddhism” may sound like a contradiction in terms, but it’s actually how some of Tibet’s schools are classified.)

The lama then invited us back to his quarters to see pictures of the monastery from before its last makeover, and subsequently sold me a little mantra charm for $3.  he blessed it for me with a five minute memorized incantation and told me it would protect me from food poisoning, but that it would lose its powers if I wore it while copulating.  Good thing I was intending it as a bike trinket!

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One of those magical moments when kids just out of school, all mirth and good cheer, meet cyclist moving uphill, grunting and cursing with every revolution.  Much giggling and screaming with delight ensued, from all parties involved.

2014-09-19 to Tarku 001 (res)

My destination for that night was Sanu’s place in Tashiding.  I had run into her at the guesthouse near the Living Root Bridges and promised immediately to visit her homestay, being slightly confident that it’d be on the way to somewhere.

Sanu is the last of 11 kids!  She’s 35, mom’s 80-something, and Sanju’s oldest sibling is going on 70!  I guess Catholics and Buddhists aren’t as different as I thought.

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Ever since the last of the kids grew up, Granny has dedicated herself to religion.   She often brags to Sanu about how many prayer beads she’s counted over the course of the day – but also still knows how to enjoy her Hindi soap operas in the evening.  Most days she treks (that’s not just flowery language there) up the back path to the monastery about 45 minutes away.  It’s gotta be several kilometers and a 200m altitude gain, accomplished via forest paths and mossy stairs carved into the rock.  When she gets to the monastery, she joins other neighborhood grannies and one monk for a few hours of seated chanting, bead-counting, and spinning of WWF Wrestler-sized prayer wheels.  I followed her one day, and I’ve got to say: much respect.  All of those activities were physically demanding, even for me.

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On my way to the capital, I had occasion to try out some passive-aggressive underhanded manipulation skills.  A friendly older guy tried to chat me up at a restaurant, but I shot him down: “Sorry uncle, I don’t really have time to talk right now, I need to find somewhere to sleep before the sun goes down.”  Voila!  “I’d let you come to my place, but it’s five kilometers downhill.  Let me see if these Biharis can help you out.”

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I had heard bad things about Biharis before – their province, Bihar, is know for being among the poorest and roughest in India.  Locals in the northeast often complain about how the Biharis have come in and set up shops.  Just about everything that comes to the northeast from the greater subcontinent has to pass through Bihar, so I suppose the Biharis control the flow of goods to some extent.  There are also millions of them, and many looking for a way out.

These Biharis had immigrated to Sikkim a few decades ago and were running a simple roadside shop selling potatoes and onions (the two staple veggies here), instant noodles, household necessities, and of course Chai.   The main family, including mom, sisters, and babies, slept in a concrete room underneath the shop, while visiting uncles and a few younger guys slept in a wooden room built into the cliff below.  For some reason, there identical room adjoined to that one was empty; that’s where they let me pitch my tent.  I couldn’t tell whether the two lower wooden rooms were the original building or an afterthought.

We had our own little Iron Chef competition that evening, me on my mini camping stove vs uncle and his stove that also ran on pressurized liquid fuel.  I whipped up a green lentil/potato/squash stew with nutritional yeast that nobody, myself included, was exactly keen on trying.  Uncle whipped up rice and potato curry – predictable, dependable, and much more edible than my melange.

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We sat around for a few hours in the dark playing around with all my gear – tent, sleeping mat, stove, jacket-rolled-into-pillow, ukelele – before uncle whipped out his “Bihari guitar,” the first stringed instrument I’ve seen that ought to be classified under the percussion category since it only has one note.  TWANG!

“Uncle, can you play a song on that?”

“No song.”  TWANG!  TWANG!

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2014-09-26 to Reang 001 (res)

On to the capital, Gangtok!  The Chettris, or at least four-sevenths of them.  They hosted me and Chris for about a week, and are still holding on to his stuff for him while he takes a brief hiatus to visit family in the US of A.  Though I guess he’ll be back by the time this post goes up.

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Bevina, a friend of one of the Chettris, and family.  They’re Gurung tribe, but the kids don’t speak Gurung anymore – it’s Nepali, English, and Hindi for them.

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Lower left is Bevina’s father; the lady in the photo is his aunt, whom Bevina and I had met by chance on the street just an hour before.  Now she’s an 80 year old woman.  When Bevina saw her coming, she approached and lowered her head, which Granny then touched with both hands while uttering a small blessing.  It’s a traditional greeting between elders and young’uns who haven’t met in a while.

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Sikkim has a reputation for being India’s cleanest state, a factoid which I should know better than to promise to write more about later.

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On my last day in town, I came across a street fair on MG Marg (Mahatma Gandhi Road), Gangtok’s swank pedestrian street.   The top teams from schools around the city had come out to share their posters and rehearsed speeches with passers-by.

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All of the students can tell you about the importance of reducing, reusing, recycling, separating your trash, and composting – in your choice of English, Hindi, or Nepali.

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Mr. Sherpa and Tenzin, his mechanic-in-training.  Gangtok’s go-to guys for anything cycle-related.  Thanks for the tune-up!

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Pema (front and center), family, and neighbor.  I stopped at the neighbor’s brightly-lit mansion of a house and asked the maids if I might be able to camp somewhere nearby.  They consulted their boss and turned me away.  Thankfully, Pema was nearby and said that I could stay with his family.  The only open space on their property was filled with construction rubble, so rather than having me pitch my tent, Pema insisted I share his double bed.   Not exactly what I had bargained for, but I can’t exactly back out now.

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A geography lesson with Pema and some neighborhood kiddos on my last night in Sikkim, and in India.

Here’s where I’m from, here’s where I’ve been, here’s where we are.  As for where I’m going…I don’t really know either.

Thanks to everyone pictured and everyone not for another month during which I truly felt the love.

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2 Responses to These Are (not?) Indians: West Bengal & Sikkim Edition

  1. Harish says:

    Thanks for taking us with you in your journey through this account which is beauifully illustrated. A bit envious too coz you are doing what i want to do. Have a grand time.

    • Michael Roy says:

      Hi Harish, thanks for checking my page out. Hope you get the chance to do your own ride someday – until then, you can travel vicariously through 3RR!