Sunday, January 22, 2012

My Winter in Darjeeling

Darjeeling, INDIA: 5 - 17 Jan. 2012
At just over ten weeks, my time in Darjeeling was relatively short. But it was long enough for me to enjoy being settled in one place, to get to know some very nice people, and to grow fond of lots of the little things that make Darjeeling special.

Such things include: the rows of potted plants decorating the front of most homes; groups squatting around small fires on the streets in the evenings; people wearing fake North Face jackets; the smiling legless beggar who appears to rise directly out of the ground; the horse stables just off the main square; the rows of tiny raised stalls where sellers sit cross-legged all day among their wares of gloves, woolly hats and pashminas; children of all ages playing badminton on the streets; enjoying a hair cut, shave and head massage all for less than one euro; the monkeys at the temple atop the central Observatory Hill who groom each other in much the same way as the women pick at each other's hair; cashiers giving sweets to customers instead of small change; the way people talk with their love of emphasis ("these momos are SOOOO tasty") and the common refrain "la, la, la"; and the mountain views which I never tired of appreciating.

Of course, a major reason why I'm happy with my winter in Darjeeling is that my volunteering position at the Edith Wilkins Street Children Foundation worked out well. I was impressed with the life-changing help that EWSCF gives to a large number of children and I'm grateful that I had the opportunity to play a small part. My role involved spending more time helping in the office than I had thought that I wanted to do. Although at times that meant doing things like photocopying and data entry, I felt that the office was the place where I could be of most benefit. I was therefore happy to help out there.

I didn't feel ready to leave Darjeeling, but my soon-to-expire visa meant it was time to go. I guess its not a bad thing to leave a place while the going is still good. And thankfully I wasn't leaving alone as two friends who live in Darjeeling (Denna from the US and Helly from New Zealand) were also going to Kathmandu, so we hit for Nepal together.

By the way, for those of you who associate being in India with suffering "Delhi belly", I'm pleased to report that, apart from a cold, I was happily healthy during my three months there. (What happened after having a cheese-burger in Kathmandu is another story - be glad that not everything is included in my blog!)

Friday, January 6, 2012

Rhinos & Elephants, Bagpipes & Bodybuilders

Siliguri, Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary, Darjeeling, INDIA: 26 Dec. 2011 - 4 Jan. 2012

Just like when I spent Christmas in Bolivia two years ago, the biggest difference that I found between Christmas in Darjeeling and in Ireland is that here it is just a one-day event. Unlike Ireland, my life here immediately returned to normal after the 25th. This meant going back to work, and back to playing cricket with the boys.And as in Bolivia where I spent New Years in the obscure city of Oruro, I counted down to 2012 in the equally unattractive city of Siliguri (by the way, the New Years in between was spent in Ballincollig). A big group of us had a fun night of watching our friends' band, dancing in a rocking bar, and singing at a house party - sometimes life in India isn't too different from Ireland.

Siliguri, which is the commercial and transport hub for this region, is a three-hour jeep ride but a world away from Darjeeling. It is warmer (as it is down in the plains) and a lot more hectic, with rickshaws zooming around the busy streets. In other words, it is like all the other places that I've been to in India, apart from Darjeeling. Going to Siliguri showed me how used to life in Darjeeling I have become.

I spent the first night of 2012 in Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary, where I went on an elephant ride and saw a few wild one-horned Indian rhinoceros.A train and a jeep ride brought me back up to Darjeeling, where the "Tea and Tourism Festival" was still in full swing. That meant that in one afternoon I was at a dog show, I watched a tartan-wearing, bagpipe-playing Gurkha band,and, most bizarrely, I went to the "Himalayan Classic Bodybuilding Competition".It was a hectic but fun start to 2012 - the final year of my career break!