Getting to a place like this isn’t easy. When you look at a map of India, Sikkim is a tiny dot along the northeast edge. Bordering Nepal to the west, Tibet to the north, and Bhutan to the east, it’s the country’s second smallest state. And the least populated.
From Delhi we flew into Bagdogra, where we bit our fingernails as all the other passengers from our plane grabbed their luggage from the conveyor belt. We stood there as everything was taken except for a lone cardboard box wrapped in what must have been a mile of clear packaging tape. As the box went round and round the carousel, we wondered what to do next.
Nearly each of the next ten days would take us deeper into remote and restricted territory. The odds that our bags—which we’d carefully packed and argued over to be sure they were small enough to bring onboard—would find us once we left the airport weren’t just slim. They were infinitesimal.
The airport, which looked like a small warehouse and smelled like a teenager’s armpit, bulged with large families, suitcases, oversized backpacks, strollers, and luggage carts. Drivers held signs with names like Kajaria and Satyasis scrawled in bold black marker.
Chris shoved his way to the other carousel while I tapped, pushed, and excused myself over to a window overlooking the tarmac. There I spotted a tiny truck with a trailer stacked with suitcases. At the top of the pile teetered our faithful cargo, and I let out a deep sigh of relief. From now on, I vowed, I would pack all essentials in a shoulder bag.
From Bagdogra to Darjeeling it’s a four-hour trip by car. Our driver greeted us with frozen wash cloths and salty fresh-squeezed lime juice, which I found nearly as comforting as the discovery of our suitcases. The temperature had soared to nearly a hundred degrees in the dusty parking lot, and my body had already sweated away the doll-sized bottle of water from the plane ride.
“OK?” asked our driver, Mandeep. I nodded and placed my empty glass and wadded cloth on the tray he held out for me. As he stuffed everything back into an Igloo chest, we climbed into the Tata jeep.
On the long backseat sat small pillows propped just so, one for each of us. I thought it was a nice decorative touch that spiffed up the old jalopy, but I soon learned their purpose was entirely functional. The seat backs, draped with a tan bedspread, didn’t feature cushioning of any kind. Just wire springs that deftly poked my organs no matter how many times I repositioned the little lumbar-saver adorned with hand-embroidered cornflowers.
When we reached the countryside, Mandeep pointed out the fields of Camellia sinensis. “West Bengal is most favorable for growing the tea plant,” he explained. “So you will see many tea gardens like this.” I debated whether or not to ask about the allegations of human rights abuse I’d recently read in a British newspaper.
Like all things here in India, tea plantations are a complicated issue. Some owners had recently abandoned their operations. The bushes were old and sick, the news article said, and their hired pickers suffered from malnutrition, anemia, and even starvation.
Big estates that supply companies that own Tetley, Lipton, and Twinings had been accused of providing squalid living conditions for their workers and using underage labor. The lush fields so picturesque from the car window held secrets we’d never know.
“Are there really tigers here in West Bengal?” I asked, changing the subject. I didn’t want to offend our driver with uncomfortable questions right off the bat. Though now I wish I would have at least asked his opinion on the matter.
“Yes, there are some, of course,” said Mandeep. “But they are very good at hiding, so I do not think you will see one.” He smiled in the rearview mirror and bobbed his head side to side. “Unless, of course, you go to the zoo.”
I fought the urge to doze and looked out the window, hoping I might see a tiger anyway. Out in the fields tea pickers hauled large baskets on their backs, held in place by thick bands across their foreheads. I wondered what they dreamed about, what their lives were like. And if a zoo animal had it better or worse than they did.