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.

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25 thoughts on “Himalayas, Pt. I: On the Way to Darjeeling

  1. I can picture it (and smell it!) all so clearly! But your perspective has a unique twist. Thanks for another entertaining instalment Monica, and for making me look twice at my cup of tea this morning.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Monica and Chris, I continue to enjoy reading of your travels and many insights. Your unique sense of adventure opens up a world that most would never experience. Safe travels to Cambodia and Vietnam.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As always your writing opens up my imagination and I just love it. These adventures are so amazing and I look forward to every post. Mom is here visiting now and I told her about your travels and writing. I am going to give her this site so she can follow you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Tiffani! Thank you so much. And please say hi to one of my very favorite teachers! This blog probably wouldn’t even exist if it hadn’t been for her inspirational teaching style during a formative time in my life.

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  4. I always make sure I have plenty of time to take in your travel posts… there’s so much to think about and consider… just ponder, of life in other lands. Your perspective is raw and unfiltered in a sense. I often have the same questions that you do, about the depth and truth of life in other places. So often, anywhere we visit we see the superficial touristy elements of a place. I love that you charge our senses with your experience… the smells, tastes, and noise. I swear, I could SMELL that airport!! Ha ha!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Chris is a good editor. He reminds me if I’ve left out something–like a reeking airport. I’ve noticed the same thing in JFK. There’s an area of that airport that hasn’t changed in over 20 years, and it didn’t look or smell good then! 😕

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  5. I have always wanted to go to India. I love your descriptions of your travels. When we went to the Netherlands ( our dream trip ) our driver greeted us with fresh warm cloths – they were appreciated. I wish you could post more often, but I look forward to each installment.

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  6. I had never known this about the Tea, even the hints about the situation. I can easily believe it, except that they would not go to Starvation levels.

    Like all slave drivers, I do suppose they keep them on subsistence level diets.

    I have heard that they keep the workers ‘drugged,’ in Punjab, for instance, though I might get a lot of flak about this.

    A Very good line that, wondering whether the Animals have it better. I would say that they definitely do.

    Many Indian workers work like machines, for 12 hours at a stretch, for between Rs. 5,000 and 12,000.

    Thanks for sharing. It is quite a good write-up. Regards.

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  7. Reblogged this on lovehappinessandpeace and commented:
    I had never known this about the Tea, even the hints about the situation. I can easily believe it, except that they would not go to Starvation levels.

    Like all slave drivers, I do suppose they keep them on subsistence level diets.

    I have heard that they keep the workers ‘drugged,’ in Punjab, for instance, though I might get a lot of flak about this.

    A Very good line that, wondering whether the Animals have it better. I would say that they definitely do.

    Many Indian workers work like machines, for 12 hours at a stretch, for between Rs. 5,000 and 12,000.

    Like

  8. West Bengal is the place, where from the big cat got it’s ‘Royal Bengal Tiger’ name. They live in two places here, one in Buxa Tiger Reserve very close to Darjeeling, and the second one is Sundarbans National Park, the largest mangrove forest on earth. In Sundarbans their number is over 400. You will find few circus retired tiger near Jaldapara National Park near Darjeeling Town. You will get more information on Darjeeling in #DarjeelingPocketGuide http://www.bluguides.com

    Like

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