The Story of My Love Affair With Darjeeling
Sometimes I feel like going to the mountains. Spending cold afternoons under the sun. Watching people. It’s like a restoration pill for the mind. Sometimes I wish I could take my laptop there and write something. Maybe someday I will. Even today, I thought of Darjeeling. It’s the only mountain getaway I’ve been to and I’ve fallen in love.
My heart belongs to the sea, but Darjeeling probably has the rest of me.
A year without travel had the best of us coming up for air. So, as soon as the coronavirus cases attained a stable graph and was showing a declining trend by the end of last year, we decided to go somewhere. But not at the cost of being poked with a stick for a COVID test. Only Darjeeling looked promising that way. So we packed our bags and left for the mountains without thinking twice.
Do you know what I like best about going to Darjeeling? It’s when the car leaves the city behind, takes a sudden turn and there it is, you see the hills rising all around you. One moment you are looking at it, the next moment you are all over it – twisting and turning along its serpentine roads. With each bend and each turn, the air starts getting cooler and cleaner. You roll the windows down, stick your head out and take a long, deep breath. It feels like you’ve left that weight on your shoulder in the city down below. For five days at least.
The moment I stepped down from the car, I felt like wrapping my arms around the breathtaking town. I was back and I was all set to take Darjeeling in all over again. This time, we planned on taking things slow. We wanted to build a more intimate relationship with Darjeeling. So we bailed on the tourist spots and went in search of its raw beauty.
The best way to know a place is by walking. So, we walked. For miles and miles. Without a destination. We slow-walked the mall road. Then the bylanes. We walked down the steps that lead nowhere. We walked up the steep hill with not a soul in sight. And then we walked some more. We took the road no one did and we felt the Darjeeling pulse beating furiously in our veins.
We met so many people along the way and everyone was willing to stop and chat for a bit. We met a smiling young chap with a playful German Shepherd named Benji. We met a man who sang his Buddhist prayer to us while breaking down the meaning of each word and explaining how adding just a syllable at the end changes the purpose of the prayer. We met up with the owner of the homestay we stayed at on our last visit, Mr. Wangdi and his wife and he told us that he was training for the upcoming marathon and invited us to a forest hike next day. We met a girl who advised us on where to buy the best winter garments at the lowest price. And then we listened to Nepali songs to our heart’s content.
We walked down narrow roads that ended in lovely moss-covered walls. We discovered how the streets were connected. We learned where the shortcuts were. We found tiny shops in places you would least expect them. We watched the vegetable vendors wrap up as the sun trickled down the sky. We saw children giggling as they ran between their homes in the dying light. We saw dilapidated buildings gathering dust far away from the hustle and bustle of the town. And then at night, back at the hotel, we used to throw open the door to the adjacent lawn and watch the clouds enter the room. We used to turn off the room heater just to experience the natural chill of the hill. It felt so good to be there.
We had put Mahakal temple, Peace Pagoda, Batasia Loop and at least one monastery on our calendar but not an exact date to visit them. We wanted the trip to take its own course instead of slapping an itinerary on it. Carpe diem, guys! This meant one day we were just soaking up the warm sun in the Mall road making a time lapse video of the people walking by (video above, turn up the volume – you’ll like it), the next day we were eating whatever the person before us in the roadside stall queue had ordered without asking questions (that’s how we discovered Shayfale) and then the next we were hiking up trails that went unnoticed.
On one such trail one morning, we took the road that looked most deserted. It was steep and was getting steeper with each bend. Both of us had the feeling that we had to find out what lay at the end. We just had to. We were gripped by an illogical stubbornness. About half an hour on the road and our lack of fitness was making itself known. But we never stopped. It felt like an unexplainable force was driving us further up even when every bone in our bodies was signalling us to turn back. After a few turns, we saw steps on a cliff ahead that disappeared after a bend. We took them head on. And where did we end up? The backdoor of Mahakal temple! It felt like a calling. Like an out of the world experience. Goosebumps and all. You will always be exactly where God wants you to be. On the map. And in life. He always has a plan. And when your Maker calls you, you go. No questions asked.
Mahakal temple was an unearthly experience. An oasis at the top of a hill. Two religions co-existing in peace is a rare sight in the country. We took our blessings from the head monk and turned the wishing wheels surrounding the main temple. And then we sat down for a while. We couldn’t get ourselves to leave just yet.
The temple is as colourful as it gets. The entire temple area is adorned by strings of Buddhist flags in red, blue, green, white, yellow, and every colour in a pastel box. Buddhist scriptures are written on each flag. We watched a man climb a pole and tie the strings of the flags one by one. We saw Buddhist families pouring in, stringed flags in hand, waiting for their turn. A lady from one of the groups came up to us and struck up a conversation. She understood that we were curious about the flags and was happy to enlighten us. We learned that the flags were an offering to God and they should be hoisted at an elevated point. The higher you can get, the stronger the wind. They believe that as these flags flutter in the wind, they spread positive energy around and afar. “It’s all about energy”, she said, “The energy you put out into the world is the energy you receive.” She explained, “It’s only by helping others can we live in peace and peace is all that matters in life.” At that moment, my heart felt full. It felt like God speaking to me.
The only thing we planned ahead about the trip was spending the last night in the jungle. Actually, we were torn between camping by the river and staying in the jungle, but we chose the latter and saved camping for later. We booked a lovely farmhouse inside the Takdah forest. This lead was all thanks to a friend of mine. Sutanuka, if you’re reading this, here’s a big shoutout to you!
Lamahatta Farms is a 9-acre property right in the middle of the jungle complete with a farm, swimming pool, a sunset deck, barbeque pits, cottages, it’s very own viewpoint, 5 four-legged hosts, and of course, the scenic beauty. It’s like booking a stay in a farm and getting a jungle exploration opp for free.
The property is very new. Since it’s in the middle of nowhere, there is no market nearby. So the man who drove us there, Biman, made a pit stop to buy raw materials for our food on the way. The road to the farmhouse is bumpy and eerily quiet. All you can hear are birds chirping. What I liked best about the property is its sustainable ideologies. Plastic bottles have been recycled into steps on a staircase. They have set aside a vegetation area to make the property self-sustaining. Waste management solutions have been practically formulated. They are also paving a separate road to save you the bumpy ride and get you there quicker from the town.
Lamahatta Farms looks like it has somehow blended with the wilderness around it. Sunlight trickles down the dark cover of trees creating crazy shadows. Wild flowers have grown everywhere. Leaves rustle beneath your feet as you walk the length of the property. Birds chirp at a distance. Wild. Unkempt. Wonderful.
Time flies there. Darkness falls. And it’s pitch black except for the dimmed lights in the open dining area and the barbeque fire. At times, the dogs were looking into the darkness and barking loudly. Maybe something was moving in the dark. Maybe they were looking right at us. We had heard occasions of cheetah and black panther spotting at night. All through the evening, we had the feeling of being watched. Maybe we were.
When night falls, the dogs accompany you everywhere. And in the morning, they sit right at your feet, basking in the morning sun and occasionally looking at you in hopes of morsels. Lucy, Nancy, Pipi, Tiger and Rambo. Indian strays. The warmest hosts.
All through our stay, we used to get up before the sun so that we don’t miss a drop of our time in the hills. Even at Lamahatta Farms, we were bathed, packed and ready to go exploring at the crack of dawn. Like a ritual, we were back on the track.
We had only walked for a couple of metres in the jungle when we found steps leading down into wilderness. It got our exploring whims tingling again. So we took to the steps. There was nothing around. Except tall trees. Stillness. The silence was occasionally pierced by the breaking of twigs somewhere, a bird on a tree maybe.
We had been on the path for a few minutes and then suddenly, I heard a faint rustling nearby. I looked up and there it was. A beautiful deer, skin as shiny as the sun, munching on leaves, looking straight at us. I gestured to Tathagata as quietly as I could. The three of us were locked in a gaze for a good couple of seconds. Motionless. And then the deer walked away quietly into the jungle and away from us. We couldn’t believe our luck! We stood there for a long time after – still struggling to grasp what happened. It felt like the hand of God again. What are the odds?
We then made our way to the bottom of the stairs and found a temple. It was closed. We sat there for a while until the hunger pangs got the better of us. Back in the dining area while feasting on puri and chhola’r daal with piping hot first flush, we shared our experience with the staff. They were happy to see us so excited. We felt like the luckiest people on earth!
And then it was time to leave. Our affair with the hills was coming to an end. This time, I felt way closer to Darjeeling than before. As the car made its way into the city, we took one last long, deep breath of the Darjeeling air and waved her goodbye. I don’t know what it is about Darjeeling that pulls me there. Maybe it’s the people. Maybe it’s the air. With a little bit of imagination, maybe it’s magic.
Here’s to Darjeeling. Here’s to love.
Until we meet again.
Read about my previous Darjeeling experience here: 10 Things I Want to Remember About Darjeeling