Breakfast at Glenary's is a de rigueur ritual for visitors to Darjeeling, and the aroma of freshly baked croissants lured me in. I recognise a familiar face at one of the tables, Kathmandu musician and RJ Yanni Shrestha with an American friend. "Have you seen the headlines?" Yanni asks, holding up the Kolkata paper which screamed: 'Horror in the Hills: 4 Tourists Die in Cable Car Plunge'. From the photos it looked a bit like the one in Manakamana. "We'd been riding on it just the day before, and we both thought it looked a bit shaky!"
At the time, between Dasai and Tihar, Darjeeling was packed shoulder to shoulder with Indian tourists, mostly boisterous Bengalis. There were very few foreign backpacker types as in Nepal. And aside from Glenary's, there are precious few restaurants catering to Western tastes. Unlike Dharamsala, which sees many foreigners, Darjeeling, despite its more spectacular scenery and trekking trails, isn't quite on the Muesli Trail. Hence, no banana pancakes, cheese toasties, salads, brown rice or brown bread on the menus here.
Later, after breakfast, I meet with Ajay Edwards, the 30-something Nepali owner of Glenary's. He's the main organiser of the upcoming Darjeeling Carnival, 7-17 November. It will feature a Harmony in the Hills music festival. Being a Baby Boomer generation ex-Flower-child, I couldn't help noticing and mentioning that the wavy lettering in the posters resembles what we termed 'psychedelic' back in the 60s. Edwards grins and intimates that they'd welcome a Woodstock-type gathering of bands for which Darj already has a reputation amongst Nepali pop music aficionados.
Despite his English name, Edwards says he is a "pure Nepali" mix of Pradhan and Lepcha. His grandfather, having served in the British army, took on an English name. Edwards tells me with a sardonic grin, "Ironically, the day we invited all the Kolkata media for the carnival press conference was the day of the ropeway tragedy-so we got all this negative press." But unflappable, optimistic Edwards must feel that any publicity is good publicity so long as they spell the names right.
As he pours me a cup of Apoorva Tips tea, he suggests that I write about the Happy Valley Tea Estates, as this year is its centennial, which is being celebrated as part of the carnival. The Darjeeling tea industry has fallen on hard times. "But," he hastens to add, "this is both a curse and a blessing. Although it provided employment, it has always been a hand-to-mouth existence." The average salary for a tea plucker is only IRs 200 per week, less than a spot of high tea with watercress sandwiches at Darjeeling's Windamere Resort, which costs IRs 800.
Even as we sip the finest Darjeeling organic tea, Edwards refers to the tea plantation work as "bondage" to the tea estate. When the British founded Darjeeling, it was totally uninhabited. Like America, it was populated by immigrant labourers: (predominantly) Nepalis, Lepchas, Tibetans and a few Bhutanis as well. So there were no traditional Hindu caste restrictions, and due to the British influence, Darjeeling became more egalitarian than other parts of caste-conscious India and Nepal.
The Nepali labourers hailed from all castes, but mostly Rai, Limbu, Tamang and 70 percent of them were uneducated (despite Darjeeling's reputation for the best schools in India), and the workers' children were not encouraged to study. After the Brits left, the estates were run by Bengalis and Marwaris whom, Edwards maintains, continued to simply extract profits and give nothing back to the plantation workers. Due to a glut in the world tea market and six months of bad business in which the workers were not paid (and a number of tea estates closed down), the owners fled. Happy Valley is now run by a committee and they want to turn it into a workers' cooperative like Amul Dairies. "Our concern," Edwards says, "is that we want to make the tea gardens economically viable. If the local people aren't making money, then we all suffer."
A few days later, I was invited to one of the planning sessions of the carnival. It was a pleasant surprise to see that the organisers-all from the private sector-are mostly hip, young professionals with an enthusiastic sense of civic pride, something which is conspicuous by its absence in Kathmandu. Also absent in Darjeeling is pollution (vehicles are banned from the touristic, pedestrian Mall area, as should be done in Thamel), the streets are swept clean daily and some of the street lighting actually work.
Aside from the Happy Valley centenary celebrations, which begins the carnival, the many events include a kite-festival, pony pageant, dog show, orchid shows, para-sailing, white-water rafting, a Darjeeling Run and a vintage Land Rover Rally which will be covered by the BBC. Each evening will conclude with bands and musical cultural performances on the Mall overlooking (well, not quite overlooking) majestic Kanchenjunga. Visitors will be garlanded with khatas and presented with packets of Darjeeling tea.
Even when there is no carnival, on weekends the Darjeeling Police band, dressed in tartans, plays martial tunes on bagpipes at the bandshell and promenades around the Mall. However, for Raj nostalgia buffs, such as your reporter, it is surprising that with so many historic Raj-era buildings here, there doesn't seem to be any heritage
conservation society. One old building near the Planters' Club is slated to be demolished for a new shopping complex.
For expats feeling constrained by Nepal's 150-day maximum annual stay for tourists, more liberal India wisely allows six-month stays per visit and offers five to 10-year visas. For those unable to make the Darjeeling Carnival, the Queen of the Hills is also hosting the Dalai Lama between 3-6 December for dharma talks. That is sure to draw Tibetans and dharmaphiles, as His Holiness will not be giving the Kala Chakra initiations next January in Bodh Gaya, as he usually does.
Daniel Haber is an American freelance writer based in Kathmandu, currently in exile in Darjeeling.
Fly to Bhadrapur, or else take the bus to Kakarbhitta, as we did. However, with curfews in Chitwan, frequent check-points and the Maoist stoppage of highway traffic, the journey to Darjeeling could take two days. If they ever open the Bagdogra airport to flights from Kathmandu, that could be a time-saver and big boon to both destinations.
7-16 November, 2003
Happy Valley Centenary
White Water Rafting
Music Road Show
Autumn Flower Show
Poetry and Art Exhibition
Rock Climbing Demo at HMI
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