I met Bex, the author of the following articles, on the second day of the massive, still ongoing, indefinite strike in Darjeeling. We had some great walks and talks, and she was there for my final few hours in Darjeeling. The following two posts from her blog, Eyes 2 Open, feature me, and give a very good description of the situation in Darjeeling prior to my flight to Kathmandu. In the story, I am Sherab, my friend Justin, who I’ve been traveling with since fleeing Darjeeling, is “Jake”; and my Tibetan monk friend Rongtse is “Tenzin”.
See Bex’ blog at:
My new friend’s ‘Tibetan’ name is Sherab – which means ‘New Wisdom’. Darjeeling as I was soon to find out includes a population of whom 10-20 percent are Tibetan. Sherab however, is not Tibetan (or at least not in this life time) but is a young American living in a small monastery in Darjeeling and studying at the local Tibetan language school. Appearances are indeed deceiving.
Sherab knew as much (or rather as little) as we did about the unfolding political situation but as his school was on strike he agreed on giving us a guided tour, the first stop of which was at the house of a fellow American student: Jake is tall and skinny, wears a thick tweed waistcoat, plastic shoes and is armed with a brown woolly hat and tent sized umbrella. He welcomed us into his tiny room and boiled us some Darjeeling tea. Taking the advice of the billboards around town, he drinks his tea natural – “without the taste masked by milk or sugar”. This is useful under the present circumstances, as both milk and sugar appear to be in particularly short supply. Jake then decided to join our small excursion. Next stop – a monastery, where we collected a monk by the name of Tenzin who Sherab wisely decided would be a more appropriate guide.
Tenzin has only been learning English for a year, but with the help of our two excellent translators I was able to ask him as many questions as I could think of: He was 28 years old, had left Tibet as a child and had spent the past seventeen years of his life living in monasteries around India. He has never been back to Tibet as he fears that he will be imprisoned if he tries. Tenzin has an incredible presence around him, and rather stereotypically conveys calmness just by ‘being’. He guides our party out of the main town, up the hill and through an Army check point. We pass a collection of buildings – some looking like old English houses, with white painted window frames inset in grey stone bricks, and accompanied by small patches of manicured gardens. Others are plainer and more typically ‘Nepali’ but still covered in greenery as shrubs and flowers bloom out of plastic cartons and buckets. In between is a scattering of different gompa’s and monastery’s, some of which are reminiscent of Lhasa’s Potala Palace and Jokhang Monastry. Tattered prayer flags stretch across the roads, adding both blessings and colours to the hills. Jake stops to vocalise the words of one. A collection of strange weaved statues made out of hardened dough and thread stand on top of a black plastic water barrel. The crafts look like dream catchers and Jake explains that they are to trap ‘evil’ outside of the houses. We pass many dogs, which seem muted by both the climate and by a series of mutilations – broken and bent limbs. We pass an old man wearing a topi, a tweed jacket and leather shoes. He is walking his cat – a tiny kitten attached to him by a piece of green plastic string. We walk one by one down stone steps on the other side of the hill. Sherab steps with his hands out by his side, as if flying while walking. I stop to bend down and lay my hands on the grass. It is soaked with morning dew that has not been confined to the dawn but renewed minute by minute by the thick mountain air. Eventually we all arrive at the local Japanese Peace Pagoda.
The Pagoda is one of 70 around the world. It is incredibly scenic. Its simple white shape contrasting and camouflaged against the white of the clouded sky and the green of the misty hills. During our walk the weather has changed from cold to hot to cloudy to sunny to damp and to rain. We seek shelter from the falling water and walk into the small temple next to the pagoda, leaving our boots, flip flops, trainers and plastic shoes at the entrance. The temple smells musty and fresh, with the damp air blowing in through the massive open white framed windows. We sit at the back of the carpeted room, while a nun wrapped up in woollies lays down what looks like tennis racket drums and bent sticks. Two other monks appear and a women, with long shiny black hair begins to beat a massive drum. Na-Mu Myo-Ho-Ren-Ge-Kyo begins the chant and a monk motions to use to pick up the tennis racket drums. Symbols painted in black outline our instruments, the ‘meaning’ of which we beat out with the sticks. The chanting continues and the beat surrounds us and drifts out of the window. I wonder how my Catholic friend is feeling. My curiosity is dampened by my own romanticism, as I let the rhythm soothe my active mind and I begin to think about how many times and by how many hands my worn ‘tennis racket’ drum has been played. I know that I feel far more comfortable sitting cross legged on the floor than on any wooden pew, with the repetition of the foreign words making them become deceivingly familiar. My curiosity is reinvoked as my friend spontaneously moves towards the monk to receive a ‘sugar’ blessing. A few minutes later the rest of our random party follow his lead and lay down our drums and take the proffered sugar balls from the smiling monk. As the light fades and the temperature quickly drops we leave the temple and walk back to the town center. I have stopped asking Tenzin questions and instead enjoy listening to the strange sounds of the three Buddhists. I admire Sherab’s and Jake’s mastery of such a foreign language from such a ‘forbidden’ land.
People are milling around the streets, talking and walking. The atmosphere seems relaxed, but all but the pharmacies remain closed. I buy a small carton of apple juice from one. I am already missing fresh fruit and vegetables. I offer a sip to Sherab, he declines saying he is trying to avoid snacks. We pass another pharmacy and again squeeze through the door to investigate – never before have pharmacies held such an appeal. We examine the collection of wheat biscuits and chocolate bars. I buy some yellow toilet paper. Sherab buys some locally produced potatoes chips and peanuts with masala salt. We walk along a steep road lined with small empty stalls. I wonder what it must look like when it is open. Amongst the closed stalls, shops and strangely named hotels we pass an open stable filled with horses. The horses are eating discarded roasted corn leaves, and “no” it is “not possible to rent a horse.” “The horses are also on strike” is the serious explanation given to our jocular request. We thank Tenzin and he offers to take us on another local tour tomorrow. We arrange to meet him at 1pm and he replies with the only two Tibetan words which I can understand: Tashi Deleg.
Jake invites us back to his room for dinner. I am surprised: next to the toilet he has a small two ringed stove, and on his desk he has an impressive collection of local dried herbs and spices. My Italian friend’s offers of help ranging from “I can cut something?” to “can I wash something” go unheeded as Jake clearly has a system and an enjoyment of provision. He leaves the rest of us to sit on his floor and narrow bed and explore his small library. I pick up a book about Tibetan Tantra and ask the cook for some more elaboration. He steps away from the stove and quickly removes it from my sight. He apologies: “this is only for those who have been initiated.” I do not understand but try to mask my embarrassment by asking his permission to look at his Nepali phrase book. I have so many questions to ask these two American Buddhists: were they Buddhist before studying Tibetan? Why Tibetan? Did they plan to use the political power of their new linguistic key?
Dinner is a plate of rice, yellow daal, potatoes, onions and garlic and some greens. It is hot and seasoned and severed humbly. We sit on the floor and my questions are answered. Sherab wants to be a translator but personally he wants to learn Tibetan so that he can read the dharma’s himself. Jake plans to spend an indefinite amount of time in a Tibetan monastery. Both were Buddhists prior to their studies, but their beliefs have been strengthened by their new knowledge. Sherab lives in monasteries whenever he can – in India and in California. Jake spent two months wandering the Indian countryside with two Tibetan monks who were on a pilgrimage visiting ancient Buddhist places of interest. Neither describe themselves as political activists – both are clearly committed to ‘Tibet’. Sherab returns my inquisition and asks me about Tibet. He has never visited.
There is a power cut and with the help of a Indian lighter (which hides a small light) and Jake’s umbrella tent we make our way back through the mountain rain to Andy’s. My Catholic friend expresses surprise at our new Buddhist friends. “I thought Buddhist Tibetan students would just smoke dope and be hippies, but they are really serious. Really focused. Really great to meet them.” Through the blackness of the dark we follow the empty corridor to our silent chilly room. My Catholic friend rolls himself a joint. I sleep, cold and happy and with the confusions of Kolkata far far away.
Another blissful sleep followed by a resentful wake up. Matilda knocks on the door. Are we going to leave she asks? She is clearly concerned that her only guests are still here. We reply that we had a great day yesterday and intend to stay for a few more days. She asks for our passport details in case our embassies contact her. I restrain myself and take a short hot happy shower before piling on my piles of t-shirts and two pairs of trousers. I am enjoying not wearing my kuta, or having to wrap my body up in a scarf and camouflage my blond hair. The hills are clearly far less conservative than its lowland capital. We walk out to meet Sherab and Jake at a cafe they claim is famous for its breakfasts. We stand at the door which is only slightly ajar and a small servant quickly ushers us inside. Sherab and Jake are already seated with pages of Tibetan script laid out in front of them. My friends tease them they must be CIA spies. I laugh too loudly for the owner quickly motions me to be quiet. She is clearly concerned that her disobedience of the ‘indefinite’ strike will be alerted by my merriment. We talk in subdued tones. We eat porridge and drink milky chai, sweetened with golden sugar. Jake drinks coffee. Apparently, just a few days before tourists would be queuing for a seat. The cafe must be losing a lot of revenue and I wonder what the owner really thinks of the GNLF tactics? We profusely thank her and duck down back out through the shutter which has now been pulled down to mask the partially opened door. Sherab offers to take us to the monastery where he lives. It is only a short walk away through quiet streets. The echoes of distant chanting can be heard, but from the distance they sound more like shouts from a children’s playground. Sherab’s monastery is beautiful. It is tiny, with a small temple welcomed by a patch of green grass and a frame of bushes. His room is even more simple than Jake’s with a stone floor, a door which doesn’t quite shut and a tiny table/shrine. We sit on his single bed and I ask permission to look at his pile of books. My attention is immediately directed to a tiny publication by Nepal’s Kopan Monastery: The Four R’s. The coincidence unnerves me as this is the one Buddhist practice which I am familiar with and which has helped me more than any psychologist ever could.
A twenty one year old ex-Italian monk who also lives at the monastery phones Sherab. He is concerned by the change of events. We walk to the monastery’s kitchen and sit with its four Tibetan monks, one ex-Italian one and a Chinese student of Tibetan. We are asked if we want to share the daal bhat that they are eating. We decline. The ex-Italian monk tells us he is leaving to Nepal. He says that overnight the ‘situation’ has become much worse, with rumours of violence spreading. The monks are concerned that their food supplies are inadequate. Shouts from outside begin to filter through our conversation and one by one the table disbands and moves to the edge of the garden. Below the monastery a large crowd has gathered around a small police stall. Unlike yesterday it seems unorganized and much more passionately voiced. Within minutes wise Sherab has packed a small rucksack and Jake is patiently seeking the advice of his teacher despite the intermittent mobile reception. The lack of information, the access to food and transport and the immanent departure of our remaining new foreign friends seems to tell us it is time to leave. Reluctantly, for I love this place and feel spoiled for seeing it without the 20,000 other tourists.
We make our way back to Andy’s, passed the shouting crowd. One tire has been lit and is blowing black noxious smoke into the crowd. A protester bends down and uses its flame to light his cigarette. Although the crowd are clearly more vocal than yesterday, the atmosphere is far from threatening. Smartly dressed women, with painted lips and gold earrings link arms next to men in their distinctive tweed jackets and leather shoes. We squeeze through the mass, find Andy’s, throw our clothes into the bags and meet Jake at the main bus terminal.
There are no buses. In fact there are no vehicles at all. Within the short time it has taken us to pack Sherab has already left with the Italian ex-monk and the Chinese student of Tibetan. A crackly phone call tells is that they have caught the last jeep. We ask about transportation to Siliguri and are given the reply: ‘impossible’. We turn to discuss our options but are called over towards a crowd of men in the middle of which stands a parked jeep. Our bags are thrown on its roof and we are thrown inside. An intense debate surrounds us as the remaining seats are quickly occupied by locals. The doors are reopened and we are shouted out. Our bags removed from the roof and the driver tells us ‘impossible’. Confused we stand and passively wait for a solution to appear. Within minutes it does. Our bags are replaced on the roof and we are replaced inside. It seems the GNLF have given their consent to a final jeep of ‘tourists’ to leave Darjeeling. The all important word of exemption is scribbled on a sheet of paper and the front seat passengers optimistically try to glue it with nothing more than condensation to the inside of the windscreen. I fish around in my rucksack and find a tiny roll of tape. It works and our labeled ‘TOURIST’ jeep full of four ‘tourists’ and about nine locals careers out of the square to stop a few meters later. Our driver jumps out and begins negotiations. A few minutes later a shutter is rolled up and our jeep reversed into a closed shop which in more peaceful times is actually a petrol station. Off we go; speeding down the hill, breaking only to cruise around the hairpin bends and floating through the encompassing mist.
The first ‘check point’ emerges. The jeep slows and the GNLF approach. It is a group of women. They approach us, look at our ‘label’, look at us, and then wave us on. The second check point is not quite so easily fooled. It consists of a wooden bench upon which sit a line of tweed jacket wearing men. They tell our driver than no vehicles are allowed past. They politely explain to us, that although we are clearly ‘tourists’ the rest of our jeep clearly are not. They apologise for any inconvenience but cannot let us continue. We will have to return back up the hill we have just sped down. Some more words are exchanged and our jeep does a 360 degree turn and much to the confusion of the ‘tourists’ we continue towards the plains as the GNFL return to their bench. It seems this literally was the ‘bench mark’ as after this I just had to reveal my blond hair (much to the amusement of the old man sitting behind me) and we were waved down the hill.
I felt a strange mixture of emotions. As the coolness of the air was replaced by a warm humidity and the fog lifted, I didn’t feel relieved but rather annoyed that I was ‘exempt’. Just like in the Occupied Palestinian Territories I was able to be ‘freer’ than the local people, whose land I was a guest. Moreover, I wanted to learn more about the Gorkha’s demands. I still had unanswered questions about the apparent support for the cause despite the self-harm in the methods. I still wanted to walk around the tea gardens, visit the monastery’s and talk to Tenzin about why he can’t return to Tibet.
We arrive in Siliguri to be told that there is a strike in retaliation to Darjeeling’s strike. We ask if we can catch a jeep to Sikkim, ‘impossible’ we are told…