Friday, February 8, 2008

the hills are alive or: the beautiful people, the beautiful

So I left you last time, in the deep mists of the past (been reading too much Eragon perhaps?), as we returned to our house for an hour nap before a flight north.

Well, we woke up at 7AM for our 6AM flight. That puts Lex in a poor humor. The hangover did not help matters. We slept through two alarms and some phone calls. To skip the inevitable bitching that would normally occur here (and softened by a very pleasant week between me and this event), we simply had to buy another flight. I just had to breathe many times and remind myself it's only money. However, money is damn important so feel free to send a tax deductible donation (deductible if you're the kind of person who writes off family vacations because you called the office one time to make sure it hadn't burnt to the ground) to the "I'm a Jackass" Fund. The address can be found the right side of the page. Also, boxes of artificial cheese products (goldfish, cheezits) would also be appreciated.

We met our friends Pratsut, who brother got shackled the next day, and Karin from Austria. We had a few hour layover until our puddle jumper flight so we loooked around for something to do. I found an internet cafe but it charged 50 Rs an hour. When told the price, I looked incredulous and asked if you get a massage with that he looked at me solemnly and said "Yes, yes it does." And so began a wonderful running joke with a culture who thinks its rude to say no.

With no food in the airport, we went to the taxi stand so we could get something to eat. They told us it would cost 300 Rs to take us to a restaurant and then wait there an hour for us. I looked shocked again and asked if the taxi was made of gold. With a straight face but a gleam in his eye the taxiwallah said "Yes, yes it is." We agreed to the price and I specified a non-veg restaurant that served beer.

After our veg meal with no alcohol, we returned to the airport and went through three different levels of security (all fairly worthless). At the last one, as the guard patted me down, he asked where I came from. I told I'm from America and now living in Mumbai. People always like that answer. He asked if I spoke Hindi and I replied "tora tora" (a little bit). In Hindi, he asked who I wanted to be president. I told him I really wanted Obama and he shook his head. He wanted Clinton to win. I just smiled and said 'I guess we have to agree to disagree." He nodded and shook my hand as he finally waved me through. It's these little interactions that make this country for me.

At Bagroda airport in West Bengal, we took a four hour taxi ride to Darjeeling. Pratsut warned us that many people got sick on the drive because of the bumpy roads and switchbacks up the steep mountains. I laughed him off as everybody take anti-nausea pill. Now, I know all of you out there sit there and hope that I blew chunks over a cliff but I have to disappoint you. I felt quite queasy by the end of the journey but I managed to make it with my lunch of chicken masala intact.

I got meet some more of Pratsut's wonderful family. His blood relatives belong to the Subba tribe from Nepal who originally came from the horse riding Mongols. His mom's family started as Buddhist. The oldest brother stayed Buddhist but his wife and children are Christian. The next oldest sister became a Hindu by marriage and the next sister remained Buddhist. His mother also became a Hindu by marriage. He told me none of this has ever created any strife. Fascinating.

Also, they have a wonderful tradition here of declaring any close friends to be brothers and sisters. With the young people, we had a dinner of momos (possibly the greatest food ever) and returned to the hotel to make jokes while huddling in front of the small space heater. I spent the night trying to wrestle covers away from one of Pratsut's friends and resisting the urge to punch him in the throat repeatedly.

We woke up the next morning and dressed for the wedding. Unfortunately, everyone cluck clucked over my clothes because I don't have any. I currently possess one pair of pants, three t-shirts, 2 pairs of underwear and three pairs of socks. I lost one pair of underwear and I think I'm relieved to not remember how that happened. Anyway, I finally borrowed a presentable shirt and jacket from various people to receive a grudging approval from the sisters.

The actual marriage ceremony happened at his aunts house in the morning. I loved the service. So relaxed yet special. About 15 relatives crowded into a small room with the priest and the happy couple kneeling on the floor in front of a hindu shrine and a large collection of artifacts needed for the service. During the hour long ceremony, people chatted, offered advice and took hundreds of pictures. The priest read various texts, offered small amounts of money to the couple for good luck and helped them to apply tikka, the red powder that makes a dot on a Hindu's forehead. In most Hindu ceremonies, the couple walks around a flame seven times and forever wed after the last circuit. In this ceremony, they officially married when they applied the tikka.

Then all of the husband's family started a procession to the wedding reception where the bride's family invited 400 families to eat, drink and take lots and lots of pictures. Seriously. I don't think I've been in something this well documented since my last court case or the time I tried to moon the Jumbotron at my first and last professional basketball game. As they walked into the hall, they each held up umbrellas to shield them from the high quantity of rice being thrown. Then they had to stand for hours as the families officialy introduced everyone to everyone, exchanged the mandatory presents of liquor and pork and then stand for a few hours of picture taking with everyone who came. People had to go by the couple for the pictures before they got food so it took quite some time.

I enjoyed the wonderful food and open bar until Pratsut sent his attack dog brother to get me to stop drinking. The three Subba boys (all whose names start with P making them PS1, PS2 and PS3) thought I was drunk because of the way I moved my head. It turns out that, unbeknownst to me (very normal), I have a terrible terrible head wobble. It apparently looks like I'm drunk or Tourettic. I took a break to shop for some warmed clothes and recoginized the spots where I had been five years earlier on my first trip to this part of the world. I decided to take a nap at the hotel and slept until seven so I could get back to party as it got hot. As I walked back to the reception hall, I met everyone coming back to the hotel because everything had just finished. Argghh.

We spent the next day on a tour of Darjeeling, tea capitol of the world. Fact Time: The most expensive tea in the world comes from Darjeeling's Castleton Estate and sells for $220 per kilo. I have never seen such a breathtaking place. It's a city built into the steep side of a mountain. Houses might be three stories tall and you can walk off the roof right onto the hillside. With clear skies, you have a stunning view of the mountains. Switchback roads make for patient drivers as you often have to wait for traffic to clear or even back down the hill for a hundred feet to let someone pass. Twice, I had to get out of the car so it could make it to the top of a hill.

And the people, don't get me started on the people. Gorgeous beautiful wonderful stunning women and men. Mostly of Nepali origins, they mix the warm brown skin colors of the indians with the rounded faces and sly eyes of the asians. What a relief. I don't want to say there aren't many pretty girls in Bombay but there's not many pretty girls in Bombay. Science Corner: This makes sense in terms of natural selection. (By the way, I have Richard Dawkins fever. He's Darwin's great cheerleader and a leading atheist. I want to be him/have his babies) In Darjeeling and other culturally Nepali areas, people generally get to choose their spouse. In India, the majority of weddings still get arranged by the parents. You can imagine which trends tend to get reinforced in these two systems.

That's not to say this region does not have its share of trouble. This ethnically Nepali area belongs to the state of West Bengal with Calcutta as its capital. The Nepali's feel slighted by the state government and protests for an independent state have been going on for years. Unfortunately, the "Gorkahland for Gorkahs" (term for ethnic Nepalis) movement has been splintered by violent inner party clashes and has seen a large number of assassinations, vote buying and goondas in the past 7 years. The current GNLF leader started as an optimistic figure for change but has become a corrupt old tyrant who has survived several attempts on his life. According to the protesters I saw during the wedding, he also keeps his wife locked in a closet for most of the day so I guess he's not all bad (I kid, probably).

Also, without much for the young people to do, stupid drunken fights tend to break out among these people normally known for their peaceful ways. On the way home one night, I saw some young guys take out one teenager and punch and kick him repeatedly while his friends stood by. One more case of "not my country". I also had to help carry a very very drunk very very fat girl into a cafe. Her friend's didn't realize that she supported none of her weight and I actually held her up by a bear hug that barely reached around her stomach. Fun times.

Overall, I did love this town even more than the first time I came here. We visited a lovely Buddhist temple, a war memorial on top of a mountain where we paid a little money to dress in ethnic clothes, had delicious lunch at an aunt's house where I talked to the fascinating uncle about his study of the extremely complicated Nepali burial rituals, went rock climbing by the side of the road and scared everyone with my daring maneuvers (not really that daring, they're just scaredy cats) and ended up on a tea plantation racing a seven year old around the hills. This trip reminded me of what I loved when I first came here. It makes me seriously consider leaving Mumbai when my lease runs out and trying Kathmandu. We'll see.

No time for edits. Have to get food before stomach starts eating my liver (Hey! back you, I need that for drinking)

1 comment:

James said...

I don't know how you got chicken masala from a veg. restaurant. Just keeping you honest