When I woke up the on my second morning in Darjeeling, it seemed as though the day had been cancelled. I pulled aside the curtains to a view of next to nothing. A pea-soup fog had settled over the town and visibility was reduced to the powerlines outside my window. The eerie, wan sunlight at the back of it leant the fog a disquieting luminescence; a sheet of pale gold leaf behind the swirling, moist air.
I stared in wonder and caught occasional glimpses of the ghostly satellite dish and the iron rooftops; their outlines seemed characteristically oriental, like the tops of pagodas. Darjeeling’s quaint brand of orientalised colonialism made it the most distinct indication of the long tenure of the Raj I’d yet seen in India.
I peered out into the corridor was greeted with curious sight. Down the other end, the door to the fire stairs had been left open and the fog had seeped into the passage. It too was lit by the glary white of the hindered sun and the corridor, cold, tiled and light blue, brimmed with arcane mystery.
I walked to the end and looked out from the landing. The road below offered up the occasional silhouette; a dog, a person, a rooftop, a passing car, but little else. It was a quiet world; the sound damped down by the heavy air.
I hurriedly got my things together and set off into the fog. It was seven AM and the street was eerily silent but for the squeaky sound of a panda bear-like dog mauling a foam box. I patted this playful beast and continued down Dr Zakir Hussain Street which ran along the ridge towards Chowrasta, the main public piazza on the top of the town. There was no one about, but plenty of dogs; huddled together against house and shopfronts, curled into balls along the road, nestling on door-steps.
They all seemed friendly and not cowed; their worn faces and matted hair were less saddening when one considered their general robustness and apparent, ruddy good health. For the dogs of Darjeeling were certainly the healthiest, if not the cleanest, I’d seen as yet in India.
The street passed many a wide-open vista, where a view of the valley and mountains beyond opened out. Yet, with the rolling fog, so constant and thick and the peculiar, seemingly paradoxical heavy wetness and icy dryness of the air, all light and white like smoke, all cloying and dense like fallen clouds, it was impossible to see beyond the wire fence that hugged the street’s edge. Here and there a local emerged from a shop or house, transformed until just a few feet away into a pale outline.
Less than half a kilometre down this muffled street, it dipped steeply towards a junction and there I spied a café called Sonam’s Kitchen.
I had seen the name in the guidebook and, as is usually the case, it had all the hallmarks of a place that catered almost exclusively for tourists. I was reluctant to try it, but paused outside just long enough to catch a whiff of their excellent filter coffee. I realised how hungry I was and just how much difference a good coffee would make. A moment later, I was seated inside studying the menu.
I ordered a pot of what they called “real stuff” coffee, along with eggs and hash-browns. It was comparatively expensive for India, but with fried eggs at just fifty cents, who on earth could complain? The lady who took my order was the same as the one featured on the laminated menu – Sonam herself. She spoke great English and was effusively friendly. I felt, as the name of the place suggested, that I was in someone’s home rather than a café or restaurant. Clearly this place was favoured with good reason.
I pulled out my laptop and surfed the internet, all the while eavesdropping on the conversations around me. When travelling I tend to be rather shy about approaching people, but once drawn into a conversation, I relax more readily with company than I would in my daily life. I spent some time playing the accent game; guessing where people were from. The tables were communal and around the time my food arrived, I was joined by an American, an Israeli and a Queenslander.
All three of them were travelling independently but, having been in town for a fair while already – two weeks in the case of the Queenslander – they all recognised each other. When they greeted me and asked where I was from, I was happy to be drawn into a friendly chat. They were good people and genuinely interested in the town and region, all with their own, quasi-anthropological zeal. They also seemed curiously as they ought to; the handsome young American, well educated and scholarly, with an old world politeness only the new world can produce; the glowing Israeli, tanned and well-fed, full of questions about the spiritual nature of the locals; the gruff and rugged Australian; realist, pragmatist, egalitarian. Rather unexpectedly, within five minutes the conversation turned to girls and growing marijuana. The American had experience of it in California; the Israeli had grown his own and liked a smoke as much as the next man, but, most importantly, the Australian knew where to get it.
“All this talk is making me want to smoke,” I said.
“Not hard in this place,” said the Queenslander.
“Really? How so?”
“Just talk to the pony boys.”
“The pony boys?”
“Yeah, the pony boys. The guys down the road.”
“You mean the dudes with the horses. In Chowrasta?”
“Yep, the pony boys.”
I had passed the so-called pony boys many times the day before, strolling up and down Dr Zakir Hussain Street which, along the stretch before it met with Chowrasta, was a popular thoroughfare lined with stalls and shops. Right on the edge of the square was an old concrete stable with space for roughly ten horses. These horses, traditionally used for transportation and communication, were now primarily used in giving joyrides to children and tourists. They weren’t exactly what I would have called ponies, in the miniature sense, but they were certainly small and slightly-built horses. According to the Queenslander, the pony boys also made a little extra from the sale of marijuana.
“Just look at their eyes,” he said. “Like piss-holes in the snow.”
“Goodness! I hadn’t noticed. Are they all baked?”
“Yep. They’re off their chops. Go have a look.”
“I think I will.”
I took a big sip of coffee, thinking how delicious it would be to get smashed in these winter wonderland conditions. I had smoked a little hashish in Rajasthan and Rishikesh, but had kept things pretty clean since then.
“So,” I pressed, lowering my voice. “Have you actually bought some from them?”
“A couple of weeks ago.”
“It was great. Very dry and seedy, very natural, wild stuff. But it’s got a great high on it and it’ll have you giggling like a little girl.”
“That is very tempting. How much did you pay?”
“Five hundred, for a bag like this.”
He shaped his hands to indicate a pretty serious nugget, about the size of a decent potato.
“It’ll take you forever to get the seeds out of it. But fuck it, you’re on holiday.”
I laughed at his laconic humour and knew my mind was already made up. Until I scored, I’d be salivating for a smoke like Pavlov’s dog.
I finished my breakfast and stayed chatting until my seat was required for someone else. When I left the café, I walked straight down the street to where the stables were, through a fog even heavier than it had been before breakfast. Only when I reached the line of stalls at the bottom of the hill, where the collective human warmth had caused the mist ever so slightly to dissipate, could I begin to see more than twenty feet. The stalls were a great spectacle in themselves. Mostly selling vegetables, these simple wooden huts, roofed with tarpaulins and plastic sheets, were attended by people who often sat cross-legged next to their wares.
The stables sat directly opposite two most excellent chai wallahs, who also cooked simple local cuisine in a steamer and wok. I sat down beside some locals on the long bench at the corner chai stand and ordered a cup of tea. I then turned my attention to studying the scene. There were just two ponies currently in the stables, the rest being out offering rides to children. Only an old man, whom I had seen there throughout the day before, was present, sitting on a step. Out in the square were the dim outlines of people and horses.
There was little hope of seeing their eyeballs, let alone their faces at this distance, in this weather, so I turned my attention to the tea, which, upon my first sip, sent me into paroxysms of pleasure. It was, without a doubt, the best cup of tea I’d had since arriving in India. It was only really at this point that my location hit home. Darjeeling – one of the tea capitals of the world!
I now studied the people behind the counter. There were three of them, two women and a man, all Nepali, likely in their mid thirties. They seemed to have their own particular role behind the stall. The man was in charge of the tea; using a large tin kettle in which he placed what looked like a home-made tea-bag the size of an apple. From this steaming hot kettle he would pour the tea into the regulation small tumblers one found right across India, mixing in sugar as desired and powdered milk. I was, initially, disappointed to see him use powdered milk, but by the time I’d finished the cup I was convinced that I’d never drunk anything so delicious in my life. I ordered another cup – at five rupees a piece, a little less than twelve cents – and watched the two women. One, whom I suspected was the wife of the tea man, was in charge of the cooking. She stood behind a large wok on a gas cooker, cooking noodles, frying eggs with chilli and heating buns by pressing them against the hot wok. The other lady, whom I guessed, again with very little evidence, might be a sister of one of the other two, was in charge of the momos. She stood marshalling a tall pile of tin and bamboo steamers, filled with what looked like delicious dumplings. I was astonished to realise that a mere fifteen rupees bought eight to ten of these soft, hot, fresh momos. Whatever was to come, I knew I’d be coming back this way for lunch.
When the tea was done, I thanked the people and stood up. Now fully fortified against the cold air, I had to work on my resolve to make an approach. I walked straight past the stables and out into the square, slowly walking towards the group of pony boys with their horses. The mist was especially thick out in the middle of the square and the Japanese cedars that lay behind the ring of orange and white park benches were lost a mere half-way up.
I hovered about for a while, feeling somewhat apprehensive. I wasn’t so much nervous as reluctant; not wanting to get involved in a misunderstanding that had the potential to turn sour. I watched the fellows for a while. They made very photogenic silhouettes in the fog and I took some photos whilst observing them. Many Indians come to Darjeeling when the weather heats up and this year was already particularly hot. In recent days Delhi had seen the temperature sore to fifty centigrade. The holidaying families were very distinct amongst the Ghorka, Nepali and Tibetan community. Several lucky children were being treated to rides.
I edged closer to the unengaged horsemen, wondering how much English they might speak. Would it be too confusing to begin with “I was told…?”
I tried to see their eyes. Who looked the most wasted? Fortunately, the first one I approached – a short, curly-haired man with a dark brown pony in tow – looked completely and utterly stoned. The whites of his eyes were the colour of lightly-flavoured chocolate milk and his pupils were hardly to be seen. I nodded to him and had his attention.
“I heard that if I wanted bhang, I should talk to the horsemen.”
The man said nothing, but examined me closely.
“I want to get some bhang, some grass… I was told to speak to the horsemen.”
He continued to look at me, clearly totally oblivious to my cryptic remarks. I knew I had to word things more simply, but was nervous and verbose.
“Marijuana,” I said.
“Marijuana?” said he. “Marijuana, three thousand.”
“Three thousand? No, no, not that much. Less.”
“Ten grams, one thousand.”
“Ten grams, one thousand? Deal.”
Considering that twenty-five bucks usually bought one gram in Sydney, it seemed a pretty decent deal.
The pony-man gave me a big, slow, stoned smile.
“You go here.”
He pointed down the street that ran from the southern end of Chowrasta. “Down here. I talk to boss.”
With that, he was off, suddenly energised, with a distinct and unexpected spring in his step. I felt quite pleased with myself and couldn’t help smiling. I was going to get baked after all! I drifted down the side road as instructed and lifted the camera to my face, returning to my disguise as a regular tourist.
The side road was especially misty and it was clearly a good place in which to make a deal. There were some local carriers resting with their loads underneath one of the tall cedars, and I walked down past these, stopped and turned back to face the town. I reached into my bag to find my wallet and got the money ready in my hand then took a few photographs of the shapes in the mist.
The carriers picked up their loads, slowly rising, a little stiff. They walked bent forward, stepping like giants, their parcels supported by ropes around their foreheads. How strong their necks must be! When the carriers disappeared from sight, I heard the rapid clop of galloping hooves. Through the swirling mist, the shape of the mountain pony-man appeared, a mere ghost at first, but soon he burst through and materialised in front of me. He pulled up his reins and brought the horse to an abrupt and dancing halt. He had a broad smile on his face and seemed to spring in tune with his mount on the saddle. I knew instantly that he was profiting handsomely from this and figured I should be paying about five hundred, as my informer had done. Still, it was a mutual happiness, as we were both about to make each other’s day.
He guided his horse until he stood right next to me.
“Here,” he said. He reaching down, holding a plastic bag tied with a rubber band. I held up the thousand rupees and took the weed from him. It was a large bundle. Light, springy, and leafy, I suspected, but certainly copious. Finding out whether or not it was actually weed would have to wait.
“Thank you very much!”
I shoved the weed quickly into my pocket and offered the pony man a salute. He said nothing, merely smiling and nodding, then wheeled his horse and rode off into the oblivion of the fog.
I walked away quickly, firstly away from the square, feeling an urgent need to get away from the scene of the crime. A moment later, I gathered my wits and turned around, heading back towards Chowrasta. The time had come to buy some papers and get on with it. I began a determined march back to my hotel room. Why wait after all?