When I stepped down from the back of the jeep in Darjeeling, I found myself in the middle of an intersection. This was no formal station, just a central location which the streets attended from what seemed to be unplanned angles. The lights were a very dim orange, barely illuminating the shuttered and shabby shop-fronts and the greasy road.
It was half-past eight in the evening and I was pleased to be on my feet again. The prolonged journey up the mountain had been very beautiful, but being two and a half hours behind schedule, I was concerned that my room might not still be available at the Hotel Tranquillity (sic).
Overhead hung countless lines of multi-coloured triangular flags; the green orange and white of India barely discernible in the sapping light. I turned a slow circle to take it all in. There were a few stalls lit by kerosene lamps and tapers in bottles; on one a steaming wok in which noodles were tossed, the cook’s face visible in flashes of fire. On one side of the road two wide-fronted fruit and vegetable shops remained open; shallow holes in the wall, the wares bathed in low-wattage lamplight, each tended by a patient, smiling man. The air was damp and a thin fog lurked above the corrugated iron roofs, threatening to descend as the day’s last warmth was leeched into the night. It was comparatively chilly after the stifling humidity of lower altitudes, but the close air and absent breeze kept me from shivering. Cars and jeeps rolled slowly out of shadow, their headlights blinding in the mist.
I looked around for street signs; any indication of where I was and where I needed to go. The light was so poor, I had to take the small bicycle light from my pack to read my inadequate guidebook map. There was no signage anywhere, and rather than finding out where I was, it made more sense to ask after my destination. I approached one of the fruit sellers to enquire where Dr Zakir Hussain Street was. The man spoke just enough English to tell me it was up the hill.
“Up, up,” he said, waving vaguely down the street to my right. “Go up the stairs. Then go up more.”
He was struggling to articulate exactly where to go and I rightly guessed it was because the town sprawled up the hill and the streets wound back and forth on lines that followed the natural contours.
I thanked him and walked away down the dark street. Had I not already been in India for a month, I might have found the darkness more forbidding. There were groups of dogs curled up against the closed shops and lone men shuffling through the night. The damp and weathering had rusted, blackened and warped almost everything, and nothing seemed new or recently renovated. It had, of course, a derelict charm which I appreciated, but having no knowledge of what this part of town or its inhabitants were like and, uncertain as to whether or not I was in any danger, I remained on my guard. I walked slowly, not knowing where I was going, and after a moment, felt bold enough to take out my video camera and film my journey.
Presently I rounded a corner whereon stood a late night chemist shop; illuminated with bright, white light, which shone across the narrow street. Three men stood out the front, chatting with the man behind the counter. I approached them and asked if they could tell me where Dr Zakir Hussain Street was. They pointed to a place directly opposite, where I now noticed a long, steep flight of steps that creeping up the hill between the tall, leaning buildings.
“Go up, up,” the man said, much as the other had done.
“Do you know the Hotel Tranquillity?” I asked.
“Yes, yes. It is up the hill. Go up the stairs. Then up again. Up to the top.”
Clearly, I had to go up! I took the stairs which cut a significant shortcut through the winding, contoured streets. About half-way up, as I walked filming with my camcorder in one hand, my thongs slipped on the wet stairs and I fell on my hands, just managing to avoid damaging my camera. I cursed and dusted myself off, feeling clumsy and stupid and pleased no one had witnessed me stumble. This, however, was as nothing to what greeted me at the top. I stepped out onto the road, and, in the near total darkness, put my foot into an open sewer, filled with a sucking muck. The muck was so grotesquely thick and clinging, that I had to reach down to extract my thong. My foot was covered in slime to above the ankle. I couldn’t bear to think what bacteria lurked in that drain, particularly as I had many cuts and cracks on my battered feet. I tried to wash it off with the last water from my bottle, but this was inadequate to the task, and the only other option that presented itself was to stick my foot into the water flowing down the street’s gutter. It was, at least, decidedly cleaner than the gunk I’d collected, but the whole experience left me with a deep feeling of disgust and I longed to reach my hotel to shower and soak my foot in the Dettol I carried for emergencies.
I pressed on up the hill, soon arriving at another intersection of zig-zagging streets. Cars pushed past and edged me onto the narrow pavement. The headlights lit up the rolling fog that was seeping down the slope.
I turned on my camera again and began to narrate as I walked, feeling a mix of discomfort and relief that I would soon be in a hotel room. Where the streets levelled out, I asked directions again from a man behind the wheel of a jeep. He pointed to the steep road leading up to my right and said, as all had done before, “Go up. To the top of the hill.”
It was some time before I reached the top of the hill. The street wound back and forth and grew ever steeper, stacked on either side with wooden houses and concrete apartments. It was so dark in places, I narrowly missed falling into a vast pot-hole. When I finally did reach the summit at a quarter past nine, I felt surprisingly short of breath. Even at an elevation of just over two thousand metres, the air felt thinner in my lungs. I paused beside a large satellite dish, backlit in pale orange light, a mere silhouette in the fog. On either side of the road were closed wooden stalls; booths that sold fruit and vegetables, snacks, cold drinks and cigarettes.
I was about to ask about the Hotel Tranquillity, when I saw its sign just ahead of me. The two ells were quaintly attractive, curiously welcoming, and I rubbed my hands together with glee.
The chap in reception was very tall indeed; around six foot five. He was a Ghorka man, with high and wide cheekbones and a strong jaw. I never caught his name and for the rest of my stay in the hotel, just thought of him as Tenzing. He stood behind a closed-in counter, rather like a toll-booth. The room around it had the aspect of a cheap European ski lodge, the décor of which had not been updated in years. If somewhat unattractive, it certainly felt very homely and the smile on the man behind the counter was reassuring indeed.
“We do have a room for you,” he said. “But it is a triple room. Three beds. There is a bathroom, of course, and tomorrow morning I can put you in a double. Also with a bathroom.”
“That sounds excellent.”
“How long would you like to stay.”
“I don’t know. I’ll say three nights for now.”
The room was only six hundred rupees, fifteen dollars Australian. Despite being more than I had recently been paying, it was ridiculously cheap. Towering Tenzing showed me up the stairs to a large, carpeted room with three single beds. Noticing how cold it was in the room, I chose the bed furthest from the window and threw down my bag. Tenzing showed me around and switched on the hot water.
“Do you have a restaurant here?” I asked.
“No, I’m sorry. Have you eaten?”
“Not at all.”
“Ah,” he said, in an oddly disconcerting manner. “Then you must hurry if you want to eat. In Darjeeling, everything shuts very early. You might not find a restaurant.”
“Oh dear. Thanks for telling me.”
As soon as he mentioned this I felt ravenously hungry and dreaded the idea of snacking on crisps and biscuits for dinner as I’d done once or twice when so caught.
“The front entrance will be closed at nine thirty. If you go out, you must come in through the back. There is a small door, up the driveway. It leads through the kitchen. The door will be closed, but you can open it. Just make sure you close it behind you.”
After a much-welcomed, but brief shower, I dressed again and went in search of a restaurant. I first stopped at the stalls and bought some crisps, fruit and biscuits, water and mango juice. If I did get caught short, I’d at least have something to eat.
I walked down the steep slope in the descending fog, determined to enter the first restaurant I found that was open. One hundred metres down, where the road turned in a hairpin, I found a small shop with a restaurant attached. The space inside was cramped and triangular, with wood board panelled walls that gave it a very dated look. The tarnished glass counter was full of packets of sweets and biscuits, of crisps and chewing tobacco, old toys and mobile phones. The old furniture – linoleum-topped tables with metal rims in which lurked ancient grease, attended by wooden benches – reminded me of the old diners and cafés of Sydney which seemed no longer to exist. I sat down and picked up a sticky menu, quietly loving this place for being so enticingly run down; honest, simple and, as was so often the case in India, unbelievably cheap. It felt like the past.
The menu was a little like Darjeeling in microcosm. The Indian staples were joined by Chinese, Nepalese and Tibetan dishes; momos, spicy soups, noodles. I ordered hot and sour soup, dhal with paratha and a bottle of Coke to cleanse the palate. The man who served me kept quietly busy, and when I placed my order, he disappeared through a curtain into what appeared to be his home. I caught a glimpse of his wife in the back room, standing before a stove. The dim sound of a television snuck through into the restaurant.
I took the chance to photograph the shop, particularly interested in a very old public phone upon a stand. Many times in India I had been reminded of my holidays to the Blue Mountains as a child. For, whereas Sydney had, even in the late 70s and early 80s, kept somewhat up to date, the small towns like Katoomba, Leura and Blackheath had always been well behind the times, both in style and facilities. My brother and I had found endless satisfaction in the relative cheapness and antiquity of things, and such was the case in much of India.
The food was not long in coming, and when I tasted it, I was surprised by how good it was. I felt briefly guilty for suspecting otherwise, but had often found restaurant food to be not as good as that of the street. My father had always said that the best sauce in the world is hunger sauce, so perhaps my ravenous appetite coloured my opinion. Either way, I felt very content when I farewelled the quiet man and left to walk back up the hill.
On arriving at the Hotel Tranquillity, again finding myself out of breath, I did as instructed and walked around the back of the hotel. The door opened into a tiny kitchen, and in it I encountered a lady whom I assumed might be Tenzing’s wife. She was sitting on a stool in an upright posture, resting it seemed, and enjoying the peace of the quiet and shrouded night. I nodded in greeting, grimacing a little to convey an apology for disturbing her. She gave me a big smile in return and gracefully motioned towards another door which led to the hotel stairwell.
Later, as I lay back on the bed with my feet soaking in a bucket of hot water and disinfectant, I found myself pondering how utterly different this place was from everywhere else I’d seen in India. The cool, the damp, the faces and architecture, and here, at the foot of my bed, several extra blankets neatly stored in clear, zip-up plastic bags. That I should feel cold at all, after a month of forty degree heat, was a clear sign that this was a whole other world altogether. Being one born to suffer greatly in hot weather, though less so in the dry than in the humidity, I was excited by the chill feeling and the cold, clinging damp. It reminded me of living in Cambridge and I felt a clear-headedness I’d not felt for some time.
Most of all, however, I was excited about what the next day would bring. For then I should see what I had come here to see. The Himalayas!