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Archive for February 8th, 2012

It is not especially easy to find cigarette papers in India. This first became apparent in Jaipur, when I wanted to roll up a little something. I had just returned from ten days travelling around Rajasthan and my contact, Sunny, had been kind enough to donate a small rock of hashish. I crossed the street that afternoon to the local general store near my hotel, which sold cigarettes, assuming they would also sell papers. Yet, when I inquired of the man behind the counter, I was told otherwise. Baffled but by no means thrown, I walked around the corner where there were two small, free-standing booths which also sold cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

“Do you sell cigarette papers?” I asked.

“No, sir,” said the vendor. “Up the road. Near the roundabout.”

“And the other guy?” I asked, pointing to the other booth.

“No, sir. Roundabout.”

He pointed up the street.

The roundabout of which he spoke was a couple of hundred metres down a long road. On the way, I passed quite a number of small businesses and stopped in at three general stores, thinking surely someone must sell cigarette papers. Again, my plans were thwarted. When I did finally reach what was a colossal roundabout, beneath an overpass, with small shops and booths circling it, I expected to be at last rewarded for my efforts. Yet, when I asked the shopkeepers, all of whom sold cigarettes, not a single one of them sold papers.

Now I was indeed thrown. Did no one in India roll their own cigarettes? It seemed like just the place for it, considering how popular rollies were amongst the budget minded, and India, sadly, is not exactly a rich country on a per capita basis. If no one sold cigarette papers, and not having spotted any shops selling chillums, I had little choice by to compromise. I bought a cheap twenty-pack of Navy Cut, resigning myself to carefully emptying and repacking the cigarettes, after having “enhanced” the tobacco.

When, roughly three weeks later, I went looking for cigarette papers in Darjeeling, the situation proved no different. Walking back through the heavy fog, armed and dangerous after a successful and picturesque score in Chowrasta, I asked in every single shop I passed, only to be told no. Oh well, I sighed, there’s always that battered packet of Navy Cut in my bag.

Upon reaching my hotel room, I lay down on the bed and took out the bag of weed I’d collected from the so-called Pony Boys, or, rather, the horse-handlers down in the square. It was a large if lightweight parcel, roughly the size of a very healthy potato, full of stick and twig and seed, and lots of dry, leafy marijuana. It certainly didn’t look impressive, but it had a fresh and natural smell which was a refreshing change from the heavy, pungent, hydroponic wipe-out buds circulating round Sydney in this day and age. Either way, there was plenty of it, and it had, after all, been recommended by a gruff Queenslander, who seemed to know his business.

It was not yet ten o’clock and, having risen early, the day seemed destined to be a very long one. Lying there, with the curtains wide to a view of faint outlines in cloying fog, I pulled some sprigs of weed from the bag and began diligently to remove the small, oval seeds. There were so many of the little buggers, that this task took me the better part of forty minutes, after which I had produced an impressive pile of mix. I hopped up and emptied three cigarettes by carefully rolling and squeezing them between my fingers. Then, having blended some tobacco with the marijuana, proceeded to re-stuff the cigarettes, ably aided by a pen. By ten forty five, I was ready. I took a warming shower, dressed and gathered my things.

Just before leaving I paused by the window, taking in the limited view. Since arriving in Darjeeling two days ago the town had been shrouded in mist and visibility did not extend much beyond the foreground. Only on the afternoon of the day previous, when it had rained heavily, had the sky cleared for long enough to catch a glimpse of the Himalayas in the distance. It was an impressive glimpse, but very brief, for the dispersal of the clouds lasted just a short while, and soon they had reformed their ranks.

On the street below a family of carpenters rested on the pavement outside their shop; at their feet a carpet of shavings. I watched them a while and photographed them, before deciding that I could likely get away with smoking a joint there and then.

I tested the wind direction with a licked finger, took a smoke from my packet, struck a light, and crouched by the window. Feeling rather deliciously naughty, enjoying this fugitive act, I inhaled as Bill Clinton never did, with zeal and gusto. The smoke went straight to my head and I wobbled a little on my heels, but, determined to do things properly, I diligently smoked my way to the filter, exhaling in carefully directed puffs, guiding the smoke away from the closed, neighbouring window.

When, two minutes later, I stepped out into the roiling fog, I was as high as a weather balloon.

“Sensational,” I muttered, and set off towards the carpenters. Feeling rather louche and chummy, I couldn’t resist a rather baroque greeting as I walked past, and waved with both hands, spewing forth hellos. The two men and a young boy responded warmly, and it was at this point that I realised just how ridiculously happy I was. The high I was experiencing was of the most rare and upbeat variety, and its effect was growing in strength with every passing minute. For the last two days the mist had fascinated me and already its beauty had won me over. Yet now, intensely stoned, feeling marvellously fit and rested, having been travelling for a month already, full of wonder and curiosity, the magic of what I was seeing exploded inside me like a bomb.

Despite six years spent living in Cambridge, which could, on occasion, become enveloped in mist rolling in from the fens, I had never seen fog anything like as thick as this. Since the blanketed morning it had increased its hold over the town, turning even the most derelict and mundane subject matter into something breathtakingly beautiful. Tears welled in my eyes and my jaw-dropped; I was thankful that in the thick mist, the few people I passed could not see my face clearly, for I could barely control my expressions. My throat was thick and my lips wobbled. I felt a burning in my heart and was flooded with a feeling of love; love for the fog, love for the cool air, love for the buildings, love for the passers-by and the curled-up dogs. The world was a pencil sketch, viewed through tracing paper. It shifted and whispered itself through the droplets, soft and muted.

I strolled onwards through the moist air; my camera at the ready and Sigur Ros in my ears. The houses, shacks and shops, huddled together along the route, loomed in and out of focus. The figures in attendance, crouched inside their stalls, seated cross-legged next to their wares, were quiet and patient. They seemed in many cases very poor, and I hoped that their lives were happy and their hearts at peace.

The mood and pace of Darjeeling was so very unlike the insistent whirlwind of the India I’d seen so far. Perhaps it was the influence of Buddhism, the cooler climate, the different ethnic blend, or their relative isolation from the weight and competition of the population at large, but whatever the case, it was a pleasure to be left alone.

I passed the stables and the tea-wallahs I’d visited that morning.

Only now did I feel slightly conspicuous, as though the so-called Pony Boys, from whom I’d bought the weed in the first place, might soon be pointing and laughing at me. Feeling far too positive to allow any paranoia to take hold, I shrugged away the sensation and wandered out into the middle of the square, where the horses stood calmly about. Despite the relative cool and the heavy fog, the square was very busy. The orange and white-striped benches along its edges were full of locals relaxing; reading newspapers, drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and in one case, playing a game of chess. People milled about in the centre and periphery; tourists, bringing children for a pony joyride or shopping in the stores along the western side of the piazza, and locals, trudging back and forth, carrying loads and pushing carts, or simply taking a stroll.

It was a pleasure to photograph these people, but having hung around the square on several occasions already, I wanted to explore further and see new sights. On the eastern side of Chowrasta was an alluring road that led down the less-developed side of the mountain. It was impossible to see where it went in the heavy mist, yet, considering how incredible everything looked and having no specific goals other than to revel in the beauty of the day and take as many photographs as possible, I set off down this narrow street.

The fog so far had been very thick indeed, yet once away from the mass of people and the tightly packed houses and shops, it grew thicker still. Without the warmth of the people and kitchens, the moisture did not disperse so readily and, a mere two hundred metres down this side road, the world closed in as never before.

I was stopped in my tracks, breathless with excitement. Above me the trees were embraced by cloud, rising up in ever-paler shades of grey.

The density of the air was such that within small spatial increments visibility dropped alarmingly until the merest ghosts of branches could be seen. I stood there, overcome, looking up into the branches, shaking my head and muttering expressions of disbelief. I took out my video camera to film the mesmerising trees, trying to comment on what I was seeing.

I soon stopped talking, for there was too much emotion in my voice and it kept cracking with pending tears. How could anything be so beautiful? How lucky was I to be right here, right now, completely off my chops?!

A family of three – an older couple and their adult son – all wrapped in bright orange or yellow shawls and blankets, stopped me to say hello.

“We are here, on holiday, from Kolkata,” the younger man told me. “It is very nice to get away from the heat!”

We shook hands and I took their photograph. When I showed it to the old man and said, “Very handsome!” he seemed extremely pleased. We all laughed and smiled and shook hands again, and in less than a minute, I was on my way, smiling at just how much warmth and friendliness the Indians had shown me since arriving in their country.

The road wound down along a natural contour, passing Buddhist shrines, tall trees and occasional houses and shops.

After a stretch, I came to a cluster of buildings – too close to town to be called a village, but otherwise so in its likeness.

The steepness of the road made its vanishing point more daunting, as though this were the last stop before the end of the world. I passed between these silent houses, again surprised at how quietly and patiently the locals sat in their doorways and shops.

An old man emerged from the fog, wearing two large square tins on his back. I followed him slowly, through the village and down to a bend in the road where a lone shop perched on the brink of oblivion.

The man took one of the tins from his back and placed it on a low concrete wall. At first I thought he was resting, but then a young boy approached from the shop to buy some of what he was carrying. I watched from a distance, but could not see what he was selling through the fog; perhaps milk or oil, or even cheese?

After taking more photographs, I continued down the hill. Slowly, but surely, the number of houses diminished and the road grew increasingly lined with trees.

Five minutes later found me standing beside a row of cute wooden houses, their weathered boards and unsquared lines only magnified their beauty. I have long fantasised about such small, cosy dwellings; for their privacy and intimacy and simple provision of basic necessity. The houses didn’t look especially warm, however, and the man of whom I asked if I could take his photograph, looked cold. I felt a somewhat hypercritical taking this shot, suspecting that thousands may have done so before me. So much for my vision of privacy and intimacy!

The road soon turned in a hairpin, with a dirt road running off the bend. With an hour and a half having passed since leaving my hotel and thinking that now might be the time for another joint, I stepped off the bitumen and walked twenty metres up the dirt road. The road was backed by a wall of dripping ferns and dew-laden grass clumps, whilst in front was the swirling nothingness. I took out the cigarette packet, extracted a joint and stuck it in my lips. Again, feeling excited and ambitious, I smoked the whole thing. As I stood exhaling into the cold air, looking over the edge of the road, I blinked in amazement as a faint outline revealed itself. I tried to focus my eyes through the fog as it shifted and rolled and saw what looked like a monastery below. Then the intensity of the fog diminished in the face of a momentary breeze, revealing what was indeed a Buddhist monastery.

I hurried back to the road and followed it down the hill. It soon turned again, back in the direction of the monastery, and I walked quickly towards it, keen to have a look. The monastery slowly materialised to present a bright face, veiled and wan with mist. It was a tall, square building, with a tower at each corner, painted with lavish designs in blue, red, green and gold. The curling patterns and images had a floral, almost organic quality, as though a colourful, symmetrical mould had grown on the structure. The flair of the portico and façade, with its rounded columns, gave the monastery a slightly garish, yet beautiful stateliness.

I kicked off my thongs and wandered inside. The wooden floor was satisfyingly worn, and the rich interior contrastingly cold. I noticed a monk in the corner and, not being sure of the protocol, decided not to take any photographs. Instead I merely stood for five minutes, hardly moving, slowly turning my head to follow the many bright images on the walls and ceiling; peering from the low light.

Once outside again, I felt inclined to press on. I’d taken off my headphones, but now decided I wanted music again and chose the Guo Brothers, performers of traditional Chinese music. The haunting and exotic mood of the music combined well with the atmosphere, and I set off away from the monastery with renewed purpose.

Just around the corner from the monastery the road steepened and spilled away into a another small cluster of houses and flats. I paused on the top of a small rise, suddenly feeling very hungry indeed. It seemed that after all this walking in the mountain air and two brilliantly uplifting joints, the good old munchies had finally kicked in. Not wanting to distance myself too much from the momos and tea of Chowrasta, I turned around and headed slowly back up the hill.

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