Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Darjeeling, if you please...

The next morning, we woke early as usual and had tea and a simple breakfast at the restaurant across the street.  There were dogs all over India in general, and Yuksom was no exception.  The dogs here were certainly fuzzier than in many other location - sure proof of the laws of evolution as I'm sure it gets darned cold here in winter.  There were a couple of cute ones in particular that we bonded with in our brief stay, including one with a sweet face and black, floppy ears.  Oh my.

FYI - I did NOT give him any of my breakfast.  I certainly was tempted, though.  Photo by Sarah
We were sharing a jeep with Alok, Anne-Gael, Gael and their guide Rohit (as well as 5 other passengers) headed down to the taxi 'hub' at Jorethang.  From there, we'd be splitting up with Alok Gangtok (and the Hotel Pandim as we recommended), the French couple heading home via Siliguri's airport and Rohit, Sarah and I headed for Darjeeling.  Rohit said he had business there, and Sarah and I hoped to do just a little more sight-seeing before we caught our own flight back in 3 days.

The ride to Jorethang was 4 hours of bumps and sharp turns - as all roads in this area are.  We passed through a number of small villages and settlements and again I was amazed at how tenacious the people of Sikiim have been in establishing civilization on these impossibly steep mountains.  I was crunched into the middle, though, and had no opportunity to take any photos from this leg.  Probably just as well - concentrating on the road ahead helps me keep from getting carsick!

The cost of this B-ticket packed roller coaster?  150 rupees each, or about $3.  Hard to complain at that rate, for sure.

Jhoretang is a bustling city of about 3000, though I'd imagine during the day that population comes close to doubling as the thousands of share taxis come through on their way to Pelling, Darjeeling, Siliguri and Kalimpong.  This 'hub' is so critical that the Sikkimese government constructed a 4-floor parking garage to function as the taxi 'stand'.  Each floor is jammed with jeeps and Tatas, with people pouring in and out at a dizzying rate.  Each floor is dedicated to a series of different destinations - but if you didn't know that, you'd be screwed as I didn't see a single sign explaining it.  Thank gawd for Rohit!

An internet photo of the outside of the Jorethang taxi 'stand'

Sarah and I wait for Alok, Gael and Ann-Gael to get their spots on the cabs on the Gangtok-Siliguri floor

Cabs/Jeeps lined up and waiting for...well, I was never really sure how the system worked.
Rohit did all of the work for all of us.  He haggled and got seats for the other three, then took us up a flight of stairs to haggle for our seats.  He even got us permission to leave our backpacks in the ticket office so that we didn't have to haul them around (evidently we'd have an hour or so to wait).    

Another observation about life in India: the idea of 'waiting in line' or 'taking your turn' seems to be completely absent here.  I'd read in a book before coming to expect something like this, but it's hard for my very Americanized brain to even comprehend what is going on when there are 15-20 people crowded around a ticket window shouting, waiting, and jockying for position.  It wasn't that they were rude or pushy or even angry - they just don't stand in a tidy row and let each person have their say in turn.  Thus, a queue becomes a horde, and if you don't know the body language and cultural expectations, you're lost.  

Again, thank gawd for Rohit!

He got us all our tickets, making sure we weren't relegated to the mashed-up front seat or the nauseating-rolling rear seat.  His pride in this accomplishment was evident, and from the haggling I'd see later as we were trying to claim these seats, I could tell that we had a position of considerable value.  I only wish we'd told him to buy the 4th seat in the row... Sigh.

We decided to get some tea and refreshments while we waited - kind of the equivalent of grabbing a soda from the machine at the bus station back home.  The 'vending machines' here, however, were human and walked through the stand with their hot chapati, chai and bottles of water.  None of us Westerners wanted to risk it, so Rohit took us to a small stand in an alley off the main drag a short walk from the Taxi stand.  It's a good thing that I am not a nervous person, or I'd have been sure a gang of backpack-stealing marauders would be waiting for use up there...

Something about having "Fear Me, Ok Tata, Good Luck'" on the back of your truck makes me think you might have a personality disorder...

Alok and I toast with my favorite Indian beverage (Mazaa Mango Juice) in the dark alley

The restroom at the taxi stand...and I don't recommend using either if you can avoid it.

The main drag in Jorethang

The streets of Jorethang

Gael and Ann-Gael had to leave first, so we all returned to the taxi stand for them to load up into their keep.  We passed hugs all around and promises to keep in touch.  It is amazing how easy it is to bond with strangers when you're in another country.  I don't know if Ann-Gael really was as nervous as she looked as she climbed up into that crazy ride - but I wouldn't blame her a bit if she was.  The whole scene at the stand was insane - people shouting in several languages at once, bartering and begging, selling goods and trying to crowd as much as possible onto these poor cars.  They drove off and we had a short wait until it was our turn to play the taxi cab shuffle.

While we waited I noticed that the fare-chart noted that the road between Jorethang and Darjeeling was 'rough and winding'.  None of the other roads were noted this way - not even the very rough and winding roads we'd just been down for the last 5 hours.   

This couldn't be good.  

Our driver was very young and quite aware of appearing stylish and cool.  His car, however, was one of the worst I'd seen yet - with sagging upholstery, bad retreads on the tires and seat springs that unexpectedly poked you in the back.  It was a full car, too, tight to the point that I felt Rohit and I should maybe think about learning each other's last name if we were going to be that close for that long.  

Loading up our ride - the driver is on the roof with our packs.

A rough, winding road with a wanna-be-rock-star driver, 12 shouting Indians and THIS is the tire we're depending on?  Oye.
The ride was tortuously slow.  Much of the road was so steep and rough that the jeep didn't top 24km/hr (about 15mph).  At one point, we stopped on a very steep hill in a tiny village to deliver a tool to the driver of another jeep which was stranded with a flat tire.  From the looks of the passengers, they'd been there a very long time.  Our driver didn't even pull off of the road - I think he knew there wouldn't be any other traffic coming through.  Very rural, very isolated, very remote.  I was very glad not to have been on that other jeep.

We also had to stop at the Sikkim border.  The whole car had to wait while our passports and special permits were checked and double checked by the police at the checkpoint.  It seemed to take forever, and I found the whole scene so stereotypical that I had to photograph it.  I got a couple of dirty looks as I did so, and Sarah practically whispered to me 'It's not a good idea to take pictures of police'.  

Shows what I know, don't it.  Stupid American ;)  

The border between the states of Sikkim and West Bengal
As we neared Darjeeling, we began to see tea plantations on the hillsides.  Rohit pointed out a few, and soon we were spotting them everywhere - dotted with the umbrellas of the tea-pickers.  They use the umbrellas to shade themselves as they work out in the fields (brilliant).  The beautiful, pastoral scene, can make it hard to realize that these people are laboring in the the very hot, intense sun for very little money with only an umbrella to give them comfort.  I suppose it was easier to remember when I was jammed into the middle seat of a share taxi, but I still doubt that I have any real understanding of their lot in life.

At our rest stop, the driver got out - smoked a cigarette, ate some lunch and talked with some friends.  All without really ever announcing to us that we were taking a rest stop or how long we'd be.  He just left the car and disappeared into a roadside restaurant.  We all sat in the car for the first five minutes or so.  Then a couple of people got out and milled about.  After about 15 minutes, Rohit got out and found the driver.  He came back to tell us that we were taking a quick break, so we got out and stretched our legs.  Of course, the minute we were getting comfortable outside the car, the driver re-appeared and we were jammed back into the jeep.  If only I'd gotten out 10 minutes sooner, I could have gotten some good pictures of the rural character of that place.  Instead, I only got a couple quick snaps and we were off again!

Our jeep is passed by some tea-pickers.  Photo by Sarah

Even the humblest shops and homes have flower gardens here.

Tea Plantation - photo by Sarah
Our ride went on seemingly forever - until finally we could see the increasing density of settlement that told us we were getting close to Darjeeling.  With over 130,000 residents, it was the largest city we'd been in since Delhi.  From the stories I'd read and heard, I expected something more sprawling and pastoral - something that felt like an English countryside village.  Instead, Darjeeling turned out to be something very different indeed.

My first glimpse of Darjeeling was unadulterated urban chaos.

I expected Darjeeling to look like this...(internet photo)

But it actually looked more like this (internet photo)

Road construction before the barely-one-lane metal bridge that you must pass to reach Darjeeling from the east.  A traffic officer (who you can just see behind the car approaching us) must direct passage on the bridge, because the turn is blind in both directions.  Photo by Sarah

Darjeeling taxi stand - Photo by Sarah
Once we'd arrived in the town itself, we pulled into what can only loosely be described as a taxi stand.  It was essentially the main road through the lower portion of town, lined with jeeps 3 or 4 deep on each side of the street.  Every square inch was moving - cars, people, dogs, cows, trucks and carts.  We had the name of a hotel, and we had general directions that it was up a long flight of stairs, but beyond that we were clueless.  We'd planned on maybe catching a local taxi to get us there, but Rohit recommended instead that we hire a porter.  It was clear from the traffic jam that movement by foot would be faster here, and the vertical nature of the city also seemed to favor the pedestrian.  Where cars had to wind back and forth up the narrow switchbacking streets, walkers could take long, narrow stairways straight up. 

'Does the porter know where our hotel is?' I asked Rohit.  I was feeling the clench of that mild crowd-phobia that kicks up in me from time to time.  Rohit nodded.  His English was limited, but I got enough to know that the porter would take us right to the hotel for 50 rupees.  He would even carry my bag.  Looking at those stairs, it sounded fantastic.

Before my feet were on the ground for even five minutes, this tiny little man (I mean - shorter than me tiny) was strapping my backpack into his forehead strap.  Rohit then hoisted Sarah's pack onto his head.  We'd assumed that there would be two porters - one for each of our bags.  Instead, here was a little bit of a man carrying what had to be close to 100lbs on his head.  I wanted to object, but I didn't get a chance.  

The little man took off like a rocket ship on speed.

Picture by Sarah (who stood at least a chance of keeping up with this man)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Safely back in civilization?

Photo by Sarah

After our evening of tumba, delicious food (remind me to tell you someday about 'has been potatoes') and cut-throat Farkle, we had little left to do but return to our room for our first night of sleep up off the ground in a week-and-a-half.  Rohit, the guide for the 'other' group (Gael, Ann-Gael and Alok) who was also our dinner host actually insisted on walking us back to our hotel.  He was sweet and generous with his aid - earlier in the day he agreed to help us with securing a fair-priced taxi ride to Darjeeling the next morning. Even though the walk between his inn and our slight-step-up-from-a-tent was less than a couple of American blocks, he felt better if the two ladies had an escort.  After all, the streets are dark and the pavement uneven.  See what I mean, sweet.

Across the street from our hotel was the bar of the Restaurant Food Paradise evidently a popular hang-out among the guides.  Raj was there, smoking ciagrettes with his buddies.  I think he'd been laying in wait for us.  Literally.  I think he was waiting for us to leave Rohit's place and come back so that he could talk to us a little before we went to sleep.  If that sounds a little creepy, that's how it felt - a dark street, a bunch of guys hanging outside a bar waiting for a couple ladies to try to enter their building...

Raj's cough seemed better (which I hope was in part because he got a hot shower), but he'd also had quite a bit to drink.  They were drinking Hit Super Strong, a popular light beer we found all over the area.  They were drinking quite a bit of it.  He talked Sarah and I into coming into Paradise for a celebratory drink, which turned into one toast and then Raj talking to us a lot about the difficulties of being a trek guide and how hard life is in Sikkim in general for over half and hour.  His buddies in the bar were chiming in quite a bit, and honestly I think it might have felt like a more fun, genuine experience if everyone didn't seem more than a bit tense and weird.  

Now - I have to make a small addition to my story, and I can't verify it's truth.  In fact, its 100% here-say, since I wasn't present for any of the events.  So, unfortunately, it looks like I'm going to gossip.  Shocker.

It seems that Anke and Arne were down in the streets of Yuksom earlier in the day and overheard an argument between Raj (our guide) and the cook and porter.  If you'll recall, the cook and porter were originally a part of a separate group and we all got merged together because we couldn't secure a full staff.  Anke and Arne asked someone what was going on, and what they were told was that Raj didn't want to give the money that was owed to the cook and porter.  There was some problem with the brand new tent that Raj had us using, evidently now sporting some rather large holes, which no doubt was going to cost some money to fix.  Anke and Arne didn't stick around to find out how it all worked out, but Rohit reported that the police actually had to be called.  I can only assume it all ended equitably. (Done with gossip!) We'd discussed it over our own drinks at Rohit's house, but since no one was really sure of the whole story, it didn't get a whole lot of table time.

To make a long story short (I know, too late) - I blame all of this mess with the cook and porter and police and onlookers for the tensions in the Restaurant Paradise Bar that night. I'm sure all the guys in the room were totally on Raj's side, but I doubt anyone was really sure whose side Sarah and I were on.  Raj bough Sarah a beer (I refused the offer, as I'd already had a lot of tumba).  And he talked.  And talked.  And talked.  

Finally, I had to stand up and basically insist I was going to bed in order to stop the discomfort.  Everyone was a total gentleman, and no one tried to stop us, but we couldn't help but feel like we'd escaped an uglier scene.  Can't say why - just a feeling.

It was now very dark and quite late (at least for the schedule we'd been keeping for the last weeks).  As we crossed the street and approached our hotel, the proprietor was sitting on the stoop - also waiting for us.  I am quite certain he was embarrassed about it, but he had to ask us to pay for our room for the night.  We'd been told back in Gangtok that our dinner and our room the last night was included in the price of our trek, but the inn keeper told us that Raj had paid for his own room, but instructed him to ask us for our rent.  

It was 35 rupees - about $7.  Sarah and I briefly debated going back and confronting Raj about it.  But neither of us wanted to go back into that bar or do any 'confronting' with a drunk and reportedly belligerent son of a Gurkha soldier.  So, we dug out the cash and figured that if we'd only been cheated out of one night's hotel fee and a dinner in our whole time in India, then we were actually doing rather well.  

Super Strong Hit...Not the end of the story!
We crawled into bed with that shivering anticipation that comes from a long-awaited pleasure, such as a softish bed after 10 nights on the ground.  We were just about to doze off when a commotion started upstairs.  

I believe I might have mentioned that the whole hotel was under renovation.  We're not talking about a new-paint and bedspreads kind of thing but a gutting walls and putting in new doors kind of renovation.  While the work was happening, much of the hotel was completely open to the outside.  So open, in fact, that a nest of birds had been created in the main hallway, the eggs of which hatched while we were on trek, so we got to see the babies upon our return.  This open, unfurnished blankness meant that even the smallest noise carried throughout the building.  And the noise of 3 men unloading a truck full of tiles - well, that just reverberated like a brass band.

We patiently waited it out.  Afterall, these men had to make a living, right?  Who were these rich tourists to tell them they couldn't work? 

Then they started cutting the tiles with a power saw.  And hammering them into place.  and dragging boxes from room to room.  Sarah finally sits straight up in bed and says one word: "Really?"

I'd had it with being polite and sweet and trying to make a good name for all American tourists.  I got out of bed, opened the door and called into the hallway,"Are you going to be working all night?".

There was a long pause before the answer, which I heard but couldn't understand.  Sarah said that I was much nicer than she would have been, so I told her we'd step it up next time and let her at them.  The work did stop almost immediately, for the most part.  We still heard the occasional bang and clatter throughout the first part of the night.  Or, at least Sarah did.  I had fallen thankfully and blissfully asleep after one of the more interesting single days in my recent life.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Time out for a little photographic 'how-to'...

Of course, I'll get back to the last few days of the India Project soon.  But just to add a little variety...

One of my favorite internet haunts is photojojo.com: basically an idea engine for all things photography related.  A number of the ideas for my recent photo projects have come from the site in one way or another (such as the Andy Warhol inspired Kodi print and the reusable family shopping bags).  They're looking for new, fresh and fun ideas for DIY photo projects and - well, let's be honest here - who better than me to help out!?  So here it goes: my attempt at a photojojo DIY project intro!

(Disclaimer: Okay, folks...I'm a landscape photographer, not a studio girl.  I'm doing my best!)

If you're anything like us, you've amassed quite a collection of spare photographs over the years.  You know, those prints that didn't quite make the cut for the album or frame gallery - ones with too much sky, a little out of focus or perhaps just the third or fourth copy you didn't mean to order but somehow made it home anyway.  Letting go of these less-than-stellar photos can be hard – after all, they have some value, right?  
Wouldn't it be great if we could find some way to make these photos into something other than volume in a landfill?

The work of Raleigh-based artist and landscape architect Scott Hazard gave us some inspiration for a way to re-purpose some of these lost photos, and get out a little of that frustrated need for destruction in the process!  His work utilizes layers of printed photographs with meticulously torn, concentric shapes to create new photographic interest: holes in the sky, plumes of smoke and mysterious openings in brick walls.  Hazard's technique can take an otherwise uninteresting photograph and turn it into a 3-d art piece worthy of a spot on your display shelf.

Not to mention that there are few things more deeply gratifying than ripping, tearing and peeling in the name of progress!

All you need to get started is a pile of photos, some tape and one very sharp blade…

Amassing the Goods: a cutting mat, double sided craft tape, a craft blade, straight edge and that magical material known far-and-wide as 'fun foam' (we used the kind with the sticky already on one side!)

Begin by using the blade to 'dot-in' an outline of your hole.  Don't cut it out - we're going to tear it with our fingers.  The dots just give us a good guide that keeps us from going too far.  Then use the blade to cut an X out of the hole to give our eager little fingers the access they need.  Repeat for each photo, creating a slightly smaller hole each time.  
Trace your holes onto the foam sheets and cut out a hole about 1/8" bigger than the one you've torn.  Stick each photo to a sheet of foam, then using the double-sided tape, stick each photo layer to the previous one.  

Viola!  It's a complete piece.  This example uses 5 different photos, each with a different sky color. If you have a shadow-box frame, it would be perfect.  Otherwise, this simple business card holder works well.