May this work benefit all beings.
After the massive welcome we got from the children of Gangtok, my friend headed to the top of the city. I preferred to remain stationed on a slope, like a sniper waiting for the presidential motorcade.
When the cross of the peephole of my heart focused on the limo, I pulled the trigger. A bullet hit its target, only that, instead of deadly lead, it consisted of equal parts of compassion and justice.
A few days later, the Presidents of India and China met and agreed to opening the border of Sikkim, closed for more than forty years!… Curious coincidence.
(Romanticism aside, that was the sad political rubric with which India recognized a Chinese Tibet, and China an Indian Sikkim.)
A serious fault in the motorbike upset the plans with regard to the mode of transport. We left it behind in a workshop at Kalimpong, and boarded one of the jeeps that cover the route to Gangtok, Sikkim’s capital.
The narrowness of the road, the cliffs and the speed of the jeep are factors that may cause some distress in the weak of spirit. Even worse, they can prevent the enjoyment of the natural beauty of southeastern Sikkim, a curious mix of exotic jungle and rugged topography.
Gangtok has that indefinable atmosphere of all the provincial capitals, transited by people who come to the market and to make small transactions.
Coinciding with our arrival there was also the Prime Minister of India (AB Vajpayee), who officially visited Sikkim for the first time, an event for which the streets were decorated with flowers and flags. The next morning, when we left the hostel to visit the city, we found all the school children, flags in hand, flanking the main road.
The decision to take the children out of the schools to give a warm welcome to the president of the nation was an obvious political maneuver. The Sikkimese were the last to join India, unable to keep up their neutrality between the two bullies of the “neighborhood,” India and China.
When detecting the two big Western guys, a few children began shouting, “Namaste, namaste!” Those initial shouts of a handful of bored kids propagated in the crowd and derived into the rehearsal that would welcome the Prime Minister, with thousands of screaming children eager to shake our hands. When we turn off the road leading to the presidential palace, we were both under shock, really moved.
We decided to visit the ancient kingdom of Sikkim, nestled among places with evocative names: Tibet, India, Nepal, Bhutan… Before leaving Darjeeling, we had to apply for a visa at the Governor’s Office.
We stopped the motorbike at Kalimpong, a city at a lower altitude than Darjeeling, with one of the best climates in the region.
There we met a witty French man who had retired from “civilization” to live as a marquis for the same price as in France he’d survive as a nobody (ipse dixit). We also met a Tibetan old lady who invited us to tea at her place, as Baroque as a Gompa. She considered herself a follower of the Karmapa, the spiritual leader of one of the four major sects of Tibetan Buddhism, the Karma Kagyu.
Before dying, the Karmapa gives clues to find him again in the next reincarnation. The same thing is true with the Dalais Lamas, although the lineage of Karmapas is even older.
Unfortunately, at present two monks claim to be H.H. the 17th Karmapa.
One of them lives in a temple of Kalimpong, so we headed there hoping to meet him.
We bought the white silk scarves called “kata,” usually offered as a token of respect, and humbly requested the meeting. After a while, a Tibetan monk with western manners informed us that we were granted audience. We were led to a room where we could cordially chat with Trinley Thaye Dorje. He proved to be a charming young man of twenty, with good command of English and not lacking in charisma. Whether he was the true Karmapa or not, during those minutes, for me was totally irrelevant.
Dali Gompa is one of the most impressive Buddhist temples in Darjeeling, the “headquarters” of the Dragon School (Drukpa Kagyu in Tibetan).
The day of our arrival there was a large gathering of monks to take part in a one-week-long special ceremony. We asked if we could lodge at the monastery, and the monks agreed with the typical Tibetan kindness and hospitality.
That’s how we ended up sharing that week with the monks, meditating in a corner of the temple while they created a estrange music with their chanting and curious instruments.
A pleasant discovery about Tibetan monasteries was the fact that, during special celebrations like that, the food is always vegetarian: rice with vegetables, fruit and tea.
At the conclusion of the ceremonial week, hundreds of people flocked from all corners of the region to receive the blessings of such auspicious occasion. And we, like them, also tied a blessed red cord around the neck.
We said goodbye to the monks among the admiration of the children, more interested in seeing and touching the big motorbike of my friend than in receiving another blessing.
We sat on a terrace of downtown Darjeeling to sip a cup of the famous local tea, grown on the slopes of the mountains, and to plan the next adventure.
“What do you know about Sikkim?” asked my friend. “Not much,” I said.
Before finishing the tea we had already decided that we’d visit the old Kingdom of Sikkim.
After a restful sleep, the next morning we went out for breakfast and to buy some clothes to protect us from the chilly weather.
As I stepped into the street, and took the first breath of fresh air, I suddenly regained my vitality. It seemed almost a miracle. The weakness and slight fever that had been accompanying me since I put my orange sport shoes in Delhi completely disappeared. I regained my appetite, and even the joy of the trip.
The English chose Darjeeling as a resort to take shelter from the rigor of the plains. My miraculous recovery proved their choice wise. Darjeeling is one of those towns hung on a mountain slope, over the void. The views are breathtaking, specially those from Tiger Hill. The golden-white wall that in the distance rises to the heaven is the Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world (after Mount Everest and K2).
Tempting as it was to hike in the mountains, I was not interested in doing tourism, or in socializing with the many travelers who come to Darjeeling attracted by its natural beauty. Instead, I went to visit the many Tibetan temples, known as Gompas, settled there after the Chinese invasion of Tibet.
As soon as the train arrived in Siliguri, we unloaded the motorbike and headed to Darjeeling.
Darjeeling is the resort the British chose to escape the scorching Gangetic plains during the colonial period, at about 40 miles from Siliguri and 7,000 feet of altitude.
The winding road disputes the slopes with the “toy train,” a well-deserved name given its size.
The sudden drop in temperature brought an unforeseen problem: I didn’t have enough clothes (someone stole them on the train, as I told in the earlier post), and my friend didn’t have much to share. We stopped to put more clothes on, and my batch consisted of merely a pair of socks and a sweater. When the sun set, the cold was almost unbearable.
I closed my eyes, relaxed and entered a state where my body was leaning effortlessly with each curve. The cold, though intense, ceased to cause me suffering.
After countless turns we reached Darjeeling.
At the sight of the first pension, we urgently dismounted the motorbike and went inside to ask for a room with hot shower—which turned out to be a couple of buckets of steaming water, enough to regain the vital signs.
When it got dark I began to doze. But not everyone in the train felt sleepy.
With the hustle of reaching a station I woke up. Even before moving my hand to reach my backpack I knew I’d only touch its absence. I went out at a run, uselessly trying to spot the thief among the people on the platform. I approached an officer and told him about what happened. The uniformed giant just looked at me very seriously, wondering how could I be so naïve.
I returned to my seat, already calmed and with a grin on my face, imagining that of the thief opening what he probably though contained a treasure: a few T-shirts dyed after the Holi, my orange slippers, and an old blue fleece.
Although unintentionally, my original plan became a reality. Now I could travel very light in India… by flip-flops.
The train ride northwards, from Patna to Siliguri through the Gangetic plains, did not offer a variety of landscapes. Plenty of impoverished villages with low brick or adobe buildings, and the facades coated by cow-dung cakes, getting dry to be later used as firewood.
Cows produce milk, fuel, power, heat in winter… and more cows. That may be why they are considered sacred.
Unfortunately, due to the strange mechanism by which human intelligence gets suspended whenever religion is around, the urban environments of India are full of these poor “sacred” animals, starving and presenting a serious risk for public health.
I looked out of the window and saw some lads tucked into a lagoon to the waist, gently scrubbing a plump cow. The image exuded life. That’s the holy cow, I thought.
We returned to the train station wanting to get out of Patna as soon as possible.
After a while I realized that I had lost my watch, a cheap digital one. Without much else to do but wait, I went to ask at the counter where hours before we bought the tickets.
“This one?” said the officer while holding up my watch.
“Incredible!” I replied in amazement. “Yes, thank you very much!”
If there is one place in the world where one does not expect to recover his watch that is a train station in India… much less in Patna!
I went back to where my friend was waiting, but when I was about to tell him that good things can also happen in such a city I realized something was bothering him.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“See that old beggar sitting there?” I nodded. “A guy just kick him in the head.”
I noticed the blood flowing down his temple.
“Must be an outcast, an untouchable. Here his life is worthless. Surely they had eye contact.”
The loss of my watch couldn’t be more providential, because if anything alters me that’s cruelty, especially when the victims are the most vulnerable: animals, children, the elderly, women, nature…
Deep inside I also feel sorry for the perpetrators. I can’t imagine the unhappiness of someone capable of giving a kick in the head to an old homeless person. Blood, though invisible, also runs down his temples.