The road to Darjeeling is not fun. A narrow, winding affair with long, steep drops on one side or the other, and potholes bigger than bathrooms, the route is barely wide enough for two cars, and often isn't wide enough for the caravan of jeeps going up the mountain to pass the caravan of "Goods Carriers" coming down the mountain. The journey reminded me of being in a bumper car that could suddenly turn into an old wooden roller coaster, I was alternately being slammed against the side of the car only to recover and discover a drop outside my window that induced instant and terrifying moments of vertigo.
Happily, besides the bruise on my upper right shoulder from constantly being thrown against the side of the jeep, all my distress disappeared the minute I walked into my cozy hotel room and saw the view outside my balcony door. Though shrouded in haze, the Himalayan mountains lurk just across the valley from the Himalayan mountain I am actually standing on. I can't say that word enough: Himalayan, Himalayan, Himalayan.
|This is the view from the other side of the hill I am on.|
After dropping my bags off at the hotel, I grabbed a map and rushed off to see the Colosseum before it closed for the night. When I was safely ensconced inside the gate, I took my first deep breath, Whew, I'd made it! Then I looked around and realized, "Holy Hell, I'm in the COLOSSEUM. IN ROME."
I think I went into shock, then I started crying, joyful, marvelling tears. I didn't know it consciously, but I guess some part of me never expected that I would see such a thing, such an ancient, fabled place. Yet, there I was, touching stones that held gladiators and Ceasers and centuries of history.
I feel that way here. Unglued by the enormity of the moments that I am living. Me. Little me is sitting in a chair looking out at the fabled Himalayan mountains. I am practically spitting distance from Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and China. If it clears up enough, I might get to see Everest. No matter if it does, I know it's there. I could beat ground with my fist and imagine the reverberations reaching that famous summit.
I've been waiting for these feelings, this moment, these moments of awe since I arrived in India. But so far, the country has felt so comfortable (culture shock elements aside), that I haven't really been awestruck. It made sense to be in Kerala, in Santiniketan, even in crazy, nerve-addling Mumbai. But the grandeur of these ancient mountains have struck me to the core, like my head was in a bell and the heavens came along and finally rang it....GONNNNNGGGGGGG....WAKE UP.....YOU ARE IN INDIA!!!!!!!!!
After sitting for a few minutes soaking in the reality of where I was yesterday, I decided to go for a walk to get a lay of the land. I found myself at the base of a hill with several roads to choose from. I asked a policeman for help in deciding. He pointed out a Buddhist monastery at the top of the hill, which I could now see with his help. Thousands of prayer flags were coloring the grove of trees that hugged the peak. That seemed like an auspicious place to start my Himalayan pilgrimage.
Climbing up into the woods, I was utterly enchanted by the bright colors sailing on the wind, hanging from branch to branch to branch. A calmness descended the further I ascended. Bells clanged in various spots hidden in the maze of flag and forest. Eventually I reached a shrine and was startled to discover not Buddha, but Kali. Another held Ganesha, then Shiva, then Krishna, then Hanuman. "This is the strangest Buddhist monastery I've ever seen," I said to myself.
Many people were praying at the temple of their choice, or making the rounds of each, ringing the bell before and after to send their wishes and thanks up to the Gods. I made an offering to Santoshi, a face of Durga, for my friend Finn who loves Durga. I also gave my thanks to my friend and benefactor along this journey, Ganesha, especially for the safe travels up to Darjeeling. I said hello to Hanuman for an old High School friend who is partial to the monkey God.
Just outside the gate there was a man who was mute. He could only groan to get my attention. I had passed him a couple of times in my attempts to procure incense to offer up to the gods, and each time he had made quite a racket in my direction. At first I thought he was telling me that I needed to remove my shoes. Then, he lifted his various jackets and pointed to his privates, not in a lewd way, but in an obvious, and increasingly frantic, attempt to communicate something. I decided that he was telling me that a woman was not allowed in the area I was headed. I turned around. On my way back down to my hotel, he started up again and a sweeper woman explained that he was mute and he was asking for money. I asked her if it was good to give him some and she said, "Yes." I walked back up to the man and gave him 10 rupees. I thought this would quiet him, but he started up again with his vigorous yelps and yawps and pointed once again to his privates then up to the enclave of temples, then down again at himself.
I walked away and asked the sweeping woman what he might be saying. She said, "He is telling you that he will send a prayer for you up to God." I didn't ask her about the obvious reference to male and female private parts, but decided to trust that whatever this mute man needed to say to me and then to God was for the most benevolent purposes; I started home and left my faith in his prayer. Turns out that there used to be a Buddhist monastery on this hill, eons ago. Now it is a place of worship for all religions. Anyone is welcome. All prayers are heard, mine, the mute man's, anyone's.
After a long day of travel, preceeded by a not-so satisfying sleep on the over-night train, I was dead asleep by 9 o'clock. I closed all my curtains so that the morning light wouldn't rouse me, put in my ear plugs and set off for a restorative visit to dreamland. Once there, I dreamt that I was back home for a visit. My mom was there. I discovered that I'd left a pile of clothes out and wanted to put them away before I came back to India. But I grabbed a few pairs of undies because the five pair I brought with me on this real life trip are close to retirement.
I woke up to the gentle sound of drumming and chanting. I had no idea what time it was. With the curtains drawn I didn't know if it was late morning or early. I listened to the drums. Then a message came into my brain, loud and clear: They are drumming the sunrise.
I got up and wrapped myself in a blanket and opened the door to my balcony. The mountains were shrouded in a pink and purple haze. I actually couldn't tell if the sun was up somewhere behind me or what time it was. I hadn't arrived till late last afternoon, so I wasn't sure yet where east and west were from my little view. I sat in a chair and looked around to see if I could see the monks (it must be monks, right?) who were drumming. When I turned back to look at the horizon, I sliver of sun had arrived over one painterly peak. The hidden monks WERE drumming in the arrival of the sun. I turned my chair to face the sun directly, to welcome it with my open heart and my full focus. The drumming and chanting remained steady and was such that I was certain the sun and the drum were in perfect sync, moving at the same pace. I'm not sure, but it could be that those monks were pulling the daylight out of the pocket of night.
The last few hours I've been sitting on my balcony, eating breakfast, sipping coffee and watching Darjeeling wake up. I called my mom on skype and checked in with the western world. Turns out my mom had a dream about me last night and in it, clothes had also been a factor. I think we met each other in dreamland. It wouldn't surprise me. I am in the Himalayas, therefore anything can happen.
Below me is The Assembly of God Church School and starting about an hour ago, boys and girls of all ages have been streaming down the winding mountain road under my perch to congregate for a day of learning. After everyone arrived, they all lined up in rows, single file and began to sing. I couldn't make out all the words, but I did make out the refrain, "This is my story, this is my song."
I suppose I have to face up to the fact that I am in Darjeeling. I am in the Himalayas. These things are part of my story, this is, indeed, my song.