Monday, April 22, 2013

Sikkim: India for your MOM*

* And for me. 

I can't really speak for 'India', as I have only bummed around in one adorable village and the surrounds in North West Bengal. I went to Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, and I guess it was kind of crowded and stuff, but not really. I found plenty of leafy avenues and the like. Anyway, my current travel pal Karo, a super tough, hilarious 19 year old Bavarian, has been all over this fair land and had her share of harassment, hassles, near misses with cars driving on the footpath, there not being a footpath, men grabbing her and touching her and all of those other more difficult experiences we associate with India. Especially as a woman. 

Sikkim isn't like that. Sikkim is India, lite. Or, as the people of Sikkim would have it, Sikkim isn't really India. The people are a bit shy, and super polite. If they want to take a photo they will say "if you wouldn't mind, I take photo?" or something equally unheard of in the rest of India, where I once woke up in general class on the train to find my new friend taking snaps of me asleep. The weather is cold. The main towns, such as Gangtok (pictured above), have pedestrian zones and in these zones people stroll leisurely around, there is no rubbish on the street, there are rubbish bins and benches and loads and loads of space. 

One small part of the reason for the difference of Sikkim is the fact that India invests so much in it - to court it and keep it from being drawn too close to China. Sikkim is semi-autonomous and actually voted to become part of India in the 1970s. So, they're in a strong relationship with India, but they're not beholden. 

Other reasons I've only read about very briefly, and which probably hold more weight, are to do with the huge cultural difference between, say, Bengalis, and the Nepali, Lepcha and Tibetan people who make up the Sikkim populace. You notice the different gender roles right away, with tough police women patrolling the streets. They march past in their very well tailored uniforms and never smile at me, and I'm glad they don't. 

In other news, as we were (sadly) leaving Gangtok, we happened to be crossing the footbridge when this happened: (Lord Rama's birthday)

NB: We also referred to Sikkim as the 'Bavaria of India', perhaps because of our Bavarian heritage, but perhaps because of the copious beer drinking (even by women), the mountains, the focus on tradition, the general 'quaintness' and the festivals. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Farmhouses, Weddings and Red Pandas

The view from my bedroom

My friend Anu invited me to come spend a weekend with her "brother" in "Darjeeling." Being Nepali, by 'brother' she meant life-long friend, and by 'Darjeeling' she meant a very small village called Mungpoo*, about an hour away from Darjeeling. 

* Much better than it sounds. 

Pictured above from the left is Raoul (Anu's brother), Ama (Nepali for mother; I never knew her as anything else), Ernesta and Anu, with little Chetan in the forefront making faces at PhotoBooth for about an hour. Raoul and Ernesta met as teenagers at a tribal meeting in the mountains and fell in love. Later, aged 16 and 18, they had a 'love marriage'* (Anu tells me in hushed, equally impressed and scandalized, tones) and now live together in their beautiful mountain farmhouse with their young son Chetan. 

* As opposed to an arranged marriage, which is more usual in Anu's (Christian) circles. Raoul and Ernesta are "Buddhist, but also tribal" (Ernesta's words). She wears a plain silver square (classic Buddhist pendant) which has Chetan's baby teeth marks in it, from when he was teething.

Chetan helping me boil the water for my morning coffee

Anu preparing Thukpa (Tibetan noodles) for breakfast
One thing I had on my bucket list for Darjeeling was to visit the acclaimed Himalayan Zoological Park - one of the best zoos in India, and probably the Asian continent. I'm not a fan of zoos and tend to get teary-eyed at the sight of wild animals in captivity, but this was certainly one of the better zoos I've been to - and the conservation projects run by the zoo seem to be very admirable and necessary.

A Muntjac - also known as a 'barking deer'

Sikkim's 'best animal'* according to a guide: The Red Panda!
*I would argue it is, in fact, the world's best animal

Yep. They know what's what.

Two Himalayan langur friends who made me cry

A little leopard cat
I had to specifically mention the leopard cat, as - on the way home, through a forest, at night - we had to stop the car suddenly as one little dolt had almost run out onto the road. This little cat stared at us, turned and fled, and I sat there screaming with joy and remembering the event for the rest of the evening (and week, and life). My hosts thought I was very amusing, as they see them all the time - and sometimes even full-sized leopards.

I included the picture above, even though it is out of focus and strange, because I love it. It is Chetan and I, ready to attend a neighbour's wedding. I was dressed in that pink sari by Anu and Ernesta - in a process which I felt would be quite fitting for the bride herself.  The wedding was raucous, and I ended up getting quite tipsy with Ama (the grandmother of the house), since according to local custom young women get small amounts of beer, while old women get large glasses of hard liquor. I also had a bollywood-style dance-off with a talented teenage boy and generally made a spectacle of myself. Every time I hear any one of the many Hindi and Nepali pop songs played on that evening, I am instantly happy.

Anu and Ernesta preparing momos (dumplings)
 I'm returning to Raoul, Ernesta, Chetan and Ama next week for another visit, 
and hopefully so on for the rest of my life.