The four of us are in the Indian-style Jeep; our driver, Devan, is at the wheel; our host, Rajah, next to him; Alexander and I in the back seat. I’m visiting Darjeeling to write about tea. Alexander is a German graduate student here to study biodynamic farming and insects for a degree from University. We’re off on a side trip to Sikkim where we will meet the former prince of an independent country that’s now a reluctant state of India.
It’s already been quite an adventurous drive to get here. At one point, we reached a fork in the road and neither Devan nor Rajah could determine which road we should take when we hear, “Go left!” Looking to our right, we see a small bony, toothless man in a modest loincloth sitting in a carved out shelter in the side of the mountain. “What are you doing there?” Rajah asks. The old man replies, laughing, “Hiding out a few days from the wife.” All three men nod in tactic agreement. I roll my eyes mentally and marvel how all cultures seem more alike than different.
We follow the old man’s directions as a chorus of red monkeys scream, as if to say, “Keep to the left, keep to the left,” as they scramble on top of the fence that borders the road, stopping without missing a beat, to groom one another and chatter to themselves before carrying on their cheerleading. Too soon for me, we come to a narrow wooden suspension bridge with enough space between each slat that I can see the river bed of the Teesta River left dry by the recent drought, with only ribbons of mud and rocks scattered along the river bottom. Only one car at a time is allowed on the bridge and we wait our turn before easing up onto it. From our swinging aerie three thousand feet above, the river is no longer the rafters’ nirvana; no swollen banks so common during the monsoon season.
Rajah senses my fear and says calmly, “There’s nothing you can do, Diana. We will get across. Devan, he is good, he has done this many times.” The driver looks at Rajah a little too quickly and I have a heavy feeling that this is actually his first time on this flimsy excuse for a bridge. I want to pull Rajah from his front seat, bop him one on the nose and scream, “Get me out of here,” when I realize what he has said is true. There is nothing I can do.
That feeling lasts a microsecond as my brain screams, “Nothing you can do? Nothing? We’re three friggin’ thousand feet above a pile of rocks; this car and we weigh nearly a million tons and I don’t see much civilization around here. How long will it be before they discover us and if we could survive where’s the nearest hospital and…” At that very second, Rajah turns to me again, and smiles, projecting the calm of a dedicated yogi, a deeply believing Rastafarian, sans dreadlocks, native born and bred in the land of karma, exuding a sort of Indian que sera sera. My body releases tension slowly like a too rigid balloon losing small gulps of helium. I submit to my fate. I remind myself we have already traveled enough hazardous miles to verify that Ganesh surely must be ahead of us removing all obstacles, like when we drove along a stretch of the Himalayas becoming a paved road.
The so-called road was a jumble of broken rocks, picked up since dawn by women who now carried many of them in baskets in their arms or balancing one or two on their heads. The men carried vats of hot tar on their heads and walked barefooted. It appeared this road would be paved several feet at a time. How the people, much less the tar truck, came to this point miles away from anywhere, I do not know. We were stuck while the workers scrambled away from our path and the tar truck backed up to a point where it could hug the mountain tightly enough so we could pass. Devan led us expertly through this anomaly of road clearing and paving just as easily as he had driven us down from the hilltop tea plantation yesterday and up toward the monastery where we saw the orphaned children chanting, behaving like children everywhere, some ogling us: the blond, blue-eyed, very white Alexander, and me with my Clairol red hair. A few were yawning, others intent on their prayers, a few wiggling fingers in their noses, or giggling. We stayed overnight in spare very clean rooms albeit with only cold water in the bathrooms. The window of my room was like a viewfinder framing a perfect vista of snow-capped Himalayas as the sun awoke me. We dined on a simple breakfast of chai and scrambled eggs that had been gathered just moments before from the henhouse.
Our car reaches the end of the four-mile long wooden bridge, edges its way down the dirt pathway and onto another road, and I forget to be fearful of the dizzying heights and become a tourist again marveling at the rolling green hills of Sikkim dotted with two-story farmhouses white with brown crisscrosses of wood that could be Tudor cottages in the Cotswolds or ryokans in rural Japan.
The prince of Sikkim lives in a humble, nondescript stone house with rounded interior walls. He greets us warmly and serves us momos, the north Indian version of pot stickers, neat little pockets of vegetables and chicken wrapped in dough and steamed. They’re the most delicious I’ve ever had, or perhaps the hours-long trip has made me ravenous.
The prince leaves Alexander and me to have a private talk with Rajah about how and if tea could be grown in the Indian state that once was an independent country of Sikkim, lush green land of snow lions and pandas, wild orchids and cardamom, whose staunch independence was curtailed once India aggressively annexed it as a state.
We depart after too brief a visit to return to our home base in Kurseong, Darjeeling. I was sad to leave a place where red monkeys cheer your journey, chai warms your body, detours are not really detours at all but charming glimpses into other worlds, other times, and there is no need to worry because, what can we do but accept what lies ahead.