Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Greetings from: GHOOM

Today was to be my day of exercise. A Welsh lad -- Richard – and I met up at 8:30 a.m. to take a taxi to the top of Tiger Hill, then wind our way back down to Darjeeling, a hike of about 10 km. At the top of Tiger Hill, we had the sun at our backs, although the view of the mountains was still obscured by fog. (Those pictures of the mountain range, glowing with light? A fluke, a myth, a Photoshop creation.) A pleasant day, nonetheless. Instead of taking the paved road back, we opted to venture onto a dirt path, which led a slightly different direction, but as long as we were going downhill, we figured it would be fine. Besides, a Frenchwomen had taken the lead ahead of us, and they seemed to know where they were going. We took a well-trod trail through the Tiger Hill, across terraced fields and stone gullies alike. Richard swore he heard thunder, but I assured him that it was the toy train rumbling along its track. On either side of us, dense groves of bamboo (and, sadly, the occasional empty bag of potato chips). The path wasn’t treacherous, but in a few places, you had to be nimble on your feet, hopping from one small foothold to the next, until you reached solid ground again. There was no way to avoid the mud splatters on the cuffs of your trousers.

Then it was my turn to hear thunder.

The rain started lightly, as it always does, just a few drops on the hair, a momentary wet spot on your neck. But we could hear the vehicle traffic from Ghoom nearby, people chattering. We passed a school, where the children seemed delighted to see us. We asked them directions, but they seemed to be pointed us further into the school -- the child’s delight of tricking the clueless foreigners. One boy kept grabbing his crotch and yelling out a word, but by that time, we had found our way down into Ghoom proper. We had started following the track of the toy train, breathing in black diesel exhaust when a water truck passed by, when the rain really began to pick up. The drops crashed into the muddy pothole pools, and it looked like little black needle-nosed fish rising up out of the water. With only one umbrella between us, we ducked into a stall that sold egg noodles (both flat "spaghetti-style") in cellophane bags to wait out the rain.

It must have been lunchtime, because the family who owned the stall was frying up something that smelled garlicky and delicious. An older man, who had carried a bottle of unidentifiable liquor in his pocket, pelted Richard with questions, and the whole family seemed to be having a laugh. Not necessarily at us, but more at him. He wandered off eventually (after telling me, “No laugh. He is my big brother,” and pointed at the man behind me), and the woman who ran the stall said, “Drunkard.” The rain didn’t let up, but the family was able to hail us a share jeep, and we finally returned to Darjeeling. Appropriately enough, then the sun came out.

That evening, Richard and I and a fellow traveler from Washington, D.C., David, had drinks in the pub at the bottom of Glenary’s. The cover band played any number of rock songs, from Megadeth to The Doors. What do guys talk about when they get together? Beer (which I couldn’t relate to), heavy metal (ditto), strip clubs (which I could relate to, but in a different way), and prostitutes (ditto). Heterosexual masculine energy has its own feel, its own demands, which, perhaps to outsiders, look chauvinist -- after all, Richard drank an 8%, West Bengal-only beer called He-Man 9000. But it also confers an intimacy and camaraderie -- the oft-maligned “male bonding.” I took a small sip of the He-Man 9000, and I felt butch, even if it was only for one swallow.

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