Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Greetings from: Tiger Hill

I woke up at an ungodly hour -- 4 a.m. -- in order to catch the sunrise at Tiger Hill, a must-do experience, apparently. All the taxi drivers thought so; that was the first things out of their mouths when they saw Pete and me: Tiger Hill? Tiger Hill? Generally, I resist “must do” things when traveling -- but I usually succumb anyway. (Hear that, Taj Mahal? I’m coming for you.) The problem with “must do” activities is, well, everyone does them. This held true for Tiger Hill.

Even before we had reached the summit of Tiger Hill, the mass of people present became evident; the tourist jeeps and taxis crammed the edge of the road, parked perpendicular to the slope. The jeeps have different names stickered to the top of their windshields: “Ma”haraja, Darjeeling Boy, Shree Ganesh -- mantras and means of identification both. We had arrived slightly late; the world had begun to get light. But the thick bank of clouds that hangs eternally over Darjeeling had resisted the sun’s emergence.

Women with metal Thermoses walked around the crowd of mainly Indians, selling Dixie cups of coffee. No tea? Disappointing. The crowd clumped up against the rail, seven people deep. For a few extra rupees, I could have gone up to the pavilion, but I doubt that they jostling for position would have been less fierce. I elbowed myself into a good spot, ignoring the glares of the people around me, and used my bony little arms to angle my camera for a better shot.

And then -- it happened: the sun peeked out. It had already risen from beneath a bedcover of clouds, but now it stretched its arms and looked out upon us. So even if we couldn’t see the mountain range, we at least got a glimpse of inspiration. Everyone’s hands went up over their heads, holding cameras and videorecorders -- a puja courtesy of Kodak.

The early morning must have made me delirious; at the Hanuman temple just down the hill, I made a small offering, and a priest applying a light dab of red -- a bindi -- to my forehead. At the Ghoom Buddhist monastery, I made a slightly larger offering, but no bindi. I’ve steadfastly avoided eating street food and giving to beggars, but I killed two birds with one stone: I bought three spicy potato samosas wrapped in newspaper from a young boy, ate two and gave the third to a woman begging on the steps of the monastery. Surely this is good for something in my near future.

Later in the afternoon, there was a protest march through the streets of Darjeeling. A steady fall of rain did nothing to stop them; they were almost all women, holding banners and flags, and sheltered beneath umbrellas. The organizers, spaced about every 10 meters, read chants from limp pieces of paper, and the others would repeat the last two words. I recognized one word only: “Gorkhaland.” The march stretched far down the street, and it seemed like a river of brightly colored umbrellas -- a dazzling array of stripes, plaids, polka dots, lamé -- flowing uphill.

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