Friday, May 16, 2008

Greetings from: the toy train, Channu Summer Falls

I missed my chance for a toy train ride in Shimla, and I wasn’t about to let the chance slip through my fingers here in Darjeeling. Besides, the Darjeeling train was supposed to be better. It’s pulled by an honest-to-goodness steam engine, with someone to shovel the black chunks of coal into a fire and everything. The whistle can blow out your eardrums. I had my window open, and each time the engine belched out a thick burst of steam, tiny pebbles of soot would fall into my hair.

The joyride is a condolence prize for those who can’t undertake the full 7½ trip to New Jalpaiguri. It heads to Ghoom, with a 10 minute stop at Batista Loop, a war memorial. But the memorial obelisk takes a back seat to the gardens and the vendors with bags full of ethnic Himalayan clothing -- for a small fee, you can dress your family in the bright outfits and pretend to pick tea. Still, this abbreviated journey offered stunning views of Darjeeling and the valley below -- towns built into the side of the hill, like outcroppings of rock.

There are two things you can be assured of every afternoon in Darjeeling: first, that there will be rain. When the train reached Ghoom, the grey clouds had descended from above and now manifested themselves as rain, a scattering of drops, enough to annoy. I walked back to the market stall where the Tibetan family two days before had helped Richard and me. They recognized me, and I thanked them again. Small kindnesses too often go unacknowledged.

The second thing you can be assured of: traffic. Ridiculous amounts of it. Cars line up for what seems like kilometers. Drivers turn off their engines; you can honk your horns until it fails, but no one budges. The road can only sustain so many cars, and motorcycles trundle by on the crumbling, rocky shoulders. The traffic police waving cars to and fro supposedly know what they’re doing, but it’s frustrating nonetheless.

Thus, when I finally reached the Channu Summer Falls (also known as the Rock Garden) that afternoon, it was a noiseless slice of calm. The falls themselves might not be all that impressive, but the sound of falling water soothes the nerves like nothing else (which explains, perhaps, the craze of electric-powered fountains in the US). I was the only Western tourist ascending the stairs, but that lent the moment an additional bit of serenity. The right-hand path follows the waterfalls; the left-hand path winds through flower gardens with some silly statues to break up the monotony of flowers. There’s also a small, slightly creepy cave dedicated to snakes; carvings slither inside towards cobra head fanning out above an altar. I did not leave an offering.

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