I left Delhi and headed East to Maneybhanjang, a smallish village near the Nepal-India border of West Bengal. I spent two nights on the train from Delhi to NJP station (Siliguri for all intents and purposes), and then a taxi another 80km or so. That drive in itself was interesting, stopping for lunch, avoiding monkeys and watching the tea farms go by. My original plan was to hike the 5 hours into Nepal stay for a few days and come back. It turns out that Maneybhanjang is the jumping off point for 3, 5 and 7 day trekking holidays popular with travels from Kolkutta. Based on the few people I met on the trek, it is the Indian equivalent of the guys-only fishing trip, without the booze. As I hung about in ManeyBhjang, the more interesting a 4 day trek sounded, so I hired a guide by the name of Sukman for 250r a day (about US$5). If you have the physical ability, I cannot recommend this too highly. It was beautiful, relaxing, and breathtaking. Choose your adjective.
On the morning of the first day I met Sukman outside my hotel with my backpack over my shoulder and my spine slowly compressing. Sukman had a small sack over his shoulder that looked like it could barely hold his lunch. Given that, I went back up into the room and zipped the small daypack off, and put the minimum inside it: extra thermals, socks, one pair pants, shirt and medications. I went from a 60 pound pack to about 4 pounds. Best idea I had on the trip.
For most of the time, Sukman and I were hiking alone stopping at monasteries and tea stalls on the trail. In one case, since it was just us, he asked if I would mind taking a wider route so he could visit a relative. He took me to a small farm that also took in guests from time to time, as do most of the homes on the trekking route. Sukman had almost no English, but his cousin’s English was pretty good. I was sitting outside the house enjoying the scenery while Sukman was catching up with friends. After some time taking pictures of the kids and chickens, someone asked if I was thirsty and would I like some water. I explained as politely as I could that I had just come from Delhi, where Americans tended to get sick unless we stuck with bottled water. His cousin’s reaction? “Really, that happens to Americans too!? I thought it only happened to Napeli that go to KolKutta, the water there is filthy. My family gets sick every time we have to go.” Thus we bonded over the filthy water of people that live in the flat lands. Once you have been drinking strong, milky, sweet black tea while hanging out with a Sherpa family overlooking the mountains called “The Sleeping Buddha” , grabbing a cup of Joe at the local Denny’s seems to lack something.
Your first lesson in cultural understanding
“Are you alone?” “Are you married” “How old are you” I was asked these three questions in this exact order at every stop, and I believe I can provide a cultural interpretation without understanding a word of Nepali:
“Are you alone” – “Hey, I can understand anyone coming out here without his wife, I mean, we’re guys, right? But where are your buddies at? What do you mean you are alone, as in traveling by yourself!?”
“Are you married” – “Ok, you did not bring your buddies with you, hey that’s cool, but alone? So, where is your wife? What do you mean you are not married, I got married when I was 17, so please tell me then…”
“How OLD are you?” – “Not married, no kids. Forget we even started the conversation; I don’t what to know what kind of freaky concept is going to pop out of your freaky American mouth next.” In reality these conversations took about 6 seconds with the questions, my answers of “Yes”, “No”, and “43”, and each answer met with total disbelief.
The basic trek was supposed to be about 50km, and I had to cut the last 20km and jeep it back. After the hustle and noise and fumes and touts of Delhi, this was past beautiful. We walked for several hours, mostly up hill, stopping to listen to animals, rest on a cliff and button up against the cold and just march along listening to some farm kids singing as they brought in wood. I took 2 or 3 hundred pictures, but when you are out there you really get a “what’s the point?” sort of feeling. Nothing can bring back how clear the air is, or that feeling that you are about as remote as you have ever been. But, the camera has been the best thing for making friends. At every village I stopped at, I took pictures of kids and families and goats and anything else. Everyone loved seeing the pictures on the back of the camera, and I promised everyone that I would make prints in Varanasi and send them back to Sukman’s brother who has a hotel in Manbahjang. Sukman will pass the prints along to everyone on his next trip up. I have been doing this since I arrived: People don’t mind letting you take pictures all you want if they can have a print, and you can do that in a town of any size here.
Since I was traveling on the trek alone, I was treated a bit differently than the other tourists. Usually in each little village, you might hike in to find 10 or so tourists from Kolkutta or even Westerners, and everyone sits in a dining room and chats about the trip as best they can. In my case, Sukman would take me in, push me past the other guests in the dining room and I would spend my evenings in the kitchen with the family and the other guides. It was wonderful, sitting by the big smoky hearth, watching the nan being cooked, smoke stinging everyone’s eyes, and trying (mostly without success) to communicate as little we could. So, each night rather than being served with the guests, I sat with the family by the big hearth, and as any anthropologist will tell you, it just doesn’t get any better than that.
Oh, I didn’t mention that altitude sickness?
But the end of the 3 day, and early on the 4 day, I was pretty sure my head was going to explode. My vision was blurring, I could barely use a pen to write, and I was trying to tell myself it was the flu. By this point we were at a bit over 12,000 feet and I could see Everest out my window. It was in this tiny trekkers hut (no family grub here, just whatever the guides whip up) that I met this other traveler, a British Doctor. He poked and proded and informed me that while I most likely also had a cold, the effects were being magnified considerably by “High Altitude Sickness”. Not at lot of people get it badly at only 12,000 but some do. So after a night of wind howling (as in 60mph, screaming off the Himalayas, tearing at the tin roofing and a wind chill about 0 degrees f), it was decided I needed to be put on a jeep back to Maneybajang, and farther down that day if possible. The trekking was amazing, then again so was the pressure I felt in my brain.
Why can’t Sukman understand that great whallops to my forehead will NOT fix my headache. Plus: I learned that when taking a jeep down an incredibly steep mountain jeep track, it is best to not take pictures of the driver who will then want to look at the pictures. Not stop, pull over or slow down mind you, just look at something other than the road.