Perhaps my most abiding memory of last week's trip to Darjeeling and Sikkim is that of taxi drivers obsessively cleaning their cabs. Having spent much of my life avoiding rides on New Delhi's smelly cabs, it was good to see people caressing their vehicles as they hosed them down.
As we drove around Darjeeling to take in its sights, our driver took advantage of every halt to flick imaginary insect carcasses off the windshield. As we walked back from a temple complex in the nearby town of Kalimpong, we found our cabbie scaling the front wheel, trying to reach with his duster what appeared to be an unblemished portion of the SUV's roof.
And he wasn’t the only one. Cab drivers in the region seemed to spend a lot of their quality time tending to their cars’ needs. On the drive to Gangtok, we stopped for steamed chicken dumplings at a roadside shack in Lopchu. Our driver Sohan Lama took a break too, but not before instructing a labourer to soap down the car. I am not sure if any money changed hands, but I wouldn't be surprised.
Of our many cabbies during the week-long visit to India’s east, Lama was perhaps the most interesting. A Nepali Buddhist from Sikkim, he supplemented his income with a store that sold herbal medicines championed by Baba Ramdev, a saffron-robed yoga guru adored by millions in the country.
Lama, an amiable man in his 40s, beams even more when talking about his teenage son, who’s training at a prestigious football academy set up by Bhaichung Bhutia, arguably India’s most famous player.
Lama’s son may have been among the dozens of excited pupils we saw, rather heard, at Gangtok’s Paljor stadium adjacent to our hotel. I say this with no particular joy, for this army of shrieking children invaded my sleep each morning and pried my eyes open.
I endured other early risers in Mirik, a hill station in West Bengal. This time, a flock of pigeons rustling up avian buddies for a 5 a.m. conference outside my window. But not one bird was as irritating as the Bengali tourist seated behind me on Darjeeling’s heritage toy train. Each time the clouds parted and we caught a glimpse of the majestic Kanchenjunga peak in the distance, this woman screeched the equivalent of “Look there, can’t you see? There, there, not there, there,” in her native tongue, till everyone in her extended family had witnessed the spectacle. There was little to choose between her shrill voice and the blaring train horn - both were enough to cause a headache.
What was music to my ears was a pair of Gorkha teenagers rapping to Kanye West in the Himalayan village of Sukhia Pokhri. A friend and I were waiting in an empty restaurant for Lama, who was stuck in traffic several kilometres away in Ghum, home to India's highest railway station. The siblings trooped in and fiddled with their mobiles for a bit before breaking into song karaoke-style with the background music on at full blast.
An old woman walked in and apologized to us, saying the wannabe hip-hop artists were her grandsons - they responded to her censure with gap-toothed smiles. “This is what the new generation does,” the woman said in Hindi, clutching her forehead in a gesture of disdain, but with a smile trembling at her lips. _______________________________________
After several hours of a back-breaking ride on barely-there roads and a dash through the yak-infested banks of the Tsomgo Lake, our shared jeep finally reached Nathu La - a mountain pass at an altitude of more than 14,000 feet - only to be told by military guards that our mobile phones couldn't be taken past the entrance. We dumped our bags and smartphones in the jeep, and trudged onwards in a sulk that lasted till we caught sight of the Chinese soldier just across the barbed wire. He smiled and walked past us, brazenly taking a photo of the milling tourists. I shook hands across the border as we attempted to engage him in conversation. "I don't talk," he said, and with that, he walked away to his post.