To the mountains

Diary of the weekend.

Gemmayzeh

Friday night was spent exploring the beautiful neighbourhood of Gemmayzeh (not to be mixed up with Jumanji, cannot stop calling it that). The streets were lined with 1920s themed bars, political murals, independent bookshops, as well as shops where you can fill in colouring books and drink hot chocolate. (I hope I am doing cool enough things that I am allowed to do that too)

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Walking around Gemmayzeh 

Men: Portraits of Journey

Another thing Gemmayzeh does well is art exhibitions to get your cultural fix. A warehouse space called Venue 1 had been filled with the latest exhibition from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Men: Portraits of Journey showed the lives of Syrian refugees as they fled their country and found their way to Lebanon. Many had tried to take the treacherous journey to Europe. All had experienced loss of possessions and family, of hope. The place was still and silent and the portraits were black and white.

 

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To the Mountains

The rest of the weekend was spent in the mountains! After hiring a taxi driver we drove up and out of the city. We headed to the Chouf district, just 30 minutes out of Beirut. Highlights included Beit el Dine, the Ottoman Palace and the Barouk Cedar Forest. We arrived there just before sunset and had the entire place to ourselves it seemed.

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Beit el Dine

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Lunch stop. Hummus yes. 

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Barouk Cedar Forests

 

 

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Beyond Guidebooks

Conversations and observations that go way beyond what you learn from the guidebooks. A reason why I love staying in places for longer than a holiday and meeting people who are not on holiday.

Political Corruption

‘They always close that road on Tuesdays’ said Zeinab, my good friend from work, as we drove past the Lebanese parliament on the way to the university. ‘Each week the politicians meet there and they want to avoid any protests, anything that might disrupt the status quo’.  She began to tell me about the huge problem of corruption in Lebanon, how politicians are undeniably self-involved, messing with money and forgetting to provide health care or public education.

She spoke about the national campaign, ‘You Stink’ that started a couple of years ago and aims to ‘uproot the political garbage’ in the country. Initially responding to the waste management problem, they now seek to address broader political issues. Oddly enough, there is no physical evidence of this waste problem in the city, but with a gentle breeze comes an acrid smell. It seems that everyone around is used to it now – exactly why this movement needs to keep momentum.

Freedom of Movement

As we were stuck in traffic due to these road closures, Zeinab began to tell me more about her city and her people. ‘It is common that wealthy Lebanese families go abroad for a few months to have children,’. She then explained that as a Lebanese citizen you can barely travel and that ‘parents want more opportunities for their children in the future’. I felt uncomfortable for a moment, realising my random yet inherent privilege for being born in Britain, where freedom of movement is completely taken for granted (Brexit, really??).

A Lebanese Identity?

We carried on speaking about our generation and I told her I had noticed that many young people were not actually born in Lebanon (due to the civil war that spanned across the 70s, 80s and 90s.) With families moving to Canada or France or elsewhere in Europe, Zeinab spoke of the strange repercussions that had come from this. ‘People take on their North American or French identity’ she said. Without wishing to stereotype once again, distinctions in accents, dress sense, mannerisms, etc. are noticeable in people in their 20s and 30s in Beirut. We both weren’t sure where the Middle Eastern identity had gone, but I guess nobody would want an identity so heavily ridiculed in the Western media. Perhaps it has been pushed out of the city, just like the waste.

The American University of Beirut (AUB)

Zeinab is a Masters student at AUB and has kindly given me tours and shown me the healthy cheap eats (fresh falafel yes!!). I have been working and studying in their beautiful libraries this week and have become a self proclaimed honorary student. It reminds me bit of UC Berkeley and anything that has that power instantly becomes a love of mine.

 

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University of California, Berkeley (couldn’t resist some photos, forever nostalgic)

 

 

Byblos, Lebanon

A day trip to Byblos. 

‘Charles Helou Station?’ we said to the taxi driver. He gave us a blank expression so we then repeated those three words in several different accents, annunciating different syllables, making ourselves sound a little odd. He finally repeated ‘Charles Helou station’ back to us in a way that sounded very similar to what we had just said in ten different ways. We fixed a price, got into the battered taxi and set off in the direction of Charles Helou station..we hoped.

The driver stopped abruptly as it seemed we had arrived, although the place we were dropped off looked remarkably like the slip road to a motorway rather than a bus station. Before we had a chance to orient ourselves a bus beeped its horn, pulled over and gestured to us. Knowing that public transport is more like hitch hiking in Lebanon, we went to speak to the driver. This did involve running across the motorway (sorry mum, I am fine), but that seemed like the right thing to do in the moment.

‘Byblos?’ we asked. He nodded. ‘How much?’ we asked. ‘2000 LB’ (less than £1 each) he said. So we got on (sorry mum, I am sensible). We travelled the 26 miles to Byblos and were dropped off on the side of the motorway, sounds about right.

Byblos is the oldest inhabited city in the world, with records dating back to 8800 BC. Apart from the bus ride journey, no narrative is really needed. It was a pretty magical day 🙂

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Short Stories..

Beirut, Lebanon. Week 2. A few tales from days out and nights in and nights out.

Radio Beirut

A smoke and laughter filled bar with murals of musicians covering the walls was the setting of the Beirut Literary and Art Journal event, ‘The Pressure Is On’. An evening of political poetry, storytelling and Arabic folk music, streamed live on Radio Beirut, in Mar Mikhael. We had found the Shoreditch of Beirut and we felt terribly uncool aha.

The night was hosted and performed by students from the American University of Beirut. This had to be the (second) most liberal  university that I have ever discovered; the UC Berkeley of the Middle East perhaps. Performers spoke about love and violence and religion and the moments when all those things overlap. They had passion for their country, yet anger for their politics. ‘We are the Middle East. We don’t just make bombs. We make music and art’ one girl yelled to the room.

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Old Cars and Uneven Streets

I’ve realised in the past few years that the way you cross a road is unique to each country and tells you a lot about their culture (sorry, I realise that I am massively generalising here, just an interesting observation). The spectrum spans from the strict no crossing without the green mans’ permission in Germany, to the laid back pedestrians usually have right of way in California, through to the chaotic walk out in front of all the traffic and just hope all goes well in India. I think Lebanon is somewhere in the middle, I tend to tag along with others.

Whilst walking along the uneven pavements I have found myself photographing rusty old cars around town. They are beautiful and shabby and and abit clunky, but seem to keep going – just like this city.

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Work Meetings and Meet ups

The Mental Health and Psychosocial Task Force in Lebanon hold monthly meetings in Beirut and I was invited to the March gathering. They are a group set up by the National Mental Health Program and include representatives from UNHCR, UNICEF, WHO, International Mercy Corps and Save the Children. They collaborate on mental health issues and work to ensure that everyone has a place to turn to in a crisis. I was more than a little in awe of the people in the room and the work they do.

The following day I met up with the director of the NMHP and my manager for the few months I am here. After giving me several tasks for the upcoming week he asked me something a little unexpected, ‘Do you think you can lead meditation sessions for the team? I think it would be good for us as we’re all so busy’ he said. With back to back meetings on Good Friday evening, he hardly needed to mention that. ‘I’d love to,’ I said with a smile.

Yoga All Weekend

I have practiced my yoga every day since I arrived and most people will know how happy this makes me. A yoga mat, a great playlist and a space in time. Golden.

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Scorpion pose – Vrscrikasana (in sanskrit)

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Handstand – Adho Mukha Vrksasana

 

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Upavistha Konasana

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Looking out over Beirut

From Beirut, with love

I was writing to my sister and I realised it was an update on my time here so I turned it into a blog post (I did take out some things because some sister chat is just between us)

Dear Clare,

How are you? Hope you are enjoying your Monday on the other side of the ocean. I think that ‘whatsapping’ and ‘liking’ and ‘favouriting’ makes us forget to put time into writing properly sometimes. Maybe I should have written an actual letter, but then again I haven’t seen a post office anywhere and there are no addresses or obvious street names here so maybe no one actually does write letters. This is second best.

I am writing/typing to you from my bed in my cosy apartment. The lamp is on next to me and the shade is made up of negatives of old photographs, so when the lightbulb shines through you can see the photos. They are all from the 60s and 70s it seems, just families and friends. Its quirky cute at its finest. There is music playing in the bar down the corridor that I can hear, but it is quite muffled and not too loud. I like it best here in the mornings when I have the whole place to myself. I can sit on the balcony drinking peppermint tea and eating fresh mango and look at the yellowing buildings close by and sea far away.

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The view from my balcony

This city is fascinating. It is beautiful and diverse and ancient and modern and friendly and troubled, full of contradictions. Did you think the same in the few days you spent here? This weekend I was with my friend Libby from my course as she is working here too. It was her birthday so we met up and had a bit of a posh lunch together. I’ll tell you what we had as I think you’ll appreciate it. I had a kale, halloumi and quinoa salad and Libby had a strawberry, goats cheese and fig salad. It reminded me of our colourful veggie/vegan tour of Barcelona only last month, took photos obviously, ha. After lunch we walked for miles and reached Mar Mickael, hipster central of the Middle East. Full of old cars, rustic cafes, lots of beards and top knots. We had gin cocktails and they were delicious.

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Sunday was more chilled. We walked around Hamra and downtown Beirut. On one street you saw ancient ruined buildings with vines and ferns growing out of them, and little corner shops run by people who probably work morning til the next morning. A few streets further down the road there were garish skyscrapers and Porsches weaving in between them and yachts by the marina. Inequality everywhere, humph. Then we found a cafe that provided that magical treasure called wifi and I think I messaged you. That evening I did my yoga and felt calm and tired.
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King Dancer pose. Definitely couldn’t do this a few months ago.

I’ll also tell you about my work. The National Mental Health Program is so great Clare. I am inspired everyday by the people there and the work they do. Some of their projects include supporting women who have experienced sexual violence, victims of torture, and working with the LGBT community. They speak about dignity for mental health patients all the time, that’s just so important. It is impressive that such a progressive organisation can exist in such a traditional and conservative culture. They also have to deal with the huge diversity in the country and the tensions that run parallel – The Palestinian refugee community many of whom who have been there for decades, the Christian and Muslim divide, the 1.2 million Syrian refugees who have come within the last five years. It’s so inspiring, I just hope I can be of some use.

So, that has been my last few days. Fill me in on what’s new with you, would love to hear about London life and your latest ventures. Love you, Grace xxx
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A mosque and a red beetle. 
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Walking nearby the ministries.
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Downtown Beirut
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L’appartement in Beirut

As part of my MA in Post-war Recovery Studies I have to complete a work placement in a conflict or post-conflict country. I chose to work at the the National Mental Health Program in Beirut, Lebanon. Here’s a collection of my cloudy thoughts from the first few days…

Seeking out the weirdest and most wonderful places to stay has become abit of a habit… student cooperative at UC Berkeley, warehouse in London, treehouse in Darjeeling, beach hut in Goa. This time I’m staying in an art gallery/bistro/yoga studio in Beirut, Lebanon.

L’appartement

After a fairly smooth journey from Heathrow I arrived at L’appartement in the Asharfeih neighbourhood in Beirut. Karim, the co-owner welcomed me in and promptly showed me to my room. The first thing I noticed was the rather odd vase on my bedside table (bottom left photo haha) and an abundance of flowers covering every surface. A slice of cake and a whole bowl of fresh fruit was waiting for me as well. I felt comfortable and cared for instantly, and when travelling alone that is just the best feeling.

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L’appartement, featuring the pastel blue torso vase and the tiny door to another universe.

Karim continued to show me round, taking me upstairs and downstairs and outside onto the balcony. ‘Would you like some peppermint tea’ he asked. In my head I shouted ‘my god yes’, but was held back by British reserve and tiredness from the journey. ‘That would be nice,’ I said.

Once he came back with the tea we chatted for a short while. ‘What did your parents say about you coming here?’ asked Karim. I explained that my parents were concerned of course, but always trusting and hugely supportive. With a father who moved to Belfast in 1974, travelled around Russia during the fall of communism and always tells stories of that one time he got lost in Pakistan, I have come to believe my interest in visiting ‘challenging’ countries is genetic. ‘The media creates a lot of fear’ said Karim. I nodded.

We shared abit about our backgrounds, Karim lived in France for 20 years during the Lebanese civil war. He moved back home in the 1990s, settled back here, met his wife Carla and had their daughter (photo below awwwh) before opening L’appartement last year. Eager to support travellers and provide a creative space for locals, Karim and Carla developed their ideas into something truly unique.

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Hats and masks and Leila.

In love. 

 

“Lebanon as not seen on the TV”

Our conversation moved on to the things to see and do in Beirut; the jazz bars, art galleries, the best veggie cafés (had to ask) and local market squares. He flicked through a map and I noticed on the back it said ‘Lebanon as not seen on TV’, reminding me that this vibrant, seemingly cosmopolitan city did not have such a reputation elsewhere. Beirut seems distant from its troubled neighbours, but the country is smaller than Wales, and whilst it might feel far away, it is not really, it’s not far at all.

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The National Mental Health Program

My first night and day exploring Ashrafieh was followed by an introduction day at the National Mental Health Program. I met the small team and found out the key projects I’ll be working on. These include building a mental health referral system for Syrian refugees, as well as establishing a national memorial for missing persons from the Lebanese war. This is a country trying to reconcile its own past, whilst facing huge strain from the 1.2 million Syrian refugees in the present. There seems no greater challenge.

I’ll write more about work in the next few days, as today was a fog of meetings, with English, Arabic and French being weaved into every conversation. In the mean time I’ll take care of my own mental health with yoga in the studio every morning and maybe craft or film nights at L’appartment in the evening.

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A final note, I did not get the memo about the thunder and lightening storms. I have very wet shoes.

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The Bay of Bengal 

Floating down the backwaters of the Bay of Bengal on the search for tigers by day, sleeping in hammocks under the stars (and a mosquito net full of holes) by night. Six of us had signed up for the Sunderbans tour and stay in the eco village, it was a mixture of basic and beautiful and it was so nice to be with other travellers after a stint on my own. 

After a long journey on a jeep, a motor rickshaw, a small wooden boat, a cycle rickshaw and then a larger boat, we arrived at the eco village. There were mud huts with bamboo thatched roofs, hammocks and a guitar with only two strings. It was very ‘Indian’ but had a definite western influence, I’m not sure our guide understood the point of the fairy lights and strings of colourful beads. 

We rested on the hammocks and had a fresh and homemade meal, before heading back on the boat again. The atmosphere was somewhere in between eery and peaceful as we drifted down the natural canals. We all laid on our backs so we could spot the stars and avoid the low branches that were sweeping overhead. Apart from the paddle gently wading through the muddy water there was silence, and each stroke revealed small creatures that glowed in the dark.

Later that evening we listened to some Bengali musicians who had come from the local village to play for us. At one point, a British guy named James joined in with the music, playing the Indian version of a tambourine. As he played with them I just couldn’t stop smiling, the music was totally improvised and everyone kept interrupting one another and creating their own sounds, James was finding it so hard to play along. I thought of it as a metaphor for India, disorganised and loud, yet oddly appealing. A westerner comes along and tries their best to work it all out, but quickly realises theres no way to understand it, you just have to join the chaos.

Searching for Bengali Tigers

The following day we woke at 6am to get on the boat and search for tigers. It was a long day of sailing, but it was lovely to be in that environment, just floating down the calm estuaries. In between spotting falcons, spotted deer and tiger footprints (no tigers unfortunately) the six of us got to know each other abit better. There was a German guy who had been travelling for two years to places like Iran and Pakistan, a Dutch couple who were both ridiculously attractive and when they said they were professional swimmers it made a lot of sense, and two British guys, very amusing, very much 22 year old boys from South London. 

The British guys were making me laugh constantly, I have missed their kind of humour…

At one point, they were playing ‘I spy’ on the boat, but their guesses were getting more absurd over time, ‘i spy with my little I something beginning with ‘P” said James… ‘pole vaulter’, ‘penguin’, ‘pillock’ guessed Tom. 

Our guides phone went off and started playing the classic Nokia ring tone that Indians still seem to love. Tom mimicked the old mobile advert where the man answers his comedy sized phone and yells in the library. ‘Mate, mate, i can’t speak right now, I’m on a boat in the Bay of Bengal…yeah mate, I’ve got to be quiet, we’re looking for tigers’.

After a while, our guide asked us some questions about our respective countries. ‘what is your national sport’ he asked me and then I made the mistake of saying I didn’t really like cricket, don’t ever utter those words in India. A further question he asked was ‘what is your national bird?’ to which Tom replied, ‘bloody pigeon mate’, this made me laugh a lot. We then worked out that it was the robin. 

Walking the Plank

That evening we shared great chats followed by beer and rum. I had one beer and suddenly felt very drunk, after not drinking since January my tolerance has plummeted to my 17 year old self. It did make walking up a thin wooden plank to the boat where we were sleeping seem like a breeze. In the morning it took me a good five minutes to build the courage to walk down it again. 

On the third day we had breakfast and then made the epic journey back to Kolkata in the 38 degree heat, stopping for chai along the way. No tigers to be seen, but a few new friends and many more stories to share. 


The yoga tour of India continues…500 hour teacher training in Patnem Beach, Goa. Come at me fresh fruit and beach bonfires and five weeks of Ashtanga yoga ❤


Photos to follow, my camera is playing up at the mo.




Tree houses and Tea Estates

I’m sat on a swinging seat in a sandy courtyard. There is an archway to my left covered in creeping vines and small yellow and pink flowers that are in bloom. Just through the arch there is a wood panelled cabin that has a painted sign by the front door saying, ‘The Orchid’. This refers to the dining area as well as reminding guests of the most famous flower in the region. Three wind chimes run along the side of the cabin and they are silent at present as the air is still. 

Surrounding the courtyard there are hundreds of trees of different shapes and heights and smells, home to many birds and rather oddly some turkeys that are sat on the low branches. I’ve just arrived at a woodland hotel in Kalimpong and it feels abit like the setting of an enchanted tale. Then again, the turkeys have just started making that awkward and distinctive noise they make and so it is no longer quite as enchanting, just abit loud.

Last Day in Darjeeling

Yesterday I visited the Happy Valley Tea Estate in Darjeeling, home to the most exclusive and expensive teas in the world. It is set on the side of the mountains and yes, it was beautiful and magical and all those things, but there’s a is a story running parallel that I think is more interesting to tell…

From the busy main road it was an epic walk down to the tea factory, but as with most of Darjeeling, epic walks are teamed with incredible views so it is worth it every time. As I got lower down I reached a wooden hut from which a small Bengali woman emerged. She asked me if I wanted to go on the tea factory tour and when I said yes she promptly invited me in and requested that I take a seat. 

In this hut on the side of the hill this woman had created what looked like an old fashioned British style lounge. The room was filled with mismatched teacups and chincy furniture and garish ornaments. Dusty curtains with frilled edges ran along the windows and instead of curtain ties there were bulldog clips, hair grips and monkey cuddly toys that were clinging onto the material, holding it together. I couldn’t stop looking round and thinking how dreadful each individual thing was and wondered how all these dreadful things made it into this one space. Perhaps that’s too harsh, I’ll call it grimy 1970s hipster chic instead.

As I sat she began pouring the tea, describing the process in the fullest of detail at the same time. It was naturally sweet and tasted like orange and with each sip I took she filled my cup once more. At this point another tourist walked by and she brought him to sit next to me. He had blonde hair and blue eyes and was very tall and it wasn’t too much of a surprise that he was from Sweden. He looked at me with my fair skin and freckles and cup of tea in hand, ‘she’s from England’ the woman said, although I’m sure that wasn’t such a surprise to him either.

She repeated what she had told me and then filled a tea cup for him. When she disappeared out of the room we started talking about what was going on and found it all quite amusing. ‘Do you think this is even affiliated with the tea garden’ he asked me, ‘nope, I really don’t think so’ I replied. This was confirmed by the woman herself as she asked us not to mention that she was selling her own tea to the people at the factory. She charged us 25 rupees each for the tea that we didn’t ask for and the Swedish guy bought mine for me. This is only about 25p so it seemed like nothing, but it is about three times the price of a cup of tea in town (if you can believe that?) and no one who walks by seems to have much choice in the matter.

Underground tea dealings by 68 year old woman preying on unsuspecting tourists

Kind of harmless, very amusing.

When i made it to the factory the place was just as the guidebook had described, it was very professional and the tea farm managers gave an expertly run tour, quite the opposite feel to the lady’s little hut. They explained the process thoroughly and then said that they only sell their tea to three outlets across the world, one of these being Harrods in London. 

After the tour finished I bought some tea from the gift shop, but the Swedish guy returned to the lady up the road to buy some there, ‘it’s a more interesting story’ he said. I smiled in agreement and we walked and talked back up the enormous hill.

 

Arriving in Kalimpong 

The following day I took a shared jeep the three hour ride to Kalimpong, all for a total of around £1.20. After lugging my bags round for about an hour I found the correct ticket counter and jeep stand and we set off immediately. The journey was bumpy and squashed, but the views were sensational. All 12 people in the jeep seemed to help me figure out where I needed to get off and after some muttering and abit of shouting (the Indian way of organising) the jeep stopped. It worked out well as they dropped me right by the entrance: Holumba Haven, woodland hotel.

The resort was so beautiful, with steps winding up to each log cabin or tree house and narrow passage ways that lead to great viewing points and made ideal spots for yoga. I stayed at the very top and from my room I could see long rows of Tibetan prayer flags that were getting tangled by the wind and luscious evergreens that were swaying gently. I dropped my bags and let myself fall back on to the bed.

Later at dinner I met a few Indian families who were on holiday and then a British woman walked in and chatted familiarly to the staff. Very few tourists come to Kalimpong so I was intrigued as to what she was doing. She told me she is a Buddhist and came here as this resort is where her mentor first came many decades ago. It is a very spiritual area and so carries a lot of significance for her. She also said that she was helping out at afew local schools as she works as a child psychotherapist at home. I then asked where home was and she said Bethnal Green in East London, about two streets away from where I worked for 16 months! 

The following day I explored town, but there was terrible rain and the mist was hiding the mountain views so I came back after a short time. In the afternoon I saw the woman I had met the previous day and she told me runs meditation classes twice daily and asked if I would like to join. She had created a beautiful space in the small octagonal summer house that had stained glass windows, of course I said yes. After a stressful journey and feeling the challenges of travelling solo it came at the right time. She gave a wonderful class and I realised I felt at ease here and like I was doing ok on my own.

  

      

  

  

 

  

Kalimpong, the day after the rain 

   

  

Interactions 

A collection of interactions or things I’ve overheard that have either amused, confused or made me feel pretty awkward. Maybe it makes for good reading.

‘Y’oright mate, can I get a bacon sandwich? Cheers’ said a really strong West Yorkshire accent to a small Bengali man in a tourist cafe in Darjeeling. Im pretty sure he had a Bradfordian twang. He sat down at the other side of the cafe rather hastily and then zoned into the free wifi. I decided not to disturb, I probably should have, we probably knew the same people at home.

‘Where are you from?’ Is the most common question I’ve been asked in India so far, but today after my response of ‘England..’ he followed up with the question, ‘the proper England or..?’ I was abit confused by this and he could tell. He then asked where I was going and that’s when I realised it was the wrong way, so our little discussion about whether I was from ‘proper’ England or not ceased. I’m glad we briefly chatted though as I made it to the Japanese peace pagoda and it was lovely and calm.

‘You look Indian’ said my yoga teacher Sarita. I’m not sure there is anyone who could look less Indian than me?

‘Why are you here on your own?’ ‘Why did your father let you come alone?’ Were questions asked to me in Assam on a regular basis. Life in that region is so traditional and conservative that it was challenging at times, i couldn’t explain myself very well when responding to these questions. I couldn’t explain that my father has never told me what I can and cannot do and that is a good thing. Well, I think at around age seven he told me I cannot ever vote Tory, but then we don’t really have a disagreement there so that’s ok.

When talking to some farmers in Assam (through a translator) someone said to me, ‘thank you and your ancestors for the tea industry here in East India, we are truly grateful for the British’. Well this made me feel terribly awkward and want to give abit of a colonial history lesson to the group on the spot. 

Here are afew photos from Darjeeling. I think the photos capture it better than many words would. Next stop Kalimpong.

Colourful Darjeeling  

  

Japanese Peace Pagoda built around the world after WWII to bring peace after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

  

Sooo British, looks just like my old school.

  

The flowers of Nightingale Park

  

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, ‘toy train’   

Another very British scene, there are red post boxes everywhere aswell

  

Revolver, The Beatles hotel

 

#respect

Gifts and Goodbye

‘I know I’m an environmentalist and that’s an oil refinery, but there’s something really beautiful about that tonight’ said Peggy as we drove past the Indian Oil Corporation on our left that was covered in soft lighting. It did look appealing, but maybe she said that as a reflection on the lovely evening we had just shared, my last in Assam.

Taking a Tour

Earlier that day Biswajit took me on a tour of the area, starting at the Williamson Major tea estate, the largest organic tea farm in Assam. It is socially run with houses and shops and schools in the grounds. We went on to the Buddhist monastery, home to a 97 year old Baba who finished his tour of the world and decided it was time to settle. A calm place to meditate with the soft breeze and cool floor. Biswajit must have received a packet from the Baba without me noticing as when we returned to the car he gave me a gold stone that was good for health. 

After this we drove through a WWII aircraft landing strip that the British and Americans had used to enter India and Burma throughout the war, this part of Assam is around 20 miles from the border. The area is desolate and has gone to waste now, but Biswajit has just bought a plot of land there and is currently developing it into a biodynamic garden. He told me he wanted to show me all the places he knew I’d like in this area.

Chai and Gifts

On the way back we stopped for chai at his family’s house, and just like many Indian traditional families, the house was filled with cousins, grandmas, brothers, aunties. He gave me his favourite book about India, his mum gave me a traditional Assamese scarf and his uncle gave me a firm handshake. For the last 15 years his uncle has been a Congress cabinet minister and has been helping to empower the North East, an almost forgotten region. He was wearing a beige traditional long shirt and trousers with a hat that went up at one side. This made him look so much like Nehru, and so I liked him straight away. Despite being abit overwhelmed by the reception and the gifts, it was so nice to be there.

Dinner with Friends

For dinner we joined Jaba and Peggy at a local dhaba. Jaba was unlike any woman I’d met, such high energy, full of new ideas and social initiatives and always telling me the latest thing she is fascinated by, whether it was astrophysics, meditation or the ukulele. She was from a small town in Dibrugarh, yet went on to do a Masters in Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Glasgow.

We shared food, a bottle of wine(!) and conversation about our love of nature and our (lack of) religion, the treatment of women in India, the insurgency in Assam that has affected both Jaba and Biswajit’s lives. In such a traditional society in North East India I had managed to gather the most liberal and genuine friends, so proud of their Assamese heritage, yet so eager to question cultural norms and expectations and move things forward for the good of their community. These big thoughts were balanced with lots of joking and laughter, none of them are very serious really.

Digboi to Dibrugarh 

In the morning I had breakfast and chai with Pompy and then I left for Dibrugarh. Jaba accompanied me on the journey and I was glad, she took the lead as we got on an auto rickshaw, a minibus, another auto rickshaw and a cycle rickshaw until we arrived a few hours later. ‘I wanted to take you somewhere different for lunch’ she said as we walked inside her friends Chinese restaurant. Without me saying anything, she knew I was keen for a change from curry and the different smells and tastes were so well received. Then we went for some sugarcane juice at the local market before getting a taxi to the train station.

An Indian Train Ride to Darjeeling

Despite the thought of a 24 hour train ride I was eager to travel by rail in India. Jaba put me on the train and I set up my little bed on the bunk before it set off. I watched the whalas walk past the cabins selling snacks and newspapers and cheap plastic toys and curry, jumping on and off at each station. They were saying one word repeatedly in Assamese or Hindi or possibly Bengali, a very common sales technique in India, say it over and again and it will become more appealing..erm.

I arrived at New Jalipuri and checked into a local hotel to rest for the night, ready for my short (in comparison) journey to Darjeeling the next day. The Beatles hotel, I’m ready for you and your wifi and hot showers and amazing theme.

   

    Organic tea estate

      

Buddhist monastery

 

Cabin on the train, glad I wasn’t in sleeper class

 

Ringo room

  

 Colourful Darjeeling