06 February 2008

Experiencer of Calamities

Having reluctantly decided to dose myself with antibiotics, I have returned to my usual state of robust health. I don't like taking pills, but I'm also starting malaria prophylaxis, so I figured I might as well kill everything swimming around in my organs.

Well, it's been exciting times as usual in the tumultuous subcontinent: bird flu outbreaks in Bangladesh and West Bengal, both places I'm going; demonstrations in Darjeeling, where Gurkha Nepalis want their own state (called, naturally, "Gurkhaland" hee hee); violence on the road between Siliguri and Bangladesh, which I'm traveling today, where police thought it prudent to shoot and kill protesters; and a state-wide bandh (strike) in West Bengal coming as a result of the former, which hopefully won't slow me up too much. Fear not. None of it will affect me.

I decided to poke my head into Sikkim since it's so close. Sikkim was an independent Buddhist kingdom sandwiched between Nepal and Bhutan until 1975, when the government of India informed it that it wasn't independent after all. The government of China, however, never recognized this move, resulting in tension that persists to this day. Given this situation, I had to get a special permit (stamp stamp) to visit. I only went for an overnighter, but it was definitely worth it. The people are calm, the scenery--including the third highest mountain in the world, Khunchamanamungasomething--is stunning, and the roads are well-maintained (signposts in the tricky bits read "Be Gentle on My Curves" along with various other slogans, some of which, wonderfully, horribly, rhyme). Yes, Sikkim is a wonderful, pleasant place, and I highly recommend it. It's very small, but it might nevertheless serve as an alternative to tourist and tout-frenzied Nepal. Hey, there's a poem, in there:

Come to Sikkim; though it's quite small,
We think that you'll like it more than Nepal.

Specifically, I went to see the Losar (Tibetan New Year) celebrations at a monastery near a town called Pelling, about five hours and three bus changes from Darjeeling. The ride up was lovely, with nice warm breezes. When I arrived, I was just in time for the festivities. Chanting monks, accompanied by drums and off-key horns, blessed the crowd (only two other whites!) and drove off evil spirits. Monks wearing funny masks went around teasing people, especially me. One ceremony involved flinging various ritual objects into a kind of square, bamboo hoop, after which they were set on fire. The monks also buried something (evil?) in the courtyard of the monastery and lit a fire above that, too. This was followed by dancing. Afterward, we all lined up for the water of life (tasted like whisky, hmm) and barley flour distributed into eager, reaching hands by the head monks with the biggest hats. At one point, I don't know why, we threw rice. The next day, I walked back up to see the ritual unfurling of a giant thangka painting from the rafters of the prayer hall. We threw more rice, drank tea (so nice of them to serve it to us!), prayed, and then received blessings from the monks--more whisky, more barley flour, and even tsompa (barley flour balls) were given out. After having my head tapped by various things, I began the long journey back to Darjeeling, where I was lucky to arrive the same evening. I initially had planned to stay a few days in Sikkim, perhaps take in a hike, but the cold, COLD night in Pelling convinced me that it's time for me to get the hell out of the mountains. I again went for tea at the fancy British hotel last night, and I met an elderly American couple from near Washington, DC. The wife volunteers at the Smithsonian--the Museum of American Art I think (is there one?)--on Friday afternoons, so I might go visit her some day. They also informed me that the pendulum has been removed from the Museum of American History. Whoever made that decision, in my opinion, should be put to the sword.

If there's no bandh today, I am going to attempt the border crossing into steamy Bangladesh and see how far I can get. In fact, what am I doing still sitting here? Time's a wastin'!

No comments: