Suitcase and World: Darjeeling at last.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Darjeeling at last.

Ican't believe I've only been in India for 4 days.....seems much longer as every day has been filled with a variety of activities. Today was no different.

I skipped breakfast this morning, opting instead to enjoy a bit more sleep. The cool night temperature in Darjeeling makes for a really enjoyable night of snoozing :-)

The first thing on our agenda this morning was to go on a tour of the Happy Valley Tea factory. Darjeeling is, of course, world famous for its tea and it happens to be my favorite black tea! 

We all got out and started walking down a hill that wound its way through hills of tea plants. There was a small group of women picking tea.   Each woman had an umbrella tucked into their basket.  I have a feeling it rains a lot here!

We followed Sanjeev to the factory where he introduced us to a young man who would then explain the tea manufacturing process to us. No photos were allowed inside the factory so there are none to post up. The day that we were in the factory, no processing was going on so all the machinery was shut down. Pretty much all the work that is done inside the factory is handled by the men.

Our tour started with an explanation of how tea that we drink is processed. First the leaves are picked and only the top two leaves and bud are plucked. Women are more suited for the task of picking the tea leaves because, generally speaking, they have smaller and more nimble fingers. Leaves are picked just one day a week and a good picker can pluck at least 6 kg of leaves. Considering how small tea leaves are, that's a lot of leaves!!

The buds are reserved for the making of white tea. Green tea is just dried leaves. Black tea is dried leaves that have also been fermented.

The first room we entered into was the drying room. The room must have been at least 30-40 feet in length. Several large mesh bottom drying racks ran the length of the room. Each rack holds about 325 kg of tea leaves piled up about 8 inches thick. Fans in an adjacent room blow hot air beneath the racks to facilitate the drying process.

Next, we saw where the dried tea leaves are rolled. The rolling process extracts moisture so the leaves must undergo a second drying.

The last room is the sorting and packing room. Experienced women have the task of sorting through the leaves and removing the ones that would be considered "undesireable". All else is bagged and sent off to another factory for packaging.

Last stop at the factory was, of course, to the store.  There, we could buy Happy Valley white, green or black tea in either bags or loose leaf. I was not planning on leaving Darjeeling without bringing home a box of tea so this was as good a place as any to buy one.  Happy Valley has an exclusive contract to provide Harrod’s department store with its brand-name teas, so I decided to splurge on a box.  If it's good enough for Harrod's, it's good enough for me :-)   I can't wait to get home and brew me a cup of Happy Valley Darjeeling black tea. I am certain that each and every sip will bring back fond memories of this trip.

The next destination on our agenda was the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center which was founded on October 2, 1959 as a rehabilitation center focused on helping Tibetan refugees, who had fled their homeland, to get back on their feet. Today, the Center houses well over 600 refugees.  Initial funding for establishing the Center came from subscriptions, donations, charity shows and of all things, an exhibition football match. Shortly, thereafter, international relief agencies provided additional funding.

Today, the production of handicrafts is the main income earning activity for the Center. To date, the Center exports its products to 36 countries around the world. Besides traditional items like Tibetan carpets, wood, metal and leather products, the Center has begun to experiment with developing other products, such as clothing and shoes, that incorporate Tibetan motifs.

Though handicrafts provide income, the main purpose of the Center is not commerce but rather welfare. From its inception, the Center has provided food, clothing shelter and medical assistance to orphans, the aged, the infirmed and the aged. For the orphans, the Center also provides school uniforms and supplies.

After arriving at the Center, we walked a short distance to the carpet weaving room to see the weavers at work. Four rows of weavers lined a dimly lit room. I knelt down to watch one of the weavers at work but I could not follow what she was doing because her fingers were so lightening fast......years of experience at doing this. I watched her insert a thin metal rod between alternating strands of the weft and she appeared to be creating loops around it but I couldn't figure out how this would make a knotted tuft. So, I asked Sanjeev to ask the weaver repeat her steps but in slo mo. She kindly obliged. Only then did I see what she was doing :-)

With her nimble fingers and a thin steel rod she was essentially creating something like a chain stitch and using the rod to create uniform sized loops.

Wool and tools for carpet weaving.
Once the rod was filled with loops, they would remove the rod and use scissors to cut through the loops to create the tufts. The would then use a comb like tool to pack down the tufted row and then scissors to trim any strands that were too long. I noticed that some of the weavers used hand drawn patterns to guide them while others seem to just know what to do next.

I could have stayed longer to watch the women weave but it was time to go and pay a visit to the Center's museum which was mainly news articles and photos on the plight of Tibetan refugees. I was not in the mood to read what I knew would be sad and depressing stories so I opted to head to the souvenir shop instead. Nothing there really interested me so I just stepped outside and took photos while waiting for the rest of the gang to finish up.

After visiting the Center, we headed next to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute which includes two museums and a zoo.

The drivers deposited us at the entrance to the Institute which was at the bottom of a hill. It was a bit of an uphill walk to the entrance. There, Sanjeev paid our entrance fee. We were in the zoo and so we started to walk along a path that would lead us to both the Mountaineering Museum and the Everest Museum which are essentially, two adjacent rooms housed in the same building - one on top of the other. Truthfully, I don't know why they are considered to be two separate museums.

Rhonda, Ross and Merle walking through
the zoo.

Anyways, back to the zoo. The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute complex is also home to the Himalayan Zoological Park which houses animals that are indigenous to the region such as the red panda and the famous snow leopard which I did not get to see. The zoo even had a pair of yaks. As is the case with many zoos in developing countries, the animals here are not housed in the best of conditions. I saw quite a few animals pacing back and forth and I think that's because they're living under what is for them, stressful conditions.

As far as zoos go, this is a pretty small one. You could probably walk the entire route, which goes in a loop, in about 30-40 minutes.

We got to the top of one end of route loop, found ourselves standing in front of some yellow colored buildings. Collectively, these were the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) . As we arrived to the buildings, so did a group of mountaineering students.....all with large packs on their backs. I suspect they must have been carrying quite a bit of weight in their packs as they were huffing and puffing with each step as they walked by us.

Located nearby to the HMI buildings was the building housing the Mountaineering and the Everest Museums. The Mountaineering Museum is located on the bottom floor so that's the one that we spent time in first. The museum basically houses artifacts related to mountaineering e.g., examples of the gear that mountaineers use. It was quite interesting to see just how much gear you need to go up a mountain! It's no wonder the mountaineer I saw at Everest Base Camp in Tibet needed a yak caravan to carry all his stuff!

The Everest Museum is dedicated to the expedition teams that have ascended the famed mountain. Of course, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were given due focus in several of the exhibits. In fact, though he is Nepalese by birth, Tenzing Norgay chose to live out his post Everest life in Darjeeling and was at one time, director of the HMI. After he died and was cremated, his ashes were buried at the HMI. A stone memorial, located in a small square just outside the museums' front entrance marks the burial spot. There's also a bronze status in his likeness located in the square. Darjeeling-ites definitely considered him to be their hometown hero and the house that he lived in until he passed away is an attraction for some tourists.....not any of us though.

By the time we wrapped up our visit of the museums, we were all pretty hungry so lunch was definitely next on the agenda. The drivers deposited us back into town and Mike, Liz, Ross, Megan and I all headed to a nearly restaurant for lunch where we shared a few plates of India dal and veggie curries for lunch. Nice to have some bonding time wih everyone.

After lunch, we all went our separate ways. I decided to do a bit of shopping and in no time, I had already purchased a door knocker (yes, you read that right, a door knocker) for my front door and a Tibetan shell horn that is used for ceremonial occasions. Yes, I admit it, I do buy some odd souvenirs but I like my horn and that's all that matters :-)

After spending way more money than I had intended, I decided to call a halt to the shopping so I wandered around the main square and some of the adjacent streets. I had no specific destination in mind....just curious to see what the place, Darjeeling, is like. The main square of Darjeeling is not all that attractive. Oddly enough, there was a small group of boys sitting or horses, standing pretty much in the middle of the square.

As I walked passed them, I was prepared for one of them to ask me if I wanted a ride but none of them approached them. I have no idea what they were doing there but walking away from them I could see a row of stalls housing horses. Someone had mentioned that we could go horseback riding while we were in Darjeeling and that prospect did interest me. I tried to find some sort of a sign that indicated the horses were for hire but I didn't see anything so I walked on by.

Located just opposite from the horse stalls was the start of an open air market where women were sitting on elevated benches selling their produce. There's not a whole lot of variety to the produce that's sold here - cabbage, carrots, radishes, squashes are commonly sold. Not to many leafy greens. The one surprise was fern heads. According to Sanjeev, ferns are harvested in the wild and this is the season to eat them so I asked him if he found it on a restaurant menu, to point it out to meal so I could order some to try.

Fruitwise, bananas are sold everywhere as are apples, pears, limes, and green skinned (most certainly very sour) oranges. I've seen the occasional papaya as well. As for meat, chicken and pork reign supreme here. I also saw quite a bit of fish for sale - don't know if it's lake fish or river fish but what I saw looked very fresh so it's definitely locally caught.

The market was relatively small and it only took me a few minutes to walk from one end to the other. It had been lightly drizzling the whole time I was out and about and I was getting a bit tired of being even slightly wet. I had done all the shopping I was going to do and had seen enough of Darjeeling for one day so I decided to head back to the hotel and rest before dinner. There would be more to see tomorrow!