India pt. 1: Kolkatta and Darjeeling

Happy New Year Fellow Fish,

It is crazy to think that one year has gone by for us since we were making our way from Thailand to India. So picking up right where we left off:


We arrived in Kolkatta, India around 3:30am local time on January 1, 2013. We were excited to be kick off the new year with a new country but first we had to overcome the crippling exhaustion we were all facing after the New Year’s Eve day dilemma and just general fatigue. So we made our way into the city area and after waking up a bunch of guesthouse staff we finally settled on a place despite the predatory pricing we encountered due to the time of day/night (about 4am by this point) coupled with the fact we were foreign, something we would eventually get used to.

In Kolkatta, it seemed like we had taken a step back in time. The old style cars, Colonial English buildings, goats tied up on the sidewalk eating leaves taped to the wall, and everything in between just seemed like it would have been this way 50 years ago. The first thing we noticed about the people is that they have no sense of personal space and don’t mind if you catch them staring. They will stare shamelessly. At first, it might seem threatening, but if you simply smile back and shake your head from side-to-side they will do the same. Everyone we encountered was abundantly helpful (or curious). However, we had to be careful with where we would stop and ask someone for directions, because if it was a high pedestrian area, after a minute or so we would be entirely surrounded by about 10-15 people in addition to the first one we stopped to ask help from.

We wandered around the city and stopped for Chai (Indian milk tea) at a bunch of places. Chai would soon become a staple of our daily routine and the Chai wallas (chai sellers) would be our greatest sources for information on new places we would go. In keeping with the new year and new city, it was time to embrace a new look. Luckily for me, as someone who can only grow limited facial hair, India is big on mustaches. And as a man, it is hard to get taken seriously if you don’t have a mustache. So I went ahead and did myself a favor at the first shave guy we passed in the street and got an authentic Indian mustache right on the sidewalk for about 40 rupees (a little less than a dollar). I felt good as new, but the shave guy did me one better and without consulting me picked up my right arm and started shaving away the hair under my arm. By the time I even knew what he was doing, it was too late and I just had to let it continue.

We met up with our good friend Moon, who we have now seen in three different countries (Korea, Vietnam, and India), and she hung out with us for most of our time in the city. One of our days, we were wandering around and ended up on some back street areas where you can really see how little some places have developed over the years. After we suffered through the bureaucracy of booking tickets to Darjeeling, we were navigating our way back when I was struck by just how intense the country is. We came across a flower/spice market situated under a bridge. Making our way through it we were hit with so many different smells that it was hard to tell where they were all coming from. But once we were past the market area, it was again as if we had stepped back in time. India had been described to me in the past as, “sensory overload” and it was in this moment that I truly understood what that meant. The cumulative smells of spices and flowers lingered as we got further and further away from the market and soon was only exhaust and feces. The sounds were overwhelming with the traffic congestion and the noise of honks and running engines and people yelling at each other. The sights of old buildings seemingly in ruins yet still being used. The taste of lunch still on your tongue mixing with the dusty air. And the feeling of being surrounded on all side by people and cars with no regard for your personal space. I was finally understanding the full load of all these things combined at one time, and it was overwhelming to the point where I had to stop walking for a minute and just try and process everything that was going on around me.

That night we ate dinner with some of Moon’s friends at a somewhat posh restaurant. We were severely underdressed and were surprised we were let in the restaurant at all. What sticks out about this meal in my mind is that everyone in the restaurant was very well-to-do, well dressed, and probably well off financially if they were eating in this place, but this restaurant served Thalis, a traditional Indian tray of food with rice, vegetables, curries, and meats, and in keeping with traditions people ate with their hands. It was hysterical when the food came out, seeing these people make an absolute mess trying to get the food in their mouths without the curry leaking out of the end of their palm full of rice. Dressed in their suits and dresses and ties yet eating with their hands and looking not the least bit refined.


From Kolkatta, we hopped a train twelve hours north to Darjeeling. We were in “sleeper class” which is one step up from the lowest class with seating room. We had beds at least but there were 8 people to an area. Three beds going up on each side of the compartment (no door) and two across the narrow walk area. I was lulled to sleep on the train by the cartoonishly loud snores coming from all over the train. Our train arrived in a town called “Siliguri” which is at the base of the mountain that the town Darjeeling sits atop. So we got a jeep and once our car was packed with people and things started the 3 hours up the mountain to Darjeeling. The drive up was stunning. Passing the incredible mountain scenery and small villages built right into the side of the mountain just unreal.

Three hours later, we arrive at the top to Darjeeling, where the at 2,150m (about a mile and a half) the air was much crisper and thinner. We walk the town for about an hour trying to find a good place to stay and then help ourselves to a lunch looking down and out over the mountain. We ate an incredible Paneer butter Masala with a number of other traditional Tibetan and Nepali food as we were so close to both countries. We spent our first day just exploring the whole town and buying hats to battle the cold. It was probably the first time we were truly cold since 2011.
Warmth shopping

Over the course of the next week we take on everything Darjeeling has to offer. Famous for its tea we indulge in as much as we can. We spent many hours sipping tea and sitting by a fireplace in this one store that looked down the mountain. Being that Darjeeling is part of the Himalayan mountain range, we considered doing a trek, but found that there weren’t any that fit our time frame. We did get a chance to go to the Zoo/Everest Museum.

Direwolf at the Zoo

Zoo Animals

My favorite day spent in Darjeeling was a day we got up at 3am and bunched in a car bound for Tiger Hill, about 20 minutes up the mountain from Darjeeling’s town center. We were dropped off at an all cement building with two levels. We went to the upper level and tried our best to stay warm. Basically impossible. Our front row seats made us the envy of everyone behind us, but that didn’t stop them from trying to nudge their way up. This eventually got annoying so we opened the bay window looking out into the darkness and over the paupers on the landing below and climbed out onto the ledge to sit and witness what would become one of the most memorable experiences of my young life. We were looking out into blackness waiting for the sun to rise. As it got lighter, more things in the distance started to take shape, most notably, Mount Kangchendzonga, the 3rd highest mountain in the world. This area of the Himalayas was so big they looked close enough to touch. All the surrounding ridges and snow-capped peaks were within an arms reach it seemed.  It was amazing to watch as the sun hit the top, move, and then cover the entire ridge in red light. The mountain itself lit up before the actual sun came up over the clouds. I stayed as long as I could. People around me were leaving as soon as the sun was up but I would have sat there all day even after some of my group had left. As I was about to make my way down, I noticed some another peaks in the distance and asked the ranger about them; he informed those were the “3 Sisters” which included Nuptse, Lhotse, and Mount EVERSEST!! My mind was blown.

Everest in the distance

As our time in Darjeeling came to a close, we ventured outside of the town to more local areas that were completely untouched by the tourists. Just people going about their daily lives, kids playing with sticks, men and women doing their daily chores (I saw a real-life blacksmith). It was amazing just walking past these homes built right on the side of the mountain. Naturally, we drew stares from some of the people and got a bit lost. We also realized just how much the altitude affected our breathing (and the constant uphill walking didn’t help either).

On our last day in Darjeeling, Jeff got a bit sick as we made our way down the mountain. He wasn’t feeling great when we got to the bottom and made our way to the train station. We stopped for dinner, at a questionable place but it was the only place open at the time and we got food. I was poking fun at Jeff for being sick from the food and commending my own stomach for being so strong and having iron lining that nothing could hurt. Our train was a bit delayed so we waited in the train station. While we waited, I could tell the dinner I had eaten was not sitting so well… I try my best to fight off the nausea but while everyone was asleep I went to the nearest garbage and pulled the trigger on my gag reflex. I had gotten some but not all of it out but tried to go back and get some sleep in the waiting area with the rest of the gang. Our train arrived at 4:45am, about an hour late, and we made our way to the platform. I felt even worse than before. I buy some water then politely excuse myself to find a suitable place to vomit in private. I started to walk down the track looking for a place where no one would see me, but everywhere had someone around. I don’t know what I was scared about but when I saw a gentleman urinating on the tracks, in plain sight of anyone who cared to watch, I didn’t feel so ashamed. So I once again, pulled the trigger and violently emptied the contents of my stomach in three strong heaves. It seemed to happen in slow motion, because I remember thinking to myself, (Heave: 1) “That looks chunky. It is probably the bean/peas I had for dinner.” (Heave: 2) “I wonder why its looks yellow…oh right…eggs for lunch.” (Heave: 3) “My stomach is either really warm, or it is really cold out here, because I can see the steam develop around my vomit,” as it made its way from my mouth to the tracks below.

Over the next 39 hours, I would not move from a 5-foot radius. As it turns out, the train we got on was about 17 hours late in arriving to New Delhi, so there was literally no where to go, not that I wanted to move anyway.

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Until Next Time,

The Tunas

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