Editors' Choice

Into the Hills

By Matthew Crompton

“The ball that we hurled into infinite space,
doesn’t it fill our hand differently with its return:
heavier by the weight of where it has been?”
—Rilke

[1] Calcutta

The impression of Calcutta, arriving on a sweltering afternoon in early summer, is not of an ancient city existing, like Benares, outside of time. Instead, it feels like a city built a hundred years ago and then abandoned, left to moisture and mold and dust while its builders crept off to sunnier pastures. What makes the city strange, then, is that it feels populated, not by its original inhabitants, but by scavengers, squatting in the abandoned city in droves, peopling every decrepit inch, like beings who have crawled up from the wild to inhabit its lanes and shopfronts and markets, indifferent to the notion of civilization that they are inhabiting.

The abstract shape of the city emerges as I travel into the center—traffic, noise, squalor, chaos, heat. My hotel room in a lane off Marquis Street is roasting, chemical with the camphor-smell of mothballs resting in the bathroom sink. The pillows are lumpy sacks and the fan churns the baking air relentlessly. With the heat peaking into full force (an outdoor thermometer reads 36C), I step out beneath my parasol and walk up RN Mukherjee Road, past the poori and chai vendors, the nimbu pani carts with their filthy glasses and handfuls of tainted ice.

When Hunter S. Thompson remarked about freaks at home in the freak kingdom, he could easily have meant this place. Calcutta is special in this respect. So far on the edges of the Indian universe that it’s not on the way to anything, it attracts the real crusties and the genuinely strange. In the Eastern Railways tourist bureau near the Houghly River I meet a barefoot Korean man carrying a huge red wooden cross. I exchange a few pleasantries with him in Korean before he hobbles off, manic and sweating, his toes wrapped in a filthy bandage—“God Bless You!” he calls back after himself, “Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ!” And why not, I think? Here, everyone is welcome.

It is enough, I think, to be here in the streets, because the streets are always alive—in the morning people bathing and shaving and defecating and taking chai, in the afternoons hawking and pulling rickshaws and selling fruit and bearing burdens. In the evening, the heat and madness of Calcutta are barely diminished by the fall of night. As I walk the streets in the twilight I keep thinking, “There is no place on earth that smells like this, no place that feels like this…” The night-perfume is in the air, wafting in the scent of flower garlands and the bitumen-stink of burning coal from cooking fires, the resinous ghost of sandalwood. In the vivisected bazaar of the twilight city, Muslim men are lit by bare bulbs hanging behind the ribs of butchered goats and veiled women are chased across the street by screaming yellow Ambassador taxis circa 1961 James Bond, and again, there are no borders anywhere.

My final morning in the city, before the nighttime sleeper train to Darjeeling, I take the metro south to Kalighat and the Kali temple there. “Kali is power,” an old Brahmin in a dirt-stained shirt tells me amidst the goat shit and vivid hibiscus blossoms and stippled blood decorating the ground around the courtyard altar, where a goat has just been sacrificed to the devouring mother.

“What do people need power for?”

“For everything in life, friend, for everything you need power.”

And I think: do I not travel because I too am full of wishing? Have I not come here, to be apart, because I find that India is ruled by magic, still? Thinking better of goat sacrifice, I buy a lotus flower and a bundle of dried blossoms, and push with the small crowd into the dim interior of the temple, 400 years old and smelling of incense and human sweat. People are shouting prayers and mantras, incongruous for a quiet Thursday morning, but this intensity is what I love. A man presses a bloodred hibiscus into my palm, and as I move before the idol I cast my blossoms with intent violence into the pile of offerings at its feet.

“What is your name?” the priest asks me as I stand amidst the crowd, shouting and screaming their prayers to be heard.

“My name is Matthew,” I say, making sure my voice is strong and clear.

If there is a power to this moment, I want for it to hear me. All blessings are just echoes of our sincerest wishes, carried thru the ether and emerging, real, on the farther side of time.

[2] Darjeeling

Morning in Darjeeling is a monsoon hill-town dawn, the clouds like a curtain around the city, thick as fog. In the diffuse grey light I walke downhill from my hotel high on the ridge, through the narrow, twisting lanes investing the hillside like an antfarm. In the main plaza at Chowrasta, dogs lie on the damp pavements, chewing at their flanks, porters with Sinic Nepali eyes carrying burdens up the fog-slick hills braced on forehead tump lines. I take a breakfast of milk tea and greasy fry bread wrapped in newsprint from a streetside stall, watching the gaggles of domestic Indian tourists transit through the square, enjoying joyrides on broken ponies, bundled in heavy woolens and skullcaps.

Darjeeling is the easy part of travel. For three days I live the life of some low-level colonial flunky of the kind who would once have escaped to this town from the violent heat of the summer plains, taking long breakfasts with tea in the cloudy bazaar and wandering the lanes with an umbrella beneath the sporadic rains. Founded by the British East India Company in 1835, Darjeeling drew thousands of laborers from nearby Nepal, ensuring an identity at odds with the lowland state of West Bengal that eventually came to govern it, and in time violent agitation for statehood as "Gorkhaland," resulting in limited (if to most unsatisfactory) autonomy in the form of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council.

With the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, thousands of Tibetan families fled over the eastern Himalaya, through Nepal, many to settle in Darjeeling, making it (along with Dharamsala) one of the primary centers for the Tibetan community in exile, undiluted by Han resettlement and Chinese government interference. Talking to a Tibetan shopkeep named Dorje on Hill Cart Road south of town one day, I ask him what he thought of the recent resignation of the Dalai Lama as the political leader of Tibet—curious about the views of a subject of one of the world’s last great theocracies.

“He is still our religious leader, our spiritual leader, of course. But it is now 2011. We have so many young Tibetans who have studied at Oxford and Cambridge and Harvard—do they not also deserve a chance to lead Tibet?”

“And do you think that will happen with the Chinese still occupying?”

He shrugs. “We have autonomy, yes, but of course, autonomy is not independence. Independence is better.”

He wraps up my Oreos in brown paper. “Anyway,” he smiles, “anything is possible.”

In the evenings I walked downhill through the bazaar to Joey’s Pub—proper, British, wood-paneled, Union Jack on the wall—and drank tall Kingfishers in the cozy, hazy space around low tables with other Anglophones, businessmen and backpackers like some colonial social club, then stumble half-drunk up the hill in the darkness to my bed and sleep, thinking how easy it would be to remain in this congenial place living my small-town colonial fantasy, but feeling in my bones the emptiness of ease, knowing how reliably common actions lead to common results.

I began travelling, I think, as a way of seeking identity, or at least of embracing the estrangement I felt from my native conditions—an unchallenging university career that yielded few friends and no sense of belonging, short-time jobs temping or waiting tables, transplanted across the country to a home where in nearly five years I gained friends but never roots. Pico Iyer wrote in The Global Soul about the existential condition of elective statelessness, the vagrancy that carried long enough becomes an enduring facet of oneself, an unbelonging that, paradoxically, is itself homelike; and I found myself thinking of the sadhu back at the train station in Calcutta, just a week ago.

At nearly 11pm at Sealdah Station that night, the platforms were still mobbed. The stationmaster would announce a train arriving at platform five and suddenly the mobs would bolt for it, shoving and contending in the Indian way, eager for a seat in the overcrowded unreserved second-class car in which they would be travelling overnight, to Varanasi or Lucknow or even Delhi, god forbid. I was bone-tired and sticky with sweat, 34 degrees centigrade outside even deep into the night, watching the scrum, the wolfish and pathetic packs of dark single men, the families with children, the immature soldiers with their mustaches and automatic carbines and sternly affected scowls, the women looking queenly and fiercely dignified in saris; and, through this maelstrom, the endless breaking cascade of people passing by, burdened with their baggage and identities, I saw the lone sadhu. He was like a ghost, dreadlocked and shirtless, thin and ash-smeared, moving slowly, a wanderer without place or profession; in transit, perhaps, but unintent upon arriving. I felt a kinship there.

It’s an unremarked-on fact that the regimen most associated with Eastern religions – the monk’s way of structured meditation and work and prayer, the so-called monastic life—is in a very real sense a later addition to the project of enlightenment, an innovation of the civilized and bureaucratic consciousness. The Indian method, if it can even be called that, is simpler, wilder, improvisational—renounce your home, your possessions and attachments, and simply wander, intent on the knowledge that God, whatever that is, knows exactly where it wants to take you. I suppose this is how, two days later, I found myself in the hills of western Sikkim, squatted at nightfall beside a low earthen stove in the kitchen-hut of a 13-year-old boy named Ronald Bhujel.

[3] Ronald

Being enthusiastically received and, in time, feted by the very poor is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking experiences in travel. Ronald, in his blue blazer and slacks, just let out from classes, had invited me to his home up a village footpath in the hills, late into a day of walking some 15km west of Jorethang, where I had taken a jeep that morning from Darjeeling. I had climbed more than a thousand meters into the green hinterland of West Sikkim along the winding hill road, dehydrated and filthy and miserable, blinking into the sun and passed by blatting trucks. My feet were blistered and sore, and I was eager to rest.

High on the ridge amidst the terrace-patches of maize and ginger where I could look down and see the thin grey-blue ribbon of the Raman Khola dividing the one-time Buddhist kingdom of Sikkim from the state of West Bengal to the south, I bathed in a low outhouse with cold water and borrowed soap, then changed into fresh clothes. Ronald was Christian like most of his small community on the hill, and shared a single bare room with his grandmother, a poured-concrete box furnished with three narrow plank beds and a single cabinet, and decorated with lurid pictures of Jesus and the Sacred Heart. On the cabinet were sun-bleached photographs of an absent woman who I took to be his mother. I drank the sweet tea his grandmother had prepared for me, and asked him where his parents were.

“This is my family, yes?” he said, smiling nervously at his grandmother and adult brother, his brother’s six year-old son Aryun, whom he also called his brother. “It is a small family,” he babbled a little, “a good family…”and I knew then that his parents had died.

In time all the households of the village, some twenty people, stopped by to say hello and chat. I entertained the children by memorizing and then writing their names in Korean script, and answered countless questions about my baldness and marital status. When darkness fell, I was ushered into the smoke-stained, biscuit-colored kitchen beneath the three-quarters moon and given warm beer and a bowl of fried organs, chicken heart and liver, the choicest pieces of a dish that was itself an extravagance.

I slept that night in a bed with both head- and footboard that was some nine inches shorter than my legs, necessitating a great deal of creative geometry, and was woken stiff-necked at a quarter to seven by Ronald peering in the window at me, barking like an excited puppy: “It is time to wash your face!” At the parting, Ronald and his family refused my money, eyes downcast, though my visit had doubtless cost them the equivalent of a week’s worth of meals. As I walked down the hill with Ronald on his way to school, he mentioned again, as he had all night, that in three weeks he would have vacation, and that I should return, and we would travel Sikkim together, though I knew that this village was on the way to nowhere, and I would not be coming back.

On the main road, when I went to say goodbye, Ronald burst into tears. “If you can, you will come, ok?” he said, his lip trembling as he fought to maintain control. “Only if you can…” He was sobbing. I gave him a handshake and an awkward hug and then turned away down the road, knowing that my merely being here was the highlight of his whole year, that my having happened for a day into his life was a better thing for him than Christmas, and feeling the sinking adult burden of having all a child’s hope projected onto you, knowing that you will break his heart.

I teared up as I walked away, thinking how happy I had been for that one night, a part of Ronald’s little patchwork family high up on the ridge, squatted in the smoky kitchen with Aryun yawning and the lights of the villages faraway all glitter across the valley through the window. And the sense was with me as I cried, “I’m too far away from everything, too far from everyone I know, too far…”

Damn.

[4] Barsey to Pelling

The paradoxical thing about trekking is that we spend much of our time whilst doing it simply wishing it would end. Few leisure activities offer, not just difficulty, but the passionate desire that the activity would cease, five minutes ago if possible; it is also unique in the level to which, having reached this point, you are committed to continue. Done reading a book? Just put it down. Through with snowboarding? It’s only a few minutes to the lodge, and all downhill at that. But trekking usually finds us miles from anywhere, climbing an endless staircase of mud-slick stones through some bug-haunted jungle, and in this circumstance, the only thing less attractive than going on is turning back.

The trail from Ronald’s village to the outpost at Barsey is hardly worth mentioning except in this regard, a deserted footpath through mossy rhododendrons and stands of bamboo, 15 kilometers and 1500 vertical meters that only a hill person would describe (as they did to me) as "easy." When I reach the clearing at Barsey, three small buildings set on a hill at 10,000 feet and ringed by a low stone wall, it is both relief and anticlimax – the Kachenjunga massif hidden by the monsoon clouds and the buildings deserted except for a skeleton crew, much more living than working here, continuously scheming for money and openly contemptuous of my presence.

When night falls there is no power. I eat a dinner of dal bhat by the weak light of a single candle, feeling depressed, then retire to the huge empty attic dormitory where I slip into the twisting, feverish sleep of the ambiguously ill, my body achy and my belly full of gas.

When I awaken the next morning, I am far too sick to travel. In the attic on my mattress on the floor I sleep the entire day away, waking into the twilight of half-past five pm, impossibly craving orange juice. Looking out the window, the clouds have cleared halfway to the horizon and this little outpost feels like the end of the world, staring out at the waves of high green ridges without a single building to be seen. The most distant mountains are blue in the late-day light, and on those furthest peaks, beyond the green hills and the golden light on the rhododendrons, there are sharp fingers of snow. As I stand, shaky and feverish at the window, Kachenjunga swims for a moment out of the clouds above them, unbelievably high and white, lofty and imposing and impossible. Then just as quickly it is gone.

That moment of brightness here in my sickness at the end of the world only serves to underscore how empty and alone I am. It should feel liberating, I think, this being out in nature, miles from the nearest town, but instead it feels claustrophobic: the moment when you realize you’ve climbed up this far, and now you have to climb back down.

The next morning when I rise the day itself bears all the native marks of a fever-dream—the same walled-in feeling, the same endlessness, the same inherent lack of meaning. My emotions are all mixed up, feeling ugly and loveless, keenly aware of my physical imperfections, so desperate for comfort that I curse the awful wilderness keeping me from the safety of the world.

In this abject mood I trek exhausted down the mountain, four hours of mud and leeches and stinging nettle, overgrown and jungly and airless. I find myself grown so tired of travelling that I want to quit and go home, trapped in this endless green maze in which everything seems out for blood. There are no vistas to be seen and I would not care if there were, overtired and muddy and fed for two days on nothing but instant noodles and smoke-tainted water, gut-sick and diarrheal and so lonely it feels like I’ve never had any friends at all. And the horrible feeling is upon me that none of this, this travelling, this suffering, has any meaning to it at all.

I finally reach a road and walk 6km west along it to the tiny market town at Dentam, then take a jeep northeast along the high road towards Pelling, and as I stare down at the sharp, unprotected drop to the valley floor hundreds of meters below, I find myself thinking about my relationships, realizing that I don’t even know what love to feel sad for anymore, what love to regret, it all seems so distant.

At night in Pelling it rains, adding a voluptuousness to the darkness, the insects clicking all around like castanets, and I find myself reflecting, as I often do these days, upon Paul Theroux. “Travel,” he wrote, “is a state of mind. It has nothing to do with existence or the exotic. It is almost entirely an inner experience.”

Back in Calcutta, it was true, I had submitted my prayers to Kali. The devouring mother demanded sacrifice, and though it was often offered in blood, it was not in blood alone that it could be paid.

I thought: “Kali Ma, have I not sacrificed love? Have I not sacrificed comfort and sex and security and friends, to live this way, to bear these pressures, to be changed? Have I not offered up my fear, everything that is weak in me, to your teeth?”

I knew that I had come to the road alone only to travel it, to cast my fixed identity aside like a crab that has outgrown its shell. Oh but how vulnerable, I thought, the rain drumming on the roof, my body as porous as a sieve; how fearful it is to go naked, into the vagrant wilderness, before a greater shell is found.

[5] Sea of Faces

Things come to fullness in time. A week later, I am in the lowlands again, on the platform of New Jalpaiguri Station, waiting, in the polluted haze and in the confusion of my memories, for a train. And in the Times of India, blown through the dust of the platform and past the trash and empty cups of chai, which I seize and read to pass the time, there is a story. It is a completely ordinary Indian story: eighteen infants, all terribly poor, dead in only 36 hours at a single Calcutta hospital; but it is the photograph which accompanies that paralyzes me completely.

Poorly composed and snapped by some cub staff photog for this minor news piece, it shows a man, mid-30′s and mustached, his face a mixture of outrage and grief as he holds in both hands toward the camera the swaddled body of his dead child. Beside him, his wife, her head covered with a shawl, turns into her husband’s shoulder, her features a mask of pure anguish, sobbing. Behind and all around is a sea of faces—dozens, a crowd, as there is always a crowd everywhere in India—but so wild with the symphony of powerful and conflicting human emotions that it arrests my attention completely, tears at the center of me, that I wonder at the meaning of myself at all.

God, I think, the smell of burning garbage filling my head on the sour breeze, how this place wounds me. This journey into the hills – Ronald and Aryun, the long walk, the leeches and the difficulty and the loneliness; the fear of death, loveless and alone – I know that these have taken a piece of my heart, as is the certain way of questions without answers. But there is a magic to living these questions here, lost in this most ancient of places, immersed in this most ancient of rites.

I stand on the platform in the center of myself, utterly broken and inadequate, but knowing that when I give my heart to India, India gives its heart right back, brighter than my own could ever be. And once again, as I have now for years—as the train draws up in the heavy air—as I meet the faces though the dusty windows peering into my own eyes—I thank the Universe that it has brought me through, and step, without expectations and without fear, into the waiting train alone.


Writer, photographer, and part-time metaphysician, Matthew Crompton has at various times called San Francisco, Seoul and Sydney home, though he believes that for sheer variety, nothing compares to life on the open road. His travels have taken him through Guatemala and Europe, across Russia, Japan, China, South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent from the war-torn Sri Lankan city of Jaffna to the Annapurna Range of Nepal, though he counts himself lucky to have caught giardia and dengue only once apiece. Lately, he can be found loitering in southern Africa, from the Cape to the shores of Lake Malawi. His writing and photographs have been published in the US (San Francisco Chronicle and Philadelphia Inquirer), UK (Adventure Travel Magazine), Australia (The Australian), and throughout Asia (Action Asia Magazine, Cebu Smile, and 10 Magazine Asia). His story "Camel College" appeared in The Best Travel Writing 2011. While he's out exploring, he also produces travel content for the award-wining social travel website gogobot.com. "Into the Hills" won the Grand Prize Gold Award in the Seventh Annual Solas Awards.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




Read more from Editors' Choice, Matthew Crompton

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