A Private Tour
India is one of those rare places where you can stay for months, and still be overwhelmed only by the sights and sounds and smells that you observe. To dive into a culture, to not just observe but immerse oneself in it as we set out to do, is a different thing entirely. It becomes hard to imagine doing both, to simultaneously bear witness to the incredible city of Darjeeling and the innumerable sights it has to offer and live as if you were a part of the city yourself. But yesterday, as our two host brothers – childhood friends who even now at college age are still close – took us on a walk through their neighborhood of Navingram, it seems we accomplished both.
First, the sights: though we were a half hour walk away from Central Darjeeling, we came across some amazing sites as we navigated the winding, hilly streets of what I guess you could call a suburb of Darjeeling. The views alone were breathtaking. Darjeeling is a vertical city, with streets running in tiers and houses built into the mountain, so nearly every balcony, and every corner, offers a view into the Himalayan valleys beyond. The rainy season clouds are always present, filling in the crags formed by the mountains like water in slow motion. It’s seems ridiculous that these people wake up to that every morning. Equally mesmerizing was the huge Japanese Peace Pagoda we visited, a giant white stupa dedicated to the life of Buddha. It was late enough that we were the only ones there, and we were able to walk around the perimeter of the building and look at the carved friezes depicting Buddha’s life without rushing or squeezing by people as on the streets. It was a stark reminder of how far-reaching religion can be – that such a great strucutre could be found in such an average place just because of the inspiring nature of one man.
From the stupa, we followed the sound of beating drums into a monastery, which seemed to be connected to the Peace Pagoda. We were able to walk into the shrine room as guest, pick up our own drums, and fall in sync with the rhythmic chanting, which our host brothers explained happens daily from 4-7 without stopping. Again, the sights and sounds were almost to much to take in. Even in a Darjeeling suburb, India never ceases to amaze.
These two friends, brothers even, led us on as mesmorizing and engrossing a walk as the sights themselves. On every corner, every turn in the road, the brothers picked up and dropped off friends from back in the day, trading greetings and handshakes with the boys from the block. As a kid growing up in a small suburb with few kids on the street, I was blown away by the depth of the relationships between these young men. Upon asking my brother how he managed to get along with all of them, he simply responded, "We’re polite to them, they’re polite to us." If only the world worked this way, we’d be in much better shape. The seemingly universal shake-grab-bump handshake symbolized the bond that these now-college-aged kids shared with one another, a bond born out of not just location, but neighborly compassion.
As part of our walk’s itinerary, we walked up to the two different schools that our brothers had separately attended. One was a Christian school, which sparked a conversation about religion. One brother was a practicing Hindu; practicing being a loose term. The other, who had attended the Christian school, called himself non-religious, preferring to believe in G-d in his own way, without anyone telling him how to have faith. These two very different schools of thought, one relying on a pantheon of very visually symbolic gods and another that leaves belief up to the practioner, coexist between these two friends without conflict, without malice. Again, "We’re polite to them, they’re polite to us" applied, allowing for a loving, not just peaceful, relationship between these two "brothers"
India is one of very few places that allows for the cohabitation of so many different ideas and people. Visiting a giant stuppa next to a soccer field, a military base, and at least three schools really brought that reality home. As we continue our homestays, such experiences will only grow in depth and personal importance; we have barely scratched the surface of our families and their histories, but only time will allow for that. With patience and more than a little luck, we as guests will be able to open ourselves to giving and receiving pieces of the peoples and the places from where we have come and from where we are.