After a brief personal battle with food poisoning, our week long trip to Darjeeling, India was absolutely wonderful! Before taking off for the adventure, we spent the two prior nights enjoying the festivities of Durga Puja in Agartala. Durga Puja is the largest Hindu festival of the year and for five nights, the Hindu goddess, Durga, is worshiped inside incredible man-made structures called, pandals. On a normal night in Agartala, this city is completely shutdown and silent by the hours of 9 or 10pm. However, during Durga Puja, the city never sleeps. The pandals are continuously open and welcoming of visitors at every hour of the day. To better envision what the celebrations of Durga Puja entail, imagine a combination of an American carnival, a Christmas light show, an art gallery, a music festival, and a townie fall fair. It is rather difficult to describe, but after the first night, Aja, Ellen and I felt it vaguely resembled an American gathering (minus the alcohol, but with the addition of continuous perplexed stares from local Indian civilians). We were intrigued and therefore, found it essential to attend the festivities for one additional night. During the second night, we became a bit braver and indulged into some tasty, yet spicy, street food. Lesson learned in India: Do not experiment with foreign street food the night before a much anticipated vacation involving a flight followed by an overnight train. My body was not prepared for the shock of spicy (and possibly contaminated) Agartala vendor food. The plane ride and train were pretty miserable along with the first day in Darjeeling being spent in bed, but hey, I became a professional at the use of Turkish toilets.
Andy's Guest House, our accommodations for the week, turned out to be extremely homey and welcoming. Upon arriving, the adorable Tibetan owner realized I was not feeling well after I quickly asked directions to the nearest bathroom. She immediately prepared our rooms and took the place of Moukta by ordering rest and the consumption of plenty of liquids. Andy's Guest House proved to be a perfect place to stay and I would highly recommend it to anyone who happens to stumble into this corner of the world. Warm comforters, comfortable mattresses, an actual shower head, and western toilets all made this budget hotel seem like paradise. In addition, the rooftop view of Andy's was a stunning sight to awake to in the morning. On a clear day, we had a perfect view of Mount Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world. Although it did rain quite a bit, which inhibited us from actually catching a glimpse of Mount Everest, I have no complaints because being able to experience the sight of one of the highest peaks in world is an unbelievable opportunity.
The illness quickly passed and the next morning I awoke and was ready to explore Darjeeling with the rest of the group. We ate breakfast at Sonam's Kitchen, an amazing little restaurant that we revisited each morning. Fresh bread toasted with butter, vegetable omelettes, grilled tomatoes, banana and nut porridge, hash browns, real coffee, and CHEESE really made our mornings heavenly since we lack the majority of those items in Agartala. Restaurant owners and nearby tourists must have thought that the four of us had completely lost our minds because everything that we tasted was loudly, overly, and maybe even a bit, obnoxiously appreciated. The rest of our meals consisted of delicious restaurants full of pizzas, pastas, pastries, and various other “healthy” American foods. Nothing was quite comparable to foods back home, but it certainly was a nice change of pace from Indian white rice, chapati, and boiled vegetables.
As for the sightseeing, Darjeeling has gorgeous tea gardens, Buddhist monasteries situated in the clouds, beautiful temples, a busy market full of hand woven woolen goods (perfect for souvenir shopping), a welcoming and friendly Tibetan Refugee Center, and the most stunning landscapes that I have ever seen. On our last day, we rode the famous Darjeeling Toy Train back down the mountains. If it hadn't been down-pouring outside, then we would have witnessed some amazing views, but it was still a great experience and we did catch a few glimpses of the nearby scenery when we weren't completely immersed in the clouds.
Darjeeling, check!... and onto the next adventure. We are now in the process of booking our next backpacking excursion which will consist of traveling around the country for a little over one month. This will occur while the students are on their annual winter break throughout December and January. We are planning to visit about ten different cities throughout the many states of India. All four of us have now officially adjusted to the Indian way of life and feel 100% comfortable with being independent (an absolutely fantastic feeling!). I have posted many pictures of both Durga Puja and Darjeeling on facebook and you are more than welcome to check them out. Enjoy!