Monday, October 31, 2005

Blog Update 3

We left Kolkata on Friday evening, which seems like ages ago. Since then we have traveled almost 2,000 kms across the country, through Utar Pradesh and Rajasthan and are now in Udaipur, a most beautiful city set on a lake: but more of that later, as I bring you all up to date on our experiences and travels since we had tea in Darjeeling.
Let's actually travel back in time (about a week) to the start of our Darjeeling leg. We had spent a day and a half in Kolkata, being fed and hosted by Helen's school friend Yvonne ("Goldie") D'Silva. We left on the Thursday evening on the train for New Jalpaiguri (three hours late and from a different platform and that was a story in itself!): arriving in NJP in the morning, we decided not to take the Toy Train as originally intended. Reasoning that it was a long trip with this mode of transport (8 hours!) we felt that it would be better to hire a jeep and driver and enjoy the reputed 1-hour ride up the mountain to the "Queen of the Himalayas" as Darjeeling is proudly called. The so-called 1-hour ride turned into a 4-hour mountain climbing saga; it was raining so we couldn't really see where we were going, which I suppose is just as well. The road curves upwards around mountains and bends, trucks, busses, cows, jeeps all coming down the mountain towards us, around blind curves, hooting, braking, other jeeps overtaking us around corners... but as we couldn't really see the sheer drop just beyond the rather insubstantial looking barrier, we had - as our Aussie companions would say - "no worries mate". We were enormously comforted by all the warning signs and homilies encouraging safe driving hewn into the mountain side: "Give blood in the blood bank, not on the road..." - "If you're married, divorce speed." Even more encouraging was the report from Gill who had been sitting next to the driver - a devout Christian with flashing icons of Jesus all over his dashboard - that he had been praying all the way up the mountain! Fortunately we only heard this AFTER we arrived safely in Darjeeling.
Darjeeling itself was a delight. It is a beautiful little town, set on the hillside with startling views into valleys and across nearby mountain tops to the peak of Mount Katchendjunza (sp!), the highest peak in India and third highest in the world. I have already related one of the highlights of this visit, but I must relate our experience on Tiger Hill, watching the sunrise spilling onto this peak at 5:00 in the morning. After two days of rain, we decied that should it be clear the next morning, we would take the ride to Tiger Hill, about 14 km out of town, to view the celebrated sunrise.
We were woken at 4:00 am, as promised by our receptionist if the weather appeared to be clear, and off we trundled in a tiny van (the little Suzuki mini-mini bus we used to call a "half-loaf" in Israel) to experience what we expected would be a couple of mad tourists sitting under a tree on a remote hill, watching the rays of the rising sun hitting the nearby peak. We arrived at the site, the last in a line of about 300 jeeps and busses stretching up the hill to the viewsite, where at least 3,000 people (this is no exaggeration) were waiting for the sun. As the sun rose, so did a cheer from the crowd, and Mount Katchendjunza rose through the clouds to present a magnificent spectacle. Even more exciting, was a view of the tip of Everest in the far distance. A memorable experience, as much for the crowds, as for the sunrise.
We had booked our trip down from Darjeeling with Raju, the same driver who brought us up, figuring he was good with Lord, and looking forward to his promise to take us on a tour of the tea estates and other places of interest. He was as good as his word, but unfortunately his prayers did not help with the weather. It was raining and misty all the way down and for eight hours the only view we could see was about four feet in from of the jeep. But we did visit the Mirik Tea estate and one of their factories, a fascinating experience. We also stopped at the Nepalese border and Nate was nearly arrested for taking photographs of the border crossing.
After an 8-hour journey down the mountain, we made New Jalpaiguri and booked into the Hillton Hotel (!), all in one room, to freshen up and await our train back to Kolkata at 2:45 the next morning.
Marlyn has already written much about our personal experiences in Kolkata, so I will not repeat those here, except for our last day there, which to us was one of the most memorable to date:
I mentioned in an earlier posting that David Nahoum, one of the last remaining Jews in Kolkata, who runs his family confectionery business, had promised us a tour of the two remaining synagogues in this city. The shuls were found in the back streets of the city, among the markets and beggars, the food stalls and fabric shops, the fruit vendors and Divali decoration sellers: but they are in perfect condition, having been declared national monuments, and are looked after by a dedicated small staff, with David Nahoum as the de facto gabbah or governor.
The Beth-El and the Maghen David (sic!) congregations worshipped mainly in these two beautiful Beitei Knesset. Helen's mother and father were married in the Maghen David shul, and her grand uncles and other members of there family were instrumental in founding the community. Built in the style common to Iraqi jewry (the origins of most of the Calcutta community), they are large, imposing, beautifully decorated...and incredibly sad. At its height the community, which was established in the first half of the 19th century, boasted more than 5000 souls and played a major role in the cultural and economic life of Calcutta. Today there are some 30 Jews left in this impossibly crowded city - David Nahoum and Auntie Maggie Meir (about whom Marlyn wrote earlier) amongst the last. But David and his dedicated colleagues still build a Succah at Maghen David every year...a continuing tribute to the rich past of this passing community.
On our return to David's confectinery in the market we bought typical delicious Iraqi "shabbat" treats and sweetmeats - cheese samoosas, sticky buns, kaka biscuits and date biscuits (who aid this trip was about dieting?)
Friday night, we left the damp, sticky heat of Kolkata on our 27-hour train journey across the country to Jaipur in Rajasthan (where we just missed the third cricket test between India and Sri Lanka by one day). And that is a totally new blog all on its own...
until next time:
Namaste...and Happy Divali!


Andy & Jonathan said...

Wow! We've been reading your accounts with tremendous interest. What a fascinating trip -- enjoy the remainder and safe travels home.

danvalley52 said...
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Jade Graham said...

But rode uphill to Merapi Golf? We were half torn, before we even reached the guard house! At the guard house, חבילות נופש לאמסטרדם