by Maria Ruiz
Maria often shares stories with us about Santa Barbara history, her travel all over the world, her dogs, and life.
INDIA. The name alone brings up ideas of exotic animals, women in colorful saris and men on elephants. Ever since I read any of Kipling’s books, I was hooked. Then I got there. It was nothing like I had imagined. A billion and a half people means that everything and every place is crowded. We didn’t even try using the metro system as each car was literally packed full. The line for the bus snaked around the block and even walking meant avoiding the children who lived in the cardboard boxes packed on the sidewalk tight up against the buildings, that were home to whole villages. Dogs lay in the shade of the bridge while litters of small puppies nursed. Streets and sidewalks were incredibly littered with trash as no one even considers using the trash cans.
To the north of India, the Himalayas rise majestically toward the sky. Darjeeling was built at the foot of the mountains, and on clear days gives visitors a view of K2, the second highest mountain in the Himalayas, which means in the world. During the British occupation of India, families would move to Darjeeling for the hot summer months. We had to visit, no matter that we were traveling India in the winter. For us, the winter months were the best time to visit. It was warm enough so that we didn’t need winter clothes and it was not too hot during the day.
Many Indians close shop for Christmas and when you have only 90 days to visit a country as large as India, we didn’t want to waste a single day. I made a reservation at a hotel in Darjeeling, then checked the train schedules from Calcutta. We could travel by rail until the last few miles, which we would be in a bus. There is a small train, the Toy Train, that carries people on the last step in Darjeeling. It has a waiting list to the next year since it only holds a few people. You can check it out on YouTube. After we left Darjeeling, we saw the Toy Train waiting at a station and realized that there was no glass in the windows. The updated video shows glass and new seat covers so it has had some improvement.
At one time in India, there was no standard for rails and there were many different sizes or differences in width. Trains would pull into a station, be disconnected from the wheels, moved to another set and then drive to the next station. Across India, a train might have to change wheels up to 15 times. Standardization has improved rail travel all over but the Toy Train still has the narrow rails—the last such in India.
When we arrived in Darjeeling, the hotel where we made reservations, didn’t have an empty room but the one next door did. We registered there and dropped our belongings off to rush outside to see the famous mountains. Cold, wet fog greeted us. That fog creeps down your neck, up your pant legs and sleeves, leaving a frozen, damp visitor. Back at the hotel, they put a small room heater in the room which ran 24 hours a day for our entire stay. Outside, Sherpas, both male and female, were carrying large boxes or gas cans up and down the main street of town on their backs. They wore only flip flops and no socks. Others built small bonfires in the middle of the road and men came from all over to extend their hands into the warmth. They graciously moved over for us to warm our hands.
We walked to the point where visitors could see K2 and all we saw was fog. The town is so small that one walk around town and you’ve seen it all. Back at the hotel, we put on another pair of socks and as many of our clothes as we could and still walk. On the ground floor of the hotel there is a restaurant where, we met a wonderful woman who has visited Chaing Mai in Thailand for many years. We had a lot of common experiences, and could immediately talk about them. The hotel was owned by a Nepalese couple and brought Nepal décor on the walls. Food was hot and delicious and we soon went back to our room. The little heater just barely took the edge off of the cold. The hotel left a heated hot water bottle at the door for us and we thankfully used it to heat the bottom of the bed. This became our evening routine.
Every morning for six days I looked out the window when I woke in the morning, For six days, the fog circled around the little town, hiding the next street over. Then one morning, as I pulled the curtain open, sunlight shown on the roof tops on the street below us. I looked toward the mountains and could see the majestic peaks. I woke Ted and we rushed up to the visitors point to see the fabled K2. Ted took videos and I shot a few photos and then, as suddenly as it had appeared, it disappeared behind a cloud of fog. Oh well, we had seen it. The rest of the day, we wandered around and soon it was time to crawl into bed.
I pulled the hot bottle under the blankets and sheet and put my feet on it as Ted got into bed. Then we felt it, the warm wet that every parent feels when they put the two year old in bed with them. It meant that either we had something that peed in the bed or the hot water bottle had a hole in it. Pulling it out, we found the hole, but not having a way to stop the escaping water, we left it on the floor.
As we paid for our wonderful stay and telling the owners how much we had enjoyed our stay, we mentioned the hole in the bottle and showed them. I have no way of knowing whether they threw it away but knowing how frugal all the people are, I imagine they fixed it.