I got asked to tag along on a trip to the foot hills of the Himalayas whilst volunteering in India at a school called Future Hope; this is not the kind of offer you refuse. I was excited to be venturing into an area that was so well known, there was a sense of familiarity about it, even though I had never been there; that familiar feeling was something I wasn’t used to the whole time I was in India. Kanchenjunga has an elevation of over 26,000ft, we weren’t climbing it, but we would get to see the third highest mountain in the world and its peaks in all its glory.
I gathered all my items for the trek together and studiously packed my rucksack making sure I had everything. The last thing I wanted was to be up a mountain, with the shits and out of loo roll. I’d never been on a trip like this before so I didn’t really know what I needed or what to expect, as a result I over packed, a novice error. We were told it was going to be cold and I wasn’t used to the cold in Kolkata. Winter there is not winter at all. It’s mild, pleasantly chilly in the morning and about 26°C in the day and lots of lovely sun, but this trek was hours north of Kolkata at high altitude and it was going to be 0°C or so.
Kuntak, Future Hope’s head of sport, organised the trip and he explained patiently to us all many times that there was a very small chance of snow but that it was unlikely as it was looking as though it may be too warm. The boys and girls on the trek with us from Future Hope were a bit gutted as many of them had never seen snow before, just from afar or on T.V.
We were leaving from Sealdah rail station, just being in the train station was an over whelming experience in itself, buzzing and chaotic – I was in everybody’s way. We had a short wait so I sat on the floor, standing amongst the busyness somehow seemed absurd and maybe I sat to ground myself a little. Many other people were sitting, some were sleeping. This was my first experience of homeless people at a busy station: always a stark reminder to me of how lucky I am.
Poverty, diversity and the human condition is pushed in your face in every crevice of Kolkata, unapologetically real, unashamedly contradicting.
I was amongst lots of the kids from Future Hope school, so I felt protected and like I blended in a bit more than usual, the excitement, smiles and jokes were infectious and I was in a happy, calm mood; switching between taking photos and people watching in amazement. All the women were in saris, socks with sandals and fleeces – an interesting combination!
There were a few tourists hovering around in tight circles looking very confused and they stood out like a saw thumb, White skin amongst a sea of brown skin is quite enough to have a good old stare. I was speculating why they were here among the craziness in this place? The conclusion I came to was adventure, experience and rich culture; a cocktail of things so powerful in India that you can’t help but be effected in some way by the country.
We set off on the train and if I remember rightly we got the 2C carriage, which is the 3rd one down from 1st class. As it wasn’t hot at this point it didn’t matter that we had no AC. It did feel to me a bit like a prison, all cage, metal; and extremely basic. It was 3 tiered and the top 2 beds folded out so the person in the middle was sandwiched in between 2 beds – not good if you’re claustrophobic! I wouldn’t say this was luxury travel, but it didn’t matter, I was surrounded by incredible people and that’s the reason I was there.
The bottom bed was mine and it had a window next to it, there was such a draft because the window didn’t shut properly, and it dawned on me I’d made a grave mistake by not bringing a blanket. Kindly, Nisha offered me her spare one, it was only thin and it didn’t do much but I appreciated the gesture a lot. That night I slept with my bag under my head as a pillow. It was a rucksack so not the most comfortable of pillows and I woke up with a massive crink in my neck. But it had all my belongings in it so I suppose it was worth the pain for it to not get stolen whilst I was sleeping. Before I went to bed I took my trainers off, Nisha quickly tucked them away. “People will take” she said, in her blunt Indian English.
Being in India I realised how trusting I was of people I didn’t know. Local people were constantly telling me the whole time I was there ‘don’t use your phone in public’ ‘don’t wear that’ or ‘put your money away’. It got to me a lot and made me hyper vigilant about my stuff and it’s something that has stayed with me to some extent now.
We arrived in Sikkim, which is located in the North of India, next to Nepal. When we got off the 14 hour train ride we still had another 7 to go by bus around winding mountains. I could see evidence of landslides and it was easy to see how whole communities could be easily cut off. On a number of occasions we had to go very close to the edge as large transporter trucks sped down the side of the mountain, I looked down out of my window and took in the breath taking but terrifying view of a river and endless tea fields carved into the sides of the mountain – it was like something out of a movie. The journey was pretty hairy and I spent most of the time out of my seat as the driver really thrashed the accelerator on these rugged roads.
It was darkness when we arrived at our lodge for the evening. The warm rays I had felt during the day had truly passed and it was freezing. I felt drained, tired and cold and I wanted to walk into a luxurious resort with nice facilities, but you don’t always get what you want and this lodge was basic – no heating, no hot water. However, we did get a warming meal and then retired to bed. I crawled under the heavy blanket in all my clothes. I was cold, the kind of cold that makes you want to run away from your own body. The chilling, bone chattering cold that just plays on your mind and renders you helpless to sad shivering.
In the morning we all got up with the sun and did some exercises to warm up, my body needed it. We then had purris, a type of puffed, fried bread and curried potatoes for breakfast, unusual by western standards but an absolute staple by Indian – good for an energetic day ahead anyway I thought.
On that first morning I woke up and in my frozen, sleepy state and walked outside my door to a scene that will be forever imprinted on my mind. This is the first time I had been able to see where we were as we were driving late into the night up a mountain the night before. The view was like looking down on the world with the suns glorious orange rays shining through miles upon miles of mountainous terrain – it was stunning. I must have just stood there for about 20 minutes in a calm, peaceful gaze, not speaking just taking this stunning moment all in. Here I was volunteering in India, I didn’t even know why I was there, but life was unfolding in the most beautiful way and I breathed it all in.
In Sikkim, the people have the epicanthic eye fold, which is synonymous with Chinese people. Nepali people speak Hindi, as it is the national language of India, but their local dialect is Nepali. It felt very different from the India I was used to in Kolkata, it was peaceful, rural, quiet; and in the small villages perched on the mountain side an incredible stillness lingered in the air.
It was time to get on with the trek and after a few hours we had reached a small lodge in the area of Varsey. Turning the final corner and passing a water reserve we were fronted with the 5 large peaks of the Kanchenjunga. It was opposite us in the distance and we were very lucky to have a clear view as the mountain was framed in magnificent blue sky.
We had an avid bird watcher guiding us while we were trekking and even though I didn’t see one bird we were constantly stopping and being told to be quiet. Much to his annoyance not all of us shared the same satisfaction at sighting a bird. Most of us spent the whole time whistling and chatting, which I realise are things not quite conducive to bird watching! A trip to a monastery was also on the agenda and I snatched a quiet 15minutes away from the group to meditate. I had views out over the mountains, the warm sun on my face and it created the most beautiful opportunity to experience some peaceful, tranquil equanimity.
Soon enough it was time to go home to Kolkata. The long ride back down the mountain in the bus with no suspension was not eagerly awaited by anyone but eventually we got to the train station. I needed to top up my phone so I hunted down a ‘shop’ to do so. It amazes me how services like these operate out of nothing more than a lean to. Whilst doing this we had attracted a homeless boy who was begging for money. Of course it makes me sad to see them, but at this point I knew the drill; he may well of not been homeless and most of it could be going to someone ‘looking’ after him. The clothes he was wearing were reasonably decent, he was wearing a jacket, he didn’t look too scraggly – so I decided to turn a blind eye – a painful admission even to this day.
This little guy was persistent, he followed us all the way back to the platform not with his palm open, but with just an occasional tug on my sleeve and a dejected look on his face. In the end I decided that the Oreo cookies in my bag would be appreciated more by him so I got them out and handed them over. Solemnly he accepted them, but he continued to linger, maybe he thought I was wearing thin on the emotional stonewalling act I was playing. Our train arrived and we left that little boy behind; my heart was heavy with the weight of the millions of children in India living on the street, off the street and by the street, in filth and squalor.
Arriving back into Kolkata the following morning at sunrise was a good feeling. The bright orange ball of a Sun hung low in the sky. The hustle and bustle was most welcoming and the familiar site of shacks spilling over onto the railway unfolded and deepened with every moment the train inched into the heart of the city. The train door was open and I hung out of it with the wind in my face, my Nan ever the worrier, would be mortified if she ever knew I did that but this moment was significant for me in terms of the freedom it represented.
At Sealdah railway station we had someone waiting to collect us and I was glad of him for bombing through the narrow streets to get us all dropped off. Even though I hadn’t been able to shower in about 4 days, when I finally got in after this long, uncomfortable journey I went straight to sleep; exhausted, dirty, drained, happy and on a high. I’d experienced the richness of simply walking and being in the mountains.
Mountain photo: Ankur Data