First off, do not be alarmed. I am safe, happy and healthy, but just barely.
I really do like airports. Over the past few years, airports have been much appreciated sanctuaries tightly nestled between leaving and returning to work. Security guards are always rude, your belt always takes longer to take off than you anticipate, and your plane is frequently not at the gate you thought it would be, but all of this is just the predictable prelude to air travel. When you are in the airport, you know what to expect, so it is hard to feel uncomfortable or out of place; there is no room for worry in such a structured environment.
“Uneventful” is the most aspirational adjective of flying and I was fortunate to have an uneventful flight to Bagdogra in West Bengal, India. The taxi booth told me that a that a ride to Darjeeling would be 1700 INR (about $34 in America or a ton in India), so I asked if there was a cheaper option. He advised I take a 150 INR cab to Siliguri and then grab a Jeep shuttle to Darjeeling with the locals.
Seemed like a good idea at the time.
I got to the jeep station just as it was about to depart, and threw my bag up on top. Luggage was loosely strapped down with rope and my initial fear was that my malleable, narrow pack would slip off and I would lose most of my possessions. I kept the daypack with my wallet, phone, and passport nestled between my legs in the back row of our jeep. If I were to lose everything else, these were the things I would need to survive and finish my trip.
At this point I am used to overlapping and always being touched, so despite being pinned between a large indian man and a larger tibetan man, I promptly fell asleep.
For someone often classified as a “Quant Geek”, I should have done better math. Google maps says the journey from Bagdogra airport to Darjeeling is 90 km (about 57 miles). The taxi stand said it would take about 3 hours to get there. Bagdogra is located at 429 ft above sea level, Darjeeling is 6710. What a casual observer should draw from this collection of facts is that the journey is essentially a vertical climb up the side of the mountain: 57 miles of roadway to climb more than a mile into the air.
I fell asleep in 90 degree heat but awoke when an unexpectedly crisp breeze chilled me. We were about a quarter of the way through the climb but already incredibly high. The trail was a collection of switchbacks up the face of the mountain. Our 5.5 foot wide jeep was flying through roads that oscillated between 8 and 12 feet wide. Most of the trail had no guardrails so when we passed by another jeep, our driver often had to stick his head out of the window to see just how close to the cliff we were. With no seat belts and such a steep drop, a wrong move, a bad breeze, crumbling rock all meant certain death.
Acrophobia is a fear of heights, thanatophobia is a fear of death. I can’t tell you which one of those overcame me, but lets just say I was overcome. We continued to climb and creep along decrepit dirt roads and at times were inches away from the steepest cliffs I have ever seen. Looking around, I was the only one in the car that looked visibly panicked which said something about either my sanity or insanity, but I could not tell which one it was. I convinced myself we would be okay, and as we climbed into the cloud layer a sense of calm rushed over me.
Figures would apparate within feet of us as we sped through roads overcast in thin clouds. People and oncoming cars looked like ghosts until they were feet from our vehicle, but our driver, unphased, experienced, or manic (who knows), avoided all of them. You could no longer see the valley we started from or how high up we were. In front of us was road and around us was nothing, and it was comforting to let go of all of that tangible fear. Somehow, falling into nothingess was less worrying than falling onto rocks and trees and streams; and that might say something about me or something about people, but at the time it was all I needed to be at ease.
We arrived safely in Darjeeling and I paid my driver and thanked him. High altitudes always take me at first and at well-over 6000 ft, my pack suddently became quite the burden. I threw it onto my shoulder like a boombox and confidently hiked to Chowrasta, the neighborhood at the top of the hill in Darjeeling.
Angela has taught me a lot about overcoming altitude sickness: take it slowly, drink lots of water, and eat lots of garlic. I remember my first trip to Denver, my first time seeing mountains, and how difficult it was just to walk from place to place. I am more confident at higher altitudes now, but it still takes me a fair bit of time to adjust.
My hotel room was cold and shabby. Lots of blankets, no heat or hot water. Color TV in the corner of the room, but the remote doesn’t work and to turn the television on you have to shove a finger into the hole where the power button would be and feel past the wires to a manual switch. It is a simple, but functional home, and it will do for four nights.
I walked around for about an hour, exploring alleyways and bazaars and ended with a dinner at the local wateringhole: Glenary’s. The service was quick, and thank god, because 20 minutes after taking my seat it hit me. That sudden and terrible dropping feeling that I had worked so hard to avoid for the past three weeks. I didn’t need to confirm it I knew exactly what it was: Delhi Belly.
I grabbed my stuff, overpaid my bill to avoid waiting for change, and rushed back to my hotel room where I proceeded to lose five pounds in three horrible minutes. Where had I picked it up? I carry hand sanitizer with me and wash my hands constantly; I only eat at reputable restaurants or busy street cars. Was it the dosa that I licked my fingers after or the chocolate bar that I bought at that rest stop after I had gone to the bathroom or was it the aloo bhuja I snacked on on my way to the airport? I sat trying to solve a mystery that didn’t matter: the crime had been committed and I was paying the price.
I eventually left the bathroom and sat down on my bed emptying my pockets to one last terrible surprise: my cookie was gone. For those of you that don’t know, I have carried a piece of wood with the Camp Kittatinny symbol in my back right pocket for nine years. Every day, without fail, it has been with me reminding me to be a good person, and now it was gone. I searched my stuff in what I knew would be a futile effort. I remember pulling it out at security at the airport, but did I put it back in my pocket, or leave it in the tray? Did it fall out in the plane or in the jeep on the way up? I like to imagine that a pickpocket assessed me from far away and determined he would steal my most prized possession – forget the wallet, passport, and phone, take what matters most.
I have lost my cookie before and it has always found its way back to me, but I am quite certain that this is the end of a very long journey. So, my cookie now belongs to India. Maybe this is the country’s way of keeping a piece of me. Destiny. I don’t believe in stuff like that, but maybe it is true.
Perhaps this is what traveling is: the losing, trading, and gaining of different parts of your life. Guidebooks advise you not to bring anything you are unwilling to part with, yet we all carry our beliefs and perspectives on trips, and invariably we will lose ourselves, trade our lives and experiences with others, and gain so much in the process.
I believe life is like a jar and we all live with such full lives that to add something else in requires you take something out. In that sense, I have a big gap to fill and am glad I will have the next three months to help fill it.
So, I will conclude there as I lie in bed helplessly sick, hopelessly lost, but thankfully alive.
Adventures are just that, aren’t they?