The music of the hills was all around us.
It enveloped us, stuck a Rs 20 stamp and airmailed us to a dreamscape where the mighty Khang-chen-dzon-ga towered above jagged snowcapped peaks and Yetis were picknicking on the glaciers while playing antakshari. Or so we imagined. It was too foggy to see anything clearly and it was getting dark. We reached Darjeeling by 5 pm, after being stopped at every village to pay a “Chaandi toll”. The flora changed from evergreen to deciduous and the street dog breed changed from mongrel to Lhasa apso. Wonderful dogs they are. Quiet, unlike Pomeranians, and have an air (and general disposition) of a wise Himalayan sage.
On reaching our hotel, Viramma Villa, the very first question I asked the friendly maître d was “where is Khang-chen-dzon-ga?” and she pointed her finger in the direction of some fog, and said “There is Khang-chen-dzon-ga”. “Ah. Can I see it?”, I asked. She said – “Very unlikely in January”. Disappointed, we soothed ourselves by tucking in more momos than is considered healthy (for an adult alpha male Gorilla, i.e), slurped on Thukpa, briefly fought “The Blanket Territorial Wars of Viramma Villa, circa 2009”, and then slept.
The next day, our only day in Darjeeling was precious to us, and therefore had to be rationed carefully between the adventure lovers (me) and Tibetan market shopping lovers (the rest). To cut a long story short, and get back to the disaster-filled parts of this story, the day was lovely. We managed to see monasteries, and young monks play some mean soccer, red pandas, Himalayan black bears, the insides of several trinket shops, a little bit of Nepal and importantly, hogged large quantities of Tibetan, Nepali and Gorkhaland food. So there. Now let’s get back to the regular grind.
The fun started when it was time to settle the hotel bill the next day. The maître d informed us with the tone of someone saying “Oh, by the way, the taxi ride down to Bagdogra is complimentary”, but instead of saying that, she said – “Oh, by the way, the tariff card had a small error. It was missing a zero. At the end”. Now, it was a lovely vacation so far, with Kingfisher planes and Indian volvos providing us a totally alternative experience, but to be charged (a lot) extra for the only boringly normal (read “enjoyable”) part of the vacation was a little hard to digest, like dry Jhalmuri with pungent mustard oil, like biting into a juicy looking kozhukattai expecting an explosion of sugary sweetness mixed with the crunchy coconut filling and finding instead that it is one of those atrocious non-sweet, tastes-like-mud, kaarakozhukkattais. We could go on with the metaphors, but I’m going to get back to the main thread now.
We haggled a bit, managed to convince the glib Pnjaabi gentleman who owned the place to give us a bit of a discount, and once he convinced us that the only reason he was reducing the tariff was his love for all things South Indian, we actually ended up feeling happy with ourselves for paying just a little bit less than the outrageously high tariff they demanded in the first place. Nobody does business like them I say.
We were on our way now, with the driver promising to take us to the Makaibari tea factory where we could sample and buy the freshest Darjeeling tea. We had earlier decided to not buy tea from the mall on his promise that direct factory maal was much better. And needless to say, we found the factory shuttered because it turned out to be Republic Day. Normally I would let forth a stream of choice curse words, but just one day in Darjeeling around the locals who rarely seem to get angry, always smile and play with Lhasa apsos, I did not feel like polluting the atmosphere with profanities. Instead, I made a mental note to remember to rickroll as many people as possible once I was back in the plains. We then bought our tea at a small shop downhill after steadfastly refusing to look at the expiry date on the packaging. Ignorance, for that moment, was beyond bliss.
Soon enough, we were back in familiary territory, the insides of an airport. With our experiences in the recent past, the first thing I did was to identify a seniorish SpiceJet rep and asked him the state of the weather in Bagdogra. He seemed confident and we soon checked in and were waiting for the departure announcement, which by now should be amply predictable, never came. I met a Bengali gentleman who, prior to retirement, worked in Air Traffic Control at this very place, Bagdogra, and he enlightened us all with this:
SpiceJet then formally announced that despite the fact that 6 other planes had landed, they did not manage to obtain clearance to land their plane, and therefore had to cancel. And just so they could completely obliterate any trace of silver lining in what was already a monstrously dark cloud, they told us that SpiceJet Corporate Policy prevents them from offering any kind of accommodation for the stranded passengers. Just so the passengers wouldn’t get skeptical, he played an audio clip that featured Darth Corporatus saying – “No accommodation. Is that clear. (Sounds of heavy breathing)”.
We then spent a day in Bagdogra. And guess what, the women spent that day shopping.
The next day, SpiceJet almost cancelled our flight again because of one lady who refused to let her hand baggage be screened and also refused to adhere to the liquid quantity limits imposed by airports. She threatened to call people whom she assured us, were in high places. Security was not amused. The rest of us were so amused that we could have cried.
3 hours later, we were back in Chennai.
ps: The audio clip features me attempting to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Adagio sostenuto. Kindly excuse the many mistakes.