From Kolkata, we flew to Bagdorah, and from there we were driven up the mountain roads in a battered old 4×4 towards Darjeeling. Ascending the mountain quickly along the steep road, the climate changed quickly from a sticky thirty-something degrees in Bagdorah to a cool twenty degrees on the mountainside.
The view from the ride was stunning, and when we reached our destination village, you could see all of mountains disappearing into mist in the distance. We were staying at a local homestay in a village attached to the Makibari tea plantation. The village was made up of a steep stairway of small huts which were squeezed into the mountain village, so you would have to walk through various front gardens to reach your own home. The rooms were basic, but very homely, and we would be invited in by the families to eat with them at breakfast, lunch and dinner (and provided with unlimited Darjeeling tea!) The bathroom was a great room of mystery. There was a shower head protruding from the wall, though none of the three taps nearby seemed to affect it. In fact, 2 of the taps did nothing and turning the third just lead to water spraying from the tap itself. Bucket bath it is then. My dad wondered into my room soon after to excitedly tell me that he had fixed his flickering room light by jamming his luggage label behind the wiring. Jackpot.
This was, I thought, exactly the down to earth India I came to experience. It felt great. And at 800 rupees (£8) per night for a private ensuite room (and 3 generous meals per day), you couldn’t complain.
Other than the buzzing of the surrounding bugs and mosquitoes, the occasional car passing by and the chatter of the community, it was a very calm place. The surrounding forests were home to tigers, panthers, monkeys, and pythons, which would generally keep to themselves. Although apparently it wasn’t uncommon for leopards to descend the mountains into the village in search for a meal of dog or goat during the dead of night. I’ll be keeping the door locked then.
The younger children would be playing on the football field or in the streets with hoops and toys, although you’d generally see many of the older children at work during the day, carrying heavy items on their heads up the winding roads or performing other manual work. The lucky few would be able to continue their studies at a nearby college/university. Although poverty in the cities seems more visible due to the direct contrast between the inhabitants’ living styles, this was still an obviously poor location where basic amenities were not always a given. However, the locals were keen to provide with everything they could offer and would be very hospitable.
The Makibari tea estate is home to one of the world’s most expensive teas (the silver tipped tea, picked on the night of a full moon, sold at €1400 per kg). The tea gardens were dotted into the forested landscape, offering many varieties ready to be harvested when the time was right. Makibari is also famous for its organic growth methods and empowering women through the homestay program, rather than just picking tea in the gardens which is common across India. During our first morning, we took a tour of the local tea factory, where picked leaves were processed, before taking a tour of the tea gardens themselves.
Rajah, the owner of the gardens, rode around the estate on his white horse in gleaming riding boots, a smart hat and white scarf. We saw him a few times from afar, but it was only when Bibhu’s mother (who is a true force of nature in her own right and an old acquaintance of Rajah) called estate to inform him we were here. After just a few hours, we were greeted by him with a plethora of apologies that we hadn’t met earlier.
He was a whirlwind of a character, with an abundance of stories and the accompanying enthusiasm of someone who likes to tell them. He talked about the importance of organic and natural growth, and secrets of the surrounding landscape. Then he delved into the history of the plantations and even revealed some hilarious stories of his colourful past and encounters with the Dalai Larma. Then he talked some more. Plates of food overflowed from the table, and we ate and listened intently.
The following day, we were invited to explore a local market that opened every Sunday so that all of the surrounding villages could gather their weekly supplies. After seeing what the market had to offer, our guide invited us into a local bar tent, walled with cloths and tarpaulin. We were first presented with some rice beer, which was a milky substance that tasted of a combination of saké and sour home brew. My dad and I spoke with the guide about life in Makibari in his broken english, and frequently nodded our heads towards the locals who smiled and nodded back. “Do you like pork?” They asked. “Sure,” we replied. It wasn’t long before we were given a small plate of spiced pork intestines as our bar snack. Our tin cups were continuously refilled with the rice beer without question, which actually became quite drinkable after the 3rd or 4th cup… or not… I can’t quite remember…