Yesterday I went from Boudha Kathmandu to the airport, with a quick stop to pick up my ticket from the Tibetan run travel agency near the Boudha gate. I took my computer with me but trusted the taxi driver who picked me up from the Nitartha Input Center to stay put with the rest of my bags. By the way they bargain you might think they are less trustworthy than they actually are. After banging something in the engine a bit, we got back on the road and I was at the airport an hour early. Domestic Departures in Kathmandu airport is quite a different scene from the international lines from hell. The tariff was only 165 rupees, which was a revelation. And I spent my extra hour sitting around; they didn't even let me check in until twenty or so minutes before my flight time.
I was rushing in the morning so the pile of change in my left pocket that I had intended to give a beggar, perhaps 25 rupees in all, was still jingling there when I sat down to wait for the Yeti Airlines staff. I remember thinking that I really prefer cargo pants or anything with extra pockets so that I don't have to hold things in my regular front pants pockets. I often have change, a pen, my wallet, a small package of tissues to be used as emergency toilet paper, a cell phone, a digital camera, a lighter and cigarettes and it just doesn't work to put them all in my pants pockets. Change is especially annoying to me if it has to be put in the front pants pockets. I don't enjoy the jingling at all. In fact, one of the primary reasons that makes me choose to wear a jacket or a blazer on any given day is that I can put all my things in its many inside pockets and my legs can be free to function without jingling. In any case, the man pestering me to carry my heavy bag the whole eight yards over to the check in counter was the not-so-happy recipient of that change.
After receiving my boarding pass I was surprised to find that the way through to the Gates involved going through the bathroom, or so it seemed from my side. There were two doors with little curtains and above each was a sign, Ladies to the left and Gents to the right. I was greeted by a sleeping airport agent who opened his eyes and shuffled me through the curtain, sitting down on the other side at a very tiny desk. Taking my passport without looking at it, he stamped it with official force and waved me through with the wag of his head. I stood staring at him for a second as I realized this was the extent of the security check. Indeed, I had passed through a metal detector when I entered the building. I could have had a rocket launcher in my pocket and they would have let me through without a second glance, but my lighter, the Parisian lighter I loved, oh no, not a chance. I realized too late I should have asked to put it in my bag. I morn it still.
The Yeti airline staff dress in a lot of green and stripes. The best part has to be the Yeti footprint insignia though, or perhaps it is the formal Tibetan style chuba the women wear. This chuba is quite common throughout the Himalayas and I am beginning to wonder if it is in fact Tibetan in origin. Maybe it is Sikkimese or Nepalese or Bhutanese? In flight I found that this would be one of the last flights for Yeti airlines, having just opened for business in January, they would shut down indefinitely in July due to fuel prices, which are now ridiculously high in Nepal.
As we took off in our little thirty-seater the flight attendant proffered small caramels and one giant ball of cotton, from which each person dutifully ripped a piece to stick in their ears. I watched everyone else and then followed suit (is that a card game reference that has slipped into English somehow?). The flight was surprisingly easy and short, although many thousands of rupees less, the bus would have taken eighteen hours. I was in Badhrapur by 12:30 and Kakarbhitta by 1:15. All the while I was assisted by my new friend, a Nepalese Navy man going from the American Military base he works and lives on to visit his dying mother in Kalimpong, Sikkim. I can't even recall his name now but he was a very nice man, full of smiles and information. I had been worried about hiring a van at the Badhrapur airport as I had been told by the Tibetan travel agency in K-town that they were all kuma over there (thieves). But my American blue dress shirt wearing friend arranged to split the fair with me and negotiated a jeep all the way to Gangtok. We had met while sitting in the airport waiting for what we thought at first was the same plane but turned out not to be. There were two or three planes leaving that morning for Badhrapur and I figured I wouldn't see this man who told me stories of American marines ever again. However, due to delays, his plane arrived only minutes before mine and our luggage came out around the same time so we were easily able to get a van together. If you are reading this and remembering that Nepal is a land locked country and you are wondering about the fact that I called him a Navy man, I'm sorry but I have no good explanation for you. Apparently there have been connections with the Gurkhas (a Nepali tribal people known for being extremely fierce in battle) and British and American military for years. This man apparently trained on a ship in the Indian Ocean and over in The Gulf. He had been on a huge carrier, which he was rather pleased to describe to me.
The best way to get to Gangtok (an abbreviated guide for travelers):
If you can, plan to travel during the monsoon season, but wait until it is really hot and political tensions are at an all time high. To insure this is the case, wait in Kathmandu for a few days to monitor the situation and watch as the gas prices become higher in one of the poorest countries in the world than they are in America. The key to this planning strategy is to have to sneak into Kathmandu in between strikes when the government shuts down and buses stop working, which should be happening every other day by now. You might also try helping out by arguing with taxi drivers for lower rates and wandering about town with a T-shirt that says "Gurkhas Suck."After you are sure things are a bit seedy in the region, assured that there are now strikes and Bandh-s happening both in the country you are leaving and the country you are entering, slip into India by way of Kakarbitta and find the craziest jeep driver in the pack. If you don't hear the tires squealing around 95% of all curves, stop and hire another driver who really wants to get all the way to Gangtok and back home in one day. Once you have a reliable driver, offer him cigarettes and chew, but not food or water, he won't accept it. In fact, he will attempt to survive on your cigarettes for the next seven to ten hours, depending on monsoon mudslide traffic, so bring extra Suryas if you can.
One must remember that the monsoon rains are an essential part of an exciting travel experience, so plan to go on the road to Kalimpong and Gangtok on a day when many people tell you the roads are probably blocked due to flooding, mud slides, or preferably large boulders blocking the road. Also, in order to really expand your experience and test your grit, don't get an extra bottle of water at the beginning of the journey when that voice in your head says, "maybe I should buy an extra bottle." The 'milk' muffins and potato chips will sustain you for the day, or at least until 10:30 at night when you can find food in Gangtok.
When you are stuck on the one lane 'highway' in the jungle with several thousand other diesel trucks I suggest getting exercise by jumping out of your jeep every time you move forward and stop. Everyone else is doing it and if you don't, you look like a ninny waiting in your jeep while your driver hops out and walks away for as much as 45 minutes at a time. The real exercise comes when everyone thinks they are moving forward, usually based on a random yell from far ahead that was probably someone running over a pedestrian's foot. At this time everyone jumps off the stone they were squatting on and runs to their trucks, only to move ahead five meters and then stop and jump out again. Several times before I knew better I waited and watched ten people pile out of a five person car only to jump back in again, drive two meters, and jump out again multiple times. Following suit is the only way to really sweat it out in the one hundred percent humidity.
After finally passing the mud slide area and speeding up, it is a good idea to suggest to the driver that the immigration office in Rangpo will likely be closed by the time you reach it; this really gets his motor going. From this point on it is also suggested that you hold on with at least two hands and close you eyes often. Hey, this is a professional driver here; he knows how to pull slides through tight curves while dodging army trucks and taxis as night falls. Or at least, he has seen Tokyo Drift... The hills of Sikkim must contain some of the most dangerous roads in the world - cliffs on both sides with fast moving rivers thousands of feet below and people who drive like it's not rainy and foggy and night time are normal. When you suddenly hit a huge swamp in the middle of the road, don't worry. The trees you are sliding towards at top speed will only be visible for the first second, after that the whole truck will be covered in mud and you won't be able to see them anyway. The experience is basically like mudding in the Maine woods at top speed for seven hours, except people speak broken English instead of Mainer English.
With some amazing luck you will actually reach Rangpo just as they are closing the border offices. Here you have to remember to do the unlikely thing and cross the border before getting a permit, walk up a hill to a hotel, convince some people who are eating dinner to give you a permit, and then walk back to the border to get it stamped. Don't sit in dread of finally hearing the price for the permit, unlike anything else around here, it's free.
Gangtok is like the hilly part of San Francisco with more rain than Seattle. However, the hills here only go up, never back down again -a peculiar effect which allows all the buildings to look out on the same view of the same jungly hills. Sikkim's motto, as proclaimed on a sign on the road to Rumtek is, "Sikkim: Switzerland of the East." From what I can tell this is accurate, it must be one of the most beautiful places in the world. I do have one complaint though. They don't have Yak meat here. They serve chicken momos instead. Chicken! What kind of Tibetan eats chicken momos?
My first two nights in Gangtok I stayed at the Tashi Tagey hotel. Each of the rooms is named after one of the eight auspicious signs from the Tibetan tradition and the owners are a wonderful Tibetan couple who speak excellent English.
The M.G. Marg is 'the' place to be in Gangtok. It is newly remodeled and looks sort of like a piece of the bricked walk-street in Boulder, Colorado. Shops and hotels line the wide avenue and the center has a line of tasteful wooden benches, flowers and trees that stretch the entire length of the street, which is where I am sitting writing in my notebook right now.
There are several small shops where you can check email, but nothing like a real internet cafe. No one has Skype installed on the computers. However, on the top floor of a large building at the entrance to M.G. Marg is a place called Tibet Cyber Cafe. Although they are closing up shop for good soon, it seems to be the best place in town despite the hike up several flights of narrow steep steps to get there. The top floor houses one room for ten computers and a small Thanka painting workshop, along with the Thanka painter's apartment. I try to speak some Tibetan with Gyatso La, the proprietor, and soon I learn that he taught Thanka painting to the students of the Naropa Sikkim program for four years. He has been to the US several times and even to Seattle once. He allowed me to download Skype and my video camera software on one of the computers and I was finally able to see Anna-Brown. Tinley Gyatso turns out to be an amazing character who lives with his wife, his ancient mother who is a nun and keeps a large shrine in their home, a monk who is his main Thanka painting student, and a young Nepali woman who seems to be some sort of servant in the household.
On this day I would go to Rumtek for the first time so I needed to find Lama Athul, who would be my caretaker, a present of some kind. I had some good photographs so I went on a small adventure to have them printed and framed. While waiting for the framing I found a frantic cell phone salesman with a huge hairy mole on the right side of his face. He did ten things at once and seemed to be helping at least three people all at the same time. As he prepared a new cheap Indian SIM card for my Chinese phone he continually asked me for something from a foreign country, a coin or anything at all. I gave him a fake golden Tour Eiffel two inches high.
The most interesting thing I noticed on this day was that road workers and house builders had an ingenious way of helping one another shovel dirt or stones. Each shovel had a rope tied to it and each shoveler had a rope-handler and each pair of shovelers had a basket-bearer. The shoveler would push the shovel into the gravel or sand and the rope-handler would heave at the right moment, helping to bring the heavy load up off the ground and into the large basket strapped to the head of the third worker. The process was repeated with some agility and rhythm until the basket was full and ready to be carried a short distance to its destination.
FROM GANGTOK TO RUMTEK
I arrived at Rumtek in the early evening, thankfully at a time that it was not raining. Taxis are not allowed up the hill to the monastery itself so I had to huff it up quite a serious slope to the Karma Shri Nalanda Institute. But first I had a little run-in with the Indian military that guards the gate at the bottom of the hill. They seemed to want to turn me away at first. I couldn't understand what they were trying to tell me and they didn't seem to understand what I was trying to tell them, but I gathered that they were saying something about the Bandha and something about not being able to leave. Soon a strange small nun with thick rimmed glasses came over to the guards and began pestering one of them. A fight of some sort broke out as a sari-clad woman came over and the two small ladies tried to drag this tall Indian man to see something in the building across the street. Eventually I was signed into the book as Marcus American and I went on my way.
I huffed and puffed up the hill and yelled a question at the first monk I saw: Lama Athul ngo shing gee yo bay? Lama Athul gee khangpa kha bar dug? A severe looking monk commanded a very young boy to lead me over to Lama Athul's, which he did begrudgingly, daring to speak once to ask me where I came from before running off. As I walked up the small wet path to RigDzinKyil, the former home of The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche now occupied only by his attendant and his attendant's attendant, I saw Lama Athul for the first time. He was ducking quickly back inside to put on his zen, a dark maroon shawl that is an important traditional signifier showing of monkhood, something not always worn, but without which it is improper to meet guests, perform ritual pujas, or have pictures taken. Lama Athul is a wonderful old lama from Kham who came to Sikkim in 1959 with the 16th Karmapa. He smiles and laughs often, and for the first few weeks I think he is calling me a silly boy every morning, when in fact he means to say 'sleep well', as in 'Did you sleep well?' Athul is from the Dege region of Kham, which means his dialect is almost completely impossible to understand. Occasionally he likes to make fun of me by shooting a bunch of questions at me rapid fire in Kham kay, which he knows barely sound like words to me. Every single day he asks me how to pronounce "belly full" and "crazy".
He was a monk at Dzogchen Monaseery in Tibet long ago and as attendant to the 6th Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche he traveled to Tsurphu Monastery near Lhasa. At that time, the 6th was the 16th Karmapa's brother, which is why the current Karmapa and the current 7th Ponlop are so close and part of why the Nyingma and Kagyu traditions are now politically connected. Lama Athul lived in Tsurphu (see several entries below about my trips to Tsurphu) for five years until the events of 1959 led him to flee Tibet with the rest of a gargantuan entourage surrounding the 16th Karmapa. Apparently they traveled through Bhutan and then to Sikkim, arriving with 400 hundred horses and donkeys. With the current 7th Ponlop he traveled to many nations all over the world, he even climbed the Eiffel Tower, something I can't quite imagine. Now he is approximately 71 years old and rarely leaves his small home except to do kora around the monastery or to sit on the deck and look at the beautiful view.
July 6th, 2008 - What a wonderful day! In the morning I would have said differently of course, but now that the day is done I count it as well spent. I met with the Bhutanese monk Sherab Tenzin, who will serve as my tutor, liaison, and guide. He is the Karma Shri Nalanda Institute librarian, or rather glorified key holder since no one seems to use the library. Although at first I keep saying I am staying at Rumtek, the monks call their home KSNI and differentiate it clearly in conversation from 'Rumtek,' which refers to Rumtek monastery and not the Shedra (college).
So on this day, several thousand years ago, Buddha Shakyamuni turned the first wheel of dharma (i.e., he lay down the law). Also, as it happens, it was H.H. the Dalai Lama's Birthday. This was a big to do for the monks so I was free from English classes for the day. After lunch with Lama Athul I went in search of the internet. I walked to the nearest hotel outside of the gates - The Shambhala Resort - and as I slipped in the partially open gate I was sure they wouldn't have web access. Before I made it across the courtyard a man, and then another, stuck their heads and half their bodies out a window in the main building. "No sir, sorry sir, we are closed sir." I hadn't said anything yet. "I am just looking for internet access." "Oh, no, no, we no have that." As I started walking away they began yelling things at me at random. "Please sir, where are you from?" "I am from Calcutta." "Don't be mad sir. Sorry no internet. Be OK." I was almost tempted to stand there in the courtyard for a while because they looked so silly hanging out of the window.
I walked for half an hour straight down hill, knowing that I would have to walk all the way back. I was feeling a bit feverish and seemed to have a flue coming on. But just as I was about to turn back, I saw the sign I was looking for. I had seen it on the drive up, "The Waterfall Hotel - Internet". But while the sign clearly indicated that the hotel was near, I saw no buildings. In fact, there were no driveways, no other roads, and only rice fields and trees as far as I could see. Figuring I would just walk into the jungle a bit and turn around, I hopped off the road and followed a small footpath next to the sign, past rice patties and into the trees. As soon as I entered the jungle I saw what I didn't know I was looking for. Nestled on the other side of a beautiful brook among dense green foliage was a large white building with porches and several small blue buildings situated near it. I had to jump on some stones to get across the brook as I wasn't quite sure how to reach the bridge I could see further down stream. When I walked underneath beautiful flowering hanging plants and onto the first porch I found a whole family of people sitting quietly enjoying afternoon tea. There was no internet because it was the off-season, but they invited me for some coffee instead. There were little speckled white and grey kittens everywhere and the screened-in porch reminded me of my grandfather's home on Old Orchard Beach in Maine. Except here the view was not of the Atlantic, but of a beautiful garden that melded into the jungle. The eldest brother sat and spoke English with me. It turned out that Ringu Tulku (A famous Tibetan Lama) had been there and just ten minutes down the trail there was a 3 year retreat center built for some rich foreigners who were in their second year of retreat. Deepak worked for the government in Gangtok, running all the internet connections for the government offices. He had met many Naropa students over the years and even knew someone named Kiki, who I met in Boulder. I stayed for quite some time, talking and showing Deepak, his mother and three brothers, pictures from Naropa, Tibet, and Paris. When I left Deepak assured me he would get the internet working (he never did) and we exchanged phone numbers so that I could call him when I went into Gangtok to renew my permit. He also informed me of a shortcut back to Rumtek, which sent me on a wonderful little adventure through a very wet layered land of rice patties and past Shamar Rinpoche's nunnery. I was in such a good mood after my travels I didn't feel sick anymore and I spent the next two hours gleefully preparing a story to tell my tutor in Tibetan.
Every day I come out of the front gate of my little bungalow and there up a steep slope above my roof, sitting on the same stone every day, is a an old crazy man. Everyone knows him as tashi nyon pa OR 'Crazy Tashi'. Lama Athul says he's been there for years and he calls him a nyon pa yak po, a 'good crazy person'. All day he just sits, sometimes talking to himself, sometimes throwing small stones onto my roof to make a loud clanging sound. He never seems to bother anyone, except my roof. Apparently he shaves potatoes in the monk's kitchen sometimes and they give him three meals a day.
Tourists from all over the world come every single day. They walk up the hill in front of my porch and up the road to the temple. One day a large group of soldiers came and at first I was reminded of Tibet, but they were smiling and laughing, turning the prayer wheels like all the other tourists and had only come to visit the monastery. I saw them stand on the monastery roof and look out at the mountains, pointing things out to each other and taking pictures. Later on in my stay at Rumtek I befriended one of the military men who guard the monastery. Ganesh is from Punjab and has only 3 more years of service to fulfill until retirement. He is very friendly and wants me to stay with his brother when I get to Delhi. What a difference from the Chinese military! Another difference I noticed is that these guys actually fit in their uniforms. It actually just occurred to me that I had got used to the little Chinese boys in uniform and it is a little odd to see tall men fitting in their uniforms, men who I'm quite sure I couldn't easily beat up without sneaking up behind them with a very large pipe. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure I'm a match for 90 percent of the Chinese military.
This is what life looks like in Sikkim:
In the distance the sound of Tibetan trumpets pierces the air and a drum begins to beat. I sit on a porch in a far northern state of India reading a book about Bengali Americans, now a major motion picture. Three monks who can't be more than ten years old run by laughing, their maroon robes fluttering about them. Soon the beats and rhymes of the Beastie Boys on iTunes mingle with the Tibetan trumpets and I become immersed in the story of a young American with a Russian's name.
On most mornings the Nalanda Cafe begins blasting modern Hindi music out of bad speakers not long after five thirty. Many days the music is heard all day long, although not, perhaps, during debate from four to six when all the monks gather in the courtyard near the cafe for a raucous game of "humiliate me if you can." When Yarney (traditional Monsoon Retreat) starts this tradition seems to taper off and the music is more often soothing and/or bearable.
You know how when you stay in LA the weather is oddly consistent? Always the same sky, the same humidity, the same sun, every morning it's as if night never was. In Sikkim it is the same, only the sky here is overcast and the humidity is one hundred percent and everything - bodies, clothing, beds, crackers - is damp all the time.
Seen in Gangtok:
A bumper sticker that says "I Heart Drukpa." (Drukpa is the Tibetan name for Bhutan)A road sign on an extremely steep curvy road that proclaims: REMEMBER YOUR FAMILY IS WAITING FOR YOU.
BE SMOOTH ON MY CURVES
Another that says, "Heaven, Hell, or Mother Earth, the choice is for the taking."
“Leprosy is Cureable. Treat It. Don’t Fear It”
AIDS is avoidable.
A black T-shirt that says in big white lettering: "I've got a girlfriend on now."
Another that says "DON’T LOOK AT ME"
A small green T-shirt on a ten year old Nepali boy that says, "CHICA: LATINA"
Signs all over Gangtok say hotel cum restaurant or restaurant cum internet cafe. My train ticket says Journey cum Reservation Ticket. What's with all the cum?
All bills print the number and write it out with ONLY printed at the end, like this:
Rs. ONE NINE ZERO ZERO ONLY.
Only! On one bill I saw the tip was also written like this, separate from the total.
At a coffee shop on the Mahatma Gandhi Road I met an American from California. He was a Frenchman, Parisian in fact. And to top it off, a Republican voting for Obama. Go figure.
Today I saw a group of Sikkimese men and boys standing in a parking lot on the road up to Rumtek (think long thin strip of decaying cement attached to the road). Two boys stood opposite each other and appeared to be lobbing rocks at one another. However, as I jogged closer I found that they were playing a form of "poor man's Boche Ball". They had four stones making a diamond in the center between them and each took two turns lobbing larger stones at the group of small stones while the other stood on the far side to collect the rocks. Apparently the aim was to knock the rocks out of place but I passed on before they managed to score a shot.
The monks like Big Pun's "I'm not a player I just crush a lot" but not Led Zeppelin or The Beatles. They know the words to some of the worst English pop songs in the history of humanity, but they also know almost all the words to Hotel California.
Almost all of them have no idea what drinking alcohol is like so they joke about it in a way that makes them seem so naive. All of them want to go to America but don't know what they would do there, nor do they ever really expect to make it. For some reason they think that an American accent is superior to all others. I'm not sure who told them that but it makes it easier for me. One of them has a computer but doesn't know how to use it very well. Another has an IPOD but is afraid to plug it in to anything because he thinks it will erase all the songs he has on it. I told him it wouldn't matter because all the songs he has are crap, but he didn't understand me. I read an entire dictionary into a recorder for one of the monks. It was abridged. When I met the current head Khenpo of the institute he had just received his new business cards. He sat on the floor with me and asked if more westerners would become Buddhist because science and Buddhism were being closely connected. He told me that he thinks that the modern world has created a new form of desire and attachment that would not exist if it wasn't for science. I told him the cause of suffering is the same desire and attachment human beings have had for centuries. We discussed getting new computers for the institute's unused library. The head of the Institute for Tibetology in Sikkim is a reincarnated lama cum diplomat that went to the University of Washington in Seattle.
Sometimes the power turns off. Sometimes it turns back on again. Sometimes a guy in rubber sandals with no tools comes and pulls at wires until it works again. Sometimes two helpings of Thukpa is soooo good, at exactly the same time every evening. Spicy Bhutanese potatoes with bread are pretty much never good at seven in the morning. Sometimes an old French couple come and visits the monastery every day for a week. Sometimes it doesn't rain for several whole hours...
FROM RUMTEK TO GANGTOK
I got in a taxi at 7:30am. The driver started the vehicle around 7:40 but there was some commotion and he got out to have some snuff instead of driving anywhere. A few minutes later everyone had piled out of his vehicle and into another vehicle, the milk truck. Another faux Land Rover of an older style, the milk truck is piled high each morning with large metal cans of milk gathered from the locals. Though the roof does have what appears to be a secure rigging system, I imagine some of the cans slipping off the roof and spilling gallons of precious white liquid over the windshield as we speed recklessly through hills. I don't know if the first taxi would have taken the customary hour to reach Gangtok, but it took me two hours by way of the milk processing plant. We had the legal ten people in the truck when we left Rumtek, but soon reached fifteen as we picked up stragglers on the road. Driving with these small town people, I try to imagine what it would be like to live near the single road on the edge of a jungle and simply walk over to the road and wait for someone you know to drive by in order to get into the city. Our driver smiles and waves at people on their porches and stops to talk to various old men, people yell at him from the jungle and laugh and joke when they hop on the back of the truck. I think it would be like living on a single long windy road with all your friends from high school, only they don't have cars so you drive up and down the road all day just to see if anyone needs a ride somewhere. Everyone was cramped, there were even boys hanging off the back of the truck for miles, but everyone was laughing and smiling and telling jokes. The speed seemed to bother no one and all entered the vehicle with a happy greeting. The driver, a Sikkimese man with short grey and black hairs sticking out from under his green baseball cap, always responded to the gift of ten rupees with the same La So! Just like a Tibetan. He didn't accept money from the boys on the back or the woman in military uniform who jumped off half-way.
A young girl with tiny curved hoop earrings with her sari-clad mother. A gold ring on a woman's painted finger. The sweat leaking out from underneath the driver's hat. Knees crunched up against steel bars in an imitation Land Rover made somewhere in India. The quick taps on the side of the truck indicating that it is safe to reverse or sneak gingerly past a large vehicle on a small road. Fog, green moss and steep drops - cliffs and waterfalls everywhere. Street cleaners and purple saris, rock crushers and high heels in the jungle. Ten rupees-fifty.
When I went into Gangtok to renew my visa I was sent with a short shopping list from Lama Athul and Sonam Lhamo: 2Kg of a little green vegetable called Bendi, 2 bottles of strawberry jam, 1Kg of tomatoes, and 2Kg of something called escoos. After a great deal of searching I found the vegetable market in what appears to be a five story cement parking garage filled with little stalls selling everything from Bendi to fake Armani T-shirts, everything that is except for strawberry jam. After walking all over the M.G. Marg area I was finally directed to The Gupta Tea House. It has a green sign with white and red lettering, in case you ever want to find it. This tea house cum trader extraordinaire is to be found half-way down M.G. Marg on the left before you reach the bust of Gandhi. I found no tea house, but it is the only place in town that sells strawberry jam. They have many foreign imports and if you're looking for a taste of home, whether that be Swiss cheese or Oreo cookies, you will find it there. Across from Gupta's is one of the true gems of M.G. Marg, The Baker's Cafe. Pizza and all manner of sweets and fresh cakes can be found along with real espresso and cappuccino. If you ever need to renew your permit while in Sikkim, it is advisable to stop here for an espresso first, because the trip to the "Foreign Registration Office" may be a doozey. While sipping your espresso, you can read things like this in The Telegraph daily:
"Four senior police officers have been taken hostage by their subordinates at a police base in south-west Nepal because the junior officers say they are ill-treated and given poor quality food." Also on the front page, but this time on the top with a picture: "Angelina gives birth to Brad's twins in France."
The sign for the "Foreign Registration Office" is not only hidden under some low-hanging trees, but also facing the wrong direction for any foreigner coming from town. Once you walk past it and find yourself at the Sikkim senate assembly building, you can get a simple drawing from the gun-toting guard at the gate who has large purple feathers on the front of his cap. Walking back up the hill one can see the sign and find the building with ease, but finding the office itself presents a new problem surmounted by looking like a lost foreigner (rather easy at this point). Just climb three flights of stairs and go around the corners into what looks like someone's home and you'll find a little piece of paper near a door that says: "Foreigners Registration Office." Here you simply sit and wait until someone calls you to their desk and then in a few short minutes you are issued a new permit free of charge. Or rather, you receive the same paper back with a new little blue stamp on it.
I wasn't able to make it back to Rumtek on the day I went to renew my visa, just too much email and web surfing to do. Luckily I was invited to stay overnight by the proprietor of the cyber cafe I spent hours sitting in.
... Of course, silly me, thinking it would be a burden if I ate with Gyatso-la and his family I went out to dinner at a nearby restaurant. Thus, instead of eating home-cooked momos, I had this experience recorded on the back of my small damp map of Gangtok: I don't even know what the name of this restaurant is. I'm sitting here at this green clothed eight person table by myself drinking what shouldn't be a white beer but tastes like one wondering where I am. I'm stuck in Gangtok this evening because I stayed on the internet for too long and missed the last truck back. To be honest, I wasn't trying very hard to get back in time. I was able to call Lama Athul and now that I am staying at the Tibet Cyber Cafe for free all is well. Having just finished my dinner, I no longer care what the name of this place is. They serve the worst food I have ever tasted on any continent. I was able to eat the spring rolls - and yes, ordering chow mein in Sikkim may top the list of stupidest ideas, but it was on the menu and I have been craving greasy Chinese food for days. Anyway, lesson's learned, never ever, ever, ever order Chinese food in Sikkim. Seriously, I've never even made food that tastes this bad. I've never even watched Xiao eat something this bad, and if you knew what I have seen him eat for breakfast, that's really saying something. I'm actually seriously considering going to the bathroom and puking it up right now, maybe that would be safer. Amazing thing is, I didn't get sick. In fact, all in all I've done quite well so far. Of course, I haven't entered the real India yet. I haven't gone to the lowlands. I haven't been to Delhi or Calcutta. We'll see how I fare soon enough...