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Sunrise over the Wheat Field

This is an ever-changing page of Robin’s works-in-progress,
as well as excerpts from her books.

Excerpt from BUTCH AND SUNDANCE DO INDIA

 

In the Hill Country -- Darjeeling

 

     The putative reason for this trip was to see where Dad went during the war so I

could faithfully recreate the environment in my book about the family in World War II.

But sometimes Bo and I got to having so much fun that we forgot about the mission.

The hallowed Ledo Road was yet to come, and in the interim, the two days we

spent in Darjeeling proved to be pure entertainment.

     Darjeeling was on the itinerary because Dad often spoke of his training in

Darjeeling at the British jungle warfare school. Darjeeling, as we learned when we

got there, is a state as well as a city. It was one of those basic factoids that I might

have known had I had the services of Dean King’s research assistant. No wonder

I had trouble finding the training camp. My own pre-trip research seemed to place

the facility in the foothills east and south of the city, a location I could never pinpoint. 

      We did pass many remnants of military outposts on the flat land before climbing

six thousand feet to the city and wondered if Dad had been there. Dad’s training

culminated in a three-day survival hike during which he ate wild bananas, slept

near a herd of elephants and twice saw tigers cross his path—activities we did not

experience on top of the mountain. Still, it was a valuable stop on the itinerary

because Darjeeling is one of the old British hill stations. Dad had stayed at the hill

station at Masoori. Staying at Darjeeling would give me a sense of what that was like.

      Darjeeling is a city of more than 100,000 people hanging from the heights of the Himalayan foothills with no connection to the rest of India except a narrow road with scores of switchbacks. The city did not start low and spread gradually up the mountainside. Darjeeling and other settlements along India’s northern border—“hill stations”—were built from the top down as a refuge from the oppressive summer heat in the flatland. But there is no plateau or tableland for settlement. Up in the clouds at six or seven thousand feet, the buildings seem to cling to the steep hillsides by their fingernails. If you tripped and fell, there would be nothing but a few tea bushes and rhododendron to break your fall for six thousand feet.

Obviously the residents are acclimated to the terrain. We saw a soccer field cut into the side of the mountain. Remarkably, there was no fence or netting on the downhill side. There’s a strong incentive for kids to learn ball control early. 

      According to Ashook, our driver, Darjeeling means “Queen of the Hills.” But it is not a pretty city or, except in small spots, charming in its decline. It is dirty, like everything in India. The buildings are crowded together, clutching each other to keep from sliding down the slope, leaning this way and that. The ubiquitous billboards and signs advertising cell service add garish color, and over all, telephone and electric wires loop and hang like a widow’s lacy shawl that has slipped off her shoulder and threatens to drag the ground.

      “Twenty years ago Darjeeling was beautiful—rich and clean,” Ashook told us. “Now too many buildings and pollution. Beautiful view now but everywhere you look there is a building. They are kicking their own stomach. If the tourist wasn’t come in Darjeeling, we would die.”

      As we looked around, we couldn’t help but agree, especially since the cloud cover ensured that we didn’t even have the compensation of the (apparently) stunning view of the Himalayas.

      Jeesh, all Bolivia can’t look like this.

How do you know?  This might be the garden spot of the country. People may travel hundreds of miles just to get to this spot where we are standing now.

 

      As with Agra, getting there was half the thrill. The flight from Delhi to Siliguri was blessedly uneventful—probably the only time we could say that during the entire trip. Ashook met us at the airport for the three- or four-hour drive up the mountain. Despite being only 43 miles, the drive was so arduous that we paid him to stay on the mountain until our departure two days hence.

      Fortunately, Arif had broken us in to the basics of Indian driving the day before. We had more of the same travel excitement, only this time we had the additional thrill of climbing six thousand feet on a rutted, 1 ½-lane packed gravel road with two-way traffic. And this route, we learned, was an improvement over taking the Cart Road.

    

      The drive was slow but stimulating. There were scores of switchbacks requiring regular horn toots. Once again it was necessary to know the exact contours of one’s car. We had the thrill of seeing, many times, the gap between a down-bound lorry and a pedestrian (often a small child in a uniform) narrow and close as we barreled toward them. Usually, the child casually stepped up onto the ten-inch wide concrete curb that separated the road from the abyss as the vehicles honked and zoomed past.

    

      On one occasion we faced a head-on collision as two vehicles rolled down the mountain towards us side by side. By then we were veterans who could laugh in the face of such danger. I was high on three tabs of Bonine, in any case.

Excerpt from “Butch & Sundance Do India

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