Sikkim happened to me quite abruptly. I am involved with work related to Sustainable Development Goals in India and my organization got a call from Sikkim if we want to contribute in the consultations/workshop processes to design a sustainable development agenda for Sikkim. And soon, in a gap of 3 days, my colleague, Tarang and I had to fly to Sikkim as my organization took this offer with delight.
When I started with saying Sikkim happened to me, I literally want to quote ‘Sikkim’ is a phenomenon and not merely a state, by the virtue of its boundary. Sikkim is a complete delight in terms of the love that you receive from strangers, anywhere, everywhere in Sikkim; the ‘pure and clean’ food (as Tarang says ‘food that purifies’) and specially in terms of interactions and engagements with different government officials, key stakeholders like education administrators, health professionals, farmer groups. This post is going to be a collection of multiple snippets that makes this trip inspire me to put up this post.
Before I go ahead, I may want to flag that I am no tourist. Travel for leisure is difficult and dull as it makes one centre around leisure, looking for something ‘different’ or a specialty of a place. What I have realized over my extensive work travel is that there is nothing as amazing as knowing the regular, usual spirit of a city, rather than finding meaning and fun in the specialty/ popular list of things. My way for finding the usual spirit is by conversation, small- deep, funny-serious, opinions-stories, just anything that strikes a chord between two people. While my life always revolved around people, of lately I am also trying to connect with nature and landscapes of the place. This is still a work-in-progress, but you may find some snippets of it below.
How I Met My Roommate?
This was my second visit to Sikkim. My hostel roommate in college was from Rumtek, a place 40 minutes away from Gangtok in Sikkim. I had no clue about her place and wasn’t expecting visit her in her own place this soon. Last time, it was May 2016, we stayed together for a couple of days extra post my office work and traveled around to Nathula and monasteries. It is 6 months past that and this time, we just wanted to talk and revisit the base of our life, in general. We met a couple of times, always finding ways to talk at a personal level where you connect the chords to talk beyond the small talks. What I realized is that life plays a really rapid game. As we were talking, we realised that this age is the time when we have to maintain a balance between high personal and professional insecurities that arise as well as the only time to experiment and challenge yourself with new adventure and at the same time keep yourself sane to not loose the base completely. We spoke after so long, but so much at length that we felt that we healed each other, slightly of our insecurities, of our fears.
This time, it was not just Suchana, but another colleague-turned-friend Rowena who I was waiting to meet in the new city. We worked at Development Alternatives, together for around an year and were office colleagues with some random conversations off and on during that time. She met me with such unexpected warmth and love that touched me. I am usually an asocial person and slightly lost. I miss most of the times to reciprocate. It was very unusual and nice to have someone around who was warm and doesn’t mind taking the first steps towards bonding with new people, at all. Such are the people, who really keep the world talking, conversing, moving. I missed a dinner date with her at her house this time but I am sure a lot is there to come in the coming times.
Changchung Sempa Sempa ChinPo!
A local cab we met at Gangtok, who we (we were three people – Tarang, Sudarshana and myself) hired to take to Hanuman Tok, it’s a temple, a religious place for Hindus and is located at a height and the side where you can see Kunchenzondga (3rd highest mountain in the world) Range of mountains with sharp clarity. Like any other time, I tried to build a conversation with him. When I asked his name, he says “Changchung Sempa Sempa Chinpo”. After a gap of around three minutes, he says, this is the name that he says to amaze people. The words are in Tibetan language, it means “A person with a big and clean heart”. His real name was Samten. Well, as the conversation grew over our journey to the Hanuman tok and back, I felt “Changchung Sempa Sempa Chinpo” suits him very well. He has left his house at the age of nine to become a monk, but with death of his elder brother, his father and kidney failure of one his sisters in quick succession, he had to come back without finishing his training after 11 years of schooling. He is now driving a car and does any work that he gets that brings some money to his family. But he has no regrets and he keeps smiling and says it with a deathly ease “If I share a sad story, you’ll be sad; if I share a happy one, you’ll be happy; how easy it is to bluff your heart!” He says he has no regrets in life but to keep doing good, love everyone and have faith in God with whatever he provides you. His simplicity, optimism and unconditional love for all does complete justice to his Tibetan bluff name. He is indeed a person with a big and clean heart.
Hanuman Tok that we had gone to visit, was very clean and quiet, unlike temples of north India. The hanuman’s image in the temple was very strange. It was complete red, unlike the ones you usually see in Delhi. A story, as shared by a stranger there tells that once Sita had put Sindoor (a pinch of red powder than married woman in India put in their hair as a mark of marriage) and hanuman asked the reason. Sita responded by saying that her putting Sandoor makes Ram happy. Hanuman wondered if a small pinch of Sindoor makes Ram happy, how much happy will Ram be with a body covered in Sindoor! Seeing this as an opportunity to make Ram happy, Hanuman painted himself with red Sindoor. The red image at this temple is in cognizance with this story.
Feel yourself comfortable at the Comfort Inn
It was a long (compared to my usual office trips) stay of 12 days, I was at Hotel Comfort Inn. It’s one of such hotels where you can see the manager and the staff once in a while, there were no guiding instructions to the services offered, and things were mostly communicated informally, in the midst of loud television at the reception. If you want your room to be cleaned, you need to inform the reception in the morning, as they don’t have a master key. So yes, quite unusual than a usual three or four star hotels that I’ve stayed during my office trips. The Hotel is at Tadong, a 2 minute walking distance to Mr PD Rai’s office, where our team was located for the 12 days and around 3 kms from MG Marg, the main socializing market place in Gangtok.
PEPE fed us like we are one family
Vegetarians do not start their journey of food in Sikkim with a bang. There is always this initial struggle to explore local food that is with no meat and egg. And when you are planning to stay at a place for 12 days, you just don’t need vegetarian options but also homely food. Ask a person who has stayed for 8 years out of home (fingers pointing myself), the luxury of basic bland, monotonous home food. That’s when we found PEPE, a small café, run by three people (now our friends) and a total of four tables for customers/ their friends/acquaintances to sit. The kitchen and the sitting place is divided by a wall that has a big window and a large door space without the window or door being fitted, so you can literally peep and see the entire kitchen. The menu at this place is basic, curry with potatoes offered with parantha, poori (versions of Indian breads) and choora. Alu Choora is a dish where fried flat rice is dipped in the potatoes curry and garnished with raw onions and coriander. Apart from this, there was Maggie, momos and fried rice. And the of course, Pepe also offered some tea and coffee.
There are three people who run this cafe: Ram Singh Daajoo, Suren and the Siliguri guy. Daajoo, in Nepali, means elder brother. It’s sad that I can’t recall name of the Siliguri guy, not sure if I ever asked though. Ram Dajoo is the owner. Siliguri guy and Suren works. Suren is a young guy, probably 25 years old, who stays with Ram Dajoo and work in his shop. Both of them stayed at the first floor of the café building. Every day, without fail, we saw Suren and Ram Dajoo starting to clean and chop vegetables and do other preparations for the day, from as early as 7 AM.
For 10 out of 12 days in Sikkim, we had our breakfast at Pepe’s and were usually their first customer in the morning. And perhaps many a times also their last. Being one of the few pure vegetarian joints and the only place with such homely food and people, we ended up there for lunch and dinner many a times. While Ram Dajoo will be busy in cleaning and decorating and feeding first meals to the stray dogs; Suren will be fast chopping vegetables; and we would be busy on our laptops, designing a workshop that we would have to conduct later in the day or a presentation for some consultation.
Ram Dajoo once in the night saw us standing outside our hotel while he had come down to feed a dog. He walked ahead towards us to say Hi. We shared our work that has got us here and he told stories about his family and people of Gangtok in general. While I was saying that people in Gangtok and Sikkim are very kind, he was pertinent that there are all kinds of people everywhere. I am sure we both had our own reasons. I mentioned to him about Van Jhaakhri falls, one of the places we had gone to visit near Gangtok. Van Jhaakhri falls have statues relating to some of the folktales and mythological stories of this area. It has a statue of a woman with a short nose and a baby in her arms. Also there were other statues of men, usually brown in skin color and long hairs dressed like forest dwellers, in circles. According to Ram Dajoo, Van Jhaakhri is one of the Male Gods of the Lepcha community. Ram Dajoo belongs to the same community too. Van Jhaakhri used to steal new born boys who have not had any impure food and used to keep the boy with their own selves, without letting their wives know. Van Jhaakhri used to teach tantric knowledge, mystical knowledge that can serve the community to get rid of ghostly spirits and diseases. If wife of Van Jhaakhri finds out about the boy, Van Jhaakhri used to kill the boy. Van Jhaakri through this practice is considered to do a huge service to the community by training kids to serve the community by fighting bad ghosts and diseases. Stories are there for you to know, enjoy and let yourself imagine times that you can never re-live.
Suren is a young guy, least talkative and very subtle in his expression. I couldn’t speak much to him, and that’s a regret. I felt I should have, he was a person who I thought is not usually talking a lot here with anyone. He may not need to talk but I feel it’s always good for people to have conversations, express, vent out and feel light. What better than to do it to complete stranger where judgments will not matter, vulnerability will not really be felt every day. Every time he used to come to serve me tea and I would say, “Don’t you feel cold? We all are wearing double layers of sweater but you are in your single light blue shirt with white stripes?” He would just shy away, once in a while saying that “I am working and running around, so don’t feel much cold.” I feel I would have really enjoyed exploring him more and I felt he would like it too. Perhaps next time. On my last day, as a regular ritual I was at the café at 7.30 for my morning cup of tea. Since there were already few people and I am not very expressive amongst new faces, I went upto the counter, told Dajoo and Suren that today is our last day and we’ll be leaving for Delhi in few hours, he acknowledged and asked whether I would come back, where am I going to go after here, where all have I travelled? An ofcourse exchanged a couple of more thoughts. I sat on the table, sipping my tea and made three placards for them. Here is a snap shot of it!
Thak Gaya Ali: Thakali
The saying of “early to bed and early to rise” is probably derived from Gangtok’s everyday routine. The streets get deserted by as early as 8. Most of the times, we had to travel to MG marg for dinner where there will still be some food places open till late (the work was never ending). We explored quite a few places there:
- The Coffee Shop – Local Pizza Hut is what it resembles most with. Delicious food and very soothing and soft ambience. I had some very good bruschetta there. The person serving us was Ashish, a very humble guy from Darjeeling. He was the first in Gangtok that made us conscious of what it means to be kind and gentle. We were quite shocked at his ever smiling and face bowed in humility.
- Parivar – It is one of the few North Indian named restaurants around, unsurprisingly with all migrant servers/owners, migrant customers. There was hardly a local face to be seen. I felt like we were bluffing ourselves from the local culture by shadowing around such a place. First time, turned to be the last time, a conscious choice.
- Bakers’ Café – We reached there at after 8 PM twice when they were wrapping up. Very gently, the guy said, we will be happy to serve you breakfast at 8 AM but night is difficult. I had visited this place during my last Sikkim visit, it is quite English in its ambience. Teak and glass furniture with quotations on philosophies of life and flags of various countries laid around the place. Through the glass window, you can see the outline of the mountain range, staring back at you. I made it a point that we go for breakfast there, for once. Wish accomplished, last day breakfast with our Sikkim SDGs team at Bakers’ Café, MG Marg.
- Hot lix – Quite a fancy place on the fourth floor of one of the buildings, we had mushroom chilly and cheese balls there. The place was quite decent but lacked any local flavor again so was cut from our list of next visits right after our first try.
Thakali deserves a special mention. We ate their FOUR times. Thakali in Nepali means thali in Hindi and Meal in English. A very young always smiling, jovial guy served us on Day 1. His Name was Aryan Lepcha, a first year graduation student. Because of his smiles and comforting vibes, we went there four times, consecutively for dinner. We thought we embarrassed him with long loving review writings on feedback form and many thank you(s) and kind words that we showered on him, sometimes quite out of place. We used to have Alu Sandheko, a dish of boiled potatoes and the meal that served with around 6 varieties of pickles. Food was decent but it was Aryan that was attracting us to the place. We realized that during our third visit when he didn’t turn up and we couldn’t enjoy the food at all. The fourth day was our last in Gangtok and we were hoping to see Aryan at Dinner. And yes we did. I asked him if we would like to meet us after dinner and he was quite happy to accept the offer. After our dinner, he walked out with us at 9, the time when his shift gets over. He said that he wants to struggle every day so that it is not difficult for him later when the struggle increases in life. He has lived his life in a hostel since class II, lost his mother at that time; father was a forest guard, now retired. He says that he has never touched any alcohol, tobacco or drugs and will never get involved in this. He doesn’t know what he wants to do but just want to keep struggling. He loves to play football, showed his picture when he was probably 7 years old when he won a trophy for the same. I could see that I’ve made a friend for life there, he asked if he can add us on facebook and we offered to share our numbers. While stories of struggle are everywhere, sometimes when you travel and keep yourself open to such stories is when you realize the beauty of bonding over the same.
Some of the other personal observations and things that I won’t forget include:
- Private Cab drivers even at 10 PM in the night, guiding us to the shared taxi stand so that we can get cheaper taxis (even after knowing that we are ‘tourist-kind’)
- One of the cab drivers telling us that “Sikkim may happy and hearty to you from the outside but people are struggling, there is a lot of toil and struggle to survive here”
- Another cab driver, Roopvaan, who laughed hysterically when I asked the meaning of his name. The joke finished but the laugh just continued over the 20 minute journey together on anything that he or I was saying. No reasons for the laugh, just unknown chords that connected.
- A 3 kms walk from MG Marg to our hotel that showed us the beauty and the comfort of having walkways around the city and the quickest mantra to health!
- Laal Bazaar, a common vegetable market. A lingering thought from one of the consultations we did made me picture Laal Market as the place where Siliguri farmers are selling cheap beautiful looking fertilizer based vegetables and farmers from Sikkim are selling ugly, small organic, expensive vegetables.
I feel there are no people, no place than cannot generate love and passion in humans if you emotionally connect to it. We were lucky to stay for a good 12 days to actually practice that in Gangtok.