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Sikkim: The Road Less Graveled
chillibreeze writer — Shubha
I suffer from low back pain, sciatica and a host of annoyances. But I think ‘vacation’ and I am almost cured. Pills and orthopedic belts are not enough; the roads in Sikkim literally unravel as you travel. What I really need is a heart and mind as open as Sikkim’s landscape. The Himalayas take my breath away – and simultaneously, the air out of our tires! As travel begins with a flat tire, our vehicle veers off the precarious edge of a highway on the hills. We had forgotten to ask the friendly driver with the disarming smile when we hired him along with his jaunty Jeep, if he had tools in the boot. He smiles no, he doesn’t.
But it matters not, for just then, an Indian army truck comes along to offer us their reassuring company – along with fresh, hot tea and biscuits. But our driver has another problem. The car won’t start; he needs a specific wire. So he flags down the next passing tourist vehicle like ours, but packed to the inch with Bengali tourists. Their driver gleefully leaps out to help. It takes them over an hour to fix it, their heads huddled under the hood.
And no one is grumbling. Not the army, not the jam-packed holidaying Bengalis waiting patiently. Not even me. Because I am incredulous with wonder at how cheerful everybody is, how timeless the day seems.
Down the road, we spot the now-familiar colors of the Buddhist monks – maroon and orange, exactly like the marigolds they’ve planted in one of their Gompa residences.
They are trudging several miles uphill to their monastery, so we offer them a ride up. They break into smiles and climb in. Although the monastery is closed when we arrive, they open it up for us, so I can take pictures of the exquisite art on the walls. Their smiles never leave their faces, nor mine.
Then it begins to rain. In the downpour, we spot a lady in a sarong under an umbrella, waving, so we beg the driver to stop. She’s a school principal who takes public transport several hours a day from her home in Gangtok to her school miles uphill, to do what she loves. She is articulate, speaks excellent English, Chinese and Bengali – and even informs us that one of south India’s less-known, but famous stars of yesteryear has passed away that morning.
And I marvel that life here is hardly as remote as I had imagined.
Further down the bumpy road, a frantic man is trying to stop us, claiming his car has broken down. Our driver betrays his prejudice, warning us that the man is from an untrustworthy caste!
The man almost forces himself into the car. Then insists on taking us off the road to another destination – claiming to show us a local legend and a sight – where Sikkim’s reigning deity Padmasambhava is believed to have thrown rice on a rock and made paddy grow on it. I am curious; I recall my Lonely Planet guide did mention it somewhere.
He shows us the shrine, and I say a prayer. For the simple, joyful realization that the trust that I thought I had lost in my daily grind, is being rekindled. Finally, what charms me utterly are two school kids with their bags, hitching a ride. I am glad that we are a bunch of women in the Jeep, because they trust us enough to ride with us.
They clamber aboard and I joke that they must pay us with a song. Will they sing us a Sikkimese song, something they learned in school? At first they cannot stop giggling!
When they finally start a song together, their lilting voices fill the car with a haunting melody in a strange tongue and I feel truly rewarded. And connected.
I sense a deep-down happiness that such simple pleasures still come with the territory of travel. And is also the truest kind of Sikkim experience.
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Chillibreeze's disclaimer: This is a contributed article and was published on Chillibreeze in December, 2009. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views of Chillibreeze as a company. Chillibreeze has a strict anti-plagiarism policy. Please contact us to report any copyright issues related to this article. The relevance of the facts and figures cited (if any) could change after a period of time.
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