Tea in Sikkim

 



Tim Laramore – June 2006


After a month of exploring the Himalayan province of Sikkim, India, trekking in the mountains and searching for rivers suitable for whitewater kayaking, I didn’t feel inspired to write the sort of expedition travel article that I had anticipated at the outset of the journey. As I flipped through the pages of my journal after so many hours on sleeper trains and jarring jeep rides, so many uphill hikes with the weight of a kayak on my shoulder, and so many dubious meals and lurking intestinal demons, I didn’t see the makings of an article. Instead, I heard country songs. A whole album of them. And while I have no musical talent whatsoever, my experience in India was so bizarre that it can really only be told in a medium as ridiculous as country music.

Sikkim, India, is a land of water. The towering Himalaya Mountains are carved by a thousand crevices, each with its own gradient and character. For several years, Tim Williams traveled to Sikkim with students to trek around the base of Kanchenjunga, one of the world’s highest mountains. After each trip, he would return with vivid accounts of the rivers that he would glimpse from a mountain pass or a suspension bridge.

Tim once showed me a picture of a perfect, two-tiered drop. He told me that he had to zoom in on the picture to make the drop visible, and he estimated that the waterfall was at least thirty feet. “I can check plane tickets,” he said. “And Kelsang can find us a driver.” He had made a few key friends, and he’d been investigating the possibility of shipping kayaks to India. Now all he had to do was convince a few boating buddies to buy plane tickets to New Delhi.

There was not a traveler in the crew that had not gone on board for one of Tim’s international ventures before. My brother, Peter, and I had gone on a 1998 Baylor trip to Chile, where we paddled through a dreamland of blue waves and gigantic mountains. Peter followed that up with alumni trips to Costa Rica and Ecuador.  Bett Adams and Ben Aiken went to Costa Rica, and both signed on for a second round afterward.

India, however, was different. Different language. Different continent. Different hemisphere. Tim could offer us no guarantees. Just like us, he would be paddling the rivers for the first time. He had made some very good friends in Sikkim, and he had figured out how to ship the boats through the labyrinthine Indian bureaucracy, but once we were on the ground, all bets were off. 

“It will be monsoon season, so we’re bound to have water,” he assured us. “And if we get skunked, we can always visit a monastery.”


As I sat in a thicket of brush beside a roiling brown creek, waiting for my kayak to be lowered down to me after another perilous portage, I had to ask myself, “Where’s the monastery now?”

The monsoon season turned out to be a pernicious complication to all of our careful plans. Sensing the perfect water level and the first sunny day in a week, we had decided to hike down into a steep gorge and paddle a creek that, according to our driver, was probably a reasonable six kilometers. Our hike down was brutal. By the time we reached the river, we were hungry and exhausted, and we had not even begun to boat. Looking downstream, we could not see the end of the first rapid, and the banks were sheer walls of thick vegetation.

We got in our boats and tried to run a few drops. That was scary. We got out of our boats and tried to walk around a few drops. That was brutal. Spiny trees, stinging nettles, horseflies and mosquitoes were the perils of the bank, while the creek offered us only a twisting, boulder-choked current that tumbled downward with no end in sight. When the monsoon showed up and the creek turned into a river, we began to look upward to the steep mountainside to pick out which line in the maze of high terraced farms might be the road.


Our first few rivers in India were far more hospitable. Crowds gathered to watch us from the road. Old men touched the strange fabrics that we wore, and women put their children in our kayaks as we prepared to put in the river. Children played in the eddies we passed, and on more than one occasion, I paddled into a rapid feeling a strange weight on my boat, only to turn around and see a child, wide-eyed and half-naked, crouched on the stern with a white-knuckle grip on my grab loop.

The rapids themselves were much like any we would find on Walden’s Ridge. While rocks may be different from one mountain range to the next, water flows the same, and once we completed one successful descent, we felt we were poised for the next.

It is a curious illusion, and one that we will never forget: nothing looks steep from a road perched a thousand feet above the river.


Hiking out of a gorge is never a good option. Neoprene shirts and rubber neck gaskets are better suited for the river than the trail, and there is no way to carry a kayak without losing some circulation to the brain. When we came upon a rickety bamboo bridge, we decided that a vague trail was better than no trail. We started upward.

I was walking past a goat shack in a cloud of horseflies when I heard a magic word.

“Tea?”

I dropped my boat and saw a man studying me with a bewildered look. A thousand questions were running through his mind, but he only said, “Tea?”

In a matter of minutes, we were all sitting in a small room, drinking warm milk tea and explaining our plight to our gracious host. It was a surreal moment: us in our wet river clothes, him resting comfortably below a window that looked out over the gorge we’d just escaped. The room was tiny, and the house was modest, but on the man’s bookshelf sat a treasure trove. The complete works of Mahatma Gandhi covered one wall. On another shelf I saw titles like The Future of Capitalism, Existentialism in Dostoyevski, Stalin’s Russia and Nehru and Social Economics. As it turned out, we had happened upon the enclave of a quiet genius.

“What do you do?” one of us asked.

“I work at a college. I teach philosophy,” he said. “And you?”

We all went around, trying to name the occupation that we’d quit to come on the trip. When Tim’s turn came, he set down his teacup. “I teach philosophy,” he said.


After tea, we walked up to the road. I sat in the rain, bewildered and grateful, and tried to come up with something that rhymed with Gandhi for the first verse of another country classic.