Thursday, August 17, 2006

DARJEELING, INDIA: Arjun, Germina, Menuka. I don’t think I’ll easily forget these names. We’ve found our way to a town called Darjeeling, where the thick monsoon mist seems to hold magic in it. Perched in the mountains at a height of 2200m, I’ve felt humbled by this place – not by the Himalayas proudly towering in the horizon – but by the purity, generosity and openness of heart of the KSG grad we’re profiling, Noreen Dunne, the “hill people” as she calls them, and her NGO Hayden Hall.

The trip here was a long one: a two-hour flight from Delhi followed by a four-hour steep car ride. The sticky hot air – even worse in Bagdogra, where we flew into, than in Delhi – quickly gave way to a cool mountain breeze as the temperature dropped a good 8-10˚C and our car laboured up the decrepit and landslide-prone road.

Darjeeling feels very post-colonial British. I can vividly imagine the Victorians sipping afternoon tea at the Windermere or Elgin hotels (the oldest and poshest here), inhaling the clean air (the town was a British sanatorium, as well as exotic holiday destination) and once at home exclaiming to their fellow socialites, you must visit Darjeeling, you simply must... The British legacy is in some ways here still even as India celebrates its Independence Day on August 15th. Union jacks adorn many of the taxi-jeeps, British-introduced tea plantations dominate the hills and British-style uniform-clad girls and boys rush to a St. Michael’s or St. Joseph’s school.

First impressions taken in along with a cup of tea, as soon as dawn breaks in “Darj” we head to Hayden Hall with our host. Hayden Hall, where Noreen is the deputy director, is an NGO that addresses issues affecting women and children, aiming to improve their quality of life. Among other things, it provides paramedic training for female villagers, health care facilities, housing, daycare for children so their mothers can work, schooling, weaving training and a shop to sell the handcrafted goods at.

The short walk over takes longer than planned; Noreen seems to be the most popular person in town. This, she tells us, is due to her being a teacher for over 35 years. Her students are everywhere: at the tourist information office, our hotel, the police and local government.

The first woman we meet at Hayden Hall is Kabita. She is weaving a colourful carpet that will take her three months to finish and will sell for 4000 rupees (just under $100) at the shop. Our next stop, of which there are many in the five days we spend at Hayden Hall, is the classroom. Nine-year-old Arjun sings us a Hindi pop song (though his features are Mongolian – same for most people here at Darjeeling who speak Nepali as their mother tongue - Hindi is learned at school and is the language of commerce), while his classmates crowd around Scott’s camera. Scott has made an incredible discovery that has lit up all their small faces: point the camera at the children and flip the digital LCD screen towards them and they are drawn to you like bees to honey, chuckling and clapping their little hands at their image. Next, the paramedic trainee women let us sit in one of their classes and film them learning about micro finance so they can be savvy when purchasing medical drugs. Their smiles, like those of the children, are genuine - there are definitely no fake niceties here.

In the past few days we’ve consistently come across clear smiling eyes that warm your heart, stark colours and joy-filled “namaste”s. All this from children with white stains on their cheeks due to malnutrition, children and their caretakers at Hayden Hall’s sick ward, women picking tea leaves for ten rupees a kilo (less than 25c) and 250 village school kids and their teachers that welcomed us with songs and laughter - though they have to walk 4-6 hours daily to get to school. The “hill people” are truly remarkable in their strength.

And of course, Noreen. Motionless words on a page could never quite capture her energy, enthusiasm and love for her people, which she has so generously shared with us.

We’re back battling with road potholes down to Bagdogra and on to Delhi tomorrow, before we head on to Vietnam. We’ll be up at 3am to film the sunrise for a second time – maybe this time we’ll be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Everest if it’s a clearer day. But even if the clouds roll over and obscure that perfect shot of the Himalayan mountain range once more, I won’t mind too much. Even without seeing Everest, I’m feeling very lucky already.




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