It was midnight, and I sat sullenly at the edge of a dysfunctional fountain outside my hotel in Pelling, Sikkim. I had arrived just that evening with two friends to see Mount Kanchenjunga before we headed to Gangtok, and further north. It was meant to be just for a day but a political party had just announced a three-day bandh across the state, making travelling around or out of this west Sikkim town impossible. The mountain’s silvery peak was the saving grace as Pelling seemed lacklustre, with squat hotels springing up at every bend.
A month before the trip, I had planned and shared with my friends an elaborate itinerary. It listed everything I thought we must see and do in Sikkim. That’s the kind of traveller I was in my early 20s, packing each day to the brim, leaving little to chance. A strike had no place in my plans. So when I realised we were going to miss our hike to the nearby town of Yuksom, and would not be able to see the thangkas at Gangtok’s Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, I was upset.
My friends were in better spirits. They suggested we walk around Pelling the next morning without map or agenda. It didn’t sound like a great idea to me, but I joined them anyway. A few kilometres into the walk, we realised that the weary stretch of hotels around us was in fact surrounded by deep woods. We set off hiking alongside gnarly trees on steep slopes, through stretches so silent that even the softest birdsong was magnified. Like the legendary magpie I collected strangely shaped, shiny rocks flecked with minerals, to use as paperweights.
We walked for over an hour, stumbling upon a 300-year-old monastery folded deep into the woods. Amid the stillness outside its prayer hall, I felt inspired to write my first travel journal, something I had never found the time for, with one eye always on the clock during my previous travels.
Grinning like children, that afternoon we sneaked into a tearoom run by a welcoming local who wasn’t actually supposed to be serving customers during the strike. Over glucose biscuits dipped in tea, he convinced us to visit Darap, a village eight kilometres away, where his friend ran a homestay.
Darap was everything Pelling will never be—free from billboards and the construction sites of upcoming hotels. Its one-storeyed homes had cosy, airy courtyards and balconies. It was here we met Indra, one of the entrepreneurs trying to develop Darap as an ecotourism destination. He said he was a mountaineer who missed home when he was away, but now pined to scale peaks when he pored over account books. His homestay, which he claimed “wasn’t much,” turned out to be a charming two-storeyed log house he had designed himself. I had positively perked up by then, basking in the intimacy I felt with the village and connecting with its people. Soon, we were playing peek-a-boo with his ruddy-cheeked nephew who looked baffled at the racket we made. I helped Indra’s mother as she cooked traditional Limboo fare of millet pancakes, phulaurah (buckwheat) fritters, and local greens. My rotis were shapeless but my joy was complete.
Over two days, with no lofty peaks calling and no bookings to confirm, we blended into Darap’s rhythm, enjoying a place not on our original itinerary, one that I hadn’t even heard of until the day before. Indra’s cousin took us around the village, to sweeping rice fields which were making way for lucrative cardamom crops. He pointed to a deorali (shrine) on a small hilltop, a pit stop for travellers and local traders travelling to nearby villages, and his secret hiding place. Later, on a night walk, my friend and I ended up at one end of the village, where the road petered out and a lush forest began. Slowly, our eyes adjusted to the inky night, and I saw a dozen fireflies flitting in and out of our conversation. There was nowhere else I wanted to be and for the first time on my travels, the present was enough.
When the strike ended, we went up north on schedule. But unlike in the past, I let myself linger in markets, eavesdrop on conversations, and have an extra bowl of instant noodles. Instead of asking the driver to go faster, I frequently asked him to stop the car just to be able to appreciate the Teesta River snaking unhindered through valleys, before dams alter this region forever. I picked wild flowers to press in my book or wear behind my ear. It was in Sikkim that I discovered a new side to the traveller in me: one who is happy to leave things to chance and every once in a while, revels in missed connections.
Appeared in the December 2015 issue as “Striking Gold”.
is Associate Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.
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