Thursday, February 23, 2012

Our visit to Darjeeling

Only the newest buds like this one are picked for tea.
When I was a teenager, there was always a tin of Darjeeling tea in the cupboard, and my friend Sandi and I drank gallons of it, lounging on the couch at my place or hers, listening to Joni Mitchell and contemplating life. Then it was just a tin of loose tealeaves we poured steaming hot water over. I don’t think I could have anticipated then, that I would be spending the better part of a week exploring the town and the area where those tea leaves were (and still are) picked by hand at just the right moment, dried, fermented, graded and prepared to be finally packaged for our enjoyment.

The town of Darjeeling is built on the side of a mountain and has the appearance of terraced fields when you first look at it, spreading further and further down the mountain. But instead of colourful crops, you see brightly painted buildings and prayer flags wherever you look. Long steep staircases connect different parts of town with small roads weaving their way between staircases. These streets are filled with bustling markets and food stands, which are the lifeblood of this ever-expanding town. The tourist area is much quieter, lined with budget hotels, teashops and bakeries where you can sample any number of graded Darjeeling teas, black, white or green.

In close proximity to the town, there are a number of very interesting Buddhist Monasteries to visit, one of India’s noteworthy Zoo’s, a mountaineering school, a botanical garden and I am sure many other noteworthy attractions that have not yet made it into the guidebooks. After a visit to the zoo, we spent an afternoon just wandering the streets to the outskirts of town, where we found many local young couples taking scenic walks. On another day we hired a taxi and driver to take us to the Monasteries.


In between sightseeing we gorged ourselves on the amazingly good street food, freshly prepared in front of our eyes. There were momos (steamed dumplings), fried noodles, rolls (something between a chapatti and a pita cooked on a skillet and filled with various delicious fillings), deep fried pastries filled with vegetables or chicken, French fries, and even a Nepali/Indian version of a hot dog. And of course we sampled Darjeeling tea, black and green, which hit the spot on the misty and cold early mornings and late afternoons of our three-day visit.

street food in Darjeeling yum!

After three really enjoyable days in Darjeeling we made our way to Karmi Farms where Andrew, our host met us with a handshake and a warm smile. Andrew, of half Scottish and half Indian heritage grew up on a tea plantation his father managed just up the hill from the house he and his mother now live in which has been converted into a homestay ( This visit proved to be one of the highlights of our trip.

View from Karmi Farm

This is the veranda and the view if you are sitting on it!

Karmi Farms is a six hour trek from Darjeeling (5,000 feet downhill and then 3,000 feet up). Marc and I decided to take the easy option and jump into a jeep, but many of our group decided to do at least part of the trek. We met at the bottom for a wonderful packed lunch (provided by Andrew) and four of our group carried on up the hill on foot. We arrived about an hour before them by jeep and had a chance to sit on the veranda, meet Andrew’s mom, sip on freshly brewed Darjeeling tea and enjoy the fantastic view. As soon as everyone arrived we were shown to our rooms.

The main house.

The next three days were magical.

I am not sure where to begin. Shall I start with the fact that Andrew’s family have been caring for the medical welfare of all of the villagers within walking distance since they have lived here and have now opened a real clinic in a new building on their land — or with the fact that he is in the midst of orchestrating the building of a new house for a 21 year old girl who lives three hours by foot away from his farm, crippled in a bridge accident two months ago — or that he got us invited to a local wedding during our visit, where we witnessed the traditions of the local people — or that he and his mom have taken in three boys whose parents can’t afford to feed them and is sending one of them off to school for higher education — or that we were fed the most amazing food imaginable, prepared by Andrew, his mom and their cook and kitchen staff?


We felt like we were in the middle of a really good movie that makes you laugh and makes you cry and you never forget. It was an unforgettable experience from so many perspectives. Andrew made a choice to move himself back to this place and to give up all of the conveniences of the West to be a part of this life in the jungle dotted with tea plantations (or tea gardens as he calls them). The large comfortable house and adjoining dormitories and suites (room for 20 people max) is beautifully appointed but rustic to be sure. The cooking in the large kitchen is accomplished using a wood burning stove and oven. It is winter here and there is no heating except for the two fireplaces in the sitting rooms at the front of the house. All laundry is done by hand and hung out to dry on the line. Every plank of wood used to build the house has been hand cut and carried here. The nearest hospital is at least four hours by jeep on rough road.

I think you get the picture. This life is hard and he and his family are nothing short of amazing.

We walked about an hour through the bush to the wedding. About half way there, we could hear the music and smell the food cooking. This wedding was between a Hindu woman and a Christian man. A love marriage, rather than an arranged one — and a first for Andrew as well. He was as curious as we were as to how it would all come together.

When we arrived we were welcomed by family and ushered to a seated area where we were given tea to drink and cookies and other treats to eat. There were two other tents set up for food — veg (vegetarian) for the Hindu side of the family and non-veg for everyone else. After much pomp and circumstance the bride and the groom appeared and were seated in a special area set up for them to receive gifts and congratulations from the greater community. With each gift, there was the ceremonial placing of a prayer shawl on the bride and groom, bows and placement of the gifts in a safe place in exchange for a small gift from the bride and groom to the community member. We had no idea what was in the small box, but we hoped it was wedding cake!

Behind all of the tents, a goat was being cleaned and dressed for cooking. The younger members of the community were washing dishes and the young married women were chopping vegetables. Most of the young men were serving food in the two tents. There was an ongoing procession of people arriving, having tea, eating a meal and congratulating the bride and groom. We left mid afternoon, but the music could be heard from Karmi Farms well into the wee hours of the morning! What an experience!

Andrew was explaining to us where the new house would be built.

There were heartbreaking moments as well as we visited the young woman that was crippled by a bridge accident. Andrew has great plans for her though, and hopes to improve her ability to be more independent with the construction of a small house that will be wheelchair accessible.
the final momos!

On our last night, the kitchen staff taught us all how to make momos. Not an easy task and we made quite a mess of it, but luckily they tasted the same no matter how they looked. After dinner, the young boys living with the family performed a series of dances for us, which ended with all of us up on the dance floor attempting a Napali folk dance. It was a great way to spend our last night in this incredible place.

As with our arrival to Karmi farms, there was an option to leave by foot to the Sikkim border — a trek of about three hours. This time we joined the group for an amazingly pleasant walk through villages and tea gardens, which would take us to the Sikkim border and our awaiting jeeps.

Andrew and his mother and aunt with the young boys and the cook and his helper as well as the tall young man on the right who took us on walks.

The whole extended family posed for a group photo before we left the farm. And then Andrew and his mom bid us each farewell. We were all amazed at how attached to them we all felt after such a short stay. This place and these people made a very big impression on all of us, and our visit to Karmi Farms ranks as one of the greatest highlights of this trip.


  1. Sounds amazing! Geez - you have less than a week left. I feel sad and I'm not even on the trip with you!

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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