Windsong
Summer Issue May 2010

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We're blooming all over, but missing you...

On behalf of the Windamere Hotel, Darjeeling, India

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Well, here I am again – slightly "browned" from passing through a 44+ Celsius over cooked Delhi, but here nevertheless!  I must apologise for being rather late with this newsletter, but a nasty fall got in the way and sprained my right wrist – hence, no writing of this "long sought after" missive.  However, I digress from the main news, so here goes...

We had  a simply wonderful Christmas and New Year – in fact, we were turning away last minute guests on Christmas Eve as we were well and truly bursting at the seams.  We did manage to invite them in for Christmas Day dinner, so it wasn't so bad after all.  The weather was fine; that gentleman from the more northerly spheres managed to find us again and we all sat down for turkey, goose, trout and many other scrumptious goodies later on in the day.  We were graced by the presence of a young lady called 'Andromeda' (her real name, I assure you), who arrived from Los Angeles a week before Christmas Day.  She was a Grammy Award listed performer (for her wonderful c.d.); she is also (by the way) a wonderful dancer and overall comedienne, who entertained us royally with her many characters who sang and danced their way through her fabulous shows.  Andromeda was a great hit, and as well, a lovely person.  She was born and raised in New York to a 'Saturday Night Live' trombone playing father (who also teaches at the world famous 'Julliard School of Music' – Jazz Ensemble, I believe) and a professional piano playing mother.  You can only imagine with those genes, how talented a person she was (and is)! Our Bearparks' Parlour was packed out most nights (with guests coming early to get a seat).  Her partner in crime was Justis Kao – also from Los Angeles, but originating from Canada.  He was also an award winning composer/pianist. As always, our faithful Mingma, was busy serving all kinds of drinks (even pink gins!) and we all have a good time.  Our local nuns were treated to their annual Christmas Afternoon Tea, where they scoffed finger sandwiches, Victoria Sponge Cake (dripping with real cream and raspberry jam), crunchy currant scones with jam and cream and melt in the mouth shortbread biscuits. Tea was the only beverage served, which they sipped on as our entertainers performed what was their dress rehearsal to a very appreciative "spiritual crowd" They simply loved being entertained...

New Year found us not wanting in the dance department.  Again, we hired the local military band from Jalapahar, who played Punjabi, Bengali, Nepali, Hindi and Western dance numbers, with such a furious ferocity that it would put many western bands to shame.  You would be amazed just who got up on to the floor, flinging their arms around and imagining that they were in a Bollywood movie! What amazed me was the absolutely wonderful mix of people – who cheek by jowl, danced the night away. Utterly wonderful! It's the natural things of life that really get to us, isn't it? 

New Year's Eve 2009:  photographs by courtesy of Stuart Clyne (guest and professional photographer)

In March and April, we were practically sold out again with private guests and wonderful groups from all over the world.  They mostly commented on the fact that they felt they were in a private home for a few days.........personally, I have always said this, so it made me feel really good that they felt they had "come home".  The British Airways strike kept some people away for a few days and just when we had recovered from this, that volcano in Iceland decided to do a "nasty" and spewed lava all over the place.  Well, we all know the rest?  Either we didn't receive certain guests, or others just poured in, thinking that that they might as well come up the mountains for a few days as:  1) it was too hot on the plains in what was an exceptionally hot Spring (some 40+ Celsius) and cooler up at our end of the world, and  2) we found that we had room for others who decided not to even bother going down the mountains and just decided to stay with us (or just extend their existing stay).  We had a lovely couple from South Africa, who made up their minds that sitting on our terrace most of the day with their cups of tea, wonderful books and sunglasses, was "just the ticket".  They declared that this had been one of their more enjoyable holidays!  The 'Oxford Book Store' must have declared them to be their favourite customers! Oh, before I forget, we now have lovely green umbrellas on our terrace, so for those of you who go pink very fast, we have the answer. It can be deceptively hot up here – even in winter time.  You are on top of the world, you know...

For those of you who loved our bar, but sat down rather gingerly on the old chairs, you will be very glad. to hear that we have re-sprung the latter and taken the opportunity to re-cover them with 'Regency Stripe' (in the bar) and a sort of "tapestry look" in the card table/conversation end of the bar room (those seats with questionable spring power have also be overhauled).  We simply cannot have you sitting down so low, with ne'er a hope of getting up again!  Oh, while I am talking about our place, we have also put some new "cabbage rose styled" covers on the old furniture in 'Daisy's Music Room'.  Guests seemed to like the changes and declared the chairs to be "very sittable on".  Well, they stayed there for ages with their gins and tonic, so something must have been working well.  The conversations were as rich, colourful and insightful as ever.


Our wonderful dancers from our show 'Songs & Dances of the Hills' are still with us and danced and played their music to a packed 'Garden Enclosed' (and on one particularly wild and woolly night, they adapted to an inside smaller area in our 'Observatory House Conference Centre' to a "just arrived" group of 20+ people from Italy, which had been delayed by road works............ in fact, this is really a good thing (the road works, I mean) as I can thankfully inform you that at long last, the roads are being mended.  "Thank goodness" I think I heard someone say (Amen to that! It does help to keep ones breakfast down, doesn't it?)

Joan Gibb from Canada wanted to write to us:

"It was a wonderful visit to the Darjeeling of legend in its new context of a bustling city filled with people from around the world whether tourist or resident.  Some vestiges of the Raj are still evident in the buildings and names of businesses along the incredibly serpentine streets, chock-a-block full of everything you can imagine and in splendid technical colour.  The stay at the Windamere Hotel was an exquisite experience.  From the afternoon tea in the Drawing Room; maid in apron and cap; candlelit dinners served by white gloved – very handsome – local men, to all the staff who were attentive and tolerant of guest's requests.  Someone in the kitchen has a fine hand with desserts.  It was a step back in time on the surface, but with all the mod cons, including a Business Centre (actually called 'The Writing Room')

A special treat was the visit to the 'Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park', with its captive breeding program which concentrates mainly on animals of the eastern Himalayan region.  To see a clouded leopard up close is magical.  In fact seeing all the "cats" from the large Siberian tigers to the small leopard cat is a treasured memory.

 Unfortunately, the mist did not clear during my stay, but I knew the mountains were there (I bought the post cards) and perhaps a subsequent visit will have the skies clear and the famous scene in full view.  Thank you for adding Windamere to my 'memorable file' of life's events.

Tibetan Wolf, a highly endangered high mountain species,
so wise, so elegant and my most favourite animal
Red Panda, a cute and cuddly 'Ailurus fulgens' (fire coloured cat) which has been successfully released back to the wild
Tea Chests, Darjeeling's raison d'etre


I've invited some ladies in to sample your tea.  Scones, etc, I can do, but the lovely wait staff will be missing.

(Thanks Joan – marvellous!)

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Carole Pither from France wanted to write to us:

Dear WindSong:

This will probably arrive too late to be included. I'm sorry, but workload was competing for my attention (she didn't know about my dicey wrist at the time!)

I was glad to get your letter as it resolved one of the great unanswered questions during my stays with you. I never knew why there were two hot water bottles - I just naïvely assumed that because there were two beds in the room, there was a bottle for each, and because I was on my own, I got both. Now I know....
I believe there may be a certain reluctance to communicate the magic of the Windamere, as those who have been there feel they belong to a privileged elite of travellers and do not wish things to change. It is a refuge from the rest of the world. Of course, things must change, and the subtle improvements to the plumbing and communications have not gone unnoticed (Carole's previous stay was some years ago).

I am sending a couple of pictures taken during my most recent stay. The one of Kanchenjunga at dawn was taken during a memorable moment I spent with Elizabeth (Windamere director), when we had to take the greatest care not to break the beautiful china cups and saucers that we had been provided with (in a paper bag!) for our early morning tea. No plastic beakers for the Windamere guests!

Vicki (our hotel driver) looks a bit serious, but then he takes his job very seriously. I wish I could have made him smile, but three days negotiating Sikkimese roads had made the car very dirty, and he didn't like that!
As for the others, I suppose you have lots like them but they remind me of looking out over the valley and dreaming. Then looking back at the hotel and contemplating how it achieved such a magical status. It must be the people....

With all my fond memories and kind regards
Carole

(Beautifully put – thanks Carol.)


Then lo and behold, Carole Pither (who, by the way, is a well known writer and broadcaster from France) squeezed in some more precious time and wrote the following (hastily sent from her BlackBerry).  We are truly blessed.  Here it is in its entirety.

"All you need is a comfortable pair of shoes and a couple of hours to spare. No guide book, no map and no money, except for a few rupees to give to the more pathetic beggars (or the most persistent, depending on your outlook). The idea is to head off somewhere and just enjoy being there. That's what the Indian tourists do, and it's sometimes worthwhile chatting to those who speak a bit of English. They will give you a different perspective of Darjeeling.

You could start by going through the back gate from the hotel, and down to the Mall. Turn left and walk all the way along to the viewpoint: this is where the sign asks you not to spit and litter. As if it ever crossed your mind. Stop for a while, weather permitting, to look over the lines of hills to snow-capped Kanchenjunga. Down among those valleys are tea plantations, monasteries, rivers, villages, farms, roads, forests, animals, people. In the evening, smoke rises from the nearest hillside and tiny lights twinkle, mingling with the stars. Whole lives are spent between two hillsides and those who live them travel by foot at the same speed as you. Slow down. Forget the rest of India, or even the rest of the world. Here in Darjeeling you can take your time, admire the lifestyle of those who live in the little houses you pass by. Everything is small scale, often ingenious and generally functional. Take the holes in the road, for instance. Not that they are particularly small or functional, but the men who repair them do so with a bucket and spade, using tar that has been heated in an oil drum over a wood fire. It takes many more men to mend a hole than it would in Europe, but then, India has a huge workforce and a huge number of holes in the roads.

When you get to the crossroads, you can either turn right, down to the zoo, or left, back into town. There is a little road sign that says it takes 30 minutes to walk to the zoo. It doesn't, not unless you are with very old ladies who walk extremely slowly. The zoo is a great place to visit – I could write pages about trying to get decent pictures of the red pandas or the baby Langur monkeys; listening to the tigers roaring or wondering why the visitors kept trying to throw biscuits at one of the bears in spite of the notice forbidding such behaviour. Do stop at the kiosk by the gate and pick up the little guide books to Darjeeling trees and birds, they are most useful. If you have time after the zoo, (it took me two visits), the Mountaineering Institute is another interesting place to look around. Having said this, I shall have to revise my first sentence, as there is an entrance fee for both the zoo and the Mountaineering Institute, and while you are buying the guide books, they also sell beautiful toy red pandas so maybe it is a good idea to take a few hundred rupees.

Several things struck me about the Mountaineering Institute. I never realised how many attempts there had been to climb Everest before the summit was finally conquered. Relating to my reflections about the lines of hills between the Mall and Kanchenjunga, there is a relief model of the Himalayas on the ground floor and if you look at it for a while you realise just how incredibly lumpy this part of the world is, and why it is so difficult to get around. Contemplating the fragility of the human body when confronted with the natural forces in power on Mount Everest, I wandered up to the statue of Tenzing Norgay and shared a laugh with a couple of women whose husband/uncle wanted them to climb onto the base of the statue so that he could photograph them. Hampered by their saris and because they were both laughing so much, they only achieved their ascent on the third attempt, while their male companion made comments sotto voce to the effect that Tenzing had actually climbed Everest and they couldn't even reach the boots of his statue…

Walking back to the Windamere, there are other choices to be made, according to the time of day. On a chilly afternoon in January, I daresay most visitors would choose afternoon tea at the hotel, but it may well be a warm morning in July. Heading down, into town, 'Chowk Bazar' makes for an intriguing visit. This is not the 'Big Bazar' department store – an adventure in itself, especially the kitchen department – but the real market where you can buy everything from betel nuts to special cornflakes for diabetes and constipation, pink pasta and yak's cheese. This is where you can smell India: coriander, dried fish, hot cooking oil and an occasional whiff of drains. Stall holders sit cross legged amidst perfectly symmetrical piles of merchandise, mobile phone in hand. Some have simple scales and a pile of weights, others the latest electronic digital gadgets. There is no hassle, no aggression. I walked round the market several times, once getting myself into someone's back kitchen by mistake, but my apologies were accepted, no-one minded and no-one really took any notice of me, in spite of the fact that my complexion and dress were obviously not local. Unlike the tourist shops, where haggling is expected and customary, the prices in the market are so incredibly low that it seemed quite absurd to argue about the price of a few grams of chilli peppers or a shopping bag. So I didn't.

Scattered around the older parts of town are wonderfully dilapidated buildings, with cracked stone facades bearing witness to their former glory, like the "Municipal Building 1914". Some have bushes growing out of their roofs and gutters, vying for space with hundreds of electrical wires, telephone wires and various wires holding all the other wires together. Peep into the churches and the schoolyards; stop to look through fences and over railings. There are people washing up and hanging out their clothes, airing their bedding or making clothes. Little children play at shops with leaves, twigs and pebbles; bigger ones at cricket. Take short cuts up stairways, or along unbelievably narrow alleys. If you are worried about getting lost, ask if you are heading for 'The Chowrasta', everyone knows where that is.

There are vehicles to look at too. Not only the fabulous train – and there's always an engine or two in the shed above the station – but buses, trucks and 4x4s with their destinations on their windscreens. How I would love to visit all those villages and tea plantations. And when you finally wander back into 'The Chowrasta' from the opposite side to the golden statue, instead of looking at the ponies and thinking how thin they are, look at the children's faces. Some are grinning with pleasure, some are slightly nervous and others are frankly terrified. But pony rides have always been part of childhood memories and those kids will probably never forget their trip to Darjeeling. And nor will I".

Couldn't you just see it through Carole's eyes?  Marvellous write-up – thanks Carole.

 

Well, time marches on and if I don't stop writing, I will soon be up to the Autumn/Winter version...

Your slippers await you; your hot water bottles are cooling off now and our "champagne of teas" is longing to be sipped. 
See you next time!

Until then – may your lives be further enriched by what the world has yet to offer you.....

Cheerio for now!

Windsong


The Windamere Hotel

Observatory Hill
Darjeeling - 734101, India.
Tel:  +91- (0)354-2254041/2254042 | Fax: +91- (0)354-2254043/2254211
www.windamerehotel.com | email: windsong@windamerehotel.net
A Colonial Heritage Hotel of India - in the Himalayas