Destiny and Tea in Darjeeling

By Laura Stassi

April 2, 2015

Somewhere on the grounds of the Yiga Choeling Monastery, in the Darjeeling region of West Bengal, India, is an American boy. He was a toddler when he began having visions of a past life and at the age of 11, he was officially proclaimed the reincarnation of the 13th century lama Gyalwa Lorepa.

Window detail from a monastery in India. (Photo by Laura Stassi

So the boy said goodbye to his classmates at a Catholic school outside of Boston. He turned his back on all the accoutrements of an American kid’s existence and agreed to get his head shaved, don a red robe, and live full time at the monastery so he could learn everything required to fulfill his destiny of becoming a Buddhist high priest.

The boy’s undoubtedly conflicted parents upended their lives, too. They sold their Beantown business and most of their possessions and moved with the boy’s younger sister to the town of Darjeeling, about 8 kilometers from the monastery. They’re allowed to visit the boy once a week for the next decade that he lives in virtual seclusion.

As our tour guide, Satyen, tells us about the American boy, the air vibrates with the energy of the Tibetan Buddhist monks banging drums and rhythmically chanting prayers. I find the sounds lively yet soothing.

My journey to the Darjeeling region had been arduous. Earlier that week, seven traveling companions and I had boarded a train near Varanasi, on the banks of the River Ganges, for a 14-hour ride across the Indian plains and up to the Himalayan foothill town of Siliguri. From there, we chartered a small bus for the rickety ride up narrow, winding mountain roads, some of which had been partially washed away by recent monsoons. The 90-kilometer climb lasted six hours, and there were several moments I was convinced our bus would topple over one of the guardrail-less roads and we would never be heard from again.

Finally, we’d arrived at Darjeeling’s Windamere Hotel, a former boardinghouse for British tea planters that was converted into a hotel in the late 1930s. The hotel later was expanded to include the convent school that Darjeeling-born actress Vivien Leigh — she, of “Gone with the Wind” movie fame — had attended as a young girl while living here with her British parents.  The Windamere is perched on top of Observatory Hill, where we can look down onto the town promenade and out to the Himalayan mountain peaks, the world’s highest.

We score an even more breathtaking view of those peaks at Tiger Hill, about 10 kilometers from the Windamere. We arrive before sunrise one morning and position ourselves along the Observation Room’s side windows, hoping the clouds will break so we can see the peaks of Mount Everest, Khangchendzonga, Jannu and Kabru. Outside and below us, people are gathering to stare at the sky, a reminder of the iconic scenes from the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”  When the sun rises and the clouds briefly lift, those of us without cameras pressed to our faces erupt with cheers and clapping.

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Prayer flags at a Gangtok monastery. (Photo by Laura Stassi)

Our time in Darjeeling also includes visits to the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre, where the prices in the shop selling blankets, clothing, jewelry and other handmade items are so low there’s no need for the sign saying bartering isn’t allowed; and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, which was established the year after Darjeeling resident Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary became the first two climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest. The adjoining zoological park houses snow leopards, Himalayan black bears and other animals but for one group of tourists from southern India, we prove to be as exotic an attraction. Through hand gestures and smiles, they ask to be photographed with us.

On the afternoon of our final day in Darjeeling, we wander into a local tea shop. Darjeeling tea is considered one of the tastiest in the world, but I consider returning to the hotel to prepare for the next day’s journey to Ganktok, instead of staying with some of my traveling companions for a tasting. Still, I take a seat, and the shopkeeper and his helper commence with bringing us pot after pot of delicious tea for generously sized tastings.

After several cups, I find myself feeling giddy and slightly trippy. When my  traveling companion Larry starts talking about tea harvest times — called first and second flushes — an old Brewer & Shipley tune pops into my head. Without thinking, I sing the first verse out loud, slightly changing the words.

“One flush over the line, sweet Jesus, one flush over the line…”

My traveling companion Al laughs loudly and joins in. “Sittin’ downtown at a railway station, one flush over the line…”

It’s then that I think I finally understand what the Buddhists mean by “staying present,” and I’m truly grateful to be sitting at this table, enjoying this moment in Darjeeling. I’ll think about Gangtok tomorrow. As Scarlett O’Hara herself said, tomorrow is another day.