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Darjeeling, Revisited

April 14, 2021

On this cloudy April morning in Colorado, I’m reminded of a different, misty cool April twelve years ago. My son and I were on our 9th month of a 13-month journey around the world when we happened upon…

Darjeeling (April, 2009)

House in Darjeeling

Our original plan was to head up to Sikkim, the Himalayan kingdom wedged between Nepal and Bhutan which became a state of the Indian Union in 1975. Along the way, in the Shiwalik Hills of the lower Himalaya, we arrived at Darjeeling.

It was abundantly clear that we did not need to go anywhere else. We were seduced in the traditional manner, like so many before us. It was our own little replay of the 1830s, when some tired British soldiers passed through Darjeeling while on an official errand. They looked at the peaceful wooded hillside and the icy Himalayas soaring in view, and they said: “Sanitarium.”

Like the British officers, we were tired. We’d been hitting the trail pretty hard for two solid months, ever since leaving Kenya. We set our bags down in the comfy Hotel Dekeling, and later that evening went out for a stroll. Everything whispered to our spirits: “Stay awhile and rest. Breathe some fresh, cool air. Get some exercise. Play. Don’t even think about going anywhere else for a while.”

Darjeeling

My son gazed across the mountainsides and said, “Baba, this looks like a smash-up of so many other places we’ve been.”

“Which ones?”

“Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Puerto Rico, and Colorado.”

The immortal massif Kangchenjunga, which means “The Five Treasures of Snows,” forms an elusive backdrop in the mists above town. Assumed to be the world’s tallest mountain until 1852, it is actually a system of five major peaks, four of them exceeding 27,000 feet. The highest of course is Kangchenjunga itself, at 28,169 feet. It is the third highest mountain on Earth, bested only by Everest and K2. Everest too is visible from points in town on very clear mornings, as a tiny point on the horizon.

Your best chance to catch a view of the Kangchenjungas is in the early morning before the clouds and mists build. A good plan is to head along the path around Observatory Hill from Chowrasta Square, which is located in the saddle at the top of town. If Kangchenjunga is showing, it will be right in your face and tinged with orange morning rays.

Kangchenjunga in Morning

Then you can climb to the Buddhist and Hindu shrines on top of Observatory Hill as the sun strikes the evergreen trees from the east. Thousands of prayer flags will be draped through the trees above you, flapping and mixing with the smoke and incense rising up through them. Worshippers will arrive, huffing up the path. They will ring the bells over the gateway as they enter.

It is really too lovely for words.

Lolo

Himalayan Black Bear snoozing at the Darjeeling Zoo

You can be content in Darjeeling doing almost nothing except sitting by a window with a book or a laptop. Get a cup of famous tea and gaze out across the moody hillsides. Or go for a walk, even if it’s cold and drizzling in an Earl Grey fog.

There is an excellent zoo out along the hillside that you must not miss. It makes a nice walk from Chowrasta. There you can visit Himalayan Black Bears, Snow Leopards, Tibetan Wolves, Siberian and Indian Tigers, Red Pandas, and Grey Langur Monkeys.

Above the zoo you’ll find the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, where people come for mountain climbing training. The Institute was built in honor of Darjeeling resident Tenzing Norgay who, along with Sir Edmund Hillary, first reached the summit of Mount Everest in 1953. Sir Edmund was knighted in England for his efforts, and Tenzing became perhaps an even bigger hero in an independent and grateful India.

Tenzing Norgay statue at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute

Back down in the zoo you’ll find a lovely aviary containing some awesome birds. One of our favorites was the Golden Pheasant, which looks like a 1980s glam rocker. And in this aviary resides a particular member of the Hill Myna species who just might steal your heart.

He hung out on a perch, inches away from the mesh, and blinked at us. He tilted his head. “Happy birthday to Lolo,” he said.

We congratulated Lolo on his birthday, and stayed and talked with him for half an hour. We were transfixed by his magnetic personality. Lolo sat on his perch and patiently taught us how to whistle his eight-note song. He winked at us some more and gave us his impersonations of the other birds. He also did his version of a car siren.

Finally, we bid goodbye to Lolo and hiked back towards Darjeeling. We huffed and puffed it up the switchbacks towards Chowrasta Square. At one turn along the trail, my son paused.

“Lolo made this walk worthwhile,” he said through his smile and heaving breaths.

Lolo, Revisited

Lolo

On our last full day in Darjeeling we went back to the zoo. Lolo saw us coming and immediately flew over to talk.

“Hey, what’s with you?” he asked.

“Happy birthday, Lolo,” we replied.

“Happy birthday to Lolo,” he agreed. “Could you, would you?”

A woman standing next to us laughed. “He’s gotten so much nicer, now that he’s older,” she said. She was wearing the red jacket of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“He’s cleaned up his language. He used to shout, ‘Who goes there!’ and then hurl abuse.”

“What kind of abuse?”

“Swear words in Nepali,” she replied. Then she turned to Lolo and said, “Could-you-would-you?”

“Couldyouwouldyou!” shouted Lolo, tilting his head and winking.

“What does that mean in Nepali?” I asked.

“It means, ‘What time is it’.”

We hung out with Lolo for a while. We didn’t want to leave him. We sat next to his cage and did a little of my son’s school work. We whistled Lolo’s eight-note song with him, over and over. Finally, we got up to go.

“Goodbye, Lolo,” we said.

As a going away present, Lolo gave us his impersonation of a car alarm.

We hiked back up the ridge towards Chowrasta. Through heaving breaths, my son asked, “Baba, how long do they live?”

I paused. “Hill Mynas? I don’t know. Quite a while, I think. Maybe thirty or forty years?”

He wiped a tear from his cheek.

Then he smiled. “Well! When we come back here, we know exactly where to go.”

Pool Problems

March 14, 2021

It’s official: after 74 years, McElligot’s Pool has reached the end of its publishing road. You might have read this past week that it is one of the six books Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced it has stopped publishing due to racist and insensitive imagery. It has drawings that “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” according to the company’s statement.

I go way back with The Pool and I’m sorry to learn it’s getting pulled. It has been one of my favorites nearly my entire life. It enchanted me as a child from page two, with its the beneath-the-surface depiction of the junky contents of the Pool where Marco is fishing. It is one of the few select Seuss books I resurrected as a parent and read with my children over and over and over again. Another good thing about it is its hardcover size: McElligot’s Pool makes a great lap desk. My copy is holding up well, but it’s been so thoroughly used as such that I doubt it will ever be a collector’s item.

Problems with Seuss have percolated for a while, and have been getting quite a bit of academic attention in recent years. Examples include Mr. Nel’s 2017 book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books (it’s been pointed out that said cat might be in blackface), and a 2019 paper by Ishizuka and Stephens, “The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books.” It’s true that the also-pulled And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, Seuss’s first children’s book from 1937, has a drawing of a yellow-faced, slanted-eyed “Chinese boy who eats with sticks” (adjusted in the 1970s to be a white-faced, still slanted-eyed “Chinese man who eats with sticks”).

What’s the problem with The Pool? Nothing jumped out in my mind when I read about this. I had to go and look.

All is smooth sailing until pages 22-23, when “Some fish from the Tropics, all sunburned and hot, might decide to swim up! Well they might…might they not? Racing up north for a chance to get cool, full steam ahead for McElligot’s Pool!” In doing so, these overheated fish chug past a palm-tree island on which a guy in a sombrero-like hat, a red vest, and cowboy boots reclines in the sand with a gigantic margarita.

Problem? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. However, on the next page things gets more serious.

“Some Eskimo Fish, from beyond Hudson Bay, might decide to swim down; might be headed this way!” Here we have a guy in a fur-lined hat holding a spear. Judging by how white and friendly-looking the guy’s face is in contrast to the darker-faced, more indigenously-featured fish, I suspect he was altered in the 1970s along with Mulberry Street’s Chinese boy. Perhaps the spear remains the problem, or the fur-lined hat, or the use of the outdated term “Eskimo” (which I grew up using)? Or maybe it’s the ethnic fish themselves? To which I have to say something similar to what my friend’s workmate said recently, when Disney got backlash for casting a black actress to play Ariel in the live-action version of The Little Mermaid: “Guess what? She’s a fish.”

The only other potential problem I can detect comes near the end, on pages 42-43: “Or I might catch a fish from a stranger place yet! From the world’s highest river in far-off Tibet. Where the falls are so steep that it’s dangerous to ride ‘em, so the fish put up chutes and float down beside ‘em.” And what these fish are floating down beside is a cane-holding man in colorful clothes and a pointy hat standing outside his entirely-Seussian dwelling.

But the man doesn’t look Tibetan to me. He looks like a Trump supporter.

So you be the judge. I’m not qualified to determine The Pool’s demerits, due to my longtime emotional experiences within its pages which make it hard, if not impossible, for me to see how it can be offensive or hurtful. Did it merit being pulled for the reasons Dr. Seuss Enterprises claim it was? Or is something else at play here? It should be noted that, after the announcement was made last week, Dr. Seuss books have re-stormed the Amazon charts.

Books go in and out of print. The Pool came out in 1947. It barely sells anymore; nothing close to Seuss’s more celebrated works. I wish they’d just quietly discontinued it, and left it to keep whatever place in the cultural record.

Day of the Hearts

February 14, 2021

Today is the 1,525th feast day of Saint Valentine, the patron saint of epilepsy. Martyred circa AD 270, he got his day in the year 496 thanks to Pope Gelasius. It wasn’t until much later, in 1868, that Cadbury introduced its heart-shaped chocolate box as a new Valentine’s Day era was gaining steam. Before that, at least in Italy, it was much more common to give little gold keys on this day (especially to children) in efforts to ward off epilepsy.

Word is that Singaporeans now lead the world in spending on Valentine’s Day. In the Philippines they too love them some Valentine’s Day; in the lead up to araw ng mga puso (“day of the hearts”), flower prices skyrocket and cathedrals get booked-out for weddings.

Elsewhere in Asia, Feb. 14 is not such a big deal for various reasons. Places like China and Vietnam are too preoccupied with Tet, the climax of which was this past Friday night. But retailers don’t need to worry because we now have White Day, March 14, to more than make up for it. White Day actually got its start in Japan in the 1970s, after a botched rollout of Valentine’s Day there a few decades earlier gave the mistaken impression that Feb. 14 was a day for WOMEN to give MEN chocolates, and not just to their boyfriends and husbands but also to their coworkers. To make up for this unfairness, March 14 was established as a day for men to reciprocate with white chocolate, marshmallows, et cetera. South Korea takes it a step further; if you did not get chocolates on Feb. 14 or white candies on March 14, you can go to a restaurant on April 14 and eat black noodles by yourself (and fortunately, not have to file your income tax until May 31). In fact, South Korea has a designated love—or lack thereof—day on the 14th of each month of the year. I like October 14: that’s wine day!

Latin America is big on Valentine’s Day of course, except for Brazil, which isn’t hip on it because they’re too busy with Carnival. Plenty of other countries are decidedly non-hip on Valentine’s Day and even have government regulations against it: much of the Muslim world for example, plus India. In Finland and Estonia the day is more about appreciating friends than lovers.

For Valentine’s Day, like other festivals with Christian connotations, I find myself wondering what thousands-of-years-old pagan practices got usurped. In Rome at least, though many academics claim it wasn’t intentional, the usurped festival was Lupercalia. Prior to Pope Gelasius designating Feb. 14 as Saint Valentine’s Day, February 13-15 was all about ritual cleaning and sacrifice in the name of Roman hygiene. In fact, februa is Latin for “purification.”

But it turns out Lupercalia had a Valentine’s Day element to it!

At its focal point, rites were performed at Lupercal Cave on Palatine Hill, the site where Romulus and Remus were suckled by the wolf according to legend. As a part of these rites, a male dog and goat were sacrificed. According to Plutarch, the skin of these animals was then flayed into pieces and given to young noblemen, who took off all their clothes and ran around the base of Palatine Hill, anticlockwise. Well-to-do women wanting to get pregnant purportedly lined up along the course, and held out their hands to receive a slap of dead dog fur from a buck naked noble-boy.

The earliest form of Valentine?

Roopkund Skeletons

January 15, 2021

Roopkund (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

High in the Indian Himalaya, in a gorgeous lonely glacier-scooped cirque, sits a tarn called Roopkund. Hindi for “beautifully shaped lake,” it is about 130 feet across and 10 feet deep. It’s frozen most of the year, but when it thaws you can see plentiful human skulls and bones lying on the bottom.

I haven’t made it there, but I’d love to try someday!

Hundreds more bones and skulls dot the shoreline, which trekkers have arranged into cairns and patterns. In 1956, an expedition brought some of these remains to Calcutta for study. Carbon dating, then in its infancy, indicated they were between 500 and 800 years old.

Roopkund sits at over 16,000 feet, and is an arduous multi-day trek from Wan, the nearest village. It probably wasn’t a popular spot for picnickers of yore. However, the tarn lies beneath a soaring ridge which is along a longtime pilgrimage route honoring the goddess Nanda Devi.

Location of Roopkund

In 2005, a multidisciplinary team collected additional bones for study. The Roopkund remains had long been picked over and mixed around by trekkers, but a recent landslide had exposed a fresh cache. Researchers estimated that between 300 and 700 peoples’ remains were at the lake, and determined that most had been healthy, unrelated women and men between the ages of 18 and 35. Among the recently-exposed bones were bits of leather slippers, bamboo parasols, and bangles of shell and glass.

The DNA proved, unsurprisingly, to be South Asian in origin. Carbon dating was tightly clustered in the 800s, indicating perhaps a single event. Two distinct groups of people emerged from the bone analysis: tall individuals with long heads, and shorter ones with round heads bearing the marks of forehead straps–i.e. Brahmans from the plains, and their mountain porters.

A fairly clear picture emerged: of ninth century pilgrims and porters, perhaps not well fitted with mountaineering gear, getting caught in a blizzard or hailstorm and dying of exposure. Over the centuries, landslides and avalanches rolled their bodies down to the lake.

The mystery appeared solved; the puzzle pieces fallen into place.

Or so we thought.

More recent studies have yielded some extremely puzzling information. As Douglas Preston explains in the Dec. 14 New Yorker, a significant portion of the Roopkund bones, up to a third of them, do not exhibit the DNA of South Asians. Rather they are from the eastern Mediterranean. And they died much more recently.

The closest match is Crete. Backing this up is bone collagen data, which indicate these folks ate a typical Mediterranean diet in the ten years preceding their death (the South Indian bone collagen, on the other hand, showed a diet typical of India). Carbon dating is now more precise; the South Asians died in 3-4 incidents between 700 and 950 AD. The Mediterranean group, on the other hand, perished in a single event sometime between 1650 and 1950. The highest probability is that it happened in the 1700s.

Human remains near Roopkund (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

When these results came out, the researchers sort of hoped someone would come forward with information about a lost group of Greeks in the Himalayas sometime around 1700 or 1800 (and explain why they were making a Hindu pilgrimage). No one has.

Anthropologist William Sax, a longtime Roopkund afficionado, has spent years in the villages below the lake. He has heard not a whisper of any story or legend about a party of foreigners coming in the 1700s or 1800s, let alone dying at Roopkund.

Were the bones mixed up with others in their Kolkata storage locker? Not likely. If that had happened, the DNA would be all over the map. Else we’d have to explain why a bunch of Greek bones remarkably consistent in age, type, and diet ended up in a vault in India.

The mystery persists.

And its answers may lie on the muddy floor of Roopkund.

Beneath the clear water, which is frozen most of the year, are human remains untouched by meddlers. They are better preserved than their shore counterparts, and contain soft tissues.

And perhaps artifacts.

Happy New Year from Pete KJ in Colorado