Going Organic in Darjeeling

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I’d planned on being a plain old tourist in Darjeeling: Nothing to do but eat, drink, trek the Singalila, and visit the sites my guidebook told me to, (Snow Leopard enclosure, Mountaineering Institute, Ghoom Monastery, etc.). I also wanted to experience the unique culture of Nepalese-descended Indians, who make up 95% of the town’s population, and whose hospitality and cheerfulness are famous. After 10 days, I’ve succeeded in accomplishing all of the above—except the site-seeing and trekking. There are two reasons why:

For one, Darjeeling has been cold; really cold. October is normally sunny and pleasant, the height of the tourist season. Instead, rain and wintry temperatures, though great for knitted sweater and scarf sales, leave one longing for warmth and decidedly not excited to climb to higher altitudes.

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Secondly, my inner journalist just hasn’t been able to pass up the invitations I’ve received to witness a very different (kinder and gentler) world of tea production from the one I saw during our malnutrition survey in Dooars (stay tuned—I’ll post the findings when they’re ready). Darjeeling seems to be a kind of epicenter for well-intentioned, positive change: women’s self-help groups, farmers’ cooperatives, intercropping, plus Fair Trade, organic, and biodynamic practices. There appears to be an above-average amount of community-based change happening (there are twenty NGOs in town) and I’d like to know more.

There are 69 tea gardens in Darjeeling District and, in town and running around the hills, multitudes of buyers, auctioneers, tea shop-wallahs, international certifiers, and other folks associated with Darjeeling Tea—an industry within an industry. What’s more, Darjeeling’s tea world is made up of many devoted, passionate, and wildly colorful characters. They and their tea bushes are the sites I’ve been seeing this week, not the zoo.

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In the steep, hill-hugging center of Darjeeling Town, things are crowded, cluttered and noisy, but on the edges, where so many trees, prayer flags, and temples stand, it is tranquilo; and in October and November it attracts thousands of Bengali tourists (plus a handful of Western ones). I have moved among them, seeking, eating, shopping, speaking.

One day, I interviewed Mr. Harish Mukhia, a 70-year-young tea guru/mentor/local legend, in his living room while the vibrant sunset angled across his face and the Darjeeling Police bagpipe troupe marched and drummed outside. Another day, I tagged along with Swiss journalists and ended up spending eight hours with Rajah Banarjee, one of the Darjeeling organic movement’s pioneers; I consumed 20 cups of tea (he drank 40, I’m not joking) while surrounded by stuffed tigers, leopards, and buffalos that Mr. Banarjee’s father, the famous “Tiger Slayer,” had killed before his conversion into a mulch-preaching tea farmer.

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Yesterday, I hiked two hours down the valley to an agriculture cooperative, trekking among its 14 villages (where tea bushes are grown among ginger, soybeans, cardamom, oranges, and turmeric), before spending the night in a village home, learning Nepali as I squatted with the family in the kitchen, drinking warm, homemade wheat beer.

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Each of these encounters merits its own chapter, but there isn’t time. Suffice to say, that despite the cold, despite my missing a few sites, I’ve had an excellent stay in Darjeeling. Still, the clouds are hanging heavily, wetly, on the ridgeline, we have barely seen the sun in two weeks, and we have a meeting in Calcutta.

It is time to go down.

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