I am barely inspired to travel with a high frequency though my mind often ‘wanders across continents’ trying to endorse my desire to confirm that humans are fundamentally same everywhere. I just meander, yes, because I am not born for frequent cross-continental travel opportunities. Or because I love to avoid vegetating, by simply through my limited mobility within the country. Of the few places I have visited with my family, one has been worth the expense and expectation — Pokhara. I took my family there in the spring of 2013 because we desperately needed break from the drudgery and frustration of routines and studies. I never forget the break it gave — the joy that we could experience together in the relatively dustless city.
After the break with Pokhara, I had promised to my heart that I would spare half a week each year to be myself and with my loved ones. But more than three years passed without my being able to think about the promise. The pious yet tiring engagement with PhD had all the blame to take all of life’s cravings for novelty. A year passed after I had earned the degree. But with the degree came reasons to be glued to Yamaji Block. The only exception was when Apsara and I visited Goa in February 2015, and when the earthquake and its aftershocks sent us to Morang in May the same year. That’s it.
I had targeted the last summer break to break away from everything for a week or so. But my official calendar was such that I could not leave Yamaji Block for a single day. I wanted to travel home, wander around and come back fresh to start the new academic year. But the fact that Dashain was on the threshold and the fortnight in its name could suffice for a plan to experience some sort of freshness was enough reason to postpone an escape from this hillock.
When Dashain did start last year, I did not want to waste a single day after Ghatasthapana. We boarded a micro-bus along the BP Highway, and headed home without a second thought. Once at home, we could plan where to go in that part of the country. We had Dhankuta, Ilam, Pathibhara etc. etc. I mean the east had a lot to offer including places as far as Darjeeling and Sikkim. For me any of these were all right. I had never gone beyond Birtamod. Never above Dharan. I never stopped to ponder why. One obvious reason might be that travel for recreation had never been an agenda while at home till 1997. Once in Kathmandu and its vicinity, my own birthplace Tandi, hometown Madhumalla and their vicinity had become distant.
So, Ilam, for all the glorious mentions of its tea plantations and beautiful hills, had more options within and beyond — either north up to Taplejung or east to Darjeeling. Apsara had never been tired of craving for Ilam, which she had chanced to visit a couple of times about two decades ago, and Darjeeling, which she believed would be one of life’s greatest achievements to set foot in. The boys could not have opted anything more. Anything would be a boon during Dashain. If we claimed we had begun to live for them, a break from the calendar would justify such claim.
Well, what (not) to say about Ilam. A sort of tiny epiphany. The picture of Ilam that has got stuck in my mind now is not of the city proper, but of Kanyam and Phikkal, which were far more beautiful than I thought. And Ilam to me was more commonplace. Maybe because we happened to be greeted by a lousy drizzle, and saw no sunlight the whole day. The part of tea garden that bordered our hotel-window appeared to say a little about the glory I had internalized. But when we walked out to it, we saw only the extension with not-so-telling slopes and plantations, except for the foot-trail leading to the view-tower up north. The tower, however, seemed to communicate very little of the embellishments I had heard of Ilam all my life. This dismay, coupled with Apsara’s annoyance typical for a lousy day like that and Anurag’s show of unwavering nonchalance even for things beyond his imagination, could not justify the trouble of travel only with Hridaya’s demands to explore further.
But we persisted. We walked the muddy streets up and downhill till the evening. We dined peacefully and passed a comfortable night. It was a part of Nepal, and ever welcoming with its sheer tint of familiarity. We did not regret venturing into it. Ilam is no longer an enigma now. If ever I am destined to spend a couple of years there, I will gladly accept it as an opportunity, if not as a boon or blessing.
After you have experienced the bends along the BP Highway, the myths about Ilam-bound road causing nausea to any strong/healthy fellow would sound like a joke. I think even the world’s best vomitters like my wife would not feel an inkling of discomfort there. One epiphany I got is that Ilam bazaar is to the west of Phikkal and Kanyam. Earlier I thought east.
All other things aside, the one-day sojourn at the ancient city was a great compensation. My family was relaxed in true sense. The relaxation did not really have to come with a lot of joy, but from this simple exposure and potential for novelty. Tales about places do paint more fascinating pictures than they actually are. Ilam was not an exception. This revelation was itself a reward and was a prelude for our trip to Darjeeling the following day.
For one who lives in Dhulikhel and has gone to Pokhara a number of times only to feel its welcoming nature, Darjeeling did not make much appeal. Its pictures are more beautiful in the tales than in reality. Perhaps, we went there too late — at least fifty years late — when all its glory days have remained in the minds of oldies or on the pages of moth-eaten souvenirs. I enjoyed Darjeeling, though, simply by recollecting and trying to relive the myths I read about it. What we saw and did there during the half-day was just the compensation that we had never visited those hills before.
Maybe the town was more beautiful on the slopes, in the old settlements where you could have felt the ancient Nepaliness in the diaspora. Maybe it was more alluring in its ancient heritages that reminded of the struggles of early settlers to establish a nation of their own. But the town along the road, despite its lasting promises to invite a crowd of visitors each day, was just another narrow road populated by cars and motels. One thing I brought home from there is this message: “Do not feed pigeons with rice grains, otherwise they will lay sterile eggs.” Hridaya clearly remembers the statement.
And the mini train was more beautiful in Burfi than on its own track.
I should confess this. The roads in Darjeeling are more beautiful than the adjoining hills, which is just the opposite in Ilam where the roads do not suit to be the way they are. The panoramic hillocks with tea plantations deserve much more.
The trip was enriching, overall. My impressions are not against recommending a prospective visitor, both to Ilam and Darjeeling. I will surely go there again if I get a better pretext than mere sight-seeing. And Sikkim is in my list after being able to see parts of Assam and Jharkhand last two months. I repeat what I wrote elsewhere: A journey lends moments to realize growth. A journey to India makes this realization sharper.