Entry 3: washing and wiping, fighting AIDS activists, cat molestation, travellers.

that Darjeeling feeling

Following our bruising experience with the Delhi tout, I was extremely chary of travel agents, even somewhere as civilised as Darjeeling. But we needed information, so having roughed out a battle plan and exit strategy Jane and I stepped into the shop. And into further proof that Darjeeling is a world removed from Delhi. The agent sat us down, made us tea and then asked us what we were interested in. We said we'd like to go trekking in the West Bengal Hills. He replied: 'Well, you don't need me for that. Take the bus to Rimbik then start walking.' Then he gave us a free map.

Our thinking was a short trek - say three or four days in the west Bengal Hills -would warm us up nicely for the Himalayan hiking we were going to do in a couple of weeks time. All of which makes the West Bengal hills sound like something you'd find in Surrey. In fact they're pretty sizeable - about as high as the Pyrenees - and anywhere else would be considered a significant mountain range in their own right, but when you've got the Himalayas next door, 3700m is a hill.

Perhaps because of the proximity of the Himalaya, nobody really seems to go walking in West Bengal. The only Westerners, we boarded a bus and perched on seats that managed to be at once iron hand and insubstantial for a ride that would be a foretaste of many, many journeys to come. I was sat next to a beautiful and charming teenage Nepali girl who kept shyly passing me glacier mints; Jane appeared to be next to her grandmother who sprawled all over the seat with the usual third world bus assortment of blankets, baskets and live chickens.

washing and wiping

Because the Hills receive few tourists conditions are primitive: unlike Darjeeling, there are no cyber cafes and donut vendors. And, while a man can live as well as is possible on two pounds a day he pays a heavy price in terms of personal hygiene.

Unless you are prepared to carry a rucksack full of loo roll you rapidly become a reluctant convert to the local convention: wash and wipe with the left, eat with the right. By the end of the first day I had a frank (and frankly unwished for) acquaintance with my soilier parts. Looking at matters objectively, I suppose, I can sort of see the Asian point. Especially in nations where the diet disposes one towards loose disposals, paper smears whereas water washes. Still, such bog logic cut little crap with the more anal (haha) Ms Treasure who insisted on toting a rucksack full of puppy soft paper.

Northern West Bengal looks a bit like Wales. Well, I say that but there are no Welsh people (insert your own joke here - why does everyone laugh at the Welsh?), the stone-age local cows are an improvement on sheep and the peaks are sizeable enough to make getting to the top tough going. Though naturally, your sense of achievement is somewhat diminished when a flip-flop wearing granny jogs casually past with a basket full of rocks strapped to her head.

As well as the Welsh cast, the more heavily wooded parts of the hills also look a little like your parents' garden writ large. The reason for this soon becomes obvious: here is where most of the plants that the Victorians got so worked up about came from. Not that such aesthetic niceties mattered for long. After noon on the first day freezing fog descended rendering whatever great views existed non-existent and the attractive woodland disturbingly spooky. It all looked bit like the kind of creeper festooned forests that Scooby Doo's gang habitually found themselves lost in.

keeping it real

As it got dark, with visibility down to about five metres, we discovered that the lodge we'd planned to stay in - which bore more than a passing resemblance to a gulag - was shut. Doing our best to look as miserable we were we knocked on the door of the only other house for kilometres. A woman in pretty convincing local kit answered and offered us a room. 'Wow' we thought, 'here is our chance to have a credible and real experience staying with local people. This is the real deal: they use oil lamps and gather round fires in the evening in a totally unwesternised way!'

Even though we did eat genuinely average food huddled round a pretty kosher fire, we probably should have twigged that our Bengali-Nepali border authenticity wasn't quite as real as we fancied. For one thing the house had solar panels on the roof; and for another the cute mountain dog puppies were called Rambo and Bianca. Still, we persisted in our delusions of cultural verisimilitude right up to the last minute… Would these simple folk accept money? Would a gift be more appropriate? Luckily they answered all these soul-searching questions shortly after breakfast by presenting us with a neatly itemised bill. I guess in retrospect the biggest surprise should have been that the receipt was hand-written, not computer generated.

fighting AIDS activists

After paying up we headed up to Sandakphu, the highest point in the range, its summit freezing and covered with snow and ice. In contrast to its predecessor the trekkers' lodge here was open for business and full of Indians. Drunk Indians. Drunk Indian AIDS activists. Somehow you just don't expect to find AIDS activists tackling a bottle of rum at 3:30pm. And Indians - despite their enthusiasm for liquor - are not talented drinkers. Nor for that matter am I, but compared to these people…anyway I'm pleased to say we were soon to become unwitting catalysts for a fight amongst the activists.

Shortly after our arrival one (really lit) chap rocked into our room to chat. His mate followed, remonstrating, trying to explain to him that he was drunk and that we would like to rest without his boozy bonhomie (true, but we didn't care that much). An argument ensued. His mate then left, only to reappear and announce that the activists had made a 'group decision' - that he should not impose his bacchic company upon us. A second, more voluble and aggressive argument started Finally our new pal stormed out, back into his room where the rum-fuelled row escalated, the language grew fruitier and presently a genuine fistfight started. Slightly worried I popped my head around the door, but was immediately reassured. Indian fights are rare and, when they do occur, not terribly butch, all bitch slapping and histrionics. The chances of much more than a stinging cheek are pretty low.

Never mind, the next morning, hung over as hell, they were all boys again and we got to reintroduce ourselves as none of them could remember anything about the night before. Naturally we had our photo taken with them, me proudly holding out a box of 'Milan' brand condoms. So who knows, out there somewhere, Jane and I may be fronting an Indian anti-AIDS campaign. Hopefully not as an example of what the disease can do to you.

On the shin-splinteringly vertiginous way back down we bumped into a pair of Calcuttan honeymooners and a few other guys at an attractive hut in a bamboo forested river valley. Again, there was an empty bottle of the lousy local rum (any liquor that actually has XXXX on the bottle is unlikely to be good) and again they were drunk, this time rather less physically. It is interesting that in Indian cities and towns you seldom see people in a state of liquorous intoxication. By contrast, in the hills, amongst visitors you rarely see sobriety. When Indians say they come to the hills to relax, they are being quaintly euphemistic.

To return to Darjeeling, we took a jeepshare rather than a bus. How many people do you think you can get in a Jeep? Six? Eight? Ten? Guess again. Eighteen: four up front, four in the back, four in the back back, two hanging off the back and four on the roof. These folk put my adolescent car stuffing to shame. The 'road' - a switchback dirt track with 500 metre drops - was barely passable in a 4x4, though, I suppose, in the right frame of mind (i.e. drunk as an AIDS activist) it might be fun to see if you could do it in a Ford Fiesta.

travellers and cat molestation

Surprisingly undead, we were dropped in the higher of Darjeeling's two municipal squares to find the place appeared to have filled up with travellers. I would like to say that they are an interesting bunch, but travel no longer broadens the mind and it would be more accurate to say that they are a self-interested bunch. This lot seemed to be composed largely of German non-conformists. Much like their better known Japanese counterparts German non-conformists all non-conform in exactly the same way.

The rest were mainly Brits who had 'gone native,' in most cases by adopting the dress sense and personal standards of a tramp. This shows an interesting poverty of observational powers as none of the actual natives dress like tramps, except of course native tramps. Still, if these crusty types wanted to confuse authenticity with not washing and an apparent abject lack of dignity who was I to disabuse them?

That evening, we went for dinner with Jay and Erika, an Anglo-Swedish couple. They were staying in the hotel room next to us and had rather more about them than most. She was an occupational therapist who worked with violent offenders, specialising in arsonists and pyromaniacs. The people she'd met through work included a bloke who'd stabbed his father 33 times and filled the wounds with glace cherries, a woman who compulsively broke budgies' necks and a man who could only achieve arousal by getting intimate with cats. Apparently the last of these left a trail of severely traumatized domestic animals in his wake. Her Swedish accent lent her (prima facie revolting) descriptions a cheerfully comic air, 'So many poor liddle ruptured kitties, it is very sad really…'

Most depressing of all our Bengali encounters though was bumping into a bloke I used to work with. I'd always thought he was about as imaginative as Reading and suddenly…hey, here he is doing exactly the same thing as me - what does that make me? Not wishing to be rude, we arranged to meet him the next evening in one of the town's handful of pubs. He didn't show. There's something very wrong-footing about being stood up by someone who you don't like much in the first place. Much worse than being blown out by a friend, it really fucks with your sense of place.

March 2, 2002