Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)
Amusement theme parks try to create a feeling of imminent danger with rides that rise to precarious heights. That’s fun. The drive up Hill Cart Road from Matagari to Darjeeling also take you to dizzying heights, but with no guardrails and the possibility of careening over a cliff, the danger is real. That’s terrifying. We rose from 400’ to 6,730’ in 37 miles on roads that aren’t roads in a vehicle that shouldn’t have been driven. There were more switchbacks than I could count on a one-lane “road” with two-way traffic and sheer falls only inches away. I am not exaggerating when I say that any slip would have been met with a deadly roll down hundreds of feet of mountainside.
Pastor Ajay and Ruben were taking us to the top of the lower Himalayas so we could see the amazing views of the upper Himalayas. It was a day just to spend time together and enjoy the views, which were stunning. We’d stop from time to time to take it in. Each time I considered the possibility of simply walking back down to Matagari and meeting the guys when they returned.
And I thought a lot about our driver. I hoped he was a good driver and that this was not the first time he drove this highway. I hoped the car had more going for it than appeared. I didn’t know that even Pastor Ajay and Ruben had white-knuckled grips on the seat-backs. Our driver did not speak English, but if he did he would have known we were praying out loud for him. So yes, it was a bit scary, but we had a blast. Grant has a way of taking sheer terror and turning it into laughable moments. I don’t know if it was nerves or what, but we laughed so hard it hurt. And praise God we made it to Darjeeling.
Darjeeling is a city built on cliffs. Homes and buildings cling to the sides of mountains. Except for the occasional rubble pile at the base of a cliff that testified of a former building losing its grip, every piece of real estate was occupied. And mountains were still rising all around us. Tea gardens occupied the open areas below and women with basket packs on their backs were picking through the tea bushes in order to collect 15 kg, enough to make 50 cents from the tea companies.
The city itself was packed and bustled with people visiting the street shops. There were numerous couriers who would carry propane tanks up the hills on their backs (with a support harness over their heads). One man was pulling a loaded ox cart – or rather he was trying to keep it from overriding him as it pushed him down the hill. He looked like he would lose the battle to control it at any minute. A butcher was killing and then cleaning chickens on a chopping block that would have made a health inspector spew. Sights, smells, sounds and thrills…
On the way back, we took a quicker route. Pankhabari Road is a narrow and sharply winding road. It made Hill Cart Road seem like a parkway. Two vehicles can barely pass each other. There were numerous places where washouts and landslides had been recently repaired. We were all leaning at a permanent downhill angle the entire way. When we would get to a switchback there was only a small amount of room for turning 180 degrees, which our driver was able to do with no room for error. Did I say I was praying for the breaks? At some of the switchbacks there were small concrete blockers set up as a kind of guardrail. But the one that would have stopped us was always gone, pushed over the edge by a previous hapless driver. Grant and I slipped our passports into our pockets as a kindness to our families just in case there was a need to identify the guys in the wreck down below.
What we saved in time was extracted from the wear and tear on our nerves. As I learned later, taxis and commercial vehicles are not allowed to take this road. Only government cars or ones going for short distances are allowed to take this route. But we bypassed the guards at the checkpoint by entering the road down a bit further. As scary as it was, we had the same non-stop hilarity as on the way up. And it was so scenic. The road finally reached the bottom at the beautiful Makaibara Tea Estate where the women were walking back from the afternoon gathering; a row of umbrellas we could see from the road on the hill above.
Danger notwithstanding, this is a beautiful part of the world. But the real beauty lies in the people.