Higher States: The Power of a Transformative Holiday
‘Travel is about exposure to the world, but it is also about creating memories to escape to’
words Ciaran Thapar
In this new series, writers lift the lid behind the best days of their lives. These stories will cover moments of unfiltered joy, memories that make them—and you—laugh, and the people and places they fell head over heels in love with. First up, it's author, youth worker and activist Ciaran Thapar, on a transformative trip to India.
It’s April 2014: weeks into a trip to India that will last several months, trailing from the mountainous far-north, where I begin, down via Punjab, to stay with family, to Jaipur, Pushkar, Delhi, Mumbai, Goa, and finally Cochin, Kerala, on the southern tip.
It will forever pain me that this will be the last visit to the country of my father’s birth for I don’t know how long, despite several failed attempts to return across subsequent years. In one month’s time, a general election bringing the Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi into power of the largest democracy in the world will change things forever, making it more difficult for Muslims to live or travel there as they become an oppressed minority.
So part of what makes the following memory so special—one I revisit constantly—is that it belongs to an era of young and blissful ignorance. When smartphones were still a novelty. When writing was my hobby and not my career. When being half-Indian—half-Hindu, if that’s possible—was something to be only proud of, not confused about. Recalling it brings me peace.
I wake up, roll out of bed, walk across the carpet and unzip our tent to let morning daylight pour inside. Birds tweet as I rub my eyes. I can peer through the nearby tree branches and follow the green canopy as it slopes upwards towards the urban bustle at the top of the mountain. Yesterday we were up there. Today, I’m glad to be down here.
We liked Darjeeling town center, but we didn’t love it. The room at our hostel, which served masala dosas for 18 rupees, boasted epic, misty views of the Himalayas. But our nights’ sleep was soundtracked by incessant honking from cars and mopeds outside. For a few days we wandered around eating, shopping and stopping to read our books.
We did a few touristy things. Visited the zoo, which was uncomfortable. Caught the famous train ride, which was ruined by the fog. Played chess at one of the dusty old colonial hotels, if only to shelter from rainfall, and therefore travel back in time—to be served, to our surprise, dainty British sandwiches instead of samosas, tea with milk instead of without it, like independence had never happened, like we might as well be back in Surrey.
So we went online in search of an easy escape and found one. We packed our backpacks and piled into a jeep, which wound down the valley, away from the honking and fog, towards the rolling pure green. After one hour, the vehicle’s battered tyres stopped beside a long path of Buddhist prayer flags leading down a zig-zag path from the bumpy road. The driver encouraged us to get out, with our bags, and follow it.
Which is how we entered the tea farm yesterday afternoon.
The farm is one of the few in the region still owned by local people. Resisting the machine automation brought in by a rising global demand, the leaves here are still hand-rolled. We paid upfront to stay for a few nights in a large tent, purpose-built for, and flown in from, the deserts of Rajasthan—where we were only a few weeks prior. Our fee includes unlimited tea and all our meals.
We have breakfast in the open plan communal dining area: aloo puri and tea. We write our travel diaries at the table: mine is made of red fabric, with petal-pressed paper which makes my ink-pen run if I’m not careful. We read books on our veranda, before being invited on a trek with one of the tea farmers in the afternoon. He leads us for hours through the local tea plantations, pointing out growing produce as we go: garlic, spinach, pumpkin, more and more tea.
We stop to break by a stream and some rocks. Ganja plants grow all over these mountains; our guide has brought some harvested from the farm. He doesn’t need any rizla to smoke it. He skips over to a plant, strips off one of its leaves, tears and twists it carefully into a coil, and places a bud in the open end. As it is smoked, with the stream’s trickling water the only noise for miles, the makeshift pipe’s circular leaves burn gradually away, until all of it disappears into thin air. A sustainable habit.
After four hours of walking we end up crossing the state border, from West Bengal to Sikkim, where they sell what our guide assures me is a much-loved, local strong beer called HIT. It has a black and red label with a dragon emblazoned on it. I buy a few bottles: some for me, some for the farmers. We’re picked up in a jeep and driven back to the farm. On arrival, half-an-hour later, shortly after sunset, the light pollution of the town up above beams into the star-filled night sky.
In the farm’s dining area, beside candlelight, the chef asks me what meat I would like to eat. I say chicken. He nods and walks over to the coop at the back, grabs a chicken, breaks its neck, and starts plucking it. He lights two fires at the stove using dried branches, one underneath each karahi, and begins frying the tadkas. The smell of onion and garlic and cumin and more fills the air. We sit and drink our beers with the farmers. Dinner arrives: pakora, then chicken curry, aubergine curry and fresh chapatis. We eat well, refueling, before the farmers crack open homebrewed rice wine. We talk into the night.
At past midnight we stumble back to our tent. Before zipping it closed to sleep I turn to gaze up at the town again: an image of comfort and peace that becomes permanently carved onto my mind’s rearview mirror. Yesterday we were up there. Today, I’m glad to be down here.