Posted May 10, 2012 by in Culture

The Great Trunk Road

Blazing north from the southern horn of India, I follow the old ‘Great Trunk Road’ through the ex-Mughal heartlands of Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and the Panjab, cutting straight towards the border of Pakistan…

By first port of call: Calcutta, India’s unofficial capital of culture (and poverty).

The foot-powered rickshaw is something of a symbol of the city, like the yellow cabs of New York, except terrifying and disturbing (and they don’t sell plastic reproductions for tourists).

Oppression aside, Calcutta remains one of the most fascinating cities in India, and I ended up lingering for nearly two weeks, wandering the frenetic streets, writing, and volunteering at the Mother Theresa House. (Photography was forbidden, however, so just imagine me gallantly dolling out medicine to the poor, before being paraded through the streets on their skinny shoulders).

Every facet of the human existence can be found in the streets of Calcutta. You can see people going to the barbers, brushing their teeth, and defecating in the open. If you walk the sidewalks long enough, you’ll find people sleeping, cooking, breastfeeding, and even dying.

The ‘charm’ of Calcutta doesn’t lie in the crumbling colonial architecture, but in its gritty intensity. It’s more of an experience than an actual sight.

Steve McDonald: The Great White Rickshaw-Wallah…

I was instantly fascinated by the foot-powered rickshaws, and was curious to see how heavy they were, and how difficult they were to navigate. Eventually, my curiosity became too much, and I payed a rickshaw-wallah twenty rupees (forty cents) to let me take the rickshaw around for a little spin (much to the amusement of everyone else on the street)…

For effect, my American friend Jon and I asked the rickshaw-wallah to hold the shopping bags as I shlepped him around.

Maneuvering the rickshaw was quite difficult, but it wasn’t too heavy (once you got momentum).

The capital of West Bengal, Calcutta is famous for its mithai (Indian sweets), which come in a variety of tastes, textures, and shapes…

Above: Mishti dhoi (sweet curd flavored with palm sugar) in the clay pot; the ubiquitous Calcutta specialty rasgulla (sweet ball of unfermented cheese soaked in rose syrup) in the center of the plate; two types of sandesh (sweet, rich fudge-like substance), one garnished with a rose petal and moving clock-wise; sweet, milky chum-chum in the plastic cup as well as the yellowish mango chum-chum across from it; and creamy rasmalai (cardamom flavored paneer soaked in yellow clotted cream).

My arrival in Calcutta was timed with Bengali New Years, a festival that’s marked by the exchanging of mithai (sweets)—something like Easter, or a subdued Halloween.

I was fortunate enough to be invited by Shushrut, a fellow volunteer at the Mother Theresa House, to come celebrate the holiday at his home—where we consumed enough sugar to put the most spastic of kindergarteners into a diabetic coma.

A few friends of mine from the Modern Lodge in the Chowringhee district also came along.

Jon from America and Connie from Spain weren’t overly smitten by the mithai, but fortunately Shushrut had an equally caloric alternative…

As the suffocating heat of the monsoon arrived, and profuse, constant sweating began to lose its novelty, I tore myself away from Calcutta, taking the Darjeeling Limited Express train north, into the old Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim…

Khanchenjunga, the third largest mountain in the world (after Everest and K-2) looms over the colonial hill station of Darjeeling…

I decided to spend a week taking in the cool mountain air of Darjeeling, wandering the slanting avenues and admiring the Himalayan vistas. But my visit had a more demanding purpose as well…

Being an American through and through, I’m not one to call myself a tea drinker.

Coffee is alright with breakfast. Beer is preferable to that. But I wouldn’t be able to tell you the difference between a cup of Liptons and Yanshi Green if you handed me both.

Really. The only reason I even know what a ‘Yanshi Green’ is in the first place, is because I just googled ‘most expensive tea,’ and that’s what the wise internet revealed to me…

Tea is the most popular beverage on the planet (after water), and considering that I am traveling through Asia–the undisputed tea capital–I figured I should have some idea of what I’m drinking. That, and also because I like to be well versed and pretentious in all matters.

Thus, I came to Darjeeling, one of the premier tea exporters in the world, on a mission to ‘learn how to appreciate tea.’

I started my crash course in tea-snobbery by staying with a tea picking family in the foothills below Darjeeling, where they taught me the basics of how tea is made and manufactured, and what makes a high vs. low quality tea…

Tea pickers’ children, Maikaibari Tea Estate, Kurseong

The tea pickers are typically women, and work over small tea trees that are growth-stunted (like bonsais), as to make the picking process more convenient.

The bushes cling to the sides of high-altitude slopes, and the lower oxygen levels and unique soil compositions are often attributed to giving Darjeeling tea its unique ‘floral’ flavor.

This is what I’m told.

The pickers only pick the top two leaves and the bud (tip) of each branch.

Tea picker, Happy Valley Estate, Darjeeling.

The tea leaves are then sorted and processed, and depending on how long it is fermented or steamed, the leaves can produce either black, green, white, or oolong teas.

My tea-picking friend, Dawa, shows off the final product.

After learning the production process, I hit up the tea shops of Darjeeling, with the goal of tasting as many varieties of tea as possible.

Surely I’ll be a tea connoisseur in no time.

They hand me a Darjeeling white tea.

“What’s the background note?” asks Salesh.

I smell the cup, then take a sip.

“It tastes like fish.”

“No it doesn’t.” “What’s the foreground taste?”

“It tastes like tea.”

After a week of tea tasting, I remember that tea is stupid and boring, and promptly revert to ordering beer.

At the Tower View Lounge, I ordered a Kingfisher Strong. It was pale in color, with foreground notes of alcohol and water, and in the background, faint suggestions of metal and urine. It was cold, and gave me a buzz. It wasn’t floral at all, but that was totally fine by me.

Slicing west, I make a pit stop in Delhi for a ten hour food binge, which I’ll describe in all its depraved and shameless glory next week…

With my arrival to Pakistan quickly approaching, I travel the Great Trunk Road north, into the heart of the Panjab, to Amritsar.

(Side note: This photo won the daily photo contest at! The Accompanying Story: “I awoke around 5AM to the pounding of tablas and the cries of Sikh bhajan singers, on a hard, pillow-less mattress in the Golden Temple of Amritsar. The singing was so loud that falling back asleep was out of the question, and so I willed myself out of bed for an early morning stroll around the temple.
As I circumambulated the man-made lake, I saw one of the temple guards leaning on his wooden spear and calmly staring out across the water, as the roiling, black clouds of the monsoon rolled in from Delhi in the south. Before it even occurred to me to take a picture, I stood there for a long moment, watching the encroaching storm slowly blot out the rising sun, casting everything in a pale, bluish light, except for the guard’s vibrant orange shalwar kameez, which slapped about his legs in the sticky-hot breeze of the Panjab monsoon.”)

A mother and child at the Golden Temple, Amritsar.

A pensive-looking woman in a red sari surveys the temple grounds…

Because I’m classy and worldly and not conspicuously touristy in the least (*cough*) I decided to adopt the local garb, and bought a Sikh-style, eight meter long, neon green pagri (turban).

This brilliant decision won a dramatic reception of handshakes and laughter from most all the Panjabis—even the stern Indian patrol guards as I crossed the border…

Oh yeah, I crossed the border with a massive, neon green turban.

But as soon as I reached Pakistan, the turban was met with tentative stares and raised eyebrows. I shrugged it off as Pakastanis not having a sense of humor… Until someone later informed me that wearing a neon green turbans in Pakistan means that you’re a member of a violent, super-conservative sect of Islamic militants…


Peace out India. Next stop: Pakistan…


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To traverse the border into Pakistan, continue on to the Photo Travelogue “Chalo Pakistan: Lost in Lahore”

Or get more eye-candy and peruse a menu of Photo Travelogues from across Asia by clicking the “Photo Travelogues” tab at the top of the page.

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