It took a little over a week, but the monsoons finally caught up with us in India. On Saturday we woke up to pouring rain and much cooler temperatures. Some very kind people at Glenburn Tea Estate came with umbrellas to bring us up to the main house for breakfast, but we still got soaked anyway because the rain was practically blowing sideways.
Even the rain couldn’t spoil our day, though. We were going to be making the 1 1/2 hour drive into the city of Darjeeling for the day. We would be gaining another 1,000 feet in altitude, so I was finally able to wear some of the cooler weather clothes I’d packed in my suitcase. (All of the hot weather clothing in my bag had already been worn twice at this point, so putting on clean clothes was a treat!)
We piled into two vehicles with drivers and guides – our guide for the day was Prakash, one of my favorite employees at Glenburn Tea Estate. Prakash is one of the trail guides at Glenburn and knows all about the native plants and birds in the area. He is also a huge fan of music. On the way up to Darjeeling, he played his favorite Hindi songs for us and then tried to translate them into English. He was a hoot, and it made our drive to Darjeeling fly by.
The first place we went on Saturday was the Tibetan Refugee Center right outside of the city. If you’re unfamiliar with the situation in Tibet, you can read about China’s occupation of Tibet here.
The Tibetan Refugee Center has been operating in West Bengal since 1964 as a self-help center where refugees can live and work as artists, selling their handicrafts straight from the center. In 2007, the center was home to 650 refugees.
During its 40 years of service to Tibetan refugees, the center has trained 1,600 people in various crafts. Over 1,000 of those have gone on to own their own businesses. The center provides free housing, food, and health care to everyone, many of them having lived here since the program began.
When we arrived at the Tibetan Refugee Center, it was still raining and very foggy, creating somewhat of a somber atmosphere. The area where we parked was home to about 6 or 7 buildings, all painted the same shade of gray.
The first place we were taken to was a row of Mani prayer wheels. It is believed that the spinning of these wheels clockwise purifies the mind, eliminates all negative karma, and earns the spinner merits equal to the recitations of the mantras inside the wheels. In other words – spin the wheels, good things happen. I’m in.
After spinning the prayer wheels, the first building we entered was a small-scale carpet factory where women at the center were weaving beautiful rugs to be sold in the on-site store and online. These rugs are so popular that there is a 6-month waiting list if you want to place an order. It takes one woman about a month to make one of the smaller, less-detailed rugs. The bigger ones require at least two people to complete.
In the next building, we saw where the wool for the rugs is spun into the yarn used to weave the rugs. There were at least two dozen spinning wheels in here, all spinning faster than my camera could catch them. The air inside this building was thick with flying fibers from the spinning wheels, making it somewhat difficult to breathe.
Some of the women working in here looked like they were about 100 years old and others looked quite young. A big part of the mission at the center is offering apprenticeships for younger workers. Many of the older members are master craftsmen and will teach the younger ones their art so it can be passed on.
My favorite older member of the Tibetan Refugee Center was this elderly man. His sweet smile drew me to his side of the factory as soon as I saw him. His job is to fix the spinning wheels when they break. He showed us how the wheels work and how he is able to fix them from common problems, all without speaking a single word.
Outside of the factories, we were approached by a group of children who were super excited to shake our hands and tell us their names! The center runs a nursery on the premises for the children of the factory workers. We didn’t get to see the school, but I loved meeting a few of the kids.
Also on the grounds of the Tibetan Refugee Center is a museum documenting the major points of the Chinese occupation of Tibet from 1959 until present. Inside the museum, I found the following quote from the Dalai Lama. I think there is a lot of truth to this…
After spending an extraordinary amount of time in the gift shop placing an order for a rug (my parents, not me), we ate a picnic lunch of chicken sandwiches, which I felt a little guilty about after seeing the bumper sticker below. Afterwards, we spent the rest of the day walking around the city of Darjeeling in a monsoon – I’ll have photos of that up tomorrow!
Honestly, who eats a golden retriever?
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