Not all our volunteers make it to their schools. Here is Sarah Dagnall’s report on what she encountered on her way to her assignment:
“A few days before my teaching placement at St Anthony’s School in was to begin (February 2011), we had planned to spend a few days in the hill station of Darjeeling, then head on east to Mungpu. The plan was thwarted by the echoing repercussions of history and race as the local people planned their next steps towards winning an independent state called Gorkaland. Briefly, Gorkaland is the name given to Darjeeling and the Duars in north west Bengal and for Nepali / Gorkhali-speaking Gorkha ethnic group amongst a majority of Bengali speaking Bengali ethnic group and has been an issue they have been fighiting for sibce 1980s.
On the evening of the third day of our stay in Darjeeling it was announced the town would be shutting down to show their solidarity in favour of the creation of the independent Gorkha state. As a result of the action, everything and everyone was closed, with pharmacies and hotels the only exceptions (and even they started locking the doors behind you).
As it became clear that the strike would be indefinite, everyone was given the afternoon / evening to get their things in order, stock up on food and drink and many tourists used this time to flee. We watched from our hotel room window as a long line of jeeps headed down the mountain. My husband and I thought on it, and decided to sit it out. Our reasons for staying were fairly prosaic and practical: Mungpu is only 35km away, and the trip back down to the plains long and sick-inducing. We spoke to a taxi driver and got an offer to take us to Mungpu that night, for an inflated price but we were willing to pay. During a difficult communication with the headteacher (due to fuzzy phone lines), he advised not to travel to Mungpu as on arrival there would be nobody to teach due to the strike!
The next day we bought a paper – pretty much the only cash transaction on offer, apart from buying bandages and mineral water – and found out that two protestors had been killed by the police in Sibchu. Pondering this, we went on a long walk up to the northern end of the town passing, on the way back, a smouldering building, which we soon found out was the charred remains of the tourist office.
Although the afternoon’s events had implied a certain gravity in the situation, the atmosphere in the town hadn’t seemed that edgy. There were lots of people strolling around, kids playing cricket and badminton in the empty streets, teens opting for hacky sack using what looked like rolled-up pan scourers, the benches of Chowrasta (the central square) filled with the usual bunch of old men, perhaps reading their newspapers more intently than usual, and the shutters down absolutely everywhere. Even the protestors’ gathering point, which we’d visited the previous day, hadn’t exactly been animated, with lots of people staring up wistfully at the Gorkhaland sign and a small line of women holding up the movement’s distinctive green, white and yellow flag.
The next morning, we’d peeked out the window to see a hundred or so protestors filing past, though we had been warned not to do this by our anxious hotel manager. “They get very emotional,” he said, shaking his head. But it all seemed pretty peaceful to us.
Within a couple of hours of arriving back at the hotel, we got word that the police were evacuating all foreign tourists from Darjeeling. With the good wishes of our worried hotel manager ringing in our ears, we checked out and joined about 10 other backpacked foreigners outside, where we were marched down to the police lines a kilometre and a half off. On arrival, we found a sizable gathering of cops in camouflage gear. Many had rifles, but some just had wooden lathis and charming wicker riot shields. It was amusing, amid the helmets and berets to see the odd police wearing one of those woollen Tibetan hats, usually seen on old women and stoned Westerners.
For some reason, given the apparent seriousness of the situation, we thought we’d be on the move quickly. But we were still working to Indian time and sat around for an hour until a police van drove us back up the hill we’d just walked down. We then sat in the van outside the Foreigners’ Registration Office for over two hours, apparently waiting for more transports for the other tourists so we could drive in convoy (there were about 30 or 40 of us by this stage). And we had thought we were the only ones left in town!
Passing the time, an Australian girl related to us how she and her friend had gone for a walk the day of the protests and, heading past the Magistrate’s residence, she had taken a picture of a car, a White Ambassador. “For no reason,” she said. “It was just a random photo, really.” She showed us the snap on her digital camera. “And the next day,” she said, “This was in the paper.” She pulled out a clipping from the Times of India. It was the exact same photograph – same car, same angle, same size – except in this picture, the car was on fire, having been torched by protestors. We were all flabbergasted and wondered whether her camera had magic powers. I asked her not to take any more pictures of the van we were sitting in.
Just before we left, the man who’d taken our passport numbers for the embassies popped his head through the back door of he van and asked, “Finished?” This question was greeted with no small degree of hilarity, since we’d been sitting there doing nothing for two hours. “I think the question is, are you finished?” quipped the Australian sitting next to me. Despite the long, bumpy drive, everything seemed relaxed. The Police were cracking jokes to the tourists, the cafe owners were calmly dishing up Momos to an unexpected crowd and although we knew it was an important and emotive issue in the area, other than sitting in a Police van, it wasn’t immediately obvioius that anything was amiss. We finally arrived in the city of Siliguri at about 11.30pm, the police dropping us all at the roadside unwhittingly instigating a battle-of-the-westerners for the best hotel room!
We spent a tragic six days in Siliguri, an utterly unremarkable city, waiting to see if the strike would end. It didn’t.
Jim thankfully gave me another assignment, which was to meet with a charity that had previously contacted HELP for their assistance. The charity was Love Himalaya and its purpose was to empower community life through education and leadership. I learned about some of the hardships faced by schools such as poor teacher pay, low retention of teachers, limited resources and poor accommodation. I was humbled and inspired by their enthusiasm, passion and ambition especially in the face of such adversity.
It was a huge shame that I didn’t get to teach at St Anthony’s and I am very sorry that they were let down. I do hope to be able to visit again sometime to make up for it. I hope that in the meantime other volunteers will visit them too. ”
Sarah Dagnall and Will Parkhouse, December 2011