One of the Foreigners-of-the-Round-Table I met at Yuksom was a twenty-four year old Israeli named Sagy. Over a shared pizza - my first outside NYC in quite awhile (no comment) - Sagy gave me the hard sell on a place of lodging called "Pala's Place" in Khachapuri, a small Sikkimese village known for its lake revered by Himalayan Buddhists. Khachapuri is the kind of town that gets only a couple of paragraphs and no map in the Lonely Planet guidebook, but on my new friend's recommendation it now had a place on my itinerary.
By the time (2 hours) the jeep I was in made the 27 kilometers from Pelling to Khachapuri, I was the only passenger left, the remainder having bailed to their respective homes along the way. Stepping out of the vehicle I took inventory of my final destination:
Police Huts: 1
Tiny Bodega-like Huts That Sell Just Candy and Water and Miscellaneous Buddhist Paraphernalia: 2
Sacred Buddhist Lakes: 1
Hotels: 0 (though I later learned there was a trekkers hut about 200 meters back down the round)
Miscellaneous Shanty Structures: about 3 or 4
So there I was. My only life raft was Sagy's instructions telling me that Pala's Place was a twenty-minute walk "uphill". Having driven in on a flat road, the only "uphill" I saw was an unmarked rock and dirt footpath disappearing into the woods behind me.
This kind of impromptu traveling - especially in India - requires a little faith. Faith to wait three and a half hours by the side of the road when someone tells you in broken English that a jeep to Khachapuri will come along. Faith that when you get to a small village there will be a room available or a kind soul to take you in. And so with a little faith in Sagy and my intuition, I started the steep climb through the woods towards what I hoped was Pala's Place.
The footpath up to Pala's is so steep that, walking with my backpack, I had to rest after only about ten minutes of climbing. Luckily, at this point in time an angel in the form of Pala's son Puchin appeared and alleviated not only my concerns that I was about to be lost without a place to stay, but also the heavy load of my pack. After some token resistance, I agreed to let him shoulder the weight, and watched in awe as the nineteen year old carried my bag the remaining fifteen minutes up the hill without breaking his stride or a sweat.
Arriving at the top of the hill I gave thanks to Puchin for his labor and, internally, to Sagy for his suggestion, for within moments I knew that Pala's was indeed a special place. In anticipation of our travels we often create idealized versions of the places we will visit, taking our cues from movies or guidebooks or conveniently incomplete tales from other travelers. It is, of course, inevitable that once we actually arrive, we are let down by the reality of the place we've dreamed so much about. This has happened to me more times than I can count. But Pala's Place is the kind of place you fantasize about when you dream up a Himalayan vacation. Pala's home, consisting of only a few wooden structures, sits at the apex of a hill from which the land slopes down from both sides, only to rise up again into lush green mountains. When the clouds clear, one can see the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas rising up above these green hills to meet the sky. Just beyond Pala's home and blooming garden is a Buddhist stupa surrounded by prayer flags and a monastery under construction.
Pala, an eighty-four year old Tibetan monk and former cook to the Dali Lama, greeted me from his bed, using the best of his English to explain that he was tired from the day's puja which involved six hours (six hours!) of chanting. Though Pala's English was rudimentary, I like to think that over the two days I spent in his company we developed a good relationship based on eye contact, smiles, broken conversation and comfortable silences. When more foreigners came in the final hours before my departure, Pala and I shared a smile and laughing eyes at the incessant talking provided by the newly arrived Japanese tourists.
So after two nights, some use of Pala's yoga/meditation room and some time at the sacred lake, I paid the $15 (about $7.50 a night) I owed Pala for the lodging and three deliciously home-cooked meals a day he had provided, and I was on my way out of Sikkim and on to Kalimpong, my last Indian stop.
By the way, I took pictures of Khachapuri from the spot the jeep dropped me off and the footpath up to Pala's in the hopes of including it in the post, but after an hour or so of struggling with the Kalimpong internet connection the first picture has still not won its proper place in the blogosphere. So we go text only, sorry folks!