I lost my virginity… in Darjeeling

Taken from the regular Independent on Sunday Travel Column under Jeremy Atiyah

In April in Darjeeling, nature seems to conspire to break down every urban inhibition. Nothing is hidden. Tall rhododendron trees with ruby-red blooms burst against the cool blue of a Himalayan sky. On Chowrasta, the town's gossipy meeting place, baby monkeys cling to their mother's bellies and mongrel bitches laze in dusty puddles, their pups forever trying to suckle on thin, spent breasts. The rains are warmer, the valleys thickly green, the air clear and heady. Its nature's own brilliant aphrodisiac.

It was 1989 and I was 18 and teaching English at an Irish convent perched on a spiraling hill with a view deep into the valley below. The girls were not much younger than me and the nuns, though kind, lived in severe discipline. My escapes were regular and most indulgently spent at the Windamere, once a pre-war boarding house, now a entirely posh hotel where guests didn’t need much encouragement to join in the raj fantasy.

In the middle of this genteel atmosphere and most likely because of it, I lost my virginity. He wasn’t a tourist but an itinerant tour rep, older than me and I think now, one of the lost tribe, a floater, constantly changing his mind, too idle really to stick to anything. He said he wanted to write. A romantic six-footer and an ex-Army captain to boot, he was guiding a small American group of tourists around the peeling wood of Darjeeling’s oldest bungalows. His tour group came from Fargo.

We met in the tearooms at the Windamere. I’d gone for their elaborate teas, to escape the tyrannous plain convent food. Tibetan servants scurried round us offering tomatoes sandwiches and Madeira cake. The resident pianist, a Brahmin spinster, seemed to flirt with us both as she played “It’s a long way to Tipperary’. Between bites of cake and cool English conversation, I felt the sensation – youthful, only half registered - of attraction.

He asked me to take a walk round the Mall.

Of course I went but couldn’t help wondering why, though this was 1989, he spoke of such dusty topics: the Empire, the war, our Englishness. There was an air of sadness about him. He was off to Bhutan the next day, then back to India and Sikkim. Neither of us mentioned home. Instead the hill station fantasy plunged forward and round and round and round we walked, passing monks in saffron and petite hill women.

We paused at a balustrade viewing point. The white peaks of the foothills had turned a dirty pink in the dust and he pointed to a powdery veil which seemed to hover around the highest peak. “The snow carves up around 70mph at the crest of Kanchenjunga…’’ I never bothered to check the fact and at his age he should have known better. Young girls simply don’t need such hard work. Let the snow crash around like cheap confetti for all I cared. Bu suppertime I was smitten.

We spent it eating at the WIndamere with all his dreary Fargo crowd and it was quickly clear that rather like the peak at Kanchenjunga, he had the wind up him. He steered me through three old fashioned courses – I didn’t taste a thing. The second my dessert–spoon finished in the bowl, he bade his group goodnight and took me to the bar.

The pianist was the only one there, chattering on, clearly in need of company. We couldn’t ignore her. We sat around a small table and the floral wallpaper seemed to churn around us oppressively. For a moment I hated Darjeeling, it’s fake gentility and false social standards. In my disappointment I kicked off my shoes and screwed up my stockinged feet. It was then that, under the antique lace doily that covered the table, he began to stroke his rough suede brogue along the arch of my foot. I felt his touch deep in the pit of my stomach.

Within fifteen minutes he had again made our excuses to the pianist and swiftly led me through the hotel grounds, up a crooked staircase to his room. Not a soul saw us.

Afterwards – afterwards – we lay on his single cabin bed in a shabby antique room, reserved by the hotel for tour reps, the night quiet shredded by the bark of pai-dogs. These dogs were masters of the town now, their wild ways undisturbed by the beggar-boys who teased them. It couldn’t have suited my mood more. I thought of the nuns snuggled under their eiderdowns and the fact that they wouldn’t have even missed me.

The next day was Thursday, the day I wrote my weekly letter home with all my news. It would, most likely, be shorter than last week’s.


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