14th March – 4th April 2005

darjeeling1In 2005 I booked into a writing retreat through the Sydney University Continuing Education- www.cce.usyd.edu.au. There were 14 in our group with Judy Tenzing as our Tour Guide and author Sue Woolfe as our workshop leader.

We flew to Kolkata (Indian name for Calcutta.) We walked the streets of this mad city, met a wonderful lady called Shamlu Dudeja, visited an orphanage run by Mother Theresa nuns, wondered at tales of history, bravery and legend.

We caught a crowded overnight train and drove in rattely 4 wheel drives on narrow mountain roads. We visited Gantok and Kalimpong before reaching Darjeeling.

There we visited a tea plantation, Rumtek Buddhist Monastry, Hindu temples at Observation Hill, Darjeeling Zoo and St Paul’s College. We strolled around the Chowrasta, sipped chai tea, gazed out at the snow capped Himalayan mountains ( Mount Kangchendzonga) in the distance and learned about the history of brave sherpas.

India is such a land of contradictions.

There’s the chaotic mad out-of-control traffic, dust, noise, cars, buses, bikes, rickshaws, loud horns, small children begging with desperate pleading eyes, muddles of people scratching out a living, some sleeping on the streets, mangy stray dogs, sacred cows, swooping crows, smells of fumes, rotting garbage, sewerage, sweat … an unruly country bursting at the seams.

But I also marveled at the elegant women wrapped in brightly coloured saris, the men dressed in pure white dhotis, flowers, music, movies, stories, poetry, history, anklets, ear rings, embroidery, religion, faith, resilience, patience, spices, delicious food, inspiration, sparkling smiles and rich pockets of kindness.

Judy Tenzing is an excellent guide. She was married to Tashi Tenzing, the grandson of Tenzing Norgay who was the famous Sherpa who assisted Sir Edmund Hillary when he climbed Mt Everest on 29th May 1953. We met Tenzing’s family in Darjeeling and learned a lot from Judy’s extensive knowledge of Indian history, language and culture.

Sue Woolfe – www.suewoolfe.com.au – is an excellent workshop leader. She has done extensive research on ‘creativity’. During the trip we had 8 workshops. Sue encouraged us to write what ever came into our heads. We wrote lots of unrelated fragments, descriptions and impressions. We used all our senses and soaked up this very different culture. She called this ‘loose construing.’ We were urged not to judge, plan or edit. Towards the end of the trip we were instructed to code our work and cut it into fragments… sorting them into characters, atmosphere, descriptions and themes. We were given coloured pens, a sheet of butcher paper and blue tack and instructed to arrange our fragments into a story. It was fascinating to hear the range of stories.

We also read Indian writers like Rabindranath Tagore and performed plays and enjoyed absorbing evening discussions in front of warm coal fires.

I will always remember the hum of conversation in the chowrasta, the tangle of electricity wires, the cheeky monkeys, the blanket of mist, the smell of sweet curry, colourful prayer flags, trinkets, music and the stirrings of motivation for my book, Bollywood Dreams.

Meeting Mr and Mrs Singh at the Tea Plantation sparked an idea for the parents in my story. 16 year old India Singh is the young girl who bounced out of my imagination and wanted to be my main character. I gave her a younger sister, Shanti and an older brother, Rahul. Darjeeling became my setting. I wondered what it would be like to bring a family from such a different culture to live in Sydney. That became my plot. I gave India the passion for dancing, music and Bollywood movies.

This trip sparked an enthusiasm for further research when I got home to Australia.