About Shree Antu

After a good, albeit far too brief, night sleep in our cozy rooms, Suma and I were up and ready to go by 04:30.20 minutes later, at the foot of Shree Antu tower, we were greeted with the sweet smell of brewing chai and a tingling sensation from the frying of the chili and onion of the pokora. We had to wait just 10 minutes until the sun began to show. Whilst timing was perfect, our choice of day was unfortunately not. Clouds blocked most of the sky and the rising sun could only be peaked through a small rectangular opening. That early rise and 20 minute uphill walk for nothing. Thank god I had chai to help me through this tough time.Feeling a little guilty Suma tried showing me some pictures of the sunrises he had seen from his previous trips. I understood the attempt, but this gesture didn’t quite achieve the desired effect. I took another swig of chai.We watched as the other locals began to gather on the hill in what turned out to be a bit of a social hub and selfie hot-spot. The photographers were undeterred by the lack of sunrise and continued to snap away. We finished our tea and decided to make our way back to the homestay.I allowed myself a little time to nap, meditate and read a chapter of my novel, and then rejoined Suma in the homestays restaurant where we had breakfast and then got on with the rest of our day.First things first. The tea plantations. Suma took me to a viewing spot overlooking the province of Ilam and its endless horizon of tea gardens. Whilst a little misty, the views were magnificent. What makes Shree Antu truly different is its less touristy feel. I have seen the tea plantations in Munnar, which are stunning and one of my favorite destinations in India, but they are very well kept and feel a little like an attraction rather than an authentic source of agriculture. Shree Antu’s plantations however are less well groomed and are sprinkled with an array of trees and bamboo shoots, giving it an untamed jungle like charm.Suma pointed to a not too distance ridge of mountains. “That is India” he told me.Shree Antu is apparently nothing more than a short trek from Darjeeling. The inhabitants speak the same dialect and they have only been separated by an international border for 100 years. The close proximity surprised me. Darjeeling is internationally recognized for its tea and beauty, yet Shree Antu is unheard of.We’d looked at them from afar; but now it was time to get in amongst the gardens. Suma led me back up the hill and then down a pretty inconspicuous path. Two minutes later, at the bottom of the narrow lane, we came to an opening. A cute little lake, luscious green hills and wooden huts appeared to us. What a gem! We wandered through the tea for a good hour observing farmers picking leaves and young couples enjoying romantic strolls. With little pagodas and benches dotted throughout the gardens, it was perfect place for a date.After a little exploring, we bumped into someone picking leaves and Suma asked if I would like to try. Why not? The young lad placed the basket on my back, wrapped the straps around my forehead, and with no instruction I was ready to go. I have no idea if what I was picking was right. The lad was smiling at me which was encouraging, but I have found in Asia that people are often too polite to criticize or tell people no. I enjoyed the experience regardless, but was glad to stop after a few minutes. The forehead straps helped, but boy did the basket get heavy! Fair play to the little women you see carrying them. They obviously have more core strength than I do. Back to the gym I go!One last stop before lunchtime saw us take a little detour to the local tea packing factory. Here they store, dry and pack the leaves and then ship the bags all across Nepal and India. The staff were more than happy to greet us, and they answered my questions as they showed us around the factory. But they had a strict no photo policy. I didn’t quite get an explanation for why that was. I like to think it’s because they have a secret recipe that competitors are trying to steal. A bit of a Wonka vs Slugworth situation. I’m sure the reality is a lot less interesting.After grabbing a light snack, we headed out again. This time we took a slightly different route and ambled towards the outskirts of the village. We jinked between cute little houses and homestays and wondered down trails that lead us through the jungle like wilderness. It felt very Vietnam/ Cambodia meets the Shire. For large chunks of the afternoon I had the Hobbiton theme tune rattling around my head. We chatted to the locals as we went along, sitting down with them and sampling some local tea, as well as being introduced to the kids for them to practice their English. We rarely got past ‘what is your name’ and ‘how old are you’, but it was very cute. The kids always had great beaming smiles and a cheeky manner. We called it a day after a few hours and headed back to the homestay.We were treated again to a tower of Tongba and a delicious Daal Bhat. This time it came with a pumpkin curry, which I think was one of the (if not the) nicest curries I have had in my 6 weeks in Nepal (would definitely recommend to a friend), and I remembered to take a picture.We were later joined by several other guests who were there for a family party. They were from a rural part of the district and their English wasn’t great, but they were extremely friendly and keen to chat. One member of the party was more confident than the rest (Dutch courage, I later discovered) and attempted talking to me. Unfortunately the bottle of whiskey he put back, whilst giving him confidence, did nothing to improve his English and I struggled through a very slurred half hour conversation where guess work and sign language were heavily relied on. And with that, day two came to a close.

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