Hotel Valentino

Darjeeling, India
March 30, 2003

Wok fire at Darjeeling 1
Wok fire at Darjeeling

By the time we reach Darjeeling, my ideals of a dreamy Shangri-la is totally shattered. Granted that we’ve hit the wrong season and it’ll take a miracle to see Kharchanjunga through the thick, low-hovering clouds. But what’s left by the name of progress is a small, noisy, congested and polluted town trying too hard to catch up with civilization as we know and hate.

The jeep can only get us as far as the phone exchange station at the foot of the hill. Hotel Valentino can only be accessed on foot up a steep flight of cobblestones. The street itself is about ten feet wide. It would be difficult for vehicle access even if it were on flat ground. It’s no wonder that it took forever to build, running into foundation problems throughout the construction. I wonder if there’re surcharges for all their deliveries.

Samuel sends three stocky Nepalese women porters to help with our gear and luggage. I’m flabbergasted by their strength and agility. I didn’t want her to hurt herself with my heavy equipment case and offer to help. But she single-handedly… or should I say single-headedly strapped everything to her forehead and proceeded waddling up the steep hill with ease. She shouted something in Nepalese but I couldn’t understand. It was probably “look ma, no hands”! Samuel told me later that she took everything because it balances her better. My fellow Steadicam buddies back home can learn a few tricks from her about finding “the sweet spot”.

Valentino is not an old hotel… but everything is old and musty. My room is cold and damp. It takes awhile to get hot water running. The blankets are thin and damp. There’s one small electric space heater. I wish Fai were here to keep me warm instead.

The hotel is apparently full. There’s only one other table of guest and they seem to be only interested in drinking. But I see a lot of food going upstairs from the busy kitchen. Maybe it’s more customary to eat in rooms here. The dinning room is coldly lit with blue-green fluorescents that tend to flicker. I’m not sure if the flickering comes from generator instability or just plain cheap tubes. The ceilings are low with little or no natural light making it feel like a basement. But we are in actual fact way above ground. It’s not a great atmosphere for dining, but I like the frontier character for filming purposes anyways.

The food is another matter. There’s nothing I can identify. Everything is salty and drowned in the quintessential brown sauce including the vegetable. I feel my blood pressure rising… I think I’m back in Havana again…we wash everything down with Tiger beer.

Tonight, I’m deep into my elbows shooting inside the slippery greasy kitchen with the Indian staff. I challenge them to our on going “who’s got the biggest wok fire”. One false move in this closet space kitchen and my ass will be flambé. They really got into it and I was equally impressed.