Kolbong – Karmi Farm Guesthouse

After our stay in Darjeeling, we boarded some jeeps to take us across the valley and up the opposing mountainside. The drive takes a bit over two hours, walking takes closer to six. Since the roads are not as traveled as those leading up to Darjeeling the roads are steep dirt and stone roads. You can only make it up in a jeep or in a pick-up truck with serious horse power. Encountering drivers headed the opposite direction is also an interesting experience. Often, both parties refuse to move and when someone does move, it involves a precarious reversal on the narrow roads with a steep drop to one side. The funniest part about the drive was that someone had fashioned a swing set for a kid, with the swing part directly in the middle of the road.

Our destination was the tiny town of Kolbong, and more specifically, the Karmi Farm Guesthouse. The guesthouse is run by Andrew, a fellow in his 50’s who is half Scottish and half Indian from the region. The initial parts of the home were built in the 1930’s by Andrew’s maternal grandparents but his family has roots in the village that can be traced back hundreds of years. His family used to live higher up the mountain, but the water situation up high was difficult so they built the home in the current location. His family also had another home south of the current place that they built in the 1720’s which the family donated to Buddhist monks in the 1780’s.

Andrew spends 8 months in Kolbong, and 4 months in Spain during the rainy season. He employs a number of people to help him take care of the home, and their families live with him on the property. They also take care of the home while he is away during the rainy season–apparently the humidity is so bad that the counters need to be constantly wiped down and fires need to be lit, otherwise the whole place would be covered in fungi by the end of the rainy season.

As you can see from the pictures below, the guesthouse is beautiful, and the pictures truly do not do the place justice. The outdoor seating area that you see in the first photo has breathtaking views of the valley. My room was just below, a cozy little room that looks out onto the garden. I would highly recommend this as a place to decompress for a couple of days after a hectic trip through India. Despite being really isolated, it has boiling hot water 24/7 and Andrew’s helpers can put together some fantastic meals:

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Below is a photo of the main home. There are two rooms for guests in the home as well as Andrew’s residence, and it also has the sitting area, kitchen and dinning room:

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The views from the outdoor seating area:

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Below is a photo of the third main building. The families of the helpers live on the bottom floor, and the top floor has a large dormitory for guests that fits approximately 8 people:

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Hey, what can I say, it’s my warmest sweater and it got very chilly in the evenings:

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The cozy little kitchen. The dinning area is off to the left.

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Andrew and many of the locals make their own grain alcohol. I tried a bit and it was quite pleasant. I would guess that it was at about 14% alcohol and tasted remarkably like sake.

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During the following two days, Andrew took us on walks up and down the mountain. We got to visit some farmland, and the views from the walks were lovely, albeit pretty difficult to capture in photos due to the mist. You’ll have to take my word for it, but I did take a few shots along the way:

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One of the reasons why Dragoman groups stay at Karmi Farm is to support the medical clinic that Andrew started. When the clinic was initially founded, it was run out of the guesthouse and had an operating budget of approximately $20,000 CDN a year, funded mostly through donations from the U.K.. As the donations diminished and the medical costs increased, they were forced to start charging the families who could afford to pay for their medication. My understanding is that they charge those families the market cost for the medicines that they buy at a discount in bulk, and they use the difference to pay their one full-time staff member, to pay the rent, and to pay for the medications for approximately 300 families that cannot afford them.

However, it should be noted that the clinic provides a great service even for those families who are charged for the medication. For one, their only other option would be to travel to Darjeeling for medical attention and the trip there is long and expensive, and they would also be charged for the medical consult. Also, in addition to helping indigent families with their medication costs, when the clinic is unable to provide the medical care that a poor patient requires, the clinic pays for the transport costs to Darjeeling and for any medical bills.

What is absolutely amazing is that they run the clinic on only about $200 USD a month. For that amount of money, the clinic provides medical services 2,000 people on an annual basis. Their only full time employee started off by working as a translator for foreign doctors who would come to the clinic to volunteer. By translating for 10 years he picked up on-the-job medical training which he supplemented with a few basic courses. He also gets advice when needed via phone from doctors in Darjeeling. Given his language skills, he could have just left the village and gotten a higher paying job in a bigger city, but he chooses to stay and serve the village. And don’t underestimate him, he doesn’t just give people Aspirin and send the rest off to Darjeeling, we’re talking about a clinic that serves farmers, and farmers can get some nasty injuries. The staffer apparently has killer suturing skills.

Currently, they rent the small space that you can see in the photos below. Their plan for the near future is to build a two floor building next door with two consultation rooms on top, and with rooms below that they can rent out to villagers to generate revenue. When an Australian visitor to the farm found out that the plot of land next to the clinic was for sale and that they were trying to raise the funds to purchase it, he ponied up the $3,000 CDN himself for the purchase. Then a group that had visited the farm from the U.K. raised an additional $10,000 CDN to purchase the construction materials that would allow for them to start building. They have now started construction on the site next door. When I was there, the one full-time staffer was tending to the clinic while also helping out with the construction. I found it absolutely remarkable how efficiently the clinic is run and how any cash infusion leads to tangible results.

Photos of the clinic:

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The land next door where construction has just commenced:

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After the clinic, Andrew took us to the building from the 1700’s that was previously owned by his family and was converted into a Buddhist temple:

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These are the various scrolls that are read from during special ceremonies:

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Two photos from the walk back up to the farm:

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That night we had momos for dinner (similar to Chinese dumplings, but bigger and thicker), and some in our group helped to put them together:

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Yves watching a movie with one of the kids who lives on the property, Munal:

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After dinner, Munal taught me to play a local game called carrom. It’s quite similar to pool, the object is to sink your colour of discs into the four pockets at the corners of the board. You do so by bumping them using a disc that you flick with your finger. To win the game you have to sink the one blue disc, followed by your last disc, in succession. I found the game more challenging than pool because you can only shoot from the line next to your side, so you generally have to hit the discs into the pockets from quite a distance. Both Munal and I were so crappy at the game that our last game lasted well over an hour. We just couldn’t finish the bloody thing. In the end I had to call in his brother to take over for me or we would have never gone to sleep.

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A photo of Andrew (at the back), his helpers, and their kids:

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After leaving the clinic I got in touch with Andrew to ask how we can help his clinic. At the moment he doesn’t need any doctors to volunteer because the one staff member can handle the current single room clinic. When they get the two room clinic, they may need some volunteers. For now, their priority is to construct their clinic so that they can start generating revenue from rents. I asked for the best way to get funds to him, and unfortunately aside of a direct deposit into his U.K. bank account which is a pain if you’re not in England, a Western Union transfer to Darjeeling is the only other way to go. To save on the transaction fees (and to save him unnecessary trips into Darjeeling), my thought was to gather funds from anyone who wishes to donate cash, and I’ll then send him a lump sum via Western Union. Anyone who wishes to donate from Canada can just send me funds via Interac email transfer, I’ll wait until February 1 for any stragglers and I’ll send out the lump sum the next time I’m in a town with a Western Union office after that cut-off date. Also, if any of you doctors out there want Andrew’s email address to stay in touch in case he needs volunteers down the road, let me know.

Thanks in advance to any of you who wish to help out!

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