The visit north was fantastic and just what we all needed after so much time in the city. May is peak tourist-season in the hills because it's right before the monsoon rains start and most Indians are on summer holidays. Somewhat unfortunately for us, the rains (tho not the monsoons) came early this year and although we saw a bit of sun we didn't see much while there. No worries. We've been in the sun and heat for months on end now and no Volcano-raised person can be entirely comfortable without feeling the rain every now-and-then.
The first day, ATREE staff were all busy with a project review so Tim and the boys and I went to the zoo. It's a really nice zoo. It specializes in Himalayan species and so we got to see animals that I never thought I'd see (like snow leopards!!). Another nice thing is that like San Diego, the Darjeeling zoo is mostly working on captive propagation of rare species and has done a good job of providing relatively intact habitat in the animals' inclosures so you don't feel too bad seeing them out of the wild.
There're a cluster of villages in this area where ATREE works on it's Livelihoods Project: helping to build improved stoves (people say they're now using 1/2 the wood that they did previously), install beehives (Apis cerana), greenhouses, mushroom rooms, and other forest-friendly projects.
This area was one of the major cardamom producing areas of India until some disease (virus? bacteria? fungus? No one seemed to know what) arrived about 8 years ago and wiped out the cardamom industry. Cardamom is an understory crop and all of the fields were planted with a huge diversity of tree species in really nice agroforestry systems. However, with the loss of the income from cardamom, farmers have been forced to start cutting trees and selling timber, etc in order to make ends meet. So the loss of cardamom is leading to a loss of trees in this area. Part of ATREE's goal is to provide other means of income so that farmers don't need to take out the trees.
Another interesting thing in this area is that about 10 years ago the Indian government installed a hydropower project on the river that runs through the valley. Water is diverted uphill of Phadikhole and run through a large pipe to the road lower in the valley. The people in the villages between the diversion and the road are still not getting electricity from the government (many of the houses have installed their own micro-hydro; enough to power lights but not much more) and they also have lost the majority of the river flow due to the diversion. Pretty sad.