Culture Shock- alone in a sea of men

Maybe my fear was completely unfounded, but I actually felt better hiding my features. They knew I was there, and they likely knew I was white, but they didn’t get to stare directly at me. I was not on display. It was a weird relief.

I noted in my blog about being driven back to Agra through the pitch black back roads and through villages getting around a big traffic jam… One thing I noticed as we drove in the dark on the main highway- there weren’t any women not accompanied by a man anywhere to be seen, and not very many of them either.  Where the heck are all the women? At home because in India, “Nice girls don’t go out at night.”  To situate myself so you, dear reader, will understand this context, I am a liberal, liberated North American women who lives in a city that has a higher population of women than men (like most cities in North America). I have traveled extensively, but I have never in my life been to a country where there were no women to be seen anywhere in public, especially after dark.  This was a completely unique experience, and was the source of my culture shock.

While we were in the jam, a man got out of one of the waiting public buses and asked, since the driver was his friend or cousin or whatever, if he could come with us. I did the first very un-Canadian thing since arriving in India. I said “No.” That is safety rule one for single female travelers- never let anyone else (especially a man) be in the taxi with you if you’re traveling alone- not for any reason. Everybody is somebody’s friend/cousin/brother, after all. They just shrugged their shoulders and gave the head wag, it wasn’t a big deal. I felt badly that the guy was stuck there, but I didn’t know him from Adam, so no dice.

As soon as we took the detour out of the jam, I was back on the phone to my homestay family, letting them know where I was and when they could expect me.  I had the eldest son, Shiron, say hello to the driver too.    Driving through the dark countryside was a little scary as we were passing through a village or two that for the most part were completely dark, and we were driving directly behind one of those pickup truck “buses” that was completely full of young men.  I then did something that surprised myself- I took my scarf and made it into a niquab to cover my head and face.

Since being in India, I had been stared at pretty continuously, for people are curious, and I’m the epitome of white- fair, Germanic featured, and blue-eyed. I understand that I’m exotic.  But to be honest, I just didn’t want to endure all those guys staring at me. I was a bit afraid and I didn’t want even one of them to get a funny idea about “what foreign women are like”, or be offended by my “immodesty” or whatever other thing that could potentially be thought to justify violence of any sort towards me for no reason at all.  This was my way of acknowledging their standards of female behavior and a signal that I wasn’t interested in challenging them, it was a signalling of modesty, it was a signalling of “I’m stuck out here and just trying to get home”, it was a signalling of disinterest in them, but for me it was a buffer against the stares.  I actually felt better hiding my features. They knew I was there, and they likely knew I was white, but they didn’t get to stare directly at me. I was not on display.  It was a weird relief.

There’s basically no way for me to recount this story without being offensive, because what I was essentially experiencing and acting upon was racism: fearing and demonizing the non-white, non-Western ‘other’ and assuming the worst of them- but it was my experience- and women who had lived in India advised me to use the dupatta scarf this way during my visit “as appropriate.”

Maybe my fear was completely unfounded.  I was just proven that the infamous touts of India can actually be a source of genuine help.  But just in case… fear is what keeps you alive, sometimes. Sometimes it’s wise to be a little fearful.  It’s stupid to not pay attention to your own sense of unease. That’s a great way to get yourself into trouble.

(I was a teenager growing up in the big city of Toronto, and not all of my friends lived in “nice” neighbourhoods, so I know what sketchy and potentially dangerous situations feel like in my gut, who in that crowd is genuine “bad news”- I was helpful to whomever else wanted to get out of those potentially sketchy situations before they started because I wasn’t afraid to look like a nerd and pull the chute.  It’s a shame for other people who stayed behind how often my instincts proved right.)   I’ve traveled alone in other countries, and I’ve always been safe because I trust my gut, and my gut was telling me “this is a good time to keep your face covered.” Did I feel like I had compromised my feminist and egalitarian sensibilities kowtowing to local custom? Nope. I just felt like I did the best I could to keep myself safe in a foreign country where violence against girls and women is still a huge problem. Did I feel a bit guilty for assuming the worst could happen? Yup.

I’ll just leave it at that. This was my first big jolt of culture shock while in India.

 

Fatehpur Sikri (Agra) Oct. 15 ’16

I arrived in Agra by train in the morning, got settled in at N Homestay, and at the suggestion of their guide/driver Mokul, I took the rest of the afternoon to visit Fatehpur Sikri- home of the Jama Masjid mosque and Mughal palace predating the Taj Mahal.  Little did I remember that the entrance fee for the Historic palaces had gone up to 500 INR, so I only had enough money for it, and to take the bus back to Agra (and maybe a bag of chips).  Lunch consisted of the leavings of my goody bag from Simla.  Luckily I did bring a scarf  (I had completely forgotten my hat) because the Jama Masjid is an active mosque.  I have also been using my water purification drops when filling my water bottles from the tap, and so far, so good.  One could go broke keeping up on drinking water here in India. Also, I paid $20 CAD for this water purification kit, so I might as well use it. TRAVEL TIPS TO FOLLOW, SO NECESSARY FOR SURVIVING FATEHPUR SIKRI.

Arriving in Agra, I knew right away I had officially arrived in India, and gone were the days of orderly, friendly, clean little towns.  It was a madhouse of Autorickshaws around the train station, and all of the drivers clamoured at me “taxi? taxi? hotel, miss? hotel?” Basically one has to say “No,” firmly and give an emphatic shake of the head about a million times or or ignore them completely running the gauntlet until you find your driver, – which will happen, seemingly by magic. After riding the regular public bus from Agra (very hot and dusty- bring a scarf just to put over your nose to filter some of it out), there are tour touts waiting for you at the little bus depot in Fatehpur’s bazaar.  If your hotel or homestay has a driver/tour guide and offers to take you to Fatehpur Sikri (hereafter “FS”) for 700 INR or suchlike cost- DO THIS!   Learn from my mistake.  I decided I didn’t want to spend the 700 INR for my own private autorick and tour, and simply took the 40 INR bus ride from Agra. I thought I was being really smart by forgoing the extra cost…

There is a direct path straight up from the bus depot in Fatehpour’s bazaar towards the gate to the mosque, but one is essentially walking a path of garbage, so I took the long way around and took a second look at the bazaar, which was full of vendors and services of every sort. Traffic slowed to a crawl those last 50 meters from the beginning of the bazaar and the bus depot. The road above the bazaar leading up to the mosque and palace grounds, though, is wide, free of traffic, and lined with ice cream and goodie vendors, so Indian families take full advantage of the refreshments before going into the so-called abandoned city.  Walking up the ramp to the entrance of the huge and extremely impressive Buland Darwaza (Victory Gate) entrance to the Jama Majid mosque, I couldn’t help but laugh at the frolicking and leaping goats combing the ramparts for goodies left by tourists.

As soon as I entered into the mosque, a young man calling himself a “guide” offered to show me around.  These guys (and there are a lot of them) are touts, not guides.  They will indeed take you around the mosque, they’ll show you all the different parts of the grounds and tombs, they have good information, and they will even take really nice photos of you and for you while on the grounds, and will be very pleasant- but they will conclude their tour at their own little blanket set out with the souvenirs they sell- usually carvings in soapstone or alabaster.  There’s nothing wrong with buying from them except they’ll give you the hard sell and you will have to haggle within an inch of your life, and there’s nothing wrong with not buying from them and tipping them for their time instead.  They’re not as happy with the tip as they would to sell you their stuff, but whatever.  Bazinga.  I saw all the parts of the mosque- was encouraged to do all the little things that people do when they visit, like tying a string in the lattice screen of the white marble tomb of Shaikh Salim Chishti and making a wish (NO TELLING), and genuinely enjoyed my tour.  I found the cemetery and the crowded ladies-only cemetery behind lattice screens interesting as the marker stones were very compact. The honour of being interred within the mosque was only conferred to family members of the saint. The white marble tomb with the reflecting pool before it, and single tree growing beside it within the broad expanse of the mosque complex courtyard was genuinely beautiful.  I explored the courtyard of the mosque once I left the young tout, and there is no angle from which this little building is not striking and a spot of visual coolness in the expanse of baking redstone.  It was also a constant hub of activity as people came to pay their respects, tie their string, make their offering of thrown perfume or rose petals and some rupees to the saint.  Directly outside a group of musicians crouched in the shade, playing and singing their devotions. I noticed that the tomb had gutters leading directly to the pool, so that rainwater would be collected there for both its beauty and utility.

Exiting the mosque from the King’s Gate, I then proceeded into the expansive palace grounds, paying the entrance fee at that point.  The architecture and gardens were unlike anything I had seen before (or would see again in India), especially the 5 tiered Panch Mahal, and it’s no wonder for King Akbar who lived here encouraged unique designs melding Islamic, Hindu, Christian and Buddhist elements and imagery in the decor. King Akbar decreed that each religion was to be respected equally, and to “seal the deal” he took a queen from each faith.  The special audience hall (Diwan-i-Khas) and the decorative pool in front of his palace use a quartered square design illustrating the new faith he developed, called Din-i-llahi (God is One).  Wandering around this place was genuinely enjoyable. There were lots of arcades in which to shelter from the sun, gardens to refresh the eye from all the red sandstone, and wonderful spots from which to view the surrounding farmlands.  Within the palace grounds, I also discovered the striped chipmunk-like squirrels, wild green ring-necked parrots and many songbirds and swallows (and pigeons) that inhabit India.  To sit in the shade from the softening afternoon sun and breeze, journaling and watching the parrots and other birds race from buidling to building to tree was a real joy.

I was really glad that I had come out to FS and explored these amazing buildings.  Until I was foolish enough to NOT run and catch the bus I saw leaving the bazaar as  I came down to the corner. “Busses run for another two hours,” I told myself, “I’ll grab a quick snack and catch the next bus.”  Famous last words.  I waited at the bus depot and no other bus arrived. I had a snack, wrote in my journal and exchanged a few pleasantries with a couple of the touts there who were brothers… and then it started getting dark.  The young Islamic touts started to look a little uneasy on my behalf and gently remonstrated me “Why didn’t you run for that bus?” Finally one of the young men said “I don’t want you sitting here after dark. Tourists have been stranded here before by the bus. I have seen it and helped them get back to Agra before. Maybe the last bus will be here at 5:45, but if not then you should let my driver friend take you back to Agra because none of the tourist taxis come here.”  This was factually correct and not an exaggeration on his part, I hadn’t seen a single white car with the blue and yellow “Tourist Taxi” emblem painted on the side since arriving in FS, and there weren’t even any Autoricks.  Two of the young touts  arranged someone to drive me back and they tried to quote me double the price of what my homestay driver had offered for the return trip. Boy was I mad at myself and a little annoyed with them as I tried to discuss the discrepancy with them.  When he finally admitted that what he was really including in the price was a commission for him and his brother who had both kept me company for two hours while I waited, and arranged my ride, my frustration vanished.  I was happy to give them a commission, but I was not happy about being ripped off for a drive back to Agra- qualitative or semantic difference, as either way I was out a lot more rupees than I wanted to be for the day, but I don’t have a problem with rewarding people for taking their time to help me.

As it was, there was a massive traffic jam on the road back to Agra, and my driver was fortunately able to get out of the jam before too many vehicles boxed us in from behind, so we took a link road around the blockage and made it back to Agra with only a little delay.  It was a bit of an adventure itself and when I experienced some acute culture shock (see next entry).  I tried to not kick myself too hard for having to pay so much money to get back to the homestay, but on the other hand FS is a good hour outside of Agra, and I was very relieved that I got back safely and in comparative comfort. Who knows when I would have got back to Agra if I had gotten on that bus. For all I know, it was the thing causing the jam.

I am just so grateful that the world is indeed full of good people, that I do better than survive and get where I need to go safely thanks to the kindness of strangers.  I am very grateful for my karma in this regard, and don’t for a moment take it for granted.  I’m also very grateful that those who took care of me have increased their own karma.  As I chatted with the two young men, both married and fathers in their early 20s, we agreed that everyone benefits so much more when we are kind and fair to one another.

So, if you find yourself taking the public bus to Fatehpur Sikri, do me a favour and hire one of the young touts to show you around the mosque and palace grounds- don’t be put off that they phrase it like you would be just doing them a favour by letting them practice their English- they’re intelligent entrepreneurs tour guides and proved by their help to me thoroughly decent people. You could do a lot worse than pay them for their time.

Matriarch Naghma of N Homestay had a wonderful thali dinner waiting for me when I got back to their place, and was kind enough to sit and chat with me while I ate.  She told me the interesting history of her family home, how happy and content she was to share it with travelers, and how this was definitely the best part of her life with her sons grown and one of them recently married.  After eating, I was grateful to retire to my very spacious room, shower and wash my clothes and retire to bed.

Tomorrow is the Taj Mahal at dawn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reflection- Garbage/Pollution in India

It’s actually quite ridiculous that India has no recycling program nor proper sewage and water works, but it’s definitely a hangover from India’s historical context.

I mentioned, in my last travel entry, the garbage in India.  I talked about it like it was only along the train tracks in the city, but it was literally everywhere.  Garbage in the streets, in the fields, along the roadways, choking the rivers, covering riverbanks in layers of garbage and plastic, garbage tips- literally a downward hill embankment that people just spontaneously made into a garbage tip.  Who knows when, if ever that garbage gets picked up..

When in India, it’s hard to ignore the reality that single serving wrappers and plastic everything are both the bane of human existence and the very thing that gives us the quality of life and health that we enjoy- India simply does not have the infrastructure for human waste and garbage yet.  There were a couple of recycling bins in the bigger towns such as Panaji in Goa, and Dharmsala, that have a very specific context which makes them  places where recycling would be considered desirable and put the resources towards it.

I read an interesting Indian magazine article; an interview with a grassroots social activist working to illustrate the effect that the Indian caste system has on how things get done in the country.  The lowest castes traditionally have the dirtiest jobs handling waste and garbage, the higher castes have never had a part in dealing with it.  So in a weird way, the garbage is a cultural blind spot brought on by the caste system. It’s almost not their fault. The caste system makes it very difficult for the upper caste people to put their minds to problems that are “beneath” them, like sanitation, garbage collection, sewage. It’s actually quite ridiculous that India has no recycling program nor proper sewage and water works, but it’s definitely a hangover from India’s historical context. Bureaucrats and officials in high levels of government LITERALLY have not been capable of wrapping their heads around managing garbage because it should not even be on their radar- they’re too “upper class”, it’s not something they have ever been concerned about in their caste- it just gets taken away. This is literal, India just dumps everything, and the dumps are just about full.  Whereas, there has been very little improvement for the working conditions of those people who belong to the lower caste because there is little top-down leadership on these issues. This activist really hammered that people of the lower caste were dying when working to empty out septic tanks due to suffocation, the oxygen content is so low and the gaseous offsets of the waste literally suffocates them. Most towns and cities have never built sewer systems.  The officials go on inspection and since they don’t see women belonging to the lower caste carrying baskets of human waste on their heads in such a project, they consider the matter fine.  It’s a socio-cultural issue, according to this activist.

India started recycling in 2016. The main dump outside of Mumbai was 97% full by Oct. 2016 said an Indian daily I read on the bus…

Simla-> Kalka-> Delhi Oct. 14 ’16

This [Simla-Kalka] train ride, despite the heat, length of time, and cramped quarters was absolutely worth doing! The picturesque multiple-tiered and arch supported stone bridges, tunnels short and long, gorgeous and ever changing mountain vistas, and changing vegetation were stunning. There are a number of heritage train stations along the line that are also beyond adorable…

Woke at the crack of dawn to find that my body was doing it’s  natural female letting go thing, which definitely explained yesterday’s tearfulness on the physiological level…

But, no rest for the wicked, as they say, so I got myself up and power-walked back to The Coffee House for another fantastic breakfast and coffee sitting on one of the back balcony overlooking the town terraces and Himalayan foothill mountains.  On the way back out of town to fetch my luggage, I observed a family of monkeys clambering down the side of the last building of The Mall from the roof using drainpipes and telephone cables, and was deeply touched by the baby of the family making his brave yet cautious effort while her mum watched intently.  The wee one made little noises of trepidation the entire time “ooh, eeeh, umm, ohoooh” I could hear his thoughts, “Umm, I’m going to try this out… Um, oh dear, ok, annnd…. umm, ok I’ll try this this way, oh jeez, I’m not sure now…” Of course he made it safely and he and mum caught up to the rest of the group.  It was very sweet. These are the kinds of monkey behaviours I like, and when they’re quietly preening each other while basking in the sun on top of the walls, etc.  I snatched my bags after bidding good-bye to my pet spider “Bob-Ji” (all my pet spiders are named “Bob”, but since this was an Indian spider, I felt he should have an Indian inflection to his name) who kept guard in my bathroom during my stay, and walked downhill to the train station.

I was sorry to be leaving Simla.  I realized that like Dharmsala it’s “India-Lite” in that it’s a friendly, clean and safe tourist town, though in two days I had seen most of what it had to offer.  I was also super excited for the excruciatingly slow “toy”train ride along the  World Heritage Simla to Kalka line (built in 1906, one travels 96kms, through 102 tunnels, and over 988 bridges in 6 hours).  I got into the 1st class car, and was astounded by how narrow and tiny the train was altogether- economy class in airplanes have higher ceilings and more leg room- and I felt deeply sorry for the gigantic German tourists squeezing themselves onto the miniature bench seats.  Everyone in the train was very friendly, but we had to be as we sat knee to knee!  This train ride, despite the heat, distance and cramped quarters was absolutely worth doing! The picturesque multiple-tiered and arch supported stone bridges, tunnels short and long, gorgeous and ever-changing mountain vistas, and changing vegetation were stunning.  There are a number of heritage train stations along the line that are also beyond adorable, and seem to have no other function except to be perfectly kept up with gardens, lovely hanging planter baskets and shining sky blue and white tiled water stations, so the station master cum gardener can stand proudly in front of it and wave the train on with his green flag.  I was sitting facing the rear of the train, so had real difficulty getting photos of these quaint jewel-like train stations in time.  I would go back and do it all again to get a lot more photos.  There were many instances where we on the train were looking down onto roadways, and they had an awful lot of views of rock faces, landslide areas, and dust.  The vegetation as we wound our way down from elevation was an ever-changing delight and wonder.  The tops of the mountains in Himachal Pradesh are very dry, water is pumped and trucked up to towns and city cisterns, so leaving Simla initially the landscape was quite sere with short grass, shrubs, pine trees and stands of Prickly Pear and Danda Thor cacti! Only at elevation, there was also a rarely seen tree with fine pink blossoms that rivaled cherry blossoms in loveliness, although they were far more delicate.  We later reached the pine forest level, and it was a gorgeous sight as each pine needle glinted and gleamed in the sunshine as if it had been polished, and the colour was  vibrant and fresh. As we continued to descend, the pine gave way to deciduous trees like mountain ash and arbutus, which, again, if you live in British Columbia and have ever been traveling through the interior and Okanagan, they don’t seem so exotic- but it was good to see that a lot of these forests have been preserved and the hills not completely denuded. And of course, the wildflowers grew in colourful profusion at every point down the mountains. The flowers in India… Incomparable.

We finally arrived at Kalka, a completely unremarkable and purely utilitarian transportation hub town on the border of Himachal Pradesh.  There I joined a tour group of Canadians, Brits and Germans in the “Executive” waiting room, which had a lovely washroom, air-conditioning and comfey couches to enjoy while waiting for the Kalka to Delhi train.  Amusingly, a couple of the ladies there recognized me from my wanders in the streets of Dharmsala, and they happened to be from Vancouver.  We all got onto a regular express train to Delhi, and I appreciated the reclining chair, A/C- and the meal and 1L water bottle provided.  It wasn’t immaculate, but it was definitely a clean train- I might have been one of the dirtiest things on it!

Train travel is definitely an improvement over bus travel, but one does get a view of the town garbage tips and constant litter beside the tracks, which is quite sad.  Except for the upsetting amount of garbage Indians strew everywhere, the views are still much more picturesque, and a waxing gibbous moon was shining outside my window.

The garbage everywhere, though… When in India, it’s hard to ignore the reality that single serving wrappers and plastic everything are both the bane of human existence and the very thing that gives us the quality of life and health that we enjoy- India simply does not have the infrastructure for human waste and garbage yet.  There were a couple of recycling bins in the bigger towns such as Panaji in Goa, and Dharmsala, that have a very specific context which makes it a place where recycling would be considered desirable and put the resources towards it. I read an interesting Indian magazine article; an interview with a grassroots social activist working to illustrate the effect that the Indian caste system has on how things get done in the country.  The lowest castes traditionally have the dirtiest jobs handling waste and garbage, the higher castes have never had a part in dealing with it.  So in a weird way, the garbage is a cultural blind spot brought on by the caste system. It’s almost not their fault. The caste system makes it very difficult for the upper caste people to put their minds to problems that are “beneath” them, like sanitation, garbage collection, sewage. It’s actually quite ridiculous that India has no recycling program nor proper sewage and water works, but it’s definitely a hangover from India’s historical context. Bureaucrats and officials in high levels of government LITERALLY have not been capable of wrapping their heads around managing garbage because it should not even be on their radar- they’re too “upper class”, it’s not something they have ever been concerned about in their caste- it just gets taken away. This is literal, India just dumps everything, and the dumps are just about full.  Whereas, there has been very little improvement for the working conditions of those people who belong to the lower caste because there is little top-down leadership on these issues. This activist really hammered that people of the lower caste were dying when working to empty out septic tanks due to suffocation, the oxygen content is so low and the gaseous offsets of the waste literally suffocates them. Most towns and cities have never built sewer systems.  The officials go on inspection and since they don’t see women belonging to the lower caste carry baskets of human waste on their heads in such a project, they consider the matter fine.  It’s a socio-cultural issue, according to this activist.

Arriving in Dehli again, this time by train, I was happy I wasn’t spending more than an overnight once again. I got to see the sprawl and living conditions of the poor people living near the railway lines while heading through the city to the New Delhi central station.  I’m sure once I got into a nice area and a hotel, that there would be lots of really interesting cultural sites and historical areas that would be amazing to see, but I just wasn’t ready to do Delhi travel in India. Call me a chicken, and I’ll accept that.

I was picked up from the New Dehli train station with little hassle by the driver supplied by “Bloom Rooms” hotel.  The poor guy (whom I discovered was, you guessed it, from Dharmsala) had to run to the opposite side of the station when I failed to wait for him on the platform.  I was sorry to have done that to him because Sanay was one of those devastatingly handsome, tall, bearded Indian men.  Oh yes, there are a lot of very tall, devastatingly handsome, full bearded Indian men in India. When Indian men are devestatingly handsome, they are truly and ridiculously handsome. It’s devestating.  Anyway. I was sorry to see him go.

“Bloom Rooms” in New Dehli, by the way, is an absolutely charming contemporary hotel very near to the train station that takes one to Agra.  I highly recommend it.  Everything is very Western design and Western clean- and the charming beech wood, white and yellow rooms have bunkbeds! I tumbled myself into the gorgeous shower and then into bed as quickly as possible.  Next stop is Agra for the Taj Mahal… tomorrow.

Oct. 13 ’16 – Reflection on Grief

[Linda, my older sister, died of cancer in early October, about 2 weeks before her 50th birthday and 3 weeks before my own birthday, in 2013.  Concurrently, I realized that someone I cared about was a “fair-weather only” friend (Male B), after they ghosted from my life the same week she passed away.]

I missed Linda terribly, and I also thought a lot about (Male B) today, which made me cry over, or rather into, my lunch- although it didn’t stop me from eating.  I just talked to myself as I ate, with tears rolling down my cheeks non-stop, like a crazy person, but I wasn’t sobbing or crying- just the tears, coming unbidden, like the words pouring forth.  I think this is the anniversary of Linda’s memorial, or close enough, and that was a horrible time 3 years ago.  I watched myself without stopping the process or judging myself.  What was to be done?  I’m amongst strangers- what do I care if I am strange?  Letting things just be, letting the tears pour quietly forth and the words come out, a new thought about Male B arose.  I know that it takes two to tango, and I know that the ghosting was in response to my behaviour-

I needed to be taken care of by someone, and I was all alone.  I had just lost someone who had taken care of me since I was a kid- I lost my big sister who looked out for me and tried to help me in any way she could all her life.  That I reached out to Male B for that care may not have been “right”, but the desire itself was not wrong.  How I reached out may not have been “correct” because I was in shock, so how I asked and what I asked for was incongruous with the desire and the circumstances- but that wasn’t wrong either.

I wasn’t able to see what I was asking for, I wasn’t able to understand what I needed.  My mind jury-rigged a context, but it wasn’t the context.  I just needed somoene to take care of me, and I was alone at the time, sitting in an empty apartment- my sister’s empty apartment- all alone.  It was probably because I was all alone at the time that my mind was so disconnected from the root of the emotion. It was trying to protect me from being overwhelmed while there was no one there to support me.

Nothing that I did was wrong. Nothing that I have felt subsequently was wrong, and nothing that Male B did was technically wrong either.  Put into an impossible position, what can one do but flee? Understandable and forgivable.  Two poor humans caught up in overwhelming circumstances.  There was no sin.

 

Shimla, Oct. 13 ’16

The Coffee House is a magical place and everybody needs to go there when they visit Simla. It’s got two stories and back balconies worth of tables done all in dark wood, with circulating fans and lamps high overhead, but it is not a fancy place- it’s “well loved” and has a patina that only millions of visits can give…

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Wonderful sleep achieved! There is not the horrible dog barking here in Simla to disturb my sleep, nor is enough traffic able to fit through these extremely narrow streets up by the Spars Lodge that one wakes due to the beeping of horns.  I call this little budget place a total score on all fronts.

I woke up at the crack of dawn anyway and snuck in a couple of sunrise photos before any of the hotel staff were awake.  And I had enough presence of mind to remember how I felt doing all that climbing yesterday so, a) I wore my extra supportive running shoes out, and b) I did some stretching in the driveway, to the general bemusement of the security guards across the street. There is definitely something extremely empowering about being a nearly middle aged woman traveling alone. I stretch when I feel like it wherever I happen to be, I wear the most comfey options of local clothes, sensible shoes, a funny sun hat and not a stitch of makeup, and I feel awesome about all of it!  I couldn’t care less about what anyone thinks- I am an eccentric spinster traveler. Hear me roar!

I ate a quick snack and decided that I wanted not only a good breakfast, but also a good cup of coffee, which could only be found at the legendary “Coffee House” back at the beginnings of The Mall.  It was great that I was out the door before 0830, for I was very happy to observe Simla in its morning routine, with the young school children making their way all neat and tidy in their uniforms and colourful backpacks. Actually, it’s quite the college town! Not only is there the post-grad institution, but I stumbled across signs for colleges of accounting, Fine Arts, municipal engineering (must be important in a town that climbs up almost vertical mountain slopes), and the military.  Lots of tall, strapping young people in military uniforms or workout clothes everywhere in the morning. After all, Simla is the state capital.

The Coffee House is a magical place and everybody needs to go there when they visit Simla.  It’s got two stories and back balconies worth of tables done all in dark wood, with circulating fans and lamps high overhead, but it is not a fancy place- it’s “well loved” and has a patina that only millions of visits can give- a bit worn and dingy, and thoroughly atmospheric.  The waiters dress in traditional and completely charming Coffee Wallah uniforms.  Coffee is served in individual coffee pots, usually seen for tea in North America, and the coffee cup (on its saucer) is full to the brim with hot water when brought to you- the coffee wallah then dumps the scalding water over the cutlery on his tray before snagging your utensils for you and setting your porcelain down, an excellent hygeinic practice! The coffee was delicious and strong, so I had two pots, and the omelette and toast were also perfect (and cheaper than my hotel).

I loitered a bit before heading out to the Jaiku temple because (major confession here) I don’t really like getting close to families of monkeys and their behaviour out of their natural habitat. They completely freak me out when they’re in the habit of being fed by humans, and therefore aren’t afraid of our species- and in fact are quite aggressive.  I was assured that as long as I don’t have any food for them that I would be left alone, but I was tempted to buy a stick to keep them off, apparently sold by the convenience shops at the bottom of the hill up to the temple.

I did not buy the stick at the bottom of the hill and was doing okay until I went to get my camera out of my bag. Of course a nearby monkey assumed I was getting food for it , got really close and stared at me and bared its teeth in that horrible aggressive monkey rictus grin- eek!  And everything I was doing to get it to bugger off was, I was told, provoking it instead.  Crap, monkeys are scary!  In the time I was there looking around the grounds of the temple, one monkey made off with somoene’s shoe from the shoe house where you leave them prior going into the temple proper (prompting me to think “I don’t really need to go in there. I like my shoes,” and another snatched sunglasses off another person’s head.  Hanuman may be a cool god, but his “people” can be a serious nuisance.  So, whatever, I saw the temple monkeys.  I like them better minding their own business and  clambering around town. The view from the temple grounds, and the walk up and down the wooded path was very pleasant (just mind the monkey poop), and you could peek into the grounds of run down colonial mansions, which were melancholy and interesting.

Back at Scandal Point, I was eating my channa masala and chapati lunch, and attempting to like the achar (veggie pickle) sides provided at the very colonial and picturesque round HPTDC restaurant overlooking the plaza.  I have tried to like mixing curry with the very sour and acidic pickles often offered alongside, but I find the curries to be so wonderfully flavourful, with a really pleasing depth to the heat that the achar almost cancels out on the palate. Indians seem to enjoy the pickle accompaniment, but I don’t see the point. I prefer the raita (yoghurt/milk curd dishes with chopped onion, cucumber and tomato, or pineapple , although it sometimes mellows the fire of the curry a little too much for my taste.  I enjoyed my lunch, but to my own bewilderment I found tears rolling down my cheeks as I ate sitting in the sun, it was weird- but I’ll reflect on that later.

After purchasing a disposable cell phone and temporary SIM card with minimal expense and effort (about $30CAD all told) and grabbing a “Rose Dream” ice cream (made with real rose petals- YUM!) to cool myself from the hot sun inside out, I found my fellow traveler Bete again, hanging out in the terraced area under the pagoda while I killed time waiting for the Gaity Theatre to open again from lunch break.  Simla is a wonderfully scenic and just plain “cool” place to hang out, thanks to Scandal Point’s  big, open triangular space lined with iron-wrought fences and lamp posts, British architecture and MASSES of Indian tourists paying for the kids’ fancy and be-jingle-belled horse rides back and forth. Lots of Indian men go for the horse rides as well, which is both quite hilarious and endearing to watch.  A couple of those dudes were BIG.  And presiding over all is the gigantic pink (and therefore very phallic) statue of Hanuman, the monkey god, from the grounds of the Jaiku temple on the far slope above.

The Gaity Theatre in the neo-gothic building (recently restored) was worth the wait.  I took a lot of photos in there, for it was a genuinely charming space and the interior decor was done with typically Victorian beautiful ingenuity, for the lovely relief panels of gold were all done by hand and made out of paper mache in order to assist with the accoustics of the space.  Brilliant!  One would look through the doors leading from the balcony seating, and they were in direct line with lovely neo-gothic arched windows, so from the opposite side, all thelovely colours of the interior framed an archway of decorative light. I thought a lot about my (deceased) sister, Linda, who had a distinguished career in theatre costuming, and knew she would have got a serious kick out of this place.  I was reminded by the tour guide that Rudyard Kipling wrote two books while he lived in Shimla (for his father was the person who designed the stained glass windows at Christchurch Cathedral)- and he performed and wrote plays for the Dramatic Society.  The photographs of the plays that were performed over the years in this space were very evocative and quite funny indeed- lots of hamming it up!

After the theatre, I had my first visit to a public squat toilet in India and nailed it! There is good reason why women wear skirts and tight leggings here… followed by a bit of a nature walk down in the area known as “The Glen” on the way back towards the hotel.  I was taken in by the gigantic signs pointing the way to the “Historical British Resort” hotel and grounds, and found an entirely charming house and garden (and pet geese) at the bottom of the hill, but by the advertised nature walk is in itself quite “Meh.”  Speaking as a spoiled Vancouverite, the path was littered with garbage, and I am already quite accustomed to alpine paths lined with fir, pine and cedar.  Nothing exotic to see (except the garbage) and the small tenement-like Victorian apartment buildings and houses.  I DID find a beautiful vintage Triumph Royal Enfield motorcycle to admire, though.  Beauty.

I popped into the State Museum just up the way from the hotel before it closed, with a little less time for it than I would have liked, but the traditional jewelery from the mountain peoples of Himachal Pradesh, miniature paintings, and bronze sculptures were my favourite, and genuinely fine work.  Really one could entirely skip all the stone carvings on the main floor as they are in pretty bad shape for the most part with generally eroded and indistinguishable figures.  I got back to the hotel while the sun was still out to avoid washing my hair in the cold night, but it didn’t dry before the cold set in and subsequently I didn’t feel too good for the rest of the evening.  After getting half packed and mostly organized for my departure, I huddled under the extremely thick duvet blanket provided and put my hat on to keep my head warm overnight (like the locals do). No heat otherwise. So ready for sleep.

 

Simla- Oct. 12 ’16

Instead of backtracking through the bazaar, I decided to use of the steep stairways connecting it back up to the Mall, and was humbled by how slowly I had to take it. The way is so steep, little shops are situated at the terrace levels as well, just as much to give people a break from climbing as much as to put every available space to use…

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The bus ride to Simla was not nearly as comfortable as I’d hoped, nor as uncomfortable as I feared.  I got a classically Indian bus: pretty grubby, but otherwise comfortable enough.  I was happy to ride with average Indians around me, sharing stories about their travels, and the seats reclined so we all slept snuggled deep in blankets, heavy coats and touques (Indians in Himachal Pradesh, land of altitude induced cold are no stranger to touques- they are not a solely Canadian phenomenon!)  I got at least 6.5 hours “travel sleep” feeling the bus rise and fall and sway with the mountain road, and then woke a good 40 minutes before dawn.  The stars above the mountain peaks were stunningly bright and thick in the black sky, and the area is generally pretty sparsely populated, so there wasn’t a lot of light pollution coming from the little villages outside Shimla. I caught sight of my traveling companion (from childhood road trips) Orion for a while.  I definitely got suckered by the taxi driver that took me up to “Spars Lodge”, a mere 5 minutes from the bus station but live and learn! I was initially weirded out when he let me out in front of a gated property with two armed security guards (one of them sweeping the sidewalk) in front.  It turns out there is an official ministerial residence of some sort directly across from the Lodge.  I doubt they have to worry about robberies around here…

Spars Lodge is pretty tiny with only about 6 or 7 rooms for visitors, and the single room I had on the lowest story was very simple, with a rooftop of a building on a lower terrace blocking any view down the mountainside, and in need of a bit of a sweep.  However, the common area/reception area/dining room (like I said, this is a small place) has a magnificent panoramic view.  After a shower, disappointing breakfast (instant oatmeal and Nescafe), nice conversation with a fellow lodger named Bete from Luzerne, Switzerland, and visit from a local monkey wondering why there was glass between himself and my breakfast I headed out for the historic Viceregal Lodge.

I got myself lost taking the wrong fork of a road, and wandered down  into the valley of Annadale.  A military vehicle went by (what is with all the military here?) and let me know I was headed the wrong way- but it was an interesting diversion. Simla is a seriously beautiful alpine town with lots of gorgeous views. I came back to the same fork of the road and still wasn’t sure which way to go (I had 4 choices), so I ducked into the nearby bird sanctuary to admire some Indian species of pheasant, fancy chickens, peacocks and geese… and consult my map.  Upon exiting the sanctuary, having read the Lonely Planet entry for the Viceregal Lodge, it made sense to me that the large gatehouse directly across from the sanctuary had the sign “Indian Institute of Advanced Study”- housed in the Viceregal Lodge. The grounds of the Institute are pretty extensive and, charmingly, the ticket office, gift shop and cafeteria for the Lodge are in what used to be a fire station.  After wandering around the grounds waiting for the next tour group to be let in, I sat down inside for a coffee (“please put a big scoop of it (Nescafe) into my cup”), chatted with a nice man from Delhi guiding a tour group around Simla himself, and rested.  Simla is at even higher elevation than McLeod Ganj, so walking uphill for any amount of time is serious business.

On a somewhat frivolous aside, I was grateful every day since arriving in India that I impulse-bought a bottle of “Liquid Oxygen” from the Skymall shopping on my Air Canada flight. It was a serious lifesaver in dealing with the jet lag and altitude, when taking it about 3 times a day. I can’t imagine how I would have felt without it- life saving product for travelers!

The Viceregal Lodge building itself was beautiful outside and in, and also intriguing! The huge main hall paneled completely in teak from Java was very impressive, and the Victorian technologies built into it equally so: the building has a still functioning sprinkler system fed with collected rainwater (also used to water the grounds)-  the sprinkler heads are all sealed with wax, so if there is a fire the wax melts and the water is released- also the water is released if the multiple thermostats filled with solid nitrogen evaporates. The surrounding gardened grounds were also lovely, and I was struck by how many of the flower species there are commonly seen in Canada.  It must be because the British brought the local flowers back to England, and then from England to Canada.  I wonder whether some of them, like nasturtium, started off in England or in India.  That would be a fun little research project- the history of decorative flora. Yup, I’m a nerd.

It turns out that Spars Lodge really is “on the other side of town”, for I walked a good 20 minutes before finding the beginnings of “The Mall” and Scandal Point. Simla is truly interesting and eclectic place with all this British architecture on the crest of the mountain ridge overlooking a very Indian bazaar and city.  I went into it via a downwards forking from the Ridge end of Scandal point, closer to where the cable lift operates (very handy if one takes a hotel further down the mountainside- no cars are allowed into the Mall and Scandal Point Ridge area, which makes for really pleasant walking and relative quiet).  Going through the winding, narrow streets of the Middle Bazaar I realized I had better get used to being bumped gently and physically brushing past people continuously, because there’s not a lot of room to spare, and people don’t pause to apologize or even bat an eyelid.  Like most markets and bazaars around the world, there’s a lot of “same same, but different” and I wondered at the profusion of corner store type places.  I stopped for some pretty, fresh barfi (a kind of cross between baked square and fudge, more fudge-like than pastry- the texture closest to coconut lemon squares) decorated with silver foil, shaved pistachio or rose petals in coconut and “regular” flavour, which is pretty much an explosion of “leche” like sweetness.

A note on the Indian’s love of sweets- there is no exaggeration. Cake slathered in buttercream icing, ice cream, barfi, and candy shops abound- and then the corner store type places then also stock a profusion of name brand cookies and biscuits, ice creams and kulfi.  Watch out- it’s all seriously awesome.  There was even a lunch spot chain called “The Honey Hut” that added honey to every single one of its curries! That I refrained from- honeyed curry did not sound appetizing.

Instead of backtracking through the bazaar, I decided to use of the steep stairways connecting it back up to the Mall, and was humbled by how slowly I had to take it. The way is so steep, little shops are situated at the terrace levels as well, just as much to give people a break from climbing as much as to put every available space to use.  By the time I got back up to the top level, I arrived a bit too late to the beautiful Gaiety Theatre for a tour.  As the sun was beginning to sink towards the mountains, a decided chill crept into the breeze, and my walk home in the shadowed area was a blessed cool relief from the scorching heat when the sun was full.

So far I have visited Tibetan India (Little Tibet) and British India (Little England)…

Dinner at Spas Lodge proved to be more than satisfactory. The proprietor makes delicious everything.  My scramble of tomato, onion and egg dish was excellent, as was the  sabzi (lightly stewed and curried mixed vegetables). It was hard to keep my eyes open even as The Swiss visitor, Bete, fascinated me with tales of his amazing bicycle trip through the remote mountain areas of Himachal Pradesh, the “foothills” to the Himalayas (to ensure that he can travel just as much as he wants for as long as he wants, he has only 3 cardboard boxes worth of personal belongings- ONLY 3- AMAZING!!! INSPIRING!!!).  I excused myself early and after taking only enough time to brush my teeth and stretch my sore leg muscles (and take a dose of arnica montana) after all that hill and stair climbing (owies), I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.