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.

 

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