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Shimla India

Wednesday, July 31st, 2002

July 31-August 4 2002
The last few days I have been fighting some sort of strange malady…raging sore throat, red spots on the tops of my feet and the underside pads of my fingers red, sore and sensitive. Want to risk a diagnosis? But symptoms seem to be residing after a few doses of antibiotic. So feeling a bit lethargic I am contented to sit for the five hour train ride that will take us up most of the 300km to Shimla on the Himalayan Express.

We change to a toy train (narrow gauge) in Kalka and jump out to buy a dahl and rice meal in a tin foil tray and some bananas before another five hours climbing switchbacks the last 60 km into the mountains. I look out the window and see a huge sign hanging above the train platform: “World’s Number one. The Times of India.” Reminds me of the presumptuous title of those annual baseball games played in the US only by US teams called the World Series.

From the train we watch India fly by…people in tattered clothing lying asleep by the side of the tracks…naked babies sprawled out flat on their backs…a sign says “Do Not Pluck Flowers.” Another sign: “The Allah of Islam is the same as the God of Christianity and the Iswar of the Hindu.” Children with white nylon sacks pick through the garbage selecting plastic-India’s system of recycling…ads for Bob Cards-the Indian credit card…men with hair dyed a bright henna color.

I smile to myself at the young Indian across the aisle reading “Autobiography of a Yogi” (many of us were inspired by it in the 60’s). The leak in the roof of the toy train above my head stops once the train gets up some speed…the German girl across from me and her male Indian companion share their feelings of culture shock…she has been volunteering in a school for blind children for six months in a small village in the south of India…quiet…clean…traditional customs…no touts…she and her companion have never been in the north…now I wish we had gone south instead. A few seats back a group of 20 something Indian guys finds hilariously funny a Lonely Planet given them by the Swedish couple in the seat across-but I notice they are taking notes. We have noticed people everywhere throwing garbage on the ground…Bob feels guilty throwing the banana peels out the train window.

As the train pulls into Shimla about 20 Muslim touts in long red shirts crowd against the windows yelling at us to let them carry our luggage the two kilometers up the hill to the hotel in the center of town. (Shimla is a lovely 8,000 feet above sea level.) Bob takes to one lively man, Bob guesses rightly 34 years old, and he takes my small daypack. (We left the large packs in Delhi.) Bob carries his own pack…”macho” I say…”yes, yes”, he laughs…and then a large monkey threatens to take off my leg as he grabs the banana in a plastic bag I am carrying in my hand.

The Town
Shimla is at an altitude of 7000 feet-a quiet pleasant town of 120,000 sprawled across the U-shaped valley of the steep Himalayan foothills with narrow winding terrace-like streets connected at intervals by stairs. The town feels authentic; virtually all of the tourists this time of year are Indians escaping the heat of Delhi and the lowlands. It is a luxury to stroll through the streets unhindered by hordes of touts and beggars.

Shimla was once part of the Nepalese kingdom called Shyamala. The British discovered the area in 1819; many of the buildings were erected by them and is reflected in some of the architecture. In 1864 it became the summer capital of India and after the railway line was constructed in 1903 Shimla became first the capital of Punjab and then of Himachal Pradesh in 1966.

Eating in Shimla
I take back our assessment of where we are in the culture shock process…we (or I should say I) are (am) desperate for an alternative to the spicy Indian food we have been eating for a month. It takes two hours walking the winding streets to find a restaurant that just might have something without curry spices…in the meantime to stave off my dizzying hunger I stop at a fast food stall and buy an order of tooth-breaking french fries that are sprinkled with masala powder…then to get the taste out of my mouth I buy six cookies…finally we find a rather upscale restaurant that claims continental food on a sign above the door. Chicken Hawaiian Salad was described by the waiter as chicken, capsicum (green peppers) and white sauce…turns out white sauce is mayonaise. Bob’s thin French onion soup sports a raw egg yolk floating in the middle which he carefully extracts from the bowl. If the waiters in India don’t understand you they pretend you haven’t ordered anything. The lifesaving Chinese eggroll is delicious but I leave unconsumed the vanilla milkshake made with what I don’t know.

The next day we find a Chinese restaurant, Chung Fa, with a real live chinese cook and we founder on chow mein, spring rolls and the best won ton noodle soup ever. The owner was born in Canton, lived in Athens Greece 20 years, in Arabia 8 years and now Shimla for the past 12-and speaks many languages. When we told him we were from the US he said “San Francisco-best Chinese food. But New York the Chinese food terrible!” Bob concurs-having eaten in wonderful restaurants in SF while in college in the SF area and also having had a horrible experience in a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan where he mortified son Josh by leaving without tipping.

Town Plaza
As evening approaches we walk around the town plaza and appear to be the curiosity of the Indians…we sit down on a concrete “bench” ringing the large plaza and Bob takes a picture of two Sikh men and a woman…they smile and move over to sit closer by us. The older one has just retired as a banker and is now a consultant for multi-national organizations-he says his daughter is a well-known pediatric heart surgeon in New Orleans. He is very proud of his shy nephew who is an accomplished traditional tabla player and the girl, who is a traditional devotional singer. The older one had noticed us walking the plaza and had been explaining to his companions, he said, that as Americans we had probably worked very hard and were now enjoying our lives. “People don’t realize that Americans work very hard for what they have, “he  said as he went on to describe his daughter�s lifestyle in Louisiana. Thinking of the people we had seen in the Sikh temple in Udaipur, I told him that I had noticed that many Sikhs seemed to be very successful people. “Oh, yes,” he said, “we are very industrious and make a very big effort…instead of like many people in India.”

You can tell which Indians are Sikhs because they never cut their hair and they wear turbans. They practise tolerance and love of others and their belief in hospitality extends to offering food and shelter to anyone who comes to their spiritual centers.

Then we had a brief exchange of words about the Eastern and Western approaches to religion. “As Sikhs we are very practical and take a very simple approach to spirituality,” he said. “Sikhs don’t believe in caste distinctions or idol worship,” he continued, “and we believe in one God that is the same in you as is in me.” As he talked I thought to myself that I have heard Catholic mystics like Thomas Merton use almost his same words to describe their contemplative experiences. We talk about meditation; we understand each other. I get goose bumps and feel blessed by this man as I float back to the hotel in the cool evening air.

Rickshaw Driving Lesson

Wednesday, July 31st, 2002

After dinner, Bob entertains the nearby date sellers by dickering with another rickshaw driver who makes the mistake of saying to Bob “You are rich man-why can’t you give me few extra rupees?” Bob shot back that “I have traveled all the way to India and now you guys have all my rupees!” He laughs. They think you are stupid if you don’t bargain hard.

They settle on a price and on the way home Bob is full of questions about the auto-rickshaw which is a three-wheeled device powered by a two-stroke motorcycle engine with a driver up front and seats for two or more behind. There are no doors and it has just a canvas top. They are generally about half the price of a taxi and because of their size they are often faster for short trips. And if you are a thrillseeker you will love it because their drivers are nutty–heading straight through the mass of cars and pedestrians wielding hair-raising near-misses! When stopped at traffic lights, the height you are sitting is the same as most bus and truck exhaust pipes so many riders wear kerchiefs over nose and mouth looking ridiculously like movie-western cowboys. Bob wheedles a chance to drive our rickshaw a short distance. Bob and the driver end up friends and the guy gets a tip for the driving lesson.

At 5am the next morning an auto-rickshaw driver offers to drive us 3 blocks to the train station for 20 rupees. After we are seated he says “20 rupees each!” Should have seen how fast Bob jumped out of the rickshaw! We don’t feel like cheapskates anymore as this style of bargaining is the norm in India and many other countries-the locals see you as ridiculous or naive if you do not bargain.

The internal struggle is over for me. The guilt is gone. I don’t even notice the beggar lady pulling on my arm. We are finally getting the hang of India and learning how to play their game. And I think we’re entering the last stages of culture shock. But haven’t had the courage to taste a “bhang lassi” yet! (A bhang lassi is a yogurt drink spiked with marijuana…)

Death of the Vice President

Tuesday, July 30th, 2002
Saturday morning the revered Vice President of India, Krishan Kant had had a massive heart attack and died so Sunday afternoon Bob and I watched the building of the funeral pyre on national television. "Tears trickled down the cheeks of ... [Continue reading this entry]

Surface Culture

Tuesday, July 30th, 2002
India's spirituality is strong and is seemingly integrated with it�s culture. So this is the first country we have been in that has resisted becoming least on the big time make-up, no dark glasses, no T shirts, ... [Continue reading this entry]

Bargaining for a Rickshaw

Tuesday, July 30th, 2002
Our last night in Delhi before taking the train to a cooler Shimla in the mountains for a few days, we strike out in the worst part of the day for traffic to have dinner in Old Delhi. Bob ... [Continue reading this entry]

Traveling India Bob-Style

Saturday, July 27th, 2002
The Indians have a wonderful sense of humor so Bob takes advantage of it and manages to turn everything upside down wherever we go. In addition to an auto-rickshaw, India has bicycle rickshaws-a three-wheeler bicycle with a seat for ... [Continue reading this entry]

New Delhi

Saturday, July 27th, 2002
July 27-30 The hotel arranged to have us taken to the railway station in their car for the 6am train to Delhi, so at 5am the streets are full already and workers are queued up at the tea stalls for breakfast. ... [Continue reading this entry]

Jaipur City Tour

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2002
Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan and sits on a dry lake bed surrounded by barren hills at the top of which you can see fort-like edifices and the surrounding fort walls. The all day city tour bus with ... [Continue reading this entry]

Jaipur India

Monday, July 22nd, 2002
July 22-26 2002 The next day we discover we are the only guests in the Hotel Meghniwas and we have breakfast in the quiet restaurant downstairs. The night before Bob had a few minutes of the sweats but no fever...this ... [Continue reading this entry]

Pushkar India

Sunday, July 21st, 2002
The driver has to ask 5 times for directions to Pushkar (no male pride here). Upon entering the village a guy sitting at a table lets down a red and white pole barrier and asks for a 15 rupee ... [Continue reading this entry]

Chittorgarh India

Sunday, July 21st, 2002
On the way out of town the next morning, I am not surprised to see a dead cow that had been hit by a car. "The government will come and pick it up for the hide, (an hopefully not ... [Continue reading this entry]

Mr. Singh’s Rickshaw In Udaipur

Sunday, July 21st, 2002
We take the offer of Mr. Singh, the Sikh driver of an auto-rickshaw, a small, noisy, three-wheeled motorized contraption with no doors, to take us around the narrow streets that are filled with cows, people, dogs, pigs, men in dirty ... [Continue reading this entry]

Udaipur India

Sunday, July 21st, 2002
July 18-21 2002 To make it easy on ourselves we left at 4am for a one-hour flight north to Udaipur in the state of Rajasthan. When the taxi pulled out we noticed the food stall down the street was still ... [Continue reading this entry]

Ghandi-India To So Africa

Thursday, July 18th, 2002
In my last story, I mistakenly said that Gandi was born in South Africa. He was not. He was born in 1869 in Porbander in the Indian state of Gujarat where his father was chief minister. He attended law ... [Continue reading this entry]

Four Taxis to Dinner In Mumbai

Thursday, July 18th, 2002
In Mumbai one night it was so ludicrous we just had to laugh...afterward. Taxi number one only got us to the end of our street before Bob, realizing the driver didn't know where the hell to go, jumped out of ... [Continue reading this entry]

Our Mumbai Neighborhood

Thursday, July 18th, 2002
We watch India swirling with life on the street below our hotel window on the Colaba Causeway-the stretch of land that the English filled the Bay with that turned Bombay, now called Mumbai, from an Island into a peninsula. I ... [Continue reading this entry]

Migrants & Beggars In India

Thursday, July 18th, 2002
Continuing our taxi tour with Asane, he takes us to a part of Mumbai where we will see many migrants and beggars...and the red light district. As is happening all over the third world, migrants from rural areas make their way ... [Continue reading this entry]

Asane’s Taxi Tour

Thursday, July 18th, 2002
In Mumbai, we took a three-hour government sponsored tour in an Indian-made Ambassador car with "Indian A/C" which is a fan that sits on the dashboard. While we were waiting for Bob to run back to the hotel for the ... [Continue reading this entry]

Bhuleshwar Bazaars

Thursday, July 18th, 2002
Kalbadevi You would love this area if you don't mind being scared out of your wits by long lines of honking taxis and motorcycles behind you and worker after worker coming at you from the front with loads of goods ... [Continue reading this entry]

Bombay Renamed Mumbai

Thursday, July 18th, 2002
July 13-18, 2002 India forces you to look beneath the surface of things...there is more here than your eyes see...a midnight ride into the city from the airport in the non-A/C taxi with hot humid squalid air blowing the aroma ... [Continue reading this entry]

Sleepover In Soweto

Friday, July 12th, 2002
S12J2pKbmw6zVZyRvmb7L0-2006193181305721.gif A Sleepover in Soweto-Africa's largest township On our way to India we stopped in Johannesburg for two days to stay with Lolo Mabitsela in her Bed and Breakfast in Soweto-a township about 30 minutes outside ... [Continue reading this entry]