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.
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.
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.