next stop – the himalayas
We leave Cottage Yes Please in a tuk tuk at 5:30 in the morning and speed down unknown roads to an unknown train station in an unknown country. It’s too early to be in a such a rush. “I know a fast cut”, the driver says and veers down a back alley behind cafés where cats feast on garbage, eyes reflecting the dim light of the rickshaw.
We are the only foreigners on the crowded platform and there is absolutely no indication where the next train is going. We ask a small group of people if they speak English. They waggle their heads from side to side. It is not a yes but it is not a no and for a while we all look a little confused. So I just point at the platform and say “Shimla?” and they smile and say yes, quite pleased with themselves. Indians are always keen to help and it’s not rare for a dozen of them to gather to solve one person’s problems.
We find our names printed on the sheet of paper glued to the side of the carriage. Joe Stewart and Jeanine Caron stand out like sore thumbs amongst the Sanjiv and Anuj and Nadeer and Rashmika and Geeta.
The train journey is spent in the dark for the first couple hours, sleepy passengers on turquoise benches under fluorescent light; families with suitcases, women in saris, labourers, students and us. The ticket man, looking strangely Cuban in his cap, ticks our names off his sheet, printed from an old dot matrix. I half expect a chicken to come flapping its wings down the aisle, a flurry of feathers. This does not happen.
The sun rises at 7am and the chaiwala and breakfast wala and cake & crisp wala appear out of nowhere, walking up and down the aisles shouting chai, chai, chai, chai, pouring hot sweet tea out of metal kettles into paper cups. The train continues further out of the city and into the plains where people relieve themselves in the fields and giant acorn-shaped hay structures dot…
Hold the phone. Relieving themselves in the fields?
I will not pretend I was all cool and nonchalant watching someone take a shit 10 feet away from me. I am quite satisfied knowing that not even my husband will ever, EVER see me in that way. And so, yes, I pointed. I pointed at the people (plural) taking shits in the field and said to Joe : “Oh my God. I just saw someone take a shit in the field” and then, later “OHEMGEE, I swear I just saw his genitals”. By the end of our 10 hour journey, it dwindled to a simple “Ah, there’s another one… and another one”. It’s amazing how quickly one adapts to new situations. You might be relieved (pun intended) to know this is the only poo story I have for you because, praise the Lord, neither Joe nor I were afflicted with Delhi belly. I fully expected to shit my pants at one point on this trip. It’s true, I mentally prepared myself. But I’m happy to report that my dignity remains intact and, as such, I can carry on with much more flowery topics.
Every now and then, we pass a town, garbage spills from front doors to ditches where pigs and cows feed. People stand by the tracks with dirt on their faces and dust on their feet and they stare when they see us and they laugh at Joe’s beard, which continues to be a source of amusement.
In Kalka we switch trains and hop on the Himalayan Queen – a turquoise and red and lime green locomotive. People pile in with massive suitcases and all there is in terms of storage is a little blue shelf above our heads, which scarcely fits a purse. Luggage blocks the minuscule aisle and, with ours knees in our chests, we prepare for a long ride. Eventually everyone shuffles and moves things around and we all make ourselves at home. It is a slow ascent as we zigzag up the Himalayan hills for 5 hours, chugging at a sedate 20 miles per hour.
We open the back door and sit with our feet dangling out and the hot sun on our faces, waving at the boys behind us who hang out their windows for the entire journey and hoot and whistle in each and every of the 103 dark tunnels we go through. A couple sings Hindu folk songs for the baby who has grown restless in the last hour. They sing as the sun goes down and the massive snow-capped Himalayas start appearing in the distance.
We arrive in Shimla, a mountain retreat 7,000 ft above sea level, with the last rays of the setting sun, bright orange over the mountains. It is colder up here, fresher. There is a Lake Placid winter feel to the place. A scent of pine. And silence. Sweet, sweet silence. We pick up a bottle of Indian wine to enjoy in our room. The best in the world, our Delhi guide assured us. Clearly, our Delhi guide knew nothing about wine. Half a glass of the black currant juice is enough to turn me off Indian wine for the remainder of the journey.
In the morning I draw the curtains and sip a lemon ginger honey tea and watch the sun rise. The way the sun hits the misty mountains leaves everything looking a light shade of blue as if, by magic, they could disappear in an instant. Swallowed by the sun. The sun rise is softer, less loud and ostentatious than the sun set. Muffled and as sleepy as everyone else, slower to arrive.
The Inn’s caretaker is sitting in cross-legged behind the desk with eyes closed and he hasn’t said a word since I’ve ordered my tea and I wonder if he is actually sleeping. I head into the quiet blue of 6:30am, when few are awake except the monkeys shaking out of their trees and landing with a soft thud on tin roofs. I walk down the hill then up the stairs and eventually make my way to the edge of town where an old lady with but 3 teeth left in her mouth and a hunch that would rival Mr. Notre Dame’s sweeps vigorously. Moving dust from one place to another. Sweeping, in India, is the morning sound equivalent of birds chirping. It is the only sound on the street until the dogs wake and stretch their thin bodies through the small space between the fence and the grass and then take off running, nipping at each other’s heels, barking playfully and forming a revolt against the monkeys that are diving into dumpsters in search of a tasty morsel of naan bread.
In the evening, we hike up the path to Jakhoo temple to watch the sunset. A monkey grabs my bag of orange peels and steals someone’s glasses right off his face. Cheeky monkeys! The sunset goes off with a bang and makes sure everyone knows about it, flashing deep oranges and purple and bright pink cotton candy clouds before turning the lights off. Show’s over.
It gets cold in the Himalayas when the sun goes down. We stop at a small café dimly lit with one light bulb and the glow of the television in the corner broadcasting a political debate. An old man sits on the stove, crouched on his haunches flipping samosas and stirring the chai pot. We sip the chai. It’s so sweet, I feel my teeth cracking. But it’s just what the doctor ordered on this cold December night. A hand pops out through a hole in the wall and a warm samosa is put in it. The owner, catching my eye, smiles and says “family”.
Back on the train, heading down into the plains, the man in front of me is taking all the foot space and I am annoyed until I remember that this is India. I left my personal space at home because in a land of 1.2 billion people, personal space does not exist. You have to find it inside, someone told me before I left.