Waking in Shimla is to wake in misty sunshine and mountain air. I’m sure it is not always like this, but it was for me the days that I was there.
After studiously avoiding eating in the hotel, we went on a bit of a mission. Arabella, my very nice sister-in-law, had stayed in the Shimla area when she had been in India 8 years earlier and Cesca wanted to find the family she had stayed with. This, we both knew, was a forlorn adventure into unknown territory, but then that is exactly why we were willing to pursue it. We may not find this family, we reasoned (it had been an age after all), but this would be “getting out of the backpackers bubble”. That is the hated “bubble” that all modern backpackers feel.
When you travel through a country, especially if you are using a published travel guide, you are walking a well trodden path. Indeed maybe a thousand people are doing it with you simultaneously. This has a very strong effect over time, as more and more guest houses start catering only to the backpacker and spring up all along the route, which had myriad knock-on effects. Such as: taxi services who know the guide books better than you do and hordes of travellers at ever corner all “experiencing” the local atmosphere; all the time failing to realise that they are in a “bubble” like a Disney theme park ride.
Behind the western bars, “tourist specials” and “jungle walks” (three feet from the road) there exists an almost entirely different world.
A world that highlights the truth; that you are not experiencing the “real” country and its people at all. I met some people on my travels who had not been able to break out of this bubble and after six months or so it had seriously jaded them. For these unfortunates, returning home was not going to feel different from being away, the sheer contiguous nature of this effect was, and often had, ruined their trip.
It is poison of the mind.
So, the urge to break out of it was our primary motivation for most of our choices and actions during the later half of our travels. Luckily for me Cesca lives in a world that is naturally hard to enclose. Our method was to simply to do things so outlandishly off the rails that the bubble burst. By off the rails I don’t mean in the sense of getting drunk, as that is often a “bubbled” thing to do (especially in places such as Thailand or Goa), I mean meeting people that:
a) You are not paying.
b) Are not in the tourist industry.
That is enough. You get to see their houses, meet their children, talk about their lives and feel their reality. Even when that is mundane information for the traveller it is the most precious moment for which I would gladly exchange any number of tourist “thrills”.
So, as much as this is a travel journal, I am not going to recount our morning chasing the ghosts of Arabella’s past. Mainly because it would sound like a Hemingway novel in its plain nature. Suffice to say, we knocked on a lot of doors, met a lot of locals as interested in us as us in they, were welcomed into a large number of houses and drank more than enough local tea. We did not, however, find who we wanted.
That is also not to say that it didn’t work, I felt the tracks rock under my feet and sure enough the bubble, ever chasing us like something our of The Prisoner, faded into the distance as we met someone we did not expect.
Two people actually.
We returned to the Mall for refreshments and went into a likely looking cafe. It was very nicely appointed with wood shaped beams and wide bright tables looking out of an enormous sunlit window, which overlooked the side of the mountain. Splayed all over this side were the “real” buildings of Shimla. As brown with dirt that this looked, the view was rather impressive.
The cafe, however, was empty apart from the owner and a older, grandmotherly, English lady. The owner approached and I expected him to ask me if I wanted a table? or perhaps would I like a drink? but instead he said,
“Have you read the works of the master?”
Cesca, not to be out cooled by anything short of a Vegan Snow Lizard simply responded,
“The master!” He exclaimed. Then he turned and pulled a new copy of a book off the shelf, which he trust into my hands. I considered him. He had the eyes of a true believer that I had seen the like of before in the looks of many Indian nationals, but never outside of a religious place. I almost took a look around to check that I had walked into a cafe and not some sort of disguised Hindu temple. He smiled at me and gestured at the book now in my hand. I looked at it.
“J. Krishnamurti?” I said reading the author’s name, “He is the master?”
“Oh yes,” said the man nodding vigorously. He must have realised my penchant for philosophy; my slightly peaked interest, because he then broke in to a fascinating biography of Krishnamurti, which I would love to record here, but was the sort of event where someone keeps talking over themselves, words falling all about, sentences running into each other, many books pulled from shelves, hand gesticulations and all delivered at such breakneck speed I didn’t mentally transcribe it all.
Suffice to say, this guy liked the philosophy of Krishnamurti. A lot.
In fact he went on for about two minutes without pausing, which is a long time to stand in silence, and only ended when he suggested that I buy the book. He stopped suddenly as he read the look that had come upon my face at this suggestion. It was a look that said, “did you tell me all that simply to sell me a book? Hardly the spirit of the work of The Master!
“Oh no sir,” he assured me, astutely reading my mind, “not like that, no, no”.
Then he realised that he hadn’t even offered us a seat yet, let alone menus and an order. He did the Indian equivalent of slapping himself on the head as though to say “silly old me, oh how I go on sir, yes!”. He then ushered us to a table and we sat, menus were passed, we ordered and the man went off to fix our coffees.
The table was a nice thick wood and the light in the high roofed room was bright and welcoming. The view out of the window was amazing.
In other words this was clearly the sort of cafe Cesca and I love to hang out in. The owner returned with our coffees and just by looking at a correctly made Cappuccino, I knew I was in the right place.
The only other person in the room was the English looking lady of just bordering grandmotherly age. She was reading through a magazine, but clearly just killing time. She looked up and saw both Cesca and I looking at her.
“The last couple who came in here left once he started his Krishnamurti talk,” she said smiling.
“Well,” I said, “the coffee is good, the decor is good, the view is amazing so we shall stay. How is the food?” There was an empty plate next to the magazine.
“Good,” she replied nodding.
And then we all got chatting.
I’ve met some interesting people through travelling:
- Franco, the crazy Italian-Australian expert on Aboriginal Art.
- Lenin and Bobbits, the deep doctor and his equally deep lover dosing up and having wild times.
- Collin and Marylou, the party time Irishman and his much more sensible Spanish lady friend (amazingly, their story is not over yet…)
- Eric, the Yoga teaching, ME suffering, world-travelling Scotsman with only his bike for transport.
- Gwenny, the svelte Dutch girl who joined us in Kerella.
- Jenny, the English Doctor travelling through the Indian desert.
To name just a few…
To the list I add,
“Jenny,” she said.
We ended up having the sort of discussion that could last for hours, and indeed it did. Her age was close to my mother-in-law’s, and I think that for Cesca this made a difference and helped with the connection. She was classy like Charlotte too. Travelling alone and away from her children, which wasn’t making her happy, so Cesca and she hit it off and soon we had been there all day. We talked of loss, of divorce, of personal and spiritual philosophies, of what we had seen on our travels.
It was exactly the sort of discussion you expect to have India.
Her son, it transpired, was head of “Peace One Day”, which had recently been picked up by the UN. She was very proud of this. “Peace One Day” is a charity with the aim of having one day a year where there is no conflict. Like the famous armistice day in WW1, the idea is that by maybe just stopping for one day then perhaps saner minds will prevail and conflict can be stopped all together. A great idea.
It turned out that the headquarters of the charity was in the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane, where Cesca and I had seen the Bodyworlds exhibition.
“Last year,” she said, “even the Taliban honoured the Peace Day”.
“Wow,” Cesca and I chorused, genuinely impressed.
Eventually I noticed that she had on a glass blown ring identical to the one I gave Cesca as a present, but had broken by it being knocked off the bed in Cambodia way back before Christmas.
“Where did you buy that?” I asked.
She held up the ring, considering it, “What this?”
“Yes, I bought one just like it for Cesca in New Zealand and then broke it accidentally a few months ago, I have been looking for one ever since.”
The whole story came out with Cesca telling her of how we had looked in every market since the accident trying to find another, but to no avail.
“Then you must have this one,” she said without a blink.
We raised our hands in honest protest, but she wouldn’t hear of it. Without any ado she slipped of and handed over the ring, which fit Cesca perfectly.
“I can’t thank you enough,” Cesca said with a beaming smile.
“Something to remember our meeting,” she said. And I do, whenever I see the ring on Cesca’s hand (she still wears it everyday)
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around Shimla, visiting the church, the markets and down the mountain side.
I really liked it. It was the most pleasant place in India for me, a sort of cross between a Swiss ski resort and an English village.
There was perhaps only one downside; the monkeys.
Some of these had grown to prodigious size and become very aggressive. They swooped down and stole anything they could, not afraid of humans in the slightest and angrily confronting anyone who stood in their way. I vividly remember looking at a big male who noticed my gaze and roared a starling threat at me that actually made me look down in terror. I remember the size of his teeth. I have faced down dogs, angry giant spiders and even alpacas with cleft palettes, but this creature was fierce.
Eventually time came to leave. I would like to write that we carried our own bags to the station, having acclimatised to Shimla’s great height, but we didn’t; we got a taxi.
At the station we waited for the train to take us back to Kalka and thence onto our last stop in India; Delhi. There we would visit one of the greatest museums in the world and see the actual remains of the Buddha.
I squinted through the bright sun and took a look around the station. Loitering near the exit gate were the two Kashmiri touts from a few days ago. They were relaxed and not paying the crowd any attention – these were people leaving Shimla and not going to give them “business”. Once the incoming train arrived they would leap into action, fix a honest knowing smile to their faces and go “fishing”. Watching them waiting for their next “mark” I considered life from their point of view; their homeland caught between arguing India and Pakistan siblings who are armed to the teeth and their way of life corrupted into an empty shell. I imagined carrying bags all day and scraping a meagre living from hotel hand outs. Perhaps we should feel a little sorry for them as predatory that they are?
Their legend must surely continue to this day.
The train arrived.