East or North?
The question posed by the fact of our arrival in Delhi in early September was very simply, east or north?
To the east lie Agra, which houses the famed Taj Mahal, as well as Varanasi, one of the oldest continuously populated places in the world and the Hindu religion’s holiest city. It sits along the River Ganges and the masses who go there to die can be seen bathing on its banks and then later, if they’re lucky, burned as corpses along those banks. The Hindu old flock there to die, believing that a death in Varanasi promises automatic Moksha, an end to the cycle of reincarnation and a release from human suffering that the devout spend years – or maybe lifetimes – trying to achieve.
To the north lie an escape from the monsoon, the annual assault of heat, humidity and rain that overtakes south and central India each summer and fall. Also to the north was the promise of a culture and landscape wholly unfamiliar to us: that northern tip of India flanked by Pakistan and Tibet and defined by the demands of living in the mountains. During our research, I discovered that this was an India I had never envisioned, one that looked more like the images of Tibet and China that exist for some reason in my subconscious.
And so after experiencing the heat and hardship of Delhi, deciding to go north was almost so obvious as to go unspoken between us. We left behind hopes of making it back south in the next few weeks and recovered from Delhi by boarding the “toy train” from Kalka to Shimla. Amazingly, during our transfer in Kalka, we also discovered that, despite having purchased our tickets in Delhi the previous morning, our names had been written on a piece of paper and taped to the side of the tiny train car we were meant to board, along with the names of the other passengers for that car. Proof of a measure of order to what otherwise looks like complete chaos.
The train set off at 5:30am, still dark out, and so we were treated to watching the sunrise from the twisting, six hour route through the hills. The train and requisite tracks were built in 1903 and felt it. The upholstery on the seats was ancient and the train slow. We sat next to an Indian family from Punjab who were going to Shimla for a few days of vacation. The family encompassed three generations – including an adorable toddler who kept trying to take over for the crew member whose job it was to pass out chai every so often. I found out later from the family who owned the hotel we were to stay in in Shimla, and who became friends over whiskey and poker a few nights later, that Indian households are generally comprised of several generations. It’s unusual for grown children to stay away from home longer than it takes to go to college or complete some type of schooling.
We arrived in Shimla in better spirits but still exhausted. Despite all attempts at staying awake in order to cure our jet lag, we passed out in the afternoon and woke in the evening. Staying up all night and going to “bed” at 7pm was, unfortunately, a pattern we repeated for several days.
The next day we discovered that Shimla is a lazy, quiet place where friends hold hands and nothing happens for several hours during the afternoon so that shop owners and school kids can lounge in the town’s common areas and have lunch. We were staying at a hotel recommended by a good friend of mine who used to live in Mumbai and had been to Shimla the year prior. The owner, a really young guy named Sid, treated us much more like friends than hotel guests and we ended up passing four days (we had originally planned on two) doing little more than sleeping, eating vegetable curry over rice, walking through town’s narrow labyrinth of streets and talking extensively with Sid’s family in the lobby of the hotel. For all but one of those days, we were the hotel’s only inhabitants.
Sid’s brother is into politics and as we sat in the lobby one afternoon talking, a bomb went off in Delhi. We were told of the corruption that exists within India’s government, its more than 500 political parties, the government’s control over the media and, finally, of the government’s distraction tactics of which he believed the bomb was one. A way to get the accusations of corruption that had been appearing on the front pages of Indian newspapers for weeks, out of the news. A conspiracy theory, yes, but Varun is far from alone in his opinion.
Our last night in Shimla was spent on the roof of the hotel with Sid, his brother and his cousin who all have a hand in running the place and who collectively got us drunk on Indian whiskey and took 600 rupees from me by killing me in some family card game called Flash. Early the next morning, hungover and dangerously late for our bus, we said goodbyes and started a ten hour journey farther north to Dharamsala.