Friday, 16 October 2009

Some thoughts on Shimla and yep, you've guessed it a little commentary on etiquette!

Today is our second full day in Shimla and we spent most of it doing nothing! …. Why? …… Well - whilst this is indeed a charming place that puts a quizzical smile on your face within moments of arriving on ‘the ridge’ I think it’s safe to say that once you have strolled it’s length – you’ve seen it all!

Of course I am being a little unfair for the sake of a writer’s gag – but really – there’s not much to it. Shimla is known as India’s premier hill station – and was the summer ‘home’ of the colonial government in India for many years thanks to the pleasant cool air of the mountains at this altitude, compared to the heat and humidity of the lowlands during the summer months. For this reason Shimla has the strange feel of an Indian ‘Europe theme park’. Many of the principal buildings were constructed in an English Tudor style of architecture and due to the considerable aging and weathering that they have withstood, look more like a crumbling version of an Oxbridge college, than anything you might expect to see in India. The centre of town is built around a ridge that falls away steeply to either side giving one the sensation that most of the buildings are just a light breeze away from sliding off down the mountain and since the lack of motor vehicles at the time of construction meant that the ‘streets’ and alleys were barely wide enough for a honeymooning couple to stroll hand in hand along them there is a certain sense in which the only thing stopping it all from crumbling away is that the building next door is leaning up against it and providing a replacement for the much needed scaffolding or reinforcement to keep it in place. It’s a charming effect, but certainly one that poses a question of safety. Were we in any ‘western’ part of the world – the whole thing would probably have been condemned and deemed unfit for human habitation a long time ago – but as always – in India it seems anything goes! And in fact, just this morning whilst returning from our little outing to the train station (to receive our first lesson in train station etiquette) whilst rambling through the middle bazaar, we stumbled upon what looked like the primary inspiration for that ‘half floor office space’ in ‘Being John Malkovic’. As I climbed the steep and uneven staircase leading from one level of the bazaar to the next my eyes were drawn to what looked like an attic storage space behind a wall of glass, but on closer inspection I saw that inside this ‘half floor’ there were several tailors, seated, at work, on their old school Singer sewing machines with barely an inch between the top of their heads and the ceiling. Now that’s what I call a sweatshop.
Now I may have said it already – but I am constantly amazed at the layers of society and class that operate here in India. From the terrace of our simple backpacker’s ‘Hotel’ we look down, at night, on the lights of the grand looking ‘Radisson’ hotel built only 3 or 4 yrs ago and dream of the warm fires probably burning brightly inside (it’s chilly up here in the hills with no central heating) and the 5 star treatment being received by the wealthy Indian businessmen and entrepreneurs that can afford such ostentatious accommodations. In contrast, as we stroll from the ridge up to our hotel we pass the street food vendors with their wooden carts and pass the porters carrying all manner of items (from boxes of noodles to heavy duty kitchen equipment that must weigh several times my own body weight) with ropes fastened around their heads and I wonder how it is possible that the division of wealth here is so incredibly skewed. Climbing through the bazaar, numerous tea-stalls offer hot chai and dosas for only a few rupees in hut like quarters resembling something from medieval times while right along the alley and up the stone steps a shiny new ‘Domino’s Pizza’ has an endless line-up of people waiting to pay western prices for a crappy old fast food chain version of Italy’s staple. It’s like 2 different dimensions co-existing in the same time zone – like 2 alternate realities somehow crashed in hyperspace and ended up jumbled together.
And while I’m on this topic – let’s just venture into the realms of social etiquette for a moment. In this department I’m afraid many Indians are (as I already mentioned) sadly lacking. It is virtually impossible to go 60 seconds without hearing the melodious sound of someone nearby ‘hocking a loogy’ and despite the posted warning around this particular town (probably the only place in India with such a threat) of a 500 rupee fine for spitting or littering – bodily secretions of this nature are openly shared with passersby with little to no sense of shame or embarrassment. Twice in as many days I have had close shaves with spittle and vomit (and not my own, I hasten to add). The vomiting incident saw me walking along the side of a parking bus to realize that I had missed being puked on by mere inches as a woman inside the said bus decided to just pop her head out the window and have a quick heave (the sound of her retching alerted me to the near miss in question). The spitting incident today followed much the same course – as I innocently walked by, a man decided it was time to dribble the contents of his mouth onto the sidewalk and never mind that there was someone walking by at that very moment. But my ‘favorite’ lesson of the day in Indian social etiquette came this morning at the train station. Yesterday when enquiring at the train reservation office (a small cubicle no bigger than a phone booth in the centre of town) we learned of an element of the Indian rail reservation system that I believe will be quite useful to us. Of course we only managed to get to the bottom of this system after considerable questioning and exclamations of horror and disbelief that the train we wished to book was completely full for many many days. It turned out that if we showed up at the main train station at 8am the following morning we would be able to obtain a ‘tatkal’ (Hindi for immediate) ticket for the train 2 days after that. Thankfully – someone in the Indian rail organization realized that it might be smart to save a few tickets on each train for last minute travelers and so we were able to get around our issue. Now I knew right away that the 8am thing would probably not be that simple – so we thankfully showed up a little after 7.30am – just in time to be almost first in line at the counter which was scheduled to open at 8. Well – things weren’t exactly orderly, and let’s just say that ‘personal space’ is obviously not a concept that India has thoroughly grasped yet in a queuing environment but besides a minor amount of jostling and gentle shoving it was actually going quite well – until the man behind the counter announced ‘tatkal’ at 8.01am at which time all thoughts of orderly line ups and ‘waiting your turn’ went right out the window and the whole thing turned into a bloody free for all. Fortunately my husband has long arms and was able to shove our ‘requisition form’ right through the hole in the window of the reservation counter, normally used for speaking and under the nose of the rail man. Within minutes we were the proud owners of a ticket for 2 to Gorakphur (a non descript Indian town close to the border of Nepal) and newly invigorated with confidence that we would actually make it out of Shimla this side of Christmas. Hurray!
Our first day in Shimla was far less eventful in the social etiquette department, but we did manage to squeeze in a little bit of culture.
Our morning jaunt took us to the top of the hill overlooking Shimla where we visited a so-called ancient temple that has obviously had a bit of a revamping because to the untrained eye it did indeed look decidedly like the cement between the bricks was still drying. It turned out that the ‘ancient’ bit was somewhere underneath the brand new exterior and not all that grand but it was worth the trip for the views. The greatest source of entertainment en route was of course the monkeys, somewhat famous for their menace in that area and we were occasionally glad of the 10-rupee stick that we had hired for the trip.

After a quick lunch in the ‘Shimla Coffee House’, touted as an ‘institution’ in the guide book – which was indeed a brilliant place to people watch all the Indian government officials chewing the fat and shooting the shit over coffee (we had some tasty dosas) we headed a little further afield to find the ‘Viceregal Lodge’. (We decided to give the festival for the cow (no word of a lie), taking place in the main square on the ridge, a miss, since it is clear that there really is no need to raise ‘cow awareness’ is India – she is alive and well and roaming the streets pretty much everywhere we look.)

The lodge was an amazing display of European architecture, built between 1884 and 1888 by the Brits in power at the time and as we wandered the grounds and joined in on the brief guided tour to see some of the rooms and halls inhabited by the great minds and officials of the era we were shown the very table over which the division of India and Pakistan was discussed and were reminded once again of the contrasts of India (and perhaps some of the reasons behind them). We also found a very old map on the wall of the lodge with a detailed topography of the surrounding area and were highly amused to find half of the Lake District within a five mile radius of the place we were standing – there was a Windermere, a Grasmere and even an Ambleside! Our day finally ended with yet another search for some decent food at a reasonable price (not an easy task in Shimla) and although it was not exactly a meal worth writing home about it managed to take the title of ‘best so far’, so we retired to our quarters with full bellies and happy taste buds (ish).
While Shimla was a pleasant interlude to the ‘Indian-ness’ of it all here in India we are certainly looking forward to the next portion of our trip and switching it up from buses to trains (and then back again – there are no trains in Nepal) – Nepal here we come!

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