High Street in the Himalayas

Leaving Varanasi before 5 am, trailing our cases through streets still dark a quieter but not empty. Our rickshaw driver literally leaps across the equivalent of three lanes – a mass of vehicles, animals and pedestrians. He carries us at breakneck speed to the railway station, only for us to find the train is four hours late – a result of JAT agitation in Lucknow (a low caste demand for inclusion in the central backward classes) which is occurring in several states.)

You never know what to expect on a train journey in India. Across the corridor from our bunks is a family with two small rambunctious kids. I’d objected to being called Auntie, but now I have to endure Grandma. “Go and talk to Grandma”, the father instructs, trying to offload his kids. I’m happy when they get off the train. Indian parents teach their kids to be forceful personalities. This is fine, but loud voices calling “Papa, Papa” incessantly (not to mention “Grandma”), can get tedious for those of us who have never been schooled in parenthood. Towards evening this family is replaced with a newly married couple, honeymooning in Simla, who appear to have little need for sleep and sing love songs to each other late into the night.

With further delays, we arrive 8 hours late in Kalka, missing the connection to the toy train for Simla. So there’s no alternative but a taxi. Two other tourists appear – a couple of very tall young men from LA on Spring break. We all pile into a white Ambassador crammed in with bongo drums, guitar and hiking gear and head into the mountains.

At 2,200 meters Simla is built on two sides of a ridge…very steep sides. Practically what this means, there is no motor or any other vehicle traffic. Goods are delivered by porters, with large bundles strapped to their back. Learning that many of them end up dying of tuberculosis, I found the sight of these scrawny little men struggling up through the bazaar more painful than even the grossly deformed beggar sitting outside our hotel.

Back in the time of the Raj, Simla was a favorite hill station of the British and also the seat of government during the hot summer months.. Before the British put in the toy train, it took twenty days to bring everything up from Kalka below where the train terminated to outfit the government.

The Mall at the top of the bazaar even today reminds me of a British High Street. I’m horrified to learn Indians were not allowed up on the Mall unless they were serving the Imperialists. The most magnificent building is the ‘Viceregal Lodge”, the palatial summer home of the Viceroys, ending with Lord Mountbatten during the final days of the Raj.

Shimla is also significant for its green policy. Part of a broader Himachal Pradesh initiative, it is in the forefront of banning smoking in public places, limiting the use of plastic, and serious conservation of water.

Gerard deliberately left Varanasi before Holi, a festival of color, which involves pelting each other with day-glo colored powder. Tourists are prize targets and Varanasi is notorious for this. He thought we’d be safer in Simla.. I’d gotten tired of Gerard worrying about his already limited wardrobe being sacrificed to the resilient stains of Holi. But I was blasé: “It’ll never happen to us, we’re too old.” My mistake! We’d barely stepped out of our hotel in search of breakfast, when round the corner a band of “color snipers” advanced toward us.. .“No, no!” I pleaded with no where to run.. “Oh.. Shit! Shit!” as a cloud of pink dust enveloped me. I desperately tried to brush off the color from my white and blue windbreaker, much to the amusement of on looking locals. Not so blasé now!

After I’d finished venting, and some breakfast, I wore my pink hair with pride. And later, the boys from LA who had entered fully into the spirit of the festival, returned covered from head to foot in color, looking like a credit to Jackson Pollock.

Simultaneous with Holi was an Indian film festival where we escaped further pelting and also saw some excellent independent documentaries on India regional cultures and communal tensions. It was also interesting to once again come across a small group of people following the same spiritual practice as us – 50 people meditate together in a meeting hall every evening.

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