Settle down with a cup of tea, put your feet up and relax, this might be a long one. I spent a strange few days in a place called Shimla and there’s plenty to tell. Shimla was the British Summer Holiday capital back in the day of British rule, and is still a very popular holiday place for people all across India. Lincolnshire people, it’s kind of like an Indian version of Skegvegas, with pony rides, ice creams, stalls selling tourist tat etc. Oh, and rain and fog in monsoon season (i.e. now). Only this place has amazing views of the Himalayan ranges and no beach.
To get there I took two trains, totalling about 9 hours travelling time. This might sound horrific but it’s not so bad, India is such a big country to get around and I’m kind of used to lots of travelling time now. The second train was the Shimla Toy Train. It doesn’t cover a big distance but it takes ages because it winds through the mountains, over bridges and through loads of tunnels. 103 tunnels to be precise. It was much fun, if not a bit crowded, on tiny bench seats and I was squashed in with an Indian family. Not the comfiest, plus they had a screaming baby but, they shared their lunch with me, which was 1) a bonus and 2) delicious. And the baby stopped screaming after a while. They couldn’t speak much English, I don’t speak Hindi but we got by OK.
The journey was fine, peaceful and not too hot. But, about 20 minutes outside Shimla I saw a load of black smoke starting to billow out the engine and we ground to a halt. So, there we sat, in the middle of the forest for about an hour and a half, all the time it was getting darker and I had no way of letting the family I was staying with that I was going to be late. Because, for this bit of the trip, I had decided to do a bit of couchsurfing. Couchsurfing is an online travel community of people that open their homes to other travellers and let them stay. I’d registered back before Christmas as it seemed a cool thing to do, a way to meet real people and also to save a bit of cash. I’m not sure what made me have a look at Counchsurfing while I was in Delhi but I did, and I found a lady who lived with her husband and two daughters who were also involved with an NGO (non-governmen organisation) that helped with education and empowerment of women and villages. This sounded right up my street and interesting, especially after what I’d just done in Africa so I sent a request, it got accepted and off I went. I managed to find her place eventually in the dark with the help of a kindly guy at the train station who walked the 20 or so minutes with me (uphill, in the humid fog). I was expecting him to try to make me go to some other accommodation, or ask for money but he didn’t. I was surprised; in my experience so far it seems the majority of people in India only want to talk or be helpful because they want something. So that made a nice change.
Sandeepan (the lady I was due to stay with) had received unexpected house guests since accepting my request so when I got there she had arranged for me to stay with another couchsurfer, Aruna, who lived a few minutes away. So, after feeding me lovely food (very welcome after a day’s travelling) I went off to Aruna’s place, where I was instantly made me feel very welcome. Aruna is a retired teacher and lives with her husband smack bang in the middle of town. I ended up spending the next 4 nights at her house, where she made me the most delicious chai (and biscuits) and home cooked indian food. It’s not quite like we get in the Indian restaurants back home. I tried all sorts of things, all veg (in India, you are either Veg or Non-Veg), some with local vegetables only found in that region, some with more widely found across India. I spent one morning with her in the kitchen watching her cook, with her talking through everything she was doing. I learnt so much, and she made it all look so easy! When I get back to England I’m definitely going to try and have a go. One thing was evident; there is no wastage. Everything, and I mean everything, gets eaten or saved for another meal. Top tip for sweet lovers: mix sugar with any leftover rice for a quick easy sweet after your meal. It tastes very similar to rice pudding.
I learnt lots about Aruna, her family, her religion, India and Shimla. It was so interesting and so different to just staying in a hotel or guest house; for a few days I got to experience real Indian life, including proper food, squat toilets and a shower which was just a jug and a tub of warm water. Not sure there’s any price you can put on that.
I also helped out with some things for the NGO (Wahoe Commune). This is where it became a bit of an adventure. A mixture of my scepticism (well, as I mentioned, my experience in India had previously been that people just wanted things from you) and communication between two different cultures. At times, it felt a bit ‘hard-sell’ for the ngo. Like I should be contributing financially, which kind of goes against what couch surfing is all about, although it wasn’t specifically said so I think this may have been more my issue or interpretation.
I ended up helping out though, not necessarily financially but with my time, which I was happy to do. It all came about a bit strange though. I’ve found that Indians tend to say statements rather than questions, so I was told that I was to accompany Sandeepan’s husband later that day to some accommodation outside of Shimla that they were thinking of offering to their volunteers as somewhere to relax for a few days before or after their volunteering stints. To take pictures and also to let them know what I thought of it, presumably as an English person (and potential volunteer). With nothing else to do, and a unplanned stay, I figured why not? So, the first day I found myself in a car with 4 Indian men heading away from Shimla to a remote village. Erm, yeah, as I’m sure you can imagine, at this point I wondered what the hell I had managed to get myself into. Yep, images of those headlines of gang rape in India from the newspapers flashed into my head. But, I thought, I’d met this guy’s wife and kids and been to their home so it all had to be OK, right? <weak laugh> So, I get to the accommodation, to then be led to an empty accommodation block. This is not getting any better. Imagination going a bit overdrive. But, I took some pictures, we chatted about the room a bit. Then, we got brought chai (tea). Hmm. Is it drugged? I was cursing my overactive sceptical brain. Then, Guvinder tells me he wants to offer me some spiritual healing. Right now. Doesn’t quite tell me what’s involved but says we can have a short session to find out what my chakra is like (energy). He had been telling me about his journey with spiritualism on the way over. I cynically ask if he will charge. He says not for this, as I am helping him out. But, if I want a whole course, then yes, it will. Hmm. But, in the sense of adventure, I decide to go with the flow (noting an escape route of course, just in case). After that first session, we went back to that accommodation twice, both to take more photos (with banners and things) and also for another two sessions of healing.
Now, I’m not going to describe right now what was involved, as I apparently should have 40 days to process it, and not talk about what goes on in the healing until after those days are up. And, no matter what I think about it, I’m going to give the process that respect. But, let’s just say, sat in a room with views over the Himalaya’s, sometimes in my underwear (!) it’s one of the most bizarre yet interesting things I’ve experienced, and has certainly made me think.
One of the trips to the accommodation was done by public bus, the others by car, all of which were an experience. Tight, twisty mountain roads, filled with lorries, people, cows and everything in between. I will never forget coming back with the sun setting over the Himalayan ranges; it was so stunningly beautiful. Or the trip back on the bus; in a monsoon downpour, the bus was hurtling (and yes, that’s an accurate description) round the corners in heavy rain, people flailing all over the place, Indian music blasting out and incense sticks burning. Oh, and if people want to overtake here in India, they just beep their horn and go for it, even on blind corners. If they find something coming, they just stop. And the roads are so narrow, sometimes the buses are nearly touching when passing. Like, you couldn’t even get a fag packet between them. Those trips to the mountains were truly an experience I won’t forget.
So, apart from helping out, thinking I might get gang raped or die on the roads, what else did I do in Shimla?
Well, I had a good explore down all the roads and side streets and just a general wander around. I climbed to Jakoo Temple (monkey temple) at the top of one of the mountains where there were gorgeous views, a huge statue and lots of monkeys, who, if you weren’t careful, would steal your stuff. I had a stick to ward them off, luckily I had no need to swing it round like a light saber. Pity. I could have been Princess Leia.
After 4 nights I decided it was time to move on. I was debating whether to volunteer at one of the Wahoe community projects for a while but I really felt like I needed some time alone, to myself. My adventures in Shimla had got me thinking about all sorts of things and I needed some space. I feel sad that I had been so sceptical of everything, but I’m not sure how to fix that. Or whether I should? I need to keep myself safe, and can’t just go accepting every invitation or presuming everyone has good intentions, we know the world isn’t like that.
So, with a ton of memories I said goodbye to my generous hosts and hopped on a bus headed for Manali, even further into the mountains.
Shimla Toy Train
Statue at Jakoo
Sunset over the mountains