After a day and a half in Delhi, I found the city a bit overwhelming. It’s one of the most densely populated cities in the world. For example, my hometown of Columbus, Ohio has roughly 1,400 people per square kilometer. Delhi has almost 30,000. There’s also air pollution and trash all over the streets. It’s really filthy, and the idea of spending a whole week there didn’t appeal to me. I was glad I had booked some tours and was heading out of the city and up to the mountains, the Himalayan Mountains that is. I took a night bus to a popular tourist destination in the summer called Shimla.
A little history first. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, India gradually came under control of the British through the actions of the British East Indies Company. What started as a desire to simply trade goods with the Indian people led to the British taking control of most of the country. I hope to someday read more about the details of this. Some Indians told me that what started out as innocent trade led to greed by the English and eventually through a series of bribes and military action, they acquired direct control of most of India. Shimla was used by the British as the capital of India during the summer months due to the cooler temperatures. The British viceroy over India lived in this big house, which has now been turned into a think tank.
Most people have probably heard of India’s most famous citizen… Mahatma Gandhi. He was responsible for leading peaceful, non-violent protests of British rule in the early 20th century which, along with a lot of other circumstances, eventually led to India gaining its independence in 1947. Shimla no longer serves as the capital during any time of year, but is still a really beautiful place that gets a lot of visitors every year.
The plan after my arrival in Shimla was to find my guide, Deepak, who Mehar had arranged to meet me when my bus arrived. I had taken a night bus, and just woke up when we stopped at what seemed like three quarters of the way up a mountain. There were about a dozen locals touting for the people on the bus to hire them as guides. I didn’t want to just get off the bus and say, “I’m here for my guide”. That would be stupid, so I waited. Deepak eventually saw me, and got on the bus and introduced himself. It was still early in the morning, so not much was open. We walked through the town and Deepak pointed out some of the sites. The air was clean in Shimla, and there wasn’t the pollution or filth of Delhi. Best of all, there were some amazing mountain views. I was immediately glad with my decision to get out of Delhi right away and see more of the country.
The plan for my accommodation in Shimla was to do a home-stay with a local family. I was really looking forward to this, and I didn’t realize it until we got to the home I was staying in that Deepak was not just my guide, but also my host. He lived with his mom and brother in a small home at the top of one of the hills in the village. His mom didn’t speak a word of English, but she knew I was hungry after riding on a bus all night. I had a traditional Northern India breakfast of paratha, curd, butter and spicey pickles.
Paratha is a type of Indian bread that is cooked in oil with onion and I believe cauliflower. It’s heavy, and really fills you up. I finished my first piece, and Deepak’s mom placed another one on my plate fresh out of the frying pan. Two more pieces later, and I had to plead for her to stop since I was full. I guess I should have left a little on my plate to indicate I was done. Deepak and I then headed back out to explore Shimla.
Every night when we got back to Deepak’s home, his mom would make us some delicious hot chai. Chai or masala tea as it’s often referred to is different than other chais or teas you might have heard of. It starts as a black tea, and often brewed in a sugary milk. Spices such as cardamom, ginger and sometimes cinnamon are added for extra flavor. When done right, it’s my favorite tea of any kind I’ve tried in the whole world. Around nine o’clock every night, Deepak’s mom would serve dinner. The meals were so good, and were honestly some of the best Indian food I had while in the country. There was usually chapati or naan (Indian bread), along with basmati rice, daal (lentils) and some kind of vegetable dish.
In India, foreigners are advised to never drink the tap water due to the potential for getting sick from bacteria or other contaminants. However, in Shimla, the water is sourced from the surrounding mountains, so it’s clean and safe to drink. I was hesitant at first, but Deepak kept assuring me it was fine, so I went for it. You know what, he was right. I drank tap water everyday in Shimla and never got sick.
Monkeys, monkeys, monkeys…
I could probably do an entire blog post on all the monkeys I saw in India. They’re in every city I visited, and I never got tired of them. Growing up in the States, I had only seen monkeys in zoos. I don’t believe they run wild anywhere in the US, but I could be wrong. They’re so funny to watch, and I think other tourists would agree they’re a constant source of entertainment. That said, you really have to be careful around them. They’re wild animals, and some are diseased and can make you really sick if one happens to bite you. Mostly, they’re dangerous for the reasons outlined in the warning sign below…
Deepak warned me never to look the monkeys in the eye as it was a sign of aggression and could provoke them. Also, never carry food, and watch your cell phone. He told me one trick some of the smarter monkeys have figured out is to steal your cell phone or your glasses, and then you’ll have to give them food to get them back. Clever little bastards.
Within the Hindu religion, there is a monkey god named Hanuman. In Shimla, there’s a temple on top of the highest hill in honor of this god. A giant 30 meter statue can be seen from miles around, and the hike up to the top is pretty strenuous, but Deepak took me up there one afternoon.
There are monkeys literally everywhere at the top of the hill where the statue is. I asked Deepak if the temple was built here because of all the monkeys, and he said it was just the opposite… the monkeys started arriving after the statue and temple were built. I found that a little eerie if true. Did the monkeys really see the statue and feel drawn to it? I didn’t research it, so I’ll have to take Deepak’s word for it.
No monkeys were harmed in the making of this blog entry. The stick I’m carrying in the photo below is a precaution. The monkeys in Shimla generally avoid people and will run away if you approach them. However the monkeys near the temple are different. After years of being fed and photographed by toursits, they’ve become accustomed to people, and can be very bold sometimes. Deepak said they will approach you unless you have a stick in your hand. Then they stay away thinking you’ll attack. Everyone walking around up there was carrying a stick to keep the monkeys at bay.
As a foreigner, the monkeys are so entertaining. I couldn’t help myself, and always wanted to stop and photograph them. Right after I took this photo, there was a commotion and the monkeys went a little nuts. Deepak and I booked it out of there fast.
As I mentioned, India gained independence from the British in 1947. However, the new constituion establishing the Republic of India was signed on January 26, 1950. This date is celebrated as Republic Day. I had no idea of this when I arrived in India in late January, so it was a pleasant surprise. I heard there would be parades, music and dancing, so I was really looking forward to it when the day arrived.
That morning, Deepak and I met up with a friend of his who was a photographer and had been hired to take pictures of the festivities for the local newspaper. Deepak told me to just stick with his friend, and I soon found myself moving past all the crowds, and through all the security checkpoints. Before I knew what was going on, I had a front row seat to the performance that was about to take place. I made a short video of the dance below… here.
There were twelve different groups of dancers, representing the twelve different provinces or states of India. There were dancers, displays of acrobatics, and in one case, a martial arts demonstration.
On another day, Deepak took me on a day trip out of Shimla to a nearby city called Tatapani which means “hot water” in Hindi. It refers to the hot springs in the area. Here are a few photos from the day.
Not to brag about my ability to eat spicy food, but I think I did pretty well in India. Indians always try to dumb-down food for foreigners, but on this day, there was nothing to dumb-down. The samosas and sauce were pre-made and I ordered one for me and Deepak. Deepak actually couldn’t finish his because it was too spicy for him, but I managed to eat all of mine 😛
So that was how I spent my time in the Himalayan village of Shimla. It’s not at all what I imagined India to be like. However, India is a huge country, and I would quickly come to realize that it has just about every type of scenery and landscape you can imagine.
The home-stay with Deepak’s family made me rethink how I’ve been handling my accommodation during my travels. I’ve gone back and forth between Couchsurfing and hostels, but I think a home-stay is something I’ll look into in the future. Hostels help you meet other travelers, and can be great, but you often miss out on the local connection. Couchsurfing is nice if your host has time to show you around, but you can’t really Couchsurf with someone for a whole week. I always try to spend 5-7 days in each place to get a feel for it, and finding a CS host or hosts for the whole time can be time-consuming. With a homestay, you’re paying the family, but it’s on par or less than a hostel. Also, you might get a guide out of the experience. It was a perfect way to spend my time in Shimla. Deepak and family, thank you for the memorable time I had in your village.