Doug & Mom: 3/25/99

Chandigarh, India
Thursday, 3/25/99
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Before leaving Dharamsala yesterday afternoon, we went back to the Chocolate Log for a final carrot cake and we met a woman from Michigan who has spent several weeks in Dharamsala attending classes at the Dalai Lama's facility there. She had gone to Varanasi earlier in the week, to go on to Kathmandu and then try to get into Tibet, but Royal Nepal is on strike and everything was so fouled up with the other flights (because of the stranded Royal Nepal customers) that she finally gave up and came back to Dharamsala. She told us about TIPA, the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, and we wished we had gone there -- you could hear them chanting from across the valley most of the time we were in McLeod Ganj, but we didn't know that it was something we could attend. Mom was disappointed that the tourism office didn't tell her about that, but we were out of time and had to leave Dharamsala by noon in order to finish the 5-hour taxi ride to Shimla before dark.

Yeah, right. Ten hours later we were still in the taxi, as follows ...

We forgot to follow what has become our number one rule for taxis: try to get the oldest driver available. So we wound up with a teenage boy driver and his teenage brother as interpreter, and -- as always - the interpreter didn't really speak English other than a few memorized phrases. The driver was quite a maniac, driving very fast, never honking to warn pedestrians of his presence, and so on. They played Indian pop music really loud on the cassette player, but luckily that burned out after a couple of hours and then they just chatted the rest of the way.

In the first mile, they stopped for water and then again for motor oil. This was a clue about the condition of the car, as we found out later.

The drive through the Himalayas was very interesting scenery ... we dropped down about 2000 feet from Dharamsala very quickly, then cruised through little villages and areas of solid rock (lava?) with patches of vegetation. Then up into some forests of pine and bamboo, a weird combination, with lots of monkeys. Then we stopped for lunch in the town of Jwalaji, where there's a big Hindu temple. The brothers took us to a place where they were serving some type of lentil stew and rice out of two big steaming communal pots. The interpreter ate with a fork, but his brother ate with his right hand in the traditional way.

Then we continued up through some steep valleys, and we seemed to cross over the edge of the brothers' known universe. Whereas before the driver would whip around corners and take forks in the road without a moment's hesitation, they would now stop and ask one or more local men about each decision point. A couple of times we turned around and backtracked, after taking a wrong turn.

Then the car got louder and they stopped to look underneath. They then consulted with a local man, and on his directions made it to a machine shop of some type, with several guys sitting around some welding torches and other equipment. The car was parked over a concrete pit, they took off the muffler and tailpipe (broken apart), and one of the guys welded them back together. Meanwhile we watched their "pet" monkey, chained to a bamboo pole, as he explored his tiny world -- everything within 6 feet of the pole. Sometimes one of the guys at the shop would wander nearby and toss something to him, and he would chatter and hiss or snap at them, and they would kick at the monkey and then they would all laugh. Across the street, a few dozen people sat in front of a small Hindu temple while a drummer played and other people sang various repetitive little melodies. After 45 minutes, we were back on the road.

Shortly before dark, we crossed a river about 50 miles from Shimla and started to climb what would turn out to be the most treacherous stretch of road we've seen, in a trip with many treacherous roads. Sheer drop-offs next to the road, many buses careening downhill nearly out of control, flocks of sheep sometimes appearing out of the gloom, and our driver trying to go faster and faster because he knew we were running so late. Many times we skidded to a stop near the edge, and once we could look down and see rocks tumbling into the void below right next to our tires. And the driver's judgment was terrible -- he would charge across a narrow bridge without looking up to see a bus coming, then skid to a stop and charge backwards off the bridge to get out of the way, or pass trucks on blind curves (one of those resulted in the simultaneous squeals of us skidding, the oncoming van skidding, and the truck skidding), and many similarly brilliant moves.

Soon it was completely dark, and we were driving along a high ridge up toward Shimla, with a cliff of several hundred feet to the right. It was very nerve-wracking, and Mom and I were both exhausted from the emotional roller coaster. Finally we got into Shimla about 9:30, and the brothers kept asking people where the hotel we wanted - Hotel Classic -- was located, then driving around in circles (it seemed) without ever getting to the main strip of hotels. Then we got a flat tire.

While the brothers struggled with the spare tire, I talked to a man nearby who seemed trustworthy (because he wouldn't accept my offer that he come along as our guide for some money -- not accepting money is a sign of integrity here, I think). The man pointed to a night watchman wearing a rifle, about 100 yards away, under a little sign that said PARKING, and he said "that's the best hotel around, if you don't mind the tariff." Sold. I convinced the watchman to let me use his phone to talk to reception, then got the driver to come talk to him about how to get around to the front door (a drive of nearly a mile, because of the way you have to wind around the steep switchbacks in Shimla). When we got to the front door, I had to yell at a guy who thought he was our guide or something and finally the hotel security helped drive him off, we checked in, and for the first time in 10 hours Mom got to use a bathroom. During the drive, Doug had joined our drivers when they stopped to pee alongside the road -- in full view of the cars and buses passing by -- but Mom waited for civilization.

And that's how we wound up spending $200 on a room last night at the Oberoi Cecil, the oldest of the Oberoi chain of luxury hotels. It's been there 90 years, and they treated us like a king and queen - great service, great food, great manners, all the things we hadn't experienced yet on this trip. They kept the restaurant open late to feed us after 11:00, and when a big fly kept landing on the strawberry mousse desert I just crushed him with my spoon and ate the rest with my fork - after the day we had, we thought that this fly was very amusing, and we both enjoyed being able to solve that particular problem so easily. I think we were drunk on stress or something.

This morning, we took the narrow-gauge train from Shimla down to Kalka, which Royston Ellis (the author of "India by Rail") calls the most spectacular train ride in India. We weren't disappointed -- it was great, with hundreds of little tunnels and bridges spanning deep chasms. And after the ride of the day before, it wasn't the least bit scary. We sat across from a guy about my age who is a biologist, born and raised in Agra, and he was very talkative and helpful. He takes many photos for his work (uses a Nikon FM2), so he gave me a tip on getting film processed in Delhi, and he also helped Mom plan her side trip to southern India to see Manisha (the foreign exchange student who lived with Mom and Dad in the 80's). Mom is planning to go south to Coimbatore next week while I go on photo safaris in Delhi.



We had a typically frustrating taxi ride from Kalka into Chandigarh, and checked in to the Hotel Mount View. Then we took a taxi to see Nek Chand's rock garden (more on that in the next e-mail, after we go back tomorrow), and we had an amusing misunderstanding with the driver. He parked to wait for us, we went inside, then he came up to us and said "double-pay seven eight." I said no, he kept saying it, and then -- in a total breakdown of our well-honed good cop/bad cop routine -- Mom and I both started yelling at him. This attracted a few people, who helped explain that he was trying to tell us his license plate so we could find him when we came out. The Hindi word for 5 is pac, which somehow became "pay" in his pronunciation, and his license plate number is 5578, or "double-pay seven eight." After the last 48 hours, this little incident seemed somehow fitting.

That's all for now, we'll probably send another update from Delhi this weekend.

- Doug & Mom

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