The Weather Turns

Sometimes you wake up at 5:00 AM and start walking through the pouring rain … and really start to question why you keep doing this. Then you get on the painfully slow, narrow gauge train that supposedly has such wonderful views only to realize you won’t see anything due to this wonderful rain that has now soaked you through to the core. And all the while, we’re trying to cope with a sensation we haven’t felt in a long time – cold.

But then the train starts. It chugs along, winding uphill steadily. We dip in and out of the clouds as the rain comes in spurts. The views, while not vast, envelop hills in various shades of cloudy grey. We get a hot cup of tea to warm us up, and we sit back and enjoy the show.

The train chugs in two hours late and we trudge to a hotel, though mercifully, the rain has stopped. The clouds slowly diminsh as the day wears on, until we are rewarded for our early morning efforts with a gorgeous sunset.

We have landed in Shimla, the famous hill station and seat of the British Raj every summer. More rewards await us the next morning. We awaken to crystal clear skies and a view of all the hills surrounding us and stretching all the way across to the Himalayan range.

Thrilled with the prospect of our first good weather day in India, we decide to go for a walk the tourism office recommended. It turned out to be a bit more challenging and less clear than a “walk,” but it was the kind of day I really like. The terrain was varied, we wandered downhill through wooded forests in the “glen” before winding back up hill through local villages on a trail that led to a beautiful waterfall before returning to the British opulance of the Viceregal Lodge, the former summer home of the Viceroy of India and a classic British building that looked like something out of Harry Potter.

The people were wonderful, we said a few namastes and hellos, posed for a few pictures and shared a whole lot of smiles. And the weather was perfect. So we got our answer … days like this are why we keep doing this.

Smile! You’re On Some Indians Camera

So you’re probably wondering who these people are that we’re posing with in these photos. Well, so are we. We don’t know them. We didn’t meet them until about two seconds before the camera shutter snapped. They might have mentioned their names when they thanked us for the photo, but that’s all we got.

So why are we in the photos? Well, we’re not exactly clear on that either, but apparently Indian people really like to have their photo taken with white people. It started at the Red Fort in Delhi, when a guy asked Jeff to take a photo with him. We originally thought he wanted us to take a picture for him, but he quickly made it clear that he wanted Jeff to be in the picture.

The photo-taking continued at our next destination, Shimla, where Jeff was asked to pose with people’s young sons as well as by older gentleman. I was snapped in photos with local women. It seemed taboo to take a photo with the opposite sex as it was always Jeff with men and me with women. And they never wanted just a photo of us; they wanted to be in the photo with us.

Neither of us can quite figure out what the heck these people do with the photos. Do they go home and show all their friends the photo of the white person they saw on their holiday? Do they make up some story and in someone else’s world, we’re their best friend or co-worker or long lost cousin? Are we hanging on someone’s Indian refrigerator? I really have no idea. But for some reason, being in a photo with us makes these people quite happy, so we just smile for the camera and then accept their thanks. It must be good karma.

First Impressions of India

It’s hard to believe its come to this, but we now have less than one month left on our journey. We are spending most of that time in India, having arrived here last night. So far, here are our first impressions.

We have this habit of overpreparing. This is sometimes good and useful, and other times pretty much counterproductive. For the last four days of our time in Malaysia, we poured over websites and through our guidebook, absorbing every tidbit of information we could about India. All of this extra time to think and rethink is also partially an indictment of the lack of enthralling activities to do in KL combined with the archaic and tedious process of obtaining an Indian visa.

Nevertheless, we found ourselves hearing all sorts of horror stories about the subcontinent, especially for new arrivals. We were amazed and terrified by stories of rampant pickpocketing, constant tout bothering, scammy drivers, demands for tips, food poisoning and various combinations of the above.

Things did not get off to a great start. Our thorough research had uncovered a well reviewed hotel near the train station in Delhi, the quality being quite a unique and remarkable thing for the area. After emailing for two days trying to find out the rate and reserve a room, we ultimately failed to know anything for certain as we boarded the plane in Kuala Lumpur. So we got off the plane in India not really knowing where we were going, already breaking a cardinal rule of tout filled areas. We had decided to head to our chosen hotel anyway, bought a prepaid taxi ticket after comparing rates of a few companies, and headed out to the taxi ranks. Here things got confusing. One tout tried to lead us away from the taxi rank. We followed him for a few steps before realizing he was headed away from the taxis. Then another tout offered his services and led us to the third taxi in line. Thinking the first two already had customers, we got in, but the yelling and arguing that ensued probably meant the tout had an arrangement with lucky #3. Just as we pulled away our friendly tout jumped in the car with us and began chatting us up. We spun a good yarn about it being our third visit to India, this time to visit our friend who was working in Delhi and was waiting for us at our hotel, where we already had a reservation. Finding this scenario to be unlucrative, since he couldn’t steer us to his hotel of choice, our tout friend jumped out on the onramp to the highway out of the airport.

Arriving at the hotel, we pulled into the Pahar Ganj area of Delhi. At 11 PM, this area is choc-a-block full of people with nowhere else to go. Cardboard beds lined the streets, people wandered about and a few rickshaws waited for fares that weren’t materializing. Every shop was sealed shut and the whole neighborhood was terribly uninviting. It was not somewhere we wanted to be wandering around with backpacks looking for somewhere to stay. Luckily, when we arrived at the hotel, they had reserved a room for us and we checked in no problem. Waking up the next morning, we found a bustling series of market streets coupled with a chorus of honking and lively chatter amongst people despite the monsoon rain. In reality, a complete 180 from the night before.

Our first mission was to book our train tickets, which we managed with relative ease at the tourist booking office, scheduling out our entire next three weeks. On the one hand, this was a terrifying prospect, because one thing we have become accustomed to is last minute and spur of the moment decision making, but on the other, it is nice to not have to think so much about what we are doing the next three weeks.

Our afternoon consisted of our first foray out into Delhi. We started by hiring a rickshaw to take us to the National Museum. After a long drive, frankly longer than either of us were expecting, our driver pulled over in quite an industrial area and with a smile pointed to a sign that said “International Doll Museum.” There were two things wrong with this: first, what kind of rickshaw driver doesn’t know where one of the biggest attractions of the city is, but second, what kind of driver instead knows where the International Doll Museum is? I mean, when I asked where on the map we were, we were halfway out of the city. Amazing really. Anyway, we got him straightened out and after almost as long a trip headed back, we arrived at the museum.

We perused the museum until closing, a beautiful collection of Indian art dating back five millenia through a long and impressive history. We left and headed for the India Gate, circumnavigating it before walking back along the Rajpath up to Parliament and the President’s house. We walked back to Connaugh Place through a light but steady rain before giving up and hiring a rickshaw back to the hotel. We never any troubles, rarely had touts bother us and if so, never for long, found most people to be delightful and helpful and the areas of the city we visited, especially along the Rajpath, to be lovely. For all the stories we’ve heard and worries we had, I must say, we’re off to a good start in India. Now let’s just hope writing this post hasn’t jinxed everything!