Sunday, September 17, 2006

Chilling in Shimla

Last month we had a couple of days off for India’s Independence Day, and what better way to celebrate than by heading up to Shimla - the small town in the Himalayas which the British picked as their “Summer Capital” due to its cooler climate. I cant blame them really – I can barely even imagine Delhi without air conditioners let alone fans, and they didn’t even have those, well, apart from the fans attached to ropes on the ceiling that Indian men were paid bugger all to sit and pull all day long…really no wonder that India fought fiercely for its independence is it.

Anyway – Shimla. Was our first trip up to the Himalayas (not counting our trip the month before to Haridwar, which we thought was in the hills, and thus optimistically packed jumpers and jeans to snuggle up in, but ended up being situated on the decidedly flat, dry, dusty and HOT plains just before the hills, where we sweated it out) and we were very excited to get out of the Delhi furnace and into some weather which we were assured by the Internet weather site would be between 19 and 25 degrees – heaven!

To get to Shimla, we caught the very comfortable Shatabdi Express to Kalka, and lounged in our seats with tons of legroom, drank ourselves silly on tea and excitedly watched Delhi disappear as we headed north. Once in Kalka, we walked out of the station to find a taxi to drive us up to Shimla. A man approached and offered to hire us an Ambassador, the quintessential Indian vehicle – looks 100 years old but was actually manufactured last year – for 1100 rupees. As seasoned Delhi-market frequenters, we immediately tried to bargain him down to 1000 (the AUD$3 saving would have been worth it!) to which the man signalled his disgust and walked off to assist the waiting throngs of other people who were also waiting for taxis. An hour later, after several unsuccessful attempts at engaging the services of other drivers, and when we could next catch the man’s attention, we sheepishly agreed to the original fare, and were on our way!

Or so we thought. To get to the Shimla “highway”, we needed to pass through several traffic jams of other cars also trying to get to the shimla road, a number of “tax points”, and weave our way around the ever-present cows, calmly munching away on garbage by the side of the road. After what felt like hours of tooting, yelling, swerving, stopping and starting, we were REALLY on our way, our driver calmly driving around the hairpin bends on the road between Kalka and Shimla on the wrong side of the road as if he had done it before tonnes of times (which lets face it, he probably had).

We got to Shimla after a couple of hours, feeling slightly dizzy, and asked our driver to take us to our hotel, “Spars Lodge”. Perhaps Spars Lodge isn’t all that well frequented, as despite the LP saying it was only a few minutes out of the centre of town, it took us another hour to find. We eventually got to it by driving back out into the countryside, along some bumpy dirt tracks, through a military installation, and eventually, up a hill too steep for the cars gearbox, at which point it was suggested we could get out and walk. We got out and hoisted on our backpacks to find that we were surrounded by a fine white mist; it was raining heavily, but more importantly – it was cold!!! We practically danced our way up the vertical slope to Spars Lodge, whipped out our fleecy jackets and smiled ruddy cheeked at each other.

Spars Lodge was worth the search. Perched on the side of a hill, it had great views of the Himalayas, a friendly manager and decent food. They also had 4 wine glasses in a box which they were happy to crack open for us to fill with our BYO Indian shiraz. The rooms were simple, a little grubby, but pretty cheap, and had amazing views. The hotel also had resident monkeys which shocked us by appearing suddenly at the window as we were sleepily gazing out at the cold.

One thing Shimla is not short of is monkeys. In the town they mostly keep to themselves, which is a good thing. But at the Monkey temple, which is perched high on a hill above town - they attack! So much so that it’s worth the 5Rs investment to hire a stick that you can threaten them with if they get too close. Particularly if you are, like me, more than a bit knackered by the time you finish climbing to the temple – unfit foreigners are easy pickings for those unfriendly (and not at all spiritually at-ease – which is odd given that they live at a sacred Hindu temple that is dedicated to them!) monkeys.

Chris, happy and stick-free at the top of the "Monkey Temple hill"

Monkey at his temple, looking for his next victim...hmmm who's that guy over there in the orange hat? the one without the stick?

We had 2 full days in Shimla, which we spent going for long walks in the slightly chilly air, alternating between jumpers on and jumpers off, drinking hot chocolates and trying to find an Indian wine that was drinkable but also affordable. That proved to be an unsuccessful task, but we did learn that Shimla produces its own apple cider – a very tasty alternative indeed.

View of Shimla....

On our last day, we walked to the Vice-Regal Lodge – a big old building built by the Brits in what was described as the “Scottish style” – for a poke around. The lodge was built in the 1800’s for the Vice Regent of India to stay in during his summer vacations (I mean, working holidays) in Shimla. We went on the tour, which consisted of a guide leading us into the foyer and out again, and informing us that as none of us have PhD’s, we were not permitted to go any further (the lodge is now an Institute for advanced study, and fair enough too that the academics inside don’t want to be disturbed by the hordes of uneducated tourists!). What was most special was the photo of Gandhi, Nehru and the English bloke in charge at the time (sorry cant remember his name) posing outside the building, having just concluded an important decision-making meeting regarding Indian independence. It seemed fitting to be at this place on the celebration of Independence Day.

In Gandhi's footsteps, but without the PhD's........with friends outside the Vice-Regal Lodge in Shimla.

Monday, August 07, 2006

All Aboard for Haridwar

Last week, Chris and I took off on our first break from Delhi since moving here. That’s right, first holiday, weekend away, mini break or even drive in the country outside of Delhi, but still in India, in the 6 months of living here. Some would say we are lazy and like the comfort of our air conditioned living room and “Lost” DVD’s way too much, but I prefer to think of us as having been just too damn freaked out at the idea of catching rickshaws to work to have even been able to consider negotiating many complicated steps that organising train travel in India involves.

Step 1: buy a ticket. Phew, I’m exhausted just writing that! Chris actually tried to get us tickets to Haridwar months ago when we first got here and he wasn’t working yet. He went to the train station on a Wednesday, and innocently asked for tickets on the Friday evening train. The answer was a firm but polite “NO”, followed by polite but firm laughter, and we were waitlisted at numbers 78 and 79. If you decide you really want to go on the train, you can line up for hours with all the other tie-dyed foreigners at the special “foreigners booth” at New Delhi railway station, where you are asked to display your passport, show bank receipts to prove you didn’t earn your rupees in India, and then pay exorbitant fare prices because clearly, if you didn’t earn your money in India, you’ve got money. Perhaps we didn’t want to go through all of that, or perhaps there was a particularly good episode of “Lost” on, but that weekend, we spent in Delhi. The next week, Chris went back to the regular ticketing window, and taking no chances, booked us on the train to Haridwar in 2 months time.

Chris happily (or maniacally?) displays said tickets

Step 2: Get to the train station. Our tickets told us that our train was to leave at 10pm on Friday night, so we estimated we would need to leave home at about 8.30, which was very convenient as it meant we could come home from work, pack, have a leisurely dinner (perhaps even fit in an episode of ‘Lost”) and then call one of our local taxi stands. Unfortunately, on closer inspection of the tickets at about 7pm, we saw there were two times on the ticket – one was 9pm, and one was 10pm. So we choked down our dinner, threw some clothes into a backpack, and called a taxi. It took 3 calls, but the taxi eventually arrived and we hurled ourselves and our packs inside, hoping that departure time was 10pm. Friday nights are never good on the roads here, everyone seems to be driving somewhere, often down the wrong side of the road, nearly always with the hand placed firmly on the horn. On this particular night, it felt like everyone was driving to the Delhi railway station, as traffic inched along the entire way. Stress levels rose as we stopped for about 15 minutes on a road where a water main had burst, but eventually after a lot of unnecessary honking, yelling, and directing by the volunteer traffic police (mostly comprised of passengers who really needed to get somewhere soon), we were on our way. We arrived amid the frenzy at Old Delhi station at 8.50pm, hoping that if we could find our train, it would still be there.

Step 3: Find your train. India’s railway system is a source of great pride to India, and understandably so. India is big, and so of course is the railway system, which means there are a lot of trains, and a lot of platforms, and a lot of signs, and a lot of touts, and a lot of porters, and a lot (and when I say a lot, I mean a LOT), of passengers. Finding your train amidst all of this is quite the challenge, made even trickier by the helpful hints shouted out by men lounging around outside the station “Madam, go that way, yes THAT way!” which was invariably not quite right, but apparently quite amusing. In our panic to find the train, we stepped over families sleeping on the platforms, wove our way through the porters in red shirts who were so determined to carry our bags, that they bargained themselves down from exorbitant initial prices to bargain basement fees. We climbed around security checkpoints and excused ourselves as we ran through crowds of people milling around the platforms. We found a sign, and ran and ran, and got to the platform, to find the train……..was delayed.

Step 4: Get on your train. After an hour and a half spent wandering around the train station, drinking mango drinks and watching the endless bustle that is an Indian train station, the Mussorie Express trundled up to the platform. It was going so slowly that I didn’t imagine there was a rush, until I saw people suddenly come alive and start rushing to and fro, crushing themselves into each other at the train doors. We did the same at our carriage doors and stumbled inside to find….air conditioned luxury! 9 years ago, train travel meant sitting 3 people to a seat, with a baby on your lap, someone elses bag on your head and an armpit in your face. Such was the price for trying to stick to a budget of roughly A$5 per day. But this time – for approximately $10 extra, we had a bed- that’s right, a bed – each! With blankets, sheets and a pillow! And, a curtain for privacy! And a toilet that didn’t make you never want to go to the toilet again! 9 years ago, I remember learning to hold my bladder for 24 hours whilst travelling in India, this time there was no such need. It was train heaven! And we weren’t even in first class!

Chris relaxes on the lower bunk

For some reason, getting trains around India seemed dead easy when I was backpacking here in 1997. But I guess having a whole day in which you had nothing to do but sleep, eat banana pancakes, haggle over the price of a new pair of tie dyed pants and book a train ticket to wherever-there-were-still-seats-available was a luxury we don’t really have this time around. Now that we have jobs, we have lost that flexibility that allows you to undertake train travel whenever you can be squeezed into the carriage, like Monday afternoons or Wednesday mornings. I reckon I could still get away with tie dyed pants at work though, so maybe things haven’t changed that much.

Monday, July 24, 2006

My favourite place in Delhi is....London

Yep, realise this blog is supposed to be about our life in Delhi, but I visited my sister in London for a few days last week after a work trip, and I have some photos of the cool new house she bought with her boyfriend, so for today, lets all pretend that London is an outer suburb of Delhi....mmm, wish it was, I would be buying ham at Sainsburys right now.....mmm hammmmm

Anyway.....enough imagining of pork products, here are some photos of my sister at her new place:

Thats Leigh in the living room, doing one of her favourite hobbies: "relaxing"

Heres Leigh again in her living room, busily engaging in another one of her hobbies "watching TV" (I think thats "Big Slapper", oops I mean "Big Brother" on the telly)

And heres Leighs boyfriend, Ekpe, in the kitchen, doing his favourite hobby: "cooking for Leigh".
Nice place huh?

Thats all for now...Im off to Soho to buy a new bohemian hat.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Hello world!

Well, its been 5 months since Mr and Mrs Baggs arrived in Delhi, and its only taken that long for Mrs Baggs to figure out what a blog spot is, and how it might be useful in communicating the weird and wonderful things that seem to happen in any normal Delhi day to the wider world. Incidentally, heres a few other things that have also only taken me 5 months to learn:

  • How to order a taxi over the phone so that it actually arrives within an hour (admittedly this only works 50% of the time, but hey, thats 100% better than never!)
  • That the high pitched wailing outside our window every night is not someone screaming in agony, but a security guard blowing on an EXTREMELY LOUD whistle, to reassure his security guard colleagues in other bits of Delhi that things are safe, and he is awake
  • That eating sausages in Delhi, however tasty they may be, is NOT SAFE (in fact it would be helpful if there could be someone could blow an EXTREMELY LOUD whistle in my ear every time I get tempted to try another one....)

Mr Baggs and I moved to Delhi from the Solomon Islands, where we were living and working on a small island that felt like a long way from anywhere. It was certainly a long way from Delhi. But after a few years of relatively peaceful village life on the islands, we felt ready for a change, and thought maybe it was time to "give Asia a go". But "Asia", or more specifially "Delhi" has been putting up a good fight to our complacent assumption that we could just go and live anywhere. We may no longer be living in a one-cafe town surrounded by rainforest and coral reef. We may sometimes stumble into our apartment, exhausted from the 40 degree heat, the polluted air, the honking traffic; to collapse onto our uncomfortable couch and stare longingly and wonderingly at our photos from the Pacific. But we are certainly living in a place that teaches us lessons every single day. And while that can be tiring, and while sometimes you just want to throw chalk right at the teachers eye, it is certainly never dull.

Actually, the Solomons and India do have one thing in common - don't eat the sausages!