Chail

nathanielkiddnathanielkidd on 1230895408|%B %d

Our anniversary trip to Chail was fantastic; truly amazing. I don’t think we’ve had that much fun since we’ve been in India: indeed, perhaps since our wedding!

Chail emerged in the mid-eighteenth century as an alternative Shimla—a Himalayan resort town for wealthy lowlanders tired of the heat and noise of the city. Of course, the Maharaja who erected the town did not have the foresight or the resources necessary to connect his resort to the rail system, so Chail has always been the vacation underdog.

These days, the grounds of Chail Palace look a little under-used. Random stairways connect terraced gardens that no longer exist, a little playground looks too old and too rusted to use. Beneath the grounds is a mostly-finished and completely abandoned building project that looks like it might have been another hotel.

The Palace itself is well-maintained, although the voluminous hallways are in bad need of a tasteful art collection. The profile of the building, furthermore, is extraordinarily underwhelming: a two story stone façade that looks little bigger than a large house. I’m sure it was intended to be enhanced by the spacious gardens that no longer exist.

But the emptiness and underdevelopment of the area was a tremendous boon to us. As the New Year approached, we had plenty of interesting places to explore and, for the first time in India, privacy and profound quiet as we explored them.

We stayed in Log Hut #2, a good half kilometer romp through the woods away from the Palace, around the back of Lover’s Hill. It was cute, though a bit cold, and reminded us of our Honeymoon getaway in Michigan (which was the point). No snow in Shimla or Chail this year, unfortunately (unlike most of the US). But we’re confident we’ll find the white stuff one of our anniversaries.

The pricy function we attended on New Year’s Eve was a blast: worth every rupee. We were a little apprehensive going into it, knowing that it would be us and a room full of Indians (who would most likely stare at us, as most Indians are wont to do. As Shantaram observes, the Indian culture dispensed with the casual glance hundreds of years ago.)

Even our placard seemed to indicate our distance from the event. All of the other attendees were staying in the Palace. Their seating-cards read things like “Room 221” and “The Maharani Suite.” We, on the other hand, were seated at a table reserved for “Log Hut #2.” (There weren’t even any other Log Hutters at the function!)

But as the evening wore on, we were invited to take full part in the festivities. At first, their invitations were shy encouragements to join in the dancing games, but later, the other women were so bold as to grab Sarah and pull her out onto the dance floor. I have never felt so free to be awkward.

We didn’t win any of the couple’s dancing games, but we did get second or third place every time. (And I got a nasty wound from the highly competitive balloon dance.) Everyone appreciated our involvement. “You enjoyed all the activities!” one of the other guests observed. Another one told us she was truly touched by our participation, even though it was all Hindi music, and we were clearly out of our cultural element.

Ringing in the New Year was a little scary, as there was no clock in the room, and we didn’t bring a watch. We were completely at the mercy of whoever decided to start the countdown. We decided that the worst that could happen was that we would get back to our room and discover it was 11.45, or 2.30—but either way, there wasn’t much we could do about it. We just went with the flow.

The first mention of the time was an announcement (in Hindi) at two minutes till midnight. Then, abruptly, the music shut off and a girl in the back of the room yelled out “Ten!… nine!…” We joined the rest of the room in counting down to the New Year. (Sarah: “Fortunately for me, the countdown was in English… I can barely count forwards in Hindi!”) At midnight, we took a quick glance around the room, saw a few other couples smooching, and snuck a discreet kiss.

After our excited countdown, the staff arrived, bearing canisters of silly-string-esque fake snow. Sarah said that the snow on hair and clothes made a nice effect. I didn’t see it, because one of the staff decided to take out all of his latent aggression against white folks by blasting me point-blank in the face. Sarah got creamed too—with the stuff that bounced off of me.

At the end of the evening, “attractive prizes” were awarded for the outcome of the dance competition. Awards were given to the children, and to the couples who had won the dancing games. Everyone had to do a little dance solo to receive their prize. But, as Sarah pointed out, it wasn’t intended to be a humiliating solo—however awkward the dancing was, everyone clapped and cheered supportively.

Then came the award for “Best Dancing Couple.” I didn’t really hear what the emcee said, but when everyone turned around and looked at us, I realized it was something to the tune of “Mr. Niteniel, from US!” A woman with whom we had made brief conversation earlier darted to the stage to and informed him that, in fact, it was also our anniversary. He accordingly amended his statement with the fact.

We made our way tentatively to the front of the crowd amidst the loudest cheers yet. We busted out with the ungodly fusion of grooving, salsa, and swing that we’d been doing all night. We were feeling quite finished, but the crowd insisted that we do a second round of dancing after we accepted our prizes.

Our ascension from couple “Log Hut #2” to “Best Dancing Couple” was both joyous and hopeful: proof of what we have felt all along. There are plenty of decent, loving people in India in whose society we would be welcome and honored guests rather than opportunities to turn a quick buck. The challenge is finding ways to gently and authentically enter this society. And, after several failures and a few successes, I think it’s a challenge we are ready to tackle.

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