Going To Shimla

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Our train for Shimla left at 5:50 am on Sunday morning. Without us.

It was a little embarrassing. I mean, we weren't even close. I got a sudden shot of adrenaline and woke up in the middle of the night—or what I thought was the middle of the night in our windowless room. We had done our best to set a 4.30 alarm on the laptop, but we've known it to be funny from time to time. I decided to check the time, just to be on the safe side.

It was 6:40.

I woke Sarah up. We glanced blearily and helplessly at our luggage, neatly packed late into Saturday night. It was the sort of situation worth exactly one expletive. And then we rolled over and went back to sleep.

As mistakes go, it wasn't a very costly one, nor was it particularly difficult to correct. Our tickets cost around one thousand rupees (a tad over twenty dollars these days), and, since we took the night train instead, we ended up not having to pay for a night in a hotel. We had to suffer only embarrassment, and the inconvenience of having to rebook and depart from the Old Delhi terminal, instead of the nearby New Delhi station.

I don't particularly regret having an extra day on Main Bazaar. It was good to tie up some loose ends. We haven't seen much of Amar since getting back from Delhi: we've been too busy or too tired every time he offers chai. It was good to have a good-bye cuppa. Amar has apparently found himself a job in Rajasthan with an Italian gem dealer. Kudos to him! It sounds like an excellent opportunity.

The Kashmiris thought that they would take advantage of our mended relationship and make one last-ditch attempt to sell us a tour and send us to Kashmir. They were even kind enough to offer to cancel our freshly-purchased train tickets and put us on the next plane to Leh. "You will have a great time," he assured us. "I will call my family, they will pick you up from the airport. You can stay on their houseboat."

We tried to convince them that we were not interested in going to Kashmir, but they wouldn't take no for an answer. So we said no anyway. Several times. Forcefully. And then we left. I wonder if we weren't better off when he was calling us names. They seem to think we don't have the capacity to make our own plans. It is rather frustrating.

We've definitely got our game on with the rickshaw drivers, particularly now that we know we can just get a prepaid ticket from the New Delhi station if we get too frustrated. We set our price for getting to the Old Delhi station at fifty rupees, and we weren't going to accept anything higher. Worst case-scenario, we would get to the New Delhi station and grab a ticket.

We might have been better off walking to the station anyway. We managed to wrangle our rickshaw wallah down from 120 by just mentioning that that 50 was the price we wanted and we were willing to make the trip the rest of the way up Main Bazaar to get it.

Unfortunately, he was a bit of a shady character. After we got in the cab, he decided we would need to pay an extra 20 rupees for carrying our hand luggage. Before we could protest, he flipped on his radio to the Bollywood Hits station, and proceeded to have an excessively energetic one-man song and dance party that involved showing off his ability to navigate Delhi traffic with no hands. He would occasionally try to interact with us by throwing a slurred phrase in poor English over his shoulder—apparently he could drive without looking at the road as well. Believe it or not, it wasn't the scariest rickshaw ride we've had in India.

When we got to the train station, he was fairly insistent about taking seventy rupees from us. We were equally firm in that he deserved no more than the agreed-upon fifty (even if there were "government-levied baggage fees.") Sarah pointed out that we noticed he'd been drinking. ("No madam!" he insisted, enthusiastically. "…Only one drink!") He gave up on extorting twenty more rupees from Sarah, and turned to me. I started writing down his license number, and, noticing what I was doing, he was suddenly very eager to accept our fifty note.

Of course, it turns out we could have walked the five kilometers to the train station. Our train was three and a half hours late for its intended 9.40 departure. This was a bit troubling to us, given the fact that we were grabbing a connecting train in Kalka, but there wasn't anything we could do about it besides making sure that (this time) we were on the train we were supposed to be on.

Most of the Indian travelers didn't seem to mind the delay. They just pulled out their blankets and laid out on the train station floor, or curled up on a bench (of which there were far too few). A far cry from the unrestrained wrath that American travelers would have unleashed at the inconvenience.

India's travel culture is fascinating: it's train-based, rather than personal car and plane-based. Travel is cheap, laid back, and somewhat unreliable rather than expensive and rigorously scheduled. In America, travel consists of about equal parts stress and waiting—indeed, often more stress than waiting. But in India, travel means small, short bursts of stress interspersed with long hours of waiting. There's not a lot you can do about it when (inevitably) things go awry, and trains run late or have to be canceled. You just have to do the best you can, and trust that sooner or later the system will get you where you need to go. I wonder if this is a reflection of the Indian mentality—or if the Indian mentality is partly a consequence of spending so many untold hours waiting for trains or waiting on trains.

Nathaniel is a little cramped in the upper bunk.
Nathaniel is a little cramped in the upper bunk.

We traveled Sleeper Class for the first leg of our journey: the no-frills steerage compartment where they pack as many people in as they can and don't provide much by way of amenities. We had heard some bad things about Sleeper Class, and would have opted for a little upgrade if we had the chance, but options are limited when you book on the morning of departure.

Fortunately, it turned out that besides being a little dirtier, a little noisier, having a few more mosquitoes, and carrying no one else who spoke English, Sleeper Class wasn't much worse than three-tier AC. Sarah and I were too tired to notice much about the trip. We fell asleep right after our tickets were checked and slept soundly until we were frantically shaken awake at the end of the line.

It turns out that the only reason people go to Kalka is to get on the toy train to Shimla, so when the Delhi-Kalka train is delayed, they are kind enough to delay the Shimla carriage as well. After four more hours and a generous serving of mountain scenery (enjoyed with the several honeymooning Indian couples that shared our car), we had finally reached our destination.

But Sarah is having a good time in the toy train to Shimla.
But Sarah is having a good time in the toy train to Shimla.

Being in Shimla is wonderful. It meets and exceeds all the hopes that we had in coming here. The thin, cold mountain air, the cramped shops, the Western architecture, the fact people on the street leave us alone. Above all, a great, Gothic church stands in the heart of the city—her central landmark and historical attraction. Being so near to such a well-proportioned church is like finding my center of gravity again. Delhi is a teeming mass of humanity, flowing without common sense or direction. It is a place to survive, not a place to live. But, thanks to clever civil engineering by the British, life in Shimla orbits the church. Life here is anchored, even if that anchor dropped out of the sky rather than grew organically from the people.

We are extraordinarily, irrationally glad to be here.

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