Thursday, May 1, 2008

Greetings from: SHIMLA

Nestled in the hills of Himachal Pradesh, Shimla was once a resort town for the British. Indeed, the Viceregal Lodge (the now Indian Institute of Advanced Study) looks like an estate straight out of a Merchant-Ivory Production: gray bricks, arches, turrets and spiral staircases. After the British left, there was no reason to let such a nice retreat go to waste; there’s a considerable military and government presence in Shimla, judging from the roads blocked off by serious looking soldiers and the number of government vehicles that traverse the hill. The temperature seems eternally moderate; at night, I even got cold and had to wrap myself in a comforter. In this way, it reminds me of my hometown of Dalat, also a summertime getaway. Shimla has capitalized on this. Every few steps, you find a hotel, guesthouse, or eat-and-sleep establishment. Here’s a town that thrives on tourism, both foreign and domestic.

I met a young Canadian duo, Heather and Andrew, staying next door to me at my hotel (the charming Spars Lodge). We agreed to join forces for the day. Heather, a pre-med student, has been living in Delhi with her aunt for the past five months, working at a hospital. Andrew is studying to be poet in Winnipeg. We set out towards the Mall, a pedestrian only strip of commerce, a good 2 km. walk from our hotel. Shimla is terraced; paths diverge and head uphill or downhill with no promise of ever meeting up again. To explore Shimla is to zigzag continually, orienting via prominent landmarks: the canary-yellow Christchurch, the statue of Indira Gandhi, the roller skating rink. I heard a mother chastise her unhappy child in English, “The Mall is what Shimla is known for. You should enjoy it.” What was most enjoyable: the cleanliness. Shimla has actual public rubbish bins. Automobiles aren’t allowed on the Mall. Spitting and littering is punishable by a 500 Rs. fine. The white houses and hotels nestled against the green hills make this area feel like the escape that it is.

Plus, monkeys. They’re everywhere: you hear them rustling in the branches above you or scrambling across a corrugated tin roofs; you see them sitting on the sides of the road, alone or with their family, picking leaves and eating them. Not surprisingly, the Jakhu Temple, dedicated to the monkey god, Hanuman, is located high atop a hill here. A sign at the base of the path to the temple asks you to test your fitness: if you can make it up in 30 min., you’re very fit. 45 min., just fit. If you’re over 70 and make it up at all, you’re fit. This was not a good sign. The vertical ascent seemed endless. Although the path is paved -- on one side is a set of uneven stairs with a railing -- the trek proved quite a workout. The cooler weather was no respite from the sun. Andrew, lanky and full of energy, bounded upwards without betraying any signs of fatigue; Heather lagged behind. I kept somewhere in the middle, occasionally resting in the shade, sitting on the railing, thinking, These monkeys had better be worth it. Well, they were and they weren’t. At the top, right before the final ascent to the temple, it was great fun to see them gamboling about. What was less fun, however, was having one jump on my back. It happened before I could react; I felt a sudden weight on my back, something brush by my ear, and the next thing I knew, my glasses sat slightly askew on my face, the left arm bent and the earpiece broken off. As I stood, examining the damage, another monkey -- or perhaps the same one, who could tell? -- snatched the glasses out of my hand and make off with them. A young boy chased it down for me and retrieved them. Only then did I notice the sign advising Please keep glasses, packets and cameras firmly in hand.

I was attacked by monkeys. I had become that guy.

Andrew and Heather wisely rented some monkey sticks and we made our way to the temple itself, joined by an Australian, Kimberly. The locals warned her about my recent simian encounter, and she put her glasses in her bag. At the temple, we removed our shoes and put them into a guarded -- albeit stinky -- shoe hut. The marble was cool on my feet, and the four of us were instructed to walk counter-clockwise around the temple, rather than clockwise. Near the temple is a metal swing, where Indian families (and some enterprising Westerners) took a moment to revel in childhood. I wish I could say more about the temple itself, but without my glasses, it’s a fuzzy memory.

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