Everyone who has taken the trains in India has at least one horrendous, delayed for hours story, and of course, we were no exception. The setting: Old Delhi station. The time: Midnight until the wee hours of the morning, Diwali. The struggle: We arrive and one of our backpacks is ripped. We manage to find a small toehold of floor space and I try to sew the backpack while one guy is on his cellphone coughing on me so much that I can actually feel his spit spewing on my face. They never cover their mouths here. Hence, the bandana. Luckily, he meets up with his friends and leaves, just in time for another group of young adults to station their extremely too-much-Diwali-fun drunk friend right in front of us, and then abandon him. He sways, drools out something nasty, and looks so ready to spew I start to search around for an escape route. Luckily, the friends come back just in time and drag him unsteadily away. Meanwhile, our train is delayed for hours. Eventually, the board and the overhead signs indicate that it has arrived. I begin racing down the track looking for our car while Fran reads the postings on the sides of the train. The papers on side show that its NOT our train (but they have been wrong before); the neon sign above the train indicates it is our train. Total stress and confusion. That's India. We finally decide its NOT the right train and watch it go. Two guys urinate into the tracks within just a few feet of us. The rats have become bolder in the dark and I see several as I walk back to the board. Not to mention getting coughed on and almost puked on. This is one of the most disgusting, unhygenic things I have ever done.
Fortunately, we managed to make the train and try to get a little sleep. I set my alarm and get up the next morning, getting ready to get off quickly in hopes that we catch the next one ("toy train" or narrow gauge historic train) to Simla. We pull into a station and I tap Fran awake, asking him to check his app to see how close we are to the connecting station, Kalka. As he grumbles and groggily searches for his phone, I look out of the window. The station: Kalka! "Kalka!" I shriek to the stupid train attendant. "Is this really Kalka?" He doesn't even respond, just shuffles further down the damn car. Could they really not even bother to let us know? I become a ball of stress, harrassing Fran to hurry, hurry, so that we don't miss the connecting train. What a mess.
Good news; we DID catch the historic toy train to Kalka. What a fabulous ride through over 100 tunnels, working our way around and over breathtaking mountains with views galore. What an incredible feat for the British to build this train in the late 1800's. Amazing what they managed to accomplish in this crazy place.
In fact, Simla is a historic treasure-trove of accomplishments. Beginning in 1864, the British bureaucrats fled the summer Delhi heat and ruled from Simla for 50 years. As a result, the town sports fantastic European half-timber architecture, lovely shops, good coffee, even great drinks, all with a spectacular view of the Himalayas. It doesn't get much better than this! I love the symbolism of the impressive, Hogwarts-like Viceregal Lodge (former seat of British government) dominating one peak, and connected by a pedestrian-only mall (the longest in India), is the Jakhu "monkey" temple devoted to Hanuman (the Hindu monkey god) at the other end. It is just this crazy connection that typifies India.
We enjoyed watching the Diwali celebrations with our airbnb hosts, which mainly consist of a little bit of prayer and a lot of good food (including good sweets) and fireworks. Fire codes, bah! Everyone and his brother set off all kinds of noisemakers, big colorful ones and little loud ones, right in each others' backyards despite all of the posters beseeching people not to do so and showing nasty Diwali casualties. After watching the show from our perfect vantage point overlooking the city, we listened to them go off for hours throughout the night.
Of course, no good India entry would be complete without a crazy story to go with it. Ours involves the hike up to the monkey temple. The sign at the bottom said that if we reached the top within 30 minutes, we would be deemed in "Excellent shape" (even at age 30). We accepted the challenge and, armed with huge sticks to fend off the monkeys, we rapidly ascended the hill. Scary monkeys abounded ;we saw one without a nose, and many others bleeding on various parts of their bodies. These monkeys were not to be messed with! As we neared the top, a vendor called out to us, "Open your glass!" Fran repeated "Open your glass? I don't even know what that means." I'm embarrassed to say that I scoffed at him, responding "So many other people want us to do so many different things that I am tired of listening to them." Besides, I was on a mission, to be completed in 30 minutes! We made it to the top with a couple minutes to spare and, basking in the glow of our accomplishment, we went on to investigate the monkey temple. It was interesting, surprisingly clean, and nice to explore. Along the way, an Indian woman took the time to warn me that the monkeys might take my glasses. Prepared as always, I hooked a neoprene strap onto my glasses, tucked it under my hair, and considered myself warned. We enjoyed the monkeys and began strolling down the steps back to the trail at a leisurely pace. on the steps under the temple entrance, I stopped to take a photo of a monkey sitting on the head of a Hindu figure. Whomp! I felt a heavy weight on my shoulder and before I could say "Praise Shiva" my glasses were unceremoniously ripped from my face, strap and all. I lost my footing and tumbled blindly backwards down the steps, my last blurry view being an image of Fran waving his huge stick around. Indian bedlam ensued. People were rushing around to help and cluck over me, I was shouting for my glasses, and Fran was running around with some Indian men, chasing the monkeys. Finally a vendor told Fran to stop, and he instead grabbed some food and threw it on the steps. The little thief, who I'm sure had engineered the entire thing, saw the much-more-interesting food and dropped my glasses into the nearby bushes. The vendor plucked my glasses out of the bushes and handed them back to me, as by that time I had regained my footing (if not my dignity). I checked and, NOT A SCRATCH. Fran paid the vendor for the food while I put on my glasses. The monkey learned how to get a free meal, and some lovely Indian people asked us for a photo together (no doubt to memorialize the crazy American lady who did not "Open her glass"). So the next time someone tells you to "Open your glass" in India, you will know exactly what that means!