Dan gurgles and complains from under the covers in our hotel room in Shimla. His complaining is indecipherable but the meaning is clear… “I’m not leaving this room today. Don’t even ask.” He’s got Delhi Belly. We had a small side-bet going. He claimed that by being extra careful he could avoid any intestinal distress. He would eat only well-cooked foods from reputable, well-patronized establishments. He would drink only purified water that he had boiled twice and then re-sterilized using a high-power UV laser. He would wash his hands thoroughly both before and after eating, and three times between each meal.
It took four days for him to be stricken and laid low.
My philosophy is that you’re going to get sick while traveling. You might as well accept it and move on. The sickest I’ve been while traveling was after eating all-you-can-eat sushi at the mouth of the Amazon in Belem. Well, okay, that was just stupid. But the second-sickest I’ve been was in London. My point is, you’re gonna get sick.
At 11am I make a run to the chemist to get some medicines that Dan has carefully written on a piece of paper:
- bismuth subsalicylate
- loperamide hydrocloride
(That last isn’t really on the list. Eeeeew!)
The chemist has the loperamide hydrocloride tablets (Imodium), but has never heard of bismuth subsalacilate (Pepto Bismol™). Instead he gives me floxacilin, which is a great antibiotic but gives Dan a rash.
After that, I’m on my own, and I go walking. The main square of Shimla is called Scandal Point, and it sits smack on the ridge. From either side you can look far down into the valleys. Looking north, a jagged line of snowy peaks is clearly visible in the distance. The square is full of people strolling, taking pony rides, or simply sitting on a bench and enjoying the sun.
From Scandal Point, I head uphill towards the Jakhu Temple, a shrine to Hanuman, the Hindu monkey-faced god. Jakhu Temple is on a peak overlooking Shimla, and has recently built a new bright orange statue of Hanuman, standing 100′ tall and visible from many places in Shimla.
At the base of the road to Jakhu, a sign proclaims that if you are 50-70 years old and you make it to Jakhu in 55 minutes, you are in “excellently fit physically”. I stop for a moment to consider this. I’m not *quite* 50 yet (6 months away), but I’m not sure I want to be grouped in with the 70-year-old tottering up the hill with his walker, no matter how fit he may be. I spend a moment in silent meditation, feeling old.
My second thought is… “I can beat that.” I take note of the time on my camera, my sandals start moving, and I start climbing. I shoot past old ladies, mentally patting myself on the back, but soon lose momentum as the altitude and sedentary lifestyle start getting to me. I stop several times on the path to catch my breath and photograph. Up towards the top I stop to buy some packets of sweets from an old woman by the path. For 20 rupees (44¢) she gives me four small packets. She indicates that I must put them into my pocket, so the monkeys don’t steal them. I take her advice, and continue climbing.
Finally I arrive at the massive orange feet of Hanuman 36 minutes after starting the climb. I’m feeling pretty good about myself, but then I realize that I may be falling for the monk’s devilish plan to raise my self-esteem by over-estimating the times necessary to climb. Tricky monks! My self-esteem remains safely un-enlightened.
I go around to the shrine, where there is a small room with a bench and shoe racks. I leave my sandals there and go up to the shrine. People are gathering inside, sitting cross-legged on the floor. I sit and try to meditate, but mostly I just look around.
Inside the shrine is a smaller shrine, a building-within-a-building. The doorway to the inner shrine is sealed with a curtain, and everyone is waiting facing the entrance. The walls of the outer shrine have three-dimensional images of the feats of Hanuman. I keep looking at one that is very striking. It features Hanuman flying through the air over a flaming city. His tail trails behind him, setting the city ablaze. His chest is bare and he has an incredibly defined body. Hanuman is hot.
Finally the lights of the shrine start flickering on and off. The effect is like lightning inside the darkened shrine. The lights finally go off for good and a priest appears. He opens the curtain to the inner shrine, and the lights within shine out, illuminating our faces.
The priest takes a wand containing holy water and shakes it at us, spraying droplets onto the worshipers. Then he says something in Hindi and everyone stands up and crowds towards the priest. I join the queue.
One by one, the worshipers donate cash to a collection box or bags of sweets to the priest. The sweets are mixed into a large bowl, which blesses them. People take them home to share the blessing with family members. In return, the priest draws a red mark on the supplicant’s forehead, and gives them a teaspoon of holy water. When it is my turn, he tells me to drink a little of the water. I do, and brush the remaining water across the top of my head. I then turn and leave.
I’m not religious, but I liked the simplicity of the ceremony, especially compared to a catholic mass. You give, you get a blessing, the end. If you ask, you can even take some blessing home with you.
I retrieve my sandals and make my way down the hill and back to the hotel room.
In Delhi, Dan had purchased a mobile, but no one was able to telephone the number. To complicate things, the phone was in my name. (I travel with extra passport photos, which were necessary, and Dan does not.) Dan wanted to fix his phone, so he found out where the nearest offices of Vodafone were located. They were several kilometers away. The hotel told us that a round-trip taxi ride would cost Rs300, including 15 minutes wait time. Dan dragged himself out of bed, and off we went.
Driving in Shimla is like driving in Delhi but with cliffs. The cars careen from one side of the road to another, their horns constantly sounding, narrowly missing each other, pedestrians, dogs, and cattle. Every once in a while things slow while two large trucks carefully pass one another on a road that would be tight for one of them. They pass literally half an inch from one another, very very slowly.
We arrive at Vodafone, a large office building with a small team of security guards at the entrance. We tell the taxi driver we’ll be less than 15 minutes, start to enter the building, and are stopped by the guards. Dan tries to explain the problem with his phone, and they make a phone call. Dan collapses onto a chair on the sidewalk while we wait.
I have to pee, so I ask the guard if I can use the toilet. He looks concerned, and makes another phone call. 5 minutes of animated conversation follow, and then one of the guards is assigned to accompany me. He leads me up the road alongside the building, then through a parking lot where I see our driver. He is looking distressed. With an almost total lack of language, he asks me how much longer must he wait? I tell him “15 minutes more.” He asks “30 minutes?” I shrug. He shrugs back, locks up his car, and then walks down the street.
The guard leads me to the back of the parking lot and points to a billboard at ground level. A small path leads around the billboard. I follow the path to the back, where two guys are peeing over the side of the hill. I look back at the guard. He smiles encouragingly. Okay, I turn around, find a spot, and start peeing. Then I notice that I’m facing right at the Vodafone building, 3rd floor, where an room full of ladies is busy doing data entry.
I return to Dan, and we wait a little longer. Finally a gent appears and introduces himself as Vivek Bharti, Customer Care Supervisor. He leads us into the building, up two flights of stairs, and right by the Gent’s Toilet. He brings us to a small reception area, and asks us to sit down.
Vivek disappears. A few minutes later, a panee-wallah (water boy) appears and offers us glasses of water, which he assures us are mineral water (i.e., safe to drink.) We wait for a half hour. Every ten minutes the boy would appear with two new glasses of water and take away our half-empty glasses.
Finally Vivek reappears and leads us into a meeting room. He apologizes for the wait, and explains that our phone was actually not registered to us, because the proper paperwork and photos had not been sent to Vodafone. Not to worry, he says, we can fix that in the next few days.
We explain that we are going to leave Shimla the following morning, and he looks worried. Government anti-terror regulations require paperwork, copies of my passport, and passport photos. Luckily, I have my passport with me. We can fill out paperwork. But I haven’t brought any more passport photos. I ask if there are any photographers in the vicinity.
Vivek’s face lights up. Yes, there are! He tells me that he will have the boy lead me to the photographer and that we will have my photos within 5 minutes. Yay!
Dan starts filling out the paperwork and the panee-wallah and I head out into what has now become night. The streets are filled with rush-hour traffic, and cars are beeping at us. The panee-wallah keeps looking back at me, a worried expression on his face. He is walking so slowly that I pass him, only stopping at intersections to ask the direction. I dodge oncoming cars, step around holes in the street, and wiggle around stopped groups of evening shoppers. Whenever I look back, I see an expression on the boy’s face that is a mixture of fear and amusement.
Finally, several towns away and 20 minutes later we come to the photo lab. I sit down, a photo is taken, 50 rupees is handed over, and a dozen photos are carefully clipped out of a printed sheet with scissors. Then we’re off heading back to Vodafone. We get back there an hour after I left. I wonder whether our taxi driver has left yet, or is simply sitting in his car, weeping softly.
Dan is still in the meeting room where I’d left him, the paperwork mostly completed and awaiting my signature. Dan couldn’t remember the name of our hotel in Shimla (‘Hotel Combermere’) so Vivek had called their corporate travel office and gotten a list of all of the hotels in Shimla, and they were going down the list of 172 names one at a time. “Was it the Hotel Paradise Garden?” “No.” “Was it the Honeymoon Inn?” “Umm, no.” Etc.
After another 40 minutes of paperwork-completion, we are done. Vivek gives us a gift for our trouble* and we go out in search of our taxi. He is parked in the same spot, and looks amazed to see us emerging alive from Vodafone.
We climb into the car, swerve, honk, careen, stop, start, swerve some more, squeek, honk, honk, honk, and we are back at the hotel. We had agreed on a fee of Rs300 for the ride and a 15 minute wait. It has been more than a 2 hour wait, so Dan gives him Rs1000. The driver looks down at the money. He looks up at Dan. He looks down at the money. He looks up. “Okay” he says, and smiles.
* A bright red pleather Vodafone purse!