Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Day of Mourning in Cambodia

Interrupting this blog to ask you to keep the people of Cambodia in your thoughts this holiday week. I'm looking for a good charity for the victims - still haven't decided - but will post here once I do.

Yesterday's mourning ceremony was beautiful and cathartic. I'm glad I went.

I bought a lotus and some joss sticks. I don't know anything about Buddhist rituals, but I guess that didn't matter much. I imitated what other people did. I laid my lotuses on top of the other flowers, and I put my joss stick in the little sand jar. I burned my thumb on it.

I was in the middle of a line of Cambodians wearing white and black. None of us talking much. The bridge had an almost unearthly shine on it. A sunny day, hot and clear.

I signed the guestbook with something wholly inadequate. Couldn't think of anything better.

A woman with the government approached me ."Thank you for joining us," she told me. No need to thank me.

There was a line of food offerings. I had some oranges, and I laid them down in a row. I guess if I understand anything it's an offering of food, of sustenance for the next life, of unmoored souls.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

One more day in Delhi, Lodhi Gardens

A Muslim refugee camp in Old Delhi, during the Partition era.

The Partition. I mentioned it before. The Partition, the seismic moment in Indian history. I talked to Leon about it, and I wanted to ask Sheila too, but somehow in a subtle way, like I couldn't just grab her by the shoulders. Shout, HOW ABOUT THAT PARTITION. I hope you know what I'm talking about. The nation arbitrarily torn into two parts. The mass exodus of Hindus from what was now called Pakistan, and Muslims from India. It is hard to imagine now but Pakistan used to be as Indian as India itself. Even today (like so many world conflicts) the differences between the two nations people are insignificant, the similarities enormous. As a a friend of mine said to me: "Whenever I went and lived overseas, most of my friends were Pakistani. Once you're overseas, you realize pretty fast fast that Pakistanis and Indians are the same people, there's no point in denying it, you have so much in common..."

Do you know that I don't know a single Pakistani? They are, so I hear, very common in the UK. And pretty much non-existent in the US.

And the Partition was a tragedy, a tragedy of epic proportions. Around 12.5 million people displaced and on the move. No one is quite sure how many people died in the inevitable fighting, but estimates range from a 100,000 to a million. The division of land between the two states was often arbitrary or poorly thought out: Partition is one of the reasons why Kashmir is such a mess today - combine a majority Hindu population in the Jammu region and a majority Muslim one in the Kashmir valley? You're going to have problems. Anyhow. Fighting on the streets, friends lost forever. Even the language got messed about. (Leon, remembering the day when he learned to speak Hindustani up in Mussorie, instead of Hindi). Another irony: some of the oldest archaeological sites in India are in Pakistan, in the Punjab. Gandhi was against the Partition. No one seemed to listen to him.

That evening, Sheila and I set off for one last walk around Lodhi Gardens. My favorite place in India.

(When I first came here: I went to one of the more secluded tombs, and was all alone (so rare) in India. It was my last few hours in India, I was headed to the airport right after. And I watched the green parrots and thought to myself, "When will I see this again, when?"
And reassured myself, "It will be soon, must be soon. Within two years, which is all I have left of school."
And do you know - I did it).

I asked her about the Partition.

"Ah, I remember," she said, as we begin our loop around Lodhi Garden. The sky is pink and birds coming down, the sun so distinctly Indian, a sun that can be found nowhere else. "My sister and I went to the Woodstock School every day, you know - we lived in Landour. There was a sweet old man who used to sell lovely bangles and jewelry, on the way to school. We loved to buy those beautiful things, and sometimes our mother would get them for us. He was a Muslim man - I guess we knew that. It wasn't anything important, then. He was very kind, a lovely person.

Partition happened, and the fighting happened, you know all that. My mother, terrified. She tried to shield us from the worst of it, and she mostly managed. But - we went to school one day, I suppose, and the little man wasn't there. And my mother - she told my sister that he had moved, had gone away.

Of course, he had been killed, murdered by the Hindus. We found out about it all at school. It hit my sister the hardest. She cried for days and days, couldn't understand at all."

Like anyone could.

"I remember the violence, too, in the eighties, with Indira Ghandi and all. Your grandfather, too. Living in Berlin, right after the war. And the Great Depression. He saw things, too

Baldev, too. He's from Peshewar. His father, my father in law - he was a popular dentist there. So they didn't let him leave after Partition. They wanted him around. That kept them relatively safe, even not being religious. He never spoke Hindi, as a child. Just learned Urdu."

She though for a moment. Green parrots in the trees, and an ex-pat couple jogging bouncily around the trails perimeter, and the air going pinker and more divine by the moment. The tombs glow this time of night, as if backlit, and the remnant of blue tile on their fronts become intensely colored.

"Have you ever seen violence? Real violence?"

No, I said, no, not at all, not like you and my grandparents, not the world you four occupied.

"Well, that's good. It's the real world, maybe. But you don't have to experience so much, not just yet. Maybe Cambodia will be like that. "

She ran into a friend of hers, a very old looking Indian woman with the particular carriage of one who has led a life of stone cold bad-assery. We exchanged greetings, and continued our stroll. I love it when this happens because then Sheila always tells me all about the person we just met. She didn't fail me.

"That woman - her husband was diplomat to the pope. She had me over for lunch one day, and told me a story, a wonderful story. She had an audience with the Pope, and the Vatican naturally requested she wear a hat, and gloves, and stockings, something like that. Of course, she wondered. How would she do that with a sari? It would look absolutely strange. She was no push-over. She covered her head with her dupatta, and put her hands in her dress instead of wearing gloves. "This is appropriate for Indian dress," she explained to the Pope, when she appeared.

Well, he certainly wasn't going to argue with her.

Her family - her one son - he shaved his head in college. Some philosophical thing. And her husband, his father. Well, he refused to talk to him for 8 years, because of this silly thing. She finally broke down the wall, she did it. "This is stupid," she said, to both of them. And it did work. She's like that. The husband is dead now, I think.

The son - he was a lawyer, or something - he loved Mussorie, he wanted to retire there like everyone does. He made a lot of money, so he bought a nice place there, when he was middle-aged. And what do you know. Maybe his second night there, he died. All alone, his family all back in Delhi. He just had a heart attack, unexpected and sudden. He was quite young.

I guess the moral is, you might as well live as you please, now. There's no use in waiting."

(How many times have I heard that from family and older mentors, that particular advice. My grandfather, regarding his bourbon at 6:00 PM, sitting in the leather chair I know so well. "You might as well. You could get hit by the beer truck tomorrow. You might as well." )

We went back to the house for dinner. Baldev had finally come down - I suspect a big grudgingly - from Mussorie, and it was good to see him again, him and his curious electric-blue eyes. Like my grandparents and like Sheila, he carries the same aura of sheer gravitas about him.

"I know I'm not a Hindu," Sheila said, "not really. But, there was this one time." (Pouring me yet another drink).

I said I'd go to this temple, if Rajeev got well. And he did, so I went with my friend. I was dutiful about it. We got to the airport - they assigned us this nice young soldier, to accompany us. We couldn't get a jeep up there, the roads were out, so we needed to walk. He looked at me in my salwar and said, "Mrs. Lal, can you make it?" And I said, "Well, I'm from Mussorie. I guess I can try."

I got up there, and the shrine is in this cave, it's quite popular. It's like re-entering the womb, it's really slippery. That's the idea. You crawl through corriders, and caves. You can't go out the same way you came in. In the central area - it costs a lot of money to do puja there, or stay there a while. I ran into this group of people, Gujaratis I think, and they had paid a lot of money to do this puja. So they let me into their group: "Ah, you're my sister, you're like my sister." And I go, "Uh, okay, I' m your sister." So I get to see this - very expensive puja, i get to stay in there for a while.

I was going out, and I passed by this very tall woman, over six feet tall, and dressed all in white. I remember her sari was very long, and I couldn't see her feet. She looked almost lost - she was going the wrong way, and you shouldn't do that. But you're not supposed to correct others in temples. They're places of worship, in the end, you do do what you want to do. She had the most beautiful face, as I recall. I thought it was strange - you don't see lots of over six foot tall women in India. I told my mother about it - she was a hardcore Hindu - and she laughed at me. "Oh, Sheilie - that was obviously the Dara. You saw her, it was her. "

"Well, the Dara is very beautiful, then," I said. Another friend of mine - they say it was a hallucination, that I wanted to see her. So I willed myself into "seeing" something. They're probably right. But it makes a good story, doesn't it?"

I took some photographs of them for my grandparents. I got the two of them connected on Skype. (They are both remarkably technologically savvy). That's the power of technology: get two couples who have known each other forever and live on opposite sides of the world, talking on video phone for the first time in years. Cynics about technology and its supposed evils might want to stop and consider that.

I was headed to the airport early that morning: off to Bagdogra. We all said goodbye in the rather manful fashion of our respective families. I reassured them I'd be back (I would). They assented (they would). I said goodbye to the dog, and was sent off with a Ferro Rocher chocolate, and then went to bed early.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Haridwar: Sacred Rivers, Baggage Check Annoyance

I had to go down the hill again. I had a train booked to Delhi, leaving from Haridwar. I'd planned to spend at least a day checking out Haridwar and the ghats, of course - since shouldn't everyone who comes to India see the ghats, isn't that entirely essential? But it looked like a non-rainy day was dawning in Mussoorie, and the air was crisp and clean, I had a plate of cheese toast - well, it all seemed very unfortunate. I arranged a taxi for 10:30 anyhow. And down the mountain we went.

Getting to Mussorie by car - the only way to get there - is never fun. I may submit that going down is worse since 1. you do pick up some speed and 2. all the hair-pin turns are done at a good 45 miles an hour give-or-take. At least there's little traffic. Some local wit has put up signs ruminating on the splendour of nature every half-mile or so along the route.

Haridwar is probably the most sacred city on the Ganges, though it recieves less visitors then Varanasi or Rishikesh. This is the point where the waters that flow down from the Himalaya meet the plains proper, and as such, it's an especially venerated spot. This also means the water is slightly cleaner then it is downstream, which is good to know if you are crazy enough to consider taking a dip. Hint: I wouldn't do it unless you are trying really hard to start an exhaustive tropical microbe collection.

It's considered one of the seven most sacred cities in India: the legends say that it was one of the spots where ambit, the elixir of life, was spilt from Garuda's pitcher. In Sanskrit, "Haridwar" is translated as "The Gate to God," in case you were unclear on the import of the place. It's about an hour from Rishikesh, give or take, but sees far fewer tourists. Rishikesh seems to have cornered the market on the whole "attracting spiritually minded and rather dim white people for yoga lessons" thing. (Ladies: If a man claiming to be a Sacred Indian Holy Man offers you a private lesson in spiritual yoga? For fuck's sake, do not believe him. Why do people have to be told these things?)

This is probably not a good idea for the casual tourist.

I vividly remember reading, in "The Search for the Pink Headed Duck," about the author's swim in the Ganges. He dove in to beat the heat, swam a few strokes, and promptly bumped into a bloated and half-burned corpse. Hindus like to burn their dead and cast the remains off into the water, you see. Which renders the Ganges a bit of a no-go when it comes to pleasure swimming.

Every four years, the massive Kumbh Mela festival occurs, and this year, it happened at Haridwar.. It is the largest gathering of humans in one spot in the world, with up to 5 million people participating on a single day.. (And if anywhere can pull that off, it's India!). The Kumbh Mela sounds like an astounding spectacle and a testament to the spirit and will of humanity. Sounds lovely, but Kumbh Mela celebrations are also plagued by the phenomena of deadly human stampedes Someone gets in an argument, someone gets frightened, someone runs, someone else runs, everyone is fucking running and unless you are fast, strong, or tall, your ass is getting trampled into putty. Poor Wal Mart guy on Black Friday here in the states had it easy compared to this. One recent stampede apparently occurred when a particularly stupid sadhu (Indian holy man) decided to toss a handful of gold coins into the crowd. What you might expect to have happened....happened.

The other interesting thing about Haridwar? It functions as a sort of genealogical center for all of India. Brahmin Pandits keep detailed records on a huge number of Indian families here. It's still possible for Indians to visit, submit their family name to the proper pandit, and learn about the history of their family - often dating back as far as seven generations, kept on hand written ledgers. This is possible due to Haridwar's status as a pilgrimage site: pandits got in the habit of recording family visits and taking down their genealogical status beside. When people came here to burn a deceased relative, they would dutifully go to their pandit (often assigned by region or family) and update the ledgers. A pretty clever system and one that continues to some extent today. You may be surprised to know that these ledgers are on microfilm in Utah at the Genealogical Society of Utah, Mormons being among the world's most dedicated genealogists.

As Haridwar is a sacred city, meat and alcohol are entirely banned within its confines. When I found that out, I was very glad I'd decided to spend four days in Mussoorie instead. Call me a heathen, but I really like my animal flesh and whiskey.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to see much of Haridwar, due to yet another Indian Stupid Ass Rule, of which there are a remarkable number. You can only leave luggage that locks in the left-baggage room at the train station. Great. I had a large, lockable backpack, a day backpack, and a duffle bag. Needless to say, the duffle? Wasn't locking. As I had all my valuables in the backpack, which I intended to carry with me all day - you don't leave good stuff in left luggage rooms - I tried to explain that all the duffle contained was dirty underwear, contact-lens solution, clothes with mud stains on them, and some mildewing shorts. No go. IT MUST LOCK, MADAME. IT MUST LOCK.

Which meant I had to leave the (lockable) day pack behind. And put my laptop, my wallet, my camera, and all my computer stuff into my large, unwiedly duffle bag and haul it around all day. This was not the most secure I've ever felt. And considering how off-balance I was, all a thief would have had to do to make off with all the things I value most in the world was trip me, snatch the bag, and run like hell. Haridwar not being known for its order and civility, I was, needless to say, worried.

I did try. I wandered around town for a while, watched people abluting in the river at the Har-ki-Pauri ghat. There weren't too many of them. Guess it's the off-season. There's an enormous warren of shops around the river banks, catering to the almost incomprehensible number of pilgrims that come here during special occasions, and I wandered through there for a while. Had an all right thali at a fast food place that looked cleanish. Evaded a couple of crazy naga-sadhus. (They like leaping out at you since they are naga-sadhus and they get to do weird things). Beggars: everywhere, very aggressive.

I'll confess that I'm a dick about beggars. I completely ignore them. I look through them. I don't acknowledge them. If they're really forward, I might shake my head as subtly as possibly. If I'm pissed off, I might use the old hand-sweeping gesture, which is known and respected throughout the world as Please Fuck Off. I will also relate to you that being a dick (like me) means that beggars and touts almost always leave me alone or go away after a minute or so when they realize that nothing short of punching me in the face or tripping me is going to get my extended attention. We're brought up to be polite and acknowledge people who address us or come up to us. This behavior is great in developed countries and is very stupid in impoverished ones. I don't really have anything against these guys, I guess - trying to hustle for a living, whatever - but I also am not going to give them any of my time.

If you want to help the poor and hungry and sick in India, donate to an organization. (I have my own thoughts on "volunteering" for two week stretches so you can get adorable pictures of yourself with pathetic looking street children and show all your friends how nice you are, but that's another post). Don't give handouts on the street. And if you must, be careful and remember that this will often result in a mob of people *all* wanting a couple hundred rupees. I've seen it happen, and it's not something you want to experience.

Ended up taking the gondola up to the Mansa Devi Temple at the top of the hill, mostly for the 10 minutes of peace and quiet the ride might afford me.

Unfortunately, it's impossible to get a good shot from the top. I declined to go inside the temple. Didn't feel like taking off my shoes and wading into a crush of people in a small space with all my possessions dangling awkwardly off my shoulders. There's a tree in there you can tie a string onto for good luck. Thankfully, my luck held out just fine throughout India this go round.

Very large and very cool statue of Shiva in the middle of the river.

I gave up, eventually. Too many child beggers around with little grabby hands, too many people looking at the duffle bag and contemplating what was inside it, etc etc etc. I ended up spending two hours in an Internet cafe. I headed out of the cafe to see if I could score some more cheese toast at the curiously named Big Ben Cafe right outside the train station. The cheese toast was awful, but I did get to meet a girl named Susie Hughes. She was from Northern California, on a round the world trip, and was having one of those bad days, the bad days that occasionally creep up on you when you are traveling alone, getting kind of sick, and are not sure about what's happening next. I struck up a conversation with her, since, well, that's what I do, I'm all about the small talk. We figured out we'd be in Bangkok at the same time in a month and exchanged contact information.

By then: getting dark. Still had my laptop and my Iphone and my wallet in a large, unwieldy duffel bag. I decided to take the cowards route out. The Luxury Hotel Route. There were signs all over town for this place, one of the very few luxury hotels in this city. Not surprising that they are building luxe hotels in Haridwar now, though - after all, there are more and more rich Hindus every year, and sure, they want to ablute in Mother Ganga, but they also want someone to press their clothes for them while they're away and leave a little mint on the pillow, you know what I mean?

On the way out, I came upon this parade. Don't ask me what for, but it pleased me. A New Orleanian is always pleased on some deep, essential level by a good noisy parade.

I ended up at the lovely Godwin Hotel on Rishikesh Road. I will gush about them because they are very nice, let me hang out in their lounge drinking fantastic cappuccino and using wi-fi for free, and even gave me free chocolate since I looked lonely. Please patronize their business if you are in Haridwar.

They had an excellent (vegetarian) restaurant, called The Golden Mushroom. In accordance with the title, I had saag with mushrooms, which was excellent. The texture is a bit odd at first, but just think of creamed spinach and you're pretty much in business.

This mixed vegetable tandoor platter was absolutely superb. The key: high quality paneer. Paneer is usually low quality and utterly tasteless, but good paneer is at least on par with a quality feta for texture and deep flavor interest. This was the good stuff, marinated in yogurt and spices and served on skewers with capsicums, onion, and pineapple.

I got to the train station early, since it's what I do. Sprung my luggage from jail and chatted with the luggage-keep man about his son studying in California. A remarkable number of Indians have kids studying within a 100 mile radius of my Northern California hometown. It was cleaner then most Indian train stations -not saying much, but at least there wasn't the pervasive smell of piss in the air like there is in Delhi. There were foreigners, everywhere. Most of them my age and traveling in groups of three and four, wearing clothes they thought were "Indian" so that they might respect the culture, and at the same time sporting piercing that would make any respectable Aunties' head explode if her own offspring had them.

In lieu of entertainment and in need of a united front, I chatted to an extremely spaced out looking European couple, who allowed me to drop their bags down with theirs. We drank tea and waited. "We just came from a month up in the Himalaya," he said, "near the Valley of Flowers. Just rented a cabin up there with no electricity, no running water. Just kinda ran around and got back to nature, you know? Like a three days hike up there."
"Yah, it was very lovely," the woman said. She looked somewhat terminally stoned.

Wow. Hippies, yes. But hippies with resolve.

"Then, we come down to Rishikesh for some yoga,yeah? But shit, so many messed up yoga teachers there! Such bullshit! You know,you are doing a pose and the guy, he call himself a sadhu - he's coming over and adjusting you, getting really close. Grabbing you all over. Rishikesh."
I mentioned I'd spent some time in Bangalore.
"Oh, yeahhh, we live in Gokarana," the man said. "I live in Gokarana for, like, past 11 years, teaching yoga. But India, ah, fuck India! I cannot wait to get the fuck out of here! Everything always dirty, always smelling like piss.."
At this moment a child beggar with bandages that may or may not have been fake came up and attempted to grab at the German guy's leg. He growled a couple of words in Hindi and the kid slunk grudgingly away.
"Why'd you stay so long?" I asked.
The kid had hid himself behind a column and was obviously planning another attack.
"Ah, you know? You get caught in one place, man. But it's all going to hell, Gokarana, whatever. Maybe it was nice when I was younger. Now? Maybe I go back to Spain, whatever. Ibiza, the coast. Like, a fucking civilized country."

He may sound extreme to you but I understood him reasonably well. The more time you spend in India, the more you despise it and - at the same time - you more you love it, find it impossible to leave. The German man was trapped in a classic Indian feedback loop. He will probably never escape. I doubt that I shall, either.

Our train schedule seemed to be posted very late. I went to the schedulers office and personally hunted it down. "Fine, fine, fine, Madame," he said, speaking in Indian triplets, "Fine, fine, fine," and he pulled it out from subterranean desk and showed me. The window to the office was immediately crowded with the faces of seven exceedingly eager looking young railway workers, staring at me with extreme interest.

I leapt on the train. Had managed to secure myself a first-class bunk, not that it really mattered - only a five hour run to Delhi. Another woman was already in there, and we exchanged pleasantries and I sacked out with a quickness. Thank goodness for the free blankets. They air-condition those things to Arctic-wasteland temperatures. (I know a couple guys who only travel Sleeper - ie, 3rd class - just to avoid the Death Fans).

One more day in Delhi, then off to Bagdogra airport. Where I'd hop a remarkably economically priced helicopter to Sikkim.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Landour Cemetery

I love old cemeteries. And an abandoned cemetery set among pine trees and swirling, ghostly mists? Even better. This is the Landour Cemetery. It's on the road around the hill. You pass by the Four Shops and keep on walking left until you see it below you. Reasonably easy. The gate is locked up with wire, but that's no real impediment.

Walk along the old brick walls on the right, there's a crumbled spot where it's easy to scramble through. I hope I don't have to add that if you choose to do this, you'd best be respectful.

Everyone in Landour knows the cemetery, but there is remarkably little written about it. Well, at least on the Internet. Most of the graves here are of British soldiers. They came up here to take the cure in the cool mountain air, after contracting various tropical diseases in the lowlands. Some of them didn't make it.

Ah, here we go! The Internet Archive contains a very old document, complete with inscriptions from the headstones here. You can barely read them, these days.

1828— BOLTON, G., Captain. Inscription :—Sacred to the
memory of Captain George Bolton, H. C.'s 2nd European Regiment,
who after some months of painful suffering departed this life on the
13th of June in the year of the Lord 1828, aged 40 His virtuous
and amiable disposition rendered him generally beloved in life and
lamented in death This memorial is expected by his afflicted widow
as the last earthly tribute of affection and respect to an indulgent
and affectionate husband. Appointed as a lieutenant in 1804, a captain
in 1818. He was born at Dinapore in 1788 and served in Java.

1830— GRAHAM, J. R., Captain. Lueriptinn. Sacred to the
memory of John Richard Graham, Esq., late a Captain of the 5th
Regiment of Bengal Light Cavalry. This monument is erected by
his brother officers as a mark of their esteem and regard for the
character of one universally beloved for his many good and amiable
qualities. He died on the 30th day of May A. D. 1830, aged 29 years.

He was appointed cadet in 1817, lieutenant in 1819, captain in 1829. He
was the son of J. Graham of Barrock Loige, born 1800, and a relative of Sir J.
Graham. Bart.

Sacred to the memory of Major William Blundell, XI Dragoons, who was killed by falling with his horse on the south side of the Landour Hill, on the 12th November 1834, aged 54 years.

"It is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation that Jesus Christ came into the world to save us. In Him alone is our hope of salvation for this our dear brother, whose kind and affectionate heart endeared him as a son and as a brother, and whose departure hence is severely felt, and deeply mourned by his family and by many friends."

And how did William Blundell die?

"... A house called Newlands, which has been struck and burnt three
times by fire. The hill is said to contain a quantity of iron which attracts the
electric fluid.... A short time ago as Major Blundell was going to that very
house, Newlands, by some accident, his guuth (hill-pony) fell over the precipice,
and they were both dashed to pieces." This tomb is not now traceable and is
reproduced from Fiihrer's List. In the B. 0. it reads " falling with his Gkoont."
The 11th Dragoons are the present 11th (Prince Albert's Own) Hussars, who
were in India from 1819 to 1838.

(Reference: Wanderings of a Pilgrim: In Search of the Picturesque. (?)

Wanderings of a Pilgrim being a fascinating looking book by one Fanny Parkes, who spent twenty four years wandering the far East and writing about it.

However, although the Archive list of inscriptions says this is the reference, I can find nothing of the sort in the text Still worth a read. So, the mystery remains - who first reported on the unfortunate accident of Major Blundell's passing?

1835- RAISES, S. M.. Mrs. Sacred to the memory of Sophia Mary Raikes, the fondly beloved wife of Charles Raikes of the Bengal Civil Service. She departed this life on the 16th of April 1835, in the 19th year of her age.

Sad stuff, for sure. But, as final resting places go - this isn't bad, not at all. It's hard to express how happy I am that I found these inscription and now know who some of these people were. I have a habit at graveyards of looking at headstones and thinking, "I am very sorry, and I am thinking about you, and although you have been dead for a hundred and fifty years, give or take, well, I am sorry still."

They may have been awful people. But I do not know that.

I picked up some biscuit wrappers, found my umbrella, and continued my walk.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Landour, The Four Shops, The Language School

I ate this thali and I went up the hill to Landour again. I wanted to check out the Language School. The Landour Language School is world famous, and is used heavily by the American Fulbright progam. Instruction is conducted in Hindi, Pashto, and Urdu. Classes are either one-on-one or conducted in at most three person groups. I have dreams of coming up here to learn Hindi and finish off a book sometime in the near future. Still - it's intimidating. Talking to people at the Four Shops can fill a fairly average person with profound insecurity. So many young genius-types finishing up dissertations on Pashto poetry, research on the growth of business in Hyderabad, researching ancient Mughal art. Degrees from Harvard and Yale and Oxford. Me? Uh. I write about stuff I ate a lot. I can say "good food!" in Hindi if I'm feeling sharp.

I soon began talking to a small and extremely intense French woman. She was a photojournalist for some of the major news sources and had, of late, covered the Indian tsunami, Pakistani flooding, and a variety of assorted combat zones. For some reason, she took a shine to me. I asked her why she was at the school.

"I need to learn enough Hindi to yell DON'T SHOOT, mostly," she said.

We talked about travel, about my impending journalism career. To my relief, she seemed positive about it, or at leas t my odds of continued survival. As well as my idea of taking classes at the school.

"Your, you're not the typical American. That's a good thing. Everything about you is quick, fast. It's your physiology. Sim, rapid eye movements. You seem very creative. You'll do well."

"I feel like I'm not smart enough to be with these people," I said, making a vague gesture towards the school.

"No, everyone's smart,in different ways. You know how to survive, and that's most important. Especially for a journalist - the quality of your work, okay, but the ability to survive, that's important. My paper sent us all up for military survival camp, recently. You should try it. You learn good things, useful things - if a gun is loaded, how to deal with political unrest, land mines, stuff like that. I didn't do chemical warfare though. Not this time."

"You seem like you've made it as a journalist. It's really nice to hear all this from someone like you."

"You say, "made it." That depends on how you define made it. I don't have two houses, or a ton of money, so to many people I haven't made it. But I'd rather be out here and seeing this huge world, I'd rather have that then two houses. So it's how you define "made it."

Isn't it always?

She had to go off to class. I followed her and snuck around the school's interior for a bit. Looked lovely. Chatted with a few students who all had glowing things to say. It isn't even that expensive. Maybe I can someday convince a company to pay for it. Yeah, that'll be the day.

I went for a walk since that's what you do in Mussorie. Landour really is a little-known and profoundly interesting UN of sorts. An Indian kid and an American kid from the Woodstock School, wandering up the hill behind me and arguing about video games. Bengali film stars (Hello, Victor Banerjee!).

There were three young guys sitting at the Tip Top Tea Shop, drinking chai and finishing off their lunches. They looked American - something about the plaid shirts - and one way or another, we got to talking.

"We're from Yale, all of us. I'm from Georgia, he's from Vermont, he's from Conneticut."
Turns out one of the guys was the brother of a girl who attended Simon's Rock at the same time I did, the 300 person and very esoteric "early college" in the Berkshires.

The four shops.

There's a tiny fraternity of Americans who travel and go abroad, who are comfortable there. I have stopped being amazed by the network, and by how interconnected we all seem to be. Almost every time I meet an American overseas, they know someone I know or are related to someone I know. In the most far-flung and small places, we share buoyant stories about the personality of So and So, or the time That Girl got wasted at a party and what she did after, or the particular qualities of restaurants and bars we both know and have frequented, and so on and so on. This is comforting, of course, but is also terrifically disconcerting. I think of it in terms of numbers. The USA has over 250 million people. India has over a billion. Why do we find each other? Why are we so interconnected?

The answer, I think, lies in privilege. There are billions of people in the world, but only a vanishingly small number have the means to both receive a fancy education, finish the fancy education, and then find one's self with enough money and free-time to amble off into the wilds for a bona-fide and old school adventure. There are very few of us indeed, and we are the luckiest of the earth. No, I've stopped being shocked by how interconnected we all are. We are part of the same small and terrifically exclusive club, and we only grow aware of this gradually, and with some amount of embarrassment. We cannot pretend we live in a meritocracy. We are beneficiaries of an accident of birth. In the Karmic view, perhaps we were good and just people in our previous lives. But I am no Hindu.

The lovely old church next to the Four Shops.

And what were they doing up here? One of the guys was in fact a relative of Stephen Alter, one of the big-time writers who resides up here, and they were residing at his place. "We're doing fishing outfitting, up here in Uttarkhand. Trout and the local fish. Totally untapped market. Of course, the monsoon isn't helping."

We had a very pleasant chat about nothing in particular. People we mutually knew. Places we'd been. Hipsters. Always, talking about hipsters. There was one brilliant revelation:

"I've always know, you could really sell these bhidis to hipsters."

"They're cheap, they're foreign, and they taste awful. Hipsters would lap them up."

"Yeah. They cost - what, a penny to make? You could get a shipload to the USA. Sell em' for three bucks a pack."

"You'd be rich."

"Of course, they mostly use child labor to make them. They're really tiny. Need tiny little hands."

"Yeah, I hadn't considered that angle. Well. Kids need jobs too."

"Yeah. You're helping the children!"

They had to shove off down the road, so I sat and got out my sketchbook. Just about lunch time.

I was trying to gain weight for my trek in Sikkim. Something about India seems to make me really skinny. I eat my brains out when I'm here, so not sure that it's *lack* of feeding. Thankfully, the Tip Top Tea Shop offers the perfect remedy in the form of twix bar pancakes. Normally the kind of food stuff this snob with a penchant for healthy eating would turn her nose up. But something about the elevation and the need to pack on a few pounds prior to walking 11 miles a day uphill converted me. I devoured these. This man is a pancake artist. Something about the sweet pancake, the crunchy rims on the side from the frying in butter, the oozing, delectable texture of the Twix bar lurking inside, how the cookie core gets all heated up. (This makes me sound like I am writing a dirty book. As does most food writing.

I ate my pancakes and the proprietors father, who had owned the shop before him (Sheila knows him) came up and politely asked me if I would draw a picture of him. So I did. Drawing is a fabulous icebreaker.

Victor Banerjee, the famous Bengali actor, came down here for his usual cup of tea and looked at me with what appeared to be extreme disapproval. Feel somewhat anointed. (I recall sitting next to him once in the internet cafe here and thinking about what a forceful typist he was. Like me, I admit).

I went up to Landour again the next day.

I walked around the hill again in lieu of anything better to do, and (naturally) I ran into Leon again. He had his video camera and was taping the trails. As always, he was more then happy to chat. I followed him for a while, a bit puppy-like I guess. "Ah, hey! Look over there," he said. He pointed at an old and falling apart house behind a gate, one I'd walked by a few times before and had never taken much notice of.

"Okay, come over here. You can't go inside here, not anymore, but back when I was a boy - this is Peace Cottage. This is where we lived. It was a missionaries retreat for a long time. They'd send the old bird nuns up here to recuperate or go on vacation." The fog was moving in, and we could barely see the white structure beyond. It was diplidated and looked very old. I think the mist and the wet here ages things terribly quickly, and moves quickly when it comes to returning things to the earth, again.

I peered through the gate - which wouldn't open - and thought of the scorpion cup and of the Partition. It was hard to imagine, this little white washed cottage with a mildew problem, living through all of this. But I could try.

"The one thing I want to photograph. Okay. It's a false horizon. It only occurs in two places in the world - here, and somewhere in Switzerland. It's when there's literally a second horizon, and the sun even goes down behind it. I saw it once here, in my junior year. It was like - like God had driven a golden spike into the center of the world. I thought, "Oh my god, someone has to get a photo of this." So that's my mission. Of course, it's nature photography. What do you do? You stake out. And you wait.

"I'll get it someday, I'm certain of it. Because, what does a good nature photographer spend most of his time doing?"

"Waiting," I said.

"That's right. You wait."

We walked for a few minutes more. He pointed out some ferns to me that were going yellow. "That's not good. It means they're going to die soon, and my pictures won't be as good - not like I remembered it. They're dying earlier and earlier these days."

Smoke on th' valley.

We ran into some friends of his - some California boys with Indian family who were studying at the Language School. And so I asked him more about his life. He'd been an accountant before, and then his wife had passed, and then he'd given his house to his son and came here. But, the in-between. He was happy to oblige.

"Well. After I left India, graduated, went to San Jose State for college. I played in a country western band in St. Helena. I taught music for a long time at San Jose state. Then I fell afoul of the administration, so I gave them the one fingered salute, and I went to Montana. I've done a lot of things in my life. I got married. I was a pumpkin, and she was a mouse. I was playing a Halloween party. That's how I met my wife. "

He had mentioned his late wife the first time I had met him. But there hadn't been details.

"We were going to come back here, for a Woodstock School reunion. To see the hills again. Then she got lung cancer, so we put it off for the next year. The year afte that, we wanted to go again, and then she was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. One more year, and she seemed better, and we started planning again. Then, breast cancer. We decided we couldn't plan any trips together, because they caused cancer. She always had a good sense of humor, like that."

"She didn't see the following year."

We turned a corner and there they were, the snows. The sun was just thinking about going down, and the rain had washed away the clouds and the haze. I took as many pictures as I could.

"My parents were missionaries, you know, and so I grew up an atheist in revolt."

(The sun going through the pine-trees. If there be paradise on earth).

I had my epiphany, as I remember. Before then I thought believing in God was a pretty silly thing. Then I'm out here, one night at Woodstock - i'm looking at the mountains, up at the stars, millions upon millions of them. And thinking, "Okay. Someone had to do this."

"Take that as you will."

"I agree," I said. And really meant it. This, the final allure and danger of the Himalaya. That it can turn you from a jaded and constantly irritated skeptic into an agape nature lover. Staring out at the view for days on end and gawping, and making comments about how astounding it all is.

It does make you wonder, why humanity is so specifically programmed. That mountain ranges and marvelous vistas move us on such a primal, elemental state. The mountains, especially. Down in lowland Bengal or in Florida, in the Cambodian river delta or in the Australian desert - wherever there are no mountains, people keep pictures of them on their wall and dream of going someday. Indian Buddhists placed Mt. Meru, the center of the world, in the Himalaya. It is only befitting.

Leon, too. A striking person. Another theme of this trip. Running into people whose spouses have passed, who have encountered an aspect of life I am too young to approach or know. A succession of them, all traveling after the deaths of their spouses, walking with no particular destination and talking to me because I am lucky. The references dropped in conversation are subtle and sad and make one consider the future, far-impending and far off This too myself in forty years or so, maybe, creaking and sleeping on budget-basement beds, thinking always of the person I have left irrevocably and inert behind me. Better then slipping into depression and inertia in a house full of mementos that gradually gather dust and cat piss. Better to go wandering again.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Mussorie: The Tibetan Monastary, the Dalai Lama's Abode, Trepidation!

The valley below the Mussorie Tibetan monastery.

I was discomfited that morning. I guess that's the word for it. The teachers were leaving that day, and I'd like them all very much. Their willingness to let me sneak into their social group for a couple of days was rather touching: that they told me a lot of useful stuff about expat life was even more so. And worrisome, really. Reality, sinking in. On this trip, I wasn't going home, was in fact staying in Asia, making a life for myself, beginning a career. It's something we all go through, us college graduates (yes, from first world privileged backgrounds, here, have a qualifier). You spend your life going up a grad, passing exams, getting your GPA. And then you graduate and there's no paradigm, the system's all changed. You're on your own. At least I had a job to go to. I knew where I was going to be for at least a year -well, when November came. Until then? Drifting.

I remembered a conversation I'd had in the taxi down from Landour yesterday. Linda and I were talking about traveling, traveling alone as women. "Isn't it hard," she asked. Not really a question.
"Yeah, a little. Especially in India. You stand out, you're always on alert."
"I don't know how you do it, you know. I never saw travel as an endurance game. I guess it's an endurance game, going it alone. And especially here in India. I mean - I sound like your mother - I'm old enough to be your mother - but at your age, I mean, it's paramount that you're safe. Make good decisions."
"I try," I said. An attempt at being tongue in cheek. But the truth was - it was a compelling conversation. Was I making a good decision, by going it alone? And was I really having a good time? Was this an endurance test.?

Lovely flowers outside the monastery.

Of course it's an endurance test, this traveling-alone in India. It's a rite of passage, I guess. The sort of thing many of us cosseted rich kids from fancy countries put ourselves through, because we have not found ourselves sufficiently tested. I don't really have fun a lot of the time when I travel alone. It's more depressing then enjoyable. You're often lonely, often eating alone. Looking over your shoulder and giving everyone you meet on the street a wide berth since better safe then sorry. Man, I have to take everything I own to the bathroom with me, since there's no one there to watch it when I get up. It's funny how something little like that really makes you sad after a while. Just someone to watch my stupid laptop for five minutes.

I do it anyway though. "What does not kill you makes you stronger". That's the mantra I was raised under. I don't believe you should do everything you do for pleasure, that some things you do because they're good for you. And I don't know if traveling alone is good for me. I know it isn't good for anyone else. I rationalize it because I do genuinely want to learn about India. I want to get a sense of what it's like to live here, the underpinnings of the culture and history I find so fascinating. I want to go alone because I don't want to get sucked into the backpacker kid vortex. Sitting around all day in a hostel eating Western food and smoking incredible amounts of hash, no learning involved, putting your feet up and bitching about the natives day-in-and-day-out.

It ties into drifting, post college drifting. Going to a job, at least. I like Asia, I find it compelling. I want to put down roots here, integrate myself into it, live here, know it pretty well. Become, in the indulgent phrasing of a latter generation, an "asia hand." Jaded expat, able to handle the situation. If I go it alone, I'm forced to figure this stuff out. Maybe if I know how to survive here easily and well, I can actually produce a valuable work of art. Start a program that actually makes things better for somebody. It's experience gathering.

If I was traveling with my best friend, I'd have a fantastic time. But I wouldn't have India staring me down half as much as it is right now, have to get by within it, meet other people. Learning stuff is sad, and hard sometimes. It fucking sucks in some circumstances. But I'll keep on traveling alone since that's how I do it.

I don't mind linking up with people for brief periods. A couple weeks or so. Someone I've never met before, that's a given. (Example: Kiran in Sikkim. Coming soon to a blog near you).

Anyhow. The Tibetan Monastery, also known as Shedup Choepelling. It's up the steep Happy Valley road (all the roads are steep here). A taxi from the Mussorie Mall will take you here for a handful of rupees. It might make a decent walk if the weather is good. A mutual friend of some of the Teacher Mafia, a freelance journalist named Amy, had come up the hill after researching a story in the lowlands. She was interested in writing about the Dalai Lama's time in Mussorie, and invited us to come with her to check it out. No need to twist my arm. We got in a rather musty taxi and traversed the muddy road up the hill, umbrellas at the ready.

The monastery is a small place. Decked out with the exuberant and delicious colors of Tibetan art. It's astonishing how much color Tibetan artisans can pack into one small space. Maybe it's necessitated by the muted color palette of the dry Tibetan plateau. Something to keep the eye busy. The displaced Tibetan population of Mussorie set the temple up after the mass exodus of the fifties. Many of them still remain in Mussorie, running mo-mo shops and jewelry emporiums. Biding their time until the impasse ends, hoping that at some point they can go home, or at least that something will change. (And as the years go by and the news reports come in - I wonder what the old people think, especially. I really do).

Mussorie was the first place the Dali Lama went after his exile in the 1950's. Mussorie, as it happens, is about 80 miles or so as the crow flies from the Tibetan border - not far.. The Dali Lama based himself at a house close to the monastery.

I'm remembering a story Baldev told me once, when I was staying at the home in Mussorie. They were on some sort of trek up there, him and Sheila.

Buddhist deities of some vintage.

It is around 1959 and Sheila and Baldev in Northern India on vacation. They are, as I imagine them, young and handsome and successful, just embarking on a spectacular career, beginning a singular and fairly remarkable life. She dresses in Lacoste and capris and he in a suit, carrying their camera and a luncheon with them and tea biscuits, in the manner of young professionals on a holiday. The Chinese have just come into Tibet and beaten everybody, they have beaten them and run them out. The Dalai Lama and his saffron disciples are streaming down the passes, and with them residents of Lhasa. And these displaced people are terribly poor, Baldev tells me, looking out the window at the evening coming down, the way the fog rolls in smoky and damp across their little lawn.

The way he describes it: The Tibetans came from their squat homes, and they came from their wood burning ovens. Came with their curious curl-tailed dogs, came down the hills, riding donkeys with braided bridles, jangling jingling all the way, picking through the rocks and dangerous paths. And all the time knowing they could never return, moving somewhat in tandem with their leader who swayed back and forth in his textured palanquin.

"What did they bring with them?", I ask because I know he wants me too, as the house's wood burning oven snaps like a campfire.

The Tibetans rummaged in their mattresses and hats and dug in their gardens before they left. They took out all their beads and amulets and idols and placed them in sacks or wore them around their heads and necks, weighing them down unfortunately, as they streamed downwards through these terrible passes, and down to the Ganges. They brought all their fine things with them, he tells me. They were terribly poor, and they were selling their things to buy food and water, to get them through until they reached India, and reached their ultimate point of exile.

Yama, God of Death, biting the Tibetan Buddhist image of the world. I'll explain it some other time.

And here Sheila and Baldev are on vacation, stopped beside the roadway. They are sitting on their picnic blanket, and they can see the people streaming down the paths in colorful profusion, limping and walking, leading mules and dogs and children. Sheila is unwrapping a sandwich and pauses to watch them pass, and Baldev puts down his thermos of tea.

A woman stops and looks at them, and is offered a sandwich and a biscuit which she takes. Around her leathered neck she wears a silver and turquoise amulet, smoke-roasted and weathered and beautiful. Almost as if it would smell of campfires and pine resin even if it were brought home and worn around one’s neck at a Delhi charity ball.

She of the white capris, the polo shirt, is entranced by it.

The Tibetan woman in her rainbow jacket and her fifteen teeth wants to sell it to Sheila. She takes the necklace and wraps it around the rich woman’s delicate and fervently moisturized hand, chains and filaments resting coolly against her skin. And Sheila wants it desperately, but, you know - well, you know -

“Sheila told me afterwards: that if she bought it, whenever she looked at it, she would see the face of that woman. See all of them streaming down the passes and the gullies wih the snow melting behind them. The fact is, you can’t buy something sold out of sorrow. And you can’t wear it to a charity function.”

The woman went on with her necklace that smelled of campfires and pine resin and kept walking down the hill. God knows where she is and where the necklace went. Where both she and the necklace ended up. And you know, we finished our sandwiches and put on our shoes and sipped our tea and it was like nothing had happened. Nothing in the world."

And those were the Tibetans in their exile, to Sheila and Baldev.

To us, the monastery was a simple enough affair. A small building and some prayer wheels, a bit of nice gardening around the perimeter. A lovely view of the mountains below, better when it isn't foggy. But it has a history behind it. It was the first Tibetan monastery built in India proper, and was consecrated by the Dalai Lama himself. Full of dogs, everywhere dogs. like all Tibetan monasteries. Two monks in evidence in the main prayer room, one dozing off, one nodding sleepily when we walked in the door. "Photos okay?" I asked him, and he shrugged.

That's not actually the Dalai Lama. Just a clever cardboard standee. There are many of those in Tibetan temples in this part of the world. A quiet little room with the scent of incense wafting through, and the sound of rain outside. I don't know how to behave or think in these places. I'm no Buddhist, no spiritualist. Have never been comfortable with the notion of religion or the sacred. I awkwardly took a few photos then went out again, to watch the rain.

Yes, it's a swastika. As you may have guessed, it has nothing to do with Nazis. The swastika is a symbol of vast import and meaning to a variety of Asian cultures, and is often associated with Buddhism - the Buddha is said to have had a swastika inscribed on his chest by his followers after his death. The word "swastika" derives from the Sanskrit "svastika," which is translated into "All is well." To Tibetan Buddhists, the swastika symbolizes (among other things) eternity. In Japan, it's called a manji.

A swastika was even used in a 1925 Coke advertisement. In all cultures, it's a sign denoting immutable good luck. To me, this makes the Nazis perversion of an ancient and venerated symbol all the more repulsive.

If you know me, you know those red boots. Faithful friends.

The Dalai Lama and his mother at Birla House in 1959.

We made a brief visit to the Birla House, the Dalai Lama's residence during his time here - and I was too lazy to take photos. There isn't too much to see. The Indian government allowed the Dalai Lama, his mother, and members of his entourage to put up here after his 1959 escape, before they were granted land in Dharamasala. The house where he spent his time here is an extremely attractive one, set in a quiet and beautiful stand of trees with a view down the valley. I can think of worse places to be exiled to. I don't know if you can go in.

We didn't get a chance this go-round. A smaller cottage on the grounds hosted Gandhi in 1946. Quite a history. The first Tibetan School in India, the Central School for Tibetans, was established near here in 1959 as well, and is going strong well into 2010. There's also the Tibetan Homes Foundation, an institution dedicated to supporting Tibetans in exile - especially children - in their lives in India. The entire Happy Valley region functions as a sort of sanctuary for exiled Tibetans, as this article far superior to my own explains.

It was a damp little excursion, but well worth it.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Walking to Landour

We decided to spend the day going up. Upwards to Landour, at least. That's the only real way to get there. Thankfully, Mussorie isn't exactly a big place, and there's just enough sign-posts to keep you on the right track. And what a lovely, atmospheric walk. Sure, it's steep, but there's plenty to see. Small shops selling ornate wooden canes, vegetable sellers, men urging pissed-off donkeys up hills, wave after wave of private school brats in identical uniforms. The mist rolling down the mountain, walking through little pockets of cloud. The wildflowers here look like a kid's drawing: a single hill putting up flowers in red and orange and pink and purple, all the colors you'd want, right below yet another stand of tall and lovely pines. You can stop for chai whenever you get tired. We were talking to each other, too, and things went even faster.

Laura, Eric, and I dawdled for a while at this lovely overlook, down into the valley and Mussorie town proper. Some small girls from the area were hanging out in the shelter with us. Eric's a photographer, and he has an absolutely brilliant method of getting to know people abroad.

He's got a donkey hand puppet. Turns out a donkey hand puppet is a fantastic ice breaker, even with adults. He can even crack a smile from endlessly jaded teenagers, which is no mean feat. And kids, needless to say, find the donkey puppet absolutely hilarious. "I had a white seal puppet for a while, in Africa," Eric told me. "But the African kids were scared of it, they had no idea what a seal was. I figured I'd get a donkey. It's a little more...universal."

A rain storm suddenly burst - not a surprise in the midst of the Weirdest Monsoon Ever - and we dashed to the covered entry-way to one of the hillside homes. A man with an umbrella and head phones took refuge with it. "It's strange weather, isn't it?" he said, and we began conversing. The Eternal Icebreaker, the crappiness of the monsoon.

Leon had moved to Landour with his missionary parents in the 1940's, taking up residence in the Peace Cottage, a gentle stroll from where Sheila and Baldev have their own spread. He attended the Woodstock School in the 40's and 50's, working on a video project. He was trying to map all of Landour's trails, on video, document the area where he spent his childhood and formative years. A video record of his memories. He liked to talk, and if you were williing to let him monologue some, you'd be happy you listened.

"What was life in Landour like, back in the 40s?" I asked. This would have been Sheila's Landour too, after all, her origin point and Leon's alike.

"I spoke Hindustani, for one thing. It's a mix of Hindi and Urdu - this was before partition. I'm having to relearn all my words. But there's one word I still remember. "Scorpion". We had a lot of them in these days, up here. Still do. I found one the other day, and I got my groundskeeper to take care of it. The Hindu word for scorpion - I hadn't said it in years and years - well, it just came out. When you need it. "

"But we had a lot more of them back in the 40's and 50's, a lot more. Less development. Less people. We collected 6 lakh scorpions at our house one year. We'd dump them all in a tin-can. One day, a friend came to see my mother, and she walked into the kitchen. She saw the cup and asked, "What is THAT?"

My mother replied pleasantly, "Oh, that? It's our scorpion cup."

We put the legs of our beds in water, to stop the scorpions from crawling up them at night. It didn't always work. I remember being six years old or so, lying in bed. I wake up and I see a scorpion on the wall, a few feet from my face. I start screaming, "MMOOOOMMMM!"

My father took the scorpion away.

I think they call that right there Ambience.

People who have lived through Partition almost always seem willing to talk about it - the Indian urge to purge, to talk it out, to get it out there. To argue. Living through Partition was terrible but more terrible still would be not-talking about, is what's implied, and By God you're going to listen. And I asked him, "What was the Partition like?"

"Well, we moved here in 1947, when i was six years old. My parents were missionaries. This was back before Landour was a quiet, gentle place - this was during partition. The Muslims and the Hindus were fighting in the streets, and I remember seeing dead bodies on the ground."

It was hard to fathom: this gentle hill station being subject to the same time as savage violence as the rest of India. But history and climate do not produce exceptionalism: people are cruel and easily excitable anywhere.

"You'd hear stories. Conversations overheard. Two Muslims walking down the street somewhere near here. One says to the other, walking by a home: "There's a lot of Hindus hiding in this house. Should we kill them?"

His friend shrugs his shoulders. "Ah, naah. Let's go to the next one." As casual as that.

When we first got here, we didn't leave the house of three months. But I remember - one day, my dad coms to me and he asks, "Well, want to see the fighting?" Of course I did. I came with him to the town. There's nothing more bloodthirsty then an eight year old. Nothing in the world."

This makes it look much more creepy and horrifying-alien-movie like then it actually is up there. I assure you that there are no fog monsters waiting to slurp up your eyeballs out there, or if they are, they are very good at hiding.

The rain was beginning to die down a little, and a couple of locals tentatively restarted their walk up the impossibly steep hill, throwing their backs into it. "I suppose we should be going," Laura said. "We should catch up with our friends for lunch, up at the four shops."

"There's that new restaurant up there. The Roorkee Manor. There's this incredibly wealthy guy, from Woodstock. He made a fortune in iT, and he came back up here. He's a decent guy, but he's kind of misguided. He tried to buy the Four Shops, and he said, "I'll take them off your hands. I'll give you any amount of rupees you want. All but one of the owners refused to sell, of course. He was so pissed off he decided to buy that place up the hill, the Manor, and run them out of business. Everyone says the food is really good, but a lot of us are boycotting. You can't mess with the Four Shop

I made a mental note to avoid the Roorkee. Who doesn't love striking a blow in the face of big-time billionaires with ego problems? And we bid Leon farewell.

We walked up to the Four Shops, or the Char Dukaan. Char Dukaan being, shockingly enough, the Hindi for "four shops." And that's really all it is. All it has been. I've seen photos from the 60's and 70's that show the shops looking approximately the same. They have added an internet cafe with a very wonky internet connection. Other then that? You sit down, order tea and cheese toast or pancakes, and you watch the world go by. I'm a Tip Top Tea Shop partisan myself. One: I like to reward adorable alliterations whenever possible. Two: they have fantastic food and the owner likes to come out and chat with me about minutiae. You can't tell the difference between the tea and the coffee, but that's pretty much the deal in India.

We thought we were going to eat there, but, no. A language school student sitting in the cafe flagged us down. "Hey, you're with that group from Delhi, right?"

Yes, we were. "They're up the hill at the Roorkee," he said. "They told us to wait for you."

"How'd you know it was us?" Laura asked.

"They mentioned boots. Red cowboy boots." What I was wearing, of course. I guess they're a trademark.

Laura, Eric, and I shot each other somewhat embarrassed looks - The Corporate Maw! But we had to meet them anyway.

I was irritated to find that the Roorkee was absolutely lovely. The owner has taken an old Raj-era mansion and transformed it into a smart yet homy little hotel, with lots of wood and exposed stone accents. It wouldn't look entirely out of place in Aspen. The prices, needless to say, aren't in the "budget" range. 100 bucks a night for a hotel room is probably not going to get the Language School crew (except for the professionals) in the door.

The restaurant, as we discovered, was entirely reasonably priced. I was further irritated when the food turned out to be good. Flipping the bird to the specter of capitalism and big-bidnes was proving harder then I'd thought. The menu is a combination of Indian standards and Western food. A good call in this startlingly diverse little hill station. That's thanks to the internationally famous language school, of course.

I had an epiphany in Australia. Not a major one. I just found that I liked mashed potatoes again. Hadn't eaten them in four years, but all of a sudden, manna of the gods. Anyhow, the Roorkee had a pretty good creamy lamb stew with mash. Very mild and very English in execution. Sometimes, what you want on a cold day. The height of Mussorie and the cool temperatures make the human organism interested in eating things like mash and tea and cheese toast, I suppose. Warms the soul. Though nothing warms you up quite like really good chai.

Those are some mighty fine looking lamb chops. Considering the amount of lamb Indians consume, it's surprising how hard it is to find a decent frenched chop in these parts. Not a problem at the Roorkee. I came back to have these chops the next day and was very sad when they were out. They should have gone out and whacked a lamb just for me. Honestly.

They have a bakery on site here. The profusion of breads that comes out when you order soup is truly memorable. And they do western style desserts. A god-send for those with a sweet tooth and an inability to enjoy traditional Indian sweets. Having no interest in most desserts, I didn't partake, but apparently this cheesecake was very serviceable.

Caught in the rain again. And getting darker, too. Four or five of us stood under an awing with some computer delivery boys, who had come all the way from Delhi. Nothing better to do. We talked. And I had a question, since I had everyone cornered and all. "When do you feel you've really lived somewhere? How long does it take?"

"I used to live in Africa," Lauren said, "and I was teaching school there. Every day, these little kids who lived next door would have dinner with me, whether I liked it or not. I just got used to it. And one day, I had dinner, and I'm sitting with my food, and I realize: the kids aren't there. And I kind of miss them! That's when I knew I'd adapted."

Or maybe it's the shipment, she said. Getting that shipment from overseas - your entire life in some boxes - and thinking (as many of the travel inclined do), "How the hell did I get all this stuff? And why do I have it?" And having no answer, but continuing to cart around puffy jackets and take-out menus because they were in the box and you can't bring yourself to throw them away, you might need them sometime. The rain died down some and we walked to the Four Shops to get a taxi - easier then you'd think out here. I sat under the awning and watched the rain go down and the sun go down with it, and wondered how and when I'd define Living There in Phnom Penh. Impossible to say.