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.

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