Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Welcome to Mussorie: Hill Stations, Panthers

When you say Mussorie in the USA, people usually assume you're talking about Missouri, and then you begin mentioning himalayan mountains and panther attacks and lots of Nepali people with donkeys, and everyone gets really confused.

But this is Mussorie, the charismatic Himalaya hill station about six hours north of Delhi. That Mussorie.

Mussorie, unlike most places tourists give's a rat's ass about in India, is not very old. None of the hill stations are, really. It was founded by the British in the earlyish 1800's, slated to be the headquarters of the remarkably ambitious (and Great Game spurred) British Survey of Indian. Sir George Everest - sound familiar? - settled and worked here. Mussorie soon became a place where the British went to escape the horrifying heat of the Indian plains. Women and children would often spend most of their time in the cool and less malarial hill-stations, leaving their hardy menfolk behind to do administrative stuff and drink tons of gin and tonic, though they'd come up occasionally to blow away panthers and smoke cigars.

This separation of families led, naturally, to all manner of scandal, Mussorie becoming something of a sin city for Raj-era ladies and gentlemen of loose morals. A good old story relates that, at the iconic (and sadly closed) Savoy Hotel, a bell was rung around 4:00 AM so everyone could scurry to their own beds. Just imagine all these Victorian slut-bags of both genders, gathering up their bloomers and doing the lady-like scurry of shame down the corridors, the Guwhati staff sniggering to themselves somewhere in the shadows. It is delightful.

It's sorta high up.

The Nehru family used to spend a lot of time here - Nehru's father, Motilal, willfully flouting the "No Dogs or Indians" sign that used to stand on the Mall on a daily basis - and the town has attracted an entirely outsized number of well-known Indians, mostly of an intellectual bent. After Independence in 1947, Mussorie shifted slowly but inexorably into the hands of wealthy Indian families, who promptly turned it into their own resort mountain town. The miracle is that it remains an entirely charming and very low-key place despite its popularity and natural beauty. Maybe it's the horrifying and technicolor vomit inducing drive up from Dehradun. Maybe enough people fall off the cliff to keep visitor numbers down, I can't tell you.

Local veg stand. Mmm, I see bitter melon.

Mussorie's another place that's sort of been in the family. Sheila was born in Mussorie and went to the famous Woodstock American school there - she's a child of the hill stations, spent her early years more accustomed to mist and woolen sweaters then the heat and sweat we usually associate with Madre India. They bought a place here from a semi crazy Austrian Jewish lady psychologist back in the 70's , and have been spending most of their free time in Mussorie ever since. Their house has a rose garden - roses go like gangbusters here - and a fantastic view of the Snows when the weather is good. It's hard to ask for more.

Of course, Mussorie proper refers to the main town, the touristy bit, the one with the big main drag and the Swensens and all the convenient ATMS. Where Sheila lives, where Ruskin Bond the famous writer lives, where the English School is - that's all up in Landour. Landour's a little village that was probably at one point separate from Mussorie proper, but is now more of a province. It's not hard to find: you just keep on going up. And up. And up.

Lovely old church on the Camel Back road. The man in the picture is wearing the Old Dude in a Hill Station uniform which may be legally required after the age of 65.

Landour is a vortex. No other word for it. Something attracts some of India's more fascinating specimens up here, up to the Four Shops that form the social nucleus of the area. It's the combination of the Language School, the writerly population, the Woodstock school crowd, the locals who have been here forever - something about the mix generates fantastic conversation. I spent a few days in Mussorie just sitting at the Tip Top Tea Shop, drinking buckets of chai and talking to everyone who would talk to me. Turned out to be pretty much everyone.

The Mussorie Mall: so cosmopolitan that it has an honest-to-god revolving restaurant. It's probably operated by indentured child servants with hand cranks somewhere in the bowels of the establishment. I mean, this is India.

But that's where Sheila has her place, that's where I spent all my time last time I was up here, back in 2008. I only spent two days but I immediately fell in love. The height of the place, the air, the cool and mossy scent to it, the people. Indian hill stations and their particular breed of Indian. A resilient people who like smoking pipes and wearing woolens, leading their donkeys up vertical hills, muttering to themselves about that really bad winter 15 years ago and what's going to be on television tonight if they properly adjust their satellite dish. Everyone's got one stashed away somewhere.

I stayed at the Padmini Nivas hotel for the simple reason that people thought it was pretty swell on TripAdvisor. (TripAdvisor controls and dictates great swaths of my life). Turned out to be a truly lovely hotel right off the Mussorie Mall Road. It's cleverly located directly below the road - you can walk up the stairs and spend five minutes and be at the local Barista outlet, but you can't hear traffic up above. Why people feel the need to constantly honk their goddamn horns every 2.5 seconds in Mussorie, a teeny little hill station with approximately 5 and a half cars, is a total mystery. The place was an old British home wit the trappings you might imagine, and is run by a nice Gujarati family. The view from the front porch, with its twee wicker furniture, is something you will never forget, at least on a clear day when the mist has gone out. The Mall's all right I suppose, if you're into commerce, but Landour, that's usually where I point myself. A good bit of cardiovascular exercise and especially fascinating when it rains. A far lower aggressive beggar to frightened foreigner ratio here then in most regions of India too, which makes pedestrianism that much more rewarding!

India has the absolute best surrealist public art. Always decorated with dogs.

I got into the Padmini at around 3:00 and hadnt had lunch. The kitchen was truncated, and I settled for cheese toast. The cheese toast turned out to be remarkably delicious, featuring what was, a rarity in India, actual cheese and not simulated nightmare dairy product. (When in Mussorie? Order the cheese toast. Everywhere they make it the same and everywhere it is inordinately good. Something in the water, whatever. Don't question it, eat it). I was sitting there eating my cheese toast with a copious amount of ketchup, and fending off a mutant bee as big as a low-level fruit bat, when I noticed a group of foreigners sitting at the table next to me.

So, I started talking to them. It's what I do. I'm a clever and observant journalist, man. Or soul crushingly lonely, somewhere in between. Turned out they were (mostly) a group of teachers from the Delhi International School on a brief weekend jaunt, and they were very friendly, and they were actually willing to talk to me. So I glommed onto them into the amoeba like fashion I have perfected in my time traveling alone. They were fascinating people and I learned a lot from them - they'd all lived in a wide variety of different and strange countries before. Had done what I was doing (so help me God) and had succeeded at it and lived what appeared to be quite happy lives, far away from whatever they grew up doing and knowing. One of their number just so happened to be a foreign journalist - married to one of the teachers - and I very much enjoyed hearing him talk about his life and what he'd done. Somewhat intimidated - oh dear god I picked this, what have I done? - but not really in a bad way.

"Want to go for a walk with us?" one of the teachers, named Peter, asked. Of course I did. Forget my plans of shutting myself up in my little hill-station room and writing such brilliant shit that no one would actually have to read it to deem me Auto-Genius. We ambled up the hill and talked, and I asked them a lot of irritating young whelp type questions about ex-pat life. It was a glorious evening with the clouds coming off the hill, and we ambled up the Camel Back path. There were chocolate stores and places selling hand-crafted woolens (what a souvenir from India). A guy on the corner trying to convince us to take rides on his tiny and weedy looking horses (no thanks, I'll pass on the ringworm, sir). We all paused at a bend in the hill, looking at the endless ridges below us, the terraced fields clinging to the sides of hills. Little villages full of houses, people I'll never meet or know a damn thing about, but can look right into their backyards anyway. "Green stuff," Laura said (I think). "We don't have anything like that in Delhi." Laura from Galicia. Delightful woman. Had taught in Charleston for a while. Viewed from the perspective of a non-Southerner with no understanding of the region's bizarre tribal culture and elaborate social structure, that must have been exotic indeed.

A couple of the Teacher Mafia's friends were staying at a hotel right up the hill, the Kasmanda Palace (which may be owned by the same people as the Nivas, I can't be sure, the website looks the same and confuses me). The hotel was a time capsule, a virtual reality machine. You walk in the door and there's a musty scent, there's a tiger skin with glass eyes and mange up on the wall, there's lots of carpeting in bordello colors and a player piano, and stuff made out of deer antlers and chintzy miniature paintings - welcome to the Raj, chap, we've been a-waiting for you. The place began life as part of a Christ Church complex and then became the summer home of the royal Kasmanda family - Raja included - and man, you can tell. Indians can always, if they so desire, be about fifteen times more English then the actual English, any day, any time, let's rumble on the basis of weak tea, mentally challenged hunting dogs, and a curious inability to frankly discuss sex.

We hung out in their room and drank beer mostly. We got into a discussion regarding weird dreams, sleep walking, and my own affliction, SCREAMING NOCTURNAL NIGHT TERRORS, and that was all good and fun.

Eric told a magnificent story which I will share with the world. Ahem.

"My sister was traveling to a conference somewhere, for work. She had to share a room with a woman she barely knew. Anyhow, that first night, they both shut off the lights and go to bed, early start tomorrow. My sister wakes up in the middle of night to go pee, usual stuff. As she's peeing, she realizes: "Hey, the toilet is kind of jiggly." The toilet is so jiggly that she falls right off it, and the jolt makes her come out of it. She wakes up. She realizes that she has in fact been peeing on the luggage stacked up in the closet.

She walks out of the closet laughing and laughing, and she tells the woman (who has woken up by now, frightened), "Hahah, whaddya know? I accidentally pissed on our luggage." Putting a positive spin on it.

The other woman did not find this even slightly funny and refused to make eye contact with her at the rest of the conference. But it made a good story."

Did it ever.

The skies opened up somewhere in there, and we slid down the concrete road back to the Padmini Nivas in the rain, the lights of Dehradun spread out with incredibly clarity below us. I might slip and fall down the track and break my neck in the most ignominious and stupid of ways, but what a view I would have while doing it. No panthers ate us either. I was happy. Meant more cheese toast in my life, tomorrow morning.

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