Monkey Menace in Shimla

There are over 2500 rhesus macaques creating havoc in Shimla; known to the locals as The Monkey Menace.

IMG_0002

They are easily identified by their bright red faces and backsides, and by their brazen and fearless manner. In our seven days here, we have had a few close encounters with these scary simians. We were hissed at walking home from dinner one night; without provocation we were confronted by a big red angry face just inches from our path. We’ve been charged at for food. Stephen was polishing off a bag of chips when a large male monkey ran across the street, heading straight for us – we threw the bag in the garbage and backed away. Locals are no less leery of these monkeys; we watched several people jump to their feet and clear out as a monkey made his way along the fence behind a row of benches. It is with good reason – the rhesus macaques will jump on people to grab food, glasses, and hats. They have been known to attack and bite. Efforts to cull and/or sterilize them have proven fruitless, and their numbers continue to grow.

In spite of all this, Stephen and I chose to take the steep climb up to Jakhu Temple, one of the highest points in Shimla, guarded by a healthy simian population. Visitors are warned to carry big sticks to ward off the more aggressive monkeys, so it was not without a fair bit of trepidation that we began our climb.

The path begins with this sign for testing fitness levels.  It is a 2.5 km. walk to the top, most of it straight up. (We finished the climb up in 45 minutes; down in 33). Apparently we are “ABSOLUTELY FIT” – news to us.

IMG_0007
The climb up was, in a word, – brutal. At one point we both were ready to give up, but for our pride. We were passed by families with small children; many of the ladies wearing thin sandals. We met up with this gentleman, carrying his grandson for much of the way.

IMG_0010
We met up with them a little later at a rest stop. This was our turning point – if this sweet man and his little grandson could make this climb, then we would as well.

IMG_0012
Our first indication that there were monkeys in the neighbourhood – many cars were covered with thorny branches, to foil simian theft of the windshield wipers.

IMG_0011
Dozens of monkeys met us on the final ascent, but interestingly, none approached us. We had no need for a big stick, but we did keep a close eye on them.

One of the gatekeepers at the entrance to the temple. The figure behind him is a statue, not a human.

img_8918
The 98-foot bright orange statue of Lord Hanuman is lit up at night, and visible from the town of Shimla. When we reached the summit, this was our close-up view.

img_8916
Back down in town, the monkeys are no less a presence. Many homes and buildings are monkey-proofed, with enclosed chain-link cages and barbed wire.

IMG_0003

While we’re on the subject of animals, let me introduce you to the beautiful and unique Rajasthani horses that are a fixture on the Ridge. I did a little research on these animals, and the Marwari horses seem to match the appearance – small, lean and with ears that turn inward to the point of almost touching. However, I asked two of the owners and they both called them “Indian horses from Rajasthan.”

IMG_0002 (1)
There are usually about 10 horses lined up and ready for rides and it can be quite comical to watch.  Each rider is led by the owner, usually with a small press corps in pursuit, so no actual “riding” takes place. I probably could have managed this.

In addition to the usual complement of excited children, there were a number of young men; quite unconcerned about the optics of being led around like a pony ride at a fair.

IMG_0002
This fabulous specimen of Indian manhood was happy to pose for a photo. He may have thought I was admiring his biceps, but I wanted to show you his hair. Most Indian men have luxuriant thick black hair – baldness is not as common here as it is in North America.
Many young men style their hair short on the back and sides with a 3-inch hive on top – a hipster pompadour that they carry off very well.

IMG_0003
And now onto some of the more enterprising business plans we have run across. I mentioned the bathroom scales in the last post – I tried my luck at another set of scales today (this time one with horseshoes), and yes!…down another 2 pounds. This woman was charging just 5 rupees – she would need 10 customers to make just one dollar.

Right beside her was a woman selling hand-knitted children’s slippers. At least a dozen woman have small stands set up and they sit for hours, knitting and chatting and tending to their children, but I never saw a single sale.

IMG_0006
When we first saw this lineup of baby strollers, we thought perhaps a massive birthday party was being held in a nearby restaurant. But no, these strollers and a couple of wheelchairs are for rent. How intriguing! I’m trying to imagine how anyone with either mobility issues or small children would find themselves in hilly Shimla without their necessary accoutrements. Apparently these enterprising gentlemen have seen fit to invest in these products, just in case.

IMG_0024
We passed by this one-stop shop a number of times before I really appreciated the diversity of the goods and services being offered. A homeopathic clinic, bolstered by fresh fruit, hot chai, plants, selfie sticks and backpacks.

IMG_0014

There were quite a few businesses that were around before Independence and have hung in all these years. This musty old Antiquarian bookshop was a bit of surprise. Who are the customers for this highly specialized business?

IMG_0005

The Embassy Restaurant, in business since 1942, has changed with the times – selling “good ice cream to good people”.

IMG_0021
The Indian Coffee House is another relic, with a fascinating history and branches all over India. We visited one in Pondicherry, and this one is a variation on that same theme – ancient servers, cracked leather seats, less-than-pristine interior, and really great coffee. You get the feeling the same old gents have been meeting here daily for years – tourists and women stand out, but are still welcome.

IMG_0004
Part of the decor…and the charm. Right of Admission Reserved – as I looked around the room, I wondered what the criteria might be for customer selection.

IMG_0005
There are many sides of Shimla, and some are less picturesque than others. This is how we imagined Shimla:  moody and mountainous.
IMG_0063
Here, Shimla from another vantage point – a good perspective of how this city has grown from British hill station to almost 200,000 people clinging to the hillsides.

IMG_0007
And, of course, like any city – not everyone gets the great view.

IMG_0019
We’ve spoken to a number of Indians who are adamantly opposed to the caste system that is still in existence in India, most particularly in rural areas. We met a young woman who is a lawyer and who is immigrating to Toronto in May. She offered a bright and articulate view of her country (which she fully intends to return to one day), and offered us an interesting perspective on the subject of garbage. She told us that Indians are very clean in their homes, but will sweep out to the streets, confident that their mess will be cleaned up by someone else. In her opinion the reason Indians do not carry their garbage with them until they find a bin is that it is considered “dirty” – the job of the low-caste person who is responsible for garbage, sweeping the streets, etc.

A strong movement is afoot to eliminate the caste system and not relegate lowly jobs to people who have had no means to escape their destiny.  A nation-wide strike took place yesterday, with businesses closing down for several hours in solidarity.

The streets of Shimla were filled with dozens of police and military, including these riot police. There were hundreds of protesters out, but as far as we could tell, it was peaceful.

IMG_0028
While all this was going on, we were on another epic trek (15 km. return – uphill both ways:>) to explore the wooded areas just outside the city core, and to see Annandale, once the playground for the British elite with horse racing, polo and cricket, and now Shimla’s only golf course.

IMG_0010

Although it was a beautiful day, there was just one golfer on the course; possibly this alarming sign has frightened off potential members.

IMG_0009

Annandale is also the grounds for the Army Heritage Museum; an excellent museum that showcases the history of the Indian Army and underlines the great importance and prestige the Army holds in India.

IMG_0003
The grounds are beautifully maintained; we enjoyed a peaceful couple of hours here before we attempted the ThighMaster of a road back up to the top of the hill.

IMG_0014
About halfway up the hill, we came upon the Shimla British Resort; once a grand old dame and now a somewhat musty old hotel that does not appear to have been updated or well maintained. Still…another glimpse into the old days of British rule.

IMG_0022
Probably the most impressive of all was the former Viceregal Lodge, now the Indian Institute of Advanced Study. This magnificent building was completed in 1888 and was the official summer residence of the British viceroys until 1946.

img_8886

This was the location of government every summer from April to October, and tours are available daily. Our timing was poor as we chose Easter Sunday to visit, along with hundreds of other tourists; the wait for a tour was over 2 1/2 hours. When we asked if it was worth it to wait, the ticket-taker shrugged, “a bunch of photos and old furniture.”
That took the sting out of missing out, so we had a grand time exploring the beautiful grounds instead.

And…that’s it, folks. Our time in Shimla has almost come to an end. We had missed out on the famous narrow gauge toy train to come here ( it books up months in advance), but through a great stroke of luck we are taking the toy train back down. Our host pulled a few strings for us, and we are as happy as if we had tickets to a sold-out concert.

Our last posting will be in a few days – a few photos of our train trip, and a reflection of our time in India.

 

Pondicherry’s spiritual aura

Although French rule ended here in 1954, the small colonial city of Pondicherry is still very much under the influence – in architecture, food, and street style. The French Quarter is solidly French – right down to street names and door signs.

IMG_0002
There are many shopowners, hoteliers and restauranteurs who are French nationals and the vast majority of tourists are also from France. (You can pick them out – they are insouciant and lean. The men with expensive loafers and sweaters tossed over shoulders; the women with glossy bobs and fabulous bags.) Well, once again I have proven to myself that whatever capacity I had for speaking French has vanished. My clumsy high school French was no match for their effortless and charmingly accented English, so I gave up.

No matter – Pondicherry (or Puducherry, as it is now called; Pondy for short) is welcoming to all and well worth the visit – a feast for the senses. One can find a genuine croissant as well as a path to spiritual enlightenment.  Pondy draws thousands of visitors to the world-famous Sri Aurobindo Ashram and to the experimental village, Auroville, which is just outside of town.

The French Quarter is the main tourist area; several blocks of leafy streets fronted by a gorgeous stroll along the Bay of Bengal. The Gandhi Memorial is situated mid-way along the water, providing an eternal image of the great man in mid-stride.

IMG_0021

The French Quarter is divided by this particularly odiferous canal, with “real India” happening noisily and chaotically on the other side.

IMG_0005

If you come to Pondy, be sure to book well ahead to snag a room in a charming heritage building right in the French Quarter. We waited too late and were lucky to find a room at all. Our hotel is in a new building a couple of blocks away from the canal, and down a side street, so we glide through the many faces of India several times a day. We move from this tranquil and lovely room…

IMG_0002
… to the main street, filled with traffic, markets selling cheap western clothing and an eye-watering blend of smells. We cross over the canal and enter the rarified world of the French Quarter once again. This hotel is beyond our range – rooms run about $300 a night, but the structure is typical of the lovely buildings that line the streets.

IMG_0011
Even the tuk-tuks match the decor.

IMG_0043
More street colour. This makes me wonder why we favour such drab, “tasteful” colours for our exteriors in our cold countries – the greys and blacks and tans. In the middle of February in Canada, wouldn’t we all feel perked up with these yellows and oranges and pinks?

IMG_0073
Although we are still in the south of India, Pondicherry does not feel as oppressively hot and humid as we had been experiencing for the past several weeks. It is a great relief to simply enjoy what we think of as “summer weather” – hot, with a breeze, and cool at night. Apparently the dogs don’t share my view – they still spread out for naps during the day. The dogs in India appear to have sprung from the same gene pool – mid-size, light-coloured, short-haired and relatively benign.

IMG_0042
There are plenty of cows wandering the streets on the Indian side of Pondy, but on the French side, we have seen just this one stopped outside the gelateria. Perhaps some cosmic connection between her milk and the finished product  filtered through to her bovine brain.

IMG_0039
Pondy is undergoing quite the facelift – we are curious to know what it will look like in five years. Currently, for every beautifully finished building, there is a derelict one – often they exist side by side.

img_8299-1
Several important buildings are also under renovation, with bold banners showing the before and after shots.

IMG_0033
If you saw the movie Lion, you will remember that the boy’s mother moved rocks for a living. I didn’t know what that meant until we saw this woman at a work site. In India, very hard manual labour still exists, with many people doing the work that would be done by one machine in Canada. A reminder that so many people work so hard for so little.

IMG_0051
This is another common sight – less drudgery to be sure, but I’m quite sure no-one is over-paying this gentleman for those immaculately pressed shirts.

img_8211

Back to the French influence here in Pondy. There are many French organizations and institutions here, including a number of French schools. Here, La Lycée Francaise:

IMG_0049

Rav Nivas, the Governor’s residence, with a gendarme riding by:

IMG_0027
The Alliance Francaise, with its attentive guard. I peeked inside the gate, hoping to grab a photo of the luscious courtyard beyond, mais non. He did agree to pose for a photo.

IMG_0061

Even the hospital looks inviting:

IMG_0053
Our second day here, we left our hotel in search of breakfast, only to discover there was a one-day strike on and everything was closed. One-day strikes are common in India. So far we have had three – taxi strike, water strike and now GST strike. We can’t imagine they have any effect, other than to inconvenience the locals, lose money for the business owners and annoy the tourists.

We came upon this lovely hotel, with the gate open a crack, so we ventured in to see if they would consider feeding non-guests. At first, we were promised coffee, but that turned into fresh juice, fruit, eggs, toast, and pancakes. We returned again at lunch, since most of the French Quarter was closed until the evening. This is the courtyard of Villa Helena, our strike-day saviour.

IMG_0007

On a whole other level, we made the obligatory visit to The Indian Coffee House, a Pondy institution that was the birthplace for Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.  Martel began his book with meeting an elderly man who tells him, “I have a story that will make you believe in God….” Far from having an uplifting effect on us, we found it dirty with so-so food. But, they’re carrying on without us – the place is packed and buzzing.

IMG_0083

We bought coconut water a number of times from this gorgeous woman. We stopped to watch her hack away with her machete – hack off the top, scoop out a bit of flesh, insert straw, repeat. She had a few customers on the go; a big personality and a bigger smile. “Here you go, mama”, as she passed  me some fresh coconut.

IMG_0006
I don’t know why I like this photo – I just do. Three gents having a good ole chinwag.

IMG_0011 (1)

And onto Pondy’s spiritual life – the many faiths and belief systems that co-exist here.
We really like the kolams, found outside many homes and businesses. Each morning, the women draw them with rice flour or chalk – usually quite simple designs to bring prosperity and good luck. Sometimes bowls of flowers or small offerings are added.

IMG_0064
There are many churches and temples in Pondy – Notre Dame des Anges covers the Catholic side of things. The interior was simple, with life-size sculptures of Jesus in various states as he made his way to the cross. Accompanying inscriptions were in French – Jesu est tombe pour la premiere fois.

IMG_0047
We were allowed to visit the Hindu temple Manakula Vinayagar, but interior photography was forbidden. This exterior shot is an example of the lavish and colourful friezes.

IMG_0058
And…Sri Aurobindo Ashram – the internationally-known ashram founded by Sri Aurobindo and “The Mother” – who also founded Auroville. The ashram attracts thousands of visitors each year; many of whom stay for a period of time. Tourists were only allowed to enter a small part of the building, following a flower-lined pathway to a centre “stage” where we were invited to pray. I prayed for our family and friends, and then moved to join others in quiet contemplation. My challenge was I could not get the image of Julia Roberts in India (Eat Pray Love) out of my head, so meditation was out of the question. Still, a moving experience to observe others; many of them in raptures.

The ashram

IMG_0054
And on to Auroville, the utopian community about 10 km. outside of Pondy that was founded in the late 60s by Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. The vision of Auroville was to realize human unity through diversity and is the only experiment of its kind in the world. There are about 2500 residents – 60% of them from other countries and of all ages from infant to 80. The community is dedicated to peace, sustainability and divine consciousness and depending upon with whom you speak, has been a resounding success or a shady, self-indulgent escape from reality.

It is possible to visit for an hour, a day, a week or longer. We chose to go with a tour, which was a mistake, as we were rushed through and did not have a chance to visit properly.

First, we visited the excellent Visitor’s Centre and watched a 10-minute video before walking down the leafy 1-km. path to the main attraction, the Matrimandir.

img_8248
Along the path, there are stone markers depicting each of the twelve flowers The Mother chose for their significance to Auroville’s intentions.

img_8249
This 10-sq. km. area is beautifully planted, with two million trees and many gardens. As you approach the main area, there is a sign asking for silence, as this is a meditation area.

IMG_0021
And there it is – the Mothership. The Matrimandir  (or “soul” of Auroville) has been compared to a giant golf ball or a space ship, and you could be forgiven the comparisons. Inside is a large crystal, and the whole interior has been designed for individual silent contemplation. You must make reservations a few days in advance to be allowed to enter, so we just contemplated from outside.

IMG_0020
Visiting Auroville was an otherworldly experience. I wish we had more time to talk to people and get a better sense of the place. There are accommodations in the area for those who wish to explore the concept a little more.

Et voila! Another side of India that we had no idea existed. Our spiritual tour is far from over – next we head to Varanasi, one of Hindu’s holiest (and most colourful) cities.  We met a Scottish gentleman a few weeks ago – he travels to India frequently and is a huge fan. We asked him about Varanasi, and in the words of everyone’s favourite Donald, he replied, “It is a stinking shithole. But you MUST go.” We can’t say we haven’t been warned.