Perched high on top some of the highest peaks in the Himachal Pradesh region of the Himalayas, Shimla city sprawls over a 12-kilometer ridge. Home to 145,000 people residing in European-style homes – the affect of its past under British control – Shimla was once the premier hill station of India. Walking anywhere in town requires ever a steep uphill climb or downhill decent, and the place, dubbed little Switzerland by the locals, is swarming with Indian tourists on holiday.
Nittin, whom I stayed with in Delhi, brought me here to his childhood home, which sits quite literally on top of of the town, just below the monkey temple where an 108-foot statue of the Hindu monkey God, Hanuman, stands tall next to a modest, red-roofed temple swarming with macaque monkeys waiting to steal the offerings from pilgrims who come to pray.
His parents still live here, along with his younger sister, Swati. They are fortunate to have one of the best views in all the city, and it didn’t take me long to understand why our tour of Delhi was rushed, our journey to Shimla expedited.
There isn’t much in the way of sightseeing, other than the natural, 360-degree views of some of the most beautiful part of this country, but I stayed nearly a week because the Mahendru family treated me like one of their own. Each morning we woke, reluctantly peeled off the layers of thick, wool blankets and embraced the cold before huddling around a tiny electric heater in the living room/parent’s bedroom to sip hot chai. Indians spend most of their off-time in such a room, almost every house the same, eating, playing and sleeping in the large bed at its center, giving the term “family room” a literal meaning.
Around 11am, we ate allu parantha (potato-filled chapati) with butter and spicy olives for breakfast, then we would again commence in the main room for dinner around 9:00 at night. Getting used to such late meals was one of the hardest parts of my journey in India, and often times dinner wasn’t served until 11:00, just before it was time to retire for the night.
At bedtime, Swati and I would close ourselves in her room – where she gave me the bed and herself a floor mat, in true Indian hospitality fashion – and share whiskey with warm water to heat our bodies and help us sleep through the night.
“Shhh, I don’t like my father and brother to know I drink whiskey,” she said after we had swapped pictures and life stories. Swati is a good Hindu, a wonderful daughter and a faithful student of Buddhism. (“Hinduism is my faith, but I follow Buddhist principles,” she explained when I questioned her about her four years of Buddhist following.) God forbid what she does on her own time, with her own money, be something that shames her, and I wasn’t telling.
One night, Nittin and his father, Akhil, poured themselves, and me, glasses of warm whiskey. They drank and caught up on life, while Swati and I cooked egg curry and chapati (and she stole hidden drinks from my ever-full glass). As we ate, Akhil bragged, in his grandfatherly way, about his God-given right to be a good dancer, and how he taught his children his special moves. Of course, I made him prove it, and Gangnam Style commenced in the bedroom as my iPod blared through the speakers of Swati’s new laptop.
“Tonight we sleep like wow!” was one of Swati’s favorite sayings. And she was right. Curled up snug in her bed was the best week of sleep I had in India, and it was only the beginning. There would be several sleepless nights to come.
It’s possible I stayed so long just because I enjoyed Akhil’s conversation and hospitality, Swati’s fun-loving personality and fast friendship (as well as her bed!), and Nittin’s humor and charm, which makes this a prime example of how couch surfing can turn a trip from a nice, scenic stop into an amazing immersion with locals and family. If you’re not already a member of the popular site, I suggest you sign up (it’s free!) and try it next time you travel. Shimla is without a doubt a beautiful stop on any itinerary, but it’s the Mahendru family that made it unforgettable.
- India in Images: Delhi (jessicajhill.com)
- Monks & Monkeys (a.northernthailand.com)
- Travel With Sparkling Hill Of Shimla (theshimla.wordpress.com)
A Breathe of Himalayan Air: Shimla, India