A Breath of Himalayan Air: Shimla, India

Monkey in Shimla India
“I’m on top of the world!”

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.

Hanuman Statue Shimla Monkey Temple Shimla 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.

Indian home Shimla
That’s Nittin, in the family room.

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.

Indian dancing
Swati, Nittin and Akhil dance their special moves!

“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.

Shimla Himalayan Mountains

monkey shimla temple
It’s not Hanuman, but it’s his right to sunbathe at the monkey temple!


A Breathe of Himalayan Air: Shimla, India
Written by:Jessica J. Hill

A River Between: Chiang Khan

I spent the weekend in Chiang Khan, a lovely little town on the northern border of Isan, where the Mekong River drifts idly by. It’s a traditional Thai village, where the outside of every building is beautifully maintained to protect the old standards, and the insides are thoughtfully decorated with items from the past: old motorbikes, antique bicycles, ancient mailboxes, etc.

One of my coworkers invited me on this trip. Why not go see a traditional Thai village with a personal Thai tour guide? It will be the real deal, I thought. Of course I said yes, despite my initial impression of Teacher Ning – she’s bossy, pushy, obnoxious and always in my bubble. I brushed it off as a cultural difference, until I heard the other teachers wish me good luck.

I needed it. Turns out, Ning is a full-blown diva: overdramatic, prissy and constantly changing her mind. She insisted on having her picture taken in front of every wooden door, lone bicycle, flowerpot and sign. Imagine how long it takes to walk down a picturesque street with such a prima donna, ogling over each shot and not hesitating to ask a stranger to continue shooting until he gets it just right.

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But on the bright side, I did get a good glimpse into a Thai vacation. We went to Wat Mahathat, Chiang Khan’s oldest temple, and Ning taught me the proper way to bow to Buddha – sit on the floor in front of the statue with your knees bent to the side and wai three times. Each one should start with your hands palms together, near your chest, before raising your thumbs to your eyebrows and then bowing to the ground, placing your hands flat in front of you.

Next, we bought flowers for good luck. We held the flowers with one hand, lit three incense sticks with the other and made a wish to Buddha. After placing the incense in the designated area and donating our flowers to the pile on the statue’s lap, we bowed again.

Once our evil spirits were warded away, we caught a boat ride on the river, floating slowly between Thailand and Laos, making clear the vast difference between the two. Laos is what Thailand was forty years ago. Thailand’s modern style houses and small hotels along the bank contrasted the natural flora and fauna covering the Laos side. Much of the Thai beach areas were flanked with Thai tourists and the shanty fruit shacks that follow, yet Laos was still quiet and untouched less a local fisherman and his children.

Ning boasted about her country and how much more developed it is than Laos. I looked longingly at its untouched beauty. I can’t deny that tourism is good for the growth and betterment of a country, but it also aids in reducing cultural values.

For Ning, I noticed this in her nighttime prayer. We shared a room, and I watched in awe as she faced her pillow before bed and repeated the act I had learned at the temple.

“You’re a very good Buddhist,” I said.

“Only because I’m not at home,” she said with a laugh. “I usually just hurry through it.” Then she showed me how fast she performs the actions, raising her hands and throwing them down as if playing patty cake with the pillow.

“Do you say thanks or pray for anything when you do that?” I asked.

“No,” she said to my surprise. She simply moves through the motions because it’s expected, as if bowing alone can cement ones devotion.

We woke up early enough to catch a shuttle to the top of a mountain where we stood above the clouds and watched the sun slowly peak it’s way through them. I laughed at the irony that I paid to see fog, having grown up in Condon, Oregon where foggy weather is a staple of winter, but it was lovely from above, looking out over the Laos mountaintops, knowing the vast river weaved its way between us down below.

Ning, who woke an hour before I to compete with the beauty we were about to see, was like Thailand in this scenario, overdressed, clean (in comparison) and bustling with excitement. I felt more like Laos, undeveloped, dirty and sleepy. The vast river  between the two countries has divided their differences, just as the wide ocean separating Ning and I has cultured two very different people.