A Peace of India

  India has many sides to it.  There is the less-developed city side where you see trash littered everywhere, human waste lying in the street, and dying animals covered in flies and maggots right next to the food stalls selling bhel puri and chole bathure.  There’s the more developed metropolitan city side where you see the efficiency of the Delhi metro, the many shopping opportunities, restaurants and nightlife available in a city like Delhi. There’s poverty contrasted with extreme luxury when you see the vast malls or famous hotels next to the underpass of the highway where children and woman beg on the street.  In Yamuna Nagar we experienced a less metropolitan city where we found a more small town feel.  People there remembered us wherever we went because we stuck out as the only foreigners to come to this town in the middle of nowhere.  We had a favorite Indian street food, or chaat, place to go to that was just a short walk from our office, our beds, and most other places we needed to go.  There were still similar contrasts here.  A section of the city where the industrial feel of Yamuna Nagar really comes through when you see trucks loaded with logs and plywood, ready to go to the factory, would stand next to the factory owner’s large and beautiful homes, but not too far away you would find the slums where the children don’t have clothing covering their bottoms.  Two weeks ago Bill and I traveled to Mussoorie, a hill station in the state of Uttarkhand, where we saw even more sides to India.  

cable car

A view of Mussoorie from a cable car

devdar woods

Misty trees at Devdar Woods

We had just driven for three hours through the intermittent rain past the valley of Dehradun and up the windy road leading to Mussoorie.  It was dark out and both we and our taxi driver had no clue where the hotel we were looking for was.  We kept stopping and asking for directions and everyone kept pointing us upwards. Keep climbing up the windy road of this dark, misty mountain.  We finally reach what we think is our hotel. There is no sign showing the name of the place, but we go in to check and make sure that it is indeed Devdar Woods, a place recommended to us by our bosses at Leap.  We walk in and in a few seconds the power flickers out.  A man comes out to light candles to illuminate what appears to be the dining room of this place.  We ask him for a room and he shows us over to our room carrying a wax-dripping candle.  The place smells moldy and the contrast between the 45 degree Yamuna Nagar weather and the crisp mountain air causes us to shiver and pray that there’s hot water here.  We take the room because we’re tired of driving up this road and we’re not even sure if there are any other hotels further up this deserted side of the mountain.  Our bed cover has some cheesy pink and red hearts on it and I can’t help but think that Bill and I traveling alone together makes us look kind of like a couple, which isn’t the worst thing in the world when you don’t want unnecessary attention from overly-friendly men.  We agree on a price for the room and then expect him to demand our passports, which we have both forgotten back in Yamuna Nagar.  The hotel owner doesn’t even ask us our names or tell us his.  We order some dinner and while we’re waiting we explore the place a bit more.  The room next door looks like a Victorian era parlor room, complete with an old dusty broken piano and book shelves containing Shakespeare.  I half expect the person sitting in the arm chair to break out into the lines of “The Raven” because that is exactly what this room feels like.  An old man and woman come out to the dining room and the two or three other remaining people here appear to employed at this place because they take our order from the menu which is hand-written on some sort of parchment paper and they bring us sweet warm chai.  Bill and I eat dinner and then decide to watch the movie Zindagi Na Milega Dobara, a movie about three friends that literally translates to “you won’t get a second life” and is about their risk-filled adventures in Spain.

The next morning we wake up to the most breathtaking views of the mountains, though the clouds obscure the snowy peaks of the Himalayas in the distance.  After a short walk around the area, we realize we’re near the top of the mountain.  We eat breakfast at a shop called “Char Dukan” or literally “4 shops”.  We were told to order the Maggi, which is a type of instant noodle popular in India that quickly became my favorite morning or anytime snack.  I am plowing through my food and Bill is taking his time as per usual.  About ten minutes into our meal, Bill says, “You’ll never guess who just showed up.”  I look to the left and we see our boss, Megha.  She says that we’re about to meet her entire family and that she’s very sorry.  We also found out we had been sitting next to Megha’s husband, Arjun for the past fifteen minutes without knowing.  We soon realize that Megha has nothing to be sorry about because her family is nothing but warm and welcoming to us.  The maggi is indeed amazing.  Megha’s brother says it’s because there’s something different about the water on this mountain and it’s true that all the food we ate there was so fresh and full of rich flavors.  We head down the mountain a bit to the main center of Mussoorie where we explore the many different shops there.  The Tibetan influence is strong here and I buy some cheap cold weather items that I wish I had for this past brutal winter in Philly.  The town is really one long road and you can basically only go up or down the mountain.  The place is full of tourists, but most of them appear to be Indian tourists escaping the heat of the summer.  This more populated part of Mussoorie gives off a carnival vibe.  There are shops where you can shoot balloons with a BB gun or dress up in traditional Tibetan attire and take photos.  There is even a cable car that takes you up the mountain to an actual carnival called Gun Hill.  Remnants of English colonialism also invade this place when you walk into antique shops and find old binoculars, sextants, lighters and signs from a century ago.  Up near Devdar Woods, there’s a large church and English cemetery.  The road at the top of the mountain that connects the church, cemetery, Char Dukan,  and our hotel is actually a circle.  One night we were walking around the dark, uninhabited side of the circle when we heard a whistle blow and light shine down on us.  It turned out that we had just accidentally stepped into an Indian military camp late at night.  Everywhere we went we could see amazing views of the valley below or of green trees, clouds, and monkeys.  I woke up for one sunrise during our stay there and was completely at peace just sitting there looking at the beauty of the Himalayas and thinking to myself.  This was one side of India that I knew that I loved, but I missed the intimacy of our small town.

gun hill

A glimpse of the carnival on Gun Hill around dusk

We returned back to the noisy, dirt-filled streets of Yamuna Nagar to the smell of burning trash and fried dough.  We went back to the box that is our office where we crouched over computers all day but occasionally took zumba breaks where we pushed our table aside and let some stress go.  We celebrated the birthdays of two of our coworkers with cake and pizza.  Though I feel like I could have been swallowed forever by the majesty of moss-covered pines sitting on a massive mountain, which was only a fraction of the size of India’s true mountains, the other sides of India pulled me back.  About half-way into our internship we had a discussion about poverty in India with the three of us Leap interns and our boss, Ankit. We talked about what it meant to be foreigners traveling abroad to try to “help” people.  Were we perpetrators of “white saviorism” by coming here?  Were we really impacting people here in a positive way?  Are many of the poor people in India still happy sitting there under the freeway overpass with their families?  Do you need to have the backdrop of natural wonders surrounding you to feel at peace or is there something more to it?  I don’t think we could answer many of these questions, but I do think that there is some sort of happiness pervading many more of the sides of India than I had thought.

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About Kristi Littleton

University of Pennsylvania Class of 2015, majored in Biology. Works at Leap Skills Academy in Delhi, India.