Tuesday, 14 June 2011


Our hearts sank as we opened the hotel room door to find our few remaining possessions scattered around chaotically. Oisin seemed the most upset: even some of his toys had gone.

We’d arrived here in Shimla, an old colonial hill station, the previous day. Along with most of the Delhi middle-class, we were seeking to escape the heat of high summer in the city. We’d survived the night train to Kalka, and changed for the “toy train” (that’s what they call it!), a narrow gauge train that take over five hours to pull you up through the most gorgeous scenery (and 107 different tunnels) into this town that seems to have been built on the side of the most ludicrous gradient. There are no two roads the same level, and the steps up and down to the different levels of the town are eye-wateringly steep. No surprise, then, that we are in the foothills of the Himalayas.

The hustle went entirely according to the plan detailed with total accuracy in the guide book. We hired a porter to help us with our bags to the hotel. We’d planned ahead and not bothered our arses to book a room in advance, mainly due to not having sorted out credit for my newly purchased Indian mobile phone with which to make the call. So we asked the porter to take us to the YMCA where, fingers crossed, we’d find a clean double. Halfway through town he stops, pulls a tattered brochure out of his pocket, and starts elucidating the joys of the Dreamlands hotel. The hustle went like clockwork. There was a problem with the water at the YMCA, the place was fully booked, the other hotel was going to cost the same but had beautiful views over the mountains. It’s amazing how much your determination not to be hustled wilts in the face of a man who is carrying both your rucksacks up a 60 degree gradient in the midday sun.

Dreamland wasn’t the worst hotel we’ve ever stayed in, and the enormous double bed would have happily accommodated a number of generations together, so we stayed. And true to the porter’s word, the views of the snow-capped Himalayas this morning when we stepped out after the midnight thunderstorm had cleared the skies was spectacular. But we’d bumped into the two Bristol lads from the train, and realised that we were paying well over the odds for a mediocre room. So we packed up and headed under our own steam for the YMCA. Clean room, immaculate shared showers and bathroom, and breakfast included for half what we were paying in Dreamlands. Yes!

Pati had hand-washed some clothes and we hung them out on the window barsto dry in the afternoon sun. We headed off for something to eat, pleased that we were finally finding a rhythm that included feeding the child at regular intervals. We strolled through the town as the Delhi middle-classes made endless fuss of our confusing child, with his female henna tattoo on one hand, his strange name, and his bizarre behaviour. Having his cheeks pinched has become a way of life for him now in the space of two days. And then we returned to the YMCA, and opened the door to our lovely new room to discover we’d been burgled. Our stuff lay scattered about the floor, a tube of toothpaste had been burst and white marks dotted the carpet, and as we ran to the window, a monkey ran off with one of Oisin’s t-shirts in his hand. The ticket from the reception had a list of instructions, mostly about good behaviour (it is the YMCA, after all), but also one point which we’d overlooked: beware of the monkeys, and keep your windows closed. Oisin has lost about a quarter of his toy stock, along with Pati’s contact lens case, and my friend Michael’s little mini-maglite torch that I’d been carrying with me. From the landing on the stairs we can see out a window onto the corrugated tin roof to where Oisin’s little harmonica, bought not four months ago on a whim in Cardiff Bay, lies forlornly out of reach.

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