Day Two, Part One: GNFC (Guru Nanak Fifth Centenary) Or Bust

 

The Savoy was offering a free yoga class at 7:30 am and I was trying to pull myself out of a melatonin induced fog so I could join.  Travel tip for those who suffer from jetlag and have not tried melatonin to help normalize their new sleep cycle; 3 mg per night had me sleeping like I was twenty again with no care in the world.

Holding the morning’s yoga session in an area on the hotel grounds inappropriately called the Beer Garden, I was joined by an older couple from Pune.  The yoga teacher was a middle aged Mussoorie native with a mixed Scottish and Indian background.  In between a lecture on “What is yoga?” (it’s about connection apparently) and a few stories about the debauchery that used to go on at The Savoy, we went through several asanas.  I wasn’t expecting much, considering it was being catered to the ultra-wealthy elites on Holiday, so was happy to walk away from it feeling balanced and awake.

This was followed by a complimentary breakfast buffet served at the Main Lodge, which was definitely a step above your average hotel buffet fare.

I must admit, it was slightly unnerving to have three servers constantly hovering nearby, waiting to carry out your every wish.

“More tea sir?”

“How is everything sir?

“Are you needing a new plate sir?”

“Sir, you are god-like.  Please stand on our backs so we can lift you home to heaven.”

Ok.  That last one didn’t happen.  It was me reading into the subtext of the dynamics playing out between the guests and staff.

With breakfast wrapping up, my time at The Savoy was nearing its end.  My carriage was about to turn into a pumpkin and I began to prepare for my departure to rejoin the common people.  I would be staying at the Hotel Vishnu Palace, a three-starred establishment across the street from The Savoy.  It was built down the slope of the mountain, with my room at the very bottom, on the 4th floor.

After dropping my stuff off in my room, I was anxious and ready to get on my way.  There had been intermittent thunderstorms rolling through Mussoorie starting at about the time our yoga teacher was telling us why The Savoy used to have a bell that rang at five every morning (so the pious could pray and the sinners could get back to their rooms before everyone else woke up).  As I left the hotel, rain began again and I had to duck in to a café at Library Point to avoid the downpour.  Ordering a masala chai, I nursed the tea while waiting out the storm and listened to a European woman carry out a lengthy conversation in perfect Hindi.

With the rain ending, my tea drank and the desire to continue eavesdropping diminishing, I set out on my way to find a cab to take me to Vincent Hill.  After the Picture Palace incident, I did not want not rely entirely on memory.   I figured a couple hundred rupees ($4) would be a worthy investment to get me to Vincent Hill in a timely fashion.

All taxis took The Long Way back to school.  This was a road that wrapped around the mountain, passing an Indo Tibetan Border Patrol station (ITBP for short) that demarked the halfway point from Town to GNFC-Vincent Hill.  Another way to school was The Shortcut (we were very literal with these names).  This went up and over the top of the mountain, ending with a path leading down directly to the school’s gate.  The third and rarely used way, so rare that it wasn’t given a name, was a road that wound up from Mussoorie proper, through an area called Waverly, past the girl’s school, Shangri-La, before arriving from the opposite direction of The Long Way to the gate of  Vincent Hill.

Sitting in the backseat of the taxi, I was happy I chose this option, as the road out of town that turned into The Long Way was completely unrecognizable.  That was until we reached the ITBP station.  It had the exact same sign and iron gate that I remembered, with the road making a sharp elevated turn at its entrance wrapping itself around the bend of the mountain.  This triggered the proverbial flood gates of my subconscious to open, with memories of The Long Way beginning to rush back.

I remembered Bird and I taking a horse back to school at night from Town.  Early on the journey home, we got caught in a torrential downpour that never let up, soaking us to the bone, and with thunder and lightning so fierce that any sensible person would be afraid for their life.  The thought of getting electrocuted didn’t really bother us that much.  What did, was that we had convinced ourselves that we were being stalked by a tiger.  I imagine we had never prayed as hard or chanted as loud as we did that night on top of that horse for Guru Ram Das (4th Sikh Guru) to save our asses from this creature we imagined in our minds.

I was also struck by the memory of a mandatory jog that the entire student body had to go on every afternoon, to the ITBP station and back.  That was until a Brahmin bull went berserk, probably as a result from seeing a sea of kids running directly at it.  One boy, Sri Ved, ended up getting what looked to be gored in the crotch and nearly tossed over the side of the road.  Many of us watched in horror as he held on to the railing for dear life and screamed at a pitch that sounded like he had just lost his testicles.  Once the bull finally let him go and moved on to chase other students, it was discovered that Sri Ved had escaped any serious injury other than to his shorts and his tough guy reputation.

Our arrival at the gate of Vincent Hill snapped me back into the present. Excitement with an undercurrent of melancholy flowed through me as I paid the driver and stepped out of the cab.  Just then I noticed the guard at the gate coming out to greet me.

It was too soon for me to engage with him.  I was not ready to enter.  Doing my best impersonation of a guest at The Savoy, I ignored the guard and started to walk the other way.

They changed the gate!  I thought.  And they painted the support wall on the opposite side of the road white with red GNFC logos!

I began to walk along the road that continued in the other direction towards the girl’s school.  This would give me a clear view of Vincent Hill below, while simultaneously allowing me to see the residence for the American guides, two families who had been tasked with keeping us alive.

It was about a 100 meters distance from the gate, before the school came completely into view.

They changed the fence along the road! It’s way higher than before.  Is it supposed to keep people out, or the kids in?  I wondered.

My memory may be dodgy on some things surrounding the school, but not the school itself.  You could show me a picture of the school years from now on my death bed, taken from the spot where I now stood and I’d be like, “I leave everything to my brother.  Vincent Hill.”

A storm had just passed and the sun was now shining.  Standing in its warmth, I looked down at the place I called home for five years of my childhood.  For years I dreamed about this moment and wondered how it would feel to look upon this school again.  Surprisingly, a calmness I have come to know as love and acceptance was all that was there.  Glancing briefly over at the Guide’s Residence, it looked the same, just a little worse for wear.  Kind of like me.

I was ready.

Day One: The Adventure Of The Portable Cell Phone Charger

 

Holy Crap.  That was hard.

I thought it would be a simple flight from Delhi to Dehra Dun, followed by an easy taxi drive up to Mussoorie, before ending with a leisurely stroll to my “too good to be true” priced hotel.  But I forgot.  This was India.  Instead, it was a quick refresher course on the sheer random chaos, simple cons and bureaucratic shenanigans that goes along with most any day here.

It started with the mundane; taking a taxi from my hotel in Delhi to return to Indra Gandhi Intl Airport.  As I was in line to check in for my flight, I noticed a sign stating that all portable cell phone chargers were not allowed in carry-on baggage.  Realizing I had mine in my carry-on, I quickly transferred it to my bag that I was checking in.  A few minutes later, I was on my way to security, with my bag checked and ticket in hand.

Unlike the U.S. where the TSA provides instructions on how to clear security (remove laptop from bag, take off belt, no liquids over 3 oz, etc.), here there was nothing to inform passengers on what to do.  Add to this the fact that there were plenty of people whom had never flown before and this helped to create a security line of epic proportions.  I watched as they pulled bag after bag for having bottles of water, fifths of Johnny Walker, a bottle of indeterminable green liquid and many other beverages.  The family with the large bottle of green liquid refused to forfeit it, but instead passed it amongst themselves until it was finished.  For every bag that was being pulled, a security officer had to create a handwritten log, noting in a book that I’m pretty sure no one was ever going to read, the details of each passenger.

After a half an hour of watching this play out, I finally made it through the bottleneck and made my way to the gate.  At the gate, there was a vending machine full of Indian sodas.  Feeling nostalgic, I bought a Thums Up, a slightly sweet cola with a big red thumb on the can, found a seat and began drinking it.  Halfway finished, they called my name.

“Ravi Singh, Ravi Singh.  Please come up to the boarding gate desk.” The attendant said.

I stood up and began walking towards the desk.  Raising my hand to get his attention, I said, “Ravi.  That is me.”

Ignoring me, he continued repeating his announcement.

“No dude, that is me,” I said a little more forcefully, presenting my boarding pass, as proof for my claim.

Incredulous at first, it took him a few seconds to process that this was really my name. The reactions so far from people hearing my name after seeing my face have been hilarious.  The best part about it though, no one misspells Ravi.  No Ravee or Robi. Shaking this off, the attendant then informed me that there was an issue with my checked in luggage and that I need to go to Gate 27 to clear it up.

At Gate 27 I was told that my checked in baggage had a item in that was not permitted, a portable cell phone charger.  They said if I had it in my carry-on, it would have been fine, but now that it was found in my checked luggage, I could not keep it.  Furthermore, they were not allowed to remove any items from a passenger’s luggage (completely understandable) and that I would have to be brought to the bag to do it myself, so I could then turn it over.

After a good face palm, I did my best to accept the situation.  I misread that poorly worded sign at check in and now had to deal with the consequences.  I and a gentleman flying to Jaipur were lead to where the bags were kept with items not permitted to go on a plane; a basement room all the way across the terminal from my gate.  In order to get to this room, we had to pass through a secured door.  There our boarding passes were noted by a security guard, who took this information down by writing them into a very large book.

Down in the basement, I zipped open an outside pouch on my bag, removed the offending power source and handed it over.  I signed a form releasing ownership and then had to watch as an inspector dutifully created another handwritten log to record my relinquishment.

Thinking this would be the end of it, I was led back up to the security door, which thankfully did not require another log to leave and began to walk towards my gate. Luckily I had gotten out in time to overhear the announcement over the intercom,

“Ravi Singh.  Ravi Singh Kreow-sun.  This is you last chance to board your flight for Dehra Dun.”

“Fuck,” was all I had left in me as I broke into a full sprint across the terminal to get to my gate.

Halfway there I started gasping, exhausted from jetlag.  I also had to fight the urge to vomit, mostly thanks to the Thums Up I just drank.  But like a badass, I got to that goddamn gate in time and made that flight to Dehra Dun.  My bag, however, did not.

Next to the empty bag carousel in Dehra Dun’s Jolly Grant Airport, a representative of the airline explained, “Yes, Mr. Ravi, your bag did not make it because there was something keeping it from getting on the plane.”

My heart sunk.  Thoughts of having to fly back to Delhi to clear up whatever else needed to be taken out of my bag started to creep in.  After several back and forths we finally got the core reason why my bag was not put on the flight.  If you guessed handwritten paperwork relinquishing my ownership of my cell phone charger, you are smarter than I.  Despite my initial protests, telling the representative that I had already signed that form in Delhi, I knew the best way forward was to be cooperative rather than belligerent and do whatever I had to get my bag.  Another form was signed, stating that I was relinquishing my cell phone charger.  Four hours later, I was reunited with my bag.  Here is a photo of the Dehra Dun airport bathrooms that I got very familiar with during that time.

Bag in hand, I was elated that I would not have to live out the next two weeks wearing the clothes I had on.  I booked an air-conditioned taxi to drive me to Mussoorie.  Although a ton had changed along the way, you could still see much of old India, some of which is pictured below.

 

 

With my taxi reaching Mussoorie, I disembarked at Library Point, the far western side of town and proceeded to make my way to where I thought my hotel was located.  The funny thing about trying to remember where a place is after 30 years, is that it likely isn’t where you thought it would be.  My hotel was supposed to be located on the opposite side from Picture Palace, a movie theater that anyone like myself, who had spent time in Mussoorie knew.  Now either it moved, or I just knew the name and never went.  I could of sworn I saw a movie there, called Crossfire in Caracas, a latin take on a Blaxploitation spy film.  Well whatever the case, senility or moving shop, Picture Palace was well past where my mind had placed it.  After dragging my roller suitcase for a good couple of miles, I reached the famed movie house.  Using the map I printed out, I found the side street my hotel was located on and walked down to check in.

Reaching the bottom of the hill, I identified the hotel that was supposed to be next to mine.  However, there was no other hotel next to it.  I looked at my map and crosschecked off all the other businesses located nearby.  I was definitely in the right spot.

When in doubt, ask the locals, I thought.

I went in to the adjacent hotel to ask if they knew of my hotel.  No luck.  Exasperated, I resorted to using my international wireless service, to call the number of the hotel chain, only to be told that this hotel did not exist in their database.  Someone conned Hotels.com and in turn me and now I had figure out where I was going to stay for the next four days.

Not having data for my phone so I could search for available hotels, I began to start making my way back towards Library Point, stopping in hotels and asking if they had any vacancy.  Mussoorie had become a discount tourist destination for middle class Indians, so finding a place that wasn’t a complete shithole proved to be harder than anticipated.  Running out of options and beginning to feel the pull of jetlag, I checked the time in NYC and felt 8 o’clock on a Sunday wasn’t too early to call a friend for help.  Thankfully Flora picked up.

After filling her in on the craziness of the day, I asked, “Hey, can you help me find a hotel?”

“Sure!” she replied. “I am not familiar with Mussoorie, obviously, so you’ll have to bear with me”

After going through a list of hotels either too far away or without Wi-Fi, I had almost made it back to Library Point.  Perched high above all else, was a sign for The Savoy, known in Mussoorie for being THE luxury hotel.

“Fuck it, ” I said surrendering to my desire for comfort and the ability to check my emails,  “See if the Savoy has any rooms available.”

“They do.  It’s expensive,” Flora said, “are you sure?”

“Yes. I don’t care right now.  Please book it and I’ll call you after I get checked in.”

“Cool.”

“Thank you so much.”

So for my first night in Mussoorie, I stayed at one of the fanciest hotels I’ve ever been in.  Dated?  Yes.  But still crazy, bend over backwards service and much, much more (on Day Two).

Although, you’d think at $260 a night, they could afford an extra “E” for their sign.