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Feeling at home in Ranikhet, India

We had some time before we needed to be back in Delhi (where we would be flying out of India), so we decided to break up the long drive from our homestay in Gopeshwar with a stopover in Ranikhet, one of the many “hill stations” (where families travel to higher climes to escape the often unbearable Indian summer heat) we had kept hearing about. What we thought would be a quick 3 hour hop-skip-jump on a bus turned out to be a 9-hour ride, rife with nerve-bending cliffs, gut-wrenching bathrooms,  and… chickens.

First, we kindly convinced our homestay owner to kindly take us to the bus station at 4:30 in the morning, where we hopped on a bus and spent the better part of the day bumping along on dusty foothill roads, with the bus pausing at every local stop along the way either to deliver a package (the bus actually doubled as the local mail service) or add more passengers to our already-full bus. Many passengers were on their way to or from the market, and many carried the sort of cargo you hear mentioned in common stories of travel in the developing world – big sacks of produce, livestock, motorbikes, etc – much of which had to be stacked on the roof.

One such piece of cargo, a large box of peeping chicks, was too precious to keep outside the bus, so a few passengers shoved around to let three women in saris and their box of birds squeeze in just behind our seat – with their box. Sitting in the increasingly hot and crowded bus with loudly-chirping chicks being loaded in behind us, Steph leaned over and whispered something about this being prime conditions for an H1N1 outbreak. Fortunately, we didn’t end up catching the flu, but in the process of letting the women board, one side of the box unexpectedly opened up and the baby chicks poured out the hole– right down the backs of our shirts… Not wanting to get infected with anything, we kindly just leaned forward and waited for a man to gather the chicks off of our seat behind us… and spent the next hour or two listening to their peeping behind our seat.

This particular bus trip also reminded us about one of the most mundane, most basic issues that we regularly encounter when traveling in places where we don’t know the local language….  Every time the driver stops a bus that we’re on, we don’t know whether it will be a short stop (<1 min), a longer stop (2-5 min), or a very long stop (1+ hours), because we don’t really have the skills to ask…. which presented obvious problems when knowing when we would have time to use the bathroom and/or grab a snack during our bus layovers.

The first time we got into one of these situations, we were 2+ hours into our 9-hour ride when Steph had to use the bathroom. The first time we stopped, Steph figured that the total journey would only take 3 hours, so she decided to hold it. Five minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes later we were still idling in the middle of a village. Apparently, it would be a _ridiculously_ long stop. Eventually, Steph was on the verge of losing it, but we couldn’t ask the driver if we still had a while to wait or whether the minute Steph found a bathroom, she’d come out to find dust where the bus had once been. Steph finally decided to go for it. Feeling a little embarrassed, she walked up to the driver, who was by now working on his third cigarette outside, and pulled out her toilet paper and smiled. He motioned for her to follow him, and he stared asking around in Hindi where there was a toilet. In the end, no one really knew, and Steph was left to do the same toilet-paper-song-and-dance for the local restauranteur, who was working over a steaming bowl of chana masala. He led her down an alley stairwell, where the public bathrooms lined a wall across from his restaurant. Luckily, I didn’t have to use them, but sadly Steph reported that they were one of the most disturbing bathrooms she had had to use on our entire trip. The bathroom was a concrete block room, with a plywood door, no lights, and a slanted concrete floor. There was no toilet, no hole in the ground, only a trough tucked underneath the back wall of the room, where the lowest edge of the trough “emptied”. As far as Steph could tell, the object was to use the floor as the bathroom and then wash everything away using a cup of water (there was a spigot in the room) – And that’s exactly what she did, save for the fact that there was no water available to wash the floor. Ugh! She survived the whole experience but returned feeling pretty disheartened and frustrated about the state of India’s hygiene and infrastructure, particularly given that that we were in one of its most wealthy, educated states. Luckily, she made it back before the bus peeled out and continued its path towards Ranikhet.

Not one to be outdone in the nerve-wracking-bathroom-experiences category, I was the next one of us to have to play will-the-bus-leave-me-before-I-get-back roulette the next time we stopped. Not to mention, Steph was getting hungry and cranky and asking that I buy her some Doritos (her one occasional western weakness during the trip). I took off for the bathroom with my grocery list, grabbed the Doritos, and managed to find myself mid-stream just in time to hear the bus driver laying on the horn. I sprinted out of the bathroom, saw Steph waving me over to the bus frantically, and jumped onto the rolling and honking bus, just in time for the door to slam shut behind me. (Note to future travelers: learn to ask how long until the bus leaves in your country-of-choice’s local language.)

After a while, the crowd on the bus thinned out and a local fellow passenger chatted us up about the villages we were passing, the wedding he was headed to, and his thoughts on India’s upcoming elections (and ours back in the US), all of which helped the ever-longer bus ride pass a little faster. Soon, we were climbing up windy roads through noticeably cooler weather and tall pine forests, and we finally, finally reached Ranikhet. What looked to be only 100 km (60 miles) on the map had indeed taken us a solid 9 hours to cross. And we weren’t over schedule either!

In Ranikhet, we had already booked a place to stay at a homestay in the area, so we just had to recharge our internet sim card and grab a taxi over to their house – sounds easy, right? Not in India. Recharging the SIM meant spending over an hour on the phone with cell carriers, and the taxi driver got us to agree to a too-high price to drive what amounted to about 4 miles. (We only paid him about ~$10, but we later learned from our host that it should have cost us $1). Nonetheless, around dinner time we finally made it to the homestay, and right away we knew we’d found a good place to drop our bags.

Upon arriving at our homestay, Shree Haidakhan Guesthouse, our very warm hosts Mr. and Mrs. Seth made us feel at home right away with a great cup of Chai milk tea and cookies on the porch outside our very clean room.

Ranikhet, India

Ranikhet, India

Monkeys on the porch outside our room:
Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 9.03.55 AM

Ranikhet, India
Ranikhet, India

The Seths gave us a tour of the property, during which we learned that the Seths live downstairs in the home during the high-season and rent out the top floor of their home to guests. (During the cold low-season, they back move to their home in Agra, farther south, for 6 months.) We also learned that Mr. Seth was a lawyer before he retired and entered the home-stay business, and together the Seths have two grown, married daughters, who live in India and Thailand.

For the next few days, we were treated like family and spent much of our time around the property just talking with them about life in Ranikhet, their winters in Agra (site of the Taj Mahal), Mr. Seth’s love of U.S. movies (including Jurassic Park and The Terminator, among others), and their family. They proudly gave us a tour of their rose garden and simply gave us insight into how a typical middle class family in India lives and thinks about the state of India and the world.

At the Seths’ house, we received the best food we had in our entire 6 weeks in India, cooked at home in their kitchen by Mrs. Seth. In particular, her dahl (lentil) soup was amazing (we just received the recipe from her via email!).

One night, the Seths’ daughter from Thailand was home for a visit with her parents and a friend, and we were invited to her friend’s birthday party with the family. The Seths, who wanted to keep the 6-person “party” a surprise, asked us to “casually” come downstairs at 9pm on the dot and act like we were helping Mr. Seth with his website, at which time Mrs. Seth sprang from the kitchen with a cake singing Happy Birthday! Mrs. Seth had made a traditional Indian cake (unleavened milk cake) that we shared; she was disappointed that it was not her best version of the cake. It was a little dense and more like our version of cornbread than cake, but we enjoyed both it and the evening immensely.
Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 9.05.08 AM Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 9.05.19 AM
Ranikhet, India

Ranikhet, India

One day, Mr. Seth said that he heeded some help on his website, and when he discovered that I was a web developer, he was overjoyed. Apparently, for years his website form had been sending reservation requests from potential guests to the wrong email address– the address of the person who had built the website for him, in fact. Apparently, the woman who had built the site for him wasn’t timely in her ability to forward emails to Mr. Seth (he acknowledged that it certainly wasn’t her job to have to do so, in the first place), so he would often receive reservation requests much later than a guest would want to reserve a room. When we found out about it, the 3 of us all got a big laugh out of it, and I promptly got to work fixing the issue. Five minutes later, Mr. Seth’s reservation requests were finally heading to the correct email address (i.e., his).

From then on, Mr. Seth decided to take me under his wing a bit– he would express his concern about the posture that I use when using my laptop and and council us on the dangers of climbing the Everest Trail (which we had mentioned we were doing next). We assured him many, many times that we would be extremely careful and would update him as soon as we were safely off of the mountain.

One day, Mr. Seth suggested we visit Ranikhet’s famous Bhole Baba Ayurvetic Hospital, which was established on the teachings of Mahavatar Babaji, a prophet or saint of sorts in the Hindu religion, from what I gather. He said it would help “purify the toxins from our bodies” and leave us feeling young and healthy. The hospital offered treatments ranging from massage to many-month-long ayurvedic healing, which involves a very strict diet, hours of daily meditation, yoga, and loads of unusual treatments we’d never before heard of – often involving oil being poured over you in one way or another. On Mr. Seth’s recommendation, we decided to schedule a massage and lunch at the clinic.

Aruvedic Research Center, Ranikhet, India

The massage itself was… memorable, to say the least. Upon arrival, Steph and I were first counseled by a doctor who informed us that the massage would cause toxins in our bodies to be absorbed into our colons, where they would be permanently purified from our bodies upon our morning bowel movements the next day! (…We uh, couldn’t wait!) We were then whisked off to separate, private rooms for the next hour, in which we were both instructed to strip down to well– nothing– after which they adorned us each with a loin cloth. Mind you, we did not have the luxury of getting into our birthdays suits in private or putting the loincloths on ourselves– all in the name of medicine, I suppose!

Then, we were asked to sit in a wooden chair (naked, all but the loincloth), while one masseuse gave us each a head massage with oil. (In case you were skimming the above paragraph, I was to re-emphasize that Steph and I were in separate rooms for our entire treatments– This was not some romantic experience, and I’m only saying “we” because we were given identical treatments.). Next, our personal 2-person therapist teams coated each of us with hot oil and did this sort of head-to-toe back-and-forth pressure massage, racing back and forth with their hands, while we laid face-up and then later, face-down. Apparently, the goal was to press the hot oil into our pores, which would eventually help with digestion and the release of toxins, sort of like a cleanse, apparently (?). After the oil “absorbed” for 20 minutes or so, I was directed to sit on another chair inside a trapezoidal metal box that looked more like a torture chamber than a treatment chamber. I was instructed to sit inside it, with my head poking out a hole at the top, and the door was closed around me. The box was then pumped full of very hot steam, and I sat in it for roughly 10 minutes. I wasn’t much for the massage technique, myself, but I must say this part was pretty nice. (Steph wasn’t a huge fan of either part, however; apparently she not only has a fear of being in enclosed spaces but also a fear of being naked in front of strange women.)

After that, we were given bathrobes and directed to the “resting” room, where posters of Mahavatar Babaji were plastered all over the grey concrete walls. We were told to rest as long as we wanted on the twin beds provided, although we weren’t really able to relax, being all oily and sweaty and…gross. Steph snapped a picture of me in the nap room, still steaming from the hotbox treatment and feeling not entirely clear about the benefits of the massage.

Aruvedic Research Center, Ranikhet, India

After not-napping for 10 minutes, we walked over to the shower rooms, where we were given a bucket (to fill with water to pour over ourselves) and some gritty orange veggie-based powder to get the oil off of our skin. Once clean again (albeit with clumpy orange flakes tangled into our still-oily hair), we enjoyed a very good lunch at the hospital’s “canteen room”, which served ayurvedic food designed to aid in digestion after the cleansing massage. The lunch included yellow lentils, sliced cucumbers, fruit, and filtered water, which we were told to eat in silence, in order to concentrate on the food we were eating and appreciate each and every morsel. Nearby, a table full of German women were whispering away, and we later found out that one of them was here for a full 3 months for treatments and was very much feeling the health benefits of her treatment. We weren’t sure our treatments did anything for our bodies other than covering them in a thick oil that would take days to fully wash away, but we were happy about having undergone the whole experience…and had a good time laughing at whatever the heck it was we just did.

The next day, we moved on from Raniket. Luckily, we kept in touch with the Seths after we left and continue to do so to this day. Because so many of our stories focus on the difficulties of interacting with people in India, we felt it was important to include a sampling of their very endearing emails to us here to give a more balanced perspective of our time there….

Dear Scott,
 Trust you must have reached Delhi very comfortably. Which transport you
 took from Haldwani to Delhi?
 Send me photos of the base camp where you intend to go in Nepal.
 My wife joins me in sending loving regards to Stephanie.
Dear Scott and Stephnie,
My younger daughter and my son in law along with my grand daughter are here. Having good time. Where are you nowadays? More photos are required.
Love to both of you.
[After seeing some of our Flickr pictures....]
You have been to Taj Mahal also! Really having a good times.
Dear Stephanie,
Wish you a very happy and enjoyable birthday and lot of Blessings from me and my wife.
You people have taken wonderful photos.
Namche Bazar must be around 12000 ft from sea level. It seems a very interesting place.
Send me more photos.
Dear Scott and Stephanie
Trust you both are well. My wife and me quite often remember you both. We hope you must have reached home by now.
Please share your experiences with us.
Dear Scott and Stephanie,
 Hope you would have returned to your home by now. I am reminding you to send
 photos of the base camp in Nepal to me. Write me about the places you
 visited after India.Love to you both.

{And the latest email…}

My Dear Scott,
Trust you are all well. Have you returned to the house near sea?

I am enclosing recipe for Moong Dal.

My wife tell me that all Dals are made in almost same style but the frying ingredients differ from each other. Instead of butter use Indian Ghee (Butter oil) if available there which will give you a much better flavor.
Best wishes to both of you.

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