In the slightly rising gloom outside I could hear a muffled coughing and grumbling, and the background clatter of hooves on the road nearby. As I had so many times before, I dragged myself out of bed in the dark and tried to wake myself to appear as if I knew what I was doing. What followed was quite an eye-opener.
I was in the foothills of the Himalaya in autumn, and the nights were distinctly chilly ! The British in India seem to have had quite an aversion to the summer temperatures on the plains and decamped en masse to higher ground to enjoy the relief of cooler, rather healthier air. To do this, they established a large number of hill-stations from which to conduct their business amidst tree clad mountains where the country pursuits of the home country were developed in comfort. Many established landscaped botanical gardens, boarding schools, gentlemans’ clubs, golf courses and boating lakes, shooting the indigenous wildlife and even riding to hounds.
To complete the illusion of this home from home, a whole local vocabulary sprang up to replicate a familiar way of life, bookshops with names like Higginbotham’s, road junctions named Charing Cross, grocery stores and seed merchants imported home counties cottage garden supplies and any house (usually a bungalow) of substance bore name plates such as ‘Rose Lea’, ‘Dunroamin’, ‘Canterbury’ and so on in that vein. Better off or better connected Indians also took to this parallel world with gusto.
Our host at the Swiss Hotel in Nainital was a genial, well-read and courteous elderly man with a host of memories and public school peculiarities that extended into the present day. He was the life President of the local Yacht Club, of which he made me an honorary member !
Breakfasts included Indian made cornflakes (not the same !), porage toast and marmalade. Evening meals ought really to be ordered at breakfast, so the cook could have a clear idea of what to buy and prepare – table d’hote only, unless it was something like a pair of boiled eggs (which might take 20 minutes or more to arrive). The evening meals were very old-school Irish stews and hotpots with vegetables and any vestiges of meat boiled into submission, a couple of dry slices of stodgy white bread completed the repast. One distinct nod to the location was the recurrence of Mulligatawny soup, rather spicier than expected. Banana custard, rice pudding or semolina featured as desserts.
Myself and the more sprightly members of my group headed up onto a level area of the road and mounted the rather small ponies. They seemed to know their routine well, as they started off immediately with a few handlers jogging ahead or alongside as we threaded in single file uphill on dirt trails into the woods. As we progressed, the soft greys and pinks of imminent sunrise started to light the sky; the ground became steeper, and spurred the ponies into a more vigorous canter. I’m not at my most confident on horses, and become less so when large amounts of empty space appear alongside, but they were reassuringly nimble and knew their path well. Within sight of the summit I decided I really had to get off and leg it the remaining distance.
At the summit an elderly man had cornered the market in hot tea by carrying water, stove fuel and a collection of stainless steel beakers to serve the reviving sweet drink. Few other things could have improved our situation at the time, with serried horizons of decreasingly wooded hills leading our view toward the Himalaya, ‘Abode of the Snows’. In particular, the peak of Nanda Devi, stood out, the centre of a protected reserve and holy mountain in its own right. Today was my fortieth birthday, and all was right with the world.
Later that day, we were sitting in the front garden of the hotel with a mound of luggage, awaiting a minibus to the nearest rail station for an overnight sleeper to Lucknow. Two hilarious women, (Californians, you can tell, hehe), Heidi and Janice, were amusing themselves toying with the hotel owners fluffy pet dog. Janice was tempting it with a piece of a sandwich, to no avail. In one of the funniest outbursts I ever heard, She admonished the pooch, crying
“C’mon Foofoo ! Don’t you know there are dogs STARVING in Thailand ? !”