The best aspect of couchsurfing isn’t financial, but social. Free accommodation does help to stretch the travelling budget, but what’s far more valuable, especially for a solo traveller, is the way it makes it easy to meet people in the areas you’re visiting, see their homes, meet their friends and family, and get a feel for their lives. There’s also the bonus of getting their advice on the best places to visit.
Couchsurfing caters specifically to this by allowing people to arrange to meet just for coffee, or food, or for sightseeing, even if they’re not surfing/hosting together.
Dehradun isn’t a particulary interesting town, culturally, religiously, architecturally or historically, so it isn’t on many tourist itineraries. However, it’s only a short journey from Mussoorie, where I was staying, and I had been contacted by two people from CS who said they were happy to meet up and show me around, so I arranged myself a day trip.
I intended to get a bus down to Dehradun, but there weren’t any immediately available when I got the bus station, so I opted for a taxi instead. I didn’t quite understand what the taxi driver meant when he asked, “one seat or two seats?” I said one would be fine. I got into the worn-looking Hindustan Ambassador and realised what he’d meant. In India, the front of a taxi is regarding as having two seats, and the back as having four. The taxi driver touts for business until he’s filled all six seats, then departs. So it’s a pretty cosy journey, squished up between your fellow passengers. Or, you can pay double for “two seats”, ie, what we would consider one seat, and enjoy a bit more room. Since I’d opted for one, it was the full squish experience for me.
On the way down, an elderly Sikh called Harpal who was sharing the taxi with me asked to see the book I was reading (the Rough Guide to India) and look at the maps. He then talked about the various trekking routes around Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh he’d done or was intending to do. He told me about his father who lived in Donnington Park, England, and how he’d lived for several years in England himself, and worked as an English teacher in India, but was now retired and just travelled around. He helped me find the coffee shop I was supposed to be going to, so I bought him a coffee, and continued the discussion, which moved on to how Gandhi had ruined India with his pacifist philosophy, and adherence to traditional family values.
The first CSer I was meeting was Neha, who writes her own blog, including articles on being a solo female traveller in India. She arrived at the coffee shop and joined in the debate – the three of us must have been one of the most unusual groups of people to meet there and debate Indian politics – until it was time for Harpal to leave, and Neha and I to go to the first place on our itinerary: Dehradun’s Forest Research Institute. We couldn’t decide what the name of the impressive building’s architectural style should be but decided something like “Victorian anglo-indian neo-classical” should just about get it. It’s a vast red brick structure, with grassy courtyards and cloisters, quite reminiscent of 19th century Oxbridge colleges – even down to the hand-painted wooden signs naming the occupants of offices and staircases. Inside the maze of cloisters are 6 different museum exhibits about different aspects of forestry in India. It was all reasonably interesting, but probably the best bit was the forest entomology room, which freaked Neha out completely.
After the FRI, we went to have a look at the Indian Military Academy, India’s equivalent of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. Although we couldn’t go in, we could see the main building and parade ground from the road, and I even took a sneaky photo, although you can’t see much through the bars of the gate. You can see some better photos on Google Images. It looks very similar to Sandhurst, just smaller and redder. It even has the same groups of cadets leaving from the main gate, dressed smartly in shirts and ties, presumably on their way out to buy shower gel and flapjacks, or whatever the Indian equivalent is.
Neha then dropped me off near the house of my next CSer, Manish, who had invited me round to his family home for lunch. This was a delicious vegetarian feast, including a vegetable I’d never tried before: an arbi, which is like a sticky, fibrous potato. After lunch, Manish wanted me to visit one of the local sights with him, so we opted for Robber’s Cave, which was a short drive out from Dehradun Cantonment. Not so much a cave as a high, narrow gorge with a mountain stream flowing through it, it seemed to be the place for Dehradun’s youth to hang out on a balmy Sunday afternoon, getting wet and having hijinks. Manish was very happy to see it, as he hadn’t before, but he wished he’d brought some shorts.
After Robber’s Cave, I got on the bus back up to Mussoorie, and had the annoying encounter with the drunk Delhi lawyer I blogged about previously. Later, in Shimla, a virus at a dodgy internet cafe wiped my camera’s SD card and I lost the photos of my day in Dehradun, but eventually, I managed to recover them and update this post with the ones you can see now.