Nainital is a hill station, one of the small towns just a short trip up into the Sivalik foothills of the Himalayas, either founded by the British (like Lansdowne, Mussoorie and Dalhousie) or expanded from a native village (like the Raj’s summer capital, Shimla, and Nainital), and used as an escape from the oppressive heat of the Indian plains. As well as being cool, refreshing, quiet and relaxing, Nainital’s USP is its beautiful setting around a small mountain lake.
I’m not actually staying in Nainital itself. My first Couchsurfing host, Bobby, owns a small organic farm in the valley about 20km south of the town. For the first day, I just relaxed on the farm, recovering from the previous day’s journey, and also visited the nearby town of Haldwani to catch up on emails and the blog. Just a small increase in altitude from the plain made a big difference to the temperature, taking the edge off. The constant noise and bustle was much reduced, too, and the scenery… well, take a look:
Bobby also assigned me to one of his farm workers, Ashpak. My job was to teach Ashpak some English, and hopefully learn some Hindi from him too. In return, Ashpak took me guava picking with Chacha (“Uncle”), another of the farm workers.
Ashpak and the other farm workers are “200 day men”, meaning they are paid 200 rupees (about £2) per day. Their living costs are about 120 rupees/day, allowing them to save 80. Ashpak’s ambition is to complete the Hajj, which can be arranged for 300,000 rupees. I calculated for him that, assuming he doesn’t spend any of his savings, it will take him over 10 years of work to save for it. Personally, it seems a bit of a waste to me: 300,000 rupees could set Ashpak up with his own business, giving him financial independence, rather than funnelling it to a Delhi travel agent and the Saudi government, just to walk around a big rock.
On the other hand, Ashpak and the other workers’ lives seem pretty good: living in beautiful surroundings, eating healthily, getting plenty of exercise, and apparently spending most of the day sitting about, or walking around the village, saying hi to various uncles, brothers and cousins, plus a couple of times a day, climbing trees to pick guavas.
The next day, I visited Nainital itself. Once you’ve got used to the ubiquitous dirt and shabbiness of India, you start to see beyond it, and notice other qualities. Nainital is lovely. The balconied houses are piled up together on the hillsides, the lake is serene and quiet, and the temperature is significantly cooler than below (it may be that aspect I enjoyed the most). The three modes of seeing Nainital are: taking the cable car to the summit of one of the surrounding hills, taking a boat trip on the lake, or following the road which rings it. The hills were covered in cloud, so I didn’t bother with the cable car, and I thought a boat trip for one would be a bit weird, so I went for the circumambulation option instead.
Particular features to note in Nainital are the rather nice mosque, the Tibetan market, and the Flats, a broad area of open, level ground at the head of the lake. It’s a bit morbid because it was formed by a 19th century landslide which buried a hotel and about 150 people. It’s now retained for sporting events, although there weren’t any on when I was there.
Before getting the bus back, I decided to try some Indian street food. I found a little shop with a hotplate out front, covered in little fried balls. I was told they were “aloo tikki” (potato… tikki) and so I asked for one helping. I was expecting just a few of the friend potato balls in a cup, or something. What I got was two of the balls, pressed flat, and covered with a spicy tomato sauce, some mint chutney, curd, chickpeas, chopped onions and parsley. It was incredible.
Shortly after I arrived back on the crowded bus, slowly winding its way down the mountain road, Ashpak turned up at my room, in a state of hyperactive excitement. His other Chacha had bought some fish and wanted me to come over to eat it. Ashpak had even bought a new shirt especially for the occasion. It was very touching, and I felt very grateful, but also a bit awkward and guilty – the fish was an extravagant luxury, and Ashpak’s shirt alone must have set back his Hajj by several days. As I’ve said before, overfeeding, not underfeeding, is the major danger on this trip. The most important Hindi words and phrases I’ve learned are “mera pait burgiya” (my stomach is full) and “bas hai” (that’s enough). You really have to be forceful, otherwise you just keep being given more food, food that’s not a trivial expense, either. I find it easy dealing with the scammers, as you don’t feel guilty for fobbing them off, but rejecting the offers of genuine, friendly people is much harder – but essential.
I told Ashpak that I was going to Haridwar the next day. He asked if I could give his uncle a lift there, and bring him back in the evening. He was quite upset to discover that I was staying in Haridwar and then moving on. Early the next morning, as I was preparing to leave, he kept asking when I would come back to Bujiya Ghat: in one day? two days? a week? I had to tell him that maybe I would visit again another year. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, lovely as the Nainital valley is, I have lots of other places in the world I want to see, and the dozen or so shacks which constitute Bujiya Ghat are not high on the list of return trips.