In 2010, I took advantage of my currently unemployed state to spend winter in India visiting my dear friend Ajit. Our friendship spans over three decades, back to when he graduated at the top of his class from an Ivy League MBA program. He snared a senior level job at a major corporation, which came with one perk: an executive secretary. Me.
I was a terrible secretary. Besides being a horrible typist, I was inept on the telephone (with no idea what buttons to push, thus causing angst to callers), not to mention my unfathomable filing system. Yet, I had one redeeming quality besides fluency in French and Italian: I provided oodles of entertainment, like the time I accidentally sat on a cactus, which Ajit still finds amusing.
I timed my trip to escape the upstate New York winter. Where I live, winters are brutal and even worse residing in a century-old bungalow converted to full-time usage without insulation or heat being brought up to snuff. Basically, I couldn't wait to be in a warm environment with my lifelong friend.
Let's just say that India wasn't what I anticipated. My friend knew better than to take me on a tour of slums. I didn't care to witness people sleeping on the streets or cadavers. I had seen that thirty years ago living in South America. Instead, I holed up at his gorgeous apartment in northern Delhi, situated in the midst of a Jain neighborhood featuring 14th century ruins. He purchased the top two floors of an apartment building and converted the roof into a garden. There I sat, writing my little heart out on my laptop, interrupted only by servants handing me chai with biscuits between formal meals.
I did have to shoo away monkeys that climbed the balcony to snatch my biscuits. India is overrun with monkeys, since western research no longer uses so many animals in product testing. The first word I learned in Punjab was bandar for monkey.
One day Ajit declared, "Let's go to the country house in the Himalayas." I quivered with excitement for this was an adventure. Early the next morning, the chauffeur and a servant sat comfortably in the front seats of the SUV, while Ajit, his wife and I were crammed shoulder to shoulder in the back. I was quite surprised to see the extent of Delhi's borders, defined by walls built in the 1600s. They just went on and on.
"With our new highway, it's now just a seven hour drive," Ajit pointed out. Recently constructed, the highway offered four lanes each way without a single pothole. Despite the smoothness of the ride, it was impossible to nap because drivers perpetually honked. We often slowed down for small villages to avoid hitting people, camels, goats, elephants, chickens and cows that ran into the street.
Halfway up the side of the Himalayas, we stopped off beside a corrugated metal building. "They have the best bartha (an eggplant dish) I've ever tasted," my friend crowed.
We sat down at a table and ate simple fare served from copper bowls and plates. The bartha was excellent. Afterwards, we reboarded the SUV to finish the mountain ascent, no longer on a super highway. Peering out the window, I saw hundreds of capuchin monkeys seated atop rock borders for miles on end.
"Bandar, bandar, bandar, bandar," I softly recited, pointing at each monkey as we circled the mountains. "Bandar, bandar, bandar, bandar," I continued while Ajit chafed. His wife laughed out loud while his annoyance increased.
Finally, he broke. "Please stop," he said while gritting his teeth.
His wife intervened. "Let me teach you other words: goa mudder."
"Enough," he said. "Now, I'll hear that for hours."
At 10,000 feet above sea level, we arrived by late afternoon at Kasauli, a small town spanning several mountains inhabited by former Indian militia in fine English style. Ajit lived in a two-bedroom apartment (not including servants' quarters) constructed from concrete. The place was stunning, filled with artwork collected from all over the world.
While the servants unpacked the SUV, Ajit and his wife opened drapes and windows to air the living room and bedrooms. I walked outside in the brisk mountain air, admiring the view. Later on, the servants prepared a wonderful meal, which we ate in the formal dining room. As soon as the sun set, the temperature dropped to below zero.
That evening we spent huddled over a portable propane gas heater in a feeble attempt to stave off the bitter cold. I looked up and said, "You know, right now I could be doing the same thing in upstate New York - for half the cost." Ajit shot me a look. Amazingly, we're still friends.
Maura Stone received rave reviews, critical acclaim and several awards for her first novel Five-Star FLEECING. Since then, she has written articles for internet magazines, performed readings, recorded at NPR, and published The Complete eDating Advice Comedy Series. She lives in a remote cottage in upstate New York and dreams of moving to Hawaii.