Monday, April 18, 2011

Home from a Country of Extreme Diversity

We left Manali, in pouring rain and a sea of mud, on the overnight semi deluxe bus for Delhi. It was far from deluxe but the journey was relatively comfortable. At 6 am the next morning, the conductor wakes us from sleep yelling in Hindi, “last stop, Delhi!” Two hours ahead of the scheduled arrival, the bus deposited us beside a metro stop, at the far end of the line from our destination, Gurgaon. The newly built-out metro is the jewel of modern Delhi – efficient, safe and clean - it is the solution to the city’s population and traffic overload. Ridiculously cheap, it’s affordable to everyone. We travel 42 km for a mere 27 rupees each!

Our five days in Delhi reunited us with our Indian family. Since, the inclusion within this family is very special to us because neither one of us are part of a large family of blood relations anymore. And we really do feel part of the family, not guests anymore. The conversation drifts in and out of English and Hindi without any special awareness that we don’t understand Hindi. We’re not special, we’re included. Maybe because they’ve all traveled abroad, it’s not so strange to develop a friendship with a foreigner.

Gerard comments that he is neither dreading nor excited to return to Boston. “In fact, I don’t even think about it,” he says. To a large degree I share his feelings, although in my usual mental overdrive, I’ve definitely begun to project – the little things I miss if I choose to go there – our soft bed, my yoga class, brown rice, weekly Satsang, the garden waiting to be replanted – but nothing that important that it can’t wait. I know I’ll be very happy to see friends again, but they are not part of my immediate life right now. And then, a few minutes later, I’m thinking about India next year, already planning our next visit. Gerard refuses to go there with me; he’s content to deal with the matter in hand – going home. “The only reality is the present,” he reminds me.

While flying back to the US, I’m hanging in a state of limbo between two realities – India and Boston. Our friend from Rewalsar, Frederic, who travels back as far as London with us, is so much part of our India experience, and keeps us rooted in that reality longer than might be the case otherwise. Frederic exchanges seats to be able sit with us on the flight. I reflect on the friendships we’ve made traveling. A spontaneous change of plans took us to Rewalsar where we met Frederic. Is the encounter random or destined? I believe it’s destined. And the fact we’re traveling back to London together is further proof.

A week later:

We’ve now been back for almost a week. India is such a large presence that it doesn’t fade from our consciousness quickly. Our street seems quiet, but it also lacks the vibrancy. It’s so convenient to drink water out of the tap and brush your teeth without filtered water - but there aren’t half dozen ‘pure veg’ restaurants on our block. It’s nice to have a closet full of clothes to pick from - yet our little case was all we needed. A friend asked me, “Why do you go to India? Is it to escape from winter?” Well yes, it’s a cheap escape. But it’s much more than that…the attraction to a country that is so large and so diverse physically, economically and spiritually is powerful. To quote, the Mexican poet, Octavio Paz, “India’s diversity is created by extreme contrast – modernity and antiquity, luxury and poverty, gentleness and violence, a multiplicity of castes and languages, rivers and deserts, plains and mountains, cities and villages, rural and industrial life, centuries apart in time and neighbors in space. To those of us who are attracted, India can be addictive.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Spring Flowers, Snow Capped Mountains...World Cup Victory

Gerard asked a lot of people about the weather in Manali before we decided to travel north up the Kullu Valley to 6,500 feet surrounded by mountains reaching up another 10,000 feet. Our French friend from Rewalsar, Frederic, decided to accompany us in the shared taxi. The ride followed the Beas River, through deep canyons and wide valleys, slowly working our way north and increasingly higher. We passed through villages with old wooden two storey houses where the livestock is kept indoors on the first floor during the winter, helping to heat the living quarters above. The roofs were covered with gigantic pieces of slate. Wonderful indigenous architecture!

Five hours later, we arrived in Manali, a busy mountain town, its main street looking a little like the Wild West with its wooden buildings, verandahs and store fronts. The guidebook advised we stay in Vashsist, a small village just up the hill beyond Manali. The season is only just beginning, and our first choice of hotel had not yet opened. But next door, we got a large room with a spectacular view across the river valley rising up the hill side through pine forests to snow covered mountain peaks. The price of the room was very reasonable even after a one-bar electric fire was thrown in for an additional 100 rupees a day. I didn’t see the need, but Gerard insisted; later that evening after the sun went down, I was glad of it!

The next morning was decidedly brisk and the air so clear that the mountain ranges and bright blue sky looked more like a post card than the real thing. I have to pinch myself to believe we’re really here. Frederic was put off by the row of restaurants and funky tourist shops lining the steep main street, but this is an inescapable feature of any tourist destination. And once we ventured into town, the three of us were amazed at what we found. Many of the buildings are still wooden and look like the ones we passed further down the valley, large enclosed verandahs with carved details. Perhaps at one time they were painted, now sun bleached and weathered to a beautiful patina. Others sport a fresh coat of blue or green paint.
The locals seemed unperturbed by our presence even as we clicked away with our cameras. In fact, some of the women even struck a pose!

One afternoon we followed a foot path out of town up a steep incline through apple orchards. We’ve ahead of the blossom by a couple of weeks, but daffodils, jonquils, forsythia, irises, hyacinths, primroses, violets.-all the flowers familiar to us back home are coming into bloom.
Vashist is known for its hot spring which is in the center of the village. They’ve cleverly managed to make public bathing areas, for men and women respectively, right in the temple. The hot spring also feeds into a clothes washing area. The women are spring cleaning now the warmer weather is arriving (or so we thought until it clouded over and the temperature doesn’t rise much above freezing). They’re washing huge piles of blankets, pounding the dirt out with their feet, and then spreading them out to dry across the slate roofs of their buildings.

Among the restaurants that have opened for the season, we select a couple: one for breakfast with a roof top terrace and spectacular view in the early morning sunshine. The other is a funky old wooden building, painted robin egg blue. The ceilings are so low even I have to duck my head. But it’s cozy. Run by a two generation family, the father, mother and daughter sit around a table in the back of the room until they’re called into service when a customer arrives – the mother knitting, the daughter nursing her baby under voluminous layers of clothing and shawl.

Across the river in Old Manali there is a bookstore which provided a haven of warmth as the day deteriorated from clouds to drizzle to downright cold. While I browsed, Gerard engaged in a lively discussion with the owner about Indian politics and Gandhi. The store keeper was very forceful in his opinions, and after initially disagreeing, Gerard went quiet and let him continue to explain his views. When the discussion finished and a few minutes had passed, the storekeeper began to apologize to Gerard for any offence he might have made. “And furthermore” he said, “You’re older than me, I meant no disrespect” Once again age is treated with directness!

Frederic is an interesting character. We’ve been with him for almost two weeks. Like others we have met traveling, he discloses little at first, but gradually the layers peel away as we talk and we piece together more about him -- but he’s still a mystery. The dynamics of three can often be difficult; with Frederic that’s not the case; he engages both of us. His moods are erratic – like me, he wears them on his sleeve. But when his mood is good he entertains us with his enthusiasm on subjects, ranging from spirituality to French movie stars. He reveals just enough of himself to make us feel we’ve become good friends. After three days he left to go back to Rewalsar. But by huge coincidence, we’re all flying back via England on the same flight! So we’ll see him again at Delhi airport.

Big selling items here are long underwear and hand knitted wool socks. We’re glad we’ve arrived before the crowds, but it would be nice if it was several degrees warmer. By the middle of the day, if the sun is out, it’s comfortable. But too often the day starts bright and clear, and then clouds roll in over the mountains - and by late morning the sun has gone.

But for the past couple of days, the weather has deteriorated into thick clouds and rain with the snow line descending down the mountainside. Our warm clothes are back in Delhi and layers of tea shirts no longer adequate. Glad of the excuse, I bought angora wool socks and leg warmers to wear with my capri knee-length jeans – a pretty odd looking outfit! But the village is full of odd looking outfits. In the most comfortable restaurant in town they try to get a stove burning and play movies for us in the evening. We’re holed up in this town waiting for the weather to break hopefully before we leave for Delhi. And in spite of the unexpected cold, it’s still very beautiful looking at the mountainside covered in fresh snow and the frost coating the pine trees.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Fire that Turned into Water

Gerard found an interesting sounding place, 25 kms off the main road. The only information he could get from the Internet was that it was a Tibetan enclave. So we thought we’d go and spend a day or so. The bus ride from Mandi through the valley up the mountainside heightened our expectation. Rewalsar is a small town beside a lake, made up mostly of Tibetans, but there’s also a large Sikh gurdwara and a Shiva temple. Walking down the main street looking for a guesthouse, a friendly Tibetan merchant greeted us and recommended that we stay in one of the four monasteries that dominate the town. Taking his advice, we took a large clean room overlooking the monastery and lake - and a gigantic Buddhist statue on the hillside.

The typical Tibetan chanting with horns and gongs was sounding in the courtyard. Gerard commented, “This sounds like one of the avante-garde jazz bands I like!” In the late afternoon, we walked down to the lake as the sun disappeared behind the hills. We both agreed that maybe Reselwar deserved more than just a day or so.

After breakfast the merchant advised we go up to the statue of Guru Padmasambava Rinpoche, called Guru Rinpoche for short. It’s newly constructed and in the building beneath it elaborate tonga style painting is in progress on the walls and ceiling. A group of young Bhutanese men are painstakingly executing intricate scenes from the life, we believe, of Guru Rinpoche. It’s hard to get the full story because people speak very little English. It appears that one man draws the scenes (from memory) while others follow behind doing the inpainting (once again from memory). Gerard looked around for plans or photographs - anything that would guide the artists…but there was nothing. Later we were told that these artists have been highly trained from the age of eight, and they don’t need any reference material. There were neon colours of every description. We both felt that it was a rare opportunity to see this work being executed.

Guru Rinpoche came from Afghanistan to Nepal and then to Rewalsar in the district of Mandi. He’s mostly known for being the person responsible for bringing Buddhism to the Tibetans who were previously practicing a shaman practice called Bon. At the top of a steep hill above the town, Guru Rinpoche meditated for many years in a cave. Walking in the nearby forest one day, he met the King of Mandi’s daughter and they connected spiritually. The local people were jealous unable to believe it was a pure relationship and told the king.. Annoyed the king sent soldiers who pulled Guru Rinpoche down from his cave and set fire to the forest to burn him alive. The Guru stayed in meditation and turned into a lotus - and the fire turned into water.. It is now called the Lotus Lake. But the way the story goes depends on who you ask, and there’s little information on the Internet to verify.

One morning, we went up to the cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated. Deep in its interior is a large Buddha statue. The silence in the cave was nearly deafening. And of course the whole hilltop was covered with fluttering prayer flags. From the hilltop we noticed an interesting looking building overlooking the lake that was clearly not Buddhist. So the next day we investigated. It turned out to be a large Sikh gurdwara. A young Sikh man told us that this was the spot where Guru Gobind Singh (the last Sikh Guru) met with the Hindus to strategize to fight the infamous Mogul emperor, Arjungazeb. The atmosphere was very peaceful as we sat drinking chai from the langar and conversing with the young Sikh in the late afternoon.

One evening we were trying to meditate with the sound of loud drums and horns right outside our window. Finally I got up and looked down into the courtyard where a large group of people were encircling a line of dancing women in full regalia. The story was that some people were visiting from Ladakh and the locals were so pleased to see the visitors that they danced for them. Later, after we’d gone to sleep, we were woken by them dancing again - as if they could not contain their joy.

Rewalsar is sacred to Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs. A number of westerners practicing Buddhism are here, dressed in the traditional red robes, but it is still largely undiscovered.

Among the very few tourists is a Frenchman from Provence called Frederic. He’s been here for the past six weeks and both of us enjoy talking with him. One evening he showed us a lovely walk through the green terraced countryside to a small Shiva temple. We sat for a long time taking in the view.

Reselwar is one of those places attractive in so many different ways that you wonder if it will exist after you leave…and if you were to return, would it have completely changed? Part of the charm is finding this place, and the rest is the people who mostly still seem rooted in the traditional life style and are not complicated by the stresses and strains of the west. The Tibetans walk up and down the street with their spinning prayer wheel in one hand and prayer beads in the other; their mantra on their lips. They don’t seem to be interrupted by our presence; at the same time they’ve very welcoming, and the women seem especially friendly toward me! The seeming ease between the three communities is also a welcome contrast from the communal rioting that delays our trains in India and the continued agitation in the Middle East

Thursday, March 24, 2011

High Street in the Himalayas

Leaving Varanasi before 5 am, trailing our cases through streets still dark a quieter but not empty. Our rickshaw driver literally leaps across the equivalent of three lanes - a mass of vehicles, animals and pedestrians. He carries us at breakneck speed to the railway station, only for us to find the train is four hours late – a result of JAT agitation in Lucknow (a low caste demand for inclusion in the central backward classes) which is occurring in several states.)

You never know what to expect on a train journey in India. Across the corridor from our bunks is a family with two small rambunctious kids. I’d objected to being called Auntie, but now I have to endure Grandma. “Go and talk to Grandma”, the father instructs, trying to offload his kids. I’m happy when they get off the train. Indian parents teach their kids to be forceful personalities. This is fine, but loud voices calling “Papa, Papa” incessantly (not to mention “Grandma”), can get tedious for those of us who have never been schooled in parenthood. Towards evening this family is replaced with a newly married couple, honeymooning in Simla, who appear to have little need for sleep and sing love songs to each other late into the night.

With further delays, we arrive 8 hours late in Kalka, missing the connection to the toy train for Simla. So there’s no alternative but a taxi. Two other tourists appear - a couple of very tall young men from LA on Spring break. We all pile into a white Ambassador crammed in with bongo drums, guitar and hiking gear and head into the mountains.

At 2,200 meters Simla is built on two sides of a ridge…very steep sides. Practically what this means, there is no motor or any other vehicle traffic. Goods are delivered by porters, with large bundles strapped to their back. Learning that many of them end up dying of tuberculosis, I found the sight of these scrawny little men struggling up through the bazaar more painful than even the grossly deformed beggar sitting outside our hotel.

Back in the time of the Raj, Simla was a favorite hill station of the British and also the seat of government during the hot summer months.. Before the British put in the toy train, it took twenty days to bring everything up from Kalka below where the train terminated to outfit the government.

The Mall at the top of the bazaar even today reminds me of a British High Street. I’m horrified to learn Indians were not allowed up on the Mall unless they were serving the Imperialists. The most magnificent building is the ‘Viceregal Lodge”, the palatial summer home of the Viceroys, ending with Lord Mountbatten during the final days of the Raj.

Shimla is also significant for its green policy. Part of a broader Himachal Pradesh initiative, it is in the forefront of banning smoking in public places, limiting the use of plastic, and serious conservation of water.

Gerard deliberately left Varanasi before Holi, a festival of color, which involves pelting each other with day-glo colored powder. Tourists are prize targets and Varanasi is notorious for this. He thought we’d be safer in Simla.. I’d gotten tired of Gerard worrying about his already limited wardrobe being sacrificed to the resilient stains of Holi. But I was blasé: “It’ll never happen to us, we’re too old.” My mistake! We’d barely stepped out of our hotel in search of breakfast, when round the corner a band of “color snipers” advanced toward us.. .“No, no!” I pleaded with no where to run.. “Oh.. Shit! Shit!” as a cloud of pink dust enveloped me. I desperately tried to brush off the color from my white and blue windbreaker, much to the amusement of on looking locals. Not so blasé now!

After I’d finished venting, and some breakfast, I wore my pink hair with pride. And later, the boys from LA who had entered fully into the spirit of the festival, returned covered from head to foot in color, looking like a credit to Jackson Pollock.

Simultaneous with Holi was an Indian film festival where we escaped further pelting and also saw some excellent independent documentaries on India regional cultures and communal tensions. It was also interesting to once again come across a small group of people following the same spiritual practice as us – 50 people meditate together in a meeting hall every evening.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Varanasi is still as fascinating as ever. The narrow lanes pulsate with life (and death) marriage and funeral processions, cows, dogs, water buffalo, beggars with babies, all jostling along to and from the ghats. Wandering lines of pilgrims, trailed by guided tours of Asians, wearing face masks to protect them from the dreaded disease. At sunrise over the ghats – pilgrims in boats, sadhus begging, smoldering cremation fires, boys playing cricket along the narrow steps, children selling bowls of fresh flowers to offer to Mother Ganges.

The Sita Hotel staff is welcoming – remembering us from a year ago. Likewise, the amiable, paan chewing Shree Restaurant owner where we eat regularly - because the food is good but more because he plays Indian classical music. Few tourists are as serious about music as Gerard, and the boys in the three CD stores we frequent call out greetings as we pass. They know Gerard is a good customer and will purchase more CDs this year, but they also I believe enjoy talking with him, sharing their knowledge as they advise him on the best musicians and music. Still young, their knowledge of classical music is remarkable. The Muslim beggar, who Gerard favored last year, his right hand a disfigured stump, also seems to remember us: His face lights up, “Salam Alikoum!” “Alikoum Salam”, we reply.

Santosh of Shree is also a patron of art and his restaurant walls are covered with rich photographic impressions of India and its people. Since last year, he’s opened an art gallery next door with excellent pictures taken by a professional. Vivek Desai. Two portraits especially impressed me – one is of an old woman her grey hair in a tight bun, grimacing as she immerses herself in the cold water of the Ganges. The other is of a younger blind woman, also immersed above her waist, her vacant eyes uplifted as she holds her baby above the water, her yellow gold sari reflected in the rippling water surrounding her. I was moved by the conviction of both women in the sacred power of the Ganges. Gerard was particularly taken by a photo taken of the body of another old woman this time laid out on a funeral pyre, lifeless and mouth open. He commented, “No matter what our journey, this is the common end of all our travels.”

At dusk, tourists and pilgrims converge to watch the puja (religious performance) beside the Ganges. But this year, we have to walk through a security gate. Fears of terrorism were realized last December when a bomb exploded during the puja, killing at least two persons, possibly several more, and injuring many. People believe the police disposed of the bodies in the Ganges to minimize panic and scandal. The security seems ineffectual as a further deterrent. The police pay little attention, a cow wanders through the gate ahead of me, and when my bag sets off the alarm no one reacts! Despite the bombing, which was never attributed to any terrorist or religious group, there is still a crowd at the puja each night, extending out into crowded boats on the river – but maybe a little less crowded than last year.

CD stores in the lanes are a refuge for listening to music, good conversation and dinking tea from small clay cups. A stranger sitting across from us at dinner was amused overhearing our conversation. I upbraided Gerard for reaching his 11th CD purchase. But the last one’s a present, he protested. The man was reminded of similar conversations with his own wife. He’s a German humanitarian aid worker. “Keep buying more CDs,” he laughingly encouraged Gerard as we part. I was less amused!

At times, the dirt, noise, crowds all get to me – I don’t want to have to step over another cow flap, see another scrawny dog limping because a speeding motorbike ran over its leg, or have another beggar woman use her baby to evoke my sympathy. I cannot make these things go away. I don’t want to ignore them but in order to be here I have to live with all this harsh reality. Then I go through a letting go process and can handle it again – more to the point, actually enjoy the city.

But this time, neither of us can take the continual noise in the ashram below our window. The music starts promptly at 4 am, high pitched bhajan singing interspersed with what sounds like mournful laments rather than devotional rejoicing. Later, a devotee claps what sounds to be tin castanets at a slow regular beat to aid his concentration; after 30 minutes we’ve had it. He starts again in the evening, considerately timing it with our own meditation. It does not aid my easily distracted concentration.

So we move to a new guesthouse. We no longer hear the sounds of the ghat – the thump, thump from the washer men who begin their work before daylight, the muffled voices of bathing and boating pilgrims. Instead beginning at 3 am, faint chanting accompanied by a harmonium in the far distance; an hour later the temple bell tolls, followed by the mosque call from a different direction. And always the barking dogs. The monkeys don’t begin their screaming till after day light by which time the dogs have gone to sleep, exhausted by their nocturnal escapades.

While I struggle with the less salubrious aspects of Varanasi, others seem to have no problem. Even the most vulnerable have a higher tolerance level than me. A young Russian mother worries whether her three year old daughter is having a good time. “Don’t worry mummy, I love everything here,” the little girl reassures. She loves dressing up in bangles and sequined skirts and greets the cows in the lane outside her hotel with the names she’s given them. Another grey haired English woman is here with her thirty-something son. She has dreamt of coming to India ever since he began coming in his teens and is finally here having a “lovely time”. The way death is handled here in Varanasi especially impresses her. “Everything is in the open, so different to how in the west we try to deny and ignore it” As we talk, a procession passes in front of our restaurant. An old lady’s dead body is being carried on a rope bed covered with flowers through the lanes to the cremation ghat. The boy in the CD store off the music for a few minutes while the procession passes and raises his hands in prayer.

Indians also are very direct about age. “You are old”, they remind Gerard and I repeatedly. “Auntie! Auntie!” the young men call after me. But the ultimate injury is when they call out tauntingly, “A very young couple!” All harder for me than Gerard who is more accepting of his age.

The guesthouse is occupied predominantly by young Japanese and Koreans. I try unsuccessfully to analyze why…Do they come for spiritual reasons? Or with their dyed blond hair and dreadlocks are they escaping the restrictions of middle class life in Japan? I admire their individuality – the young girl who walks down the alley stepping around the garbage in very white, very high heeled shoes, holding her equally white skirt above her ankles…totally impractical and inappropriate. But hey! She felt like wearing them…so why not?

Whatever the reason they come, they are the largest tourist group in Varanasi. The restaurants cater to their tastes, cooking Asian food. This is a relatively new development although the restaurant owner tells us the Asians have been coming here en masse longer than the Europeans or Americans. They do not seem to react to the terrible news of the recent earthquake and tsunami. Asking those in the cafes if their family is safe? “Yes, everyone is ok” – but in the evening, they demonstrate their concern by performing a ceremony Hindu style, with candles in earthen pots on the edge of the Ganges in remembrance of all the suffering in Japan.

Varanasi exemplifies the choice that we have in life - do we focus on the negative - the trash beneath our feet? Or do we raise our head, and see the magic that is everywhere? Other than the visual and audio charms of the city, there’s something less obvious that keeps us coming back. The struggle for life and its conclusion death are so much more apparent here that hopefully we will leave with a better grip on reality.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Palaces upon a Plateau

Our first experience on the sleeper bus, but there was no alternative – the trains to Mumbai were all full. It was a relatively pleasant surprise. The Volvo bus was designed with beds instead of seats – two tiers of skinny flat bunks two across, either side of a very narrow aisle. My one concern was that there was no toilet - a twelve hour bus ride with no toilet? But three or four hours into the ride, the conductor came down the aisle yelling “Toilet! Toilet!” And the bus stopped by the roadside just long enough for the men to go on one side, the women on the other. Four hours later, at around 4 am, there was another stop, this time outside a dark restaurant, where a man was also serving glasses of hot tea.

Our stop in Mumbai was just long enough to have breakfast and buy Gerard a $4 pair of sunglasses before taking an eight hour train ride to our next destination. (his stolen Raybans we wanted to replace were more expensive in Mumbai than back in Boston). Mumbai is a city of contrasts. I took away two impressions: as we entered the city - the miles upon miles of slum dwellings I could see from the slit of a window on the two tier bus; and then leaving Mumbai - the Harijan family that boarded our train for a couple of stops. “Harijans” was the name given to the untouchables by Ghandi. A sweet, sad faced man with three children: the two ragged girls sank on to the seats and fell asleep in utter exhaustion; their little brother perched on the remaining seat edge between them in bewilderment. The ticket inspector tried to throw them off the train and then after the man’s pleading, moved them out to the corridor where the girls resumed their sleep on the floor, the little boy still emotionless, frozen between them. I wondered why they were on the move, where was their mother. In the despair of poverty, had she abandoned them? Or had she died? They were dependent upon the mercy of the ticket collector; I was moved by their helplessness.

We got down from the train in Khandwa, a nondescript town although it did have some military importance during the Raj. In fact, the guesthouse (the only suitable one in town) was an army barracks built in 1857. It’s now owned by a Rhada Soami family who have a spiritual practice the same as ours. We were all happy to meet each other.

This year we’ve had more problems booking trains than previously – hours spent at internet cafes trying to find trains with availability that fit our itinerary. In Khandwa we needed to book a train for Varanasi four days later. After observing us struggling for over an hour, a kind man trying to book his own train offered to help us. He works for GE in Hyderabad but had come home to Khandwa for the weekend to be with his wife and teenage daughter. He helped us find a train and then used his credit card to purchase the tickets when the Indian Rail site refused to accept our US Master Card. Without his help it would have been impossible for us to book. Then he insisted we come home with him on the back of his motorbike and meet the family. His wife and daughter were equally gracious, feeding us chai and sweets. He gave us his mobile number to call if we ever have a problem and even offered us his credit card! The trust Indians bestow on us often after a relatively brief meeting continues to be amazing.

Khandwa was a starting point for a trip to two more remote places of interest that involved a series of bus rides. Travel was slow – the crowded local buses moved leisurely from one small town to another. I had to curb my impatience…one bus crawled so slowly that trucks; bicycles…even cows were overtaking us! But no one else was impatient. Why was I in such a hurry? With or without a seat, wedged in beside each other, the local Indians just seemed to enjoy the bumpy ride through the countryside, accompanied by the high pitched singing of Hindu “filmy” music.

I felt as if I’d entered a Bollywood movie – the bus had plenty of colorful characters with the conductor, an agile young man, playing the lead - his long red scarf streaming behind him as he leaned into the wind from the open door of the bus, chanting the name of the next destination. Another bus actually had a TV planted on the wall behind the driver, and we watched a typical Bolllywood story of a boy courting a beautiful light skinned Indian girl and trying to win over her parents while making matters worse with each bumbling effort. This particular movie took him to Goa where he danced on the beach with barely clad girls. The passengers in this remote country area – from young boys to old crones- were all fixated on the screen.

Our first overnight stop was in Omkeshwar, so called because it sits on an Om shaped island in the Namada river. It is one of the five sites that host the Kumbha Mela every twelve years. The town was preparing for Shiva’s birthday the next day and pilgrims were arriving to take a sacred dip at one of the bathing ghats. Omkeshwar isVaranasi on a much smaller scale. One restaurant alone catered to the few western tourists that pass through. Set in a pretty garden beside the river, it is run by the Nepalese. Our waiter had been hanging around westerners so long he behaved and dressed in a way that would be more at home on Malibu beach. He moved trancelike until a monkey appeared in the garden. Leaping into action he chased the monkey brandishing a stick and yelling. Then he returned to his languid state until the next monkey arrived.

The next day we set off for Mandu , a small town up in the mountains– a trip that involved another three bus rides. We’ve traveled on buses with goats, but this was the first time our cases rode at the back of the bus in a luggage compartment with two goats!

Mandu today attracts Indian tourists but very few westerners. It is the best example of Afghan architecture in India. In the town and surrounding countryside are palaces and tombs built in the 1400s and early 1500s. Two of the most interesting places were inspired by passion for women. One was a palace Hoshang Shah built for his large harem of reportedly 15,000! It was reminiscent of a ship’s bridge – using a little imagination - sitting between two large tanks of water. Hoshang’s tomb nearby is the oldest marble building in India. The other remarkable site was a pavilion on a high plateau outside of town built by another Shah called Baz Bahadur to lure a beautiful renowned singer, Rupmati, from the plains below. The story had an unhappy ending. Emperor Akbar, lured by the tales of Rupmati’s beauty marched on the fort and the Shah fled, leaving his lover to poison herself.

But most fascinating was a mosque built over a Shiva temple, and now once again a functioning Hindu place of worship. Remarkably, the Hindus had not destroyed but repurposed the site - Islamic writing praising Allah is still evident on the walls. It was Shiva’s birthday, and the little temple was abuzz with activity. Pilgrims had flocked there to make offerings and receive blessings.

Another distinguishing feature of Mandu is the beobal tree, imported from Africa via Afghanistan. This is the only place in India where you can see the ancient tree. Huge and hollow inside, the branches are bare until just before the monsoon when the appearance of leaves signify the rain’s imminent arrival. The countryside is flat - dry leafed trees are scattered around mature wheat fields, golden in the sunlight. Farmers are harvesting, bundling and threshing the wheat.

At times the countryside is so dry it reminds us of the edge of the Moroccan desert south of the Atlas Mountains. Huge herds of goats pass through town. We even see camel trains – people from Rajasthan 400kms away; the migrant workers in red turbans, their wives in red and gold saris, with their rope beds strapped to the top of the camels. We rented bicycles and rode out through the countryside to more remote sites. The bikes were decidedly tinny and with no gears, the ride slow and bumpy. As we bicycled around the little hamlets people were generally friendly smiling and waving at us.

We picked a pleasant hotel made up of single room cottages built around a large lawn where we ate our meals and overlooking a valley with a good view of the sunrise. Again there were very few westerners – Susie and Cedric an upper crust couple in their seventies from Norfolk, acted as if they were left over from the Raj. They were traveling with a driver they affectionately called “Mommy”, and a good supply of Indian beer. Their trip had begun with skiing in Kashmir with their daughter married to a Dutch diplomat stationed in Delhi.

We traveled to Mandu in a semi circle, and now had to complete the circle returning to Khandwa to catch the train to Varanasi. Getting back from Mandu was no easier than going there. Strictly off the beaten track it involved a series of buses, with the guide book providing little to no help on the route. So we had to go by faith in the bus drivers’ advice with no idea if we were going in the right direction or not, and if we would indeed find a connecting bus at the destination they instructed. But they were more than helpful – leading us around to the correct bus, even saving us seats, and storing our bags - all done without asking for hand out. Madhya Pradesh does not get a lot of foreign tourists and they have not yet been jaded by us! Six hours later we arrived back in Khandwa.

Going to Mandu invoked one of Gerard’s favorite expressions: “What man has done, man can do”. If I complained about the arduousness of the travel, or the lack of conveniences, Gerard would quote, “What man has done, Mandu!”

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Short Break from the Beach

Since it was Valentine’s Day, Tony, Jen, Gerard and I decided to go to Blue Planet, a renowned health food organic/vegan restaurant. To get there from the beach involved an hour long trek through the jungle of coconut palms and cashew trees all choked with a mass of flowering vines and undergrowth – butterflies fluttering by. The restaurant sat in an opening in the woods. The hike was well worth the effort – it was the best food we’ve had in recent memory, in India or elsewhere. It rivaled Greens of San Francisco. We savored the food for three hours before setting off. My relationship with Jen is one that develops slowly, and improves over time, as the British reserve fades. A good thing, since we’ve extended our stay to three weeks. I can’t believe it….three weeks at the beach!

Another day, the four of us walked across the headland over rocks and steep inclines to small coves with names like Honeymoon Cove, and Butterfly Beach – too rocky for swimming, but pleasant spots for a picnic.

Saturday is Market Day in nearby Chowdi. A little bus took us along with another 50 odd passengers (the bus capacity is 31+1) through the country lanes. On the way to the tailor (to pick up a shirt being made for Gerard) I notice a sign for an Aurevedic doctor. It took some persuading but I managed to get Gerard to take his place with a handful of other people waiting to see the doctor in what, with some stretch of imagination, could be called a waiting room, open to the street. After three-quarters of an hour, the doctor finally rolled in and began to dispense his diagnoses and patients at lightening speed. “When my turn came”, Gerard told me, “I entered a tiny office cluttered with papers and half opened pill boxes. The rafters were covered with thick cobwebs and brown dust. I thought I’d just reentered the 18th century. An elderly man wearing bifocals motioned me to sit down. I quickly realized he could speak little English. I showed him the red welts in various stages of irritation and with no hesitation he exclaimed, “Yes, rash!” I thought to myself I didn’t need to wait three quarters of an hour to hear that….I knew it was a rash.”

The doctor wrote out a prescription of a lotion and three different pills (no connection to the ones prescribed last year – and which had had no success this year). Somewhat relieved to depart the Dickensian chamber, we were back on the street filling the prescription, buying fruit and vegetables at the market, and left town.

A few days later, we finally managed to extricate ourselves from Fatima’s and the constant yoga crowd, to a small guesthouse at the end of the beach. A change of scene is welcome. It’s a peaceful spot, with birdsongs in the morning, not drowned out by the crows. Breakfast is served graciously in the ‘garden’, by Dominique and Rita, the owners of the guesthouse and who live downstairs. Best of all, Gerard’s spots have cleared up – maybe it wasn’t a rash after all, and some creature at Fatima’s was biting him.

This guesthouse has its regulars: a French couple who live in the mountains near Avignon, and have come here every winter for eight years; an Italian woman who stays long enough to decorate her doorway with seashells, a German couple in their mid 70s who travel in India every year and were once attacked in the North East Kingdom and have the scares to show for it. And then, Johnny arrives, an ex Buddhist monk from England and our friend from last year. We’ll be lucky if we can get a booking here next year.

As we were waiting for our room to be cleaned, a Russian couple was just leaving. Up until now, we’ve met few, if any, Russians. Some people draw the conclusion that they’re not friendly. To the contrary, this couple was very friendly and polite. He stood up and shook Gerard’s hand! From Samara, 1,000 km east of Moscow, they are traveling around Goa on a motorbike. During our conversation. Gerard quizzed them on why there is such an interest in yoga in Russia (his wife is a yoga teacher. He replied that since things had opened up there, there is a pent up interest in pursuits beyond the mundane.

Because this is a holiday destination, people here are not in a hurry - it’s easy to make contact. Among the numerous characters are “Brown John” a retired fireman from Lancashire who has a large Buddha tattooed on his tanned back and an even larger drinking problem; the English couple who look like the oldest hippies in Agonda; the man who bicycles back and forth on the road with a huge inner tube around his waist; the blonde who walks the beach daily wearing a pink bikini, a bottle of water balanced perfectly on the top of her head….and then there’s the local Goans..the breadman who delivers Portuguese loaves and rolls, blowing his rubber bicycle horn to announce his arrival; the little old man who hobbles down to Anita’s teashop every morning for his plate of beans…he’s been doing it long before the tourists came. His limited sight assisted by large coke bottle glasses, but not good enough to prevent him walking off in Jane’s flip flops instead of his own…and so on.

Lulled by the sun and surf, I’m entering a new phase (for me) of relaxation. My morning hike down the beach has slowed to a stroll; I’m more disposed to indulge in conversation over meals…perhaps I’m finally experiencing a little of living in the moment, resisting my habitual urge to project into the future - to visualize the next destination. A futile exercise since it always misses the mark.

Unknowingly, Jen and I chose an eventful Sunday to go to church in Agonda – a communal baptism of six babies and almost twenty boys and girls taking their first communion. The little girls in their white bridal dresses and veils; the boys in crisp white shirts and some with garlands of white flowers on their heads.

The Catholic Church is quite plain in its whiteness – a huge carved wood crucifix hangs above the altar, with Christ’s suffering body looking down on us. Along the sides of the church are pictures of the Stations of the Cross. Hanging plastic baskets of trailing flowers in multi pastel colors are strung across the ceiling.

At nine o’clock the church suddenly filled – everyone in their Sunday finery – a mix of Goan dresses – floral cotton or iridescent satin, Indian saris, black suits and peacock colored shirts. The service was highly interactive – the priest invited members of the congregation to come up and read prayers, the congregation responded in song. When he talked to the first communicants, the priest posed question to a small child the children and held the microphone to their lips for the answer. An electric keyboard accompanied the enthusiastic singing, sometimes with organ and trumpet, sometimes with piano. It sounded more like Portuguese dance music than the stately British hymns of my childhood.

A sweet Goan lady sat next to me and pointed to the page in the hymn book and then followed the words with her finger so I could sing along. With all the ceremonies the service went on and on….we crept out during communion. It was nice to see the local villagers getting on with their lives regardless of the tourists. They may serve us in the restaurants and shops but on Sunday they go to church.

In the evening there was a concert in celebration of the children confirmed that day, in the churchyard, a stage with a painted background and crooning singers. It was like any band concert on a Sunday evening at the beach in the summer. Ending with a rousing version of “We are the World” that we could hear all the way down the road towards our hotel at the other end of town.

Even after three weeks, it will be hard to leave Agonda. We have made so many friends here – both the local Goans, and tourists who like us are here each year, some who’ve been coming ten or more years.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Back on the Beach Again

Agonda has now become so familiar, returning is like a homecoming. Strange to feel at home somewhere so far away as India. But Goa is not really India – the Portuguese influence is still very strong and the people more Portuguese than Indian. At a tiny café that serves freshly cooked samosas and the best chai in town, directly across from the large white Catholic Church, the choir music wafts out over the early morning air - pretty but decidedly Portuguese.

Nothing much has changed here. There seems to be fewer tourists this year – a combination of the snow (cancelled flights) and the economy in Europe. But at the same time, after last year’s good season, there are more restaurants, more knick-knack shacks geared towards women wandering to and from the beach. Thankfully everything is still on a small scale – no high rise flashy hotels. And the lack of night life in Agonda appeals to an older age group like us.

Fatima welcomes us warmly at her guest house and we get the best corner room on the upper floor facing the ocean. But there have been some changes at Fatima’s. She has rented out her large roof terrace to a yoga teacher dressed for the part, who holds classes and discourses throughout the day. He’s attracted a fair sized group of young tourists. For some reason, he feels the need to communicate via a loud speaker and begins singing and chanting before 7 am. He stays on the roof except when he takes off for the beach on his motorcycle with two scantily clad female students on the back. Day long, there’s a constant stream of young people in yoga clothes going back and forth past our room to the roof. It interferes with our morning meditation in a way that a Hindu temple or mosque does not. Why does it put me out so much, I wonder? I’m supposed to like yoga. The invasiveness –into our space uninvited. Taken over by a yoga camp - if I wanted to attend, it might be different, but I am not encouraged – the good looking, well robed yoga teacher, the intensely earnest students... It’s all a little too trendy for me - like something out of Eat, Pray, Love. Maybe a room change is in order.

The sea is a positive constant. It is the most beautiful beach I’ve known. Unlike the never ending beach in Kanur, Agonda is a very large cove (3 kms), bordered each end by grassy bluffs. One of the reasons I love the sea so much is the buoyancy and lightness I feel when swimming. Perhaps a release from the stresses and worries that weigh me down on land. The soothing rhythm of the waves; the water warm and viscous on my skin. Like a dog, Gerard acts indignant at being coerced into water, but with a hint of a smile as he paddles around, betraying that maybe he’s quite enjoying it!

There are surprisingly few mosquitoes, but a spider has bitten its way across Gerard’s back and one of his feet. As last year, an allergic reaction has set in– the bites have become hideous red welts. The sea water is soothing, and he’s started to take the same anti allergen medicine prescribed a year ago.

Two of the couples we met last year are here as well: Richard and Jane and Tony and Jen from England. We all pick up where we left off. I’m glad I loaded Gerard’s paintings on the netbook; Tony spends a long time peering at them appreciatively with a magnifying glass. He ended up saying he was prepared not to like them because he’s not drawn to cities where he feels nature is obliterated (they live in an old cottage with Norman sections in a village in Norfolk).

At lunch with Keith, an elderly fellow (older than us) from Vancouver, who is remarkably healthy considering how many cigarettes he smokes, we talk about metaphysics. Keith was moving apartments and had a two week wait, so decided to do a little traveling in the meantime – that was two years ago! He says he’s learning too much to go back home. This morning we had breakfast with Manfred who left Germany last July to travel to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan before entering India via Nepal. He’s a nurse, enabling him to take off for long periods and still be ensured of employment when he goes back. Even though the prospect of going to central Asia is very appealing, he mentioned he felt forced to give up being a vegetarian for the time he was there. Like us these people are taking a break from the harsh reality of India in the ease of Agonda.

After two weeks or so, we will probably have had enough of sun and surf (Will I ever have had enough…?) and will be back on the road again.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

An Armenian in Kerala

Our next destination was Kannur, a town on the coast of Kerala. Gerard had discovered it in a blog on the internet and pulled it up on Google maps and could see a very long white we thought we’d give it a try. When we called ahead to make a reservation, the man spoke unusually good English – with an accent, but not typically Indian. He had a room with kitchen facilities and a washing machine. Strange, we didn’t really want that – the price was more than we normally pay but cheaper than anywhere else available in town. So we took it and he offered to meet us at the train station because our train was arriving after dark.

Waiting for us was a European close to our age. We should have guessed! He introduced himself as Sarkis, a Swede – but even then we couldn’t put the pieces together of who this man was...Sarkis didn’t sound Swedish. Anyway, we got ourselves to his house, to find that we were the only ones staying in a large sprawling complex of two buildings and five bedrooms. He offered us the pick of bedrooms, showed us the kitchen and gave us the keys, saying he’d return in the morning to negotiate the price.

It was pitch black and we couldn’t see the ocean, but from the roar of the surf it had to be close by. Tomorrow we would decide what we’d do next. The morning light revealed that we were right next to a long empty beach on a road with very few residences, not a hotel or guest house in sight. Sarkis arrived and after hearing we had been mediating, launched into a long conversation about spirituality and mysticism. It was hard to get Gerard and Sarkis to stop talking long enough to get down to the business of whether we were going to stay and if so, for how long. Another issue was how far off were the shops and restaurants because there were none in sight. He explained they were only a fifteen minute walk. We didn’t relish the idea of going back into town and trying to find other accommodation. Certainly none would have the beach frontage of this. So after some negotiation we agreed on a price for five days. “How do you find me?” he asked. “Are you a friend of Tulla’s?” (Tulla from Sweden had just left). ”No, we found you on the internet.” “But I’m not on the internet.” “Oh yes, you are,” Gerard said. He does not advertise, but we found him in a blog. (He’s clearly not terribly concerned about renting, and only does to friends - and friends of friends).

Gerard and Sarkis continue to talk. Over the next few days, the picture of who this man is slowly emerges. First and foremost, he has a strong pull towards the spiritual side of life and is anxious to share what he’s figured out. Gerard and he have a great time expounding. (And Gerard was worried that he would have no one to talk to in this empty house!) He lives with his Indian wife back in town, but comes over here twice a day (at least while we’re here). As the conversation broadens, there’s much more to this man than being a Swede implied. He’s actually Armenian, and his family fled in 1917 during the Turkish massacre to a remote mountainous region bordering Iran, Turkey and the Soviet Union. No one was quite sure what country it was. In the early 50s, his parents emigrated to the US and sent Sarkis to school in Calcutta (through the Greek Orthodox Church). After nine years he was restless and ran away. He ended up in Iraq unable to speak the language but got a job through a US company out of Kuwait. That was short lived - he met a group of Swedes en route to Afghanistan who needed a driver. Once he fulfilled his obligation, they would give him contacts to help him migrate to Sweden. When he finally got to Sweden with no papers, questioned by the authorities he was told his contacts were known drug traffickers. Nevertheless they granted him entry. After working for Volvo for a short time, he was stationed in the middle-east and stayed for 26 years working in all the major capitals there.

Sarkis met his India wife in, of all places, Yemen! Gerard was green with envy – a place he’s always wanted to go but it’s too dangerous. In his mid 40s Sarkis had triple bypass surgery and took early retirement. Now he spends the winters in India and summers in Sweden. (Swedes get good government paid pensions.) We still haven’t quite figured out why he built such a large complex down here when he had a house in town. If it was a commercial venture he doesn’t seem terribly motivated to rent the place. He says, his wife didn’t like the effect of the salt air… (Sarkis talks with a levity quite familiar to those of us who know Berge!) Oddly enough he’s exactly the same age as Gerard bar one week!

While all this unfurled, I have spent time on the beach – but feel somewhat weird being alone and surrounded by so much empty sand and sea. The water is warm and clear, without the undertow so many places on the west coast have. So far we feel that in Kerala the people are more friendly and the countryside less contaminated. When we walk down the lane to the restaurant, it’s clear the locals are not accustomed to seeing westerners and yet they are eager to say hello. Even though the population is supposed to be greater, it doesn’t feel it at all. Hotter than we expected, Sarkis says it’s one of the hottest spring in years. The weather is odd, even here!

Although the beach is empty for most of the day, at around 4 pm things begin to happen. A group of Indian boys, and old Englishman Jacob and slightly younger woman Lucy- (also English), drive up in a van and sit on the edge of the beach for the “English Lesson”. They come every day. Jacob has his story: he fought in World War II in Burma and instead of returning to England after the war, worked in Nigeria and then the middle east where he met may Keralitees. So when he reached retirement age he decided to retire in Kerala. Then there’s the man who comes to fly a kite, and the Indian headmaster who meets Sarkis on the stone wall outside the house to converse daily on spiritual matters. Today, the theme of their conversation is an article in the Hindu Times: Selfless Service as a route to Self Realization. The locals also turn out to walk on the beach and enjoy the spectacular sunsets, and young men play football at the edge of the water.

Two days into the stay the idyllic atmosphere changes. Having never had anything stolen during our previous four trips to India, this time I am a victim of stealing…not once but twice! Here in Kannur, during the night someone gets over the locked fence and takes my swimsuit off the line…and I later discover my shoes also gone. I still haven’t come to terms with losing my clothes in Trichy, and now the point is being driven further home.

I had so wanted this trip to be perfect. I’d planned and packed perfectly and wanted – and expected – everything to turn out the same. I was angry – an anger that undoubtedly came from a resistance to accept what is; frustrated over not controlling my environment. I knew I should let go, but I missed my possessions too much. I wanted to know why this happened to me, and what could we have done to prevent it, rather than focusing on how I was handling the unwanted/unexpected…or, why not me?

Everything that had previously seemed light and happy was now dark and threatening. I sort out solace in the sea and went swimming in my clothes like the Indians. But even the ocean was hostile, the waves menacing. For the first time, I saw young boys on the beach leering at me; in the lanes the men were hostile.

Finally the next morning – after a long night – my mood shifted. With difficulty I reached the realization that through adversity I have a better chance of learning something about myself than if I had a perfect trip. Why do I need to control? Insecurity...when those things I’m depending on for security fail me I become reactionary, a victim. I realized that the contents of my suitcase were a security blanket. Does a real traveler need this? I’d packed my belongings to protect myself from the uncertainties of traveling. But do I really need to always know where I’m going? It's time to move on...

Then Gerard lost his new sunglasses - also stolen. My own angst was subjugated in sympathy for him. I could now play a more familiar role. It is easier for me to help him deal with his loss than with the feelings of my own. The last couple of days have been spent looking for lost belongings and then shopping unsuccessfully to replace them. It has been exhausting. But then something sweet happened in the third optical store - with still nothing suitable for Gerard we asked the shopkeeper for directions to get back to the restaurant we used for dinner. He can’t help us, so he says instead, “I will take you there!” And he leads us behind the shop to where his car is. After spending half an hour in his store and not buying anything, he is happy to drive us to our next destination. And later in the restaurant, they bid us a fond farewell when we say we’re leaving the next morning.

Our host, Sakis, was very disturbed by what had happened. He was upset that his house had been broken into; the first time in the whole 15 years he’d owned it. Oh…wait; we’re not the center of the universe? The situation was upsetting to others too. The night watchman of courser also felt responsible for us and spent a long time searching the lane behind the guesthouse. Even the two resident cats wailed more than usual. The next morning Sakis brought Gerard a pair of sunglasses he no longer needed to replace Gerard’s lost ones and insisted on paying for the rickshaw to the train station. He’s a very caring person.