Near the end of the Kullu Valley…and our trip

“I’ll drive you up to Rumsu,” said Manju, the sweet young woman who serves us breakfast every day at the roadside restaurant she runs with her father and sister, and who we’ve known for many years. “If you take us up, we’ll walk back.”

Up the mountain side, Rumsu village soars 7,215 feet into the sky, and is primarily made up of buildings built in the traditional style. Only recently has the jarring effect of modern construction encroached on the pristine village.

After walking around Rumsu, we strolled through the countryside to the next village.

Looking for a landmark temple, we stopped beside a prettily painted house to ask directions. The girl spoke perfect English and directed us. “And how about a chai shop?” I asked, always looking for tea. “Why don’t you come and have tea here?” She didn’t need to repeat herself.

What followed is one of the reasons we love coming to India. As tea was served, her father emerged a gracious man, who’s recently retired and was visiting. We chatted in the garden for over an hour, Mohini is from Bangalore and after ten years at Jetpack (an Internet security co.) she decided to leave the business world, move to mountains and run a guesthouse, with trekking.

On hearing we intended to walk down to Naggar, they insisted dropping us on their way to Manali. Gerard happily accepted! With six of her friends, and her father, we squeezed into the car and bumped down the winding rough road to Naggar. By the time we finally reached the bottom I was glad of Gerard’s decision. How smoothly our visit to Rumsu worked out: we had a ride up and a lift back, saving Gerard from total exhaustion.

The weather forecast predicted several days of rain, making us question if and when we should continue further on to Vashist. Maybe a day trip would help us decide. It’s a wonderful bus ride along the side of the valley As we pulled into Manali, the throng of traffic and people was in sharp contrast to Naggar. The rickshaw drive up to Vashist was slow and tedious, the narrow road clogged with holiday makers.

Where the road ends at the temple, we were met by throngs, taking part in parading the local goddess. We’ve seen this ceremony many times and we still get caught up in the excitement.

We stayed in Vashist long enough to walk out to the waterfall—a beautiful path, winding below the mountains, through woods, and orchards—was so crowded with Indian tourists, we walked almost in a crocodile. That did it! We decided we were not going to stay in Vashist.

Back in town, we had a good meal at the restaurant that has been run forever by a husband and wife team. Gerard had a long conversation with their adult son, discussing the changes in Vashist and his experience during covid. Lockdown was only about a month and there was very little sickness. He attributed this at least in part to the local shaman walking around town chanting a mantra.

With all the walks in and around Naggar—down into the old village, up the mountain side to hidden temples, through forest and apple orchards in bloom—the decision to remain was easy. We have our comfortable room of many visits, with the Balla family and Manju and her sister Neetu serve us very good meals at their Sharma restaurant.

Waking up each day to a view of the snow capped mountains, I feel I could stay her forever. Or did, until the weather intervened and our stay ended with three days of continual rain!

A Russian woman appeared one day at breakfast in the restaurant, and she was more than willing to talk. Since we arrived in India, Gerard has wanted to have a conversation Russians, to get their perspective. But every attempt he made failed; they wouldn’t even make eye contact. Although Olga has lived outside Russia for many years, we were enthralled to listen to her stories of growing up in communist Russia and how people adjusted to the Soviet Union collapse. She admitted that she was not a typical Russian woman.

Soon we’ll be on the overnight bus back to Delhi, starting our return journey home. I thank my tour guide for another particularly good three and half months. The agenda included no new discoveries, but revisiting places we’ve grown to love. Familiarity meant less hassle and being able to maintain our daily meditation schedule, but yet there was always an element of fresh experience. We met old friends, and also made new ones. Four years older, we were both aware of changes in ourselves—physical limitations and contentment to stay put longer in one destination. But the biggest change is in our environment – India’s explosive population growth and related new building construction, traffic congestion and pollution, even in remoter locations. Time will tell if we’ll return.

Room with a View

The overnight bus ride from Delhi to Mandi was surprisingly smooth. A new bus left on time. We stopped for dinner at an all veg restaurant and arrived at 6.45 am. As we jostled our way up the hillside in the local bus, the sun rose and the mountains were clear. After Katmandu and then Delhi, the air felt unbelievably fresh and clean.

Our legs could no longer take the steep climb up to our previous lodging with its spectacular view of the town. Lakeview Guesthouse on the opposite side of Lotus Lake, and gave us an equally stunning view, with less effort. But as usual at this time of year, by noon the mountains get obscured by the rising mist from the valley obscuring the mountains. The guesthouse happens to sit beside the huge statue of the Buddhist Guru, Padmasambhava, who took Buddhism to Tibet and is recognized as the second Buddha. The statue was consecrated by the Dalai Lama in 2012.

The town has changed little. Some new building but mostly on the perimeter. As before, only a few westerners are here to practice Buddhism. We asked how it had been during covid. The locals gave it little recognition; lockdown was only two or three months, and very few were sick.

As we sat eating our aloo parathas (fried chapatis stuffed with mashed potatoes and spices) the small restaurant was filled with a cross section of this town: Tibetan Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs–and ourselves. We can’t think of another place with such a diverse population, exemplifying that people actually can get along. Rewalsar’s spiritual significance for the Hindus is that the Pandavas from the Mahabharata supposedly came here; for the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh visited to consult with the king of nearby Mandi for support against the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. For the Buddhists there are several legends, one that Padmasambhava was burnt alive by the king of Mandi because his daughter was visiting the Guru for spiritual guidance. The spot where he was burned turned into Lotus Lake.

Our guest house owner invited us for lunch, and we sat in his room and talked over tea afterwards. He’s lived almost his whole life in Rewalsar. At 15 years old he asked his mother why she went to the temple. To worship Shiva, who will give you everything. This started him down the road of questioning who he was and why he was here. Now 66 years old, fit and healthy, dressed in spotless white Punjabi shirt and pants, he sat in yoga pose on his bed. Beside him was a small altar, including a picture of his Buddhist Master, the Hindu book of the Vedas lying beside it. He’s an interesting man, but the conversation became one sided. In fact, it wasn’t a conversation and after three hours we excused ourselves.

Our friends Marion and Juergen, were already here and as before, they took us hiking. We hadn’t walked as far since we accompanied them on a “walk” back in Gokarna. But this time it was a climb up the mountainside. We clambered up to a shrine where a wedding happened to be taking place. A band played, people danced for a short while and then it was all over. They got back in the cars and drove back down the mountain road.

Following them, we found a tea shop and were lucky to catch the local bus back to town. Just managing to wedge ourselves in, standing in the doorway and clinging on to anything available; it’s a clear indication of how many hill people depend on public transportation.

As in Varanasi, we’ve made lasting friends in Rewalsar; Sapna and her family from our first visit. On cold mornings we warmed ourselves in her little restaurant while she fed us parathas, her two young children, Prya and Priksu, watching TV before school. Today, we visited the family in the home her husband built with very little money. The progress made in the last four years impressed us. Outside of town and balanced on the hillside, it’s a steep climb down to the simple four rooms, little kitchen with an open cooking fire, outside toilet, a further climb down, challenging to my aging knees! Three sheep and two cows live below, and a docile German Shepherd fed on a pure veg diet. Indians do not pet their guard dogs and it was hard for us to refrain. Their balcony, afforded a panoramic view of the mountains and surrounding countryside of terraced fields. After lunch Sapna and her husband took at least two hours shearing their largest sheep.

To say the weather is changeable in the mountains is an understatement. This year it is especially unpredictable and days of sunshine have been interspersed with lots of rain. Without the sun to warm our room, the cold seeps in. We were glad to be invited to dinner by the taxi driver who for several years has driven us up to Nagar. We sat beside an electric heater, throwing off plenty of heat, and ate a delicious meal. In usual Indian fashion, instead of joining us, the family merely watched us eat.

A few days before we left, we took the bus up to Maha Naina Devi Temple an altitude of 1650 feet above the town (6,000 feet above sea level). The views of the Himalayas was unprecedented. Our legs felt the downhill walk back to town.

Two days before we moved on, Marion and Jurgen left for Delhi on their return to Germany. It was a sad farewell.

A Peaceful Mountain Respite

If Bhaktapur is the most exotic place we’ve travelled, then Bandipur is the most idyllic. The only fly in the ointment was the mountains weren’t clear. But the flowers in bloom made up for it.

It’s rare that a place is even better on the second visit. Our guesthouse has an excellent view of the valley below on a clear day.

The town center has a Mediterranean feel. The stone-paved plaza is entered down several steps, so there is no traffic, not even a motorbike.

The peace and quiet is more than welcome . Even the dogs rarely bark, only the sounds of birds and school children break the silence . Bliss for me—I can actually follow a conversation again.

The center of town has scarcely changed since our first visit. Though Bandipur is geared toward tourists, they haven’t yet come in droves yet. Day trippers arrive for a few hours on private buses from Pokhara, and a few paragliders hang silently in the sky.

The locals are still welcoming and greet us with naamaste and a warm smile. The service couldn’t be better.

An old building at the end of the square has been beautifully restored in the traditional style and can be enjoyed for a mere $100/night.

On a walk outside of town, more beautiful houses and flowers

We have been in Nepal for three weeks and hadn’t seen the snow-capped mountains until this morning. After a night’s rain, in the early morning our rooftop gave us a grand view.

It’s not easy to get to Bandipur, but it’s well worth the effort.

Bhaktapur, worth seeing again.

Our taxi brought us as far as cars could go inside Bhaktapur and the guesthouse owner came out to greet us. But he did not recognize our booking. “I don’t work with Expedia.” “But we’ve prepaid for seven nights!” He showed us a room. The pictures online had little resemblance, but our window looked right out on Taumaudh temple, the tallest in Nepal. “When is breakfast served?” I asked him, looking at the tables in the entryway. “Breakfast?” he said, “I don’t serve breakfast.” “But our booking included breakfast.” Mukunda, the owner was friendly but that didn’t make up for the overpriced room. It worked out in the end, we paid half of the asking price online.

Bhaktapur was on our list of places to return, but after the earthquake (Bhaktapur sat at the 8.9M epicenter) we thought it would be too painful to see all its architectural antiquity destroyed. Time and tide…we had to go before we couldn’t.

The old town (not the sprawling new one) was built between the 14th and 16thC. Three major squares are connected by narrow streets and alleys paved with flagstones. One of the advantages of the uneven surface is that that motorbikes, the only traffic allowed, are slowed down. In spite of dust from continuing construction, the city is still immaculate compared to India.

Apparently, 70% of the old buildings in the town collapsed while many of the new concrete homes survived. If the homeowner rebuilds with the traditional brick and carved timber front facade, the municipality reimburses up to 20%.

The Taumaudh temple remained intact in spite of its height while surrounding buildings collapsed. It’s enormous three tier base may explain why. Or the protecting statues along the ascending stairs did their job.

Across the square, another repaired temple houses a god that is so ferocious that no one, except the priest, is allowed to enter inside.

Life here is steeped in rituals. In front of every house a stone or bronze stylized flower is embedded alongside the paving stones to ensure safety and prosperity to the household. The “pikha lakhe” are lovingly blessed with flowers, rice and red powder.

Around 4 am, the morning ritual begins with the ringing of temple bells by people passing by. With my bad hearing, the different size bells, ringing at intervals, sound like an avant guard jazz performance. Women bring trays of offerings to the ancient statutes of deities. After paying homage, they smear the red powder on their third eye.

In Bhaktapur, young and old alike take their rituals very seriously, lighting candles, touching the deity, then their forehead. As they leave, they take a flower and place it on their head. Every evening, older men sit in front of the temple and chant. One explanation for so much ritual could be Nepalis have incorporated both Buddhism and Hinduism.

Buddhist figures sitting on a Hindu Shivalingam

Unique to Bhaktapur are “patis”, covered sitting areas where old men hang out, chatting or playing cards.

With most of the restaurants and hotels run by young men, where are all the middle-aged men? With few work opportunities, many have left to find work or study abroad leaving the women to fend for themselves.

The guesthouse owner, Mukunda, was sympathetic of my hearing loss and told me about his Downs Syndrome 17-year old daughter. He took us to see her school.

Gerard conversing with Mukunda

The first person we met there was an English volunteer, the other, a young physical therapist massaging the atrophied legs of Mukunda’s daughter. It was hard for me to take in; she didn’t even recognize her father’s voice. The school has 45 students, one of them a little boy was playing by himself silently in a corner. His face lit up when I went over to play with him. What a Godsend to have this school here for these children.

With all the changes here, we were pleased to find the tea and curd lady still in business. In India, you can always count on getting a good chai made by Nepali cooks. But in Bhaktapur they began making coffee for the tourists. Now everyone is drinking coffee and it’s hard to find tea anywhere.

In spite of air pollution and the painfully slow restoration we were glad to return. In our travels, Bhaktapur still remains unique.

Kathmandu: Eight Years Later

Flying toward Kathmandu, the line of snow-capped mountains on the horizon looked more like a bank of clouds in the blue sky. But then we dipped down for landing into a blanket of smog. Once on the ground, we were glad of our face masks. Traffic was heavy, with mostly motorbikes, but unlike in India, Nepalis don’t sit on their horns. The level of street noise was more bearable for my now noise-sensitive ears. The population has exploded like in India.

Happy at leaving Varanasi before Holi (not our favorite festival), only to find the Nepalis also celebrating. Youth and children roamed the streets throwing color until evening when things calmed down. We should’t have been surprised since Hinduism and Buddhism are practiced side by side in Nepal. Buddhist statues sit alongside Hindu deities at all the monuments.

Nine years ago, just before the 2015 earthquake, we came here not knowing what to expect. How could we have known history would come alive through the architectural wonder of Durbar Square in both Patan and Kathmandu? We were apprehensive about returning, to face the devastation coupled with reports of increased crime and prostitution in Kathmandu. But we didn’t see it and were glad to be back.

Thamel, where the budget hotels are located, is still a rabbit warren of narrow cobblestoned streets. Tourists and trekkers seem way down but maybe because the season hasn’t started yet. Everybody seems to be on the hustle but you can’t blame them; tourism and so much else hasn’t recovered since the earthquake.

Gerard asked a few locals where they were when the earthquake hit. Among those we spoke to, no one knew anyone who died. Today the city is still a mix between empty lots and construction. In spite of foreign aid pouring in, it’s rumored that rebuilding didn’t start for years. One explanation: “If we did the repair work, the money would stop coming.” But there are other reasons including lack of organization and finding skilled artisans..

Still vibrating with the impressions of Varanasi, Durbar Square with its intricate architecture and wood carving required a cultural shift in our attention. Even though this was our second visit, the beauty of this 3rdC Royal Palace complex was a feast for our eyes and in much better condition than we’d expected.

Next day we waited for the drizzle to stop, then climbed up the 365 steps to the Swayambhunath or Monkey Temple.

Nine years ago, the steps were of no consequence. So many changes during those years. Surprisingly, the hundreds of stone deities of both religions surrounding the large Buddhist stupa, escaped unscathed.

Unfortunately the nearby Patan Durbar wasn’t as restored as Kathmandu because either it suffered more damage or has taken longer to recover. It was hard to see the deterioration of what had impressed us so much before—some of the finest Newari temples and palaces in Nepal.

Posters around the complex boasted the involvement of Germany, Japan, China etc., then why is it taking so long compared to Kathmandu?

Thankfully, the Patan Museum, with financial help from Austria, has reopened its gilded entryway and still contains a wonderful collection of Newari sculptures and artifacts.

Varanasi Succumbs to Overt Tourism

We weren’t prepared for all the changes in Varanasi. Perhaps they seemed more extreme after three years’ absence. Getting from the airport to the ghats through the clogged streets was a major feat, our taxi took twice the time. We crawled along, directing the driver to our familiar way of entering the ghat through the Moslem quarter. The hotel we’d booked online was a mistake–the photographs were totally misleading, it was a dump! But fortunately we found another literally next door. Under renovation, we were able to book an unfinished but nice room for a bargain.

We quickly dropped our bags and hustled out to embrace Mother Ganges. There she was in all her splendor. But wait! What is happening on the sandbar across the river? A young Indian boy seeing our perplexed expression, said, “How do you like our Tent City?” A mass of white tents are lined up like an army barracks, a protective fence surrounding the ‘compound.’ Gerard asked the boy, “Who wants to stay in a tent in the blazing sun?” He replied, “The same people who will pay up to 4K rupees a night.” We all had a good laugh.

On our first foray out we didn’t even notice no washermen drying laundry on the ghat, no more stately water buffaloes wading in the river. The ghats could certainly stand to be cleaner, but we miss the activity and color. For several years, the government tried to stop clothes washing in the river with little effect. The police are now offering a free ‘bamboo massage’ (beating) to all offenders!

Our friends along the lane were all smiles. Gerard thought they they were pleased to see us but also that it also meant business was resuming. If these two old people can make it back then there’s hope! Just about everyone we talked to had stories about the covid lockdown. With few exceptions (naysayers), most told the same story: initially, there was a sense of camaraderie, the community fed the beggars and dogs. Some restaurants continued to pay their staff; they were the lucky ones.

Then the lockdown dragged on more than a year. With no money coming in, utilities and food still had to be paid for. Ironically, property owners were exempt from the government food subsidies, but still had to pay their property tax. Price of food continued climbing; from pre to post covid the price of cooking oil and flour has doubled.

I was surprised to see a beggar we’ve known for years, to have actually put on weight and look healthier. Maybe he’d benefited from the government handout/? He was also missing his thick glasses—perhaps he’d qualified for free cataract surgery!

Our friend Santosh, a native of Varanasi, said he noticed in the tree outside his window many bird species he’d not seen before. And because the streets were so quiet, he could actually hear the birds sing. The only other sound breaking the silence was the muezzin’s call for prayer at the mosque. Someone else mentioned the surface of the Ganges was like glass with no boats carrying tourists up and down the river.

Manikarnika, main burning ghat

The smoke rising from the dead and the dust of ancient Varansi

Three additional ghats were relegated for burning and to keep up with the demand, instead of one body per pyre, five to ten bodies were burned at once. No vaccines were available at first, the irony when India was making a massive amount but selling it abroad! The only activity was cremation.

We’ve known Rajesh for about 15 years, even before he was married. He and Gerard connected over the classical Hindustani CDs he sold. Then there was only demand for religious music at his stall on the way to the Golden Temple. Today, he just sells bangles and necklaces. His wife invited us to dinner; it was very sweet to be with his whole family.

His 12 year old daughter, Sagan, was engaging, showing me her English language test book with almost 100% scores, while her rambunctious young brother, Vinayak, vied for attention.


As we have done previously, we accompanied Santosh an accomplished photographer, to watch the sunrise over the river and the pilgrims do their morning puja. We’ve done that many times before and it still remains spectacular. During Covid, many walls were decorated with murals, some better than others. But our sense of awe turned to dismay as the new corridor loomed. A wide stone staircase lead up to the entry way and a fast food court. An admission fee is required to go further into the corridor leading to the Golden Temple.

Three years ago when the project began, we were deeply perplexed that they could tear down part of this ancient city. Now 500 old houses have been destroyed to create this gaping hole of modernity and capitalism.

Just past the corridor, Manikarnika, the rambling main Burning Ghat has been contained. I used to find it mysterious and almost threatening with its confusion of burning bodies, sadhus and pseudo policemen forbidding photography at threat of large fines. Now I can walk by unaccosted.

Manikarnika main burning ghat
The smoke rises from the dead and the ancient city

Admittedly, Modi’s a controversial figure but it seems he wants to turn Varanasi into a tourist attraction. Pilgrims have been coming here to worship and to die for thousands of years. They will continue to come but they will have to compete with the well-heeled tourists.

For us, we continue to meet old friends. From the first time we arrived fifteen years ago, we connected with our congenial guesthouse manager, Sanjiv, restaurant owners, shopkeepers, music lovers, chai wallahs, and even beggars. Unimpeded with language difficulties, the friendships strengthened with each visit.

In spite of the encroaching modern world, Varanasi remains remarkably unique: the sun rising over the Ganges, the boats darting back and forth, sadhus performing their spiritual practices.

Shivratri in Gokarna

Our last few days in Gokarna coincided with the beginning of the Hindu festival, Shivratri, in honor of Lord Shiva’s birthday. Anticipating much congestion and noise, we were not excited, but we were in for a surprise. Wandering the town we noticed the huge wooden chariot had been pulled out of its parking spot beside the temple. Men clambered on top to build a ballon-shaped super structure, which was then decorated with brightly colored strips of cloth.

Gokarna was transformed into a busy cacophony of color, people and noise. Stages set up for dance performances, music blasting from loudspeakers. Thousands of devotees queued to perform puja and purchase offerings of flowers and coconuts.

The path from the temple to the beach was covered with a decorated cloth canopy giving some shade to the devotees patiently waiting. Each day the crowd built and the queue grew longer. To enter the temple, they all stood barefoot, their sandals discarded in a large pile. Will they ever find them again? I wonder.

We left town before the finale, when an estimated 20,000 filled the short narrow street to watch the chariot pulled on ropes while onlookers threw bananas at the brahmin priests sitting inside. The reason why has been lost in translation. But the idea of thousands of people throwing bananas and the smell of the overripe fruit did not entice me to want to stay.

The temple significance lies in a legend associated with Ravana, a mythical demon king. The temple supposedly contains one of the powerful Shivalingam, the center point of worship. Ravana wanted the lingam and through his devotion impressed Shiva to give it to him, but on the condition that wherever Ravana placed the lingam it would be stuck there. In Gokarna, Ravana met Ganesh and asked him to hold the lingam while he prayed. But Ganesh put it down and vanished. Finishing his prayers, Ravana tried to pull it out without success. Tearing the outer covering of the lingam, he threw the pieces in different directions, which became the sites of the different temples in Gokarna.

In the usual Hindu combination of the sacred and secular, the small town became a carnival. Packed in beside the regular shops, a multitude of stalls were set up selling an assortment of plastic kitsch, aluminum kitchen ware, women’s “inner wear”, sugary sweets…and so on. We’ve seen this type of carnival often in Indian towns at the time of the many Hindu festivals.

The near side of the beach, beside the town, was flooded with Indians. They stood crowded together at the edge of the water, some venturing to play in the waves. Instead of sand castles, they built lingams and adorned them with flowers.

But down at our end, nothing much changed. The dogs and cows still owned the beach, the restaurants remained relatively empty. We continued swimming until the morning of our departure, then packed up. I said goodbye to the beach that had been my friend for the past month, and we took a rickshaw to the train station. Once again, to find our train was too hours late. Finally, it arrived and we found our seats among an extended family returning home to Mumbai. Gerard quickly entered into conversation with them. Dinner time came and they spread out a feast with paper plates and wooden spoons. Even the chapatis were wrapped in newspaper tied with string. I was intrigued by no sign of plastic. Even the vendor walking up down the corridor sold us clay pots of yoghurt with wooden spoons. It seems in this part of India, the notion of no plastic is taking root. Still talking, Gerard remarked that we won’t find such camaraderie on tomorrow’s airplane!

Incredible India continues to surprise

An Italian woman, troubled by sand fleas, walks through the water every day to avoid being on the sand. She likes to talk and I can easily hear her clearly-annunciated but heavily-accented English until she tells me about a wonderful ayurvedic massage down the beach. “Where? My husband would like a massage.” “It’s called LaTOOsa.” “Say it again?” I ask. Eventually she spells it out: L-O-T-U-S. “Ah, Lotus?” “Si, LaTOOsa!” she beams. We exchange our names. “Orrbearta!” Italian Marina exclaimed. “My sister’s name!” Roberta sounds so much better in Italian, and I’ve found a new friend in the water.

I’m enjoying conversing with British friends using expressions I haven’t heard in a long time. “Chivvy along,” a mother ordered her dawdling children. “WHAT?” said Gerard thinking he was hearing a foreign language. I explained, ‘chivvy’ meant hurry. “In all the years I’ve known you, you’ve never used that expression!” It’s not the first time I’ve surprised him.

Visiting the weekly market provided a photo op.

Marion and Juergen encouraged us to join them taking the ferry off the peninsula to a tiny hamlet on the mainland. Before breakfast we caught the 7.30 am bus to the port where the little ferry was waiting. People and motorbikes crowded on for the short but lovely ride.

Marina had told us of a chai shop on the other side and we set off in expectation for a nice breakfast. Four miles later, through road construction and clouds of red dust, stil no chai shop. Exhausted, thirsty and hungry we turned around.

After the long walk back, we found the chai shop right where it was supposed to be and sat overlooking the bay with our chai.

But what saved the day was the unreserved friendliness of everyone. Obviously few western tourists ventured their way and we were still a curiosity: big smiles and waves from road laborers, housewives and school children. By the time we got off the ferry hoping to catch the bus back to Gokarna, it was high noon. The shopkeeper said the next bus will come in two hours. There wasn’t a rickshaw in sight. Fatigued and overheated we started walking. Eventually we caught a rickshaw back to town. Not exactly the outing we’d anticipated.

Certainly the dogs along the way could have advised us if we’d only taken the time to listen. 

A few days later, bird watcher, Tina, proposed another walk to the little beach of Belekan. “About a two hour walk,” she claimed. “We’ll leave early to avoid the heat and take a bus back.”

For the first hour we followed a small road through the jungle alive with bird calls. Then Tina followed a footpath that meandered past rice paddies and the odd house. 

The green of the rice paddies shimmered. And if we stood still long enough we caught glimpses of white–egrets, ibis and storks. n stalks glimpses of white–egrets, ibis and storks.

Suddenly the footpath opened up to the beach. At the far end sat a cafe where the bus terminated. After our two hour trek our chai tasted even better. 

Then we were informed that the bus would not be coming for another two hours. ‘Man proposes and God disposes’, someone muttered.

The general consensus was to walk back. Gerard was of a different mind, happy to hang out at the cafe and await the bus. Had I known what was being said, I would have enjoyed also staying for a swim. But not following his gut, we trudged off with the others. Now in the noon day sun, our pleasant stroll through the jungle became a test of endurance–heat, sun and no water. Finally reaching our room, Gerard collapsed on the bed. After looking at map, he huffed, “Two-hour walk, huh? That was more like ten miles!” Once again, Incredible India has its hidden surprises.

I could have told you that

Gokarna: Friends at the Beach

Two warnings are pinned to the guesthouse wall. One is ridiculous: “Swimming on the beach is not safe.” Hello? Have you ever tried swimming on the beach? The other is more ominous: “The owner will not be responsible for any drowning in the sea.” Undeterred by occasional rough seas, I swim twice a day, and then walk the long stretch of sand, appreciating the moment.

I enjoy the simplicity of our lifestyle; it unclutters my mind, which likes to seize on the busy minutiae of daily living back home. I may not always like the Indian meal served, but it still beats the time and mental energy devoted to cooking and food shopping. Every day, I look forward to my idli and dosa breakfast. A young Indian has just started up his little dhaba and serves us with enthusiasm.

Gerard enjoys leaving Wellington Street far behind. Oddly, he does not seem to miss painting just as I don’t miss biking, knowing they will be waiting when we return. When he’s not swimming with me or socializing, he’s busy completing his memoir which he began writing exactly four years ago in India. His favorite tunes encourage him when the writing is difficult. Mosquitos and sand flies have found his skin irresistible and he’s had to contend with a slew of itchy, inflamed bites. But two weeks into our stay the bites are reducing. Dare I say the insects are loosing interest, moving on to the next tasty newcomer?

With many of the establishments here preferring to cater to Indians now, the old time travelers congregate in just a few cafes up and down the beach. Some of us question if we’ll come to India again whether put off by traffic, pollution, plastic waste—everyone agrees that the subcontinent is drowning in a sea of plastic–or Modi. 1.4 bilion create a heck of lot of waste! Gerard and I try to do our bit by bringing a portable water filter to avoid contributing to the mountain of plastic bottles. The otherwise beautiful walk through the vegetable gardens to the beach is marred by litter. To avoid looking at it for a month, Gerard got a gunny sack and picked it up. But where to dispose of the full sack?

Walking through the vegetable fields we notice that each little garden has its own shallow well. So close to the sea, surprisingly these wells are not polluted by salt water. With the rich soil, the baking sun and plenty of water, the vegetables seem to grow as we watch them. Too bad not enough of them find their way into the restaurants.

Our friend Marina is a social magnate; after twenty years in Gokarna she knows the old timers and easily makes new friends. At one point, there’s nine all from her area of north London. We’re sad to see Emma leave after her brief three-week holiday. She doesn’t understand those who complain about the new influx of Indian tourists crowding on to the beach (mostly on the weekends). She looks at the long stretch of sand and says, “To me, it’s bliss!” She spent her childhood summers in south Devon and we both agree that there’s no comparison to the sardine-packed people on the beaches of Torquay and Paignton.

Although I get frustrated in trying to follow the group conversations, it doesn’t overwhelm me anymore (given the occasional meltdown). This is our third visit to India since I lost my hearing, and I’m relieved to find it has gotten somewhat easier. I know my mechanisms to avoid hearing fatigue – and when I take a mental break and space out for a while, I return to the conversation to find surprisingly the same topic is still being discussed. I don’t seem to have missed much!

We wish we could identify the exotic tropical bird songs that I’m so grateful to hear. North London Tina’s a bird person and can recognize when Gerard provides a great imitation of a call. One is the Koel bird that we watch from our balcony in a papaya tree picking away at the fruit. Tina must be almost 80 and has traveled solo in India many times, which I find inspiring. Again, I wonder if I would have the resources to do it alone.

Our German friends, Marion and Yergen, insist that we accompany them to Kudlee Beach, a pretty sheltered cove we first visited three years ago. The descent to the beach is crowded with Indian tourists, the more so because it’s Republican Day weekend. Kudlee now caters only to Indians; several old buildings are demolished and undergrowth cleared at the near end of the beach to make way for a large luxury hotel. Rented dinghies, water ski launches and other plastic flotilla pepper the water. It’s beginning to look like Paignton! How many beautiful beachfronts are there left in the world that haven’t been ruined by over-development?

French Frederic, who we first met in the Himalayas ten years ago, took an overnight bus from Bangalore to spend three days with us. A resident of Auroville, he was on his way back to France to renew his visa. We have a special bond with him and are able to pick up where we left off four years ago in Varanasi. Swiss Peter, who visited us in Boston last summer, came down from Agonda for a few days as well. Both Gerard and I are flattered they made such an effort to visit us.

Back After Three Years

“Yes, I remember you,” the restaurant manager in Gokarna said with a half-smile. Coming from a man who, despite Gerard’s efforts, would not engage in conversation for the whole month we were here before, this was a warm welcome.

We hadn’t given much thought to another winter here. In fact after returning from a challenging time in California, trying to hear in noisy restaurants or even groups of friends, I’d told Gerard definitively that I could not handle India again. Just a few days later, Melissa, our longtime house sitter, emailed us to say she was available this winter. That did it! We’re going! I said ,visualizing the beach in Gokarna, the ghats of Varanasi, the snow-capped mountains in HP and the friends we’d have the chance to reunite with along the way. I was determined to handle my hearing loss in India as I do in the U.S. Clearly, the benefits would outweigh the difficulties.

But I do need help to get by in chaotic India. At the airport, a frustrated customs official asked, me, Do you speak Hindi or English? Later, a young Indian tried to strike up a conversation, then realizing my predicament, assured, “You’re not missing anything,” and high-fived me. Easy for him to say, but without Gerard I don’t think I could do this on my own.

We arrived in Delhi at 2 am, Even though the airport is now no different than any other airport in the world it’s still a shock for us to walk through duty-free that is predominantly alcohol. As we predicted our hotel did not let us in despite our reservation and claim of 24-hour check in. We eventually found another where the manager woke up long enough to give us an inflated price. After inspecting the room, Gerard bargained with the sleepy manager for a reasonable rate. In the morning, I looked out the window on a large colorful umbrella with a sign saying ‘Baba Masala Tea.’ A white-haired gentleman pounded out fresh ginger and cinnamon sticks in a mortar and pestle to make the best chai in the neighborhood. Just when we need it, a chai wallah appears.

We were interested to see how India had changed in the past three years. It’s too early to know, but in the airport we couldn’t help noticing posters of Modi’s nationalistic agenda, with his ridiculous slogan: ‘1.4 billion people, one dream.’ The continuing strife between Hindus and Moslems begs the question: what is the one dream? We were surprised to see so few long term travelers like ourselves in the Pahargunj area of Delhi. Consequently, many of the shops catering to tourists have disappeared, returning Pahargunj to Indian consumers.

On our way to see the family in Gurgoan we were impressed by the metro, still running like clockwork and unusually clean for Delhi, unlike the buses and trains which are constantly breaking down. It was wonderful to be in their company again and we were surprised at how the children had grown. Five-year old Tanya’s cheeky personality has emerged, her English better than her Hindi, her mother says. And Simrita has grown into a gracious fourteen year old. She took me shopping in the nearby market. Sympathetic to my hearing loss, and lack of Hindi, she guided me through the process, reminiscent of how I did the same for my blind father many years ago.

The family knew it was Gerard’s birthday and Simrita wanted to bake Gerard a surprise cake. After dinner she disappeared into the kitchen and proudly emerged some time later with a freshly baked chocolate cake. Shruti stuck her knife in and said it needed more cooking, so Simrita returned to the kitchen. Soon after we heard a loud crash followed by sobbing, Simrita had turned the cake on to a glass plate and dropped it on the tiled floor. At Shruti’s insistence, she eventually appeared and placed the cake with embedded glass shards in front of Gerard, and we sang ‘happy birthday,’ before the cake was trashed.

The two-hour pre departure requirement for our domestic flight to Goa, was no overkill. The long line of passengers at check in (that would challenge anyone with claustrophobia) the interminable walk to the departure gate, and finally a bus ride to board the plane on the tarmac at least a couple of miles from the gate. Nevertheless, the plane took off on time! Gerard, with his love of trains and disdain of airports, couldn’t help mentioning how much easier it would have been to board a train and enjoy a more pleasant, if longer, journey. The following day, when our two-hour train ride to Gokarna was delayed by two hours, I had the satisfaction of pointing out the incongruity of waiting the same amount of time as the journey!

We struggled to book our room online and the internet pictures failed to meet up to reality. But after we’d moved the bed to face the window and Gerard got to work with his rag and disinfectant, the room became our home at the beach.

As it turned out, pre-booking paid off. Friends have told us it’s hard to find a place to stay because guesthouses are now only renting to affluent young Indians who come on the weekends. The owners can double the price and not bother to rent the rooms during the week, telling tourists like ourselves they have nothing available. Our guesthouse is only a three-minute walk from the beach, through vegetable gardens. Palm trees shelter our balcony from the heat of the day while allowing the amber glow of the late afternoon light to filter through.

Thinking of friends who couldn’t return for health or economic reasons, or chose not to (avoiding Russians), we’re grateful to be here. On our arrival, Frederic one of our oldest Indian connections, was already waiting at our guesthouse.