Old Friends and Dhrupad Mela

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For nearly ten years, we’ve spent most of the winter in India. It has become a home away from home. And a prominent room within that home is Varanasi. Through the years we’ve done our best to convey what this place means to us in pictures and writing. And of course, those efforts fall short. To put it simply, we now feel very comfortable here. The area around the guesthouse is a neighbourhood we feel part of. Even though most of our acquaintances up and down the lane are merchants, Gerard and I are warmly and sincerely welcomed.

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Varanasi draws a specific type of tourist, ones that are not easily put off by cow flaps and dog turds in the lane. It seems that we respond more to something that’s harder to put your finger on that’s found in abundance here. So often we spend our meals talking with another traveler and trying to gain their insight on Varanasi, on India, their home country and perhaps the world. Just this morning, we shared breakfast with a young woman from St Petersburg (Russia not Florida) who certainly did not tow the party line. Even though there are people growing concerned about Putin and his power, the question is why weren’t they concerned 17 years ago? He’s been around that long. She called him a thug. Another interesting conversation is with a young woman from Shanghai over our masala chai at the Boatman’s tea shop. Again she is far from typical; 31 and not married, and at this point has no intention of getting married. When Gerard asked what does the society think of unmarried women, she said, it’s completely unacceptable. And what do your parents think of you travelling alone in India? I told them I was in Asia! But what if they want to see a picture of where you are? I pretend that I didn’t hear them! Most upwardly mobile Chinese think India is one of the worst places to go, too dirty and dangerous. They would rather go to Europe or US. Gerard laughed, quoting statistics about gun ownership and violence in the US.

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Our guesthouse is near a few small music schools where European students return every year to continue their learning of various practices of Indian classical music. Many of them coincide their visit with the Dhrupad Mela – as we do. Dhrupad is an ancient style of singing that needs to be studied for decades before it can be performed. Its progression is also very slow therefore many Indians and Westerners alike are not attracted to the style. But those who are drawn are very passionate about the music. For me, listening to Dhrupad is a bit like listening to Cecil Taylor, an extreme avant-garde jazz pianist. When I’m there I’m totally involved; if I’m listening to a record it’s harder to get into it.

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This Mela is the only Dhrupad festival in India and has been sponsored by a very wealthy Varanasi family for the last 44 years who are dedicated to keeping this music alive. In a small restaurant around the corner from us, a few students, mostly about our age, gather for dinner and speculate on who will be performing that night. By the way, with no advance program, the music goes from 7 pm to 7 am each night, free admission. In the morning, the same group is sitting around discussing who they heard, and how late they managed to stay. We never made it much past midnight. But at the end of the four days, Gerard said that he was nearly saturated. But he’ll still be ready for the upcoming two-day festival!

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We’re very happy to be able to meet up with our old friend, Frederic in Varanasi. We met in Himachal Pradesh six or seven years ago and have stayed in contact ever since. He’s a semi-professional photographer and has been documenting dancers at a Kathak school. He manages to find time to have a meal or two with us so we can catch up.

Gerard had the idea that this was going to be a quiet visit with plenty of time for writing. But how could that happen in this place where there’s so many interesting people to talk to! One evening, on our way down to Assi Ghat, and constantly being delayed by Gerard talking to people, Frederic said to me, “Does he also talk to trees?” Please, Frederic, don’t even suggest that! Coincidentally, when we first met Frederic, it was Gerard’s persistence that finally broke through his reserve. Well, maybe at our next destination we’ll get back to the writing.

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Pilgrims and Buddhist Caves in Nashik

fullsizeoutput_2d3Several people we’d met during our travels had suggested we stop in Nashik on our way to Varanasi.  A welcome break to our 32-hour train journey.  Nashik has a bathing ghat where the Kumbh Mela is held every twelve years and in addition, Buddhist caves dating back from 1st century BC.

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On the river Godavari, Nashik is one of the four locations of the Khumbh Mela – a Hindu gathering of holy men that occurs every three years. (ie.e. every 12 years in Nashik).  It’s attended by literally millions who come to bathe in the holy waters.

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For the most part, Nashik is the usual noisy, polluted, concrete Indian city, but Premgit and Sandhya recommended a guest house near to the ghat that was much less hectic. I don’t think we would have found it on our own. The hotel was adequate and the staff couldn’t have been more helpful. In fact, we found everybody helpful from the rickshaw driver to the passerby.

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The hotel even produced a map of the city with the major sites listed in English, although the town doesn’t see many Western tourists. We didn’t see a single one during our brief stay; Indian pilgrims aplenty.

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The following morning we set off to see the caves in Pandoleni, 18 km out of town. The hotel manager recommended we take the bus which, along with other city buses, stopped at a traffic circle just outside the hotel every 15 minutes. Sounded simple and a lot cheaper than an auto rickshaw. But the bus signs were all in Marathi (the language of Maharashtra). A young man also waiting for a bus offered to help. There were plenty of buses, but almost an hour went by with no bus for Pandoleni. I was doubting the poor man’s ability to read buses even in his own language when finally one drew up. By this time others knew what we wanted and there was an outcry of “Pandoleni!” There was a stampede. We managed to push our way on, and stood for most of the 30-minute journey, squeezed in beside schoolgirls. After asking us all kinds of questions, they let us know where to get off.

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It was hot by the time we arrived and our energy was lagging. Looking up the side of a steep hill, we saw the caves. Somehow I’d imagined we’d just get off the bus and walk straight into them. No such luck. Fortified by a cup of chai from a stall at the base, we started off. Thoughts of the Jain temple in Gujarat with its 3,500 steps loomed. On the way, we had our picture taken with the very friendly and enthusiastic people of Nashik, visiting the caves for the day.

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We were relieved it didn’t take as long as we’d expected.  There were to 23 caves along a ridge, many with simple interiors for the monks, a stone bench for sleeping, nothing else. fullsizeoutput_2f5

Other caves had elaborate entrances with intricately carved Buddhas, still in astonishingly good condition considering they were over 2,000 years old. Unlike other monuments, the statues had not been defaced by the Moguls.

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These caves weren’t as grand or extensive as the more famous caves of Ellora and Ajunta, but they were well worth the effort. And the lack of tourist commercialism and throng of visitors was refreshing, as was the air. All in all, it was a pleasant trip into the countryside, and we decided to fork out the rupees for a rickshaw for a more convenient ride back into town. Over a thali at a restaurant close to the hotel, Gerard edited his pictures.

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Agonda Epilogue

Agonda may have changed but there are still interesting people to while away the time with. The elderly Indian couple staying at our guesthouse turned out to be not from Chandigarh but from Srinagar in Kashmir! Gerard chatted with the good-natured man and one morning he invited us to drink Kashmiri tea with him and his wife in the guesthouse loggia. With fond memories of the fragrant drink made with saffron and a special type of tea leaf we first drank in Kashmir, we readily agreed. We’re always happy when the Kashmiri merchants we meet in Goa and other tourist locations, invite us to have tea. But this tea surpassed any we’d drank before. His wife had brought the ingredients with her from Kashmir and brewed the tea in their room.

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While we drank, he told us they’d come to Agonda for his health. Recently partially paralyzed by a couple of strokes, his doctor advised him to escape the brutal Kashmir winter. He told us stories of traveling quite extensively in India in his youth: once riding a pushbike from Srinagar to Leh and down to Chandigarh. Another time, he’d driven a car from the southernmost tip of India to Leh, taking three and a half months. His gracious Moslem wife appeared somber until her face broke into a radiant smile as we chatted. She understood more English than she spoke. Unlike her husband this was the first time she’d left Srinagar; she was accompanying him to prepare his doctor-prescribed meals. Every day, the pressure cooker hissed at lunchtime.

We’ve known beautiful Geeta, a shopkeeper, since our first visit to Agonda.  In 2013, we wrote the story of Geeta’s hard life in the blog entry, https://asmallcaseacrossindia.blog/2013/02/02/three-women.  While still young, she’d already had two husbands; the first left her after she gave birth to a girl, the second was murdered. Since then she’s married a boy from Manali in Himachal Pradesh who came to Goa as a waiter. They have a mischievous three-year-old boy, Nitu. Manu is a good father to both Nitu, and Laxmi, Geeta’s daughter. Many years ago, Geeta was befriended by an English woman. A generation older, Christina had brought up three girls alone and empathized with Geeta. Coming every year, she loves to spoil Nitu and Laxmi.

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I found them all on the beach on Sunday afternoon, the children body surfing with the boards Christina had bought them. It was the first time I’d ever seen Geeta on the beach.

We first met Michael at our guesthouse two years ago and became friends, enjoying his sense of humor and sharp wit. A writer of poetry, he reads our blog quite critically, offering advice in particular to increase the humor. He returned again this year and for a few days, we overlapped.

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We ate our last dinner together watching the sunset over the water, entertained by his own travel stories. As we said goodbye to Agonda and Michael, he said confidently, “You’ll be back…”

The last mention should be given to Janice from Canada who has been a diligent reader of the blog since we met three years in Agonda. After only one meeting, we’ve continued to stay in contact via the blog and FB.

fullsizeoutput_2b1After reading our last entry, she commented that she was back in Agonda and it would be nice to meet again. Recognizing our friends, Premgit and Sandhya, from their picture in the blog, she’d approached them in a restaurant saying, “I know you!” A day later, I found Janice in the same restaurant. We hugged, remarking how well we knew each other after just one other physical meeting several years ago! The power of social networking at its best.

Agonda: now it has a swimming pool

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Last year we said a final farewell to Agonda; enough is enough. But I persuaded Gerard, just one more time. Because of where we had just come from, all of the new development here was even more distressing. Previously our end of the beach was the least crowded. Now that Agonda is one of the top ranking beaches in Asia, the open space was too attractive to developers to resist. We’re now surrounded by a sea of huts, to our left, right and in front us, stretching down to the beach. Every existing restaurant, shop, guest house has a facelift and among the new hotels, the fanciest even has a swimming pool! Our long-term guesthouse companion, Tatiana, has fled to the hills. As a local retailer summed it up, “Agonda is no longer a beach it’s a small city!” But a city with still a single-lane road that isn’t equipped to handle the influx of motorbikes, delivery trucks, over-sized SUVs from Mumbai – let alone the cows that still wander through the traffic jam.

Otherwise, Agonda is stepping up to the plate, catering to the new tourist who expects comfort, facilities, bars, night-time entertainment etc. The Indian tourists come in all shapes and sizes; the extended families of grandparents, aunts and uncles etc, the young men from Mumbai playing football on the beach. In our guesthouse, the elderly couple from Chandigarh who make their meals with a pressure cooker and the single man who came with his belongings in a small cloth bag and walks in the garden at sunrise cleaning his teeth with a neem stick. The landowners are cashing in big time. Rents are going through the roof. We were so lucky to first come here nine years ago and enjoy Agonda’s natural beauty and the simple life of what was then primarily a fishing village. I still love the beach, but now I have to find my place among the surfboards and crowds.

One thing that hasn’t changed is Fatima’s birthday celebration. Her family operates numerous businesses in town and perhaps this is their way of giving back to the community.

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It’s an open invitation and well-attended. We saw several old friends including Jane and Richard from England who we met on our first visit.

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The entertainment and accompanying meal are now renowned. This year, a Russian woman trained in Indian classical dance performed along with a fire dancer.

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Between the main acts, we were entertained by young Goan girls dancing to Bollywood music. And at the end of the evening, I hit the dance floor.

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To help us adjust to the new look of Agonda, there are still a few visitors from years past. They seem to be more accepting than we are. Their priorities are beach, climate, and value. The first priority doesn’t cut it for Gerard. A couple we met a year ago in Varanasi, Premgit and Sandhiya, are here at the same time and it’s been a boon to have their company.

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For me, the trauma of the new look has not been so pronounced, but for Gerard, Premgit’s company has helped to distract him from the loss of what this town used to be. Gerard said, “Why I find this so upsetting is, even though I’m not a beach person, I actually liked this place. And now look what they’ve done to it!” Premgit’s a professional photographer working on a ten-year project in India. He and Gerard find a lot to discuss. It was very easy for me to also connect with Sandhiya; we have much in common.

In addition to a swimming pool, Agonda now also has a doctor. Not having much such success with the homeopathic, I went back to the allopathic.  She confirmed an ear infection and gave me ear drops and antibiotics.  The infection has cleared and thankfully, my hearing is almost back to normal…for someone of my age!

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One more week at Sunset Beach

 

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In our second week here, Gerard has started writing a story, an idea he’s had for years. This place is tailor-made for such a project. There’s not a lot to do other than the beach.

 

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Gerard and Martin meet on the beach

And for Gerard, a little beach goes a long way! Our room is quite spacious with a table to work at. He applies the same focus to his writing as he does to his painting. In the afternoon, with jazz playing through the portable external speaker of the laptop, it’s as if he’s replaced his studio in the basement back home with our room here. When I’m not playing the role of editor, I walk the beach looking for interesting shells, sometimes with our adopted dog, Blackie.

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Sitting on the verandah in the cool of the early morning we discuss the writing over our large mugs of chai. This is our favorite time of the day. Eventually, we stop talking long enough to make our breakfast: fruit, curd and chia seed.

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Gerard’s just getting over a cold and worried it was going to settle into one of his epic coughs. I on the other hand, suddenly and inexplicably woke up deaf in one ear the day we arrived here on the train. When I got down, the platform was spongy and my balance unsteady. At first, sensitive to music or any loud sound, my ear settled in to just being deaf. Our kindly landlord offered to go to the market with us to see a homeopathic doctor and do some shopping as well.

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He is the only doctor in the market (which in all practical sense is the town) meaning the locals have no choice but to rely on homeopathy. His office is up a flight of rickety wooden stairs. In a dark room, an elderly gentleman sits at a large desk covered with small vials and papers. First, he treats Gerard, asking him a lot of unrelated questions to his cough, such as, “Why did you become a vegetarian?” Some of you may know the story of Gerard at sixteen, at Easter, looking in the fridge at leftover turkey and seeing a dead bird, rather than something to eat. The doctor and Martin both listen attentively, neither of them is pure veg but the doctor responds, “OK, now I understand.” He turns around and takes a small vial of pellets from the cupboard behind him, adds a few drops and hands them to Gerard. Then he turns to me. He asks what kind of work I did, looks at my tongue, and says, “Don’t worry, the deafness is not permanent, just some inflammation.” We wonder how he can be so sure. He doesn’t look in my ear and I don’t think he has the instrument to do it anyway. He prescribes me my own vial of pellets. A week later, I’m still deaf. But Gerard’s cough has gone. To his credit, this doctor is the first to treat his cough successfully after all our years in India.

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A young Russian couple has joined us at the guesthouse. They’re not the vodka drinking rowdy Russians. In our experience, there’s two types and they fall into the more mellow, yoga group.

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He’s Armenian, living in Moscow and making films, now one set in India. She organizes photo shoots and used to work for Playboy Magazine in Moscow before it folded three years ago. She admits she cried when Hefner died! They both think Putin is good to control the thugs still in the Kremlin. But they have reservation about his foreign policy. They spend their days on the beach and via a Royal Enfield, evenings in northern Goa. So we don’t see much of them. But on their last day, Gerard suggested we have lunch together at our one and only local restaurant. Always curious to hear the Russian perspective we talk for three hours over a special feast supplied by our cook.

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We all end up agreeing we can’t believe what we hear on the news and the government is hoodwinking us on both sides of the boundary. After talking to them, it’s the second time we’ve heard that the Russian government controls the weather. It’s habitually rainy and grey but the sun always shines brightly for the May Day parade.

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Gerard doesn’t care much for celebrating his birthday so it’s not mentioned. But today, I let it slip out at lunch to Bonnie the cook, who said, “Wonderful, I’ll make carrot halvah.” When we arrived for dinner, there was not only halvah but a big chocolate cake also. Bonnie told Gerard, “You’re like my father, I do the same for his birthday.” His helper, Reagan, photographed as we sang Happy Birthday, followed with another version asking for God’s blessing, and Gerard blew out the candles. It was all very sweet.

Leaving at 7 am the next morning, Bonnie insisted on getting up early and making us chai and stuffed parathas for the two-hour train journey to Goa. While we waited for the hired rickshaw, Martin, Bonnie, and Reagan all chatted with us and then waved goodbye. Among the many send-offs we’ve had in India, this was one of the best.

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White Sands and Personal Chef in Maharashtra

 

fullsizeoutput_213Laying on the bed under an open window, listening to so many bird calls, I try to parallel the experience with something else – but I can’t and that makes it easier to ‘be here now’. So much time is lost either going in reverse or fast forwarding. Of course, our environment can help or hinder staying in the present, but for me, the biggest distraction is my own mind. I suspect others are also afflicted with this malady. A few minutes walk from the one lane road, our guesthouse is tucked away among the jungle. Black-faced monkeys leap among tall trees, butterflies glide on the breeze. A tree frog hides in a bucket. Not a vehicle to be heard. The only thing that reminds us we are in India is the barking dogs at night. And of course every paradise has its snake or two; in the jungle, the snakes take the form of mosquitoes.

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When we were in Goa a year ago Gerard had a running conversation with old-timers about where else we can go; Agonda has become too crowded. Someone said there was a small beach town with very few facilities in Maharashtra.

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Last summer Gerard spent many hours on Google Maps to find this elusive place. Eventually, he settled on Paradise Beach; then the task was to find somewhere to stay. No websites, just vague references, but we finally got a phone number and made contact. Arriving at a new location has never been my strong point and Gerard must have felt my rising anxiety because he kept asking me if I was all right. Eventually, I reminded him it took me time to settle in. Walking down the beach, commenting on how few people there are on this long stretch of white sand, I say, “This certainly isn’t Agonda.” Gerard retorts, “And a good thing too, that’s why we came here.” The following morning, when I walked along the shore alone, I felt so happy. Now I’ve settled in!

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The guesthouse owner, Martin, couldn’t be a more agreeable human being. Living here alone, he engages in conversation whenever we encourage it, always with a smile. Martin has an admirable lifestyle without the complexities of failing Internet, noisy motorcycle, problematic AC or hot water heater. He seems to prefer household chores (he has no maid to clean even the guestrooms) and pottering around his plot of land instead of the excitement of Mumbai, where he grew up and his wife and daughter still live. He goes to the market on his push bike. A man after my own heart! In the hot afternoon, I watch Martin sitting serene in the shade of his verandah. He chooses not to complicate his life with the computer, website and Trip Advisor, instead giving the enterprising young owner of the local cafe a cut of the profits in return for bringing him bookings.

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The first few days we were the only guests and Martin invited us to use his kitchen. Every morning he taps on our door at 8 o’clock with two large cups of masala chai. Not always easy to find in this part of the country. We linger over breakfast on the verandah while he tells stories of his childhood and summers spent here with his grandparents.

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Brought up in Mumbai, he returned to his grandfather’s land and built a guesthouse on the property. The ruins of the family home below the window of our room add a dimension to what could be a scene from God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy’s classic novel set in the jungle of Kerala.

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Even for India, the pace here is S L O W. There seems little ways of making money, beyond fishing and the seasonal fruit trees.

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There’s no farming and the tourist industry is here but not robust enough to support the community. Among the few tourists, the majority are Indian with a dash of Russians.

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“How do people manage to eke out a living here?” Gerard asks the waiter. “How long is the season? He replies, “Basically 5 months, December, January in full force.” “Not much of a season. What do you do the rest of the time?” “I do nothing. Just relax!” Maybe that is why everything is so slow here. When there’s not a lot to be had, it’s interesting to see that people can live their life in such a simpler style than that to which we’re accustomed.

The cook has adopted us at the small restaurant across the lane. His only customers, he takes pride in serving us more tantalizing veg dishes day after day. Even if there was an alternative, we have no inclination to go elsewhere. Our immediate connection with Martin and the overwhelming accommodation of the cook are wonderful but in our experience, this happens more than you’d think. A good friend of mine visiting before we left, commented, “You have such a beautiful home, why do you leave it for four months of the year?” My reply was, “Yes, we do have a beautiful home and enjoy living here for two-thirds of the year. Going to India shakes things up. The adventures we have there probably wouldn’t happen in Boston.”

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A man in a lowered tone of voice says, “The names and places have been changed to protect the innocent.”

 

A Narrow Escape to India

Just one day before the “bomb cyclone” swooped up the coast and left 15 inches of snow on the city we got out of Boston. The following day the airport was closed. But we got caught up in our own whirlwind that eventually got us on our flight from NYC to India, but for 18 hours it looked bleak. Virgin Atlantic notified us of a small change in the schedule, but one which made our tight layover in NYC yet tighter. Even the slightest delay of our 6 am flight leaving Boston would be cause for alarm. And if we did make the connection, we worried our bags wouldn’t – our train schedule in India wouldn’t allow us to wait for them to catch up with us.

So we decided to take a bus to NYC and stay overnight in a hotel at the airport and pick up the next leg of our journey at JFK the following morning. We threw everything together and managed to book what looked like the last two seats on the next bus to Manhattan. With little time to spare, we tried to get through to the airline to notify them we wouldn’t be boarding the plane in Boston, but the wait time was too long and we had no cell phone service. Nothing to do but leave and call again when we reached NYC. To cut a long story short, this was a BIG mistake.

Going straight to the airline desk at JFK, we learned it was not just a simple matter of notifying the airline staff in Boston we wouldn’t be taking the flight the next morning. Because we weren’t using the first leg of the flight, we were told our entire ticket could be canceled and we might not be allowed to board any other plane! They do not like no-shows. We could try buying new tickets for the next two legs of the journey (JFK to London and London to Delhi) IF there were available seats and at today’s inflated price. There would also be a penalty for not boarding the Boston flight even if we could get through to the airline and tell them beforehand. Further, the rep said, you’ll have to take this up with Chase, who’d booked the tickets. NOT very helpful. (We purchased the tickets from Chase credit card services using frequent flyer miles.)

At the hotel we reached Chase, only to be told they couldn’t do anything because their computer system was down. Without pulling up our record, they couldn’t even call and let Delta know we wouldn’t be on the flight in the morning. “Call back in two hours,” the rep said. We considered turning around and going back to Boston in time to board the flight in the morning. Too late for the airline shuttle, a limo service would still be cheaper than the potential cost of rebooking. But already exhausted, we decided to persevere with Chase. Throughout the night we continued to call every two hours, setting the alarm and trying to snatch sleep in between, only to be told the computer system was still down. Finally, we gave up and headed to the airport early, resigned for whatever fate awaited us. After a lengthy explanation to one of the Virgin Atlantic reps, she shrugged her shoulders and said,”You’re here now, you should just go ahead and check in.” And we did – with no interrogation. Thanks to busy phone lines, downed computers, and unhelpful help desks, we were able to pick up our flight using our existing tickets after all. With relief, I sank into my plane seat and finally relaxed. We were back on track for India!

The rest of the journey flowed smoothly and soon we were back in India in all its craziness, noise and unpredictability. Familiar but still exciting. Aware of how close we came to missing this moment, I loved it all the more. Ravi and Swarn made us feel at home in their new house on the outskirts of Gurgaon. A new development, it was so quiet at night with not even a barking dog, that it was hard to believe we were in India.

india 17 (164)The next day we visited Kamal and Bhushan’s, the house was especially full with Shruti and Arvind and their two daughters, who’ve moved back from Bangalore to Delhi. New baby,Tanya, is so cute and lovable.

P1040623The mood was joyful, no one felt crowded, just happy to all be together again. We turn up every eight months – more mouths to feed – but they always make us feel welcome and ready to take care of whatever our needs.fullsizeoutput_1c0Once again the family came to our aid in getting our cell phone activated. The government is now tracking and linking all electronic activity on different devices which has made it increasingly difficult to get a SIM card. All kinds of identification and verification are required including fingerprinting. It’s possible for a foreigner to get a SIM but it involves documentation – which we had, but it can take days – which we didn’t have. Our train tickets south were booked for the following day. Ravi and Bhushan took off for the Airtel store and came back an hour later with our SIM card!

The next morning we called Uber on our newly activated iPhone; The driver arrived almost immediately and skillfully navigated the traffic across town to the train station in plenty of time for us to catch the Rajdhani Express to Shiroda Beach. It really is an Express – not in terms of speed, but the number of station stops. On our 24 hour ride, ours was only the 5th stop. And there’s complimentary meals; for train food, it’s not bad. We took off exactly on time and were a mere one hour late in arriving. As my friend back in the US says, “You two are charmed!”