After the Rain

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One night it rained heavily, with thunder and lightening moving around the hills. In the morning, the clouds slowly lifted out of the valley lifted, then the mountains beyond became defined.

fullsizeoutput_45bWe walked back up to the temple on the ridge and looked out towards fresh snow on the distant peaks.

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It was tantalizing not to be closer, but our time in India was running out and then our friend Peter wrote to say it was raining and cold in Vashisht. So we decided to just spend the last week of our stay in HP here.

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Walking out into the fields in another direction, two children called out to us. Dressed in their ridiculous British-style school uniforms, it was Suman and her younger brother, Anurag whose family we had visited the previous two years. Their father had not been there, working as a welder in Saudi Arabia for several years and we were impressed by how independently his wife managed the small farm alone. Suman insisted we come to the house. She and Anurag quickly change out of their school uniform.

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Everyone was pleased to see us including their father who was finally home. He confirmed the terrible stories of working conditions we hear of in Saudi Arabia; he’d received no pay for the last six months he worked there.

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The final four days of our visit coincided with an annual festival. Baisakhi, rooted in the rural agrarian tradition, bids a final farewell to winter.  All the goddesses from local villages descend on the town, transported via wooden poles on the shoulders of village men and accompanied by drums.

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We’ve seen this same festival in Vashisht but not here. Celebrated by both Hindus and Sikhs, the Hindi temple and Sikh gurudwara were festooned with colored lights at night. But in the manner of all Indian festivals, it was also secular. The main thoroughfare beside the lake became a massive carnival – rows of stalls set up selling the same cheap merchandise. (We sympathised with the vendors who must have lugged it all up the mountainside, only to turn around and lug most of it down again at the end of the festival).

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Literally, thousands of people from the neighbouring villages visited over the four days and the town was suddenly transformed from its usual peace to a noisy hubbub. Politicians of the incumbent BJP party pontificated over loudspeakers; drums continually pounded. Each evening the politicians gave way to loud music. Singers were accompanied by electric instruments and pakawaj drums The music ranged from crooning 50s style music to Bollywood to local folk. We preferred the latter which was nostalgic of the folk music of Morocco. It was all an interesting hybrid mix, but like everything in India, the amplification was way too loud.

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Finally, we said goodbye to all the friends we’ve made in this little town and took the night bus direct back to Delhi to begin our trek home via a few days in England.

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A Walk in the Countryside

Our friends have left and we’ve decided to stay longer because of inclement weather up north. It still amazes me how we continue to meet interesting people as we travel. With little effort, we really connected with these two couples. Without the temptation of spending half the day in the chai shop chatting, we have more time to work on our writing. We trade the laptop back and forth and Gerard has made good headway on his story. One late afternoon, I went out and walked through golden wheatfields, passed smiling women and children and finally, just as the light was fading, came to a small but colorful temple, perched on a ridge. The longer we’re here the more walks we discover.fullsizeoutput_449

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Mellow in Kullu

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At first glance, the peaceful town nestled in the hills at the beginning of the Kullu Valley has changed very little since we first discovered it eight years ago. There are few other places in India that you can say the same. Returning here almost every year, everything is familiar – the prayer gong resounding in the monastery in the early morning, pilgrims and Tibetan refugees performing kora, circling the lake. The Hindus and Buddhists appear to live in peaceful harmony. There is still little traffic and few places to eat, though more than last year. Thankfully, this has not become a tourist destination but there are a few more westerners. In the past, the town has been the meeting place of some of our strongest friendships, Frederic from France and Peter from the US. Again, we have connected with two couples of well-seasoned travelers around our age who also return here regularly.

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They each have their stories of traveling in India and how it all began. Marina from England, starting traveling immediately after leaving college. Seeing a lot of Asia, she fell in love with India. For many years, she has divided her time between England and India, returning to her flat in London in the summer to make enough money at waitressing and gardening to return to India again.  She met Rajiv in Gokarna seven years ago.

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Marion first made several trips to India from Germany in the mid 70s overland via Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. She told stories of the hassles of traveling as a single woman, especially in Pakistan. For a while, to finance her trip she hooked up with a scheme of delivering new Mercedes to rich Iranians who were only allowed one car. She would pick the car up in Munich, registered in her name, and drop it off in Tabriz. She also now returns to India with Jhurgon for several months each winter.

fullsizeoutput_435Seeing Sapna and her family was a reunion; they were so happy to see us you’d have thought we’d known them our whole life. Such is the Indian disposition. She’s still scraping out a living at a small restaurant on the main street (there are two streets in town).fullsizeoutput_412One afternoon, she and her husband took Gerard and I on a short trip to see the progress on their new home. With very little money, Kheem Chand is doing most of the work himself and progress is slow.

 

fullsizeoutput_425Our spacious “apartment” complete with kitchen and large windows looking across the hills and down on the town, is arguably the best accommodation we’ve ever found in India, and definitely the best value. 345 steps up from the town, the barking gangs of dogs are distant, and the destructive monkeys relatively sparse.

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Our room is the top finished floor of the yellow building next to the big blue building.

Our Hindu landlady rang the doorbell with aloo parathas on Easter Sunday for breakfast. (Did she even know it’s Easter Sunday?) The town is so small, that whenever we come down the hill, we bump into the same people. The gentle-faced monk who opened up to us a year ago and told us the fascinating story of how he entered the monastery as a young boy. Now in his 30s, he’s still serving cappuccino in the monastery cafe below. I find this place comforting.

But there are changes and it may not be so tranquil beneath the surface. The town is spreading out further into the countryside, with new buildings cropping up, including more hotels serving predominantly the ever growing Indian tourism. A hard top road connecting outlying villages is being financed by the state. But more disturbing is a hint of discontent between the Hindus and Buddhists. Perhaps it was always there and we were just unaware. But it’s disturbing to see the thick curtains of prayer flags beside the lake burned. No one has taken responsibility. There may be some jealousy between the two communities, and understandably. While the Buddhist community is getting outside assistance, the Hindus have no such luck. Until now, the only murmur of discontent that we knew of was from a restaurant owner who said a few years ago that the gold statue of Guru Rimpoche overlooking the town was far bigger than expected. The Guru is famous for bringing Buddhism to Tibet, he did his spiritual practices here.

 

The day before our German friends left, we accompanied them on a walk to a lake several km above the town. When we set out the weather was clear, the sky blue. We climbed high up the hillside, at first via steps, later clambering over treacherously uneven and stony ground. Within a couple of hours, the sky darkened and thunder began rolling around the hills. A chai shop was in sight and everyone began climbing faster. We reached there just before a downpour. The walk would have been beautiful if we hadn’t been watching our feet and going so fast to beat the rain.fullsizeoutput_434fullsizeoutput_439

 

 

Looking for 12603

Generally, Gerard makes an itinerary long before we leave for India. This year, the leg of the journey into the mountains would be determined by the weather, and since there are so few trains in this area, no need to book in advance. As the time drew closer to leave Rishikesh, we realized getting to the Kullu Valley was not straightforward. It doesn’t happen often, but there are times when your plans just don’t work out and you have to try to explore the remaining options with an open mind and “stay calm.” Gerard had read somewhere online that the easiest route from Rishikesh was to take a train to Ambala and then a state bus to Mandi at the beginning of the Valley. We hustled down to a travel agent hoping there would still be a vacancy on a train – and we were in luck. That afternoon, we looked for state buses from Ambala to Mandi; there were none. Ok, well, private buses. Yes, there are ones going from Delhi to Manali, that passes through Ambala around 11pm. The train arrives around 9pm if it’s on time…so maybe that could work. We phoned a few travel agents in Ambala to try and purchase the private bus tickets, and nobody would take a US credit card. The other aggravating factor, you couldn’t buy for distance travel; you could only buy the whole route from Delhi to Manali. The entire afternoon was spent staring at the computer screen going around in circles. “I’ve had enough, let’s go and eat dinner.” On the way out of the hotel, one of the friendly staff suggested we go to Chandigarh by train instead of Ambala and then take a state bus to Mandi. So we grabbed our railway tickets and went back to the travel agent. The agent said, “ Yes, there is availability for a chair car train to Chandigarh tomorrow getting in at night.” “We’ll take it.” A very small refund on the old ticket because the departure was less than 24 hours away.

The next hurdle was to find accommodation in Chandigarh. Since it’s not a tourist destination, the usual type of guesthouse we stayed in didn’t exist. Searching the net, it was all business type hotels. Then we ran into payment problems again; the hotels would not take a US credit card. Finally, I found a candidate who would take PayPal – we booked it. Chandigarh is a relatively new city built post-Independence, laid out on a grid and divided into orderly sectors. This seemed boring and it had never previously appealed to us. But as soon as we decided to go there, everything fell into place.

The next morning, we said goodbye to our friendly hotel staff and, in the heat of the day, schlepped our bags across the narrow and very crowded Laxman Jhula bridge. Almost immediately, a taxi drew up and asked where we going. He said, “I’m going to the bus station too. I’ll only charge you 100Rs.” (a third of the regular price) .Wiping his sweaty brow, Gerard thought the price of the air conditioning alone was worth the 100 Rs. We made good time and arrived at the bus station JUST as a bus was leaving for Haridwar. With plenty of traffic, rail crossing stop, not to mention the usual cows sitting in the road, the bus driver kept the journey within the estimated hour and got us to the train station in plenty of time. But where was our train? There was no 12063 to Chandigarh listed on the board; the closest was 12053 to Amritsar. Eventually, we found a station master who informed us our train would be attached to 12053 shortly. Looking up and down the platform, Gerard muttered, “The train is supposed to leave in 10 minutes.” Sure enough, a little after the train’s scheduled departure two extra carriages did arrive that were 12063. The whole train was chair car class, meaning we sat in chairs instead of compartments as if on a bus, and with wall fans instead of AC. It was crowded but we found our reserved seats and then at every stop more people more crowded on. I sat by the open window and took pictures of a surprisingly fertile country landscape that was decidedly Sikh, passing numerous Gurudwaras.

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Arriving in Chandigarh almost on time, we easily found our hotel, the city being as orderly as we expected. It was a typical city hotel – a room just acceptably clean, the bathroom without a full wall connecting it to the bathroom of the neighbouring bathroom. We heard our Indian neighbour get up before 6 am and spend what seemed like two hours performing loud nasal cleaning, involving lots of water. I would love to witness this procedure just once.

Right after breakfast, a helpful travel agent next door to the hotel told us a state bus was leaving for Mandi in just over an hour. We ran back and threw our things together, grabbed a rickshaw and reached the bus station in the nick of time to purchase perhaps the last two tickets in the back of the bus We boarded. Luggage is always a problem on state buses– there’s no room for bags and yet the conductor insists on your bringing them on the bus and either jamming under the seat or overhead. It’s not always possible. As I struggled with my bag, the ticket collector rather abruptly took and jammed it under the seat and then took Gerard’s and forced it into a space overhead. After a bone-shaking eight hours, we arrived in Mandi, and again just in time to catch the last bus up to Rewalsar. Two hours later, we settled into a very nice guesthouse near the top of the town (a 345 step climb – Gerard counted them) with a wonderful view of the surrounding hills, town, and valley below.

 

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Rishikesk, a comfortable routine

 

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As previously stated, our entry to Rishikesh was traumatic. But then everything fell into place, we found a nice hotel, restaurants etc. The weather is perfect, hot during the day, but cool and fresh each morning after a wind whips up and blows all night through the valley. Sometimes in the afternoon, the sky darkens, and a thunderstorm comes in off the mountains. But as quickly as it appears, it also leaves, and the sun comes out again. We easily fell into a comfortable routine.

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Since our first visit seven years ago, Rishikesh has changed quite dramatically…especially the area we’re staying in this time. Back then, Laxman Jhula was already a tourist destination, but decidedly sleepy. Now it has become a mecca for western travelers and yoga “bunnies”. The main street (the only street) is lined with yoga schools, hotels, vegan restaurants, beauty parlors and high-end clothing stores; jeeps and motorbikes roar back and forth, horns blaring. Previously, the road that connects it with Ram Jhula was a dirt track, with sadhus and monkeys perched along the 2 km stretch.

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Now, one positive change – a pleasant, the newly paved walkway has been built beside the river to connect Laxman Jhula with Ram Jhula, with benches and pagodas along the way, occupied predominantly by sleeping sadhus.

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Ram Jhula still is largely filled with ashrams for visiting pilgrims. The only time we’ve seen the Dalai Lama was in Ram Jhula.

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The fast flowing Ganges and surrounding foothills are as scenic as before. At night, Gerard and I eat in restaurants overlooking the river, with lights twinkling on the water. It’s very beautiful. But during the day, the surroundings have the air of a holiday camp with tourists crowded into rubber rafts traversing the rapids, striking yoga poses in their bikini on the fine white sand of the river bank and sipping cappuccinos in New York style coffee houses.

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I remark the first night that with so many western travelers, this is the kind of place where we should meet someone we’ve met before during our ten years of traveling in India. Then we go to dinner a small momo restaurant and join a woman at her table. She is French but says she lives in the U.S., in Truro on Cape Cod. As we talk we discover that like us she spends each winter in India, first in Goa and then in the mountains. She mentions a town in Goa that we visited last year with Helene and Remy, French friends we first met in Varanasi. Oh yes, she knows Helene and Remy well and we all know Nadia and Vinod, a Belgian woman and her Indian husband who own a beach restaurant. This couple spends the summer in Nagar, his own town in Himachal Pradesh we love. The French woman has also visited Nadia and Vinod in Nagar. Then number three coincidence: she tells us she has a yoga teacher in Boston and was introduced to her by an artist she met in Truro. The artist was a good friend of ours, Noah Hall, who a year ago sadly died of cancer. We spent another hour sharing stories about Noah and her family.

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A day later, we receive a text from our good friend Jonny who just happens to be here in Rishikesh. We arranged a meeting but just happened to bump into him on the street. This is the kind of thing that happens in Rishikesh (and other parts of India also). Lastly, a young French couple stopped us on the street today. Being old and forgetful, it took a while for us to make the connection, but just two weeks ago in Orchha, we had met them in a restaurant. And here we all were again in Rishikesh!

Our friendship with Jonny goes back eight or nine years and we see him all too rarely. He is the kind of person you can warm up to almost immediately. His kind, sympathetic eyes are a reflection of his personality. Unfortunately, his partner, Jitka, left for Thailand the following day, but before Jonny went on a two-week meditation retreat, it was our good fortune to spend another day with him. With some luck, we’ll see him again in England in April.

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I finally emailed my doctor in Boston about my sudden loss of hearing three months ago just after we arrived. I was afraid it was a stroke, but he didn’t think that is the cause. Sudden loss of hearing might be resolved with steroids and I should follow up with a doctor here who can diagnose my condition. I had already visited two doctors, one who thought I had an infection and prescribed antibiotics and another who said, yes, there is nerve damage and gave me nerve pills. We didn’t think it could be possible to find a hearing specialist here in the mountains, but Jonny told us there was a branch of AIIMS (All India Institute of Medicine and Science) right here and we decided to go, no appointment necessary. AIIMS is one of the best hospital groups in India. It is a huge operation with masses of outpatients, but I was able to see a doctor within a couple of hours. Everything is run remarkably efficiently although the staff seems totally overworked. After a hearing test, the doctor confirmed I had moderate to severe hearing loss but it was too late for steroids. She recommended a hearing aid and in the meantime prescribed a mix of allopathic and homeopathic remedies.

Toward the end of our stay, we woke up to see a crowd of mostly Indian young people, with a few westerners among them, in the gully where a brook runs through, beyond our balcony. Armed with large bags they were picking up all the garbage, mostly plastic, thrown in typical Indian fashion into the gully. The hotel staff told us they were a local youth group trying to change awareness of throwing trash into the river. This is going to be an uphill battle, in this pristine setting, you still see Indians throwing plastic bottles into the Ganges.

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It’s unlikely we’ll come back, but we’ll miss all the friendly people we’ve met.

Rishikesh: Not an Easy Entry

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After spending five weeks in the Ganges Plain, we looked forward to moving up into the foothills of Rishikesh. We stopped in Delhi for three days with our Indian family and felt revived and refreshed, ready for our early morning train ride to Haridwar. As it turned out, our guide slipped up and did not check the mobile app, ‘Live Train Status’. Arriving at the train station at 6.30 am, we were disappointed to find the train coming from Mumbai, was five hours late. This could have been avoided had the guide (or me) been on his toes!

We settled into a crowded, noisy waiting room. The hours ticked away watching the changing face of the crowd, but we noticed that ETA of our train kept getting later. Once a train loses its place in the queue, it only exacerbates the problem. After a light lunch of masala dosa at the downstairs cafeteria, we went to the designated platform, #2. Ten minutes before its new arrival time, the platform was changed to #1. That may not sound like a big deal, but if you’re carrying a suitcase and backpack up a long flight of stairs, over the tracks, down the other side, and in the heat of the day, it is significant. It was no surprise that the train crawled most of the way to Haridwar. Originally scheduled to arrive in the early afternoon, we called our guesthouse to let them know we were going to be very late. It was well after dark when we negotiated for a rickshaw for the remaining 25 kms to Rishikesh. Gerard made it very clear we had to be dropped off at Laxman Jhula bridge, the northernmost part of the town. “Yes, sir, no problem, Laxman Jhula!” It was a very long, cold, tedious bumpy 25 kms. Dropping us, he said, “Just there, the bridge.” The footbridge was still crowded even though it was getting late. We went in the direction where we thought the guesthouse was and asked a shopkeeper who said, “Just keep going straight and you’ll find it.” But as walked further, it began to look all too familiar. Seven years ago we stayed in Ram Jhula, another section of Rishikesh that’s also only reachable by another footbridge. We kept walking; it didn’t feel right but Gerard wasn’t yet willing to address the possibility that we’d been dropped off at the wrong bridge.

When we passed the hotel we stayed in seven years ago, we had to acknowledge the obvious, we were most definitely in the wrong part of town. Asking the same shopkeeper again, he said “You should be in Laxman Jhula, not Ram Jhula. It’s 2 kms up a small road.” It’s now getting close to 10 pm and things were shutting down. We started out again and quickly met a jolly man who said, “Where are you going?” Telling him, he said, “It’s too far. I have a friend who will take you on his bike for 100 Rs ($1.80).” Both of us were having a hard time visualizing what he meant. He yelled over to his friend who was just about to leave on his motorbike. He said, “Get on!” “What? How? What about the bags?” He grabbed one of the suitcases and put it between his arms, and then placed his back pack on top of it. I climbed behind him with my back pack hanging off one arm. There was about three inches of the seat left where Gerard squeezed on. No room for suitcase. Both of us held on to it, off the other side, dangling in the air. There was no place for Gerard to put his feet. With a wobbly start we went down the dark lane. I kept saying to Gerard, “This is really dangerous.” It took every ounce of strength I had to hold on to my backpack with my left arm and help Gerard hold the case with my right. The friendly biker dropped us off in front of our guesthouse. He was so nice to give us a ride, even apologizing; it had little or nothing to do with the 100 Rs, he was doing us a favor.

So glad that our long journey was finally over, we were shown to our room. It wasn’t exactly a dump but it was sub par for the price. Never mind, we’ll take it for one night. When I asked for towels and top sheet (most guesthouses only supply top bedsheet on request) he said, “Not possible.” Gerard was in no mood and said, “At this price we should have a towel!” But the answer was still no. We grabbed our baggage and hit the street again. It was now 10.30 and very few people were about. Up the street we went, stopping at every guesthouse and room for rent. All were full. “This is the high season,” we were told, “maybe tomorrow.” One of the guesthouses where we enquired, two men at the reception said, “You’re welcome to leave your bags.” They’d seen us on the street, “Why don’t you leave your cases here while you continue to search.” A kind offer, we accepted and continued. Then Gerard said to me, “I wonder if we’ll ever see our cases again!” I was too tired to care. Four or five more rejections, a woman took pity on us. “Wait.” she said. After a short conversation with her husband, “There is a large empty room downstairs, you can stay there. We’ll put a mattress on the floor and give you bedding. There’s a toilet and sink outside.” “We’ll take it!” It was now past 11 pm and hardly a soul on the street.

We hustled back to retrieve our luggage; the two men said, “You can have our room tonight. Don’t worry about us; if you like you can stay.” Another kind gesture. We took a look at the room and it was a typical bachelors’ quarters, dirty dishes, clothes on the floor etc. “Don’t worry, we’ll clean up and change the bedding.” It was tempting but I felt committed to the woman who was already making up a bed on the floor for us. We thanked and told them we’d be back in the morning to see if they had a vacancy. Back through the empty street, down into our cavernous room; we just wanted to lay down and go to sleep. It was a noisy section of the street, mostly Israelis who live and party by night, but we both managed to get some sleep anywhere.

Feeling much better in the morning, we went out and had breakfast (we’d eaten nothing since the dosas at lunch the day before), then started the search again. Repeatedly told to come back at 12, check out time, we didn’t want to wait. Maybe those nice men where we left the cases last night might have the vacancy. But when we got there, they said, the same thing, “Come back at noon.” As we were leaving, one called after us, and said, “Somebody’s just told us they’re checking out!” We took a look at the room, it had no view but otherwise would suit us fine. Back down the street to collect our cases, the woman said there, “I’m so pleased you have a room because we still don’t have a vacancy.” Now we’re settled into our spacious and clean room (Gerard still had to scrub the whole place down of course) and we’re feeling particularly grateful. It was a long day but in the end everything worked out and here we are in Rishikesh next to the Ganges.

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Playful Krishna and Scheming Monkeys in Vrindavan

 

Last year in Himachal Pradesh, we met two American women who lived in Vrindavan. After bumping into them repeatedly on the mountainside, they encouraged us to come and visit the following year. Vrindavan is near Mathura, the Hindu deity Krishna’s birthplace, about 160 km from Delhi. Krishna is said to have spent his childhood in Vrindavan and where he met his lover, the deity Radha. Vrindavan is an important pilgrimage site and visited by many Western Radha Krishna followers, a number of whom, like Anita and Suleta, have made it their home. Sitting on the Yamuna river, it is an ancient town, a maze of narrow streets, populated with temples dedicated to Krishna and Radha. Up until just a few years ago, only bicycle rickshaws shared the streets with the cows. Now it’s quite different, with ear piercing motorcycle horns very similar to Varanasi.

Since we were passing so close and had such an amiable time with them both a year ago, we asked if we could pay a visit. Suleta was out of town, but Anita was most encouraging. Getting off the train in Mathura on a Saturday night, the place was packed and the pollution was horrible. Nevertheless, we survived the 30-minute auto rickshaw ride to Anita’s ashram. She was waiting for us outside.

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After we checked in, we were given dinner served on a banana leaf and ate with our fingers. After the questionable hygiene in Varanasi, this was a welcome change! For the next two days, Anita was our personal guide through the twisting, winding lanes of Vrindavan.

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All the while Gerard asked questions about Hari Krishna and her guru. She was forthcoming, explaining everything thoroughly, and it wasn’t at all what we had thought. All those we met are devoted and sincere in their practice…and it showed on their smiling faces.

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Both in Varanasi and Orchha we had been warned about the monkey menace in Vrindavan. Unique to this city, the monkeys had developed the skill of approaching from behind and yanking the glasses off your face. But all is not lost, we were told. Some boy will offer to retrieve your glasses for a mere 100 Rps. How this is accomplished, the boy tosses a small carton of Frooti drink up to the monkey now perched in a tree who, in order to catch the delicious Frooti, drops the glasses. We were told the threat was real and you could not wear glasses outside. That meant I wandered around Vrindavan in a blur, with the little vision I had focused on the ground to avoid falling into an open sewer or cow flap. I was dependent on Gerard’s pictures to see the real Vrindavan.

Our second day, Anita suggested taking a boat across the Yamuna through the cultivated fields to a small village.

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Walking along a pathway we came to a flooded area and were about to turn back when a bullock cart pulled up piled with sacks of grain, women, and children. They called us to climb up and ride with them to the village.

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We squeezed on board and as we bumped along the rutted track, the women laughed all the way. Entering the village, it was as though we were a parade, people smiling, pointing and laughing.

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After staying too long in the village, walking back through the fields to the river was brutal, the sun high in the sky, beating down on us fiercely.

fullsizeoutput_3d8We arrived back in Vrindavan hot and dazed. Stopping for a cold drink, I had forgotten I was still wearing my prescription sunglasses (monkeys were not a problem across the river). Suddenly I felt a thump from behind, and my glasses yanked off my face in one swoop. Everyone was yelling while a monkey perched in a tree above, gleefully clutching my glasses. We paid a boy the obligatory 100 Rs, who threw the Frooti and the monkey dropped the glasses. I was fortunate he’d not chewed on them; it was a cheap 100 Rs to get the glasses back in one piece!

Before sunrise the third morning, Anita led us through the still darkened winding lanes to the bus stand for Delhi. She’d been a wonderful host for a fascinating all to brief visit of Vrindavan.