Prague, Twenty Years Later

After a tedious journey from Delhi via Istanbul (a total of 38 hours of airports and airplanes), we arrived in Prague to visit Karel and Kryztyna. Karel was waiting at the airport and drove us straight to his house, only 20 minutes from Charles Bridge, but far removed from all the tourist hubbub.

Karel’s grandfather was given the large apartment building as dowery for his wife. A beer hall and theater occupied the ground level. The Communists took over ownership of the building during the 1950s. In 1968, Karel was visiting relatives in Yugoslavia when the Russians invaded. He had no intention of returning during the Occupation. Living in Munich, he became part of a group of Czech exiles, doing whatever they could to destabilize the Communist government. He published books in Czech language and contributed culture programming for Radio Free Europe. When Karel returned after the fall of the Communists, his father, who had reclaimed the Prague apartment building, gave it to Karel. He started the long ongoing process of renovation. Today, he and Kryztyna now occupy, below are five tenants, and two commercial units on the ground floor. As we enter the building with it’s high ceilinged front hallway, and ascend the large stone staircase winding up to the floors above…very Kafkaesque!

Krzytyna, was an active member of the Polish Solidarity movement during the 1980s, accompanying Lec Walesa in meetings. After the Roundtable (discussions between the Polish government and Solidarity) was established, Kryztyna was sent to Prague to help establish the Polish/Czech Solidarity movement, the only member who could speak in Czech. She remained active in Polish and Czech politics until the fall of Communism. Then she joined the Polish diplomatic core, as a cultural attache in the new Czech Republic. After a few years, she turned her attention to film making a number of historical documentaries about the Underground Movement. One she showed us, with English subtitles, was the story of Vaclav Havel, the first president of Czechoslovakia after Communism. She and Karel have immersed us in their stories of Czechoslovakia and Poland during the Communist era.

Spring is in full bloom, flowering bushes bordering the riverside. But it’s quite different from our first visit, almost twenty years ago, and so aren’t we. The city has grown exponentially; we can no longer see the beyond the outskirts. Fortunately the beautiful old buildings are protected by zoning, but walking around we see far more color.

Where grey dominated, today buildings are painted in an array of different hues. The streets are clean and orderly, and despite the crowds of tourists, it all seems so quiet – no barking dogs, no car horns blowing, and a tram system so efficient that few people drive into the city. Although we’d been warned we still weren’t prepared for the influx of tourism. There’s now apparently more coming here than visiting Paris.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with Russians, Chinese etc. in the Square to see the famous old Clock chime, and then weaving our way through the crowds over the Charles Bridge with its many statues. A plaque commemorating a martyred priest. Questioned by the king on what the queen had confessed, he refused. His torture led to being thrown off the bridge.

Our hosts left no stone unturned to give us a wonderful time, walking us through the hidden backstreets, accompanied by a narrative. Both of us woefully ignorant of the former Communist bloc history, Karel brought it alive. There’s so many stories of Prague’s history; we’ve only heard a few. The ones that most resonate are about the Nazi occupation and following Communist rule. The king’s crown still sits in the Castle. Karl told us Nazi General Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s would-be successor, insisted on placing it on his head, ignoring the curse that anyone not a king who wore the crown would die. Five days later he was assassinated. Several thousand Czechs were murdered in retribution.

Representing the oppression of the Communist era, lean stone figures solemnly climb a staircase. Close by, are the remains of a monument of Stalin which was completed in 1956, just as Khrushchev denounced Stalin. The statue was immediately torn down and replaced by a large red metronome symbolizing the passing of time.

After four days in Prague, Karel took us to his country house, an hour’s drive away in South Bohemia. Again, the towns we pass through are so clean and orderly. Neat rows of flowering horse chestnut trees alongside the road, huge fields of dazzling yellow rapeseed that are reminiscent of a Van Gogh painting.

The cottage sits in a little village near Pisek. The only sounds (that I can hear) are the birds and passing rain showers.

The weather turned cold and unsettled, but Karel drove us around the countryside, visiting several small towns and old picturesque castles.

When Karel told us he was taking us to the ‘Magic City’, we had no idea what to expect. An hour and a half drive and suddenly we were in the midst of a wonderfully preserved open air museum. Likened to a small version of Prague, Český Krumlov is bisected by the Vltava River. Narrow streets wind through clusters of decorative Renaissance and baroque houses, leading up to a magnificent Castle with panoramic views of the town and river below.

The last few days, we continued to grow our relationship with Karel and Krystyna. The four of us sat around the dinner table for hours sharing stories. The memory of the beautiful city, the idyllic countryside and our most generous hosts will stay clear in our minds.

Near the end of the Kullu Valley…and our trip

The local bus from Nagar takes a lovely route along the edge of the Kullu valley to Vashisht. And the onboard entertainment was a video of Kullu folk music (which has no relationship to Bollywood), women in traditional dress singing and line dancing to horns and drums. It was so reminiscent of the Berbers in the High Atlas of Morocco; not only the music, but the dancing and traditional dress was similar.

Vashisht has evolved from a rustic village with hot springs across the Beas river from Manali, to what now seems like a second Rishikesh. Always a hangout of pot heads and would be mountain climbers, today there’s a throng of young people in denim or cotton floral shorts and hiking boots, dreadlocks and tattoos….and still a few aged travelers like ourselves. There’s also more Indian tourists than ever, although most come for the day and retire to Manali at night. The season’s already underway and our hotel from two years ago was full. So were the surrounding hotels, or a too high climb up the mountainside for our liking. After almost two hours traipsing around the narrow lanes, climbing up and down, Gerard finally found us a good replacement, right in the old village. While I had sat comfortably in the sun guarding our baggage. Tough job but somebody has to do it! Four floors up via an external circular staircase, the room has a great view of the mountains, afternoon sun, solar heated water that so far hasn’t let us down, and breakfast on the roof. Some of these new buildings still maintain the custom of livestock on the ground floor, our hotel is no exception. I like to stroke the cow’s forehead on our way out.

This year, our journey around India is less adventurous, returning to our favorite spots, at each location, greeted by a warm welcome. Although this is our third visit to Vashisht, we didn’t expect that to happen here. When we walked up the steep narrow wooden ladder and over the threshold of the Rangoli restaurant, not only the owner, but also his wife and adult son spontaneously greeted us with beaming faces and namaste. Two years had gone by since they’d seen us. Gerard asked him, “You have so many tourists coming in here all the time, how do you remember us? He pointed at me and said, “Your wife, Sir!” Gerard responded, “She’s made an impression on me too!”

The food is even better than before and after nearly a month of repetitive thali, we’re happy to deviate with Mexican enchiladas, Middle Eastern humus, falafel and a roasted eggplant that tastes out of this world! Similar to a Turkish dish, İmam bayıldı (Imam fainted) at a Boston restaurant, so called because the Imam swooned with pleasure at the flavor when presented with this dish by his wife!

There are plenty of walks in the countryside surrounding Vashisht. On a picture perfect sunny day, we retraced a route we’d taken with our American friend, Peter, two years ago. We crossed over the Beas on a rickety wooden bridge and walked up into a small hamlet of old houses where life hasn’t changed.

An old lady sitting on the porch greeted us. She even smiled for a picture and then went into the house, returning with a handful of apples she insisted on us taking. The apples from last year’s harvest looked wizened. I was ready to give them to the cows till we sampled one. It was surprisingly good. Following the river down toward Manali, we stopped for lunch and a little shopping. Among crowded lanes that again were reminiscent of a Moroccan medina we found a friendly grocer who helped us buy spices for an Ayurvedic remedy; then took a rickshaw back up to Vashisht.

After several days of sunshine, snow is melting and waterfalls gushing down the mountainside. Yesterday, we took the 30 minute walk to the largest and most dramatic. The air was so clear, the mountains looked like cut outs pasted on to the blue sky.

Following a lane beside apple orchards and up into a wooded area, we came across a young man from Rajasthan selling unusual colored stones he’s set in necklaces, and other small treasures. After making a purchase, Gerard in his usual fashion got into a long conversation while I watched well dressed traipsed by in their flimsy shoes.

The waterfall is another ten minute climb. Local boys splashed in the cold water and, more fascinating, little birds actually swam and then dove under.

This morning we woke up to a grey sky. Three days of clouds and showers are forecast. We’re not too bothered; we’ve had four perfect days in the mountains. But things have changed. The temperature has dropped 20 degrees (F). Looking down on the houses below our room the color has gone. The wood and stone is grey and cold. The women are still washing clothes at the spring, laughing and chatting as they work – but they’re not laying the colorful fabric out to dry on their roofs. How will they dry their clothes? At the foot of the stairs, heat radiates from the room with the cows. I understand now why the old houses are built with room for livestock to live beneath.

Hurrying down to the German bakery before it starts raining, we drink chai and chat with the other tourists. No one is eager to move. A Russian has just arrived on the night bus from Varanasi with a ridiculously heavy bag of books. He likes art and bought 20 kilos of art books in Varanasi. Plenty of reading for the next four months he plans to stay in Vashisht! Gerard asked if he knew Roerich and of course, he did and has visited Nagar many times to see the paintings. He was slightly chagrined, admitting that the largest collection of Roerich’s paintings are in NYC.

The subject of staying in the present is a repeated topic of conversation for us. Here, amongst the dramatic mountains, it’s a little easier. Their power has a calming effect on the busy mind. It doesn’t seem to matter if they’re shrouded in clouds or crystal clear against the blue sky. We are grateful to be here.

The forest is full of surprises…but not black flies, mosquitoes or deer ticks.

Waking to pouring rain, we couldn’t have decided to drive north in worse weather. Sapna and her husband came with us for the taxi ride; he could not cut stone in the rain. But it was a long difficult ride – little visibility, the windows open to keep the windscreen from steaming up, traffic piling up to a standstill for an hour because of an accident…and then we hit road works.

All the way to Manali the road is being widened. Another huge Indian project that will take at least two years to complete, and probably much longer. In the rain, it was a muddy mess, the new highway cutting through the valley, flattening hundreds of houses in its wake. We reflected that the drive would have been just as wretched on a sunny day, perhaps worse because of all the dust.

Losing the phone number of our homestay from our last two visits, Gerard was not concerned, but in my typical fashion I worried. Would the same room be available…would we even find any room?? But it all worked out. Sumit was pleased to see us and showed us to our room, with an invitation to dinner with his family the following night. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again, there’s no comparison between restaurant food and home cooking. And this was no exception.

By morning, the clouds lifted and the mountains emerged with a new layer of fresh snow. The view from our window is why we come here and the new coating enhanced the scenery. A few steps up the street we can eat breakfast at Sharma’s outdoor dhaba without sacrificing the view. Hem Raj and his two daughters greeted us with ‘Namaste Ji.’ They have fed us on each visit; inexpensive, wholesome food with fresh seasonal fiddleheads a special treat!

Typically, by the afternoon, clouds build over the Himalyas. From our balcony, the drama of light, clouds and mountains unfolds. The rays of the setting sun reflect off the clouds, washing the snow with color. It’s still cold at night, but with thick comforters and hot water bottles, supplied by our host, we’re cozy.

Fortunately, the season hasn’t started yet. Nagar is beginning to feel more and more like an Alpine resort, each year there’s new hotels. More than one person has told us they never fill up, for one reason there’s not enough for the Indian tourist to do. The majority come from Manali for the day in their large crowded cars. It’s easy to imagine the single-lane potholed road becoming impassable.

Every day we walk in a different direction from town, and so far, on each walk, there’s been a surprise. The village of Rumsu, overlooking the valley, is even older than Nagar. Turning the corner of one of the narrow lanes, we were met by five young Russian artists, painting ‘en plein air’. They’re here for two weeks painting in and around Nagar. Of course, Nicolai Roerich (who lived and painted here in the 1920s) is their inspiration.

On another walk, to a Shiva temple in the forest, we followed the sound of gushing water through thick undergrowth to find a beautiful secluded waterfall.

The following day, up a steep climb to the Krishna temple, a marriage ceremony was in full swing. Circling the ceremonial fire seven times, first, the heavily veiled bride led the groom around, then she followed him.

The forest is full of surprises…but not black flies, mosquitoes or deer ticks.

The day before we left, Gerard and I decided to take the bus to Jana, a village up the mountain from Nagar at an altitude of 6,900 feet. The bus dropped us at a dusty turn around, with a few tea shacks (I do mean shacks!) It could have been an outpost in Mongolia.

The tourist draw is the large waterfall a mile or so beyond, with more shacks serving food alongside. The thali served was all ‘local’ food, red rice, maki (corn) roti, rajma, sag, siddu, and jaggery; we were surprised by the quality and quantity.

But for us walking through the village with its old wooden buildings was the main attraction. The style of these old homes is called Kath-Kuni, where construction typically involves layering alternate courses of random stone and wood. The stone is not bonded but the cedar beams are dovetailed.

Farmers rear their cattle on the lower floor and the heat rises up, a boon in the winter. The family lives above, the floor is cantilevered from the main walls to capture sunlight. Unlike the rigid concrete of today, the unbonded masonery would move during an earthquake, saving the building from collapse.

Toward the end of our stay, a Russian couple from Moscow joined us in the homestay. He is large man with an equal personality and likes to talk. We’re always interested in meeting Russians and hearing their perspective. Current controversial issues were dismissed as ‘political.’ But we’re amused that he confirmed the belief of our friend Tatiana in Agonda, that the government controls the weather every May Day, causing the clouds to break and the sun shine. He says, yes, a chemical is sprayed that disperses clouds. It shall not rain on the May Day Parade! They’ve been coming every year, and stay for six months in India, taking groups of Russians on tours that include Agra, Jaipur and Amritsar and Nagar. While he talks, his wife laughs a lot but does not speak. Unlike him, she understands no English and after a while she disappears into their room. I recognize her discomfort at not being able to participate in the conversation and empathize with her frustration. It’s a little easier for me here in the country, but so much of life takes place outdoors, conversations generally on the street or in restaurants open to the street noise. If Gerard did not repeat for me, when I ask, I would be at a loss. I’m still learning to develop patience and acceptance.

Our stay ended with an invitation to lunch in the village with Sharma’s wife. Not only was the home cooking a delight, her company loving (you’re family), but also it gave us a chance to see inside another of these wonderful three hundred year old houses –and inspect her vegetable garden!

Baisakhi comes to town

The weather here is near perfect, warm during the day, cool at night. I finally roll out the yoga mat I’ve been carrying around throughout India and practice in the late afternoon on our balcony as the sun slips behind the hills. Gerard is still writing, with the end in sight…he says. Only a handful of western tourists come here…some to study Buddhism, some to study Hindi and one even, all the way from Australia, to edit her manuscript for publication. Others, like us, come for the uniqueness of the place. Chris, a retired business management consultant from San Francisco, still young, is now living here practicing Buddhism and hiking around the hills. A Belgian, in his early 50s, has spent most of his adult life traveling, much of it in India as a seeker. He now admits the time has come to establish a base but is not sure where that is…too many choices. Another traveler from Switzerland has been on the road for fifteen years, ninety percent of this spent in India, returning home only three times. Like the Belgian, he’s on a spiritual quest which takes him to many holy places. Over the years, we’ve met quite a few unusual travelers in this town.

For three years Sapna fed us at her small restaurant, but now she’s moved out of town. She and her husband built a house several kilometers away and she stays home while her husband works as a stone cutter. They proudly showed us their new house, simple and unfinished. There’s still a lot of work to be done, the bare brick walls have not been plastered, the dirt floor covered with linoleum, and a temporary kitchen. She admits it’s lonely to be at home and outside town while her children are at school and husband at work, with only a cow and dog for company; but it’s a home of her own.

A Tibetan Ayurvedic doctor was recommended to us because we were ‘old’. His dispensary is decorated with Tibetan prayer flags and literally piles of plastic bags, spilling out of cupboards, full of powders in various shades of cream, brown and black. How he can tell them apart? I asked his wife. She shrugged, of course he knows. Using his wife as translator, he diagnosed us from a combination of our urine, pulse and tongue and confirmed the imbalance in our humors or energies. For each of us, he wrapped up four little bags of different powders to be taken throughout the day for a week. For the consultation and medicine he charged us a grand total of 200 rupees ($3) each.

Our peaceful hideaway town nearly disappeared during the three-day Punjabi springtime festival, Baisakhi. It’s enthusiastically celebrated here by both Hindus and Sikhs while the Buddhists stand back. Sikhs arrive in van loads to stay at the local gurudwara, draped with green and purple lights. Hindu sadhus came up from nearby Mandi and sleep on the street. While merchants of cheap plastic paraphernalia, kitchenware, sandals, blankets…set up tables covered by plastic awnings alongside the lake. Fireworks explode in the middle of the day, shooting sprays of sparkling color into the sunshine. Clear plastic balloons flash with multi colored lights at the press of a switch. As in Varanasi, with the increased availability of electricity, Indians have taken colored lighting to an extreme only matched in Vegas.

During Baishaki, the local gods that live in the temple are brought out and paraded around town with loud drumming and chanting. Townspeople who have the right resources, including a separate empty room, can request hosting one of the gods for the night. The temple priest grants their wish by a simple process of throwing rice. The thrown pieces of rice are counted; if the number is odd, the request is granted, This year, a local taxi driver we know had been granted the privilege of hosting. To pay back to the community for the honor, he provided a free langar, and invited us. After eating, we visited the god in his room, made a donation and received prashad from a young priest sitting there. I felt privileged to participate in such an ancient local ritual.

A Lhamo at the Lake

Despite the heat and dust, we stayed a week in Delhi ending with a three day meditation retreat, which was strenuous but rewarding. The overnight semi-sleeper bus to Himachal Pradesh dropped us in Mundi at 5 am where we caught the local bus to our hideaway town in the foothills. Even though little has changed, there are signs that progress is encroaching. Otherwise why are they widening the road?

Renting the same room as last year, we were happy to see our German friends, staying next door. The four of us sat in our favorite chai shop, exchanging travel stories from the past few months.

If I’m going to talk to someone more than once, I feel the need to tell them about my hearing loss. Vijay who runs the restaurant we eat at at least once a day, immediately suggested visiting the Lhamo, a Tibetan ‘angel’ with magical healing powers, now residing here. Even the Hindus visit her, he said. After further inquiry, we were introduced to a Frenchman who was going for a second visit. Pascal is staying here teaching autistic children. He explained that by giving the Lhamo’s husband 100 rupees in advance we’d be admitted first. Neither one of us gave it much thought, and arranged to meet Pascal the following morning at 7 am when we would follow him to the Lhamo’s house. He provided us with ‘khatas’, traditional ceremonial white scarves, in which you fold another 100 rupees to place beside the Lhamo. When we reached her house, a crowd had already gathered outside. Everyone else had taken a number handed out an hour earlier. That 100 rupees we gave the husband ensured us a place at the front of the line without a number. Then we waited… The door opened, the curtain drawn and we were asked in. On a long bench covered with a Tibetan carpet sat the Lamo, cross-legged, facing an altar with numerous mysterious religious objects. She was still in the middle of her chanting, wearing an elaborate headdress and white scarf covering most of her face. The chanting became intense, high pitched and piercing, accompanied with loud bell ringing and drum. More than once, her voice reached fever pitch, causing her to cough and splutter. The only thing comparable might be voodoo or, in the Christian faith, receiving the spirit. It felt like a cleansing process for the healer. She was a large, ruddy-faced woman in her mid 30s with her teenage daughter beside her, translating.

Sitting at her feet, I gave a brief description of my sudden hearing loss and the Lhamo took a pipe wrapped with sacred cloth, flared slightly at the end. She strongly sucked through the pipe around both my ears, then spat into a bowl beside her several times. She said there was nothing more she could do for me. Eat nutritious food and visit a Tibetan doctor for health strengthening remedies. Gerard was next, asking about his restless leg syndrome. With the same pipe, she moved it around his left foot and ankle, stopping to spit out into her hand a brownish black goo, which she showed him! The procedure on the right foot wasn’t as dramatic. Her parting comment to both of us: “You’re old and your body is weak. You should seek out a Tibetan doctor.” For me, the experience was a let down. Although the doctors in Boston had assured me nothing could bring back my hearing, I had for a moment held out the hope for the miraculous.

One of the reasons we like coming here are the walks in all directions, most of which involve climbing, but the vista of the Himalayas keeps Gerard plodding along. Our legs were still adjusting to the long hike up to our rom when our German friends asked us to go for a hike. The path led through terraced wheat fields, then forest and up at the top a pink and white temple sat in a clearing.

While we sat on the grass in the shade, resting our weary legs, the caretaker offered us chai. The downhill trek back was a different strain on our legs and by the time we reached our room, they were shaky. Yes, the Lhamo was right, we are old!

That evening brought an abrupt change in the weather, so common up here. The sky darkened and heavy raindrops began falling while we ate dinner. Thunder rolled around the hills as we reached our room and continued for a long while into the night. Beside our two large windows, we lay in bed watching the lightening show silhouetting the mountains.

Orchha Times Five

After Varanasi, Orchha was an oasis of calm. The historic town has barely changed since we first visited in 2010, and the surrounding almost idyllic countryside remains undeveloped. Sitting on the banks of river Betwa, Orchha was once the capital of the Bundela Rajput kingdom, one of the largest and most powerful in Central India.

Founded in the 16th century, in its heyday its splendor rivaled any other fortified palace in India. Outside the main complex, the landscape is scattered with crumbling remains of residences, gardens, and chhatris (elaborate tombs for the dynasty). Many are in amazingly good condition, in part because Orchha seldom witnessed ferocious battles. The town reached its peak in the early 1880s and then fell into decline after Indian independence when it lost its city-state status.

The main temple in the middle of town was a beehive of activity, the lane between the temple and the walled market filled with vendors selling flowers and coconuts as temple offerings.

It took little imagination to visualize the very same activity going on hundreds of years ago. This is what has inspired us to return for a fifth time. There’s other lanes and courtyards here that have suffered little change in the last two hundred years. Gerard commented that originally he thought all of India would look like this town, scattered with ruins from the days of grandeur. Definitely not the case! Walking through the temple complex at lunchtime, we watched a couple feeding the poor with food, they’d obviously prepared at home.

It’s hard to believe Orchha has still not been discovered and exploited as a tourist destination. Tour groups arrive here not even for the day and are hustled through the main palace, shunted back on the bus, gone before the dust settles. There are a couple of upscale hotels in town, and a few more in the process of being built on the outskirts, but they don’t seem to attract a lot of business.

Returning for the third time to our guesthouse, Monarch Rama Palace, which sits on a quiet street, the garden planted three years ago with roses and shrubs is now coming into its own. The owner uses the illustrious title of ‘Dr.’ and although not seeming old enough, Ashish really is a doctor who practices in a local hospital. He has a no nonsense attitude that I like in doctors and on learning about my hearing, simply responded in his commanding tone, “Read lips!” Wish that it were so simple! While quieter here than Varanasi, it was still hard for me to hear due to constant ceiling fans and the inevitable street traffic in the background. It’s now clear I have to learn to read lips which so far I’ve found virtually impossible. If others can do it, surely I can. I fear the the older you are the harder it is.

We’ve befriended several vendors each from quite different backgrounds and with their own interesting views. There’s the young Kashmiri selling jewelry (some he designs) and shawls. Unfortunately, selling is a euphemism. He makes very little, if any, sales even though he comes for the season every year. He is well-educated, refined and articulate, speaking perfect English. This year, his new wife accompanied him and brought delicious Kashmiri tea to the shop. She had huge almond shaped eyes that she ringed with heavy kohl, making them even larger. At first she spoke very little but by the time our stay in Orchha drew to a close, she was warming to us. As is still typical in Kashmir, the marriage was arranged by their parents, they met only briefly before the engagement/marriage and I was impressed at her apparent devotion to him. He had a sad story about life in Kashmir today. Since we visited the beautiful country, twelve years ago, the conflict between Pakistan and India over Kashmir has continued to disrupt life. With a large number of highly educated people (our friend has a Masters in Mathematics, his wife, in Education), unemployment is at an astonishing 60%.

Our other acquaintance is a Hindu from Gujarat. He also sells jewelry and souvenirs and complained of a steep decline in sales. Both vendors speculated that the internet has something to do with it. But how can people buy without seeing and touching the real thing? Drinking chai in his shop (again his wife brought it to him twice a day), he expounded on his admiration for Modi and how he supported RSS, the militant Hindu organization that foresees an India free of all Moslems and Christians. He didn’t say so, but he would probably like Trump.

Our third ‘friend’ is an American woman in her early 70s who like Gerard left a small town in NH in the 60s and now divides her time between India and Spain. When we first met her, three years ago, she was taking a break from teaching in Mumbai and sitting in a gift shop surrounded by piles of books. I immediately started a conversation of authors and titles we liked. Patricia’s now retired and spends more time in Orchha, informally and somewhat haphazardly teaching young local children English. We asked her, “What happened to all those books?”
“They’re in storage until I can figure out what to do with them.”
“What are you reading now?””
“I’m mostly reading online.”
She gave me the link to the Gutenberg Free Press, a site where you can freely download books that are out of copyright, including the old classics and I’m enjoying rereading Jane Eyre!

The temperature kept rising, hovering close to 100F the day before we left. Fortunately, a dry heat. We had to get up early and make our forays into the countryside early in the morning. Oddly, the open meadows, dotted here and there with trees, reminded me of Devon. It is of course not as lush and green, but thanks to the Betwa River also not as dry and dusty as most of central India.

My favorite spot was beside a brook just outside of town. Sitting on a rock, next to the brook, we noticed a Sadhu getting ready for the day.

Sadhu

After a week in Orchha, we reluctantly left for Delhi on the early morning train, not relishing the same intense heat that would greet us in the city.

Varanasi: Back in my Good Graces

After saying there was less socialization this year, our last few days in Varanasi were anything but.

One evening, Karel and Krystyna invited us to visit them at the Krishnamurti Study Center, where they were staying. Described as a place for self exploration and learning, it’s situated beside the Ganges downstream from Varanasi. Compared with the busy ghats further upstream the Center is an oasis of calm. Cottages sit among a garden, overlooking the “quietly flowing” river.

Krishnamurti would stay here when he visited Varanasi. Born in South India, Krishnamurti was adopted as a boy and groomed by Annie Besant, to become head of the Theosophical Society, founded by Madame Blavatsky back in 1875 in New York. But he renounced Theosophy and belonging to no religious organization spoke personally about spirituality and the problems of living in the modern world advising, ‘we tread lightly on the earth without destroying ourselves or the environment.’ I was attracted to him back in the ’70s.

After sitting through an hour long video of a talk on the power of the mind, we were invited to dinner at the house of Suresh, one of the Indian staff, along with Karel and Kryztyna. An Irishman around our age we met a year ago also joined us for dinner. For the last 20 years, he’s spent a month each year at the Center.With a strong Irish brogue and humor, he loves to tell stories. Informed of my hearing problem, he interrupted with, “Well, dear, that’s no loss.You’re not missing anything!” In the family’s tiny dining room, we were served one course after another.We only saw Suresh’s wife after everybody had been well fed and she stopped cooking. Only downside of the evening was the long rickshaw ride there and back amidst the congestion and pollution of Varanasi streets. Staying on the ghats, we manage to avoid this for most of the time.

On Helene and Remy’s last day in Varanasi, we arrived at Shree Cafe for lunch, and were ushered upstairs where Santosh and family live and there’s a few guestrooms. We were included in the farewell lunch his wife Seema was preparing for Helene and Remy who’ve been staying here for many years and became part of the household. Restaurant meals have little comparison to home cooking. You’re served dishes you never find on a menu. The food is fresh and well-cooked at Shree (Because Santosh is a Brahmin he’s compelled to give the daily leftovers to the cows. Not the practice in most restaurants). But the meal Seema prepared still surpassed anything we’d eaten downstairs.

And this wasn’t the end of the good eating. As chance would have it, on our way to visit Rajesh at his bangle shop in the bazaar, Gerard stopped at a clothing store looking for a shirt. It was a shop that catered to Indians, not the tourist trade. The portly middle aged owner greeted us warmly and served tea. He didn’t have the pure cotton shirt Gerard wanted but assured us he could get the material, dye it to the desired color and have his factory make it. Indian salespeople will promise anything but we thought we’d give it a go. Then he invited us for dinner. Two days later, we arrived back at his shop, expecting to pick up the shirts as promised and go to his home to eat. The shirts weren’t ready and he wasn’t there…. we waited. After a phone call, the shop assistant said, “Follow me.” There’s no way of knowing how these encounters will turn out but we had a good feeling. Off we went in a rickshaw through the busy streets. Fifteen minutes later, getting down in a residential area, our host was waiting at his house, a large multi-story building. He showed us his workshop on the ground floor, hotel rooms above (but with no guests). “Next time, you must stay here!” Then he pulled out a harmonium and began playing for us. Time’s going by, I’m hungry. Where’s the dinner?

Just when I was wondering–he stopped playing, led us up to the third floor, and ushered us into his home. Wonderful aromas coming from the kitchen, we sat down and the food came out, one delicious dish after another. Again, his wife, Lakshmi, served us until we’d had our fill–and more. Finally, she joined us, as jolly as her husband. His 85 year old mother hobbled out on a walker giving us a big toothless smile. Soon it was as if we were old friends. Photographs, gifts, promises to return next year, and we were in a rickshaw on the way back to our hotel. It was one of those chance meetings that turn into something special.

We first met Uschi six or seven years ago in Shree Cafe, but had not connected for several years.She is often away from Varanasi hosting westerners on sightseeing tours or yoga retreats. But this year, she returned home before we left and invited us to visit her and Varun, her five year old son, at Assi Ghat. After so long we needed to reconnect–and we did, despite the street noise coming in through the open window.

Her colorful apartment was filled with toys, musical instruments, books and the obvious love she had for Varun. It was the kind of home I’d have liked growing up! Over chai, we filled each other in with what was going on. By the time we left, I felt like she was a sister.

Just before we moved on to Orcha there was one more surprise. On our last night, coming back through the lane, we caught sight of Martyn and his family sitting in the chai shop. We first met them in Darjeeling six years ago.

There they were again, Martyn, Lilach and two boys, Noam and Ohad; their familiar smiles, the children grown. They’re staying in India for a year, home schooling the kids all the way. We had the time the following morning to have breakfast together and listen to each other’s travel plans.

Noam and Ohad were extremely engaging and charming for being so young; and obviously feel secure, tripping around the world.

Our stay in Varanasi this year did not begin well for me but I”m glad to say it ended on a different note. I was losing rupees, failing to count my change, stumbling on the ghat, missing out on the music and the socializing. I’d had enough of naked sadhus, ringing of bells, and beggars. All a reflection of my state of mind, no doubt. It was simple…I had to drop the negative ways and pay more attention.

This became my focus…just dealing with what was in front of me. And things began to shift. Instead of seeing the ghat as an obstacle course, I was touched by the peace and beauty of the river.

I felt the genuine warmth of the sadhus waving and and beckoning me to join them…and I’m grateful to have friends in Varanasi.

In all its intensity, I realized I love this amazing city. In a moment, the stench of sewage can change to the sweet fragrance of incense, barking dogs turn into mosque calls, and the rising sun transform Varanasi to gold. It is a city of extremes and constant change.