Dudhsagar Falls

After all night enclosed in an AC train, the early morning air blowing through the iron bars of the open carriage window feels exhilarating.  We’re now on an unreserved general seating train that we boarded in Londa Junction for Goa.  It’s crowded and not clean by any stretch – but we find seats beside the window where the view is spectacular. 
The train travels through a mountainous jungle with craggy red outcroppings.  Water percolating out of the top of the mountain, cascades down a long rock face, passing underneath the train – so close water almost splashes on the side of our carriage- and continues further down the mountain out of sight. The Dudhsagar waterfall is impressive even during the dry season. 
The passengers, predominantly young male Indians, are out to enjoy the ride.  Like sports fans on their way to a game they whistle and catcall every time the train goes through a tunnel – and there are many!  The boys take pictures of each other on their mobile phones.  Fearless, they hang backwards out of the open doorway of the train, striking a pose with a deep ravine below them.
Everyone seems happy except for a heavyset Indian woman sitting in the far corner of the compartment and who appears to be traveling alone.  She fixes a steady gaze on me, her brow furrowed in a dark frown.  I shift uneasily in my seat, tugging at my skirt.  Am I showing too much calf?  In a society where a bare midriff, no matter how plump, is the norm, it is incongruous that any naked flesh above the ankle is traditionally unacceptable.  But I believe her disapproval is directed less at me, and more at the raucous boys she’s forced to share the compartment with. 
At Castle Rock Station, named after a large outcropping, everyone gets off the train.  It feels like a southwest town in the 30s – except ten gallon hats have been substituted by turbans.  We expect John Wayne to come swaggering out from the saloon into the dry dusty heat and draw his gun.  But instead, the boys from Bangalorestep down from the train and planting their feet in the red dust draw mobile phones from their holsters to shoot yet more photos.  Meanwhile Gerard and I find a chai stall.  Business is slow, and the Sikh behind the counter appears to be dozing.  Hanging above the stall is a huge picture of Gurinder Singh of Beas.  As we acknowledge his Guru, the stall owner leaps to attention and folding his hands greets us with “Radhasoami”.  After a few minutes, the clanging sound of someone hitting a piece of metal rail signals the train is leaving.  And we continue at a snail’s pace crawl through the mountains, made slower by impatience to reach Goaand the beach… 

Birthday in Bangalore

A huge white plastic statute of the Hindi God Shiva towers above us, suspended in the hazy sunshine of the polluted city air.  Below devotees sit around a pond surrounded by a labyrinth of grey Styrofoam rocks.  We make a donation and walk through the labyrinth where a series of glass cases display the gods and rituals of the Hindu faith.  Instructed, we throw coins and float lighted candles on the pond and make a prayer. Recorded Hindi music completes the tableau. This newly constructed Shiva temple is aptly squashed behind a shopping mall, epitomizes modern urban India, and especially Bangalore, the hi tech capital of India.
We have come here only to see Shruti (Bushan and Kamal’s daughter) and her husband, Arvind, who’ve relocated there for work. The city holds no pull for us otherwise.  Growing at a phenomenal rate, city facilities cannot keep up.  Crossing the road in Bangalore is like Moses crossing the Red Sea. Only through God’s grace do the cars part long enough for us to scamper across; and then the honking mini monsters flood back in spewing their noxious fumes.  The sidewalks are a mass of broken concrete slabs with holes and crevasses with who knows what lives.  With little incentive to leave Shruti’s apartment we focus our attention on the family.. 
It’s wonderful to be with Shruti and Arvind and three year old Simrita.  She speaks remarkably good English because she’s already learning it in preschool; amazing how a child can adapt between English and Hindi, and because a year ago she spoke about as much English as we speak Hindi.. She remembers nursery rhymes better than I can. Something incongruous of girl in Indiasinging “jingle bells, jingle bells, oh what fun it is to ride in a one horse open sleigh…..”
With all good intentions Shruti planned an entertaining week with us but her contract work was extended.  The most serious was emergency surgery for Arvind’s sister was almost fatal.  Arvind was on Skype most of the night communicating back to the US.  After three separate surgeries, she’s now in intensive care and hopefully through the worst. On a less serious note, Shruti lost her maid and cook for the week we were there.  Gerard was called into service…but not as the cook!

We celebrated Gerard’s birthday, with an eggless Black Forestcake with real whipped cream that was delicious!  And the celebration continued for me with a trip to the beauty parlor- while Gerard stayed home and washed dishes.  Shruti bought a discount package on the Internet – my first spa treatment! It took over three hours – first, one young Indian girl administered a ‘chocolate facial’, painstakingly applying massaging an authentic smelling goop; then another kneaded my scalp with olive and coconut oils.  To complete the pampering, I sat on Astroturf my feet dangling in a pool full of tiny fish who immediately swarmed around and began nibbling my feet.  After the initial shock, I actually began to enjoy the tingling sensation of their little teeth chomping away on my dry skin.  An ultra feminine saried Indian woman sat down next to me and dangled her feet.  Tired of my dry skin, the fish swarmed to her feet.  “Ticklish, Madam!” she giggled. It was also her first experience of skin eating fish.

After all this excitement, it was time to say goodbye to our hosts, and leave Bangalore on the night train for Goa.  

Rajasthani Express

Our train compartment is suddenly flooded with white blue fluorescent light. It’s 6 am and still dark outside. I’ve been awake since 2 am–unable to sleep, trying to mediate, struggling with my overactive mind, sitting upright on the upper bunk, my head skimming the compartment ceiling. It’s a relief to see the boy arrive with morning tea. Granted it’s “dip-dip” tea and powdered milk, but soaking “Marie” biscuits in the tea heightens the pleasure.  Woken from sleep, the compartment comes alive; the Hindu Times is delivered and the Indian gentleman opposite us is sitting up in his bed, drinking his tea and reading the paper. It could almost be an English bed and breakfast scene  – I’m fascinated at how the Indians replicate and keep alive the British traditions. 
The prospect of a 34-hour train ride was daunting when we were planning the trip. But I had forgotten – getting on the train in Indiayou enter the zone —clickety clickety click. The reassuring sound of the engine whistling through the night. The Rajasthani Express – a cut above the others.  Meals are included and served at frequent intervals throughout the day on British schedule. Morning tea is followed by breakfast; lunch a three course meal, beginning with Magee powdered soup and ending with ice-cream is followed by afternoon tea, and then dinner replicates lunch.  Both meals are the same, separate cartons of rice, soupy dahl and subji on a tray.  Eating is a delicate balancing act to avoid everything landing in your lap or on the floor.  But a sinewy man with a mop appears after each meal and mops up any spillage along with discarded newspapers, and other trash, seeing how the Indians have no concept of dustbins!
Sleeping, reading, writing – the hours pass away. no conversations with fellow travelers this time.  Two women replace the men, they smile and offer us sweets – a sticky conglomerate of coconut, ghee and sugar, but they can’t speak English.  The train is unusually quiet. – a small child across the corridor, makes little noise. He stares at us so intently we have to check in the mirror to see we haven’t grown a second head.
In this world of dip-dip tea, the only real cuppa is when the train rests at a platform for more than a few minutes and and chai wallahs descend. Porters in their red uniforms stagger by balancing two or more huge suitcases on their heads. If rats freak you out it’s wise not to look down between the train and the platform, where they feed well on the refuse from trains.
One more night of fitful sleep, and the train arrives in Bangalore, un characteristically on schedule – too early for Arvind who’s meeting us.  But it’s Sunday morning and by Bangalorestandards the traffic is relatively light.  Before too long we’re sitting in Shruti and Arvind’s apartment drinking tea.

Lohri and Birthdays in Delhi

India-and especially Delhi – is now so familiar that we no longer feel we’ve been transported to a different planet – the street sweepers, the beggars, the polluted air – all seem more than familiar.  And yet the fascination remains.  Of course, being adopted by a family that greets us with open arms on our entry, makes it even easier to adjust from one culture to the next.
We persuade Bushan that it’s unnecessary to meet us at the airport now the new metro extends there.  It’s clean, efficient and convenient.  The frequency of the trains makes a mockery of Heathrow’s unreliability.. It feels good to walk the short distance from the station to Bushan’s house. Raynoo who has been cooking and cleaning for them since we first visited is in the kitchen making us breakfast.  It is six years, since she dressed me in a sari for Shruti’s wedding. After she’s fed us, she sits down and eats.  She’s frustrated that I still can’t talk with her in Hindi.  Her few English phrases out match my even fewer Hindi words.  
The relationship of the Indian family with the people who cook, clean, garden, drive for them, fascinates me.  I only have the experience of this family so I can’t generalize.  But there is a give and take – a mutual loyalty and genuine concern for each other.  Bushan loves to tease Raynoo and she is quick to deflect his jest and give it back to him.  Smaller than me, she’s a human dynamo with eyes as black as coal that gleam with a determination you would not want to get in the way of.  But she has a huge grin and buoyancy despite the hand life’s dealt her.  Married at 14, she has a 13 year old daughter and 10 year old son.  Her parents didn’t know the boy they’d chosen for her was mentally inadequate – the boy’s family rushed the marriage to hide the fact. Years later, he went back to live with his mother, who refuses to give Raynoo any financial support. So she works for several families to care for her children and incapacitated parents.
Friendship is important to Bushan and it’s not a huge surprise that he has friends going back to his first day in kindergarten.  He takes us to meet one who is a very successful clothes exporter, selling worldwide to all the major brands, from Walmart to Armani – and in between.  His office is an oasis of calm and elegance on a chaotic Delhistreet. Stylishly dressed young employees wander in and out, carrying armfuls of samples for his review – a myriad of fine fabrics and wonderful colors and patterns.  The exports are private labeled, and eyeing the racks, I see all the familiar retailers represented.  
Tea is served – no earthy chai but a “dip dip” tea bag, the tag delicately hanging over the side of a fine bone china cup. He asks his assistant (her tight black skirt and sweater offset by multi colored leg warmers and scarf) to take me into the back room where there are racks and racks of sample blouses. Pick what you like, she says. I feel like the proverbial kid in a candy store.  I narrow it down to two to try on and then pick one that is too big for me. No problem – she calls in a tailor brandishing a tape measure who delicately takes my measurements as if I might shatter like a glass flower if touched. The altered top will be with the doorman in half an hour…Both the items I first selected are waiting immaculately folded and wrapped in plastic. 
Once again we are in Indiafor a holiday – not a big coincidence since there are so many holidays.  Lohri marks the beginning of harvest – the sowing of crops, and is celebrated with bonfires.  It reminds me of Guy Fawkes day on Nov 5 in England– Just as we used to collect “a penny for the Guy” to buy fireworks – Indian children go door to door collecting firewood to build the fires..  Lohri also happens to be the birthday of Sat Naam, the young boy who works for Swaran (Bushan’s sister-in-law) and the day before Bushan’s birthday. (it is the only Indian festival that is not determined by the lunar calendar). Swaran invites us all for a celebration dinner. After the fire is blazing, we circle, chanting and throwing on offerings of popcorn and sweets. Shruti’s arthritic grandmother struggles out of her room and blesses us with offerings of special Lohri sweets – sesame ladoo balls, while everyone sings Happy Birthday to Sat Naam who bashfully ignores us.
Spending most of our time in country areas and small towns we can forget the immense population problem of India.  But the cities like Delhiare a glaring reminder. It takes us two hours to go across town in the early evening. Returning four hours later, it takes only twenty minutes. The traffic is chaotic and it’s a miracle from our perspective that anyone survives on the roads..  A group of beggar children play in the median, a scene reminiscent of Slum Dog Millionaire. So deprived and yet joyous in their play.  A mother arrives and demands each child in turn to hand over their earnings. The oldest boy refuses – she chases him around the median and cuffs him around the ears.  As the traffic begins to move, a small skinny boy performs cartwheels between the line of vehicles – a precarious act of abandonment and complete lack of caution. 

The Longest Hour in Heathrow

With only one hour to make our connecting flight at Heathrow, we knew we were cutting it short. At the time we booked, it seemed like a good idea, but now it seems misguided. Even though the plane to Delhi takes off from the same terminal we arrive in, we still have to take a shuttle to the departure gate.. Following the flow, we rush down to the boarding platform. A train sits there, stalled because the doors won’t open. After an interminable wait, it leaves with doors still closed, its passengers trapped. Another interminable wait of at least 15 minutes….

Even though the Gate is well in walking distance, its mandatory to take the shuttle. A yellow “help line” phone makes its presence known; Gerard dials just as a train is finally arriving. “You have to go through security check before boarding the train,” we’re told. So we run back up the escalator and find security. First Gerard is patted down thoroughly; then my back pack is removed from the conveyor belt. A zombie in the guise of a security checker proceeds to methodically remove every item from my back pack and like a jeweler testing the validity of a precious diamond, holds each item close to the thick lenses of his round wire glasses for cross examination. The clock is ticking – we now have half an hour till take off.. You’ll make your flight he tells me, while taking even longer to empty my pack as if to test my confidence in his word. It’s not appreciated. The inevitably of spending the night – and maybe longer – in Heathrow airport is becoming ever more real.

This year we bought new lighter – but yet smaller – suitcases. I compensated with a larger back pack. I watch in desperate fascination at how much I had managed to stuff into the bag and that he is now pulling out item by item at the speed of a sleep walker. I want to wrench the bag from him, stuff everything back in and make a dash for it. Short and skinny, he seems a push over; I could easily wrestle him to the ground – but. what if he calls for reinforcement?

Finally he sends my now empty bag back through the xray machine, along with my various potions and lotions that I had failed to bag according to aviation regulations – and hands everything back to me. With adrenaline pumping in overdrive, we dash back to the train platform. Again we wait and wait… I dial the yellow help phone again and shout at the operator, Call Gate C6 – tell them we’re coming and to hold the flight. It is now barely 15 minutes to take off. She assures us a train is coming…and within minutes it does. We run from the train to an elevator, picking up another frantic passenger on the way – and with a few wrong turns finally to the gate.

 Everyone has boarded. A line of idle desk attendants greets us as we cross the finishing line – no cheering – but I don’t care; their professional smiles are just as welcome. The nearest attendant inspects our boarding passes and waves us on as she announces over the loudspeaker, Gate C6 for Flight 2430 is now closed. Sighing with relief, I feel my body physically deflating as the adrenaline escapes like gas from a hot air balloon – I can finally relax.  It has been a LONG hour…