En Plein Air


Among the many things I love about India, and particularly here at the beach, is living outdoors. Reinforcing this is the climate: dry and sunny for eight to nine months of the year, while the remaining months are monsoon rain. Our room opens on to the shared balcony that wraps around the upper story of the guesthouse, and during the day the door is always open. Meals on the balcony and in the evening walking down the long road bordering the beach to our choice of outdoor restaurants. And after dinner, again the leisurely walk home to the guesthouse. Growing up in a climate where for the majority of time it was too cold or too wet to leave doors open, we lived buried deep within walls, walls that had rising damp…walls with peeling paint and plaster…walls surrounding rooms that were dark and gloomy. I always wanted to escape, any excuse to pace up and down the small steep high street of Totnes, monotonous but outdoors. Now, in New England at least we have a summer- spent in the garden or sitting on the front stoop – but too much of life is still indoors. To me it has always felt more natural to live outside. And by some miracle, we find ourselves back here again in Agonda “plein air”!


Last year we talked about “a fine balance”. Well, there’s no balance anymore. Tourism dominates. More restaurants and guesthouses have crowded in. Not the flashy high rises and discos in other parts of Goa, but commercial none the less. The proprietors complain the tourist traffic has not increased accordingly although Gerard thinks there are more people on the beach this year. But our end of the beach remains for the most part unchanged. Same guesthouse, even the same room! Our friends the two couples from England are here again, as is an elderly Swedish couple. In our guest house is the usual group of French suspects. At breakfast when they are all sitting in the garden before mounting their motorbikes and taking off for the day, the animated conversation makes us feel we’re in France. It’s possible to strike up a conversation in English with the men, and especially Jamaal who’s originally from Morocco and loves music as much as Gerard. But the lack of English among the women bothers me because my French is no longer adequate.

One night, Gerard and I ran into a Dutchman married to a Russian who lives in Siberia during the summer and spends winters in India. We first met him in a small restaurant in the Himalayas where the food was passed up through a hole in the floor from the kitchen below, which we all found very entertaining. His story was so unique it was easy to remember and so exciting to see him again.  Divanshu (his Buddhist name) had also been to the KuluValley where we discovered the Russian painter, Roerich, last year. He not only knew about the artist but is a big fan. Also like us, Divanshu is going to Darjeeling and Sikhim for the first time, surprising for someone who’s been coming to India for the past 20 years. He’ll be there before us and promises to give us the lay of the land.


It would be repetitive to describe Agonda yet again (this is our fifth visit here, and third staying at Dominic and Rita’s). So instead, I’ll provide links to earlier entries for those who may be interested.

A Fine Balance (2/24/12), Same, Same but Different (2/7/2012),  Back on the beach again (2/13/11)

Goa Bound

Train rides in India are never a constant and this one is no different. Boarding early in the morning we’re surprised to find an empty compartment and stretch out knowing the solitude will be short-lived. Sure enough, an hour later, a family of several adults and children crowd on to the train and burst into our space. All very excited to begin their Goan holiday, they break open their suitcase full of home-made food and share. Within the confines of their limited mastery of English and our total lack of Hindi we make acquaintance.

Then they bring out playing cards, spread a large white sheet across their laps and the game begins…and continues…and continues…while the little kids climb over the sheet demanding attention. Their boisterous playing reminds us of the Pictionary games the Wiggins family and friends would play at Christmas many years ago. I try to embrace the fracas as an entertaining diversion on an otherwise long train ride!

Not having our own food we order from the onboard kitchen – plain but filling veg biryanis. Eating is a delicate balancing act to avoid everything landing in your lap or on the floor. An urchin with a broom appears crawling along, sweeping up the trash. The boy stops at our feet, holds up his hand and Gerard drops in a 10 rupee note. Then before tedium can set in, the chai wallah arrives, carrying a huge metal urn, a tower of paper cups sticking out of his back pocket. Balancing the urn under his arm, he deftly pours chai from a spigot into paper cups. The tea is rich and sweet, tasting more like hot chocolate.

Long train rides in India require a state of mind, one the Indians adopt naturally. You know you’re not going to get anywhere fast, with constant and often lengthy stops in and outside of stations. You can’t control – who’s going to be your fellow travelers, if they snore, if their children are going to create hell or cry all day/night, the state of the toilets. Surrender is the only option. So you settle in, meditate, sleep, read and watch the landscape roll by. The nostalgic sound of the engine whistling through the night intermingles with our dreams. Over the two days, the ever changing landscape stretches out – the gritty grayness of cities, with their shanty towns hugging the railway tracks, tin roofs littered with satellite dishes (poverty now includes a mobile and a battery operated television), dry dusty planes give way to sub tropical lushness as we approach Goa.

The Fat Man Laughs…and we can too!

My eyes glaze following the rotating baggage carousel round and round. It seems as though I’ve watched the bags tumble down the chute and on to the carousel for hours.  When Gerard’s bag arrived and mine failed to follow, I mutter “I have a bad feeling about this.” “That attitude won’t help,” he admonishes. I continue to scrutinize the carousel until the last few bags dribble out. Finally, after what seems like an eternity, my bag appears and I breathe again.

We head outside into the cold night air – smoky and damp. Even for Delhi in January it’s abnormally frigid. It’s 2 am but I shouldn’t be surprised to see the crowd thronging outside the terminal, to greet arriving family and friends. Delhi is like New York, even in winter it never sleeps.

Our main reason for beginning our trip in Delhi is to spend time with Kamal and Bhushan Mahajan, who welcome us as part of their family. It’s a very special relationship that has grown over the years since we first met their daughter, Shruti, in Boston. They treat us with the same kindness and generosity as they do their own family…perhaps more! And family ties are very strong in India. Bhushan is as concerned about our needs and travel arrangements as if it was Shruti setting out on a journey alone. Above all, we feel comfortable and welcome in their house even at times of sickness or upheaval. And this is the case right now.


While winter days can be a pleasant reprieve from the heat of summer, no one is enjoying this intense cold. With no central heat in the house, we all sit around with our coats on, wrapped in shawls. Concrete houses are notorious for retaining heat in the summer and cold in the winter. Father and grand-daughter have terrible coughs. Hacking away and with nose streaming, four-year old Simrita wants to play, her hands reaching out to grab mine. Being an ardent believer in the germ P1060234 - Copytheory, I’m continually washing my hands.

It’s not an easy time for the family right now. With great reluctance, they must move out of their house by the end of the month and leave a neighborhood they’ve lived in their whole married life. Kamal recently retired from government work (Bhushan retired several years ago) and they have to give up their government accommodation. Many years ago, they bought a small house needing work, in Gurgaon, a now rapidly growing suburb of Delhi. At the time they bought, it was open countryside, quiet and unpolluted.  Since then a modern city has sprung up, characterized by mile after mile of huge shopping malls.

For years they left the house untouched; now the renovation necessary for them to move in, is progressing slowly and become a huge source of tension, the more so since they’re dragging their feet on going to Gurgaon – and time is running out. They take us there to review the work – a number of men are standing around, some languidly painting the walls, some just watching. A stout man rides up on a scooter. Bhushan explains that he cannot speak English, and then introduces him (in English) as the contractor: “this fat man doesn’t know his responsibility.” Not understanding anything, the “fat man” laughs…we all laugh. Gerard wishes Bhushan had taken him up on his offer to act as a site manager (with translator). I wonder how much success he would have had changing work habits, but at least he could have diverted costly mistakes before they were made.  Once the house is ready it will be very nice, but hard to believe it will be finished in time for them to move in at the end of the month.

We’ve become familiar with the area of Delhi they now live in, and are also sorry that this is the last time we’ll be here. Returning to the optician we used last spring, we are greeted by the gentle young Sikh, smiling broadly at seeing us again. He promises he will do his best to make me new progressive lenses that are accurate and of the thinnest material possible. No mean feat since my bad eyesight demands high magnification. And he can turn it around in two days! For Gerard he agrees to put sunglass lenses in a fragile gold frame that he’s had for a number of decades, and no optician in Boston could be bothered to work on them. Two days later we return and he’s done perfect work for both us. My lenses are markedly thinner, and Gerard’s happy to have his old frames again. (They may not last long but he doesn’t care.) And all at a price that is far lower than what the work would have cost in the US, plus we have a discount because we are staying with his long time customer, Mr. Mahajan. Big smiles all around!

The dentist is less successful. We returned to have our teeth cleaned again and consultations for possible dental work. The dentist insisted on x-rays first. Since they only cost $6 we agreed. But the full mouth x-ray was a joke. We stood in front of a machine that rotated around our head, in less than a minute. The x-ray looked like the mouth of a monster fish – all the teeth were visible but in a blurry blue haze and without any detail. The dentist insisted that there was nothing wrong with the teeth we thought needed work and concentrated on the empty space in both our mouths where teeth have been pulled and we’ve never bothered to have work done to fill the space (mostly because of the cost). He gave us several options for an implant or a variety of bridges that could be made in his own lab in a couple of days, and again at price a lot lower than the US. But we decided to wait and try another dentist on our return to Delhi in April. The x-ray had put us off.

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We have little time for sightseeing, but do visit the tomb of Humayan, the father of Akbar the Great. Built in the 16th century it is a magnificent monument of sandstone and marble, symmetrically designed. The building is surrounded by landscaped lawns and flower beds. The Agha Khan helped fund its restoration beginning in the 1990s.


There has been a huge reaction in India and throughout the world to the recent rape and death of a young girl in Delhi. People even asked me, how can you go traveling in India when something like this happens? Well, yes it does happen, and many other terrible things. They happen in India and elsewhere in the world with unfathomable frequency. Nevertheless, it was disturbing to see a large white bill board on the roadside in Gurgaon announcing in black bold print: WAKE UP DELHI.  SHE’S DEAD! Brutally direct, but also encouraging that perhaps Delhi won’t forget this event and the multitude of others, and that the current protests and demonstrations won’t be in vain.  Bhushan’s comment was “It’s not a question of India waking up; it’s more an issue of if she will stay awake! Too many times, critical issues are raised with much fanfare and promptly forgotten about a few weeks later.” Doesn’t sound too different from back home.

With only three days before leaving, our train tickets for Goa are still not confirmed. We made them two months ago, but even then could only be wait listed. With the ever-growing population and increasing wealth of India’s middle class, the train system has become even more crowded. 1.2 billion on the move! Now we have been upgraded to RAC – (reservation against cancellation) which boils down to at least we can board the train, but we don’t have a berth!  RAC begins to sound like the rack. Another hurdle along the way – in this case a thirty-two hour one! Bhushan contacts a friend who might have some influence to try to get us upgraded. He says he’ll do what he can but can’t promise anything. We’re not overly optimistic. Checking the Indian Rail computer site frequently – no change. Then on Sunday morning, four hours before we board the train, our status is upgraded: we both have sleeping berths. Suddenly the confirmed berths in 2AC become such a prize! We’ll be traveling in comfort after all.

Inevitability of Unpredictabilty

Squeezing into our seats aboard a small tired old plane was not an auspicious beginning to our journey half-way around the world.  American Airlines could have done better on our first leg to Heathrow.  But oh what a relief! We can relax. We’re on our way!

The weeks – and in my case months – of planning and preparation are over.  I’d managed to forcibly cram into one small case, everything I needed to give me an illusion of security for the next four months.  It’s not the first time…I should be a pro, but after six consecutive years, it doesn’t get any easier. I plead my case: traveling through the many different temperature zones of India, requires a corresponding variety of outfits.  But why carry warm clothes for three and a half months in the warmer climes?  Gerard nonchalantly says, “We can buy warm clothes when we get to Darjeeling”, a town renowned not only for its tea but for being one of the wettest places in the world.  Far too risky for me! I need to be prepared for any eventuality.

This questions whether I’m really a traveler – or am I just tagging along?  A few weeks ago, when searching for the strongest DEET based mosquito repellent, the young REI shop assistant but with the persona of a seasoned mountain climber, asked where we were going. We described our four month trip across India and he exclaimed with awe, “You’re real travelers!” I felt a fraud!  Would I do this without Gerard’s planning and guidance?  Wouldn’t I be happier staying home, safe in the confines of my everyday life?  St Augustine says, “The world is a book and those who do not travel, read only one page.”  And like the moth is drawn to the light, I know that even if it means having my wings singed, I need to travel.  The dye was cast almost 40 years ago when Gerard took me to North Africa for the first time. I’ll never forget the exhilaration of standing on the road outside Paris waiting for a ride – we hitchhiked everywhere in those days. It was a pivotal moment – I was experiencing the here and now in a way I never had before.  Traveling helps me let go.

I remember our first trip to India as travelers ten years ago.  Without the protected guidance of the organized meditation retreats that took us from Delhi far into remote Rajasthan for many years in the 1980s.  I was fearful – would I get sick… robbed…trampled…lost in the vortex of a culture so mysterious that someone from America can never really fathom? But getting sick, having your pocket picked is just part of everyday life whether you’re in India or on Boylston Street in Boston.  So the question is where is the fear coming from? If you believe, as I do, that the quantity of life is determined, then the ultimate fear of death is abated.  Therefore the fear has to do more with the unpredictability.  Consciously or otherwise I think many of us, like me, spend a lot of time making our lives predictable. We take out health insurance to ensure our health…we save money to ward off poverty…we spend a fortune on beauty products to keep our youth.  But in the end, the only thing predictable is change.

Meanwhile back in Heathrow, the highlight of our five-hour lay over is a hot chocolate, rich and creamy the way it’s supposed to be…it used to be.   Even though the café manager has a distinctly French accent; so what – it was Heathrow.  And then our second 747 plane to Delhi compensates for the previous apology – the middle row all to ourselves is luxuriously spacious.  My failure to remember to book us vegetarian meals in advance no longer matters.  “Madam,” the Indian air hostess laughs, “Going to India, we never have a problem with “Veg”….it’s the chicken we always run out of.” Ah, how comforting – we’re back in the land where vegetarians rule!  “Non Veg” is the exception, the afterthought! All is right with the world…for now.