Dulikhel: Blast from the Past


It was a short journey to our next destination, Dulikhel, but not an easy one – beginning with dragging our suitcases down the hill over the uneven cobblestones to the main road to catch the local bus. “No problem,” the guesthouse patron told us “they go by every five minutes all day long (200 in total). You’ll easily get your cases on!” Well, there were a lot of buses, but where did our bus halt? As each bus pulled in, we had to yell “Dulikhel?” They were all filled and overflowing, so we ran after one that stopped long enough, pushed our way on and stood jammed in the aisle for most of the one and a half hour journey. In the crush, a lady gave us a warm welcoming smile, as if to say, “Don’t worry, it will be all right” – and it was! Arriving in Dulikhel we had to haul our cases for a couple of miles up a steep and busy road leading out of town, continually asking people for directions to our guest house which was not sign-posted.


The guidebook described Snow View as a ‘blast from the past’. Anyone who traveled in third world countries during the 60s and 70s would understand. The guesthouse is BASIC…but clean and adequate. The family who live below and cook vegetarian food for us, straight from their garden, are wonderful. For us that makes up for any lack of mod cons. After the hubbub of Bhaktapur it’s so quiet and rural – but 5,000 feet up decidedly chilly at night and we sleep under a thick quilt with plenty of layers of clothing.


As I lay in bed that night barely warm enough and unable to sleep, my unoccupied mind flashed back over many business trips. So easy – I just boarded a plane, and on landing, hailed a taxi which took me to my Marriott/Westin/Hilton hotel (very comfortable but completely indistinguishable) – I was there. Very different from today’s brief but complicated journey. But I realized that I would much rather stand on a crowded bus and drag my suitcase up a steep stony road for 20 minutes etc. than have to endure the stresses and strains of business travel –giving a presentation, last minute preparing the night before, running to Kinkos before it closed to make slides (before we could use laptops) business meals with people you don’t know and wouldn’t otherwise choose to spend the evening with – and so on. Of course, there were trade-offs and exceptions – interesting places like Israel, Bosnia and Brazil, on occasion establishing a relationship that went beyond business – but these were not the norm. The conveniences of business travel did not make up for the angst. Putting that all to rest, I finally drifted off to sleep.


Unfortunately, clouds have been gathering for a couple of days, and here in Dulikhel where the mountains are supposed to be spectacular – once again they’re shrouded.  Sadly familiar of Sikkim last spring. We climbed 1000 steps up to a temple. Nice view of the surrounding hills and valley, and just the glimpse of a mountain peak. But the next morning, the sky had cleared and we were able to make out the long range of mountains stretching across the horizon. Walking down a country lane above the valley for a mile or so, we sat for hours on a grassy mound enjoying the view. Not a sight we tire of easily.  I try to hold the feeling of the power and stillness of the majestic Himalyas.


From Dukilhel we had to return to Katmandu before continuing our journey eastward to Pokhara. The local bus was crowded but cleaner and more comfortable than our overall experience with buses in India. Back in Katmandu, paths coincided with our Australian friends yet again before they were leaving Nepal. We had a leisurely dinner where they gave us the highlights of their trek in the mountains. Next morning we joined them for tea on the flower-filled rooftop of their guesthouse and they continued to talk about their apprehensions of going back to the workaday world. Then they loaded their backpacks and we waved them off in a taxi to the airport. Before heading home to Australia, they had one last stop in Bali at a luxury yoga spa with classes that are supposed to help open the third eye. If it works they promised to let us know!

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In the evening, looking to find some magic potion that will cure Gerard’s sinus infection and insistent cough we head down side streets. Helpful shopkeepers direct us rightside.. downside…inside outside…I have no idea where we’re going – neither does Gerard but with his stellar sense of direction, I know he will find his way back. Leaving the tourist lights and activity, we’re in winding dark alleys, so familiar to the medinas in Morocco. And then hidden away behind half-shuttered doors is a pharmacy still open – behind the counter a young girl who manages to retrieve from a wall stuffed with unidentifiable packets and packages, an asthma inhaler and cough mixture – neither of which include much in the way of directions for use.


By now it’s late for dinner but I want to visit the little Tibetan restaurant one more time. It looks closed because the power’s out, but when we step through the curtain, the girl is welcoming and even though they’ve closed the kitchen, says, “For you, we will be happy to make thupka.” She remembered us! Once again, Gerard’s knack of making an impression paid off!


The next morning before light, we hauled our cases through the dark streets to the bus terminal to start the journey to Bandipur. As an easier alternative to the local bus, we’ve prepaid and reserved seats on the tourist bus for Pokara, even though we’re only going two-thirds of the way. But when we arrived at the “terminal” there was a long line of 30 or so almost identical tourist buses on the side of the road. How on earth would we find our bus? Crossing the street, we just happened to arrive right beside “Swiss Travel – the one we were looking for!” So it was easy after all. Seated in the back of the bus, we were surrounded by Chinese – the major tourist group in Nepal these days. A young Chinese girl across the aisle exercised her limited English to address Gerard, “Are you retired?” Guess it’s pretty obvious! The only other westerner on the bus was a boy from Los Angeles, pursuing a degree in Development Studies, and doing an internship in Patan setting up services for HIV patients (still a relatively small group in Nepal). He was taking time off with his girlfriend from Slovakia, (he’d met while at college in Switzerland) who was visiting for a couple of weeks. After studying in so many overseas, locations, we asked him if he’d return to LA to live. He said emphatically, “No! Somewhere in Europe would be preferable.” When the conversation steered toward our travels in the 60s, he admitted he was very envious; not just the lack of internet, but not even a guidebook; relying on fellow travelers for basic information about your next destination. He smiled and said, “I wish I could have done that.” We bid them farewell as we got down in a very dusty and unremarkable town called Dumre to catch a local bus up the hill side to Bandipur.





The election is now over but not forgotten.

Bhaktapur: A Place to Return


In Kathamandu we were awestruck by Darbar Square and the ancient structures throughout the old town. But then we went to Patan and the Darbar Square there was even more exotic, and walking through the town revealed so many enclosed squares and courtyards only accessible through small portals. Now landing in Bhaktapur, most of the town, not to mention three major squares, was built between the 14th and 16th Cs.


And even many new buildings are built in the Newari style of the period with the same workmanship and artistry, demonstrating the Nepali pride in their culture. To encourage local people to build in the traditional style, the municipality is in fact distributing grants for woodcarving, brick and tile work. We can’t imagine any other city in the Valley that will surpass this. Gerard with his love of antiquity is in his element!


Bhaktapur is reputed to be one of the ten cleanest cities in Asia and we have been dulyimpressed by how many trash cans are located around the city and people actually using them. The brochure advertised the city as being traffic-free, but this is not true. Like India, it’s obviously impossible to enforce things like traffic rules in Nepal. Most of the vehicles are motorcycles, and “one lungers”, tiny tractors with one piston engine that chug by early in the morning to deliver to the restaurants and hotels, or pick up trash.

Our guesthouse, the Khowpa, is an antique right in the middle of the old town just off the main square. The ceilings are barely six feet tall and the carrying beam even lower. But it’s cozy and clean, the patron is wonderfully helpful… and best of all it’s reasonably priced in an otherwise high-end market.

4 (2)We’re both a little surprised at how expensive food and lodging is; a country poorer than India, yet prices are higher. Initially an entrance fee to Bhaktapur of a whopping $11 each was irksome, but within a short time we could see where the money was being used – to maintain the historic building, keep the city clean and encourage traditional crafts.  Money well spent!


Walking tours in the guide book trace a zig-zag route through many of the neighborhoods, each peppered with little squares and temples. In Taumadhi Tole, the second largest square, the most imposing temple is reached via a huge stone staircase – at regular intervals a pair of statues either side of the stairs guard the temple. The representations are fiercer the higher the stairs but conversely smaller in size: on the first rung are a pair of human wrestlers, then elephants, gargoyles, demons, until on the top step is the frightening god Kali. Another temple houses a god that is so ferocious that no one, except the priest, is allowed to enter inside. There’s always a group of people hanging around the doorway making offerings to the deity   or perhaps like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird they can’t keep away even though it’s so scary!


The 1936 earthquake caused much damage in Nepal. We’ve noticed a lot of cracks in the old buildings – one leans so much it looks as if it will fall down. Why don’t they repair when they’re doing so much new building with such care? They reply, “Why bother? We’ll wait till after another earthquake when the building completely falls down and then we’ll rebuild.”  You have to love the logic!


As the obvious takes place on the street, the more private home life can be seen on the rooftops spread across the city. Women wash clothes…dry their hair…children play…roosters in cages crow night and day. In the early morning light, a grey haired lady in a beautifully colored sari carefully waters her plants from a large brass bowl. When finished, she touches the empty bowl to her forehead in gratitude, or perhaps prayer?

At dusk the snow-capped mountains turn from white to pink to lavender.


One of the biggest challenges here (other than getting a decent meal – Nepalis eat a lot of meat especially buffalo and eggs are classified as a vegetable) is to stay attentive and absorb as much as possible of all the fine historic architecture laden with exquisite wood carving. One of the best examples is the Peacock Window.


There is such a proliferation of one magnificent building after another that we have a tendency to stop looking and became blasé about our surroundings, and look no further than the end of our nose. This place definitely deserves repeated visits to take in more than on first glance so we’ve decided to stay several more days. It’s very exciting to discover a town you feel you could come back to numerous times and still find it fascinating.

On Election Day everything came to a standstill. There was no traffic and no garbage pick up… the peace and quiet were the tradeoff for other inconveniences it caused. From the long lines at the many polling booths around town it seems everyone is voting. Our patron proudly says, “Democracy!” as he shows us his ink-stained finger indicating that he’s cast his vote. Despite the boycott and strike, an estimated 70% voted adding insult to injury to the marginalized Maoist groups. So the pendulum swings – 8 years of getting little or nothing done, they had to go.


There’s a strong mood of anticipation – and a surfeit of police security wandering around with their batons. Some unrest was reported (25 injured throughout the whole of Nepal) but nothing too serious. In the evening everyone gathers around the polling booths where young people are counting the results from printed sheets. For those who can’t read, each candidate has a symbol – a tree, a drum, a hammer and sickle etc. It takes over three days for all the counting nationwide to be completed manually. Meanwhile men gather around computer screens displaying the TV news from Kathmandu waiting for the results to be posted. Finally the breaking news – Congress has slim majority over the Communists while the Maoists have taken a severe beating.

It seems like most of the people who come to Nepal are trekkers, especially so in P1070585 - CopyKathmandu which was crowded with them, coming and going. We love the mountains but the time for trekking has come and gone for us – we don’t have a lot of shared experience with these people. But Bhaktapur is not a place you come to stock up on mountain gear; it appears to us people stay here breaking from trekking, to absorb a town that is renowned for its traditional arts and crafts.


Several interesting people we’ve met in our age bracket (give-or-take) have all been in Nepal 20-30 years ago and are now retracing their steps. A spry Irishman just off the boat from Tipperary, retired and spending his winters here teaching teenagers English. But he realized that public school children who had no kindergarten were starting with a huge disadvantage than those who went to private school and attended kindergarten. So now most of his time is taken up with establishing public school kindergartens across the city to narrow the gap. We asked him if he was lonely. “No way!” he says, “Nepalis are so friendly I have more than enough social interaction.”

A Canadian has returned with his son to see how much Nepal has changed in thirty 13years. But who we’ve spent the most time with is an Australian. Michael, a computer programmer for heavy industry, was last here in the early 80s. Quitting his job, he has come back to Nepal and trekked up as high as 5,100 meters. Later he’ll move on to India. Gerard and I gave him a few ideas for his itinerary based on places we know and love. Hours spent sharing memories of our travels to common places decades ago – Yugoslavia before Tito’s death, East Berlin before the wall came down….long discussion over breakfast in a restaurant that could be a NYC diner with its checkered tablecloths, bustling waiters and coffee-brewing aroma; while out of the window we enjoy a spectacular view of ancient Bhaktapur temples that is worlds away from NYC.

Michael leaves Bhaktapur before us. It’s unlikely we’ll see him again, but you never know. He says, “Traveling is saying goodbye.” Yes, it is but so isn’t living – nothing is permanent, we move on – obviously at a slower pace in our daily life than when traveling – but we always have to say goodbye. As we say goodbye to Bhaktapur, even though we may return, we will never see it again for the first time.


Courtyards and Squares of Patan


Close to Kathmandu, conventional wisdom is to visit Patan for the day. But eager for change, we decide to spend a couple of days. It is less of a tourist destination meaning fewer conveniences for Westerners.  But the upside is that once the tourists and buses have come and gone for the day, we have the place relatively to ourselves.


Patan’s Darbar Square has some of the finest collection of Newari temples and palaces in Nepal. With a long Buddhist as well as Hindu history, the stupas date back to the Buddhist emperor Ashok in around 250 BC. Even more interesting is the myriad of squares and courtyards we discovered down the surrounding narrow streets.


Sanu’s Homestay sounded good on tripadvisor but in reality it was a dump! Not only beside a busy main road, to make matters worse they were digging up the sewer line right in front. Not a pretty sight or smell! So we sat in the taxi cab and called around for an alternative while some biting insect made a meal out of Gerard’s back. Why do they always ignore me? I’d post a picture of the trail of angry red welts but Patan is more interesting.

P1070463Only Norwegian House had availability. Situated in a rather surreal area dominated by expats, diplomats, NGOs and charitable organizations, it’s a hostel for young Norwegians who are doing volunteer work here. The bakery café where we eat breakfast is staffed by young deaf mutes and the restaurant further down supports women in small business.

Finding restaurants with vegetarian food was difficult and sharing a bathroom with P1070374several young students not ideal, so we decided to stay only a couple of days and then push on to Bhaktapur.


The hostel manager persuaded us to take a taxi because of the infrequency of the buses due to the strike. Further she commented looking at our suitcases, “You’ll never be able to get on!” Sure enough, as we left town, we passed a couple of overflowing buses with a slew of men perched on the roof.DSC_0317



Kathmandu: Hinduism, Buddhism and Tourism


We were excited to go to Nepal. A new country – although not so different in many ways from where we’ve been in northern India. Nepal and India are similar; yet they are also very different. One big difference is that Nepal didn’t suffer at the hands of the Moslems as India did and its heritage has remained largely intact.

Also, we looked forward to meeting up again with an Australian couple we befriended last spring in Darjeeling. They have now been traveling for nearly a year. Unfortunately we only had one evening with them to hear about their travel and the kind of impact it’s had on them. Barbara, a school teacher on sabbatical and Jim, a scientist, confident he’ll get another job when he returns. It’s not always easy for the most compatible to get along when you’re traveling together but Barbara says the experience has brought them closer. She’s also enjoyed being no one other than herself…not a school teacher, nor a mother – just Barbara. Feeling a different person she doesn’t want to just slip back into her old life when she returns. As the Buddhists say: “Before enlightenment – chopping wood and hauling water. After enlightenment – chopping wood and hauling water!”

Little did we know we would arrive here in the midst of a Congressional Assembly Election, and how it would impact our stay in the Kathmandu Valley. Out of a disproportionate 124 parties vying for seats, there are 3 major parties: Congress, Maoist and Communist. 33 splinter groups decided to boycott the election and call for a ten-day general strike for reasons not completely clear to us. The first day of the strike, the shops are all shut and there is a near total ban on transportation (creating a wonderful peace and space on otherwise busy congested streets). But by evening, some shops have reopened, and by the second day many have. Over the next few days, the transportation ban is eased, theoretically allowing tourists to come and go, but some public buses are firebombed. No deaths are reported, but several passengers are injured, some critically. We tried to get information about how serious the strike is and how dangerous it is to ride the buses but no one can give us a clear answer.

All of this has limited our mobility and caused us to stay longer in the valley than planned. The days prior to the election we saw people lining up to get their voting cards. The young patron in the CD store says he won’t vote.  He doesn’t like politics – not surprising in the circumstances. But he claims voter turnout is more than 50% even though there’s so much contention. This morning we read that the border has been sealed for 72 hours, during the period of the election. Jimmy Carter, looking endearingly fragile, has arrived to oversee the election. Though without buses running many are prevented from returning to their home town to vote – it’s hard to see how it can be anything close to a fair election.

ImageA museum in Darbar Square revealed something of Nepal’s disturbing political history. In a bloody massacre in 2001 the king and queen and eight other members of royal family were shot by the crown prince who then turned the gun on himself, for reasons unclear. Suspicions center on the old chestnuts: India and the CIA. But we’ll never know. The crown prince’s brother became king. In the museum, I devoured endless photographs of the last three generations of monarchs their wives and children. Particularly haunting were the larger than life portraits above the reception desk in our hotel of the murdered king and queen looking serene and innocent.

Meanwhile a Maoist insurgency that began in 1996 and lasted a decade brought the country to its knees. Development stalled, tourism dwindled and Nepal’s media was described as the world’s most censored. In 2006 the king dissolved the government and called a state of emergency in order to crush the Maoist rebels. After weeks of protest, the King reinstated parliament and the Maoists and government officials signed a peace accord ending centuries’ long rule of monarchy.


Enough of the politics already!  Nepal has three major religions –Hinduism, Buddhism and Tourism! Hinduism and Buddhism are uniquely intermingled – they even worship at the same temples. It helps that Buddhism is not strictly a religion but is focused on philosophy and a code of morality and neither religion is interested in conversion. In fact our friends in Delhi made the comment that Buddhism is an offshoot of Hinduism anyway.


So many temples…so little time… But the ones that distinguish themselves the most are Swayambhunath, (commonly called the monkey temple for obvious reasons) sitting high up above the city, reached via an arduous flight of stairs. Nepal’s recorded history rises from the fog of antiquity. Emperor Akbar allegedly visited Swayambhunath in 250 BC, but the earliest confirmed activity is 450 AD. Ancient carvings are crammed into every square inch. It’s predominantly a Buddhist shrine but in the midst of it is a Hindu temple.


Even more impressive was Boudnath, Asia’s largest stupa, dating by legend back to 600 AD. The first stupa was wrecked by Mogul invaders in 14C; since then it has been rebuilt several times most recently after the 1936 earthquake. The simplicity and purity make it unique. And the thriving life in the surrounding narrow streets and monasteries gives an opportunity to peep into the Buddhist community.

Nepal’s third “ism” is in its full-blown glory in the Thamel district where we are staying – a maze of traffic-jammed streets and alleyways in the old town. It abounds with trekking stores packed with North Face gear and restaurants competing with a range of cuisine – falafel and fried potato roll-up, Tibetan momo, Nepalese thali, pizza and gourmet coffee.  In 1955 Katmandu had one restaurant, the guide-book estimates today there are 2400 shops and restaurants probably many more than that. There are also an abundance of Tibetan craft shops overflowing with souvenirs. Gerard comments that they could stop manufacturing for over a decade and they still wouldn’t run out of inventory! There are also roaming hash salesmen. Gerard is proposed several times a day – “Hash? Smoke?”  is thrown out into the ether so it can be retracted if G turns out be an undercover cop. (Must be that pony tail!) But the hippies are far now outnumbered by trekkers.


Having an aversion to restaurants where a surfeit of waiters hover around, I look for the little restaurants serving the locals. Down an alley we found one behind a doorway curtained with a Tibetan motif.  Two young people man the kitchen at the back of the room, while a very attractive girl serves the handful of tables in the front. The food is limited to Tibetan momo  and thupka (soup) but excellent. While we’re eating,  a Chinese couple walk in who do not look like tourists except for their hiking boots. In a worse position than us they can speak no Nepalese, Tibetan or English. The broken English between the Chinese girl and the Tibetan waitress is so bad it is as if each has a speech impediment. The pathos in two people who physically look quite similar being unable to communicate. It took a lot of creative hand gesturing to indicate that they wanted soup.  The waitress is reluctant to take their Chinese money but they have nothing else. Gerard offers to pay but she says it’s ok. Later we ask the waitress about herself.  Her parents came to Nepal from Tibet 40 years ago. Born here, she speaks Nepalese and only a little Tibetan. She didn’t know if her parents came together or met when they got here. Sad a young person should know so little about her heritage. When we left everyone was all smiles!


We were warned of the pollution of Kathmandu – overwhelmed by an influx of Tibetan refugees, tourists, and traffic. It was indeed very dusty but the pollution was nothing compared with the yellow smog of Delhi. Since we arrived in Nepal nine days ago, the sun has shone brightly, the sky blue and climate pleasant. Interestingly, Nepal has the greatest water resources in the world, second only to Brazil. First time in our travels, that we haven’t had to be concerned about water usage.

Why India…again?

As we prepared for our sixth annual return, a friend asked me, “Why do you keep going back to India – to escape from winter?” It was a fair question that caused me to reflect. I’ve shared the personal challenges I face traveling in India. So why do I choose to return?

Well yes, it is a cheap escape…and I tell my friend about the beach in Goa – the endless stretch of white sand, constant sunshine and blissfully warm water. Comparable to any South Seas island resort and a fraction of the price! But India offers much more than a seductive beach experience. Via one of the world’s largest railway networks (71K miles of track with over 7K stations) we have traveled throughout this vast and diverse subcontinent – from the Hindu temple towns of Tamil Nadu in the south, to the cave carvings and paintings at Ellora and Ajunta, the Mogul ruins on the plains of Madhya Pradesh and imperial monuments of Calcutta. And still further north, the steep hill station retreats of Shimla and Darjeeling. The railway ends there but buses can take us further north into the foothills of the snow-capped Himalayas. A country with so much diversity – physically, economically and spiritually – continues to exert its powerful magnetism.

Indian Railways are convenient and cheap – even before applying the 50% discount for females over 62! With an estimated 25 million passengers on any given day, the problem is getting a seat. We now need to book well in advance for 2AC reservations which diminishes much of the spontaneity of travel. But we can travel huge distances for very little money. The initial prospect of a three-day journey is daunting…36 hours on a train? For sure, there’ll be dirty toilets, disruptive children, and loud snorers. But the upside is a spontaneous admittance to Indian culture. We literally live with our fellow passengers, sharing food, stories and sleeping alongside each other. Porters supply us with clean bedding and take our order for meals – soupy dhal and rice that we try to balance on our knees. And constant entertainment is provided by chai wallahs, food vendors, performing transvestites and beggars.

To say India is overcrowded and noisy is an understatement. Approximately one-third of the size of the U.S., India has three times its population. This explains some of the frustrations – the infernal delays; the dirt; the continual cacophony of car horns, barking dogs, political rallies and religious gatherings with loudspeakers. In fact the Indians love to employ loudspeakers for any and all occasions! India is the second most populous country in the world, next only to China. And with the current population growth – India is set to leave China behind by 2020 – it’s not going to get any better.

On the other hand, there is so much beauty: in the kaleidoscope of color among the travelers waiting on a grimy train station, the fragrance of jasmine embedded in a woman’s long hair, a simple act of kindness from a stranger assisting a bewildered foreigner. The warmth of a people who believe in generosity even when they have nothing to share. This is the paradox of India. I don’t just come here for the beach, but for experiences that might teach me a thing or two. India with all its confusion and corruption presents a great lesson in waiting – and ultimately acceptance. And while waiting, life can present itself: slowing down enough to be able to watch two children play with a plastic bottle, or the smile of a fellow passenger.

Indians love to talk. Gerard, who can have a conversation with a lamppost, is even outdone by the candour of the Indians who quiz him on American politics, and why everyone in the U.S, needs to own a gun. On my side, growing up in a household where conversation was awkward and impersonal (a favorite lunch topic was the weather), Indians can be direct in a way that is completely alien to the British. Initially it was quite stressful when virtual strangers would ask me: “How much money do you make?” or “Why don’t you have children?” But over time their directness has worn off on me and I find myself inching toward becoming more straightforward myself.

So much diversity within India is a continual source of fascination and often bewilderment. It’s amazing that in such a large country as India there is any semblance of unity. Among today’s 1.2 billion people, 22 major languages are spoken in as many as 1,500 dialects.  But India is one nation despite many and sometimes violent separatist movements that are likely to erupt anywhere and at any time. And while India represents the largest democracy in the world it is imbued with political ineptitude and downright corruption. We encounter constant examples of this: Where are the funds supposedly appropriated several years ago to clean Dal Lake in Srinagar? Why do motorbikes continue to roar through the narrow lanes in Varanasi upsetting shopkeepers, terrorizing pilgrims and tourists? When I asked a restaurant owner, “Why don’t you all get together to pass an ordinance against loud motorcycles in the lanes?”, his eyes widened as if I was talking in a foreign tongue! “And who’s going to enforce it?” Any attempt to create a law would be nullified by a bribe. Bribery and black money are integral to doing business – to merely surviving – in India. Corrupt politicians continually walk away scot-free, and get elected yet again. They enjoy all their privileges without being held accountable for their duties, the dereliction of which goes unchecked.

Corruption exists in politics everywhere, but in the west we still believe in the democratic process: the illusion that we do have some control and can hold those we elect to represent us accountable. In spite of the odds, there is still a 10% higher turnout in elections than in the U.S.  and from some of the conversations with younger people there’s a growing sense of urgency to elect a government that is actually accountable to its constituents. If they are going to compete with China in the decades to come, they know well that they have to get their house in order. It reminds us of the enthusiasm of the youth in the U.S. in the ‘60s.

India’s inherent spirituality has always been a pull for westerners who want to rediscover a personal relationship with our Source, whether we call it Higher Power, God, or science. Religion lies at the center of daily communal life. Birth, death and cremation take place on the street, constant reminders of our own immortality. We enjoy the fact that everyone is open to discussing religious issues and spirituality, whether they believe or not. And at any moment, we can wake to a combination of Hindu chanting, Islamic mosque calls and Buddhist horns and gongs. But all this diversity has worked against national unification.

Hinduism dates back at least 3,000 years and is practiced by 80% of the Indian population. It has no founder or single creed and intellectually supports tolerance toward other religions and does not try to convert. The second largest religion is Islam. Despite living side-by-side for centuries, there has been an underlying tension between the two communities that at times bubbles to the surface. Monotheistic Islam is rigid and simple; while Hinduism has literally millions of deities and a profusion of doctrines, sects and ceremonies. Moslem rulers differed in their treatment of their Hindu conquests: Akbar the Great (1542–1605) was concerned about all his citizens and abolished the special taxes other rulers had levied against non-Moslems. But the pendulum swung the other way with his great-grandson, the tyrant Arungazeb, whose message was “convert or die”. The British “divide and conquer” policy further fueled communal strife by favoring Moslems politically and placing them in higher places of .power. The British found monotheistic Islam easier to understand, while Hinduism baffled them. Consequently, when Calcutta was the seat of British imperialistic government, the British favored Moslems over the Bengali Hindus for political power.

Today, Moslems and Hindus will deliberately fuel the fire. A Hindu parade for example will go by a Mosque during prayer time with the band playing. And Moslems will slaughter a cow in eyesight of Hindus who hold the animal sacred. The friction between Hindus and Moslems is very disturbing. It seems they’ve dug themselves into a hole with no way out.

But on the other side of the coin, we’ve witnessed over and over again the welcoming nature of the Indian people not just toward visiting foreigners like ourselves but toward each other. Traveling from Varanasi to Delhi, we sat in a train compartment beside a Hindu family with two young children, and a Moslem youth on his way to school in Delhi for first time. Moved by the emotional farewell with his parents, the young mother of the Hindu family soon became his surrogate, and for the thirty-hour train ride he was absorbed into their family. In the same way, we were appointed grandparents to her two young children and were not only invited but expected to share the food they had brought.

For the most part, we choose to spend our time in country areas and small towns where we can avoid the crushing population and accompanying extremes of poverty and wealth. Hi-tech centers like Bangalore and Ahmedabad are bloated with new-found affluence manifested in high-rise office buildings, gated residential communities, glass palace shopping malls with convenient “pray-while-you-shop” temples and Styrofoam Shiva statues. But constant traffic jams, potholed roads and crumbling trash-strewn sidewalks demonstrate that city infrastructure has not kept up.

India is still home to one-third of the world’s poor and the largest slums in Asia. The poor live alongside the affluent, in tin roofed shacks beside rat-infested open sewers. Those who aren’t fortunate enough to occupy a slum dwelling, try to set up some semblance of home on the street or in doorways. So many people, so many families staking out their pitiful spot on the curb – some seem to be getting by, while others look like they won’t make it through the night. The family living on the street in Calcutta, in a tiny cave, once a sliver of a shop. It seemed impossible for all three to lie down in the space. But one morning, the woman sitting on her haunches looked up and gave me a wonderful smile saying “Namaste!” Poor in materials perhaps, but not in spirit. Oh, the hours I laboriously spent packing my small case with all the luxuries it was so important I bring with me and didn’t think I could do without!

Beggars are a constant presence in India and we admit to developing a thick skin to most of them. But every once in a while one is so pathetic that it’s like a stab in the heart. The grossly deformed man sitting outside our hotel in Shimla, unable to move except by crawling on his limbs supported by a wooden board, his foot stretched out in front of him, a huge swollen purple stump. But if that wasn’t enough, we realized he was also a deaf mute. Later in Hyderabad a shrunken little man, unable to do more than sit among his rags and his own filth against the wall of an alley. In the dim light he was barely visible, his brown form merging with his surroundings – as if he has grown out of the dirt. He didn’t appear to be able to walk and one hand protruded where his forearm should be. He could barely stretch it out to receive coins. Moments later, we saw a young Indian man walking his pet dog, snow-white and healthy. A stark contrast…

The children of the poor have endured more hardship in their short lives than anything I can imagine, and I’m fascinated by their innocence and resilience. Beggar children performing cartwheels between the cars in Delhi, boys swaggering along the tracks at railway stations looking for discarded treasures among the garbage and rats. I want to take their pictures, get to know them, fathom how they can find any enjoyment in so much hardship. Others fortunate enough to find work are grossly underpaid. In Hyderabad, a girl works alongside her mother repairing the highway.  Both dressed in saris, they’re digging up the road by hand and carrying away the rubble in baskets on their heads. A girl sweeping the ghats in Varanasi puts down the bag of garbage she is dragging and eagerly poses for my camera. I capture her disarming smile – but my problematic camera loses the picture. (perhaps the most personally revealing of the entire trip!). Too often, I can get caught up in the minutia of life – worry and complain about the little things that don’t go my way. For a moment of time, these children help me to refocus.

Everywhere we see young children supplementing the family income or even supporting themselves independently. India is reputed to have the largest number of child laborers in the world. Despite a landmark law of 2010 that mandated all children between six and fourteen years old to attend school, an estimated 28 million are still working instead. Employed in shops, in kitchens, on farms, in factories and on construction sites; they pick cotton, sweep streets, and work in industries such as precious stone cutting and fine embroidery. Back in 1952, India’s Mines Act prohibited anyone under the age of eighteen from working in coal mines, but children continue to be the main source of labor today. With no formal schooling, there’s little hope for these children to rise above a very basic quality of living. The hi-tech revolution remains beyond their reach and the gulf between poor and rich continues to widen.

I’ve described at length many of the disturbing facets of India – so the question has to be asked again why do we keep going? To experience its totality, we must embrace both the good and the bad. And there is so much that is good – above all the strength of spirit of the Indian people demonstrated in their generosity, laughter, music and faith.

The country is full of paradoxes – luxury and poverty, dirt and beauty, gentleness and violence, modernity and antiquity. Despite the hi-tech revolution and tidal wave of consumerism engulfing modern India, its ancient mystique still lurks in the crevasses of crumbling temples, along the ghats of Varanasi, and at the Calcutta flower market under the Howrah Bridge. So much culture and history in the dust beneath our feet! We’re not alone in finding it easy to fall in love with India – during our travels we’ve met many others who like us made an initial visit, and then continue to return over and over again. To those of us who are attracted, India can become addictive. As a friend succinctly put it, “India is a state of mind.”