Six Degrees of Separation

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On this our sixth visit, Agonda has changed more than any other year – more beach huts, trinket shops and restaurants. So much for the “fine balance”…crass commercialism wins out again. Along the road beside the beach, the last empty space has been developed. A long blur of oversized blue and white cottages have been squeezed in. Cows stand beside the new development in bewilderment wondering where the scrub land, their last patch of grazing ground, has gone. But the beach and sea remain the same, as lovely and empty as ever! The town does not seem any more crowded with tourists; the increase in facilities not matched by a larger influx in visitors. Once again, more people competing for the same tourist dollar! There’s talk that the Mumbai Mafia has arrived and the locals finally succumbing to the allure of developing Agonda into a more sophisticated resort like the rest of the coastal towns of Goa. As everywhere in India an increase in food and gas costs has caused a spike in restaurant prices – but even more so here.

At first I’m put off by the changes. Agonda’s lost its quaintness and tranquility – and I say, “This is the last time we come here!” But after a couple of days the therapeutic power of the environment works its magic and I feel so healthy – a tonic of sea water, sun and fresh air combined! And I’m not the only one to benefit; we’re personally aware of many who’ve come to Agonda with a variety of physical ailments, emotional wounds, and mental worries – they relax and feel better.

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DSC_0245But against the backdrop of such physical beauty…this is the world after all, and tragedies happen…two fishermen were drowned this year, entangled in their fishing nets. In nearby market town, Chaudi, a construction site collapsed, killing over 30 workers. One morning, I saw a cow wandering on the beach with a huge bloody gash on his side…the next day it’s worse. Perhaps the crows have been pecking at the wound. At first it appears he got entangled in a barbed wire fence. But then someone says he was probably nosing to close to a restaurant and the cook threw boiling oil at him. This would never happen in Hindu India, and if it did, the culprit would suffer the same or worse fate as the cow. For Christian Goans the cow is not sacred, although most Goans would never inflict such an extreme act of cruelty. Animals in general are not treated with the same respect as in other parts of India. Stray dogs are kept at bay with sticks. The monkeys have been frightened out-of-town. They still return to steal the guava fruit from a tree in the garden of our guest house. But if Rita catches sight, she brandishes her stick and they hide muttering in the nearby trees. (The Animal Rescue League has stepped in to address the very disturbing acts of cruelty on the cows.)

With a little negotiation we manage to get our usual room overlooking the far end of the beach, at only a nominal increase in rent. Where everything is more expensive, we probably have the best value in town! We settle into our routine, framed by our meditation schedule and two swims a day. A cacophony of noise greets us at dawn – pigs grunting, crows squawking, a mocking-bird playing call and response with Gerard. Wandering down the beach before most of the town wakes up, I buy our breakfast and lunch. Over our morning chai we watch dolphins leaping high in the waves. Gerard disgraced himself by forgetting his swimsuit. How could he ignore such a vital item! But the swimming must go on – and after an intensive morning search, he manages to find a magnificent floral substitute in the tourist shop.

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As we’ve mentioned many times before, one of our main interests in traveling are the people we meet along the way. And this year has been no exception. Especially interesting is meeting those who also experienced the ‘60s first hand and live to tell about it. We were introduced to another couple from the west coast who were immediately so likeable that within a day or so we were exchanging stories from back in the day. Gerard was particularly interested in her radical activism, divulging that she was a Weatherman for a couple of years. Leaving US just before the Weathermen and SDS became radicalized, Gerard did not know that much about the movement. From political activism she moved into academia and then became connected, and still is, with Maharaji, also known back in those days as the Boy Guru. We laughed when we realized her best friend back home happens to be an old acquaintance of ours we have not seen for many years!P1080193

And then last night I sat next to a woman in a café who lives in Totnes – my native place, as the Indians would say! She came there via Zimbabwe twenty-five years ago, lured by the opportunity for farming that she no longer had in Zimbabwe. But now sadly, the farms are even disappearing from Devon. Six degrees of separation?

Then there are the regulars: our English friends who rent a house above the beach each year, in our guest house, the older German couple, Andre and Isabelle from the south of France, the Russian family studying Ayurvedic medicine and Vedanta. And then there’s Christina who lives in Prague and her mother from Poland, who has Alzheimer’s but after three consecutive years in Agonda is acting and looking younger than ever. A tall lanky Swiss, who makes Gerard look positively robust, sits on his patio playing classical music on guitar and violin. An Italian octogenarian, Boom-Boom as he likes to be called, still rides by on his motor scooter, beginning each day with a shot of rum even though his dark tanned body is supposedly riddled with cancer. We all get pulled back for one more season!

Among the three Goan women we profiled last year, Geeta is back in her store with a new husband and three-month old baby. Although it appears that business is not great, she’s still a lot happier than last year, clutching her new born son. Lakshmi is still trying to figure out how to make a living from selling cheap tourist clothing that few want to buy. Her three youngest children help in the store when they’re not in school. One night, her teenage son is attacked by a drunken Indian right in the store, and the next day his eye is half closed and swollen. A CT scan reveals it’s not permanently damaged. Meanwhile Lakshmi’s brother-in-law is dying in hospital from cirrhosis of the liver caused by a daily diet of vodka. Alcoholism has not escaped Agonda. Lakshmi is a sympathetic figure – a hardworking woman trying to make a living in a highly competitive environment who still has to deal with the unexpected costly traumas of family life. With a husband who does seasonal work at best, her only financial stability is from her eldest daughter who now has a job year-round at a high end resort.

A fixer-upper for Gerard!

A fixer-upper for Gerard!

On all our visits to Agonda, we’ve never felt the need to visit any other of the resorts along the coast. But this time, we take a day trip to nearby Pallolum – a series of naturally beautiful coves but cluttered with restaurants and shops, making it feel claustrophobic.  It was a relief to return to Agonda.

Retreating in Mumbai

We left Orchha early in the morning. Suresh, the cook, had promised he would get up and make us breakfast. But he was still fast asleep on the foyer floor when we were ready to go. An Indian family had arrived at 2 am with a baby but no milk for it, and the baby cried the rest of the night. But nineteen year old Suresh staggered out for us and made parathas and chai. When Gerard gave him a small tip he suddenly embraced him, exclaiming “I love you!” Then he said the same thing to me, and in the saddest, thickly-accented English, “I’m not going to like it when you’re gone.” It was such a poignant loving farewell, that for a minute I didn’t want to go either – despite the relief of escaping the bone chilling cold and damp.

We’d bought our train tickets over a month ago and one of the tickets was waitlisted. At the time that didn’t make us nervous – so many people make multiple reservations these days and only keep one if any of them. Wait list #3 seemed certain to materialize into a confirmation. Or so I thought! Gerard who never assumes anything was more apprehensive but could do nothing about it because these wait list confirmations are not posted until 4 hours before departure. In my usual complacency that everything would work out I had chided Gerard for continually checking for the list on the computer that morning, impatient for it to be posted. But it wasn’t until we were just about to board the train that we realized we still only had one confirmed seat – and an upper berth at that! For nineteen hours we would have to share the narrow space – even narrower than the lower berth below. We tried to grease the palm of the ticket collector to get us a spare seat, but he shrugged indifferently. “The train is full” – and indeed it was. There wasn’t a single empty berth in 2AC. Our berth was in a compartment with a middle aged couple and a single woman. Quite unusually, no one spoke a word to us the whole trip, in fact they barely acknowledged our presence – they did not make room for us to sit on the lower berth as is customary during the day or acknowledge our difficulty in squeezing into our skinny berth at night. Not that there was anything they could do, it would just have been nice to have a little sympathy. Gerard wanted to tell them when we all embarked at 4 am in Mumbai that they were the least friendly people we had ever traveled with on a train in India! They were such a contrast to the usual camaraderie we experience.

But we survived, and at Mumbai our host had arranged for us to be met by his driver. After a long night of squirming around trying to get comfortable, the spacious back seats of the car seemed positively luxurious. We’d come to Mumbai to attend a five-day meditation retreat that is held annually, though it was our first time. It is organized by people who follow the same meditation practice as us and was in remembrance of the spiritual teacher we visited frequently in Rajasthan before he passed away in 1997. We arrived one day before the retreat began and were given accommodation in an empty flat below our friends, the organizers. Held at a nearby public hall, the numbers at the retreat swelled from two hundred on the first day to over a thousand by the weekend. Some came from close by, some from afar. A wide spectrum of people, from a Mumbai businessman who was brought by his driver in a new Mercedes to a farmer from a remote village in Rajasthan. Families traveling a long distance stayed in dormitories above the hall where we followed a schedule of mediation and talks during the day. Delicious, simple food were prepared three times a day in the large kitchen area behind the hall and served by an army of volunteers to us as we sat in long lines on the floor.

P1080156Everything ran amazingly smoothly, due to careful organization and the endless efforts of a large team of volunteers. The family we stayed with took especially good care of us even though their flat was full to over flowing with visitors also attending the retreat. As more kept coming, furniture was moved out into the hallway outside the flat to make more space for sleeping! Despite the inconveniences everyone was very jolly. Before we went to the meditation hall in the early morning, we were requested to join them upstairs tea and biscuits. Everyone was trying to get ready gracefully coordinating with each other around two small bathrooms. But the mood was lighthearted. Our host’s elderly mother, positioned at the dining table, observed the activities with humour and a contagious deep belly laugh as she threw out a comical remark from time to time. The fact we couldn’t understand what she said didn’t matter!

P1080173We were the only westerners attending the retreat, very few people spoke English and there was no translation of the talks. And according to custom, men and women sat separately. This meant that it was not a social event. But the Indians often demonstrated how happy they were for us to join them and by the end of the retreat women in saris of every color of the rainbow would crowd around me jabbering in Hindi that I could not understand. “Nain Hindi!” was all I could say, chiding myself for leaving off my feeble attempts to learn the language last year. I hadn’t then anticipated that I would be spending five days with such sweet people who could not speak English. Gerard, meanwhile, sat in companionable semi-silence sharing a few words with the Sikh gentlemen from the Punjab, dignified in their white kurtas, and pink or blue turbans.

The five days passed surprisingly quickly. Once again, we cut the strings of attachment to the lovely people we had met and continued on our way.

Orchha: Rain on our Parade

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Our first visit to Orchha in Madhya Pradesh was five years ago. This otherwise sleepy town sitting beside the BetwaRiver is unlike any other historical site in the country.

DSC_0124At a small crossroads you can see to the left over a bridge the giant palaces of the Orchha Rajput rulers sitting on a small island, on the right rises the Chaturbhuj temple, the pearl white complex of Raj Rama temple, Jhujjar Singh’s palace and Laxhminarayn temple. Straight ahead on the road leads you to the cenotaphs (memorials) on the banks of the river. From 1500 to the late 1700 Orchha was the capital of the entire region.

CSC_0194Jahangir Mahal, one of the two imposing palaces was built around Akbar the Great’s time at the beginning of the 1600s. Considering its age it is in remarkable condition. The other large palace, Raj Mahal, built around 50 years earlier boasts exquisite paintings on the walls and ceilings depicting scenes from Hindu mythology. The architecture is a blend of Rajput and Mogul.

Orchha’s history town lives on its remarkable preserved monuments which are clustered around DSC_0167within a two km radius. One of the things that attracts us to Orchha is the opportunity to roam freely from one monument to another, through pastures and open scrub land.

In the past five years not a lot has changed, with the exception of widening the main road through town, officially for the buses to come in and out more conveniently. The fronts of buildings were literally torn down to enable this, the rubble left beside the edge of the road. It’s ridiculous because the entrance to town is through the Royal Gate which is only wide enough for an elephant – or a tourist bus. The whole project is a disaster because it means once through the Elephant Gate traffic speeds too fast with horns screeching. Tragically, I also noticed an excessive number of limping stray dogs – evidence of being run over by racing traffic and living to tell the tale, but with only three working legs.

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New Years Eve was remarkably quiet, largely because of heavy rain. Parties were hosted in the major hotels and at midnight a few firecrackers managed to stay dry enough to explode.

P1080086 But we weren’t aware that New Years Day was a bigger celebration than New Years Eve. This small town hosted between 30 – 40,000 visitors who paraded up the street to the temple, ate from all the food stalls that sprang up overnight along the way, stuck their feet in the cold river water …and then left. Some came from far away, more from neighboring villages. The noise and confusion drove us back into our hotel room. But the next morning miraculously almost everyone had left, and the streets had already been cleaned and the trash collected.

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The countryside is full of lovely walks. We found a spot next to a babbling brook that was so universally pastoral with its soft mat of green grass reaching down to the water it took both of us back to our childhood. We sat in silence, a rarity in India, and appreciated the moment.

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Another day we went looking for the fabled Baobab tree – the locals here believe they have the only one in existence. It’s true they’re extremely rare but there’s a number to be found throughout India. They have survived since prehistoric times, originating in West Africa and exactly how they appeared in India is unclear. Some say they spread across the subcontinent before India split away from Africa.

P1080111We found the tree quite easily sitting on the top of a granite knoll quite by itself.  It’s the strangest looking tree you can imagine, nicknamed the upside-down tree because its sparse branches look like roots. If you believe in reincarnation and that even trees have some level of consciousness, you can’t help thinking of the poor soul trapped inside this tree – they can live between three and five thousand years. There was something very haunting and melancholy about the way this ancient specie sat by itself.

mopping up after heavy rain

mopping up after heavy rain

After one day of heavy rain the fog and damp sets in and it remains bone chilling for several more. Anyone who’s traveled in the third world knows how cold concrete buildings are! We drink a lot of chai to fight it off. There are a number of look-alike restaurants in town and we try them all before settling on one. They are all hungry for business and every time we walk down the street desperate pleas echo from the empty restaurants: “Good morning, madam, good morning sir!” But we stay loyal to Raju at the Milan. If the town, weather or schedule is not to our liking, we still manage to find a restaurant that serves up good food, and here is no different. At Raju’s, the more we go the warmer the greeting and the stronger the chai.

We’ve met a couple of interesting characters in their 70s who are English.  Of course, they have stories of old like making trips to India overland in the 60s… Oliver is half Belgian, and now lives in Buckfastleigh (near my hometown). An artist influenced by Flemish Masters and Victorian fairy painters, he spends his days drawing the forms of Indian pilgrims and beggars he sees sitting around the temple – fascinated by a fold of cloth, the position of a limb. Dressed in a self-designed outfit of faded beige-colored velour he looks like a Russian aristocrat from the turn of the last century. In fact we both immediately thought of Nicholai Roerich when we met him!  Traveling alone for several months he has an aura of both self containment and loneliness.  Because the town is so small and tourists few we frequently meet up with Oliver sitting under a tree out in the pasture his drawing pad in hand, on the street surrounded by stray dogs feeding Marie biscuits, or in the hotel in the evening over hot lemon ginger honey.

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The day we arrived in Orchha looking for a hotel, Oliver appeared on the street, took us to his and thanks to him we found a gem! A large clean room, friendly staff, and an excellent cook who we later learn has no previous cooking experience and is a mere 19 years old. He began as the night watchman, sleeping on the floor of the foyer, but when the previous cook left, the owner persuaded him to take over. Since he probably doesn’t make much more, if any, in salary he’s not happy about the arrangement. But he still puts his utmost into the cooking.

Despite its relative cleanliness, Gerard still pulls out his bottle of Dettol and cleaning cloth and makes the room even cleaner. My good fortune!  The man who cleans in the hotel is equally impressed. He’s not used to guests like this. “I don’t need to clean your room!” After eight days, Gerard tells the hotel owner who lives with his family just beyond our room on the upper floor, “If we stay any longer we’ll become part of the family! “You are family”, he replies, “You are special guests.” Ironically, just two minutes earlier, I had commented that I didn’t like him or trust him! I guess I needed an attitude adjustment.

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Christmas at the Krishnamurti Foundation

???????????????????????????????In the most sacred Hindu city in India, we did not expect to celebrate Christmas. But we were surprised – over two days we had no less than four festive invitations! First we met a Hungarian family with two small children who invited us to eat Hungarian Goulash with them on Christmas Eve. They are staying in Varanasi to have their two-year old son treated for a brain disorder which doctors in Hungary were unable to treat. So they’re now trying the Aurevedic route.

DSC_0047A few days earlier, Sanju the manager of our guest house announced that there would be a dinner on Christmas Eve prepared for those guests who wanted to participate. Veg and non veg options to be followed by home-made apple pie and ice cream. But unfortunately no one thought to order the pies in advance and they were all sold out! I was already salivating for a slice…A long table decorated with Indian flower garlands was set up in any empty guest room (next to ours) – the bed moved into the corridor.  Like a postwar British boarding house, we sat around the table – an unlikely cast of characters, including some “long term” guests staying several weeks or even months; a Spaniard with a passion for chess, playing his way across India, two Portuguese and Spanish girls learning yoga from the “best” teacher in Varanasi, our British friend David and a handful of French and German others. After the meal, the loud techno rave music began and that was the end of polite conversation at the dinner table! We retired because we had to get up early the next morning and fortunately for us they moved the dancing and loud music up on the roof.

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On Christmas morning, the Hungarians, Uschi and ourselves gathered at a restaurant for breakfast. We first met Uschi, a Californian, a number of years earlier in Varanasi. She’d mentioned creating a work project for women but we knew little of what she really did.  But today she took us to out to a village east of the city so we could see what she was doing with the village women. First we stopped at the Krishnamurti Foundation which she has been involved in for many years and where she first had the idea for this project.  The Foundation is a peaceful estate sitting on an embankment overlooking the Ganges where followers can come to retreat. At the village nearby, the women were waiting for us sitting in a large work room where they sew and embroider clothes of beautiful fabrics for export.  Uschi finds the fabric, designs the patterns, and does the marketing in the US. She also encourages the women to express their own creativity in design and it’s obvious they take great pride in their work.  And rightly so; the clothes are a higher quality than the other ready-made we’ve seen anywhere in India. It’s taken years for the women to let their guard down and be themselves with her. Now there is a wonderful camaraderie between them all.

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Uschi loves what she’s doing and it shows on the faces of the women. She gave a brief talk about the meaning of Christmas and then we sang carols in German, Hungarian and English. Chai, samosas and sweets were served afterwards. Uschi is so dedicated to what she’s doing and is an example of service before self. It’s not an easy life shuttling back and forth between California and Varanasi, as well as being an efficient business woman in a patriarchic society. A perfect end to the day was a very long boat ride back to our ghat.  In the late afternoon light, I took endless photos of life along the river’s edge.

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Our fourth and final celebration was with Rajest, a CD stall vendor who we met on our first visit to Varanasi six years ago. He wanted to give us a special drink, called Thandai, that is sold every evening in a dark alley near the GoldenTemple. The curdled milk with swirls of lurid yellow and orange syrup has a consistency and taste that defies description, but makes you want to return every night to drink it again. Sadly it was our last night.

Last year, Varanasi was not my favorite destination.  But this year, it was hard for me to leave. We made some good friends: Uschi, Sanju our hotel manager…and David, from Elephant and Castle in London who we enjoyed long conversations with over leisurely breakfasts and cappuccino! We made a promise to meet again for tea in London when we stop there on our way back in March.

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On Boxing Day, we trailed our cases through the lanes in the Moslem section, a short cut up to the main road and the rickshaws, and then to the railway station. Another over night train ride to our next destination, Jhansi Junction in Madhya Pradesh, and from there a rickshaw ride through country lanes to the village of Orchha.