Faded Frescoes and a Sacred Lake

DSC_0414Our Indian family gave us the usual warm welcome and we enjoyed our few days in Delhi together. Once again we’re in India when such a terrible act of terrorism occurs. These events only harden the party line for the Hindus: “See! I told you that all terrorists are Moslems. Even against their own people.” Over dinner with CNN in the background repeating the gory details of the Pakistani school massacre, the comments from the men around the table clarified the deep suspicion that the Hindus and Moslems have for each other. Everyone was shocked that the Pakistani Taliban could murder their own kinsmen and feared that it was only a matter of time before there was a similar act of terrorism in India.


Three days later we set off by train for Nawalgarth, a “backwater” of Rajasthan not yet on the tourist map but remarkable for its concentration of old havellis with frescoes. The day began standing on the station in bone-chilling fog at dawn. Finally the milk train pulled in an hour late. I could barely lift my bag up the steep step on to the train – either I’m out of practice or my attempt to pack a lighter bag failed.

A short two-hour ride and we had traveled far from the modernity of Gurgaon to the border of Rajasthan. Getting down in a dusty little town we dragged our bags to a spot where our next bus would stop. The bus turned out to be a sleeper with two levels of “beds”. This time I needed assistance to heave my bag on to the bus and then up to the top level. Jostled and jolted, we went hours further as the land became increasingly wind blown and arid semi-desert.


The area of Shekhawati once lay on an important caravan route before the rise of Bombay and Calcutta diverted trade to the south. Grown rich on trade and taxes the merchants spent their fortunes competing with each other to build the grand and overly decorated havellis that still line the streets of the region’s dusty little towns. Gerard saw a picture of Nawalgarth online and said, “Let’s go there!” Only catch, it’s not easy to get to. Typical! After yet another bus ride we finally arrived late afternoon and with some difficulty found our guesthouse. Since there’s very little competition, it was grossly overpriced, but did include a good breakfast with home made marmalade.


The town did not disappoint – over 300 havellis built around the turn of the last century in varying stages of decay, although one has been restored and opened as a museum.


Many of the colorful frescoes are still evident; some have been touched up albeit with a heavy hand. I fantasize how Nawalgarth must have looked100 years ago with so many grand houses with freshly painted frescos lining the streets and only horse-drawn tongas.


Today large noisy diesel-powered rickshaws spoil the town. Everyone hates the noise and pollution. Hopefully it’s only a matter of time before like Delhi they have the sense to move to compressed natural gas.

A chance encounter with a young man qualified in acupressure was too good to pass up. I’d had a sore neck for over a month and Gerard a shoulder problem. For $12 we each had two treatments, plus one extra thrown in for Gerard’s plantar fasciitis. Neeraj had the gentle temperament and touch of a healer. He treated us in a little room in his family home, where his beautiful mother, as serene as her son, brought us chai in porcelain cups. We were treated like guests in his home. It was a great experience…and dare I mention, my neck has improved. Gerard’s shoulder issue is more problematic. Neeraj spoke no English but his brother, who is a writer and has translated material for the Discovery Channel, mediated for us.

P1010160The next day we took an early morning bus from Nawalgarth to Pushkar. After about 30 kms, when the smell of petrol became overpowering, the driver pulled into a bus station. A mechanic appeared with a cup of chai in one hand and tools in the other. After prolonged discussion around the motor the driver takes off across the scrub land and comes back two minutes later with a new fuel line in hand – another two minutes, it’s installed and we’re off again! This was supposedly the direct bus to Ajmer but no one mentioned we would be on a single lane meandering through every village and hamlet on the way. Finally we emerged out of the scrubland on to a proper highway but still going so slow even the camel carts were passing us. Then the bus came to a complete halt and we are shunted to yet another bus for our last ten kilometers.

It goes without saying that travel in India is a shared experience, especially on long bus rides. We’re all crammed in, windows that don’t open, seats that are no longer properly bolted to the floor, music blasting. Then we pull into a bus station – vendors push fruit and water through the windows, young boys climb aboard with platters filled with deep fried snacks, the man sitting next to us cautions us not eat them and offers to go get us chai. The young girl two seats in front amuses herself making faces at us…we still have 100 kms to go and more than half the bus needs a WC!

Our guesthouse owner offered to pick us up at the bus station and for no charge no less. As in Varanasi he feared that we would be diverted to another guesthouse before reaching his. Unlike our last accommodation, Rising Star is a great bargain – better facilities and a third of the price.


Pushkar is a “destination” similar to Rishikesh, Hampi, McLeod Gunj etc. We’ve known about it for a long time but have had little interest because of its reputation – lots of young Israelis getting stoned. (It’s a rite of passage for them to come to India after they finish their military service.) But this time, it lay so close to our route south to Gujurat, why not come and see for ourselves? Legend has that Pushkar came into existence when Lord Brahma, the Creator, dropped lotus flowers to the earth and where they landed water magically appeared in the midst of the desert to form a small blue lake. Now surrounded by temples and Ghats the lake is revered as one of India’s most sacred sites. Its waters are believed to cleanse the soul of all impurities, attracting pilgrims from all over the country. Perhaps because it’s nearly Christmas time and alcohol is not allowed in this sacred town, most of the tourists are in Mumbai or Goa to party. So the whole atmosphere is quite different from what we had expected. And the lake with its white-washed temples and Ghats for bathing pilgrims is enchanting.


Being a “destination” there is a load of teashops and restaurants where you can sit and watch the colorful Rajasthanis pass by. More than ten years since we last visited Rajasthan I’ d forgotten the colors – the red and gold of the women’s veils, men’s turbans, a different color for each caste or region.


P1010251One afternoon we walked on the Ghats surrounding the lake. As the sun shone through the arch of an old palace a young girl emerged out of the light, offering us her cup of chai. “Do you like tea?” Beautiful and well spoken, she was captivating. She was staying with her uncle who still lived in the old palace beside the Ghat. Pointing to an open turret above us she told us she slept there on hot summer nights. And Gerard said, “Like a princess?” We asked if we could take her picture. At first she said no, then she turned to her father some distance away and asked his permission. She insisted I should also be in the picture.

Back at Rising Star guesthouse every evening after sunset, the family performs their prayers. In the middle of the courtyard a shrine sits beside a large banana tree. Grouped around it, they chant a mantra. The little children join in – and the baby yells.


Return to Istanbul


We arrived back in Istanbul to sunny skies – a rare event in winter. Dumping off our suitcases, we rushed out to see what the city looked like in the sunshine. Being a sunny Sunday afternoon everyone was out promenading. There is a restaurant atop of a hotel that overlooks the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, and this was definitely the day to take advantage of the view. From six floors up one could appreciate the architecture of both of these buildings in a way not possible from ground level.


Particularly the Blue Mosque was an absolute wonder as the sunlight faded.


Saving the best for last, the next day we visited the Hagia Sofia. Of course the grey skies had returned. Above and beyond its architectural beauty, what is so hard to comprehend is that this enormous Byzantine edifice was constructed in 537 as a church. It changed hands between the Christians and Moslems until 1453 when Turkey remained predominantly Moslem. Finally Ataturk declared it a museum in 1935. Most remarkable are the high dome and gold mosaics.



Since we didn’t make it to Konya, famous for its whirling dervishes, we sought out a café just below the Blue Mosque that had three musicians and one whirling dervish. The trancelike dervish dance was hypnotic as round and round he spun for thirty minutes.


The Mosaic Museum was our last stop in Istanbul. It has a huge segment of floor from the Byzantine period that was part of the Great Palace. The mosaics depict daily life, including some gory hunting activities, and mythical creatures, all bordered with an elaborate ribbon of heart shaped leaves. Discovered in 1930s under a bazaar at the rear of the Blue Mosque by a team of Turkish and Scottish archeologists.



Turkey surpassed our expectations. We hope to return when it’s warmer to travel to Cappadocia and beyond; but we have no regrets for coming in late November. A man at our guesthouse mentioned that he was here just last June, and he much prefers Istanbul in the winter without the tourist crush despite the weather.

As we traveled around western Turkey we noticed that like so many other places we’ve been, the national identity is rapidly disappearing with blocks and blocks of concrete housing replacing whatever it was that was Turkish. If you squint you could be in one of dozens of countries. As the world shrinks it is harder and harder to find local/national antiquity beyond the great monuments.


But our experience is based only on western Turkey. We met someone from Mardin, which is very close to the Syrian Border. It looks like a wonderful old city and if it weren’t so close to Syria we’d like to incorporate it into our next trip. We have only met one Syrian refugee, a gift shop employee who obviously had money and/or contacts when he came over a year ago. Turkey is very concerned about the influx of refugees – an estimated one million have arrived already. While many are in refugee camps in the east; those who are able are flocking to Istanbul looking for work. The Turks are concerned about the economic impact of the refugees but they don’t seem to be afraid of the violence spreading into their country.

The Twins of Antalya


Kaleici, the old citadel of Antalya, is a warren of cobbled lanes and restored buildings, now taken over by high end restaurants, discos and sports bars. Somewhat familiar of the Latin Quarter in New Orleans, architecturally it feels authentic, but today it’s predominantly about tourists. We’ve tried to remember when we’ve stayed in such an up-scale area, and perhaps we haven’t. At night it’s noisy, but during the day at this time of the year the streets are quite empty and sleepy. Our hotel overlooks the bay – we were assured an ocean view, but a noisy sports bar blocked most of the view so the proprietor offered us a quieter room in back looking towards nothing but a blank wall. There were plenty of walks with sea views. It’s a long time since my first hitchhiking trip alongside the Mediterranean in Italy with Gerard and I’d forgotten how blue green the water is. I was overwhelmed then, and I still am.


Dragging our suitcases and looking for our hotel, just inside Kaleici’s walls I noticed a quaint little restaurant with a few tables on the street. As I checked the menu and found vegetarian mousaka, a cheerful waiter assured me he and his brother cooked the meals – all fresh food. “Come back later!” After checking in, and finding all the surrounding restaurants focused on fish, Gerard eventually agreed to go back to my find. It was perfect – affordable with veg-only options. But best of all were the owners – two twin brothers probably in their 50s. And this time the twins are almost identical. Wiry and witty they seem more like Greeks than Turks. One of them traveled and worked abroad since he was young until a few years ago. It’s easy to imagine him as a hippie. He’s not really changed that much – except for the hair loss. He immediately recognized us as kindred spirits and encouraged our return. “I enjoy your company.”


There’s not a huge amount to see here but it’s pleasant to walk the streets, stop at overlooks of the bay and so on. I especially like watching the elderly locals passing the time of day in a garden beside Hadrian Gate while a vendor comes by with her tray of little glasses of Turkish tea. Down the street an artist cum antique dealer invited us into his overstuffed 800 year-old house, smelling like Gerard’s childhood when he went round with his father, who was also a dealer. Maneuvering through room after room of his many paintings and treasures (he was particularly fond of kilims) was more entertaining than the nearby Cultural Museum. He told us that his son has little interest in inheriting the shop while his wife has no idea what to do with the mountains of inventory should he die. It all strikes a familiar chord – what would I do with Gerard’s collections? Marbles…CDs…trinkets…not to mention the paintings…P1000749

I’m not terribly interested in ancient antiquity whether its ruins or archeological museums, but a friend recommended the Antalya Archeological Museum, and it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Antalya is peppered with excavation sites dating from the Neolithic period – pottery designs of 2,500 BC looking like the kilim designs we see today, and jewelry beginning in 1st C AD looking remarkably contemporary. The artifacts were laid out in chronological order everything labeled in English as well as Turkish, unlike most public places here. Numerous times a relic was described as being finally retrieved after it had been illegally excavated and smuggled out of the country. In recent years, the Turks have brought lawsuits against prominent museums in Europe and the U.S.


On the long walk back to Kaleici, we passed a crowd in an open square gathered around a speaker. Beside him were two young people, one on all fours, the other straddling him, obviously symbolizing servitude. Accompanying the passionate speaker were musicians. Something for everybody! Even though we don’t speak Turkish, it’s apparent there’s an active student movement here pushing for political reform.


On our last night in Antalya it poured with rain. As we went out to eat dinner, lights from restaurants and shops shone on the wet cobblestones.

P1000824For the first time we ate inside our little restaurant offering an intimacy we weren’t previously aware of. Four or five young people huddled around a woodstove, playing music and reading, periodically breaking off to feed logs into the stove. Romanticizing a scene out of Communist Russia, I imagined they might have been plotting a revolution. The two brothers prepared a special last supper for us. So much good food, for once we couldn’t eat it all. On our walk back the old town showed a new beauty reflecting off the wet pavement.P1000833


Izmir, Selcuk and Ephesus


At first it looked as if the skies might clear, but as we stumbled down the cobbled streets toward the dock, a steady rain enveloped us. When a taxi appeared, Gerard couldn’t resist and we haled it down. It was a short ride to the ferry but we didn’t pay a short price…our naivety must have been obvious. Not an auspicious beginning to the day. Then arriving at the ferry we found out our boat to Bandirma was cancelled; but there was another two hours later to Yulova. No problem we could take a bus from there to Izmir. Stepping off the ferry in Yuolva, a cold wind almost knocked us off our feet. There was a shuttle service I wanted to take but impatient and cold and in spite of our earlier experience, Gerard said, “No, we’re taking a taxi.” As we pulled into the bus station a solitary bus was about to leave. “Izmir?” I shouted. The conductor nodded and grabbing Gerard’s hand led him into the station to buy tickets. With engine revving, the bus waited for us to board; we had no idea how long the trip was. The bus was surprisingly comfortable and served complementary snacks, not once, but twice! When it stopped raining and fog cleared…momentarily, the landscape looked Mediterranean with orchards of orange trees laden with ripe fruit, clusters of silver-leafed olive groves and straight lines of stately cypress trees.

Seven hours later, we arrived in Izmir – the dark skies had cleared and a crescent moon shone through. But we’d misplaced our guidebook and, as any budget traveler knows, without a guidebook you’re lost – especially if you can’t speak the language. In the bus station, I approached a young man staring at his smart phone who, with a smile but no English, was more than willing to help. He led us to a line of shuttle buses that provided free transportation the six miles into the city. Where are you going? We kept saying city center. All we knew was that our hotel was near the Bazaar – but the Bazaar didn’t seem to register with anyone. Finally, there was a general consensus and we boarded the mini bus for that destination. At the first stop where there appeared to be many hotels, we got off and again approached a likely candidate to help us find our way to the Guzel Hotel. First his advice was to take a taxi, but the cab driver said, “No, the Guzel’s just around the corner” and pointed. (Just to put it into perspective Izmir is the second largest city in Turkey.). After a rough start, it was an amazing finish – and… when we got to the hotel, we found the guidebook.

P1000569Izmir, the ancient city of Smyrna, was almost destroyed during the War of Independence in 1922. Rebuilt, it is not terribly interesting with the exception of a few old areas. But more importantly the weather had drastically changed – not exactly balmy but no rain. It felt great to walk in bright sunshine on the promenade beside the Mediterranean. Each day, we picked a different section of town.

P1000601The Bazaar is a smaller and calmer version of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul but no less colorful. It was Friday and at the small mosque in the center the faithful were spilling out into the lanes on prayer mats. So many men praying, but where were the women? Are they any less pious, or are they hidden away from prying eyes? There are plenty of women about, their heads swathed in scarves, but they’re not in the cafés or mosques.


Generally speaking, Gerard’s country of origin is not greatly appreciated – in fact we read that 70% of Turks are suspicious of Americans and their motives in the Middle East. I can’t understand how that could be… When asked where we’re from, there’s not a lot of enthusiasm; nevertheless everyone so far has been very friendly. It’s surprising how well you can manage, speaking no Turkish. So far, there’s always been someone around who speaks at least a few words of English and wants to help. Surprising considering how many tourists pass through here during the season – and this is NOT the season.

P1000723I’m also amazed at how clean Turkey is – no offense to India, even by American standards – whether in city streets, public toilets, or hotel rooms. In Izmir small trashcans are fixed unobtrusively to every lampost, some even have an attached ashtray for cigarette butts. And there’s a special plastic container for recyclable bottle tops. But where are all the discarded bottles?? The city buses are new and shiny clean, likewise bus and train stations – and new highways freshly paved. Perhaps the economy is so good they’ve been able to replace everything. Is this representative of the whole of Turkey or just the areas we’ve traveled so far?

The reason for going to the small town of Selcuk was to see nearby Ephesus. Though now nearly empty, Selcuk enjoys abundant tourism and the affluence it brings. We stumbled upon an intimate restaurant that could have been the owner’s living room and where his wife cooked Turkish food each day, with enough veg dishes. Abandoning our online booked hotel, damp and smelling of mold, we negotiate a room at Boomerang owned by an enterprising Turk who emigrated to Australia twenty years ago and recently returned with his Chinese wife and two young kids. A line of Turkish and Australian flags interspersed with Chinese lanterns decorate the front of the guesthouse.


150 year of excavation have made Ephesus, once the capital of Roman Asia Minor, the most complete classical metropolis in Europe – and  82% of the city is still to be unearthed.  A private company recently bought the business rights for Ephesus fr om the government. The place is turning a healthy profit and it’s hoped that some of it will find its way into better services. I’m not big on ruins but there was enough here to hold even my interest – the front of an elaborate two story library, a huge stadium that would accommodate thousands and so on. Not as well preserved as Pompeii, but there are wonderful stone carvings and statues, a mosaic walkway and a museum of frescoes. It was a peaceful scene without the throng of tourists during mid season. All in all a pleasant day out in the countryside.



The following day we took a minibus out of town to Sirince – a pretty hillside village that was settled by the Greeks, but after “relocation” in 1923 the Turks moved in. Hiking around its outskirts we came across some wonderful old houses and outlooks, but the center was totally taken over by the tourist trade. The trail of gift shops held little interest for us, with the exception of one – a family jeweler that proudly announced it was chosen to provide the decorative costumes for Brad Pitt in the movie Troy. The high quality designs of the handmade jewelry were eye-catching.   “50% discount – you will be my first customer of the day!” I knew I’d regret it later but I just couldn’t bring myself to part with my Turkish lira.


So far we’ve not met a lot of interesting tourists in Turkey, but at our restaurant in Selcuk that afternoon two unusual men from Ohio and around our age were delighted to strike up a conversation with us. And of course Gerard was only too happy to accommodate. Twin brothers, called Robert and…not Richard, but David, were far from identical in either look or personality. Sculptors in business together they had been hired to create a statue in the middle of town. One knew the area well and had spent the morning driving his brother around who was here for the first time. They were both high on excitement from visiting the lonely tomb of supposedly Alexander the Great’s leading general that very few people know of. They also told us about the Virgin Mary’s House outside of town. Legend has it that Saint John brought Mary to Ephesus at the end of her life. In 19C a French priest claimed he’d found her house on the basis of visions of a mystic German nun. Today a chapel has been built on top of the foundation that he discovered. The brothers’ stories made us envious – it would be well worth renting a car to be able to tour the surrounding countryside.   But tomorrow morning we’re heading south by bus to Antalya.