Friends in Benaulim

Instead of going directly to Agonda this year, friends persuaded us to spend a few days first in Benaulim, 35kms north. We met Helene and Remy, who are from France, in Varanasi three or four years ago. They were also the ones who recommended going to Bundi and that was such a success that we felt inclined to follow up and meet them in Benaulim. Because of the train delay we arrived in the village late in the evening. Fortunately Remy had booked us into a guesthouse so we didn’t have to hustle around finding something ourselves. The next morning they showed us around and then we headed down to their favorite beach shack.


Since it was a 2 km walk from the guesthouse to the beach, once you were there you stayed for the day. The shack Helen and Remy frequent was owned by a Belgian/Indian couple and more than half of the customers spoke French. For us, the unique feature of these beach shacks that are scattered along a 20 km stretch is that once you’ve settled in you can leave your possessions in complete confidence sitting on the table while you go for a swim or take a walk . This includes cameras, computers, cellphones etc. Or at least this was the case at the Hawaii beach shack. We were also VERY impressed by the level of hygiene, only surpassed by a five star hotel. (Of course, we’re so familiar with the standards of five star hotels.) The staff was completely professional, food expertly prepared, glasses shining from a dishwasher, a spotless toilet and outdoor shower — we had to ask ourselves if we were still in India. Clearly the Belgian wife’s sense of cleanliness had made its mark.


When we learned that her husband was from Nagar and that they return there in April so their kids can go to school, we all got excited talking about Nicolai Roerich, the early 20C Russian artist/philosopher/explorer who lived there. His bungalow is now a small museum. We look forward to seeing them in April when we plan to visit Nagar again.


One of the main differences between Agonda and Benaulim is the fact that Benaulim sits on a long straight stretch of beach, while Agonda is only 3 km long with headlands on either end, much more scenic. The downside is that Agonda has become over crowded.


It was so nice to spend time with Helene and Remy in such a different environment than Varanasi and gave us the opportunity to get to know them better. They have been traveling SE Asia for over twenty years and every time we brought a place in India we’d visited, they’d already been there. Remy is an exceptional photographer and has an amazing ability to capture candid portraits of the many characters of Varanasi, and beyond. Gerard said, “After seeing your pictures, I feel like throwing my camera away.” We’re looking forward to seeing them again in Varanasi in March and they’ve promised to show us some of the Varanasi that they know.




A long train ride

Gerard tells me that one of the things he likes about traveling is being forced to embrace the unexpected. But it also involves letting go of what you want and when you want it, not so simple for me.

Our train trip from Bundi to Goa illustrates the need to stay flexible. The train originated in Chandigarh, north of Delhi, and was delayed three hours in reaching Bundi because of fog. A three-hour delay I felt I handled quite well. We boarded the train hoping it might make up for lost time; it was late and we went to bed with that thought in mind. In the morning, rumours started circulating among the chai wallahs that the train was going to be four or five hours late reaching Goa. Bear in mind that we were traveling on a single-track train line. Once a train is off schedule it loses it place in the queue. We were continually waiting at stations to let other trains go by.

train st by night

As the day progressed, our estimated arrival time continued to grow. A little before our station, a fellow passenger with her husband and daughter was happy to be finally arriving in the night, seven hours late. She said: “It is a matter of congratulations if you are getting off now!”

Back when were boarded the train in Bundi, an elderly Indian gentleman, his thick shock of white hair matching his white Safari suit, sat on the top bunk across from me, looking like a Brahmin gentleman. Propped up  the wall, he was reading his newspaper. He looked over his heavy black frame glasses watching me struggle to make up my bunk for the night. In 2AC we’re given a paper parcel of clean sheets and pillow.


Observing my efforts to reach my top bunk, he joked, “You’re trying to make it perfect with hospital corners and all.” I defended that at least I wanted to start the journey perfectly, knowing full well that the sheets would end up in a twisted mess. He returned, “In India, you have to go with the flow.” I feigned agreement, not registering that his odd accent and turn of phrase were not typically Indian. The next morning, he greeted me with, “I’m sorry I laughed at you.” It was then I realized he had strong Scottish accent. During the journey, he launched into his story. (As a young boy he was called Akeem.)

Akeem’s father immigrated to Edinburgh from the Punjab after Partition. The family had owned a farm in Pakistan, but lost the land. The Pakistani government was supposed to compensate. The problem was that when they crossed the border into India, the Pakistanis took their birth certificates, deeds etc. and burned them so the government didn’t have to provide compensation. (The Indian government did the same in the other direction, for those crossing into Pakistan).

In Scotland, his father sold clothes door-to-door out of a suitcase. Akeem was only ten years old and spoke no English. When he went to school, the headmaster, who happened to have been to India, gave him special help, but he learned the language most from playing with the local kids.

When Akeem was 15, his father wanting to return to farming, decided to go to America. But with his Muslim name he continually ran into roadblocks. A friend suggested, “Just change your name and you’ll have no problem.” And that’s exactly what happened. He changed the family name from Bakshir, meaning ‘scattering of truth’, and Akeem became Alistair Ross. His father settled in Sacramento Valley and planned to stay two years before bringing the family. But aged only 38, he died of a massive heart attack.

Back in Scotland, Alistair was forced to leave school just before graduating and went to work in the coal mines. It was regular work in the area and paid well. The mines also sent him to college part time while he worked. Finally he graduated and became an inspector. He worked for the mines for many years, toward the end as a consultant. Then at 48, he took early retirement. He thought he would go back to school for a degree in accountancy to round out his consulting skills. But when he looked at his mining pension, he thought, why bother? I can live comfortably on the pension.

Along the way, he married a Scottish woman and had 5 children. One girl immigrated to Australia, another became a lawyer. Two sons died; we didn’t like to push why. When the first son died, it put a huge strain on the relationship. When the second son died it was too much, they went to separate parts of the house and grieved alone. It ended in divorce – Alistair had not only lost two children but also his wife. He set her up in a flat and moved himself into a retirement community where he now amuses the other residents by traveling every winter somewhere warm.

He enjoys Scottish summers and has no intention of moving back to India permanently. A while ago, he did return to the village in Pakistan where his family had lived. He hoped to reclaim some of their land and submitted an application. A many page document came back. It contained all the information he’d given about himself and his family, and at the end merely said, “No record available.”

Having this travel companion tell us his interesting story helped the frustration of being on a train seven hours late that continually stopped.


No Blues in Bundi


Arriving in Bundi the last day of the kite festival, the sky was littered with paper kites. We all know how the Indians love a festival and this one was no exception. We climbed up the hill at sunset to watch the multi colored kites fluttering high above the blue city.


For a couple of years we’d heard interesting things about Bundi: not only does it have a magnificent Rajput palace, but it also has a pretty lake and the town is scattered with old havelis in various degrees of decay. Never more than a modest market center, according to our guidebook, Bundi has stayed relatively untouched by modern development. We stayed just inside the town walls in one of the havelis converted to a guesthouse, the top floor with magnificent views.


We ate our evening meal on the roof terrace looking toward the palace lit up in an orange glow. At breakfast we sat in an alcove up among tree branches, leaves rustling in the breeze filtering the morning sunshine over the lake.


A colorful bazaar stretched the length of a narrow thoroughfare;


narrower side streets climbed up toward the palace.


It was easy to spend a whole day at the Palace. It is one of the few in Rajasthan whose style has not been influenced by the Moghuls.


Entering through a main gateway adorned with carved elephants, we could wander quite freely among the many rooms and courtyards.


The palace is known for its superb collection of murals. Indeed the paintings were perhaps the best we’ve yet seen in India, all in surprisingly good condition, with limited graffiti or evidence of vandalism. For a little baksheesh, a local with a set of keys was more than happy to unlock the maharani’s dressing room. Every surface of her chamber was covered in finely detailed miniatures, embellished with gold and silver leaf. “Photography not allowed”. The Chittra Sala, the courtesan’s quarters, faced a lush garden. Murals in  unusual turquoises, blues and blacks portrayed scenes from the life of the blue faced Krishna.


It was here we met a young Sikh couple from the Punjab. They described to us how they’d met via an online dating service, a common practice among young Indians today. Using filters, they find a partner with similar background, lifestyle and values. In the case of this couple, most critical was finding someone also in the Sikh religion.


Over chai they told us stories of the Rajasthani rulers. Historically, the relationship between the Maharaja and his people was like father and son. They may not have liked each other very much or had anything in common, but were still bound by reciprocal bonds. Taxes supported the extravagant lifestyle of the rulers. On the other side of the coin, when there was a marriage in the village, the raja would send gifts of money; when there was a death, the wood for the funeral pyre would be provided by the palace. Government was embodied in a single person whose actions conformed to tradition. This was possible because of the small size of the Rajas’ kingdoms.

“Size,” the young Sikhs said , “is one of India’s chief problems: it brings distance and impersonality. In the days of the Maharaja you could go to him and tell him your difficulties, and if they were genuine he would do everything he could to help you. But in modern day India, you have to meet with some clerk in a government office for every little thing.”


Ophoto 3ur Sikh friends told us it was Guru Gobind Singh’s birthday – there’s always something to celebrate in India. They invited us to go to the free langar at the Gurudwara. We thanked them, but there was still more of the palace we wanted to see. In the evening, a loud commotion brought us out on the street. We watched a parade of tractors pulling trailers filled with waving Sikhs, ranging from the young to the very old, all on their way to Gurudwara. They’d come in from the country for the festival.



As we were packing up to leave, we both agreed Bundi was a place we could easily return to.





Fort at Chitorgarth


Hiring a rickshaw is normally a negotiation game with the driver. It’s always helpful if you have some idea of how far you’re going. He sets an unrealistically high price, you offer a lower price and you both settle on something in between.

The bus station for Chittor was only 5 minutes walk from the guesthouse. But as we dragged our cases along the road, numerous rickshaws wanted to offer their service. “No, no. Not necessary.” Finally when we were close to the bus station a brightly painted, newly upholstered rickshaw pulled up, the driver singing cheerfully. “No charge sir, no charge.” At first we refused, thinking it was some kind of scam, but he insisted he was going there anyway. “Please come.” This was unheard of. What’s the hidden agenda? When he dropped us off; there was nothing more to it. It really was a free ride.

rickshaw with blue

The moment was made more extraordinary when we saw the rickshaw driver shuffle across the gravel on his hands and one foot, all the time with a smile on his face. His legs were both bent at the knee and he was dragging one foot that didn’t work.

On the train to Chittor, we me a young man who was an official guide for safari treks in the Rajasthan desert. He was full of information on out of the way places of interest in Rajasthan and Gerard listened intently while I was writing the blog. When Gerard left the compartment for a few minutes, the man turned to me and said, “I have had very good conversation with your husband.” We got off together at Chittor and he insisted on carrying my bag. That may not sound much of a gesture but looking at the daunting staircase going up and over the tracks and down the other side, it was not small thing. He wouldn’t unhand the bag until we were outside the station.

stairway with crutchesCustomary in arriving at a railway station is to be met by numerous enthusiastic rickshaw drivers, all wanting to give us their best price. We’d been told beforehand that the guesthouse was only a five-minute walk, so we insisted on walking. After five hours on the train, anyway, it felt good to get a little exercise. But we were followed. “Just 10 rupees each, sir.” Walking by choice is not a widely accepted practice in India. One kindly round-faced young man called out, “Free service. Please come.” This can’t be possible. Twice in one day? We got in for the short ride with the promise of hiring him to take us to the Fort the next day.

The last random act of kindness that day was from the hotel manager. It happened to be the Hindu harvest festival of Lohri, commemorating the beginning of the planting season. Sweet sesame ladoos are only available at this time. When we asked the hotel manager where we could buy them, he said, “Wait until the evening.” With our dinner appeared two round sesame ladoo balls. He had called his wife at home and had her make them for us. Dry dusty Chitor and our drab hotel room had become brighter.

Chittorgarh_ dusty 2

In Chittor we’ve gone off the beaten track again – the town is dry and dusty, English speaking is limited, and we don’t know what we’re ordering to eat except that it’s veg, spicy hot and oily. The reason we’d come here was to see the Fort, which dates back to 7th C. For over 800 years it was the capital of the Mewar kingdom in Rajasthan. The Moguls sacked the Fort three times, and after the last attack by Akbar the Great in 1568, its ruins have remained virtually untouched.

fort at chit

The guidebook told us the entire Fort is 5 km long and 1 km wide and has an unbelievable 33 km tangle of partially ruined walls. Our rickshaw driver from the night before drove us around the collection of palaces and temples within the fort.P1000246


Once populated by more than 50,000, now there’s only a few thousand left, living among the ruins. The most impressive and tallest building is the nine-storey high tower commemorating victory over the Moguls in 1440. Sand colored and carved with religious scenes, Vijay Stambh took a decade to build.


Above the hustle and bustle of the town the air was clearer. In places they’d even attempted to cultivate the dry soil; roses and bougainvillea rose out of the dust.


Our rickshaw driver did not rush us but waited patiently at each site. Finally done, we asked him, “Where’s the best place to eat in Chitoor?” With no hesitation, he said “Bala Ji’s.” And it was very good; an oasis in a dry dusty town. Gerard invited the driver to eat with us. Expecting at best a cup of tea, he was surprised and did join us consuming a stack of chapatis and dal. While we ate I practiced my meager Hindi on him.

At 7.30 am, the hotel staff gave us cheerful send off.


Gerard chatting with a classical musician






Pushkar Revisted

Taking a rickshaw to the bus station in Ajmer we both agreed, now we’ve arrived in India. Women in traditional Rajasthani red and gold saris and scarfs draped over their faces, their husbands with multi colored turbans. The press of people, rickshaws, elaborately painted lorries, cows and dogs; a choke of fumes, a whiff of spice, flies converging on enamel bowls of sweetened curd and trays of milk cake, garish billboards advertising movie stars, politicians and gurus.

The bus we boarded for Pushkar was the most dilapidated tin can we’ve ever had the pleasure to ride in India. The sides no longer rigid, swaying back and forth with every bump in the road. Gerard looked at the back to see the cross members broken and gyrating as if they were doing the twist. All attempts to weld hand bars back to the ceiling had failed. The floor heaved as if an earthquake was about to erupt. As we worked our way over a small mountain pass, on each hairpin turn, the bus snapped and groaned as if it was about to fall into pieces.   We arrived in town grateful that the bus did not expire with us in it.

P1000182My father liked to say, “you should never go back.” He had a cynical streak/view of life and believed that you’ll always be disappointed a second time. Just like people, places will let you down. Gerard and I have proved him wrong over and over again. We go back to Varanasi and Goa year after year and are not let down. Rather, it improves as we become more familiar. But certain expectations inevitably form. I’d loved Pushkar the first time we visited last year. It’s a pretty town, sitting beside a lake surrounded by gentle hills and has a spiritual ambience


But what I reminisced most about during the past 12 months was our guesthouse, Rising Star. Our spacious room, the family chanting around their household temple downstairs in the evening and the delicious home cooked meals served on the roof. So with a booking made we returned dragging our cases from the bus stop. The two brothers met us with long faces…”Sorry Sir, we don’t have your room for two days.” A girl was supposed to leave but got very sick and couldn’t move. They offered us the only vacant room – dark and damp on the first floor. We didn’t relish moving after two days or into a room where someone had been deathly sick. I felt let down and fearful there wouldn’t be another room in town, and for a while that seemed the case; the rooms we looked at were too noisy, dirty or overpriced. Finally we found the “White House”. And it was just that, painted all in white and very clean; friendly owners, good food, nice room. So once again, we’ve proved my father wrong…you can go back. But sometimes an adjustment is required.


The first night here, right next to the hotel was a house performing funeral rites. The period of public mourning lasts for 11 days and fortunately for us this was the last. Friends and family assembled and loudspeakers, set up on the roof, blasted live chanters till after midnight. Surprisingly, we managed to sleep through much if it because we were so exhausted from traveling. The following evening a small nearby temple broadcast in a similar fashion more chanting till 11 pm. And of course in the early morning there’s always some temple near and far beckoning over loudspeakers the faithful to come and do their devotion.

Gerard asked our friendly waiter/cook at out roof top restaurant, “Why do all events, weddings, funerals, temples etc, blast from loudspeakers at ear shattering volume. Are they sharing with the community at large?”

“Not really. Indians are a loud bunch.” He replied. We reflected — the horn on the lorry playing musical tunes with horns, the ticket collector on the bus with his piercing whistle. Is it any wonder Gerard suffers from tinnitus?

The waiter continued, “ Everything in India is LOUD. Loud music, loud clothes — so much color, loud food — so much spice.” There must be more to it than that. Maybe it’s a matter of competing with 1.3 billion.

We’ve said it before; traveling in India is not only about India. Today, we ate breakfast with a woman from Croatia who was nine years old when the Yugoslav war broke out. Since visiting Bosnia for work, I’ve had an interest in that part of the world and had made questions about the war. As we talked, the only thing that was clear from her point of view was that the region in general is in worse shape now than before the war. She thinks it needs a single ruler to keep the lid on ancient grudges. But where to find such a ‘benevolent’ leader that actually has the citizens interests at heart? We couldn’t remember meeting a Croatian here before. Both of us were fascinated to hear what she had to say.


Pushkar is a pleasantly relaxing place to begin our winter sojurn in India. Spending our last afternoon sitting on another rooftop restaurant above the lake, sheltered from the afternoon sun and fanned by a gentle breeze, watching flocks of birds silently circling the water. The sounds from pilgrim bathers below are hushed. The beet, carrot and pomegranate seed salad tastes even better with the view.





Fog and Wait

As a precursor to our destination, “hurry up and wait” so typical in India, our flight out of Logan was delayed four hours. The last flight to leave the airport that night, we hung around the gate, tired and impatient. When the gate counter started handing out snacks I began to fear we were going to spend the night in the terminal. “We’re waiting for the crew and will board as soon as they arrive,” we’re told. I imagined them hanging out in the Seaport Hotel over drinks. “We’ll fly when we feel like it.” Finally, we take off.

There’s something exotic about Turkish Air – whether it’s the paper cups of Turkish Delight served at take off, or the limited ability of the crew to speak English. Our neighbors include a young American going to Tel Aviv and a Pakistani traveling home. Istanbul is a connecting hub for us all. Our lay over is shortened to one hour. Thank God. Istanbul airport is crowded and congested. Waiting, we watch the activity at the neighboring Gate for Flight 911 to Casablanca. (I find the number ironic). Before India became our travel destination we made many trips to Morocco. We loved the colorful country and Moroccan people, but now, post 911, everything is changed. The expressive gesturing and guttural Arabic of a group of young Moroccan friends, make us nostalgic for a time of innocence, before terrorism when Moroccans welcomed us and we did not feel uncomfortable to be Americans.

I’ve already written on what we love about India, and why we keep returning. Why India…Again  There was a time when arriving in India was intoxicating – exotic, unfamiliar and full of mystique. It remains exotic and the mystique is still there, you just have to look a little harder. Maybe that’s because India has become more familiar. The newly built airport is like any other international hub, sterile and bland — except for the smell. A smell that manages to seep in from outside; a familiar combination of burning dung, incense and dust that is distinctly Indian. Elements of Indian bureaucracy that seem designed to confuse also remain. The custom official asks for my boarding pass…why? I’ve already arrived? He pays no attention to my explanation that I discarded the pass on the plane. The question is enough, he doesn’t need an answer, and he stamps my passport.

Outside, fog laden with pollution, typical of this time of year, greets us. The traffic at 5.30 am is still relatively light. A prepaid taxi takes us a couple of miles and then stops under an overpass. The driver politely addresses Gerard, “Sorry sir, just five minutes,” and gets out of the taxi. If it had been our first time in India, we might have been concerned. Were his friends going to descend on and rob us…or worse? But this is typical Indian behavior. He had picked up another passenger, (despite the fact we’d hired the taxi) and is dropping him off. He’s not going to leave the man (who may or may not be a friend) until he’s met. No point in complaining, we just wait. Gerard gets out and buys chai for everyone from a street vendor, his saucepan of tea on high boil as he pours in plenty of milk and sugar. Hot and sweet in its little paper cup, we enjoy our first chai.

Dinner with our Indian family

Dinner with our Indian family

The night before we’re scheduled to leave Gurgaon on the 5.30 am train, our friends order an Uber taxi. Excited that the smart phone app is so simple, Kamal by mistake makes the order twice. At 4 am her phone is ringing repeatedly, announcing the two taxis. She cancels one, but an hour later, there is still no taxi.

Finally, the smart phone announces the car has arrived — but there’s no sign of it. The driver calls; he’s lost. In the maze of surrounding streets, it’s easy to believe. Uber is new, dirt-cheap and does not yet have GPS. Kamal tries to guide him on the phone, and eventually the driver arrives…on foot. More talking until he takes off and returns with the car.   Hurried farewells and we’re on our way. Only to be met by a thick blanket of fog, much heavier than the morning we arrived, its density rivals the fog of London in a Dickens’ novel.

Finally, the smart phone announces the car has arrived — but there’s no sign of it. The driver calls; he’s lost. In the maze of surrounding streets, it’s easy to believe. Uber is new, dirt-cheap and does not yet have GPS. Kamal tries to guide him on the phone, and eventually the driver arrives…on foot. More talking until he takes off and returns with the car.   Hurried farewells and we’re on our way. Only to be met by a thick blanket of fog, much heavier than the morning we arrived, its density rivals the fog of London in a Dickens’ novel.


Visibility is almost zero as the driver crawls along, struggling to stay on the road. When he misses a turning, he drives against the traffic in the wrong direction…in thick fog. Everybody is driving so slow it ‘s not as scary as you might think. Finally an eery glow from the railway station sign emerges out of the fog. We’ve made it with one minute to train time. But of course the train is delayed and we wait on the platform another half hour. Gerard tries to get information from the stationmaster but he can’t be found. A helpful fellow passenger tells him in very broken English, the train has been cancelled. But not to worry, we should board the train just arriving in the station instead. Frantically looking for our carriage, A1, we jump on to the next closest thing (AB1) and plunk down on some empty seats. But where’s this train going? Will we have to change somewhere to reach Ajmer, our destination? Most of the passengers are sleeping; among the few awake, no one speaks English.


Finally the ticket collector arrives. Ticket collectors don’t get paid much but make up for the lack of pay by asserting their uniformed authority. (Uniforms are big in India). The collectors tend to yell at passengers, force them out of their assigned seats if they decide they want to sit down themselves, and so on. This collector sternly reads our tickets and tells us we should be “backside”. It takes a while but we figure out we’re on the right train after all and our seats are far away at the other end of the train, about 15 cars behind us. It’s impossible to get ourselves and our bags all the way back, so we stay put, hoping other passengers won’t arrive and claim their rightful seats.



Fog lifts over Rajasthan