India is a cheap escape from winter. But it’s much more than that…the attraction to a country that is so large and so diverse physically, economically and spiritually is powerful. To those of us who are attracted, India can be addictive.
If Bhaktapur is the most exotic place we’ve travelled, then Bandipur is the most idyllic. The only fly in the ointment was the mountains weren’t clear. But the flowers in bloom made up for it.
It’s rare that a place is even better on the second visit. Our guesthouse has an excellent view of the valley below on a clear day.
The town center has a Mediterranean feel. The stone-paved plaza is entered down several steps, so there is no traffic, not even a motorbike.
The peace and quiet is more than welcome . Even the dogs rarely bark, only the sounds of birds and school children break the silence . Bliss for me—I can actually follow a conversation again.
The center of town has scarcely changed since our first visit. Though Bandipur is geared toward tourists, they haven’t yet come in droves yet. Day trippers arrive for a few hours on private buses from Pokhara, and a few paragliders hang silently in the sky.
The locals are still welcoming and greet us with naamaste and a warm smile. The service couldn’t be better.
An old building at the end of the square has been beautifully restored in the traditional style and can be enjoyed for a mere $100/night.
On a walk outside of town, more beautiful houses and flowers
We have been in Nepal for three weeks and hadn’t seen the snow-capped mountains until this morning. After a night’s rain, in the early morning our rooftop gave us a grand view.
It’s not easy to get to Bandipur, but it’s well worth the effort.
Our taxi brought us as far as cars could go inside Bhaktapur and the guesthouse owner came out to greet us. But he did not recognize our booking. “I don’t work with Expedia.” “But we’ve prepaid for seven nights!” He showed us a room. The pictures online had little resemblance, but our window looked right out on Taumaudh temple, the tallest in Nepal. “When is breakfast served?” I asked him, looking at the tables in the entryway. “Breakfast?” he said, “I don’t serve breakfast.” “But our booking included breakfast.” Mukunda, the owner was friendly but that didn’t make up for the overpriced room. It worked out in the end, we paid half of the asking price online.
Bhaktapur was on our list of places to return, but after the earthquake (Bhaktapur sat at the 8.9M epicenter) we thought it would be too painful to see all its architectural antiquity destroyed. Time and tide…we had to go before we couldn’t.
The old town (not the sprawling new one) was built between the 14th and 16thC. Three major squares are connected by narrow streets and alleys paved with flagstones. One of the advantages of the uneven surface is that that motorbikes, the only traffic allowed, are slowed down. In spite of dust from continuing construction, the city is still immaculate compared to India.
Apparently, 70% of the old buildings in the town collapsed while many of the new concrete homes survived. If the homeowner rebuilds with the traditional brick and carved timber front facade, the municipality reimburses up to 20%.
The Taumaudh temple remained intact in spite of its height while surrounding buildings collapsed. It’s enormous three tier base may explain why. Or the protecting statues along the ascending stairs did their job.
Across the square, another repaired temple houses a god that is so ferocious that no one, except the priest, is allowed to enter inside.
Life here is steeped in rituals. In front of every house a stone or bronze stylized flower is embedded alongside the paving stones to ensure safety and prosperity to the household. The “pikha lakhe” are lovingly blessed with flowers, rice and red powder.
Around 4 am, the morning ritual begins with the ringing of temple bells by people passing by. With my bad hearing, the different size bells, ringing at intervals, sound like an avant guard jazz performance. Women bring trays of offerings to the ancient statutes of deities. After paying homage, they smear the red powder on their third eye.
In Bhaktapur, young and old alike take their rituals very seriously, lighting candles, touching the deity, then their forehead. As they leave, they take a flower and place it on their head. Every evening, older men sit in front of the temple and chant. One explanation for so much ritual could be Nepalis have incorporated both Buddhism and Hinduism.
Unique to Bhaktapur are “patis”, covered sitting areas where old men hang out, chatting or playing cards.
With most of the restaurants and hotels run by young men, where are all the middle-aged men? With few work opportunities, many have left to find work or study abroad leaving the women to fend for themselves.
The guesthouse owner, Mukunda, was sympathetic of my hearing loss and told me about his Downs Syndrome 17-year old daughter. He took us to see her school.
The first person we met there was an English volunteer, the other, a young physical therapist massaging the atrophied legs of Mukunda’s daughter. It was hard for me to take in; she didn’t even recognize her father’s voice. The school has 45 students, one of them a little boy was playing by himself silently in a corner. His face lit up when I went over to play with him. What a Godsend to have this school here for these children.
With all the changes here, we were pleased to find the tea and curd lady still in business. In India, you can always count on getting a good chai made by Nepali cooks. But in Bhaktapur they began making coffee for the tourists. Now everyone is drinking coffee and it’s hard to find tea anywhere.
In spite of air pollution and the painfully slow restoration we were glad to return. In our travels, Bhaktapur still remains unique.
Flying toward Kathmandu, the line of snow-capped mountains on the horizon looked more like a bank of clouds in the blue sky. But then we dipped down for landing into a blanket of smog. Once on the ground, we were glad of our face masks. Traffic was heavy, with mostly motorbikes, but unlike in India, Nepalis don’t sit on their horns. The level of street noise was more bearable for my now noise-sensitive ears. The population has exploded like in India.
Happy at leaving Varanasi before Holi (not our favorite festival), only to find the Nepalis also celebrating. Youth and children roamed the streets throwing color until evening when things calmed down. We should’t have been surprised since Hinduism and Buddhism are practiced side by side in Nepal. Buddhist statues sit alongside Hindu deities at all the monuments.
Nine years ago, just before the 2015 earthquake, we came here not knowing what to expect. How could we have known history would come alive through the architectural wonder of Durbar Square in both Patan and Kathmandu? We were apprehensive about returning, to face the devastation coupled with reports of increased crime and prostitution in Kathmandu. But we didn’t see it and were glad to be back.
Thamel, where the budget hotels are located, is still a rabbit warren of narrow cobblestoned streets. Tourists and trekkers seem way down but maybe because the season hasn’t started yet. Everybody seems to be on the hustle but you can’t blame them; tourism and so much else hasn’t recovered since the earthquake.
Gerard asked a few locals where they were when the earthquake hit. Among those we spoke to, no one knew anyone who died. Today the city is still a mix between empty lots and construction. In spite of foreign aid pouring in, it’s rumored that rebuilding didn’t start for years. One explanation: “If we did the repair work, the money would stop coming.” But there are other reasons including lack of organization and finding skilled artisans..
Still vibrating with the impressions of Varanasi, Durbar Square with its intricate architecture and wood carving required a cultural shift in our attention. Even though this was our second visit, the beauty of this 3rdC Royal Palace complex was a feast for our eyes and in much better condition than we’d expected.
Next day we waited for the drizzle to stop, then climbed up the 365 steps to the Swayambhunath or Monkey Temple.
Nine years ago, the steps were of no consequence. So many changes during those years. Surprisingly, the hundreds of stone deities of both religions surrounding the large Buddhist stupa, escaped unscathed.
Unfortunately the nearby Patan Durbar wasn’t as restored as Kathmandu because either it suffered more damage or has taken longer to recover. It was hard to see the deterioration of what had impressed us so much before—some of the finest Newari temples and palaces in Nepal.
Posters around the complex boasted the involvement of Germany, Japan, China etc., then why is it taking so long compared to Kathmandu?
Thankfully, the Patan Museum, with financial help from Austria, has reopened its gilded entryway and still contains a wonderful collection of Newari sculptures and artifacts.
We weren’t prepared for all the changes in Varanasi. Perhaps they seemed more extreme after three years’ absence. Getting from the airport to the ghats through the clogged streets was a major feat, our taxi took twice the time. We crawled along, directing the driver to our familiar way of entering the ghat through the Moslem quarter. The hotel we’d booked online was a mistake–the photographs were totally misleading, it was a dump! But fortunately we found another literally next door. Under renovation, we were able to book an unfinished but nice room for a bargain.
We quickly dropped our bags and hustled out to embrace Mother Ganges. There she was in all her splendor. But wait! What is happening on the sandbar across the river? A young Indian boy seeing our perplexed expression, said, “How do you like our Tent City?” A mass of white tents are lined up like an army barracks, a protective fence surrounding the ‘compound.’ Gerard asked the boy, “Who wants to stay in a tent in the blazing sun?” He replied, “The same people who will pay up to 4K rupees a night.” We all had a good laugh.
On our first foray out we didn’t even notice no washermen drying laundry on the ghat, no more stately water buffaloes wading in the river. The ghats could certainly stand to be cleaner, but we miss the activity and color. For several years, the government tried to stop clothes washing in the river with little effect. The police are now offering a free ‘bamboo massage’ (beating) to all offenders!
Our friends along the lane were all smiles. Gerard thought they they were pleased to see us but also that it also meant business was resuming. If these two old people can make it back then there’s hope! Just about everyone we talked to had stories about the covid lockdown. With few exceptions (naysayers), most told the same story: initially, there was a sense of camaraderie, the community fed the beggars and dogs. Some restaurants continued to pay their staff; they were the lucky ones.
Then the lockdown dragged on more than a year. With no money coming in, utilities and food still had to be paid for. Ironically, property owners were exempt from the government food subsidies, but still had to pay their property tax. Price of food continued climbing; from pre to post covid the price of cooking oil and flour has doubled.
I was surprised to see a beggar we’ve known for years, to have actually put on weight and look healthier. Maybe he’d benefited from the government handout/? He was also missing his thick glasses—perhaps he’d qualified for free cataract surgery!
Our friend Santosh, a native of Varanasi, said he noticed in the tree outside his window many bird species he’d not seen before. And because the streets were so quiet, he could actually hear the birds sing. The only other sound breaking the silence was the muezzin’s call for prayer at the mosque. Someone else mentioned the surface of the Ganges was like glass with no boats carrying tourists up and down the river.
Three additional ghats were relegated for burning and to keep up with the demand, instead of one body per pyre, five to ten bodies were burned at once. No vaccines were available at first, the irony when India was making a massive amount but selling it abroad! The only activity was cremation.
We’ve known Rajesh for about 15 years, even before he was married. He and Gerard connected over the classical Hindustani CDs he sold. Then there was only demand for religious music at his stall on the way to the Golden Temple. Today, he just sells bangles and necklaces. His wife invited us to dinner; it was very sweet to be with his whole family.
His 12 year old daughter, Sagan, was engaging, showing me her English language test book with almost 100% scores, while her rambunctious young brother, Vinayak, vied for attention.
As we have done previously, we accompanied Santosh an accomplished photographer, to watch the sunrise over the river and the pilgrims do their morning puja. We’ve done that many times before and it still remains spectacular. During Covid, many walls were decorated with murals, some better than others. But our sense of awe turned to dismay as the new corridor loomed. A wide stone staircase lead up to the entry way and a fast food court. An admission fee is required to go further into the corridor leading to the Golden Temple.
Three years ago when the project began, we were deeply perplexed that they could tear down part of this ancient city. Now 500 old houses have been destroyed to create this gaping hole of modernity and capitalism.
Just past the corridor, Manikarnika, the rambling main Burning Ghat has been contained. I used to find it mysterious and almost threatening with its confusion of burning bodies, sadhus and pseudo policemen forbidding photography at threat of large fines. Now I can walk by unaccosted.
Admittedly, Modi’s a controversial figure but it seems he wants to turn Varanasi into a tourist attraction. Pilgrims have been coming here to worship and to die for thousands of years. They will continue to come but they will have to compete with the well-heeled tourists.
For us, we continue to meet old friends. From the first time we arrived fifteen years ago, we connected with our congenial guesthouse manager, Sanjiv, restaurant owners, shopkeepers, music lovers, chai wallahs, and even beggars. Unimpeded with language difficulties, the friendships strengthened with each visit.
In spite of the encroaching modern world, Varanasi remains remarkably unique: the sun rising over the Ganges, the boats darting back and forth, sadhus performing their spiritual practices.
Our last few days in Gokarna coincided with the beginning of the Hindu festival, Shivratri, in honor of Lord Shiva’s birthday. Anticipating much congestion and noise, we were not excited, but we were in for a surprise. Wandering the town we noticed the huge wooden chariot had been pulled out of its parking spot beside the temple. Men clambered on top to build a ballon-shaped super structure, which was then decorated with brightly colored strips of cloth.
Gokarna was transformed into a busy cacophony of color, people and noise. Stages set up for dance performances, music blasting from loudspeakers. Thousands of devotees queued to perform puja and purchase offerings of flowers and coconuts.
The path from the temple to the beach was covered with a decorated cloth canopy giving some shade to the devotees patiently waiting. Each day the crowd built and the queue grew longer. To enter the temple, they all stood barefoot, their sandals discarded in a large pile. Will they ever find them again? I wonder.
We left town before the finale, when an estimated 20,000 filled the short narrow street to watch the chariot pulled on ropes while onlookers threw bananas at the brahmin priests sitting inside. The reason why has been lost in translation. But the idea of thousands of people throwing bananas and the smell of the overripe fruit did not entice me to want to stay.
The temple significance lies in a legend associated with Ravana, a mythical demon king. The temple supposedly contains one of the powerful Shivalingam, the center point of worship. Ravana wanted the lingam and through his devotion impressed Shiva to give it to him, but on the condition that wherever Ravana placed the lingam it would be stuck there. In Gokarna, Ravana met Ganesh and asked him to hold the lingam while he prayed. But Ganesh put it down and vanished. Finishing his prayers, Ravana tried to pull it out without success. Tearing the outer covering of the lingam, he threw the pieces in different directions, which became the sites of the different temples in Gokarna.
In the usual Hindu combination of the sacred and secular, the small town became a carnival. Packed in beside the regular shops, a multitude of stalls were set up selling an assortment of plastic kitsch, aluminum kitchen ware, women’s “inner wear”, sugary sweets…and so on. We’ve seen this type of carnival often in Indian towns at the time of the many Hindu festivals.
The near side of the beach, beside the town, was flooded with Indians. They stood crowded together at the edge of the water, some venturing to play in the waves. Instead of sand castles, they built lingams and adorned them with flowers.
But down at our end, nothing much changed. The dogs and cows still owned the beach, the restaurants remained relatively empty. We continued swimming until the morning of our departure, then packed up. I said goodbye to the beach that had been my friend for the past month, and we took a rickshaw to the train station. Once again, to find our train was too hours late. Finally, it arrived and we found our seats among an extended family returning home to Mumbai. Gerard quickly entered into conversation with them. Dinner time came and they spread out a feast with paper plates and wooden spoons. Even the chapatis were wrapped in newspaper tied with string. I was intrigued by no sign of plastic. Even the vendor walking up down the corridor sold us clay pots of yoghurt with wooden spoons. It seems in this part of India, the notion of no plastic is taking root. Still talking, Gerard remarked that we won’t find such camaraderie on tomorrow’s airplane!
An Italian woman, troubled by sand fleas, walks through the water every day to avoid being on the sand. She likes to talk and I can easily hear her clearly-annunciated but heavily-accented English until she tells me about a wonderful ayurvedic massage down the beach. “Where? My husband would like a massage.” “It’s called LaTOOsa.” “Say it again?” I ask. Eventually she spells it out: L-O-T-U-S. “Ah, Lotus?” “Si, LaTOOsa!” she beams. We exchange our names. “Orrbearta!” Italian Marina exclaimed. “My sister’s name!” Roberta sounds so much better in Italian, and I’ve found a new friend in the water.
I’m enjoying conversing with British friends using expressions I haven’t heard in a long time. “Chivvy along,” a mother ordered her dawdling children. “WHAT?” said Gerard thinking he was hearing a foreign language. I explained, ‘chivvy’ meant hurry. “In all the years I’ve known you, you’ve never used that expression!” It’s not the first time I’ve surprised him.
Visiting the weekly market provided a photo op.
Marion and Juergen encouraged us to join them taking the ferry off the peninsula to a tiny hamlet on the mainland. Before breakfast we caught the 7.30 am bus to the port where the little ferry was waiting. People and motorbikes crowded on for the short but lovely ride.
Marina had told us of a chai shop on the other side and we set off in expectation for a nice breakfast. Four miles later, through road construction and clouds of red dust, stil no chai shop. Exhausted, thirsty and hungry we turned around.
After the long walk back, we found the chai shop right where it was supposed to be and sat overlooking the bay with our chai.
But what saved the day was the unreserved friendliness of everyone. Obviously few western tourists ventured their way and we were still a curiosity: big smiles and waves from road laborers, housewives and school children. By the time we got off the ferry hoping to catch the bus back to Gokarna, it was high noon. The shopkeeper said the next bus will come in two hours. There wasn’t a rickshaw in sight. Fatigued and overheated we started walking. Eventually we caught a rickshaw back to town. Not exactly the outing we’d anticipated.
Certainly the dogs along the way could have advised us if we’d only taken the time to listen.
A few days later, bird watcher, Tina, proposed another walk to the little beach of Belekan. “About a two hour walk,” she claimed. “We’ll leave early to avoid the heat and take a bus back.”
For the first hour we followed a small road through the jungle alive with bird calls. Then Tina followed a footpath that meandered past rice paddies and the odd house.
The green of the rice paddies shimmered. And if we stood still long enough we caught glimpses of white–egrets, ibis and storks. n stalks glimpses of white–egrets, ibis and storks.
Suddenly the footpath opened up to the beach. At the far end sat a cafe where the bus terminated. After our two hour trek our chai tasted even better.
Then we were informed that the bus would not be coming for another two hours. ‘Man proposes and God disposes’, someone muttered.
The general consensus was to walk back. Gerard was of a different mind, happy to hang out at the cafe and await the bus. Had I known what was being said, I would have enjoyed also staying for a swim. But not following his gut, we trudged off with the others. Now in the noon day sun, our pleasant stroll through the jungle became a test of endurance–heat, sun and no water. Finally reaching our room, Gerard collapsed on the bed. After looking at map, he huffed, “Two-hour walk, huh? That was more like ten miles!” Once again, Incredible India has its hidden surprises.
Two warnings are pinned to the guesthouse wall. One is ridiculous: “Swimming on the beach is not safe.” Hello? Have you ever tried swimming on the beach? The other is more ominous: “The owner will not be responsible for any drowning in the sea.” Undeterred by occasional rough seas, I swim twice a day, and then walk the long stretch of sand, appreciating the moment.
I enjoy the simplicity of our lifestyle; it unclutters my mind, which likes to seize on the busy minutiae of daily living back home. I may not always like the Indian meal served, but it still beats the time and mental energy devoted to cooking and food shopping. Every day, I look forward to my idli and dosa breakfast. A young Indian has just started up his little dhaba and serves us with enthusiasm.
Gerard enjoys leaving Wellington Street far behind. Oddly, he does not seem to miss painting just as I don’t miss biking, knowing they will be waiting when we return. When he’s not swimming with me or socializing, he’s busy completing his memoir which he began writing exactly four years ago in India. His favorite tunes encourage him when the writing is difficult. Mosquitos and sand flies have found his skin irresistible and he’s had to contend with a slew of itchy, inflamed bites. But two weeks into our stay the bites are reducing. Dare I say the insects are loosing interest, moving on to the next tasty newcomer?
With many of the establishments here preferring to cater to Indians now, the old time travelers congregate in just a few cafes up and down the beach. Some of us question if we’ll come to India again whether put off by traffic, pollution, plastic waste—everyone agrees that the subcontinent is drowning in a sea of plastic–or Modi. 1.4 bilion create a heck of lot of waste! Gerard and I try to do our bit by bringing a portable water filter to avoid contributing to the mountain of plastic bottles. The otherwise beautiful walk through the vegetable gardens to the beach is marred by litter. To avoid looking at it for a month, Gerard got a gunny sack and picked it up. But where to dispose of the full sack?
Walking through the vegetable fields we notice that each little garden has its own shallow well. So close to the sea, surprisingly these wells are not polluted by salt water. With the rich soil, the baking sun and plenty of water, the vegetables seem to grow as we watch them. Too bad not enough of them find their way into the restaurants.
Our friend Marina is a social magnate; after twenty years in Gokarna she knows the old timers and easily makes new friends. At one point, there’s nine all from her area of north London. We’re sad to see Emma leave after her brief three-week holiday. She doesn’t understand those who complain about the new influx of Indian tourists crowding on to the beach (mostly on the weekends). She looks at the long stretch of sand and says, “To me, it’s bliss!” She spent her childhood summers in south Devon and we both agree that there’s no comparison to the sardine-packed people on the beaches of Torquay and Paignton.
Although I get frustrated in trying to follow the group conversations, it doesn’t overwhelm me anymore (given the occasional meltdown). This is our third visit to India since I lost my hearing, and I’m relieved to find it has gotten somewhat easier. I know my mechanisms to avoid hearing fatigue – and when I take a mental break and space out for a while, I return to the conversation to find surprisingly the same topic is still being discussed. I don’t seem to have missed much!
We wish we could identify the exotic tropical bird songs that I’m so grateful to hear. North London Tina’s a bird person and can recognize when Gerard provides a great imitation of a call. One is the Koel bird that we watch from our balcony in a papaya tree picking away at the fruit. Tina must be almost 80 and has traveled solo in India many times, which I find inspiring. Again, I wonder if I would have the resources to do it alone.
Our German friends, Marion and Yergen, insist that we accompany them to Kudlee Beach, a pretty sheltered cove we first visited three years ago. The descent to the beach is crowded with Indian tourists, the more so because it’s Republican Day weekend. Kudlee now caters only to Indians; several old buildings are demolished and undergrowth cleared at the near end of the beach to make way for a large luxury hotel. Rented dinghies, water ski launches and other plastic flotilla pepper the water. It’s beginning to look like Paignton! How many beautiful beachfronts are there left in the world that haven’t been ruined by over-development?
French Frederic, who we first met in the Himalayas ten years ago, took an overnight bus from Bangalore to spend three days with us. A resident of Auroville, he was on his way back to France to renew his visa. We have a special bond with him and are able to pick up where we left off four years ago in Varanasi. Swiss Peter, who visited us in Boston last summer, came down from Agonda for a few days as well. Both Gerard and I are flattered they made such an effort to visit us.
“Yes, I remember you,” the restaurant manager in Gokarna said with a half-smile. Coming from a man who, despite Gerard’s efforts, would not engage in conversation for the whole month we were here before, this was a warm welcome.
We hadn’t given much thought to another winter here. In fact after returning from a challenging time in California, trying to hear in noisy restaurants or even groups of friends, I’d told Gerard definitively that I could not handle India again. Just a few days later, Melissa, our longtime house sitter, emailed us to say she was available this winter. That did it! We’re going! I said ,visualizing the beach in Gokarna, the ghats of Varanasi, the snow-capped mountains in HP and the friends we’d have the chance to reunite with along the way. I was determined to handle my hearing loss in India as I do in the U.S. Clearly, the benefits would outweigh the difficulties.
But I do need help to get by in chaotic India. At the airport, a frustrated customs official asked, me, Do you speak Hindi or English? Later, a young Indian tried to strike up a conversation, then realizing my predicament, assured, “You’re not missing anything,” and high-fived me. Easy for him to say, but without Gerard I don’t think I could do this on my own.
We arrived in Delhi at 2 am, Even though the airport is now no different than any other airport in the world it’s still a shock for us to walk through duty-free that is predominantly alcohol. As we predicted our hotel did not let us in despite our reservation and claim of 24-hour check in. We eventually found another where the manager woke up long enough to give us an inflated price. After inspecting the room, Gerard bargained with the sleepy manager for a reasonable rate. In the morning, I looked out the window on a large colorful umbrella with a sign saying ‘Baba Masala Tea.’ A white-haired gentleman pounded out fresh ginger and cinnamon sticks in a mortar and pestle to make the best chai in the neighborhood. Just when we need it, a chai wallah appears.
We were interested to see how India had changed in the past three years. It’s too early to know, but in the airport we couldn’t help noticing posters of Modi’s nationalistic agenda, with his ridiculous slogan: ‘1.4 billion people, one dream.’ The continuing strife between Hindus and Moslems begs the question: what is the one dream? We were surprised to see so few long term travelers like ourselves in the Pahargunj area of Delhi. Consequently, many of the shops catering to tourists have disappeared, returning Pahargunj to Indian consumers.
On our way to see the family in Gurgoan we were impressed by the metro, still running like clockwork and unusually clean for Delhi, unlike the buses and trains which are constantly breaking down. It was wonderful to be in their company again and we were surprised at how the children had grown. Five-year old Tanya’s cheeky personality has emerged, her English better than her Hindi, her mother says. And Simrita has grown into a gracious fourteen year old. She took me shopping in the nearby market. Sympathetic to my hearing loss, and lack of Hindi, she guided me through the process, reminiscent of how I did the same for my blind father many years ago.
The family knew it was Gerard’s birthday and Simrita wanted to bake Gerard a surprise cake. After dinner she disappeared into the kitchen and proudly emerged some time later with a freshly baked chocolate cake. Shruti stuck her knife in and said it needed more cooking, so Simrita returned to the kitchen. Soon after we heard a loud crash followed by sobbing, Simrita had turned the cake on to a glass plate and dropped it on the tiled floor. At Shruti’s insistence, she eventually appeared and placed the cake with embedded glass shards in front of Gerard, and we sang ‘happy birthday,’ before the cake was trashed.
The two-hour pre departure requirement for our domestic flight to Goa, was no overkill. The long line of passengers at check in (that would challenge anyone with claustrophobia) the interminable walk to the departure gate, and finally a bus ride to board the plane on the tarmac at least a couple of miles from the gate. Nevertheless, the plane took off on time! Gerard, with his love of trains and disdain of airports, couldn’t help mentioning how much easier it would have been to board a train and enjoy a more pleasant, if longer, journey. The following day, when our two-hour train ride to Gokarna was delayed by two hours, I had the satisfaction of pointing out the incongruity of waiting the same amount of time as the journey!
We struggled to book our room online and the internet pictures failed to meet up to reality. But after we’d moved the bed to face the window and Gerard got to work with his rag and disinfectant, the room became our home at the beach.
As it turned out, pre-booking paid off. Friends have told us it’s hard to find a place to stay because guesthouses are now only renting to affluent young Indians who come on the weekends. The owners can double the price and not bother to rent the rooms during the week, telling tourists like ourselves they have nothing available. Our guesthouse is only a three-minute walk from the beach, through vegetable gardens. Palm trees shelter our balcony from the heat of the day while allowing the amber glow of the late afternoon light to filter through.
Thinking of friends who couldn’t return for health or economic reasons, or chose not to (avoiding Russians), we’re grateful to be here. On our arrival, Frederic one of our oldest Indian connections, was already waiting at our guesthouse.
For over two years we hadn’t been anywhere except Philadelphia. With great anticipation, we left for three weeks in England on the busiest travel day since covid: a combination of spring, pent up desire to travel, and the Boston Marathon. Would I have to sit next to a sweaty runner, on his way home? Surprisingly the airport was quiet, with hardly an attendant to help us check in. Yes, there were eight runners on the plane, given priority boarding, but they’d taken the time to shower. Heathrow was as busy as ever, but once again, there was hardly an attendant in sight, even at passport control. Automation! It’s another indication of how impersonal the world is becoming: everything done on devices.
For me the trip began long before I stepped on the airplane, carefully planning and coordinating all of the different people we wanted to see. As the plane left the ground I could let it go, no more planning. We stayed the first five days in the Bayswater neighborhood of London. Our airbnb was on a quiet side street, a three-minute walk from Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, the trees and grass dazzling in their springtime green vibrancy.
In nearby Queensway, Gerard was fascinated by the elegant six-story Victorian townhouses built around garden squares. Originally designed as single families, he wondered who could afford these in the 1860s? On the other hand, the Empire was at it absolute peak. London must have been awash with money. Gerard laughed at the term ‘Commonwealth’; it seemed like the wealth was funneled directly to London. So much for the peasants in the colonies! After WW2 the neighborhood went into decline, but now it’s definitely upscale again with lots of foreign ownership.
On Westbourne Grove, we managed to find Fresco’s again, an affordable Lebanese cafe with excellent moussaka and falafel. We ate there repeatedly, and the owners were amused that we knew the Egyptian singer, Oum Kalthoum. My longtime boarding school friend, Stephanie, lives just down the street, in a studio apartment with her artist husband. She’s been in the neighborhood almost since I left England fifty years ago. Even though I don’t see Stephanie very often, our relationship is more like sisters than friends.
In nearby Notting Hill, we met up with Marina whom we first met several years ago in Himachal Pradesh. She’d just returned from another winter in India on a business visa and was still trying to adjust. Loving India, she’s been returning there since her visit as a young woman. She found the impact of covid devastating on all those dependent on tourism. Together, we walked through Portobello Road Market. But it was disappointing. It was hardly recognizable from when I knew it back in the ‘60s; no longer any chance of finding unexpected treasures among junk.
Marion, my roommate from University days, came all the way from her home in Cumbria and joined us at the Tate Modern on the Embankment. Gerard went through a special exhibit of surrealist art, while I caught up with Marion sitting in front of a huge picture window looking out on the Thames. We didn’t stay long enough to do the museum justice. The following day Gerard and I went to the Tate Britain. We’d forgotten that that the Turner gallery is preceded by six large Rofko paintings, called the Seagram series. He donated them to the Tate in honor of Turner. Just before leaving Boston, we went to see the Turner show at the MFA, wetting our appetite for more.
My brother drove us to Winchester for a family reunion. Once again my cousin, Cherryl, hosted a lunch for the other cousins etc. We asked them how often they get together. Not since the last time you were here four years ago, they laughed!
We stayed the night with more University friends, Tim and Sally, who live virtually down the street from Cherryl. Now that their children have gone, they’re seriously considering downsizing. We were happy to have the chance to stay one more time in their spacious house with its sprawling grounds.
The train ride to our next stop in Devon was very nostalgic for me: how many times had I traveled this very route on my way to boarding school? We stayed with a couple we first met in Varanasi, who live on the edge of Dartmoor.
We’d imagined a rustic moorland location, but the village of Capstone was surprisingly civilized and we loved their terraced house with its luscious back garden that put ours to shame. Within a five minute walk, you’re on the moor! For three days we walked over the moor, up Sheeps Tor, down into the valley past the remains of an Iron age village, and a Norman church.
Their old hands at this and packed sandwiches and thermos of hot tea we drank in a spot sheltered from the wind. At the end of the first day, collapsing into a chair, Gerard asked, how far do you think I walked today? Expecting to hear eight miles or so, Sandhya looked at her phone and said, 3.8 miles! Gerard groaned and sank deeper into the chair, saying, that’s all?
Our last day in Devon we spent in my hometown, Totnes. So familiar but hard now to believe I grew up there. The centre of the old medieval town has not changed but everything – the steep fore street and clock tower…the house I grew up in… all seemed so diminutive. Reminding me how when I first arrived, the US struck me as so large and spacious.
The reunion with the two daughters of the family who fostered me after my mother died was sweetly nostalgic. Another friend from India, who lives in nearby Buckfastleigh, joined us for lunch. We first met Oliver, many years ago, on the muddy streets of Orchha, looking for a hotel in the rain.
Kate and Nigel were waiting for us as we got off the train in Bath. Kate is another friend who goes back to my boarding school days. She had a routine of walking her son’s dog and asked us to go along.
Spring was in full bloom, cowslips, primroses, bluebells…but particularly striking was a carpet of wild garlic that Gerard had never seen (or smelt) before, and I’d forgotten. It wasn’t just another walk but a trek through nature’s bounty of spring flowers.
Walking around Bath, I could tell Gerard was having difficulty with orientating himself given the city’s winding streets going up and down the hills. His usual excellent sense of direction was tested.
Taking a break over a sandwich at lunch, Gerard commented on an older woman’s long (to her waist) shiny gray hair that he found riveting. He insisted on saying something, but out of respect directed his complement to the woman’s husband. She lit up like a light bulb while her husband smiled. During our short talk, she asked if we liked Bob Dylan’s music or painting? Painting, Gerard quickly clarified. Oh, there’s a gallery just round the corner. We had to go. Interestingly, a friend had suggested we visit Dylan’s Tottenham Court Road gallery when in London; we hadn’t made it. But Dylan had caught up with us in Bath! We both liked his paintings but were amazed at the prices.
Our last couple of days in Bath were spent with a very old friend from Totnes, that I’d not seen since my early teens. The daughter of the owner of our local pub, she and I had bonded over the Beatles…and boys. Thanks to social media, we recently reconnected and she insisted we visit when in Bath. I must admit I was apprehensive, but I quickly understood why Toni and I had been such good friends. How easily we picked up where we left off! Childhood reminiscing over great meals cooked by her husband.
Back in London, we celebrated my sister-in-law’s 75th birthday with the extended family. Niece Maria and husband Ryan, hosted in their new home. It was a casual day, interacting with people who are family but I rarely see. Since our last visit, two new husbands and three baby girls have joined the family. When I left England back in 1973, my brother had just married; today a total of 12 (great nephew Patrick had returned to Cambridge University) gathered with us in Maria’s back garden over homemade pizza and birthday cake. I never would have expected Jeremy to have such a large family. Why? After spending his childhood taking or my father and me, I would have thought he’d had enough.
We’d managed to see a lot of friends, but not everyone. Sadly, two more friends from India were unable to join us. Jonny was suffering from long term covid, and Michael had recently broken his arm. And we didn’t manage to get to the Isle of Wight to see Gloria, an Afro American friend of Gerard’s from Boston, who followed him to England, then married a friend of mine at University and decided to settle in the country. A priority for next time.
Before leaving we spent a day and a night with my boarding school friend Torie and husband Julian who live near Heathrow.
Our good fortune they took us to the airport where we had our fit-to-fly tests several hours before boarding the plane home. Uploaded with a QR code on your phone…(providing you have one!) this is a specific test mandatory for entering the US.
We knew nothing about the test until United Airlines sent us a check-in email a few days before our flight. Not believing it was mandatory, I kept telling Gerard, forget it, we don’t need it, they’re not going to stop us! But Mr Cautious insisted. After a long afternoon of trying to figure out how to get the test (available we read by mail from the US, which now we were in England was no help at all) the doctor daughter of a friend saved the day, directing us to a site at Heathrow. We booked appointments for the day we flew and got the negative test results back in plenty of time before our flight. As we checked in, several people were bumped from their flight for not having the specific fit-to-fly test results. I turned to Gerard, I guess you were right after all!
As my brother would say, it was ‘quite a successful trip!’ Of course, I still had hearing problems, especially in crowded places, restaurants and with men. But with women I did ok. Our entire three weeks, the weather surprised us. Only one early morning drizzle…and plenty of soft English sunshine. Now back home, the three weeks are a blur, but with so many unforgettable memories. What made it special for me was reuniting with friends and family, and with my homeland. Gerard had a wonderful time but wouldn’t use the term ;exciting’ for England. Maybe we will find something exciting next winter – whether in Prague, India, Tunisia…or somewhere still to be considered.
Happy New Year to all our blog followers. We will miss our friends in India for another year, and sympathise with the local merchants who must be suffering due to the lack of tourism. A good friend who managed to get back to Gokarna in South India says the pilgrims and Indian tourists don’t make up for the loss of another season without westerners. Four-week visas with one week quarantine are not appealing to travelers of our ilk.
Two western friends still in India, live in the Auroville community, which has grown exponentially since its beginnings in 1968. Covid has had little impact to life there. But once again Auroville has erupted with internal conflict.
This time, over a road project to connect the four different zones within the compound. The consequences of this ‘progress’ include the destruction of the forest, its planting begun over 50 years ago. The opposing point of view is ‘leave well enough alone’. Our friends say that if the divisiveness continues, they’re prepared to move on.
Losing a loved one around Christmas adds insult to injury. Two good friends just lost their mothers, stirring up memories of my own mother’s passing at Christmastime when I was eight years old. After her death, we never had Christmas at home again. From then on, my father, brother and I spent the holiday with relatives. I celebrated beneath the bedclothes, singing carols and creating the Christmas I’d lost. One clear Christmas Eve, spotting the evening star for the first time, I was convinced I was seeing the same star that guided the shepherds and kings to the baby Jesus. (Growing up in England, the sky was rarely clear enough to see that star!) Since my mother’s passing, His birthday for me has also been associated with death. And I can imagine my two friends who’ve recently lost their mothers will have similar feelings.
With all the calamity in the world right now, it’s easy for me to miss the beauty that’s right in front of us.
At dusk, the other night, Gerard and I walked through the Boston Common and Garden to see the Christmas lights. How magical the city can be! For a moment the world lost its sorrow in the reflection of the twinkling lights.