Lots of Friends and Longer walks

Our friend Odella, arrived four days ago, fresh from NYC. She didn’t take long to adjust. Tall and poised, she towers over the short South Indians. Finding her own way around and uninhibited in asking people what they were eating, where she could find a good cup of coffee, is there a good yoga class etc. she quickly showed her independence. She’s been to India a couple of times before but not traveled extensively. Our connection with her is through Lewis, her husband and old friend ours. A jazz musician and professor at Rutgers University, we only see them when Lewis gets a music gig in Boston.

Our German friends, Marion and Jorgen, love to walk and persuaded us to visit the neighboring beach, Kudle. A pleasant walk through the jungle. The beach is picturesque and reminded Gerard of Greece in the late ’60s.

A few days later, we were enticed to take a more adventurous hike to Half Moon Beach and beyond. It was more strenuous but a beautiful walk through the jungle. Half Moon Beach is only accessible by foot, keeping it an unspoiled and secluded cove. Hot and sweaty we dove immediately in the water, followed by chai at a single chai shop.

Moving on to the second destination, Paradise Beach, was nothing short of treacherous. Climbing over the jagged rocks along the water’s edge made Gerard nervous. I focused on where I placed each foot, I made it without incident. Good for the attention! Paradise Beach did not live up to its name – a scruffy beach with coarse sand, a hangout of modern-day, young hippies. Exhausted from our rock climbing we collapsed on the sand and were soon joined by stray dogs.

The long walk was not finished; we still had to get to the neighboring town through more jungle and rice paddies to catch the next bus to Gorkana. On the ride back, Marion asked, if we had known what the route had in store, would we have agreed to come. Gerard admitted he wouldn’t have minded missing the climb over the rocks to Paradise Beach, but loved Half Moon Beach.

After such a long and treacherous hike we should have known better, but we agreed to hike with them again, down to the end of the beach and take a bus back.

For the first time since we arrived in Gokarna, the sun was hidden behind clouds. The few beach huts and restaurants dwindled until all we could see at the edge of the beach was palm trees and tropical undergrowth. Passing fishermen preparing their boats, we suddenly came across a beautiful young Indian bride being photographed. No sign of the groom!

The beach was a good 6 km long and then we had to weave our way through lanes and beside fields to the bus stop – another couple of km.

A week ago, our Swiss friend, ‘six meter ‘ Peter and his Polish wife, arrived from Goa to visit us for three days. Peter is a professional violinist and has spent the winters in a rented house in Agonda for many years, practicing most of the day and performing at night gigs up and down the coast of Goa. He decided not to bring his violin to Gokarna but is clearly lost without it. At breakfast, his restless fingers repetitively drum the table. We’ll see him again in August when he attends a summer course at Berkeley.

A couple from Australia that we met in Darjeeling seven years ago are back in India, traveling for a year. Last night, they caught up with us here in Gokarna before we move on. We hope to see them again in the mountains.

One of the many things we find attractive about Gokarna is, there’s a significant older population here. Generally, they are people who’ve been traveling for decades, so we have a lot in common. We can spend too much time reminiscing what the world was like back in the ’60s, but it’s still more interesting than talking about Trump and Modi. The oldest we’ve met is an 86 year old woman from Scotland who is staying on the ground floor of our guesthouse. She’s beautiful and walks to the beach each day with a stick. Young and old, there’s always interesting people to meet: a young Frenchman using only analog camera equipment; a young girl who illustrates her own postcards and on hearing that I was from Totnes in Devon, leapt up and hugged me (her family live there); and Bernard from Geneva who likes Miles Davis!

As mentioned before, Gokarna is a temple town. This weekend is one of many Hindu festivals. Which one? Who could keep track? The town is swarming with men wearing white cotton lungis and carrying offerings to the temple. One night leading up to the festival there was chanting, first by women, then by men, all night long. The din vibrates in my head. making hearing even harder. But if it wasn’t for the temples, the town would be overrun by beachgoers.

On the beach in Karnataka

For nine years, Agonda in Goa was my beach destination. I loved it and even when the experience began to sour, I denied the undesirable changes and clung to what remained positive (the beach and the friends we’d made there). I don’t always know when to let go.

But now, we’ve found another beach with a long stretch of fine sand and clear water. The big plus for us is that Gokarna is not a tourist destination in the Goa style. There are the regulars that have been coming here for years, older hippie types, and of course, there’s the young Russians. They’re not looking for disco bars and karaoke. The other group of tourists are young Indians who flock here on weekends and don’t venture far up the beach. Huts and small restaurants border the sea front but don’t overwhelm it.

Quintessentially South Indian, Gokarna is a temple town, where pilgrims visit regularly. At the temple entrance, local women sell flowers for offerings.

Our guest house is at the upper end of the main street, where women sell vegetables in the early morning.

It can take twenty minutes to walk through the back lanes and fields but we don’t mind. It’s a good room, comfortable and colorfully painted, and stays cool. It also has a balcony among tall palm trees, just wide enough for my yoga practice (although the lure of the beach often outweighs yoga.)

By chance, I picked up a book left in the guesthouse, called Finding Yourself in the Kitchen, written by an American Buddhist nun. She encourages you to use the kitchen to practice mindfulness and reality acceptance. Right now, I’m enjoying being out of the kitchen, but I file it away to practice when I return. She writes with a levity and lack of self righteousness that encourages me to read what she has to say.

Friends, Marina and Rajiv

We’ve already met up with two couples we first befriended a few years ago in the foothills of the Himalayas. Most mornings we join them for breakfast. Another friend, Oliver, a Belgian living in Devon, England is our senior and has been coming to India for many years. Also an artist, specializing in finely detailed pen and ink drawings. He has not bothered to join the digital revolution not having a cell phone or a computer. When we are back in Boston, he sends us beautiful handwritten letters. It’s amazing that he gets around India without being online.

One morning we met an interesting fellow who was born in Auroville, the community built on the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry. He left when he was seven, and after forty years, he’s now decided to move back. Over numerous cups of chai, he gave us his insight of the history of Auroville and the community today. We are particularly interested in his story because two good friends of ours now live there. He admitted that Auroville is turning into a retirement community. I was frustrated to miss out on most of what he said, but Gerard filled me in afterward. Still struggling with my hearing loss in crowded restaurants where ceiling fans, clattering dishes and echoing conversation are norms, but I’m still glad to be here.

Gerard had a surprise yesterday. The landlady met him on the stair with a severe look. What have I done now? Then her face broke into a broad smile and she said, Happy Birthday! Later over morning chai I couldn’t help telling our friends it was his birthday, and more well wishes.

In the evening, as we were about to leave for dinner, the landlady presented Gerard with eggless birthday cake.

Our landlady, Anand, and her husband

We sat with her husband and ate a slice. Later, after masala dosas for dinner, our friends treated Gerard to large scoops of rainbow colored ice cream. Not a bad way to celebrate 73. As Gerard has said, in spite of Modi/Trump/Iran/etc, life can be good.

Why India….yet again?

This year we had to renew our ten year visas and, like most things Indian, dealing with the Embassy’s service bureau ‘Cocks and Kings’, was not straight forward. Discussing the frustrating process of completing the online application with a friend who will join us this year, she said, “If you can’t navigate Cocks and Kings’ lack of a straight line from A to B, then it’s better that you don’t go at all.”

Just before we left, a friend from Boston attended her daughter’s wedding in India. On her return, she asked us how we could tolerate all the dirt, crowds and noise. Gerard gave an answer but didn’t give it a lot of thought. On our flight over, he tried to go into it more deeply, asking my thoughts. We agreed: the country is overcrowded, the air can be terribly polluted and trash is a constant problem, but still we’re drawn here.

A couple of days later in India, we passed a woman sitting on her bed looking out of the doorway from her very basic adobe, tiled-roof house. She gave us a warm smile as we passed. Not knowing what was behind the smile, we felt her readiness to greet strangers so warmly was due to a lack of fear. The less one has that can be stolen, the less there is to fear? Her smiling face brought into focus some of the less obvious reasons why we are still coming back to India.

Gerard commented, even though the subcontinent is racing headlong toward modernity, the old ways can still be seen and inspire, if one looks for them.”

Do we want to change places with the woman? Not really. Yet, her smile helps to explain what has been lost in our modern society and makes us want to reach back and catch hold of what might be worth saving of those old ways. Certainly, the big cities of India have become not so different from their western counterparts. But out in the country, along our way, we can still see the old ways intact. And this is one of the reasons why we return: to witness our lost history still alive to be seen, here and there, in India.

I asked Gerard for an example of these ‘old ways’? He replied, “Certainly one is, human contact. There’s a constant interplay with people even if it’s as simple as buying a cup of chai, soap to wash clothes, or negotiating with the rickshaw driver. Whole Foods decision to install self check-out, further emphasizes the depersonalization of our Western society. With most of India carrying smartphones, means it is happening here as well. Still, there is plenty of social activity on the street, in the market and in the chai shop.”

On the plane over, I saw a short video advertising ‘Exotic India’. And of course it is — the Rajput palaces, the camel fair in Pushkar, the Taj Mahal–but for me it’s more about Endearing than Exotic.