Heading down the tarmac

Our first days in Orchha were carefree, enjoying the peaceful and friendly atmosphere. Then things began to change. The news filtered in slowly how serious the virus was in Europe. A German couple who we’d planned to share a car and driver with to visit Bundi in Rajasthan decided to cancel. The state authorities were making it difficult for tourists to enter. All the while, fewer and fewer tourists, foreign and Indian, were coming to Orchha.

Marion and Jorgen, concerned about their aging mothers, felt compelled to return to Germany early. We still wanted to go up to HP and wait it out in the mountains until May 2nd.

When we learned that not only was the palace no longer open to tourists but even the temple doors were closed to pilgrims and local worshippers, the writing was on the wall. It was painfully evident that we had grossly underestimated the seriousness of this disease. Suddenly, cars were driving around town, warning people over loudspeakers about Coronavirus. In India, the virus is considered a disease of foreigners or Indians who had been outside the country. Now, a few of the locals looked at us as if we were the virus walking down their street. It was time to leave.

Before we booked our railway tickets to Delhi, we made the time to visit my favorite place on the edge of town – a brook bordered by wheat fields and distant monuments. The only sounds were the trickle of water and birdsong and a cow munching grass. A moment of peace.

Back in town, the streets seemed quieter than usual, the traffic less. Hotels and restaurants were almost empty. How long can they stay open with no tourists or pilgrims? We said goodbye to our Kashmiri friends who were considering closing their jewelry shop early and heading back home.

Around the temple, closed but still lit up at night, we saw the poor and homeless sitting on the ground, still being fed by a few kind souls.

Sadly, we returned to an eerily quiet Delhi but with the good fortune of having family, Ravi and Swarn, in Gurgaon who were brave enough to host us for three days. We tried to keep our distance, staying mostly in our room, but by the end of our stay they were sitting and eating with us. Meanwhile, Marion and Jorgen were not so lucky, staying in a hotel in Paharagunj, Delhi where shops and restaurants were already closed and there was nothing to eat.

As soon as we arrived, our host said we should take the first available flight home. I was still attached to the idea of taking a bus and escaping to HP. Gerard took seriously the advice and easi;y convinced me we should go as soon as possible. We didn’t want to wear out our welcome. Unable to reach the online booking agency or airline to cancel our existing flight, we spent all afternoon trying to find a new flight home. Finally, Emirates via Dubai, with an eight hour layover was our best option. Landing in Newark we’d go through customs and screening, before flying up to Boston.

Wanting a walk, I persuaded Gerard to visit the nearby malls – one was closed, the other was almost empty, shopkeepers standing around idle. The few people out and about were mostly wearing masks. With news of the virus spreading, Modi was dominating the airwaves, talking firmly about restrictions including shutting down the metro in Delhi. That evening, we learned that Himachal Pradesh was not allowing tourists to enter any more. Without knowing it, we’d made the right decision. As of now there’s been no confirmed virus cases in less populated HP and maybe, with the shut down, it can stay that way. On the morning news, it was announced starting May 22nd, there will be no more international flights. Our flight was scheduled for the afternoon of the 21st. A narrow escape.

I was relieved to finally leave for the airport, well ahead of time. With long lines of equally anxious passengers, all wearing masks, we entered the fray. After hours of hanging around, as the plane went down the tarmac, Gerard counted over 50 planes lined up idle. A fellow passenger told us that Emirates was suspending all operations world wide starting now. We could be on their last international flight. During our layover in Dubai, we were amused to see groups of Asian passengers covered from head to toe like Hazmat workers…maybe they were the smart ones. We arrived in Newark to find our flight to Boston canceled but had no problem rebooking on one four hours later. There was no real screening…none in Newark or Boston…So now it’s up to us to self isolate for two weeks and take our temperatures daily. Our house sitters kindly shopped for us before they vacated and a good neighbor promises to leave food on the doorstep.

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Coronavirus, but not in Orchha

Our original plan was to stay in Orchha only a week and then move on the southern Rajasthan. But the state government of Rajasthan has gone crazy about coronavirus so we’re staying put until we go to the mountains. Not a hardship, it’s an easy place to be at this time of the year, the weather is perfect cool nights and warm days and pollution is relatively low. German friends, Marion and Jorgen, have arrived from Gokarna and we’re enjoying showing them around for the first time.

The historic town of Orchha and surrounding countryside has barely changed since we first visited in 2010. Each year we are surprised at the lack in growth of tourists. Tour groups still arrive here not even for the day and are hustled through the main palace, shunted back on the bus, and gone before the dust settles. This year, there are less but still a few.

Sitting on the banks of river Betwa, Orchha was once the capital of the Bundela Rajput kingdom, one of the largest and most powerful in Central India.

Outside the main complex, the landscape is scattered with crumbling remains of residences, gardens, and chhatris (elaborate tombs for the dynasty). Many are in amazingly good condition, in part because Orchha seldom witnessed ferocious battles. The town reached its peak in the early 1880s and then fell into decline after Indian independence when it lost its city-state status.

However, change is in the air. Namaste Orchha, a three day conference/festival aimed at stimulating tourism, was winding up the day we arrived. More significantly, there’s a clean up campaign – similar to Varanasi. The open sewers running each side of the street are being closed up. The main road through town widened and resurfaced meaning the traffic just goes faster. The fronts of buildings beside the road that extended too far have been demolished and the exposed remaining interior of the vacated building is painted cream white! They’re continually upgrading in and around the palace, the major sites are illuminated at night and the fountain in front of the temple is spouting water for the first time.

Until now we’ve not mentioned Coronavirus to avoid feeding the media-driven paranoia. There are so many viruses in India that a reminder to wash your hands and not touch your face is good common sense. Western tourists are at an all time low, and, each day, India Times provides a news update on the spread of the virus. In a place as large and disorganized as India, you question the degree to which any estimate can be accurate. When we step out on the street, life is as normal in Orchha and we forget about the virus – or we almost do. Fortunately, we are in a small town with only a small tourist influx on a normal basis. But now that is changing. Everyone is talking about it and some are booking flights home early. India has become caught up in the global wave of hysteria.

Friends, Premgit and Sandhya, wrote with a horror story of arriving in a town in the Punjab where the Sikh festival of Urs was being celebrated. First, the hotel told them their reservation was canceled; they finally managed to get a room and settled in. The next morning, six fierce Sikh policemen barged into their room and told them they had to get out. There was no discussion – they had to go the train station and wait for twelve hours for a train to Delhi, where they booked a new flight back to the UK a couple of weeks earlier than planned. The tourist areas of Rajasthan are also in high alert. Tourists are being stopped at train stations and told to go to a local hospital and get a medical certificate before they’re allowed to stay. India Times published a photo of a hospital in Jaipur showed a long line of tourists waiting to to be certified. And just today, we read that India is in lockdown as regards flights in and out of the country. We have now canceled our next destination, Bundi, in Rajasthan, and are staying longer here in Orchha. We do not anticipate a problem in being in HP in the mountains where we plan to spend the month of April. First we must return to Delhi first to pick up our warm clothes from the family and catch the bus to Rewalsar.

We’re making a concerted effort not to get caught up in this over reaction. We can and firmly believe that whatever happens is supposed to happen. Both of us feel perfectly healthy. In this bizarre time, we wish everybody all the very best.

Khajuraho: Temples in a Garden

For years, we’ve passed by Khajuraho but never stopped. Too many tourists and touts. Uschi, a friend of ours in Varanasi, who organizes tours to the major sites including Khajuraho, strongly encouraged us to visit. She recommended us seeing the temples in their beautiful setting. We booked an expensive, by our standards, hotel for the occasion.

We took a sleeper train and arrived early in the morning. The hotel was two km. outside town, sitting in quiet countryside, the rooms white, clean and spacious (especially after our shoebox-sized room in Varanasi) and all with balconies overlooking a garden of palm and banana trees. After resting in luxury, we walked into town. A complex of six temples sits peacefully among manicured gardens, in an area cordoned off from traffic. The best time to visit is late afternoon when the sandstone temples look their best in the soft sunlight.

While waiting, we ate in a rooftop restaurant beneath a gigantic tree adorned with flowering vines. The cafe looked straight out on the temple complex and its lush manicured gardens. Sitting in such idyllic surroundings, leaves gently blowing in the breeze, we agreed that we’ve never been in a place quite like this in India.

Khajuraho’s Hindu and Jain temples were built around 1100 AD commissioned by the Rajput rulers of Chandela Dynasty. After the downfall of the Chandelas in the 13th century, the abandoned temples suffered some desecration by the Mogul conquerors but were protected by their remote location in dense forests. In 19th Century, a British surveyor rediscovered and excavated the site. We spent an absorbing two hours in the main temple complex.

Khajuraho is well known for the erotic sculptures that adorn the temple exteriors. However, only a few of the thousands of the exquisitely carved figures are erotic. Hardly worth a trip if that was your focus! Most depict idealized femininity and the men pale in comparison.

Various legends try to explain the sculptures. The most appealing to me was the story of beautiful Hemvati who was seduced by the Moon God while bathing in the moonlight in a pool in Benares. After conceiving a child, she cursed the God and ran into the forest to raise her illegitimate son alone. However, the Moon God promised her their son would grow up to become a great king. His word came true: the child was the first king in the Chandela dynasty. After Hemvati passed away, she appeared to her son in a dream, asking him to construct temples that would depict human passions.

The next day, we hired a rickshaw driver, hungry for our business with the obvious dearth of tourists to take us out of town.

We passed through a village to find another seven temples which we would never have found on our own. Driving down country lanes, it was money well spent.

An isolated temple amongst the lush wheat fields had a miraculous statue of Lord Shiva.

Our third day, we returned to our favorite restaurant under the tree and spent the afternoon sipping tea and looking again at the beautiful temples.

The guide books say you only need one day in Khajuraho but we’re glad we decided to spend longer in this picture perfect setting. Even the temperature cooperated: cool nights and warm clear days. We’re so glad we took Uschi’s advice!

Bansuri and Ayurveda

One night, we attended a very special event, a private ‘bansuri’ (bamboo flute) recital. Even though they were students, the intimate atmosphere made up for any possible lack of technique. For a minute, we thought we thought we’d entered Satyajit Ray’s film about musicians (the Bengali film producer from the ’50s). The music was not amplified, making it possible to hear the nuances of the tabla normally missed. But in my case, any hopes of being able to hear a flute were dashed because the bansuri played in the lower register.

Unable to participate in many conversations that Gerard has can leave me feeling on the periphery. Only if I’m in a quiet environment and speaking to a woman can I fully participate. When the frustration mounts, I’ve found the forty minute walk up the river to Assi Ghat is a tonic.

After so many years of walking the ghat, I still marvel at what a unique place Varanasi is. Growing up in Totnes on the River Dart, walking along the Charles River and many others, I feel my whole life I’ve been refreshed by rivers, but none that compare to the Ganges.

Last week, Sandhya and Premgit, an English couple we met four years ago here. He’s a photographer working with only black and white film and focusing on religious rituals in India. His wife, Sandhya, has a chronic respiratory condition and finds help here from an ayurvedic doctor. She persuaded me to join her. The doctor took my pulse, inspected my tongue, then prescribed some pills and four sessions of Sirodhara, a therapy to reduce stress. While lying on my back, for an hour, his assistant “gently” drizzled warm oil on to my forehead, from a brass vessel hanging overhead. All I know is, it was quite euphoric, incredibly relaxing and gave me a good night’s sleep afterwards. Problematic was trying to shampoo all the oil out of my hair!

We’ll be moving on soon. God willing, we’ll be back next year and hope not to see further destruction in our favorite city. A reassuring reminder: we’re told that throughout history, Varanasi has been destroyed and rebuilt a total of four times with Modi the cause of the fifth. On a lighter note, he managed to move the cows from the lanes of Varanasi, while the British Raj could not. But there’s still a few around!

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.

A Cochlear on the Horizon

The beginning of July marked the first anniversary of my sudden hearing loss. A psychiatrist, who’s also deaf, cautioned it could take two years to fully adjust. She may well be right, and on a good day I feel I’m halfway there. Supportive friends encourage me to turn my misfortune into a positive, the challenges into opportunities. Good advice, but just how do you go about that?

My hearing loss has changed the way I try to communicate. Now that it takes more effort and I don’t have the luxury of idle chit chat, my conversations are more directed. They’re also more selective. I can no longer participate in my women’s group meeting in a cafe once a week, but instead I may meet individually from time to time. In actual fact, one-on-one conversations are usually more in depth than in the group setting.

With less hearing, my life might be simplified, but it’s not. People tell me I’m not missing anything. It’s easy for them to say. When I go into a store and can’t hear the shop attendant, that’s not easier. Going out for a meal with friends and being unable to participate in the conversation in the restaurant is discouraging. The few people I still have an ongoing relationship with are more valued because they have adapted to my new circumstance.

Periods of quiet are welcome and I enjoy my own company in a new way. I miss going to jazz and Indian music concerts with Gerard…though I must admit, sometimes, I wasn’t so engaged in the music and it was more of an endurance test to stay to the end! I’d like to say I’m less concerned with FOMO (fear of missing out), reminding myself it’s an illusion. There may be little to miss that is truly worthwhile.

I still have a way to go – constantly vigilant against the insistent roaring in my head goading me to rush; impatient when I can’t hear because there’s ambient noise and the other person doesn’t speak clearly, directly to my face. I get frustrated when I can’t hear what Gerard’s saying to me and he gets equally frustrated. But he still loves me. Always clumsy and accident prone, I’m now even worse. I still speed around on my bike. How can I be so careless when it’s so much more critical for me to be careful? As the neurologist told me, “There’s nothing wrong with your brain, you just need to pay attention!”

Reading is still my sanctuary and even more so now because it doesn’t require the effort of listening. Similarly, at the beach, I can still hear the waves and experience the same sense of focus the ocean’s always brought me. More important, a loss that I can do nothing to change has given me a new gratitude for my husband’s love, the beautiful house he’s created, the relatively easy life we have, and our health and wealth. Things I tended to take for granted.

Of course, I can still easily get derailed. Anticipating a scheduled appointment with a new specialist for a second opinion, I expected to get greater clarification, a new approach to my condition…perhaps even hope? Instead, I got the opposite. A new hearing test revealed I’d lost yet more hearing in one ear. Shocking news because girlfriends tell me my hearing seems better – but Gerard was not surprised. The loss continues in the lower frequencies. More blood clots in the small veins of my inner ear? The hearing specialist recommended a cochlear implant but I wasn’t prepared to make a decision. The next day we left for NYC to visit a good friend with terminal cancer. This helped put things back in perspective.

It took a couple of weeks for me to finally decide to go ahead with the implant. It’s quite different from a hearing aid. Electrodes are implanted right into the cochlea and directly stimulate the auditory nerve to provide ‘a sense of sound’. The receiver, looks like a hearing aid, sitting behind my ear. A totally implanted device is in the works, but not in time for me, sadly.

Success rates for cochlears have supposedly increased from 50% to 80% today. I have talked with/heard of several that have been successful. They say success depends a lot on expectation – you can’t hope for too much. The biggest risk for me is that my tinnitus will increase. In some cases, it’s reported to diminish, in other cases it becomes worse. You also lose whatever natural hearing you have in that ear, but since I only have 12% hearing on my left side, we’ve decided it’s worth all these risks. It may take up to three months to get used to the artificial hearing – voices can sound like quacking ducks at first! But it holds the promise of better word clarity and hearing music again. First step is an evaluation and then surgery will be scheduled. So, for now I must be patient.

Meanwhile, an interesting side development: alerted by a concerned friend, I found a press release online of a study sponsored by Yale, linking a common gut bacteria, roseburia intestinale, with my autoimmune disease, Antiphospholipid Syndrome. Research demonstrated that the normally healthy bacteria has gone berserk and triggered the antibodies that form an irritation in small vessels/veins, causing blood clots and, in my case, responsible for my hearing loss. Until now, no one knew what caused the antibodies. This study is the first real research into the disease and makes me feel no longer neglected by the medical world. Excited, I printed out the article and took it to my regular doctor. He just shrugged and said, “Early days…stay tuned.” Of course, he’s right; this kind of research can take years before it becomes accepted and used to create a cure. The only treatment for APS today is blood thinners which address the symptom and the not the disease itself.

We’re beginning to plan for India next January, but whether I’ll have a cochlear before or after the trip is still uncertain. Either way, I’m less apprehensive than a year ago, and looking forward to another adventure. With all its extremes, India still pulls but is always challenging. With a cochlear implant I may be able to hear again the unique sounds of India – its music, mosque calls, Buddhist chants…perhaps even barking dogs (which I didn’t miss last year!)

Prague, Twenty Years Later

After a tedious journey from Delhi via Istanbul (a total of 38 hours of airports and airplanes), we arrived in Prague to visit Karel and Kryztyna. Karel was waiting at the airport and drove us straight to his house, only 20 minutes from Charles Bridge, but far removed from all the tourist hubbub.

Karel’s grandfather was given the large apartment building as dowery for his wife. A beer hall and theater occupied the ground level. The Communists took over ownership of the building during the 1950s. In 1968, Karel was visiting relatives in Yugoslavia when the Russians invaded. He had no intention of returning during the Occupation. Living in Munich, he became part of a group of Czech exiles, doing whatever they could to destabilize the Communist government. He published books in Czech language and contributed culture programming for Radio Free Europe. When Karel returned after the fall of the Communists, his father, who had reclaimed the Prague apartment building, gave it to Karel. He started the long ongoing process of renovation. Today, he and Kryztyna now occupy, below are five tenants, and two commercial units on the ground floor. As we enter the building with it’s high ceilinged front hallway, and ascend the large stone staircase winding up to the floors above…very Kafkaesque!

Krzytyna, was an active member of the Polish Solidarity movement during the 1980s, accompanying Lec Walesa in meetings. After the Roundtable (discussions between the Polish government and Solidarity) was established, Kryztyna was sent to Prague to help establish the Polish/Czech Solidarity movement, the only member who could speak in Czech. She remained active in Polish and Czech politics until the fall of Communism. Then she joined the Polish diplomatic core, as a cultural attache in the new Czech Republic. After a few years, she turned her attention to film making a number of historical documentaries about the Underground Movement. One she showed us, with English subtitles, was the story of Vaclav Havel, the first president of Czechoslovakia after Communism. She and Karel have immersed us in their stories of Czechoslovakia and Poland during the Communist era.

Spring is in full bloom, flowering bushes bordering the riverside. But it’s quite different from our first visit, almost twenty years ago, and so aren’t we. The city has grown exponentially; we can no longer see the beyond the outskirts. Fortunately the beautiful old buildings are protected by zoning, but walking around we see far more color.

Where grey dominated, today buildings are painted in an array of different hues. The streets are clean and orderly, and despite the crowds of tourists, it all seems so quiet – no barking dogs, no car horns blowing, and a tram system so efficient that few people drive into the city. Although we’d been warned we still weren’t prepared for the influx of tourism. There’s now apparently more coming here than visiting Paris.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with Russians, Chinese etc. in the Square to see the famous old Clock chime, and then weaving our way through the crowds over the Charles Bridge with its many statues. A plaque commemorating a martyred priest. Questioned by the king on what the queen had confessed, he refused. His torture led to being thrown off the bridge.

Our hosts left no stone unturned to give us a wonderful time, walking us through the hidden backstreets, accompanied by a narrative. Both of us woefully ignorant of the former Communist bloc history, Karel brought it alive. There’s so many stories of Prague’s history; we’ve only heard a few. The ones that most resonate are about the Nazi occupation and following Communist rule. The king’s crown still sits in the Castle. Karl told us Nazi General Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s would-be successor, insisted on placing it on his head, ignoring the curse that anyone not a king who wore the crown would die. Five days later he was assassinated. Several thousand Czechs were murdered in retribution.

Representing the oppression of the Communist era, lean stone figures solemnly climb a staircase. Close by, are the remains of a monument of Stalin which was completed in 1956, just as Khrushchev denounced Stalin. The statue was immediately torn down and replaced by a large red metronome symbolizing the passing of time.

After four days in Prague, Karel took us to his country house, an hour’s drive away in South Bohemia. Again, the towns we pass through are so clean and orderly. Neat rows of flowering horse chestnut trees alongside the road, huge fields of dazzling yellow rapeseed that are reminiscent of a Van Gogh painting.

The cottage sits in a little village near Pisek. The only sounds (that I can hear) are the birds and passing rain showers.

The weather turned cold and unsettled, but Karel drove us around the countryside, visiting several small towns and old picturesque castles.

When Karel told us he was taking us to the ‘Magic City’, we had no idea what to expect. An hour and a half drive and suddenly we were in the midst of a wonderfully preserved open air museum. Likened to a small version of Prague, Český Krumlov is bisected by the Vltava River. Narrow streets wind through clusters of decorative Renaissance and baroque houses, leading up to a magnificent Castle with panoramic views of the town and river below.

The last few days, we continued to grow our relationship with Karel and Krystyna. The four of us sat around the dinner table for hours sharing stories. The memory of the beautiful city, the idyllic countryside and our most generous hosts will stay clear in our minds.

Near the end of the Kullu Valley…and our trip

The local bus from Nagar takes a lovely route along the edge of the Kullu valley to Vashisht. And the onboard entertainment was a video of Kullu folk music (which has no relationship to Bollywood), women in traditional dress singing and line dancing to horns and drums. It was so reminiscent of the Berbers in the High Atlas of Morocco; not only the music, but the dancing and traditional dress was similar.

Vashisht has evolved from a rustic village with hot springs across the Beas river from Manali, to what now seems like a second Rishikesh. Always a hangout of pot heads and would be mountain climbers, today there’s a throng of young people in denim or cotton floral shorts and hiking boots, dreadlocks and tattoos….and still a few aged travelers like ourselves. There’s also more Indian tourists than ever, although most come for the day and retire to Manali at night. The season’s already underway and our hotel from two years ago was full. So were the surrounding hotels, or a too high climb up the mountainside for our liking. After almost two hours traipsing around the narrow lanes, climbing up and down, Gerard finally found us a good replacement, right in the old village. While I had sat comfortably in the sun guarding our baggage. Tough job but somebody has to do it! Four floors up via an external circular staircase, the room has a great view of the mountains, afternoon sun, solar heated water that so far hasn’t let us down, and breakfast on the roof. Some of these new buildings still maintain the custom of livestock on the ground floor, our hotel is no exception. I like to stroke the cow’s forehead on our way out.

This year, our journey around India is less adventurous, returning to our favorite spots, at each location, greeted by a warm welcome. Although this is our third visit to Vashisht, we didn’t expect that to happen here. When we walked up the steep narrow wooden ladder and over the threshold of the Rangoli restaurant, not only the owner, but also his wife and adult son spontaneously greeted us with beaming faces and namaste. Two years had gone by since they’d seen us. Gerard asked him, “You have so many tourists coming in here all the time, how do you remember us? He pointed at me and said, “Your wife, Sir!” Gerard responded, “She’s made an impression on me too!”

The food is even better than before and after nearly a month of repetitive thali, we’re happy to deviate with Mexican enchiladas, Middle Eastern humus, falafel and a roasted eggplant that tastes out of this world! Similar to a Turkish dish, İmam bayıldı (Imam fainted) at a Boston restaurant, so called because the Imam swooned with pleasure at the flavor when presented with this dish by his wife!

There are plenty of walks in the countryside surrounding Vashisht. On a picture perfect sunny day, we retraced a route we’d taken with our American friend, Peter, two years ago. We crossed over the Beas on a rickety wooden bridge and walked up into a small hamlet of old houses where life hasn’t changed.

An old lady sitting on the porch greeted us. She even smiled for a picture and then went into the house, returning with a handful of apples she insisted on us taking. The apples from last year’s harvest looked wizened. I was ready to give them to the cows till we sampled one. It was surprisingly good. Following the river down toward Manali, we stopped for lunch and a little shopping. Among crowded lanes that again were reminiscent of a Moroccan medina we found a friendly grocer who helped us buy spices for an Ayurvedic remedy; then took a rickshaw back up to Vashisht.

After several days of sunshine, snow is melting and waterfalls gushing down the mountainside. Yesterday, we took the 30 minute walk to the largest and most dramatic. The air was so clear, the mountains looked like cut outs pasted on to the blue sky.

Following a lane beside apple orchards and up into a wooded area, we came across a young man from Rajasthan selling unusual colored stones he’s set in necklaces, and other small treasures. After making a purchase, Gerard in his usual fashion got into a long conversation while I watched well dressed traipsed by in their flimsy shoes.

The waterfall is another ten minute climb. Local boys splashed in the cold water and, more fascinating, little birds actually swam and then dove under.

This morning we woke up to a grey sky. Three days of clouds and showers are forecast. We’re not too bothered; we’ve had four perfect days in the mountains. But things have changed. The temperature has dropped 20 degrees (F). Looking down on the houses below our room the color has gone. The wood and stone is grey and cold. The women are still washing clothes at the spring, laughing and chatting as they work – but they’re not laying the colorful fabric out to dry on their roofs. How will they dry their clothes? At the foot of the stairs, heat radiates from the room with the cows. I understand now why the old houses are built with room for livestock to live beneath.

Hurrying down to the German bakery before it starts raining, we drink chai and chat with the other tourists. No one is eager to move. A Russian has just arrived on the night bus from Varanasi with a ridiculously heavy bag of books. He likes art and bought 20 kilos of art books in Varanasi. Plenty of reading for the next four months he plans to stay in Vashisht! Gerard asked if he knew Roerich and of course, he did and has visited Nagar many times to see the paintings. He was slightly chagrined, admitting that the largest collection of Roerich’s paintings are in NYC.

The subject of staying in the present is a repeated topic of conversation for us. Here, amongst the dramatic mountains, it’s a little easier. Their power has a calming effect on the busy mind. It doesn’t seem to matter if they’re shrouded in clouds or crystal clear against the blue sky. We are grateful to be here.

The forest is full of surprises…but not black flies, mosquitoes or deer ticks.

Waking to pouring rain, we couldn’t have decided to drive north in worse weather. Sapna and her husband came with us for the taxi ride; he could not cut stone in the rain. But it was a long difficult ride – little visibility, the windows open to keep the windscreen from steaming up, traffic piling up to a standstill for an hour because of an accident…and then we hit road works.

All the way to Manali the road is being widened. Another huge Indian project that will take at least two years to complete, and probably much longer. In the rain, it was a muddy mess, the new highway cutting through the valley, flattening hundreds of houses in its wake. We reflected that the drive would have been just as wretched on a sunny day, perhaps worse because of all the dust.

Losing the phone number of our homestay from our last two visits, Gerard was not concerned, but in my typical fashion I worried. Would the same room be available…would we even find any room?? But it all worked out. Sumit was pleased to see us and showed us to our room, with an invitation to dinner with his family the following night. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again, there’s no comparison between restaurant food and home cooking. And this was no exception.

By morning, the clouds lifted and the mountains emerged with a new layer of fresh snow. The view from our window is why we come here and the new coating enhanced the scenery. A few steps up the street we can eat breakfast at Sharma’s outdoor dhaba without sacrificing the view. Hem Raj and his two daughters greeted us with ‘Namaste Ji.’ They have fed us on each visit; inexpensive, wholesome food with fresh seasonal fiddleheads a special treat!

Typically, by the afternoon, clouds build over the Himalyas. From our balcony, the drama of light, clouds and mountains unfolds. The rays of the setting sun reflect off the clouds, washing the snow with color. It’s still cold at night, but with thick comforters and hot water bottles, supplied by our host, we’re cozy.

Fortunately, the season hasn’t started yet. Nagar is beginning to feel more and more like an Alpine resort, each year there’s new hotels. More than one person has told us they never fill up, for one reason there’s not enough for the Indian tourist to do. The majority come from Manali for the day in their large crowded cars. It’s easy to imagine the single-lane potholed road becoming impassable.

Every day we walk in a different direction from town, and so far, on each walk, there’s been a surprise. The village of Rumsu, overlooking the valley, is even older than Nagar. Turning the corner of one of the narrow lanes, we were met by five young Russian artists, painting ‘en plein air’. They’re here for two weeks painting in and around Nagar. Of course, Nicolai Roerich (who lived and painted here in the 1920s) is their inspiration.

On another walk, to a Shiva temple in the forest, we followed the sound of gushing water through thick undergrowth to find a beautiful secluded waterfall.

The following day, up a steep climb to the Krishna temple, a marriage ceremony was in full swing. Circling the ceremonial fire seven times, first, the heavily veiled bride led the groom around, then she followed him.

The forest is full of surprises…but not black flies, mosquitoes or deer ticks.

The day before we left, Gerard and I decided to take the bus to Jana, a village up the mountain from Nagar at an altitude of 6,900 feet. The bus dropped us at a dusty turn around, with a few tea shacks (I do mean shacks!) It could have been an outpost in Mongolia.

The tourist draw is the large waterfall a mile or so beyond, with more shacks serving food alongside. The thali served was all ‘local’ food, red rice, maki (corn) roti, rajma, sag, siddu, and jaggery; we were surprised by the quality and quantity.

But for us walking through the village with its old wooden buildings was the main attraction. The style of these old homes is called Kath-Kuni, where construction typically involves layering alternate courses of random stone and wood. The stone is not bonded but the cedar beams are dovetailed.

Farmers rear their cattle on the lower floor and the heat rises up, a boon in the winter. The family lives above, the floor is cantilevered from the main walls to capture sunlight. Unlike the rigid concrete of today, the unbonded masonery would move during an earthquake, saving the building from collapse.

Toward the end of our stay, a Russian couple from Moscow joined us in the homestay. He is large man with an equal personality and likes to talk. We’re always interested in meeting Russians and hearing their perspective. Current controversial issues were dismissed as ‘political.’ But we’re amused that he confirmed the belief of our friend Tatiana in Agonda, that the government controls the weather every May Day, causing the clouds to break and the sun shine. He says, yes, a chemical is sprayed that disperses clouds. It shall not rain on the May Day Parade! They’ve been coming every year, and stay for six months in India, taking groups of Russians on tours that include Agra, Jaipur and Amritsar and Nagar. While he talks, his wife laughs a lot but does not speak. Unlike him, she understands no English and after a while she disappears into their room. I recognize her discomfort at not being able to participate in the conversation and empathize with her frustration. It’s a little easier for me here in the country, but so much of life takes place outdoors, conversations generally on the street or in restaurants open to the street noise. If Gerard did not repeat for me, when I ask, I would be at a loss. I’m still learning to develop patience and acceptance.

Our stay ended with an invitation to lunch in the village with Sharma’s wife. Not only was the home cooking a delight, her company loving (you’re family), but also it gave us a chance to see inside another of these wonderful three hundred year old houses –and inspect her vegetable garden!