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.

Heat and Dust in Orchha

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Orchha, in Madhya Pradesh, is a good place to relax after spending more than three weeks in the city. This is our third visit here and we still find the small town with its country walks refreshing.

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The surrounding area is littered with the vestiges of a Rajput kingdom that began in the 16th C, reaching its peak in the mid-1800s.

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The last Maharaja died in 1930, after which the kingdom went into decline.

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What is most attractive to us is not only the palace/fort in remarkably good condition or the two temples in town but also the crumbling remains scattered around the countryside of a once thriving kingdom.

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On this visit, we arrived late in the season, very few tourists and hot during the day — reaching 110F (43C) in the heat of the day. Consequently our strolls out into the country are done early.

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One morning we visited a meadow that we spent a lot of time in a few years ago. Even though the brook had diminished to a trickle, it was still a bucolic spot with goats and cattle wandering peacefully and dogs playing in and out of the stream.

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Another morning, when we mentioned to the guesthouse manager that we were going to walk up to see the huge baobab tree next to Laxmi Temple, he asked if we’d seen the other, one km away. A second one?? He said, “Come, I’ll take you on my motorbike.” And this one was even bigger. Pictures fail to convey their enormity.

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There is only a handful of these trees in India, supposedly brought from Africa beginning as far back as 5,000 years ago. They can live as long as 1,500 to 2,000 years. The ones we saw, there’s no way of knowing how old they are, but they are ancient.

Our last morning here we walk out early around the back of the palace and down to the Betwa River. A stray dog attaches himself to us as our guide. Beside a small plot of wheat already half cut into golden sheaves, sits a simple hut, old cooking pots on the threshold, a satellite dish atop a broken monument, the ultimate in recycling.

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Aimlessly wandering into a gift shop we got into conversation with a father and son, transplants from Delhi. Like on many other occasions, we were cautiously quizzed on our feelings for Donald Trump. A lot of Indians are better informed about American politics than vice versa. Of course changes in the immigration policy is pertinent to them. And for us, it’s hard to know what to say other than we’re not looking forward to returning to the U.S. and facing the reality.

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We retreat back to the relative coolness of our room and listen to some cool Miles Davis from the 50s. Gerard is reading his autobiography, which he picked up at the used book stall in Mumbai. He hesitated all of this time because of the continuous swearing. Come to find out, he says, it’s the best thing yet he’s read about Miles.