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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Holi in Varanasi

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The build-up toward Holi begins several days before, with bowls of bright colored powder, laced with silver, alongside plastic pistols, appearing for sale in the lanes. When mixed with water, the powder becomes indelible. Plastic bags are filled to make bombs, pistols used to spray the toxic solution, and in a ‘ceremonial ecstasy of colors’ Holi is celebrated with enthusiasm.

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This year, the holiday coincided with the five-year local elections in this state, Uttar Pradesh. Voter turnout was high with huge support for PM Modi’s BJP party, especially among the young and poor. With the announcement two days before Holi, of BJP’s victory in UP for the first time in 17 years, Varanasi erupted in loud celebration – men donned orange paper Nehru hats with the letters BJP and accompanied with drums, processed through the streets.

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On the morning of Holi, we hid out in our guesthouse. We’ve witnessed several Holi’s and have no desire to be sprayed with color that ruins our clothes, stains our skin and stings eyes. It afforded us the opportunity to spend the morning getting to know a British couple staying in our guesthouse. They’re close to our age and have traveled extensively in India since the ‘90s. Living an unconventional lifestyle, outside the UK for twelve years, they’ve resettled in Devon, on the edge of Dartmoor, close to where I grew up. Other than just loving India, Premgit comes to photograph. He still uses film, dark room and has built up a following for his black and white pictures. http://www.premgit.co.uk/ There was a lot that we had in common — boarding schools, yoga, Coltrane, photography, India and following a spiritual path.

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Together we watched the antics on the surrounding roofs from the safety of their balcony. Starting early in the morning, neighbor attacking neighbor, bombing unsuspecting passersby on the street below. The willing participants are mostly but not exclusively young people.

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The fun continues all morning until around 1 pm, when it begins to subside. Declaring a truce until next year, residents wash down their roofs, scrub their bodies and change into clean clothes and relative calm is restored.

Our neighborhood is an exception. Here, at Chausatti Ghat, the symbolic depiction of feminine power within Hindu mythology is still present. Directly across the street from our hotel is a little temple that is said to have the power of no less than 16 yoginis.

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While the celebration is fading out in the rest of the city it intensifies here. The street becomes clogged with worshipers wanting to make offerings of flowers at the temple. Temple bells ring without break. Well into the night the street remains choked. Getting back to our guesthouse was not for anyone suffering from claustrophobia.

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Even though Shree Café was closed for the holiday, Santosh had invited us to visit in the evening and join the family for thandai, a celebratory sweet, spicy milk drink, to mark the end of Holi. We had not anticipated the crowds we’d have to fight our way through to get there, but it was worth it. P1030866

Family and friends had gathered, all dressed in new clothes, the men in white kurtas, having washed off the color from playing Holi. The children danced without inhibition. It was our good fortune to finish celebrating this holiday with our Varanasi family.

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It’s not easy to get up and on to the ghat before 6 am, but whenever we manage it we’re so glad.

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Meeting Santosh we walked downstream beyond the crowded ghats,

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where life beats at a slower pace.

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And then turned into the lanes (gulies). Without Santosh we would have got hopelessly lost.

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He led us through sleepy gullies, with men gathered at chai stalls still discussing the election.

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Eastern Sounds

In the early morning, long before dawn, the melancholy song from a man and his harmonium floats over the rooftops. He laments the passing souls who came here to shed their last tear of earthly existence and cast off their broken bodies to the funeral pyre. But, he sings; why should we mourn?  For they’re set free in the light, while we worldly ones struggle to find our way.

Around 4 am energetic chanting and bell ringing echo from the Chausatti temple.  Shortly after, a cacophony of mosque calls summon the faithful to prayer across the large Muslim section. The haunting sound as one imam leaves off and another begins, dragging the reluctant out of the oblivion of sleep toward the first prayer of a new day. Get up and shake off your drowsiness. Fritter away your time no longer. Pray to God now while there is still breath in your body. We can hear no political jihad, Al Qaeda or ISIS in his voice.

As we get ready for breakfast, the schoolmaster leads his students in call and response, his call eagerly returned by the joyous out of tune voices of his young pupils. Listening to all these sounds drifting through the early morning air, we are reminded that while so much has changed, yet so much remains the same in Varanasi.

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Gokarna: Shiva Worshippers and the Beach

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After nine years of spending at least a month in Agonda we decided to split our time between Gokarna, Gulijbagh and Agonda. We still have friends there that we want to visit. For those who remember, we made a day trip from Goa last year to see if Gokarna, just over the border into Karnataka, could be a possible alternative. Unlike most beach towns on the west coast of India, Gokarna’s major draw is not the sunbathing crowd from the west. It’s primarily a place of pilgrimage for Shiva worshippers. As the legend goes, Shiva was passing by on his way from Sri Lanka to the Himalayas when overwhelmed by the beauty of the area, he shed a tear. Where the teardrop landed, it created an abundant source of fresh water next to the sea.

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Meat and alcohol are not served and there seems to be little incentive to develop infrastructure for the beachgoers. Unlike Agonda, Gokarna has not become so commercialized that the local life has all but disappeared behind beach huts, sun beds and souvenir shops. On the other hand, for years Gokarna’s been a strong pull for hippies of our vintage and the present version, with its dreadlocks, tattoos and body piercing. (Where are the hippies from the 80s and 90s? I guess it was all disco.)

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Accommodation is not plentiful. We booked one of the few guesthouses posted online. On arrival, we were not thrilled but too exhausted from the 36-hour train ride to venture further. After reviving ourselves with a thali, we looked around to see what else was available and realized we had a good deal.

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The town beach is certainly not as beautiful as Agonda but after walking 20 minutes away from the hubbub of the town, the beach became virtually empty and the water very clear. No sun beds cluttering the sand, and the few beach huts are hidden in the undergrowth bordering the beach. It’s appealing for us to be in India AND at the beach. Harder to find than one might think. Two or three restaurants serve good South Indian food at Indian prices. At most times of the day, they are packed with Indian tourists and pilgrims making such a din you can hardly hear yourself think.

p1030120I respond to the religious fervor even though I can’t personally identify with Shiva worship. Such conviction and dedication are refreshing in today’s world of lukewarm faith. Even though I’m here for the beach, I like the diversity. As I make my daily pilgrimage to the sea down the winding main street, I pass two temples. Around them, the local women wrapped in a sarong pinned over their breast to numerous beaded necklaces, sell flowers, coconuts and who knows what as offerings. Then I dip myself in the clear sea water, giving thanks.

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Beside the temple sits an old carved wooden chariot decorated with flags waiting for the next occasion to be hauled out; furrows in the street shows its path.

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We had hoped Republic Day would be one such an occasion. But instead, all the school children in the district paraded up and down in their uniforms carrying flags and beating drums.

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The beach wasn’t as convenient as in Agonda, but the town was far more appealing. We plan to pass by this way again.