Monday, May 7, 2012

To India and Back: A Belated Travelogue

At long last, this is the post that has been holding up all the other posts I might have written in the past few months. At first, I thought I'd just jump in here and start talking about kale soup or graham crackers, but that didn't seem right.

First of all, of course, it had been months and months since I'd last posted.

And second, in the middle of those months and months, I went to India.

Plus, one of the reasons I named this blog "A Life Divided" in the first place was that my life is divided between India and here, even though the "here" part makes up the majority these days. It didn't feel right to hop back into my parallel life and hop back again without a comment.

So, the kale soup will have to wait a little bit longer, as will the graham crackers, and an extremely belated travelogue will ensue. Perhaps this will be a lesson to me, and next time I'm in India, I'll post as I go along, eliminating the need for a long overdue catch up post.

So, here goes:

I was in India for most of January, almost 4 weeks in all, divided among Delhi, Benares and Goa. I'd agonized about the planning, but it all worked out quite well--8 days in Delhi (3 at the beginning, 5 at the end), 10 days in Benares and an even week in Goa, plus one long(ish) day of travel getting from Benares to Goa.

My time in Benares, was, as always, interesting. I stayed, once again, in my beloved room 17 at Anami Lodge, right on Assi Ghat. I like Anami for many reasons--great location, family-run, cheap--but I like it better when I'm staying in room 17, which has a big balcony overlooking the river. I spent my first night in the much cheaper room 14 (250 rupees a night compared to 700 a night for room 17), but it was totally worth the money (about $9 a night) to shift once whoever was staying in room 17 realized that I was back and required it to be available.

Here is the sun rising over the river, viewed from my balcony, the one morning (my last morning) I was awake early enough to see it.

As there always are, in Benares, there were walks up the river. Last year, I saw someone having his portrait painted. This year, there were 2 Western guys painting what appeared to be either graffiti or an ad on a wall on one of the ghats.

Another day, I wondered through the gullis in Bhelupura towards the river, and saw this statue being sculpted before me.

When the man who I assume commissioned the statue saw me taking a photo, he insisted that I also take a photo of the photo the sculptor was working from. I agreed it was a good likeness.

As always, in Benares, in addition to all the walking, there was hanging out, and a lot of it. It is not an exaggeration to say that I have a more active social life there than I do here. There were dinners in and dinners out and a nearly infinite number of cups of chai. There were arranged meetings and accidental meetings and one 5 hour lunch date. There were endless hours hanging out in Harmony Books (more about that in a moment).

One of the lovely things about Benares is that I always make instant friends. Last year, it was Shagufta Siddhi, who sadly was away during this visit. This year, I was even luckier and made 2 instant friends. One was a hip woman from Bangalore named Navita (here with her charming daughter Shalu) with whom I shared that lovely 5 hour lunch.

The other was a Smith alum/UPenn grad student named Katy Hardy. Here is Katy posing in the stunning sari she was about to buy.

And here is the pile of saris Katy didn't buy. (Except actually, she did buy one of them in the end. It's also interesting to note that Katy's gorgeous sari was actually plucked from someone else's reject pile--the other woman's loss, clearly.)

One thing to note about Katy is that she speaks fabulous Hindi. I have lots of friends who speak excellent Hindi (all much better than mine, alas), but Katy's Hindi stood out, and not just to me. The evening we went sari shopping, the sari designer was so impressed by Katy's Hindi that he kept saying things that were supposed to be compliments but didn't come out that way. First, he told her that upon hearing her Hindi, he thought perhaps she was an Indian with a pigment condition. Later, he said that if he'd just heard her on the phone, she "could be 100% nagging Indian housewife," which was my favorite thing anyone had said for days. I repeated it probably a few too many times for Katy's liking, but I couldn't help myself.

And, as always in Benares, there were the hours upon hours I spent in Harmony Books. If I bought books to equal the time I spend there when I'm in Benares, Rakesh would need no other customers and I would have no money left, having spent it all on books. I was in Harmony every day I was in Benares, for chai and chat and catching up, for plan making and book browsing. (Rakesh, by the way, wrote an essay last fall for Publisher's Weekly about selling books in Benares; I was delighted on his behalf. The essay is here. How did this come about, I asked him? It turns out that the editor of Publisher's Weekly had wandered into his shop one day a few years earlier. Knowing Harmony, I wasn't at all surprised by this.)

But one day in Harmony stands out. I hadn't even been planning to go to Harmony right then, but I was walking past and popped my head in to say hello. There, I found Rakesh and Katy deep in conversation with a woman I'd never seen before--Asian features, British accent, Indian clothes. It became clear that she was living in Benares and volunteering. Katy informed me, in Hindi, that the woman had a monkey in her house. I thought, at first, that this was a bad thing, but it turned out that the woman had voluntarily taken in the monkey, a baby orphaned when its mother died on the electric wires. The monkey had been living with her for several weeks--he played in the garden during the day and slept in his own room at night. It was clear, though, that she couldn't keep him indefinitely and wanted to make sure he was reunited with his monkey brethren. To that end, she was trying to find a wildlife rehabilitation center to take him. And she had found one, except that it was in Orissa, which is not at all close to Benares.

So, the problem was not actually the monkey living in her house but that the woman didn't know the best way to transport the monkey to Orissa. Planes and trains were clearly out. But she wasn't sure enough about the road conditions to commit to hiring a car and driver to transport the monkey (with her as escort) to Orissa. It was, we all agreed, a conundrum. The woman had to go (to get back to the monkey, perhaps,) and Rakesh and Katy and I spent a few minutes pondering her situation.

And just when I was thinking that this was one of the reasons I loved Benares--because really, when else do I get to participate in a conversation about the whys and wherefores of monkey transportation?--and was about to leave Harmony to get on with my day, the door opened and a man stepped in. In a sonorous voice, he announced the imminent arrival of the director of the British Museum and his entourage.

Well, maybe it wasn't time to leave quite yet.

The problem is that Harmony is not a very big place. To illustrate this, I am posting a photo I took in Harmony in 2009. It has not gotten any more spacious in the intervening years.

The ensuing 10 or 15 minutes were very stressful for Rakesh and quite entertaining for Katy and me. Neil MacGregor, the British Museum director, came in along with several of his colleagues, and they began to browse the shelves, joining the several browsers already in place. Katy, meanwhile, decided to see if she could hand sell something to one of the Brits and in doing so, nearly gave Rakesh a coronary by attempting to climb up on the counter to get the book off of a high shelf over the door. I got behind the counter and took money and gave change. (I also stood on Rakesh's stool to get the book when Katy's attempt failed.) We chatted with the other customers while Rakesh paid attention to the VIPs, and after about 15 minutes, they swept out as quickly as they had swept in. Katy and I were quite tickled by the events, and Rakesh was just exhausted. In typical Benares fashion, I finally left the shop much later than planned, walked around the corner and ran smack into Navita and Shalu (see above) and ended up sitting with them for tea. My plans for the day were never completed, but I was perfectly content anyway.

Later, I posted on Facebook about the juxtaposition of events, monkey lady and British Museum dignitaries all in the shop within a 20 minute span, and one of my friends commented, "We're really going to have to step up our game here," which made me laugh.

So, as you might imagine, I was sad to leave Benares a few days later. It had been mellow and fun, relaxing and interesting, a bit of a whirlwind at the end (I haven't even mentioned the Bengali-German-British wedding we went to on my last night). Better, I figured, to leave before I was quite ready than to stay too long. And, after all, I was heading to Goa, where I would meet Andy and Janna, who had been there for several weeks already. If you have to leave a place you love, it's always good to have sun and sand waiting on the other end.

I had last been in Goa in 2004, where I'd spent a lovely week in Mandrem, in the north part of Goa. Why it took me 8 years to go back, I'm not sure. Not surprisingly, Mandrem is much more built up than it was 8 years ago, and Arambol, the next beach up, is nearly unrecognizable from the mellow, empty spot it was when I first went there in 2000. Still, while there may be more hotels and touristy shops and way more Russians than there were 8 years ago, the beach at Mandrem is still clean and clear and nearly empty, and that counts for a lot.

I made a tactical error at first and booked a guest house I'd found online. I won't name it, because it wasn't really their fault that I left after one night. I picked it because it looked cheap, clean and quiet, and it was, basically, all of those things. But it wasn't the place for me. First, I found the owner, whose baby the business clearly was, extremely annoying--the kind of annoying it's hard to overlook. Then, I woke up in the middle of the night to discover that it gets very chilly in the middle of the night if you're sleeping in a bamboo bungalow. Then, I woke up again at 7:30 sharp, when some nearby construction began--trees being wrenched from the ground and crunched up into sawdust, was what it sounded like. This would not have been pleasant at any hour, but it was especially unwelcome after having been up at 3 a.m. putting on pajama bottoms and sweaters. The final straw occurred when I opened the door and a snake slithered in. I knew it was probably just a garter snake, but I still didn't want it inside. The owner said the housekeeper would deal with it, and a few minutes later, she marched into my room with a big stick. I thought she would hook the snake on the stick and then toss it back into the garden. Instead, she beat the snake with the stick in my room, then tossed it outside, where she beat it some more. Poor snake. I felt very bad to be the cause of the snake's demise, and I was pretty sure that was the last night I'd spend there.

Thankfully, this was a problem easily solved. Janna and I went to the Villa River Cat, where I'd stayed in 2004.

Rinoo, the owner, remembered me and showed me the single room he had available--a very blue room, which I took instantly. By the afternoon of my first full day in Mandrem, I was settled into the blue room at the River Cat very happily, the poor dead snake a rapidly receding memory.

You can't tell from this photo how blue my room was, but trust me that it was very, very blue.

My first morning there, I was awoken by roosters outside and, amazingly for a night owl such as myself, saw bits of another sunrise through my tall, tall windows.

The River Cat is aptly named. In the back, beyond the lovely veranda and the garden, there is, indeed, a river:

And on that lovely veranda are cats.

Lots and lots of cats:

There were 9 kittens in all--5 bigger and 4 tiny--and 2 mama cats. Only one of the kittens had a name, the all black one whom Rinoo had named "Shoe Polish."

I was convinced that Shoe Polish being named made him (or her) more friendly. Here, s/he consented to use Janna's lap as a napping station:

Janna, as you can probably tell, was thrilled. And even more so a little while later when one of Shoe Polish's siblings arrived:

Here's the aerial view:

Janna and I spent quite a bit of time on the veranda, playing Scrabble, drinking tea and watching the kitten antics. (Kitten on the table, the chairs, in the hammock, on the steps, etc.) I even had to partake in a kitten rescue mission. Two little girls staying at the hotel were so enamored of the tiny kittens that they brought three of the four of them upstairs and were swinging them on a swing, while the mama cat paced and yowled on the veranda downstairs. (I was the mean grown up who said, "You have to take them back downstairs." One of the girls immediately said, "It was her idea," pointing to her friend. I was not swayed.)

I made an instant friend in Goa as well, an American woman living in Sweden who was there on holiday with her (sort of) ex-boyfriend and her 5 year old daughter, who grew fond of me over the couple of days we hung out and gave me the parting gift of many magic markered drawings, including one of my own hand and, my favorite, a purple (vegetarian) dinosaur with big teeth. My new friend was shocked when she heard that I was returning to Delhi for 5 days before I went back to the US--why go to Delhi if I could stay longer in Goa, she asked, not unreasonably. I told her that my Delhi was more fun than her Delhi, for one thing, and that the thought of going directly from tropical Goa to New England in January, with no transition, seemed unnecessarily harsh. It would be good to have to wear a sweater again for a few days before I had to wear a winter coat.

And so, after a week of sun and sand and sea, of lovely fresh fish and fresh fruit, of kittens and also a roly poly puppy, the incongruously named "Big Boss" who'd been adopted by the folks at a local restaurant, I regretfully left Goa to return to North India and then, a few days later, North America. One thing is for certain--I will not wait another 8 years to go back.

And there, really, my travelogue ends. Delhi was Delhi. I hung out with Sunil, lunched with Rasil, strolled with my friend Janet, conferred with the tailor, ate chole bhatura at the Bengali Sweet House, hopped on and off the Metro and ran around buying tea and gifts and more tea and snacks and just a few more cushion covers for my blue textiled living room.

And then I came home, and now, a few months later, I'm already thinking about my next trip.

There is a brief addendum. Janna stayed on in India for 6 or 7 weeks after Andy and I left, and one of the places she visited was Udaipur. I'd given her the name of the Ganesh Art Emporium, a funky shop run by an artist named Madhu Kant Mundra. Over the years, I've bought many, many Ganesh postcards from him as well as refrigerator magnets, tiny framed pictures of an elaborately dressed Krishna ("Krishna in his party frock," Abby calls them) and other sundries. The walls of my living room hold four framed prints of Madhu's, including my favorite, the Buddha in a boat rowing across a blue, blue sea . Janna had indicated that she'd found something for me there, but I had no idea what to expect until she came home in March and handed it over. When I saw it, I laughed and laughed, and immediately began to plot its place on my walls.

The Buddha with kitties. How apt.

The End.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

On not blogging 31 days in a row

For the past three years, May 1 has signified the beginning of the WordCount Blogathon, in which a large and diverse group of intrepid bloggers agrees, en masse, to post every single day for the month of May. I decided to participate in the Blogathon the first time on a whim. I was in my first months of blogging, and I thought it might give me a jumpstart. The second year, I participated with intent, having learned some key lessons about what it meant to commit to blog every day for a month (Plan Ahead!). Last year, my third year, I decided at the last minute, filled with just a bit of trepidation.

All three years I really enjoyed participating in the blogathon, even with the inevitable feeling of hopelessness at the beginning of week 3 (2 1/2 more weeks of this, really?) and the exhaustion at the end, and the feeling of just not having one more interesting thing to say. Not even one. Still, I enjoyed the camaraderie, the discovery of new blogs I enjoyed reading, the guest post swaps and occasional theme days (it had been decades since I'd written a haiku).

The one thing that the blogathon didn't help me with, though, was becoming a more regular blogger. The blogathon gave me the structure and discipline to blog every day for a month--but not to blog regularly throughout the year. Of course, the blogathon is not to blame for that--I am. But one of my original goals in participating was to get myself on a regular blogging schedule, and that never happened. I am as haphazard a blogger as I ever was, even more so now, given the nearly 6 month silence here.

So, as May arrives once again (How can it possibly be May already?), I've decided that there will be no May blogathon for me. That doesn't mean there won't be blogging, however. What I've decided to do is less ambitious but possibly more important to my future blogging life. This May, I'm going to do what I meant to do all along with the blog and blog not daily, but regularly, at least once a week. I'm hoping by the end of May to have a bit of a rhythm, to feel excited about blogging forward into June and July rather than exhausted.

The first post will be the embarrassing one--the very long delayed post about my January trip to India that I meant to finish and post several months ago. Even as I've pondered other posts, I've thought, "No, I can't post about x, y or z (or, in this case, graham crackers, kale soup or mujadarra) until I get that damn India post up." And there it still sits, mostly written, in draft form, unposted. So, I'll start with that and then see where the rest of the month leads me. Meanwhile, I look forward to reading some of those brave bloggers who are participating in this year's blogathon and cheering them on from the sidelines as I mosey through the month.

Happy May!