Author of Madam, Have You Ever Really Been Happy? An Intimate Journey through Africa and Asia

Category: India Page 2 of 3


Just getting into the airport building in Delhi is a challenge. I thought the new airport would be different, but was I wrong! There are guards at every entrance and the line is long. But don’t push. This is when patience is definitely a virtue and a lack of said virtue can put you behind the eight ball big time. You need to have your ticket handy, your passport, and whatever extraneous information came with your ticket print out. In my mind I ask them if a pint of blood and my firstborn would suffice, but I keep that joke to myself. A sense of humor should be parked at the door along with any sense of urgency.

Once inside you are faced with a swarm of humanity that takes your breath away. As you know, I’ve been traveling for centuries, or so it seems, and you’d think I’d be hardened to such mob scenes. But this was the longest, most circuitous “Congo line” of my life and it snaked like a giant intestine that forgot to stop growing.  I kid you not, I was in line over an hour. At that point I was so tired that they could have stashed me in an MRI machine and I would have remained comatose throughout. Don’t ask me to relate the padding up and padding down. Beaten and bewildered, I didn’t even notice.

A couple more observations about India that I failed to mention along the way are that the vegetables are plentiful, cheap, and superb. Cauliflower, one of my all time favorites, was huge and in every conceivable dish. The carrots were the large reddish variety and sweet, and peas were a special part of the many paneers (cheese dishes) served in a succulent sauce. Being a vegetarian in India is no hardship…it’s a pleasure, for there is so much variety to choose from and unlimited imagination in the preparation. Once I persuaded a particular restaurant in Gokarna to make me “veggies al dente”  (my phrase) without spice, I was in heaven and never wanted to leave. I even ate them for breakfast.

Another food that I had from the very beginning was papaya…huge, ripe, orange papaya. Cary and I ate one a day in Dharamsala and you could get the large ones down south for less than a dollar. I never tasted any like this at home.

Before I leave Gokarna, let me share a few more photos of this charming location.

Lee sunbathing on the beach

Trimming the palms in our front yard

The restaurant next door

Our cozy cabin

Squabble on the path…I’m outa’ here!

Pilgrims swimming in the evening

Watching the passing parade

Beach life

A delightful young man at his sewing machine….

Camel ride at sunset

We exchanged hello’s on the beach

Bargaining at a local shop

Gullvli & yours truly in front of the local "chariot"

Gullvi and yours truly in front of the local “chariot”

Ladies washing clothes in communal wash tanks in the middle of town

…and now they have company

I had to slow down on theater this month because of rehearsals for our last concert. The Plainfield Symphony went out in a blaze of glory led by Charles Prince, our new conductor. We knocked ‘em dead with an evening of French opera featuring two soloists and highlights from Saint-Saens’ Samson and Delilah and Bizet’s Carmen. It doesn’t get much better than that!

I did, however, see some pretty great shows starting with Million Dollar Quartet, and ending with The Book of Mormon, the new smash hit musical, which looks like a Tony winner. Irreverent, totally off-the-wall, it was the first Broadway show by the two masterminds behind South Park. You can imagine the language!

At the Metropolitan opera Rossini’s Le Comte Ory was perfection, starring Juan Diego Florez and Susanne Resmark.

I waited until the end to be sure this glorious spring was not going to go away. Maplewood/South Orange is ablaze with color and here is just one slice. I thrill at the richness of nature that I enjoy on my daily walk up and down the hills of this peaceful town.

My little begonia finally found a home….


I’m still laughing and scratching my head as I remember some of the business strategies observed during my recent three months in India.  Consequences were not factored in; life was totally in the moment; and time and again I would come upon abandoned projects—road repair, half-finished buildings, a trail ending at the edge of a cliff, abandoned fields—as if money had run out or there was no more interest in the work at hand.

I watched one of these projects grow and fizzle during my three weeks in Gokarna, a town south of Goa on the Adriatic coast where I was staying in a small compound on the beach (see Jan. 21st blog). It was a delightful place of simple cottages surrounded by a spacious sandy area with numerous tall palm trees, and an ambitious owner whose plans included the making of a farm, a petting zoo, and an internet café. The last part of the plan depended on his success in finding a wife, which, in and of itself, was a difficult task for a middle-class Indian who needed to find someone of his own “class” with enough money to be a partner in his work. She was to run the internet café, he told me. These were imponderables, which would be settled later. But first he decided to dig a duck pond in the front yard. I had not seen his two ducks and asked him if he realized what those ducks would do to his lovely sandy “lawn.” The head just wiggled to and fro and he smiled at me with the look of, “Don’t confuse me with facts when my mind is made up.“ I shuddered to think of what the ducks were doing to his upstairs apartment and, having had experience with their bathroom habits, could see the cessation of all future moonlit walks through the pristine dunes.

To attest to our owner’s imagination he designed the pond in the shape of a turtle and lined it with stones that resembled a shell. Then he filled it with water and loaded it with lilies and let it sit for several days. At this point the lilies had died and the water had a green scum on it. His little dog made regular sojourns into the water, and sand began to gather at the bottom. Not to be deterred, our man regaled me with tales of the animals he was going to import for his zoo and the grass he was going to grow so they could graze. Grow grass in sand? Hmmm.

The painful knee episode. You didn’t believe me?

It just gets better and better….

Even the camel can’t contain himself….

The digging begins

And the water is added

It really does look like a turtle

When I left, the owner was still planning to take down most of the buildings to make way for his “farm,” but he also wanted his “wife” to start a small restaurant for the remaining guests (all four?). He was ebullient about his plans and the duck pond was soon forgotten. As I made my way past the deserted pond and out of the compound, he was sitting on his swing smiling while the dog splashed in the thick green water. I thought I might return next year to see how his farm was coming along and to share in his ebullience.

I soon realized that a good number of Indians don’t worry about tomorrow. If they did why would they throw garbage on the front lawn? I know, I know. There’s another side of India I may be neglecting, but I’ve always preferred my adventures “down and dirty” as compared to the sojourner who insists on classy hotels and the accoutrements of business travel. Traveling that way you side step the messy parts of Indian life and can simply have your driver pull up to your hotel and avoid the crowds, noise, and dirt. But you also miss the side that I’ve been describing–the color, myriad smells (natural and manmade perfumes; cooking; flowers; fields), and the festive atmosphere that await you in the real India–the crowded bazaars, the thrill of darting rickshaws, and the panoply of flamboyant, imaginatively-dressed people.

A small bazaar along the road

Sunset on the beach outside our cabin


about the spicy food, about the toilets, about the dirty streets, about the crowded buses, about the late trains, about the coffee, about the bad roads, about the crazy drivers, about, about, about.…This was said to me by the owner of a hotel in Pune, who took a liking to us and helped me buy  a small duffel on wheels to spare my back while I was recovering from my knee injury. I wasn’t that bad, was I? Gullvi laughed so hard I wanted to smack her, but realized that he did have a point. He met me just after an all-night trip on a third class train during which I hadn’t slept. I made the mistake of asking if the toilet had a seat, or would I have to squat in my comatose condition. I also complained about the Nescafe, so he instructed the cook to grind real coffee. This took ages, while Gullvi was having a caffein-deprived meltdown. The coffee finally appeared, ground, in a small cup…just add water. It was a riot.

So you see, like-minded travelers, sometimes we don’t realize how critical we appear to our host countrymen. I learned a lesson that day and, henceforth, tried valiantly to keep my thoughts to myself, saving the complaints for my journal. I realized, also, that many of the criticisms we have are those that the Indians, themselves, are aware of, and, just like the school children and teachers I spoke with at the Ajanta caves, they crave positive feedback about their country.  A sense of humor goes a lot further than complaining. And what harm can an innocent cockroach surveying the bathroom do, anyway?

Here are a few nuggets I gleaned during my three months in India. Short and sweet.

  • “It’s the same, but different.” How many times I came upon that reply when the person whom I was asking didn’t know the answer. “What is the difference between chapattis and naan?” “They are the same, but different.” Such answers give you something to ponder for the rest of the day.
  • Nobody likes to disappoint, especially in India, even when it comes to directions. You may not know where something is, but you give an answer, anyway. If you’re looking for a restaurant or a guest house it’s always just five minutes “that way,” indicated by a sweep of the arm, which could mean anything. I soon stopped asking, or just added an extra fifteen minutes to the estimate.
  • Every man in India over the age of 18 wears a moustache...well, almost everyone. I started asking why and here is what I gleaned. “It’s a tradition.”  I said, “For how long?”  He said, “About twenty years.”  I said, “That makes it a tradition?”  He said, “Well, the ladies like it.”  “Oooh, so that’s it.”  “No, not really. It’s just that it’s macho.”  That was the bottom line. Then I asked the one man I met who didn’t have a moustache why he didn’t, and he answered, “Because I don’t need a moustache to prove that I’m macho.”  How about that!
  • A frequent and, to me, sad sight from the train windows outside major cities was miles of shacks made of corrugated metal or wooden boards with scraps of cloth and cardboard for roofs—slums with no electricity or water, rising from the dirt beside the tracks. Invariably, standing outside these hovels would be women dressed in colorful saris, watching as their small children played in the mud. Frequently, in the early morning, school children would emerge, clean and beautifully groomed in their school uniforms, headed for school. Incongruous, but hopeful.
  • Yes, I have drastically changed my attitude toward India as a result of this trip. I have found the people friendly and open, especially the children, and the men are helpful and not always trying to make me “happy.” The young people invariably approach me with respect and a huge grin…”Grandma, Amala, Mother…what’s your name, where do you come from, do you like India, tell me about your family.”  There is a great difference between the treatment of older people in India and the U.S. Older is better. I can live with that!
  • Deference is still shown to Westerners, much to my embarrassment. Sometimes it’s funny, as when I tried to buy a beer from the state liquor store on New Year’s in Ft. Cochin and, being the only woman, was waved, ceremoniously, to the head of the line. The line was long and you stood outside and bought your liquor at a window. I protested, but they took me by the arm right up to the cashier. I got so flustered that I dropped my bag, couldn’t find my money, and held everyone up for quite a time. Nobody complained, just nodded pleasantly.
  • Then there were other times, like after I injured my knee and went to the emergency room in Udupi. There were dozens of people ahead of me, but I was ushered in immediately. I can’t imagine that this is a holdover from Colonialism. It seems so wrong. However, if it is, they get back at us by charging a lot more for transportation and admittance fees, as I’ve said before.
  • How does India deal with garbage? That’s easy, they throw it in the street, the river, on the beach, or in the yard. In Gokarna, big holes were dug in the beach, the garbage thrown there—plastic bottles, glass, everything—and the cows rummaged in it for days. Eventually, the sea helped cover it. But the worst and most unhealthy part is that they burn it. And it doesn’t smell like roasting marshmallows. Here is a photo to give you the idea.

In all fairness I did see signs of improvement in Tso Pema, where a truck would circulate around town each day and people would throw in bags of garbage, and in Darjeeling, where the piles of trash were picked up early each morning.

Just to warm your heart on this wintery “spring” day (we still have snow on the ground), here are a couple of sunsets from our cabin in Gokarna

In my next few blogs, I shall wrap up India and upload some pictures that relate to the previous blogs.


I am now convinced that the most beautiful wild animal in the world is the tiger. It has a mammoth head that is at once majestic and scary, and when it yawns those teeth fill me with terror. A pussy cat it is not! I’ve seen exquisite documentaries about its endangered status (Broken Tail: A Tiger’s Last Journey about a tiger in Ranthambhore National Park in India), but nothing can compare to seeing the huge beast in its own habitat. I didn’t get close enough to pet them, nor did I drive alongside them on the road as some lucky people have, but I saw them through Gullvi’s binoculars and was so excited that I almost didn’t grab my camera for a posterity shot.

My photos are not great—not even good—but you can get an idea of how camouflaged the animals are and difficult to see, and how much white is on their body. I no longer think of tigers as orange and black. They have well-defined markings and the white stands out. Here are a few shots from a great distance. The mother tiger had just awakened and come through the underbrush, grunting fiercely like an old man with bronchial problems. The spotted deer and the wild boar ran like hell when they heard the sound. Birds were signaling danger even before she emerged with her two grown cubs to the top of a hill overlooking the river. I have the feeling that if there hadn’t been so many vehicles parked down below she would have negotiated the bank and come down for a drink (water, that is). Bummer. But after two other game rides, during which we only saw the tail end of one tiger, after waiting two hours in intense suspense, we were ecstatic.

Her initial approach. Look carefully and you’ll see a cub in the grass at the left

How majestic can you be?

I didn’t know a wild boar could run so fast!

Birds called out warnings…

Spotted deer turned tail…

But the tiger was unimpressed by the hubbub

When it was over, even the langur monkey looked bored….

Going on safari in a tiger reserve is totally different from my experiences in Kenya and Tanzania. African safari drivers take off onto the plains and bush land whenever they wish, often going off road as we did last year in the Serengeti to track a mother cheetah and her cubs. They are in vans with sunroofs that open up. Here in India we are in open jeeps and must line up at specified times (6:30 AM for a morning ride and 2:30 PM for what is called an evening ride). The rides last about three hours and the government officials are extremely strict about how many jeeps are allowed, the number of people, including a guide and driver, in each vehicle, and the route taken. The driver is assigned a particular route, so there is not a jam up at any particular place. Everyone must pay at least 2200 rupees (about $48.00) for each ride.  And there are only four gates of entry and exit.

We spent a great deal of time sitting in the jeep, watching the underbrush, waiting, and whispering. The tension mounted as various signs of the other animals’ nervousness heightened—wild running through the bushes, loud gutteral warning signs, birds chattering. Sometimes the driver of another vehicle would pass on information about a possible sighting and we’d race to the spot over bone-crushing roads and around tight curves only to find that we’d missed the animals. In the morning, if a tiger were sighted going into underbrush, a trained elephant was brought up and either tourists or government officials climbed up and rode on its back as it moved stealthily through the underbrush (hard to think of a huge elephant as stealthy) in its effort to locate the beast.

Preparing for the search

An early morning footprint causes great excitement…and it’s one big print!

Ready to go at 6 A.M., Gate #1

Waiting for that tiger! Yes, it’s a bit of a jam…

Still waiting….

Typical park flora

Badhavgarh tiger reserve is located in Umaria district of Madhya Pradesh.It covers 600 sq. kms of forests with a rich diversity of flora and fauna. Along with the tiger, you can see leopard (don’t hold your breath!), sloth bear, ratel, striped hyena, jungle cat, langur, jackal, fox, wild boar, spotted deer, sambhar deer and nilgal, to name a few. But don’t kid yourself…it’s the tiger that brings people to this park. And there are not many tigers left (I’ve heard numbers ranging from 20 to 40). Many a disappointed tourist can go for days without seeing one. We were lucky, indeed.

India and Nepal are working on building corridors from one park to the next so that the tigers can move easily from one to the other and crossbreed, something that is genetically desirable.  Each guide speaks of the tigers lovingly and seems to know where they hang out in a particular part of the park, how many cubs they have, and what their habits are. It’s really a scream. “Oh, she was restless today and decided to walk to the stream before taking her afternoon nap. She’s in the bush now. I can tell because the birds are squawking…” that sort of thing. Don’t ask them how they know…they just know. And they get attached to each family. Look at the plaque erected for one of the oldest and most beloved tigers, who died in 2000.

Tigers are allowed to roam around the villages if they get past the barbed wire in certain areas (and they do) and if a drunk villager happens to confront one and get killed (as happened recently), that is his fault, not the tiger’s. Tiger is king, the locals’ livelihood, and a respected member of the community. Even Gullvi and I were admonished not to go out of our cottage after midnight for fear of meeting up with a marauding tiger. Gave me pause even at 9 PM, when we sat around a blazing campfire near the main hall and searched the underbrush for a pair of curious eyes. No, there were none…only in my imagination.

Our bungalow at Wild Haven Resort

Yours truly having morning coffee

Green fields outside the fence

Here’s how you mount an elephant (no longer in use)

We stayed on at Wild Haven for a couple of dreamy days after completing three game rides, and enjoyed nature walks and exploring some small villages nearby. It was hard to say goodbye to the staff, which had been most generous and welcoming to us. Tourism is way down in the area due to the world economic climate, and we hope with all our heart that this beautiful place survives. Take a closer look at its website:

The staff and our little furry mascot

Our fabulous cook…

And our superb manager….

One humorous episode that occurred as we waited for our train from Katni to Delhi is shown below. I have seen this happen more than once, but never have I seen men jumping onto the track to prod a poor calf, who is being pursued by a train. I only got the calf, for I was so anxious for the safety of the “rescuers” that I completely forgot to record it. The train actually slowed down, blowing its whistle shrilly, and scaring the poor animal until it was frantic, running backwards and forwards. I don’t know how he got onto the tracks, and I don’t know how he got off. But he did.

How’s that for cool?

I’m still in a daze, but managed to drag myself (thanks to my opera buddy, Phyllis Bitow) into the Metropolitan Opera to see a superb production of Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride starring Placido Domingo. This was the first time I had seen him in person and it was a great thrill.

The events recorded in this blog took place from February 9 to 14. Hang in there, my friends. I’m off to California for ten days, but will return with the climax of my Indian journey, plus a few other tidbits I think you’ll find interesting.


One thing for sure about my travels in India: I’ve seen the countryside down and dirty and up close. You worry about the danger to pedestrians and passengers as you’re skimming along over narrow, bumpy roads in an auto rickshaw (tuk tuk) or a battered old bus, but you soon realize that you’re not going very fast. One hundred kilometers in three hours is not exactly flying! And you can see a lot of landscape along the way.

One such bus got Gullvi and me from Jalgaon to Fardapur, a stone’s throw from the famous Ajanta Caves. There we found a reasonably priced guesthouse, The Holiday Resort, run by the government, and we proceeded to bone up on the caves by buying AJANTA, A brief History and Guide, by Walter M. Spink, Ph.D (1954) Harvard, and professor emeritus of the History of Art at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor…and the world’s expert on caves in the Ajanta Valley.

But where to begin? There are over 1200 caves in India, 1000 of which are in the Maharashtra region, because the hard volcanic basalt rock from which the monasteries, temples, and intricate carvings are made is in abundance in the region. And we learned that it had all been created by using a simple hammer and chisel! Can you imagine carving into a mountain with such elemental tools?

Ajanta was described as a human-made excavation cut into the horseshow-shaped scarp of a steep cliff overlooking the Wagora River. It represents two distinct movements in Buddhism, the first six caves dating from approximately the 1st century B.C.E. and the others from the 5th century C.E. They all reflect the Indian genius for sculpture, and are covered with elaborate decorative details.

The twenty-nine Buddhist caves near Ajanta form a devotional complex, which ranks as one of the world’s most startling achievements, created at the very apogee of India’s Golden Age. And all of this was discovered only 200 years ago by an English soldier out tiger hunting. The caves he found, initially, were from 100 BC to 150 AD, when Buddhism flourished throughout western India, before its three-century eclipse. But that was just the beginning, according to Dr. Spink. It was not until about 462 that a remarkable Buddhist renaissance began at Ajanta under the aegis of the Vakataka emperor Harisena, the greatest ruler of the mid-fifth century. By the end of his brief reign (c. 460-477) his domains in central India stretched from sea to sea.

Nearly all the Vakataka caves were started in a single burst of activity, using the skills of artisans sent down from the great cities, and drawing sustenance from the nearby trade route which Harisena’s forceful rule made safe for the monks, merchants, and workers who traveled upon it. Having received a pious patronage from rival dynasties that resulted in intense development, Ajanta’s splendid murals, telling old Buddhist tales in modern dress, provide a remarkable “illustrated history” of the period.

These words are a summary of some of the material to be found on Dr. Spink’s website ( along with his controversial theory that all of the later caves were completed within only fifteen years, an amazing feat, which he likens to a Renaissance (462 to 477 C.E.). There are also several videos, which will give you an idea of the vastness of the temples and the artistry of the painting and statuary uncovered in the caves (videos for

After having devoured the guidebook, you can imagine our surprise and glee at having a charming man walk up to our table in the dining room and ask if he could join us. He said he was here for several months to continue his research and writings about the caves. Name? Walter Spink. How lucky can you get? Gullvi and I spent a good part of the next two evenings questioning him about the way in which the caves were created, and talking with him about his research.  Here was a man who still, in retirement, worked with teams of students from around the world at his site seminars, was writing another book, and had a sense of humor about the idiosyncrasies of the academic establishment.  A man with a twinkle in his eye and a razor sharp mind. What a joy for us!

Walter M. Spink

Walter suggested that we take a taxi through the old town of Ajanta early the next morning, which would take us through the gate of the ancient wall and on to the Viewpoint, a high ledge from which we could see the entire horseshoe-shaped layout of the caves.  We could then walk down a steep series of steps to a gazebo and there, spread out in front of us would be the entire panorama. We took his advice.

The caves from the Viewpoint

We spent a glorious, albeit very hot day, walking in and out of the most amazing structures I’ve ever seen. This is a must for all travelers to India! Get there at all costs. It’s one thing to see glorious temples built of stone, and it’s another to see temples carved OUT of a stone cliff. In this case, seeing is believing.

I took over a thousand photos of these structures, inside and out. Each pillar had its own special design, and was meticulously situated according to elaborate architectural plans; each frieze was different; and each ceiling individually painted or carved. Here is a tiny sample of what I saw. I have not attempted to name each photo.

Vaulted ceiling

Detail of ceiling in entranceway

Inside one of the many temples

Chaitya Hall

Detail of frieze on pillar

One of a series of bas reliefs

One of the most enjoyable parts of our visits to the caves was the communication with the school children. Droves of young people, squired by their teachers, filed in and out of the temples, and whenever they’d see us Westerners, they’d shout,” Hello, welcome to India. My name is ____. What is yours?” Then a dialogue would ensue and, soon, photos taken, in groups and individually. They loved to pose with us! And ask us what we thought of their country. Did we like it? And what did we like about it? And would we come back? There was a real desire to hear good things about their history, for they knew too well the unattractive things, like the garbage and pollution. So we interacted, talked with the teachers, and ended up shouting goodbyes interminably. We were always treated with great respect…called Madam, Amala (mother honorific), or even Grandma. And everyone wanted to shake our hands. It was delightful.

They sang to me as I taped them

Goodbye, Meg…Goodbye, Gullvi!

Indians are encouraged to visit their national treasures, which is why the admission is only a few rupees for them as compared to the large amount for foreigners. Gullvi and I never minded this, for we realized how much it takes to care for these sites, and we also realized how important it is for the people of the country to know and be proud of their rich heritage. We even became friendly with some of the hucksters who were pushing guidebooks and trinkets. At one point I told my pursuer for the tenth time that I did NOT want to buy anything. Finally he said, “That’s all right, Madam. My job is to ask and your job is to say no. So, today, we’ve both done our job.” How about that?

My friend, the book salesman…also a reporter for the local police department

It was Walter who urged us to continue on to the Ellora Caves after two days in Ajanta, and then to return, pick up our packs, and have some tea before heading back to Jalgaon and our train to Katni. What a great idea!

Our bus ride to Ellora was much more eventful, if roaming around, looking for some kind of transport qualifies. I have to admit that I was taken back to former days when I found excitement in this kind of bare-bones travel…standing by the side of the road waiting for a bus, bargaining for bananas and oranges from a vendor, putting up with stares and giggles from the locals. We really were a curiosity…two older ladies traveling like natives, with no pretences.

We reached the small town of Phulambri, where the road to Ellora turned off, and were admonished to “go that way” to find a bus or taxi. We finally located a makeshift taxi (more like a panel truck), climbed aboard, and waited until 24 people had been stuffed in (I think they overreached their quota, actually). This is the ride I told you about earlier, with the old woman crammed into the front seat under the fat man, along with four other people.  Since Gullvi and I had paid four times as much as the Indians, we weren’t about to double up any more, and stood our ground.

You cannot imagine that ride! The left door would not close entirely and the poor old woman was grasping the dashboard to stay inside. Every time we’d stop, the man in charge would try to get us to move closer together so he could add another passenger, but we refused. Only when we halted five kilometers from the caves did we get bamboozled.  We were transferred to an even more beat-up cab, driven by a crazy young man, who seemed to be trying to terrify us, as western women, by playing chicken with every oncoming vehicle. This was done by swerving across both lanes of a narrow road, passing on hills, looking back and laughing, and picking up or disgorging numerous teenagers along the way. His door didn’t close, either, and at one point he folded his legs under him to show us that he really didn’t need brakes. I was so busy praying to the God of Rapid Transit, that I simply stopped paying attention to him, looked to the left, watched the sun set, and thanked Shiva, Buddha, and Jesus when I arrived at the Kailas Hotel, our destination.

Early the next morning we ran the gauntlet through hordes of eager shop keepers to the gates of Ellora. For two days we roamed the hills, alive with monkeys, and marveled at the magnificent caves, especially #16, Kailasa, which is considered the zenith of the rock-cut technique of architecture. Pictures cannot begin to show the majesty of the carvings, the human figures in bas-relief, the huge stone elephants adorning the courtyard, the balconies with their columns and secret rooms, and the monolithic Kailasa temple, named after the mountain abode of Siva, which rises out of the center courtyard. You can view and study many of these temples on line and in the World Heritage Series books. Fascinating reading.

One of the elephants guarding Kailasa

Looking down on Kailasa

An example of the intricate carvings throughout the caves

Entrance to a chamber

A section of courtyard

Every column is different

As many of you probably know, I’m now back in New Jersey enjoying cool (spelled freezing) weather and taking an interminable time to un-jet lag. Seems to get worse every time my internal clock has to deal with a 10 or 11-hour time change. I’m once again enjoying the clean streets and the sidewalks of the legendary “Excited States,” but I do miss the chaos and the unpredictability of Asia, and I know I’ll return. I still plan to share the end of my sojourn in India, so don’t be confused about the dates. Look at it as an intelligence test. I’ll get back to the present in the future. How’s that? The time we spent in Ajanta and Ellora was February 3-7


India is a little like the picturesque New England town once visited by a fancy city slicker, who stopped to ask directions of a salty old character, who was sitting on a stone wall chewing tobacco. After many questions the old guy finally said to the irrate tourist, ” Y’know, you just can’t get there from here!” Well, that’s exactly how Gullvi and I felt when we got in the middle of nowhere in somewhere India and realized that we had to work ourselves out of a labyrinth of small villages and towns to get to the treasures we longed to see, like the caves and the animal reserves.

I skip ahead, since several of you have asked me to explain more thoroughly the modes of transportation available to the adventurous traveler who doesn’t want to go by tour bus or taxi or plane. This morning, before Gullvi left for Bangkok, Koh Lanta, an island off the coast of Thailand, and Cambodia, we decided to count the number of local buses, trains, and tuk tuks (auto rickshaws) we had taken in the last two weeks, and the hours spent standing by the side of the road, breathing exhaust gas and waiting for a bus that had two empty seats. We realized that the Indian people have been very welcoming to us to the extent that they would stop and shake my hand as I stood on a high train overpass waiting to descend with my heavy duffel bag and say, “Welcome to India…can I help you?” That is, welcoming except for the buses. There it was a free-for-all and nobody would give way. We finally decided that we were considered poor or bad mannered or pretentious for traveling in such a lowly fashion, and simply kept to ourselves in our misery.

Like so many foreigners who arrive in Delhi, the tuk tuk has a special fascination. Bicycle rickshaws are simply too dangerous in fast traffic, and it weighs on our conscience when, as two tall foreigners, we have to watch a spindley-legged man huff and puff up the smallest incline. Then there’s also the price. A cab costs twice what a tuk tuk does and a bus, of course, costs pennies (or should I say rupees). So last week, after we came off our second class sleeper train from Jalgaon to Katni and were served an excellent breakfast of eggs, toast, and coffee for 58 rupees, at a hole in the wall (all done by charades, since very few people speak English in this part of India), we started searching around for the best way to get to the Wild Haven Resort in Tala.

The tuk tuk drivers at the r.r. station wanted 2,000 rupees, so we opted to go to the bus station, where the cost of the bus was only 100. Gullvi, who was still suffering with what I politely call the Indian whim whams, looked so disconsolate sitting in her seat that I thought I’d surprise her and try to bargain with a tuk tuk driver for a better price. And if there were an emergency along the way, we could always stop by the side of the road. So out I went to a gaggle of vehicles and was pounced upon, immediately, by a crowd of drivers all shouting bids. A tall swarthy young man said 1200, as did another next to him. I started walking away and they followed. Since I had already handed my duffel to a fellow, who locked it in the baggage compartment of the bus, the driver assumed I was a sure passenger. Why he cared I will never know, but he did. I rushed in with the news of my success, but Gullvi, who had said, “It’s your decision, Meg,” seemed less than pleased when she saw the rickshaw and the young men vying for our business.

A brawl erupted with shouting recriminations, most of which I could not understand. Suddenly, a man, connected to the bus company, started pointing at me and yelling, “You want to go in that rickshaw? Look. It’s disgusting. It’s dirty and it’s unsafe. You will die.” He continued. “You can go for 100 rupee to Umaria and another 50 to Tala, and, instead, you will pay this man much money. And what will you pay? You don’t even know. So instead of three hours it will be four…or five.” I wanted to say it’s none of your business, but I was taken aback by such vehemance, and my faith in the rickshaw was somewhat shaken. One hundred kilometers IS a long way!

The driver of the bus, who spoke no English, was waving as well and indicating that I couldn’t have my bag, since the man who put it there had the key and was gone for who knows how long. Then another advocate for the tuk tuk got into it and told me that the price was great and there was absolutely no danger…but he, too, was almost too vehement. This was becoming a war and the sides were drawn.

“Gullvi, Gullvi, what shall we do?” Gullvi looked pale as she turned from one to the other. “It’s your decision, Meg,” was all the help I got. How could such a minor thing balloon into such a fracas?

My pride would not let me submit to the unpleasant bus people, so I retrieved my bag and hopped into the “disgusting” rickshaw. As we were about to leave the parking lot, another man came up to the driver and gave him a phone number, which he wrote on his arm with a pen. Something about “in case of emergency.” Then there was the mention of the police, and Gullvi blanched. What had I gotten us in to? Was this driver, who had lowered his price to 1,000 by now (about $21.00), wanted by the police? Was he a drug addict? And who was the young man who jumped into the seat beside him. I shouted, “You will take nobody but us!” Good grief…I was sounding as bad as they were.

Out we bumped, nearly hitting the roof on the first pothole. We didn’t talk until we were well out of town and pulled into a gas station. At that time I noticed that the younger man had stopped to buy something. Just as we started out, the driver opened a packet and was about to pour the contents into his mouth. I screamed and hit his arm, shouting that he was not to use anything while he was driving us. He apologized and threw the packet out. Now I was sure we were being kidnapped by drug lords. I knew that the packet had some kind of snuff and nicotine powder in it and simply made you a little high. But I would have none of it.

We headed into the countryside and noted that this was definitely not a bus route. Actually, it was a lovely country road with very few vehicles and lots of rolling hills and farms. I relaxed. Gullvi relaxed. We shared cookies all around and arrived inside the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve only one-half hour behind the bus. The last eight kilometers were constant potholes and the road was inside the reserve, where at any time we could come upon a tiger. A bit unnerving, but very beautiful. I spent my time eyeing the underbrush nervously.

Would I do it again? Well, let me think on that. We tipped the driver well and thanked him profusely. How wrong we were to be so scared. Is there something about two Geminis and drama? It was probably the most delightful pastoral journey of our time together. Lesson learned.

I almost forgot to tell you. In my three months in India I’ve taken nine trains, one sleeper bus, five local buses, one all-night regular bus, and too many tuk tuks to remember…and I feel that I really KNOW this part of the Indian countryside. And what I know–the lovely patchwork of green fields, the community festivals, the spiraling smoke of small brick factories, the numerous ox carts full of laughing children and weatherbeaten farmers, and the countless variety of brick and wooden houses with their tile or thatched roofs, shacks, tents, and villas–I like. India is forever fascinating. A dull moment does not exist.

Lest you think that I am complaining about our seemingly haphazard transport, on the contrary. The planning part was a pain at times, but if you have an organized friend like Gullvi Eriksson, who can find her way home without dropping bread crumbs, you have it made! Sometimes I think that I just sat back and enjoyed the ride.

As we prepared to leave Bandhavgarh (yes, the tigers will come soon), Gullvi announced that we were going back to Katni by taxi…and no argument, please. So you see, even the hardiest of travelers needs a little luxury once in awhile.
We had finally succumbed, and we laughed gleefully all the way, like two little girls caught with their hand in the cookie jar. We deserved it and we loved it!


In the Meg Peterson tradition of traveling uncomfortably, the sleeper bus is right up there with the open-air local buses, third class trains, and small “taxis” the size of pick up trucks, who start only when packed with twenty-four people, six of whom are in the front seat, including a driver and a little old lady (not I!) squashed under a fat man smoking a cigarette. But back to the sleeper bus. I promised a recap and what a disappointment this was. Forget that it was three hours late or that it didn’t have a toilet, or that the two beds side-by-side were designed for two anorexics. The final blow (no pun intended) was an air conditioning system with no knobs for regulation and a hole like a wind tunnel that blew frigid air all night on its occupants. Two depleted aging valentines staggered out in Hampi, glad for the heat, and willing to stay anywhere so long as there was no air conditioning and no mosquitos. A sympathetic tuk tuk (auto rickshaw) driver saw our plight and found us a charming guest house close to the Tungabhadra River in the old town proper. It’s a truism that you get what you pay for, but in India you get a helluva lot, as I’ve mentioned before. We split an $18.00 room and had our first hot shower in weeks. Thus began two full days of the most amazing exploration of old ruins in my recent memory.

In its prime, Hampi was enormously wealthy, with a market full of jewels, and palaces plated with gold, having held the monopoly on trade in spices and cotton. You could see the remains of these remarkable and extensive markets that stretched for miles and were situated adjacent to the various temples and monuments. The town was also well- fortified and defended by a large army. Despite this, it was largely plundered and destroyed in 1565 at Talikota at the hands of the Deccan sultans. Today the stark and barren twenty-six square mile area on the right bank of the river has the ruins of a great empire strewn across it. The Indian government wants its people to enjoy and realize the wealth of its past, so Indians gain entrance to these sites for a few rupees, while tourists pay a husky price. This is understandable, and the locals throng to the ruins, feeling a pride in their heritage that they are just beginning to regain after years of occupying the position of a third world country. The change in attitude h beenvery noticeable to me in the intervening twenty-five years since my first exploration of India.

Most of the sites we visited were early 16th century, during the reign of Krishna Deva Raja (1509-29), with the citadel standing on the bank of the river. The ingenious style adapted by the skilled craftsmen of the day perfectly blended architectural masterpieces with the barren and rocky landscape. Gullvi and I spent two days touring the ruins and two evenings standing on high hills watching the sun set through ruins that resembled the Parthenon, juxtaposed to rocks placed by nature in stunning artistic configurations. Add to this, frolicking monkeys and the calls of wild creatures, and you have an unforgetable experience.

Temples abound on the riverside–a royal enclosure and numerous feats of engineering…baths, tanks, aqueducts, sliusses, and canals, which could function even today. We saw the remains of the bazars in which gold was traded–row upon row of granite columns, some with the stone roofs still in tact and others open to the sky. Our tuk tuk driver/guide took us to twelve major sites spread throughout the land, among them the Queen’s Bath and immense elephant stables, where every column was loaded with stone carvings and bas reliefs of scenes of life in the palace. This is a place in India not to be missed! The setting is tranquil, the small town of only 35,000  people (which, during the Hindu/Moghul period boasted 650,000 inhabitants) is charming, and the excellent roof top restaurants lend a feeling of festivity amidst the surrounding panorama of temples and ruins.

I got my come-uppance the last day when, in a feeling of celebration, I asked a storekeeper if he had any beer. “There is no alcohol in Hampi, Madam,” he said. “This is a holy town.”

I returned, chastened, to spend a quiet evening under my protective mosquito netting.

As you may have noticed, I am way behind, mostly due to the strenuousness of these past three weeks and the lack of internet cafes in the small towns we visited. I will keep you in suspense about our days at the Ajanta and Ellora caves and our search for tigers at the Banhavgarh tiger reserve. And when I get home, I will share pictures of some of the wonderful individuals we met. Keep tuned. I haven’t finished with India, yet!


is a sign on the wall of our favorite restaurant here in Gokarna, but really is the mantra of every restaurant I’ve been in for the last three months…that is, except for a few tourist-oriented cafes in McLeod Ganj. Last night we tried yet another of the charming beachfront eateries with their palm-braided thatched roofs and individualistic wall hangings, lounges (for those who have no other place to sleep), and lights. This one was aglow like a Christmas tree and had alligators carved or painted around the wall. Like all the others it’s open-air and a gentle wind flutters the decorations and hanging lamps. The floors are sand, wonderful on the feet, and not a few cuddly dogs sit on your toes, hoping for a hand out. No cows. They only bother you in town.

We’ve eaten mostly vegetarian, with a freshly caught fish or two for my friends (remember, I’m allergic), but last night we found chicken on the menu. Oh boy, what a treat! A few minutes into a fabulous homemade soup we heard the distinct cackling and screeching of a chicken, and an obvious struggle, followed by silence. Omigod, what have we done? Talk about fresh. An hour later, I kid you not, there was chicken sweet and sour (the Chinese have gotten to India big time) and Marsala. Fortunately, for me, it was so spicy that I substituted spinach dal and didn’t have to feel any more guilty than I did about the fate of the chicken.

Today, I finally felt strong enough to wander around the side streets of Gokarna and photograph the temples, bathers, and faces as varied as a painter’s palate, You have never seen so many facial markings, or different ways of dressing, or brilliant colors of saris, worn by women even when they are doing manual labor. Even the sadhus, the holy men near the temples, have only their long hair and beards in common. Their dhotis show imagination and no one face is similar. I also was thrilled to see so many young women, some with small children, run their own shops. They are well-spoken and as beautiful as the handcrafts they sell. If only I had more room in my pack!

I met with the Zontines for lunch. We were able to get a table outside, so could watch the throngs of pilgrims coming down the main drag from the bus station to the beach, and, the downside, be accosted by beggars. But what is most disconcerting is to sit with a cow’s wet nose three inches from your chapatti, looking at you with eyes even more soulful than the beggars. They just keep coming a little closer and when you finally remove one, another takes its place. The secret is to wield a large stick and threaten it. This is given you by the waiter. But the cows know who are the pushovers and pay no heed. Upshot: we’ll eat inside and forgo the passing parade.

We’ve become friendly with several of the young men, who use sewing machines to embroider T-shirts and hangings in an open-air shop. They hail us as we pass by, and are able to keep their breakneck speed going as we chat. I’ll have some pictures for you later. One man in particular could out- shine anyone I’ve seen on Bollywood, but, instead, works from early morning until after 10 P.M. every night…for very little money. It’s a whole different world over here, and it’s hard to reconcile with our privileged life. To count your blessings is cliche, but true, nevertheless.

As I was sweeping out my cabin with a short, homemade broom, which is just a bunch of stiff straw held together by a rope tie, I wondered why some enterprising person hasn’t introduced tall brooms, also of straw, but better made, into India. Everyone leans over, which is bad for the back, and the straw keeps falling out. And the dirt just gets spread around. Does anyone have any ideas about this? I’m sure the very rich have brooms, but what about all the little ladies I see bending double as they use these inadequate “sweepers.”

Tomorrow Gullvi and I head off by sleeper bus (Volvo, supposed to be comfortable) to Hospet and then to Hampi, once the seat of the Vijanagara Empire, and a major center of Hindu rule for 200 years–from 1336…although there may have been a settlement as early as 1,000 years before then.

I’ve never been on a sleeper bus, but I know it beats the local vehicles. Wish me luck. It won’t be easy to leave this seaside paradise, but all good things must end…or something like that. And it does get brutally hot at midday. I’m looking forward to heading north, after Hampi.

Hey, the snow in the East sounds marvelous. Maybe it’s time to buy those skiis!


Pizza arrives in 30 minutes, the ambulance doesn’t….

More mobile phones than  toilets….

Car loans are cheaper than  educational loans….

Foodgrain rots as people die of hunger….

Sex is everywhere except where it is supposed to be, in the bedroom. This last one requires an explanation, Upwardly mobile Indians (a small percentage of the population, to be sure) are so intent upon chasing the rupee/money dream that more and more married couples have no time in their busy schedule to procreate. The answer? Fertility clinics. To quote Prakash Kothari, “Couples don’t have either the desire or the time to have sex these days.” Sounds pretty dire, doesn’t it?

What I have just written was on the cover of the December 26, 2010 magazine, The Week, an excellent  news magazine that prints candid articles by outstanding Indian journalists about current problems in India…and they are many, from the garbage, plastic, environmental ones to the skyrocketing birth rate, to poverty, to the crumbling infrastructure. The country is growing fast and it is a bundle of contradictions. In this issue they celebrate their idiocyncracies and ironies. But they also take them seriously. One disturbing statement that, as yet, goes unanswered is that it is a country where rice sells for 40 rupees a kilo, but SIM cards come for free. It is a land where people make arduous pilgrimages to shrines of goddesses, but kill their daughters in the womb. It is a mindset that seeks out a fancy mobile in preference to a basic toilet.

I am seeing this in my everyday life here. The handsome young owner of our guest house laments the fact that he can’t find a wife, because there are ten eligible men for every woman…even when arranged marriages are the tradition. The gorgeous beaches are used, regularly, for defecation, but mostly by men, some of whom are pilgrims. They don’t even bother to cover it up. Plastic is burned all the time in the middle of town or in front of guest houses, the stench second only to what it’s doing to the lungs, the brain, and the environment.

But I try to be philosophical with the mantra…This is India, what do you expect? Still, thinking Indians resent that statement and are disturbed by the pervasiveness of their problems.

On the lighter side, I had an experience while walking to town. I’ve told you about the cows. Well, today there was quite a congregation of them and I walked into an altercation between two bulls, who were head-butting. What to do? The path was narrow and the bushes lining it prickly. I tried to sneak by, but they shifted just as I passed. You never saw me run so fast…even with my bum knee. I didn’t even stop for a photo!

I’ve been using a steri-pen to purify my water, so I won’t add to the plastic problem here. But a friend showed me the bottle he just bought. This was written on the side, supposedly as an ecological statement. You be the judge: Dispose of this container responsibly…crush.

I’ve also had some sweet experiences, like the time I walked by a fancy home on a back street in town. A cow was preceding me slowly. A beautifully clad lady was looking out her door. Just as the cow reached the door, she opened it, bowed, and the cow walked into her tiled parlor. She smiled at me and closed the door.

I may have mentioned this before, but more and more I am amazed at the openness and affection shown between men of all ages in this country. They put their arms around each other and walk hand-in-hand down the street. Seldom do I see Indian men and women eating together, except when there are children with them. The women go to town in pairs or groups, as do the men. Also, I was surprised to see both men and women doing their wash at the beautiful rectangular tank of azure water near the small temples away from the main street. It’s a lovely section of town and boasts many fancy homes meticulously landscaped. The washing place reminds me of the ghats of Varanasi. It’s a colorful panoply of activity. And the characters participating are a photographer’s dream!

As in my first ’round-the-world trip in 1987, the three predictable statements made in all of the Asian and African countries I visited remain the same. Those of you who travel will, I’m sure, recognize them: No problem; Trust me; and Don’t worry. It’s at this point that I start to worry!

Now I’m going to go back to the beach, wait for my dear friend from Sweden, Gullvi Eriksson, to arrive from Goa, and hope that those two bulls have settled their problems before I pass by.


Gokarna  is a village in the Uttara Kannada district of the Karnataka state, India. It’s an old established Hindu pilgrimage destination–a temple town that is referred to in a number of Hindu historical literature pieces–with an unmistakably traditional feel.

Here you get the taste of the real India. Set behind a broad, white-faced sand beach, with the forest-covered foothills of the Western Ghats as a backdrop, it’s one of the most picturesque little towns in India with a collage of colorful individuals from the black-clad pilgrims to the ladies of all status in silk saris (even those who are carrying sand on their head or washing dishes after the free meal at the temple), to the old bearded holy men and young shopkeepers and sewing machine operators working long hours in open-air shops…always ready to greet you with a smile. This is a photographers paradise! Everybody wants a picture, sometimes with you in it. It’s a living tapestry and the scene changes every moment.

This sacred site has been a Shaivite center for more than two millenia and had remained relatively “undiscovered” until Western tourists descended on the beautiful beaches close by. Pilgrims use the sea for ritual bathing and the tourists use it for swimming. Still, pilgrims pouring through the town easily outnumber the foreigners who flock here every winter.

Lee just did a trek over the hills to four of the beaches, photographing the coves and rocky shore. These are much more pristine than the beach we use, but also far away from everything…like the center of town and its temples, alleys and byways. I will add photos of the splendid rectangular water tank, surrounded by several temples, that is used by both men and women for bathing and washing.

Gokarna means Cow’s Ear, and, believe me, there so many cows roaming the streets and beaches that I actually pat them as they go by. At this point it just seems so natural. At midday, when the sun is blistering, I sit under the palm trees, sheltered from its rays, but bathed  in the constant breeze from the sea. At about 5, when the sun is lower, we all rush to the surf, dive into the waves, and swim way out until we reach the gently rolling calm…where we can swim undisturbed.

The mythology of Gokarna is fascinating and voluminous. I suggest you google to see the influence it has had in the Hindu tradition. The main deity is Lord Mahabhaleshwara, a form of the Hindu god Shiva. It is believed that Lord Shiva emerged from the ear of a cow (Prithvi, the Mother Earth). It is also located at the ear-shaped confluence of two rivers Gangavali and Aghanashini.

The two main streets have shops and traditional tile-roofed brick houses, and Kannada is the most widely spoken language. It seems that up and down the coast are myriad languages…and I thought everybody spoke Hindi. What did I know?

Gokarna is also an important centre of Sanskrit learning and houses Bhandikeri Math and Toggu Math. It is a place where Sanksrit knowledge is passed down from generations in Brahmin families. Many Hindus also perform the last rites here.

During the many festivals, some of which are similar to the ones we experienced in Udupi, the town of Gokarna is visited by up to 20,000 pilgrims. They also have huge decorated chariots pulled by hundred of men, as we saw in Udupi. This year 350,000 people visited Gokarna on Mahasivarathri alone.

Tomorrow I hope to write about some of the contradictions and paradoxes of this incredible country, a place where some things never change.

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© 2024 Meg Noble Peterson