Friday, October 15, 2010

Thinking of India 2009

My thoughts have been turning to last year's trip to India. We began our trip on September 9th and returned on October 28th, a total of seven weeks. Now, having just planned an upcoming trip to a place that I've never been, whose language I barely speak, and with a traveling companion I hardly know, the "adventure" of traveling to this new place, has me thinking of my old friend, India. This time last year, I was in Varanase with my friend, and fellow artist and India enthusiast, Ray Hassard. By the time Ray and I reached Varanase, my husband, Martin, was back at work in the USA. He'd been on the road with us for four weeks, and we were very sorry to see him go.

Below is a photo I took on our first taxi ride, the night we arrived in Mumbai. Probably the most beloved of all the Indian gods, Ganesha! The 'god of new beginnings' was there to greet us in this plastic incarnation, and we were thrilled to see him.

We marveled at the changes in Mumbai. It seemed to have modernized and cleaned itself up quite a bit in two years time. After installing ourselves in our Mumbai home away from home, the Hotel Harbour View, we headed for the rooftop restaurant of this hotel and its wonderful view.
(See post from November 17, 2009 for more of this restaurant and our breakfasts on that first morning.)

15 hours of flying, an hour in a taxi, another 1/2 hour to check in, gives one a chance to work up a thrist. And an Indian beer before bed is a nice thing. Surprise #2: there was no Kingfisher beer at the restaurant! Budweiser was there, Foster's was there, but no Indian beers. A disappointment for sure, but they did have Tiger beer, and that is what Ray and I drank. Below is my husband, Martin, with the Tiger beers and pouring his Indian soda, Limca.

We were fresh travellers at this point, and loving being back in India. But by the time the next photo was taken 5 weeks had passed, and we were getting tired. After Martin went home, Ray and I flew to Delhi where we stayed with friends and conducted a workshop for the programmers of Adobe Illustrator. After 4 days in Delhi, we boarded a train for Lucknow, and after two days, we boarded another train to Varanase.

It was late when we arrived in this most ancient city. We checked into a guest house. Below you see Ray sitting in the upstairs eating area. This was the second time on this trip that we'd stayed in a guest house, where you stay and can eat with the family. Ray is not looking real happy here, 'cause he was not. He'd been waiting and waiting for his dinner to appear, while behind him was Madame Jacqueline, from France smiling and chatting away. We've never forgotten her, she loved everything here, never stopped smiling, shopped till she dropped at the "in-house clothing store" (all the clothes were made and marketed by the lady of the house, Tripty) and Madame got great service. We, however, did not.

It is difficult to get a beer in Varanase, the holiest of cities for Hindu's. Doesn't mean you can't get one, you just have to know how or where to get it, or know someone that does. This guesthouse was a place that stocked beer for their clients. And the "chilly factor" was great!
"Very, very cold," she says in her best Indian accent.
But it wasn't enough to keep us at this place for a week.

Varanase was a long way from our clean toilet in Mumbai at the Hotel Harbour View.

Below is our ensuite bathroom at the guesthouse in Varanase. The bathroom was apparently enough reason for Ray to announce we were looking for new diggs in the morning. That surprised me a bit, since we'd had an equally interesting bathroom in Pondicherry on our first trip to India in 2005. But we only had to endure it for one night, and we did. We didn't want to endure this bathroom or bed for another six nights.

Here was our bedroom in all it's lime green wonder!
It was a pretty depressing place, especially when faced with staying here for a week. I think one could easily go crazy in this room. I am reminded of Van Gogh's painting of a pool player in a bar. He said he wanted to paint a picture that talked about a place where one could go crazy. I think bedroom was a place like that! Surely Madame J's bedroom wasn't like this.

We skipped breakfast in Tripty's kitchen/clothing racket and took a walk in the direction of the river, to investigate other places to live for the next 6 days and nights. We decided on The Hotel Temple on Ganges in the Assi Ghat region, and it was fabulous! The rooms were clean and cool, the little man at the desk turned out to be quite helpful to us throughout the week, and the menu was extensive and filled with breakfast delights like, chocolate toast, or honey pancakes - with or without fresh fruit. I had lemon pancakes with honey that morning, and so did Ray, but he also had the Royal Toast pictured below.

"What is it?" I asked when it arrived. Ray poked around in it, and it turned out it was toast covered in a sort of mushed up warm bread sauce. I didn't much like the look of it, and I suppose Ray didn't much like the taste of it, since he never ordered it again, but hey, someone had to order Royal Toast, right?

Our new hotel was close to the Ganges River, and the rooftop restaurant offered views of the river, a sunrise blaring at you every morning, and also some nice views of our neighborhood behind us. Somewhere out there was Tripty's place, but we never wanted to see it again. We must have had some good karma in finding this place. Each morning we breakfasted to the sound of flute music coming through the air. We later found out that it came from a nearby vendor who was playing to attact buyers, but it was a welcome sound.
Above, you can see what looks like a sandy short in the distance. This is the other side of the Ganges River. There is literally nothing there for miles, and makes a sharp contrast to the overly crowded city on our side. Below is the view behind the hotel, our neighborhood.
Once you walk out the door of the hotel, you are at the mercy of the city, and all those that are trying to make a living off the tourists. Now, sitting in the quiet of my home, I am thinking about where I was this time last year. Has Varanasi changed? Would I want to be there again? Would I recognize anyone? I can see it very clearly in my mind's eye. But nothing takes me there quicker, and on a much deeper level, than my sense of smell. It doesn't matter where I am, or what I am doing, the smell of sandalwood immediately transports me back to this complex, crowded and holiest of cities in India.
Thank you, India, for all you have given me.


Ray Hassard said...

Wow, I am speechless and moved by what you have written. Also, completely reliving Varanasi and India in my mind. Hadn't thought about Tripty and her awful guest house in quite a while! And Royal Mush, er, Toast either, but I certainly remember fruit pancakes and chocolate toast and the little waiter who loved them both. Thanks for writing all this.

Michelle Morris said...

Sounds like quite the adventure! You have some fine work to show for your time. I like the idea of staying in a place for a time to really get the feel for the place. Where will you travel next?