Lunch at Anand’s

I was visiting Khajuraho and was lucky to find a guide named Anand.  He spent the day with me as we viewed the many Hindu and Jain monuments and temples.

At mid-day when it was time to  have some lunch Anand invited me to join him at his village home.  We walked only about a kilometer from the temples to find Anand’s village. I noticed as we entered that it was a well-organized and clean little village. Everyone we passed were extremely friendly.

We entered Anand’s place through a heavy ornate door. We stepped into a large square courtyard, which was totally unexpected for me.

Around the courtyard were several rooms with no doors that were open to the main courtyard.  This area was buzzing with activity!  The women of the family, his wife and daughters, were busy doing their daily work.  One daughter was preparing spices, using a stone to grind them.  In another room there was someone sewing.  One woman was weaving.  Another was preparing lunch.  Everyone was friendly and happy to have a visitor for lunch.

Anand and I went to the flat rooftop of his home to have the meal.  He was able to proudly show me the  village from the roof.  He was the largest landowner in this village and pointed out many buildings that belonged to him.

While we were having lunch his daughters children came home from school.  They ran to the roof to meet the foreigner that their grandfather had brought home for lunch.  Such cute children, dressed in their school uniforms.  All running to hug their grandfather.  They were full of questions for me and we ended up spending a bit longer at lunch to have a question and answer session on the roof.

Before we left Anand took me to the edge of the roof and pointed out a building right next door to his home.  Then he made the most awesome offer.  He said “This building is empty and if you want to live there I will furnish it for you.”  A generous offer from such a kind man.

These are the reasons I love India so much.  The warmth and emotional nature of the people draws me back there year after year.  I can’t imagine finding greater people anywhere on this Earth.ImageImage

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My Discovery of Khajuraho

India never fails to surprise me.  Nothing has surprised me more than the carvings on the temples of Khajuraho.  Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised.  After all, India is the land of the Kama Sutra.  Still, finding sexual images carved into the temples in Khajuraho, was a shock.  These weren’t just couples either.  The pictures depicted group sex, homosexual sex and beastiality too.  Just looking at those images embarrassed me…hahaha. Here’s a video that I found on YouTube.  You’ll see what I’m talking about! http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=1C_dnoOvgNg (The tabla drum playing you hear on this video must be the world famous Zakir Hussein.  I have never heard anyone else play the tablas like that.  He’s the master of tablas.) My guide around the temples was a man named Anand.  He looked to be more than 50 yrs old. Maybe he wasn’t an Indian government guide, but he told me he had been working there since he was young.  Anand also surprised me.  I’ll tell you about that in another story.

He wasn’t what you would call professional looking but he knew the history quite well and he laughed at me when I put my hands over my eyes and screamed “What’s spiritual about this?”  I thoroughly enjoyed my day with Anand. I just couldn’t get over seeing erotic carvings like this on a temple.  Anand reminded me that sexual relations are a spiritual thing too.  I had to concede that he was right. I still think some of what I saw was perverse.  I hope you believe me when I say I am not normally a judgmental person, but that was tested in Khajuraho. These images were sculpted between 950-1150 AD and depict the tantric sexual practices of the people at that time.  They also depict everyday life of the farming areas where they are located and bosomy ladies frolicking around the house. Be sure not to miss the show that is given every night on the temple grounds.  It helps explain the history and philosophy behind the temples and the sculptures. Tantric sex was practiced by followers of Shiva and concentrates on the Shakti or the chakra devoted to sexual energy.  Even today tantric yoga, or kundalini yoga, is quite popular in India and all over the globe.  Several yogis have set up ashrams in and around Khajuraho to teach these techniques.  The Indians I met there said to be wary of these yogis because they can sometimes be quite promiscuous. I’m glad I heard their warning. I met one of these swamis online and I went by his ashram to meet him in person.  We had a wonderful meditation.  He really is an excellent teacher.  Even though we had a “friendship only” relationship it was all I could do to thwart his advances.  He was firmly convinced that I was the “female energy” he had been waiting for. (Smile) On the second day I was in Khajuraho, my swami friend Sunish showed up at my door with a saffron robe he had made for me.  He wanted me to be a part of his ashram and help him with his work.  He was quite serious about getting me involved but I declined his offer.  He has since married and hopefully he found the energy he needed to continue with his amazing work.

Traveling Alone in India? Safety & Security Concerns

I’ve gotten so many nice responses from my readers.  A lot of them are telling me they can’t wait to go to India.  That’s wonderful!  I hope my writing turns a lot of people on to the beauty and magic of India.

I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to caution you as well.  There are bad people wherever you go.  That is also true for India.

There are a lot of rapes in India.  It has the dubious honor of ranking third in the world in rape cases, and most go unreported!  These attacks are not just on females walking alone.  In several of the cases the female was accompanied by a male companion that was helpless to stop the assault.

On my first trip I was so excited about being there.  After I had my dinner in the hotel I put on my jacket to take a walk.  I headed for the door to step out into the dark Delhi streets.  Thank goodness a kind Punjabi doorman stopped me and said with a smile “Where do you think you’re going?”  I told him I was going for a walk and he said “You’ll have to reserve that for the morning.  It is not safe for you to go out alone at night.”  I’m glad he did that because it made me extra cautious the rest of the trip.

It’s so easy to find yourself in a compromising position.  I was having some new salwar kameez suits made in Amritsar and they called to say they were sending the tailor with the suits to my friend’s house.  He arrived and wanted me to try them on, to make sure they fit properly.

I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror looking at the suit when he slid his hand down the front of my dress!  I pushed him away and started yelling “What gives you the right to do that to me?” I started flogging him.  Hitting him over and over.  He ran for the stairs and as he descended them I am sure he fell and skinned his leg, but he got up anyhow and ran away.  My friends were in another room and heard the commotion and when I told them we all had a good laugh.  But the point is, that incident could’ve turned into something else and then it would not have been a laughing matter.

On another journey in the fog I was driven by a man who was obviously an alcoholic.  When it passed his normal whiskey time (7PM) he began trembling like a leaf, going into withdrawal I think.  He wanted a drink badly and I finally agreed to let him stop for the night after a car full of young men passed us in that dense fog and were shouting when they saw me in the back seat.  I was afraid we might run into these guys again and my driver would’ve been no help to me at all.

When you arrive the money changers will try to lure you away from the terminal to exchange rupees for your currency.  They take you to dark out of the way areas.  It’s always better to change your money at the hotels, even if it costs you a small fraction more.

I went to the ATM at Citibank in Delhi one year to get the equivalent of $300 in rupees.  I entered 15,000 rupees and out came several stacks of stapled together bills.  I had forgotten to bring a big purse or bag with me to the bank.  I wound up carrying that money for several blocks. That could’ve been a bad mistake.

Even on my last trip, when I thought I had heard every scam there was, they managed to get me again.  I was headed to the train station for a 7am train.  Two men approached the auto rickshaw I was in and asked if I had a ticket.  I said yes.  Then they said “Is it stamped?”  I said what do you mean?  “Only stamped tickets are honored on the train. You must go to a train office to get it stamped.”  I had never heard of such a thing!  I was in a rush because the train was boarding so I said “Take me there. But do it quickly.”  They took me a long way from the train terminal to a local travel agency.  Many foreign tourists were there.  Some of them couldn’t speak English.  I woke up my friend Vinay (from Visit Beyond) and put him on the phone with them.  He demanded they take me back to the train station.  Just another example of Vinay saving the day for me!

Overnight travel on trains is also something you have to be prepared for.  If you plan to sleep (I have never been able to) you should bring a chain to chain your suitcase to your berth.  If you’re traveling with money I suggest you hide it or sleep with it.  Robbers have been known to board trains, rob the passengers and jump off at the next stop, even though the Police patrol the train cars all through the evening with rifles slung over their shoulders.

On another visit it was the Police that frightened me.  I had solicited one of my friends to drive me through Rajasthan.  We were having a fun trip, stopping at almost every tea house we passed for a tea in their garden.  I wanted to go to the Pushkar Camel Festival, so we headed out that way.  The Police had set up roadblocks to search cars going into the festival.  I was happy to see that they were doing a security check on every car that was headed that way.  We got though the first check and were surprised to find another roadblock just a few kilometers from the first one.  Again we got out of the car, opened the trunk and all of the luggage.  They were quizzing me about being with an Indian national.  How did I know him, etc.  Finally they seemed satisfied, we got into the car to pull away and they had flattened one of our tires!  My friend changed the tire with rifles pointed at him.  I was very uncomfortable with the gaze of the other policemen there.  We finally were able to proceed.  I was so relieved.  That’s the first time, I believe, that I have ever seen discrimination first hand.  My friend just happened to have a muslim surname and I am sure that is why the car was inspected twice and we had our tire flattened.

When it comes to your personal security it is mostly up to yourself so please, always be vigilant. Many policies have been put in place to protect tourists.  In the larger cities most hotels will not allow Indian nationals to go to a tourist’s room.  They also have a policy of asking where you just came from and where you are going next when they check you into a hotel.  That’s one way they have of tracking tourists in India.

A few times during my visits I have gotten calls from the US State Department in my hotel room.  They would caution me against going one place or another, so it seems the check in procedures are linked to the country of origin.  The first time I got one of these calls I was surprised that my government was taking such good care of me.  It is a comfort knowing that they track such things.

For those of you that travel in groups or tours security is safety in numbers.  But for those of us that travel alone, don’t use hotels much  and make our own plans, sometimes changing them at a whim, security is something we always have to be aware of.  You might want to have a whistle on a string around your neck, or maybe a pepper spray with you.  The Indian emergency number is 100.  That will connect you to the Police.

Please don’t let any of this scare you away from experiencing India.  It is a wonderful place and for those of you that are spiritually inclined there’s hardly a better place to take a journey.

Meeting Davinder

I walked through the water trough with my bare feet and made my way through the crowds to the top of the marble staircase leading into the Golden Temple.  I took a long moment to take in the site from that vantage point.  A beautiful golden temple sitting in the middle of a lake, called a sarovar.  The access to the temple was a wide causeway which extends into the lake, which is always crowded with worshippers.

Only in India have I seen thousands of people filing into temples every day to worship God. When I see these multitudes the words “blessed are the devoted” always come to my mind.  It makes me so happy to see such a wonderful sight.

The first time I viewed the Golden Temple from the top of those stairs, I got goose bumps which ran from my head all the way to my feet. I feel this energy every time I visit this place, that’s why I am sure that this is one of the holiest places on Earth.

On my first visit I made my way down the stairs and selected a quiet spot by the water where I could sit in meditation.  After a while my right leg started cramping and I stretched it out to get some relief.

Almost immediately I got a peck on my shoulder and someone whispered “Please re-tuck your leg.  Your foot should not face the temple.” I was extremely apologetic and worried that I had offended others, but with a big smile he reassured me that all was fine.

We began to talk and he offered to show me parts of the temple grounds that most tourists don’t get to see.  We went into the kitchen, where they prepare a free meal (langar) for 100,000 visitors every day. We saw the areas were people are allowed to sleep on blankets through the evening.  We went into the meditation room that was devoted to an Islamic woman that had converted to Sikhism.  Many people were quietly sitting there in meditation, away from the massive crowds that were outdoors.

Davinder Singh Chawla was the best friend and guide I could’ve ever found to show me these things.  On subsequent trips he has continued to show me his Amritsar.  We have taken a stroll through the narrow streets, sampling Punjabi treats at the food stalls.  He’s taken me to the tailors place to get some new Punjabi suits made.  I wanted to buy a gold Khanda (the symbol of the Sikhs) and Davinder helped me find a jeweler for that.  He’s even invited me to join his family in their Lohri celebrations, a harvest festival in mid-January.  One year I changed my plans and wanted to be in Amritsar for New Years.  All the hotels were full, the Golden Temple housing was also full, but Davinder reached out to his large network of friends and was able to find a comfortable room for me, right beside the temple grounds!  He’s been an invaluable friend  to me and one I will cherish forever.

He’s also taken me to other area gurudwaras, including the Gurudwara Shaheed Baba Deep Singh ji, where Baba Deep Singh is remembered for his bravery fighting the Moguls that had infiltrated the area.  Baba Deep Singh’s head was severed in the process, and even though his head was still barely attached, he supported it with his left hand and continued to swing his sword with his right hand.  The Sikhs are known for their bravery, but this story stands out as miraculous!!  The visit to this gurudwara is something I will never forget.

Davinder now works for the Indian government as a guide on the Amritsar Heritage Walk.  It’s the perfect job for him!  I highly recommend that you take the time to meet my friend Davinder and enjoy a leisurely, entertaining and informative walk through the narrow streets and alleyways of Amritsar. You can find more info at   http://travel.ukpha.org/sites/heritage-walk-through-amritsars-old-city.

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The Mango Farm

On my very first visit to India I had been introduced by a Punjabi doctor in Texas to a Sikh family in Chandigarh.  We have since become great friends.  I love them dearly.

When I arrived at their home I got a very warm welcome.  They accepted me into the household and before long I was part of the extended family! The family included a father and mother, their three grown daughters, one son-in-law, an uncle, and a young grandson.

I’ve had a lot of fun with this family throughout the years. One night I remember Uncle Dassa suggesting we go see the mango farm.  It was way after dark but we went anyway.  Dassa hooked a trailer to his tractor and we all piled into the trailer.  This was the first time I had been to the mango farm and due to the mode of transportation I assumed it was right around the corner.  Was I ever wrong!  We traveled about 15 miles, or at least it seemed that far in the cold night breeze.

As the tractor pulled into the mango farm at midnight I could see someone lighting a fire.  The family that lived there and took care of the place was woken up the sound of our tractor.

The woman at the farm lit the fire and began cooking roti on an open fire pit.  We enjoyed our visit there and arrived back home after 2 am.

The next morning Dassa asked if I liked their mango farm and I said “I didn’t see one mango tree.  Why did you take me there in the dark?”  He laughed and said so you would have to go back in the daylight…lol.

I may not have seen a mango tree that night, but I sure had a lot of fun!  These Punjabi people are the most happy-go-lucky people I have ever met.  They’re always laughing, singing, and dancing the bhangra!

I remember once, when I was leaving, and the cab was waiting for me.  My friend Harpreet turned on the music and said “Let him wait.  Let’s have one more bhangra!”  I laughed and started dancing my way out the door!

Meeting Suresh’s Guruji

Before I left Friends Colony in Haryana we were served a delicious meal by Suresh’s wife at their new home.  Suresh told me his story.  He started out as a milkman, transporting and selling milk on a motorbike.  He saved every rupee he could so that he could fulfill his dream of providing a school for his children and the other village children.  It was an amazing feat to come this far, from a mere milkman, and he was extremely proud of his lovely wife, two daughters, the school and his new home.

After dinner it was time to visit the temple. The temple was a beautiful small building.  The colors reminded me of the terra cotta buildings in our American southwest.  We removed our shoes and entered.

Sitting in meditation, in the back of the room, was their village guru.  It was dark inside so my vision of him wasn’t great.  I could see him sitting in a lotus position and it appeared that he had a turban on his head.  I was afraid we were disturbing his evening meditation but he said to please come in.  He spoke English quite well.  He turned out to be a very friendly guruji and we had a short talk about spiritual matters.

Sureshs Guru

Sureshs Guru

I realized when I moved closer to him that the turban was a large mound of hair braids rolled around his head.  I commented on it and he began unrolling it.  His hair fell all around him.  He had never cut it.  While we were talking he asked if I smoked.  I thought that was an odd question to ask in a temple so I said no.

We had a prayer together and he got up to walk out with us.  He wanted me to meet his dog, a beautiful Siberian husky, that he obviously loved a great deal.  He asked us to come back some day and wished us a safe journey back to Chandigarh.  As we walked away Suresh told me that Guruji had wanted to smoke pot with me. That might have been an interesting experience. Smiles.

Suresh and the Friends Colony School

One day I was paddling my paddle boat around Sukhna Lake in Chandigarh and I saw another boat coming toward me at breakneck speed!  It pulled up alongside me and the occupants introduced themselves as Suresh and his young teenage daughter Pinky.

They were from a farming area in Haryana and Suresh said he had brought his daughter to visit this lake specifically to meet a foreigner!  I seemed to be the chosen one, since I suppose I stood out with my blonde hair.  Pinky had never met anyone from outside India.

We ended our boat ride and spent time talking on the water’s edge.  They wanted me to come to their village and visit the village school that Suresh had created to educate the farm children from the surrounding villages.  He had built this school himself and it now had over 600 students!  He seemed quite proud of the school and said that most of the students were like Pinky.  They had never seen a foreigner up close.

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Unfortunately I was on my last day in Chandigarh and had train tickets back to Delhi the next morning.  I took their phone number and promised to call if I got back here in the future.  The next day I boarded the train to journey back to Delhi.

As I was traveling away from Chandigarh a great sense of regret came over me.  I was letting Suresh down and possibly disappointing 600 children!  Suresh had told me he was going to announce to the kids at the school that I’d be visiting them, even though I told him it might not be possible.

By the time I reached Delhi I had changed my mind and went straight to the ticket office and booked a trip back to Chandigarh the next morning.  There are just some things that I can’t do, and one of them is to disappoint a child.  In this case there were over 600 of them!

I called Suresh from Delhi and got directions.  When I arrived in Chandigarh I went to the market to get candies for all the kids.  I ran into an old friend there and he asked if he could join me.  Surender Singh was a Sikh gentleman in his 70s who I had met and talked to on previous visits.  He was an award winning guide in Chandigarh and he wanted to experience the Haryana school as well.  I thought I might need a translator anyway so I welcomed him to join me. I arranged for a cab to take us, after getting the key towns we should pass through from Suresh.

We started out on our almost 3 hour journey into Haryana state.  It was a lovely drive past farm fields and small towns. Luckily we got to Ambala about lunchtime and Surender suggested that we  visit a very old gurudwara (sikh temple) for the lunchtime langar (a meal served to the community).  I covered my head and entered the temple to have some lunch.  The local people were happy to have visitors and I made a lot of friends during that hour.

Langar

Back on the road we began looking for the 25 foot high Hanuman statue on the side of the road.  This is where we were told to stop and call Suresh.  He met us and led us on dirt farm roads into the sugarcane fields.  We came upon a small village and just beyond that we found the Friend’s Colony School.

I never felt like a celebrity until that day. The children mobbed me!  I was surrounded by 600 children.  All of them were trying to get close enough to touch me.

Haryana Schoolyard

Suresh ordered them all back to their classrooms.  The school was built around a courtyard.  All of the classrooms were open to the courtyard.  I began making my rounds, starting with the small children in the 1st grade and as I advanced around the courtyard the children became increasingly taller.  Every class had questions for me, which were translated by Suresh.  Few of these children could speak English.  Several of them asked Suresh to tell me that the next time I visit they will speak to me in English!  Just my presence was somehow a great encouragement for them to learn the language.

We had some tea with Suresh and he told us he had arranged a show for us.  The children were going to dress in their cultural dress and do some folk dancing for us.  We all went to the roof of one of the buildings and the children put on a lovely impromptu show for us.

It was getting late in the day so we had to start back.  Suresh asked us to please visit his village temple first, to meet his guru.  That will be another story…..