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  • Writer's pictureEvelyn Roberts

Trains Across India

January, 2015

India bound, in between worlds and again reminded of how liberated, generous and welcoming is the one world I am fortunate enough to live in.

Mumbai: stinging pollution, the enigmatic head wobbles, great food, cricket-mania, chai strong enough to make your hair stand on end, and that deep and ancient intensity only found in this complex and fascinating land.

Quickly escaped pounding Mumbai and now happily ensconced in my favourite room at Bhakti Kutir (#2), South Goa. It's absolute hut heaven, and giving me lots of ideas for the next phase of Bali building. Also, it's heart warming to be reunited with all the lovely staff here, and already have an appointment with Hanuman, best tailor in Asia. New wardrobe ‘a coming.

I had forgotten how much I loved this place, (perhaps that’s just what happens when you put a (slightly) worrying business head on). Had the most glorious dawn walk along the beach, people watching of the best kind, and the distinct sense of being in a place steeped in simplicity and unconditional good intentions. I know that sounds, (and is), pollyanna-ish, but I don’t care. I love my life, and I plan on holding onto that feeling until my very last breath.

Interesting logic: being told you really don't need a motorcycle helmet unless you are going more than 20 kms from your hotel.

It's 2 whole years since I've been here, but still everybody I met before remembers me, (even in little shops), and is so warm and welcoming, and pleased that I've come back. Such inspiring mindfulness to remember someone that way, with the highest value placed on loyalty.

It's heart warming to the nth degree.

Next trip already planned.

Having mani/pedi/eyebrow threading in a tiny local beauty shop down an alley in this little Indian town; Chaudi. The girls are all like butterflies; dressed in emerald greens, brightest pinks, orange and electric blues; with tinkling ankle bracelets, toe-rings, and gold and diamond pins in their noses and ears, thick sleek black hair, braided and hanging below their waists.

So, so beautiful.

It got me musing on one of the last places like this I visited, in Quito, Ecuador, run by young illegal immigrants from the Dominican Republic, (yes, poor countries have people from even poorer neighbouring countries looking for a better life across their borders too). There the girls were all working while singing out loud and swaying to the rhythm of blaring (fabulous) reggae, and their fashion choice was all black and leather, (most of it the faux type that had never seen a living animal), short, big, wild-ish hair, and scarlet lipstick.

A kind of Caribbean Goth to Indian Exotic, with the things they have perfectly in common being warmth, kindness, talent, and meticulous pride in what they do. I can't think of a better place than these humble little goddess temples for meeting with the women of different lands. That common thread of playing homage to Venus being one of the things that connect women across the entire planet.

And if I do say so myself, I currently have very pretty feet and hands, and rather exquisite eyebrow arches.

In my much visited Kashmiri shop, couldn't decide between a darker maroon or scarlet cardigan. Then the salesman put it perfectly, the red one will always be alone, but the darker red will be a companion for your other clothes. And reddest red has always been my favourite colour.

Obviously I love Bali, and therefore Indonesia... but 6 executions today? As so many people remind me when I'm traveling, (by example as much as by words), the government is not the people.

Workshop about to start; astrology and past life regression. Great group of people in a divine location; in India perched on a hill, looking down over the Arabian Sea.

Gotta love it when the reality is even better than the dream. Amazement as normal.

My favourite tree, a 200-300 year old frangipani, full of blossoms and spectator to more than we can imagine.

Intrigued by the question of when the Indians started to wear the vivid bright colours they are known for, our guide answered me that until Independence poor people could not afford any dyes, so only the wealthy wore any colour at all. It's really hard to imagine the population of India not looking like a flock of butterflies.

Our beautiful friend, Jeff Jawer, is preparing to leave this earth plane. No words can express how much we will miss him, and how much he has given us.

Sorrow at losing you. Love, joy and gratitude for all you were, and will never cease to be.

RIP, Dearest Friend.

Death is not extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.

― Rabindranath Tagore

Indian rail tickets in hand; 4,500 kms, 7 stops, 16 days, leaving Saturday. Scouting for the 1st Heaven and Earth India Tour begins.

The cheekiest crow in India just decided he'd swoop down and have my samosa for lunch. Then after that success, he thought he'd just fly back in and snag the chocolate as well. He obviously hadn't a clue about the dynamic between human women and their chocolate. Completely unacceptable.

Dawn train into Mumbai, through endless slums and humanity at its rawest. Good-bye, sweet Goa, hello, real India.

Next, the midnight train to Jaipur.

I have been silenced. I have had laryngitis for the past 24 hours, which I take as a sign to lay low in my lovely Jaipur hotel, which joy upon joy has a bath-tub. I practically did a jig when I saw it. Apart from only being able to croak, I am absolutely fine, and cleaner than a whistle after the past month + of only bucket showers. Long hot baths, (or hot tub soaks), are things that always make me very happy.

Had a wonderful journey from Mumbai to get here. I was a bit concerned as it was the first time I've ever travelled 1st class on an Indian train, but it was the only ticket I could get. Train travel is where you really get to meet people, and why I usually travel 2nd, (in 3rd you can find yourself battling far too hard to hold onto your 2 inches of space while keeping one eye on your luggage, to feel like talking to anyone), but I (wrongly) assumed 1st might be deathly dull in comparison.

Very pleasant surprise, it wasn't at all.

I shared a compartment with a Jain gentleman, and a Hindu one, and we talked almost the whole way, (when not sleeping), and as always the insights, political and cultural info, and different perspectives I was privy too, were priceless.

However, it could be that I offered a few too many of my own thoughts and opinions and hence wiped out my entire voice. For sure it will be back.

Jaipur is a visually beautiful city, and the observatory there fascinating and rife with astrological references, (it being the heart of astronomical research). All of the city is breathtakingly colourful, but to the point of being overwhelmingly so, I had to put away my camera and just be there, or else I would become like a spinning top trying to catch everything.

A bit of a bitchy moment: but I have never, ever seen a western woman able to pull off wearing a sari, and just now saw another of us, desperately trying, while half stumbling and wrestling with the bit that gets slung over the shoulder. Let's give it up, we have a lot of fashion talents but we don't have whatever it is that lets Indian women move through every activity, from the most back-breaking construction work on up to the most dignified pursuits, all whilst gliding like petals on the breeze.

Sitting on a bus to Agra, on the decidedly down side of this "semi-deluxe" bus. People watching, super-deluxe, makes up for all.

Now in Agra, and I can see the dome of the Taj Mahal from my hotel. Strong warnings from the hotel not to leave shoes outside the room, or else the monkeys will have them. These are huge and muscular, (they look more like gibbons to me), not like the wispier, shy ones in Goa. So I shall do as I'm told, and avoid any potential un-winable wrestling matches, (as if I could catch one of them anyway).

The early bird gets to sit outside the Taj Mahal in the pitch black listening to the call to prayer coming from all directions with a gorgeous sliver of moon dangling over the immense gates like a cosmic carrot.

The Taj Mahal: inspired by a magnificent love story, but just as steeped in tales of cruelty, bloodshed and greed.

Another night train, this one is running a couple of hours late, (for now), so I have staked out my little area on the platform floor. This is one of the reasons I travel around India looking somewhat raggedy, (so It doesn't matter a hoot if I have to camp out on the ground for a few hours), all travel clothes will be binned on my way out the country.

Next stop Varanasi.

2:32 am, in an open carriage of 3 tier sleepers listening to a veritable symphony of snoring. Zero chance of sleep, so perhaps I'll try conducting them, just to entertain myself.

Just when you thought you’d hit the intensity ceiling, you find yourself in the holiest, nuttiest place imaginable. Add to the mix being picked up from your very late train by a crimson toothed, sweaty palmed tuktuk driver, so high on betel nut that he is trying to make the vehicle levitate simply through applying pressure to the horn. He drove so fast, not one single vehicle succeeded in passing us, and we were on split lane road at one point when he realised there was a traffic jam ahead, so he just wheeled the thing around and fearlessly wove the thing back through all the oncoming traffic, until he found some unpaved, mud road, shortcut. Then the thing ran out of petrol, (I was slightly relieved to be stationary for a minute), but he implored me me not to move and ran off to soon reappear sprinting down the road with a water bottle full of the stuff, so off we careened again.

Arrived in one piece at Hotel Ganesha, having had to choose between a room without a window and another which someone must have just chain-smoked 100 cigarettes in. I chose the smoky one, I need to know when the sun rises and sets. 1st stop, incense shopping.

Interesting place to have landed for this most fascinating new moon.

Looking for Moon.

The 1st time I came to Varanasi was 1992. For my 40th birthday I took myself on a “Buddhist Journey"; to Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace on the border of Nepal, Sarnath, the deer park near Varanasi where he did his 1st teaching, and Bodhgaya, where he reached enlightenment under the sacred bodhi tree.

On that trip to Varanasi I met a boatman named Moon, a tender, lovely soul, born there, completely connected to the Ganges, in fact he had never in his life travelled more than about a half a mile away from it. He was very poor, except for when he was out on the Ganges in his boat, when he would morph into a whole other wise and happy, unburdened being. He became like one with that holy river. He could even remember where people had thrown offerings and go back later to retrieve them. He took me to his home, where he, his wife and 6 daughters lived in one tiny room with no facilities, just one tap shared by about 10 other families. He obviously had great pride in his family, but not having a son in the Hindu culture is a tragedy, and having so many daughters an extreme liability, (of course much more could be said on this). His English was very good, and we were able to talk about many things, and I spent a lot of time with him. We became friends to the degree that I was able to ask him about contraception. He had never even heard of such a thing.

Then he took me to meet his mother; when his father died she decided she wanted to be independent, so she moved to a cardboard box on the Ghats, right next to the Ganges. They would bring her food and watch over her, but this is where she wanted to be. She was bright and beaming, very warm and welcoming towards me, and completely happy and content with her “home”.

Once when out on the river with Moon I saw several small dolphins arcing, and I was stunned and thought I was hallucinating. No, I wasn’t, apparently there are dolphins in the Ganges, but it is very rare to see them.

Forward 2 years to 1994 and I returned to India with my love, Lou Netzer. Our main destination was Dharmsala, where we stayed with the Dalai Lama’s brother, and Lou, (a doctor himself), spent time with DL's physician, but we also managed a side trip back to Varanasi.

And there again was the lovely Moon, and once more he took us out on the river and to his home. And this time there was a son, about a year old, and of course the joy and hope of everyones' lives. All the children were suffering from skin problems, and Lou was able to buy some ointments for them, and most importantly a large stock of soap, and to advise them on hygiene. The whole family, of course, bathed in the Ganges, and a more polluted river it would be hard to find. It does look as though things are changing now, and there are even garbage bins along the river, although I’m not so sure they don’t just empty them right into the river.

So today, 21 years later, I am going back to the same spot where I first met him, to see if I can find Moon again.

I had no idea if I would find him or his family, life expectancy is not high for those so poor, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to find my way back to their home through the honeycomb maze of tiny alleys.

I found him, and what a heart-breaking, warming, and every other emotional colour, day that was.

I went to the spot where I first met him and asked another boatman if he knew him, he pointed directly behind me and there he was, high up on the steps. As I got close to him I could see he was very sick, he had a large growth on his mouth, and was painfully thin.

It turns out he had cancer of the mouth, 15 years ago, and had extensive surgery, then he decided that was enough, stopped treatment, and is living okay with that decision. The son I saw died, and also 2 of his daughters, then he had one more daughter and another son who is now 15. His mother died just 5 months ago, aged 100. For some reason since she has been gone all the strength has drained out of his body, so he cannot row any more, and he has a lot of physical illnesses. However, he says he still has his true mother, the Ganges.

He himself was born during the monsoon of 1948, and that's as close as he can come to having a birth date.

His friend took us out on the river, and I made plans to see him again the next day to go and see his wife and the one daughter still at home, all the others being married.

I also went and sat at the burning ghats for a couple of hours; that timeless, ageless medieval place where life and death are so raw.

As the Hindus here believe, we are one people with one god who has many different faces and names. I myself find the the most staggering fact of all to be the immense difference in the worlds we inhabit right here on this one tiny planet.

Would Madam like a photo with cobra?

Cobra in basket suddenly 3 inches from face.

A young American dressed as a sadhu, in full orange gear, leaping around the holiest ghats of India with a selfie stick taking pictures of himself every 2 minutes. I once thought I wanted one of those things. Not any more.

Now in Bodhgaya, Bihar, where Prince Siddhartha attained enlightenment beneath the bodhi tree, (the current tree being a seedling from said tree), and became Buddha, about 2,600 years ago.

Deep breathing and trying to dispel wafts of disappointment, when I was here 23 years ago it was dirt roads, hardly a tourist, just ashrams of meditators, and I had the great privilege of wandering the area in quiet and solitude. It was also extreme poverty back then, and tourism has changed that, so it is certainly not for me to resent these endless souvenir touts and busloads of tourists.

Although the outside is very different, before entry there are 3 security check with metal detectors and full searches, (July 7th, 2013 Muslim extremists set off 10 bombs in and around the main temple), but inside the complex is as exquisite as ever.

Gentle, kind Buddhism, all the tour buses and commercialism in the world can’t ever detract from this most sacred place of devotion.

A leaf from the Bodhi tree fell right at my feet, and is my new most precious possession… in the most non-attached way I can muster, of course.

Finally on my last Indian train, (for a while), the Howrah Express, which was 4 1/2 hours late already. Another 30 hours and 1,750 kms should sate the train travel bug for a while.

Next stop Mumbai, then Manchester and my favourite place in the UK, Shrewsbury.

For 2,500 years, India has never invaded anybody.

- A. P. J. Abdul Kalam


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