Friday, March 29, 2013

Lemon Palooza

"How do you keep your lemons from freezing?"  And your limes?  Bob asked one evening as we were  sitting in the garden drinking wine.

"I don't," I told him.  He was shocked.  Conventional wisdom dictates you must protect your citrus form frost.  And in case you have any doubts, the barrage of ads as winter closes in, for frost-protecting sprays and cloths and other miracles will convince you..but not me.  Stubborn that way.

I have lived a long time, gardened longer, learned a bit.  Some of the wisdom is hard-earned, most is passed down from older and wiser gardeners.  Not hardier, just older and wiser.

"If they are going to break my heart I'd rather know it now."  I said about my lemons and limes.  And kumquats and blood oranges.  "There will be a time when I'll be too old to drape them with Ree-may or put Christmas lights on them, and they will freeze.  So I'd rather they leave me broken-hearted now, and if they die I will plant something else, something hardier* in their place."

I do make an exception for the Kaffir lime on the front porch in a fancy pot - it smells divine, and I knew it was too tender for here when I bought it.  So it is draped with twinkle lights, the tiny Christmas lights that keep it just enough warmer, the margin between survival and heartbreak.  The lights are on a timer, on at dusk when the air grows cold, off at dawn when the gardener is up and watchful.  I hope.  If she's home and has had some strong tea.  No guarantees, for winter mornings are dark and cold, and winter comforters are warm and snuggly.

But then that's the lesson of gardening, right?  No guarantees.  Even if you cheat (use ree-may, rig the elections) the results still may not be as you expected.  And the long-term?  Brace yourself.  You're in for a rough ride.

So I will not drape my citrus.  I will not cheat.  And I look forward to the future with a calm and happy heart.  My garden will be what it will be, and I am happy with who I am.

Can you say the same?

*Note: Hardier refers only to the plant's ability to stand the cold - not its ability to stand up to drought or your neglect or poor watering practices.  So many people refer to plants as hardy when they can take abuse - drought, heat, crappy soil, mis-aligned or stingily applied irrigation.  So very many people get this one wrong...but not you!  Not any more...

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Bird Brain

We have a pair of Nuttall's woodpeckers in our garden - I think they must be nesting, for they take care of each other - while one is feeding, the other sits on the eaves or in the big oak tree, just above its mate, keeping watch.  Got your back.  Then they trade places.

They are skittish, swooping off if they catch sight of you, even if you're inside and behind a curtain.  I hung a suet feeder when the winter got bitter cold; the nyjer seed that keeps the finches fed didn't seem enough, and I'd read fat helps birds survive cold nights.  

The woodpeckers love it.  I had expected only finches, for those are the birds I see at the nyjer feeder.  I didn't know about all the other shy fellows I'd meet, birds who didn't go for the thistle feeder but swing on the suet cage.

I've been looking at photos of males and females, and I'm pretty sure our Nuttall's woodpeckers are both male.  Gay marriage is alive and well in our garden.  But that nesting thing...I think they might have to adopt.  Or find a surrogate.

There are Titmice at the feeder too, mousey brownish-grey, with a crest like sticky-up hair.  They look like a little kid who just got out of bed.  On a Sunday morning.

And plump brown and white Chickadees, the Winston Churchills of the bird world.  They are fearless -  I swear I could take the feeder down to refill it and they wouldn't budge.

Skittish little bushtits, always on the move.  Ian's favorite bird...

Years ago my friend went bird watching with some very hoity toity birders in Connecticut.  There was a very rare bird (of course, why else would the hoity toitys bestir themselves?) that had not been seen in the area for over fifty years. They had to walk - to hear Des tell it, it seemed like several days' forced march.  Then they all had to creep along on their hands and knees to the edge of the clearing where this rare bird was supposed to be.

After all this activity she was feeling a bit parched, so she reached very carefully into her backpack and pulled out a Tab (remember Tab?  Before Diet Coke?) and popped the top.  Whoosh - rare birds gone.  The man who was leading the trip, a complete East Coaster who thought you were beneath notice if you were not of Mayflower stock, turned purple and began jumping up and down and yelling.  If there had been any other specimens of this rare bird hanging around, they were gone now.

My friend said "What's the big deal?  It's just a bird - it'll be back."  And probably something along the lines of "Sheesh! Don't get your knickers in a twist!"

Sensible advice.  Not well received.

"Just a bird!"  Followed by some serious sputtering.  "It'll be back?!?"  More sputtering  "Not in my lifetime, you twit!"

I give her great credit for not saying "Well, if you keep carrying on like this you'll probably give yourself a stroke, so no, not in your lifetime.  Unless you calm down."

I don't think she's been bird watching since.  Maybe I can convince her to come for tea, sit in the back yard and see who comes to call.  No sputtering, I promise.   And no Tab. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

India in my rear view mirror

Somewhere between Delhi and Munich, I caught a cold.  The stabbed-in-the-throat, feels-like-I-burned my-tongue, nose slammed shut kind of cold.  And if you’ve flown Luftwaffe Airlines, you know how serious they are about security.  So I thought they might not let me back on the plane sick.  

No worries - being tall and blond, they thought I lived there.  All they security people spoke to me in German, and I looked them in the eye and nodded gravely.  No smiles.   No english. Arms up for the pat down, no snuffling.  Made it home.  Just in time, for I hate being sick anywhere but my own bed.

Houston, We Have Contact:

We went to India with Abercrombie & KentTreasures of India, the trip is called.  

Absolutely first rate, from our wonderful guide Vivek Anand who shepherded us through three weeks of airports and security lines, temples and transfers, and never lost his sense of humor.  Our most ridiculous demands never cracked his cool. He made sure we saw all the best things in India at the most beautiful, least crowded time of day.  He made us feel a part of this wonderful country (and remember me? I did not want to go to India).  He even (and this is above and beyond the call) managed to find time for sone shopping, and found us the best places, got us the best deals.  

And he has great jokes.  

The city guides were fantastic.  Especially Jai in Varanassi, Jasmine in Mumbai and the fabulous, hysterically funny Rekha in Delhi.

And oh those hotels! Check them out for yourself.  Because it’s good to be king...or Maharajah.

The Taj Majal Palace Mumbai.  Stay in the old Palace part, the new part is a modern tower.  You’ll need to retreat to the lap of luxury if you’re starting your trip in Mumbai. Especially if it's your first trip.  Best location in Mumbai; they got there first.

The Taj Lake Palace Udaipur.  Romantic white wedding cake of a hotel in the most magical place, smack in the middle of a lake. Get up early, watch the light move across the lake.  Stay up late, eat on the roof.  

The Taj Rambagh Palace Jaipur.   Goes on and on, each courtyard more beautiful than the last.  Don’t miss the ride thru the grounds in the 1937 Plymouth.  Priceless.

The Oberoi in Agra has a great pool and a spectacular site, with a view of the Taj Mahal out each guest room window, but the rooms pale next to the Taj Palace Hotels...but what wouldn't?  It’s modern, and the soundproofing leaves something to be desired.  Hope your neighbor doesn’t snore.  Or watch TV late.

The Taj Safai Lodge at Pashan Garh -  Best. Service. Ever.  Exquisite luxury and complete privacy in the middle of the teak forest.  And you’re gonna need some fresh air and sunshine in the middle of your trip: India can be a sensory assault.  Restorative, relaxing and exciting (did I mention the leopards? and the monkeys? and the fabulous staff?)

There are no great hotels in Varanassi yet...the Taj there is a business hotel.  

The Taj Palace Hotel New Delhi.  By now you’re spoiled rotten, used to being treated like a maharajah (or Maharani if you’re a girl) and this is a modern hotel, not a former palace.  But it’s still lovely. It has a bit of that big city bustle, lots of comings and goings.  But what did you expect in a city of 15 million?

Last words:  Go.  Now.    

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Delhi: From Snake Charmers to Call Centers... one generation.  Actually the only snake charmer we saw was in Varanassi.  On a really narrow street.  Lots of squealing and hugging the opposite wall as we went by.

New Delhi is a shock - wide straight streets, landscaped medians and flowery round-abouts.  Grassy parks and tree-lined boulevards.  Neat, clean, spacious, an English dream of order courtesy of Edwin Lutyens, Gertrude Jekyll's design partner.  She invented what we know as the English garden; he invented New Delhi.  At least the new New Delhi.  No trash, no beggars, no one living on the street.

This has been the capitol off and on for five thousand years.  Between 1192 and 1947 it was built and destroyed 7 times, most recently by the British when they bulldozed what was here and rebuilt it as New Delhi.

There are 17 million people here.  A thousand more arrive every day.  The mind boggles.  Rekha, our fabulous city guide, ( in case you're going - she's the best!) tells us "When the British left, Delhi was deserted.  The people who have moved here since then are hard working, not squatting and watching life pass them by."  We can tell.

"India is a rich country inhabited by poor people," she says.  "There are 300 thousand people with not enough to eat, yet we throw food away.  So what we really have is a distribution problem."

She explains about the Babus, the mid-level government workers.  "They come to work at 11, just in time for their tea break.  After the tea break it is time for lunch, and after lunch, to relax from their stressful day, they play flash poker in the roundabouts.  After poker it is time to go home."  Sounds like mid-level government workers everywhere.

"And we have a rush hour every two hours - every two hours the workers are rushing home."

We drive through the posh neighborhoods, past embassies.  Rekha comments: "And on the left is the embassy of Pakistan, our wonderful neighbor.  And best friends.  Note the barbed wire."  Irony is universal.

"This is our Washington, D.C." Rekha explains.  And the buildings are magnificent.  As we drive past the Parliament buildings there are monkeys in the street, and hanging on the power poles. "Ah yes, Parliament.  Monkeys outside - monkeys inside."

We ask about getting a driver's license.  "They give you a license for one day," Rekha explains.  "And if you survive for a day, you get a proper license.  It's quite an efficient system."  No kidding.

"You may have heard about the many religions of India" she says.   "Actually we have only one religion, and that religion is Cricket.  Without that gentleman's sport, life would end."  We ask about cricket versus Pakistan, and she says "Ah, yes.  Our war games."

We ask about tourism - who comes to India?  She says "There is a huge business in medical tourism.  People come here for all kinds of surgeries, but especially face lifts.   When you go home, your friends will say 'My Dear, you look ten years younger!' and what better advertisement is there for India?"

Didn't get one.  Just in case you can't tell.

The Sunday paper is filled with matrimonial ads - 90% of marriages are still arranged.  We have pre-nups, they have horoscopes.  You have to consult an astrologer and check the horoscopes - no match, no marriage.  But if the families are determined, a little money changes hands, and suddenly the horoscopes match!   What a surprise.

Hindu weddings last at least four days, and on the final day, the groom rides in on a white horse.  Rekha says "The biggest surprise of your life comes in on a white horse decked with marigolds.  When he lifts his flower, it's either 'Yay' or 'Oh My God!'"

There is little divorce here, I suspect because expectations of marriage are different, not because your parents pick better than you do.  But suicide is a problem.  When a couple marries, the bride moves in with her husband's family, and not all in-laws are nice.  Even tho they picked her, sometimes she's treated like dirt.  The guy who's in charge of the crematorium (and the eternal flame that feeds it) in Varanassi is in jail because his daughter-in-law committed suicide, and he and his wife are accused of making her life hell.  And it's a no-bail offense.  Hope he left someone to feed that flame.

The Mughal emperors were muslim, and one of them tore down a Hindu temple and built the first mosque in Delhi.  He recycled some of the stone, so this mosque (long abandoned) is full of square columns decorated with Hindu figures.

There is a tall tower, a very long time ago it was the tallest thing around.  Before Dubai.  

The guy who built the first section died in battle.  His heir built sections two thru four...and died in battle.  Finally some brave guy built the last two sections...and died.

The tower leans, and for a while young couples whose families wouldn't let them marry would climb up and commit suicide by jumping off.  So they passed a rule:  only couples married at least 25 years could climb the tower.  The problem with that was one would push the other off.  So no climbing.

Thru the gates of the old city wall into Old Delhi and we are back in familiar territory.  The wiring is astounding...

...and apparently the cause of many fires.  As the streets are narrow and choked with traffic, the fire department rarely arrives in time.  But I get the impressions there's not much to lose here in Old Delhi.

Old Delhi is mostly Muslim, Rekha tells us, and as we drive thru the butchers' quarter, she points out the goat heads lined up for sale.  "Oh, and a special delicacy," she smiles, pauses:  "Goat liver with flies."  I think I just became a vegetarian.

The Friday mosque, built by Shah Jahan, he of Taj Majal fame.  20,000 people can worship at once.  We have to cover ourselves - they used to allow women in pants, just not shorts.  An Australian woman  in shorts got in an argument with the Mosque guardians, and she finally took the cover-up into the dressing room and came her undies.  Rekhaa says "Many more men come to worship here now, but now we all must cover up."

I don't think you'll be seeing this on the runways any time soon.

We talk about what we will eat when we get home.  Sylvia wants a salad, Lynn wants fresh fruit Greg wins with "I want a grease feast!"  Hamburger and fries.

Jeannie has a list of the best restaurants in Delhi; one is called Dum Pukht.  I want to go just for the matchbook.  And the menu, so I can frame it and hang it.

We have a fabulous last dinner at Varq, (pronounced work) in the Taj hotel.  Off to bed, off to home.  I was less than enthusiastic about coming; I'm so glad I did!

Friday, March 8, 2013

"And Now, Here Comes The Cracker"

Vivek has been telling us jokes as we go along, getting them on his Blackberry and trying to read them to us as he snorts with laughter.  Before the joke even gets funny, he starts laughing so hard he can’t speak, and we can’t help laughing too.  And just before the punch line he says, “And now here’s the cracker” and we laugh even harder.  

Besides Vivek's crackers, the thing that brings a smile to my face?  The people.  They are warm, happy, welcoming.  I didn't expect to love it here.  Or feel so comfortable.  Thank you Vivek - thank you India.

The God of Small Business

They line the roads, fill every nook and cranny of the city - the tiny shops, smaller than a one-car garage. In the poor rural areas they are built mostly of sticks and thatch, but some are made of brightly painted concrete.  In the cities they make use of whatever building happens to be there.  Most sell only one thing.  This one sells beans and grains...

...this one fried treats.  Fast food.  Smells yummy.

Many of the roadside shops have strings of brightly colored packets flapping ing the breeze.  At first I think India must be the world's largest consumer of condoms, until Vivek tells me they are packets of Pan, a digestive made of seeds and stuff that many Indians chew after a meal.  Whew.  

Lost in Translation

In India, every 80 kilometers there is a new language, a new culture.  Someone tells me India has 14 official languages.  Someone else says no, way more.  God knows I don’t speak any of the local languages.  But some of the translations are priceless:

Vivek adds a few of his own:

“Let me know if you feel pressure to buy (no! in India?!?) and I will show them the music they will understand.”  Okay.  Face the music, maybe?

“Don’t get mellowed down by their emotional blackmail”  Nope.  No mellowing down happening here.  

Next stop: Delhi, old and new.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Back To The Ghats

Up before dawn...way before dawn.  Yawn.  Jai warns us as we move toward the ghats:  “After our sunrise boat ride we are walking thru the alleys, and it will be dirty.  And you know, if an Indian says it is dirty, it is really dirty.”

“Is the Ganges dirty?” someone asks.
“No,” Jai answers.
Surprised looks all around.  What planet does he live on?  Jai smiles at our confusion.  “It is very dirty!”  Ha ha.

Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges will wash all your sins away.  I prefer confession and communion, it’s less likely to make you deathly ill.  The river is an open sewer, an industrial waste dump, a corpse disposal system, and a holy site.  

There are hundreds of bathers, and a flotilla of boats.  

A shrouded body bobs past our boat, and floats within a few feet of the bathers.   They look up briefly, then go back to bathing.

Jai explains:  “Hindus believe if you are cremated and your ashes put in the Ganges, the Mother River, you can escape the cycle of birth and death and re-birth.  Children and pregnant women are not cremated, their shrouds are weighted down with rocks and dumped in the river.  It's illegal, of course, but everyone still does it.

"If someone reports a body floating in the river to the police, who are notorious for being corrupt, the police are obligated to retrieve the body and do an autopsy.  So when a body is reported, the police give some money to the locals, and the locals push the body further downstream.  So you see, the police not only get bribes, they give them.  It is our form of equal opportunity.” 

A dolphin jumps, then jumps again.   Jai says it’s been six months since he’s seen a dolphin in the Ganges.  We wonder how they survive.

During the monsoon the water rises - a lot.  The palaces along the shore are monolithic, their bare lower face showing how high the water gets.

Wood is piled up by the cremation site, a sad reminder of the  losses that fuel the fires.

We climb out of our wooden boat and dive into the alleys.  Narrower and narrower, more and more filthy.  

Cow pies every few feet, not yet scooped up and stuck to a wall.  We joke that the monsoon is the street cleaning program in Varanassi.  It is.

Two men are standing in a shallow tile-lined indentation, facing the wall.  I hear water running and think it’s a fountain, they're getting water.  How charming.  It’s not.  A fountain.  Or charming.  

Jai yells “Holy cow!   Holy cow coming!”  I duck into a side street as a fast-moving cow comes toward us - the cow turns into the side street too.  Not wide enough for both of us.  I manage to duck behind a 6 inch metal pipe and press myself flat against a wall, saying a silent prayer it’s not a cow-pie drying wall (I’m in luck) and only one horn grazes me as the cow thuds by.  Now I know how a matador feels.  Scared.  And lucky.

Miniature shops line the streets, the floors covered with sleeping mats, men sitting cross-legged on the mats sipping tea from tiny clay cups and displaying their wares.  Streets narrow until there is barely room for two people to pass.  We twist and gawk our way thru the maze.  It's hard to take a photo, stopping causes a traffic jam.  Plus you're watching out for cow pies, so unless you're an amateur scatologist the scenery's the thing.

Jai says “you have to be a skillful driver in Varanassi.  The not very skillful ones?  We saw them in the fires last night.”   

We joke about the constant horn-blowing and delicate ladylike Ilien says, “Screw the brakes!   A car’s not broken until the horn gives out.”  We crack up.

Whose Sari Now?
After breakfast (and a thorough scrub-down) we go to a silk weaving factory.  Can you call a place with two 100 year old looms a factory?  No matter, they have 20,000 weavers working at their homes.

Over 400 colors...

...and because no woman wants to see her sari on another, she will inevitably whine  “Don’t you have any other colors?” and the silk man, being an Indian and therefore a natural-born salesman, leans down and whispers in her ear, “Well, madam, I do have a few very special colors that I’ve been saving for just the right discriminating customer...”

Spinning tales, spinning silk. 

A few pieces are woven, then embroidered with gold and silver thread, with precious gems stitched in.  Breathtaking.  And that's before you get to the prices.

Jai tells us “If you are a good Hindu, when you come back you will be born in America, have an Indian wife who will pamper you and cook Indian food, and your neighbors will be English.  But if you have been bad, you will be born in India, married to an American who cooks British food, and your neighbors will be Pakistani.”  Oh yeah, that unpleasantness over Kashmir.  And partition.  

I am beginning to get a feel for the complexities of the culture, the customs, the pecking order.  And the more I learn, the more I know how little I really understand.  This is a huge complicated interwoven country.  I think you have to be born here to understand your corner.  I don't think anyone understands all of it.  I'm barely beginning to understand the menu, and the regional foods.   But I'm loving the foods.  Off to look for something to eat.

Smoked, Choked and Broke

We leave the paradise that is Pashan Garh:

And land in the miasma that is Varanassi.  I'm surprised the plane can descend, the air seems solid.  The city smells of curry, charcoal and cow pies.

A city the size of Chicago (3.5 million people) cooks mostly on charcoal or, for the poorest, dried cow pies mixed with straw.  You see them drying everywhere, brown discs stuck on walls, still bearing the maker's handprint.  Hope she washes her hands before dinner. 

The air is flavored and hazy with burning cow dung, charcoal and incense.  We drive from the airport until the bus can go no further, the streets are too narrow and the traffic harrowing.

We pile into rickshaws...  

Vivek chose them.  Our guy has that ready-for-rehab look.  Or maybe that Too Late For Rehab.  I wouldn't have gotten in an elevator with him, but we trust Viv so we climb in.

The rickshaws are not built for the American body - we call it the Three Cheek Seat.  As we are in pairs, the seat's one cheek short.  You have to hang partly off the seat, brace one foot against the twisted metal seat support, and hang on for dear life.  We all end up slightly bruised.

As we head for the ghats we think the traffic is bad. We are so naive.  We have no idea what really bad traffic is...yet.

The Ganges looks like 30 weight oil that's gone way too long between changes, and all 3.5 million people must be here on the riverbank.  People are waving fire around, bells and gongs are slanging, everyone with a horn is blowing it - the priests have conch shell horns, the cars have loud ones.  The cacophony is numbing. 

We pile into boats - the water is paved with people.  Young boys hop from boat to boat selling bindi (jewels for your forehead), flowers, candles and postcards.  I think about our kids being ferried about, strapped into FDA approved car seats, anchored in giant SUVs. surrounded by air bags.  Parents at home would freak.

Every evening Hindu priests light wicks in a puddle of ghee, and float the lit wicks in a shallow bowls surrounded by flowers down the river, bidding farewell to the sun and thanking the river for another day.  

We each light a wick in a flower-filled cup, make a wish and reach over the side to set them in the water.  Fred accidentally  dips his hand in the water and hollers like a girl (sorry Fred, but you did carry on).  A warning to us all - we are very careful not to touch the water.  There isn't enough hand sanitizer in the world.  My wish came true - I didn't touch the water.


We drift drift down past the cremation fires that burn 24 hours a day.  A wrapped body lies on the stairs, awaiting its turn.

Our wooden boat has a loud rattling engine that the skinny-kid skipper starts occasionally - with a crank.   And a roar.  The engine must be older than my grandmother.

The lights from shore leave long shimmering streaks on the water.  It is magical.

We try to get back to the rickshaws before the ceremony ends, but between the crush of traffic and the twisty lanes and alleys, we miss the window.  By the time we find the rickshaws for the ride home the ceremony is over and we are belly-to-butt in a seething mass of walkers, rickshaws, cars, cows, tuk-tuks, motorcycles, wooden carts and vans.  We follow the bouncing dot of light from Jai’s cellphone held high above his head - our lifeline in the confusion.  It's like a nightmare version of Sing-Along-With-Mitch.  I can’t even get my arms up to take a picture, it’s so crowded.  It makes the afternoon’s traffic look like a Sunday school outing. 

On the way home our rickshaw driver scrapes his way past a white van filled with European tourists, their faces pale and drawn.  They’re trying to look calm and cosmopolitan, not shocked and scared.  Not working.  They look at us like we’re nuts - we return the favor.  When we see them the next morning at breakfast they won't meet our eyes.  

When we finally get back to the hotel and are chattering and laughing and euphoric, someone asks Greg if he’d like to sit.  He says “Actually I prefer to stand, since between the plane ride and the rickshaw, I’ve been in the fetal position for most of the day.”  We crack up.

Back to the ghats tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013


Best. Day. Ever.

It’s so nice to be outside!  In the late afternoon we pile into layered safari cars, off to hunt tigers.  With cameras.  

A half hour ride on a torn-up road (it will be newly paved by the time you get there - and you really should go!) - thru tiny villages, then we turn onto the tiger preserve.

Our naturalist shows us spotted Indian deer, one with antlers as big as an elk's.  The young deer walk past, wobbling just like the teenage girls on their first high heels. Teenagers are the same no matter what the species.  Or genus.  Kings Play Chess On Finely Ground Sand.  (Kingdom, phylum, class, order- you can do the last three.  Really you can.)

Majestic Saambar deer graze on the banks of the Ken river  - our naturalist tells us they can weigh 350 kilos.   I think about the crazy traffic here, and how many car/deer accidents we have at home, and I say a silent prayer.  For the 350 kilo deer, for us.

We see peacocks and blue bee catchers with their long secondary tail feathers trailing behind like a bride's train.  Our guide spots a fish-eating owl sleeping off his fishy meal in a tree near the river.  But we don't see any tigers, just a paw print in the swept dust by the side of the road.

We see millions of monkeys, one sleek mongoose waddling across the path, two jackals skulking along the side of the road, and a portly family of four wild boar who could not care less about us.  Most of my photos are misty:  the telephoto isn’t great.  If (when) we go to Africa I’ll bring a better camera.  

We listen for the sharp warning barks of the deer - the naturalists locate the tigers and leopards by following the warning sounds of the deer and birds.  If you're dinner, you're paying attention.   So we listen and chase the source of the sounds, and stop often and kill the engine to listen again for the barks.  Or maybe it’s just to let the dust and exhaust wash over us.  No matter.  The hunt is thrilling.

Chasing the source of the barks we come to a sheer cliff.  Oops.  We backtrack and drive to the water’s edge, at dusk, and are treated to a spectacular sunset.  

The animals had been shy in in the late afternoon, but in the deepening dusk as we are leaving the park they don’t even raise their heads as we  drive by.  They don’t stop grazing, don’t skitter off the edge of the road and into the teak forest.  Can’t be bothered.  

When the sun drops so does the temperature.  Like a rock.

Mr. Toad’s wild Midnight ride...home in the chilly starlight, bouncing on the half-made road, the constellations all turned on their sides in a sky like black velvet.  It takes us a while to find Orion and the dipper, and Cassiopea.   Not used to seeing them lying down.

On the drive home we are looking into the warm yellow windows of the roadside villages, watching the kids herding goats and cows back across the road to home, the bright yellow cooking fires warming the roadsides, the pace of the villages winding down as darkness drops and all God's creatures come home to roost.  There is a warm and family end-of-day feeling.  And it makes me miss my family with an unexpected ache.  

As we climb toward Pashan Garh the air cools by 10 degrees at each turn, warms slightly, then cools again. When the sun drops here so does the temperature.

The incredible amazing and really good staff at Pashan Garh Lodge had put thick wool blankets on each seat, and, hot and sweating on the way out, we joked we’d never use them except as cushions.  On the way home, when the temperature drops 20 degrees in three minutes, we bundle up in the blankets and thank God and the fabulous staff of Pashan Garh for their thoughtfulness.  We feel like well cared for children.  

 The Lesson Is Trust

It looks like a head-on collision is imminent every time you pass someone going the opposite direction.   A week ago driving around Mumbai I'm sure we left permanent dents in the armrests.  But driving home this night, our naturalist at the wheel, we are amazed, entertained, astounded, not terrified.  If you think Indians drive on the left you are mistaken...they drive where there is room.  The white line in the center of the road?  Eyewash.  Red lights? (not that there are any here in the wild) Just a suggestion.  And don't cross in the crosswalks, that is where the drivers have target practice.

And yet we trust and relax and know that we will be safe.  People take care of each other here.  No road rage that I've seen.  Just don't try to drive here.  Leave it to the professionals.

At dinner we can't stop chattering about what an amazing day we have had.   And drop into bed exhausted.  If Santa had come down the chimney I don't think I'd have awakened.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Pashan Garh. That's Indian for Heaven.

It really means stone house.  It's a Taj Safari Lodge:  click the link.  Their pictures are better than mine.

We have our own very private stone cottage.  Huge living/bedroom, 

miles of glass (in the photo most of the curtains are closed), a ginormous bathroom with an open stone platform shower.  

Huge outdoor terrace paved in stone.  An outdoor pavilion paved in plump white cushions.   

Wild.  In the lap of luxury.  In the middle of the teak forest.  No one tugging at your sleeve, begging or selling.  No smoke, no smog.  Clean crisp mornings.  Blissful bath-water warm days.  Air you can breathe.  Sigh.  And a real hair dryer, not a troglodyte dryer. Yay!

The Troglodyte hair dryers

Most of the hotels we’ve stayed in have a hair dryer in a drawer in the bathroom.  Wired into the back of the drawer.  So nice to be trusted.  With a really short cord, about two feet.  The cord looks like a garage door spring (remember those?) and is about as cooperative.  And the hair dryer weighs as much as a cinder block.   The only way I’ve been able to dry my hair is by sitting on the loo seat (on a towel and thank you for asking.  Yes, a clean towel.  Geez.)  I have to twist like a pretzel to see the mirror out of the corner of my eye.   Not eyes, eye.  Singular. My hair looks terrible, but I'm getting arms like Michelle Obama.  And I think I know how yoga got invented.  And troglodytes.

Every time we leave our cottage, some elf sneaks in and tidies up.  I fling clothes and scarves all over the room, looks like the suitcase blew up - the elf folds them, sorts them by color, and leaves them neatly lined up on the long couch built into the hearth.  Our laundry comes back beautifully wrapped, like a present from Des.

The most ridiculous requests are met with smiles of pleasure - I am tempted to become more and more outrageous in my requests (hey Peter: shall I ask for a banana daiquiri? or world peace?) but I behave.  This is the best service I have ever had.  And I've stayed in a lot of posh places.

Driving to the lodge, monkeys thronged the road.  Check out that tail. 

As we are checking in, black-faced Langur monkeys are dropping with heavy thuds from the trees onto the roof of the lodge, and we can see them loping along the roof thru the clerestory windows.  (Look it up - this isn’t an architecture class).  And yet not a monkey darkens our path during our stay.  We joke they must have a monkey wrangler, or maybe they have paid the monkeys to stay up in the trees.  There is, however, something small with very sharp teeth that takes a fancy to my patent leather shoes and nibbles the edge off one of them.   Each time I put them on I will remember this amazing place, and I will smile.

We have a fabulous dinner in an airy glass dining room.  When we return to our cottage all the candles (and there are dozens) have been lit.  By the elves, I think.  Good job it’s a stone cottage - I fall asleep with candles blazing.  

We can hear things moving past our cottage at night, and something heavy plops onto the roof and pads along.  At home we know the sounds - the shrill chattering of the raccoons, the keening wails of the coyotes, the deep windy sounds of the owls.  Here every sound is unfamiliar, and we lie awake listening.  And wondering.  And then drift blissfully off to sleep.

Tomorrow:  Safari!!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Splendor and Squalor

In the morning the Taj Mahal is not crowded, peaceful and cool, just a few people strolling thru the morning mist.

We stand almost alone just outside the tombs and watch the sun come up:

Dogs are everywhere in India, they all look like Ally's cousins, and one is sleeping on his back in the courtyard of the Taj.  Just as Lynn goes to take his picture, our guide pours water on him.  Not funny. 

We are appalled and say so - I call it doggie waterboarding.  Lots of muttering "How would he like to wake up that way?  and What a jerk"   The dog jumps about a foot, wiggles to his feet and runs off, and I decide to bag the rest of the activities with the cruel waterboarder and laze by the pool at the Taj hotel.  Heavenly.  Invited the dog, he didn't come.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

We ride the train from Agra toward Pashan Garh, the outrageously luxurious Taj Safari Lodge in Panna National Forest, and while waiting on the platform we are suddenly swarmed by shoe-shine guys.  Greg is dancing, trying to keep his feet away from the guys scurrying around on the ground, attacking your shoes with squirting and brushing.  Wally sticks his foot out, and 30 seconds and 100 rupees later he is buffed and shiny.  

Vivik tells us “That’s ten times what it should cost - it should be only 10 rupees!” so Tim, in mid shine, hands the guy a 50 rupee note, and the guy demands more.  Tim refuses, and the shoe shine guy walks off, leaving Tim with one shiny shoe and one with a puddle of shoe cream.  Half price, half shine. Live and learn.

I try for a while to take photos out the window.  Of the colors, the chaos, the life on the street.  The brightly decorated semi trucks...   

...and dull camel carts.  

The neat stacks of fruit on two-wheeled wooden carts left over from the Raj.  Or maybe from shortly after the invention of the wheel.

The fruit carts on the side of the dusty road surrounded by trash and traffic.

The brilliant face-painting pigments for an upcoming religious ceremony called Holi.   No relation.

The sparkly shade umbrellas ...

The kids playing cricket in a dirt lot.  Check out the ball just crossing his body.  Good shot!  

Eventually I give uptaking photos and  and just let it all wash over me.  Safe and warm.