A real Fantasyland? (only in Italy)

toptownOnce upon a time, high in the Italian hills overlooking azure Mediterranean waters, a local gardener decided he would like to become a prince. But, he needed a kingdom – or at least a patch of land to rule. No problem. He did some research and figured a small portion of this mini paradise did not legally belong to Italy. (That is all a bit complicated.) He convinced the local population of his claim and managed to have them vote to give him the title of Prince. That was in 1963, and Giorgio Carbone, His Supreme Highness, ruled the micro nation Seborga until his death in 2009, when Prince Marcello I assumed the throne.

So, all 2,000 citizens of the fairytale-like kingdom have been living happily ever after? More or less, but with some political intrigue to muddy the waters from time to time.

I had never heard of Seborga.  When the American Club of the Riviera sponsored an event in the principality, a gala dinner following festivities for the national holiday, the feast of Saint Bernard, I signed up. And, did some Seborga research.

A gala dinner to commemorate Seborga's national festival.
A gala dinner to commemorate Seborga’s national festival.

Perhaps I exaggerated the part about Giorgio wanting to become prince. Who knows? For details on Seborga history, see Wikipedia.   In brief, from the 10th century, monks ruled the principality. They sold it to the King of Sardinia in 1729, a sale Giorgio and his followers claim was invalid. Italy, they maintained, annexed Seborga “illegitimately and unilaterally.”

The Principality of Seborga (14 square kilometers) calls itself a separate state within Italy’s borders, similar to Vatican City and San Marino.

A demonstration to show how Seborga's currency was made in days gone by.
A demonstration to show how Seborga’s currency was made in days gone by.

Italy ignores these claims and has jurisdiction over the territory.   . Nonetheless Seborga has its own army, flag, royal family and currency. The latter, as well as passport stamps, are popular with tourists.

Prince Marcello, a 38-year-old former professional speedboat racer, is protected by his eight-member, blue-bereted Corpo della Guardia who were on duty for the national day festivities. To the delight of spectators, the Prince and Princess made a ceremonial entrance to the town in a horse-drawn carriage following a parade of costumed locals and guards.

Princess Nina and Prince Marcello
Princess Nina and Prince Marcello

Marcello’s German born wife, Nina, serves as foreign minister of Seborga. The couple were formally received by Queen Elizabeth in 2011. On the world stage, Burkina Faso recognized Seborga as an independent state in 1998. According to one source, some 20 other nations also recognize the tiny nation’s  independence.  The U.S. has an ambassador to Seborga who attended the national festivities.

blog.1That is not enough, says Nicolas Mutte, described by the Wall Street Journal as “a shadowy, possibly French figure whose occupation is unknown.” He posted an online video this spring proclaiming himself “His Serene Highness Nicolas I,” Seborga’s new ruler. Mutte, who says he is a descendent of Napoleon, seeks a split from Italy and accuses Marcello of only promoting tourism and folklore.

Although the Prince, a local real-estate entrepreneur, was elected on promises to fight for independence, secession has taken a back seat as Seborga and its traditions have become a tourist magnet. Marcello does not seem threatened by Mutte. “Seborga is a free and blog.3sovereign principality that has elected me as its prince,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “Mr. Mutte has no rights over Seborga.”

Even Giorgio had to fend off pretenders to his throne. In 2006, a woman calling herself “Princess Yasmine von Hohenstaufen Anjou Plantagenet” stated that she was the rightful heir to the Seborga throne. Giorgio dismissed her claims, calling her the “internet princess.”

All of this intrigue adds to the fascination of this secluded fairytale sovereignty snuggled aside a long and twisty road above the coastal city of Bordighera on the Italian Riviera. Throngs of visitors conquered the challenging journey to attend the August festivities. Flags, hundreds of the principality’s blue and white banners, set the scene for a parade, music, seborga+fone 069flag throwing demonstrations, costumes, dancing – and the dinner. ( I only hope Seborgans have better food than the definitely-not-delicious offerings we were served at this repast. At least there was no shortage of wine.)

Seborga, the eponymous capital city of the principality with a mere 337 inhabitants, is one of those ancient hilltop villages of skinny, cobbled streets that climb and descend, past old stone dwellings decorated with flower boxes.   Views of the Med and distant peaks from the town terraces are splendid. A visit to its privately owned gramophone museum is mind boggling.

So, too, is the Seborga story.  Could I overthrow Nina and become Princess Leah (think Star Wars ) ?

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We wore our finest for Seborga.

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Members of the prince’s Corpo della Guardia were happy to pose with guests for photos.

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Adventures – and a CRASH — in Kashmir

kash.34“More beautiful than the heaven.” So wrote Sanskrit poet Kalidasa of the Kashmir Valley.

It is a beauty with spectacular mountain vistas (when the clouds disappear), sparkling lakes, surging streams, gorgeous gardens and dense forests.

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Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital, has several magnificent gardens.

Sadly political violence has scarred this wonderland for many years, keeping tourists away from what was once a popular destination. For the most part, calm has returned and travelers are trickling back.

(UPDATE:  Unfortunately violence has erupted in Kashmir this summer.  The calm we enjoyed is no more:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/21/opinion/kashmir-in-crisis.html?action=click&contentCollection=Asia%20Pacific&module=RelatedCoverage&region=EndOfArticle&pgtype=article )

I visited in April with a tour group from Germany. I am a mountain person and had longed to see the grandiose Himalayan peaks which are said to outclass the Alps. But,  weather was not on our side. While visiting Kashmir we had some rain and mainly very cloudy skies and not many glorious views of towering, snow capped peaks.

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Srinagar’s Dal Lake — and  clouds

What I missed in mountain scenery I gained in people experiences. We had a tight schedule on this 16-day visit to northern India with almost no time on our own – except in Kashmir where I was able to leave the group and explore.

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Friendly folks I met

A hike was scheduled on the slopes above the town of Pahalgam, a mountain resort and trekking base. The group was slow. Many decided to ride horses rather than walk. I left them behind and forged ahead. My solitary walk was not that solitary. Other hikers (Indian tourists) approached and started conversations: a 70-year old from Calcutta, a young woman who had just returned from four years in upstate New York where she pursued bio-tech research, a family with several children in tow. Many wanted their picture taken with me – not too many tall blondes in northern India. It was fun and delightful.

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Many Indian tourists, and many in our group, preferred to visit the mts. on horseback.  Men at left are horse owners who drive a hard bargain for a ride on one of their mounts.

So too was my solo hike from our hotel outside of the town – until the CRASH. We had a free afternoon. I set off down the main road, narrow and nasty, then crossed a foot bridge over the Lidder River. A gentleman kash.bapproached, Jeelani, an English-speaking Kashmiri with a group who were having a picnic nearby. He invited me to join his friends. I figured if I did, I would be obliged to eat. My stomach was not in great shape, so I politely declined.

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I was invited to join this picnic.
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Father and daughter at picnic.

Jeelani wanted to show me a tiny temple/mosque nearby where, he said, people had been worshiping for 400 years. (Kashmir is mainly Muslim.) We chatted. I took photos — of the mosque, the scenery, the picnickers — then continued back. After crossing the bridge, I tripped over a fat cable and came down hard on the pavement, my face smashing against the cement. Blood. Pain. Two men ahead heard the collision and came to my assistance. I was more worried about my precious camera than my face. Fortunately the camera still worked. Praise be Canon!. I am a klutz and have fallen too many times with this camera. (My husband calls me “Crash.”) Miraculously the trusty Canon survives.

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At the top of the path I crashed.

My face fared less well. The nice rescuers offered me a ride to my hotel, to a hospital. I opted to hike back. At the hotel, I asked for ice. I must have frightened the desk clerk who also suggested I go to the hospital… I could not imagine a hospital in the boondocks of Kashmir.

I was lucky. We had a doctor in our tour group. He said he did not think my nose was broken. My teeth were probably OK.   Best treatment: ice and pain medication.

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Selfie shorly after crash –much worse the next day.

It was not that painful, but I was a sight with a lip that turned purple and looked worse than those fat lips you can buy for Halloween.  Makeup helped cover up the marks on the battered and also swollen nose, but nothing could help the deformed lip. I got used to stares during the rest of the journey.

Nonetheless, it was a rewarding experience. In Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir on Dal Lake, I took off shopping on my own. I made several purchases at the Kashmir Gift Store where I had a fascinating conversation with shop owner, Nazir.

First, a bit of background. India’s northernmost state, Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), is bordered by Pakistan and China. Until the early 19th century it was a collection of distinct regions under Sikh rule. The British defeated the Sikhs in 1846, and in ensuing years the region chose to join India. An India-Pakistan conflict has simmered and boiled since 1947.

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On the road to Pahalgam

Today the region is divided amongst three countries (Pakistan, China and India) and entangled in a territorial dispute. The major conflict is between India and Pakistan, each believing that it should control the entire region. A great number of Kashmiris, however, want independence.

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Kashmir is noted for its handicrafts, especially carpets.

In 1989, following rigged elections, militant groups took up arms to free Kashmir from India. Since then, some 30,000 have died in the fighting. Violence in the region has subsided and the once thriving tourist industry is on the rebound. (See above Update — violence has returned). However, during our visit security was tight following an incident in which Indian soldiers shot four Kashmiris who protested the alleged rape of a Kashmiri girl by the solders. We were stopped at road blocks. Armed soldiers were seen along the roads and in Srinagar. There was a three-day strike when all shops and businesses were closed in protest.

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Gulmarg is India’s premier ski resort.  Not many skiers in April, but lots of mt. visitors at this Kashmiri playground.

The inhabitants of J&K belong to three religions, with Kashmir being mainly Muslim, Jammu mainly Hindu, and the Ladakhis in the east divided almost equally between Buddhists and Muslims. Although Indians will tell you they are not prejudiced against Muslims or Kashmiris, I sensed the opposite. Most of the Kashmiris I spoke to want independence.

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Dal Lake with its numerous channels is often called the Venice of the East.

“We want our freedom,” said a young man working on the houseboat/hotel where we stayed in Srinagar. “We are proud of Kashmir,” Jeelani announced. “We want our independence. We have water resources. India uses our resources for its power.”

Nazir, the shop keeper, has a different, perhaps more realistic, view. “Kashmir is surrounded by three nuclear powers. It is impossible for us to be independent,” he said. “We need the protection of India… Yet people should be given the right to decide.”

As Lonely Planet states, “the issue of Kashmir remains intractable…it needs brave souls to resolve this issue.”

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“We want Kashmir to be the Switzerland of Asia.We don’t want bloodshed,” says shop owner Nazir.

Nazir told me the Muslims in Kashmir practice Sufism. They are not fundamentalists, nor violent. “This is a beautiful place. We want Kashmir to be the Switzerland of Asia. We don’t want bloodshed. No one should be killed in my land…The military should be on the borders, not in the cities.”

Almost as rewarding as my encounters with Kashmiris were the visits and sights in this place “more beautiful than the heaven.” … Fewer clouds would have made it even better.

Scroll down for more photos.

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Touring Dal Lake in style aboard a shikara, the gondola-like craft which ply the waters.

 

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Houseboats on Dal Lake. Kashmir’s rulers forbid the British to own land in this vacation paradise, so they built houseboats which now serve as hotels.
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Boats laden with souvenirs/food come by, offering convenient shopping.
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Gardeners are kept hard at work.
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On the road to Srinagar, visit to the ruins of a Hindu temple dating from the ninth century.
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Not much business for these toboggan renters on the Gulmarg slopes.

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INDIA’S “LITTLE TIBET”

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Photo at Tibet Museum in Dharamsala

They trudged, climbed over the rugged, mighty Himalayas, scrambling over rocks, through snow and ice, at night. A group of 28, including 10 children, they set out from their homeland, Tibet, to escape the severe Chinese regime which has occupied their country since 1950.

Over a million Tibetans perished in the mass genocide which followed the occupation. In 1959, the 14th Dali Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, led his people into exile. Since then some 100,000 Tibetans, like the group mentioned above, have made this arduous journey to escape Chinese persecution.

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Kalsang escaped from Tibet over the Himalayas in 2006.

During the treacherous 36-day trek, “one of my friends died, two were lost,” Kalsang, who fled in 2006, tells me. He was lucky. “Since 2008, the borders are heavily controlled.”

Kalsang now works as a guide at the Norbulingka Institute, a trust under the chairmanship of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people. The Institute, which is dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan culture, is headquartered in Dharamsala in northern India, the center of the Tibetan government in exile.

A visit to the town, a former British hill station perched high on a steep slope under the shadow of the snow-capped Dhauladhar mountain range, is fascinating, if not heart breaking. Several thousand Tibetan exiles, including the Dali Lama, live in the town, most in McLeodGanj, the upper part of the town where the institute and the Dali Lama’s home are located. The stories of escape and hope are astonishing, tragic.

“We have hope. One day we will go back,” a young woman said.

The institute sits on a hillside surrounded by lush vegetation and

Monk at Norbulingka Institute
Monk at Norbulingka Institute

blossoms. Strings of small, colorful prayer flags add a festive note. Well-fed, friendly dogs wander about. In contrast to the dusty, dirty, noisy, rundown surroundings, it seems like a tiny paradise.

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At the Norbulingka Institute, Tibetan refugees learn traditional  crafts.

Our tour group visited the Dali Lama’s Buddhist temple. Although at the time His Holiness was in residence, he was not seeing visitors, we were told. We visited workshops where young Tibetans in exile were learning and practicing traditional Tibetan crafts, (scroll painting, embroidery, metalwork, wood carving etc.) Many of their works are for sale at the institute gift shop.

We met many younger Tibetans at the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV). dhar.10The Dali Lama directed that a center be established for the thousands of orphans and destitute children ravaged by war. Today 1,700 Tibetan children live and study at this village. Most have been smuggled over the mountains from Tibet where the Tibetan culture and language are suppressed, where parents see no hope, no future for their children.  They pay for their children’s escape to freedom, knowing they may never see them again.

The children in the village live in small, family groups with foster parents. They are taught both the Tibetan language and English. There are four other villages for Tibetan children, as well as schools and vocational centers in India, under the umbrella of TCV.dha.4a

A visit to remote Dharamsala is an undertaking. Our group of 12 had to abandon our small bus and ride in three four-wheel drive vehicles for the climb over skinny, scary roads to the shabby town of ugly structures and tacky souvenir shops – but with a breathtaking backdrop, when visible. Having been intrigued about the fabulous Himalayas for years, I was eager for some to-die-for views and photo opps. Not to be. If and when the clouds vanished, it was only for seconds. These mountains have mastered hide and seek, excelling at hiding.

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Views of the Himalayas like this were rare and lasted only seconds.

The Tibet Museum in the town is the place to learn more about Tibet, the Chinese occupation and the present situation. Documentation and photographs detail the invasion, treacherous escapes, human rights abuses and present-day realities.

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Main street in Dharamsala

The town’s bazaar, a collection of shops and stalls along the steep main street, is the place to bargain for souvenirs: jewelry, trinkets, scarves and more.

Dharamsala is popular as a center for meditation, yoga and other esoteric retreats. It also attracts those interested in serious mountain trekking and rock climbing.

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Construction site in Dharamsala

A writer in the Guardian called the town, known as “Little Tibet,”  a “unique place with its mix of Indian hill people, Tibetan exiles and ‘spiritual’ tourists.” It is well worth the effort to visit this unique and alluring place, to experience first-hand the plight and tragedy of Tibet.

For more on the Tibetan Children’s Village, see www.tcv.org.in

Tibetan Children's Village
Tibetan Children’s Village

 

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Indian construction worker

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Cows are at home on Dharamsala’s main street.

 

 

INTRIGUING INDIA: RELIGION

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Golden Temple at Amritsar

Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians – all are found in Incredible India.

“In religion, all other countries are paupers, India is the only millionaire,” wrote Mark Twain in Following the Equator.

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Bathing in the sacred Ganges.

The majority, 80 percent, are Hindus. In Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges we witnessed the early morning Hindu bathing ritual, hundreds plunging into the non-too clean water which they believe is holy and will wash away all sins. At night, the banks of the river are a smoldering mass, fires and smoke from cremations. Many come to die in Varanasi. Death in the holy city is said to free one from the cycle of birth and death.

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Cremations on the banks of the Ganges at Varanasi.

Khajuraho, a wondrous place with numerous Hindu temples, is a popular site, more for the erotic sculptures on one of its temples than the stunning temple architecture.

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Khajuraho, site of many temples, is one of the “seven wonders” of India.

The Taj Mahal – India’s architectural treasure, the dazzling white marble mausoleum built by Emperor Shah Jahan for his second wife who died in childbirth in 1631, is a Muslim monument decorated with carefully inlaid Koranic verses.sikh.taj2

And Amritsar, home to the Golden Temple, the spiritual and cultural center for the Sikh religion, is yet another fascinating religious shrine. Sikhs compose only two percent of the Indian population, yet Sikhism is the fifth largest among the world’s major religions.

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Sikhs congregate at the Golden Temple day and night.

The religion was founded in the early 16th century by Guru Nanak and gurus who followed him. Nanak preferred the pool at Amritsar (“Pool of Nectar” in Punjab and Sanskrit) for his meditation and teaching. The site in northern India, today not far from the Pakistan border, became a pilgrimage center where a great temple was built. Perhaps more than the temple, it is the Holy Book, Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred scriptures of the Sikhs, enshrined inside which draws many pilgrims today.

Flowers cover the holy cook.
Flowers cover the holy book.

Twice per day an amazing ceremony focused on the book takes place at the temple. Thanks to guide Alok, we witnessed the lively and curious evening ceremony when the book is carried to its bedroom. Behind golden doors, it spends its night on a bed under an elaborate canopy.

We joined others in a long waiting line to view the book before the evening procession. While waiting, I had the chance to talk to a friendly Sikh who moved from Amritsar to London 17 years ago. London, where the gentleman has a fish and chips shop, has a large community of Sikhs. He was with his son. They, like many others, had a gift to lay near the book where a holy man, surrounded by other holy men sitting cross-legged on the floor, reads sacred verses.

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Evening procession transferring the book to its bedroom for the night.

After viewing the book, worshipers, all singing, line up behind ropes to view the ceremonial procession. The book, much like statues in Christian processions, is carried on a golden platform festooned with garlands of flowers.  A group of holy men follows behind, chanting. A trumpet blower announces the arrival of the book. There are stands where worshippers can take communion. It is a joyous, festive spirituality.

At 4 a.m. the same ceremony is repeated when the book is taken from its bedroom back to the temple.

We returned to the holy site the following day and were free to wander around this mystical place after leaving our shoes near the entrance and covering our heads. Vendors sell souvenir bandanas. Sikh men are not permitted to cut their hair and are easily recognized by their beards and colorful turbans. Sikh women wear either a turban or cover their head with a scarf.

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Heads must be covered at the Golden Temple. Mini scarves can be purchased.

Before entering the sacred grounds, feet are washed by wading through a shallow pool.

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All are welcome to a free meal at the Golden Temple.

The complex is large. It’s a delight to slowly stroll and enjoy the scene, the people, the peaceful ambience, the shimmering golden temple. Selfie photos in front of the temple are popular. Families walk around the lake, taking pictures of one another. Some tired souls just lie down and rest in shady spots. An underground spring feeds the sacred lake where some pilgrims immerse themselves to cleanse their souls. The complex also includes enormous pilgrims’ dormitories and dining halls where all, irrespective of race, religion, gender, are lodged and fed for free.

Feeding the hungry is a tradition among people of many faiths, but Sikhs may get first prize for generosity. The Golden Temple serves 80,000

80,000 free meals are served every day.

simple vegetarian meals every single day of the year – all paid for by donations. Anyone can partake.   Volunteers cook, serve meals and wash the dishes.

Groups sit on the floor rolling dough for naans (Indian flatbread). Nearby other groups smoother naans with a type of butter. Enormous vats of various concoctions simmer on stoves.

Some who eat at the temple volunteer to help out to “pay” for the food and assist the permanent volunteers. Sikhs who live in other countries often come and stay at the temple for several months to help in the kitchen.

Volunteers do all the food prep.

The Golden Temple’s past is not all peace and love. In June 1984, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered an attack on armed Sikh militants holed up there. Over 500 people were killed in the ensuing firefight. Sikhs around the world were outraged at the desecration of their holiest site. Four months after the attack, Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards, leading to a massacre in which thousands of Sikhs lost their lives.

Most of the damage has been repaired by the Sikhs themselves who refused to allow the central government to take on the task.sikh.14

More on India soon—Dharamshala and the Tibetan refugees.  If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right) so you will not miss this and future posts. Your address is kept private and never shared.

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Foreground:  Ganges bather. Background:  Yoga session.

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Erotic sculptures at Khajuraho.
Erotic sculptures at Khajuraho.

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Intriguing India

 

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In April I joined my friend Wilma and 11 other German tourists for a 15-day tour of northern India and Kashmir. The advertising campaign touts the country as “Incredible India.” It is – as well as intriguing. Following are some aspects I found incredibly intriguing during my travels.cow.2

PEOPLE: My favorite part of India. They are the friendliest, kindest, gentlest, most open and talkative folk. Indians often approach and start a conversation. Where are you from? Do you like India? They ask to have their photo taken with you, and they eagerly pose for photos.   On a train, they share their food. In Kashmir, I was invited to join a picnic. When I had a nasty crash during one of my solitary escapades in the boondocks of Kashmir (details in future post) two young men came to my aid, offered comfort and a ride.

My seat mates on our train ride to Agra were delightful: A retired gentleman and a recently-married young woman, Shruti. We chatted non-stop.   I learned a lot about India.

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Train companions

Poverty in the country is overwhelming. There are beggars. At the tourist sites, the souvenir sales crew do pester. But, if you reply with a firm NO, they usually back off. Many have mastered salesmanship. “You look like a movie star,” a crafty fellow at the

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Khajuraho temple known for its erotic sculptures told me. My hair was a disaster. I was hot, sweaty, tired and felt like an ancient hag. He won. I bought the bronze bowl with the sexy etchings which I really did not want, but now I am glad I have this bizarre treasure which brings back fun memories.

Despite the body-to-body throngs in many places, I felt safe in India. I was careful and cautious with my purse and camera, but never felt that someone would accost me and grab my valuables.

Many of my German travel companions were on their fourth or fifth trip to India. “People” is one of the major reasons they keep returning to India, they said. “The people are so friendly. They have so little but they seem satisfied. They have lebensfreude (joie de vivre, zest for life). It fascinates me,” observed Sepp.

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Celebrants at a country wedding.

MARRIAGE: Some seventy percent of marriages in India are arranged. Shruti, 27, showed me pictures on her phone of her December wedding with 1,000 guests in attendance. She had spent a mere 10-minutes with her husband-to-be before the wedding. They asked each other questions about what kind of life they wanted, what they wanted in a mate. His answers matched her desires. She is obviously happy with her new life and man, and glowed when talking about him.   She said some of her friends had married for “love,” but she preferred to honor her parents’ wishes and let them find her a husband. For India, she married late, but “I told my father not to find me a husband until I finished school,” she explained.

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The bridal couple

As is the custom in India, she now lives with her husband and his mother. Once married, daughters live with their husband and in-laws. This is old age insurance for the parents, assuring that they will always be taken care of. However, problems between daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law are legendary and the brunt of numerous jokes.

Shruti has no problems with her mother-in-law, but, unlike most married women in India, she is not in the kitchen cooking with her mother-in-law all day. She has a career and works in a bank. According to guide Rajesh, 70 percent of Indian women are housewives who spend six hours per day in food preparation. Indian cuisine is labor intensive.

My other train companion has two daughters, both married. He had a hard time finding a husband for one of the two as she is overweight, he said. She found a husband on her own.

COWS: Yes, they are sacred. They are everywhere — and perhaps not too bright. Now I understand the German expression: blöde Kuh (stupid cow). Hindus, 80 percent of the Indian population, are vegetarians. Cows are never slaughtered. Thanks to their milk, they are viewed as maternal figures, and are raised for dairy products, as well as plowing the fields. Cow manure is used as fertilizer and fuel.cow.1

So, what happens when a cow is too old to give milk or work the fields? The beasts are turned loose and wander freely everywhere, often in the thick of roads clogged with cars, trucks, rickshaws, motorcycles, tuk-tuks . Horns blast. Drivers shout. The gentle beasts are oblivious to all. Traffic comes to a standstill. No one wants to hit a cow. There are other places to roam, but India’s cows seem to prefer to be in the midst of the melee.

They thrive on garbage, and there is plenty in India. In Varanasi where we witnessed numerous cremations on the banks of the Ganges, cows – and dogs — munched on the debris around the places where bodies had been burned.

Some lucky cows end up in cow retirement centers, Gaushalas.   India has 3,000 of these, but, according to animal husbandry statistics: 45,150,000 cows. Most meander ubiquitously throughout the cities and countryside.cows.4

Being an animal lover, I wanted to pet the poor fellows. The guide warned: Don’t touch. If hungry, they might be mean, buck with their horns, he said. I doubt the ones I saw would have had the energy. I obeyed nonetheless. I think these crazy cows add a puzzling, calming charm to India’s  chaotic ambience.

TRAFFIC: Cows do complicate the snarling masses of all sorts of vehicles as named above, plus pedestrians often in the midst. How could anyone even think of driving in this madness? The noise is more than incredible. Every driver seems to have his hand plastered on his horn. Who is honking at whom?   No way to know. Who has the right of way, other than the bovines? Survival of the fittest. Just plunge ahead and hope for the best.

Hats off to the drivers. We each had a rickshaw for our ride from the hotel to the riverbank in Varanasi. The traffic was abominable, but my skillful rickshaw driver kept his cool, pedaled his vehicle with aplomb, weaving around cars, trucks, motorcycles, etc. There were many close calls, making the ride more thrilling than the wildest of roller coasters.cows.5

We had frequent long journeys on a comfortable, roomy bus. In India, the bus driver is in a separate glassed in compartment with his assistant sitting next to him. The assistant is de rigueur. Four eyes are needed to watch ahead and to the sides for all-too-frequent obstacles. Our bus assistant also served bottled water, and, in our case, often stopped to purchase bananas for his passengers.

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Bus driver assistant purchases bananas for passengers.

We rode on rutted roads through the countryside and small villages, and on super highways as good as any in the developed world.

Alok told us there are 2,000 traffic deaths per day in India. Many drive without a driver’s license, but a license can be purchased – no test required.dogs.2

DOGS: There may be as many homeless dogs as there are cows. These canines are not pets, never were. They all are similar in appearance: medium size, short, beige/ tan fur. They wander freely everywhere, but most seem to have enough sense to stay away from auto traffic. They, too, thrive on garbage. None I saw looked malnourished, and they were not vicious. Yet I resisted the urge to pet. Unlike the docile cows, I feared one could bite. After experiencing India’s stray dogs, I came across this article, “The World is Full of Dogs without Collars”: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/19/science/the-world-is-full-of-dogswithout-collars.html?_r=0   It’s an interesting read for animal people.

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I wanted to rescue this poor baby.

What about cats? I only saw two during the entire trip. No wonder. With all those hungry dogs, they would end up as dog food.

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Alok enjoying dinner in Kashmir.

CONTRASTS: The poverty, filth, garbage, noise and pollution are all mind-boggling. On our last day, Alok wanted us to see the new state-of-the art metro in Delhi. It, too, was mind-boggling: futuristic, spotless, sleek, quiet, fast.

Intriguing. Incredible. That’s India. More to come in future posts: Amritsar and the Sikhs, Dharamshala and Tibetan refugees, Kashmir.

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Weddings merit big celebrations. We came upon one in a small town during our travels. The groom was in costume  on horseback.

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No Indian recipe this time, but how about tasty Thai – sort of in the same neighborhood? See recipe column at right for Thai-Style Asparagus Beef Curry. Add some spice to spring asparagus. Click on above photo for recipe.people.4Holy Man.  Religion is another most intriguing aspect in India.  These “holy men” often pose near tourist sites, hoping for a donation.

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