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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Savoring Switzerland

Thank God for digital photography.  I can’t imagine a trip to Switzerland with an old fashioned film camera.  The film costs would break the budget as a gorgeous photo opp beckons wherever you look.

Switzerland may just be my favorite country.  I’ve hiked its demanding mountain trails, skied its endless slopes, and pedaled six of its nine challenging national bike routes across the country.  This time I was on an “agroturismo” press trip. 

Hiking, wine tasting, visiting farms, joining festivals, savoring local cuisine  – we (a group of eight journalists plus a Swiss guide) did it all. 

It got off to a delicious start in Ticino, southern Switzerland where Italian is spoken and the ambience seems more la dolce vita than Swiss efficiency.  We stayed at a small hotel in the vineyards, Fattoria L’Amorosa (www.amorosa.ch)  Ticino is known for excellent wines, especially Merlot.  One of the courses of the welcome dinner featured risotto, a Ticinese favorite replacing pasta.  (See recipe at right for Spinach Risott0)

We toured a winery which, in addition to grapes, grows rice – the world’s northernmost rice plantation. It’s called Loto rice and is used for risotto.  After purchasing  packages of Loto at the shop, where  the farm’s wines are also for sale, we tasted some excellent vintages.  www.terreniallamaggia.ch

 A bus took us up a narrow, windy mountain road in the Verzasca Valley high above a surging mountain river where tiny villages perched on nearby mountain sides: the stereotype image of beautiful Switzerland.  Our destination was the village of  Sognogno where more photo musts awaited.  Here wool shorn from local sheep is spun and dyed (using only natural products for color), then made into wooly articles such as sweaters and scarves. 

Hiking in the Alps is what draws many to Switzerland.   We did not do any all-day treks to the high peaks, but we did enjoy several scenic shorter hikes. The Chestnut Trail from the village of Vezio in Ticino led us through groves of these magnificent trees.   We learned that chestnuts have been a food staple in the area for centuries. We shared the trail in places with numerous entertaining goats — a pair of bucks even staged a battle for us. 

In central Switzerland (where German is spoken) we hiked up in the hills from the village of Flühli.  The trail took us to several  Kneipp stations.  Kneipp is a type of “kur” therapy based on water, mainly very cold water.  We walked like storks, prancing up and down around a water walkway in a freezing mountain pond.  Then, we moved on to a station with a hose for spraying your face with the ice bath.  Finally a place for submerging arms.  A guide provided explanations and instructions of proper technique, but you could easily give it a go on your own.  It’s chilly, but refreshing and said to do wonders for your health.  www.fluehli-wasser.ch 

Our final hike was an educational experience in the Moorlands, the UNESCO Biosphere Entlebuch near Luzern.  Barefoot, we followed a guide  off the trail back into the swampy landscape. We sank in the squishy mud as he provided fascinating info on the terrain, its insects and plant life. We saw carnivorous plants, an ant hill whose ants don’t bite (actually they do bite, but the bite is not supposed to penetrate human skin,  however one with a mighty chopper got me), a tiny frog and more.  www.biosphaere.ch 

We had fun at two local festivals during our week-long journey. In Mendrisiotto near the Italian border we joined  locals at a jovial wine fest:  music, singing, all kinds of tempting food, and plenty of wine.  Revelers crowded the narrow streets and courtyards where vintners had their stands. We tasted the wine along with roast suckling pig that had been turning on a spit above an open fire. www.mendrisiottoturismo.ch

Cows were the  focus of the festival, the Alpabfahrt, in Schuepfheim in central Switzerland.  Crowds congregate along the village streets to watch the parade of beasts as they come back to the valley after spending the summer in high mountain pastures.  It’s a jolly event with the cows all decked out in flower wreaths, their massive bells clanging as they tread by,  spectators cheering and jostling for the best photo opps — and lots of cheese and wurst stands for the hungry. 

One night during our travels we stayed on a farm , a large one with many rooms for guests. Toilet and shower facilities are shared.  For extra economy, you can opt to “sleep in the straw” – a room with a plank of straw and pillows. During our visit, a father with two young boys spent the night in the hay.  They loved it. You need a sleeping bag.  The farm dinner that night included a buffet with 23 different kinds of local cheese.  www.berggasthaus-salwideli.ch

A wake-up call at 5:30 a.m. got us off to an early start on our next to last day. We took a short walk to the cheese dairy farm Gerschnialp where cows were being milked.  Milking is all done by machine, but we had the opportunity to try the hand method – very easy to get squirted with a stream of milk as I found out.  We watched and helped with the numerous steps in the cheese-making process.  And, we tasted the final products that had been aging on shelves in temperature-controlled rooms.

Yet another walk as the sun was edging over the peaks and basking the mountains in a rosy glow –past fields of cows now back in their pastures with their bells clanging  as they munched on grass, then through the woods to a cable car station for the scenic ride up to Mount Titlis (3,020 meters elevation) above the town of Engleberg.  The viewing terrace at the top is camera heaven.  A popular attraction is a spooky walk through a dark glacier grotto.  A ride on the Ice Flyer, a chair lift that takes you down over glacier crevasses, then back up, is spectacular.

My very favorite part of the Titlis visit was on the way down.  Instead of riding the cable car to the bottom, we got off at the Gerschnialp station and hopped on Trotti bikes (like scooters),  You stand on the bike platform, then head down a mountain lane at top speed, soaring around curves, faster and faster.  It’s thrilling. I wanted to go again.  www.titlis.ch; www.engleberg.ch

Our trip ended in Lucerne, that Swiss gem that is a must for visitors to this land of mountains, lakes, cheese, chocolate — and endless photos. www.luzern.comwww.MySwitzerland.com

See below for more photos.  Click on photo to see full size.  And, try some delicious risotto.  Click on Spinach Risotto under recipes at right.  Comments — and subscribers — welcome