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Fireworks, camels and elephant rides in India and Nepal


“OK, Get real, Bonnie. Every travel experience you have can’t be a good one. Tell me about a disaster or two you’ve had.” My editors and readers often chide me about my perhaps overly optimistic nature. They think I’m keeping something from them when I write about one awesome trip after another. Their doubts lingered in my mind and I thought that probably I’d fulfil their wishes on a recent trip to India and Nepal. To be sure, I encountered more than ample poverty, filth, and pollution. Frustrations and potential disasters raised their heads at every destination. But, magically, these turned into unforgettable deliciously sweet experiences.

2005142013 219My friend, Judy, and I landed in Mumbai, India, on the beginning eve of Diwali. Garlands of marigolds brought color to even the saddest of little shops and poverty-stricken homes. Lights of every color draped down from roofs to entry doors. Dogs scooted around the city, nonchalant to the booming firecrackers. Masses of families hugged the seashore, cuddling their toddlers and lighting sparklers for their school-aged children. And nighttime meant nothing. Three a.m. in the morning the fireworks were still lighting the sky, polluting the air, and preventing sleep to just about any but the deaf. And this went on – and on – for four days and nights.

Judy and I dodged the zigzagging cars as we crossed the street in front of our hotel to meander down the seashore promenade. We enjoyed the spectacle, smiled at hundreds of participants, and decided it was time to head back to the hotel. Abruptly, Judy turned around. Two feet in front of her sat a firecracker ready to ascend heavenward. No one in Mumbai thought that barriers should separate spectators and explosives. A few more steps and Judy would have been “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Local teenagers rushed to her rescue, pulled her to their comforting blanket, and offered her a sparkler to twirl. What could have been a trip to the hospital’s burn center turned into an hour of mingling and laughing with Mumbai’s friendliest of residents. Diwali, known as the festival of lights, celebrates expulsion of darkness by light, ignorance by knowledge, evil by good, and despair by hope. Each calamity finds a replacement in a victory, just as we did at our Mumbai Diwali.

Jaipur is known for elephants. Visitors to Amber Fort can plop themselves on a majestic beast that will transport guests up the hill to marvel at glittering mirrors amidst the goddess’ temple. Just a couple of miles away from the fort, a visit to Elefun provides a welcoming introduction to elephants. There, one can paint, ride, and even bathe a favorite elephant. Ours stood stoically still for her painting session. In fact, she seemed to approve of having 26 grandchildren’s names painted inside embellished heart designs. After completing our art class, we proudly rode our elephant around her neighborhood. Dogs, pigs, cows, roosters, half-way constructed homes, trash, and kids seemed to acknowledge our mascot adorned with a Picasso design. Now it was time for treats: bananas by the handfuls brought a wink to her eye and a nod to her trunk. Then it came time to bathe her. She had a mind of her own. No way did she want any part of water, sponge, or soap. Maybe she wanted to keep the grandkids’ names emblazoned on her hide. She raised her head, trumpeted for all the neighborhood to hear, and refused to enter the water. Was this going to be a showdown between our sweet lady and the mahout? A few jabs by the mahout did not change her mind. Judy and I looked at her lovingly, told Whisky, the owner of Elefun, “We think she looks beautiful unbathed.” Luckily, he found a friend of hers who was in the mood for cleansing. The event was far from disastrous, but we learned that there’s bound to be someone (even an elephant buddy) who’ll save the day and make all well.

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One evening in Jaipur we drove to Chokhi Dhani Village to enjoy the ethnic feel of rural Rajasthan with cultural activities and a buffet dinner. By now, Judy and I felt very comfortable with our expert driver, Bitnu, from Indian Horizons. We gave him marriage advice and he willingly listened to Judy’s counsel, telling her repeatedly, “You remind me of my mother.” The drive back to our hotel after dinner proved typical with its overload of traffic. It was getting late; we were tired, and the cars were crawling at best. My mind raced to thoughts of, “When will we ever reach the hotel.” Then all of a sudden people rushed to our car and beckoned for us to join them. And join them we did. It was a wedding procession like no other I had ever seen. The groom, dressed in white, rode on a decorated stoic stallion. Family and friends, now including Judy and me, paraded by his side. A generator provided lighting as brilliant as noontime, and music blared from a mixture of the marching band and cd’s. The groom’s mother grabbed us, told us that we were her dancing partners, and away we went to set the night on fire. About an hour later we reached the wedding destination. The bride and her attendants stood at the entry, no doubt wondering the identities of all the guests. They were adorned in brightly colored saris, making a stark contrast to the groom. This was a typical traditional Indian marriage where the parents (mainly the mother of the groom) chooses the bride. Naturally, there would be some trepidation and wondering. But trust in one’s parents, faith in one’s traditions, and merriment extending to old and new friends showed that a traffic jam can turn into something wonderful.

2005142013 319From Jaipur, we journeyed to Pushkar for its Camel Festival. Our first camel ride with Moti as the camel and Jay as its owner proved splendid. Moti followed obediently every command delivered by Jay, and we ventured to the far corners of the festival grounds as if we were trying to meet all 20,000 camels in attendance. The next morning we decided to get up early for a sunrise camel ride, hoping to secure Moti once again. As luck would have it, Moti and Jay had slept in. Judy and I were shuffled off to another camel and its owner and told, “Climb aboard.” We followed the command, only on top to notice that worn surgical tubing was our cinch and there were no stirrups. Judy and I swayed side to side, gazing down at piles of manure at every sway. Boldly, we announced that we felt more in the mood for walking – on our own two feet, camel-less. Down we came and a self-appointed guide ran up to us. His bloodshot eyes provided proof of his whereabouts the night before as he slurred, “Buy my jewelry. My family owns the mines—all authentic: coral, lapis, sapphire, ruby.” In spite of our non-response, he decided to trail alongside us, constantly blabbering either to us, any stranger, a nearby camel, or to himself. At the end of our two hour walk, we found Bitnu, our driver, and prepared to hop in the car and say farewell to Pushkar. Our walking companion then announced that he had served us as an official festival guide and would like a generous tip. We laughed. Judy, perhaps playing the role of good ol’ mom, exclaimed, “I’m disappointed in you.” But we did settle for buying some of his “authentic” jewelry for $2 apiece. Was this a case of lemons turning into lemon meringue? The jewelry fell apart, but our laughter remained intact. And we came to realize that laughter can turn just about anything into a dessert.

Blue-rinse tourists? Judy and I never would have described ourselves as such, but maybe so with our visit to Khajuraho. Combined, we have 26 grandchildren (with twins upping the score this spring,) four marriages, and eleven children. But our background did not prepare us for the visit to the temples of Khajuraho. No one needs to ever purchase a sex manual. Just come to Khajuraho. Women and sex explode at every inch. Stone figures of apsaras, or heavenly maidens, appear on every temple. They pout, pose, and position themselves to out-do any Playboy Bunny of the Year. Our guide expertly unfolded new vocabulary for this Kama Sutra. Apsara is a celestial nymph that enjoys dancing and other things. Mithuna wins the prize with shock value. Surasundari attends to the gods, when she’s not attending to her own pleasure. Judy and I had thought we had learned enough for one morning, only to have our guide almost jump out of his pants with his sharing of the large Lakshmana Temple. It has a continuous frieze with scenes of battles, hunting, and processions. But before one gets to these rather mundane activities, one has to see depictions of orgies with horses and men coming together in a most friendly way. Our guide kept raving, increasing his enthusiasm with our heightened blushing. Perhaps Khajuraho would be our lemon.

Early the next morning we set off for a safari to Panna National Park, 32 kilometers from Khajuraho. There are about 22 tigers in the park but because they are not tracked, it takes much luck to see one. And great luck we had! A mama tiger, T 4, had been waltzing around the past few mornings for the safari goers. It would be fantastic to view her. She did one even better for us. She paraded right in front of our jeep with her three baby cubs, their first sighting by humans. The driver was speechless; the guide ecstatic, and the five of us on board amazed as we kept snapping priceless photos. We forgot our uneasiness with the day before. Here, in the jungle all was beautiful, all was exquisite.

2005142013 181We spent Dev Deepawali in Varanasi. This is celebrated every year on the ghats of Banaras on the fifteenth day after Diwali. The crowds made a U.S. Super Bowl gathering seem like a serene country stroll. Pushed to the left, pulled to the right, somehow or other we zigzagged to the bleachers for the main program. Smoke filled the firework congested skies. Chanting of mantras contended with rock music. Hundreds of stray dogs plopped on temple stairs. And everyone smiled and hugged. India, for sure, does not mind crowds. We could consider the night one of noise and chaos or one of magical splendor. We gazed down upon the River Ganges, looking like a galaxy with thousands of floating lights encircled by marigolds. Chaotic, crowded, confusing: definitely! Magical, mystical, mysterious: absolutely! It was up to us to decide which perspective to adopt. We went with the positive. We immersed ourselves in the bustle of the masses celebrating life on this auspicious occasion when supposedly gods descend to earth, marking the prevalence of good over evil. We ended up with lemon meringue.

“Praise Nature, come to Pokhara” is the city’s slogan for this gem situated about 200 kilometers west of Kathmandu, Nepal. Safe and sane adventure activities abound: slow trekking over the Annapurna range, souvenir shopping in Old Town, mingling with Tibetan monks and refugees in their camps, leisurely rowing on Lake Phewa Tal, climbing to the sublime World Peace Pagoda, and wiggling through the Bat Cave. All are fine, all provide great beauty. However, there’s another way to soak up the beauty of the Himalayas. Should one attempt it? I had put it on my bucket list and so I ventured forth for a 7:00 a.m. ultralight flight. At the airport hangar, country music blared forth, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” not the most reassuring sound as a prelude to taking off in a plane with a motor about the size of my lawnmower’s. At Fly Pokhara, a petite Nepali lady made sure my Visa card paid for the outing, fitted me in protective gear, had me sign my life away, knocked my helmet a few times to make sure it fit, and instructed me firmly, “Do not talk to pilot ever. He is Russian.” Then I spotted our designated ultralight plane. Just big enough for the pilot and me, it looked like a pregnant trike with a kite for a hat and fins for its feet. I plopped into the opened back, and the pilot and I left safe ground below us and reached an altitude of 5,000 meters. From there, I felt like an eagle viewing life below and just about tasting snow-capped peaks. Greenery, glaciers, rivers, and lakes mesmerized every sense. What few clouds we encountered held power. They could swallow us or embrace us. Could this experience turn catastrophic? From the orientation, I might have said, “yes.” From the flight, I would claim, “no.” Conquering my fear, I hugged the moment. We are meant to soar.

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After Pokhara, we drove to Chitwan National Park, staying at Machan Paradise View Resort. Judy and I felt transplanted back to twelve year olds. This was summer camp at its best. That is, until we had an early morning briefing. We were to depart soon on a jungle walk. And so our guide instructed us, “When you see a black rhino, run in a zigzag direction. When you see a tiger, stare at it and slowly walk backwards. Try to find a tree to climb. And when you see a sloth bear, jump up and down and make loud music.” Now this walk could surely turn into the bad experience that my editors and readers seem so desperately to want me to have. Was my life destined for a wild animal encounter? I didn’t refuse the stroll; others went along; and our guide seemed confident that we’d be okay. Plenty of fresh dung and tiger paws met our eyes. Leeches crawled up Judy’s shirt. Where were our instructions about them? Perhaps to a mixture of relief and disappointment, we failed to spot a rhino, tiger, or bear. The other group that set out at the same time did come across a black rhino. Quickly, they forgot their morning drill, pulled out their cameras, and ended up with super photos of the rhino eating greenery and nonchalantly nodding ever so often to his fans. A lemon or a lemon meringue experience? It was the latter. We are all alive, and the other group emailed me their photos.

The longer we stayed in India and Nepal, the more the countries reminded me of a flower that lives just about everywhere there: the lotus. The start of this flower’s life is not as beautiful as one might imagine. When it begins to sprout, it is underneath the water’s surface. Mud, muck, fish, insects, dirt, and rough conditions welcome it to life. Despite these surroundings, it gains strength. It pushes aside each of these obstacles and makes its way to clearer surface. In time the stem continues to grow, and the pod slowly surfaces above the water into the clean air, finally escaping the harsh conditions below. Only then does the lotus slowly open each beautiful petal to the sun. It basks in the worldly beauty surrounding it. The lotus flower is ready to take on the world. The same dirty water, ironically, washes it clean as it surfaces. As the flower opens each petal to the air, not a spot of mud or stain remains externally. Dirty water has never soiled the inner lotus. It is pure, bright, and beautiful.

India and Nepal are definitely lotus-like. Abundantly, mud, muck, and rough conditions abound. But the countries and their people exude great strength, as if rising above obstacles and becoming resilient in the process. Easily, visitors can dwell on the filth and the poverty. The countries are ripe for providing challenging experiences and heart-aching sights. On the other hand, India and Nepal are phenomenal. It is as if they not only push themselves and their people to new heights and beauty. They have a way of prodding all who visit to let go of the negative and embrace the positive. Definitely, in this area of the world lemons become lemon meringue.

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