Category Archives: India

The gift of mangos and colour…the beautiful spirt of a people

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Charles and Mary have helped restore me – helped soothe the some-time ‘abrasiveness’ of living in a populous Indian city. The couple’s three-wheeler is tucked against a wall in a quiet leafy street, five or so blocks away from our apartment. After a long Sunday morning walk, we find them sizzling masala omelettes and fluffy dosas on their cast irons. When they reveal they’ve been setting up here for twenty-seven years, I suggest that they must have been the original ‘food truck’. They’re happy to have the attention and we spend some time together.

The tools of their trade are neatly stacked and at the ready: variants of stainless steel, gas burners and tanks, prepped veggies. Charles dips his hand into the bucket of chopped chilies and onions, giving it a further blend. Mary shyly reveals that June 14th is their anniversary. “Thirty-one years together and this,” she gestures with a sweep of the hand across their thriving business.

They are in perfect sync as they prepare their street food. Motioning to a photo gazing magisterially down at them, Charles wants me to notice the small shrine. “We’re Christians, Mother Mary and Jesus.” He nods at his Mary as if counting his many blessings. As workers from a nearby high-rise construction site make a beeline for Mary’s dosas, we take our leave – a few dosas and omelettes in hand.

A young lady floats past on the street, her sari matching the stunning blooms of a Scarlet Cordia. It’s been an inspiring corner: the vibrance of colour and the personal, genuine encounters. I pause to reflect…yes, it’s almost always about the people isn’t it?

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Allow me to back up…

After more than two months away, it’s been wonderful to be back in my modern Bangalore apartment with its soft hues of greens, blues and whites – its cool marble floors and lush ‘mural’ of trees and coconut palms beyond. It’s been a relief to sit at my desk and write in one spot. For much of the first week I cocooned myself; to transition, to slow down and yield to jet lag, to finally unpack.

The weather is cooling as summer passes and the monsoon rains are upon us. I gazed down to the profuse flowers and to the Headmaster’s garden, my adopted backyard. It’s pleasant, as are the charming interruptions. I heard the thwack, thwack of a coconut harvester’s knife, coconuts tumbling to the red-clay earth below. “Would Madam like coconuts?” a harvester asked as I stood a few wide meters away on my terrace. Minutes later the phone rang, Kajul’s voice informing me, “Madam coconuts here, I bring.”

I welcomed the cry of Raj, my dependable vegetable wallah. “Madam, long time since,” he said, whacking open a coconut, chiselling out its delicious contents. “Good for coconut chutney,” he suggested, as if to answer my ‘what to do with the gifts from next door?’ As I chose my vegetables, I received the usual reprimand from the villa ladies for being away so long. They have also gathered around the neighbourhood ‘water cooler.’

“How lovely, your homes have been repainted,” I commented, noticing the lemony wash on the aging villas. Now somewhat restored to their former glory, their statuesque mango tree is now framed more prettily. “Mangos are soon ready,” Anu said, pointing to the masses of plumping fruit.

The next day a hefty bag of mangos was presented by our landlord. “Welcome back,” Nando said in his affable manner, “the gift of mangos.” He has also recently returned after time in his other home in Belize. He and his wife will now spend six months enjoying the downtown view from their perch on the top floor – from their terrace that floats amongst the tree tops. “Come up for a drink sometime,” Nando adds.

“We will,” I agreed, “you’ll have to meet our Matt.” And as is the Indian way, drinks will start about 9, dinner not served until at least 11 pm.

On my second week home, I became absorbed with my book and also with another writing project. One which demands honesty and vulnerability, and so I’ll continue along that vein.

Matt is here with us in Bangalore, it’s been some years since he was last in Asia. He’s embraced the neighbourhood, the food (especially Preya’s) and he’s also opened our eyes. Seeing a place anew through someone else’s perspective is always thought-provoking.

Not long after arriving, Matt returned from the nearby five-star hotel that is also our club. “They treat you like royalty, almost over the top. Does it get tiring?” he asked. My mind paused…it struck me that I take this completely in my stride. Yet this is my present reality.

“It feels like I’m in a tropical rainforest,” he contunued roaming his eyes around the apartment. “It’s all beautiful Mom.”

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“I love it too. And I never tire of this view, it’s my solace,” I told him.

And in saying that, the question was…solace from what exactly?

Allow me to back up, yet again…

While I was away, I was interviewed from afar by the Economic Times of Bangalore. The article featured me as a writer and as an expat living in this booming city. What did I think of the city? Why was I here? How much did you know before you arrived?

I mentioned how Bangalore’s people and history inspired me to write. How I could relate equally to security guards who leave their villages to work and to altruistic entrepreneurs who give up careers to care for children in need. I’m fortunate to hear their voices and write their stories.

I was pressed to compare Bangalore with other former homes – Osaka, Amsterdam, Aberdeen, Doha, Muscat, Stavanger, Aktau and Houston. Encouraged to give anecdotes, even as a writer I asked myself…how honest should I be? Too many answers, where do I start?

I related that I love the unexpected. What’s around the corner. I adore the tropical greens, the vivid saris and sumptuous fabrics, the spicy curries, the moveable feasts of fruit and vegetables carts and the cool roof-top bars. And wonderfully, I am always made to feel at home. But I was also honest.

I admitted that Bangalore’s congestion, waste management and lack of green space is a cause for concern. I lamented. “They must stop chopping down these magnificent trees for the sake of continued growth. This city would be so much more livable if the sidewalks were not as hazardous. If city ‘fathers’ recognized pedestrians were as important as vehicles.”

But there is an unwritten rule in an expat life; one shouldn’t offend their host country. I try to live by this. Yet just once, I’d love for someone to allow me to cross a street safely. Could traffic yield to me while I’m on a cross-walk. Perhaps education from the government educate. Elevated pedestrian bridges to avoid the senseless monthly death-toll. Should this not be a basic human right in a city that attracts investment from companies worldwide?

“Mom has anyone ever stopped for you?” Matt asked one day, alarmed by the craziness. “Yes”, I answered, “Twice.” He was amused that I actually had an exact number for him.

“I know,” I told him, “it would be funny it it weren’t so sad.”

I also could have elaborated about the pitiful waste management. Trash defiles many of the streets, though we are more fortunate in the heart of the city, and at least here we don’t have open fires burning garbage and further polluting the air. Thankfully, we are remote from the many toxic city lakes that froth and foam, that catch on fire due to volatile chemicals . The papers report this, people protest, promises are made, on and on it goes…

DSCF0464These are a few negatives that I might have mentioned in the article, had I been more candid. After time in pedestrian and cycle-friendly Holland and the beautiful mountains and cityscapes of Canada, there is the inevitable adjustment to India. This coming and going in an expat life takes one across the full spectrum of experiences and emotions, there are many of them.

When adjusting back into this other world, exploring is often my antidote. This past weekend we headed to Bangalore Fort with its gate ‘tall enough for an elephant plus howdah‘ and its robust Islamic-styled granite walls. It stands testament to the struggle of the Mysore Empire against the British. I had been here before but again I’m captivated by its imposing elegance.

Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace is close by, beautifully adorned teakwood pillars, arches and balconies, evoking scenes of the great Sultan holding court, planning his strategy to hold back the British.

Now, the fanned traveller’s palms and nearby temples evoke peace, not war. Serenity, not plunder. I soaked it up, breathed it in, not wanting to leave the hushed walls and enter back into the fray of the frenetic streets.

These landmarks of Bangalore’s history stand in one of the older pets, those neighbourhoods where many people barely scrape by…day by day, rupee to rupee. After taking photos of the fort and the palace, I put my camera away. That day I didn’t feel comfortable taking photos of vendors who line the streets. The wallahs for whom I have great respect and often empathy for…the back-bone of this country of 1.3 billion people. Many do well, like our Raj, but many sit under the baking sun; maybe just a few limes to sell, some shrivelled brinjal that no one is going to buy. And simply, many are too young.

“Let’s go home,’ Matt said, “I feel like I’m intruding.” That sentiment has crossed my mind many times. The wallahs are hard working and a contrast to those who beg for alms; but then I can’t judge their circumstances. It remains disconcerting for me, the inequity never making sense either to ‘seasoned veterans’ or ‘fresh eyes’.

DSCF0520The following Sunday morning we walk through nearby Cubbon Park. It’s not exactly manicured, but lush and peaceful nevertheless. There are glimpses of the city’s past as a British cantonment, military legacy of the final Mysore war. A reminder of when residents strolled through this once glorious ‘garden city’.

We come upon the Government Museum, a 19th century neoclassical. A troop of gardeners and one security guard, are digging ragweed from the lawn. “Good Morning sir, you’re working early. And you’re making progress,” I offer, spying a pile of weeds.

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The guard introduces himself and adds, ‘Yes too many weeds are there, much work.” Motioning to Matt to give it a try, he hands him the weeding tool. He watches as his new apprentice-gardner up-roots a few pesky weeds, encouraging me to take a photo. A brief but sincere encounter…the geniality of Southern India.

We meander to another neighbourhood, the small houses making rainbows of colours. Without hesitation, the children run to me, “Auntie, auntie, where from?” They are playing happily in the street, pestering at the local corner store and as always, pleading for their photo to be taken.

It seems that households have been busy. Reams of laundry dry in the warm June morning, dishes await scrubbing, garlands decorate doorways and a young mother poses eagerly with her toddler. The colours and images are vivid and again I reflect that this is when I’m most content in India. On peaceful streets with daily activities like anywhere else – without the reminders of perpetual toil and poverty.

As we make our way out of the neighbourhood, a pack of mangy dogs mark us as interlopers. They snarl and yap until a kindly lady steps away from her heaped cart of pots and pans. Offering her apologies, she escorts us around the corner, swiping and scolding the mutts. The chickens let us pass.

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So I come full circle to Charles and Mary at the end of that second outing. It was as if they greeted us back to our own bustling, yet reassuring neighbourhood, more privileged than most yet still typical. Vibrant colours, chaotic traffic, life lived on the streets – lives of difficulty and of prosperity. Simply, it is India.

Above all what I’ve come to love here is its people. I respect their industriousness and for many their perseverance. So yes, I could have added more to that article. I would have implored the government to do more: fix the sidewalks, protect the trees and greens spaces, combat the pollution, ensure the water supply for farmers and for all, try to eradicate the vast inequities. People like Charles and Mary, Raj, Kajul, Preya, the children who welcomed me as ‘auntie’, they all deserve a voice. I advocate for them, not myself, my time here will be only another year.

One last quote from that article, “Bangalore has become like the other cities I’ve lived, I cannot imagine not having been here.”

I embrace India for the complex layered story that it is and I’ll continue to cherish the beautiful spirit of the people.

And so I await the next playful unpredictability, the next enchanting exploration and naturally more sincere encounters to come.

It seems that will happen this coming weekend. It’s time to initiate Matt into Indian train travel, a passage to the bewitching ruins of Hampi has been booked. Another chapter in our Indian story.

 

 

Priya’s story…part two

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IMG_2803Priya’s story has revealed itself gradually; snippets of conversation as we’ve come to know each other in our one year in India. I have known since she joined us as housekeeper, that Priya is widowed and raising children alone. This in itself, could be considered remarkable in India.

It is not uncommon for widows in India to be considered inauspicious and shameful to their family. They can be marginalized, cut off from family property and money, and considered an inconvenience and a burden. Widows can be abandoned with no place to go – simply cast adrift.

Traditionally, widows are expected to wear white, shave their heads and discard their jewellery – essentially renouncing anything that symbolizes womanhood. In some areas of India, social norms still hold to the belief that for a bereaved woman to remain in society, she must have a supportive brother or son.

In rural parts of India, where arranged marriages commit young women (often girls) to marry older men, it is not surprising that widows comprise ten percent of the adult female population, some forty million. Many, widowed at a young age, find that their life is essentially over or irrevocably altered. It can still be considered improper for upper castes to remarry, lower castes often do, ideally to a brother-in-law.

To understand their plight one has only to read about or see images of Vrindavan, a sacred city which has become home to thousands of destitute widows. Begging to pilgrims and chanting bhajan (sharing) hymns for up to four hours a day, earns them enough for one meal and perhaps shelter. For young widows in Vrindavan, poverty may lead to sexual exploitation, a last resort for those already stripped of their dignity. The organization Maitri endeavours to alleviate this, collecting contributions for the purchase of mosquito nets, fresh white linen saris (perhaps now a symbol of sisterhood) and even sewing machines for a widow’s livelihood.

The abhorrent practise of shunning widows is a grim residue of an Indian tradition sati or suttee, the burning of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyres which was once (and by some accounts is still) practiced. The perception of woman as chattel is rooted in the patriarchal culture which must change, in step with the values of a civilized society. The women at Vrindavan and other shunned widows represent all women. They were once girls, wives, mothers and grandmothers – deserving respect and dignity.

Within this cultural context, Priya’s independence and resolve is all the more admirable. She has mentioned to me that she is very careful not to acknowledge that she is on her own.

Priya was somewhat distracted this past month as her search for a new home was far more difficult to secure without a man’s name on the lease. Our offer to help negotiate was politely declined and I was relieved that a driver of another family Priya works for was available to help.

Thankfully Priya has found a new home, one with tiled floors and running water, an improvement from her previous house. However, she is not pleased that so many cows wander close by and she worried that her previous landlord might take advantage by not returning her security deposit, “Madam, this is life without a man, not easy,” she said stoically.

Recently as I relaxed, reading on my sofa, Priya eased herself down on the carpet beside me. We had just arrived home from a trip, the house was already clean and I was happy to have some time to speak with her. Priya’s brave and inspiring story flowed forth. With her resilience worn firmly on her face and her engaging personality coming through, her reflections evoked introspection, wistfulness and even laughter.

I use Priya’s own speech patterns. Madam is usually said with a Ma..dam, the last syllable lilting up lyrically as if it is a happy topic. Otherwise, the dam dips down with a tone of seriousness…it is the name she uses for me.

Priya where did you grow up?  I am not from here, from Tamil Nadu. We lived in a house of coconut leaves with mud floor, like a squatter’s village. We had no food, maybe gravy with onions and rice, once at night. I tell my children,”You are lucky.”

Did your father work?  He died, I was five. Preya puts her thumb to her mouth like a soother, indicating that her father was an alcoholic. Four other children, never enough food.

Did your mother work then and take care of you all?  She worked in rice fields, taking the husk. Very hard work Madam, 6 rupees a day.

Your older brothers and sisters, did they go to school?  No, no, no one. Sisters from a convent came to take me, so poor were we Madam. My mother said, “Take her for better life.”

IMG_0124How did you feel, do you remember this?  Oh yes, I was happy. Food was there. The bus ride was far, to Kerala, a convent. Sister Paulina took me. You know Madam, Priya gazes out to the lush rain tree and palm trees beyond for inspiration, coconut leaves were rolled long for lights (torch). Moved back and forth, very pretty at night. And spoons from jackfruit, we eat rice, lots of rice and coconut chutney always there. Priya smiles with the memory of this and I tell her I love this kind of chutney. Oh yes Madam!

Priya what did you do at the convent, did you start school?  Just a little, maybe one month, but no interest. I work, clean, play with children, pick up the coconuts. Madam, then a rich family wants to take me, “Give us Priya,” they said. I was five and a half.

Did you miss your mother, your family?  No Madam, there is nice food, clothes, soap. I go with the family and play with the daughter. I see her go to school and now want to go. I cry to go, but they say no, just housework and playmate for the girl.

Was anything paid to you, or your mother?  Yes Madam, 10 rupees a month. The convent send money to post office, to my mother. The grandmother was nice in the house. At nine, a Sister dies and I’m at convent for a break, but don’t want to go home. Priya works three years in the convent. At twelve years I go to new home. Sometimes now I talk about my family, but they buy me gold earrings, new dress to stay. From five to twelve I don’t see my mother.

Priya, all this time you didn’t study, only worked?  Yes Madam, I’m sorry but what to do, work from five years old. One day I want to see my mother, big arrangement to do this. The sisters ask, “Why Priya, they are still poor.” But I must see my mother, so I go, fifteen day holiday. Madam I don’t know my mother’s face. I go home, my sisters, brothers don’t talk to me. My language is changed. So poor, no study, only playing, no food. Mother work all day. Again I’m hungry. No clean water. Only two days I stay.

Were you sad to leave your family again?  No Madam, only think of food. It’s clear this is difficult for Priya to reconcile. The convent keeps me now to work, mother can come once every two months if want, two long buses away. Madam I like the schedule at convent. 5 a.m.up, church, food, bath and work. Now too old to learn.

For five years Priya’s mother is sent a salary from the convent. They also saved money separately for her dowry.

Madam at seventeen, I’m asked, “Do you want to go to Dehli?” First time for train, happy but a little scared. One sister took me. Delhi very different Madam!

Where did you go in Delhi, to a new family?  Yes, first year was good Madam. A girl there about three, but then the Sir, you know, was slapping my bottom. One night tapping me on the arm, I sleep in the hallway. I tell him, “I will tell!” I cause big problem, no one understands why I want to go back. The Convent comes to get me, three days again Madam on train. And then bad.

What happens Priya?  My mother comes to Sisters and begs for money for my sister’s dowry. She’s old twenty-five, they give my dowry money Madam. I don’t go to wedding, a mess.

Priya that must have been a terrible shock; all those years you worked.  Yes, now the convent says, “Priya go to a convent in Bangalore, Saint Anne’s.” My God Madam, the first time off train there is breath coming from mouths, so cold, like a frozen town. I work Madam like before and now I’m old, twenty-two. Then one day, they tell me rules are change and I must marry.

IMG_9338You didn’t go back home of course, you had no choice but to marry?  No this is my life. I dream Madam and Priya laughs at her own naivety at the time, I can watch T.V, cook for my husband, a good life. Her voice trails off at what might have been…

They find money for dowry, 20,000 rupees, earrings and a chain. Some teachers collect saris for me. And Madam, everybody knows husband is a drunk. Me a good convent girl, no family wants him. And mother too, a drunk.

I’m so sorry Priya. Yes Madam, what I’m thinking, she pauses for some time, I trusted the Sisters. I remember a cleaning lady at engagement party, “The boy is a drunk,” she says and someone says shhh! But too late, maybe sisters know.


Where did you live after the wedding?  
A place Tannery Road, everybody drunk, even now I would never take children there. Fifteen days after marriage, he says, “Go to work,” the mother-in-law, “George B……Why is she sitting there, send your wife to work!” Priya laughs and repeats it twice in a threatening voice. My dreaming is finished. Madam I’m happy you’re writing.

So am I Priya. You are an inspiration, everything you’ve been through. So you went to work housekeeping, what did your husband do?  Worked in a small shop, TV repair but only drank. The Sisters came and talked to him four times, but Madam, what to do…nothing changed.

Priya would quickly become pregnant. A kindly family she worked for allowed her to rest at work, offering her extra food. With no one to collect her from the hospital after the birth, the pattern of neglect and abuse began. Priya was able to take the baby to work with her; she cannot imagine not having had this ‘refuge’. Unfortunately the family moved out of state. An incident soon after the birth of Priya’s second child, left her fearing for her life. She felt she had no choice but to flee from her husband with her two young children – with no money, no job and nowhere to go.

Priya persevered and bravely worked her way through these most difficult times. I am aware of other details of her heart-rending story but much of it is too personal to publicly share. Her resolve, determination, maternal instincts and loving character is an inspiration to me…a poignant emblem of the strength of womanhood.

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Sometime last year, despite being detached from her family for all those years, Priya took her children on the long bus trip back to the village in Tamil Nadu to pay respect to her mother,”Madam, no cross is on her grave, I must do it.”

It says much about her character that she had the charity and compassion to make this journey for a family which has not been a part of her life. I sense that she views herself as the ‘lucky one’ having been given to the convent as a young girl.

When I show this blog to Priya before I press publish, she sees her photos and laughs her infectious laugh, “Madam, to the world?” she asks. I tell her that I do know much of the rest of her story, but it isn’t printed here. “You know Madam?” Tears well in our eyes.

“Yes Priya, you are very brave.”

“Madam,” she says reflectively, “I wasn’t strong then, not like now. I tell my daughter she must study, she must be strong.”

Priya’s story…the cadence of an Indian neighbourhood, part one

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IMG_2803Priya’s story has inspired me to write. To write of her courage of overcoming a difficult past and of capturing the lives of all the hard-working people in our neighbourhood. Allow me first to paint a picture…

It has been busy these past few months; trips to Brunei, Singapore, Bangkok and a road trip in India. Our comings and goings every other week bewilder the staff of our five-family apartment building; a gardener, two security guards, a manager and Priya, our housekeeper. They are very much a part of our everyday life.

“Madam, where going now?” Boran our gardener typically asks when he sees me with luggage in the porticoed entrance. When I tell him my destination, he looks at me quizzically, “Airplane?”

“Yes by airplane Boran, back in seven days. Sir is back in four.” ‘Sir’ is my husband,  in deference our names are never used. Not only is the country which I’m traveling to a complete unknown, so is the fact that often my husband and I leave together, yet return at different times. Or I travel alone, leaving Sir to ‘fend for himself’.

“But who will cook his food?” it seems half of the street initially pondered. This question was reconciled as they saw Sir on the street buying his produce from Raj, our vegetable wallah. When my husband revealed that he could cook his own food, there were looks and mutterings of bemusement. “Sir cook himself?” This is something new…

IMG_1577Boran is thirty-two and like many men who work in Bangalore as gardeners or security guards, he is from the north of India. They are a three-day train journey from home, usually taken only once a year. Working from afar, their families remain in the villages, reliant on monthly remittances.

As Boran watered the plants on a recent afternoon, he was eager to share some news. “Madam, I get married.”

“Boran are you getting married, congratulations! Is it arranged?” I already know the answer to this question; it would be unheard of for him to not have an arranged marriage.

“Yes Madam,” he says, scrolling through photos on his phone to present his bride-to-be. She has a kind, cheerful face and I’m relieved to see she is not underaged, often the reality in India. “She twenty-six Madam, very good. Come to wedding Dec. 26?” Boran asks with his boyish smile. When I explain that we’ll be home in Canada at the time, he’s not too concerned and mentions that our day-time security guard Kajul will return soon with some news. “Maybe he married now,” Boran says with a sly grin.
IMG_1581Kajul has replaced our first guard Rajesh Kumar who, a little tipsy one night, took a topple from his bike. A month in his village to heal broken bones was prescribed, but no sign of him yet – the ‘grapevine’ hasn’t provided any answers.

Where Rajesh Kumar was reliable yet often mystifying to communicate with, Kajul is unfailingly good at his job and speaks enough English should an emergency arise.

He is also ever the gentleman. Meeting me half-way down the street if I’m carrying more than one bag. Telephoning as the cry of a wallah heralds a vendor’s arrival,”Good Morning Madam, today vegetables?” Insisting on standing at my open door should a repair or delivery man be present. “Safety Madam,” he says. I’ve missed Kajul while he’s been on leave for his sister’s marriage.

About the same age as Boran and as the head of his household, it was Kajul’s duty to provide the dowry money for his sister. “Maybe Madam, when I come back I married too. But sister first,” he told me before he left. He wasn’t sure if finances would stretch to allow his matrimony, though his mother had someone in mind. We shall know in a matter of days when he returns.

Kajul has worked in the Middle East, a desired location I learn from some of the security guards who man almost every apartment building, stores of any repute, schools, clubs, etc. The job is monotonous with twelve hour shifts of sitting and waiting…perhaps a visitor, a delivery, a vehicle to open the gate for.

The guards are a club unto themselves and nothing escapes their attention. When Sir recently had to climb down a ladder from our balcony to get to work at 6:30 a.m. (the lock had jammed), he was updated on the state of affairs as he turned onto our road at 5 p.m. The gaggle of guards in front of the jewellery store chuckled knowingly. “Sir, climbing down this morning? Locksmith here, all fixed now!”

On our street of three villas, three businesses, two apartments buildings and a private school, there are never fewer than a dozen guards at any time of the day. We know most of them and are greeted with a wave, a Namaskara, or a chat. “Madam going for lunch?” “Where is Sir now?’ “Sir, have not seen Madam for two days?”

And we learn of their lives. George Fernandez worked for years overseas, “Happy home now Madam, how is it in India?” he asks, peering through smudged glasses. He springs his roly-polly figure up from his chair each time I walk past. He tells me about his children, “some in university now”, the satisfaction radiating from his proud face…years of working away from his family now just a memory.

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Another ‘on-duty’ sits under the welcome shade of a large banyan tree. Vijay Kumar is a tall man with the countenance of a doctor or a lawyer. He also courteously rises from his chair with a greeting. “Good morning Madam, where going?” he asks on a recent morning. I tell Mr. Kumar  I’m on my way to the doctor and a look of alarm crosses his face. Reassuring him it’s nothing serious, I ask about his grandson. “Oh fine, fine,” he replies, pulling out a wallet-sized photo, “And now a name is there Ma’am.”

Mr. Kumar announced last month that he had become a grandfather and also informed us that the baby hadn’t yet been named. Following a Hindu tradition called Namakarama, on the fortieth day a baby is blessed, sprinkled with holy water and given its name at a local temple. It was a proud moment when Mr. Kumar could share his grandson’s name with the neighbourhood and distribute the requisite sweets.

Bidding farewell, my direction is the local doctor about three blocks away. It’s a beautiful spring morning; the trees are erupting with blooms, the bougainvillea bursting with lively shades, jack fruit and coconut are plumping up melon-big…I cross the road to avoid an imagined concussion. Mango trees are starting to bear their coveted fruit.
IMG_0121 (1)‘My’ mango tree which I see from my window will be harvested in July. A barefooted climber will scuttle up its massive branches and shake the mangos loose, dropping them onto a sheet, hoisted up at each corner. One after another the mangos will tumble down.

I had been promised last week by Anu, my neighbour across the way, that I must taste some this year. We hadn’t chatted for a few months and finally caught up Sunday morning IMG_2537around Mangalora’s fruit cart. After hugs from both of the ladies, and an admonishment that I am never here, Anu asked if I’m home now. “I leave later this week again Ma’am, I’m a speaker at a conference and will go home to see family.”

While we chose our apples and papayas, Anu asked what I’ll be speaking of and reveals that she had once been a teacher. The congenial Sunday morning chat ended with a “Safe travels and blessings to your family.” I resolved to make a point of getting to know Anu better, hopefully over some delicious mangos.

IMG_0277On this morning I turn the corner onto Lavelle Road, mindful of bikes, rickshaws and laden vegetable carts. A pony-pulled cart surprisingly trots past. Another unexpected sight greets me in front of Sodabottleopenerwallah, a restaurant we’re fond of. A brass polisher has set up in front to polish the tiffin boxes. The waft of red-hot charcoal infuses the air as the wallah heats, scrubs and buffs the small pots used for curries and rices. The sidewalk serves as the wallah’s work bench, ideal for this vital itinerant service.

The charm of our neighbourhood is just this; the traditional with the modern, the unexpected with the reliable.

As I make my way onto the busy main road, nestled in the shade is the usual chai wallah. His customers are gathered around for a morning tea break. He delights in his photo being taken, but the nearby newspaper wallahs don’t have time for such nonsense. They’re gathering their deliveries from stacks piled on the ground…The Times of India, The Deccan Herald, the Bangalore Times. Once strapped onto the back of their bicycles, they’ll be delivered in time for morning coffee.

When I reach the small hospital another block away, I am the only foreigner and curiousIMG_1280 stares greet me as I pay the 500 rupees (10 dollars) for my consultation. The doctor’s professionalism belies his simple surroundings and when he hears that I write, our conversation meanders to authors and history, to the once sleepy and peaceful Bangalore. “This was once the ideal city, so green with a temperate climate,” the doctor says ruefully, reflecting on his more than two decades in the city.

I leave and walk to my corner-store, Asha’s. I don’t know if it has served the community for twenty years, but I imagine so. About as big as an over-sized garden shed, two people cannot pass through its narrow space at the same time, yet the well-stocked shelves never seem to let me down.

Namaste Madam, what today?” Rafik asks, then pulls the items off the shelves as I call them out. He informs me that he finally has some cheese in stock, I’m pleased with this news but it seems I don’t have enough money with me. “Madam, tomorrow is there,” he says tearing a small recipt from its pad. Each item has been handwritten and it seems I’m 639 rupees short. “Thank you Rafik, I’ll come back tomorrow.” I smile to myself as I leave, knowing that my credit is good in the neighbourhood…truly a local now it seems.

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As I arrive back at my street, a busy scene greets me. Raj’s vegetable cart is positioned half-way down, Arun is cycling up with a bag of laundry in need of pressing and the postman is delivering today’s mail. I don’t get a chance to speak with him, but I engage Arun and Raj.

“How long have you been in business Raj,” I ask admiring the decorative touches on his trusty blue cart. It is well- laden, down to its inner compartment stuffed with greens –spinach, coriander, mint and curry leaves. It requires strength and concentration to maneuver this movable shop along the city’s busy streets.

IMG_0095 (1)“Nineteen years Madam, but the cart is new, 2004. Cost 32,000 rupees.”

“That’s a lot Raj,” I confirm, knowing it’s a substantial investment. “Yes,” he agrees and pats the handle of his cart,”and only one driver!”

We both laugh and Raj hands me the handwritten slip of my purchase. He clicks his tongue and shakes his head when I tell him I must go inside to get some money, “Tomorrow is there Madam.”

Arun unlatches a bag of laundry from his bicycle, just collected from a neighbourhood customer. He and his partner Laurence are iron wallahs and set up most days under the shade of ‘my’ mango tree. This bag of clean garments, along with many others awaiting their turn, will be pressed, wrapped in newspaper and delivered by dusk. Arun’s sturdy Atlas bicycle will roll back down the street with the deliveries.

“It’s a good bike Arun,” I offer, noting the brand.

“Yes Madam, Indian made and old.”

I ask how long he’s been in business and Arun seems chuffed to tell me. “First my uncle for 37 years, then dead. Now mine for 7 years.” I suggest to him that his Uncle would be proud and he smiles quietly.

Arun, as with all the wallahs and guards, no longer appear surprised that we choose to interact with them; perhaps they’re pleased to have some interaction as they work through another long day. The word wallah is Sanskrit for keeper and Hindi for doer, it describes these hard-working entrepreneurs well.

I realize that this is the day I truly feel at ease with my life in India. We’ve just celebrated our one year anniversary in the neighbourhood; it’s home.

IMG_0098Just then Priya walks up to start her three hour shift. “Madam, just home? Where were you?” she wants to know as she takes one of the shopping bags.

We walk up the wide steps, to my apartment where a wooden bench from the Middle East sits against my marbled entrance wall. It has welcomed me home in five different countries. We plunk the shopping down on it as we remove our shoes.

I fill Priya in on my morning, “I was at Asha’s and seemed to speak to everyone in the neighbourhood this morning, Mr. Kumar’s baby now has a name Priya. And I had to go to the doctor before I leave at the end of the week.”

“But Madam,” Priya says, her usual vibrant tone turning melancholy. “So long, over one month away?” she says remembering I’ll be gone longer than usual.

As she ties on her apron once inside, Priya asks ,”Madam, still cold in Europe and Canada?”

“Yes still cold, I must pack warm clothes this time.” With this she smiles mischievously then raises her voice in laughter, “Well Madam, enough clothes are there,” Priya says referencing my closets. This I can’t deny, nor that Priya always manages to brighten my day.

Thankfully, her days are brighter now than they once were….Priya’s story will be continued

Of Magical Mysore…of farewells and re-attachments…

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img_0771Time with family and friends recently in Canada was wonderful – home in the true sense. However my other life in India called.

The world may be my oyster, yet there is a downside to living on different continents. Once back in Bangalore, reality quickly set in.

After four months of a ‘monastic’ existence whilst consumed by a book project and another few months away, I returned to Bangalore feeling a stranger and out of touch. I needed to fit back into a social life.

As in the past with other adopted countries, I trust a time will come when it feels more effortless…

Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that my first reaction was not to yield to my surroundings, but rather to explore. “Let’s see more of India,” I implored my husband. “I need to take advantage of actually being here.”

The next morning we pack our bags and head to ‘Majestic’, the city railway station. A little more than two hours later, the train delivers us to the city of Mysore. The saying goes that you haven’t truly experienced South India unless you’ve journeyed here. Our first hours in the city hint that this might be so. The streets feel different from Bangalore, but in a way that was strikingly familiar. I am transported back to those enchantingly simpler times we had experienced backpacking in India, over a quarter of a century ago.

img_0819-1Mysore’s streets and broad tree-line boulevards, are lively but less urgent than Bangalore’s. Stately buildings exude charm and a sense of place and history. All reminiscent of our India of old – a fondly re-discovered treasure.

The city is redolent with history, defined by the regal Maharajahs of the Wodeyar dynasty and by the infamous Tipu Sultan. Known as the Tiger of Mysore, Tipu was India’s freedom fighter and revered for resisting the onslaught of British imperialists. His state succumbed only after their fourth campaign. The Sultan is also celebrated as the pioneer of rocket warfare…but more of Tipu Sultan later.

We stay at a former residence built by the Maharajah of Mysore himself, a cozy retreat for his European guests. The Royal Orchid Metrople is that touch of old world charm with its tiled verandahs of potted palms, intricate lattice work and inviting wicker chairs. I enquire who the lady is, proper in a lacy Victorian collar and hairstyle of the 1920’s. Her portrait is handsomely framed at the foot of the lobby’s spiral staircase. With a hint of reverence, the concierge confirms, “We’re quite certain she was our first guest.”img_0765

I conjour a day in the life of this European visitor. I imagine her penning a letter at the writing desk in the Maharani suite – the very one we were staying in – carefully folding the parchment before sliding it into an envelope. Perhaps the correspondence describes a social gathering of visiting dignitaries, the unexpected thrill of an elephant ride or the purchase of fine Mysorean silk. Perhaps the letter addresses the paradox of the writer’s privileged colonial lifestyle, in contrast to the struggles and injustices of many locals. I would tell the writer that as foreigners in India, we try still today to reconcile the inequalities that surround us. We embrace the culture and the heritage, but often grapple with the poverty of the underprivileged.

img_0768Our guest from the 1920’s makes her way down the spiral staircase to the porticoed entrance. She dons a sun hat and the doorman, splendidly attired in the Mysore fashion of the day, bids her ‘Good afternoon’. He summons a carriage and the visitor is conveyed to the Maharaja’s Palace. As the palace draws into view, she is instantly captivated.

As it was then, so is it now. Mysore Palace remains one of India’s grandest royal buildings. The most visited tourist attraction in India after the Taj Mahal, six million visitors a year are transported back to an era of unparalleled grandeur. This is the seat of the Mysore royal family, where the most beloved of Maharajahs, Krishna Raja Wodeyar IV was installed in 1902.

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The extensive palace grounds are lush, shadowed with rain trees and dotted with sacred temples. I’m asked to join groups for photographs and willingly oblige. It is clear we are much more of a curiosity here than in Bangalore. Small children greet me with smiles and a, “Hi Auntie, where are you from?”

We join the multitudes and deposit our footwear before entering the inner palace. Photos inside are not allowed, but then they could not do it justice.

The ‘Indo-Saracenic’ architecture of the Mysore Palace is a mix of Hindu, Muslim, Rajput and Gothic…and it is breathtaking. With soaring rooflines, mosaic floors, doors of inlaid ivory and displays of gold such as the elephant howdahs, the palace is designed to inspire awe. The durbar (the ceremonial meeting hall of the royal court) is magnificent in both scale and opulence, emphatically projecting the power of the Wodeyars who ruled for almost six centuries.

The much beloved Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV was the 24th Maharaja, ruling from 1895 to 1940. Focused on education, hospitals and religious sites, he worked to alleviate poverty and improve public health and industry. The forward-thinking Raja also built Asia’s first hydro electro project. Nearby Bangalore benefited and was the first city in India to have electric street lights in 1905.

Indeed the strides made during the Raja’s reign, inclined the revered Mahatma Gandhi to remark that the Maharaja was truly a Raja Rishi, a saintly king. His princely state of Mysore was acknowledged to be ‘the best administered state in the world’. But of course the Maharajahs of Mysore (as with other princely states) were also known for their excesses. Doing a Mysore was a phrase coined by Rolls-Royce executives in the 1920’s, code for the purchase of ‘Rollers’ in batches of seven…as the Maharaja Krishna was inclined to do!

The palace is a trove of treasures. Finely detailed wall paintings portray scenes from the Wodeyar’s stately processions and lavish lifestyle. Depicted in intricate detail, the Maharajahs are adorned in the finest Mysore silk and richly bejewelled. They sit atop caparisoned elephants, under the shade of a howdah or upon golden thrones. And they are rich beyond compare. At the time of his death in 1940 at his summer palace in Bangalore, Krishna Raja Wodeyar was one of the world’s wealthiest men.

We emerge from the palace into the expansive grounds. Hawkers gently tickle drums to entice. Cheap bangles, sandalwood carvings, incense and oils are offered – Mysore’s reputation for sandalwood and the finest of silks is undisputed. Brightly painted carriages and their listless ponies invite; more modest echoes of the elaborate carriages that once graced the the streets of Mysore.

img_0918-1The next morning a ‘carriage’ of a different kind awaits us. The environs of Mysore beg to be explored and we jump into a classic ’66 Mahindra Jeep. It’s rugged and basic, it’s a beauty.

Faizan from Royal Mysore Walks greets us affably and promises we’ll enjoy the tour. “You can ask me anything at all,” he says, “but just call me Fez, it’s easier.” As a former tour guide myself, I easily identify with him.

Fez is knowledgeable, engaging and gently puts us through the odd history quiz…perfect!

The drive takes us to the ramparts of Tipu Sultan’s fort in Sriangapatnam, an island formed between two channels of the Cauvery River. Hyder Ali, Tipu Sultan’s father, had usurped the throne, then expanded the Mysore kingdom but would be forced, with his son, to defend it in four Anglo Mysorean wars. Fought over three decades, the final and decisive campaign by the British East India Company was in 1799. Even now more than 200 years later, the battlements seem impenetrable and might have remained that way but for one man.

I envision the battle as Fez paints the scene with a wave of his hand. “There was a traitor” he tells us. “His name was Mir Sadiq and so despised is he even today that people throw stones at his tomb.” The general betrayed the Sultan by colluding with the British, opening a breach in the walls that lead to the defeat of the Mysorean troops and to the death of Tipu Sultan, the only Indian king to die on a battlefield.  At a nearby palace, we see the face of Mir Sadiq actually smudged out in paintings, more evidence of the contempt with which he is still held. On the other hand, Tipu Sultan is a national hero; his reputation for brutality is a story for another time.

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That British victory yielded the richest haul of war-spoils from any battle they ever fought. I’m fascinated by this remarkable period, indeed of all Indian history…the Moguls, Maharajahs and the British rule which is both maligned and embraced here. As we leave the ramparts, a simple wooden bullock cart trundles past. Two beasts of burden pull the sturdy cart along a time-worn trail at the river’s edge – a scene unchanged for centuries.

Our Jeep rolls past sugar cane fields, silk worm farms and stands of eucalyptus trees, the sights and smells rushing through the open vehicle are colourful, raw and exhilarating. We turn off the highway and thread across an ancient narrow bridge over a gently flowing river. The Raja Ghat extends either side of us, scenes of ritual bathing and high-spirited play combine; scenes that evoke moments of clarity…I am in India!

img_0860On the side of the stepped ghat, under an ancient stone pavilion, a ceremony unfolds. A young man, bereaved of his father, is in the midst of a solemn ritual. Guided by a brahmin priest, he recites prayers as water is rhythmically dabbed on his wrist. His head is shaved as tradition demands. We listen to the priest’s intonation, a soothing, flowing mantra. We offer condolences to the women witnessing the ceremony, sensing that we have intruded on their grief. Yet they acknowledge us with a nod as we quietly take our leave. On the upper ghat another brahmin priest invites us into his vividly painted temple to witness the ritual about to commence. Inside, the centuries-old place of worship is cool and somber. We sit cross-legged on the stone floor opposite a priest flanked by two men, one an assistant, the other the supplicant.

img_0862The priest leads them in prayer for the well-being of the family. The father takes his cues from the brahmin as his adult son and wife look on. Sanskrit mantras mix with camphor wafting through the still air. Rice and turmeric are sprinkled, offerings in a timeless ritual.

Hands pressed together, and mouthing a ‘namaskara’ to the mother, we again take leave. She returns my gaze, her eyes confirming that our glimpse into this sacred family tradition was welcomed. I am moved by the openness of Hindus, their joy of sharing the living traditions.

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In the mid-afternoon sun, more scenes of communal prayer and family togetherness play out on the ghats. As children splash in shallow pools, the rhythmic slap of laundry beats out a languid tempo on the rocks. Ever-present, sacred cows luxuriate as they munch vegetables in the shade of a mango tree.

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On our return to Mysore, Fez points out stops that we will have to plan for our next visit; sandalwood incense makers, silk farms and even traditional painters of those iconic bullock carts that seem the very essence of rural India. The jeep tour with Fez has offered us insights we would not have had the privilege of seeing.

img_0913South India lives up to its reputation of friendliness, of mystic sights and ancient traditions. This is why, I remind myself. Why this peripatetic life with its farewells and re-attachments, its solitudes and contemplative transition, is worth it. These are the moments to treasure.

I get my bearings back over the next few days and resolve to be contented. I attend a number of social events through the week and feel a little more connected. “Are you free this weekend?” I’m asked.

“I’m afraid not,” I say, “I’m off again.”

As I pen this, my suitcases await at the door for this evening’s flight; it is Singapore and  Australia for the next ten days. Without any children here, I can freely accompany my husband on a business trip. It’s true…I have nothing to complain about…

The Grand Bazaar in Pondicherry and a train passage to old ‘Madras’…part two

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“Bonjour Mademoiselle, ca va?, asks the shallot seller. His smile is radiant, his demeanour peaceful. He shifts and shakes his shallots in a slim basket, removing their skins and depositing them lighter and more saleable into a substantial basket. The shallots are the sellers only commodity this Sunday morning at Pondicherry’s Grand Bazaar.

If you’ve watched the movie Life of Pi, you’ve briefly glimpsed Pondicherry. The narrative begins here, the film sweeps through parts of the old town including the expansive bazaar. Founded in 1827, it’s about the size of a football pitch, and we had been told to not miss it.

Pondicherry’s rich heritage is revealed here; the sellers, the produce, the decorative flower garlands created and sold for cultural and religious occasions. As I experienced in Kazakhstan, a market is where the fabric of a city reveals itself. A place where the murmur of regional languages, the aroma of exotic spices and unfamiliar produce beguiles you. An experience where the cultural thread that stitches a community together heightens the senses – market places are a traveller’s touchstone.

The shallot seller is proud to be of French ancestry, common in this once French port on India’s South East Coast. Pointing to his talika spread across his forehead, he makes it clear that his devotion is for Shiva. The broad stripes, painted or smeared from ash, are worn proudly on followers of the Hindu deity. The seller motions to his stripes and white dot, “Shiva is love,” he tells us in dreamy affirmation. I marvel that he sits, sifting his produce and smiling contentedly, almost in the pathway of the bustling bazaar…in complete serenity.

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Most sellers have a stall, a perch, a ‘hole in the wall’ from which to sell. Many have their own small puja (shrine), a smattering of religious calendars and a hefty ancient scale beside them. Some have a speciality item, others sell it all. Red for apples, tomatoes and luscious pomegranates. Green for coriander and limes, curry and betel leaves, peas and lady fingers…you know them as okra. Purplish eggplant IMG_1117and orange for carrots and mangos.

In Southern India bananas straddle both the yellow and green spectrum, their bunches often sold on thick stalks…ready to be steamed, fried or roasted. Banana leaves are vital as ‘plates and platters’. Practical yet with a side benefit – it’s believed that antioxidants are transferred to the curries and masalas from their thick, waxy leaves.

I feel I’m in the way as burlap sacks of beans, groundnuts and garlic are heaved high on shoulders and humphed past me. I’m cautious underfoot for squashed oranges and smashed corn husks, for the odd rat that darts in and out. I dig my hands into stuffed, rolled down sacks, trickling and rolling rice, myriad beans and lentils through my fingers.

I’m thankful for sincere smiles as I make my way through the crowded lanes, haggling and chatter filling their space. My openness and curiousity is most often met with warmth and returned smiles. The odd person reminds me they are busy trading and understandably, my camera isn’t welcomed by all.

The volume of produce is staggering, it simply has to be sold. This is where the people of India procure their food, not at sterile well-lit grocery stores, but at bazaars, at markets, at roadside vendors.

As colourful as the canvas of fruits and vegetables is, the cultural complexities of the flower and petal stalls are even more intoxicating. These petals of jasmine and lotus, chrysanthemum and oleander, roses and marigolds, are transformed into the dainty, the neck-sized and a variety of shaped garlands for welcoming and worshiping. One might even wrap a garland around an auto rickshaw…yes, they can be bought by the meter. They can reach seemingly gargantuan proportions and be elaborately decorated; they have to be seen to be believed.

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Flower petals are bought cheaply by the bag, both for wholesale and for personal use. It isn’t uncommon to come across ladies sitting on street sides conversing and threading, petals slowly forming a garland. Yet most garlands are threaded at a maker’s stall.

I meet Chandra and his two sons. Their hands are swift and supple as they thread jasmine and roses. “It’s a family business,” I’m told, “my sons are following my foot-steps.” Small businesses such as Chandra’s are the backbone of India. The garland business is prolific.

img_4516They are offered for worship, draped around doorways at a housewarming, a new motorbike or auto rickshaw may be blessed with a garland, a bride and groom exchange them three times during a wedding. They are also woven into a lady’s plaited hair, especially here in Southern India.

I’m told that each Hindu deity has a unique garland: Goddess Lalitha prefers hibiscus, Lord Vishnu wears tulasi leaves, Lord Subrahmanyan likes to be draped in jasmine, whereas Mahalakshmi likes red lotus. Ancient kings appointed keepers whose only role was to tend flower gardens – cultivating precious petals for daily devotions, never to be sold. It is also rumoured that these royal gardeners did not marry.

When I wander to a tucked away lane and find garlands as tall as myself, it crosses my mind to take one to our hotel as a kind gesture. I realize it’s prudent to ask if there’s a special meaning attached to the over-sized creations, “Oh yes madam, those are for funeral!”

The rules for the flower pluckers, the sattarars, is fascinating…and yes I use the word ‘plucker’. In India, the word pluck is always used in reference to flowers. You do not pick flowers –one plucks flowers. It seems the rules for sattarars are rather specific, whether it be for the plucking or the making of garlands.

Flowers should be plucked in the early morning, ideally after having bathed. The flowers or petals should not have been smelled by anyone. They most definitely should not be used if they’ve fallen on earth or dirt. Namajapam or the repetition of holy names should be done while plucking.

While constructing garlands, the petals and other material such as banana tree fiber used as the base, should be kept on a table. Ideally above hip level – a flower for God should not touch the feet. I note that Chandra and his sons were building their garlands above the hip, their creations then displayed above them. I realize I had lifted one gently to my nose to appreciate its fragrance. Did I unwittingly break a rule, or does that only pertain to the loose petals?

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It seems the fragrance of jasmine, the most cherished scent of Indian flowers, is meant to be enjoyed. When their delicate ivory buds are threaded into gajras, not only do they decorate women’s hair, it is believed the scent reduces anxiety, emitting peace and happiness. Ancient Hindu art, chiseled some 2000 years ago, depict goddesses with delicate gajras enhancing their thick locks. And so it is, still today.

I stand close to ladies at a temple and the scent of jasmine lingers. More of those exotic scents and vivid colours that this traveller soaks up. I breath it in and cherish the scene. The images that await me in the coming day, further affirms my love of travel.

We journey back to old Madras (Chennai) by train. Not in first class or in air-conditioning, just the type of train that millions of passengers travel in daily. The kind of train with only bars on the windows and rickety old fans whirling above simple seats. The kind of train that costs less than a dollar to ride 160 kilometres or so.

We are the only foreigners, first aboard, and firmly planted next to the windows. This is important as the bench-seat for 4 will fill to 5, 6, maybe 7 by journey’s end.

img_1418-2Barely ten minutes out of Pondicherry a time capsule awaits. As the clatter of the wheels settle to a rhythmic, soothing pattern, the city gives way to a beautiful patchwork; palms, rice, vegetables and flowers. From these fields come the produce, the bounty found  in Pondicherry’s Grand Bazaar.

Against this verdant backdrop, ladies swish in bright saris as they tend crops and herd flocks. Small villages – simple buildings roofed with palm-fronds and tin, bullock carts trundling down narrow lanes – an old age farming culture stocking India’s bazaars and markets.

The train halts or passes through lyrically named towns like Valavanur, Vullupuram and Vikravandi Mailam. At Tindivanam it gets busy, the 4 seater long-bench is now a 6. A sinewy fellow in a vivid orange lungi asks to borrow the Times of India, a rural family boards dressed in fresh linen and shiny saris – their young daughter toys with a new cell phone, a young professional strikes up a conversation. Might he get a photo for Facebook with our son?

The train screeches to rest at platforms, sellers jump on, plying the aisles…roasted groundnuts, guavas, biscuits and papers. The chai sellers need only to latch their aluminum urns onto a window bar. Tiny cups of sweet chai pass through the gaps; it’s common to treat your fellow passenger. As passengers disembark there are nods all around, perhaps a handshake, we’ve become acquaintances. “Very happy you are traveling the train,” they say.

Temples peek over groves of palm and trees of mango, children splash naked in ponds, water buffalos laze close by. At Melmarmuvathur, dusk settles in and the sultry evening finally offers a cooling breeze.

And the light casts different hues. Green fields deepen to emerald and hills become shadowy. The smell of the sultry air changes.

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Our young friend Anand shakes our hand warmly. The train has rolled into his station, he’s home to visit his recently widowed mother. We regret that we hadn’t exchanged contact details.

The scene changes at Chengalpattu Junction, on the outskirts of Madras. It’s now 7:00 p.m. and crowds of young professionals have left work in suburban offices and await their train into the city.

The fields give way completely to a rainbow of tall skinny homes, to the crush of the city. A milky, full moon dances over the lights of Madras. I close my trusty Moleskin and pack away my travel notes…the images dance vividly in my mind’s eye.

Pondicherry, the once French India…part one

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Colonial architecture in the French quarter

From the time we arrived in Bangalore, we’ve been told to visit Pondicherry. “You’ll feel like you aren’t quite in India,” people say with a twinkle in their eye.

We decide to fly to Chennai (or the once and more romantic sounding Madras), then take a leisurely drive south to Pondicherry. With our driver forewarned to be sensible (well aware of the customary incautious driving), we make our way down the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal.

The mass of Madras gives way to villages and verdant fields stretched along a narrow highway – squeezed with villagers on foot and bike, goats, cows and bullock carts, and then the stream of traffic. We’re all vying for space against the ‘green monsters’ as I’ve dubbed the massive hulks of metal, painted a shade of that pesky green. There are herds of them, public buses that transport millions of people daily throughout India. They stampede the pavement like rampaging elephants, horns trumpeting and wheels trampling – commanding the road as they overtake dangerously, swerving out and back into their lane with only a fraction of space to spare. Your life flashes before your eyes, bend after bend. By the time we arrive in Pondicherry, this passenger is a wreck.

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The welcoming kolam

“I’ll have a gin tonic please,” I plead as we sink into deep wicker chairs at Maison Perumal. We’ve been welcomed with garlands of jasmine and fresh lime sodas in the three-storied courtyard…ironically stuffed with pots the same shade as the ‘monsters.’ “I’m just happy we’re alive,” our son quips as he sips on his lime soda.

Jaison, our host at the Maison explains the intricacies of transportation in India. “The buses are on a tight schedule, they have to move ma’am. Maybe take the train back…that’s the only way to see India.” I make a note to check the train schedule.

Pondicherry, the French interpretation of Puducherry (meaning new settlement), has two distinctive quarters in the old city, the Tamil and the French. We’re in the Tamil quarter, from the predominant population originating in Tamil Nadu, the state that surrounds the Union Territory of Pondicherry. This was once referred to as ‘black town’, settled alongside the French quarter in the late 1600’s.

The Tamil quarter developed around its five Hindu temples, countless small pagodas and the Grand Bazaar. This is where the highest caste of Hindus the Brahmins lived, as well as the businessmen who controlled large-scale trade, the Chettiars. Maison Perumal had been the home of a prominent Chettiar family, the Sunder Iyers, for more than one-hundred years. The family were bankers and cotton traders, and lived in a multi-generational fashion – framed sepia photos line the corridors and hint at their privileged lifestyle.

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Sam John at Maison Perumal

Sam John, the hotel’s manager greets us, meticulous in starched white cotton. He points out the finely carved pillars that elegantly frame the courtyard. “This family traded in Burma and so returned with Burmese teak. This is a large courtyard, sixteen pillars, fitting for a prominent Chettair mansion.”

It seems we’re sitting in the men’s courtyard, the women’s is the smaller one, close to the kitchen. They share similiar architectural features; red-oxide tile flooring for colour and open air wells for ventilation and light. In fact the age-old concept according to the Vaastu Shasta (the traditional Hindu system of architecture), each house must posses an open courtyard to honour the auspicious link between the five elements – the courtyard also bustled with family gatherings.

I ask Sam about the stone bench at the entrance of Maison Perumal, having noticed that the Tamil homes have a street verandah with a lean-to-roof over wooden posts, and a masonry bench tucked in the corner. “This is called the thalvaram. A shady place to give protection for the passers-by and to protect the building from the sun and rain. The benches are thinnai, used to welcome strangers or to chat with neighbours. We like sitting cross-legged on the benches, keeps us nimble, like yoga,” he says.

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Sunday morning thinnai

We experience the concept of thinnai first hand as we’re invited onto a verandah as we pass by a quaint bungalow early Sunday morning. Two sister-in-laws are chatting as they shell peas for mid-day lunch. Like us, one of the ladies is also visiting from Bangalore. We comment on the chaotic streets that we’ve escaped from – we breath in the healthier air of  peaceful Pondicherry.

Sam John mentioned the importance of retaining this low-key way of life when we had spoken. He was passionate in explaining that Maison Perumal is a cgh earth experience hotel, they have a clear ethos.

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A tri-shaw tour

The chain of hotels has non-negotiable principles of preserving the nation by honouring local heritage. Cgh hotels are restored to preserve their heritage and architecture. Sam had told us, “Respecting the past, all the hotels have adopted the local culture and way of life, paying homage to traditional modes of living, nature, architecture and heritage.”

At Maison Perumal, we ‘feel’ the ethos as we appreciate the attention to detail in the restored building, its second story evoking the French style with stained glass windows and authentic furnishings. This was often the case in a Tamil home, the marrying of the Tamil and French style. We enjoy local cuisine and an opportunity to tour on a trishaw. “We’ve engaged locals to do these tours,” Sam said proudly, “it helps support the community.”

One morning during our stay, a kolam is being chalked in the courtyard as we make our way to breakfast. It is a morning ritual for the Tamils (as in other parts of India) to create a design in the courtyard and at the home’s entrance. They are delightful either in their simplicity or in more embellished artistic forms, although decoration is not the main purpose of a kolam. Traditionally drawn from rice flour it welcomes people, small creatures and even deities, not least of whom is Lakshmi, the Goddess of prosperity and wealth.

The patterns range from geometric drawings around a matrix of dots, to free form art work and closed shapes. Folklore has evolved to caution that the lines must be completed so as to symbolically prevent evil spirits from entering the inside of the shapes, and thus from the inside of the home.

Such ancient traditions such as these are still a part of every day life for the people in the Hindu enclave. The French quarter gave an entirely different sense of time and place. Puducherry, or Pondy, as the locals now refer to their city, has been a base for trading since the early 1520. Of the Europeans, the Portuguese were here first to trade in textiles; the Dutch and the Danes followed. But it was the French who rebuilt a prominent fortified town and thriving port of call, despite the British (in nearby Madras) razing most of it to the ground in 1761. The Treaty of Paris returned Puducherry to the French in 1763 and they quickly rebuilt. Today its unique charm captures the romance of those early Colonial days; of retreating  from the punishing heat on breezy verandahs after a day of trading those sought after commodities: cotton, indigo, cinnamon and cardamon, coffee, mehe pepper, cowrie shells and Chinese porcelain. They all passed through the warehouses before journeying, east to west.

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The respite of a colonnade portico

The French quarter, home to the French and other Europeans was dubbed ‘white’ town. Their homes and public buildings mirrored the upper-class French style. Imposing gates hinted at the prosperity of the owner ensconced behind high compound walls. They hid lush garden courts and verandahs decorated with exquisite scrolls and floral motifs. Ideally facing the sea breeze, the colonnaded porticos were essential to day to day life as the settlers coped with the extreme heat and humidity –entertaining staved off the sometimes interminable boredom of life in the Indies.

Women of the day visited, gossiped, read and wrote short stories. Tales were told of ‘Indian culture’ as they perceived it to be. Their interaction with the ‘natives’ was restricted to a minimum – mostly to their staff of butlers, gardeners and servants, and punkah wallahs who ensured a constant flutter of air from delicate wicker fans. Every good home also employed palanquin carriers who transported their sir and madam in improbable style. The large box-like contraptions with shuttered windows and a long pole on either end, (handles for the carriers) allowed residents in the French quarter to ‘hide away’ as they made their way through the streets.

We take a tour with Ashok who works with INTACH, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. Their mission is to preserve heritage buildings, save them from further dilapidation, breathe life back into their storied pasts. We’re told the old town is in danger of losing its unique charm if more treasured buildings cannot be rescued. Along with the beautifully restored we see once-proud homes, shops and government buildings, lingering and neglected in a slow, sad demise.

Ashok leads us to one of the loveliest of the restored mansions. As we enter through the gate to the imposing, white and lemon-hued mansion, there is complete silence despite the presence of countless women. They sit embroidering, the chirp of birds and the rustle of palm leaves their gentle sound track. “This was the French Trading Company office and then the Governor’s mansion,” Ashok tells us. “Now run by the Sisters of Cluny Church, they train and help underprivileged ladies through their embroidery work.” It is an uplifting setting and a noble venture – an example of the practical possibilities of preserving the legacies of bygone years.

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Embroiders at work in a peaceful setting

Deciding to stay a few evenings in the French quarter, we meet a lovely young Parisian. Chandra, along with her cousin Ryan, is the acting proprietor of La Closerie, Bay of Bengal. The guest house is a combination of an old French home and a new annex that melds together seamlessly.

“My mother bought the colonial home about twenty years ago. It was restored and extended four years ago, I’m here to manage it for a year,” Chandra says. She mentions the contrasting pace between Pondy and Paris. “There are quite a few of us French here with Indian roots. It’s a vibrant community, a unique opportunity to spend a year here.”

Chandra is one of many French men and women we meet. When the French left Pondy in 1954, many residents retained Indian citizenship and property, even those who chose to return to France. While some descendants benefited from inherited homes, others found it to be a burden if unable to meet the cost of refurbishment.

Jawaharlal Nehru himself, who in 1947 became the first Prime Minister of Independent India, made it a point to preserve the unique heritage of this once French India. “I want Pondicherry to remain a window of culture.” And indeed through the efforts of INTACH and other committed bodies like cgh, Pondicherry is trying to do just that.

We take a late afternoon stroll along the sea front, joining the locals taking in the salubrious sea air. People linger in groups conversing, or ponder alone matching the brooding sky over the Bay of Bengal. The weathered lighthouse looms over the crowds, once more useful when it guided trading ships into these shores. Sculptured pillars from an ancient fort stand guard over a statue of the revered Ghandi – a statue of Nehru stands close by. The scene is much changed since boatmen and tall ships crowded the jetty, and the more somber history of Pondicherry’s colonial days unfolded– the shipping of thousands of Tamils as ‘coolies’ or indentured workers and slaves.

But for now we leave the sultry beachside with its pounding waves, with its people – French, Tamil and Muslim living harmoniously, where time stands still yet moves cautiously forward. One last time, we cross back into the Tamil quarter…there’s the Grand Bazaar to visit and that train passage to reserve back to old Madras.

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A vibrant Indian neighbourhood…under the shade of a rain tree

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The neighbourhood fruit vendor

The lyrical calls of the wallah echo through our tiny street…fruit, vegetables, papers, knife sharpening, and the call for tea…chai! These vendors, with well-stocked wooden carts and bicycles, are still part of the fabric in this traditional neighbourhood.

Our move was only days old when I first heard this chant. As I lingered with my Sunday morning coffee, I heard the rising pitch of a female voice. The words were unclear yet the entreaty to ‘come buy’ unmistakeable.

“That must be a wallah!,” I said expectantly, rushing to gaze down to the leafy street.

The vendor was wearing a vivid red sari, contrasting her laden, deep green cart. Hurrying to the street, I meet my new fruit seller, Munglora. She greets me by removing the tiny red dot, a bindi, from her forehead and placing it just between my eyes, “welcome,” she says with an engaging laugh. Despite the language barrier, I can tell she’s a character.

I gather strawberries, melons and pomegranates for ‘a song’, yet discover that like an excited child, I had only rushed down with a few rupees in my hand. “Ok, ok,” says Munglora and jots down the amount owing in a faithful ledger. She’ll be sure to see me next Sunday this way.

A few of the neighbours make their way from their aging villas. Their friendliness is matched by their curiosity about this new couple on the street, “Where are you from and do you have children,” they want to know. It seems a little more acceptable that we’re so far away from our sons when I tell them they are studying and that by co-incidence, our landlord’s son went to the same university/college as I had in Canada. “What a small world,” we all agree pleasantly.

Munglora has parked her cart near the tall school gate at the end of the street and the impeccably uniformed school guard soon introduces himself. It’s obvious he takes pride in his long service to the Bishop Cotton Boy’s School. Built in the 1860’s, it’s one of the oldest institutions in Bengaluru and I gaze beyond the gate towards the Colonial style buildings with their terracotta tiled roofs. Oh how I hope I’m offered a tour of the grounds one day!

These authentic encounters validate our decision to not live in the confines of a walled compound. After much deliberation, we chose a beautiful apartment in the heart of the city. It’s unexpectedly modern with cooling marble floors and generously spacious for this urban location. Best of all, our terrace is shaded by a canopy of massive rain trees, impossibly tall coconuts, mango and bamboo.

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Under the shade of a rain tree

They shelter the headmaster’s garden below, its calm interrupted twice daily by the  passing flow of students. The morning security guard motions to school children in starched white uniforms to hurry, hurry, as they jump out of a car or auto- rickshaw and rush the gate, late for class. Mothers wave their student goodbye as they disappear into the lush grounds…phew, made it just in time! I hear cricket games in the distance, the national anthem and school announcements…all a pleasant ‘commotion.’

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The rush of school pick up

We soon discover the school has also given us a music studio…serenades drift up to our terrace, strains of Adele, jazz and snippets of Indian folk. It blends with the headmaster’s menagerie of ducks, honking geese and a very plump turkey who fans his plumage and makes his presence known with long, squeaky honks. Thankfully, pleasant birdsong and chatter of hawks, pigeons and parakeets soften the soundtrack.

“Monkeys pass through about twice a year,” my landlord tells me as we appreciate the vista from the terrace on the first day. He laughs as I recoil, my lifelong fear of monkeys revealed. We’ve had a comfortable rapport since I first viewed the apartment and he’s obliged us with window treatments of our choice and painting in a shade complimenting my Indian inspired decor of lanterns and silk cushions in gorgeous hues of duck egg green and soft blues.

I feel further spoiled when I realize that an iron wallah sets-up in the shade of the doctor’s garden across the street. The first day, I take over five shirts to be ironed “50 rupees,” Laurence says, shyly glancing up from his coal-powered iron. I ask how long the coal stays warm in the hefty contraption. “Two hours,” I’m told and when I attempt to tip an extra 20 rupees, Laurence returns it to me. Five beautifully pressed shirts for about $1, his rate the same for all. There is help of every nature in the neighbourhood and I understand that it is both our pleasure and an obligation to avail ourselves of these services…it’s expected.

“Anything, anything at all you need, you go to Anand,” the landlord insists. Part of the small ‘family’ we seem to have adopted is this young man with a ready smile and his finger on the pulse of it all; cleaners, internet hookup, pest control, repairmen. Anand is the acting boss of the other ‘family’ members of this five apartment complex including the maintenance and sweeper fellow, the drivers and the security guard who is never far from his post at the gatehouse.

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Villas standing their ground against modernity

Every time my husband passes our guard, Rajesh Kumar, he is given a quick salute. Our Rajesh isn’t as well turned-out as most of the guards, but he is always gentlemanly, insisting on carrying my shopping up the short flight of stairs to our wide, welcoming front door.

 

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A welcome tilak and a vase of ‘eight-hundred roses’

At one end of our short street stands the Bishop Cotton gate, the other intersects with a tree-lined road dotted with bars, restaurants and older villas that stand defiant against the onslaught of development. They contrast a handful of nearby hotels where one can disappear into storied luxury; where doors are opened by resplendently attired doormen and vases of eight-hundred roses welcome in sparkling lobbies. Where one is welcomed with a Namaskar and approached with a tray for the tilak.

This is the welcoming ceremony of dotting a small dab of vermillion or sandalwood on the forehead, just between the brows. This is believed to be where the spiritual eye resides…the place of latent wisdom. And unlike Munglora’s self-adhering bindi, these are more ‘permanent.’

Close to all of this is the ‘lung’ of the city, Cubbon Park with ample walkways, jogging paths and bike trails shaded by silver oaks and Cook pines from Australia. “If they were to ever diminish this park, there would be riots in the streets,” a fellow park enthusiast tells me. I believe I’d join in – it’s imperative that Bengaluru safeguards its dwindling greenery.

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Architecture contrast, looking out from Cubbon Park

We visit the Bangalore Club built during the British Raj for the pleasure of ranking officers and officials stationed in this former cantonment area of barracks and regimental head quarters. This club is redolent with history and after a swim or game of tennis, one can quench one’s thirst with a sundowner in the ‘Men’s Lounge’ (women now allowed) where Winston Churchill still has an unpaid bar bill and a stuffed leopard recalls the pursuits of hunting and gaming…it’s as if you have stumbled upon a movie set.

We continue to explore this past weekend and just a short auto-rickshaw ride away, we find ourselves a little further into the cantonment area. Whether you agree, or not, with this period of history, iconic vestiges of it remain. From 1806 to 1881, this area comprised the largest British Raj cantonment in southern India. We seem to find the old residential area. We peek behind crumbling stone walls where once stately bungalows are strangled by overgrown gardens and telling shop signs cling to redundant buildings.

We’re welcomed into the superbly maintained St. Andrew’s Church and our eyes are drawn to wall plaques that reveal the history of church members in the late 1800’s. People from England, Scotland and Wales, either stationed or chose to make their life here. Some having met their demise from malaria, dengue fever, leopard and tiger attacks…sad reminders of the perils of life in tropical climates.

With that thought in mind, we make our way to Commercial Street to buy mosquito coils and see this lively shopping district first hand. Other than the odd modern shop planted in the maze of crisscrossed streets, we’re transported back to the India of our backpacking days. It is still here; the intoxicating blend of colour, aromas and noise…the stamp of an authentic Indian street. Holy cows hold up traffic, vendors offer an array of goods and artisans inhabit impossibly small spaces creating stunning craft pieces.

We chat with rice and salt merchants, their archaic sign and ‘ancient’ scale an indication of their long standing business. The sellers willingly pose for a photo as does a nearby vendor of saris, an artisan stitching delicate mirror triangles onto brilliant pink silk, a lime juice vendor, a rice grinder, an antique dealer who details the merits of a brass Hindu collectible to me; all friendly and proud of their wares and talents.

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A proud artisan

We are lucky enough to meet Deepa as she sits with other women on the steps of a Marathi community hall, a long way from their traditional Mumbai origins. They’re celebrating a Hindu festival and after a friendly introduction, Deepa insists on taking us to the neighbourhood temple. Once there, yet more women are sitting quietly in the cool of a small temple and smile a welcome as we enter. A private puja, (prayer alcove) is opened for us to peer at the garlanded God and once again, a touch of vermillion is dabbed on my forehead.

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Deepa with her daughter…gathered with friends

“Come back with me,” Deepa insists, “it’s time for the festival lunch, you’ll eat with us.”

We stroll back through the congenial neighbourhood…circumventing cows recumbent on the cracked sidewalks and nodding ‘hello’ when Deepa is greeted by yet more people she knows. Once we’ve returned to the hall, we find ourselves seated cross-legged on the floor, a hand-stitched banana leaf plate before all two-hundred or so of us.

Deepa’s young daughter sits just behind me and practices her English. Her brother-in-law gives helpful instructions on eating with one’s fingers and the young lady next to me plies me with questions. We are the only foreigners, yet made to feel welcome and I sense they are honoured (and a little bemused) that we are enjoying this festival lunch with them.

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Guests at a community festival

Suddenly, it’s all hands on deck as barefoot young men in sleeveless t-shirts and longhis serve from slender metal buckets. One after another, a plop of rice, masala, vada, raita,dosa, more rice…all eaten with only your right hand. I ask for another popadom as the rice is too hot for these uninitiated fingers.

“Your husband has finished everything,” Deepa tells me as I look over and see his plate wiped clean. Not surprising, it’s the best food we’ve had in the first six weeks in India!

“Did you like it?” our hostess asks as we bid farewell and exchange numbers. “Anything you need at all, you call me and we’ll get together.” We thank Deepa and tell her how much we’ve enjoyed the experience.

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A break on Commercial Street

It has been that way, so many welcoming people from expats, to locals, to transplants from other parts of India; we couldn’t feel more embraced these first weeks.

After the busy weekend, I meet a new friend and neighbour for coffee and I’m pleased with yet more unexpected ‘luck.’

“You know there’s a roof-top yoga studio I practice at. It’s just on the other side of your apartment,” Camilla says, knowing that I’ll be pleased.

It’s too good to be true, literally next door…yet another wonderful discovery of this neighbourhood.

And there will be much to experience and discover once we’re fully moved in, when our shipment arrives from Canada; it seems to be on a world-wide adventure all of its own.

We’ll then wander and embark on trips outside of Bengaluru, into this enchanting land of India.

First, however, I have a book project in another magical country, Malaysia. You’ll find me in Penang the next few weeks..wish me luck!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Dispatch from India…life amongst coconut groves, drishtis and leopards

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A coconut vendor in Bengaluru

“Is it possible to wander through the coconut grove,” I ask, gazing out to the enticing greenery that unfolds from my vantage point in the residence lobby, nine stories up.

“Ma’am no, remember the leopard,” I’m gently rebuked. The staff seem mildly amused by this newly arrived resident of Bangalore, or rather Bengaluru to use its traditional name.

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Coconuts, a staple of Karnataka

Yes of course, I chide myself, recalling the front page news on this morning’s Times of India; a leopard attack with two other ‘cats’ prowling this suburb known as Whitefield. Perhaps it isn’t surprising as we’re in Karnataka, a southern state of India known for its jungles, coffee plantations and rainforests…its ancient temples and forts. I gaze longingly at the coconut palms and eucalyptus dotting the open spaces between housing compounds, new apartment buildings and haphazard streets. I’m already yearning for clean, fresh air.

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A warm welcome from Kasturika

Even as a seasoned traveller, I find myself wavering between my usual curiosity and the less familiar sense of disorientation. This city of 10 million might well have become the ‘Silicon Valley’ of India, but the infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with its relentless growth. The roads are chaotic; no lane discipline, precious few lights, cows strolling at will, a jostle of auto rickshaws, cars, hand-painted haulage trucks and motorbikes all vying for space…edging forward, inch by inch with toots and beeps and throaty horns merging into a dissonant musical score. The moment you encounter the streets of India, all senses are engaged.

On day one, we’re welcomed by Kasturika our relocations expert, one of the millions of young professionals who have relocated to Bengaluru. Over the next three days, her insight and sensitivity help us transition as we traverse the city to view houses in various compounds. Some locals choose to reside in these walled oases, as well as expats who find the communities safe, orderly, social and if I’m honest…insulated.

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An ‘army of gardeners’

There’s isn’t any doubt as to the privileged life within these protected enclaves. Small armies of workers sweep the streets, tend gardens and guard the premises. Lush landscapes of palms, bougainvillea and fragrant frangipani contrast the street scenes just beyond… where bullock carts amble amidst the traffic mayhem and stray, bone-thin dogs pick at mounds of garbage. Where sari-clad women beg with desperate eyes, precious babies in their arms. Where so many women labour in the sun; digging, carrying, sweeping, and selling, hour after hour after hour.

But ‘out there’ is also where shop vendors smile widely when I pause to buy flowers or fruit. Where a man hefting a coal-warmed iron, working his way through mounds of laundry, greets me with a proud gaze. Where ‘an army of gardeners’ are bewildered when I ask to take their photo, but chuckle and tidy their hair as they pose. Where life unfolds in riots of colour, hierarchies of castes and prayers to a multitude of Hindu gods.

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Hefty coal-warmed irons

I try to marshall my senses, heightened by extreme emotional swings and sympathies.

Memories flood back of the two months we spent backpacking in India years ago and the contrast is surreal. Where once ours was a carefree adventure, we are now in an orchestrated search for a home, enclaved from tumultuous streets…yet part of me resists the notion.

 

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Colourful ladies sweep in a walled enclave

I flood Kasturika with questions as we crawl through traffic. I sit in the back of the vehicle feeling choked from the poor air quality. I put on my sunglasses and quickly learn to peer straight ahead when there’s yet another knock on my window from a hand outstretched and a plea.

Recalling my ‘First Dispatch from Kazakhstan‘ I know that these initial days are trying and I trust that I’ll settle as I always have in a new country. Yet I admit… I’m in culture shock.

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The daily palm frond collector

It’s a relief that I fall in love with the first house we’re shown. It’s new, with an open floor plan that communicates with the palm treed garden where parakeets flit and papayas thrive. There’s a sparkling pool in the compound and a small shop for basics.

But I’ll have to come to terms with summoning the driver to do any major shopping. It’s uncommon here for foreigners to drive as the roads are too challenging to navigate. I speak with other women about the loss of independence…they say you get used to it.

At the end of the first day, we’re gathered around the residence pool for a cocktail party and we meet young professionals from Denmark, Hungary and Poland, all here on short-term assignments. There is a genuine bewilderment as to why so many international companies have chosen to set up shop in this ill-prepared city; yet the brisk pace of investment continues.

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Flowers on a busy street.

On day two I peruse The Times at breakfast for news of the leopard…still on the loose. A headline jumps out at me that an elephant has run riot in a forest town damaging forty houses during a seven hour rampage.

I note the overt sexual overtones in countless articles and marvel at the detailed ads for arranged marriages, categorized by castes and religions. And it seems most parents have very attractive children…

I’m somewhat charmed when an Indian gentleman approaches my table and asks quietly,

“Have I seen you before? Perhaps in Bollywood, such a sweet and pleasing face.” I’ve already fallen for the charming rhythmic and slightly archaic pattern of speech that is heard here; it sounded lovely of course. I tell him that it’s unlikely as I’ve only just arrived, but thank him in any case.

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A Hindu Temple

“I told myself to let me have the courage and come say hello,” he adds gallantly and politely takes his leave. I chuckle at the Bollywood reference and as I gaze over the dining area I notice a striking young Indian couple that certainly look as if they’ve just stepped from a movie set. A group of ladies chat animatedly, their vivid saris colouring the room. The children of a young Canadian family fill the room with excited chatter, the young Euros are in deep conversation beside me. The cross-section of nationalities is emblematic of modern day Bengaluru.

That afternoon we travel north, viewing compounds removed from the city and the crush of urban traffic. I begin to notice that many of the houses are decorated with a somewhat malevolent looking mask near the front entrance.

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Nazar battu

“Those are nazar battu,” Kasturika tells me, “they fight evil with evil and protect your home or business. It’s an evil eye, a drishti.”  And they’re everywhere, as are temples painted in pretty pastel shades and an inordinate number of roadside fortune tellers. Also in abundance are coconuts; laden on bikes and wheeled carts, neatly stacked with guavas, grapes and more. Caged chickens cluck for sale in shoddy storefronts. I see little meat for sale as it’s very much a vegetarian based diet here. And everywhere, absolutely everywhere are the bright green and yellow three-wheeled auto rickshaws that transport passengers for a mere few rupees.

These scenes unfold alongside IT business parks and modern hospitals, timeless counterpoints to the boom. Late afternoon we make our way back through simple country villages, past fields of marigolds, cows grazing near haystacks and goods balanced on the heads of villagers. The narrow road is busy with bulky, garishly painted trucks that pass dangerously as they dodge cyclists, autos, and bullock carts. I feel the danger factor intensify.

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An abundance of fruit and vegetables

 

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The Parliament Building

Eventually we find ourselves near our temporary residence and I’m uncharacteristically panicky. Yet another beggar knocks on my window, a one-armed monkey hops along the roadside wall; I know that’s all I can take for one day and we cancel an evening engagement. As someone who has transitioned to nine different countries, I temporarily surrender and finally find peace by envisioning my pending walled refuge…perhaps I’ll hang a drishti at the entrance as well!

Making our way into Bengaluru proper on the third day, I finally get a sense of how the city looked in the days of the British Raj and why it’s called the Garden City. There are wide boulevards where trees meet overhead; this is where Cantonments were built and where Winston Churchill lived for a time basking in the colonial life of polo, elegant parties and hunts. Old colonial buildings recall the past, massive cricket stadiums fill for the national sport and stately government institutions proclaim India’s status as the largest democracy in the world.

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Weathered old buildings

A succession of South Indian dynasties once ruled this region. In 1537, Kempé Gowdā – a feudal ruler, established a mud fort considered to be the foundation of the city. It eventually developed within the dominion of the Maharaja of Mysore and became the capital of the Princely State of Mysore, existing as a sovereign entity of the British Raj.

In 1809, the British shifted their cantonment to outside the old city and a town grew up around it, governed as part of British India. Remnants from this period dot Mahatma Gandhi Road, or MG as it’s known.

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Krishna with a ‘Maharaja of Mysore hat’

On MG road we wander into an old bazaar where chits are still used for payments, carbon copies are given to complete the sale and a security guard thumps it with a rubber stamp on the way out; one can’t help but be transported back in time.

A street seller flanks the entrance and is down to his last guava. In a kind gesture, a group of young millennials insist I have theirs to taste. It’s piquant and delicious, sprinkled with an unknown spice. The friendly professionals are also new to this burgeoning city, the capital of Karnataka and pass on some local tips.

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The gift of guava

Our day finishes amongst modern sights of gleaming shopping malls with high-end showrooms and terraced restaurants. Part of me…no all of me…is relieved that this part of the city exists. Where I know I can escape to ‘Western modernity’, yet I know I’ll embrace the rich culture and the mysticism of India.

 

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A family in their auto

As we completed our three days with Kasturika, I tell her how much I’ve appreciated her openess to my endless questions.

“Every question is important when you’re thrust into a new environment, especially one such as India,” she responds. And so very true, India’s disparities can overshadow the beauty of its ancient stories echoed in everyday life…they beg to be appreciated for what they are.

We finish the day with a wander along a vibrant street where young people are enjoying a stroll or a drink, as at it would be in any major city. Yet in this atmosphere on a  balmy Saturday evening, a cow saunters past and suddenly there’s a ramshackle mess of a building next to a sari shop that offers valet parking…quintessential India.

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A small auto souvenir

We celebrate the completion of our orientation with the comfort that we’ve perhaps found a home. In probably the coolest Hard Rock Cafe we’ve been in anywhere in the world, we enjoy a glass of the local wine and I pull out a whimsical purchase from the day, that ‘ubiquitous form of transportation’ that will grace my desk and remind me of the trials of transitioning to this fascinating country.

For now, our transportation is in the hands of Shivu, our assigned driver. He collects us and manoeuvres through the gridlocked traffic. I ask him if he has children and when he tells me her name I note that it’s the same name as the compound I hope to live in…surely it’s a good omen!

 

Post script…At the time of writing, the leopard had been captured but has escaped. It is once again on the loose.

 

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A bicycle built for two and a Dutch fiets…exploring on two wheels

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Bikes and canals in Amsterdam

I’m the proud, new owner of a tandem bike, a bicycle built for two. It’s old, a classic Canadian made CCM and I can assure you that it’s rather cumbersome to ride. Yet somehow it evokes the romance of cycling experiences enjoyed around the world. Bikes have been our conveyance of choice in many places, affording glimpses into varied, everyday cultures that could not have been replicated by car, train, or even on foot.

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Options for transporting on a Dutch bike

We’re in Canada for a number of months awaiting our next overseas posting and I’m sure we’ll master the tandem. Yet in our mountain city of Kimberley, BC, most townspeople either own a mountain or road bike. Cycling is a way of life here and like most locals, I took to biking on the wooded trails this summer. I enjoyed it, yet admit that my active imagination was preoccupied with the thought of bears, moose or deer crossing my path. Admittedly, part of me is more at home cycling in urban settings. I love the vibe of a bustling city; even better if you can discover it on a bike.

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Artful in Denmark

On a recent trip to Amsterdam I wanted to get to the root of cycling; how does a society embrace it so completely as a mode of transportation? It’s common knowledge that bikes have evolved into the daily fabric of Dutch life. The Netherlands has one of the most efficient cycling infrastructures in the world. Many cities enjoy similar accommodations for cyclists; Copenhagen, Stockholm and Montreal for example, but the Dutch have truly mastered it. Almost 70 % of all journeys are made on a bike, or as we say in Dutch, a fiets.

I fondly remember taking to my fiets daily when we lived in Holland. Through the cobbled streets of Oudewater I cycled, my first-born strapped into a seat slung from my handle bars. A wicker basket attached at the back, ready to carry home the daily shopping. No helmet, even on my little guy, and yes the thought of it now alarms me. It seems I became complacent to the obvious perils or simply, I adopted the Dutch culture.

Bike stories from previous generations in Holland abound in my family. During war time, my grandparents improvised using garden hoses as tires when none were available. My mother and grandmother had a narrow escape when mercifully they hesitated to lean their bikes at a neighbour’s farmyard, then saw from a distance the building destroyed by a bomb a short time later. But there are also fond memories; three generations of us cycling across the border to Germany, evenings out in Amsterdam then cycling back to family along moon-lit canals, absorbed into the pulse of the city.

“Build paths and they’ll be used”

I visited the Amsterdam Museum and discovered that the bike culture is not simply happenstance. Of course the flat landscape has long been ideal for biking, but by the 1960’s new found wealth and progress came in the form of increased car ownership which marginalized cyclists. Quaint town squares were transformed into parking lots. Historic buildings were demolished to widen roads for the burgeoning car culture. Deaths from car accident deaths increased alarming; thousands in 1971 alone, tragically 400 of them were children. This along with the 1973 oil embargo prompted the ever-pragmatic Dutch to protest, ‘stop the slaughter of our children and end the car culture.’

The Government responded and promoted cycling as a mode of transportation; bike paths, junction lights and bike parks were built.

“Build paths,” said one official, “and they’ll be used.” As the Dutch rationalize, “Is biking not the fastest, cheapest, healthiest way to get around? Why would one not take to two wheels when given the opportunity?”

A 'child carrier' in Copenhagen

A type of child carrier in Christiania, Denmark

In fact today, there are more bikes than people in Amsterdam. About 800,000 of them, and as 84% of people have more than one bike, it’s fair to say the city is a ‘sea of bikes’. I still bemoan the loss of my beloved Dutch fiets that transported me along many charming streets. It had been stored in Amsterdam in my great-aunt’s shed but was eventually given away. How I wish it was in my garage today, at home with our seemingly endless array of bikes; if only for posterity.

On my fiets with a great-aunt in Amsterdam

On my fiets with my great-aunt in Amsterdam

Those solid Dutch bikes are ‘people-movers’ as they’re pedalled with one, two, three, even four children at a time. Riding in any Dutch city during rush hour is a sensory experience. It’s terrifically busy, a constant flow of solo commuters as well as parents transporting their youngsters as they chat about their day. Sitting on the bike or in a cargo box (a bakfiets) the weather is of little consequenceAfter all, there are rain/cold weather covers which help during inclement weather. Especially when the family dog, the daily groceries or a case of Heineken is stuffed along-side the kids!

Additions such as bakfiets are extremely functional but would have been unimaginable when two-wheeled machines first emerged in 1817. The invention is credited to Baron Karl von Drais from Germany. Drais invented the ‘running machine’, called a draisine. It was human-propelled and with no pedals, it was more walked than ridden. Hence it’s nickname of hobby-horse.

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A typical sight in Sweden

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A vintage penny-farthing

Eventually came the bone shaker, then the oddly shaped penny-farthing with a large front wheel and much smaller rear wheel. Rubber tires replaced steel-lined wood and in the 1890’s the safety bike evolved. It was the first machine to be called a bicycle; similar to the design we’re familiar with now.

Many variants of the bicycle have evolved; to road and touring, mountain bikes, unicycles, rickshaws and back to fixed-gear bikes. ‘Fixes’ are single speed and use back brakes, stripped back down to the basics. The zest for simplicity has created a new subculture of riding ‘fixies’ in urban settings.

I came across such a group in Montreal, long a city of cyclists. They posed willingly for my camera but it wasn’t until later that I discovered they were sporting ‘fixies’. Chatting with a young man at a cafe in Calgary, he told me that he was studying in Montreal. I mentioned my blog and showed him my photos. “Ah, they’ll be on ‘fixies’ for sure,” He explained the new subculture that these riders have created with this retro trend; the old will be made new again it seems.

'Fixies' in Montreal

‘Fixies’ in Montreal

For many of us who grew up in Canada, our bike experiences started with a trike, graduating to a set of rattly training-wheels, then onto a ‘banana seat’, and finally the thrill (in my day) of a 10-speed. We cycled endlessly. We got ourselves to school, around town and to our friend’s homes on our bikes. Whose front lawns didn’t have bikes splayed on them when friends came over?  We would also jump on our 10-speeds after dinner, eager to see what was ‘going on’. “Be home by dark,” our mothers would holler as we sped off.

Once you become a parent yourself, teaching your child to ride a bike is a rite of passage for you, every bit as it is for them. I recall the joy as my children balanced their bikes for the first time as I reluctantly let go. Running nervously behind them and anticipating the fall I’d exclaim, “You’ve done it! Don’t forget your brakes!”

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Our youngest, left, and friends out for a pedal

Even today when my grown ‘kids’ hop on a bike, I find it heart-warming. Perhaps it evokes memories of those carefree childhood years, yet I believe there’s more to it than that.

Riding a bike allows us an elemental, exhilarating connection with the world. No hard shell around us, no peering through a window, we are at one with our surroundings; and what surroundings we’ve been fortunate to have explored.

I leaf through my journal from our six month backpacking trip in ’89. I find enticing cycling entries.

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We cycled to the non-tourist view

Agra, India, February…We chose the non-tourist view of the Taj Mahal today. With rented bikes we cycled through a small village along a train track to the nearly dried Yamuna River. There we beheld the most wondrous sight, the Taj Mahal to the south, the Agra Fort to the west. We were transfixed, not able to pull ourselves away from the view. At twilight the moon rose creating an ethereal mistiness that mingled with the Taj; regal and impossibly beautiful. We finally had to pry ourselves away to return our bikes, pedalling home with the moon guiding our way.

 

Kathmandu, Nepal, April…We managed to find bikes to rent and cycled from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur. The Nepalese greeted us as we passed, children ran behind us with mischievous smiles and antics. The friendliness continued as we rolled into the medieval city of Bhaktapur and got swept up into the improbable spectacle of the ‘Biscuit Festival’. An immense, brightly painted wooden pagoda was hauled through the street with much excitement. But the side streets we later cycled were the highlight for me with stunning intricate carvings of Nepalese architecture.

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Offering a ride in Yangshuo, China

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The evening of the Tiananmen Square massacre

Beijing, China, June…Last week the experience of Bruce offering a ride to a rice farmer cut through culture and language. Against the emerald green rice paddies in Yangshuo, with water buffalos ploughing the fields, we cycled in bewilderment. It was as if we had been dropped into a National Geographic article.

Contrast to today, we tackled ‘bicycle kingdom’ as it’s called. There are 4 million bicycles in Beijing! We dodged and weaved. We passed locals going home from the market with upside down chickens tied to handle bars; their squawking adding to the cacophony of tinging bike bells and incomprehensible Cantonese. I can’t believe we found our bikes after we had stopped for lunch, for there must have been thousands of them alongside each other.

Our cycling experience in China would become far more dramatic as shortly after that diary entry, we were trapped in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Our bikes played an integral role in planning our escape; that however is a story for another time.

Cycling the Islands of Norway

Cycling the Islands of Norway

We gladly embarked on an overnight cycling trip while we lived in Norway, only bikes and ferries on that adventure. Along the shores and through the islands we meandered, only sheep impeding our progress. The Norwegian cycling infrastructure is also superb; paths routed along lush green fields and colourful fishing villages nestled tidily beside icy fjords.

But unlike the Dutch, appropriate gear and helmets are the norm, one does not casually jump on their bike without paying heed to their attire. And I’ll give the Norwegians credit, there isn’t such a thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing.

By the time we had left Norway, I had acquired the requisite rain pants, jackets, boots, reflectors, even a ‘rain cover’ for my backpack. It all makes good sense when your bike becomes your chosen mode of transport.

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World Bicycle Relief

As I wrote this blog, I was conscious of the millions of people that don’t have the privilege of owning a bike, despite the vast improvement it would bring to their life. I came across World Bicycle Relief. This organization believes that a bicycle in the hands of an African student can change many things, and it does.

Bicycles for Educational Empowerment Program provides bikes to students, teachers and healthcare workers in rural Africa. 70% of the students this program donates cycles to are girls.

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Students with a WBR bike

In places such as Botswana, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, to name a few, students using bikes mean covering greater distances, arriving safely at school on time, less fatigued and ready to learn. Grades and attendance improve for those students that have received bicycles.

I listened to the story of Ethel, a vibrant fifteen year-old. Before owning a bike, Ethel walked more than two hours each way across hilly terrain to attend school. Now on two wheels, she is able to dramatically reduce her commute time, allowing more time to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse. Ethel also helps others in the community by offering rides when possible.

I’ve decided to donate to World Bicycle Relief, to give someone like Ethel the opportunity to improve their life. I think of it as paying homage; to all the cycling experiences that have enlivened, coloured and enriched my life. I wish the same for them.

Our tandem, bicycle for two

The tandem, a bicycle for two

Two backpackers, post restante and a collection…

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We left with backpacks, cameras and journals; that’s all that was necessary really.  Not a cell phone, a tablet or a computer.  Yes, it was wonderful last week to Skype with my son in Thailand and WhatsApp with him today as he sat in a thatched hut in Laos. But I feel privileged to have travelled with the promise…I’ll write soon.

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Two backpackers in India, circa 1989

Understandably, it was wrenching for loved ones to wait for letters and postcards to arrive and hopefully read that all was well.  But that was the beauty of it; to receive that correspondence and devour those long awaited words.  First eagerly, but then more slowly to take in every detail. Those letters could also be secreted away and brought out again and again,  just to feel closer to that person so far from home.

We had planned only a basic itinerary for our six month backpacking trip.  Yet it was enough to inform our parents to send a letter to Poste Restante Dehli on such and such date, then to Kathmandu by another date… and on and on.  That was our only means of communication, we agreed only to resort to collect phone calls if necessary.

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Poste Restante as a return address on an original Aerogramme

Poste Restante is French for ‘post remaining’ or mail that is held.  One could also refer to it as General Delivery.  At the time, walking into one of these main post offices on the other side of the world was an experience in itself.  They were often dark and musty with a uniformed postmaster sitting with disinterest behind an untidy, wooden desk. Not wanting to be disturbed, it was usually a performance for your mail to be located as he hunted the tall shelves, layered with endless cubby holes.  You waited with anticipation yet also with trepidation.   Will there actually be anything for me, did they send it in time?  And if they had, you did not carelessly tear open the envelope. You found a place to open it carefully, then read, hoping all was well back home. I have a distinct vision of the steps to the Poste Restante in Hong Kong; crowded with backpackers eagerly reading their long awaited letters from home.  Not only did we correspond frequently with our parents, we also received many letters in return.

A long letter on parchment paper from Nepal

A long letter on parchment paper from Nepal

 

And thankfully, every one of them was kept.  Each letter and postcard recounting the tiny details one forgets through the years. To read them now evokes images and memories that electronic gadgets will never replicate.  They are now hidden away, somewhere safe, in the hope that one day they’ll be appreciated for what they represent.  A time when words were chosen carefully and written in your most presentable penmanship.  A time when words were savoured. In fact as travellers, most evenings we would happily write by candlelight which would shed a more romantic sheen on the often basic hostel we found ourselves in. Updating our journals or writing long letters on carefully chosen stationery became a relaxing ritual, with the added comfort of knowing how much pleasure they would bring. Once they finally arrived on the distant shores of Canada and Scotland.

It seems my love of paper and stationery was with me even before I jaunted off to Asia.  For some reason I can’t explain, I have always adored it.

The first paper collected, the iconic Florentia from Italy

The first paper collected, the iconic Florentia from Italy

 

 

My collection began on my first trip to Italy when I was 18; that lovely ‘Florentia’, with its paper of finely embossed gold, woven through vibrant flowers and leaves.  I remember it was displayed on my desk once I returned home and I couldn’t bring myself to use it.  It was just too beautiful.  I now wander into the tiny shops when I return to Italy and find it impossible to not treat myself to just one more bundle of notes or calling cards, anything will suffice really.  And I gladly use them now, as often as I can!

My compact souvenirs, stationery

My compact souvenirs, stationery

 

 

That first purchase prompted me to also collect hotel stationery. That one sheet of paper and envelope encapsulates a moment in time and place, each with a unique letter head and often foreign language.  It evokes the sights admired and the time enjoyed, in a place you’ve been fortunate to have visited.   And so I admit, since that backpacking trip in 1989, I have taken just one piece of paper from each hotel.  However, nowadays, I often have to ask as it appears that

Letterheads that evoke a time and place

Letterheads that evoke a time and place

 

 

 

 

stationery is a dying art, much to my dismay. Though I’m sure the demand has diminished, what with those handy tablets and computers! Of course we couldn’t live without them, however there’s nothing I’d like more than to reach into my mail box tomorrow and discover a waiting letter. Post marked from Asia, with stamps that hint of where it’s from, with an address that’s just yours, with an exotic letterhead…ah, one can but dream.  Let’s see if he reads this!