Friday, December 28, 2012

Went to a Garden Party

Ann and I celebrated my 70th birthday on a cruise with our two sons, Chris and Jon, the first time we've been together for such an extended period since they were kids.  But families find a way of settling into a familiar groove, wondering what the years have really done to us all (as a family) other than just growing older.  In this regard I quote Robert Mazzocco's poignant poem about families.  In many ways it describes my relationship with my parents more than our sons' relationship with us, but the echoes of the poem reverberate through generations, indeed, "dynasties" in their own way...


 Family voices: you still can hear them,
 ever so dimly, there in your own voice:
 your father’s voice, even your mother’s voice.

 The older we get,
 the more you’ll hear them,
 though no one else does.

 Just as you still can see them, all over
 your body, though, of course, no one else must:
 family scars and family kisses.

Copyright © by Robert Mazzocco

This was brought home even more vividly by my reading during this time, particularly the two literary biographies, Hemingway's Boat, and Cheever, A Life.  More on them later.

The trip itself was a Caribbean cruise.  Ann and I have been on many before, but not with both our boys. This particular one was on Royal Caribbean's 'Vision of the Seas', an older ship, a little tired, but nicely laid out and with the bonus of a relatively quiet solarium, adults only, where I could alternatively read, and swim in their salt water pool, while Jon and Ann engaged in a battle of Scrabble and Chris worked on his laptop (new job, one he loves). The other bonus was having a balcony from which we could watch port arrivals and departures, and where I could while away more reading time, listening to the seas breaking against the hull.  Early mornings I would get up to the fitness center to compete for space on one of the treadmills and stationary bikes, endeavoring to offset some of the food intake.  The cuisine happened to be good, better than we expected for such a cruise.  The trick was to avoid the bread and minimize the desserts.

But the best feature of the cruise itself was the itinerary, two days at sea and then a new port every five days, St. Croix, St. Maarten, Dominica, Antigua, and St. Kitts.  We had been to all before, except Dominica.

So we set out for the Ft. Lauderdale Port Everglades Pier in high spirits co-mingled with a bit of apprehension about celebrating my 70th birthday this way, only to arrive on the ship with the shocking news of the Newtown, CT tragedy that morning.  Such heartbreak to begin our 10 day holiday.  And it hit so close to our previous home in Weston, a familiar territory as we lived only about a dozen miles from Newtown for 25 years, knew people there, particularly employees of my publishing company.  But no matter where this insane act might have taken place, it just underscored the abysmal record we have as a nation, a popular culture that is consumed by violence -- just look at the best-selling video games and some of the compost concocted by Hollywood -- and the Eleventh Commandment (in the form of the 2nd Amendment) -- promoted by the NRA and the like.  Hey, I want to carry a Bazooka, it's my right!  How many of these disasters do we have to live through before banning military style weaponry?  I have no pollyanna notion that this solves the problem, as no doubt the most violent criminal elements will find anything they want, but over time it will make it more difficult for the casual crazy to get his hands on such a weapon.  The absurdity of arming guards in schools to ward off those with arms might be a short term deterrent, but not a solution, although the gun makers might be delighted --  let's have a shoot out at the O.K. Corral Public School!

Colorado had reiterated the right to bear arms in public places.  That got them the movie theater shooting.

Thus, it was on such a down note that we sailed out of Ft. Lauderdale.  Twenty four hours later, on my actual birthday, we were now attempting to move into full cruise mode and try to temporarily leave the world's troubles behind for a few days. After dinner and a celebratory birthday cake, too sinful for words, we decided to attend that evening's entertainment.  What an ironic twist that on this night, my actual 70th birthday, the show in the ship's Masquerade Theater, was "Ricky Nelson Remembered"

performed by Ricky's twin sons, Gunnar and Matthew Nelson.

How appropriate, one of my boyhood idols, being honored by his two sons, on my birthday with my two sons, pictured here on the ship:

and here when Chris had his 16th birthday:

I asked them whether they had ever heard of the Ozzie and Harriet Show (of course not) and I tried to explain something about that early TV feel-good sitcom -- covering a real family -- and the rise of the youngest son, Ricky, to become the first TV-made rock star.  I was a teenager at the time, going through my "Elvis" stage, although the rockabilly songs of Carl Perkins and  Gene Vincent appealed to me more.  Ricky's songs were cut more from that mold and so he was put on my hit list for some precious 45's which I played in my attic bedroom to drown out my parents.  I entitled this blog entry "Garden Party" as it is a song that resonates more for me in retirement than when he sang it for the simple reason that "you see, ya can't please everyone, so ya got to please yourself," one of the main reasons I write this blog.

After two days at sea, we arrived at our first port, St. Croix, an island we vacationed on 36 years ago when Jonathan was only 3 months old.  This is not the kind of island one wants to visit on a cruise ship for one day, and I suppose the same could be said for the other islands on the itinerary other than Dominica, it's capital, Roseau, being right at the dock (which only accommodates one ship, thankfully, and is very walkable.

In Dominica our mission was to get away from the ubiquitous shops that populate the immediate area where the ships dock at every island (in fact, in some places, that's all you can walk to) and as soon as we emerged from that area it was a different world.  Although mostly impoverished as are so many of the islands and although we walked through some very rundown areas, the people were extremely friendly.   

It is an island I would like to spend some more time on, nicknamed the "Nature Isle of the Caribbean" for its pristine beauty   

Our immediate goal was to find the island's Botanical Gardens, which we did and enjoyed the tropical flora and fauna, particularly the Spiny Bamboo House which rises cathedral like.  The tenacity of how things grow in the tropics was underscored by an African baobab tree that was felled by Hurricane David in 1979 on top of a school bus and today,  crushed bus and tree branch are still there for all to marvel over, and have been left untouched with the tree still stubbornly alive and well.

Returning to the ship we walked many side roads with various local scenes.

The boys went on while Ann and I lingered on the grounds of the pretty public library finding, eureka!, free Wi-Fi there.  Armed with our iPhones we caught up on some email, me in a few minutes, Ann (with many more friends than I) more than a few minutes.  Meanwhile, I decided to explore the inside of the library.  After all, my publishing company focused on the library market, but mostly the university level, but it's always fun to visit a library in another land, in this case a remote Caribbean island with just a few rooms of books. 

Inside, every shelf was populated by well arranged books, but, more importantly, nearly every chair was occupied by a reader. This is a library that still focuses on the printed word, not electronic delivery.  I began to peruse the reference shelves curious whether they included any of the books I published.  To my delight one of the first titles my eyes fell on was our edition of Tom Inge's 2 Volume, Handbook of American Popular Culture and even more satisfying after examining the copies was to see they've been heavily used over the years. This was sort of the full circle for me as I remember proposing the reference book program that was aimed at public libraries in the mid 1970s and in fact, this Handbook had been on the list of specific titles to be developed and it was published in 1978.  There I was on the island of Dominica 34 years later holding in my hand the result of that idea and having the satisfaction that it had been used so many times by the good people of the island.

Ironically, in today's Internet world, such a Handbook would be unpublishable, except electronically, and maybe the search engines would even obviate that. 

Back on the ship, we continued over the next couple of days to the remaining ports, Antigua and St. Kitts, which Ann and I had visited before but, for our son, Jonathan, they represented the 100th and 101st country in his itinerant life, intent on seeing all countries in the world by the time he's my age.  I believe he'll do it.

As I've written many times before, the best part of cruising (for me) is the time I have to read (why is being home more time consuming than traveling?).  And what struck me from my reading as I was traveling with my family?  Each family has its unique story.  This cruise I devoured Hemingway's Boat by Paul Hendrickson, and I'm about 2/3 of the way through Cheever, A Life, by Blake Bailey who I think is emerging as the preeminent literary biographer.  He brought Yates to life, and now Cheever.

Amazing to read about Hemingway and Cheever, so different in their writing and how they approached life and, yet again, such dysfunctional family lives (not as bad as Yates who led a depressed life in addition to being a drunk like Cheever)  And for me amazing, the crisscrossing of aspects of their lives and mine, not that I'm a literary anything, but places and cultural commonalities galore.

The focus of Hendrikson's biography is indeed Hemingway's boat, a 1934 38 foot Wheeler, made in my old stomping grounds of Brooklyn, NY, named "Pilar' of Key West.  It had a 75 HP Chrysler reduction gear engine and a 40 HP Lycoming straight drive for trolling.  He could run the boat at 16 knots with both engines (although that was rare).  Ironically, the dimensions of his boat are about the same as mine.  The 'Swept Away' is also 38 feet, holds about the same amount of fuel (330 gallons vs. 'Pilar's 300 gallons) and the same amount of fresh water, 100 gallons.

But of course "Hem" fished the boat and fished it hard, off of Cuba and Bimini in the Bahamas.  The entire biography circles around the boat, the manufacturer, and the mates who ran the boat.  It is more about his life and times than his writing.

The Cheever biography is as much about his writing as the man itself.  His life was one of self doubt, always seeking approbation, unsure of his sexuality, and like Yates, one that gradually became consumed by alcoholism.  During WW II he was in the infantry and was a week from being shipped off to Europe when he landed an assignment with the Signal Corps writing documentary films, ironically the same branch of the service as my father and Cheever's "office" was in Astoria, Queens, the same place my father's business landed before it was forced to close its doors.  Most men from Cheever's unit were shipped off a week later and died on Utah beach, the same destiny that would have befallen him. Lucky for him and us or we would not have most of the short stories (and all of the novels) from one of most important writers.

Cheever is closely identified with the New Yorker school of writing as was his younger contemporary (and rival) John Updike, probably the most important American writer of the late 20th century along with Philip Roth.  Updike and Cheever while respecting one another, kept an eye out for the other as well, particularly Cheever who felt inferior in many ways to Updike, particularly because of his younger colleague's Harvard education (Cheever went to the school of hard knocks as did Richard Yates).  While the careers of Cheever and Updike were constantly crisscrossing, Yates was an outsider, never achieving the distinction of a New Yorker published short story. 

Between the two biographies, I read another novel by Louis Begley who is beginning to impress me as the next great American writer, but at the age of 79, he might not have enough time to establish an even greater reputation since switching his profession from the law to creative writing.  After the Schmidt trilogy, I wanted to know more about the man, and chose his very autobiographical Matters of Honor in which his persona is occupied by two characters, Henry White, a Polish-Jewish refugee who was hidden as a child during World War II, with his mother and father, and therefore survived, who becomes an international attorney, and Sam Standish, the narrator, who becomes an author.  Of course, Begley is both people and it is interesting how he orchestrates many characters in the novel in this coming of age story, from Henry and Sam being Harvard roommates in the 1950s and then their rise to the pinnacle of their careers later in life.  Begley's struggle with anti-Semitism and the meaning of friendship constantly surfaces.  This is the work of a mature novelist in every way.

So I shared my 70th birthday with my family and some of my favorite authors.  My Garden Party was swell.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Little Anesthetic Drip

I'm turning 70 soon. It seems like only yesterday I was reconciling myself to my 65th birthday, fortunate of course to make it to both milestones, but knowing that time is steadily running out of the hourglass.  It's not as if I come from hearty stock where everyone lives healthily into their nineties and then has the good fortune of just not waking up one day.  And I've had my issues, most recently open heart surgery just last year.

The older I get the more I seem to "work" for Doctors who take charge of my body with tests, medications, procedures, just about any time they want. And I'm not in it alone: friends, some from childhood or college days, are going through the same thing, that is the ones who have made it thus far.

Speaking of college, for some reason, unknown to me now, as a student (that's my college yearbook photo to the right) I had memorized John Masefield's graceful poetic masterpiece, On Growing Old.  Masefield wrote the poem when he was only 41, as if some sudden, unexpected  poetic insight into his own future materialized.  I still know the words today.  One of our first boats was named 'Spindrift' because of a line from the first verse:

Be with me, Beauty, for the fire is dying;
My dog and I are old, too old for roving.
Man, whose young passion sets the spindrift flying,
Is soon too lame to march, too cold for loving.
I take the book and gather to the fire,
Turning old yellow leaves; minute by minute
The clock ticks to my heart. A withered wire,
Moves a thin ghost of music in the spinet.
I cannot sail your seas, I cannot wander
Your cornland, nor your hill-land, nor your valleys
Ever again, nor share the battle yonder
Where the young knight the broken squadron rallies.
Only stay quiet while my mind remembers
The beauty of fire from the beauty of embers.

Whatever compelled me to commit that to memory more than fifty years ago?  Was it a perverse acknowledgement that I too would one day be the subject of the poem although at the time I would have thought 70 an eternity away?  But the day is arriving and ironically I don't feel like that at all -- I'm not nearly ready to "gather by the fire." If anything, my mind tells me I'm a kid, defying the image in the mirror, belying the health issues.

But my literary hero, John Updike, most perceptively describes the process of aging and the collateral inevitability of one's demise in one of his last short stories, "The Full Glass." The main character is thinking about his grandfather and Updike writes: “As a child I would look at him and wonder how he could stay sane, being so close to his death.  But, actually, it turns out, Nature drips a little anesthetic into your veins each day that makes you think another day is as good as a year, and another year as long as a lifetime.  The routines of living – the tooth-brushing and pill-taking, the flossing and the water glass, the matching socks and the sorting of the laundry into the proper bureau drawers—wear you down.” 

No truer words were ever written.  So, onward into my 70's!

And Happy Holidays as celebrated in Florida.........

Monday, December 10, 2012

Ann's Trip to India -- Part II

 Ann concludes her account of her amazing trip to India.  Be sure to read the first part here. 
Her words and photos bring the experience to life. 

We are on our way to Agra.  As always, the roads range from decent pavement to nonexistent.  Mostly, we are driving through dusty and filthy little hamlets/towns with a jostling of cars, motorbikes, livestock, trucks loaded with sacks of grain, vegetables and assorted bundles, buses with sixty people or more crammed inside and another twenty riding on top!  Along the garbage strewn streets are all manner of sidewalk shops, barbershops where men are getting spruced up for Diwali, and plenty of little pushcarts selling bunches and bunches of hanging decorations for the holiday and always, tire shops full of millions of spares stacked up everywhere. What do they do with all those tires?

Here, the ubiquitous cow saunters across the street at his leisure, often standing just in the middle with cars and buses and motorbikes whizzing past on all sides.  They are either the bravest or the dumbest animal I have ever seen.  But you should have seen our bus drivers! They were, without exception, the most instinctively nimble men behind a wheel I’ve ever seen, dodging and weaving, speeding up, passing, slowing down and amazingly avoiding head on crashes at every turn.  And believe it or not, I sat in the front seat on many of these long overland journeys and had a first-hand view of these brilliant manipulations!

The saying goes: “There are two kinds of people in this world, those who have seen the Taj Mahal and those who haven’t!”  Well the honest truth is that I barely saw it myself, the air pollution was as bad here as in Delhi, if not worse.  I worried about the damage of acid rain, dirty smog and age on the exquisite marble of the Taj and was told that the miracle of this particular white marble is that it is totally impervious to staining.  When the monsoons come, the Taj is washed clean and reemerges in all its stunning glory. The assortment of colorful precious and semi-precious jewels inlaid into the marble is breathtaking. 

During that visit to Agra we visited a factory where only a handful of men belonging to the Muslim Community still have the skill, which has actually been handed down from one generation to the next from the days when the Taj was built, to painstakingly carve into the marble using special implements creating a groove to hold a single stone.  These jewels are often lapis lazuli, turquoise, carnelian or mother of pearl and are shaped by hand using an emery wheel.  These semi-precious pieces, even ones infinitesimally small, are glued in place to make the stunning inlay designs so admired at the Taj and today in tables and other decorative items.  I myself couldn’t resist purchasing a small table top with inlaid flowers sparkling against the white marble. It was shipped safely from India and now a beautiful reminder of this incredible trip.

Back at the Taj, we walked in the surrounding gardens and into the inner chambers to see the tombs of Shah Jahan and his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, for whom the Taj was built.  His Queen and third wife died delivering their 14th child!  At her death, he was inconsolable and it was this monumental grief that led him to build this mausoleum to honor the woman he loved to his dying breath.

This is a stunning achievement considering it was build almost 500 years ago, the Mughal emperor Jahan’s great legacy to India.  As is the Palace itself, Agra Fort, which was built on the bank of the Yamuna River where the Shah and his family and all his many other wives and children lived. 

This immense fort was the seat of power for four generations but tragically where the great Jahan himself ended his last days as his son’s prisoner.  His only request: to be able to look upon the Taj Mahal where his beloved Mumtaz laid waiting for him to join her upon his own death.  A sad story that culminated in the creation of one of the most beautiful, visually stunning architectural masterpieces we admire today.

Later that evening, before dinner, Vineet said he had a surprise for us and requested all the women to join him in his room!  Well, this was an invitation no one could refuse.  And not surprisingly, all of the husbands decided to check this out as well. 

He asked a young artist to paint a design on each of our hands, called Mehndi.  This is done with a henna dye prepared by crushing the plant leaves producing a vibrant burgundy color.  Once this power is reconstituted, it is applied typically to the front and back of the hand, especially for brides before her wedding ceremony.  Once the henna paste dries and flakes off, the artful design that has been drawn is exposed in either a deep rich brown or mahogany color.  Some had vines and flowers, but when it was my turn, the young woman decided to do another type of design altogether, which lasted almost 5 or 6 days even washing my hands as often as I did.  I discovered that the dye penetrates the skin rather deeply!  I wanted it to last at least long enough to show Bob.

The next morning, we awoke to face a day that I never thought would end.  But my little group and our leader, Vineet, approached it with a solid sense of adventure and purpose.  We were up extremely early and were bused to the Agra train station which was teeming with cars and buses and people selling every kind of object imaginable. Again, there were beggars everywhere, many disfigured, missing limbs, or incredibly crippled. Vineet was emphatic about our not giving any money to these poor souls but especially the children.  He said if we do, we turn them into professional beggars!  It was a sad human condition to witness, but we took his advice and moved on.  We were kept on the bus as long as possible, but eventually had to alight and face the mobs and push our way to the platform.  There we huddled in a tight little group, looking around us in amazement as people sat everywhere on the filthy train platform itself, eating and talking, looking at us with as much curiosity as we looked at them. Huge bundles of packages that contained shoes believe it or not were piled up so high all around us it was a wonder the stacks didn’t topple over, little children begging at our legs, and everywhere, humanity crowded and moved all around us.  When the train thankfully arrived, we rushed to our assigned seats in a first class car and sat down with relief! This was a 2 hour train ride to Jhansi, whereupon we transferred to our coach and continued overland on very bumpy, rough roads for another 2-3 hour bus ride. 
We finally made a stop for lunch, but then continued on our way for the next 3 or more hours on jarring, jerky, deeply potholed roads into Khajuraho. Often these roads were no more than dust covered one lane tracks shared with all manner of moving objects including cows, herds of water buffalo, children & other pedestrians, bikers & goats all traveling somewhere on this tiny bit of  road crisscrossing or zigzagging at the same time, everyone furiously blowing their horns simultaneously!  It is a scene and when you're finally deposited safely to your next hotel, you cannot believe your amazing good luck to still be alive!

Now a remote city, Khajuraho was once the seat of the Chandelas civilization which flourished in the 10th century where unbelievably magnificent temples were built there between the 9th and 10th centuries. Due to flight changes in our schedule, we were fortunate to stay an extra night here and take the time to see these temples at our leisure the next day.

If it had not been for some British archeologists in the 19th century excavating these amazing stone temples with their erotic carvings, they might still be covered by thick jungle overgrowth that camouflaged them for centuries.  At the time these very sexually explicit carvings created a tremendous scandal and even today, our guide described how embarrassed any Indian man would be to bring his own wife to see these.  Indians are quite prudish about such displays of “prana energy” as it is known in Hindi.  Vineet revealed that shortly after his marriage his young bride was appalled and horrified to discover a copy of the Kama Sutra tucked away in his belongings and threw it at his head when he returned home!  He had some “splainin’ to do, Lucy!”

The next day we took a flight to Varanasi, which was one of the most fascinating experiences of the entire trip. Varanasi, with a written history dating back more than 4,000 years is known as “older than history itself”, and as one of the oldest cities in the world, yields an atmosphere of other worldliness. The horrible smog, the unrelenting mobs of people walking, riding, shopping, selling, biking, driving, with the myriad of cacophonous noises all add up to a tumultuous riot of sight and sound overwhelming to the senses.  At dusk that evening, Lisa and I rode in a cycle rickshaw with our faces covered like “bandits” to ward off sand/debris flying into our noses and mouths to our spiritual destination, the Ganga as it is lovingly called in India.

This is where the holiest of waters in all of India can be found, the Ganges River, considered sacred by all Indians. To quote: “This river is life, purity, and a goddess to the people of India.  The river is Ganga Ma, “Mother Ganges”.”  That evening we witnessed the “aarti” ceremony from a boat on the Ganges as dusk turned to nightfall.  This is performed by chanting Hindu Priests one to five times daily on the ghats of the River waving plates containing open flames while they sing devotional songs before the deities in the spirit of gratitude. 

Thousands of pilgrims and ordinary Indians crowd the ghats to hear and witness this moving ceremony, not to mention the thousands of prayerful worshipers and tourists floating quietly in boats nearby. Simultaneously along an entire designated route, Indians come day and night to cremate their recently departed loved ones. Only the men are allowed to carry the bodies of their relatives, briefly lower the pallets to let the holy water of the Ganges wet the deceased body and then wait their turn for a pyre upon which to burn the body. 

Death is often viewed in a positive light; it is considered an escape from this life to a better one, or nirvana. Afterwards, some of the ashes are consigned back into the river, insuring eternal life for the departed. It is an eerie sight to say the least to see so many flames still leaping from these funeral sites or just the smoldering smoke where the last embers have yet to die.  In the morning, when we returned before dawn, we saw these leftover piles of ash everywhere, many with poorly fed dogs lying as close as possible to soak up the leftover warmth of the fire.

That night, while floating silently in our own boat, watching all of this and attempting to absorb the meaning of these deeply religious ceremonies, we were each handed a small container with a lighted flame from a bit of oil and the tradition is to gently lower these prayer lamps into the Ganges and let them float away, onto the darkened waters.  Each of us made this offering with our own meditative thoughts, although I could see how deeply moving it was for a few of my fellow travelers and even for me, sharing such a spirit-filled moment at that place and in that time.

This evening, once back in our hotel, showered and changed, we all met to have our farewell dinner.  Vineet was our gracious host having chosen a wonderful restaurant in our hotel where we were all charmed by the flower centerpiece, candles and elaborate table setting.  The food was delicious and just kept coming from the kitchen, one serving after another.  We all sat enjoying our last formal gathering as the next day, we would be up and running back to the river, a couple more stops and then saying our final goodbyes.

The Ganges is the longest river in India, and for centuries all along her entire course Hindus have come to bathe in her waters sometimes totally submerging themselves, the women fully clothed and the men with often only a cloth about their waist wash themselves thoroughly with soap or simply cup their hands with the water, lift it and let it fall over them or back into the river. They are saying prayers and paying homage and respect to their ancestors and to their gods in this simple and symbolic way.

And so, up at 5 AM, before dawn the next morning, we again boarded our bus which left us off a little closer than the previous night because we were walking the distance now back to the river and this time in a multitudinous flow of worshipers, pilgrims, tourists, locals, bathers and hawkers.

It was quite a walk and we had to watch where we were stepping to avoid all manner of street debris, but once arriving at the ghats again in the half light before the sun was up and seeing the mob of people everywhere, women half dressed, drying themselves after their morning ablutions, men half naked sitting on the steps gossiping with one another, hundreds in the water, some just standing and chatting with a neighbor or others taking a good dunk, we also noticed barbers giving mostly men a shave down to the scalp, again people selling all manner of things, roaming dogs, goats, piles of ashes and there I stood, transfixed by the entire scene.  Vineet came over and took my arm to escort me down the steep steps and into our boat again.  We were going to have an escort this morning, a young Hindu Priest who was preparing lotus leaf packages for each of us containing incense atop a sort of flour with marigolds surrounding the mound. 
As we floated along the River’s edge, we were agog at the thousands of people crowding the steps, all either just coming up from the water or making their way down to it.  This was the time of day when ordinary Varanasians, whose shops are still closed in the early morning, come down to meet and chat with their friends and neighbors.  Some were performing yoga asanas (or postures) and many, like us, were offering flowers and incense to the river. There were others who may have traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles, finally completing the pilgrimage to the holy Ganga, to touch the water and be transformed.  There were dozens of dhobi wallahs (laundry men and a few women) on the ghats whose livelihood is collecting and washing clothes, beating them on huge stone slabs in the Ganges, wringing them out by hand the old fashioned way and hanging everything on makeshift clotheslines, later to be pressed and returned to the owners.

As we spoke to one another in hushed tones in the early morning light, we were each handed our lotus leaf and asked to silently let our hands turn the leaf over the water and as the grains of flour and marigolds drifted away to remember our own ancestors and say whatever prayer we wished to honor their memory.  This as the sun was slowing rising in a brilliant hue of orange and gold, lighting the cerulean sky.  Each of us was touched by this elegant ceremony.

Unfortunately, the Ganges has been ranked among the five most polluted bodies of water in the world, particularly near Varanasi.  This pollution threatens not only the millions who live along the shores and depend on this water for their everyday living needs, but more than 140 fish species, 90 amphibian species and the Ganges river dolphin which is an endangered species as well. Thanks to enormous government corruption, lack of technical expertise and environmental planning, all measures have failed so far to clean up this holy body of water.

Shortly afterward, we were climbing our way up the steep ghats once again for the last time and soberly walked around many of the ash-laden pyres toward our bus.  It was back to the hotel for a bite of breakfast and off for more sightseeing.  This was our last day to visit two other worthwhile sites before flying back to Delhi early that afternoon. 

Our first stop was the Bharat Mata (Mother India) Temple.  However this was not like any of the other traditional Temples we have seen previously, but rather contained an intricate bas relief map of the entire Indian subcontinent, carved out of white marble.  A very impressive look at mountain peaks, river’s meandering flows and the major cities in India, all in one incredible landscape.

We were off now to the ancient Buddhist learning center of Sarnath.  It was here that Buddha preached his first sermon to his disciples.  In the Sarnath Museum, we enjoyed seeing the National Emblem of India, Ashoka’s Lion Capital and another treasure of Indian Buddhist art, the Teaching Buddha, a breathtaking piece of sculpture.

A plane ride back to Delhi, a quick shower and change of clothes in my hotel room, a leisurely dinner with Estela, my friend from Spain, and then the ride to the airport for my 15 hour flight back to NY.  So surreal, especially since we’re not boarding until 1:30 in the morning and we were up at 5:00 AM for our dawn boat ride.  Who am I?  Where am I?  It was exponential exhaustion!

What will always remain, once the jet lag ended and the fuzzy memories cleared, is the incredible sights of India, the Indian women in particular in their brilliant hued saris, every beautiful color imaginable, and each one so unique and in perfect condition whether she was working in a field, squatting alongside the road selling vegetables, carrying jugs of water on her head, cooking chapatis for the family or tending her children on the dirt laden street outside her hut.  I always had to catch my breath at the sight of them and often we would exchange a tender smile, woman to woman, mother to mother.

Indians accept their lot in life. I didn’t see depression or anger or malice.  The faces of the children were full of warm smiles, always waving at us as we sped past in our buses or in our rickshaws.  They appear hopeful and resigned, accustomed to their way of life. It was sad to learn that many of the girls are not being pressed routinely to attend school as yet as often as their big brothers, but hopefully that will soon change.

The Indian men I saw squatting along the roadside in every town we entered seemed to have no purpose or employment except to sit and gossip with one another, occasionally smoke a beedie, a hand rolled cigarette made using a tendu leaf, or just sit and contemplate the world passing by.  Obviously in the large cities of Mumbai or Delhi, the educated Indian men hold important jobs and support their families.  But out in the small hamlets where we frequently traveled it seemed that most of the men were totally idle.

I ate Indian food every single day, lunch and dinner, and found to my amazement that I enjoyed it.  It was always well made and fresh and plentiful.  I brushed my teeth using only bottled water and remembered to keep my mouth shut every day when I showered.  The water is totally polluted, even in some of the more upscale hotels where we stayed.  Fortunately, I never got “Delhi Belly”, a ubiquitous happenstance for many tourists in India. I never did see that elusive Bengal Tiger and how my back held up on all those hundreds of miles of dirt packed, rutted, potholed, almost impassable roads is a miracle too great to contemplate.

I thought our Trip Leader, Vineet, did an exemplary job in the face of a disappointing beginning, losing five people in his group right at the start and then having eight more show up four days late.  He kept his sense of humor, entertained us with his personal history, and filled our minds with more information on his country than anyone could ever possibly absorb.

It was a great experience, one I will always be grateful for and if not for my husband, Bob, and his fast thinking and generous heart, I too would have missed out on seeing with my own eyes hundreds upon hundreds of people being fed for free at the Sikh Temple that morning in Delhi. Thanks honey.