Category Archives: family

A hill fort and a holiday.

For the first time since I arrived in India, I left Mumbai with Kate and Tom and Baby Raj and we went on what was their first road trip in this country; they didn’t own a car to do that with until after I arrived, and shortly after Raj arrived a month ago. Often it’s easier to travel with a very young baby than an older one, and they wanted to take me somewhere out of the city, so… we had a brief holiday in Lonavala and Khandala, only a couple of hours south and east of Mumbai. I was surprised at how soon out of the city we were seeing the mountains rise up before us, and even though we took a baby rest stop, we arrived at our hill station retreat in good time.

The only sad thing about this trip was the shame we brought on our family and probably on all westerners by letting Grandma sit in the back of the car with the baggage, a very disrespectful arrangement in the eyes of Indians. Tom would have been very happy to sit there instead, in one of the  side-facing jump seats, but then I’d have had to take the front seat and witness the constant near-death vehicle interactions, and he would not have been able to help the driver with directions. On the bench in the middle it was most convenient that Wilson in his car seat be next to his mother, and in the back I had lots of room to stretch my legs. I could see the scenery and the motorcycle riders and buses and all behind us — much more relaxing.

But at the hotel, every time we drove on to the property, the guards had to open the back door to check for stowaways or bombs or something, and they were embarrassed and/or amused to have to follow protocol when they could see the “auntie” through the window.

Our hotel sat above the Mumbai-Pune expressway. Mumbai is huge, of course, and Pune is the seventh largest city in India, so it’s not surprising that the smog from both of them extends to the mountains. We don’t know what the AQI index might be up there, but in any case it made our viewing of the mountain vistas a bit sad. Tom says that the air could easily be cleaned up in less than 20 years — look what Beijing did! — so I tried to imagine clearer vistas for coming generations.

The British established these hill stations in the mountains all over India as places to get away for a while from the worst heat, so they have had a couple of centuries to develop into towns where people still go for holidays. Our “twin” hill stations lie in the Sahyadri ranges of the Western Ghat mountains.

Our only full day  was Saturday, and we chose our destination from among several possible outings: Lohagad Fort on top of a hill, built by the locals in the 16th or 17th century as a fortification against the Moguls, who were able to take and control it for only five years.

We drove a half hour or more up the mountain to the starting point, and from the parking lot Kate and I first walked to the one washroom in that village that is for tourists. It was in a stable attached to a house, where two cows and a dog with puppies were housed. While I waited my turn I admired one animal at close range for a few moments before I turned to see a woman looking at me from the doorstep of her kitchen. We smiled at each other, and I said, “Beautiful cow!” She went back into the house and I could hear her exclaiming something that sounded like “Chri-tien!” I could only guess that she had seen the cross around my neck. Maybe she was a Christian, too?

The woman in the photo below was selling snacks to people as they set out climbing steps, and though we weren’t buying anything she smiled at little Raj in his sling. The brown pods are tamarind.

What a good hike we had then! Kate and Tom each carried small backpacks, and they took turns carrying Raj in the Baby K’tan sling. It takes about 200 steps to reach the gate of the fort, but if you want to go all the way to the top, it is more than 300, maybe even 500 steps. No official information is to be had, and reviewers give all kinds of hearsay information. No one claims to have counted the steps. We didn’t either, being too busy enjoying the views and our fellow hikers, Indians who love to have their pictures taken with westerners. We obliged several times, and enjoyed telling everyone that our baby was just one month old.

Monkeys live there at the fort. We watched quite a few of them just playing in the trees, but most of the creatures were carefully scanning the groups of people going up and down to see if there were any snacks available. They particularly love soda pop and will grab a bottle out of your hands. Kate and Tom knew this and in the past she’d found herself wrestling with a monkey over her drink at another tourist spot in India. So we kept what little we had hidden away.

When we reached the top of the fort we kept going, almost to the top of the hill, and found shade under a tree where Raj could have his lunch in peace. An Indian lady came and sat with us for a while, waiting for her husband to come back from the pinnacle. And then we went up there, too, for another perspective on Pawana Lake down below.

I can imagine how lovely it all must be when the monsoons turn everything lush and green. The air quality is better then, too. Kate and Tom want to return.

I took the above picture trying to catch the situation with the men giving food to the dogs who also hung around the area. Monkeys were climbing on the walls and peering down from various places trying to get in on the deal.

We took about 2 1/2 hours in all, slowly climbing all those stairs, walking and sitting around at the top, me taking pictures of flowers, and then slowly descending the often steep steps on our increasingly wobbly legs. Tom took this picture looking down as we were on our way:

When we got back to the car, only then did we buy something to drink in the safety of our vehicle, and we drove down the bumpy road to our hotel.

The town of Lonavala is about 2,000 ft. elevation, high enough to be a little cooler than Mumbai, especially at night. It really was very pleasant in the day, too. They are famous for their chikki, a yummy kind of praline made with jaggery, and every third shop along the narrow streets of town seemed to have a big CHIKKI sign above it. I bought an assortment including Rose, but didn’t open it until we got home.

Breakfast at the hotel was a stupendous affair. Evidently you must offer breakfast items of every possible sort to please tourists from various cultures with their traditions and dietary rules. That means the full English breakfast of bacon, sausage, omelettes, roasted tomatoes, toast, beans… (I didn’t see any mushrooms, though!) And plenty of vegetarian items: mixed vegetables, potatoes, dal, coconut chutney….

The mostly self-serve area was so huge, I didn’t even see (or need) the place with fruit, cereal and doughnuts, and I didn’t have a dosa made for me, but I ate bites from Kate’s and from Tom’s. Tom’s was a cheese dosa, so light it could be served upright as a cone. And the omelette that was started cooking before my eyes was the most elegant and perfect rendition I have ever eaten.

One more thing we did in the mountains was visit Lion’s Point lookout/overview, a large and rocky parking lot on the side of the mountain not requiring any physical exertion to get to, and providing plenty of photo opportunities for the humans, and soda-stealing opportunities for the monkeys. There were shaded areas with chairs if you wanted to stay a while. We bought some ice cream and kulfi, and showed off Raj.

On the road up to Lion’s Point and down, our driver had to shift gears constantly to maneuver the frequent and steep hairpin turns. High rock walls lined the road through neighborhoods where you could see the occasional cheerful bungalow or villa on the other side, with lots of tall trees and vines spreading their shade and flowers beyond the walls to the road. I could imagine some British colonial writer like Rumer Godden living in one of these places a hundred years ago.

Lower down I had glimpsed an occasional farm near the highway, and on the way back we were on the lookout for one so that the driver could stop, and I would take a picture. But as it turned out, they were much farther down, where the road becomes a freeway with few exits and no shoulder at all.

We returned to Mumbai quite content and with stiffening muscles from our intense stair-climbing. Everyone thought it had been a great first road trip, first hike, first expedition out of Mumbai for little Raj. He had been pretty happy the whole time, often on one or another of our laps as in this picture.

He seemed glad to be home, too, and to just lie on his play mat listening to the familiar white noises and to feel the lack of vibrations and jerks he’d been introduced to lately.

Huckleberry Cat was very curious and no doubt relieved that we were back. I wonder though if he was surprised that we all returned. Perhaps he had hoped that the small strange creature would not. For some reason Huckleberry attached himself to me as never before and sat on my lap for long sessions of nuzzling and snuggling. When I tired of that, he jumped up on the desk to sit by me while I typed. He “talked” to me a lot all evening, but what was he saying? I told him that Raj is here to stay, but I didn’t break the news about my own coming departure. He will discover that soon enough.

In the meantime, I wonder if he could somehow help me to squeeze the overflowings of my mind into a few more coherent posts about India?

Relaxing peals and dances.

7:00 in the evening, I hear the church bells playing in the neighborhood, as they do a few times a day, on a schedule that is ever the same but at intervals that make us think, “Why now?” It’s always the same few measures of a tune that seems to me very like a setting I know to “The Lord is My Shepherd, I’ll Walk With Him Always.” It is a recorded pealing, but effective at reminding me of the presence of joy.

Today especially I’ve been noticing all the many sounds that waft up to the eighth floor where Kate and Tom live, and where I am staying long enough that it feels natural so say, “…where we live.” Crows and hawks and other birds swoop back and forth all day in the large open area viewed from the dining room, and their voices come in to our space, too, as do those of children in the play yard of the pink convent school you can see in the middle of this photo I took. Those same birds are blocked from nesting on the balcony by that netting you see.

I took the picture when Kareena was washing the only balcony that one can’t access any other way than by climbing through a picture window, so while it was open I grabbed the opportunity.

On the street below, traffic hums and roars and honks constantly. From the balcony off my room I love to watch an intersection where all manner of pedestrians and vehicles are in a continual dance, the players fewer or more as they ceaselessly enter and exit the “stage” in a serene choreography. In India the honking is not angry or agitated, but might be translated, “Let’s all be careful and notice each other! You, lady, walking in front of me, please be aware that I am driving your way; if you keep your speed constant, I promise to clear your tender flesh by at least six inches.”

The pace of life in a household where a three-week-old baby lives should be restful, and ours is wonderfully so. The outdoor sounds are somewhat muted, and plenty of white noise emanates from the various household machines that clean and condition the air and help to keep home as a refuge from the buzzing streets and polluted atmosphere. The tiny boy’s burps and squeaks are my favorite sounds around.

Our outings since the baby arrived have been brief, and not every day. The people who don’t get the sleep they need at night are often able to take naps. Kareena has begun to offer us a cup of masala chai in the late afternoon, and I just might end up making that a habit.

Yesterday afternoon Kate and I sat on the couch for a long time with little Raj, wondering at his constant funny expressions and erratic arm motions, as he lay on her lap looking up into That Face that will soon become most beloved. Kate put on some Bollywood music and the two of them arm-danced for a long time to the lively and happy music.

Some days, this is a good time for Raj to have his bath in the kitchen sink, the one sink in the apartment large enough to easily accommodate his flexible bath cushion while he lounges with an attitude befitting royalty relaxing in a deck chair.

What a life!

Food for the mind, feasts for the eyes.

If I have trouble putting together a Real blog post, it’s not because I haven’t been soaking up the sights and thinking about so many things. Now that I am actually here, I have been reading about and discussing with Kate and Tom Indian history, language, politics, slums, and religion.

The night before Baby Raj was born, Tom projected maps of India on the big screen and gave a little talk on various of these topics — it was the best sort of lesson for me, the map presentation helping me to tie bits of knowledge together in my mind. Perhaps there’s a chance I will retain more than a smidgen.

My “studies” are interspersed with or carried on in the midst of Baby Immersion. Just being in a home where a newborn baby lives and breathes and will stare back at you with no feeling of awkwardness — it’s too sweet.

This baby will have Indian nannies as long as he lives here, so some of the first words impressed on his pliable mind will be from Indian languages. But which ones? Hindi is not the primary language spoken in these parts, and India has designated 30 languages as “official” languages of the nation. According to Census of India of 2001, India has 122 major languages and 1599 other languages.

20% of Indians speak Dravidian languages, which are not even related to Indo-Aryan languages such as Hindi. These and other non-Hindi speakers have fought against proposals to impose the Hindi language in southern India. The Indian constitution does not give any language the status of national language, but the authorized version of laws is required to be in English, and the business of the Supreme Court is conducted in English.

I’ve learned very few Indian words, mostly names of food. But I didn’t learn the name of the Diwali festival treat above before eating the last one in the house. Almost everyone I encounter seems to speak at least a little English, but sometimes I can’t understand one word in a whole sentence by the most fluent speakers, because of their accent.

Everywhere we go I feast on colors, and feel myself to be somewhat ghostly in appearance in contrast to the Indian women in their rich attire. I’m sure I will come home with a few new and bright, concrete items to go with the images on my computer and the imprints on my mind. New dishes are constantly being set out on this banquet table.

Shopping with pani puri.

Tom took me along on his shopping trip yesterday, to a few stores and shops including a multi-story big box that had features of a Super Wal-Mart, Costco, and a department store. The escalators were ramps that accommodated shopping carts, and we visited all the floors and departments, but never found a C-battery or anyone who knew what that was. Tom wasn’t very sure himself, but some new baby equipment wants them. Oh well.

I was fascinated by the many varieties of basmati rice, both packaged and in large bins where women in pretty clothes were scooping up their favorite type. I love basmati rice and used to buy it in 25# bags myself; I came home with a jar of the Brown Basmati.

The packaged rice is one of many products and ads that feature a photo of a famous movie star, often a Khan, or the “Big B,” Amitabh Bachchan. I don’t have a hope of keeping all these celebrities straight, but a couple of them have leading roles in an unusually good Bollywood movie we are currently watching here (over the course of three nights, because it’s close to four hours long): “Lagaan.” Oh, and on the route between the different shops, whose car did our driver point out but that of the very Aamir Khan himself. Mumbai is the center of Bollywood, did you know?

Women were also filling bags with large-crystal sugar from a great bulk bin.

 

 

We ate several pani puri snacks and another type of snack at a stand in the food department of the store. For us to take our fill of those savory treats cost less than 100 rupees which Tom said was about $1.10.

 

From this store we drove to that quiet neighborhood Tom introduced me to on my first day here, where is found their favorite market.

The shopkeepers know at least the names of vegetables and how to count in English so I was able to complete the purchase of some carrots, zucchini, peppers and broccoli while Tom went to the next stand where we found leeks and potatoes from which he is going to make soup.

Are those red carrots really carrots? I’ll cook them today and find out.

We brought all our loot home and then Tom cooked up a big delicious dinner featuring mutton chops, pesto green beans, tomato salad and more. It was the first meal of not particularly Indian food that I’ve had in ten days.

Baby “Raj” had stayed home with his mama. They are eating well and building strength and we are all enjoying the early Getting to Know You period. Well, not quite all: Huckleberry Cat has led a very sheltered life until this point and he doesn’t feel entirely positive about the strange creature who suddenly showed up.

As I write, it is a lazy Sunday afternoon. I’ve been holding a sleeping baby for an hour while chatting with Kate and Tom about so many things India, seeds that could germinate into future blog posts. Now I’m back here typing with two fingers to finish this one. My mind will immediately and irresistibly start gathering threads of images and impressions to weave into the next scrap of cloth I hope to share with you, of this colorful tapestry that is Bombay.