Four temples, a museum, three Goa beaches, Gandhi’s resting place, the zoo, an elephant ride, Bollywood movie, yoga, numerous shopping trips, nose piercing, henna tattoos, chai stands and restaurants.
That about sums up a whirlwind visit with my two sisters-in-law and niece who came to stay with us from the States over the Easter and spring break holiday.
But the description hardly does the visit justice. It’s not what we did. It’s how we did.
We laughed really hard, enjoyed each other’s company, played some silly games and took a pause from life to just be.
Just being in the moment can be hard for hard-working people used to deadlines, offices, hospitals (my sister-in-law Karen is a nurse), meetings and schedules. It’s not so hard for a person as lucky as me—unshackled from the 8-to-5 daily working world for the last nine months, focusing on yoga, meditation and other pursuits of relaxation and leisure. But for others out there in the “real world,” as I like to say, it’s a bit of an adjustment.
The two worlds collided, resulting in the perfect visit of an American family meeting up with the India-adjusted American family—with the glorious country of India as the exotic backdrop of everything.
My sister-in-law Leigh O’Donoghue (godmother to our eldest, Rory), Karen O’Donoghue (the youngest of the five O’Donoghue siblings, and mother of four kids) and Karen’s 16-year-old daughter Laila (who was brave enough to visit us in Alaska for a winter camping trip two years ago along with Auntie Leigh) all arrived in the middle of the night on a Lufthansa flight March 29. We wasted no time showing them as much of our world in India as possible.
I won’t romanticize everything. Some things they liked or at least appreciated; and some things, like the large amounts of trash and pollution, horrified them (as it did us when we first arrived).
But the relatives were game. Eight-year-old Rachel, reading over my shoulder as I write this, asked what being “game” means. I said it’s a willingness to try new stuff.
“These guys are definitely game,” Rachel declared.
Yep. That’s part of what made the visit so fun.
Here’s a snapshot of the relatives’ 12-day stay (10 if you minus jetlag and airport arrivals/departures):
–Three temples, most of which involved climbs up to hilltops in the inevitable 100-degree weather that comes with this time of year.
One was the local neighborhood temple on the hill just behind our house (though it’s a couple hour trek when you add it all up). We managed that one early in the morning to avoid the heat. What’s nice about this outing is you go through a very traditional neighborhood, with Indian families washing dishes and clothes, cooking, etc., in pots and jugs just outside their small homes. The people are used to seeing trekkers head for the hill, so it doesn’t feel too intrusive.
The second, Parvati temple, is a beautiful local hill temple that is actually about three temples in one, and features a vigorous aerobic climb up steep stone steps and a beautiful view of Pune.
The third was Karla Caves, about an hour’s drive outside of Pune toward Mumbai. This was our first time to Karla Caves, and I’m really glad we went.
The caves are a complex of ancient Buddhist meditation and worship caves carved into the rock mountain that dates back 2,000 years. A Hindu temple is just outside of it, dedicated to the goddess Ekvira, most revered by fishing people. We could have done without all the trash littering the hillside that leads to the temple (as well as the children pooping and peeing right out in the open), but those things are part of life in India too.
–Kelkar Museum in Pune. This museum displays a fraction of the personal collection of the late Dr. Kelkar, from mostly the states of Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Orissa and a few others. The museum director (Dr. Kelkar’s grandson) has become friends with Brian and is a gracious host.
–Aga Kahn Palace, one of the places where the Mahatma Gandhi was imprisoned during the Quit India movement against the British, as India sought independence back in the 1940s. Some of Gandhi’s ashes are located outside the palace grounds. Gandhi’s wife and secretary both died during the imprisonment. Gandhi remains a controversial figure in India, surprisingly, but I consider him a great man.
–The Katraj/Rajiv Gandhi Zoo, which is one of the nicest zoos I’ve ever been to, including the National Zoo in DC and the San Diego Zoo in California. The large enclosures, the obvious care and attention to animal welfare, the immaculate grounds, the litter-free environment—all make for a beautiful zoo experience. I don’t even really like zoos, as I always feel sorry for caged creatures. But this zoo is different. I love how non-commercial and simple it is. We especially enjoyed the white tiger, the Bengal tiger, the snake park (I didn’t really enjoy that part, but everyone else did) and the elephants. We were the only white people there, and got lots of stares that at times felt uncomfortable.
–Param Yoga. This is where I go to yoga all the time. For my sisters-in-law it was new, and they loved it! They managed to take in three classes with me, and understand why I will miss this yoga school so much when I return to Alaska. From the breathing exercises (pranayama), to the asanas (the postures) and the final prayer recited in Sanskrit—they got to enjoy the entire Indian yoga experience with me. Namaste.
–Bollywood. Well, not the real thing, but close enough–E-Square on University Drive is just a rickshaw ride away. We saw a funny Bollywood movie called “Mere Dad Ki Maruti,” all in Hindi and no English subtitles (what better way is there? Sit back, relax, enjoy…and laugh at all the inappropriate places!) This movie in particular had some outrageous Bollywood dance scenes. It was perfect.
–Goa, the beach state of India. This tiny state along the Arabian Sea used to be under the control of the Portuguese, and is now home to a large collection of beaches, resorts, hippy towns, yoga spots and gathering places. We stayed in a luxurious heritage resort that, despite their shocking “no kids under 12” policy, let us stay anyway. As I told the manager, “It’s the teenagers you have to worry about—not the sweet little 8-year-old!” It all ended well and was a beautiful place to stay, and only a short walk to a well-maintained beach.
Similar to Mexico, India beaches have their share of hawkers and people looking to make a buck. This can get tiring. Luckily, as it’s summer and very hot, this is the off-season for beach going, so it wasn’t too crazy.
We spent four days and three nights in Goa, about a nine-hour drive from Pune. We rented a 13-seater air-conditioned bus and a driver named Santosh for the road trip, which took us through the peaceful, rural countryside, complete with bullock carts carrying heavy loads of newly harvested sugar cane. We also passed through a religious festival where everyone smeared their foreheads with yellow turmeric powder.
We shopped in street-side stalls and markets, including a wonderful Tibetan/northern Indian market, secreted away under a bunch of tarps behind the main market. My sister-in-law Leigh is so much fun to shop with—she took to haggling like a pro! A 10-year-old boy was no match for Leigh and the duffle bag she wanted to buy. (He asked for 850 rupees, and Leigh bargained him down to a more reasonable 250 rupees, or about $5 USD. I was proud.)
–Elephant ride in Goa. We asked around and found out there was a guy who would give elephant rides, sometimes, not too far from our hotel near a temple, if we timed it right. We found it, and there he was, along with a somewhat reluctant but willing elephant named Rupa. Karen, Laila, Rory and Robin enjoyed the rides while the rest of us took pictures. Temple music was in the background.
–Swimming. In addition to the obvious attraction of swimming in Goa (the Arabian Sea in summer is like very warm bath water, but with waves and body surfing), we also swam every day in our own little refreshing pool here in Paradise Society. I’m not one to dive in very often, but even I got my faded LL Bean suit wet a few times.
–Eating. This might not be what you expect, but our visiting family was incredibly happy to indulge in good ol’ American fast food, which you can find in a huge metro area like Pune. Of course we ate Indian food a number of times, but they missed the familiar, including good coffee. In addition to drinking chai at least once, we also hit the Starbucks equivalent of India—Café Coffee Day—a bunch of times. I’ll also admit we patronized McDonald’s once, and even had Pizza Hut deliver to our house in Paradise. Hey, my kinfolk weren’t used to all the spices of Indian food. We rolled with it.
–Tattoo parlors. Leigh got her nose pierced and both Leigh and Laila indulged in some traditional henna tattoos on their feet. I like to think I’m an inspiration with my pierced nose, but I think it’s all the beautiful Indian women who have nose piercings and henna tattoos (the latter of which is mostly associated with weddings.)
–Easter Mass. We attended St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Pune. The big excitement for the kids was when a pigeon flew into one of the many ceiling fans right during the priest’s homily. That aside, I love attending Mass in a foreign country. There are some things that are universal and beautiful. The relatives got a great view of all the colorful saris that Indian women wear.
–Easter brunch at Café Peter Donut, the local Korean restaurant in Aundh, owned by the parents of a couple of our kids’ Korean friends. This place serves excellent waffles, coffee and donuts. You had to be there, I guess, but Karen knocking over a mug of soda caused all of us to shriek in laughter. It’s a family thing.
–The Great Punjab. This is a Punjabi restaurant near our house on Baner Road that we love. Punjab is a northern state in India, and is home to many turban-wearing Sikhs. The food is spicy and delicious.
–Tea at a friend’s house. It’s very common in India for friends to invite you over for tea, either mid-morning or late afternoon. “Tea” is actually code language for “big giant meal of a bunch of fattening Indian snacks, plus some tea.” Since our friend and hostess Amy Hyne (a fellow Fulbright) is an American, we had tea (a couple of us had wine), some modest snacks by Indian standards (biscuits and watermelon), and then we headed to a rooftop restaurant to enjoy the evening stars and the odd firework display, a staple of India. The food was perfectly prepared, yummy and cheap. We got to meet Amy’s fiancé, Matt, who felt like an old friend.
–Tour of Brian’s campus, Symbiosis International University in Lavale. This hilltop campus on the outskirts of Pune is resplendent during monsoon, when everything is lush and green. We had to tell our relatives to squint their eyes a bit and imagine, as the landscape now is parched and brown this scorching time of year. We had a nice visit with Ramesh, Ruchi and Nikhat, colleagues of Brian’s that have become good friends. Ruchi organized a golf-cart tour of the campus for us, and we ate lunch at the student food court.
–Good-bye lunch honoring Brian by Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communications. The event was held at Barbecue Nation, which has small barbecue pits set up right in the center of each table. Not only do they serve skewer after skewer of both vegetarian and non-vegetarian fare, there’s a huge buffet filled with all kinds of yummy Indian food. I think Brian’s sisters liked meeting some of Brian’s colleagues and seeing how much they all appreciated his contributions to the academic year. Best of all, the speeches and presentations were kept short!
–Giving money to beggars. This is something that everybody has always told us not to do in India. As foreigners trying to live as locals, we’ve mostly abided by the advice of many people who warn of mobs that can quickly form, and alms that end up going toward liquor and drugs instead of food.
But kind-hearted Karen would have none of it. She gave many beggars money, especially the children, asked them questions about their lives, and often took their pictures with their consent. She was an inspiration to me to follow your own path, even against the advice of people supposedly wiser than you are.
My sisters-in-law and niece Laila are now gone, back in time across the international dateline to the states of Maryland and Colorado. If we weren’t coming home to the U.S. ourselves in less than a month, I’d be in tears, for homesickness tends to consume me these days when I’m not feeling sad about leaving India. It’s interesting how quickly we’ve adapted since we came in June 2012. For 12 days, we saw the country again with fresh eyes, through our relatives. It made us appreciate, question and ponder our surroundings even more.