Kumbh Mela, Allahabad, India 2013.. When the riverbanks turned into effervescent, mythical and mystical religious pageant of million voices, chiming temple bells, strains of prayers and discourses against the backdrop of rising sun.
Allahabad is my hometown and in 2013 I joined nearly 120 million, from all over the world, congregating to purify themselves with a dip in the confluence or sangam of Ganga, Yamuna and the invisible Saraswati.
Mark Twain, American author, had visited the Kumbh at Allahabad in 1895 and like him, I too, marvelled at “…the power of a faith, that can make multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination….”
According to Hindu mythology the origin of Kumbh Mela centers on the legend of Samudra Manthan, (churning of the waters), in search of the pitcher or Kumbh filled with holy nectar or amrita. The Devas (gods) and Asuras (evil people) both claimed the pitcher and to prevent the Asuras from drinking the holy nectar of immortality one of the gods flew away with the pitcher and in process four drops fell on earth, Hardwar, Allahabad, Ujjain and Nasik, deeming them holy places.
The Kumbh Melas are held every 12 years in rotation: River Ganga in Haridwar; the confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati at Allahabad; the Godavari at Nashik and River Shipra at Ujjain (Central India). The Melas stretch over two months with auspicious bathing dates, though one can take a dip in the sacred waters everyday, to purify themselves of worldly sins.
Our winter drive to Banff, about 126 km west of Calgary and 58 km from Lake Louise, is past intimidating Rocky mountains flaunting their pristine white coyness in new snow-capes. The prominent peaks, Mount Rundle, Norquay, The Three Sisters, are giveaways that we are approaching Banff, a quintessential mountain town nestled within Banff National Park, Alberta.
I had visited Banff in the summer of 2014, a bustling colourful timber town with rustic architecture merging with the surrounding rugged wilderness of the Rockies. In January 2016, my first winter trip, Banff appeared still in slumber, a lazy bear waiting to be nudged into action. Later, flipping through tourist brochures I came across a line up of winter activities from wine festivals, music and craft fairs with local flavour and winter sports run-ups in Banff and environs. Maybe, the deserted look was due to lunch time or resting time with few braving the cold outdoors: stragglers carrying their winter sports gear, construction workers, tourists and people like us enjoying a snow stroll on the Banff Avenue or the main road, clicking pictures of the giant Snowman and desperate to leave sitzmarks on the pavement snow.
Banff, discovered in the 1880s and named Banff by the President of Canadian Pacific Railway for his birthplace in Scotland, was a railway outpost and since then has careened down the majestic slopes to metamorphose into a tourist haven with chalet styled luxury hotels developed by the Canadian Pacific Railways and residential and commercial premises borrowing from the picturesque landscape.
Snug in winter-wear we ambled down Banff Avenue or main street, shuffling in gift shops and chalet-like malls and before the sales person, in one of the stores, could ask for the fifth time ‘Need help’ purchased Ice wine tea gift packs for friends.
Further down the Avenue, preparations were in full swing for a street party complete with ice sculptures including an ice bar, music, d.js and dancing away the winter blues
From street walking we moved into the cozy comfort of the majestic Fairmont Banff Springs, a luxurious ‘castle’ complete with gothic ceilings and glowing candelabra, a take off on Scottish/British royal living with more than 700 rooms, dozen eateries, lounges, popular spa, tennis courts and golf course. The ‘Springs’, as it is referred to by the guests and staff, was a gift of Canadian Pacific Railways and has played host to stars and royalty from Marilyn Monroe to King Edward VIII (who later abdicated the throne) and present elite, stars, politicians and sportspersons. Walking inside one does feel like ‘royalty’ and we plan to come again.
The majestic buildings merge with the color palette of the surrounding mountains and we watch, from one of the hotel terraces, the setting sun take a ski run down the snowy vista of Bow Valley.
A refreshing tea break in the Rundle lounge of the hotel and we bid adieu to Banff
Sitting in snow-bound Calgary I dream of the picturesque, aromatic lavender pathways of Okanagan Lavender Farm near Kelowna. This is probably what the glossy brochures mean when they tell you to visit and breathe in the rejuvenating lavender freshness to suffice for the winter months.
We had stopped for a few hours at the farm, it is on the tourist map, lured by the color purple and sweeping view of lavender flowers against the backdrop of the cerulean Okanagan Lake, apple and peach orchards and pumpkin farms.
Our timing was slightly mis-cued, as the best time to visit the farm is in July when lavender is in full bloom. August/ September is the harvesting and distillation period when flowers are hand-striped for lavender flavored products. Our visit was in August 2015 but something is better than nothing and enjoyed a stroll on the gravel pathways, admiring the herb gardens and the view stretching towards Okanagan Lake. There is a guided tour, we could not take it due shortage of time, but taking the tour is worth the effort if one wants to know the history, cultivation and by-products of lavender.
The stroll ended on the patio of the Lavender café, serves sumptuous fresh-baked snacks and lavender flavored drinks, and in the boutique overflowing with aromatic Lavender fragrances and herb products, oils, teas, scrubs, soaps, etc. Could not resist purchasing luxurious Lavender bath oil and a jar of Lavender jelly.
The farm is well thought of family business as along with natural beauty and shopping there are hobby and interactive classes, organized social gatherings, a cafeteria and family fun opportunities.
Flipping through my Photo file I came across pictures of Owakudani or the Great Boiling Valley in Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan. Not exactly ‘roofs’ but views of the burning valley and sheds from the Hakone Ropeway.
Owakudani or Jigokudani is centered on a crater formed by the last eruption of Mount Hakone some 3000 years ago. It is still sizzling, scarred with clouds of steam bursting through the crevasses. The entire gorge, engulfed in acrid sulfur smell, makes for a risky walking venture, there is a walking trail from the Ropeway station into the valley dotted with steam vents and bubbling pools. Black eggs or Kuro-tamago cooked in the sulfuric hot waters and said to prolong one’s life by seven years, are temptation amidst the burning sensations.
Access to Owakudani is via the Hakone Ropeway from either Sounzen Station or Togendai Station on the shore of the fabulously clear Lake Ashi. We took the Ropeway from Sounzen and stopped at Owakudani and then proceeded to Togendai. On a clear day one has a spectacular view of Mount Fuji and vagaries of nature… the still fiery autumn colors and then, next minute, the theatrical boiling Jigokudani.
I had visited Owakudani in November 2010 courtesy JNTO, Japan
Growing up I would envy friends whose father’s had transferable jobs moving to different cities, within country and abroad. Ours was a business family and this necessitated staying in one place and one residence, a family property, in sleepy, culturally and politically rich town of Allahabad on the banks of River Ganga, the holy river for Hindus.
I immersed myself in books, no limits on genre, waiting for the day when I too will have the world in my palm, because in words of travel writer Pico Iyer ‘‘…travel is, deep down, about the real confirmation of very unreal dreams”. My dreams were about ‘traveling the world and seven seas’, of becoming a successful novelist/journalist/writer, and penning my thoughts.
Travel was a family weakness (my father had traveled to Europe by the P&O liner in 1959) though in my case it surfaced late. The opportunity came with marriage (1978) when I took up residence in New Delhi, an opportunity or step closer to other lands. We covered the length and breadth of India and Nepal in first year of marriage as husband was in Sales and Marketing and I accompanied him when ever I could. I preferred the lazy somnolent train travels of the 80’s, irrespective of often-grimy stations and unhygienic train bathrooms, to latter-day air travel. The arrival of children bought a lull to frequent travels that were gradually replaced by vacations to nearby hill stations and family outings to my hometown, Allahabad.
The real expat change came when husband accepted a five-year assignment in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman, an unknown land in the Middle East. Apprehensions sidelined I did not mind being a “trailing spouse” (term coined in 1981 by The Wall Street Journal’s Mary Bralove) sacrificing a career as I had opted out of long-hours of journalistic work for freelance writing, reading, exploring and meeting with people. My husband’s position as General Manager of his company and Director on the Management Committee of Indian School, Muscat, insured us the luxuries and privileges of social and cultural life of Muscat. School holidays took us to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Cyprus, travel within Oman, while my husband jetted to USA, Europe and the Far East on work. Life was on an even keel, our daughter left for the USA, joining college in Massachusetts after high school and son followed a few years later to Purdue University.
Oman was an unknown shoe-shaped land; our then 6-year old son had refused to live in a shoe on hearing about our move, probably thinking about the “Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe”. The country was a challenge, not for language or adjustments, but accepting the similarities between India and Oman. There were no language issues, close ties between Oman and the sub-continent had guaranteed that, except for following the laws of the country. English and to certain extent Hindi was the common bond and the younger generation was keen on following what an Omani friend dubbed as ‘India’s export of English –speaking workforce’.
Oman was Indian, as far as its history goes ‘with one foot in India’ during British rule in the subcontinent. Muscat was an enclosed city with no main street, a maze of narrow winding alleys leading to a central compound. The heavy wooden gates would be closed at night, about three hours after sunset, allowing only authorized vehicles within the city boundaries. Pedestrians were let in through a small door in the main gate and that too if they carried the lantern provided by the law. A Omani friend told us about how there were few automobiles in the city and the proud owners would take pains to salute passing motorists, who, very often happened to be friends or family. Over a passage of time, with the exercise getting a bit tedious, cardboard hands replaced human hands to be waved from the windows. It did sound a bit far-fetched. In present Muscat it is impossible to look sideways for fear of being hit from the rear or side. With discovery of oil in the 1980s, progress stepped in and today Oman enjoys a stable and peaceful environment under a benevolent Sultan.
I spent time in libraries reading about Oman, its close ties with India and in free time walking the souks and the lanes, the beaches and restaurants and parks, meeting with other expats and reveling in concerts and art exhibitions. I took up freelance writing assignment with Khaleej Times (Dubai) and this opened up vistas to meet with Omanis. The women were friendly but men, a slight reserve and respect. I was intrigued and impressed by the women, their restrictions and freedom, and work opportunities. In Salalah, capital of Dhofar on Southern tip of Oman and bordering Yemen, I met with a Omani family. The wife was expecting her sixth child and wanting to know how many I had and was surprised by my answer .She placed her hand on my stomach and whispered ‘only two-khallas’. I wanted to tell her that I had a choice to decide, but refrained being guests of the family and the country. Oman was/is not a ‘Purdah’ nation, though women did wear the Abaya and covered their heads, as women enjoyed freedom to work, to drive. Being the first or fourth wife did not frighten most as I gauged from my conversation with a girl soon to be the fourth wife of a moneyed man. She awaiting to enjoy a life of luxury. There must be a different side to the story to.
The five years, 1995 -2000, were a learning curve for the family. But then changes happen and we decided to return to India, empty nesters starting anew.
To be cont: Accidental Expat on the Prowl…fresh pastures