Ballooning over Jaipur– Part I

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My sister Kay and I  never pass up an opportunity to try something new, so on our trip in India,  we decided to take a balloon ride. Honey, are you saying to yourself: so what?  Or even: big deal? If those are your thoughts, stop reading now. You will be just too jaded to connect with our feelings of what-the-hell-are-we-doing and lemme-outa-here.

When we planned the our trip last Fall, I was entranced by a picture  of tourists floating over the city while watching the sun rise.  It looked romantic.  And, maybe it was one of those “bucket list” things a person needed to do.  No matter the reason, my sister and I found ourselves in Jaipur, standing in a  small field edged with big trees–  the official launch site for our evening trip.  We stared at the deflated excuse-for-a balloon that waited for us.  It was lying on its side, its stripes faded,  looking  sad.  The pilot was standing next to it, looking at his watch and pacing.  He was relieved when a pickup truck  pulled up  in a cloud of dust.  The men in back  leapt out and unloaded  a  large fan and a generator.  They yelled at each other in Hindi,  pointed up to the sky, and threw up blades of grass to test the wind.  What were they saying?  Perhaps words like:  these-Americans-are-crazy? Hmmm.  I tried to avoid Kay’s eyes,  but I could feel them boring into the back of my head.

To ignore all the commotion of shouting men and the loud fan that was now blowing air into the balloon,  I took a little walk to calm myself.  It was peaceful beyond the trees.  Small groups of  women and children herded their goats home before dark.  Such scenes of normalcy restored my courage so I went back to the launch site, and, Honey, I got there in the nick o’ time!    Our pilot was in the basket, his men were holding its ropes and the full balloon was trying to leave without us.  “Get in!  Now!”  he yelled.  I ran forward and  clambered into the basket.  Behind me, I heard Kay saying, “I’m not sure…”  But someone pushed her in and when I turned to  look into her face it was white as a sheet and her eyes were huge.

That  balloon then  shot up into the sky like a rocket.  I mean, that puppy really took off!  I peered over the side of the gondola and noticed that there were small mountain tops.  Way down below us.  It was like being high in a 747, not at all like the riding-on-a-leaf experience I had imagined.  Kay sank down inside the basket and pulled her hat low over her face.

The whoosh of the flames was loud.  And, they were hot.  Also, just above our heads!  I saw a tiny ice chest next to the pilot.  He reached inside and brought out a bottle of water.  I shook my head no.  I might need both hands to hold on.  Besides, water wouldn’t help.  Vodka, maybe.   Standing butt to butt in a square basket that was barely higher than my waist, we were completely at the mercy of the wind.  There was no going back!

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Biking in Prague – Part II

Our destination

 

 

 

I was in the bike shop signing the credit card thing when I looked up and Jan was gone.   I mean, gonzo!  I walked my tall bike out toward the street and stood on the curb looking.  Nothing but cars.  Bumper to bumper.  I was just starting to think oh well I’ll turn this thing in and take a taxi back to the hotel, when I heard a whoop from behind me.  I guided my bike toward the sound, and there was Jan.  She was doing figure- eights between the cars in a parking garage.  “Whoohooh!”  she called out.

What?  Was this the gal who said, “I haven’t been on a bike in years?”   Her face was flushed and her hair all stick-out;  and her mouth was one big amazing grin.

What the hell was going on?  This was the roommate who had, only a few hours ago, been lounging on her bed in the hotel, letting me believe she was doing me a favor by agreeing to go for a f___’in bike ride.  She had turned into some kind of alter-ego.  She appeared to be some person highly skilled in motocross or mountain biking. Were wheelies next?  As I stood staring, she zipped by.  “C’mon!” she said.  EEEEK  EEEK, the Donald Duck horn on her bike shrilled as she zipped by.

I wobbled my way forward and looked at the busy street full of traffic.    I looked down and saw that the pavement was dicey as well:  a mixture of  rough pavers, cobblestones, and cracks.   I was overcome with dueling thoughts of  OMG and dammit-you-can-do this.  But, Jan was unfazed.  Smiling her big smile, she said, “This takes me back. I forgot.  I loved biking.  In Cambridge.  In school.  I rode everywhere!”  My jaw dropped, but  there was no time to comment because Jan was already nosing her way through traffic.  She was saying something over her shoulder but  her words were faint as they wafted back to me. So, I mounted my rusty steed and surged forward.  Struggling to stay upright, I made my way through the cars and was relieved to spot Jan’s rear end riding high as she bounced our way over the cobblestones.

 

Prague cobblestones

Soon, we threaded our way through traffic and over a crowded bridge.  Pedestrians were no problem.  They leapt out of Jan’s way, and I followed in her jet stream.   The EEEK EEEK of the duck horn was a  attention-getter.  Jan had been right!  A horn really was essential

 

I was starting to feel pretty good about myself  and eyeball  the lovely old buildings of Prague, when I looked up and Jan’s rump was nowhere in sight. I dismounted and looked each direction.  Then I saw her.  Leaning on a juice stand at the bottom of a hill, sipping something through a straw.  Looking up, she saw me and pointed.  Yes, there was the river.  Our destination.  It was serene, with boats paddling about and people basking in the sun.  Gritting my teeth and squinting, I zipped down the hill, gripping the handbrakes all the way.  Once at the bottom, I pulled up next to a bench, dismounted, and sat down.  My legs were quivering and my mouth dry.  “Beer?” Jan asked.  She read my mind.  Soon, after a few slurps, I was getting my courage back.  Then, Jan looked at her watch.  ” The bike shop closes in 30 minutes!”

I suggested we find a taxi and put the bikes in the trunk.  Jan pointed out that we would still need to get up that hill.  So, we pedaled our way up the hill and looked around.  Suddenly, a large bike tour appeared, with a leader that stopped cars with just one gesture.   Jan cocked her head, took off, and bulled her way into the herd.  What could I do but follow suit, even though the bikers were scowling and trying to shoo us away. Luckily, I didn’t speak their language.   Hey, those people could ride fast.  Really fast.

In no time, we saw the bike shop and peeled off.  The kid was standing in the doorway.  His mouth was agape with awe.  He gave a slight bow when he handed us our deposit.

As for us, we strutted away and never looked back.

 

Our reward!

Our reward!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Biking in Prague – Part I

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Jan planning our day

Jan planning our day

 

My friend, Jan, and I decided to take off together on a  two- cities trip: to Vienna and  Prague.  Vienna is a big city, and the beautiful Danube River  runs through it and softens its hard edges.    Once I saw those tree-lined riverbanks I got a hankering to  bike along its gentle paved paths.  The thing is,  Jan was not enthusiastic.  “There is so much else  to see!” she said, while lounging on her bed and leafing through her trusty guidebook.  “Palaces, monuments, historic stuff!”  She looked at my pleading face and tried to console me  as if I were a little child.  But I wasn’t fooled.  I  knew it was just like saying you can have a cookie when we get home, when she said,  “Well, maybe after we see all this,  we can go biking…”  She pointed to a fast-scrolling list of monuments and sights flowing down the screen of her cell phone.

So, the two of us went exploring and checked off each recommended must-see.  We went to a concert in the solarium of the Schoenbrun palace and it was wonderful, with singers, and dancers doing the Viennese waltz.  We wandered through vast gardens, ate weinerschnitzel and Sachertorted our way through the cafes.

 

Finally, Jan confessed.  “Thing is, Dana, I haven’t been on a bike in years!”  She began to warn me  about every possibility:  falling, breaking something, being air-lifted by ambulance, yadda, yadda, yadda.  “But, you can go by yourself,” she suggested.  What?  By myself?  I thought about that.  It would be pleasant, but, on the other hand, who would there be to exclaim to?  Saying things like wow this is great, and look over there, etc. etc.

That’s why, when we arrived at our hotel in Prague and were once again lounging on beds,  I was surprised to hear Jan say, “Know what?  Let’s go biking!” Huh?  What a gal!  I leapt up, got my iPad, and Googled  the nearest bike shop.

Once there, we found a young blond kid who sized us up and frowned.  All the good bikes had already left for the day, he said.  He folded his arms and stood in the doorway.  But Jan was no one to try to block.  She whisked right past his skinny frame and homed in on a group of rusty bikes leaning against the wall. “Hey!  Here’s one!” she yelled.  The kid rolled his eyes and got out his tools.  I saw immediately that Jan had taken the only “girl’s” bike in the place.  But I held myself in check, stood aside and let Jan do her thing.  She fished out a “boys'” bike for me, helped me get the seat adjusted then announced:  “I need a better seat.”  The kid’s eyebrows shot up.  “This one’s too narrow!” she explained.  The kid shrugged.  Jan rummaged through the clutter of the shop and came up with a large gel pad.  Why did she need that, I asked.  She pointed at the skinny  bike seat.  “Well, those thin things will just go up my you-know-what,” she explained.  The kid grinned.    Finally, Jan’s seat was augmented and just right.  But, she wasn’t finished.  “I need a horn!” she said.  By now, the kid was actually getting fascinated.   But hey,  a horn?    Who needs a horn?

The kid and I stood back and watched.  Jan  was already pawing  through some odd items in a corner.  In just a second  she hit pay dirt.  Way back behind some old springs and rags, she spotted a squeaky horn. It seemed to beckon to her.  She grabbed it and held it aloft triumphantly. She had indeed found a horn.  Of sorts.  It  was rubber.  And,  an eye-catching bright yellow. I squinted.  Really?  Yes.   It was a Donald Duck head.  Jan gave it a squeeze.  EEEK-EEEK-EEEK!!!  My god, it was ear-splitting.   The kid and I exchanged looks.

EEEK!  EEEK!

EEEK! EEEK

 

And so, Honey, when I saw Jan climb up high  on her throne, and pinch the duck on her handlebars, I knew I was in for the ride of my life!

Stay tuned…

A Day in Kiev

IMG_1381 Watching the news these days, with video and pictures of the unrest in Kiev is unsettling, to say the least.  It wasn’t long ago that my sister, Kay, and I were right there in the main square.  The atmosphere was upbeat.  Beautiful young women clicked by in high heels, dodging cars and stepping over curbs and cobblestones.  They exuded a certain confidence as they chatted on their mobiles while their large handbags bumped against their sides. All around us, there was an air of busyness.  Kiev was suddenly a place of entrepreneurship.  A new freedom was being expressed, especially by young people.  We were caught up in the infectious feeling of opportunity.  The hand of the USSR that once held the population in a grey mood had been lifted.

 

High heels are ubiquitous

High heels are ubiquitous

 

 

Our sunny  days in that beautiful city by the fast-flowing river were a stark contrast to the images we now see on our evening news.  Kay and I had  some fun but  perplexing adventures there.  We were taken to dinner by a couple who were friends of friends and they wanted to give us a bit of Ukrainian hospitality. In spite of language difficulties, we got along wonderfully.   First, we walked through a large park and posed for photos next  to colorful arty statues.  There’s a picture of Kay and me crammed into a sweet pea pod-like thing, wearing silly grins. Then we drove to a cafe and our host parked right in front, on the sidewalk.  Apparently that is the custom! Once at our table,  our hosts perused the large restaurant menu and asked us:  do you like sweetbreads?  do you like potatoes?  cabbage? veal?  We answered a polite yes to each question.  Soon, platter after platter arrived, laden with food.  But there were only two plates:  one for Kay, and one for me.   Eat, eat, our hosts urged, as they sat watching.  They refused to share any of the dishes! We didn’t know why.  Still, we tried our best to make even the smallest dent in the heaps of food before us.  It wasn’t easy.

 

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After dinner, we were taken to an art exhibit.  The theme was eroticism, I guess, because, for example,  there were gigantic penises that were accurate in detail. Use your imagination.  I’ve seen lots of sculpture in lots of museums, but  Honey, to this day, nothing like the assortment in that gallery.   Still, we gamely strolled through each room, wondering how to react.

I have often thought about that memorable evening of food and art. My regret was that our language difficulties were so great that I will never know why we ate alone and why we were shown that particular exhibit.  I’ve been told by people in many countries that  Americans are thought to be very large people who love to eat.  Perhaps we  also have a reputation for having an insatiable appetite for sex as well!  Watching American TV reality shows could certainly give that impression.

I will never forget the wonderful hospitable manner of our hosts, and all the people we met in Kiev.  When I saw the news reports  showing  the streets of Kiev full of shouting protestors, my heart sank.  The main square where we felt such optimism in the air had turned into a grey mass of discord.

There’s nothing funny about the threat of war.

 

 

Speaking of Russian

Red Square Monument

Red Square Monument

Just a few years ago, I took a river cruise on the mysterious and powerful Volga River.  From St. Petersburg to Moscow with stops in between.  It was fascinating and my favorite part was being alone up top in the middle of the night, watching the stars, listening to the thrum of the engine and the lapping water as we glided along.  But, what was the least-favorite part of the trip?  Riding in busses with the other Americans, looking out the fogged windows as the voice of a guide droned on.  “On your right is a monument to our soldiers….On your left is a monument to our war heroes…Coming up, on your right….”   My sister and I were some of the youngest people in our group–and, Honey, that ain’t sayin’ much!  I’m spry, but no longer a Spring chicken.  In fact, on the day in question,  Kay and I, being our blonde energetic selves, were getting restless.  Especially when the bus stopped and picked up a local guide.  I nudged Kay.  This woman was dressed to the nines.  Her hair was reminiscent of the forties, swept up on the sides and lightened. She wore hosiery (yep, I said “hose”) and classic black pumps.  A cashmere-looking sweater was draped around her shoulders, held together with a clip.  She picked up the microphone and started in:  on your right, a monument…. yadda yadda yadda….  In front of us, snores began to rise in various octaves.  It was stuffy on that bus and rainy outside.  Overly cosy.  I sighed, about to give in until…Until…Wait, Our duchess had deviated from script.  She wanted to tell us a story.

She began to talk about the Russian language.  How different it was.  Its alphabet.  Difficulties in translation.  Apparently, she had friends who had learned a hard lesson.   They decided to start a business–a restaurant. They wanted its Russian name written in English-style letters so it would  attract tourists.  “Hah, hah,” our guide laughed.  Her voice was lovely, her laugh lilting.  “It was too funny,” she said. ” The name of the cafe, in Russian, looked like the English word  c—-! ” What?  Had she really said the “c” word? I held my breath as she paused. Then she continued.   “My friends had made a little mistake.  The word was like c—! Hah Hah!”   Our elegant royal-looking countess-person had said it again!

Kay and I looked at each other.  Had we heard right?

Sometimes, there’s a moment frozen in place.  When, out of the boredom of rambling speeches, a word jumps out and grabs you.  In this instance, it was as if everyone on the bus had been slapped awake.  Heads popped up and twisted around.  Faces turned to each other, mouths agape. And then, the  tittering began, flowing through the bus like a wave of icy water.

“Ah hah hah” our proper lady trilled.  “Isn’t that funny?”  Then, she collected herself.  “Yes.  Well, now.  On your right you will see a monument…”

Monument & Onion Domes

Monument & Onion Domes

Aren’t monuments just really great…..

Tattoos and a Swing Set in India

Waiting Playground

Waiting Playground

Now that you’ve read some of my musings about misadventures and mishaps in India, let me tell you about the real reason I went to such a faraway land.  It’s all about the girls.  I went to see the schoolgirls I’ve been supporting at my friend’s school in the heart of one of the busiest sex trafficking areas in the world.  It was the tenth anniversary of the Piyali Learning Centre, and  was it ever wonderful.  The school is like an oasis in the desert.  The girls were just as adorable as their pictures–shy, sweet, and full of hope for a decent future.

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Here’s the fun part.  The girls got glitter “tattoos!”  Such a thrill for someone whose arm is usually carrying a stack of wood or a bucket of water, or her mother’s latest  baby.  They crowded around me, laughing and holding out stick-thin arms sporting shiny designs.  My new friend, Stasi, a cosmetologist from California, had brought along her book of choices  with the bright paints  and sparkles.

Lining Up for the Slide

Lining Up for the Slide

Here’s another fun part.  The school had just received a brand new swing set.  It sat on a new grassy lawn, all pristine and colorful, but the girls were told to wait until after the school’s anniversary celebration to even approach it.  Later, when they were given permission to go play, they lined up in close formation, as always.  I had gotten into a conversation with one of the beautiful sari-clad teachers and wasn’t watching the girls until I noticed some motion out of the corner of my eye:  the girls were on the slide.   They were coming down, touching each other without any space between their bodies.  Honey, they shot down that slide faster than a rushing Arkansas river.   Like one long caterpillar, they climbed the ladder, sat at the top, and whooshed down.  They didn’t know that there’s a rule for slides:  wait for the person at the bottom to move away!  One at a time!  Take your turn!  When I asked the teacher about this she smiled.  “These girls have never seen playground equipment before.”  Hmmm… I had to think about that…

Don’t forget to hug your kids…

If you want to see more about my friend’s school, go to http://www.paceuniversal.com

“Oops” on the Ganges

walking toward the Ganges

walking toward the Ganges

According to our India trip description, a big highlight was in store:  an evening on the Ganges!  I was excited as we made our  through the crowded streets of Varanasi, on the way to the river.   Pilgrims of all sorts filled the road and wow, I was one of them. Our small group was uncharacteristically quiet.  We were ready to be enlightened.

Celebration

Celebration

At the river, a huge celebration was taking place, because new saffron-robed monks were about to begin their first performance.  Loud chanting, brilliant lights, drums and bells filled the night air.  We walked past the gathering crowds, down the many stone steps and made our way to a group of large wooden row boats.  A young man took our hands to steady us as we stepped into our bobbing boat and took our places on the long benches that ran along its length.   As we pulled away from the dock, we could see the festive scene more fully.  We could also see the many funeral pyres that sent yellow flames skyward from cremation sites on the riverbank.  I looked down at the dark water and was surprised to see that there was a strong current.  Lights from the fires and the windows of the nearby buildings danced in the ripples of the black water. Then, I noticed that tiny tea lights were floating by.  Yay! The oil lamps I’d read about!

Large wood row boats

Large wood row boats

A local boat guide took a chair  in the center of our boat and started  to chant.  He enunciated each syllable slowly several times, nodded to us, and we all chimed in. As our voices rose softly into the cool air,  I looked at the faces of our group.  They were solemn.  I could see a few tears, and  couples held hands.  It was a sacred-Ganges moment.

By the time our trip leader began handing out tiny lamps to each of us, I was in heaven.  The sparkly night, the faint music, the lapping water–it was all too much to believe.  I put out my hand and took an oil lamp.  It was a palm-sized  foil saucer with a teensy flame burning in its center.  It would carry our wishes on the Ganges’ water to the gods so that they could come true.  I held my lamp over the side of the boat, and let it go.  “Phfft!”  It sank  with a loud hiss.  I looked around.  Oops.  Only mine had sunk.  Quietly, our leader handed me another lamp.  Again, I leaned down to the water, and let it go. Another loud “phfft!”

I tried four times before I decided not to accept another oil lamp. I didn’t want to mar everyone’s holy moment.  I sat there wondering:  what’s the significance of failing at this?  I’m a known klutz, but still.  Who can’t  float an f—in’  little flame  on the Ganges?

The next morning, I asked our trusty tour leader, “Do many people have problems with their oil lamps?”  He said, “not often.”  Diplomatic, as usual.

Then, I got to the point.  “So, will my wish not come true?”

He put his hand on my shoulder and his face seemed serious. “It depends on whether or not you have a pure heart,” he said.

Hmmm.  Time for introspection.  Do I have a “pure heart?”

Good question.

I’m workin’ on it.