I am currently in one of the more stunningly beautiful places in the world, with a natural landscape similar to that of the Grand Canyon, only much more lush and green, though similarly hot. Thankfully, at night it is cooler, and overall it is cooler than Mumbai.
Before I get started, I want to do a short plug for the upcoming Strawberry Festival at Mapro Gardens, near Panchgani. It starts this Friday, the 10th, and goes until the 17th, I think. There will be strawberry everything, including strawberry pizza, which particularly surprised me, but I guess it also includes chocolate, so I am sorry to be missing it. Anyway, Mapro Gardens is a lovely little spot with fresh pizzas, sandwiches, ice cream of all flavors, and pretty much any fruit jam or syrup or candy or whatever, all of which is made by Mapro, which happens to be my host’s company. They also have a lovely nursery with lots of orchids, among other flowers, as well as several other lovely garden spots. Even if you’re just stopping by, you can try any of their fruit-products for free. Apparently, they’re in Lonely Planet as having really good bathrooms, but I don’t know from experience. Anyway, if any readers out there are going to be in Maharashtra, anywhere near Panchgani, check out the Strawberry Festival next week!
So, where am I and what am I doing there?
I’m in a town called Panchgani, but I’m getting to know the entire surrounding area, including Mahabaleshwar and Wai and everywhere unnamed included in that. I came because my hosts in Mumbai have a friend here, and they thought I might want to escape the Bombay heat, which tends to be oppressive and exhausting, to go to a hill station, as locals do in the summer. (Yes, it’s summer here. In April.) I boarded a bus on Saturday morning and found myself in a decidedly cooler climate several hours later, with some of the most amazing and interesting hosts who have not only taken incredibly good care of me, as always, but have provided me with fascinating conversation and deliciously ripe mangoes. As we all know, the latter is of primary importance to me, considering this is the first time in my travels that I’ve finally been somewhere where the mangoes were ripe! Can you imagine three months of no mango? It was tough.
Inasmuch as everyone except for me has to work, my host set me up with young women from his office to take me around the various areas the last few days, which was definitely an experience. I can’t count the number of times in the last few weeks that I’ve been in the middle of doing something or going somewhere or talking to someone and I suddenly realize how incredibly lucky I am, and how improbable it is that I am here.
Yesterday, I went around the town of Wai with a young woman named Neelam. She took me to the college there, to the silk “factory,” several temples along the river Krishna, to the market (it was market day, and thus busy and vibrant), to visit a retired professor of English with whom I had a fascinating conversation about everything from schooling to Obama to Wai history, to lunch at a local restaurant where I wasn’t sure whether or not I’d get sick, to a 300-year old Peshwar’s house, to another temple at Manevi (not sure about the spelling), to the center for a new Marathi encyclopedia (where no one could really explain it to me, because none of them speak much English), and then to her family’s house for tea and escaping the heat. What struck me most about the day was not the history or look of the town, the stares of the people, the impressive temples, nor the smells and colors of the market (though I did particularly enjoy those). No, what struck me was rather the people with whom I interacted. Perhaps this will start to seem cliche as I try to recap the last several weeks (indeed, the last six and a half weeks) over the coming posts, but I wouldn’t write it if it weren’t true.
First, there was Neelam. She speaks English, but not comfortably; that is to say, we could understand each other, but she wasn’t comfortable expressing herself solely in English (most people here combine English with whatever other language they’re speaking), and my accent was apparently difficult for her to understand. For us to spend a day together seemed daunting at first, and I was worried we would spend too much of the day in silence, as she wasn’t particularly talkative in the first place. I desperately didn’t want to feel like a burden to her, or come off as a chore assigned by her boss, so I doubled my efforts at communication, and by the end of the day, we were getting along quite well and exchanged email addresses. As I tell everyone I meet and get along with – quite sincerely, of course – I hope she’ll come to the US someday and then I can show her around a bit.
In addition to Neelam, I met her mother, and the professor. Her mother spoke little English, but as I speak less Marathi, I was happy to speak slowly and have her understand most of what I said, so that we could communicate. It was so cool to get to see a more lower/middle class house, as most of the people with whom I’ve stayed have tended to be on the wealthier side; there wasn’t anything particularly different, except that their apartment is smaller than most places I’ve been, but then, I’ve also gotten used to Indian homes, so it’s harder for me to judge than it would have been four or six weeks ago. As for the professor, I learned a lot about the Wai/Panchgani/Mahabaleshwar area and the Indian education system; what was most fun, though, was how evidently fascinated by me he was, and how he saw me as such an opportunity for getting some questions answered. I hope I was helpful, and I thoroughly enjoyed talking to him; he seemed anxious to keep in touch, so we’ll see.
Today, I went with several other people from the office who are around my age to Mahabaleshwar, which seems to me to be a spread out area consisting of lots of view points (with exciting names, like “Kate’s Point.” I thought it was a joke the first time I heard it, but no, it’s true; we attributed it to the British who set up the hill stations here, but we couldn’t figure out the story behind it.) with impressive views of the canyons, some temples in the touristed “Old Mahabaleshwar,” lots of large houses on lush grounds, and then the town itself. Once again, the sights were fun, but far more entertaining was getting to spend the day with three Indians around my age. Charlotte is from Goa, and she was the only one really fluent in English, so I mostly talked to her, but the other two – a girl and a guy, whose names I don’t remember, unfortunately – could more or less understand me, and would sometimes venture to try to explain things in English to me. They wanted to make sure I got the full experience, so at various points we stopped to have fresh lime juice (a very Indian thing which is nothing like what you’d expect, really – not much like lemonade at all, considering they put cumin and salt in it, but it can be quite good, though I think it is a bit of an acquired taste), roasted corn rubbed with salt and chili powder (a street food that Michal and I first had on our excursion to the Elephanta Caves near Mumbai, and since it didn’t make me sick then, I dared to risk it this time too), and then wadah pao (again, don’t know how to spell it), the quintessential Maharashtran street food. It is described as the “Indian burger,” as it consists of a potato and veg cutlet in a Portuguese-type bun (hence the “pao” in the name), and can be found all over the streets here. I’ve avoided it since the wedding in Delhi – I think we had it there – because I was warned about the sanitary levels of street food here, but there’s only so much one can do in the face of three excited Indians who want you to try their food. So far, so good…
There’s so much more I could say about Panchgani – including the schools, the landscape, the adorably British-influenced architecture of the center of town – but I’ll stop here for now and try to get myself back in the writing groove before I get back to Mumbai in a few days and then find myself no longer alone and back on the road.