Sunday in Moscow

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This morning we started slowly and enjoyed another good breakfast. Heavy snow had accumulated overnight and the footpaths were deeply covered, and it was still snowing. We did the on line flight check-in, and wrapped up thoroughly headed first for Tolstoy’s House. We felt like pioneers in a blizzard.

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but eventually navigated our way to the single wooded house standing alone among apartment blocks.

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The reception area was manned by what I have imagined traditional Russian women to be like; dominant, determined and directive and they quickly had us both in oversized slippers on top of our boots and moved into the lower rooms which were ‘guarded’ by a team of zealous female minders. I tried to be invisible and silent, reading all the info on the posters but aiming for the upstairs fairly quickly. Heavy supervision brings out the naughty girl inside me so where photos were forbidden I managed to take a couple!  Here is Tolstoy’s writing room:

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Tolstoy was a complex man, married to a Countess, and he fathered 9 children before deciding abstinence was better. He set himself and the household quite rigorous limits, and although they had 10 servants, including a valet for him, he hated any behaviour which might make the servants feel demeaned. He kept fit with dumbells and at the age of 67 began riding a bicycle – all this besides entertaining a wide circle of artistic and talented friends- Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Repin (artist), Trotsky, and more. His daughter, Tatyana, was a talented artist and portrait painter and his wife , Sophia, a writer in her own right, although it seems she gave a lot of time to producing good copies of Tolstoy’s writings. And lots of knitting and weaving which was also on display.

The house had painted wooden floors, simple but elegant furniture and many rooms were dual purpose because of the large household. The salon had a large table and photos of guests gathered around it and a very large old grand piano which meant music performance was included in the socialising.

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The heating system was fired by a furnace and each room had ceramic tiled panels with grills and vents which could be adjusted.

We were glad to see inside a traditional Russian home. It seems that most Muscovites now live in apartments. Many young people came into our friendly cafe to eat alone and the Metro was very busy at whatever time we travelled. It is cheap- around 80p per journey whatever the length – and it is easy to understand once the alphabet is comprehensible.

Our second stop today was the Museum of Contemporary History, written up as covering both the 20C Revolution and the Post Soviet changes. But no, we found only an exhibition on Russia from 1985 onwards, all interactive and propaganda-styled information. And significantly it was more or less empty. Mel was particularly disappointed but it was perhaps an indication that Russians want to forget the Revolution and focus on the wave of new achievements. Food for thought.

Finally we visited the Pushkin Museum which has a large collection of European art. Our feet were tired but spirits cheered by what we saw. Russian artist Repin,who visited Tolstoy and painted his daughter, has become a new favourite, here is his Itinerant Pilgrims where you can almost feel the effort in each step.

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As well there were lots of Rembrants, a whole room full of Michelangelo replicas, and a final blast of Impressionists including a Van Gogh I have never seen before – prisoners in a confined circle, with three wardens, the wall coloured to camouflage- thought provoking….

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Back into the snow we trudged again, coming for a final time across the winter illuminations which light up so many intersections.


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So we dined for the last time in our cafe, and now we are ready for the early rising tomorrow. We would love to return here and explore Russia further. Meantime to sleep, and for sure we will be dreaming dreams.

 

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Stones in Syracuse

 

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View across the theatre to the harbour

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Mel and the fountain above the Greek Theatre

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The ruins of the Roman Theatre

Our final excursion to Syracuse provoked a slightly earlier walk to the now familiar bus station. Coffee was postponed until our arrival and we indulged in large croissants before heading to the Greekand Roman theatres. Tourists are scarce in January and we were able to explore almost alone, this time a less remarkable site but always the construction impresses.

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Beside the Greek theatre is a giant quarry from where stone has been excavated to build most of the ancient city.

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The caverns created have been used subsequently as prisons and gardens are now cultivated in the quarry base creating a sense of peace and reflection. For sure the labourers of the past have suffered in fulfilling the ambitions of their masters.

We walked into Syracuse, heading for the island Ortigia in the hope of lunch.

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We passed fishermen cleaning their nets and ruins of the oldest and biggest Temple to Apollo in Europe before chancing on another rustic cafe, this time with immigrants in the kitchen and lots of locals piling in for sustenance. We enjoyed excellent fresh salad and linguini with tomatoes before heading out to the fortress at the head of the island, wind in our hair and coffee on the front, counting our blessings in the winter sun.

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We ambled through the old Jewish quarter,

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The Duomo in Syracuse

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Reuse of a Roman pillar in the wall of the Duomo

admired yet more powerful Baroque architecture and in particular liked the reuse of old columns in the rebuilt Duomo.

During our visit we admired many ceramic displays and eventually discovered that the many plant ‘Pot Heads’ represent a legend from Palermo.  A beautiful girl is said to have been admired by a handsome Moor and eventually he proposed.  But before they could be married she discovered he already had a wife and family.  He lost his head as a result and legend has it that the girl used his head as a pot for plants…

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We spent a final morning in Catania, walking with many of the locals in Bellini Park.  The blue sky and sunshine were a welcome change in January and Mt Etna makes a magnificent backdrop. To be recommended.

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Taormina on Tuesday

Tuesday morning we set off by bus to Taormina, just over an hour’s journey and arrived suddenly in a bus park with no sense of where the centre was. We found it, tucked around the corner, in the cleft of the hillside and not below on the coast as we had expected.

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Here the Roman theatre was spectacular in an entirely different way and we took many photos across the tiers with Mt Etna puffing white smoke in the background. An audio visual presentation helped make the leap of imagination across the millennia and in particular we had not expected the system of canvas panels which were held in tension above the spectators as protection from the sun.

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We meandered along Corso Umberto, admiring elegant shop windows, the Belvedere Piazza, various churches and regular stairways leading away both upwards and down and providing regular vistas of the sea below.

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Taormina duomo

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Before the light faded we walked through the Comunal gardens, originally owned and designed by Lady Trevelyan in the Early 20thC. She had a fling with Edward VII and left UK for Mediterranean pleasures, eventually marrying a Sicilian Professor of Anatomy, Salvatore Cacciola. Following the tragic death of her son she devoted herself to philanthropic works and in particular the creation of this garden. It contains numerous follies and bird houses and provides fabulous views out towards Mt Etna and the coast.

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View from The Trevellyan Garden

We trundled back to the bus and returned with supplies to cook our own supper. We reckon the apartment measures 4m x3m but it is appointed with everything we have needed and the location is quiet and central.

Catania

We drove under a starlit sky from the airport to the Etna Terra apartment a little surprised that 15 C did not feel warmer. The final kilometre took us up a steep slope and we later discovered that this included the lava flow from Etna in 1669 when most of the city was destroyed by an earthquake. Our second floor apartment looks over the Piazza in front of the former duomo, now just the rebuilt church of St Agatha, and we quickly discovered that the city is packed with imperial styled Baroque buildings, all dating from the rebuilding of the city in the late 17thC.

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It is clean but decrepit, friendly but politely so rather than warm and cuddly, and there is a down to earth work ethic; no fervour for the accumulation of wealth but respect for material needs.The market was busy, colourful and not too trashy, and inevitably most of the stalls were manned by immigrants, vegetables were huge and cheap,

 

 

 

clothes and shoes were available both new and second hand, and Mel was delighted to discover replacement pot lid handles. In U.K. we are left to throw out the old and buy new if the handle breaks.

Via Etna is elegant and opens into two Piazzas with ornate Palazzi, a fountain, the famous elephant column above the fountain in the Piazza del Duomo, University buildings and the Duomo providing plenty to see.

We visited the Roman Termé beneath the Duomo,

 

 

then the Fish market before taking almost an hour to clambour through the Roman theatre. Sections of it have been claimed for domestic houses since the earthquake but recent excavation has revealed again the powerful architecture and the vision of the Romans and we were suitably in awe.

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But also hungry and we found a rustic cafe with home made food and drank a couple of glasses of good Nero d’Avola.

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There is a substantial Benedictine Monastery which is now being used by the university and we wandered freely under high ceilings observing tutorial groups in former monks’ quarters.

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Finally at dusk we reached the only remaining medieval building in Catania, a 12thC fortress which has metamorphosed beautifully into an art gallery. The current exhibition was a collated assembly of paintings mostly in private collections.

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We had an hour of bliss before returning to our tiny apartment to sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Russian Reflections from home

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I. Levitan The Evening Bells are Ringing

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F.A Malyavin Whirlwind

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Serebryakova At Toilet, Self Portrait

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Repin portrait of Eleobara Duse

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He. Nikolai Conscience- Judas

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Nikolai Taroshenko Female College Student

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Nikolai Kasatkin Female Miner 1894

It is not reliable to make any assumptions about a nation based on the observations of a few days in one city. But it is fair to record them and to reflect on them for the future.

The earliest memories I have of people talking about Moscow are that it was incredibly easy to get lost. The apartment blocks looked the same and it was difficult to decipher the Cyrillic alphabet.

A visit in the 21stC is enabled by lots of English – street names, Metro announcements, Museum guides, and most public/tourist services are manned by someone who speaks at least a little English. We were not aware of any other English tourists but there were lots of Chinese and Moscow seems ready and waiting to receive visitors, and perhaps income from tourism. There is a new, rapid train service from central Moscow to the Domododevo airport which is impressive externally but the quality of retail outlets inside does not yet reach international standards.

The people are efficient and a little official, but take two is often friendly and accompanied by a smile. Whenever we asked for help it was always given graciously. Perhaps my Russian fur hat helped ?? Certainly we were stopped many times and asked questions by Russians, which of course we couldn’t answer at all.

Every cup of coffee was excellent; cafe culture is well established and as in UK people go there with their computers to work for a bit. Pastries were always fresh and delicious, though never as sweet as in UK and we observed that in general food was less sweetened than we are used to. We did try borsch, but the menus were not particularly ‘Russian’ and everything we tried was delicious.

There were very few dogs – we saw maybe only three – and in general people were well dressed and a shade more elegant than in UK. It was hard not to lust after the fur coats! Women are in general very slim, and we observed plenty of healthy eating, even though the temptation in the cold was to have comfort food. Homeless people were not in evidence though twice we did encounter old women asleep on the Metro, They appeared destitute and were given a wide berth because of their smell.

There is a huge presence of protection: men in uniform cluster on the platforms and at the entrance and exit of every Metro, electronic scanning was far more widespread than in U.K. cities and there seemed to be lots of people paid to watch, whether in the hotel lobby, in shops, the vestibules in the Metro or the reception areas in the Galleries. We did not feel any officiousness but we did feel protected. And Russians are concerned about terrorism.  Perhaps this impacts the overall cleanliness and maintenance as well. Graffiti was hard to spot, litter almost entirely absent and the teams of snow clearers worked constantly during our visit.

We did not observe the same international spread of nationalities that we have in U.K. and Muslims were not apparent at all, in as far as they could be identified by dress.

We were really struck by the attendance and enthusiasm in the art galleries. Every age category was represented and in particular young couples were present in abundance. Parents were explaining to their children and most adults were engaged in discussion as they wandered from picture to picture. We had lots of questions: where else were portraits painted of female students in 1890? Where else were women celebrated for being miners?

Perhaps visiting a gallery is an easy outing when the mid winter snow prevents other excursions. Perhaps Russians hold their culture and history as something precious to pass on. Without conversations it is hard to be sure. From the Communist era the policies were for the Arts to be accessible and affordable and it feels as if mRussia is a nation caring deeply for its history and culture.

Mel has noticed since his visit 18 months ago that inner city roads are improved, particularly around the Kremlin. Buildings and lighting have been upgraded and the city is better prepared for tourism. We are keen to return and explore further in an easterly direction.

The Russia we read about in the media is very different from what we faced this February.   We coincided with the biggest snowfall in Moscow for 50 yearsand yet so much continued with normality.  We  encountered people who are proud to be Russian, keen to share their history, culture and art. We feel a bit the same.  Perhaps we can tempt you to visit??

Here is a final selection of the art we loved.

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v. Serov. Mika Morozov, son of Finance Minister

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V.Serov. The Girl with Peaches

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I.E. Grabar Chrysanthemums

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Rembrandt

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Saturday in Moscow

We awoke very hungry and returned enthusiastically to the local cafe. It had snowed for most of the night and over breakfast we adjusted our plans. With steady snow falling it was not quite the day to visit the Flea market.
We upped our orders for breakfast

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and I enjoyed millet porridge with pumpkin, strawberries and fresh mint and the excellent coffee also warmed us through before we set off again. Definitely trudging through the snow before we took to the Metro.

 

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Every station is different and we are impressed with the wide passages, the cleanliness and the video surveillance at the base of every set of escalators.

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Above is one of the impressive arrival galleries underground.

Before 11 am we arrived at the Tretyakov Gallery, founded by a wealthy merchant in 1856, who donated his entire collection to the State in 1892. It is the largest collection of Russian art in the world and we loved it. And loved that the gallery was full of Russians of all ages. Many groups of children were being escorted from picture to picture and lots of 18-30 yr olds were intently looking and talking, as we were.

It was hard not to draw conclusions about National character. Portraits were devoid of the enigmatic expressions of the English;

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landscapes were broad and powerful,

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artists were social commentators and the poverty and powerlessness of the peasants was all in the frame.  This titled Waiting.

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While trying to find a cafe mid afternoon when we finally made it outside again we had a gentle prompt in perfect English from an old lady who it turned out had once been a guide. A memorable and random intersection and so full of kindness.

The day ended with the discovery that The Museum of the English Court was closed, Lenin’s Tomb was again closed, as was the Chamber of the Romanov Boyars. We found the Metropole Hotel and the former KGB building at Lubyanka Square

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and then it felt time to return to our cafe and warm up with mulled wine.

People watching continued and our waitress when quizzed explained she had studied journalism at Moscow State University, hence her English. We ate Borst, Beef Stroganoff and Apricot cheesecake, all delicious and now it just remains to sleep off all the walking.

 

 

 

Moscow in the snow

Our late night arrival in Moscow limited the first impressions but the taxi ride to the hotel was amazing in that the three lane highway may have been speed limited in the snow but right into the centre of Moscow it continued without any interruption or intersection. It was a 45 min journey and as we neared the centre the illuminations on the buildings were increasingly splendid. The driver spoke almost no English but kept speaking into his phone and then showing us the translation. Moscow is a vast city, over 10 million inhabitants, and in spite of heavy snow everything is apparently functioning.

We awoke in the Novotel well rested and from the 16th floor had a good view of the overnight snow. Just what I wanted!

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We had breakfast in a charming artisan style cafe with excellent coffee and croissants and then took the Metro, struggling initially to translate the Cyrillic script into something we could understand.

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Eventually we emerged beside the Bolshoi Theatre and once orientated we walked towards Red Square. Many of the squares have huge structures with patterned illuminations and even on Feb 2nd the Christmas markets and decorations are still in place

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Initial impressions are that fur is everywhere, girls are beautiful, men are several sizes larger, and most of the tourists are Chinese.

Red Square is not enormous but the central space is currently filled with a skating rink and German style kiosks selling Tourist Tat.

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We entered St Basil’s

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and took time soaking up the atmosphere, first in the crypts and then above in the small chapels below each spire. Orthodox worship is not about congregating in groups but about individually responding to the icons, and of course the music. Three men performed in close harmony with sensitive ranges of dynamics – the CD to be enjoyed back in Cheshire.
Lenin’s Tomb is not open until tomorrow so after some coffee in GUM, Moscow’s answer to Westfield,

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we crossed to the Kremlin which had lots of surprises. It is a huge walled enclosure, dominated initially by the Residence where Putin lives and the very modern Government Building. But beyond that are a series of Churches, now mostly museums, extensive parkland and eventually a vista over the river Moscva which is currently frozen over.

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IMG_1531Rooftop spires from within the Kremlin. I think they are on the roof of the Terem Palace which we could not enter.

Photos inside the churches were not allowed but I will remember the beautiful crystal watch case crafted in Nuremburg, the vast boilers used to produce enough Chrism (used for baptisms, coronations and consecration) for all the Russian churches,( originally containing up to 50 different herbs, roots and oils), one particular icon of Jesus on the donkey entering Jerusalem and delicate frescoed ceilings from the 15thC in a church built by Ivan the Terrible. We discovered today that he proposed to Elizabeth I – that would have been a match!

Mulled wine revived us in the cold as we left the Kremlin and we then decided to walk slowly down the main shopping street all the way back to our hotel. It was cold and the snow underfoot was beginning to freeze but we made it all the way without falling. We passed the large grey Telegraph Building which was originally the means of communication with the rest of the world and then called in to the famous delicatessen which was originally a palace. We can vouch for there being no shortage of international ingredients now in Moscow.

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As snow began to fall more heavily the machines came out to clear more snow and we returned to our cafe for dinner – for £15 each we enjoyed soup/beetroot salad, lamb mousaka/chicken, cheesecake and glasses of red wine. A good end to a good day.

 

Khajuraho Saturday 18th June

Today is the hottest I have ever experienced. I am writing from Varanasi where the temperature is about 43C. I of course am safely in my air conditioned hotel room but watching the residents here on the drive from the airport left me full of admiration.

Men were cycling, driving pedal rickshaws, and many people were manning street-side stalls, heads wrapped in swathes of cloth to protect their skin and a kind of calm resignation seems to be the attitude. At hotel reception a fully suited manager greeted us, a door man in full ceremonial tunic opened the doors, and we sat down with cold drinks to discuss the weather further – it was 47C last week.

Rain is predicted for Monday and there are many large fluffy clouds casting shadows across the Ganges plain. But we wait.

This morning we set off at 8am for the Khajuraho Temples, famous for their erotic carvings. A small vivacious guide of elderly but indeterminate age accompanied us and proceeded to unfold the history and purpose of these temples, built between 950 and 1050 AD.

Hindu culture is not full of irony, innuendo or allusion and the carvings depict and celebrate life as it is. They include humour, beauty, and delightfully sensual representations of human love. The word ‘erotic’ has for us become associated with the lower side of human behaviour; in a world where pornography, sex shops, and the scandals of sexual abuse fill our newspapers we in the West take less time to consider the beauty and delight of sexual love.

The guide took me around the main temple and there was no embarrassment for either of us as we observed the expressions of intimacy depicted so beautifully in the stonework.  I hope you have a little of the same experience looking at the photos.

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A musician and a dancer, enthralled in singing and playing music of love

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The woman’s body is sensuously curved and with her arm gracefully raised she is viewing her breasts.

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The lovers are interrupted by the monkey – humour in stone.

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Two lovers, each standing on one leg in a deep embrace.

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To the left is a long line of elephants looking straight ahead but the final one in line cannot resist taking a look at the lovers on his left.

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She is pulling his hair as their eyes are locked …

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In times of war men turned to bestiality to satisfy their sexual appetites.

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Extreme gymnastics…?

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Three depictions of the progress of lovemaking – each scene more intense than the last.

From Gwalior to Orcha –

ManMandir Palace - Gwalior Fort

ManMandir Palace – Gwalior Fort

Friday 19th June

The arrival in India always involves a period of transition. At 0420 yesterday I landed in Delhi and was whisked off by TN and the driver to catch the 0600 train to Gwalior. I settled down for the 3 ½ hour journey – feeling cold in the AC after the hot oven embrace of the outdoor temperature. Tea and biscuits were followed by hot omelette and warm bread – and breakfast over, I managed to doze.

To be honest Gwalior now seems like a bit of a daze. I suppose I had managed 2-3 hours sleep but exploring the fort – the third biggest in India – in around 36C had my head spinning and thank goodness for the photos or I would remember very little. Inside the fort is the Man Mandir Palace, built between 1486 and 1516 in the reign of Raja Man Singh and is pure Hindu architecture – but the Moghuls destroyed some of the imagery and the British fired a cannon and destroyed one of the corner turrets which has now been restored.

Main Entrance to the Palace at Gwalior Fort

Main Entrance to the Palace at Gwalior Fort

Audience Hall in the Palace

Audience Hall in the Palace

There are also two temples inside the fort, one for the wife of the Rajah and one for his Mother in law – again beautiful stone work and of course splendid views out across the valley.

Ceiling decoration in Large Temple

Ceiling decoration in Large Temple

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This is the Mother- in -law’s Temple – a lot smaller.

We then visited Jaivilas Palace built in 1874 when the Maharajahs lived in sumptuous luxury.P1100628

Room after room boasts of the past, culminating in a vast reception room with the two largest chandeliers in the world. The architect is supposed to have tested the strength of the ceiling by lining up eight fully laden elephants on the roof and after a week of exercise the structure was considered sound.

The Chandeliers - largest in the world

The Chandeliers – largest in the world

Somehow I kept awake to inspect four hotels only to conclude that probably the one we were staying in matched the requirements best.

Adjustment continued today as we set out to drive to Orcha and to begin with realised that the train journey is a more sanitised way of travelling. As we set out through the chaos of Indian traffic I wondered once again how many miles of this kind of journey is tolerable by road. But it does not take long to be absorbed back into the fascination of the reality of rural life in India. So much happens on the streets and from our little bubble of air-conditioned comfort I felt admiration for all those in the oppressive heat. The sky is mostly overcast and the expectation of rain is everywhere. The river beds are dry, the fields ploughed in readiness for planting next year’s crops and everyone moves slowly in the dusty aridity as they wait for rain. We selfishly hope it doesn’t come tomorrow because that will mean our flight is cancelled.

We arrived in Orcha late morning and threaded our way through crowds of people coming to a monthly festival at the temple. The Palace of Jahengiri Mahal at Orcha – Built by Raja Bir Singh Deo – is a hybrid of Hindu Islamic architectural styles . The son of the owner built the Taj Mahal and the detailed frescoes in the second palace betray lots of Persian influence.

Inner Courtyard at Palace at Orcha

Inner Courtyard at Palace at Orcha

Main Doorway at Orcha with carved stone detailing

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Main door external facade

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P1100662On the river we found all the families relaxing.

And finally… A woman at work

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UNESCO are now funding the restoration of the palace at Orcha so a woman carries bricks ..

while a man dresses up as a Sadhu – Holy Man to have his photo takenP1100660This is India…  Love it hate it but it is always fascinating

Spice is nice and Children inspire

December 10th – 12th

After three weeks of eating the subtle combinations of South Indian spices seven of us travelled over the western Ghats to Tamil Nadu stopping en route for another early morning safari and for a short excursion to a spice plantation. it was not always easy to photograph the spices but here are a few shots.

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Inside the nutmeg kernel is the ‘nut’, with the vivid red ‘flower’ protecting it.

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Thee are not bananas, but plantain, the variety of this fruit which is cooked.

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The clove is highly prized and highly priced. It can take 3-5 days to harvest the cloves from a single tree. Here is the clove in bud stage.

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A nutmeg sliced in half

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Cardamoms grow on fronds at the base of the plant and can be harvested every 45 days.

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The long clusters of pepper are fertilised by rain as it trickles down the bunches on the pepper vines

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Within the spice plantations are areas where coffee is also harvested – here a cluster of green beans.

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The ginger root is found just below the surface of the soil

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Tamarind comes from a root

We had become aware that Indians are thoroughly educated to understand the medicinal uses of spices and plants and although western medicines are available the first recourse is to the plants which grow around them and have been used for generations to promote good health.

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Berenice and Gillian well bolstered for our early morning lake ride

Early the next morning we were once again roused to enthusiasm before dawn for another safari – this time many of the photos taken by delightful boys on the boat which took us on Lake Periyer, dammed by the British in the 19thC

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A few years ago there was a tragic accident here when one of these boats capsized so we were all fitted out with life jackets and required to stay seated at all times.

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A ‘snake’ or ‘serpent’ bird

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One of the many stunning blue kingfishers we saw

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This was a rare sighting of Gaur, the largest breed of cattle in the world, which roam wild here in India

P1100477In Tamil Nadu I was excited to return to the Joe Homan Charity I first visited nearly two years ago and these are the lunch baskets of the primary aged children at the English medium school.

The children have brilliant smiles and in spite of the bewilderment they must feel to be educated in a foreign language they were keen to demonstrate their prowess in songs, poems, and nursery rhymes.P1100484P1100457I was able to meet Arockia who is sponsored by the congregation at Assisi and then return for a reunion with Mahalakshmi who in 2013 inspired me with her empathy and comprehension.  She had arranged for her mother to come to meet me and with tender tearfulness we hugged – strangely connected in spite of all our differences.P1100495

The girls of the Inner Wheel Girls Town where Mahalakshmi lives in term time welcomed us and danced for us – it was hard to leave.

Another Indian journey is over and the little I have written does not fairly share the many reflections on the journey.  I end by sharing a poem – enjoy your journeys.

When you travel, you find yourself

Alone in a different way.

More attentive now

To the self you bring along,

Your more subtle eye watching

You abroad, and how what meets you

Touches that part of the heart

That lies low at home…

When you travel

A new silence

Goes with you,

And if you listen,

You will hear

What your heart would

Love to say.

A journey can become a sacred thing….

May you travel in an awakened way,

Gathered wisely into your inner ground,

That you may not waste the invitations

Which wait along the way to transform you.

John O’Donohue