CoffeeShop Blues: 2015 Traveler's Edition - Page 105

Jeremy Frost The first time I saw–or I should say, experienced–Bhopal was in 1975, and it was love at first sight. I was prejudiced, of course, having become acquainted with a handsome PhD candidate from that town at my university in Belgium. Zafar had made me promise I would visit his city and experience the hospitality of his family and friends. On our modest student budget my American friend Mary and I had boarded the cheapest flight we could find: Aeroflot–with a compulsory layover at Moscow–and subsequently tramped all over North India for three glorious weeks. We had stood in line for reservations at the Indian Railways’ “ladies-only” counter; slept on hard berths in three-tier rail carriages; caught colds from traveling in open-window coaches, soot on our faces and tiny cinders in our eyes on steam engine rides; eaten four-rupee vegetarian thalis at roadside shacks; bought cotton clothes made from block-printed bedcovers; slept in no-star hotels where you were supposed to bring your own sheets–of course we had none; drunk the water and gotten sick before becoming immune; savored a tumbler of lassi at Udaipur’s Lake Palace Hotel, which was all we could afford there; had our sandwiches snatched by sacred monkeys in a Varanasi temple; sat listening blissfully to the kirtan [hymns] in Amritsar’s Golden Temple, and so much more. We had been hospitably received by families whose overseas relatives had sent them precious packets of spices through us–like coal to Newcastle, but for a reason: India at the time exported its best products for hard currency–and other small, but much anticipated gifts. In those days of isolationist policies, anything “foreign” was worth its weight in gold. We had made friends and felt safe even in places where we knew no one, and had been impressed by the innate openness and sweetness of Indian people, their sense of humor, and the way they spontaneously involved us in their sorrows as well as their celebrations. It was early into the State Of Emergency declared by 105