During a conversation before the start of the wedding celebrations, Sunil, father of the bride, invited me to join his family to be a part of the bridegroom’s wedding reception near Ali Bag, a small resort town on a peninsula on the coast of the Arabian Sea. Located just south of Mumbai, it still is about a four hour taxi ride from the Mumbai airport to the peninsula. It depends on the traffic as the road is two lanes once on the peninsula. It was sorted out that I did not need extra PCR testing to go as the location was in the same state of Maharashtra, where Nagpur is located.
Next step was to secure an airline ticket. Typically, I just go online and pick a time and date for a local airline ticket but the old way of doing things still is not possible. After numerous attempts to purchase a ticket, I texted Sunil to mention that my credit card was not being allowed on the Indian airline websites. His travel agent was available to help me so I was able to purchase the tickets with rupees. Once I landed in Mumbai, the same taxi driver who had picked up the Joshis would be picking me up.
I was so happy for the support I received to make this quick journey happen. My visa was still good. The tourist visa was for thirty days. I was only able to confirm this once I landed in India. NO extensions would be permitted.
This was an issue I would need to deal with upon my return from Ali Bag. My international airline ticket was slated for departure six days after the visa expires. I had already sought ways to remedy this including seeking a medical visa. This led to potential dire consequences for me as the immigration agent handling the case called the clinic (in the midst of those three wedding days) to interrogate Sunil as to the impropriety of my request and that he was thinking of banning me from India. Here was another potent gift for me as Sunil had been at the clinic infrequently due to his wedding and family obligations. He just happened to be in the clinic during that window of time. The agent wondered out loud as to why I came, if I was so ill. Sunil was able to meet his energy. He inquired as to what this man knew of Ayurveda and panchakarma. He informed him that I was seeking treatment to mitigate issues of health to be as healthy as possible during the vata years of my life. Eventually, the immigration agent calmed down and agreed to simply deny the medical visa, allowing me to sort out which visa would be best to get to leave India legally.
Ali Bag, a coastal Indian town
Preparing for this seaside trip, I chose clothes for the reception and for walking on the beach. My morning flight was uneventful and direct to Mumbai. Just as in the US, direct flights seem harder to find these days. COVID protocols were in place. We all wore masks.
Arriving at noon in Mumbai, I gather my luggage. As I exit the airport, I see a short, stocky Indian man holding a placard with my name on it. Nodding his head as I approached him, the taxi driver took my luggage. As I greet him in English and say a few words about his timing, it is clear he speaks little English. We entered the parking garage to go to the taxi. I notice the cars are all newer and clean. We passed a car wash in the middle of the parking garage. I wondered briefly where all the water is going as we appear to be not on the ground floor.
Leaving the airport parking garage, I can see he is a good driver as he maneuvers into Mumbai traffic with ease. The entrance to University of Mumbai has a large marquee in a wooded area part of the city. We pass different neighborhoods of both wealthy ones and those that border on slums. The Mumbai industrial parks stretch for miles as we leave town. HIgh rises are mixed in with these parks.
I recall that housing is at a premium in Mumbai. The newly married couple will have an apartment near the hospital where Pratik, the bridegroom, is still completing his residency in family practice.
We enter one of the larger highways with a toll. The road is nicely maintained and has pink oleanders on the borders of the highway. As Mumbai is a coastal city, we cross one of the bridges to reach the peninsula. The traffic is backed up here due to the toll. Once over the bridge, we enter into the countryside.
Roadside stands selling vegetables, toy John Deere tractors and other goods dot the landscape. A few hotels with restaurants are open as we pass by. It is soon to be New Year’s Eve. With fewer restrictions due to COVID, more people are on the road.
An unexpected stop for lunch
At one point, the driver receives a phone call from Sunil, asking if I was hungry. I said that I was. Keeping it simple with food choices, I asked if rice and cooked vegetables was possible. Sunil made the request of the driver to do so. Soon, he pulled into a McDonald’s. I looked at the driver but knew it was futile to argue with him. I was surprised but saw that there was nothing else around. I did realize that the bathrooms would be clean so I sought the facilities out. Upstairs, I found it with an attendant there. No surprise to find the space quite clean. Sorting out what to eat and where to pay took more time. I chose to have a chicken wrap so it would be easy to eat in the car. After paying for this at the kiosk, I picked up the food. I also ordered a chai but it was at a different station. The wrap was good but the chai had the strangest chemical taste to it. That I did not finish!
Journey along the peninsula
As we arrive closer to the coastal area, large manufacturing buildings dominate the landscape. There is a giant steel mill here along with the infrastructure to support it.
Small villages were located nearby to the steel mill. ‘Sleeping policemen’, small bumps crossing the road to slow you down, were always present in these towns. Many of the tiny shops were open with much of their wares displayed near the street. As we leave one village, several large, black water buffalo are in the green pasture grazing. No horses or cows are on the roads as in previous years of travel to India.
We arrived in Ali Bag closer to four thirty pm. It is a much larger town with a government medical college. It is on the Arabian Sea. My lodging is two blocks from the beach. The taxi driver drops me off and the attendants at the hotel whisk my bags up the stairs. I check in and walk up the stairs to my room. It is large and airy with white marble floors. The bathroom is a typical Indian one with the shower in the middle of the space with no dividers or bathtub. The Joshi family is there to greet me. A chai is ordered for me. Normal smelling chai with fresh milk and no chemical smell. With immense joy, I drank it. The air is so much warmer, humid than Nagpur as the sun hangs over the sea. I hope to get to the water before dusk but I learn that the reception is to start at five thirty pm.
As I begin to prepare for the evening, I realize how tired I am. Soon, I hear a knock on my door. I will be able to come to the reception closer to seven thirty pm with thirty minutes time for travel. I was so grateful to have some down time. Getting to the beach now was possible.
A beach stroll on the boardwalk
I grab my phone and sunglasses to take the five minute walk to the beach. I see that the beaches in India have improved in cleanliness since I last visited for which I am grateful. There are bins for recycling with pictures to educate those who come to visit. Ali Bag beach had its name in large, colorful free standing letters as a tourist draw. Many Indian families are walking on the boardwalk, posing at the wooden letters. New Year’s Eve was part of the holiday weekend. COVID restrictions had been lifted. People were excited to be out and near the ocean. I saw lots of smiles and heard much laughter around me.
Vendors were selling hats, sunscreen and water. One vendor was selling fresh coconut juice in coconuts. I know that I wanted to have some before I left.
Down on the beach, there are camels with their handlers, selling rides to the tourists. ATVs with their owners were also offering rides. Horses with carriages were in the mix as well.
As the tide was up, I noticed an island in the distance. Ruins of a fort covered most of the land. I hoped to visit it before I left. I walked the length of the boardwalk, enjoying the setting sun and fresh sea air. Soon, it was time to turn back to get ready for the wedding reception.
Bridegroom’s wedding reception
As the sun was setting, the air was already cooler. I returned to my hotel room to freshen up. My deep green kurta with gold sequins and thread along with my deep green culotte pants easily unwrinkled in the bathroom from the steam of my shower. My hair has weathered the trip and the humidity for which I was grateful. Curly and unruly is what typically happens to my hair near the beach.
Promptly at seven o’clock, Anil, Sunil’s brother and his wife met me in the hallway. Taking a hired car, we returned to the same two lane road I had just completed hours earlier. As it was nightfall, the road appeared smaller. There were very few street lights and only in the towns we passed. Thirty minutes and about ten “sleeping policemen”, we arrived at a reception hall in a small town. The driver found a place to park safely so we could disembark on the passenger side of the car. Decorated with large signs announcing the wedding reception of Dr. Siddha and Dr. Pratik, we walked into a very smoky reception hall. Apparently, some form of fireworks had just been released.
Introductions to the groom’s community
We were escorted to the front of the room where the rest of the bride’s (Siddha) family was seated. Up on the dais, Pratik’s father was proudly making introductions.
Suddenly, I am motioned by both families to go up to the dais to be introduced. I had not expected this and felt quite flustered. I simply nodded and waved when my name was announced. As it was all in Hindi, I didn’t quite understand what was said.
Leaving the stage, I sat down in the front with Sunil and Shalmali. It was the first time I was able to speak to them together since I arrived in India. We greeted each other, happy to be together during this celebration. Another female physician who knew them came up to speak to us. She invited me to her home for a visit and I shared that if there were no conflicts that I would love to do so.
Other family members reintroduced themselves as did one friend of the groom’s family, Megha. We had all met in Nagpur. She had offered to be my guide when she learned I would be coming to Ali Bag. When I saw her at the reception she invited me again. I shared with her that I would love to, if it worked out as I was a guest of the Joshi’s and needed to sort it out with them first. I was excited about the possible tour of the town and the surrounding area. Time was limited. I would only be there for the evening and the next day.
Traditional Indian music with a spontaneous sharing
Traditional music started with a small local band. It was composed of a male singer, joined at times by a female singer, a drummer and a tabla (traditional small drum) and one other man playing various string instruments. Megha joined in to sing a traditional song that was one of Shalmali and Siddha’s favorites. She had a lovely voice in the traditional higher tone. It was a crowd pleaser.
There was no dancing to the music. The only dancing had been on the first evening for the henna application party as there had been a Bollywood theme. When the tempo picked up, some people clapped or sang along quietly.
As the evening progressed, I sought to eat before it was too late. It was already eight o’clock. The buffet was in the back with meat being served on one side and vegan on the opposite side. I was escorted by Shalmali to the vegan side. I had wanted to take a look but I soon forgot as I spoke to the guests around me. Not too spicy vegetable dish with rice and chapati was my meal. There was ice cream for dessert. I do not eat ice cream in India due to not knowing the source.
I was getting tired as 9:30 pm approached. It had been a long day of travel. I thanked Pratik and his family. I soon left with the same couple.
Back at the hotel, I realized that it was unclear about what was to happen the next day. I did hear from Shalmali that the visit to the home of the physician could not happen in the evening as there was an important puja at the groom’s home as of four o’clock. I would have to reach out to her to offer my regrets to not be able to come.
I decided to text Shalmali in the morning to sort out what would work best for my limited time in Ali Bag. I hoped to see the resort town with Megha. Seeing through the eyes of a local is always great fun and informative in ways a tourist guide may not share.
Adventures in Ali Bag
Early the next morning, I was awake with the morning light. I went to the beach after the breakfast of pooha and chai. Shalmali and I finally meet up to sort out the day. Transportation is limited and the distance to the groom’s home was about thirty minutes. Agreeing for me to be picked up from the hotel at 4:30 pm, Shamali first sought to speak to Pratik’s sister to confirm that Megha would be a good choice for me to spend time seeing the town. She had not met her as yet and wanted to make sure I would be in good hands.
I had Megha’s contact information so we called her to confirm a time to pick me up. Megha agreed to stop by around lunch time. Shalmali requested she rent a car and not to take me on a moped. I did not hear this part of their conversation as it was in Hindi. Though it was mentioned to me in passing, I did not realize Shalmali’s concern until I met Megha in the hotel courtyard. The moped was going to be our transportation!
What? A moped? Where is the car?
Being dressed for the puja in a green kurta and cream colored pants, I realized that I would need to change my clothes as our afternoon of adventure in the town could be anywhere. I wanted to eat lunch at a local Indian restaurant which Megha sorted out by calling Pratik’s sister. We took the moped there. I held on for dear life as I had never been on the back of a moped, going over the sleeping policeman bumps. Soon, I learned that relaxing over the bumps served me better than holding on for dear life yet, it still required me to hold on with my hands and feet in strategic places.
I decided to give the moped a try as we agreed for the longer part of the tour to rent a car.
Served in a humble, clean home of the chef, the simple Indian meal was delicious. Rice, spicy dal, and two vegetable dishes with zucchini and cabbage were served. One of the local women eating with her co worker shared that the food was always good. She was happy to see that I was enjoying the meal.
Excited about all she wanted to share, Megha took me back to the hotel. I changed into a shorter kurta and microfiber pants as we were headed to the beach and to the very fort I wanted to see.
Fresh coconut treat
As we walk to the beach, Megha stops at a coconut vendor. She spends time looking for just the right aged coconut; not too young or too old. The coconut vendor then deftly cuts open the coconut at the top with his machete. Megha offered it to me as she shared that she was not thirsty. Plopping a straw in it, I drink fresh coconut water. So very delicious, it quenched any thirst I may have had. As I had it back to him, I see more to come as he quickly pulls out the coconut meat into a plastic bag. Moist and tender, the coconut meat gave me more sustenance for the sight seeing afternoon.
Making it to the beach together, Megha pointed at the horse and buggy waiting in the distance. We went to the driver and she found out there was room for us to join them. We hopped into the open carriage with an Indian family of husband and wife with two prepubescent boys. They had moved to the front seat with the driver to make room for us. We are all wearing masks as was requested by the local authorities. We held on as the horse took off on a fast trot. A few masks fly off faces as the wind picks up. We all smile. I welcome seeing faces. The air is fresh and clean.
Kolaba fort and temples galore
We arrived at the fort. I found out that as a foreigner, I needed to be registered and show my passport, plus pay three hundred rupees compared to the local rate of five rupees. My hostess refused to let me pay. This was true for every time there was an expense. I offered my gratitude to Megha again.
The Kolaba fort is a mere shell of its former glory. During its heyday in the fifteen hundreds, the fort was a naval base under the rule of the Maratha king Shivaji. It was one of many forts in the area. It fell into the hands of the Portuguese and the East India Company. It held about 1000 infantry and 700 cavalry along with horse stables. Its strategic coastal location was important as it was near Mumbai and Janjira, a city south from Ali bag. It had a two tunnel system (to allow people to transfer back and forth) that went from the fort to what is now the local jail. The tunnels are not operational now. We did find the entrance to one of them but it was filled with water.
The temples on the island and one specific shelter have been rebuilt due to fires on the island. Hanuman, Ganesha, Shiva, Durga and a tomb of a Mohammedan saint are just some of the temples we stopped by. As we entered the fort, we saw fruit and vegetables being sold by the descendants of the last captain of the fort. Near the end of our circumambulation, we see a man near the Durga temple selling sea shells from the Arabian Sea. I purchased a bag of shells that were in very good shape. I have my gift for my grandson!
We went back to the front of the fort. Our horse and buggy are waiting along with the family. No more masks at this point!
Moped tour of Alibag
There was a quick detour to see her office as this is where she parked her moped. Stopping at the building that is next to my hotel, we went up the elevator to see her office area that she shared with several other people. She introduced me to her co-workers. The building was older and in fairly good shape, given it had just survived the last hurricane in May 2021. There were paintings, photographs and other artwork depicting the local history on the walls in the hallway as we worked up to the third floor. All were friendly, smiling as we were introduced to each other in Hindi.
Leaving the building, we got on the moped. I find the delicate balance needed more easily and almost enjoy the ride. I had flip flops on. Where to put my feet safely was an ongoing challenge for me.
Another coconut stop happened as Megha was thirsty. I joined in having another one.
She was excited to show off the oldest bakery in town. It had a more European style to the decor and it offered small cakes and muffins. A gingerbread muffin was shared along with one for the road. She shares more history as we stop in front of what is now the jail for the town. Inside is where the tunnels from the island ended. It was an ominous looking fortress. As we stop, a male official in a police uniform walks out. She knows him and asks about the tunnel’s condition now. He shared that they are closed off with water present in them. That is what we saw at the fort on the island. Thanking the officer for sharing this information, Megha moves on. Over the now sixth or seventh speed bump, she moves carefully as I gingerly hold on to the back of the seat and onto her.
Our last stop was to another beach just outside of town. It was almost deserted compared to the beach in town. It was near a forest with a camping ground available. A nicely dressed Indian woman struck up a conversation. She and her family were visiting from Delhi. She was nicely surprised by this beach, as was I.
Megha gave her suggestions of what else to see while she was on the peninsula. I wished I had another day to explore but I see the time.
I urged Megha to take me back to the hotel so I could change for the puja. She regrettably obliged. We took another road back into town so she could show me where some of the family lives. She wanted us to visit but I declined. I was there as guests of the Joshis and arrangements had been made for me to be picked up. I did not want to miss this occasion.
Arriving safely to the hotel, I gave Megha a big hug. She invited me to stay with her the next time I come to India with the detour of coming to Alibag again. Taking the ferry is what I will consider next time. It only takes about 1 ½ hours compared to the 4.5 hours taxi trip I had completed the day before.
The driver was already waiting for me. I hurried upstairs to shower and change. It was four thirty. The groom’s home is close to the wedding reception hall so I knew it would be a thirty minute car ride. I changed back into my green kurta and cream colored salwar (part of the salwar kameez which are loose trousers narrow at the ankles). I take a shawl as the evenings are cooler than Nagpur. I forgot socks for the bare floor which I regretted.
Groom’s family home
The ceremony is already taking place outdoors under a large extended porch. There is a temple to the right side of the courtyard. Both sides of the family are present behind the new couple as Siddha and Pratik are busy with the prayer (puja) ceremony for Durga and the deities of the family she has now married into. As I have been told, the wife joins the husband’s family and learns their traditions and prayers. This ceremony is to bless the marriage, bring the blessings of Durga and other deities. Both of them are seated on the floor in a cross legged position. I arrive closer to 5 pm but the ceremony has already been going for over an hour.
Part of the ceremony is agnihotra (a Vedic ritual of lighting fire in a copper pyramid pot with use of Mantras) with the bride and groom placing ghee into a dung fire as they repeat certain mantras.
Gifted a saree
In the courtyard, the meal was served pretty late by the sisters and mother of the bride. Rice, dal, and lima beans with cabbage, broccoli and sauteed kale were served on a recyclable plate made of coconut fiber. Fresh chapati served with papadum, which are chickpea wafers, were offered as we ate. Pickled vegetables with some chili were on the dish as well. I ate it all but the last food. Staying away from chili in India is a must for me.
We all gathered back into the living room as it was getting chilly outside. I was able to chat with Siddha and Pratik more. I enjoyed listening to the play of the children in the home. Soon, there was a pause, as the family gathered around. Pratik’s mom came forward to offer me a saree as a gesture of gratitude for having made the journey. Or that is what I understood it to be! I was touched by the gesture as I accepted the gift. Many hugs were shared at that moment.
Returning to the hotel, I marveled at how rich the day had been with the tour of Alibag then to see the powerful ceremony in Pratik’s home. I felt embraced by all today. My heart was full.
Leaving early the next day with the same taxi driver who had brought me there, I felt complete with the journey. I welcomed a safe journey home to Nagpur. I did forget to confirm a ride back to the clinic so ended up with a driver not familiar with that part of town. He kept wanting to drop me off at a courthouse due to the name of the road being High Court. There are no street numbers for people to rely on so I kept looking for landmarks to mark the road closer to the clinic. Finally, we found the crossroads near the clinic and I made it back safely.
Now, it was time for the second phase of my journey. This phase would be panchakarma with a rejuvenation phase to follow. I did lose some precious time for the cleanse due to the journey to Alibag but it was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me. I had no regrets.
My next blog about India will be about the cleanse and the rejuvenation phase of the treatment protocol. As always, there will be blogs about current events interspersed with the blogs about India.