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Early the next morning we take a train from Agra to Orchha. We attempt to board the chaotic train and there is a standoff of people attempting to take a place. I push past and stand on the seat to stow my luggage then find my numbered seat. We sit, three white, female faces staring at a Muslim family. Two veiled women and their three children pack tightly in a row on the bench. Their exposed hands and feet are intricately decorated with henna meaning they are most likely coming from a wedding. Red, gold and green bangles slide up and down their wrists. Nobulouse silver toe rings adorn their toes. Their black robes are colorfully embroidered with flowers and waves around the edges of the gown. After the train leaves the station they disrobe around the eyes and then face. One woman has round, healthy cheeks and succulent, fat lips that form an O at rest. She keeps the curtain of her veil drawn around her profile to speak with a man, I assume is her husband, dressed in white. She is matter of fact with the inflection of her voice and the gentle, yet solid movements of her hands. She takes up the most space on the bench in front of us, but not because of her size. She forms a wide, tripod base with her body and her children drape themselves across her, then she adjusts them accordingly. Her husband looks as though he is no match for his wife. The other woman places her elbow on the corner of the window and situates her forehead in the crook of her arm. The only movement she posesses is in the tips of her long, black hair which whips around the base of her headscarf. The children mind themselves perfectly for the four hour sweltering ride, only asking for the occasional drink of water.

The windows are open and lined with three bars. The fans on the ceiling circulate the hot air more effectively. Occasionally, a blind man passes by with a staff in one hand and a metal bucket in the other shaking its contents to make the rupees inside dance to the melody of his voice. The closer we get to Orchha the harsher the wind becomes until the traveling heat wave slaps you in the face leaving the feeling of a welt.

Unboarding the train in Jhansi we take a motor rickshaw to the small town of Orchha. It seems that just passing over one intersection our rickshaw driver's horn ceases and we begin to meander more easily through the streets. I no longer fear for the lives of women sitting side saddle on the back of a motorcycle cluthcing their babe as their sari leaps unabashedly in the wind. The streets are safe here for this kind of activity...supportive even. An hour later we reach the small town on Orchha which I grow to love over the next three days.

Orchha is a unique city. Most cities have a landmark, like the Eiffel Tower, which becomes its mascot that can be plastered on magnets and bought in a local convenient store for $2. The entire city of Orchha is the landmark, though. Twenty two palaces and seventy sarataffs create the city. The ancient ruins outnumber the small shops, few restaurants and two hotels that just dot the landscape on one short strip of main road. As I walk up the street from my hotel a river runs parallel to the road and on the other side a magnificent palace oversees the city. It is not difficult to imagine a King still residing here. Children run up to you when you first arrive shaking colorfully woven bracelets with bells on them in your face. They want money, but being accustomed to constant requests for handouts I continue to walk. One girl takes my hand and wants to know where I am from and declares, "My friend!" Then in a peculiar gesture the children give the bracelet anyhow, most likely expecting something in return, but one can not be sure, and that is nice. Orchha is the only place in India I feel safe walking down the road alone at 9 PM. At this hour, the small shops with thatched roofs become homes. The family is present and have put out their cots on the 'sidewalk' and hung one blanket from the storefront for privacy. A fuel stove burns for light. It is the only time of day for rest.

I would need a month in Orchha to visit every monument, but I do visit the main palace. To me, it is just as beautiful as the Taj Mahal. The tourist is free to meander about the premises, ascend the narrow stairwells to the upper floors overlooking the courtyard, walk about the rooms and sit in the open air cubby holes overlooking the river. It is not difficult to imagine concubines bathing in the pools, a King sneaking through his hidden passageways to meet a wife of his choosing for the night, or an elephant attempting to plow through the spiked main gate to conquer the palace. It all happened here.

One evening in Orchha our group had a night picnic with a family who lives on the palace grounds. Micheal explains that the family has probably been there for centuries, thus no one attempts to move them. Blankets are arranged on the ground next to the cook tent and stone barn. A family of musicians dressed in colorful turbans and saris await our arrival. They place marigold garlands around our necks in welcome. I sit on the blanket and am drinking an 8 percent beer when the music starts. The harmonium sounds. A young woman caresses the cord with her right hand then the fingers of her left hand dance across the keys pressing out eah purposeful note. Her shrill, but pleasant voice rises above the sounds of the harmonium before the boom of a drum matches her resonating voice in just the right time. Then, a young girl draped in a red sari with gold embroidery rises from the ground and takes her place at the center of the carpet. Her face remains covered for modesty. Her foot strikes the earth and bells jingle. Any movement her body makes can not escape the bells chiming around her ankles and she begins to twirl. The sari rises around her as she gains momentum and spins like flying saucers around her lanky body. Her slender legs and poised profile show delicately through the red curtain of her sari.

The dancing wonder approaches me and touches my fingertips asking me to join her. Without reluctance I spring to my feet and move out to the dance floor, but feel exposed once in the limelight! I have danced for crowds of hundreds with pants and a bra, but how do I move my body in this foreign country?! What is appropriate? Where is my sari? I dance feeling very unmodest! A little boy, maybe nine years old, distracts me from my over-thinking. He grabs my hands and moves his feet boistrously and unabashedly. His smile looks like it might stretch so wide it could pop off of his face and we laugh! I can feel the joy just welling up in his little chest and I watch it manifest in his wild, unencumbered display of dancing. I feel so humbled and blessed to be able to dance with this little boy. Our tour group, who can be somewhat reserved in their daily mannerisms join us and everyone just sparkles!

Dinner arrives and my dancing partner can not serve food fast enough making his rounds asking, "Sir? Ma'am?" with a precious tone and then naming the dish. My heart is just awash for this little boy...I am putty for him! Later, he attempts to join the band shaking symbols wildly and happily, but apparently not with enough synchronicity because his efforts are disrupted. The drummer yells at him demanding the symbols and his father reinforces the drummer's wishes by lightly shoving his head in the direction of the kitchen. Dinner is 'first class' as Micheal, our tour guide, would say.

The next day we visit a paper making plant to benefit women in Orchha. A stop at a local school was arranged afterwards by Indu, a local tour guide, since I had been inquiring the night before. The school house had seven small block rooms, five teachers and a simple kitchen to feed seventy students. The name of the school is the Maya School started by Eva Maya, who Indu refers to as his 'sister.' Eva is a seventy year old, vibrant woman, who was the head of a nursing home in Germany before visiting India. While in Ochha she witnessed barely clothed children, skin covering bones, playing in shit. When Eva returned to Germany she resigned at her high paying, secure government job and returned to Orchha to start a school for these children. Eva admits children whose family income is less than 60 rupees per day or $1. One of the seven rooms of the school house is Eva's bedroom. It is here that she does massage, tarot readings, reflexology and chakra/meridian work to gain funding for the school. Eva and I became friends in two days. I made a donation on my first visit, had tarot read on my second visit with tea and conversation and tears and a morning meditation on my third visit. Eva conveyed to me through her eyes that she knew and understood me...it was comforting. We could be soft and real with each other. She counseled me on how to practice the principles of "The Secret" which she has practiced before the book was ever written. She educated me through personal stories of the power of thought and fruition. She guided me on meditations for my own healing. Meeting Eva and visiting the school had a profound impact one me. It is so inspiring to see her will and power of thought benefit the lives of so many children.

We left Orchha under the dark veil of night. I left with my first regret on this trip. Indu asked me to meet him at 5:30 for a motorcycle ride in the country. Our group was going for a light show at the palace at 7:30. I asked Michael if he thought it was a good idea and he said he thought I'd be pushing it. So, instead of a motorcycle ride with an attractive Indian man who I could trust (he works with Intrepid), I sat at dinner watching the sun soften with the flow of the river and feeling the sharpness of the midday heat cool with an evening wind sipping a gimlet thinking, "next time!"

Posted by Suni 04:28 Archived in India

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