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A pilgrim in northern India, I traveled for three weeks from temple to temple, from one ancient palace to the next. Took classes from yoga masters, meditated at sunrise, listened to holy men, floated candles and bathed in the Ganges River. Found grandeur, poverty, and deep inspiration.

In Amritsar, the Sikhs' holy city, I knew we'd see a splendid golden temple on a sacred lake. I didn't expect a huge hall where up to 35,000 people a day are served free meals. It's a Sikh service to the community. Volunteers stirred steaming cauldrons of lentils, children ran underfoot, and turbaned cooks chatted. I hunkered on the floor and rolled chapatis, the popular Indian bread; the swift roll and pat of the dough is one more skill that looks easy but isn't.

Chanting with the Dalai Lama

In the hill village of Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama and Tibetans in exile, His Holiness was a warm presence behind careful security. In an open-air temple by a cedar forest, we were served buttered tea, fried bread and rice by red-robed young monks. We chanted with them while keeping an eye on the monkeys perched on temple ledges, watching for a chance to snatch someone's bread.

Our bus rumbled through villages crammed with bicycles and buses with passengers hanging on to the sides. Roadwise vendors sold bananas, peppers, lentils, sugarcane juice and haircuts. Cows ambled freely; pigs wallowed in puddles. The air was rich with smoke from cow dung, incense from a thousand shrines, dust and ganja (marijuana).

With dignified grace, women in bright silk saris worked in the fields, pounded stone with sledgehammers, balanced immense pots on their heads and cooked outdoors in mud ovens. Occasionally, in Muslim towns, we'd see women in full chador, black from head to toe, walking through the busy traffic like shadows.

Once we came upon a group on Muslims walking on a month-long pilgrimage to their holy city, Ajmer. The paused to pray, politely refused our offer of food, and continued down the road, the youngest turning cartwheels and gesturing to us for applause.

Constant Contrast

India awes, inspires and enrages. The beggars are pitiful, garbage lies in piles by the road, toilets are primitive, souvenir sellers aggressive. Smog hangs heavy in polluted cities and the air is crystal clear in the mountains. The people are remarkably kind to gawking strangers.
When you go to India, you may stay in a hotel with dirty sheets and wires poking from the walls or in a white palace floating on a lake, like a mirage. You may visit a new friend who sleeps on a bench in a crowded, minuscule room; a few streets away you'll see a maharajah's collection of crystal that includes a full-size 4-poster bed of glass, never used. You will be begged for money and invited to burn incense to the gods. You will never be bored. Go to Mother India, and your life will change.
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If there was ever a place of wonder and magic, it’s the island of Bali. The tropical setting, the mountains, green terraced rice fields, elegant temples and especially the charm of the people draw visitors back again and again.
Some people come for the beaches and surfing, resorts and relaxation. I can find those a lot closer to home. Immersion in a different culture and yoga in the jungle, that’s what I was after.

Bali, a 5600-square-kilometer island close to the equator, has two seasons: dry (May-September) and rainy (October-April). The temperature is usually in the high 80s.

Artistry Everywhere

We started at Sanur, in a beachside cottage with an elaborately carved, red wooden door. Actually, everything on Bali is elaborate: paintings, sculpture, clothing, pyramids of food, astonishing dances, festivals. The people are charming, the food fantastic. That is not to say all was peachy. Dogs bark, roosters crow incessantly, and tourists can be targets for scams. But cheaters exist everywhere. It’s the traveler’s job to protect herself without being constantly suspicious.

Warmth and Generosity

Almost everyone we encountered was kind, generous, and eager to help a stranger. The Balinese, mostly Hindus, are intensely spiritual. They leave offerings to the gods on their doorsteps every morning, and when the dogs eat them, no matter, the essence has gone where it was intended. Everyone is an artist, and art and dozens of temple festivals are all dedicated to the gods. The stunning dances performed for tourists always refer to sacred mythology.

There are plenty of luxurious resorts on Bali, but we chose to stay in a cottage near Ubud. It was perfect for exploring, visiting artists’ workshops, and stopping for lunch, often by the lotus-covered pond at the Lotus Café. Whole snapper, chicken in a mild curry sauce, sautéed vegetables, and tofu with shredded coconut went with platters of tropical fruits.

Rice Fields and a Sacred Mountain

Walking out of town, along the paths in rice fields, felt like a different century. But for the quacking of ducks), it was silent all around. Streams and narrow bridges led into jungle or past terraced fields of rice. One evening the rain poured in torrents for hours, while we sat in a bar half-expecting Peter Lorre and Bogart to show up, drinking whiskey while they waiting for the boat to Borneo.

At sunrise pink clouds streamed over sacred Mount Agung, a still-active volcano, surrounded by a postcard landscape. It's the home of Besakih Temple, Bali’s mother temple. The long walk up is lined with vendors, and at the top we were told that the temple is open to worshippers of any faith, as long as they’re wearing sarongs. We entered, knelt, and meditated. A priest scattered holy water and placed rice grains on our foreheads. Flowers and incense were set before us. A guide told us to lift a flower to the sun god, pray to the temple god, and finally to our own god. It was a moment of connection with the sacred everywhere.

Bali is rich with such moments. I’m eager to go back for more.