Visiting Varanasi takes the traveler to the spiritual heart of India. This city along the Ganges is considered the country’s holiest spot for both Hindus and Buddhists. We landed there on December 24 in the midst of a three-day church festival for Christmas. As if that wasn’t enough, we ate our festive hotel dinner that night (Indian menu, Christmas décor and Santa Claus hats for the men) to the accompaniment of youthful carolers. When they took a break, rousing renditions of “To Life, To Life, l’Chaim,” (from “Fiddler on the Roof”) and then “Have Negilah” rang out from three large tables of Israeli travelers. No horah dancing, but a lively and ironic interlude. “Of all the gin joints,” who would have expected this crowd?

This was close to the end of the official tour part of our trip through Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), which led us through Bhutan and northern India. We were a group of seven in Bhutan and ten in India, a very manageable size. Our veteran group leader, Krish, keeps a selection of silk saris in OAT’s customary Varanasi hotel, and a woman who works there came in to drape the four women in the group for Christmas Eve dinner. The Israelis were amused. My weekly Hebrew conversation class at home enabled me to talk to them almost as well as most spoke English (including a few raised in the United States). They were intrigued that we were going to Israel after India.

[Read more…]