Delhi delights: Shop ‘til you drop | The Chronicle Herald

Delhi delights: Shop ‘til you drop | The Chronicle Herald


Delhi delights: Shop ‘til you drop


Awe and wonderment at Karim’s Restaurant, an Old Delhi institution. (DONALD DOW)

Awe and wonderment at Karim’s Restaurant, an Old Delhi institution. (DONALD DOW)

Delhi and its numerous markets and shopping areas are not for the faint-hearted nor the uninitiated. Barterers beware, for no matter how experienced you are, the local stall owners are one step ahead of you. But the plethora of markets — there is literally a specialty market for anything you can dream of — is something we Canadians just can’t conceive. Shoes, shawls, saris, salwar kameez — you name it, they’ve got it in any style, colour, size and price. If only my bag was big enough to bring everything home. But wait, there’s a whole market just for airline luggage! Consumers, start your engines!

Ignoring warnings of family, friends and neighbours, we delved straight into the seething mass of humanity that makes up Old Delhi the day after we arrived. A few days in hectic London had acclimatized us to an overcrowded city, or so we thought. Yet our first day loose on Delhi’s streets felt like the equivalent of being trapped inside Neo’s Matrix — though we were on a bicycle rickshaw, not a submarine — with similarly terrifying twists and turns through the most hideously effusive traffic on earth.

And what fun it was. Imagine a horizontal roller-coaster through a grotesque funhouse of eats, sights, sounds, smells and horrors and you’ve nearly got Delhi. Air pollution, traffic gridlock and overcrowding are serious problems but somehow the inhabitants not only take it all in stride but have time to assist hapless tourists. We lost track of the number of times people whistled down an auto-rickshaw for us, explained our destination to the driver, negotiated a price, then popped us into the back seat after wishing us well.

After wandering around Delhi on our own for several days, we signed up for a much more sedate group shopping tour which took us to Dilli Haat, an upscale market of crafts from around India, which charges an admission fee. Numerous school groups were already inside, the young students buying trinkets and chattering excitedly. Local Ayurvedic products (Indian traditional medicine) abounded, along with elegant scarves, wraps, shoes, jewelry, teas and other packed and ready-to-eat foods. Each outlet bore a plaque with details on where the products were made along with information on the stall owners. In the nearby Delhi enclaves of M and N Blocks of Greater Kailash 1, upscale neighbourhoods are laid out around small parks. Patrons of elegant shops and cafes, such as Starbucks, Fab India and Anokhi, step out onto streets perpetually under construction — where they collide with stray dogs, mischievous monkeys and ubiquitous street vendors offering everything from ironing, fresh morning milk, chat (pans of uniquely Indian snacks), Delhi-style cold coffee, heaps of cut-rate clothing, and yes, luggage to take it home in.

This comparatively idyllic environment was a respite from the riotous free-for-all that is Old Delhi, where rickshaws, cattle, donkey carts, auto-rickshaws, pedestrians, buses, trucks and ancient bicycles thrust into the melee that is Chadni Chowk, formerly a canal bordered by grand processional avenues leading from the Red Fort to Fatepuri Masjid. The canal was filled in long ago and the road has become an unimaginable traffic nightmare, which our indefatigable rickshaw driver deftly negotiated — though at times I closed my eyes and suppressed the urge to scream as buses and trucks lumbered straight at us, horns blaring in an unwanted game of chicken.

Greater Delhi has a population of around 24 million, with close to 320,000 people per square kilometre, double that of New York City or Tokyo. Coupled with chronic air pollution, the result of vehicle exhaust, cooking fires, seasonal fogs, burning of crops and brush in surrounding areas, and a cold-weather climatic inversion which traps air-borne pollutants near ground level, and it is little wonder the World Health Association nominates Delhi year after year for the world’s least breathable air award.

Temples, forts and even luxury hotels are monstrously big, in keeping with the scale of the city itself. Hotels like the Leela Palace Kempinski, The Lodhi, Claridges, The Oberoi, Le Meridien, Crowne Plaza and a host of others offer unparalleled luxury service, some with ensuite private pools.

The Sikh Gurdwara Bangla Sahib near Connaught Place is associated with the eighth Sikh Guru Har Krishan and contains the Sarovar, a historically significant pool believed to heal the sick. The golden-domed complex offers guided tours and three daily meals free to all, embracing the concept of langar, demonstrating Sikh commitment to egalitarianism. Admission is free.

Swaminarayam Akshardham Mandir or temple complex east of the Jumna (or Yamuna) River is the world’s third largest hindu temple. Constructed in 2005 using ancient stone-carving techniques, the mandir has its own metro stop. The site features a stunning temple, an illuminated evening water show and a research institute. Other attractions include evening fire puja (aarti); the Hall of Values with mannikins displaying elements of Hindu culture; an entertaining boat tour through all of Vedic/Hindu history; extensive themed gardens featuring statuary and water channels; a cafeteria with numerous choices for lunch as well as a gift shop. An IMAX theatre tells the story of Neelkanth, an 18th-century child ascetic later known as Bhagwan Swaminarayan, to whom the temple is chiefly dedicated. Plan to be there at least half a day. Admission is free.

Hamayum’s Tomb and the Red Fort are two pleasant, surprisingly serene UNESCO World Heritage sites to wander and dream of life in the elegant Mughal court. Humanyun’s Tomb and its quiet gardens dating from the 1560s commemorate the Afghanistan-born second Mughal emperor. The grand tomb set the standard for all subsequent Mughal mausoleums, a building style which would reach its apex 80 years later with Agra’s Taj Mahal. Bhadur Shah II, the last Mughal emperor, surrendered here during the 1857 Indian Mutiny. Entry fee and special line for foreign tourists.

Lal Qila—the Red Fort—was constructed in 1639 by the fifth Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (he also built the Taj Mahal) when Delhi was known as Shahjahanabad. Considered the epitome of Mughal creativity via its fusion of Islamic, Hindu, Persian and Timurid styles, the conquering British army thoughtlessly razed some of its elaborate pavilions in the 1800s to make way for barracks, ruining the layout of the carefully-planned complex. No wonder that it was here Jawaharlal Nehru hoisted India’s flag of independence in 1947.

The Red Fort still impresses with the size and understated urbanity of its remaining water gardens (known as the Stream of Paradise); the Hall of Public Audience, containing the emperor’s throne (Diwan-i-Amm); his private apartments (Khal Mahal); the Palace of Colours (the mirrored Rang Mahal, where the harem lived); a small but interesting museum, and other exquisite buildings. Chhatta Chowk, a bazaar at Lahori Gate, originated as a place for ladies of the harem to purchase jewellery, silks and other personal and household items. It still exists, luring Indian and foreign tourists to fondle its lovely scarves, try on ornately embroidered slippers and sigh over elaborate jewellery. Admission fee and special line for foreign tourists; guides available for hire and well worth their fee.

Wearing the robe of horror in the courtyard of Jama Masjid, Old Delhi. (DONALD DOW)

Nearby is Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque, its exterior courtyard packed with pilgrims and sightseers alike. The long, stifling climb up one of the minarets gives a birds-eye view over the chaos of Old Delhi, and a glimpse into the rabbit-warren of streets, shops, houses and markets that make up this seething City of Djinns (free-willed spirits or genies). Entry is supposed to be free, and robe-hire voluntary but we were charged for entry, paid for compulsory robe for me, and dished out more cash to get our shoes back after we left them at the entry (footwear is removed before entry to most religious sites)—and to climb the minaret. Tourists may not enter during prayer hours.

Shopping is always nearby; flag down a rickshaw and head to the Tibetan Wooden Market, Meena Bazaar, Kabutar Market or Paiwalan Bazaar. Take extreme care if you are on foot: Obstacles abound and it is easy to get lost.

Accomplishing more than two or three things in a day in Delhi is nearly impossible due to traffic and the sheer size of the city. Detours and distractions — accidental and on purpose — are par for the course. Rest, relax and replenish before diving back into the swirling tide. Karim’s Restaurant located in what remains of a haveli (a Moghul-era mansion) in Old Delhi is famous for its food but perhaps not its cleanliness. Squeaky-clean Piyu’s Kitchen, tucked away in Shivali Stadium Metro Station, provides inexpensive, delicious food to rival any in the city. Beware of eating street food. Carry hand sanitizer or wipes and use frequently after opening doors, handling money and riding public transit. I even wiped down bananas before peeling. Examine bottled water carefully to ensure it is sealed—and not simply filled from a local tap. Delhi Belly is remorseless and could ruin your holiday.

Love her or leave her, Delhi inspires every visitor to emotional heights and depths . . . but she would really rather you stayed.

If you go

Hop aboard Air Canada’s overnight Halifax-London flight and switch to Air India for the Delhi leg. Or take Air Canada’s direct Toronto-Delhi flight. Once there, Delhi Aerocity is a newly-built complex near the Indira Gandhi Airport containing elegant hotels and a shopping centre, connected to the airport and downtown by a modern, sleek metro. The sumptuous JW Marriott has excellent service, while the mid-range Ibis Hotel offers clean, comfortable rooms.

Top shopping can be had at Khadi Bandar and other upscale shops in Connaught Place, Fab India and other stores in Khan Market; Dilli Haat Market; along Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi; at Sundar Nagar, Lajpat Nagar, Matka Market, Shankar Market, Sarojini Nagar, Paharganj, Janpath and Tibetan Market — and many, many more.

Visit a travel clinic for vaccinations and preventive medications. Obtain an electronic one- or two-entry visa, depending upon whether you will be leaving and returning to India more than once during your trip; bring hard copies of your paperwork and passport photo page. Passing through customs and immigration upon entry and exit is time-consuming and bureaucratic; pack a generous dose of patience.

Buyer be-wear

Two young Indian ladies from Lucknow stopped me on the terrace of Jama Masjid Mosque.

“Why are you wearing that?” they demanded, pointing to the hot, ugly, salmon-coloured polyester robe dispensed to me by an abrupt turnkey at the entrance gate — who had charged me for the privilege.

“I don’t know,” I shrugged sheepishly. “I was given it.”

“Take it off!” they insisted. “Make a difference!”

I eyed them a trifle warily. “Well, I don’t know if I should,” I replied. “Maybe I am not dressed appropriately,” I ventured, opening my robe to reveal my Western-style clothing.

“But then neither am I,” retorted the second young woman, who looked to be about 20. It was true. We were dressed similarly in pants and T-shirt, though her companion wore a fashionable designer salwaar kameez consisting of leggings and a knee-length, side-slit caftan. Then we noticed another woman dressed identically in pants and t-shirt . . . and another . . . and another.

“Are you Muslim?” I asked them tentatively.

“No,” they emphasized, they were tourists just like me.

“You aren’t counselling me to do something nefarious are you?” I asked, shirking in typical Canadian style from the merest suggestion of giving offence.

“No, no!” the girls grinned, looking like two sleek cats who had swallowed canaries. The mosque doormen, they theorized, were able to convince unsuspecting female tourists to don the robes due to their misplaced sense of modesty.

Trying to be unobtrusive, I took off the suffocating and hugely over-sized garment, which had bedevilled me as I climbed the endless stairs up the minaret tower. Nothing happened. No one batted an eye. In fact, no one noticed at all. The three of us exchanged knowing looks and gossiped briefly about Lucknow and the true price of salwaar kameez, then parted the best of friends. I returned my hideous robe to its guardian and stalked out of the gate, only to be stopped by the man who had minded our shoes. He demanded — and received — a generous tip.



“Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream, it is not dying …”
—Tomorrow Never Knows

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Beatles Mural, Beatles Ashram

Fashion, music, culture, spirituality. The Beatles 1968 trip to India was a groundbreaking event across the spectrum of Western pop culture. February, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of their visit to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation Ashram in Rishikesh. And yes, dear Prudence, the monkeys are still “doing it in the road”—though their vigorous copulation no longer inspires songwriters.

In fact, the ashram has been abandoned for years. Just finding it is an adventure…especially when navigating via a map drawn on a napkin by a yoga instructor at breakfast.

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Ganges: On the way to Beatles Ashram

The so-called Beatles Ashram is located at the far end of Swarg Ashram, a sort of suburb of Rishikesh on the less-trafficked bank of the Ganges. Few tourists can even find it, let alone summon up the courage to navigate the narrow, winding streets filled with donkeys, cows (and occasionally randy bulls), maimed beggars, holy men hustling for a meal, and pilgrims bathing on the Ghats of the sacred Ganges. Walk by the Last Chance Cafe & Guest House, pass a series of tin huts where a woman forcibly ejects a cow from her hovel, and shinny around the end of a wall. Walk along a ledge and over a rocky riverbed that was once a road before floods destroyed it. Dead ahead are a troupe of monkeys, sitting primly on a wall but ready to…uh…do it in the road, given the slightest provocation.

“He went out tiger hunting with his elephant & gun; in case of accidents he always took his mum…”

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John Lennon mural, Beatles Ashram

The ashram is now part of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve and plans are afoot to refurbish part of the sprawling compound as a museum and tourist attraction. The long and winding road to the compound wends upward past conical meditation huts made of river stone, overlooking a very holy part of the Ganges. Today, the grounds have nearly returned to jungle, with spiders as big as my hand hanging in webs over the doorways, trees poking through courtyards—as well as the possibility of encounters with tigers, elephants, deer and 47 other species of animals, and the 300 different types of birds that live within the far-flung park boundaries.

But back in the 60s, the extensive site was throbbing with life. Toronto’s Emmy-award-winning film/TV director-producer Paul Saltzman was there with the Beatles—and took many moving, intimate photos of the Fab Four. The Beatles still rank as one of the most popular bands in the world and a key musical ancestor of countless bands from Pink Floyd to Alt-J, The xx and Tame Impala.

Saltzman’s reminiscences about where, when and how his week-long encounter happened are priceless: “Their music changed my life and the content of what they said was life-changing for me.” 

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Beatles Cave, Beatles Ashram

Across the Universe

The Beatles’ Indian experience created a new openness to world music, and put India on the map as an enduringly hip and groovy place to examine our spirituality, learn meditation and yoga. The Beatles shopped in Rishikesh, known then and now as “the yoga capital of the world”; saris were purchased and worn by the women—and made into shirts and jackets for the men by the Maharishi’s on-site tailor. When the Beatles wore their new outfits home, Western fashion was changed forever. Soon, everyone knew what a sitar was.

And 50 years later, we’re still going back for more.

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Beatles group mural, Beatles Ashram

Some of Saltzman’s iconic photos will be used in a new Beatles museum planned for the ashram site which could get the go-ahead as early as Dec. 15, 2017. A hardcover limited edition of Saltzman’s book of photos, The Beatles in India will be out in February. Pattie Boyd, George Harrison’s first wife, has written a new introduction; the book contains some of the most intimate photographs ever taken of the Fab Four. Saltzman was the only “outsider” to gain access to the Beatles’ during their time there.

Writes Boyd, “As a photographer myself, I wish I had shot more photos while I was there with the band. But I made a conscious decision at the time to not be intrusive. I felt that the whole thing was very special, very peaceful, a retreat from the world of cameras. I think Paul Saltzman may have had a similar feeling and tried to be as non-intrusive as possible. We were all taking our own personal spiritual journeys and I felt that what we learned at the ashram was just for the people that were there. I didn’t think globally, I didn’t think that time was for everybody. But, now, ironically, I want everyone to know about it. It’s a testimony to how time changes us.”

Day Tripper, Yeah

Time has certainly changed Chaurasi Kutia Ashram. Creeping through piles of debris and over the trailing roots of trees and drooping leaves of huge plants, it is difficult even to breathe in the high humidity of the day. There is barely a soul around though the ashram must have once housed hundred, training disciples in a form of meditation designed to let them free their minds—and find peace.

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Long Road, Beatles Ashram

Yet it was here the Beatles’ White Album and Abbey Road were born— albums which changed rock music forever. While there, the Beatles wrote 48 songs — with Mike Love of the Beach Boys, Donovan and others—including Don’t Pass Me By, Back in the U.S.S.R., Blackbird, Dear Prudence, Bungalow Bill and Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?, Paul’s homage to the ashram’s highly-sexed monkeys. Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence meditated up to 12 hours a day and would not “come out and play”—as chronicled in the song, Dear Prudence.

Harrison celebrated his 25th birthday there, and was so into meditation that Lennon quipped, “The way George is going, he’ll be flying a magic carpet by the time he’s forty.”(1)

But it is the many colourful Beatles-related murals painted on the deserted buildings that bring the ashram to life. Murals depict imaginary scenes from song such as Blackbird, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Yellow Submarine, and many more. But it was in a deserted meditation hall that I finally found what I had been searching India for. On a raised plinth the words Let It Be were inscribed on a black and white background. It was that simple. Let it be.

After Several Hard Days’ Nights, Paul Saltzman Meets The Beatles

In early 1968 Saltzman was in India filming a documentary. He was 24 and, like most of the world, a Beatles fan. Life was good—until suddenly it wasn’t.

“I had just received a letter from my beloved girlfriend in Toronto saying she had moved in with Henry and I was devastated. I went to the ashram to learn meditation in the hopes that it would help heal the pain of a broken heart. I didn’t know the Beatles would be there until I got to the gates of the ashram.

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Let it Be Beatles Ashram

Saltzman headed north to Chaurasi Kutia Ashram, run by the world-famous Maharishi. “I waited outside the gates for eight days to get in. It was not to meet them. It was not good news that they were there, even though I was a fan. The first eight days for me were simply sleeping in a tent outside the ashram and waiting (because the ashram was closed to the public). Every day there was major press action. The Beatles were among the most famous people in the planet and that they had disappeared into an ashram was puzzling and consternating to some—and a news story.”

Twenty to thirty journalists would congregate outside the ashram gates every day but were told the same thing: the ashram was closed to the public, say Saltzman. “The maharishi would come out every day and give a press conference under a tree every day not far from the tent where I was staying.”

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Holy cow Beatles Ashram

The Magical, Mini Maharishi Tour

The diminutive Maharishi died on February 6, 2008 at his headquarters in The Netherlands; 2018 may also mark the 100th anniversary of his birth (the actual date is uncertain). The Maharishi was arguably more famous amongst Indians than the Beatles. Indian tourists still come to see the ashram where he taught his famous brand of meditation. Cosmic consciousness could be achieved through the good vibrations generated by chanting mantras and meditating in half-hour sessions twice daily—for a suggested fee of a week’s salary. The goal was to get rid of impure thoughts and achieve oneness with the universe.

In the 1980s, the Maharishi’s followers gave touring demonstrations of yogic flying in an effort to raise awareness for global peace; I witnessed one of the demonstrations in Halifax which involved a very athletic form of hopping while cross-legged. Only after I took up yoga did I realize how remarkable the demonstration was. The Maharishi’s empire grew to include a 24-hour satellite TV channel broadcasting in 22 languages to 144 countries, books, CDs, a property company, universities, charitable trusts, headquarters on five continents.

By the 90s the movement had aligned itself with the Natural Law Party, led in Canada by magician Doug Henning—promising heaven on earth and possibly lower taxes. And what’s wrong with that? I even voted for them in 1993, when they ran 231 candidates in the federal election. The heaven-on-earth idea isn’t so crazy: seekers of all ages still flock to India with the same goal in mind. Saltzman himself will soon make what he estimates to be his 57th or 58th trip to India next fall when he leads a group tour to Rishikesh.

Meanwhile Back in the Beatles Ashram: Don’t Know How Lucky You Are, Boy

Eventually, Saltzman was allowed through the gates, after an ashram official, who visited him every day, learned his story and took pity on him. “Once I was allowed in the ashram,” Saltzman remembers, “I had my meals with [the Beatles] every day. Every day I had breakfast and chai with the famous folk. We sat at a long table under an arbour for shade, maybe 20 feet from a cliff overlooking the Ganges. It was fairly fluid. People would come and go away to meditate, and work with the maharishi….We usually met for meals and at tea times, and just hung out.”

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Tree in residence Beatles Ashram

There were 13 or so “famous folk” in the group, Saltzman recalls: George Harrison and Pattie Boyd, Paul McCartney and Jane Asher, John and Cynthia Lennon, Ringo and Maureen Starr, Mia Farrow, Mal Evans (the Beatles roadie and trusted right-hand man), Donovan Leitch and Mike Love of the Beach Boys. Prudence Farrow (Mia’s sister, who inspired the song Dear Prudence) and Jennie Boyd (Pattie’s sister, who later married Mick Fleetwood and about whom Donovan had already written the song Jennifer Juniper), were taking an intensive TM teaching course with the Maharishi—joining the group later in the day.

“Travellers went to India looking for spiritual content going back centuries and centuries but it wasn’t a very common thing from the West. Certainly the Beatles and the publicity that came out of it, and the enormous following that they had is responsible for (the huge influence of Indian culture, yoga meditation, music, fashion in the world today),” says Saltzman. “The Western interest in all of that, and going to india, really stemmed from the Beatles time there and all of the coverage” of yoga, meditation, ayurvedic healing and spirituality. Some people feel that the whole western openness to world music—the birth of world music in the West—started with George Harrison picking up the sitar on the set of Help!”  

Harrison’s subsequent friendship with Indian sitar whiz Ravi Shankar led them to collaborate on the never-before-done Concert for Bangladesh billed as “George Harrison & Friends”—Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, Badfinger and others. The event—which spun off a live-album, boxed three-record set and a concert documentary—spawned a whole benefit concert industry leading to humanitarian relief events like Live Aid, Farm Aid and Live 8.

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Meditation Huts at Beatles Ashram

“Their music changed my life and the content of what they said was life changing for me,” Saltzman notes. “I had never heard of the concept of ‘turn off your mind, relax and float downstream, it is not dying’…and ‘go towards the void.’ When I first heard (the lyrics from Lennon’s Tomorrow Never Knows) I thought ‘what are they talking about?’ That was the birth for me of seeking an inner depth to life as opposed to only the outer.”

“But the bottom line is you don’t need to go anywhere to find what is inside you.”

“The truth,” says Saltzman, is ”between you and your connection with Divine Presence. It’s really available for you, me and anybody else for free. You can do that anywhere in the world.”

The Beatles’ Ashram may soon be renovated into a real tourist attraction, says Saltzman, who is waiting for word on the outcome of a meeting Dec. 15 between Rajaji Tiger Preserve officials examining architects’ drawings of proposed improvements.

The ashram “is a historic site in several ways: one for Beatles fans; it also has great significance in the Beatles’ lives because it was George’s intent to go deeper into meditation and inner peace, as it was John’s and to an extent Paul and Ringo. It was their single most creative capsule of time,” says Saltzman “They wrote 48 songs in less than seven weeks and I think that is pretty stunning. It had to do with quiet and meditation, and a space for creativity.”

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Yellow Submarine, Beatles Ashram

Fixing a Hole Where the Rain Comes In

“I think the government fixing up the ashram is a lovely way for them to promote a little more tourism and get a little more revenue. I think it is good that they fix up the ashram so the location has a little more historical content. I am going to donate some of my pictures for a kind of museum or gallery with information on the Maharishi and meditation and the Beatles and their visit there.”

Saltzman didn’t take the only pictures of the group inside the ashram. Some of the Beatles and their partners and friends had cameras, including Ringo, Pattie Boyd and Mal Evans. When he took a formal group picture of everyone with the Maharishi, the others wanted one as well. “I had four cameras around my neck—mine and theirs.”

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Let it Be 2 Beatles Ashram

Read More About Lonely Hearts’ Club Bands

Music fans, read my memoir about meeting David Cassidy at‘c’mon-get-happy’ 

As a staff reporter for newspapers such as the Ottawa Citizen, Hamilton Spectator and Halifax Chronicle-Herald (where I was a concert-reviewer-and-rock-band-interviewer) I have written extensively about music including interviewing Chris Salewicz about Joe Strummer’s Scottish legacy; a reminiscence about being one of eight people listening to The Tragically Hip in a Dartmouth bar, and many other features, interviews and reviews. I have talked to Alice Cooper about his alter ego; to Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson about his toenails; and turned down a-—uh, proposal-—from James Cotton.

For more visit

(1)Quoted in Joshua M. Greene’s 2008 book, Here Comes the Sun: The Spiritual and Musical Journey of George Harrison (John Wiley & Sons).

(Photos and Story Copyright Leslie Smith 2017)

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