Going Goa

image

Sun. Beach. Swim. Yoga. Drugs. DJ concerts (or EDM to use the latest catch-all).

That’s more or less why people visit Goa. Some choose more from the list than others, but together they help account for why Goa is India’s richest state, with a GDP two and a half times larger than any other Indian state.

It’s tourism industry started in the late 60s – 70s as a retreat for hippies, giving them a place where they could not only enjoy free love, but also a discounted price on accommodations. The spiritually inclined could also strike a warrior pose in the sand and later on drop acid in front of an extraordinary sunset.

This culture morphed into a DJ/club scene in the 80s, matching synthesized drugs with synthesized beats until the next evolution emerged in the 90s with rave culture that espoused glow in the dark colour palettes made even more wildly attractive thanks to the pharmaceutical packaging of emotion into pill form: ecstasy.

Now here we are in the 10s with new drugs, digital music that can get its point across without having to borrow samples from prior musicians, and people no longer having to explain to their friend, face-to-face, how f’d up they’re feeling and how much they love them, when they can do the job in seconds by texting them an emoji.

Of course, it could be argued that Goan tourism started even earlier than that. In the 16th Century, a Portugese fleet landed here, and claimed it for their crown as an overseas territory. Even after the British colonized India, Goa stayed under Portugese control, and it remained that way a good 10+ years after India gained independence in 1947.

As a result, Goa has a large Christian population – though still half that of the dominant Hindu faith, it explains why, on our strolls through a nearby village where Rose and I were staying that we saw this:

image

But first, a quick blurb on Goa’s geography. Goan tourism is often divided into two distinct experiences.

North Goa is widely considered the place to go if you want to say “WAHOO!” with arms around people you’ve just met, whose names you can’t remember because you can’t hear anything but a pulsing bassline, and really what are names but labels anyhow?, only to wake up with someone in bed whose real name you still don’t know – but remember calling her “Purple Lollipop”, because last night she was walking around with candy.

South Goa is where people:
– who once went to North Goa but now have kids go.
– who are disillusioned with jobs back in Europe or Australia and are enrolled in yoga courses to help them find a calling or have arrived with a calling and are enrolled in courses teaching them to become yoga instructors.
– who have put themselves on a steady, daily drip of alcohol to forget things back home, which is achieved around 2pm everyday when the cumulative effect of beers from breakfast onwards has turned their thoughts fuzzy and also made walking in the sand that much harder so they return to their sunbeds to sleep until dinner time.

And Rose and I.

To put us in a category I guess it would be this: finding a good place to eat, a good place to read, a good place to swim interspersed with an occasional photograph. The lazy bastard category?

To begin, we arrived in a village in South Goa called Betalbatim where we toured around for a couple of days, spotting some of the Portugese/Indian architecture on homes, which in some ways, reminded me of gothic homes we had seen in New Orleans on a previous trip:

image

We went to the beach in Betalbatim, which was really pretty, and also filled with Russian tourists: another key group that I hadn’t included on the list above. After speaking with a restaurant owner on the beach, he explained that Russian tourists began arriving in the early 00s, and kept arriving in subsequent years. As a result, restaurant signs are in both English and Russian, and we noticed cab drivers and other tourist operators speaking in Russian when they could.

“We go with whoever has the money”, one attendant explained to Rose and I as we waited for our own cab.

Judging from the people we saw at our hotel, it seemed to ring true. Most were Russian with a few English tourists. Aside from Rose and I whose country was woefully underrepresented, we met another couple who were also far from home: Colombia. And, after speaking with them, it became pretty clear that they wouldn’t be back personally to wave their home colours again in India.

The guy had planned a three week trip to India as a present for his wife’s birthday. As he describes it, even that was enough to stir up his wife, who sat across from him, glaring.

Apparently they had a really hard time – missing connections to trains, getting hassled by touts, feeling worn down by much dingier accommodations than advertised, and generally having a miserable time. Just chatting with them for five minutes we got the picture as they just ordered a mango lassi, and it came back to them looking see-through with no hint of yogurt or fruit, much less mango.

“You can see what I mean”, the husband said to us as his wife smiled, hiding her growl behind pursed lips.

Crystal clear.

Rose and I were just coming off our own share of hurdles. Riding one overnight train after another, discouraging touts at every turn, while trying to avoid being coaxed into paying higher prices on everything. I found it draining after a while: which is why we were in Goa, to relax and essentially do nothing.

After a couple of days in Betalbatim, we decided to head further South to another area where we had heard of other nice beaches, and more selection for restaurants: Palolem.

image

Here we met someone at our hotel who had also been travelling the area and was looking for South Goan style tourists who weren’t exclusively trying to give themselves amnesia through drinking. A group that she had been surrounded by at her last spot one beach farther up.

We hung out, rented a moped and zinged around this area of Goa, plus went farther off to seek out a distant waterfall – that we eventually found after a 1.5hr trip one way through villages and strained conversations asking for directions.

Also we went to one of the most colourful outdoor food markets, I’d experienced anywhere in Southeast Asia:

image

From oranges:

image

Spices:

image

Beans:

image

Onions:

image

And lentils:

imageI thought it was pretty amazing.

But the majority of our time was spent on the beach. However, not all was running our Ipad batteries down reading books, one day we had to outrun this guy:

image

One of many local cows who wanted more food, it seemed, and made his way into the crowd without any hesitation to get it.

We also met a dog that stood for an entire half hour next to our dinner table, just waiting, waiting, and waiting for some kind of scrap. He didn’t whine or beg.

He just waited:

image

After we had given him some food, and our plates had been taken away he still didn’t want to leave. Just waited, hoping for something more.

Aside from wrangling with the occasional rogue vache and outwaiting a stoic dog, things were as you might expect on a beach, placid and still:

image

After nine days of eating and significant tans, we had sufficiently lazed out enough that it was time to leave.

More India to come.

Advertisements

Mumbai bye

image

It’s the most populous city in India with 21 million people. The home of Indian finance, engineering, Bollywood, the most billionaires and millionaires anywhere in India as well as the country’s biggest slum with the highest population density: an estimated 800,000 people living in one square mile.

There is obviously a lot happening in Mumbai. And yet I only took one photograph.

Rose and I hadn’t planned to spend time here, only treating it as a stopover on our way to Goa. However, as it turned out we had a few more hours than anticipated, which is how I took this shot of the Gateway of India – considered by many to be Mumbai’s top tourist attraction.

Finished in 1924, the Gateway of India was designed as an archway for incoming British dignitaries to pass through upon arriving in India, which also had the unforeseeable purpose 24 years later, in 1948, as an exit for the last British detachment leaving after Indian independence.

For us, a photo of the Gateway had its own symbolic value of our time in Mumbai, in that we were entering and exiting the city too – but rather than having a 24 year gap to do it, we accomplished it in five hours.

Here’s how it went.

We arrived at the train station in the morning and our aim was to get to Goa as soon as we could. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get any train tickets there, which meant we had to rely on an overnight bus.

Where’s the bus station?

Initially we spoke with a tuk tuk driver who approached us and promised, as most drivers do, a “good price” to get to the bus station. Of course we had no bearing on what a “good price” was and asked a local guy who explained that it shouldn’t cost more than 50 rupees.

We then made our way into a larger scrum of tuk tuks who were taking fares and ferrying people around. One guy approached me and said: “300 rupees to bus station”.

“What? No, too much. Way too much”, I replied

“How much then?”, he said

“Someone told me no more than 50 rupees”, I said.

“Hah. Too little”, he said.

“Okay. I’ll go with someone else.”, and I walked off.

At this point, the local guy who advised us 50 rupees was the going rate, maybe seeing that we were getting hung up with this tuk tuk driver, took it upon himself to broker a deal with another tuk tuk driver on our behalf, completely unprompted.

“Here. To the bus station 50 rupees”, the local said and ushered us into the tuk tuk with the driver.

But we weren’t going to leave without a fight. The first tuk tuk driver who had suggested 300 rupees, comes up to our friendly broker and starts yelling at him in Hindi, of which I can’t offer a direct translation, but will hedge a guess that it was any or all of the following:

Traitor!”

You ruin our business!”

Who’s side are you on?”

Seeing the argument brewing, other tuk tuk drivers circled around our friendly broker and also started yelling at him. Now he’s completely swarmed – in the dead center of seven angry tuk tuk drivers yelling at him for offenses at this point, that I’m sure have ratcheted well beyond a simple price difference into questions of his identity and citizenship: i.e. “Are you not Indian?! How dare you take a foreigners side!”.

Meanwhile, Rose and I are watching this from the comfort of the rickshaw that our broker has set up for us. However, more angry drivers are arriving and are blocking our drivers’ path while yelling at him for what I can only imagine is, in their eyes, being a scab for taking us for 50 rupees, and betraying the inflated, colluded price line of the local rickshaw mafia.

Now I’m starting to get nervous, imagining this is all headed for a violent finish. Thankfully, our broker friend breaks free from the gang, finds his own tuk-tuk, which in turn, clears the group from out front of our tuk-tuk and gives us space to drive off.

After being on the road for ten minutes, we stop at a light, and another rickshaw pulls up next to us carrying our broker friend.

“Thank you very much for your help. Are you okay?”, I asked concerned he was rattled by the gang of bullies.

“Oh yes”, he laughs. “That’s okay. No problem there”, grinning from ear to ear, suggesting that was part of how negotiations can go.

“Great, thanks again”, I said, feeling a bit sheepish that this guy stuck his neck out for us – two complete strangers.

“You’re welcome. And welcome to Mumbai”, he smiled with a bit laugh before driving off.

“Are all introductions, like this?” I wondered to myself.

We eventually landed at the bus station where we had to find a bus ticket to Goa, preferably leaving soon.

Obviously in any sales arrangement, the salesperson representing the company should make his or her cut. That’s entirely reasonable. However, when his cut starts looking more like a chunk, I find it offputting, because I feel like I’m essentially being played for an idiot (and I prefer to save that privilege for friends).

Chatting with one bus ticket agent, it soon became clear that he was hop-scotching around the truth with the inspired doublespeak of Donald Rumsfeld explaining intelligence reports: i.e. “There are known knowns. Then there are unknown unknowns”.

“This bus leaves in one hour. And is now this price!”, the bus agent says.

“What’s changed? You gave us a smaller quote one minute ago?”, Rose says pointing at his sheet of scribbles, on which, sure enough, is his earlier, lower price.

“Bus is more full and prices change”, he replies.

I got the impression he was double dealing, and it was frustrating. But, at the same time, I was tired and wanted to get going, and was worn down from all the back and forth. Plus the price difference wasn’t too egregious that we’d bankrupt our budget if we did go ahead with it.

Nevertheless, the bus ticket agent had laid down the gauntlet- and there were three separate ticket agents adjacent to him, which of course could be operating in collusion with his prices, but we gave it a shot with them anyway.

Finally, after changing teams to another agent, we settled on a better price, but for a later bus leaving in four hours time. That meant we had time to see something of Mumbai – but we had a fairly significant problem: we didn’t really know what the city looked like, since we hadn’t planned to be here for that much time.

True, I had downloaded a guidebook on my Ipad, but we had no idea where we were at that moment, in relation to the Mumbai maps the book showcased.

All it would take was WiFi. But where was that?

We asked around and were directed to an area of the city, which lay just off a major highway artery. Rose and I strolled down there looking for any sign of a cafe. Nothing.

After another 15 minutes, we spotted it, which we had been told was an Indian franchise.

“Hi. Do you have Wifi?”, I asked the cafe worker with my phone in hand, ready to type in the password in a split second to secure a spot on the network ahead of the next person.

“No. We don’t have it at this store. But there’s another one a few blocks away that does”, he replied.

Okay. Off we went again. This time wandering through residential streets that reminded me of Montreal, with huge trees over the streets and lower-sized apartment buildings off its sidewalks. The difference was that people were everywhere: in the streets, front yards, we even spotted kids climbing in trees above us. Yet for all the activity and numbers, still no coffee shop.

Rose now said she also had to pee. Our mission became twofold: cafe and bathroom – while I was holding out that both problems could be solved in one place. After another two blocks, there it was: the same purple coloured coffee franchise, and more importantly there was the prize on the door: a big sticker saying: FREE WIFI.

Great. We head in. Rose asks: “Can I use your bathroom?”.

“We don’t have a bathroom”, the cafe worker replies.

” Okay. Do you know where I could find one?”, Rose asks.

“Uhmmm”, the cafe worker is stumped and has a grin on her face that says “I have no idea”, and so asks another worker who also has the same grin, and shrugs.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know”, he replies.

Great.

Rose bites her lip and finds a table. I order a coffee.

“Did you ask for the Wifi password”, Rose asks.

“Not yet. I’ll ask her when she brings my coffee”, I reply.

Two seconds later, the cafe worker shows up, coffee in hand.

“Hi. Could you give me the WiFi password?”, I ask

“Oh. Sorry. WiFi doesn’t work today”, she replies.

“Really? Power outage or is it trouble with your modem”, I reply, holding out hope a simple modem reset might do it.

“I don’t know. It just doesn’t work”, she says with the same grin she had when Rose had asked her about bathrooms, and gives me the sense that modem reset isn’t even an option on the table, before walking off.

Even better.

I drink my coffee, and open up the map we have on my Ipad, trying to make sense of the city’s geography.

After roughly sorting out where we were, it seemed that to see any of the main parts of Mumbai we’d have to get into the city core, which by public transportation could take an hour, and we only had two and half hours left before our bus left for Goa.

But all of that was secondary: job numero un = finding a bathroom. I finished my coffee and we set out again, thinking we might have better luck if we backtrack to an area we’d passed earlier that had businesses, which maybe, just might have a bathroom.

Up we go, and I start canvassing the spots. First one: no bathroom. Second: the same. Third: okay, this wasn’t going to work.

Now one of us suggests we take a cab to McDonald’s or another Western franchise, that in our past experience, has a bathroom or two. We speak to a cabbie who explains there’s no nearby Western franchise: but they can be found closer into the city core, which is of course where we’d also determined all the sites were.

Realizing this, and tired of walking in circles, we decide to strike a deal to take us on a whirlwind tour of the main sites, if our cabbie could have us back to our bus station in 90 minutes for us to catch our bus.

Done. We hop in and head for bladder relief. After we’d done our rounds, seeing Mumbai from the back of a taxi (and I took that prized photograph), we bolted out of a McDonald’s now feeling much less anxious, but renewed it almost immediately when we looked at the clock.

Our bus left in 30 minutes, and it would likely take 45 minutes to get back with all the traffic.

Undeterred, our cabbie sped through every corridor we faced, dodging and weaving his way to get to the head of the pack. Even at one point when it really didn’t look like we’d make it, he called our bus company to tell them we were on the way, and to hold the bus if they could.

On we sped. Zinging down the freeway at speeds much faster than we took the other way heading into the city, I buckled my seatbelt, hoping we’d reach our final stop by choice and not as an accident.

Sure enough, we pulled into the corner where the bus stand sat, jumped out, and handed the cabbie his fare:

“Welcome to Mumbai”, he said smiling.

Five minutes later our bus showed up. Unfortunately, our adventure didn’t end there.

Have you ever taken a piece of cooked spaghetti and dropped it on to a countertop?

What that piece of spaghetti looks like on the countertop, is what the road to Goa felt like. It would seem the bus company knew this, and as a precaution handed out barf bags to everyone for our overnight journey along what became a bobsled track.

Hard left. Hard right. Now a hairpin. Hang on everybody, one more time from the top. Hard left, Hard right. Hairpin.

It was relentless. And, unfortunately for a couple of guys who sat directly behind us, in the very back row of the bus, so were the effects on their stomach: as they threw up, again and again, over the course of the next 12 hours.

I handed one guy my sick bag, after he’d been at it so long, he rested his head, exhausted, on the back of my headrest, while his body continued to protest the tangled spaghetti route we were careening through.

After such a windy, bumpy ride, the consolation was this: Goa – quiet beaches, few people, no smog, and our own moped which meant we didn’t have to negotiate any more transportation for a while.

Our spot for the next nine days.

Talk soon

Udaipur? Sure.

imageAfter two days of camels, sand and quiet, we headed back to royalty in Rajasthan’s second major city – Udaipur.

Founded in 1559 in a lake district, it’s less chaotic than Jaipur, and in my opinion, much prettier:

image

The big attractions are the City Palace, built on the very edge of the main lake Pichola (pictured two above) as well as a second spot called Lake Palace which was built on the lake (in the far background below).image

I think the massive City Palace covered my needs quite well. However, the ruling king of the time was obviously more temperamental. He wanted a summer getaway, but one that wasn’t too far away. So, the Lake Palace was born: built right on top of the lake, giving his highness plenty of cool air during the hot summer, only 200 yards away from his “rest-of-the year” palace.

Nevermind that the King could have peeled off some layers of his endless wardrobe to save himself from the heat, and save building an entire building to do the job. But then, it’s safe to say when you have piles of money, modesty is an unnecessary investment.

This may be why film producers chose it as the right kind of spot to represent the palace of Bond’s girlfriend in the 1983 film – Octopussy (seen at the start here):

Plus the production crew also chose other spots in Udaipur as well, like the city streets for a tuk-tuk chase:

As a tourist, you can walk around pretty much any day of the week and find at least one guesthouse screening the film. Nevermind that on Rotten Tomatoes it was voted the third worst Bond film – even worse than Moonraker, which despite its awfulness had some redemptive qualities later on as source material for Austin Powers. Octopussy – the stunt of flying a small plane through a warehouse at the start of the film is pretty amazing, but aside from that? Her tattoo?

Anyhow, back to Udaipur.

The Lake Palace’s grand reputation is also why it’s hard to visit. Since its royal heyday it’s been converted into a five star hotel fit for oligarchs or celebrities who, thanks to their undying wealth, never have to consult a price list. I say this, because I tried. And there’s no whiff of any mention of money on their site – only an indication on other blogs saying this: $$$$$$$. (translation: you’re not on our guest list).

Given the cold hard facts, Rose and I, and the rest of the public whose monthly car payments are undoubtedly less than the cost of breakfast at the Lake Palace, decided to attend the City Palace, which had been converted into a museum, and was only $$ to get in.

We toured around and similar to Jaipur’s City Palace, there were some peacock designs:

image

But unlike Jaipur’s palace, this one seemed a lot more ornate, with swinging chairs for royalty to ponder what massive building they should build next as another tribute to themselves:

image

to outdoor floors where I imagine the royals enjoyed watching their assistants take afternoon strolls for them:

image

While they lounged back, in these plush seats in the background, considering if it was possible to have someone add real gold to their eyelashes:

image

It had stained glass as well, that reminded of the neon lights in a Star Wars film:

image

And, two steps later, royals could look out over their subjects with the more paranoid wondering if there was an assassin out to get them, while the more confident thinking it was time to host another festival to find more court jesters.

We spent a lot of time there, because there was a lot of “there” to see. Including a big sun shield, made of swords:

image

Afterwards we strolled around by the lakefront:

image

Udaipur has a footbridge that connects two sides of the city – which, with the Lake Palace resting in the lake itself, has inspired some people to call the city: “Venice of the East”.

We also asked someone to take our photo, which was slightly more successful than the last time at the Taj Mahal, in that everything was in frame. The difference was: he thought it would be interesting if we could crane our necks to the right when we looked at the photo:

image

Later on that night, we left the waterfront:

image

And made our way into another hall just to the left for a folk festival. It was a packed house and showcased traditional Rajasthani dancing, with women with swords in their mouths and flames on their heads spinning each other in circles.

But the main event was an older lady, who Rose and I guessed had been on the circuit a long time, and perfected a dance turn from this:

imageInto a freestanding tower as she whirled around:

imageAs she brought her show to a finish, it was our turn to start up our next whirlwind leg of travel: another overnight train, this time to Mumbai followed by a contentious ride in a tuk-tuk, an argument at a bus stand, 2hr walk trying to find a Wifi and bathroom (still couldn’t find both), a 1hr high speed overview of the city in the back of a cab before a 12hr overnight bus ride to Goa in front of a group of vomiting passengers.

Y’all come back now ya hear.

Talk soon.