Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Beautiful, Contradictory India

I had my first experience of the Indian misconception of 'personal space' on the plane from Heathrow to Mumbai when, upon getting settled in my seat, an elderly Indian gent (slightly the worse for wear) decided to use my head and shoulders as a resting point for each of his many suitcases as he attempted to pack them into the overhead luggage. The theme continued in Goa when a jewellery seller was constantly trying to stroke my belly as I lay sunbathing, on another occasion a group of very young kids outside a temple excitedly ran over to try to grab my 'boobies' when we went to say hello to them - and the list goes on. This endearing (if not a little weird) cultural tendency is just one of the many things that I have become accustomed to in the last 7 days.

The children liked my 'boobies' - "or were they just hungry?" asked my new friend Jannick!
I didn't look out of the aeroplane window until we were close to touching down in Mumbai. The very first sight I had of this beautiful subcontinent was concrete slums - quite the contrast to the 'Incredible India' I was expecting to see.  I was lucky to have been picked up at the airport by my school friend Shally and her cousin Cheeku, who lives in Mumbai.  We were conveyed, through the mad streets (filled with rickshaws, pedestrians and the ubiquitous holy cows) back to the apartment of Biji (Shally and Cheeku's grandmother). And there I was presented with my first taste of wonderful Indian hospitality - fed home made rajma (a kidney bean chilli), rice and masala chai by Biji's domestic help, the very smiley Parvati. But as I rested in the safety of our cool apartment, I looked out over impoverished houses, some of which are mere shacks and was stunned at the close co-existence of comfort and extreme poverty. Contradiction is everywhere in India. 

Shally & Biji
The task of the day was to get to Goa, my first destination and where I was to spend a week with Shally. Although we had booked a train ticket through an agent over a week earlier, it transpired that we were only 'wait listed' for the train, which means that you have no confirmed ticket but you are on a waiting list for cancelled tickets. There are a myriad of ticket types for train travel here and it is a good idea to get your head around the class and booking system and preferably book via a recommended agent. After a whole day of waiting for the seat numbers to become available and much conflicting advice dispensed via Cheeku, his brother Rambo and Biji (lots of phone calls in Hindi I didn't understand), we finally opted to instead take a sleeper bus to Goa. The bus was due to depart at 8.30 and so we were driven an hour across town (once more competing with the traffic) to many different unmarked bus stands. After much shouting and gesticulating, Cheeku finally found what we believed to be our bus stop and waited on the pavement to hail our bus. The bus itself was over 40 minutes late (I have learnt that timing is a very loose concept in India) and we were told that it would take 12 hours (in fact it took well over 14). And there was no toilet. We settled down into our double bed for the evening. The couple on the bunker across the way from us were very interested to hear all about who we were, our story, and most importantly, why we aren't married! In typical hospitable style, they offered us home-made roti, a kind of flat bread (which I took without thinking that perhaps it might be risky but I'm pleased to report that it didn't make me ill).  This was all very nice until we were greeted with an amorous hand creeping into our bunk in the wee small hours. I had heard that 'groping' is an occasional nuisance in India (always try and book a top bunk to remain out of reach) but didn't expect to be greeted with another violation of personal space on our first night! Lady travellers take note - a swift whack with a Lonely Planet seemed to do the job and the errant hand retreated back from whence it came.  We stopped at only 3 points in the night, to ever increasingly surreal 'service stations' - shacks on the side of country roads in darkness, but as I snoozed during the early hours of the morning, I watched the glow of an orange sun rise out of the misty jungle and the coconut trees and realised that I was very happy to be here.

The German Bakery in Anjuna - best breakfast spot
After our epic trip, we arrived in Mapsa, then took an autorickshaw (collecting a couple of other younger girl travellers on the way) to Anjuna - a hippy outpost on the north coast of Goa. Life there exists down shady back streets where you unexpectedly happen upon temples, schools, little houses, hippy ex pats and itinerant travelers. There is an abundance of organic cafes - incense smoking around the blue bodied statues, chill-out music piping through the air as long haired, loved up, dread-locked travelers relax beneath the shade of coconut palms or printed fabric awnings that hang across the bamboo walls. We arrived on Wednesday, just in time for the famous weekly flea market and had fun wandering round the stalls selling spices, fabrics, jewellery, drums and trance music.  Days in Anjuna were beautiful and healthy - I found the Oceanic Yoga School and started to do aftenoon and morning drop-in hatha yoga classes, practicing asanas beneath the coconut trees. After each class you sit and sip chai in the shade of the porch with your fellow students and I found it a great place to meet new people - such as a French Canadian couple who we ended up having dinner with in Dhum Biryani  (our favourite Anjuna restaurant for dinner, the German Bakery is our breakfast spot). We sat with them under the domed straw roof, beneath the lanterns, sharing Goan sea bass curry with roti and steamed rice, eating with our hands and rounding off with a fenney - the local cashew nut liquor.  Anjuna is famous for it's trance party scene and whilst this has faded somewhat in recent years, with venues etc being closed down, we still managed to hear about several big parties - word of mouth is the best way as police turn a blind eye to clandestine parties, meanwhile pubs and clubs have a strict noise restriction after 10pm. We didn't know this and, having been invited to a party in Hippies Bar, rocked up just as they were closing it down, so instead we spent a relaxed couple of hours down on the beach with some of the ex pat community that I know here.

Boats in Anjuna
Goa is a magnet for old timer hippy travellers, mostly from Europe, who come and rent a house and a moped (it's the only way to get around) for the 6 month season. This gives it an immediate community feel - you can't go anywhere without meeting anyone new and bumping into friends you have just made.  There is a strange mix of those kinds of half yearly ex pats, people coming to sell at the markets, Indian sellers and workers here to make money from tourists, rich Indians on holiday from Dehi and Mumbai (you can spot them a mile off with their sunglasses and shawls) and musicians, musicians musicians. Arambol, the beach where we stayed next is music heaven - every night we have watched traditional Indian music (sithars, tablar, flute) or other influences (Turkish, Spanish, Mexian, African) in one of the bars or on the beach. I have become friends with a tablar player - Praveen - and his brother Prim who also sings and plays guitar and has been trying to teach me Bollywood songs (Kenar, Sonar Tenu is my favourite so far). But they are beautiful and dangerous these Indian people - I have fallen hook, line and sinker for Praveen's charms. Oh well, I guess that Goa is a wonderful back drop for a little romance - but I have to be mindful not to get too comfortable here or stay too far from my spiritual path!

A band from Turkey plays traditional Indian songs
Arambol is a gorgeous place. We have been staying here on the beach in a bamboo hut on the shore, waking up to the sounds of the waves each day and watching the red sun set early in the evening over the Arabian sea. Although I have to admit that the pigs and the mice that wander fairly freely through the through-way next door do disturb us in the night sometimes with their squealing! Behind the beach is a maze of labyrinthine streets, selling all the usual fabrics, incense and trinkets. Everything is indoor-outdoor, and all restaurants and bars are shaded with fabrics, covered in floor mats or placed within jungly trees or beachey floors - very chilled places with lovely music, floor mats and cushions and relaxed vibes. It is polite to remove your shoes before walking in although nobody would turn a blind eye if you lay down to have a sleep on the floor. Hand washing is also customary as we eat with our hands here, so all little cafes have a lovely sink outdoors where you can wash before your meal.  Toilets do vary, but you'll always be fine if you carry some tissue - and - touch wood - I haven't been sick once since I've been here. I'm sticking to vegetarian food that is served hot, from places that Indians frequent or are recommended by others. Two meals a day is my norm here - a healthy breakfast of juice, curd and muesli, with traditional Indian food at night - dal, roti, curry, thali. Although the back streets are dark, you don't feel unsafe and you are never far from people - wandering through the little lanes of shacks, colourful buildings, guest houses and huts. We've befriended a couple who run a shop and their gorgeous children, Nikita and Saatchin, tiny little creatures that give us a high five in return for some sweets or 10 rupees. It is very hard not to completely fall in love with the Indians, their charm, smiles and wry behaviour. I have been learning Hindi which has gone down very well with the locals.

Streets of Arambol
Now that Shally has left for England me I am here alone. I have booked myself a very basic room with a clifftop view and will stay here for a couple of days to do more yoga, visit the Sweet Lake (where you can rub the into your skin for it's healing effects) and the famous mystical Banyan tree.I have jettisoned the ashram for now as it didn't fit in with onward travel plans, but I do plan to do a stint along the way, when I can dedicate more time to it. In the meantime, it's back to Goan beaches and the beautiful Indian way.



  1. I always wondered where Shally got her groping tendancies, I had no idea it was part of her culture! Sounds like a great start. Look forward to hearing more. Love Bush x

  2. India via the 'hands-on' experience, or is it you're just irresistible to the locals


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