Incredible India

Sorry, hold on. I can’t hear you over the Bhangra music blaring on this interminable overnight bus ride. What? Just a sec, let me squeeze myself out of this crowd of chattering schoolkids all demanding to know my good name. Now, come again? It’s been a month, and it’s time to leave India? Impossible–I just started digging fingers-first into this delectable South Indian thali, and I’ll need some time to finish, not to mention the kulfi and burfi stands that await me across the street. Sorry, what now? I leave TOMORROW? No, no, can’t be–I haven’t yet visited the hill stations of Karnataka or the holy lands of Rajasthan, and my skin is just becoming accustomed to the scorching sun of southern Kerala. I’m just beginning to decode the enigmatic Indian head wobble, and am afraid I’ll need at least another week to perfect the phrase “Fifty rupees and not a cent more” in Malayalam. I must insist, its quite impossible that I take the 2 p.m. bus to the international airport tomorrow–I’ve just discerned what makes a cup of masala chai great and not just good and it requires me to pay a late-afternoon visit to my favorite vendor.

Can it be true that I’ve been in India a month already? I don’t feel nearly ready to leave. I know I’ve been largely absent from the blog, but you’ll have to excuse me–I was completely enthralled by this noisy country and haven’t had time to properly reflect on my time here. But it IS true, I leave India tomorrow, and I’ll reluctantly depart, wanting to learn and experience so much more. Undoubtedly, I’ll be back.

First things first: I’ve been here just a month, an imperceptible dot on the timeline that makes India the historically and culturally complex nation that it is. I’m in no way qualified to editorialize about the place, but I can talk about the way the place affected me. To sum it up: India is a whole other ballgame, and I’m not just talking about cricket.

Northern India, I’ll admit candidly, scared the shit out of me. Even arriving from frenetic Kathmandu, the chaos and clamor of the streets of Mumbai took me aback. I’d never been somewhere that made me feel so utterly vulnerable and to so many simultaneous elements: rickshaws spewing plumes of pollution screeching through intersections, the grimy hands of street children unabashedly reaching in my pockets, the intermingled presence of rats and cockroaches and human pavement dwellers in the late-night Colaba streets.

That was day one. By day two, I felt more comfortable. I crossed busy intersections by taking cues from veteran Mumbaikers, hung out with my pals Kathleen and Subash who’d been braving the city for a week already, and began to let myself fall in line with the city’s rhythm rather than resisting it. I began to see Mumbai for what it is: Manic, swarming, classist–yes. But also metropolitan, forward-thinking, and entrepreneurial to a fault. I grew to kind of like it.

Then it was time to go to Delhi and the culture shock happened all over again. By now, hometown hero Eric had arrived for a week’s stay in India. I was glad to have a buddy with whom to wade through the grime and grind of this dusty, distant cousin of cosmopolitan Mumbai. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t grow to like Delhi, not in the least, and I’d be happy to offer a list of reasons (starting alphabetically: Acrid smells, Agra in its entirety, alms-giving fatigue, animal feces…). We left for Mumbai enthusiastically, craving the shelter of friendly Leopold Cafe and our swanky digs at the Gordon House Hotel.

Sandwiched between Mumbai and Delhi was a visit to the Gujarat state, where a friend of Kathleen and Subash was to be married. The new couple and their families were gracious enough to allow me to attend the two-day ceremony–a sensory overload of rich flavors, fabulous colors and friendly smiles. I was glad to escape the cities and be in a familial setting, far away from horn-honking and street-begging. Though I was shamefully underdressed (and in such drab tones!), I soaked in the experience gratefully and hope I didn’t ruin too many family photos.

After Eric’s departure, I hopped a quick $30 flight down to Goa. Stepping off the plane to tropical breezes, friendly faces and wide-open spaces was like taking a long drink of water for my parched nerves. I had no idea where I was heading, and my only guidance was from a fellow traveler I’d met in Nepal: “I’m at Patnem beach, near the end, by a yoga place. The place I’m staying has no sign posted.” I chatted up some other Westerners at the baggage claim and arranged to share a cab south, in the general direction of Patnem. A few hours later, I’d found my sarong-clad friend in a beachfront shack sipping a mango lassi and swapping stories with long-time Goa expats. I settled into the new routine quickly, securing my own $10 beach hut and staying four nights.

Goa is a 100 km strip of beachfront that was long ago claimed first by Western hippies, then the trance/rave/party crowd, then tamer couples and honeymooners. All elements still exist, and the choice of which beach to stay on defines one’s tastes and behaviors. Patnem was quiet, and in the evening restaurants favored fairy lights and evening catch over glowsticks and Ecstasy. I found it to be the perfect fit. My days were filled with bike rides, dips in the ocean, padding barefoot around the beach and one-street town, and three meals a day of fruit salad and yogurt. Life was good.

Nice guy who took us dolphin watching in Goa

Eventually Meghan continued south to Gokarna and scoped it out. She wrote and said it was great, and I decided to follow her down the following day. Gokarna turned out to be my favorite stop in India. The town is a religious center, full of temples, chanting, incense, candles and spookily-spiritual late-night ceremonies involving drums and processions. Western hippies have found the place, but they’re serious: Half-century-old Hindu hopefuls wearing nests of decades-old dreadlocks mingled peacefully with the local population.

Kids selling dried foods and powdered dyes (for bindis) on the street, Gokarna

There was essentially no infrastructure geared towards Westerners (unlike Goa) and all expats and tourists ate and slept at Indian venues. Our perfectly decent room, for example, cost just $1.50 each per night. No Western toilet in sight, and it was here that I mastered the squat-and-left-hand-and-water method.

There are beaches at Gokarna, but they’re largely populated by local Indians. We happened to be there on the full moon, and so there was some serious hippie-rific happenings like yoga-boxing on the beach, but the Westerners seem largely interested in blending in and acquiring ancient Hindu characteristics, not bringing in the funky banana pancakes. It was a nice change from Goa, which felt like stolen property at times.

Gokarna Beach

Gokarna kept us entertained and I could’ve stayed longer, but we chose to venture inland to Mysore. The bus was 14 hours long and there was another foreigner on the bus: An African Union economist from the UK, and he and I chatted the whole time. We ate no meals that day and instead snacked on street foods gleaned from five-minute stops: dried bananas, coconut cookies, dried spiced chickpeas, dried lentils, some weird fried bread and milky ice cream.

In the end, the economist came to the same hotel as we did. He found his room and the hotel boy let Meghan and and I into ours. I poked my head in the room to see a lone medium-sized cockroach scuttle under the bed out of view. “Cockroach,” I observed passively, not really complaining but simply noting. “No, madam,” the hotel boy responded courteously. “No cockroach here.” I opened my mouth to disagree, and just then the cockroach reappeared, making a bee-line for the shallow puddles on the cracked marble floor of the bathroom. The hotel boy watched the scene and handed me the key. “Enjoy your stay, madam.” Meghan and I shared one bed and settled into a deep sleep, safe from vermin in our respective sleep sheets with the fan whirring overhead.

The next morning we had breakfat with the economist before he took off for Ooty, a former British hill station. Mysore was a transit point for him. I chatted up a pair of Brits at a nearby table and we became friends. Meghan and I visited the magnificent Palace, which was worth the journey in itself.

In the evening we went to the Mysore Mandala Yogashala center with the boys to do a strenuous (and pricey–$8) yoga session together. The center was founded by one of the world’s renown Ashtanga practitioners, BNS Iyengar. I was excited and nervous. We waited for the session to begin, and one Brit hesitated, eventually saying he’d chosen not to spend the money (and sweat) on the session after all. Meghan sipped a lassi quietly and eventually said she’d rather check out the night markets in the city instead of plunking down cash on yoga. I was left with Steve the Brit, who is traveling for four years (!). I paid the fee and went in the room ahead of him while he talked with the yogi outside. I waited and waited, and he never entered. The session began, and I quickly realized I was alone in a room of serious yogis, all of whom had been living, practicing and sweating at the center for months. I was seriously out of my leagues but kept up as best I could. When I left, sweaty and exhausted, Steve was nowhere in sight. I caught a rickshaw back to where we’d chosen for dinner and found my crew there. Steve had revealed a back injury to the yoga people, and they’d spent a half hour subjecting him to some excruciating brand of reflexology which left him in pain but curious, and he planned to return the next day for another treatment.

We decided we deserved a nice dinner and went to the fancy hotel with a restaurant inside. The food was fair and overpriced but I had a nice martini and relaxed in the cobblestone courtyard of the heritage hotel. We got very, very lost walking home that night–me with a ton of US dollars and my passport on me. The city felt deserted and seedy at night, and when we finally found the hotel, we gratefully let ourselves into the room of cockroaches and standing water, vowing never to stray again.

The next day it was time to move on again, this time to Bangalore just for an evening before boarding an overnight train to Kerala. We caught a day train and chatted with an affluent middle-aged Indian couple, both with excellent English and charming dispositions. We arrived at the train station, left our bags in storage, hopped in a terrifying rickshaw and alighted at the glitzy Garuda Mall. Wealth looks the same everywhere, but this mall was over the top. The mall was a first-world scene of all brand new, glassy angular storefronts and sleek escalators, with well-heeled young Indians drifting in and out of stores and munching happily on food court fare and ice cream. We were there for a Bollywood film, but guiltily took advantage of the food options and expensive coffee.

Inside of Garuda Mall

Outside the Garuda Mall

The overnight train ride was fine, though we’d been waitlisted for tickets and therefore didn’t get to sleep in the same berth. My bunk mate was an Indian economist who’d worked in the US and Europe. We had a nice chat before I fell into a deep sleep–I do love to sleep on trains.

We arrived the next morning in Kochi, caught a ferry to the old town and checked around for somewhere decent to stay. We found a nice place in the heart of the old town, which is a mixture of Portuguese, Dutch, English, Muslim and various Indian influences. The small streets are dotted with art cafes and silk shops, and we were happy to spend the day slurping iced coffees and planning the coming days. We agreed to do a backwaters cruise the next day but head to Varkala beach, in southern Kerala, for our final day together before parting ways. While on our way to a Kathakali performance that night, we were recruited to be extras in a Bollywood film called Cinema Company. Look for us in the cafe scene!

Meghan on the set of Cinema Company in Ft. Kochi

Chinese fishing nets at the dock of Ft. Kochi

The following day, we took a backwaters cruise. We started off on a boat with about 15 other people, mostly Indian tourists from various states and walks of life. The guide got on the boat and immediately began to antagonize his compatriots:

“Excuse me,  Indian friends. Excuse me!” He raised his voice and his honey-colored eyes narrowed as he glowered at the Indian tourists chatting in the back of the boat. “Did you come here to learn about Kerala backwaters, or chat?” They stopped talking and he reprimanded them, by looking first at me and asking: “What do you know about Kerala backwaters?” When I responded, “Er, nothing,” he seized his opportunity, wobbling his head forcefully back and forth, saying “See? She knows nothing about Kerala backwaters, she is not talking, she is here to learn.” He smiled approvingly at me. One particularly argumentative Indian, who I later learned is a Portland, Oregan resident (and quick to remind all of it), gave the guide some lip but the confrontation mostly dissipated quickly.

Later, in the rubber tree forest, the guide set his sights on me again. “Madam, what is your good name?” At first this phrasing had perplexed me, but I’d been asked the question no less than 20 times over the past month, so I was ready and I responded with my global, simplified version: “Ana.” Then the most commonly-asked question in India: “And you are coming from?” I responded and his honey eyes lit up with approval and opportunism. “I like people from America,” he said. “Very polite. Very good. I try to study in America soon.” I smiled and shimmied over next to Meghan, my Canadian companion, to escape the intensity of his stare. After he’d explained the various uses of other plants in Ayurvedic medicine to the group, he called after me again.

“Hey, America, America. Come here, America.” I obediently, if reluctantly, went to his side. “What happened to American economy, so bad? What happened?” As I fumbled with a response, his stare intensified and he shushed away the Indian/Portland tourist asking about a more nuanced use for the neem plant (his wife has unsightly facial hair and he’d like to find a way to rid her–and him–of it for good). I scuttled to safety after another moment, saying “I’m going to go find my friend, Canada, she has my water bottle…” while the guide insisted “America, I have more questions, America!” but I was gone.

The group reconstituted itself around a bush to learn about the making of toddy, a liquor made with a local root. The Indian/Portlander was talking about how good his own English is, and the guide visibly bristled. He launched into a monologue about how hard guiding is, because of the variations in regional English. “YOU!” he said, pinning a lone Frenchman with his accusing glare. “Say, teodaidaihuay,” he demanded. The Frenchman squinted and tried his hardest: “Tayadeedenay?” The guide scoffed his disapproval and the Frenchman gave it a few more stabs before the guide became exasperated and looked at Meghan, saying “Canada, you! Teodaidaihuay!” Meghan was befuddled for a moment before a look of realization crossed her face, and she correctly announced: “TODDY!,” the name of the palm liquor. “Yes! Now you, America” And so I also said “Toddy,” while the Frenchman reddened. The guide’s point was that America and Canada pronounce their vowels slightly differently. The group yawned. The Frenchman attempted to redeem himself, laughing and saying, “I thought you meant T-O-D-D-Y was a word, like Teodaidaihuay, ha! ha!” to which the guide responded with a sharp look and the reply “America and Canada got it right. You misunderstood, your problem. Not my problem. I say T-O-D-D-Y, you make a mistake, your problem.” With that, he ushered us back onto the boat to eat some (admittedly delicious) fresh mussels, washed down with still-frothy t-o-d-d-y.

Fresh mussels near Alleppey, India

Next stop,  we arrived at a village, and he told us an author was from there, who wrote the book “The God of–“? and waited for someone to fill in the rest. A Canadian behind me took the bait and the guide made us all chant in unison “Small Things” several times until the Indians could repeat it back, illustrating the point, I guess, that foreigners know more than Indians. Then he said that Arundhati Roy was always around, that he’d see her when guiding tours, until she won the Man Booker Prize. Now she never comes back to her village. He made us repeat “The God of Small Things” a few more times, and then we moved on. Some of its captured in the video below.

Mercifully, after lunch of thali on the boat, the guide departed. Nobody tipped him. Then we piled into separate canoes and floated down less-trafficked canals where village life unfolded before our eyes. Women had gathered coconut fibres into baskets and were using an alternator (right?) to weave the fibers into rope, later sent to the city for rugs and other uses.

The guide made the cruise a spectacle, but in reality the experience was amazing. The village life reminded me of similar habitations on the Amazon river, but here in Kerala, life seems a bit more relaxed. Women washed clothes in the river, kids splashed in the canals, bicycles whirred over bits of solid land. It was a relaxing cruise and I wasn’t struck with guilt, as there was not extreme poverty surrounding. For once, a glimpse into rural life didn’t leave me saddened.

In fact, we left the tour on a high note and elected to go to the big city of Ernakulam, or mainland Kochi, for another Bollywood film–this time, Ladies Vs. Ricky Bahl. Without gushing too much, ohmygod I love Bollywood. It’s the best thing ever, and even though I understand zero Hindi, I lovelovelove Bollywood. That is all.

The following morning, a quick 4-hour train ride to Varkala in the lowest class imaginable, where we stood and were subjected to the curiosity, scrutiny and inquiries of hundreds of Indian men all chewing and spitting betel nut. We arrived in Varkala, a cliffside beach town where Meghan and I found a cozy shack in the woods. We spent our last night feasting on tasty Indian food and clinking glasses of coconut lassi to a month well-spent together. The following morning we parted ways with a quick hug and promises of visits in North America. I’ll miss her.

I returned alone to Kochi on the train the next day, arriving late. I had decided to splurge on a niceish room for my last two evenings alone in India, and I chose a hotel with a low-end single room for about $30 per night. The website promised A/C and WiFi, and that was good enough for me. I had been looking forward to it for weeks.

I arrived and a charming pair of handsome young Indian men helped me with my bag and showed me to my room–the penthouse suite of the 300-year old Dutch wooden castle cum hotel. I looked at them sideways, as if to say–you know I’m paying $30/night, right? They DID know, and it seems they just liked me and put me in the nice room. I had dropped off my big pack a few days earlier, and had been friendly and chatty with them. Truth was, I liked THEM–they weren’t the standard variety of over-eager, over-nosey, over-invasive Indian man I’d been dealing with over the past month. They were just nice. I expressed my delight repeatedly, causing them to happily wobble their heads back in forth in satisfaction and acknowledgment of my gratitude. They brought me fresh papaya juice and chilled water and wished me a very comfortable night’s rest.

I took a look around–a living room with hand-carved, antique wood furniture and doorways, two ceiling air-con units, a hand-carved wooden armoire, a TV, a spacious bathroom, tasteful paintings and high wood-beamed ceilings. I sat gingerly on the bed in a final test–it was a mattress, not a wooden plank! It would certainly do for my last two nights on the subcontinent.

I spent today, my last day in India, writing this blog post. It really did take me most of the day, spent at the Kashi Art Cafe where I had a delightful lunch of cold coffee and fruit salad. At night, I dined alone at my favorite hole-in-the-wall locals’ restaurant, where I had malai kofta (vegetable balls in a cashew curry sauce) with paratha bread and plain lassi for just more than $2. I came back to the wooden castle hotel, nodded amiably at the gents at the desk, and settled into bed. And here I am.

Hello, lunch!

Incredible India is the government’s tourism slogan for the country. Unlike others–like Puerto Rico’s “Explore Beyond the Shore” or Peru’s “Pack Your Six Senses,” India’s slogan says it all. In fact, it’s the only word to describe India–incredible, in the amazing sense, in the unbelievable sense, in the gotta-see-it-to-believe-it sense. Incredible, India. Incredible, indeed. That was an incredible month.

The worlds I wrote about in Mumbai characterize the country itself–one of extremes, poverty and wealth, education and illiteracy, humble rice paddies and soaring skyscrapers. India has some of the world’s best universities and most wretched slums. India is home to the most billionaires of any country, but polio has not yet been eradicated here. The Dalai Lama calls northern India home, while a thriving Catholic population down south stands in solidarity with the exiled leader some 1,000 miles away. Taxi drivers compete with donkey carts for space on major highways. And children, rich and poor, run through the streets of every town and city and absorb a reality of colors, smells, a dozen languages, and a world of possibilities.

Incredible, India. You are incredible. You win.


5 responses to “Incredible India

  1. America, you are so beautiful and so cruel. Why is 99% of you unhappy? Where are going? I have more questions!

    I used to roll with a Malayali-Jew crew in junior high. We walked home from school together. The only phrase I remember in Malayalam is how to say “dog shit.” This was before the days of “curbing your dog.”. Perhaps you can teach me.

    Wonderful adventures! Thanks for taking the time to write such a lively, entertaining account!

  2. Love it, love it, love it! I agree with Gabe- thank you so much for taking the time to write it all down. It’s been so much fun following your journey on here. Can’t wait to hear all about it in person. Just three short weeks away!

  3. Well worth the day spent writing this update. A fantastic read.

  4. A beautiful post. I can’t say anything else!

  5. Pingback: The Bottom of My Lungs | Half a Year and Half a World

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