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Goa Sunset

Sunset, Colva Beach, Goa

At the end of February, 2007, I returned from a holiday in India. The trip was outstanding, the occasion was my cousin's wedding, but I took the opportunity to spend an extra month, traveling in Bengal and then to Mumbai and Goa, where I spent two weeks beach-bumming it. Since it's been eight years since I've been in India, this was a very necessary trip, as every return to India is centering and motivating -- and it's amazing the rate at which the country is changing.

What follows is a set of notes/travelogue from this trip. I hope you enjoy.

- Ritik Dholakia, March 2007

---- Notes on India travel ----

An Impossible Town

Darjeeling is an impossible town, located at some 7000 feet, in the Himalayan foothills. To get to Darjeeling, my friend Indranil and I took an overnight train to Siliguri, a sprawling mess of a city located in the forested North Bengal Hills. We spent a few days in the forest before starting our ascent into the Himalaya. Unlike Hillary and Norgay, we charted a course up the southern face of the mountains, in an SUV. We left in the mid-afternoon, on a bright sunny day. In the mountains, men drive like goats, careening around hairpin turns, passing lorries on narrow roads, driving through cloud-ensconced hamlets at forty miles an hour, and interrupting the occasional rag-tag cricket match, where one boundary line is a cliff face, and the other, a thousand foot drop. Maybe they've known these roads all their lives, maybe that's an excuse. But still, SUVs tip over.

Three hours up, and the sun has abandoned us, and we're dropped off at the foot of Darjeeling town, on a dark, gray afternoon, in the middle of a hailstorm. And it's cold outside. We have a short walk up a hill to get to our hotel, the Old Bellevue, not to be confused with the New Bellevue, located across the street, under different management.

The Old Bellevue, we'll come to find, is a charming place. Set at the top of central Darjeeling, on the Mall (pronounced "Maal"), we are provided a panoramic view of the hills surrounding the town. Or so we are told. On days one and two in Darjeeling, we see nothing but freezing cold, inching out from in front of our faces, with the wonderful mountain people ghosting in and out of the fog on their daily business. There is nothing to do but drink.

The one thing that is noticeable, as we wander through the fog, is that Darjeeling is a town built on the sheer face of the mountain. It's the sort of town that makes me thankful that I wasn't involved in its construction. Because it would've been a steady chorus of "Well, why don't we just build the town down there?" "Where?" "Down there, in the plains. Where it's flat. And our homes won't look like they constantly want to just tilt over and fall down the mountain. And where it's easier." The mountain people are tougher than me, and I'm sure I would've annoyed them. But now that the town is built, we get along fine. They are sweet and very generous.

The Mall, Darjeeling

The Mall, Darjeeling. The Old Belleuve is the yellowish building receding into the fog, on the left.

To Keep Warm, Set Fire to Your Shirt

In the summer, Darjeeling is jam-packed. Tourists from India and tourists from the west climb into the mountains to tour the tea plantations, marvel at the mountains, trek, and buy Tibetan handicrafts to make themselves more holy. In the winter, Darjeeling is cold. Some Indian tourists do climb the mountain, with their children, for the sole purpose of experiencing the cold. They bundle up their kids, little noses and almond eyes sticking out of masses of scarves, wool hats, and parkas, and they say "See, Raju, zero degrees," and Raju sort of stares dumbfoundedly into the fog.

Gleneary's is a three-story affair just south of the Mall, with a bar, a tea shop, and a restaurant. Until the fog cleared, Gleneary's is where you would have found Indranil and I, in between shivering jaunts around town, alternately gulping down Darjeeling tea and Kingfisher Strongs, until it was time to jog back to the Old Bellevue. Indranil is a friend of mine of about ten years, and also a family relation, but of the extended type that is so charming about Indian families, best described as a third cousin, by marriage, twice removed. We get along, though, because we like to sit up and talk, ranging, at his discretion, from trends in technology (Indranil is a tech reporter for an Indian newspaper) to why capitalism must eventually fail (Indranil is an unapologetic, unreconstructed leftist) to how funny Cartman is on South Park (Indranil has spent some time in Canada).

These chats would go on into the evening, until about 9.30 pm, when Darjeeling would shut down. We would plead for "to-go" beers, and then hustle up the hillside to the Old Bellevue. The young men who ran the hotel at night would generally be asleep, or if we were lucky, huddled around a small fire, playing Hotel California on an acoustic guitar, and apologizing for his mistakes because "I'm sorry, sir. My fingers, they are freezing."

The Old Bellevue was a very rustic hotel. Each night, we'd arrive, into the pitch black lobby, always the last ones in, and one of the young men would be roused, and would come up to our room to start a fire in the cast iron stove in the center of the room. Using electric blue "kerosene" poured out of a CocaCola bottle, and a stove full of kindling, we'd get four hours of heat to see us through until morning. On the first night, in a moment of slightly drunken brilliance, I threw my shirt over the stove, to warm it up, so that I could sleep nice and toastily. Turning out the lights, pulling on the shirt, I dove into bed. The next morning, I woke up at 6 AM to try to sneak a peak of the mountains before the fog settled in. Standing outside of our room, looking out the windows of the lobby, I felt a draught. Apparently, I had burned a six inch hole into the back of my shirt.

The Sleeping Buddha Appears

One of the main features of Darjeeling are the spectacular views of the Himalayas that you can get on clear days. If you are hearty (I was not), you can take a jeep up to Tiger Hill in the pre-dawn, to watch the sunrise over Kanchendzonga, and also glimpse Everest, Makulu, and the Tibetan plains beyond. From Darjeeling itself, on a clear day, Kanchendzonga commands the landscape, visible from almost any vantage within the town. The proprietor of the Old Bellevue, a "close, personal friend of the Dalai Lama," assured us that the weather "might get better," and on the third day, lo, it did.

Walking the scenic loop leading off the mall, and circling the summer estate of the former British governors of Darjeeling, you come face to face with Kanchendzonga, in all its splendor, crisp, luminescent, and massive, the third highest peak in the world, affectionately known as the Sleeping Buddha, or so I overheard, and will allow to persist, fact or fiction.

I wouldn't build a city on the top of a mountain, I've said that. But once on top of a mountain, or even, when close to a mountain, you cannot help but be awed, overwhelmed, struck by the holiness of the place. You can't help but stare, slack-jawed, and wonder.

Darjeeling, and all of the north of Bengal, is tucked precariously between Bangladesh to the south, Nepal to the west, Bhutan to the north-east, and Tibet to the north, with only two narrow corridors binding it to Kolkata in the south, and the anomalous half-arm of Sikkim and Assam to the east. The people in Darjeeling are a mix of Nepalese, Tibetans, out of place Bengalis, and Ghurkas, the native mountain people. Like most mountain people that I've encountered and had the opportunity to romanticize, they are a serene people, with round, flat, beautiful faces, beguiling eyes, emanating the peace, wisdom, and toughness of the mountain itself. They come across as generous, impassive, easy-going, and calm. Or so I thought. More on this later.

Kanchendzonga, from Darjeeling

Ten Minutes in Bhutan

My visit to Darjeeling was the middle of my trip to India. Immediately prior to heading into the mountains, Indranil and I spent a few days in the forested hills of North Bengal. We stayed in a quiet government retreat near a village called Murti, near two large national parks. Elephants and rhinoceros were promised, but not delivered. We spent evenings in the secluded lodge, eating curries and watching cricket on TV, and during the
day, made trips to a few hill towns that stand on the border between India, Nepal, and Bhutan.

The only notable story from these two days were a long and bumpy drive we took out to Bindu, where a small hydroelectric dam had been constructed on the river forming the India-Bhutan border. Bhutan, as you may know, is a secretive kingdom. I know nothing about it. They let something like only 12 westerners a year into the country. (According to my uncle, who has visited Bhutan, the custom in Bhutan is that if you express interest/admiration/look sideways at a woman, it is considered an offense if you do not make love to the woman. If the woman is the wife or daughter of somebody, then the husband or father, in order not to be rude, should offer his wife or daughter to you, such that you can make love. And should you refuse, it is you who are being rude. This is probably a lie, but be careful, one way or the other, if you find yourself in Bhutan).

As it stands, the Bindu border is unguarded, on the Bhutan side. While you are asked not to take pictures, there is no one to prevent you from running across the top of the dam, and into Bhutan. If you were bold (I was not) you could keep running and running, into Bhutan, forever, or at least until you get to China. I did, however manage a nifty ten minute excursion into Bhutan, and found their rivers, vegetation, snow, and wooden fence posts to be as charming, if not more so, than those in India. And on top of that, I felt like James Bond.

The Dam at Bindu

The Dam at Bindu, border of India and Bhutan

Let's Start Over: Kolkata

Well, I probably should have started at the beginning, or at least somewhere closer to it. After twenty plus hours in transit, including a twelve hour flight from JFK to Dubai, on which I had a baby to the left of me, a baby to the right of me, and I was stuck in the middle with Sampath, a PhD student in agricultural economics at Iowa State University, from Sri Lanka, who at one point turned to me and said, in that slightly sing-song, always smiling Sri Lankan accent, where "girls" sounds like "gulls", "Do you like girls? I like girls. In San Francisco, there are many nice girls. On Broadway. Have you been there? San Francisco has so many lovely girls," and at an earlier point, before introducing himself, turned to me and said, "So many fucking babies! I'm going to get drunk," after twelve hours of this, plus four hours in Dubai, plus four more hours to Kolkata, I got off the plane, in my slightly rumpled but still sharp black suit, at four in the morning, in the Kolkata pre-dawn.

Twice in my adult life I've arrived in Kolkata alone, and twice it's felt oddly comfortable. Comfortable only in the sense that the warm, wet air, the inattentive airport customs officers, the unnecessary walk from the plane to the rickety, diesel transit buses, and then the five minute bus ride that could have been a five mintue walk, the dirty terminals that represent half a try at modernization, all this is deeply familiar to me, both from the personal experience of having returned to Kolkata many time as a child, and from the ex-patriot experience of growing up around and hearnig about Bengalis. So there I was, clearing customs easily, but with that eyebrow cocking once over from the customs agent, which, even at the four AM, seems to ask "You look like you were raised abroad. You don't look Bengali (as I don't, taking my features from my father's side). Why have you brought so little luggage? Can I marry you off to one of my nieces?" and drifting out of the sanctum of the airport lounge, into the darkness of Kolkata.

The airport in Kolkata is alternately called Dum Dum, referring to the suburb, 45 minutes outside of the city center, in which it is located, and where the British used to manufacture rubber munitions, hence the term "dummies" for useless bullets, or so the lore goes, or Netaji Subash Chandra Bose International airport, for Netaji, who was the Bengali-born leader of the Indian independence movement, and the most notable leader who openly advocated violent revolt against the British. Netaji represents the Bengali character, in his independence, pride, and ferocity of spirit, and rhetoric, but not in his capacity for violence. We Bengalis are not a violent people. I will come back to this point in a second.

The Value of a Black Suit

At 4 AM, once you leave the airport, they won't let you back in. A car was supposed to meet me, my aunt's driver, Surinder. On the plane, I kept repeating the name to myself, so I wouldn't forget, and the mantra became "Surrender. Surrender. Surrender." It doesn't mean anything, except that I noticed it.

At 4 AM, there are an amazing amount of Bengalis up, at the airport, greeting their family, picking up business people, touts trying to hustle you into taxis or hotels, coolies trying to grab your bags for tips, little beggar children, people offering you hot chai in little plastic cups.

At 5 AM, when neither your aunt or her driver has arrived, the airport is surprisingly empty. Only the chai man remains, coming by every ten minutes, asking if you want chai, each time asking anew, as if you just showed up. 5 AM struck me as an early hour to call and ask whether I told my aunt the wrong information about my flight, or to take a taxi into Kolkata, not really knowing the way, and apparently to the policemen guarding the terminal, 5 AM was too early an hour to let me back into the terminal without an outbound ticket. Where are you coming from? They asked, shouldering their rifles, gesturing with their little hairbrush moustaches. I am coming from Dubai, I told them. Yes, but where are you going? So I sat in the Kolkata pre-dawn, and watched black turned to purple, and purple turned to orange, and orange turn to blue, and blue turn to grey. And then a little orange car pulled up, and a bright little man jumped out and ran up
to me, the only person at the Kolkata airport, sitting on my luggage, in my nice, black suit. And he ran up to me, smiling, and stuck a neatly hand-printed sign on a sheet of white computer paper that read "Ritik Dholakia." And in practiced English, he said "Sorry, I'm late. My name is John."

Enduring Impressions

The point of all that was not that I minded waiting in the airport. In fact, I quite enjoyed it, minus the mosquitoes. The point is, a few days later, while sitting around with my twenty plus extended family (which is the inner circle of the 100 plus extended-extended family which formed the wedding party), it became clear that most of my aunts thought at least three consistent things about me: first, that unlike anybody else in my family, who would have thrown a fit and nursed a twenty year grudge over not being picked up promptly at the airport, it didn't matter with me, because I could take care of myself, and because "he'll just sit there and read a book." Which isn't untrue. Second, and this point I first recollect being made when I was about five years old, that unlike the rest of my family, I was "tandha" which means both cool-headed and cold. Both of which are also not untrue. And thirdly, and this was the point made most constantly this trip, that I spoke with my eyes. "See how he talks with his eyes," one aunt would say. Or, "When he wants some thing, he'll ask with his eyes," a second cousin would remark. Mostly this delighted people, and it was more than a little funny to me, which I guess people noticed, because, as they would comment to each other, while I was sitting in the room, "See him, he doesn't laugh with his mouth. He laughs with his eyes."  

It's the funny thing about your family, your relations, the people who have known you since you were a baby, and have seen you frequently or infrequently, at intervals, for almost thirty years, and whom you also have known, at the same intervals, over the same time -- that in some respects they know so much about you, sometimes things you don't know or remember, things you've done or said, or traits that you express that run down from some grand-uncle or some third cousin -- and in some respects, they know so little, and frankly, don't care to know, as any different knowledge, any contradiction or complication of their understanding of you, and you within the family, is information that can't be made to fit, that doesn't add up. Or at least for most people, for the most part, in my family.

The Wedding

While my family on my mother's side is very large and very loud, you won't be able to show up in Kolkata and ask for the Roys, and find us. Roy is a very common Bengali last name, like Smith or Jones. Roys are everywhere.

Our particular Roy clan, descending from my mother's eleven siblings, are as equally the San Jose Roys as the Kolkata Roys, and they descended, in force, for my cousin Andy's wedding. This wedding was special in that it represents the last likely wedding in India among our generation, as Andy was the last cousin among us to be raised partially in India. As such, our clan turned up, through cousins and relations by marriage, and second cousins and old friends, great aunts and grand nephews and so forth, about one hundred strong.

The Band

The Shafi Band, leading the procession

The wedding in Kolkata was lovely. Andy married a very nice girl named Sumi, whom I met for the first time during the wedding. The wedding events lasted for over four days, highlighted by the actual wedding ceremony, in which our extended family, in full dress regalia (I was wearing an embroidered maroon kurta and a dhoti, which is sort of a traditional Bengali kilt/skirt) marched down the alleyway from the main road to the hall where the wedding was taking place, preceded by a ten piece marching band. We were a one family parade, dancing into the hall, with the groom's side completely overwhelming the bride's side -- it was a show of force. Shock and awe.

The Wedding Parade

Dancing, the wedding processional

The other rituals of the wedding are more spectator sports, where the pageantry of the ritual is lovely to watch, but then it just goes on and on. Prior to the wedding is a ceremony in which the women of the groom's house, dressed in yellow, bless him, and spatter him with bright yellow turmeric. There is a women-only party in which the women of both houses meet for the first time, and dance and tell stories and do whatever it is that women do. The evening after the wedding ceremony, where the young men of the bride's side are supposed to play tricks on the groom's party, and steal shoes and other items from the groom, to be held for ransom, involved a ten person team of the groom's cousins and friends to stay up all night, in full dress regalia, telling stories and keeping watch for mischief in the night. The day after the wedding, the groom brings his bride home, and the women of the groom's house bar the doorway until the groom pays them a fee for bringing his bride home. And a couple of less traditional parties, a cocktail party and a reception, held at St. Paul's church, drew over one thousand well-wishers.

In all, a lovely wedding.

Wedding Ritual

The binding of hands, part of the wedding ritual

Stuffing My Face

Kolkata is a great town for eating. And my family has a strong legacy of eating in Kolkata. This legacy has two parts: first, my grandfather owned a restaurant in Kolkata, the first Indian owned bar in the city, and it is still operated by my aunt and uncle. The Monte Carlo, in BBD Bagh, it is very hard to find. Second, my aunts and great aunts and their friends love to cook, and more than cook, they love to heap food on to your plate. The food is always good, but I consumed massive quantities of rice, daal, mutton curry, and cauliflower and potato curry, homemade and delicious, but heaping.

Dining out in Kolkata is also exciting, and we were able to sample many of the city's best restaurants, including excellent haute-Bengali cuisine at 6 Bollygunge Place, incredible north Indian food at Grain of Salt, down-home greasy-delicious biryani at Arsalan, greasy-delicious Chinese food in Tangra, Kolkata's Chinatown, and at Marco Polo in China, and pretty good pizza at one of the hottest joints for young folks in Salt Lake, Pizza Hut. And I would be remiss in mentioning the phenomenal street food that my cousins and I would sneak out to get, at the risk of our continence, including spicy-hot chicken rolls and pop-em-in-your-mouth phuchkas.

Jalebi

Jalebi, a sweet for breakfast

In the City of Joy

Being back in Kolkata is very nice for me, as it is a city with a strong cultural identity, and also a city with which I identify, having spent a lot of time here as a child, and this marking my second visit as an adult.
Bengalis fancy themselves to be the cultural vanguard of India, haughty and proud of their reputation as poets, artists, singers, dancers, and film-makers. Between politics, art, and the inability to follow road rules, you can start an argument with a Bengali without even trying. But don't be fooled by the rapid-fire cadence and increased pitch of their language, or the wild gestures they make, or the fire in their eyes. They ain't mad at you.

As a city, Kolkata is a mess. The city is bordered on the west by the Hooghly river, an outlet of the Ganges, with its two proud bridges, separating Kolkata from the rest of India. Along the river runs a long, no longer verdant park, the Maidan, which is open to the public, but controlled by the military. At the southern end of the park sits Victoria Memorial, a majestic, marble palace, the Queen's seat, and an artifact of Victorian bombast. Along the Maidan, in the center of the city, where most tourists go, are white stone facades of old hotels and offices of British eminence, the sturdy reminders of empire. Through the traffic and smog, many of these buildings still project grandeur, though once you get closer, they are teeming with touts and tourists and you can buy any variety of useless thing that you want.

To the north of this promenade is BBD Bagh and Dalhousie, where you can wander among the wide boulevards and narrow alleys, darting in and out of government offices where nothing ever gets done. Writer's building, a monument and still-functioning office, is Kafka manifest – corridors leading to other corridors, stairwells climbing to nowhere, courtyards that look like other courtyards, and once you find an office, desk after desk of ineffectual clerks passing papers among each other, smoking cigarettes, and contemplating the forty foot high stack of weathered, yellowing papers that reach to the ceiling.

This is downtown Kolkata, and not where I spend most of my time. The rest of Kolkata, to the east, south, and north, is sprawling, expanding outwards and up, by billboard progress, new apartment buildings, shopping malls, office parks, by road, a smoggy, tangled jungle of private cars, taxis, buses, rickshaws, trams, bicycles and pedestrians. Kolkata, like the rest of India, is booming, but it isn't clear if Kolkata is prepared for the boom. Most striking in Kolkata, more striking than Mumbai, is the contrast apparent between the new world, the world of mobile phones and foreign cars, of satellite TV and imported electronics, a ten year old world that is tucked into the flats, pockets, and garages of the educated, upper middle class, and the old Kolkata, of shanties and lean-tos, and algae covered cisterns used for washing, bathing, drinking, the Kolkata of wiry old men in dirty tee-shirts and lunghis weaving cycle rick-shaws through four lanes of auto traffic, of tiny alleys full of markets, where you can buy sweets, freshly slaughtered meat, fish, gold, fake watches, children's clothes, over-the-counter anything you want. If Kolkata is the metaphor, than this may be the story of our times.

Victoria Memorial, Kolkata

Statue of Victoria in the foreground, the Victoria Memorial in the background

Modern Times

As India's cities grow, burst, strain the seams of their social and physical infrastructure, other trends are clearly noticeable, and to me, in my two-four-eight-year snapshot visits, are clearly pronounced. First, and most noticeably, India has become a sophisticated country, in terms of technology and consumer culture. In Kolkata, and more so, in Mumbai, you can narrow your vision and, for a moment, forget where you are. Not on the streets, so much, but if you find yourself in the fancy hotels, at nightclubs where you can order infused-vodka shots, or when SMS-ing on phones that you can't yet buy in the US, when conducting the most basic transactions in three languages with the man in the corner store, or seeing billboards with gorgeous, young Indians advertising steel and glass apartments in gated communities on the outskirts of town. If you open your eyes, you cannot forget that you are in India, it is always there, staring at you, but here and there you catch glimpses of change.

While India, or a 240 million person middle class swath of it, has grown more sophisticated as consumers, the culture is not yet on par with the west – and maybe it's a good thing. The rate of change of the culture, from generation to generation, or even year to year, is enormous. Phil Baker, who spent a few years working in call centers, helping to acclimate call center employees to American accents and culture, related that from the start of his employment to the end, there was a noticeable change in how much the average young Indian knew about the US – based, in part, on being able to watch Friends re-runs on cable.

A friend of our family in Kolkata, with whom I was re-acquainted on this trip, would SMS me and my cousin every other day with messages like "A smile can brighten your day!" and "Remember, you are unique!" Un-ironic, eager to please and be pleased, rebelling through rock and roll and his hairstyle, but still a good boy, devoted to work and family – this strikes me as the moment that India is in right now, channeling 1950s US, pre-sexual revolution, pre-counter culture, where the angry young men are explicitly political, and the women go so far as being brassy. Maybe I'm romanticizing both India and the 1950s, but this seems to be the moment, a moment that, by my next visit, I'm sure will have passed.

A Violent Encounter

Back to violence, for a minute. Bengali people are passionate people, and conceive of themselves as both the intellectuals and poets of India, and the fighters, too, but not in the guns and fists sense, but in the yelling and rhetoric sense. I've seen many amazing acts of crowd violence and semi-violence in Calcutta over the years, but amazing not for the level of the violence, but for the comedy of it. For instance, probably ten or twelve years ago, I was walking down a city lane with my father when an angry mob rounded a corner chasing a hapless worker, probably a taxi-driver who had made the mistake of hitting somebody. The mob caught him, jostled him, yelled at him, and proceeded to physically detain him while the offended party beat him - with his shoe, with a sort of loud slap thwacking, which probably stung, but probably didn't bruise.

Which made my descent from Darjeeling all the stranger.

Darjeeling, while officially part of the state of Bengal, is predominantly populated by a mountain people, called the Ghurka, as well as many Nepalese, Tibetan, and Bhutanese migrants. As I mentioned, these people are beautiful. Apparently, they are also angry.

While on the three-hour drive down the mountain, our Bengali driver made the stupid and avoidable mistake of trying to pass, in our aluminum-frame mini-van, another aluminum-frame mini-van. They touched, tapped really, no damage being done, but offense was taken. However, having passed, we pressed on. Until faced with a narrow junction where a lorrie blocked our descent, and per the rules of mountain roads, we had to back up. Until we were boxed in by the mini-van we had just hit.

The driver from the other mini-van rushed out and started yelling at our driver, gesturing into our car through the open window, slapping our driver, and finally, opening the door and kicking our driver, repeatedly. I watched this from the back seat, so it was sort of like a movie, except that I didn't feel that terrified. A group of teenage and twentysomething Ghurka boys surrounded our minivan and started yelling. Eventually, some of the other drivers and people restrained them, and my friend told the driver "Go, just go!" So we went, speeding down the road, speeding through a hairpin turn, speeding further down until, out of the forest, from the side of the mountain, having run down a little goat path connecting the upper part of the road to the lower, our Ghurka boys came running down and blockaded the road again. They showed us open palms, and raised stones to throw at the car. A young man, uninvolved in the accident itself, opened up our drivers door and began punching him. Both our driver, and my friend Indranil, in the front seats, held their hands about their faces (although no one had punched or actually yet physically threatened Indranil). Indranil again yelled "Just Drive!"

The driver pulled through the Ghurka boys, they also, having exacted some justice I suppose, or perhaps just exercised their anger, were sated, and let us go. And so we came down the mountain.

Don't let me give the false impression that this was personally traumatic, as from the back seat, it was mostly cinematic, but crazy nonetheless.

Maximum City: Bom Bahia

I spent four short days in total in Mumbai, and stayed within the more commercial and touristy enclaves of Colaba, the Fort, and Marine Drive, but Mumbai was excellent. More cosmopolitan, a bit less manic than Kolkata, Mumbai, or Bom Bahia to the Portuguese colonists, is a long peninsula between two curving bays, fronting the Arabian Sea. Marine Drive, reminiscent in every way of Miami and Rio in my imagination, with its upscale hotels, art deco apartment buildings, curving into dust-dirtied pastel facades, with a long promenade full of walkers and loungers, provides an excellent vantage from where to watch the sun slowly drop into the expansive waters of Arabia.

Mumbai is a rich city, expensive, and the young people of Mumbai look like the young people of any other city. From a distance. At the very posh Tavern Bar, in the Fariyas hotel, while I was enjoying a late night gin and tonic with my cousin, we witnessed the animal in its element. Two large parties, fifteen people each, young men and women, well dressed, dark suits, open collar shirts, ladies, to kill for, cake, drinks. But when the video DJ started spinning the hits, pandemonium. The Scorpions? Pandemonium.  Extreme's "More Than Words Can Say?" Pandemonium. Bon Jovi? Pandemonium. A ten minute medley from Michael Jackson, Live in Budapest? Screaming, cheering, dancing in the aisles. Pandemonium.

My last day in Mumbai, before flying back to the US, I took a one hour boat ride to Elephanta Island, well out in the inner harbor of Mumbai. Elephanta Island is so named because it supposedly looks like an elephant, but I didn't see it. It is also famous because, within some natural caves on Elephanta Island is a massive stone sculpture of a three-headed Siva. Unluckily, when I showed up, after an hour on a boat, and a half-hour climb
up the hillside, the caves were closed. It was Monday, after all. I had been partially warned about this by a friend I met the previous evening in Mumbai – she and her husband were backpacking around the world, and had themselves been denied entrance to Elephanta Island – although, apparently, while she stood at the barred gate, many Indian tourists were allowed to enter. Her trick for seeing the Lord Siva, she told me, was to wait and yell, and yell, and wait, and then yell some more, mostly about "What a Racist Country" India is, which was apparently effective. Sadly, I was unable to play the race card, and sadly, there was no one to play it to, so Siva went unseen.

Victoria Terminus

A taxi in front of Victoria Terminus, Mumbai

Paradise is Like Paradise

Goa is beautiful, but it is like any other tropical, beach paradise – full of pink and bronze, and unvaryingly fat Brits and Russians. Phil Baker, fit and sharp, and I've decided, not working for the CIA, met me and Amit for ten days spent on the beach, drinking cocktails, going swimming, and playing soccer. We split our trip between Colva Beach in south Goa, a small, sleepy beach town, and Calangute Beach, in north Goa, a slightly more bustling center for Indian tourists and old people tourists, but with easy access to the rave and party scenes in Arjuna and Arpora. In ten days on the beach in Goa, I learned very few things, but I did learn a few specific things.

First, the heat can melt your brain. In concert with the Kingfishers, the fenni, and the gin, twelve hours of sun a day can slow you down. Second, I should use sun screen. Even today, although I'm beginning to peel and ash, here in the harsh New England winter, I'm decidedly tan, maybe even black, and I'm still pondering the question that Phil Baker asked me as he stepped into a tourist van two weeks ago, "So, how long does it take for you to get back to normal?" I'm feeling pretty normal now, I think, but then again, I haven't felt normal in years.

Anjuna Market, Goa

Spice market, Anjuna, Goa

In Praise of Software and Gymnastics

I got to Goa from Mumbai on a thirteen hour overnight train. The Indian Railway Corporation's online booking service is alternately hailed as a marvel of the software world and, more in line with the rest of Indian service infrastructure, an incredibly frustrating pain in the ass. Case in point: the moment I decided when exactly I wanted to turn up in Goa, I immediately hopped online and booked a ticket. I received an e-mail with a couple of confirmation codes, although nothing resembling a ticket, and my credit card was duly billed. Days pass. Finally, on the day that I'm supposed to travel, which is also the day I turn up in Mumbai, which is also the day on which I cannot find any hotels cheaper than $400 to stay in, I take myself down to the railway station, a beautiful old building, and check to see if my ticket is confirmed. Just in case. As I expected/dreaded, Ispend an hour confronted with blank, bureaucratic stares in my effort to simply locate the office in which I might confirm my ticket. And when I get there, no dice. Goa's Konkan railroad is operated autonomously from the main Indian Railway. The man at the office is a nice beauracrat, and offers to make some phone calls on my behalf, phone calls which result in a slip of paper with a phone number for a "Mr. Suresh" who is "out to lunch" so "maybe you can try in an hour or so..."

Finally, we get our tickets. No blood, no foul. And unlike my previous rail journey, our tickets book us all the way through in the same seats, instead of having six passengers in six seats all holding tickets that require them to switch seats at 2 AM.

It's been said before, but take a ride on an Indian railroad once in your life, and only once. I've done it many times, and the dingy, blue doctor's examining tables that fold down from the walls, the dirtying, cigarette stained top and bottom sheets that are provided to you, and the three-tier, coffin-high berths that you must clamber into are iconic, to say the least. It's like being one of the Japanese businessmen in the Seinfeld episode where Kramer makes them sleep in a chest of drawers.

In San Jose a few months ago, I walked into my aunt's house for dinner and was startled to see a little boy wedged into a doorway, using his feet to clamber up the doorframe and eventually sit on the awning. That evening, my aunts claimed that they used to do the same thing when they were young, and once, in a fit of i'll-show-you-a-thing-or-two, my grandmother did the same, ending up stuck halfway up the wall, with her feet jambed into the doors, unable to get down. Or so the story goes. However, seeing multiple sixty year old men and women clamber into the top bunk of a 3AC sleeper, on a train that's rickety-racking it's way through the night, I'm not hard-pressed to believe it.

The Ten Minute Rule

For reasons I can't account, when I turned up in Goa off the train, I had a bloody nose. What made this all the more fun was that the rooms I had reserved had not, in fact, been reserved. "We have your name, but not your payment information," they said. "But you don't take credit cards," I said. "We could put you in an inside room, but we're going to rent the other eight beds n the outside room to a group of Indian students who are going to show up tomorrow," the said, "but you have to share a bathroom." "One bathroom?"

The lovely thing about India, when you are traveling from the US, is you can ask otherwise preposeterous questions, like "OK, what if I just rent all ten beds?" "For the two of you?" "Yes." "1000 rupees." Twenty dollars? Just ten more dollars not to have to share a bathroom with eight other people? You got yourself a deal, lady.

But then we left that place, because it was terrible. We did befriend two young Goans, named Marshall and Darrell. Marshall owned one of the places where we used to eat often. He'd cook us up fresh-caught fish, which we selected before hand, and then which were stuck in the tandoor. We'd clean the fish out, except for the eyeballs. We left those. And no matter that I've spent the last ten days unwilling to be much further then a ten-minute sprint to a sanitary bathroom, those fish were some of the best I ever ate. I said Doctor!

Baked Kingfish

Freshly caught, freshly cooked fish: delicious and unsettling

Les the Boxer, and Other Characters

Goa was much less about touristing, in the sense of sight-seeing, and, much more about just hanging out. With drinks come chance encounters, and in Goa, that means Brits. And not erudite, stiffen the lip Brits, but drunk ones, who'd been in Goa for six months already, and spent six months every year in Goa for six years. Brits who drove limos, or did landscaping, or served time, or whatever. Brits who broke the rule, an age-old rule, that whatever a Brit might say, it was charming, because of their British accents. Not these Brits. Like Les the Boxer, a sturdy old drunk, mean-eyed and balding, of whom Marshall warned me, "If he falls asleep (drunk), don't go near him. Sometimes he wakes up and just starts pummeling whomever is nearest. Only his sister can stop him."

Knut from Trondheim happened upon us on the beach as Amit, Phil, and I were  playing foot tennis, a made-up game that Amit and I invented as kids in Kolkata. Knut asked to play with us, and we said sure, why not doubles? Knut and I formed a partnership, and dominated the first game, some 15-8. As we chatted, Knut said he was traveling, from Norway, with his wife. Oh, very nice, I said. Would you like to play another? Well, I'm supposed to meet my wife for dinner, said Knut, but sure. 15-13, we lose the second. A deciding match, Knut asks? But, what about your wife?

"Well, my wife, she is waiting. But she has waited before."

We met Eric first at Club Cubana, a very fancy nightclub in the hills above Arpora. We stayed out late drinking and dancing, and met some younger Brits, and Russians, and Canadians. Eric was a Canadian, visiting his brother. His brother, I did not like. But Eric seemed nice enough. The next day, at a half-rave, at Curlie's in Arjuna, we chatted. Eric was a bit drunk, and so was I, I suppose, but not drunk enough to laugh out loud when Eric claimed that he caused the Tsunami, with his mind. Our friendship ended there.

I Will Never Swim Again

There are three reasons why I will never swim again, not in Goa. The first is, I don't really know how to swim. But that hasn't stopped me before. The second is, in Goa, if you are drowning, you will die. They will not save you. In ten days, we probably saw five people drown to death. It was always the same, we'd be on the beach, and a crowd would form, a few hundred yards off. We'd run down to investigate. They'd pulled a man out of the water, invariably a man, invariably an Indian tourist, invariably drunk. He was drowning, he had drowned. It's worth noting that the water was knee high for a few hundred yards, and only chest high a few hundred more. And there was no undertow. How the man had drowned, how water had entered his lungs, it's hard to really say. But the sad fact was always there, staring up at you, this man, on vacation, drowning, surrounded by a throng of mostly Indian tourists, gawking, and no lifeguards, no police officers, no help. Where were they? Drunk, or sleeping, or missing. Sad, but true.

The third reason I will never swim again is both not serious and deadly serious. I ate a baby hammerhead shark. We came back to the restaurant at our hotel, and there it was, sitting on the barbeque, little hammerhead and all. How could we resist? So we ordered it, and ate it. But I'm pretty sure, now, that they know. The sharks. They have that sense, they can tell, they know who is who and what is what, and when you get in the water, it's like something snaps in their killer brains. They have no sympathy, no mercy, no sense of proportion. They just know that you (me) are a baby hammerhead shark killer. And they will come for you.

Notes on Partying

Two last notes about Goa, as this is all too long and uninteresting already. And these notes are about Goa only so far as a tropical paradise is a tropical paradise is a tropical paradise, I'm guessing. First, there's an inequality in the party life. Having met Marshall and Goa, who were quite free with their beer and pot and party tips, we were able to go to a very interesting, Goans only Carnival night. Goa being a Portuguese colony, celebrates Carnival, and while not as manic as Rio, it's a lovely tradition. We showed up to a party that got started at about one AM with two bands, comprised entirely of Indian musicians, playing covers of dance hits. It was pretty incredibley, from Shakira's "These Hips Don't Lie" (which I've finally come around to), to multiple sing-along renditions of Bryan Adams' "The Summer of 69" (I swear, those were the best days of my life being a mantra for young Goans, as well) to a version of Joan Jett's "I Love Rock and Roll" which actually had people scratching their heads. And a further highlight, which was the sing-along to "The Wall." All in all, it was like being at a high school dance. Or crashing a family wedding.

Carnival, Margao, Goa

Phil at Carnival, Margao, Goa

Now, for the inequality part. We shifted up from Colva, the sleepy little town we were staying in, to a part of goa more densely populated with tourists. This included lots of Indian tourists, many young, some wearing English-sloganed t-shrits, such as "No Fake Titties. Keep 'em Real!" and "Do U Want 2 Lose UR Virginity 2Nite?" which were confounding, but equal to the European and Israeli rave crowd, who made me feel like I was in the Matrix 2, or more precisely, left me wondering what happened to people like me in the Matrix 2.

In Arpora, one of these party towns, at Club Cubana, set in a villa on top of a hill, with flowing white beds, swimming pools, dance floors, and as much as you can drink for $20. Also, these clubs are loaded with lots of hot Russian and Finnish women. Russian and Finnish women, as I learned from another beach waiter, are the favorites of the Goan boys, because, and this is a quote, "It is fuck fuck fuck. All the time." So, Russian and Finnish women, and enough Brits with drinking songs, and the Goan boys needed us to get them in. Because the club is exclusive. But when they showed up, we were stonewalled, stonewalled by the half-German half-Indian owners of the place, who kept a strict count on the ratio of men to women, and one guesses, Russian/Finnish girls to Goan boys in the place. So we failed. And maybe that's a metaphor for something.

The last thing I want to share with you is a Calypso song called Big Bamboo, by the Duke of Iron (I think). You should find, buy, and love this song. Play it in the morning if you are incredibly hungover, eating a terrible breakfast, in fact, the single worst breakfast you've had in Goa, drinking a terrible bloody mary, wishing that rural India could find something better to do with its garbage than let it float in canals, and are surrounded by
pink and peeling fat English women waiting for their husbands to wake up. Play it then, or anytime like then, or any other morning on which you might be awake.

 

 

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