Archive for March, 2010

From Beach to near-Bronchitis, and Beyond

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

[ I write this last update on our trip several weeks months after the fact. My excuse started as a busy travel schedule (it’s a hard life, i know), combined with poor internet availability; and who wants to write a blog post from an iPhone app that, on more than one occasion has lost a draft (i’m looking at you, WP)? This devolved into just plain laziness as AKB and I returned to our beloved SF. She somehow managed to crank out her last couple of updates, and I am just now getting to mine. ]

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Oh, Goa. For many years the name was synonymous in my mind with trance and a party scene — of some sort. This was before I knew much about raves and backpacking, let alone raves for backpackers. Nevertheless, in my mind Goa was some mythical land neighboring Ibiza, a destination I may get to some day.

I am happy to report that the Indian state of Goa was much more than I’d expected. I suppose I was anticipating another Ko Pha Ngan, with not much beyond bikini-clad tourists overstepping local modesty. The Lonely Planet encouraged this, with a two-page explanation of Goan beaches and the types of tourists that visit them.

Needless to say, AKB and I stayed clear of the strips that sounded full-on hippie, or packed with freshly-deconscripted Israelis (who have a bad reputation, both here and in Thailand.) Here there are beaches for every type, and we settled on Palolem. A serendipitous mix-up deleted our reservations at the first hotel we’d booked, and after bitching out the managers (AKB even went as far as fib-lecturing them: “from one business person to another, this is no way to run things”) we ended up at an affordable and surprisingly quiet hotel on the beach. As expected, the cul-de-sac leading to the beach was lined with dozens of shops selling various permutations of the staple tourist wares — bangles, drinks, cigarettes, native garb and Nepali playa-wear (the Black Rock City kind). Interspersed were travel agents and restaurants. As much as this development was solely geared to tourists, it felt more muted and manageable than Varkala. Here, we were unexpectedly able to relax for a couple of days, swim, eat; and, yes, succumb to the shopping lure, which hits even the most resistant traveler. The beaches here are far less enticing than those in Sri Lanka or Thailand. The murky waters leave much to be desired, but beach is beach, and we did the best to get our tan on.

The music scene, too has been muted. Though raves were once a regular occurrence, they evidently turned out to be too loud and obnoxious, and loud music is now banned at night. In response, the DJ set now throws weekly headphone parties — literally, silent raves wherein attendees tune into one of a number of channels on wireless headsets. (Sadly, we didn’t make it to one, so we’ll have to make up for it in the bay area, somehow.)

The unexpected gems in Goa were away from the beach: the old, Portuguese towns (Goa was a Portuguese state until the 1960s.) We spent a couple of days in Panaji, exploring its winding, Europeanesque streets. Besides the fabulous water pressure in our highly affordable mid-to-upper-range hotel, there was much to enjoy. In the quiet, historic part of town where we stayed, colorful blocks of two-story residences esconce tasty restaurants, guest houses and sundry shops. Our afternoon walk took us from the grand, 16th-century Portuguese church in the middle of town, to the recently-built, gaudy Hanuman temple in the dusty foothills on the outskirts. We snapped photos well past dusk, trying to capture what was for us the fresh surreality of this Westernized India, this European hybrid unlike the crowded, polluted, and poverty-stricken parts of India we had come to expect (Pondy being a notable exception.)

A day trip took us to Old Goa, whose attractions are a number of Christian cathedrals and churches, scattered around a large garden green. The oppressive heat had us walking slowly among the buildings, and in the end had us cherishing the cool shade they offered. It’s a good thing, too, since there is only so much appreciation I can afford to places of worship. Yes, they’re historic. Grand, even. But whether it’s a Christian church, Buddhist or Hindu temple, I reach my saturation point pretty quickly. Don’t get me wrong — I am glad to have seen all of these places. But, I’ve been spoiled by the grandeur and majesty of Angkor, Sukhothai and, dare I say it, Sigiriya. At this point, I need to be wowed, and prefer to spend my travels people-watching, street-exploring, flâneur-style, than visit another cathedral. (I now look forward to eating my words when I finally do see some Italian cathedrals first-hand.)

For more, see AKB’s blog post on Goa and Hampi

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Having reached spoiled, unappreciative saturation, there could not have been a more fitting place for us to visit next than Hampi, a World Heritage holy site in the state of Karnataka. What remains of the ancient town of Hampi is a series of ancient Hindu temples spread across several kilometers of hills, some set amongst boulders, others rising out of banana plantations. Affixed to the central bazaar area is a rickety tourist infrastructure, a few streets’ worth of illegally built guest houses, shops and restaurants that support the influx of Western tourists looking to experience authentic religious celebrations, while enjoying Nutella toast breakfasts and pizza dinners. At this point resigned to the ironies of tourism, AKB and I enjoyed all that was on offer (though, for the record, the afternoon street-side batter-fried chili peppers and upama breakfast were way better than the Italian restaurant with the fancy nylon signage.) Though it is true that Hampi is overrun with tourists, it is still a functioning holy site. We happened to be there for the Pongal harvest festival, which attracted hundreds of worshippers from across the state, dressed in their best duds. Young western backpackers gawked through their viewfinders at the crowds of young rural Indians, who, in turn, gawked at the young, bare-shouldered western ladies gawking at the temples… Everywhere were vendors selling religious trinkets and colored rice flour (for making kolam decorations). The crowds, the sounds, the faces, the smells; it was a wonder for the senses.

At night, the festive atmosphere culminated in hundreds of pilgrims camping out in the temple courtyard, with families falling asleep to the tunes of merry religious chanting. During the day, we trekked around the temple ruins, spread across an almost lunar landscape of brambles and boulders. We hired bicycles and set out to explore the ruins farther out. And, when we had had enough, we returned to our hole in the wall to rest. There is something to be said about sleeping amongst ruins. Imagine looking your window and having the Acropolis seemingly within reach, and you get the idea.

After a short two-night stay, it was time to get moving back to Panaji, this time not aboard the efficient train we’d taken here, but on what was falsely-advertised as a luxury night bus. To the dedicated readers of my blog (all two of you), I will spare you another long tale of awful travel, and will simply summarize it with illustrative key phrases: two-person, coffin-like bunk; a supposedly eleven-hour ride that took seventeen; a late-night pit stop at what would generously be described as a filthy restaurant, where I was the only non-Indian brave enough to eat the food (I survived); a surly bus co-pilot/navigator/ticket-taker whose permanent expression of disdain conveyed that he gave less than a shit about anyone on the bus; a panicked boredom that had us wondering if we would in fact make it to the airport in time for our flight north.

Dashing our original plans to explore Goa one last time, we did make our flight, with a couple hours to spare. We cleaned up as best we could in the airport bathrooms and enjoyed an unexpectedly fantastic meal at the airport restaurant. I guess that pretty much sums up travel in India: a constant see-saw between misery and bliss.

For more, see AKB’s blog post on Goa and Hampi

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AKB and I flew up to the cold northern part of India to spend our last few days here before flying back to San Francisco. After having sweat our body-weights daily for several weeks, we were looking forward to a respite from the heat. It would be good acclimation before heading home, where the fickle weather always demands layers. Over the previous couple of weeks we had seen the frightening weather reports announcing 50°F temperatures and people huddled around trash fires on the sidewalks. “You call that cold?” we chuckled, expecting a repeat of the temperature wussiness we’d seen climbing Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka. Karma got the last laugh, as it had throughout the trip, and our bravado quickly evaporated as we stepped out of the Delhi airport, and into the cold, dry air. As we would learn over the next few days, cold weather is completely manageable as long as one can return to some sort of heat source. Our budget accommodations, on the other hand, provided cold stone floors and thick blankets.

Delhi surpassed my expectations. AKB’s memories of the place, from six years earlier, had set the bar low. I was prepared for thieving crowds, acute bouts of claustrophobia and at least one night of toilet hugging. Instead, I found a dense, sprawling, ancient capital, with endless nooks and winding alleys. With the streets packed with activity, we would happily lose ourselves in the crowds, visiting shops, trying popular street restaurants, wandering from one bazaar to the next.

I was equally impressed with the transit situation in Delhi. To be honest, after smog-filled Hyderabad and Chennai (as brief as our sojourn there was), I was prepared for the worst. Much to my surprise, however, it seems as if all of the city’s rickshaws use CNG fuel, as do a good number of buses. Additionally, the new subway system is easy, cheap and efficient, albeit suffocatingly crowded on some lines.

We sampled a handful of neighborhoods, from middle-class, shop and café-filled districts, to centuries-old, frenetic bazaars. We visited a the enormous Jama Masjid mosque and strolled through its neighboring bazaar, witnessing the thorough street-side butchery of a couple of live chickens (did you know there are a number of yolks inside the hen waiting to be shelled and popped out?) Later we took in a photo exhibit featuring the works of the king of Bhutan. The town was full of energy, overwhelmed our senses, frustrated and pleased us at the same time. We barely scratched Delhi’s surface, and I look forward to going back.

***

I had been told by several people that I would be remiss if I didn’t make the time to see the Taj Mahal, and so AKB and I dutifully made the trek out to Agra. As she chronicled on her blog, our trip to see the Taj was one giant misadventure, a final damned kiss goodbye from India. In brief: we had grand plans to spend the night in Agra, see the Taj in the dawn light, snap some photos, and get back to Delhi in the afternoon. However, dense fog delayed the region’s railways severely (up to 12.5 hours, according to the PA at the railway station.) After braving the sea of humanity at the Delhi train station (literally, pressing through thousands of bodies to get to our platform), we waited in cold misery for our train to arrive, which it eventually did. Our afternoon train turned into a night train, and I called our hotel more than once from the train to tell them we would be very very late. Our train sat idle somewhere between the capital and the monument in the middle of the night, while we shivered inside; we, the two unprepared white kids, huddling under a couple of thin layers while the locals slept under numerous blankets, as if they had somehow known this would eventually be a night train. The rest of the trip can be summed up as such: The 3am rickshaw haggle and bone-freezing ride to the hotel… my teeth had never chattered that much in my life. The 3:30am check-in. The 6am rise; we were, after all, on a photo quest at this point. The Taj being completely socked in with fog (did we really expect to get an innovative shot of the most photographed monument in the world anyway?) We cut our losses, explored the grounds for a while, then returned to our hotel room for a nap.

Needless to say, I was underwhelmed by the Taj Mahal. It was smaller than I had expected. But in retrospect, the adventure made the trip worthwhile. We had braved common sense to get there, and at that ridiculous hour there were no tour groups visiting, no lines; and the fog was wonderfully atmospheric. In fact, for a place I had expected to be overrun by tourists, it was spectacularly empty, solemn. Exactly what a mausoleum ought to feel like, no?

On our way back to Delhi we met a first-time world traveler, an American girl who looked like she was in over her head. After pointing her to the absolutely wrong train with aplomb, we managed to rescue her with the help of a couple of guards, and rode back to Delhi together. On the train, we conferred to her our travel wisdom, which she should surely have taken with a grain of salt at this point. I felt as if I was sending a younger sibling out into the world, knowing that some lessons cannot be taught, but experienced. I reminisced about what was surely my own deer-in-the-headlights look when took my first solo trip around the world, and remembered the lasting satisfaction of world travel. The privilege of exploration leaves me feeling alive more than anything else.

For more, see AKB’s blog post on Delhi and Agra

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We have been back in San Francisco for a few months now. We are editing our photos, slowly, deliberately. I am trying to hold on to the freedom I felt while on the road. That sense of living dissipates pretty quickly once you come home, come back to reality. I am still trying to hold on to that feeling, to bottle it. This is, of course, the wrong approach. Life is boundless, and what we make of it. So, instead of living trip to trip, I will master living spontaneously, appreciatively, curiously and in the moment. Adventure is everywhere. We are blessed.