Tuesday, August 23, 2011

India Part 1: From the Streets of Bangalore to the Beaches of Goa

India was an amazing mish-mash of all things wonderful and challenging and beautiful and depressing and delicious and disgusting and friendly and terrifying.

I arrived in Bangalore late the night of August 20th. First things first, Bridget and I were obscenely cheated by the cab driver from the airport…to the tune of about $75!!! We were upset, Bridget especially – should have known better, expensive lesson learned, total bummer. But what’s done is done and the next morning we got up, me  jet-lagged but psyched, Bridget happy to have family visiting and ready to get going on our adventure.

We spent day 1 in Bangalore. First we walked around the market – it was dirty and crowded and exactly what I expected India to be like. My other major travel experiences have been to the poorest countries in West Africa (Niger and Burkina Fasso), so India’s poverty didn’t shock me the way I think it does many Americans.

For breakfast I had my first masala dosa – delish! It’s like a giant crepe but more fried so it’s crispier on the outside. The filling is made of a mix of potatoes and veggies and masala spice (which I quickly learned is THE spice of India – it’s in everything), and the dosa comes with 2 dipping sauces: 1 tomato/veggie based, and the other a mix of coconut and this herb they use that’s kind of like a cross between mint and cilantro.

Bridget got a tea and I ordered a coffee. Both come in shot glass-sized servings and are 45% milk, 50% sugar, and 5% coffee/tea. You get used to it…I resigned myself to an immediate and complete 2 weeks of caffeine withdrawal.

Nearby the market we ran into a random parade. Cool! This was exactly what I expected of India. It was some Hindu festival, and costumed men danced and played loud music (I was quickly learning that everything in India is loud), and boys set off fireworks in the street.

Bangalore is known as the “Garden City,” so next we walked around the central park and saw a flower show and huge old tree.

Lunch was a typical South Indian tali – rice, 3 “gravies”, yogurt, a lentil cracker, and chapatti (a fried flat bread) – served on a banana leaf and eaten with your right hand.

That evening we packed our bags and met Pawan (pronounced Pa-van), who was to accompany us on our first few days of travels. He’s a friend of Bridget’s friend – neither of us was sure about having him come with us, but Bridget had extended the invitation and it was too late to refuse. Turns out Pawan is awesome and down for anything and so much fun. Not to mention a convenient local language speaker and a man. He also gave us some great insights into Indian culture through the 3 days we spent with him.

We loaded our stuff and ourselves into an overnight sleeper bus, a truly amazing way to travel (if you’re like Bridget and able to sleep anywhere…not so good for me). The bus is a row of top and bottom bunks that have curtains for privacy. 

Around 2 am the bus finally pulled over for a rest stop. I shook Bridget awake, “Get up! I have to go to the bathroom and you have to come with me!” I insisted. “Ok ok,” she agreed groggily, “can’t you just hold it like a normal person?” Nope. We got out of the bus, headlamps in hand, and my first step was into a huge muddy puddle. Awwggrraaaahhh. Gross. We walked across the dirt parking lot to the “Ladies” bathroom (all bathrooms in India are labeled “Ladies” and “Gents,” which I find amusingly cute), paid our 10 rupees to the keeper of the bathroom (“Two please!” like taking your date for a ride), and headed in. I’m not a huge fan of squat toilets, but I deal. We piled back on the bus to continue the journey to the coast.

We left Bangalore around 7pm, and arrived in Gokarna 12 hours later, not necessarily well-rested, but functional.  

In Gokarna Pawan helped us hire a rickshaw. As we drove through the jungle, up and over steep hills, overlooking the Indian Ocean, I couldn’t help but think that it must be way better to be a rickshaw driver in Gokarna than in the smoggy and overcrowded streets of Bangalore.

The driver seemed genuinely thrilled to meet us. His joyous horn beep-beeped every time we rounded a corner, warning any other drivers, pedestrians, or animals of our impending presence and right to the road.

After checking in to a guest house on Om Beach (recommended by Lonely Planet, therefore guaranteed to contain like-minded young white travelers), we walked to town.

The small seaside town of Gokarna consisted of one long street lined on either side by surprisingly clean gutters, giving the shacks and moss-covered stone buildings the appearance of being protected by a perpetual 2-foot moat of water so clear you could see little fish darting to and fro.

Gokarna was inhabited by a different-looking kind of Indian.  Pawan explained that they’re Brahmans, the highest priest caste. Brahmans traditionally dress in lungis, no shirt, and a rope and sash across the chest. The street was full of Brahmans, proudly protruding their browned bellies and strutting through the sunny afternoon.

We eventually made our way to the beach, a relatively dirty affair, but exciting nevertheless because it was my first dip into the Indian Ocean. Per usual some random men stealth-took our pictures…until Bridget got fed up and to Pawan’s extreme amusement shouted, “Divy tu hoagie!” at them (I have no idea how to spell that, but it means something along the lines of “leave me alone” in Kanada, the language of Katarnaka state).

For lunch we each ordered the “veg meal,” a large metal platter containing smaller metal dishes: 1 rice, 3 “gravies” (aka watery curries), and yogurt. The feast was topped with 2 chapattis (flat bread, like an oily tortilla), and a crispy lentil cracker that is supposed to be crushed and mixed into the rice/gravies, but I prefer to use like a tortilla chip to scoop food to my mouth. Pawan gave me a brief tutorial in how to tear chapatti with one hand (since only the right hand is for eating): hold it down with the 3rd and 4th fingers, pull back on the chapatti with thumb and pointer.

We took a rickshaw back to our guesthouse and proceeded to nap on the beach until a late afternoon monsoon drove us inside. After showering and fending off a white ant attack in our room (damn the cookies!), Bridget and I took our books to the cafĂ© and ordered a chai and ginger tea. Within minutes of sitting down the restaurant’s speaker system kicked in playing John Denver’s “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Ummm what? Bridget said it reminded her of camp. All I could think of was the sweet smoky odor wafting from one of the white people at the table next to us, and the region’s reputation as a super-hippy hangout.

The next morning our rickshaw driver friend took us to the train station, ripped us off a bit in the process, but did so in such a friendly and charming manner that I guess $10 is a small price to pay for someone getting you to your destination on time. At the station we saw the other white people from our hotel – a girl with a thick accent and braids, an Asian man, and another girl – sitting on the platform with the characteristic white person over-sized bags. (What the hell? They’re following us!)

The train itself was a dingy affair, like a rundown carnival ride. The metal insides and seats were a chipped and rusty green, and the ceiling fans were filthy and unmoving. Luckily we didn’t need them. With the windows open and the train chugging along it was quite pleasant inside.

“Samosa! Veg Puff! Chai! Coffee!” called the vendors as they made their way slowly through the cars. We chit-chatted undisturbed , gazing out the windows at the greenest of green countryside, interrupted by grayish-blue-brown when we passed over a river, or pitch black when we went through a tunnel.

A small shirtless boy crawled up the aisle, sweeping floor and picking up the trash under the seats. He stopped next to Bridget and I to beg. We looked down at our laps, not sure what to do. I never know when to give to beggars – am I encouraging hand-outs?  If I give to one will they all swarm me? How much or how little? – after poking my knew a few times to no avail, the boy moved on. I felt terrible. I knew the minute he moved away that I should have given him some money, and thought that should he come back I definitely would.

The next beggars to come our way garnered no such sympathy. Four men, elaborately dressed as women in brightly colored saris and flowers in their hair, made their way through the train, demanding money from passengers. No way. I had absolutely no qualms about resisting their requests – an able-bodied adult man begging in woman’s clothes? 1) Weird, and 2) Not going to happen. It felt insulting, to both beggars and women. To my surprise Pawan pulled out his wallet and handed the man a 1-rupee coin. After they moved on, Pawan explained that they’re probably not really eunuchs, but if you don’t give them money they’ll flash you. Eunuchs are believed to be good luck in India. People pay to have them at their weddings, but other than that they’re just a nuisance.

We got off the train and found a bus to take us to the bus station that would get us to Panaji (Goa’s capital). Again, the white people from the hotel were there, and this time Bridget struck up a conversation. “So you’re going to Panaji too?” As we rode the bus she got a bit more intel – they’re Germans traveling up India’s west coast towards Bombay. Not going to Panaji, but staying in the area for a couple nights.

We finally made it to Panaji in the late afternoon. Finding a hotel room was a bit of a process – turns out “off season” isn’t as “off” as we’d expected. Eventually, through friends of friends of friends (with a bit of a mob connection thrown in there too), we found a room with two twin beds for 600 rupees a night. Cramped for three, and probably shocking for the hotel owners to see Bridget, me, and Pawan agreeing to share a room, but whatevs. Good enough.

We went to dinner then walked along the wide sidewalk along the beach, soaking in the uniqueness of Goa and the pleasant water-side breeze. It reminded me of an Indian version of an American boardwalk, aka dingier and lined with stray dogs napping on the pavement.