Wednesday, August 24, 2011

India Part 2: Old Goa to the Taj Mahal

One morning we went to Old Goa to see the city that used to be as big as London. Goa was colonized by the Portuguese in the 1500s, and didn’t become a part of India until 1987. It has its own distinct language and culture and sense of history, including an affinity for Portuguese-style food and a tendency towards Catholicism.

In Old Goa we saw really old and really big churches. One contained the relics of a saint. That means the saint’s dead body is in a glass box in the church! Apparently every 12 years it’s put on public display for people to touch…a little weird if you ask me, but whatever floats your religious boat!

Desperate for breakfast we stopped by an incredibly sketchy looking roadside “restaurant,” and ordered poori, which are deep fried puffs of dough (imagine a super-duper-thin pita bread, deep fried and puffed up so much that it’s almost round) that come with a spicy dipping sauce and masala veggies and potatoes. I ate more deep fried foods in India than I ever have ever. And I was totally ok with it.

An old man at the table next to us struck up a conversation that continued through our meal and on the bus back to Panaji. He asked our names, where we’re from (USA? Yeah!), and then launched into a semi-intelligible stream of stories, advice, sayings, and musings on life that continued without breaks for the next hour. As we walked out of the restaurant he darted madly into traffic waving his arms and shrieking, “Lights! Lights!” at a passing motorcycle. “Bahhh! Global warming!” he grumbled as we looked on in amused shock, then he jumped back into his monologue somewhere between how high fives pass energy and how native girls used to come to the Goan churches to become nuns but were instead sold into brothels.

That afternoon we went on an epic beach walk (for some reason I can’t see a beach and not walk to the end), collected shells, and refreshed ourselves with coconut milk (they call it coconut water). 

Pawan got on a bus back to Bangalore, and Bridget and I went on a 1-hour “cruise” of the river. It was exactly as ridiculous as an Indian cruise should be. Inside the boat a stage and chairs were set up. The entertainment alternated between traditional Goan music and dancers, and a ridiculously loud DJ’d dance party that all the young people enthusiastically participated in.

Post-cruise Bridget and I got an assortment of Indian sweets for dinner. Indians love their sweets! Shops have glass cases full of an assortment of weird-looking candies, so we pointed "I'll have that one and that one and one of those and one of those," and headed back to our room to indulge. From what I can tell, most are some combination of coconut and sugar and dates and nuts and sweetened condensed milk. The silver foil is super-thin and supposed to be eaten - they believe it makes you smarter. 

The next morning Bridget and I got up early and went to see the real beach (Panaji is on a huge tidal river next to the ocean, so we wanted to go to one of the beaches on the actual Indian Ocean that Goa is known for). We sat on the sand for a bit, then got breakfast (poori again) at a beach-side café. I was thrilled to see that this tourist-catering establishment had a pot of black coffee on the menu (instead of the usual shot-glass sized serving of sugary milk). Delicious.

In the late afternoon we left the beaches of Goa to fly to Delhi, where we were picked up at the airport by our next Indian friend, Vishaal. He represents a very different kind of India than we’d seen so far – the “New India” where kids drive around in BMWs, party at Delhi’s clubs, but then still go home to their parents and plan for arranged marriages. Vishaal was nothing like Pawan, but equally awesome. He took us to Agra the next morning to see the Taj Mahal (pronounced Meh-hel…who knew?).

Bridget, Vishaal, his friend Suvit, and I cruised through the countryside in a nicely air conditioned car, pumping an assortment of hip-hop, pop, house, rock, and the odd Hindi song for good measure. Vishaal was at the wheel, dodging and weaving between people, cars, trucks, busses, bikers, rickshaws, and animals, hand always on the horn, performing the intricate and dangerous dance that defines driving in India.

Unfortunately the cruising didn’t last long. We found ourselves in a series of stop-and-go jams that lasted all the way to Agra and made our 4-hour journey take seven.

We finally arrived, full of masala potato chips (have I mentioned that EVERYTHING in India has masala), and Café Coffee Day snacks (their Starbucks), ready to see the Taj in all its glory…but something didn’t seem quite right. The parking lots were empty, and when we asked the worst was confirmed: the Taj is closed on Fridays.

The situation was so absurdly disappointing it was funny. We laughed, “Are you freaking kidding me????” and looked around like, “What are we supposed to do???”

Our Indian friends worked out a rapid-fire Hindi plan and told us to get into the bicycle-powered rickshaws. Our “driver” (aka a drunk man on a bike) pedaled us around the outside wall of the Taj and deposited us on the riverbank alongside. There our group negotiated a price and carefully climbed onto the wooden deck of a small boat. Two men paddled and poled and we saw the Taj from the unique (if not complete) perspective of the river.

It wasn't too disappointing. Since we’ve never seen the Taj in person, we didn’t fully know what we were missing. And the view from the river was different and beautiful – not many people can say they’ve seen the largest monument to love from a riverboat.

Since the Taj was a bit of a wash, we visited Agra’s fort to supplement our day. India is full of forts! (I had no idea!). Not British ones, but ancient Mughal and Hindu forts. Pretty cool stuff. This fort used to be the capital of India. (More info here.)

Inside the fort, the builder of the Taj was imprisoned by his son for spending too much money. He spent the last years of his life in an ornate tower looking out the window at the great monument he created. That right there is ancient Mughal irony for you!

The fort was huge with many many years of history and rulers and wars. Indian forts are fun because you can really wander around and explore. No American-style stay-behind-the-velvet-ropes here!

We made it back to Delhi by midnight, exhausted and cranky but satisfied with our day.