Feeling the heat in Fort Cochin

We are now in sultry Kerala, one of India’s southernmost states and it is hot. The past few days have simmered in the low 30s, and a sweaty humidity has settled right in. Not that we’re complaining …  We are engaging in that most Canadian of pastimes – commenting on the weather and considering what our friends up north are dealing with, I will stop right now and tell you about cozy Fort Cochin.  Portuguese, Dutch and English settlers have left their mark on this luscious city perched on the Malabar Coast – part of “God’s Own Country.

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We booked into Casa Mia Homestay, run by the gracious and hospitable Usha, who welcomed us with a kiss on both cheeks and a glass of freshly squeezed grape juice. Usha and her husband and son live on the first floor and her guests are on the second floor. We have a clean and spacious bedroom and bathroom and meet up with the other guests   for breakfast in the family dining room. Most homestays are variations on this theme and are an excellent way to mingle with Indians and  foreign tourists. Usha’s husband Antony built this home, finished with rosewood trim on the walls and a small quarry’s worth of marble on the floors. Our room is the balcony on the right.

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Cochin is a small city in Kerala and Fort Cochin is an idyllic section that is charming, walkable and surrounded by the sea. It is full of idiosyncrasies and non-stop photo ops. On one street you will find this – all polished and white – remnants of the British Raj era:

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Right around the corner is this building. At first glance, it appeared to be vacant, but I saw women walking inside – it has become a squat. Elegance and wealth; poverty and squalor – the two worlds exist side-by-side. Fort Cochin is too small to have enclaves.

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Our street is an interesting mix of homestays, small shops and even a tiny church. We appear to be in a Catholic area (our hosts are devout Catholics), and this little chapel is always open, with a candle lit, ready for anyone to drop by.

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Further down our street is this fabulous car – the HM Ambassador. This quintessential Indian car was based on the British Morris Oxford series, with rights purchased in 1956 to be produced exclusively in India.  It was known as “the King of Indian roads” and ceased production in 2014. I would dearly love to have a car like this back in Canada, right-hand drive and all.

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We hear chesty coughs wherever we go. Many tourists, Stephen included, appear to be affected by the daily burning that goes on throughout the country. This is a common sight – sometimes just leaves or papers; other times there is plastic and household garbage burning, which is far more toxic.

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We walk past the ugliness of the burn piles and come round the corner to this beauty:

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Fort Cochin has provided many examples of artistic design against a backdrop of whitewashed cleanliness that is a balm for our souls. This is the first time so far in our travels in India that we have encountered these pockets of calm and it has made us appreciate how restorative it is. We realize our survival and enjoyment of India will depend upon us finding small pockets to escape to, to allow us to plunge in again.

This little canal smells just like it looks. We walked about three kilometres to Mattancherry, the old spice district, which now has many antique emporiums and tourist shops. On the way, we walked through neighbourhoods like this, past people’s front doors that open to the street. This is yet another taste of life in India.

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We passed by a group of men bathing in this water – soaping up their bodies and washing their clothes. The building behind them is the Mattancherry Palace, filled with Hindu murals preserved from the 1500’s. They were impressive, but we were just as happy to be inside a cool building with whirring fans and a window seat.

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Another important building in this area is the 400-year-old Pardesi Synagogue. The inside is simple and elegant, with a gold pulpit, hand-painted floor tiles, chandeliers and glass lamps. Photographs were prohibited and I couldn’t even sneak one, as we were being watched like a hawk. Apparently we had just squeaked in 5 minutes before closing, so we were ignominiously ushered out almost as soon as we sat down. “You go now. Get out.” Probably lost in translation a little, but I did manage to get the guard to tell me the congregation of this synagogue is just five people. “But tourists are welcome.

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This area of Cochi is called “Jew Town” – a moniker I find quite jarring, but apparently it has come about without any ill intent or bigotry. As the sign proclaims, it is still an area for commerce.

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Fantastic buildings in this area – I loved this lineup of shutters, and also loved the still-intact poster of Prince Charles, probably from his end-of-marriage trip to India with Princess Diana, when she famously posed alone at the Taj Mahal.

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We had a wonderful lunch in this art cafe, and watched the world go by from our window seat. The light fixture is made from a metal flare used by ships to act as markers to warn other vessels of their whereabouts.  This is the kind of thing that appeals to me – repurposing items like this. I have a folder of ideas poached from our travels for the day we settle and make a home again.

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Finding hairdressers while we travel is always a challenge and we’re both hitting that shaggy stage. On the way home, we passed by a barbershop and dropped in. It was not the cleanest little place. I’m betting that bottle of Dettol in the cupboard has not seen the light of day for years. Certainly the comb and scissors were not treated to a disinfectant. Oh well, Steve has no open sores on his head and he came out of there with a great cut and beard trim. The barber seemed quite pleased to have a foreigner in his shop and he reminded Stephen that his cut (which cost 200 rupees – $4), would be 2000 rupees in his hometown!

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The Chinese Fishing Nets are another tourist draw – we did not manage to capture the magical, sunset tourist-bureau shots of these nets, but they are a relic of the traders from AD 1400 court of Kublai Khan. There are about half a dozen of these massive contraptions that require four people to manage the counterweights that lift and drop the cantilevered nets into the water. We watched for a while – massive effort for a few flopping fish.

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At a nearby children’s park, we came upon this curiosity – a statue of a mother standing beside her little boy. I’m showing you the rear view, but the anatomically correct front view clearly shows this little fellow peeing. There you have it – a public endorsement of that oh-so-familiar site – males of all ages relieving themselves wherever they want.

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We witnessed another example of behaviour we had been warned about – the dangerous scam of refilling plastic bottles with tap water and selling them again. We have all been well warned about checking our water bottles to make sure the cap has not been opened already and we are careful  – neither of us are keen to experience water-borne illness or dysentery.  We just happened upon this scene – a young man crouched down beside a water tap, filling up plastic bottles. There may be an explanation, but it looks suspicious.

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After that ugly scene, a beautiful one – that’s the rule.

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And back to the not-so-nice. This is from a Western and animal-loving perspective – many Indians would not agree with us, as the elephant is an important part of their culture and is used in a number of festivals. This was the case with these five elephants – they were brought in for a festival where they would be outfitted with elaborate headdresses, but we were not prepared for the chains and the lethargy. One of the elephants had a number of sores and wounds on his body – we had to leave.

Another strange situation played out in the little restaurant right across the street from our homestay. We stopped by for a couple of cold drinks and were quite excited to see an eagle land right in front of us. Not so excited when we found out the young men running the cafe had captured this bird and clipped its wings – they wanted to make a pet out of it.

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More beauty – a permanent installation at one of our favourite art cafes. Our first night there, we split a watermelon and feta salad, followed by fabulous fusilli pesto – after three weeks of delicious Indian food, we were ready for a change.

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One of our favourite drinks in India is lime ginger soda – a couple of ounces of fresh lime juice, fresh ginger and topped with soda water. It is absolutely refreshing and perfect with Indian spices. We have had very little alcohol since arriving here – in many places it is not readily available. There are three dry states in India and we will not be visiting any of them, but with the exception of Goan beaches, restaurants that serve alcohol are few and far between. We are gratified to find we don’t miss it.

As much as I don’t appreciate being stared at, you can’t help but have fun people-watching. As we were walking back home this afternoon, we saw a beautiful young woman taking a photo of her boyfriend. She was a classically gorgeous Indian woman, and modern –  wearing very short white shorts. Her boyfriend was striking a pose against  a wooden wall – the whole thing looked straight out of an ad.

Just beyond them were these two gents, having a good gander at the woman’s backside. Stephen asked them for a photo and they obliged.

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My final shot is of an ayurvedic retreat – Kerala has a number of ayurvedic retreats and hospitals – our host Usha is a big advocate of ayurvedic medicines, but as she warned, “you have to know who are the good ones.”

Our friend Kathryn is still in her 30-day retreat – we are keen to hear how it is going for her. Ayurvedics, yoga, spiritual retreats – these are all important reasons for people to visit India. We are travelling strictly as tourists, to see as much as we can, but our eyes are being opened to so many things we didn’t even know existed.

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Tomorrow, we trade the steamy heat of Cochi for the cool mountain air of Munnar. Time to visit tea plantations and do a little hilltop trekking.

Mysore: City of Palaces

Oh, I know what you’re thinking,”can’t wait to hear all about the palaces.” I promise you this post will have so much more; Mysore is our first big Indian city and there are lots of interesting things to tell you about.

Such as: There is no shame in pretending you are Indian royalty.

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As much as we have read about the many scams at work in India, didn’t we fall prey to one on our very first day here. We were approached by a tuk-tuk driver who wanted to show us the “old market” for 30 rupees. ( 60 cents). We were tired from hours of walking and gratefully climbed in and rode along for about 10 minutes – into a neighbourhood we might otherwise not have discovered on our own. Much of Mysore’s centre area streets and alleys look like this – at first glance rather sketchy but in fact simply modest.

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We passed by several little structures like this – not much more than lean-tos.

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A quick stop at the “special market” and then the scam unrolled – we, the guileless tourists, were escorted to some shops that will kick back a decent commission to the driver if there are sales. First to  a shop where rosewood was being carved and polished. The tuk-tuk driver assured us the white inlay was wood but when I picked up a small piece of plastic cut from the “wood inlay” off the ground, he said nothing.

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Next up – An aromatherapy shop where we were greeted by three very excited people. Before we knew it, we were being swabbed with sandalwood, black jasmine, ylang-ylang, geranium, etc.  Stephen was laced with some essential oil that promised  (with a wink) to give him “eight hours of manhood”. Tempting, but prices started at $60 for tiny vials so we had to disappoint them. It was awkward.

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Somehow I have managed to reach this stage in life and still be surprised to discover that not all people are honest. Being in India requires constant negotiation and second-guessing –  a big push-pull game of Let’s Make a Deal. We have money and they want it. They will tell you what you want to hear (your laundry will be ready by 5:00) and they will blithely overcharge you on just about anything. We are learning how to haggle without being insulting – not wanting to rip off or be ripped off. You never really know. Stephen developed a deep fondness for these luscious potato buns, filled with onion chutney and served warm. He has paid 10, 15 or 20 rupees, depending upon who was behind the counter. That felt more comical than anything else – a lovely family business with no malice intended.

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I am coming to terms with my situation in India now that we are out of beach-y Goa. Our hotel in Mysore is in a Muslim area (we awaken each morning at 5:30 am to delightful call to prayer) and many women are dressed in black burkas.Our first morning here we ventured out to explore the back streets and soon raced back to our hotel.  I was treated to several disapproving stares as well as that nasty tongue-clucking sound that makes me want to pick up a rock and throw it. My crime was wearing a knee-length, scoop-neck, sleeveless dress. I grabbed a shawl, wrapped it around my shoulders and went out again without a problem. The other issue is legs – they need to be covered or at least mostly covered. I bought these pants which are very fine cotton, incredibly comfortable and cool, and roomy enough for a few more veggie pakoras, but I’m not happy.

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I’m not happy with the bold stares, the open contempt, and my feelings of discomfort. I am a visitor to India and as with any other country I want to respect their culture and customs, but it is such an unpleasant feeling to be judged so harshly. To clarify – most of my encounters with Indian men have been positive and warm. I believe the divide is a fundamentalist religious one as well as an uneducated one. The educated moderate Indians do not hold those views toward women – they are gentle and kind.

I discussed this with a gentleman here who warned me to be very careful, especially up north in smaller towns and villages, where a woman’s smile or gaze is interpreted as an invitation to have sex. With or without consent.  Clothing choices would obviously also be an issue.

Currently,  in many states in India violence has broken out over the release of the movie Padmaavat which has offended the sensibilities of some Indians to the point that cars have been torched, a schoolbus full of children was stoned and several women had to be stopped by police as they were planning to self-immolate. A reward has gone out for the delivery of the nose of the lead actress. 

I may not be happy with my status here but you can bet I’ll be keeping those feelings to myself. So…with that off my chest, on to far more positive things. Like, the palace.

Mysuru Palace is one of the big tourist draws – a staggeringly impressive structure that was home to the maharajas and has interiors worthy of one of India’s premier royal buildings.

The Public Hall

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The Marriage Pavilion, used for royal weddings.

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One of the interior courtyards

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The side entrance to the Palace

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St. Philomena’s Church is another Mysore attraction – a Neo-Gothic Catholic cathedral that is currently under restoration and was covered with scaffolding and tarps. I didn’t take any photos but while we were inside the crypt we spent a few minutes checking out the names. “Captain and Mrs. Ross”; “Federico Coelho” – mostly Portuguese and English names, with a smattering of Indian. I noticed a couple – Barbara Gordon and Tony Gardon – and wondered at the obvious typo engraved in marble for perpetuity. It would make me so upset to imagine a similar fate would befall me when my time comes and I would be laid to rest as Ginny Muller.

And on to the marvellous Devaraja Market of Mysore – a photographer’s delight.

This scene repeated itself dozens of times – we loved the elegance and strength of these women.

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For all the squalor and disorder outside the market, the stalls are a study in geometric perfection.

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I love red onions, but back home they are often too big or a bit mushy. These were just perfect.

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The heaping cones of kumkum, which are the coloured powders used for bindi dots.

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Flower garlands everywhere

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Incense, especially sandalwood, is quite particular to Mysore, as are many essential oils.

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This scene could make a vegetarian out of me. The chickens were being slaughtered, plucked and cleaned right on the counter, in the heat, with the flies swarming. As much as I love meat, I will try to stick to vegetarian dishes for our stay, as FoodSafe is not a thing here.

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And Gandhi – his skinny, bespectacled golden figure standing guard over the madness of roundabout traffic.

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Traffic – how does it work? In India you drive on the left side of the road, unless you prefer to drive on the right. In that case, you cut across three lanes of traffic and go wherever you please. Cars, trucks, buses, motorbikes and tuk-tuks zoom along with inches to spare and no-one hesitates – as in SE Asia, it flows. One of our new friends in Hampi advised us not to drive in India. “Too stressful for foreigners.” We wouldn’t know where to begin.

The van you see on the left? He will simply drive through the line of motorbikes. The concept of  “After you. No please, I insist – you go first.” does not exist here – either on the road or on the sidewalk, or lining up at the ATM.

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We kept seeing black and yellow cows and finally asked someone. There was a festival last week and the cows were coloured yellow as part of the celebration.

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I stopped these young women to ask them about their tops – it is not easy to find tops that don’t go to the knee or longer. While the clothes here are exquisite, I’m trying to find things I will wear again in Canada. We had a nice chat, followed by the inevitable selfie.

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We hired a tuk-tuk again to take us to Chamundi Hill where there is a sacred temple and the usual complement of monkeys.

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Today is Republic Day (representing India’s freedom from British rule) and a national holiday. There were dozens upon dozens of busloads of tourists and the queues to enter the temple were terrifying. We stayed outside and watched as the crowds arrived; many passed holy men for blessings and bindis.

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We were quickly surrounded by a very friendly Indian family who wanted our photos. The funny thing we have noticed about many of these group photos is that once the selfie-stick or camera is in place, everyone assumes a very serious demeanour, even the little kids.  I felt very much like a smiling white-haired lady towering over everyone.

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A view of Mysore taken from a lookout on the road up to Chamundi Hill. We have not had a lot of bright blue skies since we’ve been here. There is a haze over the city with smoke coming from hundreds of small fires that are set daily (people burn their garbage). Both Stephen and I have sore throats and cold symptoms.

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I was not as captivated with Mysore as I thought I would be. It is a smallish city (just under 1 million) with many historic buildings and monuments, but with the exception of the Palace, many of the attractions were in disrepair.

This was a good introduction to an Indian city, as it sharpened our travelling wits a whole lot.  We are not planning to visit any of India’s huge cities, except for Delhi in April. There are so many places to visit that don’t demand such stamina and perhaps offer more reward – tea plantations, bird sanctuaries, backwaters, tiger reserves, elephant reserves, the desert cities with their forts and palaces and the Himalayas.

We fly down to Cochi tomorrow and then we will be firmly in Kerala State for a few weeks.  We’re still very much in the early days of being in India and still being swamped by new impressions and emotions to sort through.

One final note on our hotel: Unlike the horror show in Hampi, our Mysore hotel is a dream. Polite, professional staff on the front desk and in the dining room. Huge spotless room, with tiled floors, comfy bed and modern bathroom. Air-conditioning and wifi  – both of them in good working order.  Big breakfast included. And…we paid almost the same as we did in Hampi – just under $50 a night. We have made a decision not to skimp on our hotels in India – the $25 room beckons and is often just fine, but we really want to have a sanctuary to come back to after our sightseeing each day. We’re staying at Casa Mia Homestay in Cochi  – we’ll see you again in a few days.

Following the hippie trail to Hampi

For many visitors to India, the road from Goa to Hampi is a well-trodden path, a rite of passage for the seekers and pilgrims who flock to this “unearthly landscape that has captivated travellers for centuries.” (Lonely Planet).

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Hampi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which encompasses the ruins of one of India’s largest 14th century empires with kilometres of giant boulders, softened by emerald green rice paddies and banana plantations. In addition to being a holy site, Hampi is also the bouldering capital of India. Throw in yoga classes, ayurvedic treatments, and cheap guesthouses and the throngs of young tourists with their hennaed hands, baggy harem pants and bindi dots will follow.  We saw the odd grey head wandering about, but we were older than most of our fellow travellers by at least 30 years. So far, no henna, but I have succumbed to purchasing a pair of harem pants. Photo to  follow at some point.

The path to Hampi is not a straight one. All trains and buses arrive in Hospet – a dusty town about 15 km. from Hampi. This was our first glimpse of real India – and yes, those stories about cows (or in this case, water buffalos) holding up traffic are true.

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Our tuk-tuk dropped us at the “ferry” – a small boat that transports passengers back and forth to the main guesthouse area in Hampi.

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We had to remove our shoes to walk through five inches of water to board the boat and then again on the other side. The boat is filled to well beyond capacity; we loved that there was a single life jacket hung over the railing. Up the hill we trudged, past women washing laundry – a captivating first impression.

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We then walked about a kilometre down the road until we arrived at our guesthouse – a less captivating experience. Our guesthouse had very mixed reviews on TripAdvisor, as did all the guesthouses  – people like us are not their target market. There are areas in India where finding reasonable mid-range accommodation is challenging, and Hampi is one of them. Our room was dirty, we had no hot water, wifi disappeared after our first day, never to return – and no-one cared. We heard highly entertaining excuses for everything, with no solutions. Since the rest of our fellow travellers seemed unfazed, we tried to go with the flow, but my vivid imagination would not let go of the images of those who had slept before us on the stained sheets stretched over our hard, lumpy mattresses.  Still, our guesthouse was in a gorgeous setting overlooking rice fields and this was the sunset on the first night.

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After much deliberating, we decided to rent a scooter the next day to see some of the sites that were close by. I was the one doing the deliberating because of a) the condition of the roads and b) my memory of the fatal accident last year in Laos. Stephen was raring to go, so we hopped on a  scooter and took off with the rest of the helmet-less hordes.

Apparently I am a bad passenger, as I squirm around too much, so I was under strict orders to hang on and not move. Unlike the blasé Indian ladies riding sidesaddle and talking on their phones, I never entirely lost my nerves.

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Still, it is the best way to get around and see the countryside. Stephen’s biggest challenge was dodging crater-like potholes and avoiding marauding trucks, so it wasn’t relaxing for him either. Along the way, we stopped a number of times for photos.  I couldn’t resist this sweet little baby water buffalo.

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Stephen couldn’t resist taking a brief video of me waving at a truckload of kids.


Our first stop was Hanuman Temple. We were met at the bottom by this crew of kids, who swarmed us for photos. This is very common in India – everyone wants a selfie with you and we have obliged dozens of times already.

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Climbing the 575 steps up to Hanuman Temple is a pilgrimage for some; most devotees climbed the entire way in their bare feet.

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We kept our shoes on until we reached the summit, and then removed them to walk around the outer perimeters. There are a number of monkeys up there and as long as you don’t feed them, they keep their distance. I’m not entirely comfortable around monkeys, so I was content to take photos from several feet away.

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This view is the reward – a simply stunning panorama.

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We were intrigued by this purified water stand, especially since our water bottle was almost empty. The Indians lined up to drink clean water, and they all drank from a single stainless steel cup! We shied away from this petri dish of communicable diseases.

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The climb down was much easier, and we were treated to the sight of this woman arranging scarves and colourful clothes on nearby rocks. There were surprisingly few vendors and the ones we saw were quiet and respectful.

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As we drove along, we noticed a young man on his motorbike who had stopped to take a photo and we pulled in behind him. There was a woman in the field tending to three cows, and as I noted to this young man, the image was like “something out of National Geographic”.  Coincidently, he used to be a photographer for Nat Geo and has now been living in Bangalore for the past three years, working as a freelancer. He travels India looking for shots like this. I would love to see how his photos turned out.

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We drove by women working in the rice fields, planting rice to be harvested in a few months.

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We were so struck by how hard so many Indians work, and for so little. Collecting and moving materials about – firewood, rice plants and hay.

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Many children don’t go to school. We passed by this sad-eyed young boy, hauling his load of snacks and drinks on a heavy cart.

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We arrived back to our guesthouse to see the resident Doberman in an absolute froth over the monkeys who were perched up on the rooftop, taunting him.

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The next day we met up with Raghu, who took us out for a full day tour of the ruins on his tuk-tuk. Raghu was charming, knowledgeable and spoke perfect English, so we had a memorable time.

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He is from Hampi and began by giving us an interesting overview of the town, before launching into the history of both the geology and the 14th century ruins. The ruins cover 26 square km. and it would take three more blog postings to cover it, so I’ll spare us all and just treat you to some photos.

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More monkeys. Cute baby being cradled by a very protective mama.

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We were the only ones visiting this temple and came across this woman who was camped out in the cool shade with her basket and some food and drink. She didn’t pay us any attention, but we were curious as to why she was there.

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The military were out in full force, right up to ranked officers. They were happy to have their photos taken.

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Three women heading into the fields in front of The Elephant Stable.

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There were a number of women working the fields, turning the soil and pulling out dead grass with pickaxes. The stables in front of them used to house elephants.

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The Stone Chariot used to actually move – hard to imagine that now, and even harder to grab a pic without crowds of people in front. The elephants had been piled with kids all morning; this was a rare child-free moment.

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I got almost as excited seeing this parrot as I did seeing the ruins.

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A school trip was in full swing just in front of me and as I was watching the parrot, I was being watched by young Indian boys, who demanded a photo.

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The next thing I knew, their classmates had joined them.

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Hampi is a magical, mystical place. I felt the beginning of a sense of India’s deep spirituality and symbolism there.

Now we’re in Mysore and will be back again in a few days.

Dolphins, saris and Speedos: A typical day on Palolem Beach

There are many ways to amuse oneself on Palolem Beach – swimming, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, and dolphin watching.   The beach is lined with boats ready to take tourists out for an hour-long ride – dolphins, eagel (sic) sightings and Honeymoon Bay. All this for $10 – how could we refuse? The captain of our boat assured us we would see dolphins if we showed up early in the day and he delivered. We set out on the 8:00 am boat and passed an atmospheric old fishing vessel on our way out.

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Kathryn, ready for her dolphin adventure.

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And then, true to our captain’s word,  there they were – a small school of dolphins.  We stayed in the area for about 15 minutes or so – long enough to see several swim up quite close to the boat. As with many dolphin or whale sightings, unless you snap one of them spinning in the air, photographs don’t tend to capture the excitement.

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After the dolphins, we were deposited on Honeymoon Bay and left wondering what exactly was expected of us. One of the sailors mimicked holding a camera, so we dutifully took photos.  The young Russian couple who shared our boat smoked cigarettes  and took selfies. Eventually we were allowed back on the boat and resumed our tour. We did see an eagle (or big bird of some sort) and one of the sailors, in the interest of making us feel we were getting our money’s worth, pointed out a rather listless monkey.

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All in all, a somewhat lacklustre boat trip, but it is always enjoyable to be out on the water and gain a different perspective of land.

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Back to the beach, where a broad mix of cultures meet with their accompanying ideas of appropriate swimwear. Palolem is a huge draw for Brits, Germans, Israelis and Russians, and modesty does not seem to register with any of those groups. The Russian men in particular are fond of tiny Speedos – a costume that is flattering to so very few. That, combined with butt cheek shorts and  minuscule bikinis  strapped onto every imaginable body type and it does make me wonder what the locals must think of us all. Watching Indian families on the beach gives us some idea of their preferred attire. These two ladies were out for a stroll, but if they decided to go for a swim, they would simply enter the water fully dressed. Their men, on the other hand, favour form-fitting boxer briefs.

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Every afternoon, we watch the boats being brought back up to shore, well off the tide line. This video shows how this has probably been done for generations.


I dropped off our laundry this morning, and ran the gauntlet past three ladies gossiping by the entrance. “Nice dress,” said one, grabbing hold of my (knee-length) dress after she had given me a good once-over. “Where are you from?”  I have no idea if I passed muster, but I had a pleasant chat with them and then they all had a good laugh as I was butted by a cow on my way out.

We can’t stop taking cow photos – they are still such a novelty.

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And water buffalo – they are less likely to be roaming the streets, as they tend to hang out in the marshy area just outside of town, but we happened to see them heading home.

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The two main streets of Palolem are lined with small shops and restaurants. They are fun and colourful, but we are resisting buying anything so early in our trip.

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Steve did buy a couple of light cotton shirts to help cope with the heat. He asked if I thought he looked like a tourist – I’ll leave that to you to decide. #notalocal

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This was taken a couple of nights ago on the beach. We sat in front of a bonfire, listened to the waves, and enjoyed cold beer and chicken tikka. A memorable night.

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India’s national beer is Kingfisher – not burdened with flavour, but light and cold and a good accompaniment to many of the dishes. We had an interesting experience the other night – Kathryn, Stephen and I were coming back from dinner, and decided to buy a bottle of white wine and drink it on our front deck. I struggled to twist open the screw top, and then it became apparent it had been tampered with – it had already been opened! Back to the store we indignantly marched and the young man seemed entirely unfazed – he returned our money and put the bottle back in the fridge, to be sold to the next unsuspecting tourist.

It is a common scam to fill plastic water bottles with tap water and sell them – it falls to the consumer to make sure the lid has not been broken. We wonder what the scam was with this wine bottle – watered-down wine or the shop-owner’s home-brew? Many parts of India are dry and alcohol will not be available, so this will hopefully be a one-time issue.

Now the food – that is another thing. Look at this gorgeous display of fresh seafood – caught off the Goan waters. That long beak-y fish is a barracuda – I felt those sharp little teeth –  and those are the biggest prawns I have ever seen.

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There is a good-sized Israeli population in India, and a number of them live in Goa, and in particular in Palolem. I asked one of our favourite restaurant owners about this sign (with what looked like a rabbi), and he pointed us down the opposite street. “Many Israelis live down there.”

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Sure enough, after about 10 minutes, we came upon a Jewish open-air congregation – more like  a community hall. We kept walking and the street provided a whole other glimpse into residential Palolem life – neat, homey and inviting.

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Some homes were barely shacks.

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Others appeared prosperous enough to warrant protection.

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And then we came across this home, with the Swastika symbol – which is an important Hindu symbol and in Sanskrit means “conducive to well-being”.  It is hard not to associate this peaceful symbol with the co-opted Nazi symbol, turned on its side.

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We’ve talked to a number of people from different countries who have moved to India, either full or part-time. It is warm, extremely cheap to live, the food is great and the people are wonderful.  Religious tolerance would be another draw – Goa is home to a number of religious and spiritual practices.

However, tolerance of Indians marrying outside of one’s own religion or race is still a huge problem in smaller centres. We spoke to two young men who both faced this dilemma. One of our favourite waiters at a beach restaurant was an exceedingly handsome and charming 26-year-old man from the north of India – in Manali. Luckily for him, although his marriage was arranged, it was also a love match. If he had chosen to marry outside, not only would he be cast out of his village, but so would his family. He works in Goa for the winter and returns to Manali  to work in the summer and be with his wife and family. He is personally happy, but does not like the fact that his culture still operates in the old ways.

Our guesthouse host faces a significant challenge. His girlfriend is Russian and if they married, he would not be able to continue living in Palolem. He is 38-years-old and they have been together for five years, but he shows no signs of wanting to leave his home, family, his friends and his business.  So for now, they remain in limbo, with impossible choices that will may bring an end to their relationship, no matter what decision he makes. He seems sad but resigned and says it is not like this in the big cities – just in the small towns. But he tried living outside of Palolem and was not happy.

The younger generation wants change, but it could take many decades. As an outsider, it is easy to be critical of harsh and outdated beliefs, but we need look no further than the glacial pace of societal change in North America to realize we cannot judge.

We plan to eat a lot of vegetarian and vegan food while in India – both for better health and to improve our chances of not eating tainted food and getting really sick. Palolem has a number of good veg/vegan options and Little World became one of our favourites – great coffees, wonderful breakfasts and interesting and colourful clean food options.

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We became almost daily customers, stopping in for at least a coffee, and we got to know the folks in there quite well, with Shanu dancing to “Uptown Funk” and Ruby serenely working the room, and Nitin lending a spiritual presence. They invited us to come for dinner as their guests and tonight we gratefully accepted their hospitality.  It was a lovely evening with delicious food. This photo does not include Shanu – he was temporarily distracted by two beautiful blonde women who dropped by for long hugs and then needed a motorcycle drive home.

Nitin, Ruby and us.

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Our time in Palolem is coming to an end. Last year, while travelling in Vietnam, we came across a couple from Scotland who were kite-surfing instructors, of all things, and who had been travelling the world. They offered advice that we have taken to heart – Don’t try and pack too much in. Get a feel of the place. Stay there until you are a bit bored, then move on.

We’re there – we’ve had a memorable start to our trip, but now we’re a bit bored and ready to go. We’ll take a day-long train to Hampi and stay there for a few days. See you in a bit.

 

Goa: the shimmering jewel of the Arabian Sea

Swimming in the Sea of Arabia – doesn’t that sound romantic? It is exactly that – and so much more.  Palolem Beach, in south Goa, is our very soft landing.

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We picked Palolem Beach because Lonely Planet told us it was one of Goa’s most postcard-perfect beaches. Palolem is a small town on a wide crescent beach, with rocky outcrops separating it from other, smaller beaches to the south – all of them accessible on foot.

Goa’s beaches are divided into north and south, with the northern beaches being famous for trance parties and drug-fuelled all-nighters. The southern beaches (including Palolem) are quieter and more family-oriented. They still have beach parties, but incredibly, they are silent: participants wear headsets and groove in their own little bubble, without bringing down the neighbourhood.  It works well – they get to party, we get to sleep.

We are staying at a small guesthouse called Alba Rooms – just five rooms set back from the road and buffered by loads of plants, so it is quiet at night, yet 100 metres to the beach. Each room is large, tiled, spotlessly clean and best of all, they have private patios out front. Our hosts, brothers Sanjay and Tutu are simply the best. They speak perfect English and are so hospitable and welcoming and helpful.

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Originally we were to stay here for just one week, but we’ve extended our stay for another several days – it is too relaxing to leave. As well, our friend Kathryn has arrived in India, and is also staying here at Alba Rooms. She has been travelling the world since June and it is starting to catch up with her. Time to hang out and do little.

Life on the beach is constantly changing, depending upon the time of day. Four or five o’clock in the evening is our favourite – the water is calm, the light is soft and the heat is lessening its grip.  In a town filled with yoga centres and studios, beach yoga is a natural.

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So are boys kicking a ball around.

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There are scenes of quiet contemplation.

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There are many, many boats. Some are fishing boats but many are for the tourists – boat rides out to see dolphins and outlying islands.

These men have developed an ingenious method of moving their boats out of the water and up onto the beach. They lay out long wooden poles on the beach, and then roll the outrigger boats up along them; move the wooden poles and keep rolling until the boats are in place for the night.

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Naturally, there are the requisite stray dogs, but seeing cows on the beach was a new thing for us. They wander about, but since there is a dearth of food on the beach, they tend to congregate and just chill like the rest of us.

Interestingly, the cow patties are few and far between and they’re easy to spot and avoid. Surprisingly to us, the beach is very clean.

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Cows are one of India’s iconic images. Depending on the survey, there are between 200 and 300 million of them, wandering the streets, stepping out in front of cars and on airport runways, and adding greatly to environmental challenges. However they are considered sacred in most of India’s states, so their numbers are not likely to go down any time soon. Here in Goa, (where they do eat beef), cows plod along the streets and on the beaches, and some shop owners throw out food for them. We walked by these two, feasting on cauliflower leaves.

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The first day we were in Palolem, this steer walked right into the restaurant. If this is not an incongruous sight, I don’t know what is. (Cow walks into a bar…) The cows tend to be docile and just stare blankly at you, which can be disconcerting. The owner had a soft spot for this one, and gave him a piece of bread. Later, when another cow tried to enter, he chased her away – telling us she was too aggressive. Apparently, it is not uncommon for cows to head-butt people without any provocation, so we tend to give them a wide berth.

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The town of Palolem runs along one main road, with a number of smaller roads leading off, either to the beach or into residential areas. The main road can be crazy, with pedestrian, bicycle, scooter, motorcycle, rickshaw, car, bus and truck traffic all vying for space on a road that barely qualifies as two lanes. Right of way is yielded to whomever is bigger or bolder, and survival as a pedestrian depends upon being fleet of foot, quick of wit, and having eyes in the back of your head. In the midst of this madness are calls from every vendor to,”have a look inside, madam. Good prices.” 

This morning, we headed to the next small town to access the ATM machine, and grabbed a three-wheeled rickshaw for the 3-km. ride. Our driver was telling Stephen that tourism has been down this year, and since he only has three months to make his money driving rickshaw, it is a bit worrisome. We can only imagine the same is true for the dozens and dozens of small shops selling virtually identical stuff – your heart goes out to them all.

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This is the little psychedelic bus we drove in on from Panaji; complete with natural air-con and a rattly sound system. It’s great fun for an hour or less.

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The town is filled with all kinds of wonderment, including this colour-coordinated assortment of oddities, advertising Coca-Cola and laundry services (presumably without a washing machine – that is usually stated.)
By “wonderment”, I mean just that – we frequently find ourselves saying, “I wonder why?” or “I wonder what?” Questions that have no answers.

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Another question unanswered. Today as we were sailing by in our rickshaw, we saw this gentleman leading a cow wrapped in a saffron embroidered cloth. I missed the cow, but caught the man. At some point, we will discover the significance.

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I’m also curious about this tiny corner store. Christianity is prevalent in Goa, but this is the first time I’ve seen the Baby Jesus aligned with mercantile endeavours. And what is the significance of Frosty the Snowman?

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One of the hardest things to resist here are the spice stores. Beautiful bowls neatly heaped with the most fragrant spices – such a treat for all the senses. These are not for us to buy this time around – they simply wouldn’t last the trip for the next three months. I asked this young woman for a photo and noted that her sari matched her spices.

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And of course – on to the food. We have eaten really fresh and delicious food in Goa. Our challenge is to avoid loading up on samosas and pakoras and naan, and try to find cleaner, lighter food. One restaurant we’ve been going to a lot is called Zest – a vegetarian and vegan restaurant that has imaginative and beautifully prepared dishes.

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It will be very easy to eat mainly vegetarian food while we are in India. Our intention once we leave Goa is to avoid meat, to mitigate our chances of  contracting the dreaded “Delhi Belly”.

This plate – pakoras, raita, coriander chutney, chapati, brown rice, tomato salad, and vegetable curry – incredibly flavourful, and so reasonably priced – about $7.

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In this same restaurant there are several very striking photographs, done by local photographer Francisco de Souza  – http://www.francisco-desouza.com

Stephen took this shot of one of his photos of a young girl on a train, nicely juxtaposed with a  young woman on a computer.

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Minor annoyances so far?  All restaurants are required by the police to post No Smoking signs – an edict that is ignored by most restaurant owners and patrons. There is little to be done – it is a cultural norm that is not even close to changing. The fine is 200 rupees – about $4 – not much of a deterrent. Last night we found ourselves surrounded by smokers, literally encased in smoke. Remembering our mantra, “Just surrender”!

The other challenge so far has been the beggars – admittedly not a fraction of what we will encounter in much of India.

We have poverty in Canada and it is no less heartbreaking to see homeless people on the streets there. We give money both directly to people and to food banks and agencies – we give what we can.

In India, the scale of poverty is a whole other thing. Millions of people are doomed by birth to remain dirt poor and hungry, with little in place to help them.

It is wrenching to see a woman crouched in a ditch with her hands out. This is nothing but pure poverty and desperation and hunger and fear.

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We’ve been told so many times during our travels in Mexico and SE Asia not to hand out money, especially to children, as there are agencies who are trying to break the cycle through education. That is all good, but it doesn’t change the fact that people are suffering. It is also impossible to hand out money to everyone, so the dilemma remains. We give where we can.

There is a flip side to this.  Yesterday I watched as a tiny woman in a pink sari deliberately bumped into Kathryn.   Since Kathryn had her hand firmly on her bag, that effort went unrewarded, but it was a good reminder that we need to pay attention.

The other good reminder is not to be angry or fearful. If I was that poor, I would likely steal as well.

I’ll wrap up with a photo that has no special significance, other than I like it. This was taken on our walk from Palolem Beach along the coastline.  Still lots to explore and report back on, and so many impressions to talk about. See you again in a few days.

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Waking up in India

I feel I am an accidental tourist in India; which, when you think about it, is a heck of a mistake if I had been hoping to go to Portugal or Greece instead (my first choices).

India was Stephen’s idea, one that I warmed to very slowly, and then veered between being wildly enthusiastic and slightly terrified. That emotional see-saw continued until we were flying to Delhi and it was too late to turn back.  Sure, visiting a 4000-year-old culture would be fascinating, but there would also be garbage-strewn streets, extreme poverty, extreme heat and rats to contend with. And yes,  so far, there have been all of those things. We have now been in India for four days, and on our first day here, I saw two rats – both dead, but rats, nonetheless, including one who was photogenically splayed on a sidewalk with a bird pecking at its innards. “Don’t look,” said Stephen.

Our trip began pleasantly with a 14-hour non-stop flight from Vancouver to Delhi, and a brief and uneventful sail through customs. Not the chaotic scene I had imagined.

You’ve all read about the life-threatening smog enveloping Delhi at the moment. This is no exaggeration – the air is a thick grey-yellow, and the smell is noxious. There are measures in place to try and mitigate it, but the volume of traffic and people and industry is what it is – it is hard to imagine how it can be measurably improved.

To give you a bit of an idea of the air in mid-afternoon (the sun is obliterated) – this was the view from our hotel window. We were also hosting a large family of pigeons.

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Our hotel and our room were lovely – large, luxurious, marble everywhere and included a lavish buffet breakfast – all for $119 CA. A similar room in North America would have been double that price. We wanted to treat ourselves to a decent room the first night as a bit of a buffer from jet lag, culture shock  and the after-effects of a long flight.

Security at our hotel was interesting – our taxi had to stop for a check, including an under-carriage scan. Suicide bombers enroute to the Radisson? Our bags were put on a conveyor belt and scanned and both Stephen and I were frisked. Service after that was impeccable and welcoming.

The next day we headed back to the airport to catch a short flight south to Goa, where we will be for 10 or 11 days.  We were advised by friends to head south for two reasons: the north is very cold in January, and the south would offer an easier transition to the country. We were welcomed by a striking sculpture of one of India’s most revered practices.

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Security had two lineups – Ladies and Gents.  Men went through the usual screening, but women were ushered into a curtained area to be frisked in private. India is frequently described as being a country of contradictions, and this was the first one I observed. In a country where women’s rights are still hard-fought and their personal safety is frequently at risk,  this old-fashioned approach to the sanctity of womanhood seemed odd to me.

Our plane ride was another matter. Filled with excited and rambunctious Indian families headed for a beach holiday, it was a party. Most of the passengers clapped and cheered both at take-off and landing, and then pretty much pushed one another off the plane.

Our first stop is Panaji – state capital of Goa. Goa was under Portuguese rule for 500 years, and those influences are evident everywhere. Panaji is a very small city circling around a river, with a number of stately old mansions, wrought-iron balconies, and mosaic doorways in its Latin Quarter. This is the area we are staying in, and our hotel – Caravela Homestay is situated in a pretty colonial building.

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Hosted by the charming Carlos de Noronho and his sons Carlos Jr  and Cyrus, this small inn was a perfect “soft landing” for us. Carlos told us that Goans are different people; Indian to be sure, but with Portuguese names and many of them Catholic rather than Hindi or Muslim. Most Goans speak English very well.  The state of Goa is quite laid-back and the residents are less conservative than many of their countrymen. I imagine we will observe that even more once we are at the beach communities.

As we wandered the town on our first full day, we could easily have imagined we were in   Portugal.

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There are a number of higher-end shops and restaurants in Panaji that cater to a western clientele.

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Colour in India is intensely saturated and inspiring – no such thing as colours that clash. From the walls to the art to the  splendid saris –  such beauty. Why would you want to trot out your wrinkled old beige cargo shorts?

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Getting lost in Panaji is half the fun. We wandered around a number of back alleys; each turn brought something unexpected,  such as this ancient motorcycle that is quite possibly still operating.

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Much of the beauty is crumbling and some buildings are absolutely beyond repair.

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Other old mansions appear to be either inhabited by squatters or fenced off for eventual renovation.

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You cannot walk for long in Panaji without being accosted by a hopeful taxi driver. We were told that the cab and rickshaw drivers here charge extortionist rates, but the town is small enough that walking is both preferable and far more interesting.

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The centrepiece of Panaji is The Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception dating back to the early 1600’s; a frothy white confection  set high on a hill overlooking the city.

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While Panaji is apparently cleaner than many other Indian cities, it still has piles of garbage littering the streets. Government initiatives are in place to try and encourage behavioural change, although perhaps the tone of this one needs a bit of softening.

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This sign is a gentle reminder to be  respectful of those tasked with cleaning up the mess.

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And then there is this one, positioned atop an apartment building in front of the bus station, complete with graphic illustration. Good grief – a bizarre twist on poop and scoop.

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It is obvious that attempts to clean up are in the works. For so many reasons, that change is slow to come. This has as much to do with common practices as it does with simple hygiene. Our hotel owner was telling us that as a middle class begins to emerge,  travel is a new phenomenon for a number of Indians. He still provides a bucket and pail in each bathroom as some Indian tourists do not know what the shower head is for.

We took a little bus out of town to Old Goa, the settlement that was the former capital until cholera and malaria outbreaks forced that abandonment to Panaji in the 1600s. Some of the remarkable churches and cathedrals are still there.

We visited the remains of St. Francis Xavier in the Basilica of Bom Jesus; famous throughout the Catholic world.

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Across the street, the Se Cathedral offered an imposing presence, but by this time it was so hot that we could barely make a sweaty perambulation around the perimeter. At 76 m long and 55 m wide it is the largest church in Asia.

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Our bus ride out and back was amusing. The first few seats at the front are assigned – ladies on the right, disabled and senior citizens on the left and the rest – kids, couples and men in the back.

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We passed by a ferry with an innovative approach to unloading: cars are required to back up off the ferry ramp to disembark.

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Tomorrow we leave for Palolem Beach, part of Goa’s famous beach area south of Panaji. We are really looking forward to a solid week of beach time, which will give us a chance to digest India so far.

Our impressions so far? BIG adventure. There is not a whole lot that is casual about India, it commands your attention. At times, the smells of garbage and urine and human waste can be overwhelming. It feels inhuman to walk past beggars. I’m leery of the stray dogs, but they mainly sleep on the sidewalks.

The food beckons. We’ve begun easily with delicious curries and butter chicken and dal and lentil soup. There will be lots of food photos in upcoming posts as we branch out and try different dishes.

The whole country beckons. We’re happy we’re here.