Making sense of India

It has been said that one is not a “traveller” until one has been to India. I don’t have a lot of patience with that sanctimonious observation. India is challenging and confounding and unfathomable and it will take us weeks to process everything we experienced, but good grief – travelling through India has not earned us a special traveller’s badge.  What it has done is knocked down a number of  preconceptions and stereotypes we had about India that were inaccurate and simplistic. It’s also served as a solid reminder of how lucky we are – we knew it before, but we really know it now.

I’ll begin this posting with a train trip – the famous Shimla-Kalka UNESCO toy train to be exact.  Built in 1898 to connect mountainous Shimla to the rest of India’s rail lines,  this six-car “toy train” runs on 30″ narrow-gauge tracks, and takes five and a half hours to travel 96 km. The tracks climb 4660 feet by running through 107 tunnels and crossing 864 bridges. It is an engineering marvel and it is also hugely popular – the trains are booked months in advance. We missed out on our trip up to Shimla, but luckily for us, our host was able to pull a few strings and secure us two seats on our return trip.

Our train left at 10.25 a.m.  with a gregarious family as our seat mates and open windows for A/C. We got the full Indian rail experience.

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The scenery was beautiful for almost the entire trip and punctuated with sweet little train stations.

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A toy train can feel less like a train and more like an amusement park ride. Our connection to our surroundings was vivid and a bit disconcerting – travelling over a high stone bridge felt like being suspended in thin air.

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This video will give you an idea of our toy train adventure. Please note the carefree, safety-first approach to train travel in India – each door was filled with passengers who sat, stood or chatted on their phones as the scenery whizzed by.


This was a memorable way to end our trip before flying home – 14 hours of binge-watching movies, listening to passengers snore and eating breakfast at 3:00 a.m. We arrived in Toronto at 5:30 a.m.,  and waited for an hour while Indian families hauled multiple massive suitcases off the conveyor belt until finally our two backpacks swirled up and dumped down. We walked out into the cold, snowy air and thought, “what the heck just happened to us?”

We’re still digesting our experiences but so far these are the impressions that have stayed with us and we’d like to share them with you.
India is not for everyone, and after three months of travelling by tuk-tuk, bus, train, plane and ferry across rivers, backwaters, lakes, mountains, cities, villages, desert, jungle and forest, we’re still not sure if it was for us. Our friend Sheila had warned us about the obvious challenges – the garbage, the dirt, the poverty, the beggars – but said, “you must go.”  We don’t disagree and we’re not sorry we went, but we’re not sure if we would go again. Travelling through India is not relaxing. It requires constant stamina, flexibility and energy and there are times when the rewards are not immediately obvious. We met a Canadian woman of Pakistani descent who travels to India every 10 years to see family. She was aghast to discover we were in India for three months. “You don’t come to India for a vacation.

We met many other tourists who had been to India multiple times and loved it. There is only one way to know how you will react – to borrow Sheila’s phrase, “you must go.”

We met an Indian gentleman who wisely said, “there are many Indias in India”. Munnar was  one of our favourite Indias.

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I was nervous about travelling through India, and one of my biggest fears was rats. Where there is garbage, heat and humidity, rats will follow and I envisioned  legions of rodents, outnumbering Indians 2 to 1. The first week we arrived, I saw four rats (all of them dead), and with the exception of one healthy rat running down the stairs at a railway station, that was it. Not another rat in three months of travel.
One fear down, a few more to follow.

We were concerned about the poverty we would encounter and it was far worse than we had imagined. India has the highest rate of undrinkable water in the world, the second-highest rate of TB in the world, and 140,000 children die of diarrheal-related illnesses every year. We saw so many people with foot problems – club feet, inward-turning feet, even feet with high arches and thinly-stretched webs of skin from toes to ankle. We wondered if these were birth defects that could have been fixed in the early years, but for lack of money, resources, whatever, were not.
We were shocked by the number of beggar children on the streets, the wizened and frail older people, and the sheer numbers of people who were not beggars, but were still in dire need. It became a defining quality of India, and it coloured a lot of our positive impressions of the country.

That, and the garbage.  We had been warned about the garbage before we arrived, but with one or two exceptions, the garbage is everywhere…and it’s hard to understand why. It is a problem that is complex and multi-generational, so the desired solution of a clean India seems near-impossible to achieve. The view from our toy train ride from Shimla should have been pristine, but it was marred by miles of foil, plastic, and food wrappers that have been thrown out the windows of eight daily trains for years.

We met an articulate young woman who offered her perspective on the Indian attitude and behaviour around garbage.  “Indians are very clean in their homes, but they will sweep out onto the street and expect someone else to clean up. Traditionally, it is the lower caste who pick up garbage and sweep up public spaces, so Indians consider handling garbage is dirty and not their job.”  After listening to her, this sign we had seen posted in Panaji made a lot more sense.

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Of course, the image of cows wandering free in India is an iconic one, but at first it was an unnerving and almost comical sight.  I’ve been told that cows are fed to ensure milk production, but bulls, who have no value, are left to their own devices.
Many animals can be found rooting through the garbage; I once saw a cow with ribs protruding, listlessly chewing on a plastic rope.

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Dogs fare little better – possibly their only consolation is companionship – they tend to congregate in packs. We had just one hostile encounter with dogs; mainly they are either searching for food or sleeping.

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There are so many religions and gods in India, often with much tension between them.  We’re not naive enough to think that a religious person is only capable of good, but the gap between devout belief and appalling violence or disregard for others ( humans and animals) is very hard for a foreigner to comprehend.

Our friend Shelley recommended William Dalrymple and I am currently reading his excellent book “Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India.”  He writes without judgement and I am keen to gain at least a partial understanding.

Sanitation in India is an ongoing challenge – with crumbling infrastructure, unclean water supply and a massive population straining the systems. We had heard the stories before we arrived – ” Be prepared to squat. Make sure you bring your own toilet paper.” No big deal and no different from many other countries in the world. Toilet paper, hand sanitizer – good to go.

Our reality check  was a little less cavalier. Fifty-three percent of Indians do not have toilets in their homes.  We never witnessed open defecation, but the sight of men peeing in public became so common we no longer noticed.

Away from hotels and guesthouses, the condition of toilets is unpredictable. Sometimes squat, sometimes, western, usually no toilet paper or soap. Almost always dirty. If I entered a squat toilet, I would roll my pants up around my knees to avoid dragging them on the filthy wet floor. That became normal. A clean toilet with soap was noteworthy and in this case, a selling point.

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Based on inaccurate information I read about the difficulties of obtaining a SIM card,  we chose not to bring our phone with us.  Big mistake. Everyone in India has a cell phone – and not just a cheap flip-phone, but a smartphone.  In fact, one can get a SIM card in 48 hours – activate it one day and return with your phone the next  and voila – you can now order up UBER cabs, and have GPS and operate like any self-respecting Indian would. Don’t even think  about coming to India without your phone.

I was concerned about what to wear in India, both for modesty and to cope with the heat. Here’s the best advice I can give you – bring a very few things to tide you over. Unless you  are staying exclusively in Goa, where anything goes, you will want to cover your shoulders and legs, and it can be done easily and comfortably.  Hit the markets and you can outfit yourself for a few dollars, refrain from offending anyone and most importantly, remain cool in the heat and humidity. I bought palazzo pants, harem pants, and a few loose tops with three-quarter sleeves. It felt counter-intuitive to cover so much of my body, but the light cottons protected my skin and kept me much cooler than a sundress would have.
Men can get away with almost anything, but in some places shorts are frowned upon, so a pair of light cotton pants would work well – you’ll stay much cooler, fit in better and not look like such a tourist galoot.   

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We got used to the crazy traffic, used to losing our “personal space” and became quite comfortable with the staring, which was rarely hostile.  We were asked to pose for countless selfies – we were as much of a novelty to them as they were to us.

The one behaviour we could not cope with was butting in line – this happened all the time. It is quite remarkable to watch. You are standing in line – waiting for the ATM, or to buy your groceries, or to go through security at the airport. Suddenly someone appears beside you, then noses in front of you. We silently fumed until we watched Indians  tell the miscreants to move to the back, and we realized, “This is not an acceptable Indian behaviour, this is the behaviour of someone with bad manners.” Interestingly, most queue-jumpers will comply quite easily once they have been confronted.

So, with the annoying, confusing and upsetting aspects of India out of the way, our final impressions are still very positive.

The best part of India? The people, without question. We had so many memorable encounters with Indians we met along the way – conversations in restaurants, open-hearted welcomes in guesthouses, casual chats on the street. We found Indians to be funny, curious, warm, helpful and engaged people, and almost to a person, they wanted to know how we liked their country.

India is so incredibly diverse that it is not possible to pinpoint a favourite place, although that following places stand out for us –  Munnar (mountain trekking), Goa ( beautiful beaches and sublime swimming), most of Rajasthan ( forts, camels, desert), Pondicherry (French influence) and Amritsar (Golden Temple) and Shimla (finally – cool, clean air).

In three months, we missed way more than we saw – you can’t see India in one trip. We didn’t go to any of the large cities (our choice), missed the Taj Mahal (a disappointment – I was sick), and did not get up into the high Himalayas or on to Nepal. We missed the many tiger reserves and bird sanctuaries. Who knows – maybe we will go back again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.