Varkala: Where yoga meets the sea

While Varkala is not India’s ground zero for yoga,  a walk along the town’s cliff-top path will have you tripping over tanned and toned aficionados. Signs for sunrise, sunset, rooftop and beach yoga classes proliferate. “Oh right,” I thought, looking at this poster, until I saw a beautiful woman do a similar pose on the beach, with legs in lotus position, propped on one hand. This otherworldly creature then gracefully disengaged her limbs and strode into the ocean – the far north end of the beach where no-one swims and where red flags warn of dangerous currents.  Does advanced yoga promise immortality?

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Another poster seems to suggest cult membership, or at the very least the chance to have a scary boyfriend for a while.

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And no, dear yogi friends, I’m not mocking. My body would be very grateful if I bought a yoga mat and actually used it. After a week here, I feel inspired.

Varkala is a seaside town in the south of India – with beaches that are not, in my humble opinion, nearly as lovely as those in Goa, but still… a holiday within a holiday. We needed a week to get off the road, stop travelling, stop sightseeing and just enjoy doing nothing. It has achieved all of that and more.

We booked into the Keretheerum – a nine-room guesthouse down a lane and a half-block to the beach. Clean, quiet, A/C, balcony and on-site laundry – perfect.

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We could have stayed here, but we figured it might not measure up to the original.

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We could have stayed here, at Clafouti Hotel – very pretty beach resort, but just a shade over our budget.

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We did eat a lot of our meals at their restaurant –  affordable, great views, warm, professional staff and clean, delicious food. Here is a view from our favourite table. We sat directly behind this table to stay in the shade and avoid the stream of vendors going by.

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A big chunk of the beach area is on top of a cliff, with stores and restaurants and hotels on one side and the cliff on the other. There are a few staircases that lead down to the beach.  The path runs for a few kilometres and in parts, it is like this – scenic and clean and fenced for safety.

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In other parts, it is like this – scruffy and filled with garbage.

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The garbage in town and on the beach and in the water is extremely distressing. The Sea of Arabia is a priceless asset and no-one seems to care. There is a sign in our room asking  us to avoid plastic as the municipality does not collect garbage and it is either being burned or thrown over the cliff.

We have seen small signs to improve the situation – workers on the beach picking up garbage, and small trucks coming by to take away huge nylon bags filled with trash, but it is a drop in the bucket. I watched a man finish his lunch and casually toss the wrapper over the  cliff – that action was as natural and unconscious to him as breathing.

At first,  swimming at Varkala felt wonderful. The water is warm and there are good waves to play in.

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But we aren’t in the water for long when a piece of plastic wraps around our ankles, or we step on something that feels distinctly icky. We try not to swallow any water. By contrast, our swimming in Goa was blissfully clean.

We have been greatly amused by Varkala’s lifeguards. Neatly dressed in blue, they spend their time either checking their cellphones, or gossiping with their partners. Periodically they leap to their feet and emit several short blasts on their whistle all the while motioning with their red flag to either come in, or move down the beach. Of course, no-one pays any attention and this scenario is repeated all afternoon.

We wondered what they would do in the case of a drowning, since they are not equipped with lifesaving apparatus – not as much as a ring or a board. Also, the first dilemma would be to safely stash their cellphones and remove their nice shirts.

We stopped to talk to them and they told us that their job involves saving several Indians every year, since “Indians don’t know how to swim. ”  We had gathered that – many  Indians simply play at the shore’s edge, often hanging on to one another for support.

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Since lifesaving is obviously not a big moneymaker, our new friend also volunteered that we might want him to take us out on a dolphin-watching tour. We could swim with the dolphins, but not touch – we might end up in jail for that offence. Anyway, it could be dangerous to get too close – since we are Canadians and come from a cold country, we are “fresh meat.” After a great laugh at his own joke, he jumped up for a photo.

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The surfers were out in full force on one end of the beach. There seemed to be a collegial community of about 15 or so surfers, both Indians and foreigners.

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The south end of the beach also serves as a bathing and religious area for Hindus. A couple of days ago, we stumbled upon a ceremony. Several small huts were set up, with holy men administering blessings and small food offerings for departed loved ones. We aren’t sure of the significance of this ritual, but watched as people would receive the food and blessing, then walk toward the water.

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It appeared solemn, but not sad – I believe this is a regular occurrence to honour the dead. The food offerings, wrapped in banana leaves, were left behind.

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Although we are not religious, it is always an interesting part of our travels to observe how people practice their faith. We met an Indian woman from Delhi who has great disdain for “all those little Hindu rituals” but I found that dismissive. We have witnessed Indians receive comfort and affirmation with those actions.

India’s religions have played out powerfully in their history and continue to play out today. Not for me to comment in any way, but it is impossible to be in India for longer than a day and not witness the impact of religious conflict and the seemingly impenetrable divisions that have shaped life here. The Modi government appears to want to eradicate Christian and Muslim religions; violence has broken out in many parts of the country.

Ironically, India continues to attract droves of spiritual seekers. They are perhaps drawn to the irresistible notion of nirvana that so few Indians seem able to attain.

That is what makes India so endlessly fascinating – the questions with no answers, the dilemmas with no easy solutions, and the stereotypes that might deserve a second look.

We’ve all heard about the male stare in India, and it is no exaggeration. This young man has a pushback; either he is trying to change that negative impression, or he just wants to be a little cheeky.

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Along with the many stores that line the clifftop, Varkala has a number of Tibetan shops. I remember when singing bowls became popular years ago in North America, which also brought back memories of purchasing Indian bedspreads and incense.

These are quite beautiful – I watched as the shopowner demonstrated for a couple of tourists.

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To walk the clifftop is to run the gauntlet of shopkeepers, keen to stop you long enough to lure you inside. Mainly, the shops offer identical merchandise – beachwear, gauzy dresses, sandals and jewellery.

Some of the stuff looked quite nice, but since no amount of pleading will convince the merchants to allow you to browse without being hassled to death, I didn’t dare stop.

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There are quite a few tailors in Varkala as well, offering ready-to-wear and custom designs.  I couldn’t resist this sign as I realized I no longer own a “dearest piece of clothing”  There are times when living out of a suitcase and wearing the same easy-wash, low-wrinkle clothing gets very, very boring.

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Our first night in Varkala, we ate at a rooftop restaurant and watched the sun set behind this palm tree. It was so tropical, so romantic…and then we saw a rat run up the trunk. I think my aversion therapy to rats is coming along nicely – I keep seeing them and my reactions are becoming less hysterical.

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Ir you look closely at this photo, you will see a few lights – the night fishermen were just setting up. In the morning, they might bring in a prize like this – yellowfin tuna. And yes, those are Stephen’s feet in the background.

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We’ve had a perfectly relaxing week in Varkala and now we’re ready to go exploring again. Off to Pondicherry tomorrow – India’s French colonial city – we’ve been promised real croissants. We’re there for a few days of civilized, leafy ambience.

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.

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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