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This blog has moved!

19 Nov

I really enjoyed keeping this blog while I was traveling in India, so after I came home I decided to create a more permanent space on the web for all my adventures. This blog name, Four Months in India was a little too niché to encompass the wider variety I intend to travel (oh the places I’ll go!)

So to continue following along, please visit me at my new blog Along the Away!

As an added incentive, you’ll find the last few posts from my ‘four months in India’ which I caught up on once I returned to a more stable Internet connection.

Thank you for reading my tales here, I hope I’ll see you over there!

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Exploring Rajasthan: Jaipur and the Amber Fort

25 Jun

Next stop was Jaipur – the capital of the state of Rajasthan and one of my favourite places thanks to its bustling vibe, filled with bazaars and busy streets. We had a lot of fun attempting to fit as many people in an auto-rickshaw as possible (eight! But apparently you can fit 12 if necessary) which resulted in lots of in-unison-screeching as pot holes sent eight heads bashing onto the rickshaw ceiling and butts slamming onto the hard skinny seats – but lots of laughs too of course!

A Jaipur highlight was seeing a bollywood film at the Raj Mandir theatre, deliciously retro with its candy pink and baby blue foyer complete with chandeliers and star-shaped lights. We felt like celebrities out the front where an Indian tourist came over to us to introduce his family and have photos with us. The film, Thank You (थैंक यू), was in Hindi, no subtitles, but still universally entertaining (cheesiness knows no language barriers).

Another Jaipur must-do is the trek up the hillside, past a heap of crazed monkeys, to the Galwar Bagh Monkey Temple at sunset. What a fabulous view of Jaipur from the top! The monkeys are spoilt, aggressive little brats that you have to avoid making eye contact with otherwise they will jump you and mug you for everything you have on your person. But apart from that, we enjoyed a perfectly pleasant visit speed walking past the monkeys and taking photos from the top.

There was some good shopping to be done in Jaipur’s bazaars, in particular for silver jewellery – proud to say I played my part in supporting the local economy. Yep, that’s what it’s all about! As I was wandering around the bazaars with the girls we stopped to window gaze at a silver store. The next thing we knew we had been whisked inside the door by a peppy young guy who smoothly had us all lined up in seats at the counter, offering to make us tea while pulling out trays and trays of shiny silver pretties! Normally I’d be backing out the door at this point but there was just something about him, his keen entrepreneur spirit seemed genuine and he chatted away giving us an art history lesson in Indian traditional and contemporary jewellery. We liked him and more importantly we liked his trays of shiny silver pretties so it was not long until we all had our wallets out.

The bazaars are brilliant to wander through; photo moments at every corner, each store packed with a colourful variety of produce, sweets, spices – well everything actually! And the store owners were only too happy to have their stock and themselves photographed.

The tour of Amber Fort near Jaipur was a favourite for me; what an awesome presence this late 16th century citadel has, staking its claim with stone walls running along the mountain tops wherever the eye can see. Predominantly constructed with red sandstone and white marble, the fort sits picturesquely next to Lake Maotha and stands four floors high. The imposing exterior fits into the rugged landscape perfectly but the interior is a piece of art. Intricately carved columns, mirror-inlaid patterned wall panels, paintings flaking away but still showing glimpses of vibrant colour – the attention to detail inside is exquisite and one can only imagine what life was like for those who lived and worked inside the fort when it was in its prime; especially with furniture and textiles further cosying up the ambience.

The four floors all seemed to serve a purpose, the bottom set the scene for parades and the bustling bazaar, another held offices of the ruling empire and halls for public and private audiences, and another housed the consorts (100+ of them!), gardens and temple. The top floor was home to the twelve wives, all set up in their own mini-palace apartments accessible by the Maharaja by a discreet common corridor so that no one but he knew who he was visiting and how often, diplomatically maintaining harmony in the household! Diplomacy was one thing the Amber Fort was lauded for; the careful attention to neutrality and strategic alliances with other ruling forces, from nearby kings to the British meant Amber Fort enjoyed relative peace and was never attacked or conquered. I’m sure the impressive walls and outposts on the surrounding mountains also helped :-).

Rajasthan adventures continue in the next post…!

Exploring Rajasthan: Madhogarh Fort

18 Jun

Leaving the Taj behind us, we travelled by local jeeps to a rural village heritage stay at Madhogarh Fort – a dominating-mama of a building perched at the edge of a small village.  The 400+ year old fort belongs to one of Rajasthan’s royal families and provided a unique stay in a more rural part of Rajasthan.

We were lucky to spend an afternoon walking through the local village where we were accosted by local children begging for ‘one photo’ then clamouring to see the end result on the camera preview.

We met so many charming personalities through our walk in the village, and even through the language barrier we had fun stopping for a few minutes to take photos and show the results.

We were able to visit the school and some local bead makers and sari embroiders.

And watched village life as it continued rolling on around us.

Gradually it seemed that news of our visit spread through the town as we started to attract more attention, and after we stumbled on a wedding celebration in the village we were completely surrounded. The cameras were turned on us as the wedding photographers came over to snap away. We became aware of a commotion happening to the side of us and noticed the musicians were playing their drums and instruments amongst a throng of people smiling and pointing into the circle they had made; on closer inspection we saw Alan, an older Melbournian on our tour, putting on a dance performance with one of the Indian guests. He was clapping and foot stamping and waltzing around with a big grin on his face much to the delight of the entire wedding party. I think it certainly made the event the talk of the town for the rest of the year!

After returning to the fort, the sun started setting on the horizon and it was a perfect time to explore all the nooks and crannies of the crumbling building. It has its own brand of charm, perched above the village with the rural landscape flat-lining all the way to the horizon. We sat on the top of a turret and watched the sun set with cold drinks – ah, peace!

That night we were dressed up in traditional skirts, tops and saris for the girls and turbans for the boys and then enjoyed dinner in the courtyard under the stars – which were popping out on the sky-scape away from the bright lights of urban India. A very special experience!

Exploring Rajasthan: Agra

17 Jun

From Delhi I was off to explore Rajasthan – the land of palaces, forts, scorching summer heat and colourful villages; a very culturally diverse part of India. I joined a Classic Rajasthan two week Intrepid Travel tour with ten other travellers and a guide. It had a great itinerary and attracted an awesome group of people; we had a lot of fun and many laughs as we explored this amazing part of India.

We were meant to get a train to Agra but after an early morning trip to the train station our train turned up but with no seats for us! Something to do with the Indian ticket confirmation system – our tickets had been BOUGHT, but hadn’t been CONFIRMED, so they’d been resold. Why does that not surprise me in the slightest? Ah India! Nevermind, off we went in rickshaws to an empty bus station and got on a bus instead. It was an enjoyable four hour ride, if a little hot and sticky but nothing an open window and an ipod can’t improve.

No room for us!

Once in Agra we made an afternoon visit to the impressive Red Fort, the imperial walled city of the Mughal empires.  The massive fortress encloses multiple palaces, two exquisite mosques, a hall-of-public-audiences, a hall-of-private audiences and a tower in which Shah Jahan, the 17th century Mughal Emperor who built the Taj Mahal, was imprisoned by his son for the final eight years of his life due to a power struggle between his sons to reign the empire.

Legend has it that Shah Jahan died in his tower looking out across the Yamuna River at the Taj Mahal, the monument he built in memory of his love for his deceased wife. A pretty tragic ending for the guy who gave history its biggest statement of eternal love. The palatial tower where he ended his time was not too shabby mind you, he did dwell imprisoned in luxury next to the palaces of the concubines and even had a sort of ancient-times-jacuzzi. Not that you can put a value on freedom of course, but just saying, he wasn’t slumming it.

The view of the Taj from the Tower of Shah Jahan's Imprisonment

We had a guide take us around the fort and it was fascinating to hear about the history and functions of all the buildings, right down to the way the plumbing worked and even some ingenious air conditioning. Impressed!

The next morning it was time; time for a quintessential Indian experience – early morning at the Taj Mahal.

This beautiful, highly-recognisable domed monument is a mausoleum built in memory of Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan’s third but favourite wife who died delivering their 14th child (yikes!) in 1631. The Taj took 21 years to build and is made of white marble and inlaid with gem stones and jewels.

I admit it was smaller than I expected, but still pretty spectacular. The atmosphere was very peaceful and quiet, with 17 ha of beautiful gardens surrounding the Taj and its structures including a mosque and gateway. There are plenty of benches scattered around the grounds on which to sit and absorb the scene.

Everyone who enters is immediately possessed by some sort of photo snapping obsessive compulsive disorder. No wonder it is considered the most photographed subject in the entire world – does anyone walk in, take a picture and put their camera away? No. No one does that. Everyone walks around and takes photos from every angle possible, and then maybe even goes around again (well the light had changed!!!) So, like the masses, I have about 6 million photos of the Taj Mahal. Super! Thank God for digital cameras.

Apparently there are some other monuments in Agra, but really it’s pretty much all about the Taj, which lets the Red Fort share a bit of the limelight as it sits in the Taj’s shadow; but they’re quite time consuming to visit so it’s pretty much all I fit in while in Agra – definitely a must see on the Rajasthan tourist trail!

Delhi: City of Millions

9 Jun

With a reputation like Delhi’s it was an eerie arrival at the Delhi International airport, all squeaky clean with quietly humming travelators, helpful navigation signage, rubbish bins in convenient locations and no clumps of people camped indefinitely around the place. Oh there’s nothing like a global sporting event to tidy things up! Thanks to the 2011 Commonwealth Games and Cricket World Cup for my smooth and efficient arrival intoDelhi!

Even getting a taxi and the drive from the airport to the city was breezy, none of the expected taxi touts waiting for fresh blood outside the airport doors or the slum lined roads one expects. Ah, see the cynicism that results from a burned-by-India experience? Not to worry, once accepted back into the country without any issues (except the immigration officer reminding me I only have a month and a half left on my visa, yep thanks for that) I was good to go again and back on the ‘I heart India’ bandwagon. It was time to explore the north and I was excited! 

The long travel distances and the temptation to leave the logistics to someone else for awhile were enough to lure me to a tour, so I had booked a two week Intrepid backpacking tour of Rajasthan – but first I had a chance to look around Delhi.

The real Delhi – that is, the absolutely chaotic, sprawling city heaving with 12.8 million people – soon revealed itself in the teeny tiny little bit I saw.

Old Delhi is where the stereo-type is at. Established in 1639, it was previously enclosed within a great red stone wall which has since crumbled down around most of its fourteen former gates.

Walking through the crowded alleys in the bazaars here is an eye-opening experience; whereas a lot of the shenanigans I see in India no longer incite a blink of an eye from me, a result of previous experience in developing countries and having become accustomed to Indian ways over the past three months, Delhi has its own unique head-turners. The electricity poles and wires are absolutely unbelievable. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Looking up to the sky from the streets there is a mass of tangled wire draping from pole to building to pole. I don’t know how they manage to deliver electricity to anything or how they don’t combust into flames in the Delhi heat but somehow it works (intermittent power cuts excused). Amazing!

There is a method to some of the madness. The laneways of the bazaars are sorted for convenience into themes. There’s a laneway of shops selling wedding stationery, a laneway for fireworks, another for bangles, for tassles and so on. The biggest spice market in Asia, Khari Baoli, is also in Old Delhi and well worth a wander. The streets are busy with people, motorbikes, cows, dogs and deliveries of boxes and bags of products via all of the above, and they are fascinating to walk around and watch it all unfolding.

Ducking into the occasional ‘residential’ alley is also a treat; beautiful doorways line either side, symbolising the affluent households of those in the ‘merchant’ castes who make their living in the bazaars.

The towering Jana Masjid was a fascinating first taste of ancient architecture in the north. It is India’s largest Mosque with a capacity for 25,000 people and was built between 1644-1658 in Old Delhi. 

It’s important to be covered up appropriately when entering the mosque, but even if you’re dressed head to toe, chances are they will still make you wear the brightly coloured floral mu-mu’s they dole out to the tourists to wear – on a stinky hot day I dread to think how many others have worn the bright orange garment they hand to me – but oh well, on it goes! My shoes are also handed over and it’s a quick dash to the shade as the white marble floor is scorching! But the mosque inside is beautiful and well worth the effort, as are the views across the city.

One of my favourite experiences in Old Delhi was visiting the Sikh Temple Gurdwara Sis Ganj, which is built at the place the ninth Sikh Guru was beheaded in 1675 by a Mughal emperor for refusing to convert to Islam. It was a unique experience from the start. Firstly we needed to stop by the visitor’s room where we were greeted by a Temple representative who gave us an introduction and head scarves to tie over our hair. We left our shoes outside and then walked towards the entrance stairs where we first stepped through a sort of trough on the ground filled with water – washing the feet of everyone who stepped into the temple. We entered the main worship area where three men were sitting cross legged at the front singing the kirtan (call and response chanting) from the Sikh Holy book which is on display next to them under a golden canopy. It was a very serene environment and I really enjoyed sitting cross legged on the floor with the devotees, listening for awhile.

When we moved on we went outside to the community kitchen, an important part of a Sikh Gurdwara – a place where everyone can eat together without discrimination regardless of gender, race, religion etc. Between 2000-4000 people are fed a hot yummy, healthy vegetarian meal for free here every day.

We were lucky to tour the kitchens and see all the food prep going on. Most impressive was the roti (round flat bread) dough being rolled out by some women seated on the floor and then fed into a machine and spat out all warm and toasty-delicious looking. There was some space around the table so myself and Annabelle, one of the girls on my tour, squatted down next to the women and smiled. They smiled back and rolled us some dough. My first attempt to roll the ball into a perfect circle was amusing enough to them but after a few I got the hang of it and it was a special moment to experience.

Situated south of Old Delhi is New Delhi, which was founded by the British in 1931 but over an area encompassing seven ancient cities so there is still plenty of historic sites in the area, including the UNESCO World Heritage site, 16th century Humayun’s Tomb. This impressive monument was built by the wife of the second mughal emperor and is made of red sandstone and white marble with design elements which were later replicated on the Taj Mahal. It is a very peaceful place to visit in an extremely busy city.

The heat of the Delhi daytime hit well into the mid-forties when I was there, which was pretty intense, so it was a relief to visit the night street market in Karol Bagh during the not-so-hot evening time. It’s a festive affair, with mounds of clothes, shoes, toys, bags and more more more. Anything and everything is available, so even though Delhi is currently at the height of its dry hot summer it was no great effort to pick up a raincoat in preparation for my future trip to the mountains. Even if you’re not buying, the markets are a feast for the senses and a great way to immerse yourself in the city vibe outside of the heat of the daytime.

Apart from these sights, my time in Delhi was spent eating (like everywhere in India there is yummy food galore and I am still a more than willing participant), some requisite shopping and escaping the midday heat with some hotel down time. I enjoyed what I saw in this crazy city but I admit it was with a slight sense of relief that I prepared to leave it for awhile – the sensory overload is a lot to take in for too many days in a row in such heat, however I’d happily come back and explore a bit more next time I come to India!

Next up Rajasthan, a wonderland of things to see and do… stay tuned :)

Indian Bureaucracy: Sucked In and Spat Out.

16 May

I’ll start this post by making it clear how much I have loved living, working and travelling in India so far. The people, the food, the work, the traditions, rituals and quirks have all made my stay awesome up to this point.

There’s a flip side to this incredible awesomeness though, and that is Indian Bureaucracy. The official kind.

As stated, it sucks you in and spits you out. No matter if you’re trying to do the right thing, no matter that you were obviously let into the country at some point by some other official authority, no matter if you’re just trying to contribute some good to the country by WORKING FOR FREE for THREE MONTHS OF YOUR LIFE. Sorry, still a bit bitter.

Maybe writing about my frustrating experience at the Foreigner’s Regional Registration Office (FRRO) will serve to offer some info to anyone considering an extended trip to India. I’m sharing a frustrating aspect of my Indian experience but it won’t interest everyone so skip this one if I’m already boring you with my ranting (it will continue til the end of the article).

I came to India on an Employment visa (EV) as per Indian visa policy – even volunteers with NGOs in India require an EV to stay and work in the country. The issue at hand was basically that all foreigners coming to India on a visa valid for more than 180 days must register with the FRRO within 14 days of arrival. Generally the visa in the passport is stamped ‘must register within 14 days’. Mine was not, though registration was mentioned in the generic fineprint at the bottom (but who reads that!??) in my defence I had been told by the YCA programme that I didn’t have to register because I wasn’t in India for more than 180 days, so I didn’t think any more of it. Towards the end of my internship I made enquiries about the possibility of extending my visa as I finally got an invitation to a Hindu wedding, (but sadly not meant to be – bummer). This was when I found out I was supposed to register. Woops! Registration of an EV is required based on the validity of the visa period not the length of stay. My visa, issued for six months, equals 182 days regardless that I’m only staying in India 120. My lateness was not such a big deal, I apologised (verbally and then in writing… by their request. Yep. I had to write the Indian government an ‘I’m sorry’ letter.) I had to pay a fine (about $30) but it seemed to be fairly commonplace and they didn’t make a fuss about it. The problems that came about, and which saw me make nine visits to the FRRO (four in one single day) for a piece of paper I need to leave the country, were caused purely by inconsistent advice dispensed by officials and the soul crushing Indian addiction to superflous paperwork. My visa was correct, I had the paperwork required on the printed checklist, it should have been easy.

No. Not easy. On my first visit to the FRRO office I got the application form with the document checklist attached. I returned the next day with my two passport photos, passport and visa photocopies, letters from my employer clarifying my dates of employment and confirming the accommodation arranged through them and a letter requesting registration (strange considering it’s COMPULSORY).

The second visit saw me join the queue at the Token window, I was about number 30 in line to get my number to join the waiting masses in the processing rooms upstairs. After about half an hour some bright spark Official decided the line that had grown to about 50 was too long, so after the 8th person he drew an imaginary line in the air and herded the rest of us toward a bay of waiting chairs announcing that the line will continue from the chairs. Huh? So at least 42 people stampede for the chairs. The person formerly 10th in line becomes the 40th, and the 50th becomes 15th and so on, in a big mess. My place at 30 becomes something like 23rd. But new people coming in the door join the standing queue, slotting themselves unknowingly after the eighth position. Finally the oblivious official is inundated with peeved foreigners shaking their heads and fists at him. He starts telling the newcomers to sit down, but where? No one knows how the queue is supposed to move. The official is plucking foreigners out at random whilst assuring everyone the queue is in effect. But he’s not looking so sure. In fact, he’s starting to look a bit frazzled. And maybe beginning to doubt his strategy. Finally, we organise ourselves and the queue begins to operate in a zig zag direction. We all stand and shift one seat along whenever someone graduates to the standing queue. It’s the most ridiculous system I’ve ever seen, and my 30th then 23rd position becomes about 40th due to the zig zag but I don’t care because finally it is possible to anticipate progress. The official attempts to direct the crowd again but he is ignored and the zig zag stays in motion. Once he realises that an order has been brought to the chaos he looks relieved and then busies himself enforcing it.

Finally getting a token allowed me to proceed upstairs to wait my turn. Finally my number was up and I approached a counter and joined the throng at the desk (the number doesn’t seem to entitle anyone to any ordered service). Once my paperwork was handed to an official it entered the system and had the process sheet attached to the front of it. Doesn’t sound like much but I came to learn that it meant on any visit after this I could butt in on any queue without necessarily waiting. I say neccessarily because everyone else could do the same to me with their paperwork… So I guess it evened out.

The rest of the process was generally a nightmare, inefficiency with the occasional unexpected stroke of good will. The officials were generally frustrating as hell but then out of nowhere one would go out of their way and help me beyond expectation. Upstairs was confusing, every official was talking to multiple people at once, flipping through the application of one person while asking questions of another, turning mid conversation to start one with someone else. Twice I was handed back the paperwork and passport of someone else. At first my experience made me resent everyone who worked there with a burning passion of indefinable proportions, but then I began to feel some compassion for the officials. Don’t get me wrong, much of it was infuriating pompous-ness and superiority complexes. But on the other hand, how can they concentrate? There is no system, everyone is confused, and the multiple language barriers must be hard. One official actually thanked me for my good English! As frustrated as I was with some of the attitudes and service I recieved, I could at least see that their day there must be as stressful as mine… But stuck on repeat, like EVERY day. Ganesh help them.

I can’t adequately explain the nightmare there, it wont seem that bad, after all it’s just paperwork. The infuriating part was not knowing when it would end. I needed the registration certificate to hand over at the airport when departing otherwise I might not be allowed to leave. But try as I might I couldn’t get the piece of paper. There was always something more. Basically it went like this:

Official flicks through my paperwork. ‘Letter from company of employment not on coloured letterhead madam, get it on coloured letterhead’
‘Really? Is that necessary? It was emailed to me like that.’
‘Madam, must be on coloured letterhead’ *head wobble, hand flick* ‘Next’.

Go to work, ask HR for a new letter, come back with letter on coloured letterhead.

‘Madam, must have company stamp on it’ *head wobble, hand flick* ‘Next’
‘Stamp? You didn’t mention stamp before!’
*head wobble, hand flick*

And so on. Repeat similar exchange for:
– Signature on employer’s letter not in ‘real ink’ ie hand signed.
– Date on employer’s letter suddenly (after four visits) not adequate. The letter is dated 2010 when I was offered the position at Janaagraha. It needs to be today’s date.
– Letter from employer validating accommodation arranged by employer not good enough. Must ask our sweet 80-something year old landlady for a letter AND a copy of her Voters identity card AND a copy of her last electricity bill.
And so on. Little things like that. Over and over.

The worst was when suddenly the date of my volunteer period on the employee letter is questioned. Even though my visa application had stipulated a volunteer period followed by a period of travel they now claim I’m not allowed, I must leave after my internship ends. The whole process had taken so long I am now told ‘Madam, you must leave the country tomorrow’ *head wobble, hand flick* ‘Next’.

That’s when I cried. Completely and utterly broken. The official ignored me for awhile. But with a *head wobble, hand flick* he tells me I must get a new letter from my employer claiming responsibility for me for the entire period of my stay. I leave disheartened, and pretty stressed out. It’s my second last day at Janaagraha and I’ve spent most of the past week at the FRRO. I go back across town in morning traffic to the office, get another document drawn up and return to the FRRO, I scrutinise the document in the 30 minute auto ride on the way checking and rechecking to make sure it covers my whole stay. As I rejoin the queue I look down at the letter and the date at the top catches my eye. The 2010 date is back. Shiiiit!! I’m absolutely done. I call Rashmi at the office and beg her to bring me a new letter. I can’t go back there again, I can’t, I can’t, you can’t make me!!! She comes to my rescue, and it signals the beginning of the final run. With her presence things start getting ticked off and processed. She has energetic conversations with the official that I can’t understand but I keep my fingers crossed. Finally, finally, finally I get a slip of paper telling me to return at 2.30pm. It’s too much to believe, but when I come back the much sought after piece of paper is delivered into my hands. On the stipulation I return after the Easter long weekend to register my change of address. Fine, that’s fine, Rashmi helps me out there again.

I’m finally sorted but Alicia’s experience has been worse than mine. The Indian visa office in Melbourne didn’t issue her an EV even though she applied with the same paperwork as me. Again and again she quizzed them but they were adament, they issued her an Entry X visa. Wrong! Major confusion and trouble in India. She was passed around the officials at the FRRO for as many days as I was there, and was told she didn’t need to register; she did need to register; she was in the country illegall; she had to get the Melbourne embassy to vouch for her (after unsuccessfully trying to contact them on the Easter/ANZAC long weekend and then finding out they were closed for a week for relocation, they still refused to help); she had to leave immediately; and then finally, they would allow her to apply for an Exit visa.

We both have to return after the weekend but with fingers crossed I decide to think optimistically and book a Bangalore to Colombo flight for Tuesday, early morning. The Andaman Islands had been taken from me but I refuse to let the whole week, my supposed to be week-of-rejuvenation, disappear completely. I had planned on going to Sri Lanka during my time away anyway, and since it appears Alicia’s unresolved visa issues would be best solved by fleeing the country, it seems like the right time.

Alicia, expecting to finalise her visa requirements by Wednesday, with fingers crossed books a flight to join me in Colombo on Thursday. Monday arrives and it’s touch and go but at 1pm I’m done; free to go. Relief like I have never known. Thank God! Thank Ganesha! Thank you Universe!

Alicia attempts to begin applying for an Exit visa but against all other advice, she’s now told it’s not necessary, she can walk out of the country. Really? We’re not so sure but the official won’t let her go any further in making enquiries, even though days before, officials upstairs gave different advice. As far as he’s concerned she doesn’t need to do anything. It’s too good to be true. So we’re not convinced it is. We decide to both try leaving on Tuesday together. We’re stressed. We’re wondering whether, after all the different advice we’ve recieved, Alicia can leave the country on her visa, and whether mine will let me leave and come back. An early Tuesday morning dawns for us… Where will the evening see us? All will be revealed in the next installment…

Mini-Break: Goa

16 May

Another three day weekend, another mini-break… Such is life people! This time to Goa, which is on the mid-west coast of India. Famous for its beaches, markets, hippie havens and laid back attitude, we were in for a cruisy weekend, particularly as it was the end of the season and many of the establishments were getting ready to pack up before the monsoon arrives in May.

We went by overnight bus and pulled into the state capital of Panjim early Friday morning. We got an auto to Anjuna Beach straight away and walked about the town before settling into some ocean facing seats at a cliff top restaurant, enjoying cold drinks and watching the sun begin it’s descent to the horizon. Ah peace!

On Saturday we took an auto ride about an hour further up the coast to Arambol Beach, a welcome white stretch of sand with a lone establishment serving cold drinks and food right to the water’s edge. We chatted with Lama, a Nepalese guy who works with a group of other Nepalese guys at the cafe, they spend the six month tourist season in Goa each year and then return to Nepal to work the summer season there. It suits them as Nepal shuts down for the cold of winter and Goa closes during the monsoon. With the monsoon around the corner, Lama and the others were getting ready to leave within the fortnight; but not before dismantling the restaurant which they build at the start of every season and then take down before it’s destroyed in the monsoon.

It was hard to picture the destructive winds and rain that would arrive within the month when we were enjoying a perfect blue sky and 40 degree sunshine. We spent the day there – swim, sun loungers, swim, sun loungers. Clothing wise it was the most exposed I’d been since arriving in India; I take care to dress appropriately here, knees and shoulders and all inbetween covered up. At the beach I was prepared to stay just as covered even though generally the dress code is more relaxed in Goa as a result of the tourist saturation. But I’d also heard that it’s not uncommon for bus loads of Indian boys to swamp the Goan beaches on the weekends in the tourist season to unabashedly stare at the bare skinned tourists! Luckily we didn’t find it so bad due to it being end of season, but we were still the object of some curiousity. It’s been interesting to note that the Indian women swim in their normal clothes, a salwar kameez or sari, no cossies for them!

That night we got an auto to the famous Anjuna Saturday night markets. Wow – white people! Lots of them! I hadn’t realised how long it’s been since I saw other white people – the whole market was packed with tourists, but where did they come from? I’d been wondering if there were even any in India since I never see them anywhere. It was crazy busy but a lot of fun, and really awesome shopping. Prices start high but drop fast and the stall holders are friendly in their haggling. There was an overpriced part of the market where snooty white hippies were selling assorted handicrafts and didn’t seem to haggle, but I certainly enjoyed supporting the local stallholders :-)

Despite half hearted efforts to keep my money in my wallet I spent every rupee and then went into overdraft at the Bank of Alicia, the result of no ATMs nearby (if you go, fill your wallet, then take double more!)

I did purchase a beautiful quilt made with old sari scraps which was an Indian speciality I specifically wanted to go home with. Well actually, I’m going home with two. It just sort of happened after I unintentionally starting haggling and the price went so low I couldn’t walk away (seriously, I couldn’t. They were beautiful, but more to the point, at that price it would be embarrassing to walk away!)

Apart from severe over-exposure to over-exposed sun-burnt/sun-tanned tourists, the market had a good vibe with funky music playing and a great variety of things to buy including clothing, shoes, jewellry, bags, art, trinkets and textiles. I’d definitely recommend the markets if you’re in the area on a Wednesday or Saturday night.

Monday at Silk Cotton Resort at Bogmalo Beach in South Goa was a suprise luxury stay after we changed our plans last minute to skip a day trip to Old Goa (I confess complete utter immersion in beach mode made not even the 15th century former capital of Portuguese India worth getting out of my cossies for) to stay one more night by the beach, this one a lot closer to the airport for our super early flight the next morning.

We stayed in a lovely little villa in a garden overflowing with beautiful flowers and boasting a sparkling swimming pool. The couple running the show greeted us at the gate, brought us cold fresh juices and drove us down to the beach. Bogmalo was a really small place; a decent stretch of sand with a cafe shack perched on the edge, a few little shops and that’s about it! But perfect for a last night stop before a flight as it’s a 15 minute drive to the airport, to which our male host drove us to well before sunrise. We were even sent on our way with a takeaway brekkie in brown paper bags since we had such an early flight, aw!

So Goa was a beach, markets and food-by-the-water kind of weekend; highly recommended no matter where you are in the world, but particularly enjoyable here in Incredible India!

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As I’m on the road and away from my laptop I’m sorry to have to post this without any photos at this stage. I will add them in later when I am more technologically connected!
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