Monthly Archives: April 2003

Vacation India, part 4

Goa to Nepal, days 13–17

The trip from Goa to Mumbai began at 11:00 a.m. with the boisterous West Bengali family with whom we were sharing our coupe opening a bottle of whiskey. It wasn’t long before they were singing and drunkenly expounding on West Bengal’s long legacy of poetry and literature. It seemed like the trip home was going to be a test of my constitution.

Mainly I say this because the only train that wasn’t booked-up out of Goa was a day train, leaving Margoa early Friday morning and arriving in Mumbai late that night at around 11:00 p.m. When the evening finally cooled off our coupe, I was being lectured on the greatness of not accepting a Nobel Peace prize, which was pronounced, thanks to the whiskey, Nobel Peesth Preith.

In and Out of Mumbai

When we finally got into Mumbai we were all exhausted after the train ride. No one really was up for sleeping in the train station so we decided that we’d find a hotel for the night.

Trains somewhere, going somewhere

Somewhere, two India Rail trains invoke a sense of history.

The place we had crashed at for the day when we’d last come through Mumbai was too expensive for just the five of us (Andrew, Laurel, Liz, Tony, and I) so we had to find a different place.

We were all tired enough that just having a taxi driver take us the place his brother or cousin or whoever ran seemed like a good idea.

Last time we’d passed through Mumbai we had been harangued by taxi drivers telling us they could take us to the cheapest and best hotels in Mumbai. Considering our situation, it wasn’t a terrible idea; we just didn’t realize how much of a gamble we were taking.

The taxi driver had promised all sorts of things: good location, enough beds, clean rooms, soft towels, et cetera, et cetera. He lied. He lied about everything. I should have known.

The five minute drive from Victoria Station slowly turned int the o twenty minutes and neighborhood went from quaint to sketchy. The hotel was called Zam Zam.

Hotel Zam Zam was located smack dab in the middle of a Muslim neighborhood. If I was from any other country besides the United States and if the world viewed the United States any differently, I might not have cared, but United States was marching on Baghdad, and Peace Corps HQ was suggesting we tell folks we were Canadian.

The night before we left Nepal, a guy approached me on street in Biratnagar and asked me in Nepali if I was Australian. When I told him I was from the United States, he shouted, I fuck them you! I fuck them you!

Was my Nepali that bad that he chose to curse at me in broken English for the sake of clarity and not Nepali? Jerk.

And so we were all a little tense. We were tired and at the mercy of the taxi drivers. As we entered the lobby we met the clerk, who was a nice Muslim man.

Behind him there was a poser of Mecca and on the desk there was a collection jar with a sign on it, asking, Help stop US aggression in Iraq.

The clerk curtly asked, May I have your passports?

Once we got to our rooms and our doors were barricaded, the night passed uneventfully, though somebody pounded on my door at about 3:00 a.m. I got up and listened. Someone belched and then stumbled down the hallway. I went back to sleep.

We had to leave the hotel at 4:30 a.m. to catch our early train to Gorakhpur. Our stay at Hotel Zam Zam had been interesting and nonfatal. We were cultural ambassadors. After paying for the room, I was sure to drop a coin into the clerk’s jar. He didn’t smile.

We had some puri sabji before boarding our train on Thursday, April 10, 2003. For the last leg to Gorakhpur we’d gotten Second Class AC, which meant we were riding in style.

Instead of sticky vinyl beds, we’d be given sheets, pillows, and of course, AC. What I can say about Second Class AC is that it is boring.

Really boring. No transvestites. No Bihari vagabond minstrel children. No white-haired woman pointing plastic firearms in Laurel’s face. Just a lone tea vendor came by the entire trip.

This gave us time to think and in doing so we decided that it was stupid to spend a night in Gorakhpur when we could spend that night in Benares instead. Benares wasn’t far from Gorakhpur so it wouldn’t be a problem.

When we rolled up into Benares on Friday, April 11, 2003 (day 15), we grabbed our bags and departed.

Benares

I called it Benares, not Varanasi. Two names, one place. It’s just like Mumbai vs. Mumbai. If I say to someone in Birganj, I went to Varanasi, they look at me waiting for me to say something intelligible.

Andrew purchases a samosa and Kara is frightened

Traveling by India Rail brings randomness and oddity.

But if I say, I went to Benares, everything is understood. It’s the way I speak so it’s the way I write.

As we stepped out of our coupe and into the Benares train station we were assailed by an assortment of rickshaw, tempo, and taxi drivers. We hadn’t even left the platform yet.

I tried to press through the crowd, though they pushed back. Laurel lost her mind again and yelled, Chhaindayna! For more Laurel speaking the wrong language in the wrong country, see part 2.

Perhaps 15 people stuck to us as we exited the station, yelling this and that about their hotel, their tempo, their hotel, their helicopter, et cetera.

When we got outside I had around seven or eight people so close around me that I could have put my arms around all of them. They were shouting information about mythical hotels and false prices when I lost it.

You’re all lying to me! I shouted and then began walking in a circle, which I thought might confuse them, but it didn’t. So I walked around in a circle with taxi drivers, rickshaw wallahs, and my friends walking in a circle, too.

Laurel finally noticed, asking loudly across the crowd, What are you doing, Scott?

In the end we decided to go with the guy who told us he had a helicopter. It seemed like the rational thing to do. Show up in a train station in a second-world country and someone offers to ferry you from the station to your hotel of choice by helicopter, you take them up on it. When we asked him where it was he said nothing, only pointing to the sky.

Surprise, surprise, he didn’t have a helicopter. He did have a brother-in-law, though, who was more than happy to drive us to Hotel Surya, the random hotel we’d picked out of the Lonely Planet book.

I was still a little wired from bum-rush at the train station, so every five minutes I’d prompt the tempo driver, Where are you taking? Are you lying to me? I know you’re lying to me. You’re all lying to me!

Well, he wasn’t. He took us to the hotel and turned out to be a nice enough guy. Hotel Surya was a nice change from the huts in Goa and the dive in Mumbai. The rooms faced a large, open English garden that was vibrantly alive.

The hotel’s restaurant was open-air and located adjacent to the garden, which was quite nice.

We spent the night relaxing at the hotel. The next day, Saturday, April 12, 2003 (day 16), was long. We got up at 4:45 a.m. and rushed over to the ghats, holy places where Hindus are cremated next to the Ganges River.

So we sat there, drinking tea and groggily wondering if we were better people for watching the sunrise over the Ganges River in Benares. We concluded we were not.

Moments later as we were walking along the ghats young guy about my age began talking with Andrew. He was peddling postcards, necklaces, but nothing interesting.

Well, that is until he pointed at two young boys sitting nearby on the steps of the ghats.

Postcard? Necklace? Sex with small boy? It wasn’t even six o’clock.

Benares is a place of contradictions. It’s one of Hindu’s holiest places, yet it is covered in manure. Bathing in the Ganges is believed to purify one’s body, yet the water is so polluted there’s no diluted oxygen in it, which means it is technically septic water.

Stuck between the ghats are yoga studios and meditation schools that advertise in English, Now offering yoga, meditation, happiness, and enlightenment.

Trains somewhere, going somewhere

Somewhere, two India Rail trains invoke a sense of history.

We hung out at the ghats until it got hot. Our train didn’t depart Benares until midnight, so we had all day to kill. For several hours at Hotel Surya, we avoided the heat by watching TV in our rooms or by having a coke at the restaurant.

Andrew, Tony, and I got shaves at the hotel and the girls got facials. I opted for a massage myself and got a lot more than I expected. It’s a long story.

While at the hotel, we got an email from Dave, who had gone to Delhi to pick up a laptop that a friend had brought from the United States for him. We had all felt bad when we left him alone at the train station in Margoa.

His time in India hadn’t been easy and an acute paranoia had sat in after his glasses were stolen, which was probably being exacerbated by his solo trip to Delhi.

Here’s how he was doing:

Yeah man, I ahte [sic] India.

I arrived into New Delhi and got my computer. So all good, but then I try and get tickets out of this &%!*@$ place and all hell breaks lose. Oh man, I am $&*@#!!. I can’t get out of this $&*@#!! country till the 13th or 14th [of April]. I don’t know man. Train, air, all booked cuz now there’s a college break, or spring break, or some $&*@#!! like that. I got scammed at some travel agent who tried to sell me bogus tickets, took my American cash and wouldn’t return that $&*@#!!. I thought they were going to try and slit my throat and kill me.

I ahte [sic] it here. They gave me a maaza and I thought they spiked that $&*@#!! with drugs so I couldn’t drink that $&*@#!!. So now that I got this unexpected delay of four days I think I may go to Agra. Anyone in? Man, by the time you $&*@#!! read this $&*@#!! you will be in good ol’ Nepal, where the peeps are friendly, the tea isn’t tea, and there ain’t that many Indian people that SUCK!

—dave

When Dave arrived in Agra, he was welcomed by a huge banner outside the train station that read Hate America. Love Islam.

He left Agra that day. He ended up getting to Kathmandu for a Peace Corps meeting on time with nothing else of his stolen. He was back in Nepal, where the peeps were friendly and the tea wasn’t tea.

Vacation had come to an end for everyone, though some of thought a little differently about India. As we approached the India-Nepal border at Sunauli bright and early on Sunday, April 13, 2003 (day 17).

Andrew put in a cassette of music from the Bollywood movie Kushi, which he’d bought in Mumbai. We caught a second wind and with Sunauli in sight began singing along:

Oh, ohhh, oh, ohhh, OH! Good morning India!
Oh, ohhh, oh, ohhh, OH! See you tomorrow India!

Vacation India, part 3

Mumbai to Goa, days 4–8

We arrived in Goa on Monday, March 31, 2003 (day 4), and the vacation began. The scenery got greener as we crawled through Goa and somewhere along the way we picked up Les, a friend of Kara’s.

He’d been traveling across India for the past month or so and had just left a job serving food at an ashram run by a paraplegic man. He needed the beaches, he said.

Anjuna

After we exited the train station in Margoa we took an endless number of buses (it was four, actually) before we finally got to our first destination, Anjuna, known for its open-air market as well as its open-air parties; however, strict police have diluted the party scene greatly and the slump in tourism has made the vendors at the Anjuna market unpleasantly aggressive.

Looking north from a hill in Anjuna, Goa

Looking north across the red clay shoreline in Anjuna, Goa.

So why did we go there? I didn’t argue—I just wanted to get somewhere soon as I was tired of traveling. I was ready to be finished with crowds, taxi drivers, public transportation, and chai wallahs.

I was ready to be idle. I wanted to sit in a whitewashed chair and drink fluorescent-colored drinks with small umbrellas. I wanted beautiful beaches during the day and hip discos at night. What I wanted, it turned out, was not Anjuna.

I should clarify by saying that I didn’t dislike Anjuna. I was content for a couple days adjusting to the salty waters of the Arabian Sea and the acidic but sugary Bacardi Breezers in Anjuna.

I rented a motorcycle and took Laurel to a couple Portuguese forts to the north and south of Anjuna. We killed a few hours at a beach just north of Anjuna called Vagator. While stunningly beautiful, Vagator’s rocky beach makes it unsuitable for swimming.

On Thursday, April 3, we decided that we’d check out the only surviving disco left in Anjuna. The catch was that it closed at 10:00 p.m. sharp because the disco needed to have a certain permit to play music late.

Baksheesh, the guys at the hotel told us, is the only permit you will need.

The club was interesting enough though. It was a change from discos of Kathmandu or even what I’d seen in the US. This place in Anjuna was purely a trance club.

Looking south towards a rocky coast of Anjuna, Goa

The beaches in the northern part of Goa were beautiful but not the best for swimming.

It seemed that everyone was stoned, drunk, or just delusionally trapped in a second childhood. People didn’t dance together, but swayed unrhythmically with their backs to the DJ and facing the two monolith speakers.

And at 10:00 p.m. sharp, the music ended and everyone was ushered out. The weathered hippie that had been using his telescope to sell other weathered hippies ten-rupee views of Saturn was packing up his telescope. The hippie parents were gathering their hippie children.

The Russian we’d been sitting with us that night looked at us, picked up some of the dark red dirt that covers Vagator and let it sift through his hands, saying, I love this black country, he speech affected as much by alcohol as by accent, I love these black people.

Palolem

Well, Anjuna was interesting enough, but it was decided that after the mandated trip to the disco was finished that we should seek out a nicer beach in Goa. We had heard tales of white sand and clear water in Palolem.

Scott, the author, on the beach in Palolem

Scott, your author, on the beach in Palolem, Goa, a classic hero shot.

It was worth suffering another couple bus rides. So on Friday, April 4, 2003 (day 8), we stepped out of a taxi about 50 feet from one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve seen.

Not much happened the week in Palolem. We swam. We ate. We played volleyball a couple times. That’s about it. The beach just to the north of Palolem is one of my most beautiful places I’ve ever been to in my life.

One day while I was wandering around on my motorcycle, I happened on a nameless beach.

I parked my bike and walked from the road onto the beach. There were a maybe two areas comprised of four huts. That was it for development. The rest of the beach was pristine and there wasn’t another person present.

We’d arrived just at the end of the high season and so the guest houses were closed. I swam out and saw in the distance a young girl, maybe ten, chasing her herd of water buffaloes along the beach.

The days were filled with nothing much. If we felt daring then we’d venture outside of the hotel to get food. When it got too hot to swim, I checked my email.

This was the idleness that I was hoping for: day after day of doing nothing interesting. Well, there was this one boat ride that might be worth mentioning. It wouldn’t be a vacation if there wasn’t a boat involved.

Since we’d arrived in Palolem, the proprietor of the neighboring restaurant was trying to convince us to take a dolphin viewing boat ride, lasting a couple of hours.

It cost something like Rs. 100 per person. No one was really gung-ho enough to organize it so we left the guy hanging every day.

One morning after a particularly harrowing night of drinking (yes, it’s true) the guy came by. Apparently the night before someone had confirmed with him that we’d be going the next day.

Drunken negotiating is hazardous for this very reason. I was the first one up and feeling well. Andrew woke up a bit later and was followed by Tony. The three of us were the only ones up. It was 7:00 a.m.

Andrew and others watch the small boat be launched

Andrew gets ready for his boat ride around the Arabian Sea.

Everyone was roused and people slowly moved towards the beach and towards the wooden boat where the crew was prepping to push off. Suddenly the guy stopped the eight of us and said, Only seven can go. What to do?

I opted out figuring that coupling my mild hangover with the mix of being in a small boat in a rough sea and under the sun for at least a couple hours might be hazardous.

Just as I got my morning cup of coffee, two Scottish women I’d met the night before passed me. They looked and saw my friends waiving at me as they pushed off.

One of them, Merell, said, What? Your friends left you behind?

When I explained the situation, they insisted that I come along with them.

The sea’s waves were taking their toll on my pals. After spotting a dolphin or two, the captain asked if he should stop the boat so everyone could swim. No, the group grumbled, Take us back. Now.

As I was told (I wasn’t there, remember), not much was said—until Liz began vomiting into the Arabian Sea. Andrew was quick on his feet and started taking photographs. Liz hung over the side while Laurel reprimanded Andrew. And the ride was finished.

I spent my boat ride talking with some nice Scottish women. They had just finished up secondary school and were traveling across the subcontinent while they waited out their college paperwork.

After spending all of my time with Peace Corps folks, it was refreshing to get out of the circle and meet some new people who didn’t belch, eat with their hands, pick their noses, or have other ‘uncivilized’ customs that we’d all adapted.

So while Liz was puking into the sea and Andrew was taking photos and Laurel was hassling him, I was swimming in a cove collecting starfish with dolphins jumping somewhere nearby. What a morning.

Dave’s Adventures in India

Dave had gone to an optometrist in Maupse, just outside of Anjuna. After making arrangements Dave came back from town hopeful that in two day he’d be able to see again.

He was handling things really well. I would have gotten really irritable. Instead Dave was chill, only occasionally asking Tony, So, is that girl hot?

When the day came for Dave to pickup his glasses we were also headed to Palolem. I had just gotten a haircut and shave and was stopping by the optometrist’s office to check on Dave before I went over to the train station and arranged for our taxi.

When I walked into the office Dave was sitting with his arms crossed opposite from the optometrists, grimacing, blind.

I asked him what was going on. Suddenly a stream of obscenities flew out of his mouth—something about confusion concerning when the glasses would be ready.

Dave had gotten a pair of sunglasses made, too, and those would take an extra day. Somehow things had been confused and Dave had left thinking the glasses were going to be ready a day early, the optometrist thinking the exact opposite.

A lone cow enjoys the Anjuna beach

Early one morning, a lone cow was the sole occupant of the nearby Anjuna beach.

Dave and the optometrist went back and forth a few times. I was really impressed by the optometrist’s ability to defend himself in English with a New Yorker who was quite pissed.

The optometrist agreed to personally send the glasses down to Palolem the next day. He told Dave he’d be coming around 10:30 a.m. He’d said, I’ll find you there.

The next day came. Dave, still blind, waited at the main intersection in Palolem for the guy to show up. Well, 10:30 a.m. came and went, and guy didn’t arrive.

Dave, still blind, went insane. He was leaving. He hated the optometrist in Maupse. He hated having to haggle for a taxi. He hated India and enough was enough.

Sometime around noon the optometrist showed up and found Trey. Trey took him back to the hotel and Dave wasn’t anywhere to be found. No one had seen him since he was ranting at the Palolem intersection about people trying to steal his shoes.

So Trey fronted the money and thanked the guy for his trouble.

You know, the optometrist told Trey, that man just doesn’t speak proper English.

We started to get concerned when evening came and still no sign of Dave. As we all congregated to make dinner plans, Dave appeared. He’d gone to Margoa and bought his return ticket as far as Delhi, where a friend was keeping a laptop brought from the US for Dave.

Trey asked Dave if he’d gotten his glasses.

David respond, No, man, that $&*@#!! ripped me off!

Trey smiled as he handed Dave his glasses.

Dave yelped, without pausing, Oh, there they are. Cool.

Dragging Our Feet

Finally it came time to leave. I had bought our return tickets from Margoa to Gorakhpur, which was a Kafkaesque nightmare. Kafka must have been at least half Indian. Our train was departing on Wednesday, April 9, 2003 (day 10).

Kara and Les had left a few days early so they could catch the Rolling Stones in Bombay. Kara reported back to us:

Hey guys,

Arrived in Bombay, bought the tickets, saw the Stones. Ruled, mon. It was sweltering hot, which made the dance-fest a sweaty mess of flailing limbs. It was awesome. Here?s what I remember: Brown Sugar, Angie, Can’t Always Get What You Want, It’s Only Rock and Roll, Midnight Rambler, Gimmie Shelter, Monkey Man, and some other oldies.

With a Jumpin’ Jack Flash encore the sky filled with brightly lit confetti. Awesome.

Mick, Keith and Les and I went out for a few cocktails post show.

Hope you’re catching waves and rays.

Later, Kara

Trey and Ashley were planning on catching a flight back to Kathmandu from Bombay. They had arranged to take a tourist bus from Margoa to Bombay as they’d had enough of the trains.

And Dave was going his own way since he had to go to Delhi to pick up his laptop that had been brought for him from the US by a friend.

So we were five: Andrew, Tony, Laurel, Liz, and I. We were tired after a week of full-time relaxing: eating shellfish for breakfast, body surfing for hours, going shoeless for days.

It was going to be work adjusting the rigors of work back in Nepal. We slouched and ended up getting an AC cabin back to Gorakhpur.

It felt strange saying our goodbyes when Wednesday came around since most of us would be meeting again in Kathmandu on either Sunday or Monday; however, thinking of how long and tiresome the trip was ahead of us it seemed like we’d never ‘get there.’

And we left, one foot in front of another, with four or so days of traveling still ahead of us

Vacation India, part 2

Mumbai, day 3

We arrived in Mumbai early on the morning of Sunday, March 30, 2003. It was dark and slightly muggy when we got off at some unmarked train station to the north of town.

Everyone moved as one sleepy mass through the terminal (itself filled with sleeping masses) and outside. We had to be at Victoria Station (also called CTS) at 10:00 p.m. to catch our train to Goa.

We had 17 hours to kill in Mumbai and we had no idea how to get from where we were to air conditioning. What did we do? We followed the crowd.

We thought we were travelers but we were just tourists. As we exited the train station a wall of taxi drivers of all religions and many nationalities smacked into us, welcoming us to Mumbai, Taxi! Hey, you need taxi? HEY! TAX-ZEEEE!?

Chhaindayna! Laurel yelled, snapping.

The taxi drivers were confused but undeterred, as Laurel could have just as well been speaking Russian instead of Nepali.

We were in India. We pressed through the mob of taxi drivers and kept up with the crowd. We walked for about ten minutes through a neighborhood that looked dire even in the darkness of early morning.

The crowd took us to a Mumbai metro station where a line had already formed that would easily have take an hour to muscle through. For me at least, it’s become a knee-jerk reaction to ignore taxi drivers. Sometimes when I leave a hotel in need of a taxi, one will be right there and I won’t even look at the guy.

By the time I’m to the road I realize what I’ve done. Anyhow, after talking to a couple locals it was agreed that the best thing to do was to take a couple taxis into town. Everyone looked to Liz for answers since she’d been to Mumbai before and would know how to get to our train station.

Well, wrong. After pleading with a few taxi drivers, we left in groups. I rode in a taxi with Dave and Tony. All the girls rode together in another taxi and Andrew and Moser were left for dead.

The taxis in Mumbai are pretty sharp. The town is covered in black and yellow Fiats that are straight out of 1950s Italy.

Our driver drove his Fiat like it was a rocket ship. When the taxi skidded over bumps the car smoothly lifted off the ground just for a moment before softly touching down again. It wasn’t quite 5 AM yet and we had the whole road—a wide, six-lane affair—to ourselves.

The driver took corners so fast that the tail skidded in the opposite direction just for a moment, screeching. It was early. I nodded off.

After 30 minutes of a white-knuckled tour through Mumbai, we arrived at Victoria Station with nearly 16 hours to kill before our train showed up. Tony set up camp to guard the bags as well as Dave, who was still blind from his glass being stolen, just outside the main entrance to wait for the others.

I went inside to confirm our reservations to Goa. Though it was still early, the train station vibrated with life. Or just the type of life that wants to sell you tea, but it was life nonetheless. Mumbai was alive.

Full of activity, Mumbai's streets were never still

The streets in Mumbai were never still, even off the main roads.

Well, I confirmed the tickets, Dave stared at something he couldn’t quite discern, and Tony told him, That’s a car, Dave, but the others didn’t show up.

After nearly an hour of waiting a taxi pulled up with Andrew and Laurel who informed us we were at the wrong train station.

Uh, actually, I said, Actually, this is where our train leaves from.

I was the one with the tickets. Why would I be lost?

Laurel and Andrew looked at one another. Back they went and after an half hour the rest of the folks finally showed up. We decided that we need a place to throw our bags and take a shower.

We decided that a hotel room would work well for this. We pretty much walked into the first hotel we came to outside of Victoria Station. I don’t remember its name or how many stars it had, but I do remember:

  1. The guy running the desk was Nepali (from Kaski).
  2. The room had AC.
  3. I could see a McDonald’s from the front door.

I’d like to say that I didn’t care. I’d like to say that I went out and had puri subji for breakfast.

I’d like to say that after watching CNN‘s insta-live footage of bombs falling on markets in downtown Baghdad and wondering if the United States really was doing its best to represent itself abroad, that I didn’t walk over to McDonald’s and order a number 2 in loud American-English.

But that’s what I did. And it was yummy.

Maybe you’ll feel better knowing that an hour later I was leaning against a tree in one of Mumbai’s beautiful parks, retching up my number two. I was still getting over some sketchy train food that made me sick the night before.

And, after throwing up the McDonald’s, I felt considerably better. As I walked out of the park, I thought, It cost me a lot less to do that on the train.

City by the Sea

Mumbai was big buildings, wide streets, fast cars, and not enough time. We saw theaters playing US films we wanted to see. Andrew and I posed as New Zealanders and went to a cricket pitch to see how well we could bullshit through a conversation with some Indians regarding cricket.

A monkey is placed on Andrews head

Andrew pays to have a street monkey placed on his head in Mumbai.

We saw monuments of the British presence, beautiful but incredibly out of place. We met Gorkha soldiers on the street. There was a woman with a monkey that scammed Kara out of a couple hundred rupees.

We went to ‘fashion street,’ and I bought white pants. We drank fantastic coffee made in an enormous chrome machine from Italy. People tried to push porn on us. We ate pizza and drank a few beers at three o’clock in the afternoon.

We went to the Oxford bookstore slightly intoxicated. We asked people where we could meet Karina Kapur. It was decided that Mumbai was awesome.

Between the Fiats and oxcarts, people on horses and on top of double-decker buses, and Americans, Indians, and Nepalis stuck in the middle, Mumbai had been a riot.

That night we sat in the train station talking about how much we loved India. Well, all of us except Dave. He hadn’t really seen anything all day. He had bought a pair of cheap binoculars that he said helped him see a little bit.

Scenery blurs by Laurel near Goa

Approaching Goa, the weather turned cooler as Laurel enjoys the scenery.

For the beach, he told me in the train station, for the chicks.

This was Dave’s third day without glasses and he was in good spirits. Everyone was. When beggars approached us we smiled and gave them bananas.

Except this one kid who picked out Dave and followed him relentlessly. After one particular brutal series of pleads, Dave asked the kid, You want some money? Fine.

Dave grabbed each of the kids wrists and easily lifted him off the ground. Slowly he began doing a maneouvar I will describe as the ‘helicopter, essentially swinging a kid around by his arms or legs.

Dave was doing the helicopter on some emaciated beggar-child working in the Mumbai train station. This seemed very strange to me.

After a good swinging, Dave released the kid who wobbled just a few steps away before falling on his bottom. Dave went over to the kid and said, All right. That was good. Here’s your 20 rupees.

The kid smiled, looked at Dave, clearly unsure if he was joking and/or if he was about to be murdered and/or molested by a very strange man.

There was a single night in a train between us and beaches of Goa. We were waiting on the very last platform in Victoria Station, platform 15.

The platform was packed with people hauling luggage on their heads, other folks waiting for their trains, and the occasionally policeman. Several crates of fish were behind us, perhaps waiting for a train, too.

And, if just only a little, Mumbai smelled like fish.

Vacation India, part 1

Nepal to India, days 1–3

Our first destination in India, Goa, was a long way from our homes in Nepal. There were nine of us meeting March 28, 2003 (day 1), coming from various parts of Nepal: Bhaktapur, Rajbiraj, Biratnagar, Birtamod, Bhadrapur, and of course Birganj.

In Bhairahawa, we pose before departing

In Bhairahawa, the Goa-bound holiday makers pose for a group shot.

We were leaving Nepal overland from Bhairahawa, through Sunauli at the border, and beginning our train journey in Gorakhpur, India. After living one km from India for a year now, I was finally crossing the border and seeing what was on the other side.

In Birganj, the city in India just across the border, Raxaul, is revered with an intense hatred and disgust by people of Birganj. Folks in town always amended any praise of the beaches in Goa with statements like, Your shoes will be stolen, or, Taxi drivers may kill you in Mumbai.

Regardless, we were all excited. From Gorakhpur our first stop was Mumbai (aka Bombay), only a mere 1,700 km away, which mean three days and two nights on a single train.

From Mumbai we caught an overnight train to Goa (Maupse was the terminus), another 600 km. The round-trip journey required the use of two taxis, one jeep, five trains, several autorickshaws, and a couple of rented motorcycles.

Gorakhpur

Gorakhpur seen through the eyes of volunteers living in rough Terai towns in Nepal for the past year was better than it should have been.

Flyovers, train stations, people in lines (almost)—suddenly we were in Paris. Well, Paris through some cracked looking glass but still, it was more urban than what we had become accustomed to in Nepal.

Crowds board/exit the train in Gorakhpur

Once the train arrived, a mass of people just appeared, boarding and exiting.

What little of what we did see in Gorakhpur made us appreciate the relative peacefulness of our homes in Nepal. The train station was beyond my descriptive abilities. Signs in Hindi and confused English seemed to be composed in hopes of spreading misinformation. Indians, Nepalis, and the odd bull walked about in the hot heavy haze.

We had gotten to Gorakhpur a few hours early since we weren’t sure how long the jeep ride would take from the border (Sunauli). Just inside the terminal, the group (Andrew, Dave, Laurel, Liz, Kara, Trey, Ashley, and Tony) crashed and guarded the bags while I went to try and figure out how to confirm the tickets, find out our platform number, et cetera.

The tickets were confirmed only after I stood in two different lines and realized that the sign reading, Please form Q actually meant, Fight your way to the front.

Andrew and Liz had wandered off into Gorakhpur in hopes of calling the US Consulate to register with the US Embassy in Delhi. Kara and Dave were amusing themselves while standing guard over the bags, throwing banana peels at a bull inside the train station.

The bull began encroaching on the bags, possibly thinking, Where there are banana peels, there must be bananas.

A bull sits inside the Gorakhpur train station

Near the ticketing office, a lone bull made itself at home. David was nearly gored (by his fault).

Dave, mellow and unworried, called the bull over to him. When the bull had gotten close enough Dave stuck out his hand to pet the bull on the head.

While most might consider this behavior as strange, keep in mind that this is a feral bull that lives in a train station in Gorakhpur. Well, Dave had hardly touched the bull before it swung its head and quickly lunged forward.

Dave quickly jumped up and to the side, avoiding the bull’s half-hearted charge, amusing the locals in the terminal greatly.

A couple hours later we had gathered on the platform to wait for our train. By this time, I was reading the Times of India, Dave was smoking beedis, Andrew was speaking broken Hindi, Liz was eating goeber balls, Laurel was asleep, and Kara was being relentless harassed by one particular beggar girlchild.

This girl, perhaps 11 years old, had taken to Kara. For hours, this little girl had tailed Kara up and down the lengths of the train station. The girl would corner Kara, drop to her knees, press her forehead to Kara’s feet and then knees, cupping her hands and using the international beggar sign for food. This went on for hours and hours, Kara never budging.

Only after we had left the main building and were waiting on the platform did the girl leave. Or so we thought. While Kara was looking at magazines just before our train arrived, she was ambushed by the girl, smiling broadly as she knew it was payday.

The sun was mostly gone when our train arrived. After some initial confusion about which coupe was ours, we boarded the train and found our berth.

The first thing I noticed about the berth were the burglar bars on the windows. In an adjacent berth, we watched–no, we studied—a businessman carefully chained his briefcase to the wall. Paranoia sat in.

That night I slept on the top berth with my bags wrapped around my body. Eventually I fell asleep, though the continual stops and traffic moving through the train, not to mention to chai wallahs that never ceased to pass through the cabins, calling, Chai! Chai! Garam chai! awoke me more than once. Tony awoke to see the guy in the berth across from his getting a cup of tea at 3:00 a.m.

Then, in the middle of the night—we think we were passing through Lucknow–I awoke to a loud commotion coming from the berths below mine. Dave was yelling, I lost my glasses! Awww, $&*@#!! I lost my glasses!

In the middle of the night, while the train was stopped, someone had outside of the train had reached in through the burglar bars and tried to snatch the waist bag that Dave was using for a pillow. It had almost passed through the window when Dave was able to pull it back inside.

While Dave didn’t lose his bag, his glasses that he had stuffed in an open side pocket, had fallen out in the struggle; it was the first night of our vacation, and Dave had been blinded.

Sleepingly

Basically, train travel in India works thusly. The fanciest is first class AC, then second class AC, third class AC, second class sleeper, and then second nonreserved (also called ‘the cattle car’).

From Gorakhpur all the way to Goa, we had tickets for second class sleeper, meaning we had reserved seats/beds, but nothing else.

The two nights and three days in the train to Mumbai flew by, mainly because something bizarre was always happening. Occasionally transvestites would come by the berths, demanding money in lieu of not exposing themselves. While some may refuse the conventional beggar, others will pay heavily for the sudden luxury of not having a penis wagged about or the mutilated remains thereof.

Later, a group of Bihari vagabond minstrel children began performing a song and dance routine through the coupe. Or maybe it was a chai wallah who accidentally dropped scalding hot tea on some poor bastard’s crotch—then the shouting.

Waiting on the train station platform

In Gorakhpur, we spent a lot of time waiting for the train. Oh, the people you meet.

Time flew by with new scenery that seemed endless. We rushed off the train on to train station platforms with forgotten names, looking for food that wouldn’t make us sick like the India Rail curries.

The first night, I had the standard rice and lentils with curried veggies on the train. The next morning, before I had the chance to look out the window, I was staring at the train tracks through the whole in the bottom on the train, i.e., the toilet, vomiting last night’s meal on to the moving tracks below.

All of this was coupled with a now crippling paranoia that everything we had would be stolen from us before we even reached Mumbai. In an anonymous train station somewhere between Lucknow and Mumbai, I bought a chain like the Indian businessman’s and slept a little better the second night.

In the early morning of our last day on our first train, we were rolling through the outskirts of Mumbai when a woman dressed in less than rags and with whiter hair than I’ve ever seen busted into our berth.

In one hand, she had a plush tiger and in the other she held a large plastic Colt single-action revolver.

She sauntered up to Laurel, wide-eyed and gap-mouthed, and shoved the plush tiger a few inches from her face, squeezing it to emit a sequence of squeaks.

She then swung her other hand holding the plastic gun, pulling the trigger to rattle the gun in Laurel’s face. The woman did not smile and nor did Laurel.

After a moment, the woman walked on. We were in Mumbai.