Category Archives: India

I lived less than a kilometer from the Nepal-India border in Birganj but yet only managed to visit the country a few times.

Photographs from my Peace Corps experience

I carried a box with me most places I went while a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal. Because we knew we could be evacuated from the country any day, when we would travel away from post it became normal to take with you anything that you wouldn’t want to leave behind. For me, that was a small box, smaller than a shoebox, that kept all my 35mm negatives.

After returning home, I sent that box of negatives to ScanCafe and a few weeks, received my negatives back with a couple DVDs with an intimidating amount of photographs to organize.

So (10!) years later, on my personal photography site, I’ve put up three collections of photographs from my Peace Corps experience.

In the experience, part 1, and part 2, I have collected what I remember in terms of photographs. And in the volunteers, I consider images I made of those I served with. The larger, unedited collection of my Peace Corps/Nepal photographs is on Flickr, too.

Thanksgiving travels

Birganj to Kolkata: November 26–30, 2003

If I said that my Thanksgiving plans for this year were made by my friends while they trekking around Sikkim with the US Consulate to India, I might sound a little over the top, as if I was trying to impress whoever might stumble across these scribblings.

A bicyclist pauses for a photo in Kolkata.

A bicyclist pauses for a photo in Kolkata.

Actually, that’s about the simplest I can put it. My friends took some vacation, went to Darjeeling and then Sikkim, and happened to share the trail with the US Consulate. His name is Geroge.

George and his wife were nice enough to extend invitations to them and their friends (I would fall in to the latter group) to join them and some other foreign service staff for Thanksgiving in Kolkata.

There were promises of a 23-lb turkey, sweet potatoes, and a swimming pool. But getting to Kolkata wasn’t as simple as it should have been.

The problem wasn’t in logistics, since Kolkata is an overnight 12–13 hour train (or bus) ride from Eastern Nepal.

We had four days to get to Kolkata and back to Nepal to be within the good graces of Peace Corps/Nepal. It wasn’t simple. Because we’re morons.

After congregating in Birtamod, we left en masse for Kakarbhitta and then to Siliguri, where we could catch an overnight train to Kolkata.

Andrew was supposed to have bought train tickets, but because of the present security situation in Nepal, none of us were sure that we would be able to go; that is, until the day before we had planned to leave the country. So Andrew hadn’t bought tickets.

Andrew e-mailed me from Kathmandu:

Dear Fool,

I am in Kathmandu. You are at post. I am watching the BBC. You are listening to it on a scratchy radio. I am taking hot showers. You are sitting under a cold tap. You are listening to the same old music, while I listen to new exciting albums you have never even heard of.

I am staying out late at the discos. You are going to bed at 8 p.m. You know nothing about the trip to Kolkata. I have all the control. I have the tickets. I am negotiating with the office. You do nothing. You sit, and you wait for me, dog.

Sit.

Justin Timberlake

I was mostly confused because of how Andrew had signed his e-mail. Strange man, he is.

Anyhow, when we finally saw him in Birtamod, he informed us that, in fact, he hadn’t bought any train tickets. So we were left to ‘figure it out’ in Siliguri. And off we went.

Day 1, Wednesday

It was the day before Thanksgiving when we finally were allowed to leave Nepal and enter India. By the time we reached the Siliguri train station, NJP, we had been throwing around a football and talking about white vs. dark meat, pumpkin vs. apple pie, swim vs. nap.

A tree grows in Calcutta.

A tree grows in Calcutta.

It didn’t take long at the booking office to know that we weren’t going to get on a Kolkata-bound train. We would require another means of transportation.

Those means were limited to a bus. Kara sounded suddenly excited and talked about a bus she had taken from Goa to Mumbai back in April: seats that reclined into beds, air conditioning, comfort, et cetera.

We bought our bus tickets and waited for our luxury bus to arrive. We sat around the travel agency playing hearts and spades until 7 p.m. Our bus ride would last something like 12 hours, which would put us in Kolkata well before anyone carved anything.

Seeing the bus wasn’t nearly as disappointing as actually boarding it. While it wasn’t any worse than the average bus in Nepal, it was not any better.

As soon as Laurel sat in her chair, it squeaked loudly, collapsed backwards into a total recline, and rested on the legs of the man sitting behind her. It was broken. As I sat down next to her, I thought of her misfortune in not being able to sit upright for next 12 hours.

Logically, my seat next to Laurel’s was incapable of reclining at all. My chair was to remain at a precise 90°ree; angle. I sat perfectly upright for the entire duration of the bus ride, which was, in retrospect, longer than 12 hours.

Sitting in the erect position, as soon as I would nod off, I would slowly begin to lean forward and descend until the bottom of my chin was touching the top of my stomach and then the top of my head would collide with the back of the seat in front of me.

And sometimes just the light from on-coming traffic burning into my eyes was enough to jostle me awake. But I was not alone, as no one slept.

And then at odd moments in the night, when I was neither asleep or awake, the bus would stop and we would be herded off for food. I have a cloudy memory of stopping somewhere in the black of the early morning. It must have been 3 a.m.

I staggered off the bus and faced three identical rice shops, all glowing violently with an incandescent flicker, all with a single bundled man in front screaming—sort of a shouting chanting—to attract people to the respective rice shop.

I was cold. I was half awake, half dreaming, and there were three men, wearing sweater vests, somewhere in anonymous India, shouting at the zombie-like bus passengers milling around a dirt lot.

At some point, jostled by the chanting, I remembered how a few hours earlier I had awoken to find an Indian Army guy walking up the isle in the bus with a digital video camera, sweeping the passengers’ faces while a bright on-camera light shined into our faces.

I remember waking up for a moment to think I was being kidnapped. And then falling back to my near-asleep state.

After that, the next thing I remembered was this most bizarre sight: three rice shops with similarly dressed touts in front shouting the nearly identical things about actually identical food. I found this odd.

The touts chanted, HEY! WEGOTLOTSOFRICE! LOTSOFHOTRICE! OHRICE! OHROTI! YOUWANTROTIWEGOTROTI! HOTROTI! COLDROTI! LOTSOFFOOD! ROTI! RICE!

During the 20-odd minutes we spent at this rest stop, the three touts never stopped chanting nor, as far as I could tell, breathing.

I ate, but it didn’t help me sleep. The touts haunted my dreams.

Day 2, Thursday (Thanksgiving)

It was still early when we reached the US Consulate in Kolkata. The taxi driver had taken us without any difficulty to Ho Chi Minh Sarayani, the humerous address of the US Consulate.

The Ambassador car in Kolkata.

The Ambassador car in Kolkata.

Apparently West Bengal’s long-standing (and long-ruling) Communist Party thought it quite clever to rename the street in the early 1970s to tease the US foreign service. Kind of like the British with India’s city names.

Anyhow, this was the day of relaxation. We had some breakfast and saw the Buddha that Laloo Prasad Yadav, the then defacto minister of Bihar, had given George.

He told us a story about a man who had met Laloo once to discuss the subject of Laloo’s poor record on education in Bihar. Why was education in Bihar lacking behind other states in India?

Laloo looked at the man. You’re educated, he said. Would you vote for me?

Bihar is an interesting place. Even though I’ve been within spitting distance of it (the border town of Raxual, Bihar, is just on the other side of Birganj), I’ve never actually been there. For better or worse.

After coffee, we played a game of touch football with the pigskin that we had brought from Nepal (and tested at the Siliguri bus depot). We ha been tossing it to and fro to entertain ourselves during the lulls of travel. Most people had assumed it was a rugby ball.

When we told them that it was US-rules football, people just stared at the ball with even greater confusions, I assume trying to figure out how one would kick the oddly shaped ball.

Most people who handled the ball, however, were amused and informed us that the ball was made in China.

The Thanksgiving feast was wonderful. We had cleaned up and tried to look as presentable as possible. I sat near the head of the table, next to our hosts, George and Lee.

There were the seven of us PCVs, two other foreign service folks working at the consulate, and both George’s and Lee’s mothers.

The table was set with beautiful china upon a brilliantly white table cloth, with a few candelabrum here and there.

Things got complicated when Andrew and I were both served the gigantic legs of the turkey. My first impulse was to use my silverware, but Lee quickly scolded me, We’re like your family. You can eat Henry VIII style.

There was a reason that the PCVs had been given these obtuse pieces of meat to eat: shamelessness. We had been eating with our hands since coming to Nepal. The same goes for India.

So who cares if Andrew and I, in the US Consulate on for a major US holidays, looked like we were on a poster for the Society of Creative Anachronism at a medieval festival.

Moser spilled his red wine all over the table cloth. He covered it up with his plate. Liz broke a glass in her bedroom. She stuffed the pieces in newspaper into the bottom of a garbage can. Several of us trampled decorative Deepawali lights while running into the bushes playing football.

We were a mess. They should have kicked us out.

But they were kind people.

Day 3, Friday

We had set aside the day after Thanksgiving to do a few tourist activities before our departure on Saturday. We asked George’s mother to come along with us, and she was game.

First, we walked over to the India Museum. It was a strange place, the museum itself being as interesting as its holdings. There was a display of a family of gorillas that had been donated nearly a 100 years ago.

Late, we approach our platform to find our train back to NJP.

Late, we approach our platform to find our train back to NJP.

Stitches down the middle of each gorilla dated the quality of the taxidermy. But even stranger were the clear marks of bullet wounds in the chests of each animal: Papa, mama, and their two baby gorillas.

I imagined an old honourable East India Company Britisher with his entourage of Indians wandering jungles and killing every God damn beast that crossed their path.

The gorillas were a gift to the museum by a man who, most likely, had a sufficient supply of stuffed dead things. Just thinking this guy had blown away a family was slightly disturbing, but I guess that was a long while ago.

Hunting ethics are different, I suppose. Recently I had read about foreigners paying to shoot exotic animals caught in wildlife reserves that were tied to the ground.

Afterwards, we wandered to New Market. Mostly we found shop after shop after shop selling saris and a surprising number of wig outlets. I thought of the gorillas in the museums.

There were porters wandering everywhere and most spoke passable English. Or at least enough to convey that they had a special friend that would give us a special price on some special fabric. It was the same gimmick used across the subcontinent: convince the person that they are being ripped off, and then rip them off.

Which is quite effective, actually.

I did find a shop with a reasonable prices and salesmen unlike starving jackals. Even there, though, buying a CD wasn’t as easy as I would have liked. I found a CD I wanted to buy, and the staff, seeing that I was actually buying something, began producing other things they thought I might be interested in: porno movies.

I thought back to Mumbai when a man in an open-air bazaar had asked me, You want sex?

I quickly told the man that I really wasn’t much of a spender, put down the CD, and wandered back to find my friends. I saw one of my pals at a similar shop, flipping through a pile of adult films.

I felt foolish for having not realized what the other guy was trying to sell me.

Not like I was going to buy any. I always think that if I were to die somewhere along the way, if our bus crashed or I snapped my spine somewhere, what would my family think when they received my belongings, complete with what people here call ‘blue films.’

We had arranged a time to met as a group to walk back to the Consulate together.

Andrew had been playing a strange game where when approached by beggars, he would direct them to another person in our party saying, See that guy? He has our money.

The first time Andrew employed this technique, about a dozen young beggar girls surrounded me in less than a minute.

It was a rather passive activity, since about that many had congregated around me at different times while walking through the market.

When I saw Andrew standing aside, I told the girls, He has lots of money, in my occasionally passable Hindi.

On the train from Kolkata to NJP, somewhere in West Bengal.

On the train from Kolkata to NJP, somewhere in West Bengal.

In a matter of seconds the girls swarmed Andrew. Before he could get out of the market, he had given the girls about 200 Indian rupees and a packet or two of food he had bought along the street.

After meeting, we jumped in to taxis with kids chasing after us, enjoying our game (really, it was fun) as well as their snacks.

George’s mother freely expressed her contempt for our childishness. You just ruined it for the rest of the tourists! she told us, holding back her smile.

Our taxi driver didn’t quite know the way back to the Consulate. We had filled two taxis, and our driver finally pulled over to ask the other if he knew the way. The two drivers shouted various directions at one another in Hindi, and I basically understood what they were saying.

So I tried to give as best directions as I could to the two drivers, as if to jar their memories.

George’s, sitting in front with the driver, turned around to ask Andrew in the back as I spoke, How does he know Bengali?

Andrew looked out the window, shook his hand to indicate contempt, and said with a straight face, It’s gibberish!

She seemed convinced that I was just parroting the two men and remained quite for rest of the trip.

Really, I thought, my Hindi isn’t that bad.

Later, at the Consulate, we decided to go to the Park Hotel’s club, Tantra—supposedly the swankiest club in town. We sat around in George and Lee’s living room questioning whether or not we would even be able to get in to such a place.

I mean, Kolkata’s quite a bit more sophisticated than Kathmandu. And we were barely getting by there, frankly. Each of us had stories about how we would ended up places, parties, and functions looking quite scruffy.

Lee overhead our talk and asked if we really wanted to go.

Of course, we told her.

She picked up the phone, called a friend, and suddenly we were on The List.

I don’t think I’d ever been on a list before, let alone The List. We were excited.

While the club was far classier than any place we had been in a while, it wasn’t quite what I had expected. Perhaps I had been brainwashed by Bollywood.

I’m smart enough to know that when I see a club or some hip place portrayed in a US movie, I can say, Yes, this does not exist, but I hadn’t quite been able to do that and had some pretty crazy preconceptions of what this club would be like.

I mean, just watch a Bollywood movie. To prepare myself for the hordes of beautiful women who I would have to fight off at the club, I sat in the living room, drank Corona, and watched Fashion TV for two straight hours while everyone else napped and washed clothes.

Day 4, Saturday

The day before we left went quickly. I slept until 11 a.m. for the first time in a long, long while. Granted, I hadn’t gotten to bed until 4 a.m. the previous day (that morning?), but the fact that I hadn’t been woken by people milling about, calling for milk, banging on my door, was wonderful.

A small shop, open late, near the Howrah train station.

A small shop, open late, near the Howrah train station.

After a hot shower and a strong cup of coffee, I walked over to Flury’s for a late breakfast. A few folks had gone to the Botanical Gardens to check out the world’s largest banyan tree. Others just enjoyed the Consulate’s garden or did some reading.

Soon the day was gone, and we found ourselves waiting for our train by wandering around Howrah Station. We had bought return tickets in Kolkata, although we had been put on a waiting list, which didn’t worry us much. We had been in the same situation back in April when we visited Goa.

I checked in at the station and got our seat assignments, illegibly written on our tickets. Six people were together in one car (I couldn’t make out the seat assignments but knew they’d be posted outside the train once it arrived) and one person was alone in a separate car.

So I elected to be the guy alone in the separate car. As we boarded our train, I waved goodbye to my pals thinking that if I got bored enough during the train ride, I could wander through the cars and sit with the them for a while. But a couple hours into the ride, I discovered that passage between cars was blocked in one car by an iron door.

I went back to my seat and settled in for the night. I didn’t sleep well since I was under the window and froze all night long. Plus I hadn’t brought a sheet let alone a pillow, so I woke early the next morning with quite a stiff neck.

All in a day’s travel, I thought.

Day 5, Sunday

When we pulled into the NJP station, back near Siliguri, I met the others at the entrance to the train station. They looked awful. Apparently, their tickets had been made so that two people were assigned to each bed (on the train, beds are much smaller than a single).

No one had slept, all were grumpy, all were ready to get to Birtamod, Nepal, and take a shower at Andrew’s flat. We arranged for a jeep to take us to the India-Nepal border and put Liz in the middle of two people—out of reach of the doors.

The Howrah station was almost itself alive with activity at all hours.

The Howrah station was almost itself alive with activity at all hours.

Let us return to the beginning of our trip for a moment. We only gotten as far as passing through Indian immigration after exiting Nepal, when Liz opened her door without looking for oncoming traffic. Of all things, a fast-moving rickshaw had slammed in to the door, damaging its hinge.

We received an estimate, which was the driver estimating how much he wanted to charge us for the accident, and pooled our money and paid him off—and quickly got another driver before word spread.

At both the Indian and Nepali customs offices, the staff remembered us and asked us how our Thanksgiving had been. Well, they didn’t remember ‘Thanksgiving’ but just knew that we had left for a national holiday.

I was mostly interested in finding out if any security-related problems had occurred in Nepal in the, oh, 108 hours that had passed since we left.

Peaceful. Quiet. Nothing to mention. What a relief. And for that, I was thankful.

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.