Funky Art Beach House

In India on May 10, 2013 at 11:14 pm

It’s 4am down a dark alley when my motor rickshaw slams the brakes to an abrupt stop.  The headlights illuminate the cloud of dust obscuring a view of our destination.  After a few seconds the dust clears, revealing a seven-foot fence of solid metal, the high wall sinister, had it not been painted in Rasta colors of yellow, green and red.  Still, it’s an ominous welcome to my guesthouse in Alleppey on the southern tip of India.  I’m not sure how to approach the seamless metallic wall in the dark of night.  The driver gives a shout, as a section of wall swings open to a sandy courtyard with no lights.  I’m quickly ushered upstairs into a huge bedroom furnished only with two single beds and a nightstand, the minimalism making the room appear even larger.

It’s a restless night in an uncomfortable sweat under the drone of a ceiling fan, it’s axis bent slightly giving it a precarious wobble as I wonder how long before it wiggles free from the ceiling, slicing me to pieces in my sleep.  I figure I have minutes to live.  The mattress is covered in a thin plastic sheet with its distinct crinkling sound with every toilsome body movement.  The metallic screech of loudspeakers from the nearby mosque’s 5am call to prayer seals the deal that sleep will escape me.

It’s hunger that forces me out of bed, earlier than I would like.  I decide to be selective in my search for food. I want to avoid having my first meal in southern India cooked by the stoner high school boys that appear to run my guesthouse.  The morning sun is intense enough to slow my pace to a crawl, walking along the dirt path straddling the local beach.  I walk by the late night food stalls, boarded up this early in the morning.  I walk by upscale hotel restaurants, watching guests behind large windows eating toast and eggs with their cup of coffee.  I’m not envious.  It disappoints me.  I may just be bitter, a food snob in my own right.  Still, I can’t imagine traveling around the world for instant coffee and dry bread.  Continuing down the road I see a shack, fitted together with bamboo poles and scrap metal siding.  In front is an older man in a white tank top, enjoying a clove cigarette while he stirs steaming pots over a wood fire.  As I approach he beckons me in with an offer of chai tea and friendly smile.  It’s a single room that consists of 6 plastic chairs on the hard dirt floor, dug out 3 feet below the surface.  There is one other customer sitting quietly drinking tea with a curious eye on me.  This is exactly the place I am looking for.  I am even more pleased not to be handed a menu or even asked what I would like to eat, the fact being he has only one dish to offer.  I watch intently as the old man skillfully pours the tea and milk concoction in a flowing arc into another glass he holds below.  Not a drop of the steaming hot liquid spilled in the process.  He continues pouring the tea back and forth, the full span of his arms, numerous times, with each exchange making it frothier.  I imagine if this were a requisite skill at Starbucks, they may be forced to turn into a juice bar.  He hands me my chai, still too hot to drink comfortably and a pitcher of water and hard plastic cup.  The water is both for hand washing and drinking.  I walk outside pouring the water over my hands, scrubbing away the grey layer of dust that’s accumulated.  I also decide to test my acclimation to local drinking water.  Since arriving in India I have begun slowly consuming tap water, first by rimming my drinking glass and progressing to brushing my teeth with it over the course of the past two weeks.  I decide now to see where full glasses will take me.  Sitting down again, I am presented with a warm bowl of rice noodles, the thickness of angel hair pasta and a bowl of chana masala, a yellow curry of black chickpeas, stewed together with coconut milk.  It’s as simple and rewarding as a dish can be.  The curry has an undertone of caramelized onions, garlic and ginger and a milky sweet heat from fresh crushed chilies and thick coconut cream and palm sugar.  Fresh turmeric and curry leaves finish it off with earthy flavors.  I am proud to have found this hole in the ground restaurant surrounded by tourist eateries yet untouched by tourists.  It’s the type of meal I love to eat at any time of day or night.  The other customer next to me seems pleased with my obvious delight, as he flashes me a smile and two thumbs up.  I reciprocate with the same gesture, my right hand dripping with yellow curry and strands of rice noodle.  I wash it back with a glass of local water and pray for the best.  The old man doesn’t speak English.  I’m forced to imagine a life dedicated to a single dish, a simple dish lived every day for decades and brought to life every morning.  I’m moved by such a humble yet meaningful experience.  It’s soul food of the Indian south.  The cost of my meal is 25 rupees, which is $0.46 US, a bargain for an experience to be remembered.

Returning back to the guesthouse, I finally see it fully in the light of day.  It’s awkwardly named ‘Funky Art Beach House,’ a name and description when left to the imagination, a hippie hut involving sand and nightly sing along.  To a square like me, it sounds terrifying.  It is intriguing.  It’s a large white colonial style house with marble floors.  I see a homemade banner outside with the guesthouse name.  Haphazardly attached to the sign is a four-pointed star woven together with orange yarn and Christmas lights. On the chalky white corridor walls, guests are encouraged to paint. It’s like walking through a junior high art class.  I see bright suns, mushrooms, stars and cartoons smoking joints.  A desk space and computer sit out on the second floor open-air balcony.  The metal surfaces and connecting wires show corrosion from humid ocean air.  An overflowing ashtray of cigarette butts completes the informal workspace.  Sitting at the computer listening to Indian love ballads at high volume is the staff of high school kids looking after the guesthouse.  They clearly love to interact with tourists, as they engage me with rapid-fire questions of where I’m from, why I’m here, to questions concerning my baldhead.  They seem confident enough to make fun of me, having only recently met me.  I’m okay with that.  One of them spits out the word ‘Mor-ti-kay-em,’ in slow syncopation of each syllable.  They all fall to the ground laughing hysterically all the while pointing in my direction.  Finally they let me in on the joke. ‘It mean your head, round shape like egg, this what we call you.’  I’m happy to laugh with these jokesters, even if at my expense.

I’m happy to finally have social interaction after almost three weeks of keeping to myself.  I’m overdue to start conversing with other travelers.  I have questions that need to be answered.  Is travel in India as tough as I’ve made it out to be?  The honest answer seems to be, yes, backpacking around India is not easy and I’m comforted to hear of other’s hardships.  My own struggles with India are surpassed, meeting a very young British couple.  Still in their teens, India is their first overseas travel.  There’s an inherent innocence in the British accent, a gentle inflection, as if a question mark were placed gently at the end of every sentence.  There is never demand in their tone and a stark contrast to the loud and blunt approach by Indians.  I see how young and how green they really are and wonder if India will swallow them up completely.  Having traveled in other developing Asian countries I find it an invaluable reference point for navigating India’s chaos.  The couple share stories of how taxi drivers have refused to give them change when paying for their ride and how they simply give up asking.  For some reason this story brings out an anger deep inside of me.  I’m not sure whom it’s directed towards, the young British couple or the Indians milking every cent they can from tourists.  All of a sudden I find myself lecturing on the injustice and how they shouldn’t stand for such a thing, how they need to put their foot down and demand their money.  Again, I’m not sure where I’m directing this rant.  In their own way, they handled the situation.  Giving up or letting go is not a wrong answer.  In many of these transactions it amounts to only pennies that make up the difference.  It would be easier and less stressful to accept these minor injustices, the detriment to your bank account negligible.  I may need to rethink my approach.  Maybe.  Not a chance.

Training Day

In India on April 10, 2013 at 12:58 am

The train conductor is a young man in his late twenties, with a kind smile and calm demeanor.  He would be indistinguishable from a businessman in his dark blue suit if it weren’t for gold trim on his shoulders and breast pocket.  His large rectangular I.D. tag clipped to his chest looks like a military medal.  He sweeps through the passenger car with his thick passenger manifest, unfolding like an accordion, cross-referencing ticket information with his own.  In contrast to the conductor’s polite and professional manner is a porter close at his heels.  The porter has a slight frame, unable to fill his simple beige uniform.  His face is narrow and long.  Creases along his eyes and forehead show his age and a scowl.  After having a brief conversation with the conductor, he gives me a warm welcome and  moves on.   The porter however,  points to my pile of white bed sheets balled up on top of my 3rd level sleeper bed, appropriated to each passenger along with a wool blanket and small pillow.   It’s his job to collect and fold these linens for passengers and my cotton ball of sheets is an insult to him.  I watch as he grabs the sheets, lecturing me on how to fold them in Hindi.  Normally I would take minimal offense to his disdain and perhaps even apologize despite the fact I could care less.  At this time and place I find myself exhausted, scowling back at him wanting to lecture him not to treat me like a child.  I still have the sense to know such a fight to be a fruitless endeavor.  Our encounter ends in silent contempt.

Having boarded the train in the early afternoon, I’m eager to watch the landscape of southern India roll gently by the open window in front of me.  I have 14 hours ahead before I’ll be spit out on the streets of Alleppey on the southern tip of Kerala.  I have been in India just over two weeks and still struggle to make sense of my foreign surroundings.  India thus far hasn’t been friendly to me and is eroding my spirits.  I don’t sleep well and feel alone amongst the dense crowds of people.  I’m beginning to eat regularly but too often on the fly with short windows of opportunity resulting in consecutive days of snacking on roadsides and in stations.   I am excited about this, my first train ride in India.  I’m exhausted, thankful for an actual bed space.  Sleep a real possibility. My section of railcar consists of an efficiently designed system of 2, 3-tiered bunk beds set perpendicular to one window and a double bunk bed under and above the opposite window.  During the waking hours, the middle beds fold down forming a backrest for the lower bunks, allowing common bench area for passengers to sit.  Each railcar is filled with 10 of these 8 passenger bed sections, along with a narrow hallway throughout.  I’m in the cheapest class with a bed, no heat or air conditioning. I’m hoping it’s not a problem in India’s tropical winter.  I sit next to a window, facing south and the journey ahead.  Having finally sat down, the stress of making my travel connections over, my body and mind finally relax.

My relaxation is short lived, a group of seven young male Indian professionals with whom I will be sharing cabin space appear.  All close friends themselves they joke and chatter, eager to embark on their bachelor weekend at a resort on one of Kerala’s white sand beaches.  They are all very kind and polite but speak little English.  I can’t help but feel like I’m intruding on their party.  I sit quietly, happy to soak in the scenery of the rural farmland and small villages outside.  My mind is at a fragile point, a culmination of stress and continuing acclimation to the inherent chaos of India.  In over two weeks I have yet to have a conversation with a single tourist.  I decide I must change that soon.  I need a second opinion on traveling in India from a western perspective.

I go to the bathroom at the end of the railcar.  It’s a small dirty metallic room, the click and clack of metal on metal emanating through the open hole in the floor that is the toilet.  I’m embracing the local method of wiping, not with toilet paper but using my left hand, a small bucket of water and bar of soap.  It’s up close and personal.   Often times I’m not sure what I’m trying to prove.  The lines between being cheap and being local blurred into obscurity.  Having emerged from the bathroom, I wash my hands in the hallway sink, a mirror fixed above. It’s the first time seeing my reflection since arriving in India.  I am shocked at the narrow face now nearly black from intense sun staring back at me.  I look good, but the difference is alarming, knowing I’m withering away.  I try to extrapolate the changes at this rapid pace over my scheduled next six weeks and conclude I will completely evaporate. Two teenage girls sit on their luggage ready to jump off at the next station.  I try to make small talk asking them questions of their stomping grounds outside the window.  They retract giggling, whispering in each other’s ear.  I fear they assume I’m hitting on them.  Leaving them be, I turn around wincing to see passing trees through the small scratched and dirt stained window of the entrance door while I stand in between joining railcars.  I’m happy being able to stretch my legs and not feel crowded.  One girl stands up sensing my frustration, unlocking the door, passing wind throwing it open to the bright sunny world outside.  This is great.  Finally, a safety standard I’m happy doesn’t exist here in India.  I sit on the edge, dangling my feet out the door, smiling at the world in front of me.  At that moment some sense of pride comes over me.  I feel like I’m Indian.  I’m beginning to look more Indian, travel like an Indian, eat like an Indian and crap like an Indian.    Although my objective isn’t to become Indian, embracing a local way of life is an empowering and beautiful feeling.  I wind up spending hours sitting there watching the sun disappear behind the palm trees, water buffalo and open expanse of green vegetation, humans few and far between.  It would be my favorite seat in India had the bathroom wall not been a couple feet from my face, sounds outdoors and in melding into a strange composition of grunts and squeal of metal.

With the sun set, the passing night air stings with cold.  I return to my bed hoping to get some rest but knowing falling asleep a bad idea.  My watch has no alarm and my destination scheduled for 3:30am.  I become uncomfortable lying on my top bunk staring at the white metal ceiling a few feet from my face.  I’m unable to see out the window below, worrying I’ll miss my stop should I fall asleep.  Paranoia takes hold of me.  Throwing off my covers I hope to find a vacant lower bed next to a window, careful not to miss my station.  I find one and being midnight don’t worry if it’s reserved for passengers boarding. I can always return to my assigned bed.  Setting myself up on a lower bed next to a window, I sit with my backpack.  All I see are infrequent streaks of street light flash in the darkness.

After only 20 minutes the porter approaches me. He emerges like a scowling phantom out of the darkness. He initiates communication in Hindi, quietly at first.  All I can decipher is an irritated tone.  I’m tired and expect he’s still mad about the unfolded sheets from earlier.  I shrug my shoulders and ignore his rant, staring out the window.  I’m not in the mood.  Finally in English he yells out, “Ticket, what number your ticket!?  This bed NO for you!” He’s right of course, but with the number of empty beds three quarters of the way through the trip, why should anyone care?  I sense his animosity runs deeper than unfolded bed sheets.  Looking at him, enraged with a clear hate for me, I can’t help but feel some sympathy.  I’m sure he despises me as a wealth tourist or himself an older uneducated man unable to climb higher in the ranks.  His boss the conductor, young enough to be his son.  He needs to exert dominance and control.  Again, normally I am respectful in these situations looking at the bigger picture, knowing his misplaced anger happening to land on me.  I know I shouldn’t take it personally.  Instead, I decide to take it personally.  He poked the wrong guy at the wrong time.  I retreat to my third level bed and watch him.  He perches himself on the now empty bed, opening up his fast food  dinner of lentils and rotis.  For the first time he looks content.  It’s probably the only meal break he has on his shift where he can sit back unencumbered in the quiet of night.  I recognize this and reflect on it briefly.  Still, what I see through my sleep deprived fog is my enemy savoring his little victory over me.  This is not untrue, but it is petty.  When he finishes, I pass him as if to go to the bathroom.  He keeps his eyes fixed on me.  Childishly I disappear into the darkness and begin unfolding sheets stacked on an empty bed.  It’s now my calling card, he knows who it’s from.  I settle into a far away bed and wait for him.  He’s after me but has to inspect every bed closely in the dark, the only signs of identification, feet poking out from under the covers or baggage packed above or below.  He finds me and tells me to return to my bed, his frustration growing.  I do briefly and repeat my childish escapade throughout the night.  I want to know his breaking point before he inevitably decides to stab me in the neck and toss my body out of the moving train.  He gives up after two hours and three car lengths of the world’s most annoying game of hide and go seek.  I do relish in my stupid victory.

I step off the train at 3:30am at my destination of Alleppey.  I have no sense of its beauty or grotesqueness in the pitch black of night.  I have arrived prepared with a reservation at a place called, Funky Art Beach House.  I assume that’s hippie talk that will translate to crap.  It’s only a kilometer away from the train station.  More importantly, they have vacancy.  I feel as though I finally have the upper hand on the touts of India, armed with hard earned experience, a reservation and unequivocal win in hide and go seek.  I feel invincible.  Approaching the small pool of motor rickshaws outside the station, I strut up to the first driver I see announcing my arrival and nearby destination.  Being only a kilometer away, I know the price I expect and am willing to pay.  When he tells me it will be ten times that number, I confidently walk to the next driver hoping to start a bidding war over my business, thinking being the only one at the station a benefit and not hindrance.  The second driver quotes me the same astronomical price.  I quickly realize the bind I’m in.  I’m grasping at straws now as I threaten to walk the kilometer distance myself.  As I begin walking away, I wonder why none of them are chasing me down and the price not dropping like an asteroid to earth.  Of course I have no idea where to go.  This is India and street signs a rarity.  All the drivers know the futility of my demands.  Tail between my legs I return.  It’s almost 4am now and they call the shots.  India is where Karma was invented and perhaps more resolute at its point of origin.  It’s time to finish this leg of the journey as I pull out my wallet and white flag.

I Will Try To Keep My Pants

In India on March 22, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Standing at the entrance of the Margao train station in Goa, India, I squint to see arrival times and platform numbers wedged in between the lines of Sanskrit on the white announcement board under a large round clock face.  I would step closer but  choose not to disturb the family of five asleep on the concrete floor, each with an orange cotton sheet engulfing them from feet to forehead, their plastic bags and burlap rice sack luggage under their heads as makeshift pillows.  The clock face above shows noon, the bodies in front of me reminding of my own fatigue in the days heat.

Walking past the entrance gate, the station platform opens to the tracks ahead and bustle of activity from the arrival of a recent passenger train.  Dusty navy blue rail cars, gouged and dented, sit motionless while passengers board or stretch their legs, cramped from over packed coach class seating.  Deep throated chants from food vendors announce their wares from Chai to roast chickpeas to dixie cups of tomato soup.  This is my first interaction with India railway.  I love trains and as deep as my love is, my frequency of use grievously under represented.  In front of me lies 24,0000 miles of track weaving and stitching together 1 million square miles of India open for me to explore.  When the train slowly rumbles forward, people still clamor to hop on board.  It’s absence leaves an eerie calm and emptiness on the platform.  The rather unexpected quiet, spurs an interest to explore the station, spread out the length of the trains themselves of small shop, offices and seating.

I immediately decide to load up on snacks for the long ride ahead from one of the many kiosk shops, packed ceiling to floor with various snacks and drinks.  Instead of narrowing my choices down to a logical few, I opt for kid in an Indian candy store tactic, grabbing everything of mystery and curiosity, the male shop-keep as enthused with my approach to shopping as I.  Without hesitation, he reaches behind him, dropping  down every bagged snack food option in his arsenal, hoping to keep the momentum.  I’m in a feeding frenzy, an insatiable tourist gravy train, a fist full of rupees ready to be dispensed.  I snap back into reality, realizing my snack lust spiraling out of control.  I have to backtrack trying to shut the floodgate of snacks piling up in front of me with an overwhelmed, “No more!”  He insists I take the fifteen bags in front of me, my compromise a selection of eight.

Walking away laughing, I find myself the proud owner of roasted black chickpeas, toasted dry over a flame, softened and nicely crunchy but leaving a residual dry flavorless paste in my mouth.  Ring Murukku, deep fried palm size spirals of wheat flour batter, fried so hard you question if your tooth enamel will give way before cracking through the exterior.  Ghpartha, an Indian mixed snack of fried noodles, peas, carrot, raisins, peanuts, salt and hot spice mixture that’s fiercely addictive.  Potato chips, hand sliced and deep fried in a Kadai pot, filled with peanut oil then lightly salted.  Banana chips, sweet crisp discs of greatness.  Cashews, grown nearby, harvested and deep fried.  Lay’s brand, Masala Pizza flavored chips and a Nestle brand, Guru Munch, the Indian version of a Kitkat.

Taking a seat on one of the black metal benches, hungrily sampling my snack packages, I wonder how I’m going to fit all this food in my pack.  Do I throw away all of my socks and underwear to make room?  After relishing in my cheap arsenal of snacks I see my gluttony reflected back at me in the face of a woman, baby motionless on her hip, hand outstretched to me for money.  With no offer of money, her hand gesture retracts, fingers pointed to her mouth in hope of food.  This I oblige, offering my bag of roasted chickpeas.  An acknowledgement of thanks is whispered through tired lips.  Immediately, I am approached by three more women, hands outstretched, babies in hand.  A pain of guilt rushes over me when I deny them, staring past them, their muffled voices ringing loud in my ears.  People in need, a bandaid solution in my hands.  I no longer offer my bandaids.  I will also no longer flaunt or display my excess.  I rise to my feet and walk away, ashamed, not wanting to see them.

I sit in a patch of sunlight, resting my pack against a pillar, leaning my back against it watching the activity of rail workers toiling in the gravel and heat of the sun, washing windows of parked rail cars with buckets of brown water and dirty red rags.  A short round foreman paces near me, one hand to his cell phone his other hand gesturing wildly, shouts to the men, barely audible to their ears at this distance.  They don’t spring to attention, my guess a continuous background drone not worthy of attention.

From under torn chain link fence opposite the tracks, three small children emerge, no older than eight, wild haired and ragged.  Crossing the tracks they climb the four-foot wall effortlessly to the platform, wrestling and laughing with one another, unabashed in their approach to strangers and their want of a hand out.  One boy wears only a faded black t-shirt, shoeless and naked from his waist down.  The two other boys wear similar dirt stained, grey collared shirts and torn brown pants held up with lengths of thin rope.  They approach me without the quiet and tired reserve of the women, youthful arrogance in their loud demands.  The smallest boy, pant-less  and face smeared with dirt, sits in front of me gesturing for money, the other boys standing next to him kicking at each other playfully.  I stare hard into the dark eyes of the boy, a once sly smile now expressionless, perhaps mimicking my own solemn gaze.

My wonder and intensity goes beyond mere curiosity.  I’m searching his eyes for clues, his destitution, poverty and suffering.  Can I see hope and fulfillment?  I need to see if a child can exist forced to live an adult existence.  I was born into his situation, as an orphan in a developing country, my story one of luck and statistical improbability.  I was adopted.  Now I find myself a tourist.  I am reminded of another possible outcome had I not been adopted, staring back at me.  India hits me hard confronting a past, even only imagined.  Once I was Indonesian, a boy growing up in Canada with unanswered questions of a childhood that might have been.  Glossy photos in National Geographic magazines often painted a grim picture of possibilities.  I remember sleepless nights growing up in Canada still frightened of a life I knew I wouldn’t have to experience.  I remember feeling my fortune turn to guilt, both sensations a constant for me traveling India.  However difficult, I need to see India from a street level.  I want to find the foods these kids eat daily, should they even eat daily.  I’m okay getting dirty.  I will try to keep my pants.

I do have an urge to befriend these kids, without doling out food or money.  Instead I’m pleased to see them run off with their mischievous grins, two of them playing king of the castle, climbing bags of cement stacked 10 feet high, the other boy distracted by bottle caps on the ground, gathered up and tossed like tiny Frisbees.  It’s good to see this train station a playground and place of work.  Having stared into this child’s eyes, I don’t find despair or emptiness.  I don’t know if I see hope.  Today he is alive, playing with his friends.  Tomorrow is another day.  That’s the story of being a child.  I am reassured to see a boy inside an eight year old man.