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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.

Homoromantic on a Motorcycle

In India on March 13, 2013 at 5:31 pm

I met my motorcycle taxi driver Satchit three days earlier, being one of the many yelling their services, while i walked the street.  On a few occasions in Arambol, India I was in need of a driver, the choice of whom usually based on convenience.  With three very vocal choices clamoring in front of me, I saw one man that caught my attention.  It wasn’t flash, humor or negotiations catching my interest.  It was his simple and aged appearance.  He was an older man, lines of time and experience carved deep into his thin and serious face, a thin and graying mustache the final distinguished touch.  This was a man that had survived years driving the brutal roads and traffic of India and stood with no signs of visible scars or limp.  If one can master this particular trade I believed it to be him.  This was my man and I knew it instantly.  This is the safest motorcycle ride in India.

Stepping closer to him I extend my hand, along with the words, “You’re my guy.”  He answers clearly confused but confidently, like I’ve taught him a new English greeting, “Yo-er-mide-gay,” shaking my outstretched hand.  For some reason I respond with, “I AM your guy!”  His blank expression helps me realize this attempt at conversation confusing and meaningless.

That’s how I met my guy Satchit, his motorcycle taxi as small and old as he.  Days later after meeting him and using his services, I’m on the run and Satchit my unknowing getaway driver.  Still asleep half a mile behind are crooks trying to squeeze me for money.  I’m not sure what hostility I face should they catch me.  I know it very unlikely and I do take comfort in that.  I do think about any paper trail or conversations with people that may point to me or my current move south to Kerala and come up with nothing.  I feel a new sense of freedom, smiling on the back of the motorcycle wind passing by, a sensation of flying.  Flying away and not looking back.

I make a promise to myself, a promise that I won’t back down from a fight.  I won’t be taken advantage of.  They won’t gain the upper hand on me.  Not again.  I’ve made many mistakes so far, but i’m learning fast.  I’m taking what was a vacation and turning India into my battleground.  Why is this a good decision?  That has yet to be answered.

It would be a lie to say that Satchit and I shared any rapport, our conversations together clearly riveting.  We have no relation beyond the fact I paid him money on a few occasions to drive me to different locations over the past week.  However, my thoughts turn oddly sentimental and dare I say romantic.  Homoromantic.  I can’t help but feel like a dame sitting behind him, Satchit my knight, as we slowly cruise away towards the horizon on his tiny Honda, more donkey than steed.  He is my hero, helping in my escape and starting a new chapter in my travels.  I begin drifting into thought about a possible new life with this man.  Satchit and Theo.  I start thinking about his life.  Is he married?  He must have a lady in Arambol, trimming his mustache, pressing his black tracksuits and polishing his white sneakers.  He can’t run away with me and leave his trophy wife at home.  I dream his 6 foot, curly blond haired wife with huge breasts sits behind him, the back of his head nestled firmly in her cleavage as they cruise the Arambol beaches at sunset, eating samosas and doing body shots of cashew liquor.  Clearly there is no room for me in his wild party life I’ve conjured up for him.

Before even making it out of town we stop at a service station.  By service station I mean a 3-walled thin metal shack with small engine parts, wrenches, oilcans and plastic water bottles of gasoline strewn about the hard dirt floor.  Satchit takes this time to oil the wheels for the journey and pick up his red helmet.  My heart melts a little, thinking he is concerned for my safety.  Getting on the motorcycle once more he wedges the one fractured helmet between his legs as we drive off.  The helmet is for him, the law requiring one on the open highways.

It’s a two-hour motorcycle ride east to the Madga train station.  I am traveling with only a large daypack for my two month travels in India.  However small and mobile my pack is compared with other travelers, it still weighs about 30lbs and is cumbersome on a motorcycle.  There’s a physical demand, pushing with 30lbs of pressure forward, adjusting and readjusting with every acceleration and squeeze of the brake.  My arms tire holding onto a rear seat bar behind my butt that I use for leverage.  I feel my eyes quickly drying out in the fast moving air.  I retreat behind Satchit’s bulbous red helmet for cover.  I regularly slam my forehead into the back of his helmet, with a dull thud, when he brakes hard in traffic.  I consider if that’s why the fracture marks exist on his helmet as they spider web across the outer finish.  I laugh at the logo staring me in the face.  It’s as modest a logo as I’ve ever seen, a seagull in flight.  His red helmet contains tiny shiny gold flakes under a clear cracked finish.  It’s like staring at a hollowed out bowling ball dipped in glitter.  I wonder if my forehead is now stamped with a combination of glitter and blood from my own skull fractures.

Finally we arrive at the train station, trains a new form of transportation for me in India.  I pull out my wallet to pay Satchit along with my camera.  I request one photo without the helmet, a photo memento i can carry in my wallet and later show to my grandchildren.  He shakes his head no.  After laying the rupees in his hand, he asks why I’m taking a photo of him.  I almost want to tell him everything that’s been running through my head.  The deep connection I feel and how if he asks me to get back on the motorcycle and ride away with him, I will.  Instead my answer to him as uninspiring as humanly possible, “Because I like taking photos.”  I want to snap more photos of him but he is already bored and driving away.  I watch as he disappears into the wall of traffic and out of my life.  He doesn’t look back.  Once again I find myself alone, tired and hungry in India, but I feel good, armed with a new confidence that things will start working in my favor, even without my road warrior guru, Satchit.Image

Arambol Escape

In India on March 9, 2013 at 8:38 am

I am settling into the beach rhythm of Goa’s north coast in Arambol.   Beach life, the simple life.  My host Mr. Fate is gracious in his hospitality offering me cheap prices on everything from motorcycles, heroin, cocaine and hash to fresh seafood and live chickens.  I do frequently take him up on his offer to exchange American currency on the Indian black market for a better exchange rate than the tourist moneychangers and ATM’s.  As much as I wouldn’t trust this man in any binding legal contract, I do trust him and his assurances in black market and closed-door dealings, a counterintuitive notion of traditional business practices.  Normally, I would never recommend putting blind faith in hollow reassurances of anyone in India dealing with tourists and their money.  Never.  If he is conning me I seem to be conning him in return as he announces to his kitchen staff that I will be muddling around in the kitchen as the newest chef and future owner, slapping me hard on the back and letting out a proud and deep throated laugh.  He genuinely has come to like me and invites me to his home in Mapusa to meet his family and explore the weekend market and Hindi festival along with his wife, uncle and baby son.  He is kind to me but I see there is clearly another side to him.  A side I hope not to uncover.

My first days are spent wandering the busy beach and getting pounded by both sun and waves.  My beach hut retreat is clearly not meant for guests, but to house the kitchen and waitstaff.  Remnants of clothing and bedding have been pushed to the side, clearing some floor space for my things.  The staff now relegated to sleeping on the beach sand that is also the dining room floor, I feel little guilt when I shock myself on exposed wires, electricity sending sharp impulses through my hand, clenched fist retracting, causing me to punch myself hard in the forehead.  I am not to use the room’s toilet as the water supply is cut off.  Worst of all, my hut happens to be situated at the apex of a beach party platform, where staging and speakers are placed most evenings, as if my front door is the stage exit and entrance.  I barricade my door with an overturned wood bed frame, indicating my hut neither a green room, bathroom or opium den.  Most nights I find quiet restaurants and cafes to read a book and write in my journal while the rather tame  but bustling nightlife pans out around me.  I feel uncomfortable in my surroundings both beautiful and boring.  I’m not here to party and I’m not here to meditate.  I find myself a distant minority, surprisingly awkward and lonely in my middle position.

Sometimes I feel compelled to spend time at my base camp restaurant with the convenience of my nearby bed.  I feel I owe my hosts some of my time and attention, for there is rarely much going on.  There are Bob Marley posters and giant black tapestry depicting a pot leaf and a screaming skull with the words “Stoned to the Bone.”  Clearly a classy joint.

One afternoon I interrupt Badri, the headwaiter, in the middle of an afternoon nap sprawled atop a dining room table, joint halfway smoked in his left hand, right hand crumpled over his face in a futile attempt to shield himself from the afternoon sun.  Mr. Fate tells me Badri is the person I should talk to, should I need anything legal or illegal to make my stay more comfortable in his absence.  My request this afternoon, the daily catch of seafood from the fishing boats I’ve seen bobbing around not far off the shoreline.  He invites me to sit with him and drink chai while he has time to compose himself.  He is happy to oblige, but also shocked at such a mundane and legal request.  He quickly rattles off a grocery list of drugs to supplement my seafood extravaganza.  I ask if I should talk with Mr. Fate when I next see him for my request.

Still sleepy, Badri tells me, “Mr. Fate not come today, I think.”  He continues, “Mr. Fate at late night photo shoot.  Security job, yes.”

I have to ask, “Is Mr. Fate also a photographer? Or a body guard?”

“Yes, the security for the Russian.”

“Is there a famous Russian here!?”

“Ha, ha, ha, not so famous, they hope,” his finger pointing and sweeping the full length of huts and restaurants along the beach.  “Much business money, Russia mafia gangster.  Assholes.  Mr. Fate in charge all mafia security in Arambol for Russian Assholes.”

Earlier events and instances begin to fit into place, as my memory backtracks to days previous.  I had wondered why only Russians came to this restaurant and why only Russians parked their Speedo and gold chain clad bodies on our plot of beach.  It’s not a good restaurant, the servers stoned and asleep and most every tourist giving nothing but a glance before moving further down the beach.

“Mr. Fate up very, very late many evenings and sleepy morning time.  Maybe he here for dinner, yes?”

I also had to ask, “Badri, why do you think the Russians are Assholes?”

“Russians with big money, no English, always shout, shout, shout in Russian, I no understand, they keep shout.  Treat local peoples like shit!”

I take a shower and think how Badri’s complaint of the Russians is a common one, at least from the Goans in Arambol I’ve talk to.  I almost regret the information that I’ve uncovered.  I’m already uncomfortable in Arambol and now sense this operation to be a Russian money laundering scheme with ranging levels of ownership and control,  Mr. Fate perhaps the highest I will have clearance to meet.  I’m told the other owners Rajat and Sidi are employees of the mafia.  They both embody an unmistakable fierceness, but that of a wounded animal backed into a corner.  They are clearly afraid of Mr. Fate, but show a confidence and swagger in his absence.  It’s the feeble and cowardly power of a bully picking on those smaller, the waitstaff and the kitchen.  It’s verbal, perhaps it doesn’t need to be more.  It’s sting still effective.

That night I buy a train ticket from Madgaon, a couple hours away, south to Alleppey at the southern end of Kerala.  I negotiate with a my skinny and weathered motorcycle driver Satchit, to wait for me outside his house a half mile away from my hut, to expect me at 9am sharp.  I already know that Rajat and Sidi will milk me for money while Mr. Fate is away on a religious holiday for three days.  It’s three more days I don’t care to wait out, despite Mr. Fate having some of my American money to be changed into Indian Rupees.

I announce to Rajat and Sidi that i’ll be cutting my time short in Arambol and heading north to meet up with some friends the following morning at 9am.  They both know Mr. Fate has my American money and that my room is already paid for and more, as i am leaving early and had paid upfront.  I already knew the argument that was about to ensue and i was already aggravated and very scared.  I had eaten seafood and I did have a bar tab for the week.  They both wanted the money now.  I try explaining that Mr. Fate has my money which is enough  to cover my bill and call it even.  Rajat’s agitation to my announcement has me worried.  “You will pay now or you will not leave,” his answer.  I knew this could be settled or wouldn’t be an issue if Mr. Fate were here, but he wasn’t.  “So, what about MY money that YOUR business partner has?”  “It is not my problem, this bill YOUR problem.”  Looking around the room, all I see are staff ignoring the escalating situation.  I will later figure out how to deal with these tense and all too common situations in India, but now I consider my few options.  I agree to pay the money in the morning hoping maybe Mr. Fate will somehow return two days early from his religious holiday.  I know it won’t happen.

After retreating to my hut, I am startled by rustling outside.  Peering through the narrow spaces between the bamboo weaving, I see  three men setting up a perimeter around my hut.  They are smoking cigarettes, coughing and talking in whispers around me.  They are worried I will bolt in the night and they are setting up an all night watch.  I don’t sleep that night with the situation clearly escalating.  It’s true, bolting in the night would have been an option worth serious consideration.  I’m angered and now more frightened and that’s where they want me.  They know they have an advantage with me alone wanting to leave early and without my feared ally.  I reconsider my options.   Pay the extra, but significant, amount of money and walk away safely, having been ripped off, another casualty in the tourist trenches of India. My other option is to refuse.  Refuse an injustice that I can’t afford to let happen the rest of my time in India.  I’m the wounded animal backed into a corner ready to lash out with my last ounce of energy.  My plan takes a razored appearance of a compromise.

My compromise is this; in the morning I will take a tourist off the beach as a witness while I photograph myself giving the requested amount of money to Rajat.  Rajat will  be represented in the photo along with Sidi and the name of the guest house.  I will tell Rajat that if he accepts the money handed to him in the photograph, that I will go to the police with the photos and witness testimony and say that he demanded this amount of money from a paying guest and tourist that was not owed to him.  If the money is not accepted, Rajat can and should collect the owed amount from Mr. Fate and I won’t have to involve the police.  I rehearse my speech again and again in my mind, making sure I’m using simple and understandable English.

At 8am sharp, I pick up my backpack and throw open the flimsy bamboo door ready to argue my case.  To my surprise, all three watchmen are sound asleep in the sand.  I walk into the dining room where everyone lays motionless.  I stand there dumbfounded.  I consider waking them up to drive my case home.  I just stand there, longer.  I weigh my options once again, wake them up or walk away.  I walk away silently past the dunes and onto the hard packed sand close to the water.  I find Sanjit sitting with a couple friends outside his house eating potato chips.  I’m almost an hour early.  He sees me and springs to his feet, “time to go?”

“Yes Satchit, time to go.”

North Goa

In India on March 8, 2013 at 7:00 pm

It’s 7am when I step off the bus in Mapusa, a city in northern Goa and the gateway to the town of Arambol on the coast.  I missed seeing the beginning of Goa’s beautiful topography, straining to imagine the vibrant greens and deep blues passing by in the dark night as the bus climbs and descends the narrow twisting roads.  I have made no friends on this bus ride, quite the opposite, myself the only obnoxious tourist.  I take time to backtrack in my mind as I sit on a busy street drinking hot chai, waiting for Mr. Fate, the person supposedly picking me up on my arrival.

Come nightfall, earlier this bus trip, the overhead lights are turned down and the 32″ flat screen turned on for the evening’s entertainment.  Housed behind a plane of plexiglass and an ornate brown wooden painting frame, a 1980’s Bollywood classic comes to life after some fiddling with wires and plenty of upset yelling, then backseat coaching from the passengers.  It looks to be Kung Fu but Indian, so I see more mustaches, chest hair and sunglasses than the Chinese versions.  As the film begins and every passenger moves to the front edge of their seat in anticipation, I recline, immediately feeling the weight of my eyelids and vision fade to black.  I wake up an hour later, almost to the minute, one of the main speakers encased above my seat at a deafening volume.  Looking around, men laugh at me quietly along with dark stares from the elderly women and all children.  I realize exactly why.  I know I snore at a level likely equal to the deafening sound coming from the speaker above my head.  I assume the sound level turned so high, an attempt to compete.  There is no need to probe further.  I feel fortunate some people are laughing and I haven’t woken being flogged by one of these old ladies or choked by the tiny hands of the kids.  I’ve heard how important Bollywood is to India and I realize I’m messing with that.  I guess all I can do at this point is smile apologetically and try to pay attention.  No chance, I’m asleep within minutes, awake an hour later, almost like clockwork, a continuing cycle until the movie’s conclusion.

Now wide-awake after a three-hour power nap, it is my turn to let other passengers sleep while I ponder and fidget in the dark.  It’s the first time I’m beginning to feel relaxed in India.  I have food in my belly, some sleep under my belt and a hope that Goa will impress.  Now in a more comforted state I am able to question pressing matters like how my shaved brown head got so oily?  There is clearly a greasy film enrobing my head, a feeling like the inside of a McDonald’s cheeseburger wrapper.  Looking at the moon’s light, I must have a sheen that glows like a 10-watt light bulb dipped in mud.  This tropical climate will take some getting used to.  I question if the packs of wild street dogs ever take down any of the docile street cows, nosing through the garbage.  I think about wolf packs in Yellowstone National Park, learning to kill bison and wonder if dog/cow fights will be part of the continuing street chaos I’m slowly becoming accustomed.  I am frightened and excited about the prospect.

Mr. Fate a one-third owner of a beach resort on the Arambol coast, finally picks me up an hour and half late.  He recognizes me as the only possible tourist at our meeting point and beckons me to hop on the back of his motorcycle.  It’s colder than I imagined.  Mr. Fate is in his mid 40’s, large, thick mustached imposing guy wearing a black Raider’s hat, black leather jacket, white scarf, grey sweat pants and black steel toed boots.  His eyes are bloodshot and he mumbles like someone fresh out of bed.  The cold morning wind quickly wakes him as he starts firing questions.  I tell him I’m a chef in the U.S. and wanting to research Indian food in order to start a restaurant in Montana.  He likes this answer and the prospect that I might consider investing in his new beachside resort restaurant.  I give him the restrained reassurance of, “it’s a beautiful area and I can see how people can fall in love with this place.”  This answer is good enough for him as he tells me  that he will take very good care of me.  He asks if I drink, as I assure him I do.  We stop almost immediately as he insists I get off the bike.  Worried I offended him, he tells me, “well here is a bar!”  It’s 9am and I don’t see any signs of waking life around us.  I fear an early morning drinking contest with a man twice my size.  Knocking on the door a tired gentleman opens it, groggy with a thin red blanket wrapped around him.  “Sit, sit, sit, sit, sit,” Mr. Fate insists.  Chairs are upside down on tabletops, closed down from the night before.  It’s almost pitch black in the room, except for the beams of light filtering through spaces  between the broken wood paneling over the window.  I assume he must own this bar to be making such early morning demands.  Drinking is the last thing I desire, other than offending this large man taking car of me.  “Big beer or small beer?”  I decide on a big beer that we might share.  Two glasses and a 650ml Kingfisher Strong beer arrive at the table.  I start pouring two glasses  before Mr. Fate stops me.  “Oh, I don’t drink, this all for you.”  Great, well then hair of the dog.

After pounding back the beer, eager to move along, he asks if I’ve had breakfast.  I haven’t and tell him so.  We head to the building next door where the counter displays fresh crisp samosas filled with potato, shallots, curry leaves and turmeric and pakoras made of grated squash, onion and cauliflower all held together with a dense chickpea batter and deep fried.  Sitting down, I don’t get an option of what to eat.   Appearing at the table is a sambar, a thin soup of lentils, curry leaves and potato made sour to dip the idly, steamed rice cakes both light and fluffy.  To accompany this is a plate of green chilies, sliced open, dipped and fried in chickpea batter.  The first one is atomic in its spiciness but pleasant with the crisp and doughy coating.  It is all a great little breakfast and helping absorb the beer in my belly that’s made me a little drunk.

We keep driving, assured that we are close to our destination.  I am trying to picture the tropical white sand beach resort as we begin passing other tourists on motorcycles.  They are all very attractive people and every shade of hippie represented as dreadlocks, round sunglasses and nose piercings, whisk by in passing.  Arriving I am initially thrilled at the first site of the nearby empty beach, only a few people bent over in yoga positions.  Seeing the one and only bamboo beach hut next to the new but already run down looking restaurant, I am disappointed.  Piles of garbage, some on fire some unlit.  It is far from a utopia, but it seems a step forward in the India evolution of my travel.  Unknown at this moment, later to be discovered is who this Mr. Fate is and his role in the predominant economy in Arambol.  It’s a lesson and realization that will have me on the run once again, this time from organized crime.

India Introduced, January 7th 2013

In India on March 3, 2013 at 3:07 pm

I’m on the run from the chaos, congestion, filth, poverty and corruption I’ve experienced in Bombay after only arriving in India 21 hours earlier from Missoula, Montana.  I’m escaping south to Goa and the promise of surf and sand.  How crazy can that be?  Staring blurry eyed through the horizontal metal grate over the bus window I think about how I planned to explore Bombay’s street foods, restaurants, bars and Bollywood scene for a week, at least.  I imagined Bombay as a run down carnival, a little dangerous, rough around the edges but cheap and inviting, having me begging for more.  I can’t bring myself to dig through the city’s crust in search of its soul beneath.  I haven’t touched a bed in 4 days and as of yet don’t have any waiting in my future.  I feel adrenaline settling into exhaustion.  Closing my eyes I can at least laugh at the irony of my immediate situation.  I’m here to eat my way through India, eating anything and everything it has to offer, yet for the last 3 days I’ve starved, quelling hunger pains with handfuls of hickory smoked almonds, chocolate covered cherries and leftover Christmas cookies my mother made, all mixed together in a Ziploc bag, the leftovers of an American Christmas past.  It’s the beginning of a new year, a very new year.

The hour hand on my watch points towards 10, the darkness outside indicating night when the bus pulls off the toll road highway, bumping and squeaking atop the gravel and potholes, fees not apparently earmarked for maintenance and repair.  It’s symbolic of my experience in India thus far, paid for but not received.  The bus comes to a stop between two parked Tata brand freight trucks.  We’re at an Indian roadside truck stop.  As the passengers silently file off the bus, my attention is drawn to these dusty red trucks, tile size paintings of lotus flowers, deities and suns separating the metal spacing bars on the rear.  The front end ornately decorated with silver tassels, dangling metal chains and coins and a string of bright orange flowers across the upper windshield. They are pretty.  Dented, rusted and dusty from heavy use, still rugged.  It’s a compliment not to be bestowed on Montana truck drivers, adorning their rig with swinging chrome plated bull testicles and ‘Hippie Hater,’ rear window sticker.  Yet I do imagine the Indian trucks to be how my seven-year-old niece might decorate her younger brother’s red Tonka truck if presented with the same materials.

My focus quickly turns to the open-air restaurant or Indian equivalent of an American diner.  Concrete pillars backlit by flickering fluorescents and red Christmas lights.  The first smell coming across my face is from the outhouse off to the left, mixed with thick wood smoke and burning empty plastic water bottles.  Now standing, a shudder from the top of my neck reverberates down my spine to the base of my hip and both arms shake in agreement.  Entering, everyone washes their hands from the basin in the middle of the dining room as they look over the menu on the wall above.  My one semi functioning recognition of the Hindi language is food.  Unfortunately this menu is written in Sanskrit, each symbol as alien to me as the next.  Still, for the first time I feel the giddy anticipation of my first meal in India and I know it’s way overdue.  Standing in line to place my order, I can see the kitchen begin to spring into action, flames, steam and yelling.  It’s late now and the restaurant empty until our bus pulled in.  Reaching the front of the line, I then realize the significant obstacle between myself and getting fed, ordering.  One word in the form of a question emerges from my mouth.  “Chicken?”  Luckily my question is met with a smile and head nod, “Kadai chicken, steam rice, chapatti?”  “Yes . . . Thank you.”

Sitting down at one of the plastic tables by myself, I am comforted to see a sea foam green water pitcher reminiscent of one I remember pouring Kool Aid from as a kid.  I immediately decide to order an orange Fanta.  Not much longer after admiring the plastic wares, my chicken, rice and chapatti appear.  It took about 8 minutes from me ordering to having it steaming hot in front of me.  The chicken clinging lightly to the bowls protruding bones, simmered in tomato, chilies and sliced onions, garnished with chopped cilantro and wedge of lime.  It was simple but sublime.  It had a local heat, which meant I broke into sweat, snot pouring down my face with the first bite.

From previous travels, I was once adept at eating with my hands, a skill that if unpracticed, unlike riding a bicycle, the grace and mechanics lost.  The experienced and effortless movement of thumb sliding the food along the ramp of your fingers into your open mouth can be anything but.  It is very possible to wind up flicking your food at your face with your thumb, mouth open as the majority of your food bounces off your chest and into your lap.  At this level of proficiency it is wise to carry soap and napkins to avoid later questions of crotch stains.

Having flicked the last pieces of chicken and rice at my head, crotch moist from soapy water, I ventured out into the night air.  Clouds of dust loomed from passing traffic, headlights and conversations of car horns punctuating the darkness.  The meal hit my stomach hard, the spice wanting to jump out of my uninitiated stomach.  Running to the outhouse, dark with no lights, I cough and dry heave into the darkness fighting to keep the food down.  A lump in my throat and knot in my stomach has me question if I’ve made a mistake, A big mistake.

Welcome to India.