Cusco – Salkantay Inka Trail – Macchu Pichu

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Goa

Ahhh… Goa! The hippie paradise, the charter destination for potbellied middle aged Germans (and plenty of Russians, too), the weekend destination for Bollywood celebrities… Well, we had put off a trip to Goa for all these reasons, and also because it took me a while to convince Ksenia that we should be driving down there. As it turns out, it was a lovely drive and Goa is indeed quite lovely, especially if you make a big circle around the hippie, raver, and charter destinations.

Since the 9th this month was a holiday, we had five days to play with, taking off the Wednesday and Friday as well. We wanted to leave Mumbai at 6am, but as usual, we packed last minute and didn’t leave the house until 7am. Still, there was no traffic to get out of Mumbai to Panvel, where the NH17 starts. National Highway is of course a bit of a misnomer, because it’s a pretty narrow road, one lane each direction, no dividers, but plenty of pedestrians, bicycles, and cow carts for added entertainment and diversion during the 600km trip.

Nevertheless, I had been a bit worried that the road would be the standard pothole infested diet we’ve come to love to hate around here, so that it would indeed take 15-17 hours to get to Goa, as some websites had said, but in fact the road was for the most part quite good. Narrow, but smooth and curvy – apart from a few stretches up and down some mountains, it would have been fun to go on a motorbike. Plus, there were surprisingly few Horn Ok Please trucks on the way, and even fewer maniac bus drivers. The landscape is very nice all the way, and it changes quite often between lush green fields and dry yellow mountains, but I kind of forgot taking pictures, because I had two much fun driving.

We stopped over for lunch halfway at some posh hotel in Chiplun and reached North Goa at 6pm. It took another hour or two to find a place to stay that wasn’t booked, but then we ended up at the very nice River Cat Villa in Mandrem. The next morning, we walked to the beach, spotted the first topless tourist and were surprised to find that the water does indeed resemble the color blue, which is an enormous step up from the brown sewage at Juhu Beach in Mumbai.

Shocked by the sight of so much blue water and almost empty beaches, we left and drove down to Old Goa, the former capital of Portuguese India. There seem to be more churches then souvenir shops in Old Goa, and there’s not much else, but it was nice to walk around without much bother, and with vendors restricted to a small area around a main parking lot, which was almost empty. Goa is close to completely banning plastic bags, so it is probably the cleanest place we’ve been to in India so far. Of course, a lot of tourists seem to have an addiction to potato chips, so there’s still that, but ah well.

Our next stop was the Savoi Plantation, a tropical spices farm pretty far east in Goa. When we got there, there was an army of charter tourists being served some yummy organic food, a traditional Goan dance and music performance, and a very efficient spice sales show. Thankfully, they got bussed back to wherever they came from, while we stayed to sleep in a most quiet and lovely little farmhouse on the plantation. The owners were very nice and not too pushy or in our faces, so it was very relaxing.

Having gone so far east and away from the beach, we went to a nice little 13th century Hindu temple the next day, deep in the forest. There was a Brahmin family stopping by for some prayers and it was all very laid back. Then we drove to the south and made a lunch stop in a little restaurant. The owner was some local politician, and it was quite interesting as he told us that he’s first of all a Goan, then an Indian – he still speaks Portuguese and even has a little Portuguese flag in his car, much to the dismay of some people who consider such a display anti-national, he told us. He complained a bit about the foreign invaders in Goa, by which he meant Marathis from Maharashtra – apparently, there was a row about what the official language in Goa should be, and it almost became Marathi instead of Konkani. There’s also some discussion about whether the Roman Konkani script should be on equal footing with the Devanagari Konkani script.

Anyways, Goans, especially women, are by the way considered the lazy, laid back, catholic and fun loving people of India, with the loose morals to match, even though Christians are a minority here (nevermind that being catholic anywhere else doesn’t exactly signifies loose morals). And speaking of stereotypes, hippies are generally despised, while Israeli tourists are now even more loathed than Germans, the reason being that they are all fresh out of the Army and hence prefer drugs to sauerkraut with beer, and a good fight to lazily drunken roasting in the sun. All of this according to our Indian Goa travel book, which marveled about the story of a bunch of Israelis being kidnapped in Afghanistan, who then proceeded to close combat their kidnappers to death.

So we drove further south to Agonda, after we made a quick stop in Colva, which seemed packed with lobster red vodka infused Russians walking around town half naked. Agonda in contrast is a very laid back little strip of lovely beach, so we stayed there and actually went for a real swim the next day. Of course we had to also check out Palolem further south, which was predictably overcrowded, but the Oceanic Hotel, outside of Palolem, was one of the nicest little places we’ve been to in India so far.

The next day, it was back to Mumbai. We decided to take the NH4A from Goa to Belgaum in Karnataka, where we’d get onto the Bangalore – Mumbai express highway. Unfortunately, a large part of the 150km to Belgaum was on the most horrific stretch of road ever. There were literally thousands of trucks loaded with red dust from the Goan ore mines, and the road itself was totally destroyed; it basically didn’t exist anymore. The dust from the trucks and the road was so thick that we felt like we were in the middle of a heavy red London fog, so we chugged along in first or second gear for many many miles.

But eventually reached the express highway, the pride of Indian civil engineering connecting Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, and Delhi, and from there it was a nice ride at 120km/hour all the way to Mumbai – then and again interrupted by trucks and cows going the wrong way on the fast lane, while we were passing some rickshaw or cows going the right direction on the slow lane. Quite obviously, after spending probably billions of dollars on the highway, there wasn’t enough money or thought left to also build underpasses or overpasses at the exit points, so instead the cows and the rickshaws and the trucks just cut over to the other lanes and go the last bit against the traffic. We had seen people parking their cars on the highway, preferably on a bridge or in a sharp curve and where the highway has no shoulder, just to say a prayer or to take some pictures, but these cows and rickshaws going the wrong way were a bit like the icing on the cake.

Anyways, we got home eventually, where we noticed that our building had yet another watchman (they kind of change like people change their underwear), who immediately rang our door and asked for money. We also noticed some bite marks on our couch that strongly suggested mice, and sure enough, we saw a mouse running around in our apartment, plus a dead one caught in the grill of our A/C. Well, maybe they eat the mosquitos, of which we have more than we can kill. On the plus side, it’s 35 degrees Celsius in Mumbai every day these days, and we don’t even really feel it anymore – we’ll be freezing during New York City summers when we come back.

Bordi

Last weekend, we drove up to Bordi, a small Parsi town with a lovely beach 150km or so north of Mumbai. Well, let’s be clear, the beach is lovely, in that it’s 17km long, when the tide is low, it’s 1km to the water, and there’s hardly anybody there. Other than that, the water is sewage brown, there’s plenty of plastic garbage, and plenty of people going for a shit onto the beach.

First we thought we should go to a place further inland that advertised itself as a Nature Retreat. We got there after passing a number of dusty and already pretty dried up villages – monsoon ended only two months ago, but around here, there’s not much green left. The place itself looked green enough, but we knew we were in for some trouble when we saw three large tourist air-conditioned busses on the parking lot. As soon as we opened the doors of our trusted Ambassador, we heard loud screams of fun and teenage laughter from what turned out to be the dining hall. Since that’s not exactly our idea of refuge from Mumbai, we made a quick round to take a look at the premises and left for Bordi.

Bordi also had its fair share of hysterical fun and laughter, but it came from the town’s cricket field, which was far enough from our little Parsi hotel that not even the over-amplified loudspeakers announcing this and that and the other could reach us. Our host seemed a very laid back chap and didn’t even get his pants in a knot when we told him that we’ll first take a look at the other hotels in town before we decide to stay at his. Of course, he did try to convince us that the other hotel in town was entirely booked, which didn’t seem likely, since his was entirely empty, and as expected turned out to be BS.

But we stayed at his hotel, the Gool Khush Resort, because it seemed nicer than the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) hotel nearby, whose manager had a bit of a smell of a bureaucrat, whereas the Gool Khush seemed very hospitable. Of course, hospitality necessarily means that the host gets to ask all kinds of nosy questions, orders us around (“Sit! Lock the car! You should not smoke! You don’t eat enough! Go for a swim! Come back in half an hour!”), and generally becomes a bit of a pain in the ass pretty quickly.

But we are good guests, so we locked the car, we even shut down the car engine before that, just as he told us, then we went for a half hour walk to the beach and came back to meet him, so we could drive him to a nearby village, where he would introduce us to a guide, who would sheppard us up some mountain to a debilitated Parsi cave the next day. It seemed a matter of life and death that we get a guide, and a good one at that, someone who speaks English to explain everything to us. In addition, we were also told not to trust anyone, so we should bring some chalk with us to mark our way up the mountain, so that we wouldn’t get lost on the way back. Fair enough, an English speaking guide might be good, and we’ll see about that chalk.

Anyways, after being told to drive slowly, shut down the engine, and lock the car, we met our guide. Needless to say, he was drunk and didn’t speak a word of English, and the second one seemed sober and didn’t speak a word of English. But the village was interesting, with lots of women coming down from the mountains, balancing tons of wood on their heads as they walked very quickly and barefoot. As usual, hardly any men could be seen working. It still seems one of the mysteries of rural India that the guys don’t seem to be doing much other than getting drunk, while the women seem to be working 24/7. Of course, it would also be entirely inappropriate for a man to offer a seat to a woman in the bus, so they are usually the ones standing, no matter how old.

The next morning, we were told to eat glucose against the terrible exhaustion and the paining that we will feel after walking up the mountain, but to stay away from water. A little bit of mango juice we were allowed though. Our host strongly advised not to go to work the next day, because we’d be paining just too much, and in any event we’d be much too tired to drive home to Mumbai after that walk. Oh, and we should lock our car before we start walking.

What he didn’t mention was that at 6am, the railway crossing to the village would be permanently closed and that we’d have to honk the horn to wake up the attendant. Luckily, he of course called us on our mobile a few minutes after we left to let us know that we have to call him when we find the guide. Not that Ksenia hadn’t already figured out by then that honking the horn should get us across the railroads, but it was a gentle reminder that we aren’t alone in the wilderness.

The walk up the mountain to the Parsi caves was nice and as expected not exactly like climbing up the Mount Everest. Our guide was for some reason racing like it’s a competition, so we made it up there in less than two hours, and one would have to be fairly short mental capacity to get lost, because there was a trail and not many other choices to go, other than up the mountain, following the trail. The caves themselves were pretty sad and appropriately littered with plastic garbage, but the views were not bad and the air was sort of clean. Despite originally being the location were the first Parsis fleeing from Persia were in hiding and kept their holy fire for twelve years, there was also a little Hindu shrine nearby and two orange Hindu flags. Our pre-selected guide didn’t speak a word, but went for a prayer, then disappeared somehow, and then came back.

Back in the hotel, we witnessed a modern day grown up woman and what might have been a brother splashing around in the swimming pool, she in bikini, paddling around with her glasses on, he in Speedos silently ruddering the short distance of the pool back and forth. It was a bit strange, but maybe not as strange as the extended family lunch that followed, in complete silence.

Back on the so-called highway to Mumbai, some other modern day guy in a baseball cap and expensive car tried to cut us off by an inch or two, like driving is a videogame, and when I showed him the finger, he proceeded to play some child’s game with us whereby he’d pull up next to me, forcing me to step on the brakes as I was approaching the next truck or rickshaw crawling about at pedestrian speed on the highway.

Meanwhile, I still haven’t gotten rid of a pretty constant cough and running nose that I’ve been basically having since November, a month after the monsoon ended. Sometimes a nice headache and a slight fever gets added, so I have decided that maybe Mumbai really is a health hazard. Turns out, by Indian standards, RSPM (Respirable Suspended Particulate Matter) concentration of 100 µg/m3 is considered acceptable, but it’s more like 350 µg/m3 on average during the winter, which is well above what’s called the hazardous danger mark of 300 µg/m3.

Ah well, tomorrow until Sunday we are going to Rajasthan. Maybe desert dust is better than Mumbai. Ksenia will be looking for fabrics, while I am tempted to look for a gas mask.

Going South

So our trip to the South was moderately successful. One thing Indian airlines have going for them, is that the food is consistently edible. The coffee is unsurprisingly the worst on the planet, but the food isn’t bad. It sort of even makes up for the fact that no-one ever wants to see any ID. They instead prefer to have you show them your boarding card about five times, and God forbid your hand luggage has no luggage tag, or even the luggage tag of a different airline. They have a little box with the luggage tags from all the different airlines, and you better pick the right one, or else it won’t get stamped as the bags get x-rayed. The box looks a bit like a box of candies, so in that regard, their security measures are kind of cute, although probably even less effective than the ridiculous taking off your shoes ceremony they invented in the US.

Anyways, we arrived in Bangalore and were almost impressed with the fact that Bangalore’s name Green City isn’t entirely pulled out of thin air. It’s noticeably greener than Mumbai, which of course doesn’t mean much. There’s a whole bunch of colleges, an army of software companies, and then the real army in town. I don’t know for what purpose exactly, but the Indian Army occupies large areas right in what seemed to be the middle of town. Or maybe it was the Air Force, because there was also a sad looking statue of some little jet fighter or something right in the middle of some intersection.

We eventually made it to Nrityagram, which was quite nice. Right next to it is a fancy Taj resort, and Nrityagram itself is a nice little place. They take on only six dance students every six years, two of which, we were told, actually make it all the way. We saw them rehearsing for an Odissi performance, which was really quite fascinating. The were performing at The Joyce Theater in NYC last year, and apparently will go on tour in the US later this year.

We then took off to Mysore and arrived pretty late by train. As we got off the train, we got, as usual, mobbed by an army of rickshaw drivers, but we always prefer to stand in line for the pre-paid rickshaws, even though it might not actually be cheaper. This time, we got yelled at by some guy who told us that it’s against the law to smoke in public and that we should study the law before coming here. We were too tired to tell him to shove it, so we just stepped away from him. Presumably it’s decidedly not against the law for the rickshaw driver to yell out to everybody standing or sitting around which hotel we had asked him to drive us to, because that’s exactly what happened. At least no one gasped ah, expensive hotel! like the rickshaw driver in Kotchi did a few weeks ago.

Anyways, the next day our itinerary brought us to the Karnataka State Silk Factory, which, sad as that may be, turned out to be pretty much the highlight of the trip. Basically, they just let you walk around the factory, no one bothers you, everybody was friendly and no one made a fuss. So we walked by a zillion machines (the older ones Swiss, the newer ones Japanese), from where they twist, wind, double, and rewind the silk yarn to rows and rows of screaming loud silk saree weaving machines, all operated by one or two guys. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed, but the machines were quite complicated, and some of the patterns were quite elaborate. The people were obviously proud of their work, and were happy to try to show us how the machines function. This one jolly happy chap was asking me how much money I make in Mumbai – it’s a pretty common question of strangers to ask – and then he complained laughingly that the Rs6,000/month that ($150) he makes after 30 years of service are not quite enough.

Our next stop was the Government Sandalwood Factory, pretty much next door, but that place was more like a deserted museum and there wasn’t much to see. So we went to the Mysore Palace. For some reason, we couldn’t really warm up to that building. Maybe it’s because it’s probably the youngest palace I have ever seen (it’s not even 100 years old), or maybe it was the crowd. Our Brahmin tour guide told us at least six times that the palace is decorated with 100,000 light bulbs, which didn’t really help, and by the 10th time he marveled over useless stupid facts like this chair is made of 65kg of silver, that box is made of 17kg of gold, these windows were made in Belgium, those mirrors were brought here from Bohemia, and so on and so forth, we were about ready to smack him. Funnily enough, their website only mentions 97,000 light bulbs, so maybe that explains his silence when I asked him whether those 100,000 light bulbs all work. By the way, the palace was occupied by the last Mysore Maharaja, whose father had built it (well, he didn’t build anything, he just went on an expensive shopping trip to Europe). His big fat son is now a politician.

After that, we had about enough of royal families and annoying tour guides, so we took off in a bus to Mudumalai. It was a bit of a challenge to actually find the right bus, because no one seemed to know or care when there’s a bus going in that direction, or if they did know, they all seemed to be talking out of their asses, because we got about five different departure times from three different people. Eventually, we found our bus, kick boxed our way to some seats and there we went and arrived pretty late in the evening.

We stayed two nights in Mudumalai, because it was green and calm, and because it turned out that it wasn’t actually simply a rumor that there’s wild animals living there. The first morning we went for a two hour walk with a guide and a French couple from La Réunion, and we saw a whole lot of elephant shit. No elephants, but at least their bathroom. We saw a lot of deer, some peacocks, but no tigers or even boers. I wouldn’t completely rule out that people here would simply get up even earlier in the morning than we did, just to strategically place some elephant shit here and there to scam the tourists, but the next day, we did actually see a real wild elephant and a boer. And tiger shit, or so we were told. The evening before, we had also seen a pretty impressive elephant feeding ceremony in an elephant camp and made acquaintance with one elephant that was rumored to have killed 18 people. He was a bit mad, we were told, but now he is fine.

From Mudumalai, our trip went literally downhill. First we made a stop in Ooty, which was pretty unattractive. Always on the hunt for the ultimate fabrics, we were led to the house of a Toda family. The fabrics weren’t very impressive, and the man sadly smelled of alcohol on this early afternoon, but their houses were quite interesting.

Then we took the toy train to Mettupalayam. Because that utterly unhelpful woman at the Mysore train station ticket counter was not in the mood to make reservations for us, we were left with buying last-minute tickets, which got us standing room only in the completely overcrowded general admissions car, right behind the criminally loud steam engine, with hot steam and smoke for added pleasure. That trip lasted about three and a half hours, and really wasn’t all the fun that it’s made up to be. Judging from the ecstatic screaming every time we went through a tunnel, the other passengers were having the trip of their lifetime though.

These three hours of madness were only the beginning for us. We then changed into the Express night train to Chennai. Luckily, we got a private sleeper coach, but we didn’t get much sleep, not least because the train conductors were helpfully knocking on our door asking about this and that and insisting that we fill out their customer satisfaction survey before they would leave us alone and let us sleep. The train arrived at 5am, and by that time we were seriously ready for a shower, but we still had another day to kill, and what better than taking a two hour bus ride to Kanchipuram, a town of many temples and many hand looms for silk weaving.

We went to RIDE and had a chat with their director, who was quite the character. There weren’t many sarees to see, but it was still pretty interesting. The director was basically saying that the poor get screwed by religion and corruption and that his organization is trying to teach them how to take their lives into their own hands, especially the women. We didn’t quite get what he was saying about getting death threats from some Swedish guy, and what the story was about him getting his feet washed by his maid, but it was an experience nevertheless.

The bus ride back to the Chennai airport was another death trap, but we somehow survived it and actually managed not to miss our flight. For some reason, you get cold wet towels in the plane these days. This time, we didn’t mind, and as we wiped our faces with them, they turned suitably brown from all the dust and dirt, so at that point it was definitely time to get home.