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.


So I haven’t blogged in a while, but we are still sort of alive. It’s not that the holidays were particularly time consuming or that nothing happened, but basically it seems like the entire town of Mumbai is getting new roads (and even some sidewalks) these days, so traffic has been, well, even worse. In fact, I’ve been heeding Ksenia’s advice and now let Deepak drive me home then and again – and even he has been quietly complaining about the traffic. They basically ripped open everything left, right and middle between home and work and are slowly starting from scratch. With hammers and little buckets of concrete carried by women in flip-flops, mind you, but there’s plenty of those around, so I guess it could be slower.

Of course, people still like to double park wherever they please and rickshaws still like to wait for customers practically in the middle of the road, and everyone still loves to make a u-turn against all odds, blocking all traffic in both directions. Nevermind the hawkers and slum dwellings that seem to re-appear within days on the shiny new sidewalks, pushing the pedestrians into the road. Anyways, I’ve been getting wild fantasies of running over rickshaws, pedestrians and little children, so I guess that was sort of a sign that maybe I should let Deepak drive then and again.

The holidays were pretty much non-existing. No snow, no Christmas trees (apart from plenty of fake ones in malls and stranger places), no days off, a busy business trip to Kanpur between Christmas and New Year, it was not the best birthday for little Jesus. It got a lot worse when we went to church on Christmas eve and the church choir started to sing, because not a single one of the 10 singers could get out a straight note. In fact, they were all solidly atrocious. Nevertheless, the church was packed to the hilt, people practically sitting on our laps, the fully unmemorable sermon and the, entirely dysfunctional sound system nonwithstanding.

Speaking of sound systems, we have yet to see an event where they use some sort of sound system that actually works. It is a given that there will be ear splitting feedbacks, crackling drop-outs, and some sound technician jumping around trying to fix the unfixable. Of course, if and when it does work, usually for a few seconds at a time, the volume is turned up to deafening levels, probably to make up for whatever was missed during the drop-outs.

But what else is new? Well, for starters, our apartment is missing a large mirror, a curtain rod, and the rod for the terrace awning. All gone since the last days of renovation while we were gone to Kerala. Instead, one wall is already leaking moisture again, and the awing has got a nice little hole now. That hole is new, courtesy of our neighbor who for some reason dropped a heavy steel kitchen utensil from her balcony. I have no idea how that utensil is called, suffice to say that it ripped straight through the awning and would certainly have killed anyone who might have happened to sit under the awning. Maybe when people talk about spiritual India what they really mean is that these sorts of things don’t even faze you all that much any more.

Or maybe they mean people like Deepak, our driver. He is the only one working in his family of mother, wife, kid, and two brothers, but he’s always in a good mood. He had tried to get a job in the army but was too slow a runner, and he tried to get a job with the police, but can’t afford the ridiculously high bribes required for that – $3000 or so, he says, and even that doesn’t guarantee a job; they might just keep the money. So now he’s a driver, and he says: my job no future, but I enjoy. Of course, the big attraction to a position with the police would be the large extra income in bribes, but we can’t even imagine him being able to take a bribe, he just seems more like the type who’d be happy to make the world a better place by standing at some road junction detangling traffic jams.

Anyways, he went out of his way to buy Ksenia a flower for Christmas, and we love him. At Rs7000 a month for five days a week, we are paying him a bit more than the standard Rs5000 or so for six days a week, but I think we’ll make him a big present when we leave, and I am not even sure he would take money. Our maid, by the way, has already asked us whether she can come with us back to New York, and if it weren’t so decadent and illegal, we’d actually be tempted, because she is great as well, even though she was very upset when we got back from Kerala and said to Ksenia: Oh my God, you are turning black! Madam, you have to use bleach creme!

One thing that isn’t illegal, but should be are Bollywood movies. The other day we made another desperate attempt at finding some quality entertainment and so we got Salaam Namaste, which was a big hit last year and apparently caused a bit of a circus, because it features a live-in relationship. Bottom line is, it’s simply and utterly unwatchable crap. How on earth anyone above the age of four can find this stuff funny is totally beyond me. It’s not even Louis De Funes or Jerry Lewis kind of stupid funny, it’s just painfully atrociously unbelievable not funny. It’s way beyond so unfunny that it even passed any chance of becoming funny in a twisted kind of way again. That’s how bad it is, and, yes, that’s pretty bad.

But enough of that. Wednesday is a holiday. I don’t even know which one, really, but we are off to the South again, until Sunday. We might have cramped our itinerary a bit too much, but the plan is to go to Nrityagram near Bangalore, then to Mysore, two nights in Mudumalai, via some weird mountain railway and a night express train to Kanchipuram, and then back home via Chennai.

Crying About Your Nanny

So I’ve been kind of lazy in terms of writing here, but while Ksenia was a bit obsessing about sewing some curtains and pillow cases, I was obsessing about re-writing my photo blog. Neither of us is done yet, but then again, nor are the painters, so our apartment is still a construction site. Of course, the difference with the painters is that they haven’t even started yet. I guess that’s a good thing in a way, because we really were not in the mood to have these guys make a bloody mess again – at least not right under our noses, so we told the landlord to have them patch up the walls while we go on vacation.

So rather than them doing a real full paint job while we are at home, they’ll do a crap paint job while we go to Kerala for a few days, starting tomorrow. Not that they wouldn’t have done a crap job anyways, but the hope is that they will actually be done by the time we come back. One can always hope. We’ll be happy if the currently still barren and exposed walls display some sort of resemblance of paint when we get back.

So our flight to Kerala is tomorrow at 5am. Speaking of hope, the idea is that we’ll catch a few days of semi-clean air in a reasonably laid back setting. Here in Mumbai, whenever Ksenia goes out during the day for this or the other errand (such as getting her own debit card from HDFC, which apparently is impossible, but that’s another story), it only takes about two hours until she’s entirely exhausted. I also have been feeling slightly sick for a good two weeks now, probably due to the air – after all, the daily pollution chart on TV keeps telling me that pollution is at unhealthy levels, usually just barely below hazardous. As if I needed confirmation.

Kerala holds the promise of green landscape, backwater boat rides, and mellow people. I am betting on a huge population of mosquitos as well, so we better unpack our Malaria pills. Everybody keeps telling me that Kerala is great, but then again, a lot of very intelligent people apparently really loved the movie Swades (Our Country). I only saw the last 10 minutes of it, but Ksenia had gotten it, because it supposed to be a thoughtful movie by the same director who did Lagaan, and not yet another Bollywood trivia. Apparently, I only needed to see the last 10 minutes, because there was more use of the word motherland than you can shake a stick at. It was an utterly unbearable patriotic shmaltz production all the way. Still, I was kind of disappointed that I had missed the best scene, which was when the main actor Shahrukh Khan (probably the top Bollywood actor at the moment), who played a grown up scientist at NASA, started to cry like a little girl because he was missing his childhood nanny…

Anyways, in other news, we tried to go to Shivaji Park twice now (to play frisbee), but both times the place was mobbed with hordes of pretty looking followers. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the acronym for Shiv Sena is SS, because they do look like a bunch of Hitler Youth guys (khaki shorts, white shirt, black head gear, dull faces), and they have an insane ideology and plenty of criminal energy to match. There were cops everywhere, including cops with machine guns cruising around on decrepit scooters. Not our scene really, so that was that in terms of playing frisbee in the park.

Alright, so I am trying to finish this on a good note. Ok, the weather is decent, the maid is great, we love Deepak, and we are going to Kerala tomorrow. Work is a mixed bag of good stuff and incredible insanity, but compared to other things, it is a place of retreat, which says something about Mumbai I guess. Which reminds me: a colleague at work told me that he was trying to bribe the MTNL clerk to get his DSL service set up properly and quickly. Believe it or not, the clerk ended up calling my colleague’s father: Your son has very bad manners, I don’t want a bribe, we have a capacity problem! Yes, apparently, everybody knows someone with influence in Mumbai, and it’s ok to complain to grown-up men’s fathers about their son’s manners. I really need to see that scene with India’s Brad Pitt crying about his nanny…

Holiday Party

Well, our apartment is still a bloody mess and of course nobody has showed up yet to start painting the walls, so they are still dusty with cement droppings everywhere. On the upside, we got rid of our entirely overpriced and underperforming internet cable service. The bastards had charged us almost $100/month for a broadband connection that was 56kps dial-up at best. But Ksenia finally took matters into her hands and went down to MTNL, the semi-government telephone provider.

Back when we had moved in, MTNL weren’t able to get us a working phone connection for ages, but I had been told that once they install DSL, it is actually very fast and cheap. We had tried at some point, but nothing ever happened after they determined that the phone lines in our building are crap. Funnily enough, they had left the DSL router in our apartment for about two months. Phone bills come every other month, so we weren’t all that pleased when we discovered a few weeks ago that they were charging us for DSL service anyways.

However, to our great surprise, two days after Ksenia went to their office (it’s a decrepit building that looks more like a prison, and the office rooms look more like disorganized torture chambers), they installed DSL and everything worked. Well, they couldn’t be bothered or were incapable to get their DSL play nicely with our router, but that was to be expected, and we took care of that ourselves. But since then, speed is great, Vonage works, and we are happy.

There were more positive developments this week. Our new maid started and she’s great. She is Karilyn’s maid’s aunt, a bit older, and positively pleasant. She actually figured out to best mop the terrace, which is really advanced service. Also, Deepak, our trusted driver, keeps cracking us up. He always seems incredibly disappointed when we tell him that he doesn’t have to work tomorrow and asks but why, Sir? And when Ksenia told him that on Saturdays I am her driver, he cracked up laughing. If I happen to see him in the evening when he drops off the car at work, he always tries to drive me all the way home, even though that means he’s got to take the train all the way back to his home, and he can’t believe that I of course insist to drop him off near where he lives and drive myself.

Ksenia tries to teach him a bit more English, so by now he knows that it’s not something something but a little bit. Apparently, it took him quite a while to learn the words a lot, inside, outside, and flyoverflyover is what Indians call the highway bridges that cross local roads, and Deepak would always call them flowers instead. Anyways, we are overpaying him by quite a bit, but he’s great.

Finally, yesterday was my company’s year-end party at the JW Marriott. The theme was Bollywood Bash and it really was the strangest company party I have ever been to. In New York, the company usually pays for some professional entertainment at these sorts of events – some band and/or acrobats or whatever. In Mumbai, employees insist that they will provide the entertainment themselves, no outside help needed.

So they had a sort of competition with a number of Bollywood movie scenes being re-enacted, including the costumes, dance and singing. Of course, I didn’t understand a word, but within minutes, the crowd of about 500 was absolutely ecstatically screaming and cheering. The whole thing culminated in senior managers doing an absolutely gay looking and incredibly funny dance scene, and that kicked off the open floor with hours of Bollywood dance music (interrupted with a bit of Smells Like Teen Spirit, oddly enough).

There was plenty of food, but no tables. I had wondered about that at the beginning, but I then realized that nobody needs any tables, because absolutely everybody was dancing like crazy. And I mean like crazy – dancing at Indian office parties apparently does not mean to shake your leg a little, trying not to make a complete ass of yourself. No, making a complete ass of yourself is the absolute requirement here, it is in fact the whole point.

Rather than just dance, you have to re-enact the dance scene of the movie that the song originated from. I had seen a bit of that in clubs, but I had not realized that my colleagues apparently were all total experts in Bollywood movies, because they re-enacted, and how! Grown-up men in their 40s doing the silliest dance moves imaginable, the arms waving wildly in the air, legs all over the place, hips going left and right, and pelvis going back and forth. The whole deal, for hours, and unlike in New York, they weren’t even slightly drunk. It was quite a scene, and of course the only one making an ass of himself was me, by trying very hard not to make an ass of himself…

So this was a pretty good week, I have to say.

Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand

So, rather than trying to get some relaxing vacation done in India, we buggered off to Thailand. A quick four hour flight to Bangkok, then another hour flight to Koh Samui, and there we were, on a tiny little airport with conveyor belts under a bamboo roof. A little boat brought us to Koh Pha Ngan, where we switch to an even smaller boat, and finally we get to a little beach, a couple of nice huts, a small restaurant, Thai massages, steam baths, peace and quiet – exactly what the doctor ordered.

I took us a couple of days until the fact sunk in that Thailand ain’t India. While we cannot walk five meters in Mumbai without getting stared at, without getting harassed about something or other, Thais apparently couldn’t care less about their tourists – and that’s A Good Thing. Nobody trying to sell us anything, nobody yelling “Hello Foreigner!”, no retarded young boys running around all giggly, holding hands, or driving around in their Tata trucks with Bollywood music blasting out of the open windows. Instead, people are quiet, calm, reserved. The streets and shops are amazingly clean and organized. What little we saw of Bangkok from the air looked like a well-functioning modern city. No potholes, for a change. Roads actually have markings. Real cars instead of rickshaws.

In short, compared to Mumbai, Thailand was pure paradise. I didn’t even mind that I was sick as a dog for two days when we got there. A couple of days later, we were cruising around the island on a dirt bike, visiting a crazy Buddhist monk in his little temple, checked out some other beaches, and tried snorkeling. We gave up on snorkeling very quickly, because the water was full of slightly stinging fish eggs in jelly (or whatever it was), but who cares. The Thai massages were fantastic, the steam room was great, the restaurant food was not too bad, and the other guests were mostly bearable. We passed on a number of party events and instead slept forever and were generally obscenely lazy.