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.

Random Stuff

My internet connection at home was down for three days, because apparently there had been some thunder and lightening last weekend, putting my ISP (and others) out of service. I have no idea how that is actually possible, but I guess it is. On the plus side, I had missed the thunder and lightening, because I spend the weekend recruiting in a very small college town, a village really, in Rajastan. We flew into Delhi and then went on a 4 hour drive over solidly potholed roads across the border to Rajastan. Well, Rajastan is of course still India, but for some reason or other our driver had to stop at the border to Rajastan to pay some taxes in a little hut of a control post.

This college village is really more like a little gated community with a bit of an army barracks flair. The whole village seems to live off the students, but if you picture lots of college gear shops, book stores, movie theaters, let alone regular theaters, then you would be utterly wrong. In fact, we went out to the central student meeting area, which has a large number of good and cheap eateries, and there were hundreds of students late in the evening hanging around having dinner outside under the stars. Kind of nice, but two things were notably missing: beer and women.

There was not a single bottle of beer to be found and our attempts to buy some were met with apologies. I didn’t quite get whether alcohol is actually illegal, or whether there is simply no demand. Among the hundreds of students there were maybe 20 women. Not that there aren’t any female students in the college, but the girls’ housing complexes (of course, no coed here) are actually closed at 11pm. Boys can roam around all night, but the girls get locked up behind the Berlin walls that surround their dormitories.

The campus does look a bit like a nice and pleasant peaceful army compound, and so basically students spend four years of their lives here, in complete isolation, with no distractions whatsoever, under blistering heat in the summer (it was a good 40 Celsius), and chilly cold in the winter (when it gets below freezing). What a life! The college campus temple was very beautiful though, and there’s a bunch of peacocks running around (and away from my camera), so I guess you win some you lose some as a college student in Rajastan.

Before our trip to Rajastan, I had gotten a call from my car dealer who asked me whether she can give my number to the Hindustan Times, because they were writing an article about the HM Ambassador. I said, sure, why not, so the newspaper called me. They actually wanted to do a photo shoot the next morning, so I told them to come early, since I had to go bring my car for service and then go to the airport. When they didn’t show up at the agreed upon time, I called them, and they told me, ah, well, sorry, we don’t have time for a shoot. So they interviewed me on the phone, I e-mailed them a picture of my silver machine and apparently there was a half page article in the Mumbai section of the Hindustan Times last Saturday.

I still haven’t seen the article, because I was out of town, but apparently it praises the HM Ambassador and then used my quotes (plus the Italian embassy employees who bought two Avigos) as solid proof that Made in India stands for style and quality in the world. Of course, I had expressed my utmost satisfaction with the most beautiful car gracing the Indian roads, so everybody was happy. So happy, in fact, that both my car dealer and some guy from the Hindustan Motors company called me to express their thanks for my valuable input. I guess it was at that point that I realized I should have tried to make deal with them – maybe become their official HM Ambassador ambassador in news, print, and media, in exchange for a minor donation, of course. Anyways, it was all very amusing and now I am famous for being that crazy Westerner driving around in an Amby – by himself, no less.

The trip to the HM service center was also quite an experience. So this car needs the first service stop after 1000km – not 10000 miles, or even 5000 miles, but 1000km, which took me all but three weeks to rack up. That’s the first joke. Then it took me forever to find the place, because the address was useless as usual, and when I called them, they basically refused to give me precise directions, but just told me to ask around, as it would be so much easier.

So I asked a cop, who actually spoke English (a premiere), and he swore on his mother’s grave that he knows exactly where the FortPoint service center is, except, he couldn’t for the life of him explain it to me (it turned out to be a few hundred meters down the road on the right). Eventually, I found the place, in a tiny lane under a bridge next to the Mumbai race tracks, and was greeted by a very disgruntled guy who took my service book, filled it out, and asked my to sign it, right were it says something like Customer Signature. I hereby certify that all work has been completed in a timely manner to my fullest satisfaction. – Of course, at that point, nobody had even driven the car into the completely overcrowded workshop, let alone told me how long it would take or how much it would cost.

Of course, being the narrow-minded Westerner that I am, I refused to sign squat and just asked him how he can possibly expect me to sign this when they haven’t even touched the car yet. The guy wasn’t in much of a mood for minor details like that and just shot back: Sir, we cannot start the work without your signature. So that really cracked me up, but then his boss came around and just told him to start the work and make the customer happy. Yup, that’s right!

They said it would take 90 minutes to do whatever it says in the service book, and after a number of reminders that I have to be at the airport pretty soon, they were done two hours and fourteen hundred Rupees later. I am sure they didn’t do everything they were supposed to do, but then again, what do I know? I really regretted not having brought my camera, because the workshop crew was quite a troupe. I guess they couldn’t believe that I had actually bought an Amby and even drove it there myself, so there was a lot of laughter and hellos, and good spirits all around. Not that many of them were actually working, and they took a half-hour tea break while I was sweating about making it to the airport in time, but I will definitely bring my camera to the next service stop, which is due at 5000km or probably in less than three months.

Downtown Mumbai

Friday night, my boss took out a few expats for a bit of bar hopping downtown. Our first stop was the Dome, a nice lounge bar on the roof of the Intercontinental Hotel right on Marine Drive, a.k.a. Queens Necklace. Nice view, a pool, and expensive cocktails. After that we went to the Gymkhana. I had been told that this is probably the most exclusive private club in Mumbai, so I was quite afraid that this will be some sort of Connecticut Country Club place, with men in white shoes and white hats or something like that. It turned out to be a very laid back and relaxed place where everybody seemed to know everybody. Some people looked like a bit of show-offs, but generally it was pretty apparent that money alone doesn’t get one into this club, what matters most are relationships, so presumably a lot of the members have been downtown Mumbaikars for generations.

I thought the atmosphere was quite different from a few places that I had been to in Bandra. I guess like many big European cities, there is always an invisible divide between the newly rich and the old money spots. Where the nightlife of the Mumbai suburbs of Bandra and Juhu seems to be dominated by Bollywood people (or those wanting to become Bollywood people) and the growing call center brigade (a term I saw the TimeOut Mumbai use twice), this place seemed quite different.

Afterwards, we went to Indigo, a very happening bar and Italian restaurant, which the wife of a British diplomat whom I had met on the way from St. Petersburg to Delhi was raving about. I remember thinking then that I don’t really want to go to some posh downtown exile for Western diplomats, but the place was actually quite nice and laid back as well – and now that I live here, I realize that this town would be simply unlivable for me without these sorts of places. Sadly but true enough, now that I have a car, I don’t even take the riksha anywhere – it is just too exhausting to be sitting in these things right next to the big stinking busses and passing by open sewage systems and mountains of garbage. So I drive in my air conditioned car with the windows rolled up and Madonna or Eminem in the CD player – kind of like a submarine floating in stop-and-go speed through a zoo approaching hell.

Leningrad – Moscow – Delhi – Mumbai

Well, I made it. All the way from NYC to Nice, Paris, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Delhi, and Mumbai. We carried three suitcases and three carry-ons each, which turned out to get a little pricey. From the US to France, they charged us only $90 each for the extra two suitcases, but from Nice to St. Petersburg it was the criminal amount of 12Euros per kilo above 20kg each. So that turned out to be 1300Euros. Ooops. Of course that price tag came with a puffed up attitude on the part of the Air France employees and three different ones of them telling us off for bringing three carry-ons. Nevermind they were all small ones (the carry-ons that is), and there was plenty of space on the planes. They all had to give us a good lecture. But the food on Air France is excellent, so there: you win some you lose some.

Of course going from St. Petersburg to Delhi was another $11 per kilo above 20kg, but luckily we left a lot of stuff with Ksenia’s best friend in St. Petersburg, so my bill was only $300 and I guess we’ll see how much Ksenia’s bill will be when she gets here in two weeks.

Russian and Indian airports seem to be in competition on who can be the most ludicrously inefficient and annoying (then again, on the way into St. Petersburg, one Russian customs guy helped us quite a bit, when one of our suitcases didn’t arrive and he didn’t make us go through customs again when we finally picked it up the next day). NYC airport gets the first prize for having a complete bitch of a security woman not even flinching a millisecond and simply continuing her blank fuck you all stare as she drops my passport and waits for me to pick it up while my hands are full. Anyways, for some reason, you pass five or six security stations in both St. Petersburg and Moscow. Not that anyone really seems to look at anything and it’s not like anybody at all couldn’t just walk around from the street straight to the aircrafts in St. Petersburg without much hassle. But for some reason, in St. Petersburg, the boarding cards get ripped off the tickets on the stairways to the aircraft, in wind and rain, by a single Aeroflot employee with a broken umbrella.

Aeroflot food was predictably crap compared to Air France, but the aircraft had an unbelievably high ceiling and the seats weren’t numbered at all. Or so I thought untill I found them above the trays on the back of the seats. Except those seat numbers indicated the seat whose back they were on, not the seat from which you could actually see the number. Luckily I was not the only one who was confused; half the people on the plane, most of them Russian, had no clue, so there was a lot of moving about to get into the right seats going on before everyone was happily settled. It was all very amusing.

The security procedures repeated in Moscow. In fact, I had thought the three hour layover would be plenty of time to have some food and a beer for bedtime, but they were barely enough to make it to the next plane. Different terminal, incredible security checks, ludicrous customs/passport controls, and of course three different lines to pay my $300 for excess baggage. Needless to say, noone knew, let alone gave the slightest fuck whether I’d get charged again in Delhi or even whether my baggage would actually go all the way to Delhi.

Yes, the story repeated itself in Delhi, except at higher temparatures, with more humidity and in the middle of the night. Some more papers to fill out, very important passport checks, the usual drill for the potential terrorists, smugglers, and tax evaders that we all are, and of course I had to schlepp my entire luggage around yet again. For some reason, in Delhi it seemed like one had to get out of the airport all the way to the hot and humid street just to get back into a different door in the exact same building to make the connecting flight. On the street, an army of cab drivers tried to convince me that my flight in fact leaves from an entirely different airport. Maybe I should have taken my cigarette break elsewhere, but it was 3:30am or so and I didn’t really mind, but was rather impressed that they seem to know all flight numbers and times by heart, so they actually backed off when I could give them my exact connection to their satisfaction.

The last leg was rather uneventful, if you don’t count my seat neighbor, who was belching, farting, and scratching his balls with gusto. After landing semi-safely in Delhi, the whole passenger cabin was clapping their hands, but no such entertainment now. To make up for that, the luggage arrived on the wrong conveyor belts, but they did arrive. The air wasn’t quite as bad as it had been in April, since it had rained a bit that night. My hotel pickup driver found me right away, carried me off to the Grand Hyatt (nice pad! yes, slums right next door!), quick shower and off to work. Well, not so easy, nobody in the army of drivers and hotel car pool managers seemed to understand where the hell my office was. So this was the first of what I expect will be endless encounters whereby I am waving a map and giving street names, but it never seems to matter, as not too many people understand my German accent I suppose, know how to read a map, or give a damn about street names in this town. Well, somehow, eventually, my cab driver and I get there. Luckily, I recognized the last stretch from April, so it turned out to be easy. The first day at work can begin.

Premature Puking

Well, I guess this is good preparation, maybe even a good omen. I am in Novosokolniki at Ksenia’s cousins’ and I am heading out for Mumbai, India in a few days. Ksenia will follow two weeks later. I’ve been assigned to work in Mumbai for a year, so we said good bye to NYC (Long Island City that is) and on our way to Mumbai we made stopovers at my parents in Italy and at Ksenia’s mother in St. Petersburg. So, in preparation for all sorts of stomach flues that we are fully expecting to get in India, I had some of Ksenia’s cousin’s sour cream for breakfast. Maybe it was the 8 hour train ride to Novosokolniki from St. Petersburg, maybe it was the vodka that I should have drunken but didn’t, in any event my head is over the toilet bowl and I am puking to my heart’s content.

It will be a fun ride back on the night train and probably a great flight to Mumbai via Moscow and Delhi. Novosokolniki has a fantastically blue painted big Lenin statue on its main square and, at least here, one is tempted to believe it when people say (which they do) that since Perestroika everything is in ruins. Who knows? What I am noticing the most in my few days in Russia, both here and in St. Petersburg, that people are actually seriously proud of being alcoholics. A 10:00am can of beer and an afternoon bottle of vodka seems to be nothing to write home about.

People are extremely friendly around here and St. Petersburg looks beautiful, especially with the sun not going down untill 11:30pm or so. Still, I am pretty anxious to get on that Aeroflot to India, especially now that my stomach has received a blessing of sorts.