Watermill, NY


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.

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.


Our trip to Kerala started at 3am in the morning with the riksha driver making a big detour via the international airport to get us to the domestic airport. I suppose he was assuming that we must be wanting to get out of India, even though we repeatedly told him domestic airport. Or maybe he just wanted to take us for a ride and a little early morning scam. Either way, we were passing hundreds of parked rikshas, most of them with the driver sleeping under a blanket on the back bench. Even Mumbai gets a bit cooler at night at this time of the year.

We landed in Kochi at 8am, and the air was noticeably nicer than Mumbai, even while walking from the aircraft to the terminal, which looked like a repurposed train station. Most men were wearing white lungis, which look very comfortable. It would be nice if one could wear those in NYC, but then again, seeing that all the men in Kerala are constantly playing with their lungi, tucking them in and out, lifting them up or down and adjusting them, maybe not.

The can ride to the ferry for Fort Kochi was a bit of a ride from hell. The roads are much better than in Mumbai, but the drivers are even more suicidal. There was a disturbingly large amount of huge advertising posters everywhere along the 20 miles road, but eventually, we got dropped off at the ferry. Of course it was the wrong ferry, the ones for the tourist, so we got immediately harassed left and right, as we must have been the day’s first prey. But we successfully dodged this second scam of the day and rather than paying Rs400 for the tourist boat, we walked a bit further down to catch the Rs2.5 regular ferry, which had the added bonus of watching the security guy lock up all the passengers behind a steel gate as they were waiting for the boat to come in. Which it did, 15mins late, with another ferry in tow, whose engine had apparently given up.

In Fort Kochi, we had our first of many encounters with riksha drivers who simply refused to turn on the meter. At first, we were rather annoyed, but over the days it dawned on us that maybe this is one of the features of Kerala’s long history of communist governments. Maybe you can’t have the highest literacy rate and lowest infant mortality rate in India, a noticeably more equitable distribution of wealth and a school in literally every village, and still expect the riksha drivers to use the meter. Of course, the rikshas were still pretty cheap, but at two or three times the going rate in Mumbai, one had to wonder whether this was the tourist rate or whether the locals really pay Rs2000 or so a month just for their daily commute.

Kochi is quite nice, but the some of the aggressive sales tactics got a bit on our nerves quite quickly, and almost every riksha driver made the same joke about wanting to give us a ride in his Ferrari, which also got a bit old. One driver tried to tell us that petrol is much more expensive in Kerala than in Mumbai (it is not, as the central government sets the price). A waiter ordered us to sit and relax. And we tried a ayurvedic massage, which Ksenia loved and I found a bit too up close and personal for comfort (I take a Thai massage any time over that).

Somehow the nicest part was to sit in a tea house just a bit away from the main drag. But in the evening we saw a Kathakali performance, and that was great. Yes, there were virtually no Indians in the audience, and it was more an exhibition than the real thing, but it was very interesting and beautiful. We finished the evening with a pretty bad dinner and the next day we had a cold shower and decidedly horrible breakfast in our overpriced hotel – white toast and jam consisting of 50% sugar and 50% gelatin. What the hell happened to idli, we wondered).

After that, we took a two hour bus ride to Alleppey. Ksenia got a seat and observed a very suave guy quietly and slowly slipping a piece of paper into a female passenger’s hands, who took it after fifteen minutes with a coy smile, while I was standing the whole time, watching the communist flags go by. In Alleppey, we got picked up by the cook for the houseboat that we had rented in Kochi, and then we argued with the riksha driver, who also refused to turn on the meter. The cook got quite annoyed with us and said come on, sit down, everything is ready to go, which of course it wasn’t. But eventually our houseboat got moving and we got some food, which was actually quite nice.

We spent 24 hours on the boat, which is about enough for our taste. It’s nice and relaxing at all, but looking at rice fields isn’t really all that thrilling, nevermind the fact that one basically takes the boat through other people’s back yards, where the women wash their clothes, bathe, and brush their teeth, and some children (much better dressed than in Mumbai) ask the tourists for money.

Ksenia and I entered a lengthy discussion about possible explanations for the size of the paddles that the locals use with their little wooden boats. These paddles are basically teaspoon size: they are very small and look almost fragile, with an undersized surface for effective paddling, and they are only one-sided, i.e. they have to change their grip, if they’d like to paddle on the other side of the boat. If they had better paddles, let alone contraptions for actually rowing instead of paddling, they’d be quite a bit faster. After pondering many theories ranging from lack of materials or engineering expertise or rowing muscles, to they aren’t in a rush to get anywhere, to maybe they had never thought about it, we settled on the explanation that maybe they used to use these little boats to go on tiny canals into the rice fields, where rowing would have been impossible and paddling with teaspoons offered the best balance of moving forward and protecting the rice fields.

Anyways, somehow the engine of our own boat gave up pretty much in time for sunset, so we got towed for a bit by another boat, and the next morning we woke up to the smell of diesel exhaust as the cook and the two other crew members tried to repair the engine. Eventually, we got back to Alleppey, where we found a number of touts who didn’t understand the meaning of the word no, but also a bus station attendant with badly deformed legs who pointed us very helpfully towards the right bus to Thiruvalla, our next stop.

Thiruvalla has the only temple in Kerala where Kathakali is performed daily as part of the religious ceremony, and it also has a number of temples in the surrounding villages, so that’s where we wanted to go. But first Ksenia needed another ayurvedic massage, so we went to a place that was listed in our Kerala travel book, but that place really looked more a hospital than anything else. They didn’t seem to have any patients, because the owner/doctor pretty much spent his whole afternoon with us, embarrassingly eager to please us, to make us want to come back tomorrow, and to tell all our fiends. He even reserved a room and drove us to a hotel that he insisted we stay in, even though we had told him a few times that we don’t know how long and where we want to stay and that we might actually leave town altogether.

So instead, we just had lunch at the hotel, pondered our options and called a place outside of town, which sounded much nicer than this hotel in the middle of Thiruvalla. Of course, the receptionist followed us onto the street wondering where we are going, but ah well. We took one of the many HM Ambassador taxi cabs, and even the cab drivers that were immediately surrounding us were laughing with me when I laughed about the price the driver wanted for the 2km ride.

But at least we got there, and we were quite happy with our choice this time, the Vanjipuzha Palace in Chengannur, where it was quiet and green, the food was great and the staff was very helpful. Maybe a bit too helpful, because, since it is more a homestay than a hotel, the staff had no problem asking us all kinds of private questions, insisted on watching us eat while they served us very yummy food, and tried to walk into our room for our wake up call at 7am. Like many in Kerala, they are also Christians, which got a bit annoying when they started preaching about it or acted as if that were a special accomplishment, and downright embarrassing when one of them gave us a tour to a number of Hindu temples while going on about how Christianity is the opposite of Hinduism’s idol worship, as he called it. Strangely, he also was a devout anti-communist, the main reason seemingly being that the communist government was to blame for labor costs being too high and so many rice fields were no longer economical.

Either way, he was quite knowledgeable about the area, and he showed us a lot of things that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. In the evening, we went to the Kathakali temple and apparently he was able to tell us what the story was all about just from reading the hand gestures. Amazingly, the Kathakali performance is almost every night from 10pm to 5am. Not there were many people there apart from us, but it was quite impressive. Later on, there was a bit of a cat fight amongst the staff, because he hadn’t told the others where we were going or when we would come back, so they got all worried and showed up at 2am at the temple to find us and take us back to the hotel. Sadly, both staff members were strongly hinting that they would like to help us get themselves or their children a work visa for the US, again emphasizing that they are Christians.

Anyways, we left after three hours of sleep to catch a 6am train to Trivandrum. We only had time for a quick stop at the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, whose inner square was closed for non-Hindus anyways, as is the case in a number of temples, and then it was back to Mumbai, Ksenia’s backpack enriched with a number of fabrics and a hand-made metal mirror she had bought and me already looking where should we go onto our next little trip.

Love Letters

Today we were walking around the Hanging Gardens in Malabar Hill, supposedly one of the poshest areas in Mumbai, wondering what it is that made someone decide they should be using metal penguins everywhere as trash cans in the garden. There were penguins everywhere. It was good to see that there were trash cans at all to begin with, but then again, judging from the trash people were throwing across the fences of the garden, we presumably weren’t the only ones who couldn’t quite understand the penguin thing. We also didn’t quite get to see what makes Malabar Hill so posh, so off we drove, further down to Colaba.

After a number of detours through tiny streets downtown, we gave up in the silly idea of finding a parking space downtown. This was after we have been having a coffee, when a bunch of kids came to us screaming very excitedly about something or other. It turned out that they were telling us that the cops were about to tow our car. I had never seen a tow truck in this town and had sort of dismissed rumors about the cops actually towing cars, so I have been getting into the habit of parking anywhere where I didn’t seem to obstruct traffic too much. But there they were, a bunch of guys in blue overalls, plus a smiling cop who actually spoke English, about to tow our car.

Of course, there was the usual back and forth and here and there and give and take that is the regular mode of communication for us. The cop wanted to see my driver’s license and I showed him my New York State license, as I had done in other occasions like these (there had been two of them, both times for being on my mobile while stuck in traffic). In this case, however, the cop didn’t simply look at the NYS license, only to decide that he can’t be bothered to deal with me, but instead he asked what country I am from. I didn’t want to confuse him too much, so I simply said, well, New York is in America. Somehow I came to understand that they wanted me to pay 100 rupees fine at the Dadar police station. I really wasn’t in the mood for that, so I asked him, ok, give me a receipt and I pay you. I don’t know which part of that simple suggestion did the trick, but somehow the cop then decided that he can’t be bothered after all, so he just told me to park elsewhere and left. So I parked the car right next to another No Parking sign, but this one was in a dead end street, and that was good enough, I suppose.

Of course, the kids who had warned me about my car being about to get towed were very eager to get their tip, and I thought, ah well, I really never give money to kids, but in this case, they did a good job, so I gave them two rupees each.

Anyways, so downtown there was no parking of course, except that there are a few official parking lots that cost something like four rupees an hour. By that time we were absolutely starving, so we went to Indigo, which has very good Italian food. Well, the salad and the wine and the quiche was great, the pasta was pretty bad. As a special treat we had the slightly doubtful pleasure of sitting right next to a big table of Westerners who were surrounding Gregory David Roberts, the author of Shantaram, which is currently one of the two must-reads about Mumbai (the other being Maximum City).

After that we went to the National Centre for the Performing Arts to see Love Letters, a play by A.R. Gurney. Their parking lot had a big sign about being full, but this being India, we knew that such things don’t mean anything, so when we asked the parking lot attendant whether we can park there he said but of course! We quite liked the play, actually. Well, first we didn’t but it got a lot better. But what absolutely boggled our minds was that at the end, during the very final monologue of the very good male actor, right in the middle of his quiet tender speech, there were not one, but two people from the audience who walked out. With loud steps, one shuffling her feet, the other clicking her high-heels. The poor actor’s eyes followed one of them as she was making her exit from the audience, and I don’t know what he was thinking, but we just couldn’t believe it, because, well, it was just un-fucking-believable that people would be so incredibly crass and rude to make that sort (or any sort) of exit during a final quiet scene of a pretty good play.

It was really quite amazing. I mean, this wasn’t some kind of improv theater in a garage, tickets were relatively expensive and people seemed definitely upper class. But with all the crotch scratching and spitting everywhere, the car honking from behind in standing traffic at a red light, the blatant staring and Hello foreigner! wherever we go on the one hand and the obedient Yes, Sir! Thank You, Madam! one the other hand, these two walk-outs really get the first prize in our Incredible India Awards.