The Journey Om

Welcome to India!

Taking 2 flights in one day is never a pleasant ordeal.  After what we had been through, nothing sounded better than being safely on the ground, in the comfort of a hotel.  Our flight left late, and our cheerful captain announced that he was going to try and make up the lost time as we traversed the Indian subcontinent.

True to his word, we started our descent into Mumbai (formerly known as ‘Bombay’) having shaved half an hour off our flight time.  Our pilot seemed to gracefully make his way through the clouds and over the tropical hills that lie on the outskirts of the city.  The landing flaps lowered, and Violet, now the experienced flyer, cheerfully announced that we were going to land soon.  The trees loomed closer, and we could make out the vast regions of slums that make Mumbai so famous, or perhaps tragically infamous.

Without warning, the landing flaps retreated, and we started to rise back into the lofty clouds again.  Our pilot deftly maneuvered the skyways, only hitting the odd cloud to jar us slightly, and we swung in a wide, high circle, and came in for the approach again.  With the safety of the ground all but assured as we made our second approach, we braced for our second landing in India.  Again, we pulled up at the last minute, climbing high above the clouds this time, and for a moment, my mind wondered if we might be going back to Kolkata for some reason, perhaps to recover our missing passports.

We repeated this dance one more time, and as we rose the third time, we shifted direction.  The captain finally made an announcement to explain his airborne shenanigans.  It seemed that the ground crew had decided to make some repairs to the main runway at the domestic terminal, and were only announcing this minor inconvenience to the approaching planes as they came in for a landing.  The main runway was off limits for another half hour, and we had been diverted to an alternate, smaller, presumably less functional runway, which was rendered invisible by a massive thundercloud.

Not that this had stopped our pilot from making three approaches, which he had abandoned as being too risky, but he had now decided to try the approach from the opposite direction, which was a decision hopefully supported by the air traffic control.  Was there even air traffic control in India?  I had to wonder if air traffic was anything like vehicle traffic in India, which meant that whoever got there first had the right of way.  By this point, I was getting pretty tired of air travel, and if there were any decent alternative to crossing a continent (like, say, teleportation) I surely would have chosen it.

Our pilot skillfully made the landing, and after disembarking, we were once again bussed into another dirty terminal.  Our stewardesses had instructed us to go to the Jet Airlines courtesy desk near the baggage claim to find out when our passports would be arriving, which turned out to be 10 minutes after our arrival, as our flight was so late.  Feeling like our fate had turned, and that the mantra “Everything will be ok” might have some merit, we collected our passports and our baggage, and proceeded to make our way to the exit.  Sometimes, it seems, faith is rewarded.

Being concerned that the driver from our hotel might have left due to our lateness, we put in a call to them only to find out that they hadn’t sent a driver, because (despite 2 emails confirming our travel details,) they hadn’t been sure when we were arriving.  Perhaps they knew better than we did the precision clockwork that is travel in India, but we were left to our own devices at finding transportation in a city of 12 million people.

We still had no Indian money, so I found a money changer and converted my remaining Thai Baht to Indian Rupees.  At Theresa’s request, I booked a cab from the tourist window, rather than engage in the thrill of hailing one from the thick throng of touts that lined the meet and greet gate.  Where’s the sense of adventure in that, I wondered, but was too exhausted to put up a fight, either with Theresa, or with the shouting taxi drivers.  Our flight to Goa wasn’t until 2:30 the following afternoon, and we were looking forward to some relaxation time as we set out for our abode for the evening.

When Violet was smaller, and being stubborn about having a nap, we would take her on a country drive, knowing that the soothing hum and sway of the car as it cruised along the highway would bring peace, relaxation, and eventually, sleep.  One way to definitely not relax is go for a drive in India.  Everybody has the right of way, everywhere, all the time.  The enforcement of this is by the use of the horn.  A couple of quick toots is all the proof any driver needs to proclaim that they belong where they are, and everybody else should get out of the way.  It doesn’t matter if they are on the wrong side of the road, or a one-way street, for that matter.  I honk, therefore I have the right of way.

As you can imagine this creates a fair bit of havoc, noise, and trepidation among those who prefer the sanity of people who drive as though there is any logic or reason the world.  I suspect that all Indians possess some psychic ability, akin to ants, and seem to know how to fit into the flow, following the guidance of the common collective.  Pure reason and rules are things that India does not care for.  India is about Indians, their lives, their past, their future, their sorrows and joys, their spirituality, their race to leave the third world behind.  And their horns.  Blasting, blaring, shrieking horns.

As you drive along and notice the slums with makeshift homes on the sidewalk made of sticks, tarps and garbage bags, children bathing in puddles as Mercedes cruise by, you wonder, how can a country like this ever find balance?  And yet to them, the balance is so ingrained into the fabric of their culture that we can’t even comprehend it.  To us it looks like madness.  To them, it’s how things have been done for thousands of years, regardless of what means of transport you happen to have chosen.  There is a sense that everyone, from the limbless beggar on the street, to the mafia kingpin, to the Prime Minister, all know their place in the grand scheme of things.

As we rounded a corner and weaved our way around the street life, I could see the sign for our hotel.  It looked like a troublesome, run-down neighborhood, but the hotel was nice enough, or perhaps had been 15 years ago.  I felt a moment’s hesitation during the check in when the receptionist asked for our passports.  After so nearly having been parted from them and ending up as homeless, nationless waifs on the streets of India, just 4 more souls in a sea of a billion, I was not so eager to let them out of our sight again.  We were assured that they would return them in a little while, and this seemed like business as usual for India.  According to our guidebook, the police want full details on all foreigners staying in India, much like Europe.  Imagine the trouble that would save in North America.  And imagine the uproar in the United States.  “How dare THEY violate our rights and freedoms!  I have the freedom to go where I like, and carry a semi-automatic automatic assault rifle, lest the king of England try to invade our great free nation!”

Being seasoned nomadic travelers, we liked to carry our own belongings, and were accustomed to doing so.  Despite our attempts to be our own Sherpa’s, we weren’t given the choice in this hotel, and our bags were escorted by two bellmen to our room.  After the embarrassed responses we would get when we tried to tip Thai people for anything, it was strange to have someone blatantly hold out their hand and rub their fingers together.  “Bakshish!  Tip please sir!”  I had only large bills from our moneychanger in the airport, and I felt that a 1000 Rupee ($25) tip was a bit much for the simple act of carrying bags up the elevator, especially when we had would rather have carried our own bags in the first place.

But I had been waiting for this moment for a long time.  I had been carrying several American one dollar bills in my wallet, as several of the travel books had gleefully proclaimed that these were like a get out of jail free card.  I’m sure that the author was American, the guidebook was outdated, and the truth in those post 9/11 days was that flouting ties to America was more likely to get you into trouble out in the wide world than get you out of it.  Nonetheless, the bellhops took the money with a snide look.  Whether they were impressed at getting US dollars, or wondering what the heck they were going to do with them, I’ll never know.

Some while later, after flipping through the TV channels and getting our annual dose of Bollywood in ten minutes, we were all struck with the realization that we were quite hungry.  I half heartily suggested we try the street vendors down on the corner, but none of us felt like getting sick quite yet, so I backed down rather quickly after a simple glance from the wise eyes of my lovely wife.  I then suggested that we try and find a store of some kind, and was quickly made the official volunteer for an outing into the mean streets of Mumbai.

It was quite dark by this point, and I was actually a little nervous as I set out into the street.  Groups of people wandered about, and several open fires were burning in barrels at various points on the street.  Jesus, had I taken a wrong turn, and ended up in Detroit?  Just how did they take to foreigners in this part of town?  We were, after all, the only non-Indians we had seen in our hotel.  Maybe I would be a point of curiosity, or even the subject of hostility.  “He looks American.  He smells American.  He probably is American!  The bellhop said he gave them an American dollar bill!  Foreign ingrate!  Castrate him!”  As it turned out, the only ones who paid me any attention were the cabbies.  As in Thailand, they were quite aggressive about offering their services, repeatedly shouting at me until I responded that I didn’t need their services.

“Hello!” they would yell in my direction.  Ignoring them, they would shout ‘Hello’ again, louder, as though perhaps I hadn’t heard them over the din and chaos of the honking and shouting.  I suppose it operated on a principal similar to the honking horns of the vehicles.  Make noise until you are acknowledged, lest you be ignored, and quite possibly meet a cruel fate.

Half a block down was a gas station with a convenience store.  My lucky day!  My first chance to see what Indians call convenience food!  Not that I hadn’t seen enough of that in Southern Ontario as a youth, but in a country with few laws regarding food processing, hygiene, and cleanliness, there were bound to be some interesting options available.  I counted no less than Twelve different flavours of banana chips, umpteen different types of mysterious fried objects in brown paper bags, and the usual convenience fare of Twinkies, ding dongs, etc.  In the end, I opted for some Tropicana apple juice, a couple of bottles of water (because apparently you shouldn’t even brush your teeth with the water in India,) and a bag of chips.  So much for beating our hunger with anything nutritious.

Back at the hotel, it had been decided in my absence that room service was a necessity lest we starve to death in a land with famous cuisine.  We ordered a mixed platter of Indian dishes, and before we knew it, some of the best Indian food to ever cross our palates was before us.  The same went for breakfast the next morning, and lunch.  There is something to be said for eating food in its country of origin.  I’m sure that many ingredients can only be found in India, and so the flavour of the food is presented in its original form, something you can’t get elsewhere.  I will be forever spoiled for eating Indian (or Thai food, for that matter) anywhere in North America.

Much to our surprise the following morning, the domestic terminal we were taken to was not the same as the domestic terminal we arrived at the night before.  Mumbai is a large enough city to have multiple domestic and international terminals.  This time we were in a brand spanking shiny new terminal, which made us feel a little better about our final flight of this stage of our journey.  After a mere 1 hour in the air in a fairly small plane, we landed safely in Goa, a small seaside state in the Southwest of India.

Goa’s claim to fame is the all night dance parties (aka raves) that have been going on there for more than thirty years.  Discovered in the 60’s by beatniks, hippies and dropouts, and revered for its laid back lifestyle and pristine beaches, it became the Asian hub of the alternative lifestyle.  By the 90’s the place was party central, and has since turned into a full blown tourist trap.  The police have curbed the partying, and it is not what it used to be, but over 20,000 people still flock to the beaches every year between monsoon seasons, mostly to a 20 kilometer strip of beach known as Anjuna.

From the airport, another 1-hour van ride (and another lesson in the insanity of Indian driving) took us to the town of Saligao, in the district of Bardez, which was known as the center of all the tourist action, and where we would be staying for an indefinite period of time.  This leg of our journey offered us a view into life in a more rural part of India, and Theresa remarked at how much it reminded her of rural Mexico.  The abundance of Portuguese influenced architecture probably had a lot to do with this, but there was some comfort in knowing that we far from the madness of Urban India.  Hello Goa!

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