Tourism is hard work

Image of Timex Expedition Trekking Watch

One surprise on the trip thus far has been: It’s never boring. I had packed my knitting and yarn, sodoku puzzles, decks of cards, wind-up toys and juggling balls thinking that without a job I would often be twiddling my thumbs. These items quickly became dead weight and were found abandoned by happy hotel workers. Like Will says in “About A Boy” about jobs: “I really don’t know how people fit them in.”

For one thing, we spend a lot more time eating. Every meal (and three coffees/chais/snacks) takes an hour and a half. That time is just sucked into a vacuum. We wake up at 8:30 and go to the usually included hotel breakfast. Somehow, we’re always done at 10 or 10:30. Then sightseeing until 4 (with a2-hour lunch). Snacks and coffee until 5:30. Then we have a minute for some Internet and travel planning. Then it’s dinner. Now it’s 9 p.m. and we’re sacked out by 9:30.

That’s the other thing: sleep. Left to natural rhythms and no alarm clocks, we sleep from 9:30 until 8:30. About 11 hours. It does seem absurdly long, but so does an hour and a half for breakfast. But tourism is hard work and we need our rest. Of course, sometimes Eric is reading his Kindle when I fall asleep and working on his laptop when I wake up, so maybe it’s just me that needs 11 hours. I know right now I could use coffee and a nap.

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Switches of Ginger Mysore

Switches of Ginger Mysore

Don’t Make No Sense

I have never encountered as confusing an array of switches and power outlets as I have in Indian hotels. The Ginger Mysore is a great example of what you can expect from electricians almost anywhere on the subcontinent. As you enter the room, you will see a slot by the door to slide your magnetic key card in order to enable power in the room. Next to this there is a switch that apparently does nothing. Moving further into the room, there is a pair of switches in the hallway outside the bathroom. One switch turns on a bathroom light over the sink, while the other controls the hall light. Once inside the cozy little bathroom, there are two more switches which independently control two additional lights over the toilet and shower respectively. A single light would do the job just fine, but somebody at some point wanted to give me more granular control over bathroom illumination while splitting the controls into two locations, outside and inside. Hidden behind the television is a power switch connected to the outlet that the television is plugged into. Next to the bed is a sconce light set in the wall and next to that is a switch. Intuitively this switch would control that light, but the lighting designer was thinking outside of the box. The switch by the sconce activates the light above the window. To turn the wall light on and off, you need to locate the bank of four switches underneath the little desk in the corner. One switch is clearly marked “AC”, but the other three require experimentation to discern functionality. The first switch controls a light in the far corner of the room. Next to that is the switch for the wall sconce. And finally there is a switch to the ceiling fan. Something tells me there are other switches hidden somewhere, but we’ll survive.

Beating the heat in North Goa

Image of a green classic car in Goa

It’s Sunday morning in Assagao and I can’t wait to head down the street to a little place called “Villa Blanche” and its famed brunch. I had signed up the day before to reserve our seats. Despite the 96 degree heat (and 99 percent humidity), Villa Blanche seems cool and comfortable with only a few small fans.

A young man quickly comes for our drink order. Eric has the Ayurvedic Cooler and I have the fresh Ginger Lemonade. We then steal away to the buffet.

The proprietor of Villa Blanche tells us she is going back to Germany next week, though she is Italian (and of couse speaks perfect English as well). The buffet includes recipes from her German grandmother, her half-year home of Goa, Italy, and oddly America.

More than anything, the brunch items created a perfect American 4th of July picnic: potato salad (American-style, popular all over Goa), coleslaw, muffins, brownies, and even deviled eggs (labeled “American mustard eggs”)! With a flag on the wall or a stuffed bald eagle I would have been very confused about my current location (more so than usual …). The constant fireworks going off in the neighborhood didn’t help.

On that subject: Firecrackers seem to go off all the time in India. The Catholic chuches in Old Goa even had a sign posted “Do not light fireworks inside.”

I quickly filled up on the delicious fare at Villa Blanche. To work it off, we hopped on our rented scooter (250 rupee per day, about $5) and headed to Little Vagator beach — recommended by our host at Casa Tres Amigos. Sadly, we were so haraunged by agressive vendors (including not one but two women who pulled at my leg hair and suggested removal tecniques at various prices) at Vagator, we all but ran back to our scooter.

Over the bridge, we found the “Russian” beach of Morgim. It was much more low-key. Most of the oversized unfriendly faced Russians looked like they had spent the better part of a month convalescing on their beach chairs. Most likely waiting out the Siberian winter. I wasn’t prepared to wait it out with them. I bought a Frisbee and we moved on again.

After crossing back over the bridge, Eric was flagged down and fined for not having a motorcyle permit. We had heard that in a situation like this, the cop will just take whatever cash is in your possession. Eric had 1,500 rupees and so that was the fine. At least we were wearing helmets (mandatory on that highway alone).

So minus a few rupees, we headed back to our hotel to cool off in the pool — so much easier than the beach in the end.

Saturday Night Market in Assagao

Image of Night Market in Assagao

Night markets are a big tourist attraction in a lot of places in Asia, and I’ve heard from many travellers who enjoy market shopping, however I am not one of them.

So when our hotel (more a group of thatched huts than a hotel) was loading up a Jeep for the Saturday night market in Assagao, we were encouraged to join. With nothing else to do, we piled in.

Walking through the market is never much fun for Eric and I because we can’t buy anything. For one: we’re on a budget and for two: we have to carry whatever we buy on our already tired and creaking backs. So we trudge through the market with chins in our chests trying not to look at anything. Not the best way to enjoy a market! But if you look at anything people run over and start putting products in your face and quoting prices and then you’ve just got to say no in the end.

Even with our heads down we could tell we had arrived at the food. Now we had money to spend. Eric found the beer tent and I found a lamb kebab. It turned out to be mostly ineditable, but it was exciting to have familiar food in my hands after so long.

There was a large stage where we found some seats and the real show began. A rockin’ band played Elton John, The Police, and a few Hindi songs. The dance floor filled with crowds of impossibly skinny young men, arms in the air, hips pounding, along with two Russian toddlers and their nanny.

At one point the dancers formed a long conga line and all donned their motorcycle helmets. Then snaked around the dancefloor gyrating wildly; I think it was to a great cover of “Summer of 69.”

The best part of the night was the requests. An enthusiastic older gentleman was emcee for the night. Before each song he would shout something like, “This one goes to Ali in Iran who absolutely MUST hear some Queen!”

He often got very angry at their crowd for their lack of involvement or enthusiasm. Seeing the dance floor was all dudes he exclaimed, “Last I looked I thought we had some women in this country! I will buy beers for the next five women who come to the dancefloor.” of course, this had little chance if success as the only thing women in India do less of (in public) than dance is drink, at least from what I’ve seen. During Holi in Udaipur they all hid in their homes, coming out only on upper floors with giant buckets of water to pour on Eric and I. But that’s another story.

Now, the band has changed and the crowd and dancers have turned on the new band. Like in Thailand (Pattaya and Chang Mai), the opener always seems to be the best band. Maybe to draw people in from the street. We decide to call it a night and take an overpriced taxi back to our casa. The other couples had just returned as well. The market maybe just needs a better second band.

Octopussytown

When a Hollywood film is shot “on location”, it sometimes leaves the locals with a legacy, even a fixation on their moment of limelight. Growing up in Napa, California, we could only claim a couple of scenes from Howard the Duck, but this was still enough to warrant a shout out each time we drove past the “restaurant” on the Carneros Highway. Similarly, Astoria on the Oregon Coast will forever self-identify with the Goonies. This is hardly an American phenomena. The guides at Angkor Wat in Cambodia all knew at least two words in English: “Tomb Raider”. Udaipur, the City of Lakes in the southern part of Rajasthan, has institutionalized their nostalgia for the racy, pun-riddled, cold war schlock action extravaganza, Octopussy.

I remember seeing Octopussy with my father in 1983, parental discretion exercised in the usual manner (he took me to see Zardoz, after all). This was James Bond in his Roger Moore incarnation, running about and sexing it up in India as he pursued nymph-like jewel thieves and nuke-wielding Russian madmen. Though never mentioned by name in the film, Udaipur was selected to represent India in general, and this town certainly has a wealth of Indian showpieces. Prominently featured in Octopussy are Udaipur’s magnificent Venice-esque waterfront and dreamlike Lake Palace, teeming bazaars with absurd cow-and-rickshaw choked traffic congestion, and the dramatic mountaintop Monsoon Palace perched on a bare and jagged ridge overlooking the city. This is romantic India of a caliber that Hollywood could not hope to recreate artificially, and thus the town caught a sliver of international exposure that, almost thirty years later, the inhabitants still cling to.

At some point in the indeterminate past, a local entrepreneur began screening the film at their restaurant as a lure for tourists in search of familiar, comforting, mindless entertainment. The idea evidently caught on, and the movie is now run nightly at scores of rooftop cafés. Though the signage for “Octopussy Show” can be unwittingly reminiscent of those for “Ping Pong Show” in Thai red light districts, these are wholesome establishments full of washed and weary young Westerners looking for a little cultural anchor amidst the swirling Indian commotion below. In a sense, navigating Udaipur’s narrow lanes and tightly coiled backstreets was, for me at least, assisted in no small part by the ordered sequence of Octopussy venues.

What struck us most about “India” as it was portrayed in the movie was how little things had changed, at least in Udaipur. All the grand and noteworthy monuments aside, this town was stuck in the 80’s, parts of it in the 1880’s. The street fashion had not changed perceptibly from Octopussy to the present day, though this is not really news in the land of turbans and saris. The tuk-tuks looked identical, down to the black and yellow color scheme. Indeed, the same rickshaws on screen may very well still be operation today. The garland baskets and fruit carts and even the incidental advertisements plastered on stucco walls held a timelessness that is baffling. Udaipur is Udiapur, and that’s that.

We watched it twice, happily reclining on broad bed-like cushions that ran along the outer edge of the rooftop patio. On the second viewing, our waiter kindly translated a key phrase uttered in the local tongue during one of the many fight sequences in the film. Bond had judo-flipped one of the bad guys onto a bed of nails, and the baba whose bed it was shouted “Get out of my bed!” incredulously at the would-be assassin. We got the joke! Ha ha.

The beer we sipped was dubiously legal to serve, or so we learned from our ever helpful waiter. He cheerfully explained that our proximity to the massive Jain temple across the street prevented the business from securing a formal liquor license. The beer still appeared on our receipt, but we were enjoined with a literal wink to consider it “juice” as the waiter neatly placed our empty bottles over a low wall onto the neighbor’s roof. The Jain temple, theatrically lit up in the gathering dusk, loomed above us as an unmistakable reminder: Octopussy was all around us.

Throwing Pottery in Rural Rajasthan

Bundi is a regional capital in Rajasthan, one of our favorite stops in the whole state. It felt much less densely populated compared to Jaipur (let alone New Delhi), but it was still teeming with over 100, 000 souls. We managed to escape the hardcore bustle of small-town India by taking an auto rickshaw out to a nearby village. Our young driver took us to visit a friend of his whose family runs a brisk pottery trade in this corner of the desert. We were treated to a demonstration. Low tech and no frills, this kid could effortlessly produce a clay vessel with a few offhanded flicks of a finger.

Monkeys and Masala in Pushkar

We opened the window to get a little fresh air going through — if hotel rooms are anything it’s stuffy — and a few seconds later a tiny man jumps on our windowsill. He sees me and shrieks. Then I see him and shriek. As it turns out, it was not a tiny, hairy man with a tail, but a monkey. About three minutes later, I hear Eric shriek followed closely by monkey shriek. Eric makes the astute observation that any other animal, encountering a very recently surprised human, will run/fly/crawl/slither away. But monkeys act just like us and grab their cheeks and scream, then turn and run. It’s clear we’re related.

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Markets and rootop bars dominate the scene

I’ve had a few surprising encounters in Pushkar. This morning at breakfast I saw a planter sprout legs and walk away. It wasn’t the bhang lassi but a turtle, taken as a pet from the ghats I think.

Walking down to the ghats and around Pushkar Lake, a Brahman priest ran up to us — which I’d read might mean a hefty donation. But it actually turned out to be a fun and uplifting mini ceremony. He wished us both good luck and we threw flowers into the lake ridding ourselves of bad kharma. Then put some red powder on our foreheads. Which prompted others to wish us good luck on the walk home.

I’m also excited to report I have found sweets in Pushkar. There are many sweet shops with milk sweets and sweets soaked in syrup. I picked out a few and they were wrapped in a bag (handmade from newspapers) and handed over.

In India, people make do. At the post office they don’t have boxes, but they sew up whatever you want to mail in a canvas sack — no extra charge. Samosas and sweets are delivered in newspaper. Plastic bottles are used for all kinds of things. Your restaurant leftovers go out the front door to cows and pigs. Our current lodging — the Pink Floyd Hotel — has bicycle tires framing each rattan chair, and old blankets have been turned into ottomans.

Oh and the masala! I’m not sure yet what ‘masala’ really is, but whatever you order in Pushkar is Masala. Omelet is masala. Tea is masala. Pizza us masala. Spaghetti is masala. Lucky for me, I think it’s delicious. In fact, I’m trying not to think of a time when my pizza/sandwhich/tea is not masala or I become sad.

We had planned to stay only two nights in Pushkar, but with the perfect weather, sweets, and masala-everything, I asked to stay another night. Our host replied, “Stay forever.” Why not.