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travels in India over the winter, 2002-3

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06 March 2003

One meals! I want one meals!

My three months in India this time are over. It was my least ambitious yet (no camping, only two weeks in the mountains, the rest in Goa), but possibly my most successful trip since the first one in 1980.

I WON'T miss the slow Internet connections of Indian small towns (one hour to read a single email in one place), but I'll miss all the fantastic people I met. Young Ranjeet who was so entertaining as I waited at 5am in New Delhi station for a train delayed for three hours (his had been delayed seven by the famous Delhi fog). I'll miss Agnes in Agonda and her terrific baji and thali. Cyberhippie (as he is known on the travel forums) and his wife, with their team of "tartan swimmers" in Palolem who kept the supply lines open against all odds. Most of all, I'm missing the regular routine of morning, afternoon and evening swims in the warm yet refreshing water of the Arabian Sea.

I wake early in the morning, my body obeying Indian time still. My stomach feels unsatisfied with the food back here - except for salads. Waking so early, with what I think was once a medical term - "night starvation" - I cry out:
"One meals! I want one meals!"

"Meals" always seem to be plural in India. The Udupi restaurant in Chaudi (Canacona, Goa) was my favourite place to have them - I mean one. I'd cycle there from my place by the sea, heading straight for the sinks to wash my hands when I got in. Always good to have a handkerchief with you in a "Meals" place - there's no towel to dry your hands once you've washed them, or if there is, you wouldn't feel inclined to use it.

When the waiter came my order would be, "One meals, please..."
The "meals" arrived - a steaming heap of rice, two chappatis and four of those small stainless steel dishes (katori) of assorted curries. Don't forget the poppadum, and dip in with the fingers to sample taste and texture at the same time. At the end, I cool my mouth with a further katori of lovely curd. Then it's time to revisit the sink and rinse the rice off the right hand. Twenty rupees for a plate of heaven!

"Meals" (rice plate or thali to some) are quite filling - more so in places further south than Goa, where the price is "eat all you want."

My chunky "Hercules" bicycle was sold at half-price and will end its days trundling along the roads around Palolem and Patnem beaches. Hercules - I miss you too, with your cute two-tone bell and wobbly back rack.

[Afterword: the udipi restaurant mentioned above had vanished on a subsequent visit in 2013, although smaller restaurants around Chaudi could organise rice plates meals]


14 February, 2003

A pedaller on the paddies road.

Ploughing and planting for the rice crop is nearly finished in coastal Goa. I've seen nearly a month of work, and the transformation of dry, crumbly earthen fields into emerald carpets that are afire with the light of the midday sun.
The transformation - irrigation water is carried in concrete troughs from a 'tank' or mandir on higher ground - is remarkable. The work - leading a pair of oxen around a tennis court-sized plot to plough, bending double planting bunches of rice seedlings in ranks - is formidable.

Some farmers were using machines to do their ploughing - a motorised box the size of a washing machine with paddles either side to haul it through the mud. Being without the fickle temperament of a large hoofed animal makes the ploughing machine easier to turn at the end of rows, but it's a big investment - even for a group of farmers - in what is essentially a one-trick pony (sorry, ox). With some additional attachments for planting the rice the machine could lighten the work needed for this most back-breaking of tasks: pushing each rice seedling into the globby mud, row after row, line upon line. But that's a development yet to come.

Only walking the road - my regular route between beach and market town - would give me more detail in the picture of rice planting work. The road is quiet, and at fifteen kilometres, perfect for a short cycle journey. With my new "Hercules" bicycle I can be cooler than a walker, and I'm more in touch with my immediate surroundings than a motorcyclist: Wait, just listen to that bird up there! The chunky bounciness of Indian bicycles appeals to me, even if the weight of the machine - and the killer saddle - belong to a different cycling world than the one I'm most familiar with.

So what's wrong with having a bicycle with a single, fixed gear when most Goan roads buck and rise and fall? I simply swing my leg over the top tube and start walking. The experience I have so far in life tells me that each climb will be followed by a descent. Even on a hilly road I can average 25kmph, faster than a walker. The bike carries my water and lunch, and I'm free to talk to people walking on the same road or working in nearby fields. When I'm pedalling the bike, birds stay for me to look up at them, and my air is as sweet and scented as it is up in their treetops - as least it is until some tourist chugs by on an Enfield motorbike. Toddy tappers and ice cream sellers smile at me - one of a shrinking group of tourists who don't rent motorbikes or scooters in Goa - and I smile back, having experienced exactly the same road as they have.

You may accuse me of sentimentality, but to ride a bicycle like this - a "sit-up-and-beg" bike like my father rode to work (except his had a good dynamo lighting system) - along the back roads in Goa, is to exist in a place and time when motor transport hasn't squeezed out the gentler alternatives. It's a pursuit of that shrinking spot of light on a screen not unfamiliar in other ways to repeat visitors to Goa - "This beach has got too busy, let's try further north..."
There are still many places on the coast where I can sit and not hear the roar of an internal combustion engine over the lap of the timeless waves. May that always be so.

It's undeniable that motorcycles have made the average Indian commuter's life easier. Yet their adoption as the de facto standard in leisure transport by tourist visitors to Goa is a mistake, I feel. It is, after all, only about fifteen years or so since visitors would hire bicycles to explore the beaches and villages without thinking of other choices. As in the West, bicycle use amongst Goans is retreating to niche areas - a fitness aid, or transport for the very poor. My bicycle dealer in Margao told me he's seen sales of the standard Indian "roadster" bicycle drop enormously in the last ten years:
"Nowadays, the young people all want a scooter on their 17th birthday, not a bicycle."

It's a one-way street towards wider and faster roads more suitable for motor traffic - once that happens, cyclists feel intimidated and use other methods, thus escalating the roads' dangerous transformation. For me, a future full of petrol-driven ploughing machines and whining motor scooters in the Indian countryside looms on the same nightmarish scale as an Indian Ocean nodding with trashed plastic water bottles, or a Himalayan hillside scalped of its timber


23 January 2003

The Frog and the Pomeranian went to sea in a beautiful, pea-green boat.

Neither the fat Irish lady nor her dog is in the restaurant today. She had begun dropping by for a midday beer, perching with a little difficulty on her white, moulded plastic chair and talking to anyone who would listen. The dog, a young spaniel with ears like old dishrags and a loopy gait, had the inevitable curiosity of any animal dropped into the new and fascinating environment of this Goan beachside village, and ran to sniff everyone and everything while Fat Irish Lady barked commands ("Don't eat that!" "Come away!" "Stop that!" ) that seemed to have a ritual value for her, but were totally ignored by her dog. Once onto her second beer the imperatives were shouted with noticeably greater urgency and shrillness:
"YOU! Come here and sit this minute!" The dog looked around briefly at its old tormentor, then continued chewing a leathery find from the bushes. Fat Irish Lady, meantime, had found some willing ears on another table and had begun on her story of breeding dogs for profit -
"Not so long ago I used to breed Pomeranians..."
The sun shone and the sea gleamed and nowhere was there even a whisper of irony in recalling Samuel Beckett. We learned that FIL was in the village because her car had broken down on her way back to a house and a husband in Baga, although this generated more questions than it answered, like most of her statements. I did see the car, however, a potty little Maruti which took FIL five minutes to get started and another ten to bully her dog into.

The northern end of the beach here has seven turtles' nests, each about a metre square, protected by netting. The mother turtles weigh around eighty kilograms and haul themselves up onto the beach in the early morning before digging the nest, laying several hundred eggs and returning wearily to the sea. Madhu, who keeps a watch on this area of beach from his restaurant, showed me photographs of a previous nest hatching - palm-sized, leathery-black turtle-lets flapping down to the sea with a small group of wide-eyed children looking on. In a completely natural setting, birds would pick off some of the hatchlings before they even reached the sea; here all were assured passage to the waves. Bigger threats, from fish and circling Pomeranians, would face them once in their new aquatic home. Yet over the past four years enough turtle hatchlings have survived to mature and find their way back to the beach where they began life.

The tourist Toytown I'm staying in proclaims itself a 'resort' in its name, like many other collections of small huts around thatched restaurants in Goa. My room is one of the five available in the cement hutments, and is equipped with a balcony and a frog bathroom. This modern variation on the old Goan 'pig toilet' (tourists are nervous when sitting on a toilet with a hungry porcine snuffler just waiting to devour what they produce, so the pig toilet is dying out) is more a product of Nature than design. The light brown frogs are about the size of my toenail as they squat, but fat feet on the end of surprisingly long legs hold them to the tiles when they leap for a mosquito over the light bulb. When hunkered, the only sign of life is in their concertina throats, pumping away in the night air. Two tiny bathroom frogs - if they work as a pair, I'm never ware of it, and those eyes stare out with all the emotion of a vicious, deep-sea fish's. However, a frog bathroom seems to guarantee fewer mosquitoes, so I splash my little amphibious friends with water whenever I go in there. They seem to like it.

Viewed from either end, this beach resembles a low armchair, with the two rocky headlands forming raised armrests and the two kilometres of sand a shallow, curved seat. Behind the seat is the beachside road, and behind that coconut and cashew plantations merge into hilly jungle. This is still a wonderful, natural area (one reason I'm not giving you its name), in spite of a good deal of woodcutting in the jungle for fencing materials and fuel for villagers' fires. House-sized, granite boulders tumble seawards in geological slow-motion. Sitting on a flat-topped boulder in the middle of the jungle is an excellent bird-spotting vantage. Sit long enough and a troop of langur monkeys makes itself known: a crashing in the trees, glimpse of a black face, a mother with infant clasped picking her way to higher branches. These langurs are reclusive animals, unlike their more common (and unsacred) cousins, the rhesus macaques. Langurs have long, elegant tails which they often hold aloft in a loop when running along the ground on all fours. Seeing a langur in the forest always brightens my day.


11 January 2003

Overcast South Goa Sunset (OR, Fun With Adjectives, part 15).

A "leaden sky" is often heard when people talk about days such as this one. Yet today, the lead wasn't in the sky - that was merely frosted glass, dipping down nearly to meet the water - but in the sea itself. At five in the afternoon, the sea was a sheet of hammered pewter. Each hammer imprint was a slowly moving dimple in the pewter.

Whichever way you looked at it, it was a heavy metal kind of day.

As I sat watching from the beachside viewpoint, I noticed that the lateness of the sun was beginning to cast coppery shades all about. The copper met the pewter, pondered for a while, then decided that the metals should each remain separate in their qualities. Copper always wins in these arguments with lead. Copper burnished the dimples, kept away from the cheeky, peaky wavelets that poked occasionally from the pewter plate. Lapped and hammered, burnished and polished - it was such an incredible work of art for Nature to have crafted, I began searching for other explanations. The hand of God? That would have been too easy in this land of Christianity.

I looked to the distance. There, a band of light glowed where the frosted glass ended. Bright sunshine - almost sunset sunshine, yes, but bright and lively - lit up the whole band of the far horizon. A metal foundry was working there! A foundry and a rolling mill, extruding the sheet of metallic sea into a seamless pewter dome. The wind hammered dimples into the sheet, pure copper boiled from the evening sun. Anything metal along the way was treated as family.

One fisherman paddling his boat crept around the headland. At this end of the beach they don't seem to use outboards, but in any case I saw only a handful of motor-driven boats yesterday. Nothing like on other, more popular South Goa beaches, where a combination of jet boats, motor trawlers and parasail towboats zooming around leave the air reeking of burnt kerosene during most of the daylight hours. Here, you could even smell the copper in the pewter at the back of your throat!

The fisherman in his boat came slowly closer. I saw that the entire boat was constructed of wrought iron... No, now I'm getting too full of the metaphor. The boat was wooden. Quite how it managed to sail on a copper burnished, pewter sea I decided to figure out another day. After having a shower to wash all the sandy-coloured metal powder off my skin.


10 January 2003

Closely Observed Trains.

The workings of the Indian family are dissected for public view when travelling by Indian Railways. Going Sleeper Class from Jhansi to Goa, as I did, can yield enough material to fill three anthropology textbooks. If you're lucky. Or perhaps if you're unlucky.

For instance: why does the man in the group or family always go to refill the water bottles at station halts, when water collection in the home is always the woman's job? Just look at the agitated bustle around the station taps - no woman would want to elbow her way into such a throng. Stops at stations can be short and unpredictable; leaping onto an already moving train is a decidedly male bravado trait, the trick being to let the train pick up to walking speed before hopping aboard with a look of unconcerned detachment.

Used Bisleri bottles are the commonest vessel for collecting station water, although the plastic, insulated flasks bristling with adjustable straps and measuring half a metre in each direction and carrying half an egg cupful of water are also popular.

Even when taking a three hour trip by train, Indians bring plentiful food supplies with them. An overnight ride for a family involves loading bags stuffed with tiffin tins of prepared meals, cloth-wrapped chappatis by the hundred, numerous packets of Indian sweets, nuts, bananas plus a flotilla of water bottles.

Taking my seat at Jhansi on a train which had begun its journey in Delhi, I needed to ask my neighbours to reclaim and rearrange their bags so that my chosen top berth was available for reclining. It's only this top bunk in second class sleepers which is free during the day, and on a long journey (Jhansi to Margao is 36 hours) it provides more variation for movement.

Once darkness comes and travellers retire to their berths (the backrest of the bottom seat folds up to provide the middle berth place) you can see the other component of family life: bedtime rituals. Typically, this involves spending thirty minutes in the toilet while cleaning the teeth and gargling, retching and snorting the throat and nose clear, followed by elaborate wrapping with multiple layers of blankets (even in the South) and hourly adjustment of children and checking of chained and locked baggage. By midnight (unless a group of men have started a game of cards in the next compartment) there will usually be perfect peace. Until six in the morning, when it all works again in reverse.


22 December 2003

Uttaranchal Hills.

The day's heat goes with the sun, and after a filling dinner there remains little to do in Binsar. There's a ban on the use of electricity inside the sanctuary (26kms. from Almora) and life at both the Forest Rest House and the Tourist Rest House becomes a quieter affair after sunset. I was staying in the TRH for a week, the only guest most times, and I adjusted to winding down after my dal and veggies to write by the light of two candles, or to listen to the sounds of the forest mixed with something from my CD collection.

Even though an occasional whine of a masala movie's violin backing theme would drift through the trees from one of the workers' transistor radios, it really was an unequal match, and the soft chirr-ing of cicadas combined with the sporadic gruff bark of a deer stag on a further ridge kept the balance on the side of Nature.

My room was a funny space pointed at the window end like the prow of a ship. With one window open and Alan Parsons low on the headphones, the wide lagoons of a moonlit night could be crossed with a following wind. But it claimed some sunshine in the afternoons, and a "hot water bucket" could be ordered for morning washing purposes. Viewed from the window during the day, a clear panorama of this part of the Himalaya, centred on Nanda Khot. At night, glow-worm trails of trucks pulling up the long hill from Kosi to Almora ran across the dark ridges on the skyline - clear lines of light ten kilometres away. Magical, because only a puff of sound from the straining engines could be heard, the rest was the swish of breeze through pines.

It was warm enough during the daytime to be able to walk in shirt sleeves, and the temperature (at 2200m) dropped to crisp at night. I came equipped with my duvet jacket, but it is overdoing it when a fleece would have sufficed.

Next I went on to Kausani, two hours' walk down from the Binsar hill to the road, then two share taxis - a reasonable six hours on the road. M.K. Gandhi's famous visit in the 1920s has lumbered Kausani with the notation, "The Switzerland Of India." I think that he either didn't know Switzerland very well, or he was pretty unfamiliar with Kausani. Still, the mountains are what matters here, and a 300km panorama of mountains in the eternally-youthful bright Winter sunshine is enough to lift the most curmudgeonly to praise. People are respectful and sophisticated here, and there's more than a passing similarity to Nepal - Askote, an alternative entry point to Nepal, lies a couple of hours further down the road. Plus, since the troubles in Nepal, more migrant workers have been coming over the border to get jobs working on the roads or portering.

I noticed quite a few more Nepalis than on my last visit to the region two years ago. At the Hill Queen Restaurant in Kausani, I was delighted to find Opera as the default browser on Kiran Singh's computer. Nonetheless, once the connection was made the story wasn't so good - the Opera statistics bar showed a download speed of 40 Bytes per second (meaning one page of simple text might take 20 minutes to render!)... I'm sure they have it faster than that in Zurich. Thus only a brief shout to the world before submerging into non-line life again. It's not at all bad.


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