Wednesday, 28 December 2011

A Very Hippy Christmas

The captivating sunsets of Goa
Now where did I leave you....ah yes. I was enjoying myself rather too much in Arambol, one of Goa's northern beaches, having met a dashing tabla player and fallen in with a few locals, from whom I was enjoying learning Bollywood songs, Hindu mantras and the occasional bit of sithar. I was being conveyed about the tropical conutryside on the back of a scooter, with the wind in my hair. I was enjoying talking to hippies. I was doing yoga. I'll admit it - I got comfortable. I had uncertainty around whether or not I could go to the Ashram out of season (uncertainty I still have as I type in Trivandrum, after a 2 day journey en route there, but more on that later). I wanted to get to know Goa and it made sense to me to stay, as my lovely friend Liz Cirelly (also travelling, also blogging, check her out here: http://limitlessliz.blogspot.com/) was passing through Goa whilst doing some DJ gigs. So I stayed. And I'm glad that I stayed as it allowed me to get underneath the skin of Goa a bit more - something that I think is worth doing, because it is a complex and layered place and I think that I have now gained some insight into the weird and colourful world that lies beneath.

The tabla player who stole my heart
I'll start with the hippies. The great thing about Goa is the people that live here for the tourist season (from October to April). These people come in many shapes and sizes, but for the most part are older men who have perhaps worked for years and (why not) decided to retire to hedonists' heaven. There are a lot of musos who take advantage of the live jamming scene (particularly in Arambol) and there are also conjurers, magicians (I met a man who spent the evening putting a rather long silver spoon up one side of his nose and bringing it down the other), healers and long term inhabitants of the Goan ex pat community - just people who love to party, take drugs (not booze), chill out and sleep with beautiful women (who are not in short supply). I don't wish to sound cynical here, but I'm sure that this is a draw for some long haired lotharios that I met as I did have to bat back several advances from astonishingly forward men! Several people have found God and changed their names to reflect their spirituality (I met Swami Prem Vandar, for instance, who's chosen name means 'love prayer' - I think his real name was Dave or something.) Sex and sexuality is in no short supply in Goa and tantric practices are popular. There are tantric ashrams in and around Goa which involve having to undertake 'sexual practice with your teacher'. Hmmm, I can safely say that I have decided to continue to pursue my spiritual and yogic path for now and have avoided the same. Flavours of spirituality are there for all to try in Goa and you can dabble in just about any kind of alternativer healing, from reiki to yoga, to Ayerveda, to sound therapy.

But there is a tangibly dark undercurrent to Goa. Traditionally a place of excess, it's been said that in days gone by they had to open temporary mental hospitals for those gone mad from too many hallucinogenics - the acid heads who never came back down. I talked about this with a 'sound healer'  who believes these people are "caught between worlds", different spiritual realms (all the more reason for grounding, when indulging in any practice which takes you outside of yourself, not just drugs). There are also a whole host of interesting characters, peace and love personified, but who have seen life and witnessed it in it's darkness. I shan't go into the story here but I spent an interesting hour with a friend of mine, discussing his past and why he had come here. "Everyone is in Goa for a reason. A lot of people are trying to escape something." I pondered this, and the madness, lying awake in a part of Anjuna I didn't know - the howl of dogs was permeating my sleep and at some points (I don't know if this was real or imagined) I could also hear the howls of men and women - maybe those ghosts from before or those that die on the roads each year in scooter accidents. Anyway, it was probably nothing more childish make-believe but one thing is for sure - Goa can fire that imagination,

People keep telling me to do this!
One thing that I have observed is that people in Goa have a particular way of talking: a chilled out register and semantics that urge you to "relax", "let go", "go with it" etc etc. This completely contrasts with the ambitious London attitude to take every second of every day and fill it with noise and motion. As one hippy said to me "a Goan minute is a London hour". I certainly noticed that my pace - of speech, of itinerary, of days  - lay in contrast with those around me and it was this Goan influence that started to wind back my hand of time and persuade me to stay on a bit longer, to wait and see what it had in store for me.

Although some people might find it repetitve and even cliched, I have enjoyed my encounters with people here and have really appreciated the fact that every single day you meet someone new who can give you a new, overt, spiritual perspective. Here are some of my favourites: "put yourself in an electric blue egg".  This advice was dispensed to me by the sound healer, who I happened to meet over breakfast. I was discussing with him the fact that I had some extreme reactions to pranyamic breathing and opening my heart chakras. The fact of my being too open was on my brain, having rushed into the tabla romance and I was reflecting on my tendency to 'let things in' too easily- both on a physical and spiritual level. He advised me that I needed to practice grounding myself and letting my auric energy protect me. Reiki and other ancient medicine often refer to a 'white light' of protection, but the healer said that this is often not strong enough and that blue is the power colour to protect you. This was affirmed for me on meeting Liz later that day - she had also been told the same thing, that on occasions a more powerful, lilac blue is needed. So at times when I have felt that I have needed protection, I have practised being in that blue egg, as well as chanting mantras at Liz's suggestion to protect me (and lord knows I think I've needed it in recent days!)

I imagine that I've now freaked everyone out by going out on a hippy limb. Perhaps what might be more appealing is other, more universal advice such as "don't judge - experience is experience. Positive and negative, it is all experience. First of all you have to accept this. Acceptance is the key to everything." The soul who dispensed this little gem is the cheeky and yet wise soul Navin, who for the past 10 years has been running a beach hut business in the super-chilled town of Morjim. This was a late night conversation on the beach in which we again discussed pranyama and it's similarity to playing the didjeridoo and the hallucinogenic quality of circular breathing. Reflecting on my imminent trip to the ashram, Navin also commented that sometimes, "discipline can be good" (let's hope that he is right) and that meditation is about "being comfortable" - physically and then mentally. I'm sure there is more to it to that but I like this explanation for its simplicity.

So a few Goan soundbites for you there...but on with the narrative! So after having spent time with Liz and her manager (we swam in the sweet lake in Arambol - so called because of it's healing qualities...actually, it is a salt water lake so we re-named it the 'sweet n salty lake'), I decided to search for the perfect Goan Christmas. I had been tipped off about a retro place called 'Emerald Lawns' - a big function hall where Indian families gather for a sumptious Christmas lunch and dress in all their finery - "glittering and shimmering like stars". I wanted to do something traditional for Christmas so hotfooted it to Calangute, one of the northern towns near Baga Beach, to be able to acces the lawns. Somewhere between Arambol, Mapusa (the main bus hub) and Calangute I started to feel ill - very ill. I just about managed to get myself to Calangute alone and check into a room. On first sight I hated Calangute - and I mean hated. It was bizarre that only a few km from hippy heaven there seemed to be a set of El Dorado! English skin heads eating fish and chips and roast beef sandwiches - the Manchester United Cafe Bar did it for me. I resolved to check out the next morning and took to my bed with dehydration salts, colloidal silver and Jeannette Winterson.

Bus with a bit missing!
Feeling markedly better the next day I negotiated two local buses to get back to Anjuna, the place I had originally stayed. Over Christmas Goa gets exceedingly busy with Indian tourists coming in from Mumbai, Delhi, etc and I was worried all rooms would be booked. Lucily I managed to get a room at the original hostel I had stayed in, Peace Land, and found my way back there. A note on local buses - they are a great experience but be prepared to be the only white person, for it to be covered in images of Jesus and Mary and for them to occasionally blast Indian music through the loudspeakers. That is all very quaint but the rides are so bumpy they may warrant a sports bra and I learnt the hard way that if you put your bag on the seat you get charged an additional fare.

So, there I was, happy back in Anjuna, albeit having not eaten for a couple of days and at the end of what could have been a nasty bug (thanks to Liz and colloidal silver, it was not). I went out for dinner then dressed for mass. I don't class myself as a religious person, but I wanted to do something traditional and Goa is a Catholic state, having been a Portugese colony and many Indian families attend midnight mass on Christmas eve.  So there I was, looking the picture of India in my classical dress and leaving my hotel room door when suddenly two of the hostel dogs went for me (there are dogs everywhere in India and this is not the first time it has happened - only last time I had a rucksack to throw on said dog, this time I had nothing). I just had time to open the padlock before the enormous dog (a rottweiler or similar) flung himself aganist the door. I was standing in my room, heart beating and terrified, but I would not be beaten by a dog! I ran out of the room, shouting at them and luckily they stayed away. The next drama occured just as I was wandering down the lane to the nearest church. This was a path I had taken many times before, only never in the dark or alone. I was attacked by a man on a moped - another grope, but this time done at speed so it was violent enough to hurt, shock and wind me.

I haven't had many moments of sadness and self indulgence since I have been in India, but this had to be one of them. First being sick, then Calangute, then the dogs and now this attack - I felt as if I should have taken the decision to go to the ashram earlier and this was what was happening to me as a result. Having asked a local what time the church (which looked locked and barred) was due to open, only to be told it wouldn't be for another half an hour, I broke down in tears. The shopkeeper, originally going to charge me 200 rupees to take me to another church took pity on me and scootered me back to Anjuna, where I told the police about the attack. Predictably they were unruffled and would not leave their post to escort me back to the guest house (I knew the family had gone to church and I would be alone with the dogs who would probably try to attack again). In the end, seeing me upset, the policeman gruffly comandeered an elderly man on a moped and sent me to the big church St Michaels, several km away, to find the family I was staying with.

At the time of being driven out of town, on a moped, with an unknown elderly man, with no money and no phone, I felt a little bit scared. But Goa is about 'letting go' so I went with it, reiki-ed myself and asked for protection. He did in fact drop me at the church (albeit asking me for money, to which I refused to acquiesce) and thank God I did spot the family who owned Peace Land amid the crowd. After a stressful hour, I settled into my very packed pew, to listen to a 2.5hour mass in Konkani (I had been told that it would be in English). Luckily I attended enough Catholic masses as a child to have an idea of what was going on although it was unlike any I had been to. All the Goans turned out in their finest - including tiny children in tailored suits, falling asleep on their feet. At one point I was disturbed to see a frog hopping around the aisles at ankle height.  The crowd stretched far behind the 400+ capacity with people spilling outside. One of it's members, an elderly man began to heckle the priest, drunkenly from outside - getting continuously louder and more beligerent. This was allowed for about 15 minutes until he was forcibly removed. The carols were all played on a CD track - traditional songs but with a Carribean beat and by steel drums. It was certainly an experience. At the end, I had to find the family who had been swallowed up by the crowd again, hurriedly explain that I needed a lift back (and they needed to control the dogs). I had to stay behind with them whilst they drank coffee and ate fruit cake (an Indian Christmas speciality) and the children gathered on a concrete stage beneath star shaped paper lanterns to sing "happy birthday to baby Jesus" and cut a cake (certainly not a practise I had witnessed at Crosby SS Peter and Pauls) and then finally get their present from Santa Claus. Standing ouside, amongst the Indian families and the joyful children, underneath the lanterns and watching the lights twinkling in the night sky, I didn't regret the experience and it felt very Christmassy. The father of the family drove me, his wife and their three little children in their mini bus and we had to slow down and look at the nativity scene which was very audacious - with it's own lights and fully functioning water featurn  - typical of the Indian tendency I have noticed to mix the ritual and festoonment of Hinduisim with the ostentation of Catholicism, resulting in buses carrying images of Christ and Mary bedecked with flowers and adorned with slogans such as 'Mother Mary Bless Our Way' and 'Jesus' in huge letters across the windscreens. After the nativity scene, I then had to accompany the family to their friends' house for a traditional post-mass drink. I sat there in the dark night, drinking chai, whilst all the ladies and gents and children dolled up to the nines, chatted excitedly to one another in Konkani and I listened to the waves and I felt sleepy and I felt happy and glad that I had persisted with my traditional Indian plan.

That night I slept uninterrupted for hours and awoke completely disoriented and not knowing where I was. I had decided to spend Christmas day in a decidedly other type of Goan manner and so, once Christmas lunch (two fried eggs and a pineapple juice) and the family Skype were done with, I took a scooter up to Hilltop, the place to go for trance parties and I did it the Goan way - less alcohol, starting earlier, dancing the day away. I had another moment there, dancing under the coconut trees (painted in psychadelic colours from mid trunk down), a moment of thankfulness for all of the experiences that I was being afforded in India. I got chatting to a lovely English boy and the rest of the party is history really, as I spent most of it sitting on one of the chai tea mamma's reed mats, talking about life, the universe and everything and eventually having a Christmas kiss under the palms, as the trance music and the people came up and all of Goa was around us. It was a lovely experience to find a man so open and the story doesn't end there. I can't tell everything here in this blog. After a wonderful night with his other two friends (hitherto they had known themselves as the 'tripod', with my man the third wheel, but my arrival completed the four-sided 'diamond' and I had a wonderful evening with all of them. But, reader, I left him. Such is the life on the open road.

On boxing day I spent a night in the beautiful beach of Morjim with Liz, planning our onward travel, which will see us meet where 3 oceans mix at India's most southerly point. I arrived by 2 more local buses but this time I was picked up from the Raj supermarket  by the wonderful Navin on his classic Royal Enfield motorbike, beloved of Goans and which has a gutteral throttal as it rips through the tropical air. I must beg a moment of indulgence as I thought myself very cool at that moment, scarf trailing behind me - a Goan rock chick. And Navin is lovely and the huts are gorgeous, despite outdoor showers with water so cold it causes you to laugh hystericaly, thrillingly, like children in a water fight. I had a fantastic night's sleep (I always sleep well in the open air), and  awoke to find two cows outside the hut. I was too tired to continue the philosophical conversation with Navin, but I know I will see him again and he is friends with the musicians I know and the Kundalini Airport massive, who are totally amazing. I left Liz feeling very at one with the world and ready to face what was ahead.


That was a 20hr bus journey, followed by a 5 hour train ride to the hectic Trivandrum, from where I currently type. I will fill you in on the details of this journey later.. I'm heading to the Ashram tomorrow and so wanted to update you with Goan trials and tribulations before then. Internet will be patchy, I'm told, in Neyyar Dam, so please bear with me, send me your thoughts and comments, and I look forward to speaking with you again, fresh from my spiritual and austere experiences in the ashram and no doubt many new perspectives to share. 

Until then, shanti x

10 Things I Have Learned About India

1.) Speaking English in an Indian accent really works if you want people to be able to understand what you are saying. I appreciate that it can feel strange at first (or even slightly racist like you are channelling The Kumars at No. 42) but it honestly has the desired effect. Just try it

2.) The infamous and occasionally infuriating, but also infectious Indian 'head bob' (a kind of figure of eight movement made from side to side) can mean either "yes" or "no" - you must clarify "haa yaaa na" ("yes or no") to get the answer you need

3.) Everything is negotiable - even food in a restaurant can be brought down in price if you haggle hard enough

4.) Train ticket bookings are not straightforward - if you have a 'waitlisted' ticket it does not mean that it is confirmed.  I recommend that you book in advance with a trusted travel agent who can help you to navigate the complex class system. Basically - sleeper AC for long journeys and ladies, do ask for a top bunk to avoid being groped

5.) Word of mouth is everything in Goa - food, parties, music and places to stay - all the best places come recmomended by locals / long stayers / other travellers - don't rely on hoardings / flyers on the main streets

6.) Go early to parties in Goa - there are often noise restrictions in enforcement from 10pm. I arrived at one party on UK time) only to be told that it was all wrapping up - at 9.50pm!

7.) Timing is a very loose concept in India - expect things to happen in a relaxed pace and learn to go with it

8.) Indian people are very attractive and charming - be prepared to fall for it but try and maintain a sensible head, for many people you are simply a dollar sign

9.) People often tell you what you want to hear - not what you need. Check facts and check them again, in shops and with official people rather than people on the street

10.) Don't be afraid to dig beneath the surface - there are adventures around every corner - particularly in Goa - whether that be playing with local children in the grounds of a temple or taing chai in a leather shop whilst being serenaded with Bollywood love songs by seasonal musicians, India is abundant in experiences and people are waiting to engage with you. Embrace it!

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Beautiful, Contradictory India

I had my first experience of the Indian misconception of 'personal space' on the plane from Heathrow to Mumbai when, upon getting settled in my seat, an elderly Indian gent (slightly the worse for wear) decided to use my head and shoulders as a resting point for each of his many suitcases as he attempted to pack them into the overhead luggage. The theme continued in Goa when a jewellery seller was constantly trying to stroke my belly as I lay sunbathing, on another occasion a group of very young kids outside a temple excitedly ran over to try to grab my 'boobies' when we went to say hello to them - and the list goes on. This endearing (if not a little weird) cultural tendency is just one of the many things that I have become accustomed to in the last 7 days.

The children liked my 'boobies' - "or were they just hungry?" asked my new friend Jannick!
I didn't look out of the aeroplane window until we were close to touching down in Mumbai. The very first sight I had of this beautiful subcontinent was concrete slums - quite the contrast to the 'Incredible India' I was expecting to see.  I was lucky to have been picked up at the airport by my school friend Shally and her cousin Cheeku, who lives in Mumbai.  We were conveyed, through the mad streets (filled with rickshaws, pedestrians and the ubiquitous holy cows) back to the apartment of Biji (Shally and Cheeku's grandmother). And there I was presented with my first taste of wonderful Indian hospitality - fed home made rajma (a kidney bean chilli), rice and masala chai by Biji's domestic help, the very smiley Parvati. But as I rested in the safety of our cool apartment, I looked out over impoverished houses, some of which are mere shacks and was stunned at the close co-existence of comfort and extreme poverty. Contradiction is everywhere in India. 

Shally & Biji
The task of the day was to get to Goa, my first destination and where I was to spend a week with Shally. Although we had booked a train ticket through an agent over a week earlier, it transpired that we were only 'wait listed' for the train, which means that you have no confirmed ticket but you are on a waiting list for cancelled tickets. There are a myriad of ticket types for train travel here and it is a good idea to get your head around the class and booking system and preferably book via a recommended agent. After a whole day of waiting for the seat numbers to become available and much conflicting advice dispensed via Cheeku, his brother Rambo and Biji (lots of phone calls in Hindi I didn't understand), we finally opted to instead take a sleeper bus to Goa. The bus was due to depart at 8.30 and so we were driven an hour across town (once more competing with the traffic) to many different unmarked bus stands. After much shouting and gesticulating, Cheeku finally found what we believed to be our bus stop and waited on the pavement to hail our bus. The bus itself was over 40 minutes late (I have learnt that timing is a very loose concept in India) and we were told that it would take 12 hours (in fact it took well over 14). And there was no toilet. We settled down into our double bed for the evening. The couple on the bunker across the way from us were very interested to hear all about who we were, our story, and most importantly, why we aren't married! In typical hospitable style, they offered us home-made roti, a kind of flat bread (which I took without thinking that perhaps it might be risky but I'm pleased to report that it didn't make me ill).  This was all very nice until we were greeted with an amorous hand creeping into our bunk in the wee small hours. I had heard that 'groping' is an occasional nuisance in India (always try and book a top bunk to remain out of reach) but didn't expect to be greeted with another violation of personal space on our first night! Lady travellers take note - a swift whack with a Lonely Planet seemed to do the job and the errant hand retreated back from whence it came.  We stopped at only 3 points in the night, to ever increasingly surreal 'service stations' - shacks on the side of country roads in darkness, but as I snoozed during the early hours of the morning, I watched the glow of an orange sun rise out of the misty jungle and the coconut trees and realised that I was very happy to be here.

The German Bakery in Anjuna - best breakfast spot
After our epic trip, we arrived in Mapsa, then took an autorickshaw (collecting a couple of other younger girl travellers on the way) to Anjuna - a hippy outpost on the north coast of Goa. Life there exists down shady back streets where you unexpectedly happen upon temples, schools, little houses, hippy ex pats and itinerant travelers. There is an abundance of organic cafes - incense smoking around the blue bodied statues, chill-out music piping through the air as long haired, loved up, dread-locked travelers relax beneath the shade of coconut palms or printed fabric awnings that hang across the bamboo walls. We arrived on Wednesday, just in time for the famous weekly flea market and had fun wandering round the stalls selling spices, fabrics, jewellery, drums and trance music.  Days in Anjuna were beautiful and healthy - I found the Oceanic Yoga School and started to do aftenoon and morning drop-in hatha yoga classes, practicing asanas beneath the coconut trees. After each class you sit and sip chai in the shade of the porch with your fellow students and I found it a great place to meet new people - such as a French Canadian couple who we ended up having dinner with in Dhum Biryani  (our favourite Anjuna restaurant for dinner, the German Bakery is our breakfast spot). We sat with them under the domed straw roof, beneath the lanterns, sharing Goan sea bass curry with roti and steamed rice, eating with our hands and rounding off with a fenney - the local cashew nut liquor.  Anjuna is famous for it's trance party scene and whilst this has faded somewhat in recent years, with venues etc being closed down, we still managed to hear about several big parties - word of mouth is the best way as police turn a blind eye to clandestine parties, meanwhile pubs and clubs have a strict noise restriction after 10pm. We didn't know this and, having been invited to a party in Hippies Bar, rocked up just as they were closing it down, so instead we spent a relaxed couple of hours down on the beach with some of the ex pat community that I know here.

Boats in Anjuna
Goa is a magnet for old timer hippy travellers, mostly from Europe, who come and rent a house and a moped (it's the only way to get around) for the 6 month season. This gives it an immediate community feel - you can't go anywhere without meeting anyone new and bumping into friends you have just made.  There is a strange mix of those kinds of half yearly ex pats, people coming to sell at the markets, Indian sellers and workers here to make money from tourists, rich Indians on holiday from Dehi and Mumbai (you can spot them a mile off with their sunglasses and shawls) and musicians, musicians musicians. Arambol, the beach where we stayed next is music heaven - every night we have watched traditional Indian music (sithars, tablar, flute) or other influences (Turkish, Spanish, Mexian, African) in one of the bars or on the beach. I have become friends with a tablar player - Praveen - and his brother Prim who also sings and plays guitar and has been trying to teach me Bollywood songs (Kenar, Sonar Tenu is my favourite so far). But they are beautiful and dangerous these Indian people - I have fallen hook, line and sinker for Praveen's charms. Oh well, I guess that Goa is a wonderful back drop for a little romance - but I have to be mindful not to get too comfortable here or stay too far from my spiritual path!

A band from Turkey plays traditional Indian songs
Arambol is a gorgeous place. We have been staying here on the beach in a bamboo hut on the shore, waking up to the sounds of the waves each day and watching the red sun set early in the evening over the Arabian sea. Although I have to admit that the pigs and the mice that wander fairly freely through the through-way next door do disturb us in the night sometimes with their squealing! Behind the beach is a maze of labyrinthine streets, selling all the usual fabrics, incense and trinkets. Everything is indoor-outdoor, and all restaurants and bars are shaded with fabrics, covered in floor mats or placed within jungly trees or beachey floors - very chilled places with lovely music, floor mats and cushions and relaxed vibes. It is polite to remove your shoes before walking in although nobody would turn a blind eye if you lay down to have a sleep on the floor. Hand washing is also customary as we eat with our hands here, so all little cafes have a lovely sink outdoors where you can wash before your meal.  Toilets do vary, but you'll always be fine if you carry some tissue - and - touch wood - I haven't been sick once since I've been here. I'm sticking to vegetarian food that is served hot, from places that Indians frequent or are recommended by others. Two meals a day is my norm here - a healthy breakfast of juice, curd and muesli, with traditional Indian food at night - dal, roti, curry, thali. Although the back streets are dark, you don't feel unsafe and you are never far from people - wandering through the little lanes of shacks, colourful buildings, guest houses and huts. We've befriended a couple who run a shop and their gorgeous children, Nikita and Saatchin, tiny little creatures that give us a high five in return for some sweets or 10 rupees. It is very hard not to completely fall in love with the Indians, their charm, smiles and wry behaviour. I have been learning Hindi which has gone down very well with the locals.

Streets of Arambol
Now that Shally has left for England me I am here alone. I have booked myself a very basic room with a clifftop view and will stay here for a couple of days to do more yoga, visit the Sweet Lake (where you can rub the into your skin for it's healing effects) and the famous mystical Banyan tree.I have jettisoned the ashram for now as it didn't fit in with onward travel plans, but I do plan to do a stint along the way, when I can dedicate more time to it. In the meantime, it's back to Goan beaches and the beautiful Indian way.

Namaste!


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