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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Conversations #2: Exchanging

“Are you married?” I’m waiting for my colleague in the morning, catching a ride to work today as we are going direct to a meeting, and have struck up a conversation with a stranger, an older man buying breakfast in the stall beside me.

“No,” I reply, knowing where this is going...

“Why not?”

What do mean why not, I think, what kind of question is that? Do you want the answer involving not being ready blah, blah, the one involving tears that no one will ever love me or the one sermonizing about many fish yet in the sea? I’ve had this sort of question here before however so am not actually as sputtering inside as I may make it seem and I know he is not meaning to be rude in any way.

“I haven’t met the right girl yet, I suppose,” I answer vaguely.

“What do you think of local girls?”

“They’re great, lovely.” [It pays to compliment the locals I’ve found.]

“Would you like an Indian wife? You would like one; she would feed you and be subservient.”

...And there it is. I balk, eye's going a bit wide. (well, to be honest, I had started balking at the start of the line of questioning).

This kind of exchange is actually not at all uncommon here. I often get asked by strangers what I think of local girls or would I like to meet an Indian girl/wife. The problem is that I am not sure with this man here if this is idle questioning or if he might actually be rolling to hitch me with a specific Indian wife, likely a daughter or cousin, which is not as fanciful as it might sound. The patriarchs of the family are always looking. Danger Will Robinson! Danger!

...And at this brief moment, I’m faced with that critical of choices in cultural exchange: keep this a one way street and go along with whatever I think he wants to hear, closing down the conversation or present a differing viewpoint and see where it leads, which could of course be into trouble. I’m certainly against going to a foreign country Missionary- or Colonial-style, selling ones ideas in totality at the expenses of the local customs, but the flipside of that is the lesson that your own set of customs and values are worthy too and you shouldn’t abandon them simply to pander to the locals. It should be a blending, an exchange and I’ve come to understand that people talk to me because the very fact that I am a foreigner and they want to exchange. It is a give and take and a vibrant one, one little bizarre conversation at a time.

Being naturally cheeky and curious, I am briefly tempted to say, “Yes, do you have a girl in mind you could introduce me to?” just to see what he would do, but that is playing too much with fire I decide. This particular bizarre conversation is good-hearted and honest so I go with being honest (such as one can be when answering what is a rather disquieting question in the West) and choose to politely disagree...

“No thank you,” I explain laughing, “I actually do not really want a subservient wife. You see, in my culture that is not common or as accepted and I think it is not for me (fiercely independent would better describe my dating history).”

He smiles back, OK with the very simplified answer and thankfully not forcing me to invent on the spot what characteristics I would want in a wife or to try to explain the various socio-political changes in the West over the last half century or so that has brought us to our current value systems. We continue chatting about less controversial topics such as the goodness of the food in said nearby stall. I thank him for the tip after trying a generously offered sample from the owner. It is good. I will have to remember this one for the occasional Sunday when I’m out and miss lunch.

“Where are you from?” I ask as it becomes clear from his praise of the Keralan food stall that he is likely not from Chennai.

“Kerala. Have you been there?”

“No, not yet”


[Always with the why!]
“I haven’t had time yet due to work.” I reply.

“You should see it. It is very beautiful.”

“I’ve heard that. I definitely want to see it in April when I have more time. Do you have suggestions of what I should see there?” [always good to get advice from a local]

“You should come visit my family. Do you want me to help you book a ticket? I’ll come with you.”

[I’m a little confused by that one. Book a ticket? For April? Ack, I just wanted a couple tips!]

“No, I’m sure I’ll be alright. I don’t know when I can go yet”

“We could go next week.”

[I think he’s missed the part about April, which certainly happens given the difficulties in comprehension that arises between accents]

“Thank you, but I’m busy with work until April. I can’t go until then” I express, trying to say it a bit slower and clearer than perhaps I did last time and to convey that I am flattered at the offer, but still able to back out slowly.

“OK” he smiles.

We continue to chat about Kerala and food and how long he has been living in Chennai. He lives just down the road with his family.

My colleague comes by, apologizing for being held up. I thank the man for the conversation and the stall for the snacks and leave thinking of how strange a mix of openness and probing conversations can be in another culture.

Traffic #5: A smattering of mini-stories

Happy Pongal everyone!

Pongal is a local Tamil holiday that celebrates the start of the sun moving northward, in essence, the return towards summer. The holiday is 4 days long with much of the city shut down since Sunday (I wrote this Wednesday). One the first day, the house is cleaned and old clothes and materials are thrown out and burned. On other days, cows are given thanks to, crops and sugar cane offered at shrines and rice and sweets made and given. According to my housemate John and the morning paper though, this last day is a day for getting out and picnicking. Hundreds of thousands will descend on the beach today with dozens of drowning deaths and incidents of hooliganism every year necessitating a 5000-strong police presence. Yup, family fun for all. And we thought the Vancouver fireworks were bad!

For more on Pongal: and

Pictures on Flickr

Being a small office, we only took the Monday off and I have to work today, so I unfortunately can’t share any personal insights into the chaos of the festivities, but on the plus side, the quieter streets make for a smoother and faster commute. Since I spend so much of my time in the autos, I’ve amassed a large collection of shakily jotted moments, insights and observations and I thought I’d share a collection of mini stories from my various commutes over the last few weeks.

Quack, sssqquack! I chuckle quietly. As is not uncommon, the horn of my morning rick is broken and has been replaced in this case with a plastic hand-squeeze bulb. It works fine enough to tell people you are there, but it isn’t exactly a “get out of my way” warning, sounding as it does like a strangled duck call. You know, like the ones that are always featured in TV shows where the out-of-his-element urbanite tries the hunters duck call whistle but only manages to call something involving a sight-gag. The driver uses it with abandon anyway, which does make me a tad nervous since that also means he is only driving with one hand. I assume optimistically that the increased likelihood of an altercation with another vehicle is offset by the fierce warning of his killer mutant mallard call...

We turn left onto a major road and into a canyon of giant billboards. Advertising is simply everywhere here and in a variety of formats and plasters on spots I never dreamed of even in media drowned North America. From tiny lawn signs sprouting like weeds from every patch of dirt and garden, to corporate logos attached to traffic signals, bridges and road signs, to a bewildering collage of competing store signs to these giant billboards that dominate the thoroughfares. My colleague refers to these as the ugly “life-sized posters”, but these towering, well-dressed muses advertising the major brands are rather significantly bigger than real life. Ever since he made that comment I keep thinking, “Life-sized, eh? I wish my boxer shorts and cell phone were that big…” ;-)

The rick pulls into a gas station on my way home. It is annoying when they do that, but it is one of those things you have to take in stride: they only seem to hold like a litre of gas in the tank so it happens fairly often. What I do like about the gas stations though is that besides the usual pumps and concession centre, each has a little wooden desk and chair set up where they take and process your money. I love the little nods to formality and standards everywhere in India that are throwbacks to their Colonial period. Everything else looks like it has been beaten with an iron rod, run over several times by large trucks and never cleaned since it was installed (which are certainly possible), but yet there is this cute little desk with a man sitting serenely at. Unlike the young Brits who seemingly have chosen to celebrate their nationhood through brilliant humour, snogging and being unruly at football matches, the Indians still retain vestiges of the original sort-of-stuffy yet sort-of-charming attachment to custom.

Taking the bus can be a dangerous proposition – not of riding it per se since as I explained before, the buses are built like tanks – but of catching it. At most stops and intersections the bus seems to simply slow and men run over and hop on or sometimes just jump and grab on, riding along on the outside. At major stops, the bus will actually stop, but unlike the paranoid drivers in North America that won’t open the doors until you are stepping onto a platform for fear of a lawsuit, here the bus stops wherever it is in the street somewhere near the stop and it doesn’t stop for long (and they don’t have doors anyway). So to get off, you have to hurry and jump down quickly, that’s right: into moving, turbulent traffic. Yup, the most dangerous part of the bus ride is getting off mostly because of auto drivers like mine. The bus is stopped. We both know people are therefore going to get off, but to him, it is just a good chance to pass, weaving through the exiting passengers. A blur of yellow and red fabric goes by as I shake my head. At least he slowed down some.

“Anna Nager” I say as I lean into the auto, telling him the district where I live.

“No Boss, too far.”

I smile in understanding and he drives off. My place is a ways from work and not all drivers want to head that direction in the evening. Soon enough though another pulls up. “How much?” I ask after he agrees to take me.

“250” he says with a straight face.

I laugh and turn away, waving him to move on. Wow, bold: the price should be Rs 100. At his opening price, it is not worth even starting to negotiate. If he thinks I might get in at 250, I’ll never get him down to something reasonable. The next auto buzzes by with 6 people crammed in the back. Hmmn, I’m not having luck tonight. It happens. Yesterday, I picked up one as soon as I stepped out from work, no hassle. Today it takes 10 minutes and I still end up with a guy I can tell isn’t fully happy with the final price (100 of course) and will try to renegotiate at the end. Doing this every day, I’ve become good at sensing what type of driver I’ve gotten. Oh well, such is life taking the ricks. You have to be willing to play the game or be willing to pay more.

Ouch! My teeth click audibly as we go over a speed bump too quickly in the dim light. This brings my attention to sharp focus to three common elements of Chennai traffic:

- Streets are generally very poorly lit. Along with traffic signals, painted lines and street signs, the civic department of Chennai also appears to have scrimped out on installing sufficient illumination to see obstacles.

- Only about half the vehicles on the road drive with their headlights on at night. Oh so true to form the other half drive with their high beams on. So while the first vehicle blinds you like a deer with the glare, you’ll totally miss the auto sneaking by. Goodness knows how the unlit and darkly-clad bicycles survive. Then you get about 1% who use their lights to signal they are there, flicking them back and forth from off to high in rapid succession constantly as they drive like some crazed nightclub lightshow. And it is just as annoying. My auto this evening is one of those without lights, hence his lack of sufficient notice of upcoming bumps. I’m not completely convinced of his blamelessness for the speed bump though: it is not as if they move from one evening to the next.

- Speed bumps in Chennai have to be the most well-intentioned but totally unnecessary traffic control system I’ve come across. They’re placed liberally in front of any school, institution or temple whether that is an alley or a 4-lane thoroughfare. Cheaper to install and maintain than traffic lights (and probably with a higher effectiveness) they seem a fine idea for traffic control until you consider that they’re lost amongst a sea of holes, crumbling road work, torn up gutters and random obstacles every 20 metres. It is like adding a lawn chair to a hurdle race – sure it’s one more obstacle to spice things up, but it isn’t going to slow the pace any further.

I’ve gotten the auto to drop me off a couple blocks from my place. He was whining about the distance, setting himself up I know for the predictable scam of asking when we arrive for a higher fare than we negotiated. See, I told you he would. They lay on the guilt, which is one of the few points where I can sometimes lose my temper. Because it is a total scam; they are simply taking advantage of me as a foreigner somehow having all learned that we are susceptible to such manipulations. He knows perfectly well I wouldn’t have gotten in at the price he is now asking since there was another auto behind waiting to snap the fare. But he tries anyway. I can’t fault the trying, but I hate the emotional put-on. It is just one of a whole bag of tricks and scams auto drivers will try though, but I’ll save that for an entry or 6 another day.

But I actually like walking a bit before I get home. It is a nice evening. It would be a nice evening to go for a run actually, but due to the poor lighting, lack of headlights and aforementioned lack of sidewalks, even I’m not daring (or foolhardy) enough to risk running the streets after dark without a blaze of blinking, flashing things fastened to me. Oh well, if only I was a morning person.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Musings #4: The Black Hole of TV

So I’m watching some TV. Actually I’ve been watching a fair bit of TV in the evenings lately, a symptom of being a bit tired this week. I’ve been watching movies, which is fine enough, but I know I’m really lethargic when I’ll watch whatever is on regardless of whether it is any good. For example, I watched "Resident Evil 2: Apocalypse" the other day, which beyond an attractive Mila, is a really, really poor movie. But despite that, I sat through 2/3 of it before (thankfully) getting a phone call and having to switch it off. There is a good scene of the Toronto City Hall getting nuked though, which was kinda cool. Gotta love those obvious-its-Hollywood-North shots.

But things hit a new low this weekend when "Cody Banks, Secret Agent" came on today...until a scene comes on where they go to the secret enemy base in the "Cascades". Except of course it was filmed in Vancouver (the CIA lab is SFU campus) and so was actually Vancouver's backyard, not Seattle's as they pretended. And in that scene suddenly it made the hour wasted worthwhile, because it was peaks I had been on, valleys I had skied and visas I hadn't needed a helicopter to visit. The shots of the cracked bomber granite and sweet kickers gave me a touch of what I’m missing being here. Seriously boys, you should all watch the flick (you can fast forward) for the 2 minute scene flying and then snowboarding through (I think) the Tantalus Range, Mount Seymour and Garibaldi Park. Most of the shots were too short for me to catch, but on pause, I’m sure you could locate most. The secret base was obviously inside Table Mountain in Garibaldi though (hell of a spot for a secret base actually. We’re going to have to keep that in mind if we ever decide to go into the super villain biz). It is one of the best flyovers I’ve seen of recent Hollywood Cinema of Vancouver’s near wilderness (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “6th Day” is probably second). It was a little touch of home and a reminder just how strongly an attachment I have to the rugged beauty of the rock and ice of our home turf. Oh well, can’t blame me for finding the little joy amongst the crap. If you have other examples of good movies that obviously portray BC’s Coastals post a comment.

Oh shit, "Are We There Yet" is on next oh and damn "Home Alone 2" is on the other channel. Now that is simply going too far! batteries...TV about to eat my brain...why won’t it go...OFFFF! Whew! Alright, time to go out. Terrible way to kill time, but oh well... ;-)

Friday, January 12, 2007

Traffic #4: The grand game of Frogger – being a pedestrian

As those who’ve been reading my descriptions of traffic can probably imagine, crossing the street in Chennai can be a bit harrowing. To cross takes nerves and a good sense of timing. You have to know when to wait and when to go, have a firm, almost laidback confidence and faith that the drivers don’t actually want to hit you (they may actually, but believing that won’t help you), but understand that they expect you to move so will not slow simply because you are in front of them.

Since most streets don’t have traffic lights and traffic is heavy, it never stops. To cross you are required to simply stride confidently into the fray, Frogger-style, timing the holes. Those who are comfortable jaywalking shop to shop across Younge Street anywhere between Lawrence and Bloor probably has some idea and basis for the technique, although traffic here of course does not move in straight lines or in any semblance of order. If you’ve spent your life out West or even worse, in Atlantic Canada, well, my only advice is bring provisions and a book ‘cause you’re gonna be there a while.

The childhood lesson of look both ways before you cross the street becomes especially important here. Even crossing a relatively quiet street involves looking both ways not only before starting across but several times as you cross. I remember my kindergarten teacher chiding us to look saying, “you never know if a car might be coming the wrong way”. True and better safe than sorry, but I can think of very, very few times I’ve ever seen this in North America and most of them were in Montreal. Oh no though, not here. Here proper road use is the gross exception, notable when seen. Although there might have been no vehicles a moment ago, you can’t predict when a bike, auto or truck might pop out of some hidden lane and be now barrelling towards you on the wrong side of the street. And if you’re crossing at a 4-way intersection, you have to be especially careful as you have to consider vehicles that might come up behind you. Vehicles do not stop or slow when they plan to make a corner – they just turn in and in my understanding it doesn’t cross their minds to consider if there are currently pedestrians crossing ahead of them. Since you are smaller, you have to give way. If you’re lucky, they’ll at least honk. You might think I’m spicing this up for the sake of the tale, but I’m totally serious. I see these kinds of random and sketchy moves all the time. Heck, I’m often a hapless passenger in a vehicle taking the track that defies every invented traffic rule or better judgement. Really, what it comes down to is that since drivers of all vehicles take whatever path is most convenient and opportune, you really do have to anticipate anything. If a motorcycle appeared out of the door of a building, bounced down the stairs, weaved around the gate, struck out diagonally across the 4-way intersection (barely missing the through-traffic) and disappeared through the backyard of some neighbouring family, Ferris Beuller style, I wouldn’t blink. If an elephant did the same, I may curse for lack of camera, but wouldn’t be much more surprised.

I get a chance to practice this every day going to and from lunch with my colleague. Just walking to lunch involves walking single file down the narrow one-way with autos, trucks and buses buzzing by our shoulders, dodging motorcycles pulling into the gas station or driveways and (on our return walk back to work) keeping a close eye out while crossing intersections for autos coming from behind us making left turns without slowing. It certainly elevates walking to a fully participatory experience.

You gotta love a place where crossing the street or going to lunch keeps you on your toes.

Photoblog #1

Sorry it has been a while since I updated this site, but I’ve been a bit tired this week.

Here are some of my photos that I really like or think give you a real window into life here:

India - Colours of India - 001 - Store displayI really liked this shot for the vibrant colours. Stores are open decorated with flowers, stars, lights (and kitsch) to draw attention, to obtain good luck and therefore I assume, customers.

India - Colours of India - 004 - Suit shopBangalore, being a centre for the new high tech Western-connected centre of India, is also a great place to get a suit made. This shop, one Mack had been going to for years, had hundreds of fabrics, colours and styles to choose from. I thought of getting a hip tweed jacket, but despite the good value, I’m on a tight budget these days.

India - Faces of India - 002It is never hard to get kids to pose for pictures. Checking out this tower in my local neighbourhood, these boys really wanted me to take their photo before running back down the long winding ramp, shoving, tripping and tugging each other on the race down. Boys being boys!

India - Faces of India - 003On my first village visit, I got the chance to wander a bit through one of the hamlets. I was taking some photos of the area to record what the village looked like. This woman, shucking and drying ground nuts, asked for her picture taken too. It turned into a beautiful shot.

India - Faces of India - 005On my trip to old Goa, I must admit to enjoying watching these kids play then the dramatic space inside the Basilica. These young boys were oblivious to whatever their parents were up to or the gaggle of tourists and pilgrims wandering by. Made me smile.

India - Sights and Culture - 001 - crowd shoppingI was wondering if there was some special sale on for which all of Chennai decided to go shopped right here, right now, but no, this is pretty much normal. This street was away from the tourist glitz and high-end silk shops, catering instead to household goods, hardware, street clothes and everyday shoes. I bought an ice cream, found a spot out of the line of movement and watched the world go by for a few minutes.

India - Sights and Culture - 003 - poverty juxtaposed in urban lifeThis is taken from a bridge a couple km from my house. Most rivers are lined up and down with communities of basic thatch huts stacked right up against the backs and sides of modern, well-to-do buildings. This one particularly struck me for the juxtaposition of poverty against the riches of the international bank sign they are using as a roof. I wonder if they grasp the irony that had they placed the plastic the other way round, the advertising would still be viable, marketing a bank the occupants almost surely have no access to.

India - Sights and Culture - 008 - Crowd watching cricketYou can always tell when there is a cricket game on because you’ll find clumps of people gathered in front of every shop with a TV. For major games, the crowd could be many times this and 10 people deep. Hockey would love this level of devotion.

India - Sights and Culture - 009 - Cow on the roadThis isn’t a great shot, but I wanted to show an example of a cow doing its own thing outside an otherwise normal building. Many are not tied up and have no obvious owners. I’ll post a better shot when I can get one.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Pictures are up on Flickr + a couple vids!

Alright, It’s taken some time to get all the stuff from Christmas up, but we’ve got stories, we’ve got photos, we’ve even got video. If you wanted it, you’ve got it.

For those who have been wanting visuals to go with my writing:

It has more pics than the few that I will pepper my blog with and will be similarly updated as I get them. So bookmark it too and check back to it once in a while. I’ll try to specifically send you that way though when I add large blocks of new stuff up.

Plus, Aditya stitched together these killer videos of our antics. They’ve got this song I think they used to see in grade school. They got to singing it on the train…then the beach…then the club. It more or less narrated the trip. So enjoy and laugh yourself silly. The second is a warning on taking sleeper trains lest people like this are about (and you can decide which side of the camera you want to take that comment as for).

Sleeper train:


Happy New Year!

So after a busy & party-filled Christmas weekend, I decided to have a quiet New Years. Midnight found me standing atop the central elevator block on my roof watching the fireworks around the city. It was remarkable. I’ve never seen so many displays going on at once. There are a dozen major displays and dozens more small ones going on in every direction. There are 3 big fancy ones within a few kilometres and I can see others further back at which must be the major hotels in the centre of town. Whoa, that one was close – apparently some people are also setting some off on a neighbouring rooftop, which being lower means they are exploding in blinding and ear-deafening proximity. Crackers and noisemakers are being set off in alleys all around creating a near-constant rat-a-tat-tat. There is not much of a breeze and after 10 minutes, the air is thick and acrid with the smoke. Gotta say, I’m impressed with the show.

Personally, I’ve a lot to be thankful for this year: for the support I had as I was deciding to quit my job without another in hand, for YouthCO for always believing in me and letting me run, for the chance to travel and see amazing places and for the amazing people I travelled with, for a summer of leisure (that to my enjoyment drove some of my friends nutters), for peaks climbed and smooth sailing, for this great opportunity to try something new and exciting in India, and for all the friends and family who make my life rich. If you’re reading my blog, yes, I mean you, silly.

I wish you all a Happy New Year and I hope 2007 treats you well. Enjoy it!

Travelling #3: Meeting people

Meeting other travellers is one of my favourite experiences travelling. It is hard to describe, but I find the bonds and time you share is very pure and honest. There are no pre-conceptions or demands. You are all just going the same way for a while, sharing the same space and in that, sharing freely. I find people generous, friendly, quick to assist total strangers and happy sharing what food they’ve brought. I think it often brings out the best in people. It starts simply with conversation, a few passing words, maybe only a few in an hour, but then getting to chatting, often very open and guileless since you likely won’t ever see each other again. You’re not looking or asking for anything, just sharing experiences, a few laughs, some good stories. And in that simplicity of relationship can often be found something surprisingly human and surprisingly vital. Because of this you are rarely alone travelling. It seems to take little time through these short, intense, or lazy crossings to find a person or a crew that wants to go the same way for a while and who knows from there.

I met two lovely people coming back on the train from Bangalore. CL grabbed me coming off the bus to ask what, if anything, I knew about getting to Chennai that afternoon. I knew jack all more than them since I was playing this all by ear, but we quickly pooled our resources, got away from the sketchy bus company people and found the train station. Actually they got there a bit ahead as I had some issues with my sketchy auto driver who was apparently in cahoots with the sketchy bus people and was resistant to taking me to the train (why do sketchy people always have this vast net of equally dodgy characters? Is there some union or online chat group where they find each other?). I caught up to them in the slow train ticket line though. And like that I was travelling with people. CL has been in India for 5 months and has had a series of interesting adventures, experiences and crossings. Her mother has joined her recently for a couple weeks. If I was moving on in a similar direction, we possibly would have continued on together for a bit. We traded emails and I wished them well in an auto as I headed home to bed after a long, but far too short Christmas vacation.

Travelling #2: A very Goan Christmas

Merry Christmas from Goa!

Without a doubt, this was the most odd and out of place Christmas I have ever experienced. Here I am Christmas morning, sitting in a cool breezy gazebo, minutes from the beach, talking via cell phone to my family half-way around the world where it isn’t even Christmas yet. It is already 25 degrees and climbing, I’ve spent Christmas Eve dancing at a club. I’ve no presents to open, no stocking to hang, no family or loved ones to be with and no turkey. Santa doesn’t know where I am (which is unfortunate as I’m pretty confident that given I’m now officially a “do-gooder,” on balance I would be on the “nice” list this year). But with all that, I don’t feel too melancholic. I’m having a good time here, I’m not alone and I‘m enjoying the break. It just doesn’t feel like Christmas is all. Actually, posting this entry a few days later, I realise that is felt more like I was away over New Years and had just skipped Christmas this year. A very odd feeling, one I’m not entirely sure what I think of. But I have very much to be thankful for this year and many good experiences and opportunities here in India as payment for being so far away from home today so that is my Christmas gift and what do I have to complain about? I know there are people who love me in a dozen cities and more than one continent, who are only a second’s dial or a minute’s email away. I live a good life and have had a good year. So since I didn’t get them, I hope all your Christmases were full of family, friends and much yuletide cheer. And as I understand most of you had a green Christmas as well, hopefully my story will reminder that Christmas does not depend on such fickle things as snow, eggnog or gifts to brightly wrapped boxes.

Goa does celebrate Christmas though, with about a third of its residents Christians. So many places were decked out in Christmas trimming, the occasional embarrassed tropical tree was adorned with tinsel and bulbs and topped with tipsy stars and the local street kids donned Santa garb to sing Christmas carols for tips from the tourists. Only half knew the words of course, the rest “watermelon and cantaloupe-ing” along to the tune, but we appreciated the effort and cheer of it all before abandoning the leftovers of our traditional Christmas dinner of Goan prawn curry, chicken tikka, rum lassis and paneer the restaurant had found and made for us special (it pays to ask nicely) to join the traditional Christmas beach bonfire a few yards over.

There were 6 of us signed on for this weekend excursion: I’d have to draw you a diagram to explain where everyone was from and what route they took, but to summarize: 2 were taking the train via Hyderabad, picking up the 3rd there along the way, 2 of us (Nick and I) were driving to Bangalore to pick up the 6th and taking the bus from there. Things quickly went awry however, with my 2 travelling partners deciding in Bangalore for various reasons that they weren’t going to go after all. Which is how I ended up on an overnight bus alone with time to think, time to reflect and time to break my ipod. All very complicated. Don’t bother trying to sort it out. Just know that via plane, train and automobile our now smaller motley crew of 4 assembled and arrived in Goa. All I can say is thank goodness for cell phones to coordinate things on the fly.

But after entirely too long, we were in Gooaaa. The trip was awesome, my new friends great and it more than made up for the trouble getting there.

I arrived before the other three and got in a bit of sightseeing, checking out the grand Portuguese cathedrals and Basilica of Old Goa. Then it was a motorcycle taxi north to the dual villages of Calangute and Baga where we were staying. My crew arrived that evening. All three are originally from Delhi and went to the same school. Aastha is one of the other Canadian interns, Mansha is now in Australia and Aditya lives in Hyderabad. We had a blast. No, we didn’t see any of the sites. No, we didn’t really check out the other beaches or the quieter areas to the further north or south. No, we didn’t experience all of the nightlife. To paraphrase “Pirates of the Caribbean”, we only spent a grand total of 2 days drinking rum in paradise. Our plan was to chilled, eat drink and be merry and spend most of our short time chatting, laughing and taking silly photos. So we did that on the beach, we did that in our rooms, we did that at a nightclub. You see the theme here.

Baga is very beautiful and is one of the main resort areas of Goa. With miles of powder soft white sand, good restaurants, numerous atmospheric beach shacks, plenty of places to stay and the reputation for one of the better nightlifes in India, it is unsurprisingly overrun with tourists, mostly lobster-fleshed families. We did not feel we fit in really, surprised to not find a younger, hipper crowd to mingle with, but those were allegedly further north where the accommodation is reputedly cheaper. But with only 2 full days in Goa, we did not have much time to really explore so happily plunked ourselves on the beach 5 minutes down the lane from our cute guesthouse and whiled away the day in and out of the water, ordering small plates of and drinks in a haphazard, but mostly continuous stream. After a shower and a little afternoon nap, it is back to the beach shacks for dinner enveloped by the cool ocean breeze and competing sound systems. The food is rich and the drinks come with little umbrellas and cut fruit.

Then it is off to the Club Cubana to check out one of Goa’s famous party spots. The club is a few clicks inland up on a hill. We arrive relatively early and the dance floor is empty so we stake ourselves a table on one of the multi-level terraces with a phenomenal view overlooking the jungle, town and beach in the distance. It is very atmospheric. We share the table with a Russian guy who doesn’t speak much English, but does manage to communicate that he lives here for the winter season each year. Not a bad life I figure. Real estate and cost of living are very cheap if you come with a Western savings account and he is not the only person I meet over the weekend that has a home or long term rents a space for 3-5 months every year heralding from the UK, Russia, Italy and Israel among others. At some point it crosses midnight and I realise it is Christmas. I look for Santa, but no sightings are to be had. I wonder if partying on Christmas Eve puts me on the “naughty” list for next year. Hopefully like Karma, I can sufficiently balance that with good deeds to come... ;-)

After calling my family and some sleep, we talked away the day, chilling mostly in the fan-cooled comfort of our guest room. Then it was back on the bus to head home. The sketchy bus company tried to screw me out of the sleeper bunk I had paid for (and been assigned by their computerized system) as apparently they were over-booked, but with some firmness, a few sharp words and patience, they finally "found" me something reasonable. They’re such wankers. It wasn’t the private bunk I paid for but rather a narrow shared one (which incidentally would be perfect for a couple travelling together, like being driven across the country in a twin bed) with a pleasant, but unfortunately broad-shouldered gentleman. This bus did not seem to have working shocks. It was too bumpy even to read. Sleep was basically impossible as I lay there, teeth literally chattering from the vibration, but oh well, as I identified in my previous post, you quickly learn to take such things in stride or pony up the cash and restrict your options in order to take flights or 1st-class trains.

I arrive in Bangalore on the morning of Box Day and find the quickest vehicle leaving for Chennai, an afternoon train. I hook up with a couple other travellers – a girl and her mom – going the same way (more on that in the next post). There are no seats available on the train and we are put on a waiting list, which means that we are allowed to get on the train, but cannot get a seat or into a reserved car unless enough passengers no-show. We’re #92-94 so it isn’t happening. We claim ignorance and board anyway. Once on board, I track down the conductor, explain we’re just trying to get to Chennai early enough for a good night sleep before a morning flight (true for the other 2) and ask nicely what he can find us and if he can find a seat for my mother (in family-oriented India it is often useful to claim family relationships of those you’re travelling with). He takes a liking to me and offers the higher sleeper bunks to sit on, which are currently empty as this is an afternoon train. It pays to be nice and to be accommodating. It turns out to be a pleasant journey cozy on our bunks alternatively chatting, reading and writing the ever-present journals. We hit Chennai in the evening. It feels like I’ve been away for weeks, although it has only been 5 days.

So my trip to Goa was far too short, painfully so given the travel time, but the dichotomy of it was that despite it being a mistake from a cost and time of travel perspective, it was just what I needed and a wonderful experience. So if I had the choice, I wouldn’t have taken the trip again, but I won’t change this trip and the people I spent it with for anything.

Musings #3: Low points and solace on the road

Being alone on the bus for 14 hours has given me the time to reflect and to write (although half of what I wrote on that bumpy journey is illegible even to me).

It is interesting that my views and impressions of India to date have been heavily coloured by my narrowed perspective of living stationed in one place rather than travelling about. Although I write about all the interesting things I see and the little idiosyncrasies I cherish, my day-to-day is not all colour and new sights. Travelling to me goes hand-in-hand with a certain laidback attitude, a taking of things in stride, where everything – bumps and all – are new and fresh and therefore easier to handle. Making a life in Chennai I am finding, is a little different: those unknowns, bumps and challenges can turn into annoyances and frustrations. Yes, the crush of people is lovely and exotic, but I’m tired after a long day and just want to get home and out of this traffic; the cultural differences turn into barriers to getting things done rather than simply amusing stories; the idea of wandering the market absorbing the atmosphere is great and all, but on my one day to get chores done I really just need to find a barbershop, a dry cleaner and something resembling a 7-11. I am more dependent on my colleagues and housemates to take care of details, show me where stuff is, explain the differences and to translate – a real “hold my hand” feeling. When I have to deal with India at the times when I’m cranky, tired or stressed, it is harder not to blame the place, the people or the culture, to want to extrapolate whatever minor local annoyance to India as a whole. But I recognize these lows points come and go and are natural for me and therefore shouldn’t be given too much credence. So while it is easier to be upbeat & positive while travelling, in regular life, even one in another country, that can be harder. This is my first time dealing with such feelings and it is one of my most poignant lessons to date.

But now that I’m moving under my own steam, I’m slowly clearing that malaise and am feeling more positive. I am happy to be free of the smothering convenience of people to hold my hand. I am heading on a new adventure and I am excited to get a different perspective of India and broaden how I define it. Regardless of how this trip goes, it will be a good experience. We’ve stopped for dinner and I’m feeling happier and positive about all things India now that I’m well fed, comfortably set up in little niche bed and caffeinated with surprisingly good coffee. Fighting for service and holding my own in the scrum of hungry passengers (several buses let off at once) was fun again.

It does feel really good to be travelling again, even for such a short trip. It is good to get back briefly into the rhythm of timetables and delays, sketchy (but predictably so) tour operators and pleasantly un-sketchy little hole-in-the-wall meal stops. It is interesting that in a far away land, moving can become your familiar ground, your comfort from the chaos of life. I suppose it is because travelling is a simple thing, a quiet thing and a very human one. It is easier to take things in stride when the consequences aren’t being late for work or stress after a tired day. It is easier to accept things being painfully bureaucratic or poorly run when it isn’t your home. It is easier to strike up a conversation, haltingly perhaps, or just a shared smile with fellow passengers due to your shared condition – for a while you are literally all in the same boat or the same crappy bus, overfull train or delayed flight.

I wonder if it is the almost fatalistic mentality of travelling that I take to: you are at the total mercy of the transport and the unknown world around you and as such you are stripped raw of the protective cocoon of civilization, left only with your wits and the tools and systems you can carry with you. Whatever comes, comes and you simply have to deal with it when it does – whether you like it or not. I’ve just decided to like it I guess. I suppose I take to the purity of it all – since you cannot control or predict the bumps and forks ahead, large or small, you have to just stop trying to control the spin of the universe and go along for the ride. And while you’re at it, not sure if you’re going to get where you want to go, or even if you’re going the right direction, you enjoy the company and scenery of your little moving world.