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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

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.

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