Lots of Friends and Longer walks

Our friend Odella, arrived four days ago, fresh from NYC. She didn’t take long to adjust. Tall and poised, she towers over the short South Indians. Finding her own way around and uninhibited in asking people what they were eating, where she could find a good cup of coffee, is there a good yoga class etc. she quickly showed her independence. She’s been to India a couple of times before but not traveled extensively. Our connection with her is through Lewis, her husband and old friend ours. A jazz musician and professor at Rutgers University, we only see them when Lewis gets a music gig in Boston.

Our German friends, Marion and Jorgen, love to walk and persuaded us to visit the neighboring beach, Kudle. A pleasant walk through the jungle. The beach is picturesque and reminded Gerard of Greece in the late ’60s.

A few days later, we were enticed to take a more adventurous hike to Half Moon Beach and beyond. It was more strenuous but a beautiful walk through the jungle. Half Moon Beach is only accessible by foot, keeping it an unspoiled and secluded cove. Hot and sweaty we dove immediately in the water, followed by chai at a single chai shop.

Moving on to the second destination, Paradise Beach, was nothing short of treacherous. Climbing over the jagged rocks along the water’s edge made Gerard nervous. I focused on where I placed each foot, I made it without incident. Good for the attention! Paradise Beach did not live up to its name – a scruffy beach with coarse sand, a hangout of modern-day, young hippies. Exhausted from our rock climbing we collapsed on the sand and were soon joined by stray dogs.

The long walk was not finished; we still had to get to the neighboring town through more jungle and rice paddies to catch the next bus to Gorkana. On the ride back, Marion asked, if we had known what the route had in store, would we have agreed to come. Gerard admitted he wouldn’t have minded missing the climb over the rocks to Paradise Beach, but loved Half Moon Beach.

After such a long and treacherous hike we should have known better, but we agreed to hike with them again, down to the end of the beach and take a bus back.

For the first time since we arrived in Gokarna, the sun was hidden behind clouds. The few beach huts and restaurants dwindled until all we could see at the edge of the beach was palm trees and tropical undergrowth. Passing fishermen preparing their boats, we suddenly came across a beautiful young Indian bride being photographed. No sign of the groom!

The beach was a good 6 km long and then we had to weave our way through lanes and beside fields to the bus stop – another couple of km.

A week ago, our Swiss friend, ‘six meter ‘ Peter and his Polish wife, arrived from Goa to visit us for three days. Peter is a professional violinist and has spent the winters in a rented house in Agonda for many years, practicing most of the day and performing at night gigs up and down the coast of Goa. He decided not to bring his violin to Gokarna but is clearly lost without it. At breakfast, his restless fingers repetitively drum the table. We’ll see him again in August when he attends a summer course at Berkeley.

A couple from Australia that we met in Darjeeling seven years ago are back in India, traveling for a year. Last night, they caught up with us here in Gokarna before we move on. We hope to see them again in the mountains.

One of the many things we find attractive about Gokarna is, there’s a significant older population here. Generally, they are people who’ve been traveling for decades, so we have a lot in common. We can spend too much time reminiscing what the world was like back in the ’60s, but it’s still more interesting than talking about Trump and Modi. The oldest we’ve met is an 86 year old woman from Scotland who is staying on the ground floor of our guesthouse. She’s beautiful and walks to the beach each day with a stick. Young and old, there’s always interesting people to meet: a young Frenchman using only analog camera equipment; a young girl who illustrates her own postcards and on hearing that I was from Totnes in Devon, leapt up and hugged me (her family live there); and Bernard from Geneva who likes Miles Davis!

As mentioned before, Gokarna is a temple town. This weekend is one of many Hindu festivals. Which one? Who could keep track? The town is swarming with men wearing white cotton lungis and carrying offerings to the temple. One night leading up to the festival there was chanting, first by women, then by men, all night long. The din vibrates in my head. making hearing even harder. But if it wasn’t for the temples, the town would be overrun by beachgoers.

Gokarna: Shiva Worshippers and the Beach

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After nine years of spending at least a month in Agonda we decided to split our time between Gokarna, Gulijbagh and Agonda. We still have friends there that we want to visit. For those who remember, we made a day trip from Goa last year to see if Gokarna, just over the border into Karnataka, could be a possible alternative. Unlike most beach towns on the west coast of India, Gokarna’s major draw is not the sunbathing crowd from the west. It’s primarily a place of pilgrimage for Shiva worshippers. As the legend goes, Shiva was passing by on his way from Sri Lanka to the Himalayas when overwhelmed by the beauty of the area, he shed a tear. Where the teardrop landed, it created an abundant source of fresh water next to the sea.

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Meat and alcohol are not served and there seems to be little incentive to develop infrastructure for the beachgoers. Unlike Agonda, Gokarna has not become so commercialized that the local life has all but disappeared behind beach huts, sun beds and souvenir shops. On the other hand, for years Gokarna’s been a strong pull for hippies of our vintage and the present version, with its dreadlocks, tattoos and body piercing. (Where are the hippies from the 80s and 90s? I guess it was all disco.)

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Accommodation is not plentiful. We booked one of the few guesthouses posted online. On arrival, we were not thrilled but too exhausted from the 36-hour train ride to venture further. After reviving ourselves with a thali, we looked around to see what else was available and realized we had a good deal.

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The town beach is certainly not as beautiful as Agonda but after walking 20 minutes away from the hubbub of the town, the beach became virtually empty and the water very clear. No sun beds cluttering the sand, and the few beach huts are hidden in the undergrowth bordering the beach. It’s appealing for us to be in India AND at the beach. Harder to find than one might think. Two or three restaurants serve good South Indian food at Indian prices. At most times of the day, they are packed with Indian tourists and pilgrims making such a din you can hardly hear yourself think.

p1030120I respond to the religious fervor even though I can’t personally identify with Shiva worship. Such conviction and dedication are refreshing in today’s world of lukewarm faith. Even though I’m here for the beach, I like the diversity. As I make my daily pilgrimage to the sea down the winding main street, I pass two temples. Around them, the local women wrapped in a sarong pinned over their breast to numerous beaded necklaces, sell flowers, coconuts and who knows what as offerings. Then I dip myself in the clear sea water, giving thanks.

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Beside the temple sits an old carved wooden chariot decorated with flags waiting for the next occasion to be hauled out; furrows in the street shows its path.

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We had hoped Republic Day would be one such an occasion. But instead, all the school children in the district paraded up and down in their uniforms carrying flags and beating drums.

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The beach wasn’t as convenient as in Agonda, but the town was far more appealing. We plan to pass by this way again.

36 Hours…..and Counting

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I tried not to think about the 33-hour train ride to Gokarna. Although I’ve completed plenty of long distance rides in India now without losing it, anticipation of them still makes me anxious. Even at this age, I find it hard to sit still for any length of time. Granted, trains have an advantage over planes or buses; I can walk up and down the carriage, weaving around people spilling into the aisle – babies underfoot, large men stretching out, and so on. Reaching the end of the carriage, I can stand in front of the door open to the outside; feel the fresh air on my face, and watch the countryside fly by — if there aren’t three other people already standing in the door. When we pull into a station, I can risk jumping off for a few minutes, just time for chai in a paper cup, watching the buzz on the platform.

Much of the time can be spent sleeping, provided crying babies or snoring fellow passengers don’t disturb the fragile slumber. In this case, the 33 hours was spread across two nights and one day, hopefully, plenty of time for sleep.

Things started out well. The train originated in Bikaner, and boarding at 10 pm, we were the only two in our four-person compartment. An empty carriage, no curious Indians wanting to talk late with Gerard. So for the first night, we slept in peace with the compartment to ourselves. The only downside, it was very cold because we were still in the north and there was little heat on the train.

We woke in the morning to breakfast. Thankfully our train had a pantry car, not always a given. So my insecurity around food was not an issue. The boys took our lunch and dinner orders, and the meals turned out to be tastier than the average train food we’ve had. There may have been no real chai on the train, only ‘dip-dip’ tea — a tea bag and powdered milk. (What a disgrace in the land of chai.) But chai wallahs would board the train at major stations. Things were going quite smoothly so far. So what was the angst about?

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As we’ve mentioned before, one of the highlights of train travel has always been the people we meet. And this journey was no exception. At Ahmedabad, a young husband and wife with a three-year old daughter joined us. As is often the case, the wife could speak a little more English than the husband, but conversation was still limited. Nevertheless, they were so friendly. Vipin Dass is in the military near the Pakistani border in Gujarat, his family living with him. They were happy to be returning home to Kerala on a month’s leave. The little girl, Vidu, was cute, well behaved and not at all shy. The day passed quickly chatting with them. From time to time the boys from the pantry car would pass through, and the couple bought almost every snack, deep fried vadas (lentil patties), samosas, fried bananas, and then insisted we sample some. By the time the second night arrived, we were as comfortable as family, and they were insisting we come visit them in Kerala on our next trip. After Vidu threw a tantrum, which was not so surprising due to her sugar intake, we all went to sleep.

I woke up at 4 am ready to get off the train. Five more hours to go, but no problem. Breakfast, chai, chit-chat and then get down at 9.30. It had been all clear in my head. A fly in the ointment — we were already behind schedule. Vipin Dass had a printout and had been keeping track of the delay. Indian trains are notoriously late, so it was no surprise, but it fueled my anxiety. This morning the delay had grown to three hours and counting, as the train sat idling on the track. Signal problems, they say.

My latent claustrophobia was also kicking in. I’d had enough of being cramped on a train. When I told Gerard, his remark was, “Cramped? Go back one carriage to general seating and sit there for a while. And then we can talk about cramped. What is your problem?” No support whatsoever. The image came back to me of the scrum at Ahmedabad; people trying to cram into general seating, already full. Not a pretty sight. Maybe he had a point.

Finally, we’d left the last station before ours. We were getting close. But we still had a bus journey of who knows how long before we’d reach Gokarna. And what about lunch? Gerard always well prepared, decided we should stand by the door with our bags ready to get off since it was a small station. We said goodbye to the family but Vipin Dass insisted on coming and standing with us. Twenty minutes later we arrived. Vipin Dass carried my bag onto the platform and shook hands. As the train pulled out, I caught sight of the family waving from the window. We’d arrived. Now how do we get to Gokarna?

 

 

Dental work and Shiva temples

It seemed a good idea to go to the dentist in Goa. Friends had root canals, implants and bridges, all with success, and the crowns we both needed were an 85% saving. Hard to turn down. But like all coins, there was another side.

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Early Sunday morning, we arrived on time for the first appointment of the day and waited in the open balcony that served as a waiting room for over a half an hour. , but the dentist was on Indian time. Meanwhile the two young dentist assistants scurried around preparing for the day. While we waited, the girls would come out and look over the balcony for the dentist. Finally they decided they could risk it and order their breakfast from across the street. Coming back with newspaper parcels, they sat in the surgery eating pav bhaji (a potato stew) and fried puris. We visualised them sitting in the dentist chair enjoying their meal. Five minutes later we heard them washing off their plates and hands with what sounded like the water jet.

Finally the white-jacketed dentist and his assistant arrived and with an air of professional confidence, dare I say arrogance. Wasting no time, they fitted first Gerard for a mold and slapped on a temporary, and then did the same for me. I was told to get up. Waiting for the back of the chair to lift, I realized it wasn’t going to happen. With the blood all running to my head and dizzy, I managed to swing myself up out of the chair. As the world came back into focus, I realized the dentist had made no attempt to clean off the excess cement around the temporary. For the next half hour I was spitting out bits of cement. And in Gerard’s case, the temporary was too large and for the next week he continued to chomp into his cheek.

We went back the following week and an even quicker procedure was fitting the permanent. Mine seemed to fit perfectly but for some reason, the dentist whipped it off again and told me to come the following week for the final fitting. Gerard had a less satisfactory experience. The crown was so tight that the dentist had great difficulty getting it off, finally resorting to a pair of pliers.

During the following week, the conversation of dentists came up with a few of our acquaintances. Even though everyone was satisfied with the work in the end, we all had bones to pick. Gerard noticed the instrument tray had stains and was pitted by who knows what? But from out of the corner of his eye it looked even worse. As the dentist drilled away his mind drifted to what exactly is that on the instrument tray? Couldn’t they have at least covered it with a clean cloth?  (My eyes are not as fine tuned as Gerard’s, the more so without my glasses). Then we got laughing about the plastic cup for rinsing your mouth. Did they really change it after each patient? Even though we had a good laugh, everyone agreed in the end it all worked out.

On our last appointment, our crowns were fitted, and fine-tuned. Gerard would not leave until he was 100% satisfied with the bite, insisting on having it polished yet again after adjusting. In my case, I was content on the first fitting. Out of a five star rating, they get three stars. But I’ll still come back for teeth cleaning and examination next year.

Yesterday we took time out from our busy schedule in Agonda, to visit Gokarna. It’s surprising how much time it takes to get from our room to the balcony for breakfast…then to the beach shack for chai and then down to the water for a swim etc. etc.

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Gokarna has been long known as a place of pilgrimage for Shiva followers

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and in more recent years, it’s become one of the “destinations” for Gunja smoking hippies, living in shacks on remote beaches.

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Just over the border in the Karnataka, you’re most definitely back in India again. Goa of course is in India, but it’s Goa. We went for two reasons; one to see if it might be an alternative to Agonda, and two because our friend Oliver is staying there and we wanted to see him again.

In Orchha, two years ago on a cold rainy late December day, we were looking for a guesthouse as an eccentric looking man dressed in homespun was stepping around the puddles approached us. Gerard asked where he was staying and he led us to his guesthouse. Over the next few days, we slowly built up a friendship with this unusual Englishman from Devon. He’s an artist who’s been all over India capturing street scenes of every day life. The town was small so inevitably our paths crossed – Oliver would be sitting in a shadowy spot beside the temple sketching figures that he would later assemble in pen and ink. We were both drawn to his company and the cold damp days passed quickly. Agreeing to stay in touch, the fact that he had no email or cellphone meant that was not possible in India. Three months after we got home, a folder came in the mail of five prints of his recent work, including the one he’d been developing in Orchha. We’ve stayed in contact ever since through ‘snail mail’. This past fall he told us he would be spending a couple of months in Gokarna and included a very precise map of the three places where he would likely be loitering.

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So along with our friend Tatiana and two Russian friends of hers, we rented a car and driver and traveled the two hours to Gokarna in style. We left at 6.30 am and were there in time for breakfast. But first we went to Oliver’s hotel – he was out. So we wandered down the long main street to the beach, all the time with our eyes peeled for Oliver. Tatiana had been there a few times before and took us around.

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Gokarna is an interesting town because it still has a sense of authenticity and character that the beach towns of Goa don’t have. On the other hand, the beach is nowhere near as nice as Agonda

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We visited a hillside temple overlooking the ocean

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where we photographed what we thought was an old Sadhu, but when someone engaged him in conversation it turned out that he was an American — still an old Sadhu. Who know how long he’s been there.

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Tatiana took us to a peaceful water tank, we did some shopping and had lunch. Still no sign of Oliver.

DSC_0198Gerard walked back towards the car, while I did one final sweep of the designated spots – with no luck. It looked like I was not going to see Oliver again. But on the way back to the car, I heard a voice call out from a small chai shop – and there was Gerard sitting with Oliver. He’d found him!

There was hardly time to catch up. The Russians were anxious to get going. But we were still so glad to see each other. He promised to stay in touch by letter, of course, and would send prints of his new work. Oliver encouraged us to spend time in Gokarna. He’s been there for nearly two months and likes it. We’re now seriously considering it, not as an alternative to Agonda, but definitely an addition.

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