Sunset in Goa By Freetraveller
Jan 20 - Mar 27, 2008: Let me preface the following by saying that I was a first time traveler to India, spent less than 10 weeks traveling through Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and now returned to the USA intend to spend several months (or years...) processing my experience of South India before coming to any "definite" conclusions. (In my travels I have learned that it takes time for one’s experiences to assemble themselves in some coherent fashion, and this is certainly as true for a westerner in India as it must be for "easterners"(?) when confronted with our foreign sensibilities.)

And so I will *try* to be as objective and practicality-oriented as possible, while presenting the still fresh (but half-baked ;-) details of my travels for the benefit of first-time travelers in particular. (I expect that most India-philes who read this will wobble their heads in amusement, but there are a few details which may benefit them also :-)

My experience was further limited by time, language and transportation: I have worked as a professional driver in Los Angeles and ridden motorcycles for 20+ years, but did not hire a car or otherwise drive in India; I do not speak any Hindi (besides Namaste;-), nor the languages more commonly used in different parts of S. India; and I was accompanied by my lady friend during the first 2+ weeks of travel. Also, I am a white "middle-aged" (ouch!) , middle-class (only apparently ;-) American male, who spent the rest of my trip traveling alone.

Also of importance to note is that everything is very subject to change: the 2007 LP Guide was accurate about 1/4 of the time (which makes it frequently disappointing but worth carrying...), and that the rapid rate of change occurring in India means that even first hand information which would otherwise be considered current ("I got from point A to point B on this bus/train etc. for this price in this amount of time last month", etc.) far from a sure bet. In fact, getting good information *from anyone* in India is amazingly difficult; for example, the obstacles which arise while trying to book a train at an internet Café (before the operation "times out" or the server becomes unavailable) is frustratingly applicable to ALL sources of traveler information, human and otherwise... (Also, the electricity cuts out frequently and randomly EVERYWHERE, as does the internet itself, though of course more often....) I found only TWO Indian Tourism Offices open, one in Alleppey (manned by gangsters), and the other in Hampi, where an old gentleman quoted transportation schedules apparently from a bygone era...

So for what it is worth, and with sincere thanks to all who helped me, I offer the following: (I am listing the details in the order which I visited each place between Jan. 21 and March 26.)

Mumbai International Airport

There is a free shuttle to the Domestic terminal, which was not apparent until after we had been ushered out of the terminal and had to re-enter (to the chagrin of SECURITY), to locate said shuttle, which that night was a rather "dark" operation in which the bus driver solicited tips for the baggage handlers and himself... (NOTE that the shuttle in the opposite direction was much more official, and you had to take a number to get a seat on the scheduled shuttles. Of course the numbers issued and who was let on what shuttle when was ultimately irrelevant, but it all occurred quickly and without extortion... Also NOTE that while I did hear of one young traveler who was charged 2,200R for a taxi between said terminals, the fare should be about 100R.) We spent several hours at the mosquito-ridden and un-air-conditioned domestic terminal before catching a 6:00am Deccan flight to Dabolim Airport in Goa. (NOTE: while at least one International Airport terminal is air-conditioned, this was its only notable improvement over the domestic terminal: it had one (or two?) "eateries"/Cyber cafes which served nasty micro-waved food, and one aptly named "Clipper" Bar which sold Johnnie Walker scotch for $30USD a shot!!!:-(On this lower-level floor - which you are only allowed into 3 hours before departure - there are nice reclining chairs and a HUGE Duty-Free shop WHICH WAS EMPTY AND CLOSED, probably at the *behest* of the knick-knack, memorabilia and tobacco venders on the first floor...) ALSO NOTE: SECURITY at the terminals is very heavy: once allowed to enter you are supposed to remain inside and will have to beg the guards to let you out for a smoke. Aviation security is even more strict - a multi-level and thorough affair during which you will be scanned, poked and prodded repeatedly, and your shoes given a GOOD going over by two separate people!)

The one hour long $60 (with TAXES) Deccan flight to Dabolim was fine, and we took a taxi for 750 Rupees to Anjuna (though we could have taken three busses - one ’express’ from Vasco da Gama to Margoa which stops outside the Dabolim airport gates, then ostensibly another bus to Panaji, and another to Anjuna, all for less than 100 Rupees).

Anjuna, Goa

 Fishing Boats By Piscesman
You can basically chuck the guidebook as regards Anjuna, although we did spend two nights at the LP listed, peaceful and "reasonably" clean Palmasol Beach "Resort", for 250 R a night. We were in Anjuna primarily for the Wednesday Market, (which is filled with aggressive vendors and something of an assault upon the senses but worth seeing), and largely mirrors the reality of Anjuna’s "streets", where I was CONSTANTLY approached by people who either wanted to clean my ears or sell me drugs. (I *understand* that some very fine black hash was available, thanks to the coordinated efforts of the syndicate and the constabulary, which are likely to resume business as usual once the monsoon blows away the whole unfortunate saga of Scarlet. Or maybe not.) In any event, I didn’t like the place - the Scarlet thing seemed inevitable - and most of the other travelers with whom I spoke afterwards felt that Anjuna was worth missing...

Benaulim, Goa

 Back from fishing By Mistral
Benaulim was reached via four buses: a local Anjuna to Mapusa, an express Mapusa to Panjim, another express Panaji to Margao, and finally a local from Margao to Benaulim. The whole trip was relatively painless and cost approx. 70R. Benaulim was in many ways the polar opposite of Anjuna (too many older, more sedentary tourists), but the locals were quite friendly and Benaulim has a good vibe. Just about all of the budget places were booked: for the first night we stayed in a partially furnished flat at the far end of the main tourist street past the LP listed Palm Grove Resort, with an eccentric and reluctant "hotelier" - Savio - after whom the hotel is named (400R), then spent two more nights at the very lovely LP listed Heaven Goa (650R) over-looking a marsh. The meals in town were excellent and a good value (The Meridien Restaurant was excellent, as was Dinha’s, a small and low-key restaurant with excellent food and good homemade Feni), but there is a small restaurant - Maria’s - near Heaven Goa that is generally empty because they have chosen to rip-off anyone who eats there in lieu of repeat business...

Gokarna

 Ioannis. By fredjican
Gokarna from Heaven Goa in Benaulim, Gokarna was reached via an auto-rickshaw to Margao for 100R, then a local train to Gokarna Station, and then a packed mini-van (25R) to the town. (It also goes to Om Beach for 50R.) To its credit, Gokarna is a real town, with all the shops and services needed to live (as opposed to so many S. India beach towns, such as Anjuna, Varkala, Palolem, etc., where you must travel to the closest town just to buy fresh - and reasonably priced - fruit:-(, but was also quite booked up; we did stay at the Kamat Lodge, in a small but solid and clean room for 200R for the two nights we were there (quiet rooms face the back) and from our balcony enjoyed watching the large grey monkeys clamber en masse over the less-amused locals’ corrugated tin roofs...

Definitely some interesting expats floating about, and at least one good restaurant on the beach (Sea Green Café) with EXCELLENT fish sizzlers for 80R. I looked at Om Beach, which can be reached via a long, shade-less, and hilly walk, or a 100R Rickshaw, or a 50R boat (during the day and good weather...) I’ve heard many good things about Om, but some have said that the closer beach - Cuddie - is better since most everyone is automatically going to Om. Om looked nice enough, but was too remote for a short stay, and since my lady had a tight schedule, I can’t really say much about it, Cuddie Beach, or the more remote beaches which are mentioned in the Guidebook.

Ernakulam, Fort Cochi

 Ernakulam Boat Jetty By Cosmopolite
Getting there from Gokarna - in a pre-booked 2 Tier AC sleeper ($25USD, 12 hours) which must be boarded in Karwar - was a bit of a hassle as you get to Karwar via two very crowded busses, the later from Ankola. Departing at 10:30 pm, you basically crawl into your pre-assigned bunk and stay there, as everyone else aboard (the train originated in Mumbai or Delhi or ?) has retired. As best I can remember it was on time coming and going, and I slept well. Though initially inclined to heed the guidebook’s advice to stay in Ernakulam, at least one of the budget hotels is located near an odorous garbage dump, and the uh, bustle, of Ernakulam made taking the ferry to Fort Cochi a one-way affair. Again, anything approaching a budget accom was booked, but I did negotiate a lovely OLD room in the Spencer Home (800R) in which we stayed two nights. (The court-yard facing AC rooms are smaller, more expensive, and tend to be hotter...) Fort Cochi is strictly tourist-ville, with dinners in the 100+R range, and beer hard to come by; on one night in particular women were not allowed to drink... I did have some great food in a Toddy Bar (coconut beer, which was sour, I understand, because it was not fresh).

Also saw a fine Kathakali performance at the Kerala Kathakali Centre (150R), which overwhelmed my partner. (She got dizzy, exited, and was found by me a few minutes later hugging a mound of grass; knowing her well enough that I was not as concerned as the Indian passer-byes who came to her aid, she recovered but saw a doctor the next day (100R) who agreed that she was probably "overwhelmed by the power of the Kathakali". While he none-the-less prescribed some "Ayurvedic" antibiotics, I actually heard from a male traveler - a sturdy young Brit - who had a similar reaction to the Kathakali. (Pity I didn’t see the end of that show, as other Kathakali viewing opportunities were limited and less professional...)

Be aware that while the primary source of income for rickshaw drivers in Fort Cochi is to take tourists on a 2-3 hour tour (150R) of the various temples and Jewish District - where their retailer "friends" abound - it is easier and less costly for you to take said "tour" sans their genial guidance. (They get a commission from every shop you enter - whether you buy anything or not - to the blatant disgust of shop owners if you exit empty-handed. )

Alleppey

 ferryman By moo
Contrary to many people’s otherwise vested opinions, there is an express bus to Alleppey from Fort Cochi which departs around 1:30 pm adjacent to the famed fishing boats which line the beach. (Under 50R and 2 hours travel.) Alleppey is anything but a "sleepy little village" (as per the 2007 LP Guide to South India), and the bus station is typically hectic. Having largely given up on said guidebook (as well as the Rough Guide) for recommended accommodations, we disembarked the bus without a "plan" but were approached by an amiable and trustworthy-looking young man named Biju with an offer of affordable accommodation at Ashtamudi Home Stay, with rooms ranging from 150 to 500R. It turned out to be a REAL find, with excellent ownership and management (Chan), and we spent two nights in a very nice room for 400R.

To say that they went above and beyond the call of duty would be an understatement: Biju pointed out a large hotel a few blocks away which served top-of-the-line Thali and dinners for 50-100R; Chan will arrange for push-boat and houseboat rentals WITHOUT CHARGING A COMMISION FEE (as opposed to most other hotels and the crooks at the Keralan Tourism Office, which add 20-40% to your cost); Chan took me on his scooter to buy a good bottle of rum (McDowell’s Celebration) without me having to fight my way to the counter; also - upon learning at 10am that we were expecting to mosey onto the 10:30 Canal boat to Kollam (8 hours, 150R) - Chan took our money, raced off to buy the tickets, and handed them to us when we arrived by rickshaw with our luggage at 10:20.) Such hospitality and personal service would be rare at even the Beverly Hills Hotel, and even more extra-ordinarily they did these things for us because they considered it part and parcel of good hotelier-ship, without expecting or accepting any pay for their services. (And poor Biju still gets sad when people he likes move on...)

Notes on Alleppey

The push boats charge up to 150R an hour per-person, but you can easily negotiate down to 125 for a single or 200 for two passengers, and 3-5 hours is plenty (5 if you want real Thali in a village, where they also have fresh & SWEET Toddy beer). Also, the houseboats are now virtually ALL motorized, and start at 3000R per night, though 4500 is reasonable for an average size or larger boat. (For larger parties, figure 1000R per person per night.) I honestly saw enough during the scheduled 8 hour ferry ride (which was 2 hours too long in my mind - the 2nd half of the trip to Kollam is fairly bleak) to think that the houseboat thing is WAY over-rated, particularly if your fantasy includes non-motorized solitary tranquility. (There can be literally dozens of other boats chugging along beside you...)

Kollam

Kollam is by most accounts worth avoiding, with few traveler-oriented businesses and a strange vibe toward tourists, as exemplified by the LP listed Government Guest House. We did spend one night (400R) in one of their "grand" but sparsely furnished old rooms (with full-out AC but no hot shower) facing the famed gardens, but don’t expect them to call you a rickshaw for the 3k walk into town at night. (They become decidedly more helpful when you’re checking out...)

Varkala

 Varkala beach By ranno
No longer trusting the Guidebook writers (some of whom were apparently smoking too much hash when they did their research;-), I half expected Varkala to evoke memories of Anjuna, but we were delightfully surprised: Varkala has a great vibe, the locals and vendors are friendly and decidedly NOT aggressive (they even have welcome signs which promise not to harass you), and the view strolling along the cliffs is enduringly beautiful. There is LOTS of great fresh fish, at reasonable and negotiable prices/portions (the Sea Queen restaurant offered the best value), and the rooms in general are nice but a little pricey. The management (Mahdu) and staff at the Hill Palace Beach Resort are top-notch, and we had a nice second-floor ocean-view room for 700R, followed by an equally nice first floor room for 500R. (Mahdu was most generous to allow me to keep that room for several days after my partner left, at 400R per night; the day I moved to cheaper quarters he rented out the same room for twice the price to a Japanese traveler.)

Amantha’s Family Restaurant served great Chai and lunches at reasonable prices, but the ocean-view accoms behind it (200-300R) were being ’managed’ by a Morrocan drug addict so service and cleanliness were sketchy, to say the least. All of the hotel prices listed in the LP guide were short by at least a third - with some people asking ridiculous prices for average rooms even further north at Odiom Beach. (Besides the fact that EVERYTHING in India is negotiable, and vendors often throw out the first price which comes to mind - to see if you’ll bite - the availability and pricing of accommodation might be largely influenced by a dramatic increase in Indian Tourists, as said Indian Tourists are going for shoulder-season prices but essentially extending the "high season" in the process.)

I spent 13 days in Varkala so I must have liked it;-), but there were some noise problems, particularly with the new owners of the "Rock N’ Roll" Bar (who wouldn’t recognize Rock music if it bit them in the ass), and who apparently paid big bashkeesh to blast their music until 4 am while all the other bars were turning down the decibels way before midnight. (Important NOTE: some of the best drinking water in S. India - far better than the bottled water - can be had near two of the staircases which descend to the beach. Filtered over many years through the shale stone, the water tastes delicious and I drank it for 10 days without the least problem. All the locals drink it & many restaurants make their ice from it:-), so instead of being one of the haughty tourists who scorn this natural wealth of good drinking water, save money, minimize garbage, and drink to your heart’s content!:-)

Trivandrum

 shanghamukham beach By cutegaldiya
Trivandrum is a 1 hour train ride from the station at Varkala town, which can be reached from the beach by rickshaw for 40R (though drivers will ask for as much as 100R. NOTE also that you can arrange for a short RT into town from the beach for 60R.) In Trivandrum I stayed with a wonderful CouchSurfing family (Manesh K.) in a nice suburb, ate like a Brahmin for 5 days (Manesh’s mother is an EXCELLENT cook) and saw a wide variety of excellent music, dance and martial arts performances because my stay coincided with an annual Art’s Festival. However, Trivandrum does not have much in the way of International traveler amenities, and Communist Kerala staged a half-day general strike in protest of a 2R increase in the price of petrol. (Be aware that these work stoppages are frequent, complete in scope and make even driving in a car hazardous - people will throw rocks at you for breaching the strike’s numerous restrictions.)

Rickshaws about town *should be* 20R, and thanks to Manesh I found an excellent government run Internet place (connected to the Post Office?) and we drank at a very reasonable government run Hotel Bar. (Manesh cautioned that most of the other bars serve mislabeled liquor, and to beware of any home-brew - "Arack" - which may seriously and irrevocably impair your central nervous system.)

Cape Comorin, Kanyakumari

 Going fishing By kolobar
Manesh and his friend Joji were kind enough to take me and another CSer to the Cape, about 3 hours by car, and we stayed at the lovely, clean and modern Vivekenanda Kendra hotel/’ashram’ (200R) listed in the LP guide. (We looked at some of the Hotels in town over-looking the sea, which ranged from over-priced to dumps or both.) While the Cape is a sacred destination - where 3 seas converge - and can be quite crowded with Indian Pilgrims from the north, finding a reasonably priced eatery is not easy, and buying beer or liquor from a ’wine shop’ is daunting to say the least. (Mind you, we were now in Tamil Nadu, where the wine shops are private and can charge whatever they like; where Kerala adds nearly a 100% tax to alcoholic beverages, Tamil wine-shops mark things up by as much as 300%. Note also, that by daunting I mean venturing down a dark urine-reeking alley to a wire-caged store-front outside of which drunken arguments are common. Ordering a bottle of whiskey means you’d best know the exact price of what you want (and that they stock it), have your money in hand and be prepared to hold your place amidst the drunken throng or be disregarded and shoved aside, repeatedly...)

The ferry to the island monuments works well enough and is of course cheap, but it can be a rough little ride and sitting at the side of the ferry to take pictures means that you (and your camera) will be doused by all three seas simultaneously. It was none-the-less a very worthwhile experience which I would probably not have undertaken without Manesh and Joji’s attentive "supervision":-)

Madurai

Getting there from Trivandrum by bus was complicated by the general strike, but even more so by the fact that the single direct night bus had broken down and so I took one bus (30R) to Padmanabhapuram (or was it Nagercoil?) and then jumped on another bus at midnight to Madurai (70R). As is so often the case, a "sleeper" bus only means that it travels at night, and that very little sleep is involved (at least for the uninitiated), as you will - if fortunate enough to get a seat - be squeezed in between burly workmen who’ve already staked out where their shoulders and knees will remain for the duration. Madurai was yet another instance of all the LP listed budget accoms costing up to twice the quoted prices, and full-up anyway. And while there may be many Indian-oriented hotels with cheaper rooms available, these rooms are usually on the fifth floor of a walk-up.

One notable exception was the TM Lodge (340R), where I stayed 5 nights, just down the main tourist street from the Chantoor, Supreme, et al. Catering to India businessmen, the service here was excellent, and the rooms clean with some western toilets and full cable TV. Also, since the power cuts out regularly everywhere, the TM Lodge, as well as most of the ’better’ hotels, have static generators which kick in whenever the municipal power supply falters. Madurai is an excellent place to get custom made shirts (I was pleased with the workmanship at S.M. Tex, opposite the East Tower of the market on the north side of the Temple, but expect to pay at least 350R for a decent Indian-style cotton shirt, and 650R for silk with a western-style collar, cuffs and a pocket. Be prepared to bargain HARD, and to still pay more than you thought you would...) The temple itself was worth wandering about for a day, but don’t buy the 50R entrance ticket to the inner temple, which they’ll sell you knowing that you won’t be allowed in since you’re not Hindu. Also bear in mind that the roof-top restaurants do not sell liquor - the "bars" are dark but wonderfully air-conditioned affairs on the ground floors - and that the "beer" sold on said rooftops will be 120R a bottle for stuff that makes Kingfisher seem like Pilsner Urquell in comparison;-)

Madurai is a serious little city, with lots of interesting - and occasionally disorienting - little streets and sections to walk about. (There were even a couple of AC Cyber shops on the main tourist street with decent keyboards and monitors; a rare convergence of function and comfort in S. India....) The street food (and skillfully prepared Pan) was excellent, and it was nice to see more bicycles than scooters, along with bicycle-powered rickshaws. Oh yes, and there are NO views of the temple as touted by everyone and his brother from the surrounding Antique shop roof-tops. Period.

Kodaikanal

FORGET the train and take the "express" bus (4 hours, 50R?) from Madurai bus depot to Kodaikanal. Again, India tourists made accoms pricey and/or hard to come by, and since the Taxi syndicate has banned rickshaws, be prepared to do a lot of walking, though the town is fairly compact. Pedal-boat rides on the lake are cheap and can be pleasant depending on the heat; hiring someone to do the rowing for you will be more costly but not necessarily more pleasant. If the prospect of taking an adult "pony ride" around the lake appeals to you, some of the horses seemed fit enough, and while the guidebook rightly suggests that others should be "retired", I suspect that said horses would prefer to keep working in lieu of the obvious alternative. (I heard that a horse ride to the waterfall 2K away was worth the 150R per hour, but I didn’t do it, so I don’t know.)

I did stay at the Greenlands Youth Hostel which has the best views in town, countered by the worst management I have ever seen; dorm beds are 150R and private rooms start at 300R, though are more commonly 500R, single or double. The place is in ill-repair and probably beyond cleaning up, and they will try to charge you a room deposit and for extra blankets - WHICH YOU WILL NEED - regardless of how hi-tech your sleeping bag is. In both events, don’t pay them extra for ANYTHING, stow away your chairs at night (unless you really like sitting on cement floors), and don’t expect room service to regularly occur, even though you will be charged for the Chai you never received, along with a "delivery fee". Also note that one very nice British girl was devoured by spiders in her upper bunk one night, and that the monkeys are keen on eating any food you may be preparing outdoors on your porch. (Contrary to the Hostel concept, the kitchen is NOT for use by the guests.)

This was one instance where the eateries listed in the LP guide were all good - North India, South India and Tibetan - though some were more economical than others. There is also a fantastic and quite strenuous hike out to Dolphin Rock (and even to a near-bye hill-top village, though you might not find the trail all the way there), with an Israeli-run Falafel place en-route where one of LP’s writers may have smoked more than he ate;-)

Mysore

Instead of back-tracking to Madurai and then taking the train through Bangalore to Mysore (16 hours) I chose to take the "shorter" and more direct route via bus through Combiatore. After descending into the fume filled haze that surrounds it, I learned that there was no direct bus from Combiatore to Mysore, and instead had to take a short bus ride to Mettapulayam (I think). (Note: I stopped noting how much the buses cost by this point, since the government bus prices were set and always cheap.) The bus to Mysore was easy enough to find and board, but the ride itself was long and very rough going toward the end; this was after the bus driver - using a bevy of distinctive horns - had negotiated 27 hair-pin turns and had a confrontation with a "Wide-boy"/Goods Carrier where neither of them wanted to back up and allow the other to proceed down a narrow road under construction.

Twelve hours after leaving Kodaikanal, I was delivered to the Mysore bus depot (several hours later than the 7pm arrival I had planned for), and took a rickshaw (20R) to a traveler recommended hotel - Hotel Maurya - which was also listed in the LP guide. To say that the night manager was an ass (and a crook) would be putting it mildly, and fortunately I did have a plan B which worked out very well - the Hotel Goverdahn. There I stayed in several rooms ranging in price from 200R to 400R, varying in size and amenities, found the room service almost adequate and the management fair. They also have a well-cared for clan of monkeys on the roof-top, and did not damage all of the clothing which they laundered for me (10R per piece most places; make sure that includes pressing).

LP listed restaurants were as advertised and quite good, and the lighting of the Temple on Sunday night was pretty but not necessarily worth going out of your way for. I never did make it up to Chaudry Hill - which takes some time by bus - and the traffic in Mysore, which is booming thanks to the spillover from Bangalore, was heavy. Mysore also marked a return to aggressive vendors, taxi drivers and drug dealers, but was worth a few days for sure. (Note that one reason why I stayed in several different rooms was that I departed one morning with the intention of briefly staying near the Namdrolling Tibetan Monastery/refugee camp, which a young British traveler had enjoyed a few weeks earlier without an India Government Permit, as *corroborated* by the LP guide. However, the monks I met were of no help as to any accommodations besides the (one and only) Guest House in the near-bye shopping center, and there I was informed that as an American I would need said permit even to spend a night... (Maybe the British are afforded greater leeway, or something had changed in the few weeks since the British lad had visited; quien sabes?)

Bangalore

 Night Scene By abracax
Opting to take just an ordinary express train from Mysore to Bangalore for 43R (instead of the "superfast" train for 270R which ostensibly gets you there a half hour quicker...), I was met by my CS host Vijay M., with whom I stayed for several nights and became fast friends. The traffic and exhaust fumes in Bangalore have to be experienced to be believed, (unless of course you have traveled in Delhi or Calcutta), and I am told that even the traffic in Mumbai is less over-whelming than is the case in BOOMING Bangalore. (The Real-Estate market in Bangalore gives the word "bubble" a whole new meaning - think ’blimp’ - as in the Hindenburg...) Thanks to his cousin’s phenomenal cooking I ate like a prince, saw the Tourist area and central Market, and met a lot of cool people who were Vijay’s friends and/or fellow Couchsurfing hosts.

The tourist area does not have much to recommend it and be forewarned that the city busses are unlikely to run remotely similar routes in both directions. Rickshaws have working meters which do not quite reflect the actual prices since petrol went up, and would be cheap enough if you didn’t spend forever sitting in traffic surrounded by Indian diesel-spewing buses. (I actually got out of one rickshaw, walked the 2 k to where I was headed, and probably got there before the rickshaw would have.) I enjoyed a lovely lunch with a nice couple of CSers and a great roof-top Tango party atop Vijay’s home, but was happy to *eventually* leave and extremely fortunate to get an AC2 Tier bed on short notice on a sleeper train to Hampi. (In all fairness, having grown up in America’s largest city, and subsequently traveled in most of West/Central Europe and Latin America’s major cities, I would have skipped Bangalore without the entrée which staying with a Bangalorean provides.)

Hampi

 Tophill temple By wichy
Of course the train stops in Hospet (200R 2nd Class Sleeper; 750R 2 Tier AC), from where you can walk to the bus depot or take a rickshaw, (which should not cost more than 10R), from which the buses to Hampi are frequent and cheap. (A rickshaw from Hospet to Hampi or visa-versa should not cost more than 80R, but you can get one for 60R if you show that you are determined to wait for the bus, and both modes of transport take about the same time regardless of what tales you are told...) Hampi in mid-March was quite hot and dry and dusty, but un-crowded. I stayed on the Hampi Bazaar side of the river because I did get a nice room at the LP recommended Sudha Guest House for 250R, and was not planning on remaining long, though in retrospect I would recommend crossing the river and staying at the Mowgli hotel, both for the quality of the rooms I saw and the fact that they were not asking high season prices. (Oh yes, and you can ONLY get beer on that side of the river.)

Hampi is an odd place for numerous reasons: it is a small village with children playing in the streets amidst the tourist vampires (the Fakirs who do magic tricks and pose for photographs are con-men of the highest - and most expensive - order); it is a harsh setting with hundreds of ruins - some being used as cricket fields or bus stations - scattered over a large area; it is arguably filled with the ghosts of untold thousands who were mercilessly slaughtered there almost 5 centuries ago, and who have apparently not been afforded the quietus which those who died at Auschwitz have received. Similarly, the Indian Government’s efforts to restore even those monuments which have received world heritage status is nearly non-existent, and the power supply is as fragile here as anywhere else I visited. In typical fashion, the Indian government has fenced off one partially (and poorly) restored temple, for which they expect 250R to enter. (Considering that Hampi is filled with largely equivalent temple/ruins, I didn’t meet ANYONE who actually paid the entrance fee to see that one temple...)

Without passing judgment on the exclusiveness of Hinduism (whether you want to call it a religion or a philosophy, the caste system is by definition exclusionary), there was one bath-house/’temple’ where I went to seek shade and soak my feet in the river, much like the large Indian family therein (who were wearing their shoes and picnicking), but who quickly and unequivocally demanded that I not soil their sacred waters with my heathen flesh:-(((

Getting out of Hampi was a chore, as I was headed back to southern Goa/Patnem and there is only one (actual) sleeper bus departing Hospet around 6:00 pm for Margao. (12 hours, 400-600R, depending on which travel agent you deal with, and whether or not you are in the AC portion of the bus and/or have a sleeping "chamber"). The sleeping chamber would be a good and cozy thing for a couple or close friends traveling together; book it solo and expect company as the conductor sees fit. I in fact declined one such upgrade offer, to the doubtless relief of the young female occupant, as much because I’m a gentleman as because I was feeling a bit claustrophobic and wanted a window;-), and so I slept sitting up yet solidly (thanks to a mix of Vodka and Valium), and rushed off the bus - presumably on schedule - when the distant cries of "Palolem, Palolem!" somehow rang through my formidable ear-plugs into my sedated brain.

Palolem, Patnem, and Colomb Bar

 Goa sunset By kitaigorodu
I actually must have gotten off at Chaudi (Canacona), because I was immediately ushered onto a short bus trip which delivered me to what I now know is called the T-section of road in the center of Palolem Beach, where I disembarked, once again with all my luggage. As is often the case, I took the opportunity to have a Chai and a smoke before contemplating where I might stay; I then took a stroll out to the middle of the beach to scan a long line of Coco-huts in each direction and decided to accept a decent and solid room in town a block from the ocean at the tranquil, well-tended and secure Seagull Tourist Guest House. I spent that day surveying my options, and always liking to hear the sea at night, ended up spending five increasingly hot and long nights at Rosie’s Paradise Coco-huts (200R) even though I deliberately chose the hut I took over other more expensive but less-shaded options to the north and further south. (Besides shade, I also prefer having a mosquito net, while a quiet-ish but high-speed overhead fan is essential. I also prefer an "attached bath" because the prospect of walking up or down a 12’ bamboo ladder in the middle of the night does not appeal.) But the days grew hotter none-the-less, and while Palolem was un-crowded at this time (yet still filled with enough eye-candy to make walking the beach as pleasant as riding the waves;-), the mid-day sun was too strong to spend strolling about. And to be honest, it was largely a pretty boring class of tourists.

Fortunately I met a long-time British expat/legal resident, musician and sculptor, who was as mad as Van Gogh but very hospitable and introduced me to Colomb, the neighboring bay where he’d lived for 7 years. (And near which he’d nearly completed building - almost single-handedly and in 7 months - an attractive, self-designed split level house. Of course he had hired Indian electricians, laborers, etc. to help, but they were more often than not a hindrance and had driven him to distraction by constantly trying to renegotiate the pricing of EVERYTHING, every f**king step of the way, even when they *didn’t* show up for work!!!) (He said that dealing with officials - over real and mythical "ordinances" - or getting an electrical hook-up were *relatively* easier, though more costly up "front"...)

Anyway, I’m getting off-track here, which is okay since I’m near the end of my tale - back to practicalities. I then relocated to the border of Colomb Bay and Patnem, near Bom Shankar, to a very solid and large old room (150R) with an actual roof, door (sort of), windows, etc. which turned out to be not much cooler during the day. But in Colomb, and to a lesser extent Patnem, there was a MUCH more interesting lot of long-term tourists, mostly Londoners, and the nights were lovely.

I was really starting to melt down when the rains came (and boy was I glad that I had moved out of the Coco-hut - they are not meant for use during the monsoons, but at least the leaking roofs meant that some of the floors might have been properly *cleaned* for the first time all season...). I was also there for "Holi", which was interesting in a multitude of ways, but most practically for the one night when they turn off the electricity from 10pm to 2am, during which time it is ill-advised to be out walking the streets because you may be mistaken for an evil spirit and clubbed to death. (The beach was safe since the last thing Palolem really wants is more news of Brit tourists being beaten, raped or killed.)

Eating in all three of the above mentioned localities was pricey and the food not particularly well-portioned (or seasoned, as the tourist-oriented beaches frequently tone down the spices for our blander western palates), and there were no street vendors and only one - usually empty - "hotel" Restaurant. Even getting fresh fish was spotty while I was there, probably because of Holi. (Chaudi was the next closest town but not much of an improvement; many residents travel to Mangalore or even Gokarna to do food & household shopping.)

From my room in Colomb I took a 50R rickshaw to Palolem’s T-section, a bus to Margao, and then from Margao took an express bus to Vasco daGama, which dropped me off aside Dabolim Airport, all of which took less than three hours and 100R. Dabolim airport is a huge improvement over both Mumbai Airports (described earlier), and my one-hour SpiceJet flight ($60US) to Mumbai was uneventful. The next morning I arrived at JFK in NYC, took the air-train to the LIRR in Jamaica, got off at Mineola station and walked the last 8 blocks to my mother’s Co-op. The End?

Not really. After 4 days of struggling with my mother to clear out the clutter of the past which impeded her functioning in the present, I *drove* to JFK, was ’wanded’ and padded endlessly by a TSA agent who couldn’t understand why the metal grommets in my travel pants set off his detector, arrived safely during the onset of a Minneapolis snowstorm, took the Light Rail and bus ($1.50), and walked the final three blocks to my home in Northeast Mpls.

AND I do have a few opinions to express:

  1. South Indian food is the best in the world, and demonstrates a very high order of art and civilization. (I would imagine that North Indian food does as well.)
  2. What is actually Kashmiri wool, and what is actually Pashmina, and the value of either, is known only by the animals from which each is shorn.
  3. In India, the easy is difficult, the difficult nearly impossible, and the "not possible" sublime.
  4. Virtually all of the English language signs in India are misspelled as a polite way of saying f**k you to the English.
  5. In India, an equal number of people will give you bad info because they don’t know, don’t care, or are simply f**king with you.
  6. In India, the words "reasonable" and "why" are wholly irrelevant, and making assumptions or presumptions about anything is for entertainment purposes only.
  7. Unless the Indian Government makes urgently needed and drastic improvements in the country’s power distribution infrastructure, the whole damn economy will likely implode.
  8. India will survive such an economic meltdown better than anywhere else I have been.
  9. If I had to chose between India and China to rule the world, I’d choose India.
  10. Never flinch in India - even though everything merges from all directions you are generally safe so long as you walk a straight and steady course.
  11. Thanking an Indian for providing a service is wasting his time; but you should thank God every time something you want to have happen, does...
  12. I used to think that Thoreau was right about life being sweetest close to the bone, but baby, in India, life IS the bone ;-)
  13. Every westerner could benefit from spending at least one full year in India, during which time you will be broken down, disassembled, reassembled and honed into a full-fledged human being, for better and for worse.... Namaste!

PS I hope no one takes offense at anything I’ve said, and forgives me my ignorance; my intention for writing and sharing this info is to help future travelers in India, to whatever humble extent I may. And in contrast to whatever negative perceptions I may have had (at least once a day I shook my head and muttered "f**king India"...), I enjoyed far more numerous moments of amazing grace. For which reason I consider my time in India to have been very well spent indeed, and I urge anyone who has not done so to "Visit India - it’s all about the Journey....";~D