Monday, July 16, 2007

Journey to Varkala

The next morning we set out to make our way south from Kochi to Varkala. I was glad to be leaving Kochi, and not only because it has such scary mosquitos. Kochi had been somewhat disappointing. I still think Kochi was worth seeing; it was just that I had expected it to be so much better.

There were now three of us. Somewhere the afternoon before, while walking through a park, Daniel and I had met Stav, a young amber headed Israeli girl. I hadn’t spoken to her much at the time, but Daniel had told her our immediate travel plans and she had wanted to come along. The night before, she had invited us to some Christmas dinner they were having in her guest house, but we had declined. I did not want to go because I have a well documented aversion to Christmas. Daniel declined the invitation because he wanted to go the Kathakali play that was on the same evening. I don’t really know why it was the case, but when we had met Stav, there was a mild iciness between her and I. She seemed to be a bit lacking in self-esteem. I’ve often found girls with low self-esteem avoid conversation with me. Again, I’m not exactly sure why this is, but I think because I have a kind of dark sense of humour that they might find unsettling. I know this probably sounds trite on my part, and maybe it is (your feedback is welcome), but I don’t have any other explanation.

I didn’t know exactly how we were getting to Varkala. I had left it up to Daniel’s excellent navigational and planning skills. The morning bus we boarded at Kochi was close to being full. It was a regular day bus, as opposed to an overnight bus, and thus most people did not have large bags, unlike us. And unlike an overnight bus, the bags did not go underneath the bus nor on the roof, but had to be taken on board with us. There was a section up the front of the bus to dump out large packs. However, this presented a bit of a dilemma. There was only one spare seat close enough to the front to allow one of us to watch the bags. And then there was a spare double seat way down the back. One of Daniel and I would have to take the single seat, and the other would have to sit with Stav up the back. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, it was better to have a guy watching over all of our bags than a girl – this was not sexist, just realistic. Secondly, it was safer for Stav to be sitting with a guy than by herself, in respect to drawing unwanted attention from local males. Not having much of a conversational history with Stav, I volunteered to take the loner seat down the front and watch over our packs.

After a while, Daniel came down the front to pay me a visit, and offered to relieve me of my post. I was fairly bored, and thus didn’t refuse his offer. I walked up to the back of the bus and sat down next to Stav. Somehow we got into a conversation about how she didn’t like her name. Stav means autumn in Hebrew. “Why, do you want to change your name? I think it’s a nice name, but tell me, were you named Stav because you were born in Autumn or because you were conceived in Autumn? ….Hey, have you got a sister named Aviva (spring)? …. So, what would you prefer your name to be?”
“I like Alice. Alice is a nice name.”
“Alice? Alice is not really a sexy name, you know…”
“Well, I like it.” She then revealed a small tattoo of Alice from Alice in Wonderland on one of her limbs…I forget which one. I have never liked tattoos. It’s far too much commitment to a graphic for my liking. Nevertheless, I started to see a more likeable (sort of) side to Stav. She was just a young girl struggling with her own self-image.

After a day involving various buses and rickshaw rides, we finally arrived in Varkala, very sweaty, and rather exhausted. It was now the late afternoon. We were just starting to discuss finding accommodation when we were approached by a couple of touts. They offered some overpriced accommodation, and tried to persuade us that everything else was sold out due to the holiday season. We largely ignored them until they eventually became discouraged. Daniel and Stav started discussing about how we were going to go about getting a room. Daniel was saying to Stav that I was the fussiest of the three of us when it came to room standard, so I needed to go on the search party otherwise I would be unsatisfied with the accommodation chosen. It was a wise suggestion from Daniel. On the other hand, they recognised that they both had tighter budgets than I did so if the decision was left purely up to me, it might be more than they wanted to pay. Fair enough. They were also in agreement that only a true Israeli (one of them) could be the negotiator when it came to price, as everyone else in the world gets taken for a sucker. One of them would wait with the bags, while the other one would go with me and walk around the village seeing what accommodation was available. Somehow they decided that Daniel would be the one to wait with the bags, and Stav would come with me to search for a room. Perhaps Daniel, being the gentleman, didn’t want to leave Stav alone by herself to mind all our bags while being hassled by touts.

Stav and I set off around the windy red gravel roads of the village. The roads seemed to be surrounded by jungle-like terrain, and I was a little concerned, given my poor spatial orientation skills, that we would get lost and be unable to find our way back. At one stage a huge elephant and its handler passed us. I noticed that the elephant did a giant shit – it was literally the size of a watermelon.

About the second place we looked at was the very groovy house that I think might have been called “Johnny Cool’s.” The lady who came down to speak with us was a Kiwi. I felt a vibe that she was very trustworthy, and it wasn’t just my ANZAC bias. It was a two-storey house and she said they were looking to rent out the whole top floor. On the top floor there was a bathroom and two bedrooms, one with two single beds and the other with only one single bed. There was also a gorgeous large balcony area with some pot plants, straw mats, a table, various other pieces of cane furniture on it, as well as a fourth bed which was protected by a mosquito net. When the Kiwi lady told us the price, I had to make a great effort to not show how inexpensive I thought it was. Only 600Rs for the whole top floor! That’s 200Rs each or if we find a fourth person, 150Rs each (about US$4!) There were some other people who had apparently booked it but they hadn’t shown up yet, and she was fairly sure they were not going to, given how late it now was. The Kiwi lady said she was going to give them until 5pm to turn up, which was under half an hour away, and then it would be up for grabs.

I communicated to Stav that I thought we should definitely take this place, and that we should ask the Kiwi lady to reserve it for us assuming the no-shows never turn up. She responded as if I was so naïve to jump at one of the first good places that came along. She forced me to come along with her as we checked out all these other dreadfully dingy places, most of them working out more expensive per person too. The more places we looked at, the more obvious it was to me why we should take Johnny Cool’s. It was really pissing me off, and I started to question her basic mathematic ability. We had the chance at this gorgeous house for next to nothing and she was weighing up various places that had rooms which reminded me of that shit-hole in Queens where the Prince of Zamunda stayed in order to convince everyone that he was a poor student from Africa. Stav reluctantly started to admit to me that she had never been very good at maths back in school, but the point of logic seemed lost on her. I responded that “I’m practically a math teacher” and that she should leave all these decisions up to me. Eventually I somehow convinced her to agree to take the beautiful house for next to nothing and give up her quest of finding a putrid room that was actually going to cost her more money! If I hadn’t been there, she’d have probably ended up renting something that looked like a solitary confinement cell and paying handsomely for it too. We went back to the funky Johnny Cool’s guest house. I was relieved to hear that the guests who had booked had failed to turn up, and no one else had got in ahead of us either. We told the Kiwi lady we’d take it.

We had been gone close to an hour by now and I was feeling bad for Daniel. I know that if I had been left for that long, I’d have been getting very impatient and edgy. I think it is because I live in the mobile phone age. Back home, if ever left waiting too long, one can always call the person they were waiting for to see what is taking long. Here though, none of us had a mobile phone, so there was no way to contact each other remotely.

All this walking around the windy roads of the village had left me disoriented. I have rather poor spatial orientation abilities. Thankfully, this was one area where Stav’s abilities actually seemed to exceed my own, and she was able to quickly retrace our path back to where we had left Daniel.

We got back to Daniel, and to his credit he was not pissed off with how long we had left him, or at least he didn’t show it. He was just sitting on his bag, calmly reading a novel I had leant him – The Great Gatsby. I was excited to tell him what we had found - what I had found! “We found the best place, it is so nice, and what’s more, it’s an absolute metziah! The greatest metziah you’ll ever see. I had to twist Stav’s arm a bit to take it, but…” The three of us set off down the windy red gravel road, on our way to the groovy guesthouse.

While we were walking, a guy with a backpack was hiking up the road from the opposite direction. As he got closer, I could see that he had wire rim spectacles, dark curly hair, mildly dark skin, was probably just a little younger than Daniel, and was almost unmistakably Sephardi-Israeli. The fact that he was wearing his large backpack was a good indicator that he might have just arrived and was looking for a place to stay.

As we got within speaking distance, I took the initiative.
“Hey, are you looking for a place to stay?”
“Ah…. yes, I guess so”
“Well, we have just rented out the whole top floor of this great house. It sleeps four, so you are welcome to share. And with the four of us it’s only 150Rs each!”
“Wow, ok.”
“Cool, well come with us then. Hey…Mah Shimkha?”
“Hey Amit, nice to meet you. I’m Anthony, this is Daniel and this is Stav.”
When I think about it, it’s so funny that we had resolved to share accommodation together before even exchanging names, but there was something immediately disarming about Amit, and his broad smile.

We arrived again at the guesthouse and the Kiwi lady briefly showed us around the place, for the benefit of Daniel and Amit who hadn’t seen it before. There was beautiful recorded jazz music that could be heard throughout the house. The music only added to both the groove and tranquillity of the place. I noticed under the stairway a laptop computer connected to a sound system, as this was obviously the source of the music. Downstairs in the kitchen was a guy with olive skin and dreadlocks who I gathered was the partner of the Kiwi lady, and together they ran the guesthouse and attached café. He was preparing to cook. His movement seemed to be in time with the music.

We didn’t hang around at the guesthouse for very long, however, as they were all in a hurry to get to the beach for the sunset, which was now seemingly only a few moments away. We dumped our bags upstairs in the bedrooms, and the four of us excitedly strode down to the beach. After a frustrating day of swinging from branch to branch of the local transportations systems, there was now an amazing unspoken feeling amongst us that it had all been worth it.

The scene on the beach cannot be conveyed with mere written words. Or at least I am not a skilful enough writer for the task. Nevertheless, I will attempt this in my NEXT blog entry.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Fear, Loathing, and Boredom in Kochi.

After seeing the key historical attractions of Kochi, we had worked up quite an appetite. We set off on a walk to find a restaurant to eat a late lunch. It was very hot and humid, and on the way we stopped to buy bottle water. Back in Australia, a friend who had been to India advised me that it was important to check the seal on bottled water as unscrupulous types sometimes try to resell tap water as bottled water. Therefore, while in India, I always elected to buy bottled water with the clear plastic foil seal around the bottle lid. For some reason, hardly any of the shops in Kochi seemed to sell the brands of bottled water with this extra plastic seal.

After stopping at several roadside stores, with none of them having the desired type of bottle seal, we were forced to buy bottled water without this seal. Daniel tried to assure me that it was ok, and was explaining that if certain plastic bits on the bottle lid matched up with some other plastic things on the bottle, then that meant the bottle was safe. I had no idea what he meant, and still don’t, but I knew I needed to drink, so I reluctantly bought a bottle of water with a ‘suspect’ seal.

Just as we were walking away from the store, Daniel noticed they had some lemons hanging down in a net, and purchased a couple of small lemons.
“What’s that for?” I asked
“You’ll see.” He replied.
There we were, on the side of a lane under the great heat of the sun, and Daniel was squatting down leaning over a ledge that he was using as a bench, and with what looked like a switch-blade, he started cutting up the lemons into wedges, and then squeezing them into his bottle.
“Mah zeh?” I asked.
“What does it look like?” Daniel replied sarcastically?
“This is hardly the time nor the place to open up a lemonade factory! Besides, what are you doing carrying around that knife?”
He said something to the effect that it was for personal safety.
“Do you think it’s really necessary? It seems pretty safe here.”
“You forget, I’m going to South America later.”
“Well, you be careful that you don’t get yourself killed with that thing.”

And just at that moment, he cut himself. In fairness, he most likely cut himself because I had been distracting him with conversation while he had been carving up his lemons. It was not a serious cut thankfully, and I couldn’t help smiling at the irony.

We eventually found a nice restaurant to have our late lunch. We were sitting in the alfresco and I noticed that the mosquitos were already out in force, despite it still being the mid afternoon. Some Israeli travellers there at one of the other tables were putting on mosquito repellent. Now, as I think I have told you in a previous journal entry, I am genetically predisposed to have mosquitos love biting me. I get it from my mother. In fact, if I am not wearing repellent and in a room with other people, my presence can actually stop them from being bitten. I am as a sacrificial anode if you will allow the analogy.

Up until this point in my trip, I had managed to avoid the worst mosquito environments my staying close to the coast, and away from swamps etc. But now I started to wonder: if the mosquitos in Kochi are already this bad in the mid afternoon, what are they going to be like in the evening?? Even though I was on the Larium (mefloquine) that would hopefully protect me from contracting malaria, the prospect of being bitten all over my body by a swarm of tropical mosquitos was to me still somewhat frightening. An American traveller seated at the table next to us (I’ve forgotten his name, I think it might have been Richard), who was about 40 years of age, informed us that the reason the mosquitos were so bad in Kochi was because many the surrounding rivers and tributaries were so clogged with garbage, which in turn created stagnant waters, optimal for mosquito breeding. Another classic case of the Indians not caring for their environment.

After finishing lunch, we went with Richard down to the foreshore on the tip of Fort Cochin to watch the fishermen pull up their cantilevered fishing nets. There were some tables and chairs for people to sit at, being serviced by a number of food stalls. One of them was selling ice cream, and Daniel and Richard each bought an ice-cream. There was also a guy with a juice stall. I was wary of these juice guys, as I had read in Lonely Planet that they often water down their juices with non-bottled water (I know I’m starting to sound neurotic here, but this is India, and if you want to give yourself the best chance of staying healthy, you need to be a cautious about what you consume. Although, one should also be cautious about not being too cautious, as the stress of being overly cautious can also make you sick. You need to find a good balance between caution and not getting to stressed out.

There were a stack of oranges at the juice stall, and they were the type with the skin that one could easily peel by hand. I approached the juice guy and asked how much to buy an orange. He didn’t reply, and I figured it was probably a language problem. I put down a 5R coin on his table, an amount that I thought was at least a fair price if not more than a fair price for an orange in India (given that I had bought a whole bunch of bananas from a street stall back in Colaba for only 10Rs). Thinking there might be a language problem, I non-verbally indicated that I wanted an orange. To my utter surprise, he picked up the coin and angrily threw it away, with the coin landing somewhere on the beach sand. He shouted something aggressively, which I gathered was a diatribe about him being a juice seller, not a fruit seller!. “That’s just unnecessary!” was the only verbal response I had to his aggression. It was the first instance I had in India of encountering such psychotic behaviour. I went over to Daniel and Richard who were sitting at an outdoor table eating their ice cream. “Did you see what that guy just did? What’s his problem?” They were engaged in some conversation, with Richard, who was something of an intellectual, explaining to Daniel about the apathy and ignorance of his fellow Americans concerning foreign politics, or something like that. They were fairly disinterested in the escalating hostilities between myself and the local juice peddler.
“What do you expect? He’s selling juice, he’s not selling oranges…”offered Daniel
“What, you’re taking his side? The guy’s psychotic.”
“I’m not taking his side, I’m just saying…”
“Just let it go.” Richard advised me, saying that it was not worth going to war for. They continued with their conversation as if nothing had happened, while I looked over at the juice guy and we exchanged menacing glances.

It was now late afternoon, and Daniel and I said goodbye to Richard and headed back to the hotel. On the way back to the hotel we went through a grass park. A small boxing ring was set up in the park. A crowd was gradually starting to build up around the ring. I have always been attracted to combat sports, and the prospect of seeing some was worth hanging around for. A referee had now entered the ring, and it was clear that the contest was imminent. As neither the boxing ring nor ourselves were elevated off the ground, it was difficult to see what was going on in the ring. I was immensely disappointed to discover that the boxing competitors were only boys. They may have been wearing head protectors, but there is something that still bothers me about watching children in combat sports. Even when I have attended judo tournaments as a competitor, I always found it uncomfortable to see the children’s divisions. Martial arts competitions should only be between consenting adults. I expressed my displeasure to Daniel and he either agreed with my sentiments, or had not been overly interested in the first place. Either way, we departed the scene by the end of the first round.

That evening Daniel dragged me to a kathakali play, which is apparently a specialty of the region. We had a difficult time finding the venue. While we were looking for it, we met a couple of Canadian girls. I thought they were quite cute, although possibly a little young. I very soon discovered that they were looking for the same venue we were. I talked with them as the four of us together found the theatre. When we got there, it was clear that the tickets were clearly for the tourists, even though they were not expensive in western terms.

The kathakali play turned out to be less of a play, and more of a folk dance performance, a very long folk dance performance. At any rate, I must confess to have found it incredibly boring. Having spent many a vacation in Bali (with its Hindu culture) as a young child, seeing this type of performances was not a novel experience for me, as it might have been for Daniel and the Canadian girls. Furthermore, it was extremely hot and humid inside the crowded non-air conditioned venue. After a while, when it became obvious there would be virtually no dialogue in this show, I subtly informed Daniel that I couldn’t take much more of it. The only reason I had lasted that long was that I was hoping to go out somewhere afterwards with the Canadian girls. However, it got to a point when even that was not enough of a motivator.

For Daniel’s part, as I suspect was the case with much of the audience, he was trying to enjoy and be interested in the play, mostly out of cognitive dissonance. As human beings, once we commit to something, we don’t like to then take on an attitude that it was a mistake to have made that commitment. Once people buy a ticket and attend a show, they normally don’t like to immediately concede that the show was a poor choice. Going to the movie cinema is something of an exception, because it is a more common thing to do, and people no longer feel duped if they attend a film they don’t like. Indeed, they can sometimes take pleasure in giving their own personal harsh critique. However, the more special some art form is made out to be, and the more it is billed as being high culture, then more likely will people suffer from cognitive dissonance or persevere with the attitude that the art form is interesting or enjoyable.

Daniel finally conceded to my desire to leave. I suspect he was actually deep down pretty happy to leave himself, even though he portrayed his decision to leave as concession to my suffering. I said to the Canadian girls, “Sorry ladies, but I prefer a my plays to have at least a little more dialogue than this.” They smiled, as if to say ‘I know what you mean!’ But unfortunately, they didn’t join Daniel and I as we stood up and walked out. Thankfully, We were near the back of the theatre anyway, so it didn’t make a scene.

Monday, May 28, 2007

What's in a Name?

After freshening up, Daniel and I set off a for a day of sight-seeing in Kochi. We decided to go see the famous Paradesi Synagogue. However, on the way, Daniel wanted to check out the Mattancherry Palace, built in 1555 by the Portuguese as gift to the local raja, and then renovated by the Dutch in 1663. I was not all that keen on stopping for this, but the Lonely Planet promised that is had murals with ancient Indian pornography, so I agreed to go. We had to join a short queue to enter. In front of us in the queue was a middle family who spoke with strong American accents, dressed like Californians, but were clearly of Indian heritage. The father, who might have been close to 50, was making fun of the local Indians who were running the place, especially for their ban on photography. It was kind of a curious scene. I got the impression of a man fully educated in America who now looked down on these ‘backward’ folks from the mother country. I couldn’t really blame him either. I failed to see the harm in allowing people to engage in non-flash photography. “Just don’t let them know that you have a photographic memory” I said to him, and he laughed, “…or that’ll have to be switched off too.” As it turned out, the pornographic murals did not live up to expectations.

The next stop was the famous Paradesi Synagogue. It was built in 1568, apparently making it the oldest synagogue amongst the old British Commonwealth. It was partially destroyed in 1662 by the anti-Semitic Portuguese occupiers, and in what I feel is something of a common theme in Jewish history, was rebuilt two years later under the patronage of the far more tolerant Dutch who had seen off the Portuguese to become the reigning power. The Synagogue located in an area of Kochi officially called Jew Town, on a long street called Synagogue Lane. There is evidence all over Jew Town of a once thriving community, from the Jewish names of the streets to the Jewish emblems found on the buildings.

There are three synagogues still standing in Kochi, but the Paradesi Synagogue is last quasi-functioning one. That is to say they have services there on Shabbat and Yomtovim, with Jewish tourists helping to make up the minyan together with the dwindling local population. There are only a few Jewish families left now, as most Cochin Jews have either immigrated to Israel, or migrated to a larger Indian city such as Mumbai. During the week, the Synagogue functions as a kind of museum. In the town of Kochi, every local knows where this synagogue is – it’s arguably the town’s greatest tourist attraction – it’s clearly what Richard Court wished “The Bell Tower” to have been for Perth.

A strict dress code is enforced by the non-Jewish Indians to whom the tourists pay their money (only a token sum by western standards) in order to enter. However, they seem to do this by their own customs rather than Jewish customs. For example, all entrants must have their legs fully covered, but men are not even requested to have their heads covered. Daniel was initially not permitted to enter, as he happened to be wearing ¾ pants on what was a stiflingly hot and humid day. He returned minutes later having purchased a cheap pair of cotton trousers from a nearby merchant. Inside the Synagogue, we met a tourist from Israel who had taken the opportunity to lay tefillin that he had brought with him. When he spoke English, I detected a faint South African accent, and indeed he had been born in South Africa. Daniel was once again impressed by my ability to distinguish between different accents which all sounded the same to him. I in turn found it rather curious how a guy who spoke four languages incomparably better than any second language I had was nonetheless continually impressed by my mundane ability to derive the geographic origins of various English language speakers from their accents.

Along with the actual Synagogue, tourists also enter an adjoining room in the building that has a number of pieces of artwork and accompanying information plaques documenting the history of the Jews of Cochin. Underneath one of the paintings was a plaque stating something like: The First Jews to Arrive in Kerala were spice traders who came from Palestine during the time of King Solomon’s temple. “What the? Does that say Palestine!” It was the type of historical linguistic revisionism that I was determined not to put up with. I warned Daniel (much to his amusement) that up to that point he had only seen the laid back Mahatma Gandhi side of my personality, and now he was about to witness me as the ugly tourist on the warpath. I looked around to find someone who might be responsible for this, to whom I was going to indignantly explain that the term Palestine had not even been invented at the time referred to, and was only invented by the Romans in order to offend the Jewish population. Unfortunately, it was about 2pm, which was closing time for the siesta, and the people in charge disappear circa 1.59pm. I found a mature aged Jewish man who I had noticed earlier serving as a guide for a group of tourists. He was trying to get home on foot, while conducting a conversation on his mobile phone. I somewhat pitifully pursued the elderly gentleman down the street, politely putting forward my argument and asking him to take up my complaint with whoever might have the power to change the plaque. While he seemed to have understood my argument, to the point that he was interested, he was rather defeatist about the whole matter. I got the strong impression from him that he would not be able (nor willing) to get them (whoever “them” was) to change anything.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

A Very Kochi Christmas

Kochi (Cochin) consists of a mainland area called Ernakulum, a few islands, and a peninsula section, containing the areas of Fort Cochin and Mattancherry. Ernakulum is essentially a commercial and industrial centre. All the cultural and historical sites of interest are on the peninsula. Unfortunately, our bus terminated in Ernakulum. To get to the peninsula you need to take either a rickshaw over the bridge, or a ferry. Since we didn’t know exactly where we were in Ernakulum, and couldn’t see any water, auto-rickshaw was the clear choice.

Once off the bus, while Sandra, Aaron and I were thinking about finding transportation to the peninsula, Daniel adamantly expressed that he wanted to first find a place to stay in Ernakulum, and then commute to the peninsula, because he had it in his head that the peninsula was going to be crazily expensive, given that it was the peak Christmas season. This was the first I had heard of this idea, and neither I nor Sandra and Aaron were at all keen on this plan. The three of us had always just assumed that we were going to find accommodation on the peninsula. Ernakulum, at least the part where we had been dropped off, was totally unattractive; plus everything I had read said the peninsula was the place to stay. It was one thing for Sandra and Aaron to make their own decision independently of Daniel, but for me it was a different story. I wasn’t willing to split from him so easily. I tried to reason with him. Firstly, there was no certainty that accommodation on the peninsula would be any more expensive. Secondly, “if everything was about saving money, then I wouldn’t have travelled at all; I would have just stayed home and worked.” Aaron joined in with me on that one. Finally, if money was a problem, I was happy to cover his accommodation costs. However, while Daniel might have been trying to save money for the rest of his lengthy around-the-world trip, he had far too much pride for that, and immediately dismissed that offer. Aaron and Sandra now had a rickshaw flagged down and were going to head to the peninsula. They were waiting for an answer from me. There was no time left, so I played the ultimatum card. “This is really silly for it to come down to this…but we either go [to Fort Cochin] or I’m very sorry to have to say this, but I’m going to have to go with them…” It wasn’t easy for me to say that, and I hoped he could see that from the pained look on my face. Daniel rolled his eyes upward and held out his palms as if to say “ok, you win.” I was immensely relieved. Daniel had become a good friend, and it would have left a sour feeling to the rest of my trip if I had split from him like that. It also was a milestone in my life, being the first time in my life that an Israeli had ever given in to me in such an argument.

With our large backpacks, it wasn’t possible for the four of us to pile into a single rickshaw. So Daniel and I took a second rickshaw and arranged to meet Aaron and Sandra at the restaurant in the Elite Hotel, which Lonely Planet listed as a good place to tap into the traveller network. Plus, we were badly in need of a decent breakfast. Their rickshaw must have been much faster than ours, or maybe their driver took a more direct route, because by the time we got there, they were sitting down in the restaurant having already managed to reserve a room there. Daniel inquired about a room, but it seems that Aaron and Sandra must have gotten the last free room. Daniel joined Aaron and Sandra at the table, minding our luggage, while I set off to quickly find accommodation in a nearby establishment. I came across an Indian looking guy with very dark skin hanging out in front of the restaurant. He looked to be in his 20s, and he was with two other guys, both of the other guys being Caucasian. I was startled when he started speaking with a broad Australian accent. In Australia, I would not think there to be anything unusual to come across of a Chinese, African, or Indian etc looking person who speaks with a full-on Aussie accent, such is the diversity of the modern Australian population; but in India…well, it is just much more unexpected. I guess even some Aussies of Indian heritage go backpacking around India!

I asked if he knew any nearby places that might have vacancies. He pointed to a guesthouse less than 100m down the street where he believed I could get a room. “It’s nothing flash, but it’s awright, you know…” he said with typical Aussie expression. “Thanks mate, I’ll give it a go.”

As soon as I stepped inside the guesthouse I could see there were Christmas decorations everywhere. The next thing I noticed was a portrait of Jesus Christ sitting on the reception desk. I remember thinking to myself “typical European portrait of Jesus – the real Jesus would have looked much more Semitic than that!” The desk was unattended, so I rang the bell. An Indian man who might have been in his mid-sixties or older came down the stairs. “Hello!” he said in a deep voice. He immediately exuded a certain avuncular quality, sort of like Kamal does in those commercials for Dilmah Tea. I asked him about a room. They only had two left, and he offered to show me them both. The rates were cheap, given that it was the peak season, although it must be said that the rooms were very meagre, and there were mosquitoes everywhere. I would have chosen a place a little more upmarket, but since Daniel agreed to stay on the Peninsula, I was happy to compromise on this point and stay in a budget place. Plus, I had a good feeling about this guy that I was dealing with – he seemed very trustworthy, a feeling I had rarely had with accommodation managers in India, at least up to this point. However, I couldn’t stay in a room with that many mosquitos, especially as there were no mosquito nets, only a ceiling fan for protection. I asked if they had insecticide spray to kill the mosquitos and once he physically confirmed that they did, I agreed to take the slightly better of the two available rooms.

We went back to the desk so I could pay for the first night and complete the paperwork. I asked him if he had the decorations up all year, or just at Christmas. He answered that it was just for the Christmas season. I knew that already, but I wanted a safe and natural lead in question, as I had momentarily forgotten that asking people about their religion is no big deal for the Indians, whereas it is often considered a more private matter in the West. “And what about this?” I asked, motioning to the portrait of Jesus, “is this always here, or is that just for Christmas also?” No, that was an all-year round thing he informed me. I still felt the need to qualify my question and added “Oh…I don’t mind, I was just curious. So, you are Christian?” He answered affirmatively. And then he asked me “You are Jewish?” I answered that I was, but was confused and curious about how he had guessed this, although for some stupid and unknown reason I neglected to ask him about how he detected my Mosaic heritage. He commented that there had been a great Jewish community in Kochi previously. I understood him to have meant this statement in terms of in his own living memory, and not just in historical memory.

With a room reserved, I went back to the Elite Hotel to join the others for breakfast. Aaron and Sandra were just finishing their breakfast, and not long after this, they checked into their room and went upstairs for a shower. Daniel and I were at the table, and somehow some girl from France asked if she could sit at our table, as there were no other free tables. The restaurant was filled beyond capacity, and the noise levels made dialogue a bit trying. I think she told me that she “studied sculpture at St. Martins College.” Actually, not really, I can’t really remember, but it was something like that. She looked Middle Eastern, and I remember wondering if she was Jewish or Arab. Strange, isn’t it? She was in her early 30s I think, and would have been reasonably attractive if she hadn’t been so anorexic looking. I also wondered if she looked like that before she came to India, or only after.

There was a young family at the table next to us, and I noticed a very familiar accent. Two parents about 40, with a couple of toddlers. I asked them where in Australia they were from and they said Perth. “Me too. Where in Perth?” “Inglewood.” Wow! The neighbouring suburb from where I live, maybe five minutes by bicycle. I tried to convey to Daniel what an amazing coincidence this was, but in the typical Israeli way, he was not especially impressed. The husband, who had the appearance and speech of someone highly educated told me that they had just come from a place further south, near the southern tip of India, called Varkala. What was that like? “It’s beautiful, it’s not really like India though - it’s very relaxing – you can just unwind on the beach. It’s great if you need to just have a break from it all for a few days.” I made a strong mental note that this is where we should go next, after Kochi. In retrospect, it was a pivotal moment, like when the Leonardo DiCaprio character hears about the existence of that island in the film (or novel) The Beach. Ok, that’s almost certainly a gross exaggeration, but hopefully you get the idea.

After our hearty breakfast Daniel and I exited the restaurant and walked down the road toward the place where I had just booked accommodation for us. Kochi was full of Christmas decorations.
“Man, I left Australia to get away from all this Christmas stuff!” I joked, albeit in a non-humorous way. “I didn’t realise they were going to have all of this here too.”
“What do you mean? It looks quite nice.”
“That’s because you’re from Israel, you haven’t had to be irritated with this stuff all your life.” I of course wasn’t referring to the religious celebration of Christmas, but the commercialised paraphernalia that goes along with it. In Australia, this means the annoying music that saturates broadcast media and also public and commercial spaces (Jingle Bells isn’t exactly Mozart!), the sappy advertisements appealing to Christmas spirit to get people to consume more crap which is going to be half a few days after Christmas…I could go on, but I don’t want to get too much into a rant. In Israel, Christmas is limited to being a religious celebration by the minority Christian population. There are no signs of the commercialisation that exists in Australia or the U.S.A. etc. I guess this is the opposite of Japan, where Christmas has zero religious aspect, and is purely a commercial fascination. I recall when I was teaching in Japan that the school asked me to teach the students about Christmas. “But I’m not Christian!” I tried to explain, but they were unconcerned by this, replying “None of us are Christian either…but we LIKE Christmas! Please teach students about Christmas in Australia.” When the Christmas songs CD got too annoying, I swapped it for a Ben Folds Five CD and told them it was the new super-cool Christmas music they play in Australia. I’m not sure if the staff truly believed me, but since none of them could understand the Ben Folds’ lyrics, what were they going to do? Good times!

I told Daniel how I thought we should head to Varkala after Kochi, and he was happy with that suggestion. I would leave it for him to work out how we were going to get there. When it came to plotting transportation routes, he rivalled if not surpassed any other traveller I ever met. Whenever Daniel would explain a route that he had planned, it was like it was something devised by a navigator from Homer’s Odyssey. But for now, it was time to set off for us to set off and check out some of the culturally historical sites of the Kochi peninsula.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Terror of Nightmares

The sleeper bus from Mangalore to Kochi was a completely new travel experience for me. Unlike on the sleeper trains, where it is one person per berth, this bus was a two people per berth set-up. I’m not sure what happens when you are travelling alone, or in a group but with an odd number of people – perhaps you have to pay double but get a berth to yourself, or perhaps you get ‘coupled’ with a complete stranger. I would have been a small child the last time the last time I had shared a bed with another male, and now here Daniel and I were climbing onto the top bunk together. At least we did not share a blanket or anything – with the warm conditions not requiring one – and so I can say that I still have “an unblemished record of staunch heterosexuality” as George Costanza once professed. We lay on our backs so that our feet faced the front of the bus. I used a small travel bag as a pillow. Just like on the sleeper train, I could never manage to avoid getting my little shesh-besh board in by bag from sticking into the back of head.

I had the window position; Daniel had the aisle. Normally, on an aeroplane, I prefer the aisle. However, with no toilet onboard the bus, the aisle had little value. On both the window and aisle side of the bunk was a draw curtain. With both curtains closed, it was almost like we were sharing a coffin. You wouldn’t want to have been overly claustrophobic. Despite the bizarre conditions, not to mention the movements of the bus, I managed to fall asleep.

As I mentioned in my entry on Mind-Altering Experiences, I was using the drug Larium (mefloquine) as preventative against malaria, and one of the side effects I had experienced were extremely vivid dreams. The dreams had a tendency to start out as fairly non-disturbing (as far as dreams go) until right before the end, where there was a terrifying twist, often leaving you waking up feeling like you are in the Twilight Zone.
There might be something about sleeper trains and buses, because up until this night, the worst dream I had experienced had been on the train from Mumbai to Goa (see my entry titled Journey to Goa).

It isn’t easy to write about dreams and portray them as they seemed. This is because some of the most bizarre things can appear completely ordinary to the dreamer (at least while they are dreaming). Not to mention the plots frequently make absolutely no sense to the reader. So bear with me as I make this clumsy attempt to let you into another of my bizarre nightmares.

I’m not sure why, but this dream I had aboard the bus, like then one I had aboard the train, also started with a religious backdrop. While the changes I describe in the dream seem abrupt, to me while I was dreaming, they were seemless – as if each stage of the present was how it had always been. The first thing I can recall from the dream is that I was walking down the street in B’nei B’rak, Israel, where my Grandfather’s Sister lives. As you’d expect, a lot of Chasidic people were walking down this street. It was a Saturday around noon or 1pm, and they were presumably walking home for lunch after Shul. Then the streets were no longer the streets of B’nei B’rak, but the streets of the Perth suburb of Yokine, where I live, however, it was still B’nei B’rak – that is it was physically Yokine, but cognitively B’nei B’rak (I hope this makes sense). Pretty soon after that, it was no longer just physically Yokine, but cognitively Yokine also. However, there were still plenty of religious Jews walking on the streets. And just as seamlessly as the place had changed, so had my means of transport. I was no longer travelling by foot, but by car. I was thinking to myself as I passed by so many religious people strolling on the footpath: “ Since when did Perth have so many Chasidic people? It’s almost like B’nei B’rak here! And I hardly recognise any of them either! So many new people!”

Heading down Flinders street now, near Dog Swamp shopping centre, and must have turned right onto Wanneroo road (As I write this, I now realise that you can’t turn right at that intersection, but it was dream). At some point, if I had been the driver of the car (with no passengers), I was no longer. I was now a passenger in the back of a car, although somehow I was still essentially alone. Up to this point, as bizarre as the dream may seem, to me, in the dream, it felt quite normal and not really that disturbing. It was at this point though that the dream took a terrifying turn.

From the back of the car, I noticed a young girl of primary school age, perhaps 10 or 11 years old, standing in the middle of a busy intersection, not too much further up the road than the string of shops with the Marco’s Pizza and the Ezy Plus convenience store. Her head was facing down and she was holding her hands, in the way one might hold their hand up if ordered to do so by a person with a gun. There was a look of helplessness and despair about the girl. She had fair hair and skin, and was dressed in drab shorts and a singlet. I should add that she was not even Jewish, and thus I have no idea how the B’nei B’rak thing earlier in the dream was relevant to this latter part of the dream.

When my persona saw the girl, I recognised her from being in the news a week or two ago as having been standing in an intersection like this due to some psychopath(s) having her in the site of a sniper rifle, as well having taken her family hostage, and threatening to kill them and her. If she moved from this position, she would be shot dead, and her family would also be killed. My persona had not paid much attention to the news story at the time, but was now freaked out by the realisation that she was STILL standing there as this hostage of psychopaths, a week or two later after first casually reading about her in a newspaper. I had a sudden understanding that this situation with the girl was somehow of enormous importance, perhaps even to the fate of the whole world.

Now came the final phase of the dream. I suddenly became aware that the driver of the vehicle that I was in was involved in this psychopathic cult. I was now sitting in the back seat of his supercharged hot-rod, but it was if I was only now aware that he had stealthily hijacked me from my normal car or driver). He was accelerating the car, faster and faster (thinking about it now as I write this, I wonder if the real-life bus driver was accelerating the bus as such while I was experiencing this part of the dream). For some reason, I knew that I was the only the only person in the world who could save this poor little girl, and if I was going to do this, the first step was going to be to overcome this villainous driver. I could not see the driver’s face, just the back of his head – he had a short slick black ponytail, tied up in a way that it barely hung down from his head, if at all. Here was the most subjectively horrifying thing: even though I could not see his face, I was aware that when I did see his face, it was going to frighten the absolute hell out of me. I realised that his face was going to be not-quite human, but rather some kind of satanic face, straight out of the Polanski film, Rosemary’s Baby. It was with petrified anticipation, that I waited for him to turn around to reveal his face, and I knew it would happen within the next five seconds….

And then I woke up from my dream. Being a mefloquine-induced nightmare, it wasn’t as simple as sighing, “Ah, it was all a dream” and then moving on. I lay there in this coffin, with a few odd tears coming even out of my eyes and rolling down my cheeks, feeling both freaked out, but also guilty that I had not managed to save the girl. I knew it had been a dream, but I nonetheless felt that the girl and her family had been horribly murdered, and with the responsibility of saving them been thrust on to me, I had failed. I also then thought about why I had failed. I never had a chance of saving her, because I allowed my fear to virtually paralyse me. I should have reached over and applied a choke or strangulation technique to the satanic driver, but I had been afraid of him, afraid of seeing his face, his inhuman face. I was a coward.

I felt like I really needed to talk to someone about how I felt, to tell them what had ‘happened.’. I looked over to my left, and there was Daniel, who was sharing this coffin with me. Was he awake? I didn’t think so, but even if he was, I then I thought to myself: “Hang on, I can’t just tell him about this now. It will seem very strange. After all, we are just two guys travelling together – we are not a gay couple. Furthermore, I have tears on my face, so not only will it seem gay, but much worse than this, it will be like I am the woman of the couple!”

I know this seems ridiculous to you as the reader, that I should have been so upset about from a dream, but if you’ve ever had a drug induced dream like this, then may be only then will you understand how real it can all seem. Unlike regular dreams, the emotions and the events of these mefloquine dreams do not immediately fade away once awake. Rather, they linger with you for a little while. I didn’t really have a concept of time, but I am estimating that for the first 15 minutes I was awake, I was lying there feeling quite disturbed, with tears in my eyes.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Don’t want to be a Fryer.

The next morning Daniel and myself met Aaron and Sandra for breakfast. Our goal for the morning was a simple one: to obtain train tickets to get out of Mangalore and get to Kochi (Cochin) as soon as possible. The first step in this process was to get to the train station. Auto-rickshaws were in abundance, but taxis were far and few between. It wasn’t easy to fit four of us into the back of a rickshaw but we managed. We got to the train station and found the section for reserved tickets. After surviving the general unreserved section the previous evening on the train from Goa to Mangalore, I wasn’t yet ready to take that option again so soon, especially all the way to Kochi, which was an overnight train. Ideally we would get reserved sleeper class, but I was certainly prepared to pay more for a superior class if that was all that was available.

The queue at the reservation counter in Mangalore had a luxury that I did not see anywhere else in India. Instead of having to stand in the queue, they had a series of numbered seats. The seats are arranged in horizontal rows and the numbers snake their way to the front. As one progresses in the queue, one keeps having to get up and move to the next seat; so it’s a lineball decision whether it is more of a luxury or an inconvenience. Unfortunately, after queuing up for sometime in the seated queue, and finally making it to the ticket counter, we discovered that there were no reserved tickets still available for the train that evening, not even in first class. This probably should not have been so unexpected, as it was the Christmas/New Year holiday period, the busiest time of the year for the railways.

Mangalore is a transport hub, and as a tourist, you really don’t want to have to spend more than one night, as there’s not much to do there. We were all determined to get out of Mangalore that evening at the latest. Our next option was to find the appropriate bus station and see if there were any long distance buses we could take. Finding the bus station proved more difficult than we thought it would. My map in the Lonely Planet book showed a number of different bus depots scattered around Mangalore, and we had no idea which one was the one we needed to get to. These bus depots are far more chaotic than the train stations. There are no inquiry desks and no apparent central authority. Rather, they are just a parking lot full of buses either coming, going, or waiting. It was highly frustrating to ask various people around the lot about a bus to Kochi, and get various answers, all of these answers while probably well intended, were nonetheless unhelpful, succeeding only in sending us on a goose-chase. We rickshawed around to the other depots, asking the same question, but getting no closer to finding out what we needed to know. When it became obvious we were not making any progress, I suggested we go to a travel agent and inquire there. “It might cost a bit more, but it’s worth it if we can get out of here sooner rather than later.” Someone remembered seeing a travel agent around the corner from our hotel, so we all squeezed into yet another rickshaw and headed back to the hotel.

For Aaron and Sandra, seeing an Israeli in negotiations with an Indian was a new experience. Aaron tended to have the attitude that whatever things such as a rickshaw ride costed, it was almost nothing in terms of Euros. My own attitudes and behaviour on the matter now lay somewhere in between Daniel’s and Aaron’s. There were certainly many times when I felt like it was worth fighting for the best price, and many other times when I thought: “Who cares in the whole scheme of things – we aren’t exactly dealing with large sums of money here.” I would often see Aaron shake his head and roll his eyes in bewilderment as Daniel, for example, expertly negotiated a rickshaw driver down from 70Rs (US$1.70) to 50 Rs, and then down to a final price of 30Rs (US$0.70).

For me, the main cost of travelling through India (after the airfare to get there) was not the cost of living, which was minimal, but the cost of not working and earning back home. From Daniel’s point of view, he was on a very long trip, taking a year away from work to go around the world. While on each instance it might not be a significant amount of money, eventually it all adds up, especially over a long period of time. For someone just travelling through India for a month or two, it adds up to a less consequential sum than for someone travelling for a year or more.

There was also one other reason for Daniel driving such a hard bargain. On one occasion, Daniel tried to explain to Aaron that it wasn’t just about the money, but it was about one’s esteem in knowing one was not getting totally ripped off. This was part of the national psyche in Israel.

“For Israelis,” Daniel told Aaron “no one likes to be thought of as a …”
“A fryer” I contributed as a third party listening in.
“Yes, in Hebrew we call it a fryer” Daniel continued, “Israelis hate to feel like a fryer, a sucker. This is why Israelis are the best hagglers out of all the foreign travellers in India.”

We got to the travel agent and told him we wanted to get to Kochi as soon as possible. One of the guys working at the travel agent suggested we hire a car, but none of the others seemed to take any notice of that suggestion. We asked the main guy if there were any private-run buses going to Kochi. He made some phone calls, and seemed to be on hold, telling us that he had two tickets available. Aaron and Sandra suggested that Daniel and I take them, but I wasn’t comfortable with that. “No, we all go, or none of us. We’ll find a way.” I told the travel agent that two tickets wasn’t satisfactory, essentially telling him that we needed four tickets or it was no sale. He spoke again to someone on the phone, was on hold for a little bit longer, and then eventually came through with an affirmative for four tickets. It was a great relief, and there were smiles and back slaps all round. We now all had tickets for on an overnight sleeper bus leaving that evening.

With the tickets secured, it was now time to find a place for lunch. Daniel had in his possession some flyer that was adverting a restaurant in a shopping mall and he suggested we all go to check out this great big shopping mall. I humorously ridiculed the idea that there would be a large modern shopping mall anywhere near here.

“A shopping mall? I doubt it? In Colaba, I saw a shop calling itself a supermarket, and it was the size of little corner store. And this was in Colaba, which is far more upmarket and has far more tourists than here.” Sandra laughed also, and was expressing agreement with my opinion, but Daniel insisted that it would be a real shopping mall. I continued with the ridicule.
“What do you think it’s going to be like? The Dizengoff Centre??” I asked sarcastically, enjoying my own humour, and then taking a moment explain to Sandra and Aaron “That’s the biggest shopping centre in Tel Aviv” so they could fully share in my amusement.
“Actually, we have one now that is bigger than that” said Daniel a little curtly, who was not finding the conversation as humorous as the rest of us.

With nothing to really lose, I agreed to go. “It will be worth it just to get there and then see the look on your face when this so called mall turns out to be non-existent…” We got a rickshaw, and showed the driver the advertisement on the flyer, so he’d know where to take us. We had little idea of how far it was, so there wasn’t much negotiation for the price. The journey took us to a totally different part of Mangalore from where we’d been before. To my utter amazement, it turned out that there really was a five storey air-conditioned building that resembled a shopping mall.
“Ah, you see?” said Daniel as we approached.
“I can’t believe there really is a modern shopping complex here! I’m glad to say that on this occasion you were right, and I was wrong!” I offered. Sandra was also shaking her head in amazement and offered a little mea culpa of her own.

As we got out of the rickshaw, we could see that there was a Pizza Hut joint at the front of the mall, one storey up. Daniel and I were keen to check it out. I would never have any reason to go into a Pizza Hut joint in Australia, but I was rather curious to see how this American franchise would manifest itself in India. It was the first time on the trip that I had seen this type of franchise in India. Aaron, however, had a different attitude and plainly refused to even set foot in there. “It’s a terrible company and they cause a lot of harm all over the world.”

“We don’t have to eat there, but I’d like to just check it out, as I am curious to see if or how it is modified for Indian tastes.” I replied.

“No, I don’t mind if you guys eat there, but I personally will never enter a Pizza Hut store.” He didn’t fully elaborate on why he hated the company behind Pizza Hut so much, and I preferred not to ask. I gathered it was probably some anti-imperialist thing. I was too hungry to discuss politics, and it was a non-issue to me.
“Nah, don’t be silly,” I said. “There are plenty of places to eat here. We’ll find a place where we can all eat together”

I soon gathered that the Indians who frequented the mall (and I still saw no other foreigners there) must have been rather well off. The prices in most stores were closer to the prices of things back in Australia than they were to the typically inexpensive Indian market prices I had become accustomed to.

After lunch we decided to split up for the rest of the day, with Daniel and I arranging to meet Aaron and Sandra outside the travel agent that evening, as that was where the bus would be departing from. Daniel and I checked out the mall a bit more, and then we took in a film at the adjoining modern cinema. I would have preferred to see the Indian film “Kabul Express” that was advertised on posters outside the cinema; however, it had not been released yet. Daniel preferred to see the Bollywood film “Dhoom2,” starring the gorgeous Ashiwarya Rai, but I was secretly glad to see that it wasn’t showing at a time for us – I can’t stand musicals. With a limited choice of films, we ended up seeing “The Guardian” with Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher, which was about the US Coastguard rescue swimmers. From what I could tell, most of the audience was made up of middle class Indian students. I thought it was a mediocre film, and I was amazed by how the parts of the movie that seemed so predictable or corny to me were met by expressions of surprise or general positive reaction by the rest of the audience.

After the film, Daniel and I went to a small (but large by Indian standards) supermarket under the mall and stocked up on snacks for the long bus trip that lay ahead of us. We got a rickshaw back to the hotel, had some dinner, fetched our bags from the hotel locker, and then walked up the road to meet Aaron and Sandra outside the travel agent where the bus was to pick us up. When the time came, the bus had still not arrived. The travel agent assured us it was just running late. In India you can never be certain about these things, and it was a relief when it finally did arrive. Kochi, here we come!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Solving the World’s Conflicts

Daniel and I sat down with Aaron and Sandra. It seemed like at least a month since I had lunched with Aaron and Sandra at the famous Leopold’s restaurant in Mumbai. However, it had only been a little over a week. Time goes so much slower in India than back home.

Remembering that Aaron was also a vegetarian, I asked him what the food was like that he had ordered. He was having, amongst other things, the spring rolls from the Chinese section of the menu. Many restaurants in India often have an Indian section and also a Chinese section. I ordered some and indeed they were excellent. They were the best ever spring rolls and chill sauce I could recall having, with the notable exception of the Katong Singaporean restaurant, which my family unfortunately became unofficially blacklisted from. No, we didn’t name names. Rather my sister and Mother tried to improvise on an order. I could see that the unfortunate waiter who didn’t speak English (“Please, just point to a number and leave it at that” I had begged them) clearly had no idea what they were talking about, but they nonetheless persevered, and then somehow assumed they were going to receive the dish they desired. They then had the chutzpah to complain and refuse to pay for the resultant unrecognisable and unappealing dish that was served to them; hence the blacklisting. But I digress…

I did the catch up thing with Aaron and Sandra, filling each other in on where we had been since we had last seen each other in Mumbai. Daniel was meeting Sandra and Aaron for the first time, so they did the “where are you from?” thing. When Sandra told Daniel that she was from Peru, he decided to exercise his conversational Spanish. Aaron, despite being from Austria (although, in my mind at least, he didn’t really come across as your stereotypical Austrian – more like a citizen of the world – either that or Danish) could also speak Spanish. While I can vaguely understand a little bit of Spanish, I can’t string a sentence together. Such is the disadvantage of growing up and living in an isolated place like Perth, Australia. In addition, think it highlights the disadvantage (and yes, there are advantages too) of being a native English speaker. Due to English being such a wide spoken language, one is rarely given the incentive nor opportunity to develop their skills in other languages.

Finally, the conversation switched back to English. Aaron and Sandra had explained to Daniel that they were “Peace Studies” students, and as part of their masters’ project, they were travelling to somewhere near the southern tip of India to attempt to facilitate some sort of conflict resolution. Daniel then said “Do you mind if ask you something: What is your opinion on a solution to the problem in my country?” I winced a little bit. In parts of the world we have that rule about not discussing religion or politics. Israel is not one of those parts, and politics are often discussed freely. In fact, when I thought about it, it was rather odd that Daniel and I had never discussed politics before, and I didn’t really know where his political attitudes lay. Remarkably, I couldn’t recall a single political conversation with any Israelis since I had been in India. Perhaps in India travellers like to leave the home world behind. Furthermore, I certainly had never really discussed politics with Aaron and Sandra. While I was a tad concerned about where this conversation was going to go, this concern was outweighed by my curiosity.

“Actually,” started Aaron “we have studied your conflict in our course in quite some detail…” He went on to describe how they did some workshop on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the framework he described involved bringing in all these other countries to facilitate peace talks and draw up land boundaries acceptable to both sides. This internationalisation of the conflict seemed not much different to the existing and failed strategies of The Quartet or the United Nations. I couldn’t take it anymore, I had to interject. “Ah, you Europeans, you love to internationalise everything.”
“What about you?” Sandra asked Daniel, “What do you think is the solution?”
“Well, I think what is needed is for both sides to have strong leaders. When both of our sides have leaders strong enough to make the necessary compromises…” offered Daniel.

“I hope we can all still be friends after this” I said with a little jokingly to Aaron, as I was about get myself labelled as a hawk “but I have to disagree with all of you. Firstly the conflict is not about land. In 1947, do you know what percentage of land Israel was out of the total Arab land? Well?” I paused for an answer, but none came, so I answered it myself “Not 10%, Not 1 %, not even ½ of 1%, but approximately 0.16%. And the Arab countries still rejected the UN Partition Plan, so clearly the conflict isn’t going to be resolved through the exchange of land. It is about the acceptance of existence.”

“Furthermore” I continued “and most importantly, there are some conflicts I don’t feel can be resolved simply through negotiations. For example, how would you have combated the rise of 20th century fascism in Europe through peaceful negotiations? Or how would you have resolved WWII simply through negotiations?” Again I paused for an answer, but I only got forfeiting looks from my peace studies friends, so continued “The fact is it took armies and war to defeat fascism. Some conflicts will unfortunately only be resolved when one side uses enough overwhelming force so that the other side stops believing they can win and thus surrenders. War is a terrible thing, don’t get me wrong, but I think there are times when it is the best of some very bad alternatives. ”

I realised I had taken them by surprise with my von Clausewitz attitude toward global conflict resolution. Thankfully the conversation changed to something else. Sandra wanted to know whether we found Indian women to be good looking. Aaron said that he was yet to see any very beautiful Indian women since arriving a week ago. I said that I felt that some Indian women were very beautiful. I also brought up the scientifically interesting point that lighter skinned Caucasians generally prefer a suntan, but the Indians have a mate-selection preference to lighter skinned Indians over darker skinned Indians. May be we all naturally have a preference for a skin colour that represents the middle of the global human skin colour spectrum? With the conversation having shifted to a safer place, I knew the next morning we would all wake up friends.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Journey to Mangalore

Daniel had drafted a travel plan for us. I didn’t really ask him too much about the details of this plan. I trusted him enough in this department. He had a tremendous amount of travel experience, both in Latin America, and now India. Plus, he had the type of personality that was highly organised and paid enough attention to detail. At this stage, he knew far more about negotiating the Indian transport system than myself. That’s what he brought to the SuperFriends table, along with his natural skill for languages. What did I bring to the table? Well, I possessed the most up-to-date version of the Lonely Planet guide to India – and it was the English version, which Benyamin (back in Mumbai) had informed me was, if anything, slightly more comprehensive than the Hebrew version. I also was able to befriend almost any Indian with my ability to have in depth discussions on cricket related topics.

With regard to the itinerary, I told him I didn’t have any specific places on a ‘must-see’ list, apart from Kochi in Kerala. I also had to get ‘back’ up to Ratnagiri (north of Goa) by December 31st to reunite with my penpal Sarita, and experience a stay with her family. Other than that, I was cool with whatever he planned.

For Daniel’s part, when he initially suggested that we perhaps travel south together, and this was back when we first arranged to share a room in Palolem, he had asked about my linguistic competency.

“If we are to travel together, I need to know how good is your Hebrew.”

“What do you mean?” I queried.

“Well, if we are to travel together, we need to be able to discuss things with each other in Hebrew while we are negotiating prices with the locals.”

“Oh, sure, for this I’m ok.” And then added in a deliberately overly emphatic tone,. “I know all the numbers!”

Daniel continued the joke. “Well, of course you do, you’re Jewish. Knowing the numbers is the most important thing for us!”

To get to Kochi, we needed to travel through Mangalore, the next major transport hub. Daniel had found out when the train to Mangalore would be stopping at the local train station. We took an auto-rickshaw to the station, and it cost next to nothing between the two of us. Auto-rickshaws are these three-wheeler taxis that have motorbike style controls for the driver. In Thailand, they call these vehicles tuk-tuks (took-tooks). Outside of the really big Indian cities, they are far more prevalent than regular taxis, and they are generally cheaper. However, like many things in India, the price is almost always a negotiation.

The local station Canacona, which is the closest one to Palolem, seemed almost deserted when we got dropped off that afternoon. I thought to myself “Is this the right place?” Evidently, Daniel thought similarly, and he checked with the driver that this was really the place. The driver nodded and pointed upwards. You had to walk up several flights of stairs up the cliff-face to get to the train platform. This was just the vehicle drop off point. At this time, a large dirt-bike approached from the road we had just travelled up in the rickshaw, and then pulled up next to us. The passenger on the back hopped off the bike, and then paid the driver, who took off again back down the road. The dropped off passenger was wearing a bright yellow shirt and big oversized cap. He had a thick beard, even thicker than Shauli’s. He looked like he had been ‘in country’ a long time – a real hard core traveller. Indeed, he reminded me a bit of Shauli in his appearance – he had the “turned-native” look about him.

Both Daniel and I needed to relieve our bladders, so we took turns watching our bags while the other urinated in the bushes. After this we walked up to the platform, which seemed out 10m higher in elevation than the drop-off point. When we got up the top we bought two tickets and then set our packs down to wait for the train that was due in about 20 minutes. At this stage, the platform was sparsely populated. I started up a conversation with the guy who had been dropped off on the motorbike. He told me he was trying to get away from the crowds of people who would be arriving for the Christmas-New Year period. He was going to try Gokarana, which was not too far south from where we were – just over the border in Karnataka. He was hoping the devout atmosphere of Gokarna would mean less party-going tourists.

My assumptions of his hardcore travel experiences were not wrong. He had travelled to India overland from his home in Germany. First through the Balkans, then through Turkey, then Iran. He was denied an entry visa into Pakistan, so had then been forced to resort to air travel, getting to India via flight through Dubai. Despite that, I was extremely impressed by his efforts to travel to India overland from Germany, and I wished that I could undertake such an adventure. I was curious to hear about Iran in particular. He said almost all the people he encountered had been very nice and helpful, and some of the women would even subtly flirt with him, in their own way, which was surprising. I asked if had any trouble with the authorities there, but it sounded like he hadn’t noticed any problems, although he added something about the majority of the people in Iran not wanting all the Islamic restrictions that the government enforced upon them.

When I asked him about what he did back in Germany, he told me he was a farmer, and this was the year to leave his fields fallow, so he was taking that opportunity to travel while his fields rested. He farmed plums and other crops like that, producing schnapps. He looked like he was in his mid-thirties perhaps, but it was hard to tell with the beard. I asked him if his parents were also farmers, and in what was an awkward moment, his face became very sad, like he was remembering something very heartbreaking, and he told me his parents had died. I didn’t know how to respond, except to give an empathic look and say, “I’m very sorry [to hear that].” I wanted to know how his parents died and when, but I did not feel it was my place to ask. After all, ten minutes ago we had never even met before. However, I now got a profound sense of how lonely his life was. His parents had died, leaving him a farm that he now runs by himself. And presently, while his field were in their sabbatical year, he had taken off on an enormous adventure, but still alone.

The conversation was interrupted by a PA announcement – the train would be delayed approximately one hour. By now, the small crowd on the platform was starting the build up. There was a group of three Israelis (two girls and guy) who Daniel spoke to for a bit. There was also a couple that were smoking, but seemed to be having some kind of relationship trouble. He was from England, and I think she was from somewhere else, but I couldn’t quite tell from where. The girl looked upset, and the guy had a look of resignation on his face. There were also now many Indians. There were some Indian high-school kids and they had some sort of hand-held electronic game they were preoccupied with. I think they went to boarding school, and were travelling home for the holidays. One of the Indian guys on the platform started a conversation with me. Like most such conversations, it started with a “Where are you from?”

“Guess!” I replied.


“Well, in a round about way you are correct – you could say that my ancestors are from there, but I’m born and raised in Australia.”

With that, we got into a huge and animated conversation about cricket. He was very knowledgeable about international cricket, but was keen to hear my opinion on various players, and how I thought various teams would go in the upcoming Cricket World Cup. He told me he was travelling back to his hometown where his family lived. He would spend the holidays with them. It turned out that the barbershop on the main tourist strip of Palolem was his. He wanted to know if I had seen it before.

“Yes, I’ve seen that barbershop. You’ve got all your services and prices advertised on a chalkboard out the front, in Hebrew. How did you manage that? Do you speak Hebrew?”

“Oh, I got someone Israeli to do that for me.”

Finally came sight of the train. All the foreign travellers strapped on our backpacks in readiness to board. As this extremely long train came to a stop, we were confronted with carriage doors that were open, but far too congested with people to board. It wasn’t possible to buy a reserved ticket from Canacona – we all had only tickets that allowed us into the general unreserved sections – which were incredibly crowded at this time of year, being the peak holiday season for locals and foreigners alike. We kept walking down the platform, passing carriage after carriage, but all seemed to full to board, with the space near the door packed with people, almost hanging out of the doorways.

And then it happened. I was still walking down the platform, hoping to find a carriage that I would be able to enter. And all of a sudden, with no real warning, the train started to move again. There I was, standing on the platform wearing my backpack and carrying by smaller bag in one hand, when I looked back and saw Daniel standing on the step of the now moving train, holding onto the hand rails, wearing his enormous backpack. He was not IN the train, but he was nonetheless attached to the train, which was more than I could say for myself. He called out for me to jump onto the train. Now normally I would probably be able to board a slow moving train. However, wearing by heavy pack, it simple wasn’t possible to exercise that kind of agility. I couldn’t run fast, and AI couldn’t jump with my large pack on my back. I was now really panicked, running (well, lumbering) alongside the train, and shouting back at Daniel to “Get off the train, I can’t get on!” He shouted back again for me to try, and I continued to shout back “I can’t! You have to get off!” The train was now getting a bit quicker, and Daniel was now getting further and further from me. It was like some crazy scene from a movie or something. I must have taken my eyes off Daniel and rather been looking at a passing train door, because I didn’t see what happened next, but the next thing I knew Daniel was lying on his back, with his pack sandwiched between himself and the platform. He was like Ninja Turtle in shell-shock. The good news was that the train was once again coming to a stop. It seems Daniel had tried to step off from the train, but with the weight of his attached pack, and the inertia from the train’s motion, he had taken a tumble. Someone had helped Daniel to his feet, perhaps a train marshal. The marshals from the train were now walking up and down the platform shouting at the Indians to move further into the carriage and stop blocking doors. They appeared to have cane-like objects with which to hit people who refused to move down, but I’m not certain about this – the scene was kind of a blur, and perhaps I was just imagining this bit as I now scrambled to board the train, busting through the congestion of passengers, in what felt exaggeratingly like a fight for survival. With great difficulty I was now aboard a carriage, with Daniel in front of me. I was exhausted from running alongside the train with my pack, and fighting through the crowd, and I heard from behind me the English guy who had been near us on the platform telling me in a hostile tone “C’mon, you have to keep moving [toward the centre of the carriage], we need to get on too!”
I replied back, matching his tone “I’m doing my best here! It’s not easy!” as Indians blocked by path, and I did my best to squeeze between them.

“Yeah, I know.” he replied in a far more conciliatory fashion.

When we got on board, Daniel told me about his fall. It seemed his pack had fortunately spared him from the main impact. “Shit, you are lucky you didn’t crack your head open.”

His palms were cut and bleeding from the tumble. With no available seats, and feeling exhausted, we sat down on our packs. I took out some Betadine, tissues, and cotton swabs from my medical kit in my smaller bag. “Trust me, this is good stuff, it doesn’t sting – not like the clear stuff does” I assured him. On application to Daniel’s palms he said, “Yeah, Bullshit it doesn’t sting!”

“Well, it might sting a little, but trust me, way less than the clear stuff.”

The train was incredibly hot and sweaty. After an hour or so of sitting on our bags, some space on a bench seat became available for us. Once we sat down, and it did not take long for the Indians sitting on the bench facing us, who were initially just staring in amusement, to make conversation. They asked us where we were from. When I said I was from Australia, the conversation once again turned to cricket, and when I mentioned the great Indian spinner Anil Kumble, they took great pride in telling me that where we were now (Karnataka) was his home state. Likewise for any other Indian cricketers from Karnataka. This was the advantage of being Australian and following cricket. It was a natural way to get a conversation going in India. For Daniel, being form Israel and knowing absolutely nothing about cricket, this possibility did not exist. For the next few hours until we arrived at Mangalore I had various conversations with many friendly Indians. One young girl named about eighteen years old (but looking much younger), named Preeti, was travelling with her younger brother to some kind of art or drawing competition. Quite suddenly, she asked for my email address, and then also asked Daniel for his (although perhaps she just asked for his out of politeness, since she was mostly talking to me). He displayed a bit of dismay at the request (while I did my utmost to hide my own dismay) but we both gave her our email addresses, although perhaps he gave her a rarely used address – I didn’t ask. Anyway, now she writes to me occasionally.

When we got to Mangalore, we had missed any chance of a connecting train to Kerala. This didn’t bother me, as I felt too exhausted to travel any further that night, and thought it was best we crash in a hotel, and resume the journey the following day. I looked up the Lonely Planet (which Daniel and I had nicknamed the Chumash) for the best budget hotels in Mangalore. It was a choice between the Hotel Manorama and the Hotel Surya. I decided upon the Manorama, but by accident I initially told the auto-rickshaw driver Surya. Within ten seconds I corrected myself, but the driver must have had a commission deal with the Surya, as he was not happy about the Manorama, and wanted to charge us extra to take us there. I knew they were essentially the same distance, and I got into an argument with the driver. Daniel resolved the argument by saying “Let’s just go to the Surya,” which he was happy with, since it’s room rates were a bit less expensive than the Manorama.

Our energy levels were way down after the tryingness of the journey. After inspecting the room, I agreed to stay there. I’m glad I did, for when we walked into the hotel’s restaurant for a late dinner, I got the most excellent surprise. The only other couple sitting in the restaurant were none other than Aaron and Sandra, who I had becomes friends with all the way back in Mumbai. I greeted them both heartily, and introduced them to Daniel. We joined them at their table.

The more I thought about it, the odds of randomly bumping into Aaron and Sandra like this was amazing. Keep in mind that India is such a massive country, but we happened to both end up in Mangalore at the same time. Mangalore is not a tourist place, just a transport hub, where most travellers try to remain for as little time as possible if they can’t get a connecting train. Outside of the train station, you hardly see a single foreigner in Mangalore – most of the hotel guests are Indians. Furthermore it was only by fluke that Daniel and I ended up at the Hotel Surya. And finally, there was still the timing of bumping into each other in the restaurant. I usually don’t eat in hotel restaurants as I like to get out and explore the town – it was just that on this occasion we were too tired after the trip to go anywhere else.

My spirits were lifted on reuniting with Aaron and Sandra, both because they were such nice people, and because of the whole cosmic improbability of it all. They were also working their way south, to get to the village where their volunteer work was located. It was quickly settled that we would all go tomorrow together and look for a way of getting to Kochi together.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Confines of Your Clique

One of the things I had noticed about the traveller’s life in India (and I don’t at all suggest that this is specific to India) is that people are both a lot less self-conscious, and lot less cliquish than in Australia. For example, if you are out in Australia, most young people are preoccupied with how they look and appearing fashionable. Furthermore, people rarely socialise outside of their own group. This true at the pubs and clubs, and it is even true at many of the beaches. However in India, few travellers are too concerned about how they appear to others, and socialising outside of the group is totally natural. To illustrate, if you go hang out Palolem Beach in Goa, there is almost zero hesitation to go up to a group of people playing Frisbee, volleyball, or whatever, and just ask to join in. I doubt any Perth locals would say the same of Cottesloe Beach. Likewise, those same Perthites could tell you that down at the Brisbane St Hotel, you’re not likely to join nor are you likely to be invited to join a group of people unknown to you. However, such an experience is far from uncommon while travelling.

The importance is perhaps not so much the location, but rather the situation. European travellers I’ve met in Perth have told me they find it a great place to make new friends, and how back home strangers are much less sociable. I think it is just that when you are travelling abroad, you have a type of social license that you don’t have in your hometown or home country. A foreign accent is great ice breaker.

Having said all that, it doesn’t mean cliques don’t operate in travelling circles; it is just that they are less rigid and serve different purposes. Travellers still hang around in certain crowds, but those attachments don’t serve to exclude others. At times while travelling, group structures can feel like they serve to compulsorily include people rather than exclude people. As I experienced numerous times in my travels, once a group structure forms, even if that group simply formed from being on the same bus or train and starting up a conversation, it can sometimes feel rather awkward to put yourself outside that group. This can be just as true for trivial issues as it is for less trivial. Where you stay, what method transport you take, and where you eat dinner all implicitly become somewhat subject to the group consensus. Departing from the consensus creates UNKNOWN risks to the integrity of the group structure. I emphasise unknown risks because back home you know your friends well, and thus not only are your groups structures more robust to individual deviations, but given you’ve known your friends for a longer time period, in most cases you will be instinctively aware of what deviations the a relationship can and cannot be tolerate. For example, sometimes through unfortunate coincidence, you are forced to decline consecutive invitations to a social arrangement from a friend. You will instinctively know how many times you can decline a social arrangement with an old friend or group of friends (even if you always have a genuine situational reason to decline) before they get pissed off and decide to cut you off for a while. I am aware all this sounds a bit reductionist or clinical, but nevertheless I think most of us operate like that at times.

In Palolem, I was now in an entrenched group. Every breakfast, every dinner, every evening was a given. Shauli, Shoham, Daniel, and I would always eat together, play cards (Yaniv) together, explore remote beaches together, and go out to bars together. Partly this was great, but there was a downside to this. Since Shauli and Shoham were a couple, and while I greatly enjoyed their company, I felt that hanging out with them so much hindered both mine and Daniel’s chances with meeting more single girls. I had been meaning to say something to Daniel about this, but I never did get around to it.

On Friday night we went to have Shabbat at the Beyt Yehudi. Every single person there except for me was Israeli – I was the lone diasporite. After Maariv, it was time to find a seat for dinner. There were a bunch of low oblong-shaped tables, with people sitting on cushions. I was looking around for suitable table (i.e. one with plenty of girls), when I heard Daniel call out “Hey Aantoni, we’re over here!”
Daniel, Shauli, and Shoham were seated, along with a few others. I had also just noticed a spare seat at a section of a long table that was composed entirely of girls.
“Umm, that’s ok, but I think I’m going to sit over there…” I mouthed from a distance.

And with that bold move, so began the most disappointing and in some ways distressing evening of my trip so far. These girls simply would not talk to me. Later on I would discover that at least two of these girls I was sitting with were man-hating lesbians (how I discovered this if for another time). By the way, I have nothing against lesbians, but lesbians who hate men are no better than men who are misogynistic or homophobic. Apart from not talking to me, they did not talk to each other all that much. They were not only rude, but they were also boring.

The only interesting thing to happen was that on one on occasion I seemed to draw their utter contempt for the most curious reason. Let me explain. The Yiddish that I know comes not from learning the language formally in school, but simply from exposure. As a result, I sometimes am not sure whether a Yiddish word I know has a Hebrew root or a Germanic root. Under normal circumstances, there is often no need to know this. However, I have discovered that most young Israeli travellers (and I’m only talking about the Ashkenazim here, I’m not even counting the Mizrahim/Sephardim) do not recognise a single word of Yiddish unless it comes from the Hebrew root – and even then, if you do use a Yiddish word with a Hebrew root, they will more often than not simply assume that you mispronounced the corresponding Hebrew word. Anyway, there was a dish of cooked carrot slices on the table, and I politely asked for them to pass them to me. I used the Yiddish word for this dish (tsimmes), failing to realise that it was not a word in the Hebrew vernacular. Upon uttering this request, they looked at me in a way that clearly indicated that they did not understand what I asked for.
“You want what?” someone asked.
So I just pointed with an open hand at the dish of tsimmes saying “Bevakesha.” Someone passed the dish of carrot slices, but the girls asked, in a strangely uncalled for hostile manner
“What did you say? What word was that?”
It might seem to you that they were just being curious, even friendly, engaging in conversation and showing interest. Well, I promise you, their tone was anything but friendly. I know it made no sense for them to be hostile, but that’s what makes this worth writing about.
“Sorry, I used a Yiddish word – Tsimmes – I didn’t realise it wasn’t the same word in Hebrew. What do you call this in Hebrew again? I’ve forgotten.”
They didn’t answer my question, but rather mumbled some disdainful comments to each other like “Yiddish!” And while they may not have said, they also exuded the following derisive sentiment about me: Galuti! Above all, they acted as if I was the weirdest geek they hadever met; as if I were someone who had just told them that my favourite hobby is translating Danish trigonometry textbooks into Finnish. Looking back, it’s little more than like a punch line of a not very funny joke, but at the time it was the most disconcerting experience I had endured since those giggling drunks I passed in the alley while walking to the hotel on my first night in India. In a way, it was worse than that, as then I was just a bit spooked out with the intial culture shock of India. But here there were no mitigating factors. Here at the Shabbos table, this was the last place or situation where I had expected to feel so uncomfortable. If truth be told, it was beyond uncomfortable. Their rudeness was, to use a word I hardly ever use, hurtful!

About the time dessert was being served, I abandoned my table and went over to sit next to Daniel at his table.
“Well, that was a failed experiment” I remarked. “They were the rudest and most boring people I have ever sat with. They didn’t talk to me at all.”
“May be they’re just shy.”
“No, trust me, it’s not about shyness; they’re just rude!”

Walking back from the Beyt Yehudi to the room, I told Daniel in more detail about what had happened, and asked him how common he thought these attitudes were among Israelis. However, he downplayed the whole thing, and I’m not sure he really understood what I had told him, saying that I had probably just misconstrued the whole incident. Either way, he was fairly indifferent and uninterested by the issue, giving it little more than a 15 second reply before moving on to an unrelated topic, like asking me my opinion of some girl who had been at his table.

Despite Daniel’s nonchalance, the lessons from this were clear. If you are in a social group and it concerns you that may be it is all getting a little too cliquish, don’t let it bother you. Also, do not try to extend yourself from the comfort zone that your clique provides you. Stay within the safe confines of your clique, and you’ll never suffer the contempt of a group of rude, boring, man-hating, galuti-hating lesbians! Stay within the confines of your clique and you to be assured that you’ll be protected from such a fate. Finally, the next time you hear any amateur social commentator such as myself making any disparaging comments concerning the existence of clique culture, you best remind ‘Joe Sociology Minor’ where we’d all be without our cliques!