We are home.  And wish we weren’t.  I suppose things will improve.

This is what we left.

Our home beach, the best in Goa

Our home beach, the best in Goa

Here are some of the things we’ll miss.  The peace and beauty of our huge first-floor balcony, high up by the fluttering palm leaves.  The magpie robin that so often sang gloriously from the gable end.  The gentle freshness of a cool dawn on the balcony, the soft grey light scented by early wood fires.  Having dinner on the balcony, under a huge and very dark sky pierced by thousands of stars and lit by a silver moon. Our mucky pond where pigs rootled and cattle wallowed and they all sunbathed covered in black mud.  The huge beach of squeaky white sand that in the early mornings was empty and lonely.  The sea, oh the sea!  What a privilege to swim in the sea every day for nearly 6 months, to slip in first thing in the morning when it lies flat as honey, or to plunge in on hot afternoons, through crashing waves that have you leaping and dancing in the surf.  The warm friendship of so many Indians, nearly all from the lowest economic sectors, who opened their lives to us, their delighted welcomes, their sensuously warm handshakes, their easy humour.  The cool grace of marble floors throughout the house and the wrought iron french windows beckoning you onto the balcony.  Picking mangoes, cashews, guavas, lemons, sapodillas from our garden, and gorging on garlic prawns and beer under the trees…

A starry dinner with Julie, Mike and our neighbour, Air India pilot-trainer Santosh Baptista

A starry dinner with Julie, Mike and our neighbour, Air India pilot-trainer Santosh Baptista

So what’s not to like?  Quite a lot!  Understanding that you may never discover the truth of what happened.  (Indians have a different concept of truth.  They are quite happy to tell you something untrue if they think that is what you want to hear, and they can tell you a totally different version of an event on three days running without blushing.  I tried to stop caring.)  The litter!  Everywhere!  The smells – shit, drains, fish drying, stuff rotting, more shit.  Our landlord and lady, their inability to care for us or any of the three quietly rotting holiday houses they owned, and their devious, money-grabbing plots to get us to reimburse them for the many things that went wrong in our house.  Our agent, Himanshu, who suddenly turned against us with astonishing lies and threats that frightened us.  Being shafted, even when you tried your savvy best not to be.  Oh – and cockroaches.  And rats.  And mice.  But not our resident frog who, when you were on a midnight visit to the loo, terrified you as he leapt to the safety of his home behind the pipes.

When we were packing up our Indian home Bob felt plain sad;  I felt sad but also very glad at the thought of Home.  It wasn’t just friends and family and home comforts but also of a world where everything is simple and works first time, and doing the simple chores of daily living aren’t so demanding of your time and patience.  Here’s a flavour.  I go to do the washing up but we’ve just run the water pump to get water up to the rooftop tank which means the mains tank is empty so there’s no water in the kitchen (which only has cold water anyway).  So I go to do some emailing but the internet is down so I go to hang out the washing but the machine has stalled again.  Guessing what point in its cycle it stalled (I’m now good at this), I reset it and go to ring Augustine to book his taxi for later.  But the phone signal has disappeared, even when I take the phone onto the balcony where signals are strongest.  So I go to make the bed but the clean sheet is stuck in the washing machine.  Which is now beeping because it’s stalled again.

And you wondered what we did all day!!

Pardeshi's yoga retreat

Pardeshi’s yoga retreat

That’s my cue to ’fess up to not getting on with one of my books.  I have found an agent who loves me but doesn’t dare launch me on the story about the paedophile.  She wants me to give her the book about my dad first, but with all the various frustrations of daily living I never got going.  WHICH WILL BE RECTIFIED NOW!  I did however do a lot of marketing work for Pardeshi and his wonderful new yoga retreat, emailing English journalists with help from Tamsin and writing a travel article which has been accepted by a glossy mag called Planet Goa.  I’m into print for the first time!

Now that we’ve left I can tell you the truth about our cleaner.  You may remember we started with a cleaner who was part of the rental package.  Fatima was not pleasant and soon disappeared without notice.  Ani, our shrewish landlady, pretended she was trying to replace her.  Then she so upset the two different women I found that they left.  We decided to make our own arrangements, labour costs being all of £1 per session.  (I learned to stop talking about hourly rates.  If you don’t have a watch and can’t tell the time, an hourly rate means nothing.  And before you think £1 a session is mean, you have to know that workers in the paddy fields get around 90p for a full 10 hour day, without breaks.)

A stall-owner on the road named Lola agreed to come.  On the morning of her first visit her baby was ill so she sent Sachin from the next door stall.  He is a twelve year old, very cheeky boy, and he was overjoyed to have this chance to prove himself.  How could I deny him?  So I taught him how to clean and after each session I insisted we do some school work together.  He’s an illegal immigrant from an impoverished neighbouring state so he’s hasn’t been to school.  He’s very bright but his mind is totally unpractised in concentration or discipline.  Anyway by the end he knew the days of the week, most of his sounds and a good bit of reading, he knew how ice was made and was brilliant at using my laptop for the interactive literacy games that made him squeal with joy.  He learned also that English people need ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and that our visitors would think more of him if he could rein in his over-excitement, do his cleaning and then show off his literary and social skills.

Sachin

Sachin

So we had a charming and  hilarious little cleaner who got downstairs by sliding on the banister, who taught me how to roast our cashews in a bonfire and who made the house resound to his calls, ‘Tee-nah!  Come see!  I done good?  Tee-nah!’  Whenever I cycled past his stall he’d leap onto the back of my bike and steal a wobbly pillion ride into town.  His mother, in the tiny shop which he often ran, was delighted with our arrangement, and his father, who spoke no English, was embarrassingly grateful, kissing my hand and touching it to his forehead and doing a lot of devoted grovelling.

But nothing is simple.  A friend warned us that what we were doing was illegal and might land us in prison.  No child under 15 may be employed – a law most observed in the breach, of course, but one which put the fear of God into Bob.  I did not feel morally guilty:  Sachin was doing far fewer hours than an English newspaper boy of 12 does;  he was getting a training and an education, plus what for his family was a godsend in wages.  My dear Bob let me take the risk, we kept very quiet, rehearsed our story, and unsurprisingly we got away with it.   It would have been sheer bitchiness for someone to shop us, and the only likely candidates were our agent and landlords, who by this time were blissfully absent.

I miss that cocky little Sachin.

We were hugely interested in Indian attitudes to marriage, women and welfare.  Welfare first:  there isn’t any.  No state pension, no carers, no OAP homes, no disabled facilities.  Some casualties are picked up by churches and temples (in Goa there were as many Catholics as Hindus, plus a few Muslims) which are truly charitable, but mostly it is the mighty family that provides for the old, the sick, the disabled, the dysfunctional and the hard-up. A typical setup was that of Augustine, our taximan, who lived with brothers and cousins and all their families in one house, 22 of them.  A son’s new wife would expect to cook and clean for her new household, nurse her in-laws through their old age and care for the needy.  So it is the women on whom the whole burden of welfare falls.

Custoria

Custoria, beach masseuse

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Fatima, the matriarch, a Muslim among Hindu friends

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An Indian woman’s life seems terrible to me.  Until she marries she leads a sadly cloistered life.  Boys and young men roam the streets and beaches having a laugh (and unfortunately, sometimes a leer) but girls only ever appear in family groups on Sunday jaunts to the beach.  They went in the sea in their saris, but never deeper than the knee.  (Men were not much more daring however;  the sea scares Indians and they take a little dip in clustered masses for confidence.  The sea at central Colva beach looked black with all the Indians bunched there, leaving miles of empty beach either side.)  Sometime in her teens a girl’s parents will select a husband for her.  Really great care is taken to choose a suitable mate, one whose background and character seems likely to suit the girl and whose wealth and prospects match the family’s aspirations.  Astonishingly, huge store is put in the astrologist’s chart of the pair, which if inauspicious can cause the negotiations to be terminated.  The wedding will last

20130301_183029-1for around a week and is the height of the girl’s life, but from that time on she is torn from the home that has so sheltered her, taken to live henceforth, maybe many miles from everything she has known, with people she may hardly have met – and a mate she may hardly know.  She is now expected to look after this household until her own son brings in a wife.  One Rajasthani man told us about the wife his parents chose for him, against his wishes.  He lives away from the home because of his work but she stays to look after his parents, who berate him because she’s lazy and won’t work on the farm.  He chortles about this, ‘They chose her!  Ha ha!’

Arranged marriages fascinated us.  There was Punam, our eternally hard-working camel boy in Rajasthan, forced by a bullying father to continue working as a camel boy because it brought good money to the household, and soon to be forced to marry a girl he’d heard was a bitch.  His future seemed very black.  However Monaj, our favourite waiter, was perfectly happy to trust his beloved mother to select ‘the perfect wife’ for him.

In Sunday best

In Sunday best

There is of course a modern influence for change.  Our guide in Jodhpur was from the superior Brahmin caste.  He fell in love with a Brahmin girl, but unfortunately from an inferior Brahmin caste which meant marriage was impossible.  But the couple loved each other and they did marry, though they had to have an ‘outcaste’ marriage and therefore had to seek agreement from all families concerned because every one of them would henceforth be cast out of the Brahmins – something that would catastrophically taint the marriage prospects of their brothers and sisters.  But the wedding we went to, Soniya and Yogendra’s, was truly a modern love marriage.  Of course Soniya has a training and a job (beautician), which shows how very modern she is anyway.  Many young parents in arranged marriages said they would perpetuate the system, but many did say they’d let their children choose.

But if India moves away from the arranged marriage and women become liberated, who will then provide the ‘welfare’ for the nation?  As ever, the liberation of women leaves terrible vacuums in society ….

Washing up in the ditch

Washing up in the ditch

Back to Goa.  Winter in Goa was ending by the time we left (yes, we had to endure a winter!) and the summer heat was building up.  Several times we hit 40 degrees.  We’d be sweating minutes after getting out of the shower.

The sea and the sunset, from the gin-and-tonic verandah of The Piggery

The sea and the sunset, from the gin-and-tonic verandah of The Piggery

My schoolfriend Julie and her husband Mike came out for our last week and gave us the excuse for a glorious farewell to Goa by coming with us to ‘Elsewhere,’ a remote beach in Northern Goa, where we lived in an antique Goan house called The Piggery, right on the empty beach. (Honeymooners:  look no further.)  To reach the restaurant shack we had to trek along little paths beloved by multitudes of bright butterflies as they fed on thousands of flowers, but the best bit was being shown one morning where a turtle had waggled her way up the beach in the night, laid her eggs and shuffled back to the sea.  It was thought that she hadn’t chosen a high enough spot however, so we watched as experts probed the sand to locate the clutch.  Bingo!  A guard was kept and that night the whole clutch was moved to a place of safety which would be guarded until the eggs hatched.  (Other local hoteliers are not keen to have turtles nesting on their beaches because restrictions are then placed on development.  So romantic of them…)

Yemi, Custoria and Fatima, with bags of equally share goodies at our gate

Yemi, Custoria and Fatima, with bags of equally share goodies at our gate

 

When the time came to leave we were both emotional.  I was determined to leave nothing for the landlord but we’d spent several hundreds of pounds kitting the house out, so we distributed everything from mattresses and tables to plastic baskets and bits of soap.  It made it much easier to say goodbye to all our friends, seeing them take away loads of goodies that would transform their lives.  Sachin took the single mattress but every other night he sleeps on the dirt floor so his sister gets a turn.  Augustine had one of the double mattresses:  he, his wife and his daughter find it much nicer than the boards they slept on.

Since some 2 ½ months earlier our agent had blanked our last requests for help, I took huge pleasure in not telling him we were vacating the property two days early, only texting him once we were safely on the sleeper train to Mumbai.  Without the blot of him and the owners our 6 months would have been almost totally wonderful…

Too much stuff!

Everything I brought home, on the platform at Margao station

We arrived in freezing Wakefield to find an immaculate, empty house.  We scraped away the snow, we shivered for days, Pickfords returned our furniture, Asda cancelled my huge online order without notice and we struggled in the sleet to put the contents of the garage and the loft back in the house.  If this sounds miserable, it was.  In addition our bodies changed.  In the Goan heat we’d felt 35 years old, muscles and joints sliding sleekly into action like a well-oiled locomotive.  Back in England everything seized up, we felt ill and exhausted, every step on the stairs hurt and I went running for all the OAP prophylactics that I’d abandoned 6 months ago.

20130214_184102-1We’re ten days on now and feeling more positive, thanks to the house being mostly organised and to seeing a few mates.  We’ve had a marvellous experience, one that we know was a great privilege to be able to do.

So.  Would we do it again?

No (me).

Yes (Bob).

Thank you very much for bothering to read this blog.  We’ve been amazed at the wonderful comments, both on the blog and by email, which encouraged me hugely and kept me typing.  At the end of this final post I’ve listed our accumulated tips on Goa, so a record is available for whenever and whoever.

Otherwise – bye-eee!

Tinaji

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TIPS ON GOA

For visa, use visagenie.co.uk.  Costs no extra and they iron out all the many blips.

Skin So Soft is an excellent moisturiser virtually repellent to mozzies.

IT, phones and internet business:  our life-saving Naraindra Kanth:   naraindrak@yahoo.co.in, 92 26 281661

WHERE TO GO

Colva: Taxi: our lovely Augustine, tel 9850 464359.  To stay:  Fishland’s rooms with fab sea view for 500INR per night (phone Fatima +91 9604 748813 or 0832 278 8681).  For a house, possibly Santosh and Sharmilla’s house, which was just behind ours but might seem fairly spartan:  http://www.goavilla.co.in/    Possibly Beleza hotel.  OK eateries: Eddie’s Place and Alex’s (shacks on ‘our’ beach)

Agonda:  very basic wooden cabins right on the beach looked perfect on this wonderful undeveloped beach

Palolem:  Ordo Sounsar restaurant (northern end, over the rickety bridge), Cozy Nook ‘hotel,’ Dreamcatcher huts just behind the beach.

Goa Jungle Adventures, canyoning and trekking;  operate out of Palolem

Majorda: Boultons shack, Blue Waves shack.

Posh hotels:  Leela Kempinski at Mobor, Taj Exotica at Benaulim, Fort Aguada at Sinquerim, North Goa (top floor room at the south west end of the hotel with great balcony and views of the sea)

Yoga retreat http://www.yogaschoolgoa.com/   AKA Little Cove, Pardeshi’s place at Little Cola, north of Agonda

North Goa: Elsewhere/Otter Creek Tents/ http://www.aseascape.com  Just north of Mandrem Beach on an isolated beach, inaccessible save at low tide or by a long, rickety bridge if you know the  way, which is extraordinary.  The fabulous Piggery (sleeps 4) is right on the beach but lacks afternoon shade;  the Captain’s House still has seaviews but is set back, has aircon and sleeps 6.  The most idyllic lonely beach, great food, stunning numbers of butterflies and birds, and maybe even some nesting turtles …

Karnataka:  Hampi, The Boulders Resort.  Dandeli.

AVOID:

Calangute, Baga, Central Colva

Rental properties from Felix Serrad or through GoaVillas (agent Himanshu Jain) such as ours:  http://www.goavilla.co.uk/en/goa-villa-colva-holiday-home-2084.html#ci=20130501|cd=7

FOOD TO REMEMBER

Murgh makhani (butter chicken) or vegetables makhani, king prawns, baby shark, red snapper

Breakfast faves:  egg uppam/upma with coconut ‘stew’  or masala dosa

Gin and tonic with a split green chilli

Brothers

Brothers

(Click to read full version if you got this by email link.)

Before the last post, here’s an update on some of our recent excitements, such as going to a Hindu wedding and terrorising ourselves by canyoning.  But first, recent visitors:  we had a great day on the beach with our next door neighbours from Wakefield (!), Tim and Katrina Scatchard, and before that a lovely week with Bob’s brother Willie and Issy.  We took them to Palolem, a beautiful beach famous for its funky visitors and laid-back atmosphere, and like so many people they got hopelessly seduced and we finished up staying several days in little cabins set in the shade of palm trees.  No complaints!

We fly back on 25th so we have less than two weeks to fit in a host of last minute and one-last-time experiences.  Julie and Mike Hall are due to arrive shortly and will no doubt help us create some final memories.  I will write once more but meanwhile thanks for being on the other end of this communication:  we’re so looking forward to seeing you again.

Recently we had the great privilege of being invited to a Hindu wedding.  The bride, Soniya encouraged me to wear a sari, so I went shopping – and got 100% stitched up by the woman who sold me my sari (so what else is new?) – but I loved wearing it. On the day a local shopkeeper friend, Kavita, helped me get dressed.  This is what I wore:

  • 5 ½ metres of sari
  • Sari ‘blouse’ or bra-top, tailor-made to be close-fitting
  • Double layered underskirt for the sari to be tucked into, providing safe anchorage
  • 5 safety pins to secure the pleats and strategic cover-ups
  • 17  bangles, 2 bracelets, 4 toe-rings, 2 ankle bracelets, 2 earrings, 1 necklace
  • Bollywood makeup

20130214_151819-1After Kavita had finished with me I felt secure and comfortable – so much so I kept everything on when we went out for dinner later.  I didn’t feel hot, swathed in so much fabric, because the bare midriff is a wonderful ventilation zone.  Soniya was delighted with the result and I had guests come up to me and thank me for entering into the spirit of things, and since then I’ve even had strangers approach me to say, ‘I saw you at the wedding and you were wonderful.’  Hmm – watch out for me wearing a sari a lot in the future!

We attracted a lot of attention, being the only non-Indians in the party of 800 guests gathered in a large town hall.  Despite the corrugated asbestos roof directly above and the whirring fans we were reminded of countless school productions, with rows of chairs facing a stage where for some time Soniya and Yogendra were totally hidden as their families witnessed the marriage procedure.  Meanwhile a tray of sugar was passed round and everyone swallowed a pinch, flowers were issued to all women to be tucked into their hair (various kind ladies fixed me up with some grips) and two ladies came round with pots of vermillion and saffron powder with which they put bindi on all the women’s foreheads.  They daubed me horribly enthusiastically:  I had 5 blobs on my forehead and sprinkles of unflattering saffron down my nose!

Quite suddenly two gi-normous party poppers exploded, a brass band roared out with joy and everyone on stage started hurling rice.  It was still some time before the bridal couple emerged, shuffling through mounds of rice, and set off on a progress around the hall, all of us hurling coloured rice at them as balloons popped and a saxophone soared and drums throbbed in frenzy. The guests processed along a reception line, everyone having their photo taken with the bridal couple and pressing envelopes of cash into Soniya’s hand, before racing to the back of the hall where the hot veggie lunch was being dispensed from huge copper vats.  Wonderfully delicious it was too!    

20130214_135846-1 And how do we know Soniya and Yogendra?   Soniya is my gentle pedicurist and her eternally smiling husband is a river fisherman.  Ain’t we just the lucky ones!

The next thrill was visiting Hampi, starting with another fascinating train journey up to the hot plateaus of Karnataka.   It’s a vast World Heritage site and lies baking in a primeval scenery of huge rocks that by themselves would take your breath away.  Boulders the size of houses lie strewn around, boulders sit balanced improbably one upon another, boulders litter every hill and valley:  the vast scenery is simply boulders in the heat.  Hampi itself is the site of a once magnificent Hindu city, built strategically  in the fifteenth century but savagely vandalised by conquering Islamist forces.  The remaining ruins are still stunning:  vast ornate palaces, elaborate temples, mile-long stone bazaars.  The site is sacred to Hindus but you don’t have to be Hindu to get the spiritual vibes of the place. 2013-02-23 10.54.24 20130224_182135Should you ever come here, I must mention the place we stayed because it is the most beautiful place I have ever stayed in:  The Boulders Resort.  Hidden in a primordial wilderness of giant boulders are stone-age type bungalows, totally in keeping with the powerful barren landscape.  This is the country of leopards, bears, peacocks and monkeys.  Bob and I sat each evening on our lonely verandah, mesmerised by the brutal beauty and the baking silence, and I found this even more spiritual than the ruined city.2013-02-24 16.40.02

You may remember we intended to do some voluntary teaching.  The local primary looks dark and dingy, it’s extremely noisy whenever we cycle past and must be stinking hot, so I had to screw up my courage, but we both visited our appropriate school, Bob the high school and me the primary.  The staff gave me a hostile reception when I handed in my letter.  And that was that.  Neither Bob nor I have heard a thing.  Maybe they feel patronised – who knows?  I have consoled myself with trying to educate an illiterate boy called Sachin, about whom more, much, much more, but not till next time… Skip this para if you aren’t interested in education generally:  What we’ve seen so far of the Indian education system so far is fascinating.  English, being one of two official languages in India and being the gateway to self-improvement, is of paramount importance.  It is compulsory from a certain age but many parents pay for their children to attend English-speaking private schools;  indeed the upper classes use English as their home language. (The English that filters down this way neither reads nor sounds like our English.  Curious to realise that this Indian-English must be more widespread than English-English!)  Our very poor taxi-driver Augustine pays for his daughter to have private tuition and our wonderful yoga teacher spends a fortune educating his daughter privately in English.  We have been told however that throughout the system there is such a concentrated focus on achieving certificates that the education is horribly narrow and even the degrees are tick-box affairs that don’t open the mind at all.  (A man with a degree demands a much higher dowry from his bride’s family, so it’s often undertaken simply as a good investment.)  Certainly education is valued.  When we run in the early mornings we always pass the same groups of immaculate little children, meekly holding hands and taking themselves off, alone, along the busy road for the mile and a half to school.  We never see any naughtiness, ever.   Lastly I have to tell you about the school trips we’ve seen.   Kids on trips are always so well-behaved as to be, to my eyes, almost docile.  They need to be: Health and Safety dont exist and at Hampi we saw a Freelander long wheel base (?)landrover packed with 1 driver, 2 staff, and 28 grinning, waving kids ….

Now about canyoning. During our six months we have done many days of beach walking.  With the vast empty beaches of pure sand, the sea for cooling dips and plenty of beer and curry shacks along the way, a day of beach walking isn’t challenging.  A few days’ hiking in the mountains would be fun but as the temperature rises (last week twice hitting 40) we arranged instead to go canyoning.

This involves following a river as it flows and falls down a steep mountain.  It requires rappelling or abseiling, jumping, swimming and clambering.   I’m terrified of heights but our guides promised that wusses like me usually cope.  First they got us to try on our equipment:  shortie wetsuits, helmets and a sit-in harness with a fearsome carabiner or D-ring.  Not much reassured, we nevertheless  climbed into a breezy jeep to make the hour-long climb up into the mountains (the Western Ghats), where we met a third guide and four more kamikaze tourists:  an adult family of four Russians, who turned out to be charming and good fun, despite them only having one real English-speaker and he being as terrified as I was.

We were led through the jungle to the river and the site of our first abseil, where a guide began the instructions.  “There’s only one route out of here,” he said menacingly, “and if you don’t jump on command we will push you – and then you won’t be able to make a controlled landing.”  Curiously this utter certainty that we were going down boosted our courage and somehow suppressed my vertigo.  So we abseiled, even down waterfalls that made our foothold horribly slippery;  we jumped, sometimes leaping 6 metres off rocks, desperately aiming for the precisely described landing area in the little pool below;  we clambered down mighty boulders;  we slithered on our backsides down mountain rills;  we swam through rock pools;  and so we travelled right down this beautiful jungle canyon.

And we all loved it, all fizzed on a five-hour adrenaline high, all felt like kings.  But I confess that when we’d finished I went into some kind of shock or exhaustion.  I lost my memory, frighteningly, and felt mentally dislocated and frail.  I was pretty worried!  Dr Bob kept calm, prescribed carbohydrates and rest (there having been neither en route) and after two butter chapatis and lots of hot sweet tea I was at least sensible, and by next morning I was fine.

Have we gone bonkers?  You’ll judge for yourself, when we get home…

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First the good, and there’s lots of it.

The beauty of a morning jog beside the paddy fields.

The beauty of a morning jog beside the paddy fields.

Our vast first-floor balcony continues to be a place where we are filled with content.  We sit in the late afternoon drinking tea until it morphs into gin.  As dusk falls the cicadas start humming, joining the crows and doves in a lulling chorus.  A faint smell of wood smoke from evening fires wafts through the dark palm trees.  Silhouettes of storks and egrets beat across the skies, returning who knows where for the night, and the occasional bat flits crazily about. 

Hold that image. 

We have cockroaches.  The first encounter was in the middle of the night.  I was woken by my beloved husband attacking me, or so it seemed.  Turned out he was fighting a frenzied battle in the dark to get rid of the big critter that had woken him up by landing, on his face… 

Later, when the kids were with us, we discovered several more, and Tams demonstrated how to crush the buggers with maximum venom.  Then came the lovely evening when Bob and I were sitting on the balcony enjoying the Goan evening peace (remember the scene?)   A fat cockroach landed, on Bob’s face (again!)   That night we crushed eight, them and us hopping about the balcony in a frenzy.   Now, after consulting Google, (hurray for Google!) we sit of an evening armed with a loaded squeezy bottle which we squirt at any nasty jumping visitors.  They breathe through their shells, but if they’re covered in soapy water they suffocate, temporarily.  So we douse them in order to stop them bounding away as we make our approach with malice and the crusher.  We have not a shred of Hindu humanity with cockroaches.  Furthermore  Bob has an odd sense of humour failure about them… 

Other visitors have been a lot more fun.  In December we had Tams, Phil, Taz, Serina, Jamie and Josie;  sometimes all together, for one week just Tams and Phil.  A great time was had by all.  In the evenings the balcony bristled with technology and resounded not only to the chink of cocktails glasses but also to the clicking of phones and laptops as we all sat connecting to the rest of the world.  I learned many essential lessons in technology from them all.  (I confess that I have become one of the boring twats who sit for hours fiddling with their smartphone!)  For this and our first lesson in cockroach murder we were grateful to them, but also especially to Phil for his inspired engineer’s approach to the many, many inadequacies of this house.  Hitherto, because we have no tools, most of our house improvements had involved string, tape, buckets and more string.  Phil fixed sticking doors, loose bike chains, dodgy locks and, best of all, rewired the electricity circuits so the fridge doesn’t defrost with every single power cut.  Now we have ice for the cocktails, well, most evenings!

Phil, Tams, me, Bob, Serina and Taz during an indulgent stay at a luxury hotel.

Phil, Tams, me, Bob, Serina and Taz during an indulgent stay at a luxury hotel.

The idyllic beach at the yoga retreat

The idyllic beach at the yoga retreat

Tams, Josie and I took ourselves off to a yoga retreat.  Take a look at http://www.yogaschoolgoa.com/ if you want to go green with envy.  We were some of the first punters;  the electricity hadn’t been connected but the beach was perfect and lonely, the food superb, the cabins cute and the yoga stimulating and challenging.  In an open-sided hall in front of the rolling sea with the sun setting behind the waves we oooomed and aaahhhed with joy, and made lifetime friends with the remarkable young Indian teacher and owner, Pardeshi.

20121204_120604The girls said they’d been disturbed in the night because the stripey Indian squirrels that run about the palms had been scurrying around their bathroom, and they showed me how chunks had been bitten off their bedroom lino and a tube of toothpaste pierced and eaten.  That wasn’t a squirrel, I thought, but kept quiet.  Next night it was my turn:  my soap was nibbled and carried across the room and a plastic bottle of oil nibbled open.  But the droppings confirmed my suspicions…  Thereafter when I was woken up by things going bump I shot upright in bed, bawled “Bugger off!” into the dark – and hoped.  When we left I told the girls it had been rats – you should have seen their faces!  (Pardeshi has now set traps, which, he being Hindu, were the humane kind.  The middle of India must be writhing with humanely dispatched vermin ….)

I’ve since taken Brave Bob there for his initiation into yoga:  he’s now hooked.  Here he is practising on the beach each morning after our run.

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Christmas is now a long time ago.  Bob insisted we make it special, being apparently unmoved by the frangipani tree that sweltered in a local garden with every branch bandaged in glittering cotton wool, or the various mega-life-size winter tableaux that we came across in the 35 degree heat of the jungle, or even the groups of Indians dressed in Santa outfits who sang grim carols to restaurant diners sweating over their curry.  So we went to a lovely hotel for a couple of nights, and that’s howcome on Christmas Eve (which is the main celebration here) we found ourselves on the lawn of a fancy hotel, sat at festive tables under the stars – with 198 Russians.  Arggghhh!   An army of staff manned a vast buffet while more staff in Santa hats and woolly boots did a skippy cabaret to Jingle Bells, and then everyone danced to 60’s Western pop.  The DJ was a Russian woman and she awarded Bob and me a wonderful prize for our jiving!  We in turn awarded the dreaded Russians the following scores:  Drunk Russians, 0.  Attractive Russians, 0.  Rude or Badly Behaved Russians, 0.  Fat Russians, some.  Russian families having fun with the kids, lots.  Laughing Russians, lots.  And so another prejudice bites the dust…..

Kasia, Will and Nick, about to go dophin-spotting

Kasia, Will and Nick, off dophin-spotting

Nick, Will and Kasia arrived just after New Year for a wonderful week before going to Kerala.  Once more I greedily lapped up more lessons in Technology, although I was secretly pleased to see how frustrated they got with the frailties of the Indian internet!  They treated us to an indulgent trip to Palolem and Agonda that included glorious seafood dinners under the stars on the beach, a dolphin-spotting boat trip and plenty of cocktails at sunset.  (We’ve since been back … and will go yet again…)

If you want a taste of the real India do take a look at Will’s photographic record:   http://willgrahamphotography.co.uk/2013/01/india-january-2013/    It’s a stunning and beautiful insight into Goa and Kerala.

Tourism is horribly depressed here this season.  We feel desperately sorry for the wretchedly poor people who have waited for the tourists so they can make a little, a very little money, but so few have come this year that shacks have closed and women selling sarongs in roadside stalls go for days without a sale.  Those tourists who are here are in the majority Russian, but there are a good few elderly Europeans who come out to spend six weeks shuffling between sunbed and shack.  There’s a row of them sleeping every afternoon at our favourite shack, their swimming costumes ballooning as they break wind explosively from every available orifice with never a blush.  Farters’ Alley, says Bob, who at least blushes.

It is ludicrously cheap to live here.  Bob calculates that with our English tenants paying not only rent but also the usual winter bills that we’d otherwise still have to pay, we have covered our business class air fares, the rent here, our food and living costs – and still have some over. Our expenses here really are tiny.  An extra bonus is how wonderfully healthy we feel, living in heat that zaps arthritis and a host of other old age niggles, drinking up sunshine and fresh air, and pigging out on fruit and veg and fish that all taste like fruit and veg and fish did back in the Garden of Eden.  All supplements are put away in a suitcase. (Oh, and booze is very, very cheap.  But not so good for you.)

You don’t have to have MUG written on your face to get taken for a ride here.  Simply having a white face says you’re easy meat.  Tourists bargain and think they’ve done well;  they’ve just limited the extent they’ve been ripped off.  I don’t usually mind because the people are so horribly poor.  At the fish market there’s an unspoken set of prices for locals and another for whites, and the fishwives squatting by their baskets of fish never undercut each other on the whites’ prices.  It’s still so cheap that we’re delighted anyway.  When I was looking for citronella incense in the bazaar (it’s an excellent mozzie repellent) a woman named Gita offered to take me to the right shop, and thereafter she took me to buy the other things on my list, stall after stall.  ‘You see my shop,’ was all she asked, so at the end I did, and bought a silver bracelet that I didn’t want.  On my next visit to the bazaar I discovered she had returned to each of the stalls to collect commission – that of course had been included in the prices I’d paid.   Fine:  commission or thank-you purchase, one but not both!

But we got royally stitched up in Jodphur.  We had a wonderful, charming guide, who after the sightseeing took us so I could buy some silk from a co-operative, run for the community, guaranteeing value and quality without exploitation … blah blah.  (Are we that obvious?)  Just wanting to understand the territory I asked the guide if he got commission – “No.”  But after I’d paid £70 for some stunning embroidered silk to use in our bedroom at home, and after we’d dropped the guide off, our gentle driver told us the guide had got £32 commission.

MUG.

Innocent victims of politicians' greed

Innocent victims of politicians’ greed

And more MUG coming later.  But first an insight into life here for Indians.  After Poverty, two things scream out at you.  Corruption.  And Rubbish.

The following facts are never disputed (we’ve cross-referenced with an airline pilot, a tuktuk driver, two retired Indian ambassadors, shack waiters, our lovely taxi-driver Augustine and various others.)  It is universally agreed:   Almost every politician is corrupt.  Almost every politician is uneducated and has a criminal record, many for murder.  Politicians buy their votes – a scooter, a satellite dish, drinks, cash.  This means that less than 1 % of India’s total tax take goes on services to the public.  Most of it goes into politicians’ pockets.  This is undisputed.  After the tsunami the political head of Tamil Nadu, after pocketing every rupee of international aid that was given to her wrecked state, said, “It was given for the victims but they are all dead.  So I shall have it.”  (Please never give to Indian charities or aid.  Use the international charities.)  Politicians have continuously robbed Indian mines of nearly every rupee of profit until just recently the High Court declared the only way to end this was to stop all 2012-12-07 17.05.42-1mining.  So all mines are closed, and tough luck on the miners and lorry drivers.  Politicians also keep harvests hidden away in food mountains in order to drive up the prices, even though weather and vermin cause wasteful deterioration.  Thus much of India, which could easily feed itself, starves.  Politicians, only politicians, get permission to build houses right on the coastline (which is otherwise excellently well preserved.)

It’s not as if politicians bother to operate a government that governs.  For example, they don’t set up a garbage clearance system.  None whatsoever.  Almost everywhere is a sea of plastic.  People light fires occasionally to burn what can be burnt and pigs and cows eat what can be eaten.  Karnatakan women collect the bottles and tins that are chucked around, getting a pittance from a dealer.  But there is NOWHERE for us to take our plastic rubbish.  Not a bin.  Not a skip.  And stinking garbage lies all around.

Now for the police.  Known for extorting from the public and hated.  New recruits have to pay a truly gigantic amount to get into the force and they expect to service this loan from their corrupt daily takings. They tried their favourite trick on Tams and Phil, who were scootering happily about the lanes when they were stopped by a policeman.  He declared Phil’s driving licence to be ‘No Good, give me 100 rupees.’  Squaring up to him, Tams said, ‘No.  It’s perfectly all right and you’re not getting anything out of US.’  He persisted.  Tams said, ‘We’re not paying you one single thing.  You can take us to the British Embassy, right now.  Go on.’  We’ve been told she was lucky not to have been handcuffed and left in a ditch for the day.  As it was the chief came over and called the policeman off.  One for the tourists.

There’s a shack nearby that’s a nightclub by night.  At 2am one night a couple of weeks ago a punter was stabbed, to death, by one of the bouncers.  Both bouncers fled but were later arrested.  A couple of days later, during their transfer to police HQ, the murderer escaped! He’s a local man and it is locally known that his politician relative paid the police to uncuff him and let him disappear into the jungle.

We have been warned not to walk along the road into town at night because motorcycle mugging is a real danger.  Three of the nine houses where we live have recently been burgled, all pipeworks and sanitary installations being removed while the houses were unoccupied, and a return visit to one house was thwarted.  No one has any hopes from the police.  The police did arrive a month ago, however, six coachloads of them, to erase the nearby encampment of illegal migrants from Karnataka.  They kindly got the poor people out first, then they smashed every little hovel, ripped every piece of plastic sheeting, broke every tree.  Left a smoking scene reminiscent of Chernobyl and a host of homeless people hiding nearby.

Our taxi driver Augustine tells us that twice a year he has to pay a large sum for a taxi-MOT.  The official might glance at his car, but anyway pockets the money, stamps the form – and away goes Augustine.  Like all the taxi drivers.  And the heavy goods vehicles.  Everyone knows it, expects it, accepts it.

Here’s our own little housing story.  (We recently discovered that the house has been unoccupied for the past 8 years, which may explain some of this.)  Let’s start with a list of the things that have gone wrong and needed the attention of the landlord and/or agent (and I won’t repeat the stuff you know already, about the filth and the lack of basic furniture).  Water tank overflowing like a Niagara off the roof, for days on end – needed only a very simple action by a plumber.  Electricity power cuts, long ones and many each day –  only needed a bigger fuse at the main fuse board, as the landlord had always known.  (Jamie, a qualified electrician, says this house is totally unsafe electrically.)  TV not working.  Washing machine not working.  Cleaner disappeared, not replaced.  Sockets malfunctioning.  Fans clacking furiously.  Septic tank stuffed.  Water supply drying up.  Fridge stopping several times a day (even after Phil’s re-wiring).

We have waited in for workmen or the agent’s factor or the landlord, day upon day upon day. Part of the trouble is Indians don’t have a concept of punctuality.  They will promise to arrive at 10 if that’s what they think you to want to hear, whether they intend to or not.  Anyway being 4 hours late for an appointment isn’t considered late.  Meanwhile it’s another day we’ve wasted.

We had a nasty row over a Christmas tree that had been left, filthy, in the house, and which I cleaned – and used.  Come Christmas the landlady demanded it back, and her daughter-in-law barged right into our house and up the stairs to fetch it.  Bob had to threaten to call the police before her husband took her away.

Our unpleasant cleaner left before Christmas and was not replaced.  I found a couple of girls but the landlady sabotaged my efforts by cheating the poor women over payments and making no effort to find someone else.  The landlady, the women, Himanshu:  they all told us lies.  Just about everyone does.  Stories change day by day and no one even blinks as they tell you a new version.  We know now not ever to expect the truth – from anyone except a small handful of exceptional friends.

The agent, Himanshu, isevidently fed up with the problems and costs of the house.  He and the landlady have tried various devious schemes to charge us, all of which we resisted except the one that ended with an eviction notice.  The latest is we’ve been told that because we’ve caused so much trouble in the house (yes, we caused it all – by living here!) they want a huge ‘deposit’ against further malicious damage.  The email delivering this was packed with lies and unspoken threat.  The agency, we’ve discovered, is Russian-owned.  Adding everything together, we felt friendless, unprotected, utterly shafted and probably homeless.  I had nightmares of the Russian mafia turfing us onto the street and I was heard to say, ‘I’m not sure I don’t hate India.’  I have a heartfelt understanding now of what it’s like for innocent people to live in a corrupt and bullying regime.

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But that was a month ago and we’re still here.  We ignore them and they ignore us.  We put right what we can and live with what we can’t.  So:  no telly, no free workmen, and my own cleaner, on my own terms (– more in the next post on this!)  It has been comforting to speak to other landlords, other tenants and decent middle-class Indians, all of whom have all been outraged on our behalf.

The hardest things is accepting that you’ve been shafted.  Like I said, MUG.

This is what our lovely IT guru, Narain, said to comfort us:  ‘This is India.  Welcome to our world.’

On reading this post Bob said that I was far too negative.  But this isn’t a glossy travel blurb, it’s our true experience, and we have both, at times, felt angry, miserable, lonely and even frightened.

We don’t now.  Yesterday was Sunday and we  had a day-long beach walk on one of the most beautiful and unspoilt beaches in the world, punctuated by swims, beers and a fabulous red snapper lunch with our feet in the sand, before coming home to the balcony of our very nice and idyllically peaceful house for tea and then  dinner under a star-lit sky.  Today I vowed to finish this post but I got distracted by having a laugh with our plumber (yes, had to call him out again).  Then our neighbour came round and we got stuck into beers in the garden.  He clearly had too many because he told me I looked better upsidedown (see below).

In the next post I’ll tell you about wearing a saree and going to a Hindu wedding (what a privilege!), plus our adventures canyoning (such a buzz!!) and perhaps something about some of the locals who we have a lot of fun with (so long as we remember to take big pinches of salt).

So you see, you dont need to worry about us. It’s one helluva experience.  And now you know the truth of it.

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Early morning harmony

20121119_111032Before the visits from friends and family began we       had a quick opportunity to make a trip to Rajasthan.  It’s the most exciting country I’ve ever been to.

Don’t get your atlas out;  think top left corner of India, next to Pakistan.  We had two flights to get there which Bob booked.  Mistake.  In the run-up to our departure Air India THREE times arbitrarily changed the times of our flights, each time making our connections impossible, each time causing cancellation charges and rebooking.  There ain’t no consumer protection in India!  Air India is fighting annihilation and this is how they fight.  Their staff haven’t been paid for 7 months (tell that to your BA crew!)  Our Air India captain friend tells us that as usual corruption, greed and incompetence are the cause.  Oh you weep for India….

This arid, hot country of Rajasthan is vibrant with colour and history.  It is the 1940s amalgamation of the states of different maharajahs, those fabulously glamorous Rajput rulers whom the Brits pragmatically decided to tolerate within their colony of India.  Previously, to defend themselves and their huge wealth from invading Mughal hordes, the maharajahs had peppered the craggy mountain tops with mighty forts that still dominate the baking plains.  Then they created their showy palaces:  vast marble halls with arcades of scalloped and decorated arches;  hanging balconies of stone carved to a fretwork;  dazzlingly coloured rooms tiled and gleaming with mirror-work;  formal gardens like tropical knot gardens;  cool gardens with palms and pools.  Heated bathrooms.  Elementary air con.  Elaborate silverwork.  The sophistication of their craftsmenship outshines and predates any Elizabethan or Tudor palace you can think of.  Did you know such a sophisticated culture existed?  In our Western ignorance and arrogance we were gobsmacked.

Filth lies over all India like a skin.  In Rajasthan it’s a very thick skin.

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But the people flash colours bright as jewels as they weave through the filth.  Think women in saris of scarlet, pink and orange that glitter with silver embroidery and mirror inserts.  Think men in huge turbans of scarlet, pink and orange, some with handlebar moustaches, slippers curled up at the toes and jodhpurs.  In the nineteenth century the son of a maharajah of Jodhpur introduced his English polo opponents to jodhpurs and so the English style was born.  Some men wear jodhpurs with Nehru jackets, some with tailored suit-jackets.  Some wear dhotis (overgrown nappies to you and me) and many wear jeans.  Some of the kids wear dirt and not much more.  Now picture masses of these colourful people, cities bulging with them like a kaleidoscope of exotic ants, everyone busy, everyone moving, everyone noisy.

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We started at Jaipur.  At every turn you caught your breath.  In the old town every single building is painted pink, and many of the pink walls have been ornately decorated with cream paint.  The prime attraction is the Amber Fort, lying at the top of a huge hill and surrounding a fairytale palace.

A narrow cobbled road winds up the steep hill to it, and a continuous cavalcade of elephants lumbers up it bearing grinning tourists on their howdahs.  It’s so cheesy but such wonderful fun!  Our beast was decked in red and gold, Maharajah Bob sported a red and gold turban and his maharani twiddled a glittering parasol.   For some reason we’d been sat sideways so the rolling gait of our great beast made it a desperate struggle to balance – not helped by laughing!

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I’m not going to give you a day by day account of our trip.  (Phew!)  Move on to Ranthambore, home to India’s most extrovert tigers.  So they say.

Tigers are my favourite animal ever.  We made 4 safaris into the reserve, and despite much eager peering into the jungle our score was Tigers Nil.  We tried to show enthusiasm for some pretty spotted deer and nit-picking monkeys.  Our last trip came on my birthday and our guide was struggling to make my dream come true.   However we were on the exit road when news came:  a tiger had been seen!  Pandemonium!  Jeeps and the hefty open-top trucks that growl round the tracks with twenty tourists on the roof all roared to the spot.  Bob saw the tiger, or thought he did, but the beast can’t have enjoyed the din of heavy engines and noisy tourists.  (In Africa there’s a sepulchral silence near any big game:  tell that to the Indian families!)  So we set off for the gate, the guide nursing my disappointment.  Then the driver got a call on his mobile – tiger’s back!  Our guide looked at me and looked at the driver, and the decision was made.  They’d break the rules and return to the jungle.  Our ten-ton truck did a three-point turn and everyone thought we’d topple into the jungle.  We hurtled back, peered into the jungle, everyone clambering over the truck to see better (I stood astride the dashboard.)  A huge creature padded down the road.  My heart stopped.  It was the man-eater with three men to his record, the imaginatively named T24.  We watched him briefly as he slipped through the jungle, his stripes flitting between shadow and sunlight.  Joy all round.

2012-11-08 10.15.10-1 Close to Ranthambore is the old town of Sawai Madhophur.  It typifies Rajasthan, in microcosm.  You have to go there.

The main road is a single track once made of tarmac, now mostly stones, garbage, dust and dirt.  On both sides the wide borders of stones, garbage, dust and dirt are crammed with cars, camels, carts and motorbikes.  Hugger mugger beyond you see dark huts and hovels, patched with plastic sheeting, substantial verandahs swathed in lines of washing, and open-fronted shops rejoicing in a kaleidoscope of wares, but first you notice the open drains that swirl dark things along and leak into muddy patches, because half-clothed kids are squatting above to pee and long-snouted hairy pigs are snuffling within for food.  But you’re anyway  watching out for camel poo and cow pats, and picking your way over the plastic rubbish that lies everywhere, and yes, it all stinks.

Turbaned men in dark shelters stir blackened pots of food for the punters waiting on filthy broken plastic chairs.  Women in garishly bright saris flash gold and silver and tiny mirrors as they swish by carrying bundles on their heads, or squat to sell heaps of vegetables.  Vendors shout, touts inveigle, horns blast.  Packs of dogs roam,  camels lollop along towing long carts.  There are smells of dust, food, marigold and incense, but it is the stench of drains and shit and garbage that keeps stopping your breathing.

Heat blasts you.  Dust balloons around you.  Men in the many mechanics’ workshops rev diesel engines.  Huge heavy lorries blaring cacophonous jangly Indian music cut swathes down the track, their gross loads bulging over their ornately painted wooden sides and their Diwali tinsel swags swinging joyfully.  Tractors rumble by.  The traffic beeps and hoots and honks and blasts, inching forward, cutting in;  and peacefully plodding through the teeming melee are the bony-shouldered holy cows, ears twitching at flies, ambling away to nose through the heaps of plastic garbage for food.  The traffic just eases around them.  No one gets cross.  Patience rules.

All this happens all over Rajasthan.  But it all happens altogether, in Sawai Madhophur.

From here by sleeper train to Jaisalmer.   We were nervous because we’d had to make do with 2nd class but in the event bore the hardship with fortitude.  (On our tickets we notice we are always allotted the lower berths because of our age…  Isn’t that sweet!)  By now we are used to the rats that we see from the platforms, busying themselves in the dark between the rails, but we’re still wary of some of the shady characters who sleep or just lurk beside us as we wait in the night gloom, along with half of India, for our train to arrive.

A teeming town with another stunning mountain fort, more gracious palaces and courtyards, amazing Hindu temples and enough history and culture to earn you that wonderful lunchtime beer or evening gin, sipped on a roof-top restaurant with a dazzling night view .

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And so to a camel safari. 20121111_151701 In the middle of the scrub desert was a muddy little oasis, and round it stood our group of camels.  You’re told to lean back when your chosen camel is ordered to rise up with you on board, but the action is so violent it’s astonishing to find yourself safe and ten feet up.  I got Rocket and Bob got Lucky and I don’t know another way to put that!  Punam, our camel driver, led them on a string through the desert.  Idling through a beautiful desert with your legs dangling as you sway to the camel’s rhythm is a fabulous way to explore India and one we didn’t want to end, but after we’d gone some way into the dunes Punam selected a site to make camp.  On a tiny fire of scraps he made chai, the sweet, milky tea laced with ginger, cinnamon, cloves, pepper and cardomon that is just perfect sipped in the desert as the sun goes down.  Then he freed the camels, cooked a 4-dish curry, made chapattis and carried our bedding to the spot we’d chosen on the dunes.  And so into our bedrolls.  And so to freeze.  It’s very, very cold on a windy ridge of desert dunes!  Oh but why should you care when the sand lies silent all around and the great black sky hangs above like a vast velvet umbrella, pinpricked in a million glittering places by the lights of some heaven beyond?

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Back to earth.   Next day,  Next day, after the homeward trek, we were both nursing weeping scabs on our bums (something from the saddles?) and I was streaming with congestion brought on by the fierce dry desert air.  A roadside pharmacist sold me 5 days’ worth of antibiotics plus analgesics:  70p the lot and we boarded another sleeper train.

Jodhpur, another mountain fortress, another crammed ancient city.  But now it was Diwali and the place was manic.  The streets teemed;  everyone had come out to buy or sell.  It made Oxford Street on Christmas Eve seem like a Sunday school outing.  At dusk we watched from a rooftop as people placed floating candles round their windows and parapets, to show Lord Rama the way home and to celebrate the victory of good over evil.  Then the fireworks began, the idea being to take the light of goodness into the sky.  There were explosions of colour, explosions of noise, reverberations of thunder and screams of rockets – all through the night.   They also put ordnance in clay pots for maximum effect, so bombs exploded, buildings rocked – all through the night.  Now we know what it was like on the Somme! Jodhpur rocked, man, did it rock!  And this would go on for five days and nights, without stopping, booming and banging – except we escaped.

Insulated in our air-con car we drove to the remote Wilderness Camp, where we soaked up the silence and sipped gin outside our huge tent, watching the silence go by as the sun went down.  Here we were taken round the villages of the Bishnoi tribe, remarkable because their love of nature extends to the women suckling any orphans of the antelopes that they hold sacred.  Also  20121115_164948remarkable because we watched the opium eaters at their ceremony, at the end of which we were politely invited to sample some opium.  Now this was a legit private tourist performance and the opium was low grade stuff, I knew, so when they offered us some I decided no harm could come of a little experimentation.  Then I saw how they took it – the opium wallah pours the brown liquid he’s distilled into  his cupped palm and you slurp it out of his hand.   Common hygiene overrode my curiosity …

Care for a little opium, Vicar?

Care for a little opium, Vicar?

So at last to Udaipur, the lakeside city where Pussy Galore was filmed.  When Will went, many years ago, he was feted everywhere because his great-aunt, Lois Maxwell, used to play Miss Moneypenny.  So I, being even more closely related of course, expected the red carpet and laid Cunning Clues for hoteliers and tour operators.  No one was impressed.  Not even a free drink.  Far less an upgrade.

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The opulent lake palace, known to Bond fans as Pussy’s palace, is now one of the world’s most extravagant and bleedin’ expensive hotels.  We rewarded ourselves for the enormous struggle we’d had getting our house in Wakefield ready for letting and allowed the rent  treat us to a couple of nights.  What a place!  The waters of the lake lapped at our bedroom window, the walls of our room had been hand-painted with ancient designs, the cushions scattered over our lush window seat were jewel-encrusted.  A fabulous end to a fabulous tour.

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If you’ve got this far, thank you.  You can put away those travel brochures now – just go to Rajasthan.

Thank you everyone for your quite astonishing support and encouragement with this blog.  I’m bowled over by the wonderfully encouraging things you’re saying.  It’s a struggle to get up to date with the posts but one day another blog will follow about our first visitors and our Indian Christmas …

By now it’s a little late to wish you a lovely Christmas but Bob and I do hope you had a great time, and that 2013 brings you all that your heart desires.

But now the palms are waving and the sea is calling….

Tinaji

India has changed me ….

(Click to enlarge)

When recently we went away, coming back felt like coming home.  We loved it;  we’re very happy here.  There’s been one dump of tail-end monsoon rain since we first arrived, but otherwise it’s day-long sunshine.  It’s not quite so full-on hot as it was, the sea’s cleared of jellyfish, the shacks are all serving beer and curry and lime sodas, and a few tourists have appeared.

20121130_081230Our huge balcony is full of plants – well, I had to grow something,  didn’t I!  (Actually there’s an eyesore behind the house, somebody’s illegal building that was forcibly aborted, which ruins one view and needed screening.)   We have potted up mangoes, oleanders, palms and banana trees (they cost peanuts), a veritable forest, and now that the monsoon heat and most of its mozzies have gone we sit high up on the balcony at dawn and dusk, watching birds flying by and the tall nearby coconut palms waving in the breeze, sipping tea or a drink.  Booze is cheap.  How does gin at £2 a bottle sound?  The tonic’s more expensive!

We bought bikes (two brand new ones for £100, bells, baskets, locks and stands included) so we roam around the lanes or go shopping on them.  Like everyone else we negotiate round the cows that amble freely round the roads.  No one gets cross or shoos them;  they’re holy. They’re milked but their flesh is never used.  One sick old cow lay in the street for 3 days, lovingly covered with blankets and flowers as she died.   Water buffalo and pigs huff and snort as they wallow in the lily pond or graze the verges.

Colva’s postman was effusive with relief to meet us and know that our piles of redirected mail really are being collected from our doorstep.  (Remember, most of the other eight houses here are unoccupied and the others only occasionally let to tourists.  We like it because it’s so private.)  So our post is delivered, yes, even the redirected Saga junk mail and Churchill insurance flyers.

Most people we pass on our lane say good morning, (unless they’re Russian).  Owners of the shacks call out to banter with Bob.   We buy as many tiger prawns as we can eat for all of £2.30  from the women squatting by baskets of fish at the market.  Men running fruit and veg stalls bring out their best coriander from the back of their stalls for us, dig out avocadoes the size of Charentais melons or explain what to do with strange vegetables.  Pineapples, mangoes and papayas are mouth-wateringly excellent, and we gorge on fruit for breakfast on our terrace.  Eating is a treat, whether it’s spicy Indian curries at the shacks or Bob’s wonderful salads under the trees here.  Everyone shops every day because they don’t have fridges, so everything’s fresh.  It’s also very, very cheap.

We run most mornings before it gets hot, sometimes by the paddy fields where rectangles of grey floodwaters lie like mirrors.  White egrets, herons and kingfishers patrol the edges and people stoop in lines along the water, slipping rice plantlets into the water.  We finish by jogging along the huge empty beach, before collapsing into the sea for a cooler. We used to be very wary of a guy on the beach practising his golf.  The beach is 100m wide, but how do we know how accurate his swing is once we’ve trotted past?  We’ve now met him and his wife, and were thrilled to be invited to dinner, together with another Indian couple from Paniji.  Santosh and Sharmila live round the corner and the evening really made us feel we belong.

Goan beaches are known for their roaming dogs, all very nice-natured.  Two strays have adopted us, not that we feed or water them or ever touch them;  they just like the company.  They sleep on the porch and come running with us, and since they guard the house when we’re away even Bob has come to like them.  “Come on Chocolate Chip and Caramel, time for a swim,” he says, and right into the sea with us they come.  They sleep under our sunbeds and go for anyone who approaches our things.  They are a problem when we go to a shack to eat however, because they insist on lying under our table, and the owners  shoo them off.

So that’s the good side of home.  And to cope with the other side, we’ve learned sanguinity (dontcha just love that word?).  It’s that or go mad.  No one does what they say.  Nothing works.  Things you got to work yesterday develop a new tic today.  Everything you buy is badly made and filthy, but everything.  From bedding to plastic chairs, every item we bought to stock this house needed washing.  Guess it was all stood through the monsoon on a roadside stall being alternately drenched and coated in dust.  Clothes unravel on first wash.  Sheets fray because they aren’t hemmed.  Things break because they’re rubbish.  It’s all so unnecessary!  Just a little more effort and things would last longer!

The internet is as petulant as a premenstrual teenager.  Reminds me of the early days, waiting for the connection to be restored, coaxing your laptop into responding.  It’s best in the morning but you guys are still asleep then.  The phone signal comes and goes so you miss calls.  The voltage waxes and wanes so much that last night the telly finally gave up.  It only ever plays bang-bang-you’re-dead movies with the slightest swear word bleeped out and the sound so distorted you have to read the subtitles.  We sat and read but often we could hardly see and the fans ran slow or suddenly whizzed.  I did a bit of ironing and without the fans the sweat trickled in rivulets down my legs.  We dared not open the windows because of mozzies.   I went to make our favourite iced coffee but previous power cuts had thawed the ice.  Welcome to India!

But the individual quirks of this house have been improved.  When we threatened not to pay the balance of rent until the house was finally made habitable an electrician was suddenly produced.  He replaced the main fuse, swapping 16v for 32v (comprende?  Me neither, but you get the picture) and hey presto, we have a tenth the number of cuts we used to.  Simple. We got a plumber who at least got us a supply of water, stopped the constant overflowing from the roof and cleaned the mud out of the tank, but we do have to operate an electric pump when the taps run dry (it always happens when you’re covered in shampoo!) and occasionally even the mains fails or stinks of chemicals.  We shouldn’t complain as lots of Indians only get water running for one fixed hour in the morning and one in the evening.  Hence in cities the morning rush hour can be timed to half an hour after the water’s switched off.  We hardly ever encounter a dirty or smelly person:  washing is very important to Indians, of body and clothes.  I’ve seen men on the ghats (long steps alongside a river) swish aside the flotsam and slip into the water with their soap, wash first themselves and then their clothes, slap slap on the steps, then get out, get dry, put on clean clothes and roar off on a motorbike to work.  And of course the groups of Indian women in their bright saris are legendary, squatting by the river as they whack their washing on the ghats before carrying it home in baskets on their heads.  Kids emerge from hovels to go to school in immaculate uniforms, which makes Bob envious, remembering his endless tussles over uniform with kids at his school!

But this fastidiousness does not extend to rubbish.  It lies everywhere, mostly dirty plastic, and is grossly ugly and smelly.  You never walk anywhere without watching where you put your feet.  Our maid, Fatima, is supposed to deal with our rubbish, so we were distressed to spot it in a nearby hedge.  Turns out there are no collection or dumping arrangements whatsoever:  you chuck it and if you’re public-spirited you burn it, plastic and all.  My green conscience is much challenged…  Ah but there is one group of sturdy rubbish-collectors.  Karnataka is an adjacent state, a poor relation to wealthy Goa.  It exports impoverished illegal immigrants who are not welcome in Goa.  Some of the women dress in the most stunningly decorative dresses of the brightest red and green, alive with embroidery, glinting with mirror beads, and they themselves are coated in gold and silver jewellery, including enormous  nose rings and 6″ bracelets.  These beautiful, exotic creatures pad barefoot through the undergrowth searching for tin, glass and plastic bottles which they pop into a sack strung from their foreheads, and take off to claim a pittance for their haul.  So now we surreptitiously leave our beer cans and booze bottles on the verge each morning, knowing it will be snapped up in a good cause.

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One of these illegal immigrants inveigled me into going to her hovel to see her pathetic collection of clothes for sale – the usual tie-dye beach-wraps and tops.  The floor space inside the dark hovel  was the size of a small car.  The mud floor was spotless – I left my flipflops outside – as were the pots and pans tucked into the thatch ceiling.   There wasn’t room, surely, for her and her alcoholic husband and their four children to lie on the floor like sardines, let alone sleep.  Her kids were half naked but clean, well-behaved and wonderfully polite (‘Good morning, how are you,’ they practised, before giggling).  I sat on a mat and viewed her sorry collection and from guilt bought some trash.  She has to hide from the police and even some locals and she isn’t able to trade openly.  That’s one person who’ll get a lot of our stuff when we go!

This next bit is not for the faint hearted;  if you are of delicate constitution may wish to skip it.  We had to call a plumber because the loo was blocked.  After all our water problems he’s a familiar friend to us by now, and he tootled up on his scooter, as usual bringing no tools other than a mobile, viewed the problem and asked for our tools!  So we lent him It, our precious hammer (90p in the bazaar), with which he attempted to smash the concrete over the drain.  Defeated, he fetched a mate and the one and only tool that Indian workmen ever have, a pickaxe.  And so was revealed the vile secret of our septic tank: ‘Chamber block-ed.’  To clear it he asked to borrow a plastic bowl or bucket.  These only cost us 90p – £1.50 in the bazaar but I didn’t fancy cleaning them after he’d finished and I still had English expectations of professionalism so I said no. So he asked for and got our strongest plastic bag.  Where would I like the stuff to be put?  Next door looks empty, he said, lob it over the garden wall?  Now we have been a bit worried that down-and-outs might be using the ruin next door, so I quite relished the idea of putting them off, but the thought of our smell revisiting us over the wall deterred me.  We settled on digging a deep pit in our garden, and the versatile pickaxe was used.  I won’t go into details of the transfer into the pit using only my plastic bag, but when he asked if he could use my phone to update the agent I thought of those hands on my phone, made an excuse and gave him the number to call on his own phone.  Ha!  ‘You speak to agent first,’ he said, ‘explain him,’ and passed me his filthy phone…   I spent hours with bleach once he’d left, sanitising everything he’d touched in the house.  But at least we now flush happily.

Here’s another nasty episode.  We’re getting used to the odd cockroach and the frenzy of smashing it into the floor, but this was a nightmare.  One morning, yeah OK, it was after a heavy night when I hadn’t cleared up the kitchen before going to bed, I found ants by the kettle when I made my early morning cuppa.  Cleared them up and noticed pricking feelings up my legs – looked down and the floor was covered in them, they were up my legs, on my hands, in my hair, and they were biting.  Sluiced myself and the floor.  Turned round and the work surface was seething with them.  Sluiced them off.  Found more.  Sluiced them off.  Cleared the entire kitchen.  Flooded it.  Retreated with the cuppa.  One hour later they’d all come back…  This time we tracked their trail in the garden and sprayed it.  That taught ‘em!

So that’s how life is in Goa:  pretty fantastic.  We have Tamsin and Phil arriving shortly, the first of a cavalcade of visitors which we are greatly looking forward to.  Sorry this post is a bit past its happening date, but life is very challenging and it’s no good trying to be in a hurry here.  Anyway, my next post will be about our quick trip to Rajasthan.  Now there’s an exciting state!

Tinaji

India has changed me ….                   (Click to enlarge)

 

It was frantic vacating our house, emptying it with Pickfords, getting it clean for our tenants and getting us and our suitcases (won’t tell you how many) off to the plane, ready to start our six months in India.  We had  two happy days in a luxury hotel in Mumbai to calm down.  Then we took the night train to Goa.

Wow.

Wow.  Eleven o’clock at night and the very long, very broad platform was packed a good hour before the train came in.  Porters pushing freight loads 8 foot high and 20 foot long just had to weave in and out of folks’ encampments.  The black beast of a train arrived, jammed with passengers coming up from Goa.  We saw them packed in, rows of faces, rows of bodies, even humans sitting in rows of 8 in the overhead luggage nets, above those on the seats.  As it slowed the men on the platform laid siege to it, boarding it as it ran and bagging a place for themselves before the incoming passengers had vacated.  How glad were we to have a porter for all our suitcases and how glad to have two berths in a 4 berth aircon sleeper carriage, which was already occupied by a delightful Indian couple and their little girl.  She spent the journey counting to 120 in English – impressive for a Hindi-speaking 5yr old!  (I have since seen the homework book of a 6 year old boy living in a roadside store.  He had English spellings like ‘circus’ and ‘beautiful,’ which are words I used to give to my cleverest 5 year olds, who also had only just learned to count to 120.  Makes you think.) Back to the train.  In the morning I often stood by the main door to our wagon, which was always wide open to the country, just watching beautiful India roll by but hanging on to the door posts for grim death!  When our huge train (1,200 passengers, 20 carriages) lumbered round a curve I looked back and in the cattle class carriages I saw the windows, heavily barred, body parts poking through the bars as if to escape the crush.

We’re going to repeat the sleeper experience, which tells you it was fine.  Our agent, Himanshu, met us with porters and brought us to the house, and then the fun began.  Here are a few of the things that have driven us to despair via the gin bottle.

·         It was filthy.  Sticky with dirt and mould.  Everything you touched or opened.  The bed sheet was dirty where it had touched the dusty bed.  Cupboards dusty.  An insect nest high up that caused droppings all over the shower tidy.  Lovely wooden doors and windows, thick with sticky dirt.  A fridge that took 2 hours to clean.  Every item in the kitchen – and there were precious few of those – had to be washed, every surface, every cupboard.  No cleaning stuff whatsoever.  Three drying up cloths.

·          It stank of damp.  The Monsoon ended a couple of days before and the place didn’t seem to have been aired.  Everywhere you see or smell the effects of the damp.  Outside it crawls down every building  in dismal grey patches that are horribly disfiguring.  (Think English seafront and multiply!)

·         It has very little furniture, even less kitchen equipment.

·          We get up to 3-4 power cuts daily.  This isn’t because India is India, it’s because there’s a fault which hasn’t been dealt with and our landlord, Sebi, appears unable to get an electrician.  Indian nights without light are very black and Indian heat without aircon is very hot!  Being just post-Monsoon, October is a dangerous time for mozzies, which carry several lethal diseases at this particular time, so we have to seal the house from 5pm when the little buggers get going.  No power, no fan, no aircon, no light – get the picture?

·         The water tank overflows down the outside of the house in torrents.  Continuously.

·         Far from being in a residential area as promised (so we could meet Goan people) every one of the neighbouring 8 houses is unoccupied and looks derelict, mould creeping down the outside walls and a monsoon’s worth of weeds waiting to be cut back.  Some of them have started to be renovated, for tourists, but there isn’t a regular neighbour anywhere.  So instead we enjoy the peace.

·         There’s no hot water in the kitchen.  Sebi says he can’t connect it because he’d have to knock down a wall.

·         The ceiling fans make knocking noises.  Drives you crazy but you have to stay cool.  All they need is servicing.

·         Etc, etc.  I wont go on because you’ve got the picture.

To cheer ourselves up that first day we took ourselves up the sandy path at the top of which you can see the sea.  The beach didn’t look nice and there were jelly fish and the sea seemed cloudy  and for the first time ever the sea did not do its magic on our spirits.  Next day we told the agent we’d move if our To Do list didn’t get DONE.

And it nearly is.  This is a story with a happy ending.  We’ve been here a week now, worked extraordinarily hard, cleaned and scrubbed, waited for people who don’t turn up, waited for promised things like bowls and buckets that don’t appear, been promised things again and again, but we’ve nearly cracked it and it seems like home – and we love it!!!

The house has marble floors throughout.  The best feature is a huge, wonderful upstairs balcony with lovely views.  I take a green tea out there as close to dawn as I can manage:  the grey air is cool and gentle and the birds’ songs and views of swishing palm trees is more peaceful than any meditation.  We’ve spent a fair bit,  on things like a soft mattress, which we’d always half expected, but also on plastic buckets, cleaning materials, storage systems, plastic tables and chairs etc, which was not.  We are provided with a cleaner called Fatima who is not to blame for the state of the place.  She lives in a tiny hut and hasn’t been taught sophisticated ideas of cleanliness or provided with any cleaning materials.  Well, she’s now being taught and being provided!  Cant wait to see her face when she sees the mop bucket!!  Which reminds me of my ecstasy, yes ecstasy, when Ani, the landlady, finally produced an iron and ironing board and a wash basket.  You see what I’m reduced to.  But we do have great faith now in our agent, Himanshu, who gives us wonderful advice and services and forces Sebi to get things done.  He has much more clout than us.

We’re loving the peace.  From the village of Colva you reach us along a narrow coastal lane, passing riotous greenery, a couple of dirt-floored caffs or bars, a roadside stall selling fabulous fruit and veg (mangoes, lychees, custard apples plus the obvious tropical fruit) and one stall with live chickens plus a bloody chopping board and hatchet…  There’s a fat pig that wallows in the swamp and this morning when we were eating our breakfast on the balcony we saw a kingfisher hunting over the lily pond and hundreds of dragonflies came out as the sun got warm.  Fisherfolk live here and there, some in encampments of huts, some in little bungalows or rooms.  Most days they spread miles of red nets along the little road (and you thought it was for cars!) and cover it with little fish, to bake dry in the sun.  No one seems to mind the odd bit of rubbish, sun-baked dog shit, cattle mess or diesel spills under the nets. People and scooters and taxis manage to get by, and at the end of the day children and women scoop the dry fish into baskets for market.  That’s one fish dish we’ll avoid!

A hundred yards away is the nearest restaurant which just happens to be the best in Colva.  Feet in the sand, darkest black sky with stars overhead, palms all around, a large Kingfisher beer(650ml) for 80p and a fish curry to die for if you can spare £2:  yeah, Goa’s all right.

We have found a wonderful taxi-driver named Augustine who takes us to Margao.  “Augustine, today we need a mattress, some plants, citronella joss sticks and lots of plastic things,” and he drives us to all the right places.  He’s told us about the festival tomorrow, which everyone is terribly excited about (us too now!).  The main street is already full of stalls being erected, lights being rigged.  There’ll be a parade and hundreds of bargains to buy.  It’s a Catholic festival, Augustine explained (Hindu and RCism being predominant).  Scratching my head over what Christian festival could be celebrated in October, I asked him.  “It’s to celebrate when the Baby Jesus landed in Goa,” he said.  Betcha never knew that!!

Today we’re going to beach-walk northwards, with dips in the sea and stops for reading.  The last rain fell the day before we arrived – how jammy are we!  The sea, you’ll be pleased to know, is wonderful once more.  We’re told the jellyfish disappear soon, being part and parcel of the Monsoon.  Two shacks are being built in the palms on our way to the sea so soon we shall have more lovely places to eat on our doorstep.  Shacks are restaurants that are erected on the beach after the Monsoon, for the duration of the dry season.  It’s been lovely to watch them progress from large bamboo skeletal structures and see the men perching high up, laying palm fonds for roofs and walls, and to get to know the guy who’ll soon be cooking our biryani!

Getting online and getting an Indian Sim have caused a history of promises and muddles and disappointments.  India may be technologically savvy in some ways, but it is still India, and nothing’s simple.  However, at last I’m set up.  So here you are.  More will follow.

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