At last! Let the good times roll. We have finally made it to the beaches of Southern India. We’re in the state of Goa now, formerly a Portuguese colony. Apparently the Portuguese were a bit heavier handed than the British when it came to “introducing” the locals to Christianity. After some widespread torture and murder, the locals agreed to be Christians, and apparently a lot of them still are. The result? Beer! Available everywhere at a good price. Not the case in the Hindu North, where it is frowned upon at best.
Another nice perk is that cows aren’t holy around here, so they do not aimlessly wander the streets unmolested. The result? The streets are not all covered in cow shit. Sweet! They also have a much better handle on the trash situation here (as a result of the tourist dollars) so the streets are not covered in trash either. Even the beaches are cleaned up every morning. Add a steady ocean breeze to bring in fresh air and we have a veritable paradise, relatively speaking.
I know I’ve bitched a little about the conditions here, and perhaps I’ve been too harsh. After all, this is a third world country but the world’s largest democracy with around 1.3 billion residents. That’s more people than everyone in the entire Western Hemisphere! The average local in Goa makes $4,900 annually, which is more than the national average of $3,500. When you compare that to the $20,600 average income in Mississippi, the poorest state of the union, you start to get an understanding of the challenges India faces.
Despite the poverty, they have jumped on the technology bandwagon and as a result there are more cell phones in India than toilets (53% of homes do not have a lavatory) and more internet users than the population of the U.S. It’s a strange divide considering the average Indian has to work about six hours to afford a Big Mac. However, tradition dies hard here and one woman dies every hour because of dowry-related crimes, and 74% of young Indians still prefer an arranged marriage over a free-choice one. India has such a long history that there are 122 major languages and 1599 other languages, and yet still has the most number of English speakers after the U.S. Pretty impressive.
Anyway, after a 27 hour train ride when we ate nothing but peanut butter sandwiches, we arrived in the town of Arambol. There were opportunities to buy food from vendors, but we didn’t want to take even the slightest risk of getting Delhi belly on such a long train ride. Arambol has been a hippy hangout for decades, but only in the last few years has it been discovered by, surprisingly, Indians. The rising middle class now has the funds to go to the beach on vacation for the holidays. There’s also a bunch of Russians and Israelis here to party. Why it’s so popular with just those countries I haven’t figured out yet. Maybe because it’s cheap here. We’ve seen very few Americans.
We arrived on Christmas day but due to the long train ride we went to sleep right after dinner. After having to work the last two holiday seasons at the St. Regis, we haven’t had a traditional Christmas for three years now. Jen dreams of lights and carols and snow this time of year, but it will all have to wait at least one more year. We do have a comical Charlie Brown Christmas tree in front of our guesthouse. Its few brown and drooping branches hold a few small lengths of garland and a string of lights. Hey, at least he tried.
The next day we met up with Jen’s friend Adrian, one of the most interesting people I’ve met in a long time. Apparently he was raised in a type of gnostic household in Canada and has only gotten more into mysticism since then. He has literally spent years meditating in a single place. More than once, at that. Jennifer and Adrian were friends from Egypt when they both lived in the Sinai in the same camp. As such, they talk about old friends and good times, which sounds normal enough, but then he gives way to long musings about the nature of reality and existence and all is energy and all is one, the self is all we are but there is no self the self is one with all and I am the lord ha ha. This goes on for hours, mind you. It’s a mind-blowing experience just hanging out with him.
The second night we met up with him we went to see a friend of his perform her musical mantra show. Hard to describe, but she has created a humorous musical routine about the habits she follows which make her happy and enlightened. She has a surprisingly good voice and the whole thing was entertaining as well as educational.
Lots of people come here to learn yoga or meditate or become more at peace with themselves and the world. They seek enlightenment, whatever that may mean to them. We’ve been hanging out with some interesting folks and have decided that we, too, want to work on our enlightenment. Jen found a good book that we both have started reading called The Quantum and the Lotus. It’s written as a dialogue between an astrophysicist who became interested in Buddhism and a Buddhist who became interested in astrophysics and quantum physics. It’s a bit heavy, but fascinating.
I had read in the past about some really weird concepts in quantum physics, like quantum entanglement, but had never thought about how that might tie into the Eastern view of reality and spiritualism. Only in the last few decades has science progressed to the point where it can prove that certain particles are somehow mysteriously connected instantaneously and regardless of the distance between them. Although I find that staggering, the Buddhists and Eastern mystics have been saying for the last 2500 years that everything is connected. They might be on to something. As for us, we’re just hoping to do some yoga, meditation, and reading to learn a bit more since we have the time.
We were supposed to meet up with Adrian for New Year’s Eve, but there were so many people thronging the beach that we couldn’t find him near our meeting spot. The beach is about a mile long and I estimate around 30,000 people were on it. Everybody just walking around and taking in the vibe from all of the disparate cultures, as well as checking out the small hippie market and the drum circle that forms daily at sunset. We enjoyed some small fireworks on the beach that people had brought with them, but all in all it was a relatively quiet night for us.
The next day we hiked into the woods to visit a baba, or holy man, who sits under a giant banyan tree in the woods. He was there with his long white beard and robe surrounded by a group of Russians sitting around quietly. Apparently the baba used to speak wise thoughts and give advice, but since he doesn’t speak Russian he’s stopped speaking entirely to his visitors. It was peaceful sitting there quietly, but still a strange experience.
Later we hiked over the hill to the beach next to us. There we found a huge man made sea wall up against a nice wide boardwalk with lighting and everything. Behind it was…nothing. Just trees and scrub leading off into the bush. It’s so strange because here in Arambol there is almost zero infrastructure on the beach. No boardwalk, no public lighting, and very meagre sewage facilities which have led to predictable issues with so many visitors during the holidays. Yet just a mile away is a beach seemingly all set up for crowds, but there’s nobody there. Baffling.
Yesterday we rented a scooter and drove down to Anjuna to see the famous hippie market there. It was massive! All these little stalls are set up side by side in this giant maze of a bewildering array of merchandise. Of course you can get jewelry, t-shirts, and sandals, but you can also find as many brilliantly colored spices that you can imagine, elephants intricately carved out of wood or stone, jackets made of yak fur, and artwork too varied to describe. We must have spent an hour wandering and didn’t see nearly all of it.
With sensory overload, we stopped into a nearby restaurant for lunch and heard a really good all-Indian blues band. It was a nice break from the techno bars that surround most of the beaches. On our drive home we took some back streets through some smaller towns and a fishing village. It was a nice reminder that not all of Goa is made up of tourist shops and bars. We even managed to drive around a police check point which is a common way to squeeze tourists for bribes. Annoying, but understandable when the police are almost as poor as everyone else.
Our first stop in the south was a hit, but we envision even nicer beaches and maybe even a house to rent further down the road. So, we’ll wrap up here and keep goin’ south.