Sometimes, if not often, it is achingly difficult to write about the things we love. We arrived back to our Hyderabad home just as the sun was rising this morning, after the uber driver took the wrong road, google maps proved utterly unreliable and our directions were limited to his only understanding "STRAIGHT" and when we pointed left or right. After signing in, unpacking and getting poori for breakfast (always a brilliant start to the day for me) Alex has been catching up on sleep while I write.
The one thing I’ve been wondering in the hours since I returned is how best to put the past week into words. I realised the best way was to divide it up into chapters since a novelist could not have written this week any better. Six friends spend a glorious week by the seaside – relishing 33 degree days, mid-afternoon beach visits aplenty, an abundance of compliments (apparently I look like Emma Watson now, woohoo) and many a marriage proposal from Indian men declined, all while staying in a 150 year old room that is steeped in Indian & Portuguese history. But this is no novel, of course. All this really happened and I’m left thanking my lucky stars (and gorgeous fellow PT volunteers & friends) for a week brimming with so much joy that I am forced to pinch myself, just to check it really did come to pass.
There is a softness to the beginning of the week. A hopeful naivety. Within our little hyderafamily everything feels truly good. Eagerly anticipating our first holiday, we are invincible in our optimism. At the beginning getting two new classes all at once would have overwhelmed me, but this time we manage it. It feels good to be busy again, and I amaze myself at how much I manage to squeeze into a day. My phone is mistakenly topped up with 2G and even though we're on different carriers, as Alex has 4G Chaitanya suggests she just gives me a G so that we both have 3G. (That's totally how internet data works, right?) I have been laughing thinking about that conversation all week long.
Bharavi and Sugathi, our country hosts, come to visit us briefly before we leave for Goa. We are in the middle of editing poetry when they arrive, as one of the consultants in LVPEI is also a poet and we've found ourselves agreeing to edit his latest book. That's one of my favourite things about my project I think, that I find myself working on so many things I never imagined I would be doing when I first came here. Another highlight was managing to get money out of the ATM for the first time since September and the currency crisis that took place not long ago. If you're wondering, it's still all rather shambolic and not fifteen minutes after we managed to withdraw money, the blue shutters had been pulled down and the all too familiar "Out Of Money" sign was back in place. Leading up to Goa, I'm eagerly counting down the days, and yet at the same time I don't want to because already it feels like my time in India is slipping away from me. I know we're not even halfway though yet, but time feels like it's been going faster than it was before, however impossible that may be.
VASCO DE GAMA
So, on the third week in January we finally made it to the sea. On Sunday evening it was looking unlikely as we climbed out of our broken-down uber ride in Kalimandir, just ten minutes into our big adventure, followed by a wait in the smoggy confines of Nampally Railway Station, and spending nearly two extra hours on our little red train berths because of a delay; but really, it made finally arriving in Vasco de Gama on Monday afternoon all the more thrilling. Although to quote Emma, Vasco 'stinks of fish' it was a nice change after spending seventeen hours on a train.
In reality, the train was far better than I'd expected, as I'd been dreading being stuck on a train for so long. Although at first we were entirely clueless as to what to do, so waited down below, quietly working up the courage to climb up onto our top berths and contemplating how best to do so without falling off. After a few bumps and bruises I feel like I mastered it. We had only been able to book berths in 3AC, while turned out to be a blessing as they came with pillows and bedding, allowing me to get comfy and fall asleep almost instantly. Alex always laughs at me for easily falling asleep on buses, trains and in cars, but I think sometimes being such an easy (and deep) sleeper has benefits. Sleeping made the journey feel so much shorter, and it's no secret to anyone that spending a day in bed is easy for me. Ask me any day where I’d most like to be and my answer will likely be in bed.
We've been so busy lately too, that I've not had a bed-day in ages, so it was really nice to have absolutely nothing at all to do for the first time in four months. There’s something about trains and travelling – the excitement, likely, and the rumble of the train on the tracks – that instantly calms and satisfies me. You know those silly things that make you feel more you? As though you’ve been walking two feet behind yourself all this time and have finally caught up with yourself again? That’s how going to Goa made me feel.
From Vasco de Gama we reject an offer of a taxi to take us for 1,200 and have resolved to getting a bus when a taxi driver offers to take us both for 300 rupees. We share it with a couple from Calcutta and are in Panjim before we know it.
In Panjim, we are based in a quarter called Fontainhas, and staying in a little white house belonging to the old-quarter hostel. I liked Fontainhas from the moment we first arrived there, when it's muraled walls and colourful houses looked especially beautiful in the gorgeous, blond, buttered sunlight of early afternoon. Even though our room was down the road, we had to check into the main hostel, and so we meet the other volunteers - hyderabuddies Jenny & Emma and our lovely roomates from back on Coll, Emma & Sarah - mere moments after we arrive because they are staying in the dorms in the main building. It is so good to be reunited, and I miss them all already.
We're a ten-minutes walk down the street, in a simple room with light yellow curtains on the doors and a little red cushion seat that made me realise just how much I miss having a couch. We have to share a bathroom with everyone else, but it's rare for everyone to be in at the same time, and so we rarely have to wait. The whole street is colourful and marked by it's Portuguese past, so much so, that the first thing Alex & I remark to each other is that it feels nothing like the India we've grown to love. If you hadn't told me where I was, I'd have looked around at the women and street signs and assumed I was in Europe. When I google it later, I discover it's the only place in India where Portuguese is still the main spoken language.
The hostel itself was so western it even annoyed me at times, isn't that strange? I'm a wee bit of a chai addict now, so when I'm told there is a free breakfast, complete with tea and coffee, my eager anticipation is crushed when I scan the available teas -green, british, lemon etc- and discover chai isn't part of the offer. When I ask for some from the paying menu (where it's labled as chai-tea latte - definitely not in Hyderabad anymore) I'm told they don't have any. I get fresh apple juice instead and it tastes like those rotten, soggy apples you can't eat anymore. We're even more disappointed when breakfast comes an hour later without the eggs we were excited for as they'd run out.
Thankfully our disappointing start to the day only made me more appreciative of how lovely the rest of it was. The hours were marked by the sort of contented moments that, if only I could, I would press between the pages of a book like a flower, so that I could return to them always.
After getting ready, the six of us started walking, chattering away as we caught up on many months of news, across the river, and through Panjim in the mid-day sunshine to the bus stand. Despite the heat, we built up a brisk pace as we talked about our respective projects and cities, politics, family and the future. There’s something lovely about walking and talking, isn’t there? Especially when you have a lot to catch up on. We get a thirty minute bus to Candolim and walk to the beach. It is full of tourists and its kind of disconcerting. I don't feel like I'm in India at all.
We see a place called Alex's shack, but we go to the place next door as it has free wifi and the man -Vinny- tells us if we eat we get sunbeds free. While we have lunch they arrange the sunbeds for us. Alex, Sarah, Emma and I go in the water, but the current is strong and the waves keep carrying me away, nearly stealing my bikini a few times. It's beautiful to be in the sea again regardless, and is such a change from having to go in fully clothed like we did in Hyderabad. I thought I would like this, and I do, yet being somewhere so touristy means I feel less at home than usual. Goa in general feels worlds away from Hyderabad, and being somewhere unfamiliar makes me feel brand-new to India all over again.
The one thing that is different in a positive way is that the sheer amount of tourists means we’re surrounded by foreign beach-goers and so no one comments or stares at us for being white. Somebody says, “this is the way it should be.” I agree wholeheartedly with that. A woman who comes by trying to sell things sits down in the sand to chat with us, and she tells us all "you are like indian girls" because we've all mastered the indian head-shake that once used to drive me crazy. Her statement makes me laugh, and yet as I watch her talking to the next group of people, who nod like I used to, I begin to realise all the little subtle things I do now, after four months in India. These new habits I've developed.
The next morning, after waking up late, we make plans to go to Anjuna market for the day. The other girls are leaving Panjim for Madgoa and so after checkout they leave everything in our room until later. We have to get two buses, passing by a Holy Family Church (!!!) and a carnival, until we see a finally see a sign saying: Welcome to Anjuna. Home of blood orange sunsets, amazing markets, hipsters and those having a mid-life crisis. Okay, so the sign didn't actually say that last part, but it really should have. The little side streets are crammed full of soul-searchers on motorbikes, more man buns than I've ever before seen and tourists armed with guide books and cameras lurk at every corner. The noisy India that I have fallen in love with, the India that has only been ours for the past four months, was a little harder to find and for that reason I'm not entirely convinced I like Anjuna.
I had a beautiful day there, don't get me wrong. I think it was just the strangeness of hearing familiar accents again, of ordering from menus where all the food is familiar and pronounceable, and having to truly bargain with market-sellers, using our limited Hindi in an effort to convince them we knew we were being overcharged. India has never treated me like a tourist before, I've never felt like a visitor, and so to be one felt strange. Strange because deep down, Indian as I might feel, I was in an unfamiliar place- Anjuna dances to it's own song, and it's not a song I know. In fact, much of Anjuna – particularly the market area – felt like a tourist trap designed to ensnare even the canniest traveller. Maybe I'm comparing it too much to Secunderabad, maybe they aren't so different, and yet, if that is true, then in Anjuna it was harder to ignore. Much of the market was marked by souvenir stalls hawking om-printed wares and overpriced buddha statues, men on every corner trying to persuade us to buy drums, while ‘traditional indian snack bars’ lay in wait, designed to take all your rupees and maybe give you food poisoning for the privilege. I liked Goa, but I think I'm glad to be living somewhere like Hyderabad that is more authentically Indian.
Anjuna Market was really cool too, and I bought new bedsheets and continued my obsession with all things elephant related. As the woman was getting my sheet from the display, she casually handed me her baby girl to hold as she did so, who was adorably cute for a few minutes until she decided she didn't like me very much and started to bawl. She was soon passed onto Alex, who she liked a little better. Talking of Alex, Anjuna Market may well go down in history as a momentous day for my partner, who finally, FINALLY, found flipflops she liked and that fitted her well enough for her to buy them after four months in India wearing her vans and converse. After all the hours we have spent searching secunderabad and big bazaar, I never thought I'd ever see the day.
That night, as the girls left for Madgoa, Alex & I were left to explore Panjim alone. Even though I'd seen a restaurant we hadn't tried yet, it turned out to be full and we spent a while wandering around a quiet Fontainhas, realising the lack of places to go. We end up back where we ate on our first night, beside the river, eating feta cheese (when you've not had it in four months!) in Portuguese -style India, reflecting on the days we'd spent.
holy family church!
MAGOA & COLVA
The next morning we have to check out by 12, so we get up early for breakfast as I want to visit Panjim's Church of the Immaculate Conception. After deciding we had enough time to reach there, we head out. It's up lots of steps, making it seem so much bigger than it is inside, but so early in the morning it was dark and quiet and peaceful and it reminds me of Holy Family, although I can't quite pinpoint why as they're not terribly alike. I pray for a safe journey home for us. Afterwards we've still got time to spare, so we go for hot chocolate in a cafe round the corner, since the one in the hostel was overly pretentious and never seemed to have what I wanted to order. (It was one of those can I have..? no. How about...? no. This? no. What can I have? *man points to menu I've just tried to order from* "Menu is here mam") Afterwards we check out and get a taxi to Magoa from Panjim with all our bags.
We arrive in Magoa about half two, and don't want to waste the day, so get out our beach stuff, and after asking reception where to go, we hop on a bus to Colva beach. It's much quieter and we have lunch by the sea. I've not laughed so much in ages as I did in Colva. Mostly thanks to a boy called Ritesh who tells Alex "your friend looks like Emma Watson" and tries a variety of other compliments to try and get me to talk to him. Nothing but sand between my toes and sun on my skin, enjoying having time to read and do absolutely nothing. For that afternoon everything in my world was perfect.
I'd rarely plan for myself holidays that revolve around nothing but relaxing, swimming, eating, sleeping – I always think I like to be out and about experiencing culture, meeting people, taking trains cross-country – but no, since this Goa jaunt, I’d say a card-carrying convert to ‘slow travel’ (codeword for: doing absolutely nothing while eating and swimming as much as is humanly possible.) It was a whirlwind, if ever there was one – trains and buses, just over three days in Goa, not counting the two spent on trains, but whirlwinds are welcome, sometimes.
When we get back to Magoa, we spend the evening watching doctor who on the telly, having showers and I repay Alex for killing a cockroach by using the shower head to get rid of the worm that decides to share her shower. The search for places to eat continued as we walked around hopelessly, eventually finding a side street with a pure-veg restaurant on it. Alex has paneer and I have sweet and sour, but while I am okay, she wakes up the next morning with food poisoning, two hours before our train.
The train back to Hyderabad, for me, was an entertaining one, while poor Alex was getting far too acquainted with the on-board washrooms. When lunchtime arrives, Alex is sleeping and not up for any food, but as I go to pay for my own biranyi I hear this voice down below (I was on the top berth) saying "Will mummy be okay with you buying that?" I look down, confused, to discover the man is actually speaking to me. "My mummy?' I say, baffled. He points to Alex and says; "mummy is not well, na?" There are three businessmen down below me and another man pipes in with "no mama! sister?" "No, no, no!" I say, "she is my friend, not my mother." They nod as if they understand, but when she wakes up later, I realise they have not understood me at all.
I go to the bathroom, meeting one of them on route: "mummy knows where you are going?"
When Alex wakes up: "mummy, how are you feeling?"
Dinner time: "mummy, is there anything I can get for your child?" and to me "you want curd rice? chapati? mummy will not eat, I know."
It takes everything in me not to burst into hysterics, but when we arrive in Nampally Railway Station at 5:30am and Alex is shaken awake with calls of "mummy, mummy wake up!" and I'm told "don't go without mummy, na?" I can't hold it in any longer. As wait for and climb in our taxi, every time I remember it I am laughing.
Monday brings us back to LVPEI. We catch up with everyone over breakfast and chai, get back to teaching and preparing all our lessons, and in our free time we head to the post office to post the letters I attempted to post last Saturday but couldn't because a Hindu festival meant it was shut. I wanted to take photos because it's so different from home. All the stamps are made of paper, and a little tub of glue sits on a separate counter and you apply it using a little stick. This was also the first time we got Gandi stamps, which was cool, and my letter to Holy Family has set the record for the most stamps ever put on a letter home. We visit the tailor, get some sugarcane juice and barter with auto drivers.