Adventures on an Indian Visa: Week 1
I am nearing the end of my last full day in Britain for a while. I’ve just had the delight of a little farewell fling with a bonnie philosophy graduate. I told her she was something of a champagne bottle that smashes against a ship’s hull as it sets off on its maiden sailing – with better curves. She’s gorgeous, with really curly red hair & delectable lips. I’d met her at a hairdresser friend of mine’s house, where she was trying to get a 60’s style bouffant, but I said it looked more like a volcano – this brutal honesty endeared her to me & we took it from there.
After a night of wine & her fine efforts at cooking a steak, my journey to India began early this morning, departing her lovely warm bed, & continuing onwards up the long slope of Edinburgh’s Leith Walk, my pavement slapping flip-flops conjuring in my direction a number of funny looks.
It was then the long boring, drawling, droning haul on the megabus to Victoria coach station in London, from where I’ve just caught the tube to Heathrow, bought myself a beer & am writing this with a couple of hours to wait til my flight to India, & to say I am excited-slash-shitting myself is a massive understatement.
Rudyard Kipling once mused, ‘East is east & west is west & never the twain shall meet,’ & boy was he right. The flight to the sub-continent began in a dull pre-dawn, slowly permeating the skies above the galaxy of stars that is the city of London. The capital was surrounded by the bright, wavy circuit of the M25 & thro’ the murk it seemed like the delicate golden stitching on some Chinese emperor’s sable suit. Then everything disappeared as we burst through the thick cloud into the strange & eerie nothingness of the upper stratosphere.
We got a break in the clouds as we flew over Turkey & the southern shores of the Black Sea. Beyond a coastal strip of towns, the rest of the landscape bubbl’d with beautiful khaki-coloured hills, some of which were skipp’d with snow. In the distance I could make out the Caucasus, while underneath came the Tigris, & I mused upon the start of mankind, where Mesopotamia irrigated these very plains between the Tigris & the Euphrates, from which culture rose the first cities 8000 years ago.
It was now time to change planes & we dropp’d into Abu Dhabi, a part of the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, seven princely states who joined together about 40 years ago to exploit the petrol-guzzling nations of the world. The airport was a bit mad, full of guys in white shirts, sporting red & white chequer’d tea towels on their heads, fastened in place by two black rubber rings. There were models of formula one cars everywhere, & an amazing departure lounge that looked like the inside of a curling ball, whose hexagon-pattern’d central pillar fanned out like a vase. to merge curvingly with the roof. Then we were off again, for the three & a half hour hop over the Sea of Araby to the subcontinent, towards the end of which I penn’d the following sonnet.
Across Europa we have both progress’d,
By foot, by boat, by tram, by bus, by train,
But this hour, from a cool & pleasant plane,
Sees me sailing air on a grander quest,
The scenes by cyan skies & soft cloud blest,
How seldom seen & varied the terrain
Of ashen peak, urban sprawl, verdant plain,
Gleaming sea, wastes of sand & wylde forest.
As soon as we abandon Europa,
I could already taste the eastern scent,
The sun was setting west of Syria,
The starry heavens singing its lament,
As somewhere yon the grey Arabia
My pilot was beginning his descent.
So I arrived in Mumbai, the former Bombay, another wonderful galaxy of stars in what was to me an obscure corner of the universe. My first impressions were the stench… it stinks! The sweat of a billion people mingling with pollution & sulphur emissions – like one of my own more lethal moments of flatulence, but permanent! After showing my passport & my shiny new six month Indian tourist visa, it was deep in the wee hours & being slightly fucking scared mate I shared a taxi with an innocent & very clean Australian, & off we hurtl’d through the epic sprawl of Mumbai. The city is huge, about 30 million souls rushing around its virtually identical roads, & I felt we were like a couple of white blood-cells surging around the arteries of some phantastical chimera of the days before legends. The taxi driver took us to a reasonable hotel – I think he got commission for it too – & I’m sharing a room with the Australian at this very moment.
So I’m now in India; the diamond of the Victorian crown, a mad labyrinth of a billion souls, a vast myriad of language, race & faith, an empyrean melting pot of empires to explore. Bring it on, I am definitely ready to do this!
My first full day in the very European Mumbai – complete with red double decker buses straight from the Strand – was a sensory montage of sights & smells. As I cut a swathe thro’ the city, all a-sweat with lips parch’d dry, I was assail’d at all sides by various beggars, touts & conmen – but you can’t blag a blagger & I even managed to haggle down the cost of my first score – a strange blend of Indian weed, which proper works!
My first target was the Britannia-topped, Empire-kitsch wonder that is the Victoria Train Station. I bought a ticket for Goa departing the next morning, wanting to get out of the crazy days as soon as possible. Unfortunately, I will have to head across town to my train via the Mumbai rail network, the busiest in the world. In fact half of all India’s trains come in & out of Mumbai, with people clinging to every spare bit of atom, hanging off the roof & sides – I guess it’s gonna be fun.
Leaving the VTS I was soon bless’d by a priest of the elephant-god, Ganesha, & painted with a bindi – the spot in the centre of the forehead which represents the third eye. Ganesha is one of the major deities in the epic Hindu pantheon. ‘In religion,’ said Mark Twain, ‘all other countries are paupers; India is the only millionaire,’ & there are over three million of them here, emanating divinity thro all sorts of obscure things, but the most fascinating one appears to be Kali, a goddess who wears a necklace of shrunken male heads & a dress of sever’d arms. Her whole vibe reminds me a bit my ex, Sally, when she was rife with PMT. Very fucking scary!
My protector goddess, however, seems to be Saraswathi. I was immediately drawn to her, sitting cross-legged playing the sitar, with my favorite bird, the swan, in the background. Turns out she’s the goddess of the arts & wisdom, which is kinda me really, & she’s quite hot too, the whole experience of which led to me penning the following sonnet;
I fixt mine inner eye upon a star,
In darshan stood disturbing deity,
Lull’d by the tantric strains of her sitar,
This purest drop of goddess flew to me
Upon a swan of hue ambrosial,
Her fertile smile still’d time, her luted look
Consorts my heart – sublimely cordial,
She read from the Pustaka’s sacred book;
“Wand’rer, welcome thou art to India,
This sari I have sewn know as thy guide,
Where e’er she willows there stay close behind!”
She closed the page, sail’d high skies to Brahma,
Performing blissful duties of the bride,
Rare have I seen such beauties in my mind.
I then tried my first proper Indian food & tuck’d into a thali; several mini pots of curry + rice bready things, all for 40 rupees (60p). The money is mad; I got 5000 rupees all in fifty notes & feel pretty loaded. I then went down to the beach and somehow ended up renting an elderly ‘friend’ for a hundred rupees (about a pound) who told me where all the Bollywood stars lived (basically pointing at random houses and saying the name of a random Bollywood star). He then took me for a ridiculously cheap & exquisitely hot curry in a kind of shack cafe on the edge of a shanty town call’d Dharavi, made famous by the recent film Slumdog Millionaire. His chat was disturbing, all about his childhood in 1947 when at the dawn of Indian independence, he watched Hindus massacre Muslims in the city streets.
On my way back to the hotel, I visited the Asiatic Society’s Library. A splendid old, white building which still uses cards to catalogue its books. It is also full of life-size, marble Graeco-Roman statues of not very famous Britons, who had all been involved in the Empire. It reminded me that India is a land of opportunity, the essence & energy of which exploded upon me that very evening. I was just about to chill out for the night, y’know, catching up on some sleep, shake off the last of my jet lag, when I was approach’d in the street by this fifty-year-old English reprobate, all long hair, criminal-slouch & drug-abuse-strained drawl, who goes ‘do you wanna be an extra in a Bollywood movie.’ Of course I said yes – I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t – & soon found myself on a bus with about twenty other young travellers spinning through Mumbai. At first, I thought it was like Nightmare on Elm Street 2, or Jeepers Creepers 2, & we’d all get slaughtered – but before long we were at this old English school, eating some wicked food & dressing up in Edwardian costumes. The women looked especially wicked, but apparently the silk arm-gloves itched & they were murder to get into. Anyway, the shoot took about six hours & we got paid 500 rupees to do it! All we had to do was sit in a big hall & be an audience. The film will be at next year’s Cannes festival & goes by the name of HARISHCHANDRACHI FACTORY. It tells the story of the first ever Indian filmmaker – Dadsaheb Phalke – who took his film to England where I would be in the audience!
After about three hours’ kip I was back on the road, jumping the morning commuter trains out of VT station. My journey was relatively peaceful, but the grand tide of humanity passing by me in the other direction was mental – Indian office workers taking up every inch of room on the trains, inside & OUT!
On the outskirts of Mumbai I had to change for the Goa train, & met a Canadian who was going south too. We spent a couple of hours in the vicinity, chilling in a temple while swapping books & literary anecdotes. He’s called Danny, a nice guy, who looks a bit like Jim Morrison & was brought up in India at an expat school. Apparently, the weed he smoked there had been laced with opium, which helps to explain the otherworldliness in his ambience.
The Goa train came in & Danny took 2nd class sleeper while I took a first class carriage for about a tenner. The journey was pretty nice actually, about 12 hours of air-conditioned easiness, punctuated by hand-delivered hot meals, watching the monsoon-fresh greenery of middle-India pass me by. I was sat with these Catholic Indians; a violin player named Errol, his lovely wife & their eighteen-year old daughter who kept giving me the eye. They were fans of Alexander McCall Smith & were amazed when I told them that I used to live on Scotland Street… but were disappointed to discover there was no number 44.
At one point Danny found me & ask’d if he could hang with me for a couple of days. I was like sure mate, & we soon found ourselves at about midnight in sea-girt Benaulim, about two thirds of the way down Goa, at about midnight. Unfortunately, all the hotels were shut, so we ended up squatting a half-built villa for the night. A nearby guard dog had seen us & proceeded to bark its head off for about an hour & half – the last thing you need when you hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep for four nights.
On waking up, the dog turned out to be a tiny thing (with big lungs), & Benaulim was a bit boring. We then shared a taxi to a place call’d Baga, where speedboats whizz people in parachutes high over the Arabian Sea & we found a wicked cottage right on the beach. The weather’s great – night & day – about 32 degrees in the mid-day sun, & thanks to a hairdryer/sirocco-like breeze blowing in from Arabia, about 25 at night!
I am staying next door to a cool Indian family, sharing their garden & toilet – which is in the middle of the street! The other streets roundabout are narrow, sandy & really serene. An old woman visits my patio with a fruit basket on her head, while a cheeky little scamster (who beat me at pool) will get me my food from the restaurant – for a small fee of course! Beyond my little domestic heaven Goa is better than its rep, believe me. Even tho’ I cannot drive I have hired the funkiest looking moped for 100 rupees a day & have been cruising round the sandy roads, listening to my tunes, dodging the cows & burning the straights. My petrol ran out on one occasion, so I blagg’d some from a roadside shack & headed for my pad in Baga. On the way back I pass’d my first elephant – all truss’d up in psychedelic garb, stomping his way thro’ the street. As for partying, there was a crazy taxi ride to a sunset techno bqsh in Vagator – reminiscent of the Hackney squat raves, but on a balmy evening & cool’d by a soft sea breeze. This was follow’d by a game of snooker with a mad Scotsman & a chill out with some Camden girls on a rooftop terrace drinking beer, listening to the tunes I just happened to have in my pocket – my first DJ slot in Goa! In a world full of comedy characters & cheap bear I felt that I had well & truly arrived at the party.
So, Goa is like Glasto, only more strung out – Glasto on bikes!
I woke up buzzing & went for a walk along the coast when I penn’d the following sonnet;
THE EAR CLEANER
Stepping out one golden Goan morning,
Drowsy with the sunken sun’s adorning,
Content was I to be in nature’s hand,
Soul-freshen’d as bare feet sunk into sand,
From out of nowhere stept a wizen’d man,
“Sahib! cleaning your hearing well I can!”
Shows Western praises in his little book,
Black blocks of wax from both my ears he took.
I shook the hand that scrubb’d my hearing clear
Said fond farewells & watch’d him disappear
Round red & rugged hill flank’d by the view
Of Konkan coast careering into blue,
When first found I the profits of his fee
I’d never known how sweetly sounds the sea!
It was then time to head south, following the advice of the Camden girls who I’d been partying with yesterday. Apparently it’s even better down there. So, leaving Danny to the cottage – he was happy to stay – I caught a train to Canacona station & walked towards a place called Palolem. As I strode its long curvature of bar-lined luscious beaches, a huge smile broke out on mi face – this was proper paradise!
Taking a beach hut & a moped from a lovely guy call’d Dinesh, I’ve really enjoyed the area, buzzing about from bar-to-bar on my shiny green moped. The scenery is semi tropical, & South Goa is backed by these lush hills call’d the Ghats & its all very amazing to be here. Things got even better when that night Saraswathi parachuted me in a wee muse to help me in my work. She is a cute 30-year old journalist from Limerick in Ireland, & a woman of infinite patience. I got free beers for playing some tunes in a bar, & let’s say I was pretty steaming. That didn’t put her off though, & she kindly escorted me back to her 2000 rupee a night posh hut. Come morning I blinked myself awake to be met by, ‘Do you remember what happened last night?’
‘No,’ I replied sheepishly.
“Well, Damo, I woke up to you pissing in my suitcase, after which you knocked the window pane out of my door.”
There was a certain karmic irony to this, as back in the spring I’d gotten all high & mighty on mi drummer, after he’d smashed a similar pane of glass in Cagliari, after an argument with his girlfriend over whether he could take the local stray street-cats home. In this instance I was just clearly pissed, for which I apologised profusely, did some cute kissing & shit & seem’d to get away with it.
After apologising to my new lady friend, the rest of the day was quite Eat Pray Love which seem’d to make up for my nonsense the previous night. First port of call was Kola beach, a lovely spot at the end of a terrible road, with wild waves & a freshwater lagoon to paddle in. After this we continued north to Cabo de Rama, an old Portuguese fort with splendid views of a miraculous bay, at the other side of which we observed a restaurant clinging to the cliffs. Driving out there, we passed a mad Russian flying a three-wheeler wheelchair-paraglider, & then just as the red sun was dipping below the clouds, we walk’d along a practically deserted beach to reach the restaurant. So romantic! Cue fresh fish & wonderfully warm sensations of having a lovely time at a place called, appropriately, ‘Mi Amore.’
We drove back a good hour thro the night, accompanied by the constant chorus of chirping insects, cutting thro swathes thro moody junglerie. Then, back at Palolem, we drank wine on the beach, ending a perfect day in the horizontal fashion in a tired, but the happiest of glows. It was to be our last night together, alas, for she was heading to Thailand the next day. Our liaison was brief but beautiful, & yeah, I’m fucking loving India, me!