Hari Om from India, everyone! I have been up and down and all around this country in the last couple of weeks, so this is going to be a long and serious update. Every place I go is completely different from the last, but the one thing that remains the same is the fascinating, wonderful people I am meeting on the road. My fellow travellers are just amazing in their kindness and friendliness, and I am becoming increasingly sad every time I move on and have to say goodbye again. But lots of us are heading in the same direction, and there's always the chance of seeing each other on the flipside of the world. :)
The morning after our graduation from the ashram, Monica, Lisa and I were picked up by Monica's driver (!) and chauffered to Mumbai (Bombay). We arrived around 5 PM to Monica's beautiful, clean, AIR CONDITIONED apartment! She whipped up a delicious taco salad dinner, complete with our first beers in a month, for us and her very cool and laid-back husband, who gets major props for accepting in stride the arrival of 2 dirty backpackers along with his wife, who he hadn't seen in a month. They were the absolute best hosts ever. Monica took me on a gold-bangle buying mission, and after visiting MANY shops and listening, awestruck, to her bargaining skills, I bought a gorgeous set for my mom and one set for myself--woo hoo!!!
They took us out for a delicious Italian dinner, complete with lots of yummy red wine--Oh, what a treat! Everything was a huge treatm after a month of [relative] purity. We also spent a day in Kolaba, the very busy but very beautiful area in the south of town. I took photos of Leopold's, the famous expat hangout which features so prominently in "Shantaram". We shopped, ate extravagant foreigner food, and enjoyed each other's company thoroughly.
On our last day, we went to a power yoga class at Monica's club--ouch! is all I can say--did some last minute shopping, and returned to the club for a lazy afternoon drinking beers by the pool.
I was becoming increasingly sad as the time drew nearer to Lisa's and my departure. Monica is, amazingly, from Alpharetta, so being around her and Thomas made me feel as though I were at home with my Georgia friends that I have known forever. Some people you just feel like you have always known, and she is one of them.
But the hour finally came, and I said a tearful goodbye (very dramatic, I know, I'll see her in GA, for God's sake!) and Lisa and I were off to catch our midnight train to Gokarna, a tiny, sleepy beach town about 15 hours south of Mumbai.
Oh, the train.
Oh. My. God.
The thing arrived, and we raced to our [2nd class sleeper, no AC] car and got on, gigantic backpacks and all. There are about 10 Muslim men laying on the floor just inside the door, and the aisles are packed. We cannot move, and it is boiling. And it smells like something has died--something with dirty feet, and it has been dead for a while. When we finally make it through the crowd, chain up our packs, and climb onto our upper bunks, I am drenched and having a sensory overload of the worst kind. The bunks were plastic and covered in a film of dirt, and I just couldn't deal for one more second, so I put on my iPod (oh, iPod, how dearly I love thee) and went to sleep.
The next day wasn't much better--we woke up around 7:30, and sat there getting hotter and hotter until the train finally got to Gokarna at 3. I was about ready to kill myself at this point--all of my glorious ashram peace was obliterated--butthere were accommodations to be found, and a giant backpack to carry, so there was no rest for me yet....
We walked down to Om Beach, a set of 3 pretty coves dotted with beach huts. AFter scoping several, Lisa and I settled on the best of the bunch--a small concrete room, with fan, light bulb, AND--wonder of wonders--its own bathroom--for 150 rupees a night, a little less than $4. The beach here is deserted--it is off-season--and the ocean is as warm as bathwater. It's also extremely, mind-blowingly hot.
In the evening, we walk to a really cute-looking restaurant we had seen, Om Shri Ganesh, and climb to the open air, second story eating area, complete with star lanterns, low tables and cushions. At which point, a New-Zealand accented voice yells out, "Hey! You all are from the ashram!" Linda, a girl from the class before ours, recognized us from her last few days there. She introduced us to all of her friends, a friendly and laid-back hippie crowd, and we have made instant friends.
I spent the next couple of days relaxing--yoga every morning, and afternoons reading away the hottest hours on the cushions at Om Shri Ganesh. Lisa and I shopped in town one day, and ate heartily.
But I was a little bored, and decided to head up to Arambol, in Goa, for the last few days before my flight to Delhi. 3 of our ashram friends were staying there, so I figured I'd see them before they headed north. And by some great stroke of luck, when I told my new friend Sam (from Sweden), he said, "Oh, Paul and I are headed there tomorrow too. You can come with us." Hooray!
And so the next morning I headed off with my 2 new companions, Swedish and Canadian, happy to be moving again, and happy to have such pleasant, male traveling partners.
Sam and Paul:
We took a train and 3 buses to get there, about a 5-hour journey. All was well until the last bus, which sat in the sun for 45 minutes while more and more people crowded on. I was crammed between a teenage boy and a woman with about 6 rotting teeth in her mouth and an inclination to smile at the sweaty foreign girl next to her. I was just wondering how long it would be before we all suffocated and died when we started to move, and finally made it to Arambol.
I had dinner with Sam and Paul, whom I had grown rather fond of by this time, as they had been great company and gave me a lot of help with my backpack ("You have to send some of this stuff home--there's no way you can carry this!"). Then my ashram friends, Michael and Jon, came to retrieve me and bring me back to their adorable beach huts, where our friend Sara was also waiting. It was SO GOOD to see them!
It was like seeing really close friends after years and years apart. We stayed up late talking outside their huts--which had great ambience, making up for the bathroom accomodations, which consisted of a squat toilet in a bamboo shack out back. But sadly, they were already booked on a train up to Delhi and then Rishikesh the next morning, so the next day we said our goodbyes over breakfast and made plans to meet again in a few weeks in Delhi, and they were off. I decided to keep Jon's hut as my own, since our guesthouse, Tarzania, was right next door to where Sam and Paul were staying, and I like d the wacky hippies that were hanging out there. I rejoined the boys that evening to discover that they had rented scooters, and so we sped off down the windy beach roads to find food and drink. Helmets just don't seem to exist in India, so I had to climb on back and cling to whoever was driving and pray that I was not meant to die on a road in Goa. But soon I was reaching my arms up into the air and laughing--it was absolutely glorious, racing through the tropical air at sunset, next to the ocean, in India.
The next day we decided to go to the flea market in Anjuna, a 45 minute ride to the south. I climbed on behind Sam and fell further into my secret love affair with the scooter. There is really nothing better than the feeling of the wind in your hair, your arms around someone strong and capable, and the world flying by you.
The market was huge, full of bright, colorful Indian goods, and vendors desperate to sell them off for the end of the season. By this time, Lisa had come up from Gokarna with another Swedish friend, Ernie, so they came as well. And we managed to run into more ashram friends, Wendy and Kathy, at the market! Keep in mind we are several hundred miles from the ashram by now--crazy coincidences.
Sam's dog, Shakti:
The market was a little overwhelming, so we went home, showered, and went out to eat at a really cute outdoor cafe, the Double Dutch:
We were going to go to a trance party after that, but everyone was too tired. It was already my last night in Goa, so I told Sam I just wanted to keep riding, so we got on the bike and took off into the night--and so began what will always be one of my favorite nights in India.
We rode for a couple of hours in the dark, through wilderness and roads dotted with houses and tiny towns. In every town there were crowds of Indian men standing around, as they seem to do every night, and as we would drive by they'd all turn and stare at us. and I, safely speeding through, holding onto my dreadlocked companion, stared back. The air was, for once, cool and refreshing, and I was in heaven, happy and free.
We stopped for beers on the beach, and then headed back to the beach huts to rejoin our friends, and fell asleep on lounge chairs in the open air. It was an absolutley perfect last night in Goa.
The next day we sat around the German Bakery until it was time for me to leave at 2. I was SO SAD to say goodbye to these amazing friends I had made. I got in the taxi feeling really sick of meeting such fantastic people and them leaving them, but it was time to head north to Delhi.
So this is where things took a really stressful turn. After a 2 hour taxi to the airport, I discovered that the flight I wanted to take the following day, from Delhi to Dharamsala, was sold out. For the rest of the month. I checked in to my flight to Delhi, and called Monica on the phone, and maybe broke down in tears just a little. I think I was just exhausted. We came to the conclusion that I should just check into a really nice hotel, and get the concierge to help me.
So I arrived in Delhi and went stright to Le Meridian, where I squealed like a little girl girl at the bathroba and slippers and flt-screen TV and HUGE comfortable bed!!! I ordered pasta and wine and cake. It was so heavenly. And then, when I thought things couldn't get any better, my friend Jon emailed to say that they were all still in Delhi, leaving for Rishikesh the next day, and that I should just scrap Dharamsala and come with them. And I said OK.
The next day I got up, did yoga, had a leisurely breakfast, and then entered the living hell that is the Delhi train station. May no one I love EVER have to endure what I endured there. After an hour and a half smashed against a ticket window with a million very hot, anxious Indians, I was told that the train was, most definitely, SOLD OUT. I was, in a word, distraught. I found my friends and delivered the news, and they were like, "^%$# it. You're coming with us." So on I went, totally illegally. After about 2 sweaty and nervous hours, we were found out, but fortunately only had to pay a small fine, about $5.