#4 – Meet Saraya – my first Workaway

Days 6 & 7 – Monday Sept 16th & Tuesday Sept 17th

The morning after I went through this huge ordeal helping Steven get back on his feet after being mugged (which was likely just a scam), I am woken up by my friend at Saraya who definitely did get beaten up really badly the night before. He walked into our shared dorm and woke me up, and his eyes were all black and swollen. He went out that night, and ended up getting punched in the face a few times, and the rest he didn’t remember. He just woke up after passing out on the streets, and made his way back home.

Ironically, I heard that Goa was far safer than most other parts of India, and after being here for less than 24 hours I meet 2 people who at least claim to have been mugged. Wow! Quite a way to start my 2-week long stay in a relaxed, eco-friendly, peaceful environment at Saraya.

I found Saraya Ecostay online through a website called Workaway, where one is typically provided with a place to stay and 3 meals per day in exchange for 5 hours of work, 5 days a week. At Saraya, the general schedule is 4 hours of work, 6 days a week – Wednesday being our day off.

There are plenty of different types of jobs to do at Saraya, and though I mostly prefer outdoor/gardening work, I was interested in trying out serving at the cafe as well. I told this to Deeksha, the owner, and she was very accommodating. So Monday morning, another volunteer named Shirban and I started to “clean the jungle” back from growing into our driveway. Both Shirban and I agreed that it looked nice how it was, but I knew it wouldn’t take long for the jungle to start to overtake the driveway again. It’s still Monsoon season here, and so all around it’s super green and humid. Great conditions for many plants to keep on growing.

Most plants were unknown, exotic, and interesting to me, but I did manage to find an old friend: Stinging Nettle! Ah how happy I was to see it growing in a different shape & pattern, but still with the distinctive serrated edges. I showed Shirban how to eat it raw, and he told me that they harvest this and put it on their pizza (Saraya is well-known for their organic, wood-fired pizza made with locally-sourced ingredients).

After trimming back the jungle, we started to prepare those greens for the compost pile by chopping it up finely, so that when it mixes with the food waste it decomposes more quickly. Then, to finish up our last hour of work, we moved on to carrying stones from an old, ruined building to the far border of our property where we’re building a wall. These stones were incredibly heavy – we made a few rounds back and forth in the pouring rain and were so exhausted by the time our 4 hours was done. Speaking with Deeksha shortly afterwards, we find out that those rocks were a perfect habitat for the poisonous scorpions that live here. Luckily none of us were rushed to the hospital for an anti-venom, and didn’t start to fall sick from working in the rain either.

However, we all started to feel a bit sick the next day…

I woke up that Tuesday with a sore throat, runny nose, and other cold symptoms. Not sure exactly why – perhaps my immune system was just struggling to adapt to an entirely new environment. After a cup of Chai and a delicious rice & veg breakfast, I was feeling a little bit better. So, we resumed our outdoor work. This time, it was cleaning the whole eco-stay, most importantly, the pond. It was only about a foot deep, but filled with muck, coconuts, other rotten fruits, leaves, and all the fecal matter from the frogs and other creatures who lived in it. Still, someone had to do it, so I was the first to volunteer to get in there.

Shirban and another new volunteer named Monia followed shortly after, and we had a very memorable time getting super muddy trying to shovel out the pond muck and decomposing organic matter. It was a long, tiresome process, but it felt really great when we finished. Then we started to clean the rest of the Ecostay by sweeping with brooms made out of a tied bunch of the central veins of coconut leaves, but not for long. Shirban, who I thought would be more well-adapted to the conditions being that he’s from India, started to feel really sick and tired, and my tiredness returned, so we powered through to finish up work for the day before going back to rest a little bit (Oddly I felt all better a few days afterwards while he was bed-ridden and barely able to speak the next few days. Perhaps my dumpster diving back in the states prepared my immune system and paid off!).

After lunch I went with two other volunteers – Monia and Shweta – on a walk to the supermarket and for a cup of tea. As soon as we leave, four of the dogs who live at Saraya came out to walk with us! They run right in front of cars and bikes, sniffing all sorts of smells along the way, lagging behind and then running ahead, always in our vicinity to protect us if we need it. Their names were Fluffy, Sushi, Batman, and Dina. What sweet bodyguards! They waited outside the supermarket as we bought some toilet paper, soap for washing clothes, and some “Guava cheese” as well (there was no cheese in it, but there was ghee instead).

The dogs followed us into the cafe where we got some tea, and soon walked back with it to Saraya so I could catch a ride with Deeksha into town where I could find a travel agent to help book a train ticket to my next destination. I’d never think about using a travel agent back in the states, since it’s generally easy and reliable online to book transportation, but India is far different. I searched on so many different websites for a train to Delhi about 2 weeks in advance, and they were apparently all sold out. But, once I got to the travel agent, I got a ticket on the day that I wanted fairly easily. Thankfully I’ll have a sleeping bunk for the 28 hour-long traverse through roughly 2,000 km (1,200 mi) all the way to Delhi. And it was only ($12) 830 Rupees! Whoopee!

Meanwhile, Deeksha had some errands to do, so I followed her to the different markets where she’d buy fruits and other ingredients for the cafe. Since they know her (and her preferences) at her usual stops, they’d tell her after she asks for this, that, and that if something isn’t local. It was especially useful for her to have these local connections, because although she’s Indian, her skin is very fair, and her grayish hair almost looks blonde, so most merchants would try to charge her the foreigner price, which is typically at least twice the amount that locals pay.

By Tuesday night I had gotten to know all of the volunteers at Saraya at least on a base level. There’s a fellow from Britain who I would enjoy staying up with and exchanging slang and music from our respective countries while drinking rum & water. There’s Shirban from South India, who although we come from opposite sides of the world, we have quite a bit in common as far as family life goes, as well as ideas about people’s energies and karma. There’s Monia from Belgium, who speaks fluent Dutch, French, Spanish, and English! She is super sweet, taught me how to make some amazing Spanish-style coffee, and is not afraid to get dirty. There’s Rebecca from Australia, who offered me some Ayurvedic healing herbal blend when I was feeling sick, and mostly works on making art out of old fabric and reusing it to make jellyfish lanterns!

The youngest volunteer here (18) is named Emily, from New Zealand, but she doesn’t lack in expertise. She makes amazing cheeses, sourdough bread, and other goodies for the cafe and the volunteers. Our oldest volunteer (44) is Raul, from Mexico, and is incredibly friendly and caring. He worked as a school psychologist for a long time in Mexico, and we share many similar opinions on how to deal with difficult children. Then, there’s Joy, from France, who is just a joy to be around. She always wears a beautiful cloth wrapped in a south-African style around her head, and has given me great recommendations of where to go in Thailand and Vietnam for when I travel through there in a few months. And last but not least, there’s Annie, my neighbor from Ohio! She taught me the ways of the kitchen as soon as I arrived and helped me settle in and feel at home. She’s been away from the US for over 6 months and said she hasn’t met someone who comes from so close to where she’s from the whole time.

So, that’s it for the volunteers. It’s a decent size group, and there’s about the same amount of staff who work here full-time as well. First, there’s Deeksha, or simply “D.” She is so amazing, she started this place about 5 years ago, and has overseen construction of many treehouses and mud houses, using the natural materials that are available in Goa. The dorm where I stay is all built out of bamboo and another type of decorative wood for the “walls” (sticks criss-crossing each other widely with mosquito nets lining the inside. No insulation necessary in Goa – it typically doesn’t ever get below 70 degrees!). D always eats breakfast with us in the morning and covers the plan for the day – a usual job assignment would be 2-3 people for the evening cafe, 1 for afternoon cafe, 1-3 people in the kitchen, 1-2 making artwork, and anywhere from 1-4 people working outside with plants or cleaning up in some way.

D has 2 younger sons – one who lives here and another close by. The younger son, Siddhu, is really passionate about music and has a little studio set up in the main building at Saraya. We’ve had good chats about music theory and he let me play his guitar yesterday. Her older son, Zora, is a big activist for climate change action, and was the main person alongside his friend Isha who organized the first Goa climate strike when there protests happening all around the world at the same time. Both are really kind-hearted people, and I appreciate the strong family bonds that are quite common in India. Neither of them work here, but I see them so often that it’s easy to mistakenly think that they do.

In the kitchen we have Mira – she’s the main cook and always makes such delicious food! – Especially a sweet pudding like thing for breakfast, and the lunchtime dal & cooked vegetables. Helping her are Raj and Batel – still teenagers who take great pride in their work, often taking pictures for Instagram of the fancy-looking dishes they prepare for the cafe. The manager of Saraya is also named Raj – he spends most of his time on his computer doing the business side of things, and still enjoys joking around with everyone here. The resident lady in charge of cleaning is named Vasha, she doesn’t speak much English but is always helpful in pointing me in the right direction when looking for a broom or some tools.

Then there’s maybe 4 people who work on construction of the mud houses (which have used glass bottles dispersed evenly throughout the walls, helping light find its way in while creating a beautiful design). Sadly I don’t know their names, since I barely interact with them, and they pretty much only speak Hindi. Two people who help with construction are also in charge of making all the pizzas for the cafe, which can get quite busy at times.

I’ve really loved spending time with all of these people – the volunteers and staff – for the past approximately 2 weeks. They all contribute to a welcoming, kind, easy-going energy that flows through Saraya. Though I enjoy meeting new people and seeing new faces, it’s really nice to see the same faces day after day to feel more settled in and at-home here. It is going to be really hard for future Workaway experiences to live up to this one – the social & natural environments are so suitable for me (other than the fact that the days can get really hot & humid) – the people here all have a least a hint of hippie in their blood, and I’m in a green haven of tall fruit trees and plants, with the Arabian Sea (India’s west coast) nearby and plenty of mega-sized familiar creatures – frogs bigger than my fist, earthworms as long and wide as snakes, and so many large, bright-colored dragonflies & butterflies. All in all, Goa, India is one of my favorite places I’ve ever visited, and though I am looking forward to traveling up to the Himalayas in north India, it will be really bittersweet to kiss this place goodbye.

Cheers,

Hopper

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#3 – Days 4 & 5 – Arrival in Goa: An Elaborate Scam

Day 4 – Saturday

For my last day in Kolkata I figured I’d walk around and see all the sights I hadn’t yet seen. I started out in the morning making my way to the house where Mother Teresa spent a good majority of her life. As soon as I stepped in, I felt very emotional, like a sacred blanket had been placed over me. I felt like crying, for the quotes and memories of Mother Teresa that they had displayed around touched me quite deeply. I walked up to her quaint room where she would sleep, which was extra hot since it was right above the kitchen (and there wasn’t even a fan!). A stroll through the mini-museum showed me common items of hers such as her sandals and telephone, as well as her Nobel Peace Prize and a cloth with her very own blood on it. Close by was her tomb, which had flowers in the shape on a heart laid across it. Some nuns were praying nearby, and were scattered about the still very active convent (this wasn’t the well-known house of the sick and dying that she opened, but that was still very active, too). So I paid my respects, and was off to the next holy place.

A great Yogi named Parmahansa Yogananda who started the fellowship for self-realization in America spent much time in Kolkata. There wasn’t much to see at his house, just a little plaque that says he lived there. I made a friend in asking for directions who went to The University of Kolkata, which was very close by. He recommended to me the Indian Museum, and so after Yogananda’s house I started the long walk there. On the way I saw a bunch of pups feeding from their mother on the sidewalk, some really, really busy markets, some more temples and mosques, a guy carrying a mattress on his head walking across the street, another guy sleeping in his hand-pulled rickshaw, and a very busy protest against corporations.

I walked quite a few miles in extreme heat and humidity before I reached the Indian Museum. Thankfully I drank a coconut and some Mossambi (sweet lime) juice on the way to keep me going. The museum held lots of old fossils and plenty of science/wildlife exhibits. It was interesting, but I found the hustle and bustle of everything happening on the streets there more appealing. So I took a few more selfies with some Indians who’d approach me wanting a picture, learned about the different bioregions in India, and was on my way back to my guesthouse. So many people are curious about what someone like me is doing in India, on the walk back I met some folks and they bought me a cup of chai. We then rode the bus together, and I got off soon after a long day of walking in the heat to finally lay down for a little bit. I went to sleep rather early, for I had a flight to Goa early in the morning the next day.

Day 5 – Sunday

The sun was just rising as my Uber to the airport pulled up around 5 AM. The full moon was still illuminated with a beautiful reddish-pink backdrop. The flights go fine, nothing too interesting happened until I landed in Goa around 2 PM and hopped in a taxi to head to my first Workaway place, where I’d be staying for the next 2 weeks: Saraya Ecostay & Cafe. Right before my taxi driver is about to leave, a man named Steven comes up to the taxi and is asking if he can drive him to a bank on the way with me.

Steven claimed that he was followed down a one way road by some people he stopped to ask for directions, and was mugged. They apparently took his bag, which had his passport, money, ID, basically everything important. They even knocked out one of his teeth, which he showed me. He needed to contact his brother to send money to him, so that he could take a taxi ride to Delhi (~2,000 km or 1,200 mi) that night. He could then get back on his feet since he had family there: his mother and aunt. He was a retired lawyer from London, England, who looked Indian but sounded British, and could talk like a lawyer.

I put myself in his shoes, and offered to help him in many ways. Since he wasn’t able to get any money from the bank on the way, I let him use my phone once we got to Saraya to call his brother to send the money to me instead. He gets through to brother Kevin who worked as a neurosurgeon at Hammer Smith hospital, and calls his bank to make sure that there are locations that were still open, since on Sunday most were closed. There were 2 back in Panjim, a 20 minute drive away. So we order another taxi, and were on our way back to the main city in Goa.

Steven told me about some service he did for those who are abused by the legal system in Laos, and had a lot to say about American & British politics, as well as how absurd all of these terrorist attacks on innocent people are. He cared for all these ethical causes and was upfront about paying for all of the expenses that this trip is causing me. All in all, he seemed like a decent guy and so I was happy to help him. I’d hope for the same help if I were him.

Once in Panjim, we go to both of the locations that I heard the bank lady tell him were open, but they were closed. Likely we had false info because of the time difference between India and where we called. So now, he is still in a rush to get to Delhi that night because his aunt was sick, and he also was considering seeking medical attention since he got kicked in the crotch and was bleeding down there. The only option is this special hotel taxi, since there were police checkpoints on the way which would require both of them to show their ID’s in order to pass. He simply needed cash to pay the hotel taxi driver. The moneygram I could pick up tomorrow. He needed to leave today. So, I gave him some money. I won’t say how much here, but it was a lot. Over $100.

We drove back to Saraya in a taxi, and he gave me a hug as I wished him goodbye and good luck. By this time it was already 6:30 or so, and I settled into the bed where I’d be sleeping for the next 2-3 weeks. I chatted with another volunteer named Dom who sleeps in the same room with me for an hour or 2, and then get news that Steven is back at Saraya. Uhoh.

Long story short, he needed more money for the hotel taxi than he requested before, and so we drove to at least 5 more ATM’s looking for ones that wouldn’t decline my card. I had to call my bank from someone’s hotspot at the bank in order to activate my card again, since all the recent transactions flagged my card as fraudulent. Eventually I withdrew and lent him even more money, and in exchange he gave me a piece of paper with a new Moneygram code on it to receive an even bigger sum of money once the banks are open.

Now it’s around 10 PM that I get back to Saraya to finally eat some dinner. I tell them all about my whirlwind with this Steven Dixon from Britain, and Deeksha, the owner of Saraya, is sure that it’s a scam. I was naturally skeptical, too, but wanted to stay optimistic. The fact that he sought every way possible without asking me directly for money until he had no other option made me hope that he really wasn’t just acting the whole time.

All I could do now was wait until I can go accept the Moneygram that I really, really hoped he sent me.

On my next blog post I’ll be sharing my experience of seeking out the Moneygram, as well as what my life has been like the past 2ish weeks staying at Saraya. Stay tuned!

Hopper

#2 – Day 2 & 3: A police escort, a roof ride, and some angry monkeys

Day 2

After an amazing breakfast of spicy chickpeas, rice, and who knows what else, I checked out of Shree Krishna International Hotel and started to make my way to the hostel I had originally booked for the next 3 days in Kolkata. Since my first taxi driver was able to find it (but I thought it was closed at 4 AM and so went to another hotel), I figured it would be a piece of cake getting there again. But oh I was wrong!

My taxi driver spoke very little English, so I showed him the address and he still seemed confused. Next thing you know, he’s asking people on the streets where it is. He gets a general idea, and we drive for maybe half an hour through crazy traffic and pouring rain into the city center. Once we get close, he starts asking people on the streets again if they know where it is. After trying maybe 7 people, we finally are guided even closer. Or so I thought. I end up on a one-way street, and traffic is so intense he tells me to just walk down the street, and it should be only a few minutes away. I do so, and walk exactly to where Google maps tells me it is. Still, it was nowhere to be found.

So, like my taxi driver did, I start asking people on the streets. Several people claim to know where it is, and give me directions. So I follow what they say, and its nowhere in sight. I ask again, get new directions, follow those, and still can’t find it. Eventually I wander past the Kolkata police station. I figured they must know where it is. I go inside, show them the address, and for a while they all talk with each other about where they think it is. Eventually an officer tells me to follow him, and he grabs a helmet out of his room. I thought we’d walk out to the street and he’d point to me where to go and take off on his motorbike. Instead, he hands me the helmet and tells me (in Hindi) to hop on his bike. What!? We start to cross through 8 lanes of chaos, and all I can think is that I have to trust him. Once we get close, even he starts asking people on the streets where it is! He gets directions, follows them, asks another person, follows their directions, and after 10 minutes riding around on his bike, finally I see the sign: Hotel Bengal Guesthouse! I made it! I wanted to tip him, but the only cash I had was a 10 rupees (15 cents) bill or a 500 ($7). My hour-long taxi ride cost me 500, and I knew that 100 would be sufficient, but the experience of being escorted by an Indian cop on his bike was worth $7 to me. So I tipped and thanked him, “dhanyavaad!” and checked in to my new guesthouse, which for 3 nights only costed me $20.

I soon went to explore after checking in to my guesthouse, though unfortunately it was still pouring. I asked the man at the front desk where I can find a good sheltered spot to go. He recommended Quest mall, and so I went. There was LOTS of security at the entrance, and I had to go through a scanner like at the airport. Once inside, it felt like any fancy big mall you’d find in America. It had 6 floors offering a food court with KFC, Pizza Hut, Chili’s, and lots of high-end shops like Gucci and Armani. Very few stores that you wouldn’t also find in the US.

The mall wasn’t my scene, and once the rain subsided I headed towards the Victoria Memorial, which was built to honor Queen Victoria of England back when India was still under British rule. The architecture was elegant, and the gardens beautiful and well kept. Most interestingly, though, I met many Indians who want to take a selfie with me! Always in a very polite manner, they’d approach and ask, “excuse me sir, would you mind taking a photo with me?” I’d gladly accept, and sometimes chat with them for a little while about where they’re from, what they do for work, etc. I expected to see a few other tourists from Europe or the States, but I was the only one. So I guess it makes sense that they’d want a picture with such a rarity as a blonde-headed white person.

Close to the memorial was a big green space on Google maps which held Fort Williams, so I tried exploring around there afterwards. Sadly, I wasn’t allowed in because I was American. There was very high security there, but even the guards are quite friendly and non-intimidating. On my way back there were there grand chariots painted gold and covered with all sorts of sparkly gems parked on the side of the road, waiting for tourists. Nobody was riding them – I doubt they had more than 2 rides the whole day. When I walked past they were really trying to sell it to me, and though I felt bad for the poor folks who make a living off of these rides, I felt bad for the horses, too, and didn’t want to be the center of such a luxurious scene. Plus, if I have the time and energy, I much prefer walking. You get such a better feel for the culture, the people, the way of life. I’d only take taxis when I had long distances to multiple places I wanted to visit with limited time.

Day 3

The next morning I was off to Sundarbans National Park, which was some 150 km or so from Kolkata. Its claim to fame is that it’s home to the Bengal Tiger, the national animal of India. The cheapest way was by train, and I was excited to finally experience the Indian railways. I expected the train station to be crowded, but this was a whole new level. I thought that New York train stations were busy, but Sealdah Station made that look like a desert. When a train pulled in, people would hop off before it stops moving, and just floods upon floods of people would swarm all around. I could probably see at least a few thousand people from one vantage point. My train ticket costed 15 Rupees (less than 25 cents!) and took me a decent distance (50 km?) to a town called Canning. Interestingly, there was a separate line at the ticket booth for ladies, which was much shorter than the general line. Also, on the train, women could choose to sit in the Ladies compartment if they wish, or may otherwise sit/stand in the general area (there was no men-only compartment).

Somehow, between all the people squished onto the train standing practically everywhere physically possible, there was a constant flux of people moving from cart to cart selling all sorts of goods: curly chips, peanut-brittle-ish thing, fruits, drinks, and even stuff like toothbrushes, Q-tips, and pencils (but no toilet paper). One middle aged woman came through sobbing, saying something in Hindi that I didn’t understand, holding part of her dress out and asking for donations. It was sad to see, as well as the people whose houses are falling apart and less than a few feet away from the train tracks. India is one great fantasy of glory and hardship all mixed together, harmoniously and chaotically.

Once I got to Canning I had to find a way to get to Sundarbans. I didn’t recognize the taxis at first, because they looked more like a Jeep. But eventually I hopped inside, and the man who is advertising the taxi told me I should hop up top instead. At first I was hesitant. I’ve never rode on the roof of a car before, and the roads were busy and poorly maintained. But then I figured: screw it, I may never be able to do something like this again. So I climbed up the tiny ladder, and sat upon this cargo holder of cross-crossed metal bars which straddled the roof with 2 other Indians.

Ahh the breeze! Oh the amazing views! The extra bit of discomfort was totally worth it. I saw massive rivers, rice paddies, temples and churches, small villages, and an incredible amount of banana trees, coconut trees, and other other fruit trees which I know not the name of. It was a long journey, and already close to 2 PM by the time I arrived. But when I did, it felt like a totally new world. No honking cars passing by every second, no people yelling on the streets selling things. Instead: the sounds of crickets, other insects, and leaves glistening in the wind.

The main part of the national park was separated by a big river, and to take a boat over there would be too timely. So I stuck to the small walk around section on my side of the river, since there was still a lot to see there. As soon as I stepped in there was a beautiful garden with butterflies and dragonflies dancing about, and once I passed through that, a brick pathway with a sign that says: BEWARE OF DANGEROUS MONKEYS. I am naturally excited and cautious as I proceed, and after perhaps only 100 steps I see a group of monkeys off in the distance! I approach slowly, and as another Indian couple passes by them casually, I realize that you can get close without bothering them. So I end up standing maybe 10 feet away and just watching as they monkey around on the netting, gates, and nearby pathways. Some eventually meander past me only a foot away – this is the closest I’ve ever been to a monkey. Their facial gestures and bodily movements are surprisingly even more human-like than I imagined. They really seemed like little furry forest-dwelling humans.

I watched them for about 10 minutes, and moved on to explore the rest of the park. Not too much later, I spot an alligator (on the other side of the fence, thankfully), and a hawk-like bird as well. The path soon looped back around to the starting point, and it was getting rather late, so I thought I’d take one more look at the monkeys and then be on my way. I go back to where they were, and keep even more distance than I had before. The older ones climbed so gracefully, but the young ones were still learning the ropes. They’d have a clear intention of where to go, and sometimes miss their next grip and fall. I watched this for some time… peacefully… undisturbingly… or so I thought.

Then all of the sudden, one falls and makes a yelp, and mommy and daddy monkey come chasing after me! These monkeys went from one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen to one of the most ferocious and intimidating things I’ve seen. I totally regretted not having some sort of stick to scare them away. I had nothing to help me, so I ran. I booked it as fast as I could, so I could show them that I don’t want to hurt them. I end up slipping on some mud and falling to the ground, and I thought I was done for. I was waiting for those huge incisors to dig into my skin, and soon after being rushed to the hospital for a rabies shot. Thankfully, I stood up unbitten, turn around, monkey still growling at me, run a little bit more, and yell very loudly, “Hey! Back off! Go away!”

At that time, I was far enough away from the rest of them to back away slowly. Momma monkey knew that they won, and I won’t bother them. I walk away towards a big group of Indians who were watching the whole thing, and they hand me a branch, telling me to use this for protection. So I walk back through the crowd of monkeys, weapon in hand, and make it past without another incident. As soon as I make it through, heart still pumping a mile a minute, a local claps at me and in hand gestures tells me to follow him. I thought perhaps he’s taking me to the park manager or police, where I’ll be fined for disturbing the wildlife. We walked outside of the park down the road I came from, for maybe 20 minutes, having no clue where he intends to take me. Surprisingly, he was just guiding me back to a rickshaw (a mini 3-wheeled taxi) that I could take back to the train station.

I take it back to the Jeep-like taxi, where I once again sit on the roof for the hour-long ride back to the train station. This time there were 7 of us on top, and maybe perhaps 12 below. That almost 20 people in/on a car that in America you’d typically fit 5 people maximum. Indians know how to carpool! Anyway, I end up making a few friends on the roof as we ride back. One named Rajid(?) who is a hip-hop/R&B dance teacher in Kolkata spoke decent English. We got to know each other pretty well – he said Chris brown is his hero, and loved Man vs Wild. The others were friendly, and pointed out fruit trees, rivers, and rice paddies to me, but the language barrier limited our conversations.

We make it back to Canning, and they won’t let me pay for the taxi ride, which is only 50 Rupees (less than $1). They also bought me a local drink of shaved ice (aah, I tried to avoid this until now so I don’t fall sick, but politely accepted) lime, and soda water. It tastes good, but weird. The water had some sort of dirty flavor to it, and I thought that I may very well get sick from it, but thankfully I didn’t. When we board the train and are waiting for departure, another Indian comes in, puts his arm around Rajit, and escorts him off the train in a very strict manner. All 4 of his friends follow, and I try to as well, but they tell me to stay. I started to become very concerned, and thought that that’s the last time I’d ever see my friend, without getting to say goodbye.

15 minutes passes, and he and his friends come back into my cart. Rajit looked so ashamed and upset. Turns out he was fined 360 Rupees for smoking a cigarette at the train station. There were no signs saying not to, and it seemed like plenty others were smoking too, so I told him how terribly unfair I thought that was, and his most crude remark was, “stupid fools.” Swearing in India is very taboo, and though I’m sure he knew plenty of swear words, he wouldn’t say any. I could tell 360 Rupees (~5$) meant a lot to him, and felt so bad for him, I wanted to offer him some cash but thought it’d be rude.

By the time the train back to Kolkata left it was already around 8 PM. So many other people were squished in between us, we couldn’t conversation much, so instead I hung a third of my body out of the door and watched the night-time Indian countryside and small villages pass me by. There were hundreds, if not thousands of people just hanging out on the tracks. Not drinking and partying, just sitting there, chatting and spending time with each other. I guess in order to enjoy themselves that’s all they need… or all they have. Perhaps both.

– – – – –

I have been in India for over a week now, but have been so busy that my blogging is lagging well behind my travels. Since then I’ve been ripped off big time, made some great friends at my first Workaway experience, and just today was part of a climate change protest in the heart of Panjim, Goa. Stay tuned (there is a link to follow me on the right side of this page) for even more crazy stories!

Bye for now,

Hopper

#1 – First day in India

I flew from Detroit to Chicago to Abu Dhabi to Kolkata. Chicago to Abu Dhabi was the longest flight I’ve ever been on. It was somewhere around 13 hours. We took off around 9:30 PM, and since we were heading east so quickly, the sun eventually rose, AND set again before we landed! So my longest flight ever ended up being my shortest day ever.

I’m glad I didn’t stay in Abu Dhabi (UAE) for long. It was the middle of the night and still 95 degrees. When I walked onto the plane to Kolkata, there was cool steam coming out of the walls. I felt like I was at a Halloween dance party… on an airplane.881CB8D6-3D3A-449A-9713-93FCE016EB1C On the flight there it finally started to feel like I’m actually going to India. I was one of very few white people on board. Still, it didn’t really set in until I walked outside of the airport into the heat and there were all these Indian women in beautiful, vibrantly colorful dresses presumably waiting for a bus. Immediately someone walked up to me and asked if I needed a taxi. I accepted, and we hopped in his rickety old car.

There were no seatbelts! But at least the windows could manually be rolled down. That was the first time a taxi driver had ever offered me a cigarette, and so we shared a smoke together as he (hopefully) brought me closer to my hostel. Road signs and traffic laws mean practically nothing. Since the streets were relatively empty at 4 AM, we ran plenty of red lights and stop signs. Drove right on the dotted lines that separate lanes, and got so close to some trucks that I could’ve reached the first half of my forearm out the window and touched them. Most of the Kolkata was still asleep, including plenty of dogs lying in the street. A good amount of people were sleeping outside, on the ground, or on tables and under the flimsy roofs of their day-shops.

When we got to my hostel I had booked, it was closed, and I didn’t feel safe waiting around on the streets for it to open. So he brought me to another hotel, guarded by security, and with locals(?) sleeping in the lobby. Seemed great, but was too expensive. They were asking 2300 Rupees ($32 USD), and I only exchanged $50 at the airport. I told the taxi driver I didn’t have enough to pay him and the hotel, so he brought me to another one that was asking 2000 Rupees. I didn’t want to pay that either, and tried negotiating, but to no avail. I was exhausted and just wanted somewhere to sleep. I gave in, paid them and my taxi driver, and at around 6 AM decided to go to sleep.

I was excited to explore, but didn’t want to be delirious and get myself into trouble. Alarm was set for 9 AM so I could enjoy the complimentary breakfast, but when it went off I could care less about eating. I ended up sleeping until around 3 PM. Still wasn’t very hungry when I awoke, so I decided I’d just wander the streets and get a feel for my surroundings. So much life buzzing all around me! So many smells – good and bad – of the flowers they were selling along the “sidewalk”, of the dirty, murky water that ran in channels down each road, of incense, of curry, of human urine and scat, of pollution, of fresh fruits and vegetables. It was an all-in-one package. Turn the corner and you have no clue what you nose will be subjected to.

I thought the honking was excessive at 4 AM, but the noise on the major roads at 4 PM was so much worse, I found myself quickly wandering down a side street to escape from it. Surprisingly, after walking just a few blocks, it was relatively peaceful, and I couldn’t hear the major road anymore. There were still motorbikes and rickshaws and compact taxis and bikes all swerving around me. I learned quickly not to make any sudden divergences from my expected walking path, otherwise I’d get run over. Sometimes it felt like if I were to even just turn my foot outward instead of ahead, it would’ve been ran over by some crazy (in Kolkata: normal) driver. It reminded me somewhat of the streets of Grenada, Nicaragua, but even louder, busier, and with more variety of different types of vehicles all trying to get ahead of each other.

Despite the chaos, Kolkata is a glorious place. Down the skinnier, quieter roads, there were kids playing cricket in the street, people washing clothes and dishes, fixing bikes and cooking over coals. There were incredible plants growing out of the most bizarre places, lots of street dogs and cats, many with battle scars. Lizards, super colorful birds kept in a cage, huge flocks of crow-like birds with bartered wings, and a beautiful brown cow. I found a park with a playground – kind of like the kind you’d see in the states, but more colorful and beat up. FFA044E2-F05D-4C9D-84BD-9F97FB46845FA swimming pool for kids, some statues of giraffes and lions, a pond with some goldfish, and an oddly large fenced-off square pool full of nothing.

The most common image you’ll find along the roads are of Krishna or Rama or another Hindu God in the form of painting, poster, and statue. I’m staying at the Shree Krishna International Hotel, which was playing the Maha Mantra (aka “Hare Krishna”) over the radio when I was checking in. Even the WiFi name is KRISHNA3. Lots of people are dressed in all-white robes and other spiritual attire. Along the main roads were towering sculptures of Hindu Gods, often with a sizable Gandhi sculpture right next to it. Gandhi is on (I think) all the paper bills – from 10 to 500 Rupees, and is by far the most common figure that shows up around town.

So, there’s a glimpse of what I’ve observed after a short day of being in India. Kolkata is so busy and exciting, I’m enjoying being here, but will be glad to be heading somewhere much more naturey, quiet, and laid back in a few days: Goa, India. After living in Washington being surrounded by woods and never hearing any traffic driving by, this is a compete 180. It’s great, its me for a few days, but definitely not forever. I stand out here. I saw countless thousands of Indians, one light-skinned Asian, and not a single other white person. At least I’m easy to find in a crowd!

Namaste,

Hopper