#7 – Trains & Buses; Delhi & Dharamshala; New Friends & Old Routines

Tuesday, Oct 1st – Monday Oct 7th

Eventually after 2 weeks it became the day that I was to leave Saraya Ecostay – my first Workaway experience in Goa India. I wished goodbye to all the friends I had made the last 2 weeks, and in the morning was off to the train station for a 36-hour ride to India’s capital: Delhi. In the Non-AC sleeper class the average Indians travel – it was mostly full of men, but I sat across from a family with a 2-ish year old baby who had pierced ears. It’s oddly quite common that Indian kids both male and female have pierced ears at a very young age.

Riding the train was thrilling at first, as I stood with my body partially out the open door to get a fresh breeze (and regularly a very strong stench of urine) listening to music like “Born on a Train” by the Magnetic Fields. Watching the world go by, India uncovered its beautiful lush green semi-mountainous terrain along the stretch from Goa to Mumbai. The sunset over the river was magnificent, and watching it while having conversation with new friends I met on the train was an added bonus.

The excessive trash along the tracks was however quite saddening. Especially since so many farms were bordering the path, I’m sure that all the human waste (organic and non-organic) can’t be good for the soil, and for one’s health when eating rice grown in that soil. Even when stopped on a bridge over the river, people are throwing plastic water bottles and tin lids out the window without any second thought of the impact it has down the line. The good news is that now the ideology is starting to change, slowly but surely, partially thanks to Prime Minister Modi’s campaign to clean up India, as well as NGO’s such as the Waste Warriors, who I would soon start volunteering for after 3 nights in Delhi.

By the time we reached Mumbai around 6 PM the sun had set, so I ate a Mimosa, drank some mango juice, and passed the time by reading and writing. The thrill had diminished, and I was soon ready to try speed up the conscious journey I was taking by going to sleep. Even the top bunk didn’t feel clean at all, but I managed to stay healthy during and after the ride. With my bag of clothes as a pillow and backpack locked to the adjacent mesh bars, I fell in and out of sleep for maybe 10 hours.

Wednesday, Oct 2nd was still spent mostly on the train. My friend who I had shared some Goan cashews with the day prior bought me a cappuccino in the morning, and I was feeling surprisingly refreshed. The terrain had flattened, and we passed by many small villages that looked so burning hot, poor, and run-down, I couldn’t help but to feel so grateful that I was born in America where there’s decent infrastructure and far less falling apart buildings and trash scattered everywhere. So I read, listened to music, and absorbed the scenery that I’ll likely never see again.

I made some more friends once we were close to Delhi – some who were big fans of American heavyweight lifters, as they were traveling to compete in Indian heavyweight lifting themselves. Another named Vikash told me how he has been traveling alone for the past 2 years because his family wouldn’t support him any longer. At 19 he was a traveling chef, and though he was very engaged in his nomadic lifestyle, I could see the deep pain in his eyes when he talked about his family. His father simply doesn’t understand him and is not willing to listen. They haven’t spoken on good terms in over 2 years, and every attempt turns sour. I guess like attracts like.

As an American with a broken relationship with my father, my case isn’t terribly rare. But in India, family ties are much more sacred. What my friend Anmol (who I met in Dharamshala) found most strange about American culture is that at age 18 one is expected to move out of their parents home and either live with friends or alone. In India, people usually stick in their family’s homes for their whole lives. You’re not judged as someone who is unable to support themselves so they have to live with their parents. Sticking with your family is the norm, and when you are alone at a young age like Vikash was, that means something terrible must have happened in your family.

Sure Indian families argue with each other, but they tend to work things out or at least deal with each other’s differences. At around 1%, India actually has the lowest divorce rate in the world. But the reasons for this aren’t entirely positive. Women generally have very little voice and often aren’t able to support themselves on their own. Divorce is also a great shame to the family name, a terribly difficult legal process, and a sacred bond taken much more seriously in Hinduism than Christianity. Plus with so many arranged marriages, not having much of a choice from the start doesn’t set you up to have choice later on. Still, although I think that my parents made the right choice by getting divorced, there is something to be learned from the cooperation and strong family values that exist all over India.

So eventually Vikash and I parted ways after exchanging social media info, and I finally arrived in Delhi around 5:30 PM. The streets there are possibly the most chaotic and jam-packed I’ve ever seen. I made it to my hostel, went out to eat and considered ordering a beer, but since it was Gandhi Jayanti, one of India’s 3 national holidays marking Gandhi’s birthday anniversary, all alcohol sales were prohibited. So I simply took advantage of having a comfortable, stable bed to sleep in, and rested for a long time that night.

Thursday, Oct 3rd

In the morning I was off to see sights for the whole day. I first walked through crazy streets and underneath a sketchy bridge to find the Lotus Temple of the Bahá’i faith, which was super tourist-packed but still really beautifully designed in the shape of a lotus flower, or water lily. Then I hit the streets and I saw so many people heading down this narrow footpath all heading the same direction, I thought I might as well go see what all the hustle was about. It was for Shree Kalka Ji Temple, and though in the moment I really didn’t enjoy being squished on all sides between hundreds of people, it was perhaps my most interesting cultural experience in Delhi.

For it wasn’t touristy at all, but a Hindu tradition that took a totally different vibe in India’s capital and second most populated city. Once you’re filtered into a walkway that goes around the temple’s core, you pass shops selling flowers, puffed rice, and other sacred items, which you eventually give to the man in the center through a little window (What he does with it, I’m not really sure). Eventually after plenty of excessive pushing and people cutting in front of you, you walk around the small perimeter of the temple, touching the walls and then your forehead directly after. You eat a little bit of the sweet puffy rice that others had placed there, and when walking out after your 5-minute loop you get a red and yellow string tied around your wrist. Also perhaps a Bindi, or a red dot atop your “third eye,” the center-point between your eyebrows. Thankfully there was a kind man I was following who offered to show me what you typically do at every step.

I was relieved to finally escape the hoard of people, and I rejuvenated myself with some sugarcane juice. Then I rode a tuk-tuk (3-wheeled tiny taxi) to Humayun’s tomb, which was full of beautiful architecture but quite touristy. I took plenty of more selfies with Indians, and was then off to Akshardham. After a 20 minute ordeal of checking in my bag and camera, leaving me only with cash and my free entry ticket, I made it through the gates. This was the most beautiful architectural design I’d seen yet in India. So many tiny carvings of people and animals, perfectly symmetrical with everything else. A big golden statue and clean marble floors gave a very royal feeling to the Hindu Temple. However the nearby theater exhibit felt more like something from an amusement park. You move from room to room maybe ten times, either watching a film or a stage of mechanical characters that act out the storyline of Swaminarayan. It was informative but felt very out-of-place at such a magnificent place of worship. So did the multitude of shops selling junky food, the large overpriced gift-shop, and costly photo opportunities.

After Akshardham I went to check out the India Gate (like the famous arches in France and Germany). It naturally was very crowded all around but at least spread out over a big street and nearby fields. It was a long walk down a very wide footpath to reach Indian Parliament. The sidewalks were covered with nice tents selling food and products in the tradition of practically every state in India. I was happily surprised by the delicious food, free art exhibits, live music, and tastes of various Indian cultures. Right after nightfall I reached Indian parliament but it had just closed for the day. I started to walk back but it started pouring rain so heavily that by the time my tuk-tuk took me to my hostel, the water level was sometimes halfway up to my knees as I walked the rest of the way. It was an exhausting day, and I slept quite soundly that night.

Friday October 4th was (thankfully) my last full day in Delhi. So I went to see some more sights – first the Red Fort – which was quite touristy but had some interesting history and architecture. Then a walk through old Delhi revealed more super crowded streets and cheap shops of all sorts. Afterwards I walked around the Indian parliament, alongside a monkey who had much more access to different areas than I did. Then I made my way to a park, which was peaceful and a much needed break from the city life. Finally I went to Hans Plaza, because why not, but there were no signs even saying my name :/ just more crowded streets and fancier clothing and jewelry shops. It was a busy day with lots of walking, but nothing too extraordinary worth mentioning here.

Saturday Oct 5th I took a bus around 5:30 AM to Dharamshala. The ride was rather long and boring until I got to Chandigarh, which is when I first laid eyes on the Himalayas. A very sweet girl sat next to me who was from Himachal Pradesh (India’s NW Himalayas), and told me a little bit about her life. Unlike most other Indians I’ve met, she doesn’t listen to American music or watch any American television. She loves the simpler, quieter life in the mountains, and is happy without so much constant entertainment (though she is a regular Instagram user).

As we talked our bus passed by monkeys, Eucalyptus trees and Mango trees, up massive hills and back down into the next valley, revealing some of the tallest (perhaps the tallest) and steepest snow-laden mountains I’ve ever seen. Like Colorado but on steroids. It was incredibly beautiful, and also offered me some super refreshing cool air as soon as we started gaining significant elevation. The sun set over the mountains and I still had another 2 hours until I reached Dharamshala. I was so relieved to finally arrive around 7:30 PM, and after a taxi ride past the Dalai Lama’s residence and steep hike up the road where taxis can’t even drive I made it to the room where I’d be staying for the next week as I volunteer with my next Workaway – Waste Warriors.

Sunday October 6th brought a handful of unexpected adventures. There was no work for me with Waste Warriors, so I explored the town of Upper Bhagsu for a little while. It was very hippie-tourist oriented, with yoga centers, ecstatic dance, and Tibetan massage parlors spread about. A strange temple held a shrunken stair set leading through the mouth of a tiger. Shops were selling dreamcatchers, mini Buddha figures, and handmade leather notebooks. It was hippie paradise, and accordingly the human environment was more full of white people than anywhere else I’d been so far in India.

So I went for a little nature walk to a nearby popular waterfall called Bhagsunag. I passed some stunning birds with long, striped tails, and took the secret path to the waterfall where I followed two Buddhist monks dressed in their traditional red robes, or Kasayas. Once I got there I found a small cafe, prayer flags, and plenty of people hanging out on the rocks surrounding the small pool that the waterfall plummeted into. Very few were actually swimming, but that was no deterrent for me. I emptied my pockets into my bag and went full-in, soaking my head beneath the cold falling water, feeling the rejuvenating rush of energy. A fellow Indian traveler from Jaipur noticed me, as he was the only other one crazy enough to be doing the same thing as I was. He mentioned that he and a group of friends were going to continue hiking up the mountain, and I was welcome to join. I was planning on going back to my room after the waterfall but without any specific plan in mind, so I gladly jumped on the opportunity.

It turned out to be a group of maybe 15 other Indians, all from Jaipur, a 16 hour drive from Dharamshala, visiting just for the weekend. We started hiking alongside a herd of goats and picked up a dog who tagged along for our entire trek. I got to know several of them very well by the time our hike was finished. One was an electronic musician named AFTERall, another was still afraid of heights, and they all were students at a university. On the way up we listened to a surprising amount of American pop music, most of which was new to me. We ascended through the forested hills up into the drier, shrubbier land for perhaps 2 hours. Close to our stopping point we met another Indian named Sid, who was traveling solo and was likewise happy to accompany us for the rest of our trek.

Eventually we rested at this spectacular clearing about 8,000 ft above sea level where we could sit on the grass, eat Maggi (like Indian ramen noodles) and drink chai from this super isolated mini-cafe way up in the mountains. It was the deepest into nature I had been since I arrived in India, and made me feel so at home. We sat and exchanged Instagram info, took an abundant amount of group selfies, and talked a bit with the other folks who were sitting nearby. There was a way-too-drunk man from Afghanistan, some Europeans, and two Buddhist monks sitting off in the distance. I ate a wild tomato and met plenty more mountain goats, soon to return back down the slope.

It was a swift walk down, for we hadn’t much time until the light in the sky disappeared. We made it back to the waterfall where I met them just as it became too dark to see, and we took the easy, wide footpath back to town to have a few snacks afterwards. I tried some street-food I had never eaten before, such as momos (pretty much Asian dumplings) and this strange but delicious hollow fried wheat ball dipped in a cold spicy water/sauce called Pani Puri. Like so many other Indians I’ve met who take me under their wing, they wouldn’t let me pay for anything.

There was talk of hanging out at their hotel, possibly with alcohol, and I was thoroughly enjoying their company, so I tagged along. It turned out to be a 30 minute walk from Bhagsunag waterfall (and where I was staying). Since we had dinner quite late when we arrived there, they offered that I could spend the night at their hotel. It was a kind gesture, and I was open to it depending on how the night went. Soon after dinner (which at their hotel again costed me nothing) we went to buy drinks, and I picked up a bottle of the classic Indian rum: Old Monk. On the way back (before any drinking occurred) we were listening to some really loud music and stopped multiple times in the middle of the street (or stairs) for a dance break. At 10:45 I felt concerned about waking others up, and eventually someone indeed opened their window and yelled, “Do you have no respect!?”

We walked more quietly the rest of the way back, and once we got to their hotel I needed to pass some test to get into the room where we were to hang out. I was asked “what do you call this person who does […]” and thanks to my friends teaching me some Hindi swear words just a few hours prior, I responded with “Matachodh” and “Gandu”, each time the group erupting in cheer and laughter. We made it in and I recognized another face who I had briefly danced with at the waterfall. I sat and mostly talked with my few closest friends I met on the trek, since everyone else was speaking Hindi. After maybe 30 minutes, it became obvious that one girl I was trekking with suddenly got way too drunk, and we decided to go back to her room to take care of her and not disturb the others.

Apparently in India it’s very taboo even at college age to get too drunk, and they told me that everyone was judging her pretty hard for generally losing control of herself. I, however, was quite used to seeing both sexes lose far more control than her at University of Michigan. I shrugged it off while I kept having a good time with everyone else, though as I passed by she kept apologizing for being so drunk. That night really showed me how drinking is far less integrated into their culture than in the US. Even though the drinking age is 18, some people I had trekked with had still never tried alcohol and were well past the legal age. One of them, aged 20(?) tried alcohol for the first time that night, and many others had only drank a few times before. It mainly is because of Hinduism, and the way that it has shaped the social norms, even if one isn’t a strict Hindu. I actually find it pleasantly refreshing that the cultural norm of meeting a potential partner or reuniting with friends doesn’t typically involve going out to a bar.

I hadn’t been to a house/hotel party with college kids in quite a long time, and with all Indians was a first. There was a very light and happy mood, except for the girl drank too much and started crying. Many Indians I’ve met so far are very expressive and passionate, and even more so when drinking. I don’t want to stay up until 3 AM like I did that night very often, but it was totally worth it. The best adventures are the ones you don’t plan, but fall right into your hands.

Since I was up so late the night before, Monday Oct 7th was mostly a rest day. I walked back to my room around 10, and afterwards wrote, read, napped, and did a little bit of exploring. I discover many more hippie-friendly cafes up these paths that change from road into tiny footpath into road again. A taste of the quiet life further up in the mountains where I don’t hear honking every 10 seconds was a well-needed break from all the commotion in the rest of India.

Well, that completes another entire week of adventures. So much has happened since – I started volunteering with Waste Warriors, traveled to Rishikesh, and then took another bus through Nepal’s westernmost border with India. There I’ve stayed in Bardia while visiting a national park with tigers, rhinos, and elephants, and have stayed for the past week or so at my third Workaway in the Nepali countryside near Chitwan national park teaching English and painting. With so many adventures and time spent connecting with other natives and fellow travelers, I find myself more behind in blogging than ever. Regardless, there will be evermore exciting stories and cultural reflection to come!

Namaste 🙏,

Hopper

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#6 – Peacocks, Psy-trance, and another Protest (Global Climate Strike #2)

By Friday, Sept 27th I had been living it up at Saraya in Goa, India for almost 2 weeks. The usual was staying up late playing cards, sweating like crazy chopping greens for compost in the sun and occasionally pouring rain as I observed the ending of the monsoon season. My first week was rainy basically every day, but by now there were only infrequent massive downpours. The nostalgia of leaving soon was starting to set in, so I was spending time with others as much as I could before I set off for the Himalayas in northern India.

Outside of working or hanging out at Saraya, I was still taking advantage of the unique opportunities that presented themselves to me. Before the last Global Climate Strike on Friday Sept 20th, Zora, the son of Deeksha who started Saraya Ecostay, mentioned that there would also be another big event on the next Friday. This day had come, and it wasn’t until maybe 4 PM that Zora came by to pick up posters and see if anybody was interested in tagging along. Naturally I was excited to see how the next strike would be, and so two other volunteers and I came along with Zora and Isha, the coordinators of both of the strikes. The rainbow we saw on the ride there was a sign that something good is happening.

Though this one was much different than the prior. This time, instead of sitting at the main church in the heart of Panjim, Goa, we stood along the roadside to strike more specifically against the construction of a new highway, which was destroying a bunch of green space disrupting the livelihood of those living there. Along with many other friendly, familiar faces, the same musicians from the prior strike were there. Unfortunately, since we were spread out along 2 roadsides, I wasn’t close enough to really hear and sing along. Instead, I stood near the front and held up the same sign as before: “GLOBAL WARMING (and underneath) GLOBAL WARNING” with another 2 folks, our british volunteer and another who interchanged between Zora, Annu, and other fellow strikers.

As thousands of cars passed us, some would blink their lights and say, “Yeah, Woo!” while driving by, others would pass by in buses with their eyeballs nearly bulging through the window, but most would glance every now and then, just trying to make it through the slowed traffic. For even those seemed to try to ignore what’s happening had to notice the massive crowd of at least 100 people in the middle of the road. It’s hard not to at least be curious why so many people would stand around together with signs in such an unusual place where I doubt there has ever been any social activism before. In all of Goa, this was one of the biggest gatherings of people to fight for some cause that there has been, at least in the past few years.

It lasted maybe a half an hour past sundown, until we were all much harder to see. We (mainly Zora) said our goodbyes to the many who showed up, and started to walk back to Saraya, a couple of miles away. We reflected on how this time it was great to see more people, but didn’t feel as unified and full of a single voice as the prior one. Still, awareness was spread, voices were heard, and it was one more step in the right direction.

I started to understand the impact more as Zora shared with me about how Goa has changed in the past 20 years. It used to be a hippie town – still touristy, but not so overpacked with Indians from all over the country who flock there to blow all of their money. With this “advance,” there has been a lot of nicer hotels that popped up, along with Casios and way too many places to find alcohol at an incredibly cheap price. As the cheapest alcohol prices in all of India, with 50 Rupees (75 cents) you can buy a decent beer or with 200 Rupees ($2.60) you can get a whole bottle of Rum or Fenne (the local liquor made from cashew husks). Aside from alcohol, good foods, and a variety of cheap to nice local & handmade souvenirs, people come here to find some pretty hard drugs. Most of them I hadn’t even heard of, but some that I recognized were speed and methamphetamine. In the more relaxed, safer, quieter hippie days, one used to only be able to find weed and LSD. Now the psychedelic peace that once pervaded the lands has been replaced with a frenzied chaos of tourists trying to get messed up and everyone trying to sell you something if you come near them.

That’s not to say Goa has lost all of its magical energy. It still has retained some amazing pockets of harmony (like Saraya) that attracts people who aren’t there just for substance use and who aren’t just some stereotypical wanna-be hippies. Rather, those who gravitate here are people who actually live & breathe the values of healthy coexistence with each other and our environment. There’s of course still many good-hearted Goa natives too, and Indian folks who move to Goa because they fall in love with the friendly, relaxed lifestyle here. And though it can be aggravating at times how even as I’m still trying to park my scooter I’m crowded by 5 Indians who are persistently asking me to buy some jewelry or clothing, I understand that it’s often because they really need the money so they can meet their basic needs. As the population has grown with the tourist market, the necessity to compete against hundreds of others to sell basically the same product is far more pronounced.

So awareness about climate change and all of the societal factors that affect it in Goa (and many other parts of India) is quite low. Very few are blessed enough to have the proper education and decent income to learn about these things. Rather, they’re busy figuring out how they’ll eat or how they’ll not receive a beating from their spouse. As in Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs,’ people cant begin to concern themselves with global issues when there’s such dire issues at home. Those who were at the second Global Climate Strike in Goa generally were those with affluence, from India and afar. Ironically, climate change will make the lives of those who couldn’t afford to be there much harder than those who could.

My takeaway from this is that it’s especially important that those who are able to be informed about these wider issues spread awareness and seek making change from the top-down as well as from the bottom-up. Since it would drain my soul entirely to become a politician, I’m hoping that my words and actions, along with the organizations that I associate myself with, can contribute from the bottom-up in some positive way to the well being of the world and all of its inhabitants. This doesn’t mean I have to be so severe about producing absolutely zero waste and not enjoying myself in the meantime, though.

For Goa is indeed known for its party scene, and by the time Saturday the 28th rolled around, I realized that my last change to go out on the weekend to dance while listening to loud music was tonight. I don’t nearly have the energy nor desire to stay up late often, but my curiosity leads me into seeking all types of situations – and some things like a Psy-trance club are only hoppin at night.

So I asked Deeksha’s other son, Sid (who is an amazing musician), on Saturday morning about where to go to find the good music & crowds and not the crappy tourist traps. Though he doesn’t go out to big parties much, he showed me a website called WhatsUpGoa and it offered a decent variety, including some place he hadn’t been to but could recommend. Afterwards I spread the offer of going out that night to all the volunteers, along with some staff and friends, from whom the typical response was, “oh, let me know closer to when you’re going and I’ll see how I feel.” Understandable – I typically can’t plan to be in a certain mood at a certain time. But I was committed to at least have a taste of Goa’s nightlife.

The sun set, the mosquitos but, and the night time settled in. By 9 PM those who were committed were Joy, our volunteer from France whose name describes her well (expect for the fact that it means f*** in Thai), and Ram (Indian but not from Goa), who volunteered a while ago, and is a frequent visitor to Saraya to play Cabo (an awesome card game) and hang out with the other volunteers. I was hoping to leave by 9, but there were still a few maybe’s we were waiting on, and apparently most people don’t shop up until after 11 anyway. Aagh so late! So meanwhile I made some coffee, and as we looked further into our plans at the last minute, we realized the cover fee at Larive was really step.

So we went to Plan B. Literally. The place was called Plan B.

And even more last minute we scooped up a cook from Saraya – Batel, a 20(?)-year old Goa native, who made our group feel complete and added some great energy. Our taxi ride led us to Anjuna Beach, and as we walked along the shore towards the club the ocean waves were increasingly illuminated with changing neon colours. The “thump-thump-thump”ing gradually became louder until I could feel the bass deep in my chest. By 11:30 we finally made it in. We first sat at a table right next to the dance floor to have a drink & a smoke, and were soon on our way to dancing the night away.

The music was amazing – electronic with a strong persistent beat and high tempo. We went hard on the floor, and after I sprung the urge to go swimming in the ocean, we brought our moves out into the waves. The rocks were sharp, so I resisted going all-in, but we nonetheless stood for a decent time period with our legs deep in the water, dancing to the music, looking out onto the colour-changing waves. Then we retreated to the sand to move around some more, and I became slightly obsessed with tracking the beach creatures – mostly dogs and humans. The slightly-wet sand revealed how our movement was in celebration, like a running dog as opposed to a hunting coyote. Nobody else was dancing on the beach at the time, but as others saw how much fun we were having they joined in, too.

The crowd was decent for pre-tourism season: around 50 people. Oddly, only 1 in 10 were female. I guess strong electronic music appeals more to Indian men, since the few females were there with another man, and most were tourists. As the time passed 3 AM the crowd was dissipating, and we were ready to go as well. After a super speedy taxi ride back another another selfie with a “Danger: No Selfie Zone” sign, we made it home by 3:30ish, and somehow from having so much energy dancing I didn’t fall sleep until around 4. That’s the latest night I can remember having in many, many months. And it was 100% worth it.

The next day, Sunday the 29th, Deeksha, being the considerate host that she is, knew I stayed up late the night before, so when I came to breakfast late she told me that I could have the day to rest and relax. I was to work the evening cafe shift, which runs from roughly 6:30 – 10:30 PM. So I wrote, sorted pics, read, and went out for a little adventure. Since the day after I arrived at Saraya (exactly 2 weeks ago) I heard that there were Peacocks in the nearby field, and if I walk down our side street at the right time I might see them. So I set off to go spot a special, rare animal in it’s natural habitat. The chances to me seemed very low, since I basically lived in the woods of the Pacific Northwest for the past 1.5 years and never saw a bear, unlike everyone else around me.

I walked and admired the hawks flying above me, the palm trees and rice fields, the glowing golden temple off in the distance, and eventually heard a bird call that sounded too loud and full-bodied to be a hawk or a crow. In fact, I remembered hearing this sound almost every day when working outside and when waking up in the morning. I turned back towards Saraya, towards where the sound was coming from, and walked patiently, calmly; I was hoping that I’ll find exactly what I was looking for.

And I did! I saw the peacock way across the field, not close enough to see the detail of its feathers, but still clearly visible about 200 feet away. It’s feathers were so tall – perhaps as tall as me – it was actually fairly easy to spot. I stood for a while in admiration as it twirled around in some sort of a mating dance. It was like a massive fan that kept slowly spinning, and occasionally singing out in a most peculiar way. I felt truly blessed, as I had dreamt about seeing a peacock on one of my first nights in India. It was a dream come true.

Once I arrived back at Saraya, the monthly farmers market was well into motion. As a great coincidence, I met someone selling beautiful earrings named Hayley from Ann Arbor, MI, where I lived for 2 years while going to school at the University of Michigan, and who also spent 10 years in the Seattle area, where I had been living the past year. She even knew of my most previous employer, Wilderness Awareness School, where I was an instructor. After chatting with her I found some amazing clothes in the donation box, bought some souvenirs and a vegan burger, and waited for the farmers market to start clearing out so we could set up the tables for the cafe.

The customers at Saraya are of all ages, relationships, and backgrounds. Locals and foreigners – some elders, some families with kids, and many romantic couples. Apparently the most common google search that leads people to Saraya is “romantic restaurant” even though it is mainly known for being healthy, organic and eco-friendly. Many are curious about you, and will chat with you for quite a few minutes, often giving recommendations of other places in India to visit while traveling. Overall the job is fun because you’re around good people in an open, warm, green environment.

Monday the 30th was my last day at Saraya, and naturally very nostalgic. I worked on constructing the mud houses at first by putting on boots and climbing atop a mound of glass bottles, in order to sort the right size bottle (a standard 12-oz beer bottle) apart from the rest. I’d hand them over to Sherbin, who wheel-barreled hundreds over to the mud houses. We (along with Raul) dug mud out from the ground and wheeled that over there too, until we finally applied patches of mud to the walls, in between the glass bottles. It was really exhausting in such humid and hot conditions: 88 degrees and 80% humidity. Still, I like working up a sweat, for I’m ridding toxins from my body and burning calories that I will gladly make up for later in the day.

In the afternoon I did some last minute tasks like taking a video tour of the entire place, organizing my belongings, and booking a hostel in Delhi. Finally, after a short walk to the beer store where I picked up some drinks for some friends and myself, I savored my last night by hanging out with the other volunteers such as Boomika and Joy and prior volunteers such as Ram and Annu. Good conversations were had, and I got to know them all on a deeper level, only to say goodbye in 12 hours. It was bittersweet.

Especially sweet was when Annu invited us to a nearby house party, which I was reluctant to going to because it was already 11 or so, but I had a feeling I’d never have an opportunity like this ever again. So we rode: 3 one bike and 2 on another to go celebrate her friend’s birthday until late at night. I met new people who told me about life in East India and chatted with Ram and Boomika about hiking and the way Michigan is shaped like a mitten. Meanwhile, the girl you could say I had a crush on ever since I saw her directly across the room from me at Saraya on the day I arrived is once again sitting directly across from me, too far for any interaction.

But after maybe 1.5 hours, around 1 AM, she lies down in front of me and rolls a cigarette (while still lying down). We shared it and suddenly it seemed we were engaged in a really meaningful, philosophical/spiritual conversation, and I started to wish now more than ever that I were in Goa for longer. It was the most in agreement about philosophical matters I had verbally expressed with anyone in a long time. And it was with this extremely cute, short haired Indian woman who always wears short shorts (which is very taboo in India) and comes from Delhi. Though we had this natural connection, I wasn’t sure if she even had a partner or not, and I knew that at this point finding out out wouldn’t change anything. All I could do was appreciate the inner and outer beauty of this person next to me for the impending timeless moments I still had left.

And as different people started mixing in and out, tiredness set in and timelessness faded away. It was already 2:30 AM, and we had a 20 minute walk ahead of us back to Saraya. So I wished my good friends Ram and Annu goodbye, as well as the other kind Indian folks. And the way the world worked out, everything seemed so circular, as I walked back to Saraya with my British friend who I met on the first night, and was the first person from Saraya I really hung out with. Now, he was to be the last one, too. The timing of everything and everyone coming in and out of my life the last 2 weeks in Goa was too imperfectly perfect to all be mere coincidence. I’ve felt like this many times in my life – for everyone and everything is always in its right place, and it’s often when I step out of a common routine to start seeing new horizons that this comes to light again.

There’s so much that has happened since I left Goa and where I am now. Stay tuned (scroll slightly up on a mobile device or all the way down or maybe on the right to find the “Follow” button) for a 36-hour train ride to Delhi, 2 busy days in India’s capital city, and over a week of volunteering through Workaway again, this time with an NGO called Waste Warriors, and of course meeting some more amazing people in the Dharamshala area. These incredible mountain towns are home to the Dalai Lama and more full of tourists than any other place I’ve been yet for the whole month in India. For here you can find Buddhism, trekking in the Himalayas, yoga, monkeys, veganism, waterfalls, and a surprisingly large community of Israeli people.

Just hoppin’ along,

Hopper

#5 – A Week in Goa: Climate Strikes, Beaches, and the Dilemma of Trust

Wednesday, Sept 18th was my first day off from working at Saraya. I took a bus to the main city in Goa, India – Panjim, in order to try to get the Moneygram that this Steven Dixon sent me. He apparently got beat up and lost basically everything, so I was trying to help him get on a taxi all the way to Delhi by giving him a large sum of cash (see blog post #3 for more details). So once I arrived in Panjim, I went to where my hone told me there was a Moneygram office. It turned out to be a Thomas Cook office, which I didn’t think offered it, so after asking around I was directed to a bank, and then after failing at the bank, to the post office. That seemed unlikely to work, but I figured I’d try it. When asking for directions to the post office, I met this guy who was selling really beautiful cloths and tapestries. He chose to help me, leave his shop, and take me to get some money (so I could buy something from him).

Naturally, the post office was a no go, so they directed us to a Thomas Cook, which thankfully had moneygram, but their computers were down, so we had to go somewhere else. I ended up walking around Panjim with him for about 2 hours from bank to office to bank to store, always getting redirected to somewhere that couldn’t help us. The process was sped up quite a bit since he spoke Konkani, they native language in Goa, so he could say very directly what I’m looking for. But even he realized that walking around with me all over Panjim was taking forever, so he took me back to his shop, where his friend could pick me up on a motorbike to save time.

Finally after 2.5 hours we get somewhere that will at least look at my code to see if there is even any money that was sent to me. Though I was trying to stay optimistic about not getting scammed, I finally met my contrary skeptical expectation. The code didn’t work, I tried the other one he gave me, and that too didn’t work. I knew at this point there was nothing I could do except keep trying to contact him in hope that there was some mistake. I did so for the next few days, and no response.

So, I learned my lesson. I wanted to be trusting of people, and lending of help to those who really seem to need it. I believe strongly that we cannot start to create a peaceful coexistence with others if we greet everybody we meet with distrust. Many times, even though you can’t be 100% sure, it is worth it to trust others, for the rewards of friendship and kindness that result from trusting by default are greater than the consequences of having your trust broken every now and then. I am fine losing money or personal belongings every so often, so long as I’m able to have meaningful connections with others in the meantime. That means far more to me than holding firm onto material things, which can come and go at a whim. It’s better exude the energy that creates harmony among people than putting out a cold, unaccepting, skeptical energy, and consequently attracting people who are on a similar negative wavelength.

This isn’t to say that you should blindly trust anyone and everyone. You have to trust yourself first and foremost. When on the edge, lean towards trusting, and let yourself be proven wrong so you can learn. Otherwise, If some people rub you the wrong way, then avoid them. If you feel like something isn’t right deep down in your gut, then act on that, no matter how difficult it may be. This scam was a reminder for me to listen carefully to my intuition, because I did indeed wonder a few times if he was scamming me, but always talked myself out of the idea. My want of the world to be full of good people overtook my grasp of reality, and I paid for it – literally. Still, just because the world isn’t full of good people, it doesn’t mean your world can’t be full of good people.

In fact, my world in Goa with the exception of Steven Dixon was full of good people. Every volunteer at my first Workaway (work exchange program for a free place to stay & 3 meals a day) called Saraya Ecostay was caring and sweet in their own way. Some people I could joke around with more easily, and with others I can have more meaningful conversations. I loved all the different accents I was surrounded with – British, Australian, New Zealand, Mexican, French, and of course many varieties of the Indian accent. Each country has their quirks, and each individual too. I loved hearing Deeksha speak, for she spoke with such passion and humble authority, sounded Indian but with a hint of all of the accents of her previous volunteers.

Each volunteer and employee had at least a few things that set them apart from everybody else. Still, we all functioned really well in sharing a living, eating, working, and chilling space because of what we have in common: A curiosity for new places and people, an appreciation for community living and sustainability, and often at least a handful of yogic values. 2 of our volunteers were yoga teachers, and many others appreciated doing yoga, meditating, and reading, and seeking a stronger awareness of one’s true self.

Quite a few volunteers had done a Vipassana mediation course, where one basically meditates for 10 days straight without talking to anyone, or even making eye contact. They all commented on the difficulty of it, but also said it really changed them. Or if it didn’t “change” them, then they benefitted from it by growing a greater self awareness and achieved a deeper meditation. So after it coming into my life from many sources, event from a coworker named Laura at Wilderness Awareness School before I arrived in India, I’m strongly considering doing this Vipassana mediation in Myanmar, where it originates from.

So, it’s easy to say I found my people in Goa. It was really hard to say goodbye, for what exists there is so special, I’m unsure if I can find any other Workaway communities that can compare to Saraya. Still, I was satisfied with the myriad of adventures I had. I accepted most opportunities to do something new and different when they came to me, and it always was well worth it.

For example, on Friday Sept 20th, I was invited to a climate strike by Deeksha’s son, Zora. He and his friend Isha were the 2 people who organized the whole event. That afternoon while eating lunch after a hard day of gardening/outdoor maintenance work, Zora comes in to the dining room speaking faster and with more zest than usual, saying that there’s currently over 150 countries in the world who are participating in a global climate strike, and that it might be the largest coalescence to advocate for action against climate change there has ever been. There was some chit chat of Goa having a climate strike, but nobody was seriously taking action and putting something together, so he’s doing it. As he kept buzzing about in and out of Saraya, spreading the word of Goa’s climate strike that will take place this evening, Deeksha approached all the volunteers who had already finished work and said that we need help making posters for the event, and we can count this extra time working to the next day’s 4 hours.

So at around 5 PM we hop in Deeksha’s car with a bunch of posters – including one big, long one made out of an old street banner for Saraya that says “GLOBAL WARMING (and underneath) GLOBAL WARNING.” Simple, big, and to the point. I ended up being one of 3 people who held this sign up for the event – right in the very middle and front, where everybody could see.

As soon as we showed up to one of the most well-known landmarks in the heart of Panjim – the Immaculate Conception Church – and sat down, there were already maybe 10 people there. Within the matter of minutes, it doubled to 20. People on the streets start walking up constantly to take pictures. It felt like there was always at least 1 person, and sometimes 5, who had a camera pointed at our faces.

As a white tourist who flew a long way to get to Goa, I couldn’t help but to feel a little hypocritical. My carbon footprint was probably bigger than most other people driving by. Still, I feel passionately that it’s not just some calculation of how much CO2 you put into the atmosphere that determines if you’re being “good” or “bad” to the planet. To me, it matters more the awareness of your actions, and the efforts that one takes to bring about positive change. Mainly, it matters that you make changes big or small to live more sustainably, live by example and encourage awareness of climate change, awareness of the current destruction of nature thanks to our capitalistic societies, and awareness of how to live more in tune with your environment. With this awareness one tends not to consume mindlessly, taking things for granted by wasting food and other products that took a lot of time and energy to produce.

I try to live this way, and even just the simple action of putting a piece of trash in my pocket instead of throwing it on the ground might confuse another Indian who notices and asks why, having some sort of a good impact. You don’t always need to be showing off to the world that we all need to care about how we’re treating the planet (and the lives of ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren). On the other hand, sometimes when the time is right, a strong action taken by the community is needed in order to spread awareness and work towards bigger change on a political level.

And so as the climate strike ensued past the sunset, we sang songs and grew in size, like a magnet that pulls in those passer-bys who feel in their heart that something good is happening here. There were other tourists and locals, even full families with children, who freed their voice in song. We sang “Do it Now” the most, along with the Konkani version, “Ami atanch komes korunk zai.” In addition, there was “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan, “Get Up, Stand Up” by Bob Marley, “We are the World” (a classic humanitarian aid song), and even some chanting to the tune of “We Will Rock You” – but instead, singing “We want, we want, green Earth, green Earth.”

I had never been a part of any social protest before, and it felt really amazing. Not because I was on Goan TV and the front page of Goa’s news (though I have to admit, that was pretty cool, too), but because I felt a such a bond with everyone else there and was standing up for what I believe in. We all had enough motivation to actually do something about what we feel is right and what we want for our future, and that group of people is going to be very different from any group at a psy-trance party or even a community meeting at a hippie tree near the beach.

By the end of the strike, there must have been at least 70 people, if not 100. Zora, who organized the event, saw nothing like this coming. The musicians showed up unexpectedly with 2 guitars and printed out lyrics to a few songs that we sang, and totally changed the dynamic of the strike. That brought more people in, and gave us something to do other than shouting things to the people on the streets, which really wouldn’t have been my cup of tea. I was really impressed by the way Zora interacted with everyone, in a personal and friendly manner to those who showed up, but when it came time to address the group as a whole, he stood back and let others speak. He didn’t need to make himself feel big or important by saying anything like “thanks for coming to my climate strike.” His actions spoke louder than words.

The next day, Saturday, I rented a scooter/motorbike for the first time. I’ve never driven one of those things before, and people told me that if you can drive in India, you can drive anywhere, because the traffic and lack of respect for any driving laws are so insane. It was intimidating at first, especially graduating from the side street to the main road, but there was no option other than to trust myself. Sometimes it’s fun, other times it’s scary and stressful. Especially at roundabouts.

Regardless, I made it successfully to my destination for that day: Calangute Beach. The sun was shining so brightly off of the waves of the Arabian Sea, I was overwhelmed at first. Especially with so many people around, too. Some were playing volleyball, some cricket, many just sitting and standing by the beach, and quite a few who were waiting right at the edge of where the waves ebb out to, in order to get soaked by the next one. Interestingly, nobody was full-on swimming, so I took that as a sign of danger, and stayed back as well.

But that didn’t keep me from going in up to my knees. And how warm it was! The last time I was in ocean water was in the Pacific Northwest, where it stays around 45-55 degrees Fahrenheit all the time. This must have been 75-80 degrees. I actually wanted it to be much colder, to escape the never-ending heat of Goa, but my wish blew away in the wind. So, I sat down in the sand to just admire the energy of the ocean and all the human life around me, but away from the crowds. After a few minutes a dog came to sit right next to me and asleep, and after another 10 minutes, a human walks up to me and sits down next to me. He offers me a cigarette, and we start chatting for a while. His English wasn’t amazing, but good enough (much better than my Hindi). Varun was from Mumbai on vacation in Goa. A really friendly person, he even told me “you are my new friend,” and video-chatted his girlfriend to introduce me.

We sat together for a while, and eventually started talking about fenne – the local liquor of Goa made from cashew husks. He mentioned having some back at his hotel, so I went back with him and had a small drink so I could still drive my scooter back safely. Afterwards he stayed at his hotel, and I left to go watch the sunset on the beach. On my walk back towards where I parked, quite a few Indians stopped me and asked for a selfie. One group of men who were seemingly all in their 30’s were having a blast swimming (more like kneeling down in the sand and letting the waves hit you), and I figured this would be a good chance to really experience the sea. So I ended up in the middle of 5 other Indians, laughing and taking selfies in the water. Curiously, I could never picture a group of middle aged Americans having nearly as much fun as they were – with no toys like jet skis, no football to throw, no alcohol to binge on, just yourself, your friends, and the ocean waves. That said a lot about the ability that we all innately have to really appreciate the simpler things in life, but often lose it to consumerism.

After exchanging Facebook info and watching the sun dip below the cloudy horizon, I had to ride back to Saraya for the next 20-30 minutes. It was pretty much a straight shot down one road, but I guess some roundabout must have thrown me off, because I ended up way too far north of Saraya after 25 minutes when I checked to see if I was close. Luckily Google Maps tracks your location even when you don’t have service or WiFi, so I found my way back alright, but not without being stuck in really intense traffic. People in India leave no space between the front of their vehicle and you, and especially at night when I can barely tell if there’s a pothole right in front of me, it was really stressful, but never felt terribly dangerous. People here are used to driving like this, having to stop quickly or maneuver around someone like me who is clearly still getting used to the roads.

The day after, Sunday the 22nd, I went back to Panjim with my volunteer friend, Monia, who wanted to try to find some loose rolling tobacco. She is 39, from Belgium but lived in Barcelona for 5 years, and works seasonal jobs at ski resorts in the winter, and more beachy resorts in the summer. It allows her to travel, and meet fellow travelers, while being able to enjoy outdoor recreational activities year-round. She is one of the few volunteers who did the 10-day Vipasana meditation course, and did yoga every day in the morning.

We took my scooter, and ended up going over a huge bridge that doesn’t allow 2-wheel vehicles in the fiasco of trying to find the right road to take into the city… whoops! We parked at the bus station, walked, had some coffee, then some fresh juice, and didn’t end up finding loose tobacco (at least for a decent price). So, we spent the rest of the day exploring the public parks, beaches, and lookout points. It all was incredible: we learned what a bull oak and royal palm tree look like, found some tiny crabs leaving the most peculiar signs on the beach, and saw a fancy-looking swallow with two thin lines coming off of its tall. We also ate some amazing garlic naan bread with a creamy veg soup, a mango milkshake, and basically indulged in the local foods and sights that Panjim has to offer. The main downside was that the monsoon season had finally started to end, and I wasn’t used to it being sunny the whole day, so I forgot to put sunblock on before I left. The back of my neck ended up getting super burnt, and so halfway through the day I started wearing the newspaper that my shot glass was wrapped in over my neck, and tucked it under the straps of my backpack to keep it in place. It worked surprisingly well!

On Monday I rode my bike around to visit some temples and see more of the Goan countryside. By this point I had settled in to a very comfortable life at Saraya of exploring a little bit, working a little bit, and hanging out with the other volunteers a little bit. We’d sit at a bench in the cafe while playing cards, drinking beers, and sharing stories of prior travels or comparing all of our cultural differences. I learned how English is taught more poorly than I previously imagined in France, and how in India the public schools are generally really terrible, and your only chance of having a decent education is at an expensive private school. At public schools, teachers have very little clue of how to actually teach, don’t even show up a lot of the time, and often don’t really care about the work that they’re doing. This country needs so much help, I’d have no clue where to begin. I guess bringing awareness about the state that India’s in is a start.

Tuesday was a fairly normal day. I planted some bamboo and turmeric, chopped plants for compost, experienced the most painful insect bite of my whole life… from a swarm of seemingly harmless black ants. Then hung out with friends, and took it easy, knowing that the next day had adventures waiting for me.

For Wednesday the 25th was my second full-day off from working at Saraya. So, I went on a scooter ride to Arambol beach with Monia and Joy, hoping to meet up with Raul and Emily later in the day there as well. On the way there, I was forced off the side of the road by a rickshaw driver who was passing a truck and wouldn’t move back into their own lane. There was space for me to turn off into, but it was super bumpy and unmaintained, so I couldn’t keep control of the bike. I hopped off it and saved myself from getting hurt, but the bike was damaged. No good, but no choice other than to keep going.

We made it to Arambol, checked Monia into her new guesthouse, and headed to the beach. I had possibly my best meal yet in India – Okhra Saag. It was okra (aka ladyfinger) and spinach in a slightly creamy sauce, with a side of rice and some garlic cheese naan bread… I’m salivating right now just thinking about it. Afterwards we headed along the beach to a “secret beach,” I took a selfie with a sign that says “Danger: No Selife Zone” (for pic see hopper.here on Instagram) on the way, and we ended up at a beautiful, uncrowned part of the beach, with a freshwater lake named “Sweet Lake” just on the other side, only a few hundred feet away from the ocean. From there we followed a gorgeous small hiking trail along a creek up to a famous hippie hangout spot next to a really old Bunyan tree, where there were prayer flags and a picture of a great sage named Babaji.

This was the most encapsulated in nature I had been since my arrival in India, and was so refreshing. Even more refreshing was the little freshwater pool that formed in the creek, where Joy and I swam for a little while. We stayed and relaxed until a massive, foot-long crab decided to join us in the pool for a swim. Hah, we had our fill, now it’s the crab’s turn. So we headed back down the nature trail to Sweet Lake, where I did some laps back and forth for a little while. As the day was growing old, we decided to start heading back to avoid driving most of the way at night. I bought some nice pants for 200 Rupees ($2.50) on the way, and passed many folks working terribly hard in the hot sun, carrying large stones on the top of their heads. They passed them off to each other conveyer belt style, a long ways from the pile on the beach to their future building. I felt really bad for them, and it made me feel so thankful that I wasn’t born into a situation where I had a life of carrying stones atop my head ahead of me.

Joy and I said goodbye to Monia after some coffee and failing to meet up with Raul and Emily. Now for the 45 min-long drive back, hopefully this time without being driven off the road. It was a long and beautiful ride back, though it became really dark for our last 20 minutes, but we made it home to Saraya safe and sound.

Since then I’ve lived over another week in India. Stay tuned for some of my best days at Saraya, the longest train ride I’ve ever been on, and more adventuring in New Delhi, India’s capital, before I head to Dharamshala, in India’s northern Himalayan state where the Dalai Lama lives.

Peace and Hoppiness,

Hopper

#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

#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