LOG ENTRY 29
After an unsuccessful attempt to conquer the raging Indian ocean with my Baywatch moves I decided to kill the day with my new friend Belo and hope that the monsoon will spare the roof of my new bungalow
I really thought I made a good deal with my bugalow yesterday. Bargained it down so much, I even felt bad about it. Not so much anymore, waking up in the reception area with a huge hangover just hours after the monsoon took my bugalow's roof isn't the ideal way to start your day. I mean it is a great experience, wouldn't have done it otherwise but still something to complain about.
After getting over my morning sickness with a bottle of Goa beer I decided to fill up my belly with something European. The big English breakfast was surprisingly good and cheap with Heinz baked beans, a rare find in this part of the world. Belly full, head clear(ish), let's hit Goa for a sightseeing. Oh wait, the monsoon is still rage down like a vertical tsunami. As I realized how unfortunate the weather is, one lovely Indian receptionist suggested that it would be a smart idea to move the rest of my stuff from a half roofed bungalow. At this point I realized how intellectually challenged I am, having a chilled beer and enjoying English breakfast while my stuff getting soaking wet.
After sorting out all the issues with my room I decided to head down to the beach, the only place where getting wet is not an issue. Honestly the beach was amazing, sad that I couldn't capture it's emptiness and the giant waves which periodically tapped its shore. I mean the waves were just gigantic, could not resist to run in, Baywatch style, I even had the soundtrack of the series in my head. It was not so glamorous after the fist wave hit me thought so I realized these are much bigger waves than I can possibly challenge without a surfboard. The weather won the battle today, so the bottle local beer Goa whom I spent the rest of the day, planning for tomorrow and hoping for a better weather.
It is an understatement that I was excited as the tropical sun woke me up in my berth. I jumped out of the bed and headed for the morning shower, which basically meant wiping my body with wet towels in the lavatory and then a quick breakfast. I didn't know what to expect in Goa so I wanted to be sure that I am prepared. As the train rolled into Vasco de Gamma station I noticed that people are not pooping anymore between the railway tracks like in Delhi and Mumbai, no shanty towns either instead, the last two hours the train rolled through the most scenic countryside since Dharamsala.
Vasco as the locals call it founded by the Portuguese in 1543 and remained in their hands until the 1961. This explains a lot, the architecture, the cleanness and the relatively low and non dense population which is predominantly Christian. It was such a refreshing feeling to walk out of the train station without the hassle of jumping over people who are sleeping on the floor or the endless amount of beggars, both are really a pain in the bigger cities. In fact, I haven't seen a single beggar in or around the train station or anywhere I went in Vasco. The city is not the capital of this lovely province thought but I yet to visit Panjim which is the actual capital and administration center.
I picked Calanguta beach from the Lonely Planet as my base as it sounded like pretty good with a long sandy beach and a few party spots. I found a minivan surprisingly easily from Vasco with a driver who spoke decent English with a good sense of humor. The humor came handy about ten minutes into our ride when we burst one of our tire. He just set next to his minivan and laughed at the disabled vehicle which I ended up changing it's wheel. My good deed actually earned me a free ride as he didn't charge the 150 rupees agreed price in the end and he also took me to a guest house. I know he must have been associated with them but the place looked very decent, stone throw away from the beach and it contained about 30 hut with bamboo looking roof. First I expected the price to be high but they only wanted 650 rupees for a night which I managed to work down to 250 rupees. What a bargain I thought and quickly headed down to the beach. Unfortunately July is not the best time to visit Goa. The sun hasn't been really up since the morning, clouds took over the sky and the ever increasing wind made the beach quite an unpleasant place to lay. As bad things always comes with good things, the strong wind turned the beach into a real surfers paradise which I enjoyed for over 2 hours. Apart from the time to time appearing vendors the beach was empty. Some of the vendor warned me that many people died lately here as a result of the storms and strong current.
On the way back from the beach I have been approached by two well dressed and friendly Indian guy with perfect American accents. We got into a little chat and they invited me to the bar next to us for a beer. At first they friendliness surprised me but about ten minutes into the conversation a little red flag raised in my head. They guys claimed to have an international jewelry business and they mentioned me that other foreigners made lots of money just by transiting diamonds for them. Sorry boys, I thought, I am not your typical broke backpacker who in need for some cash would smuggle anything so I finished the beer, politely excused myself and went back to my bungalow. They invited me for a house party but of course I did not join them later on.
After a great Portuguese style dinner I decided to check out the party hot spot of the beach as it seemed that no beach party will happen here during the rainy season. The club was nice, something similar I seen in Kenya, just on the other side of the Indian ocean. There were no walls, just a huge bamboo roof supported by concrete pillars and a half circle bar. The music was a bit low when I got there and hardly any people were drinking cocktails. This changed very quickly thought, around 11 pm the party kicked in and people from all over the world turned up to dance for the latest Indian dance hits. Punjabi MC was the most popular of them. I met all sorts of people, an Afghan tourist was the most interesting out of all but I had a few drinks with a group of American soldiers, Indian gap year students and Danish bikers.
It was around 3 am when the party stopped and I haven't even noticed the developing storm which caught me on the way back to my bungalow. The heavy rain turned into a proper storm by the time I reached my waterfront little house. At first I managed the water what was dripping through the roof with the buckets I found in the bathroom but later on the wind blown some part of the roof away so I had to relocate myself to the less beachfront main building and slept on the sofa with a few other unlucky guests.
The old rolling stone of the Indian Railway company tirelessly making its way down south with me. After the relatively bad and eventful day yesterday I am fully enjoying the peace of my cabin with my three other cabin mates. As we are getting closer and closer to Mumbai our breakfasts were served which stayed inside me for a record one hour before my stomach gave up on keep it for any longer. It was still great and I am really thankful for my cabin mates to introduce me to this local delicacy.
I spent the rest of the morning on my phone, searching for reception but unfortunately luck was not travelling on the same train with me. More so as my friendly cabin mates got off the train and instead of having the whole compartment for myself, right away three others got on and made themselves comfortable without the urge to speak to me which was not a very bad thing after all. Luckily the reception caught up with my not so fast rolling train later in the afternoon and managed to get Mom's text message that Dad is home safe and it looks like he will get the Carnet from Slovakia within a week. This means I will have at least one week to spare in Goa. Hurray, I read a lot about the beach parties in India's smallest province. When I was a teenager we always talked about Goa parties back in Hungary but growing up without Google or Youtube I could only imagine what is going on there. I guess I wont have to imagine for much longer, less than 24 hours and my beloved, slow and definitely not smooth train ride will end in the Vasco de Gamma station and my anticipated beach party week will begin.
A little addition to my party dreams. Just after my evening toiletry, a very cute looking Indian girl chatted me up in the dining cart of the train. She was about my age, a 19 years old pure cuteness. Unfortunately as it happened to all of my quickly made buddies and mates on this train, she had to get off. Feels like no one really goes further than Mumbai, especially not until Goa.
This was the first time in my life that I traveled on an overnight train. Hungary is way too small to experience this feeling and whenever we traveled to another country we either flew, drove or rode, never took a train. I didn't think that I have to come all the way to India for this experience but to be honest, the location of my first overnight train ride just gave an extra to it. Overnight trains in India have many classes, some are private cabins which you can lock and basically super comfortable. There are also the berth classes, one with air conditioned cars and the rest with fans. Four and six person cabins are also available but I only found this out a day after.
The ride was surprisingly smooth. The food was probably the best Indian meal we had so far and falling asleep in a gently moving train after all the hassle only took us a few minutes. Just to complain about something, the air conditioner was set on such a low temperature that we both woke up a few times shivering and we had sour throats by the morning.
The train arrived to New Delhi station at 4:30 in the morning. One would think that the station is empty in this un-godly hour, well, not just not empty but so crowded that just getting out to the street was some sort of adventure. We kind of expected chaos already, as the train slowly approached to it's destination we seen hundreds upon hundreds crouching on the tracks next to ours and doing their morning big toilet. Being inspired by the masses of pooing Delhiites I had an un delay-able urge to do the same as soon as the train pulled in to the platform. Lightly speaking, the public (mass) toilet at the station is not where you want to spend your morning crouching, without any dividing wall between the holes on the floor.
After getting out of the whirl of morning commuters we headed to the ticket counter to buy me a ticket to Goa. During the ride last night I decided to go down to Goa while Dad is flying back home to get the Carnet. From the next LOG ENTRY I will write parallel stories, about his experience back home with the Carnet and also about my trip down to Goa. Buying the ticket to Goa seemed slightly easier than buying the ticket a night before in Amritsar. However, in the big mess, crowd and chaos 2000 rupees lost. Whether it was dropped or picked up by one of the people who kept pushing in the line we don't know, at least I got the ticket, that's all it matters at this point.
After the interesting morning experience at the station we headed to the Hungarian embassy. We got there around 6:30 am so the guard promptly made us sit front of the compound for two hours until the embassy opened. Surprisingly the embassy employees were very nice. This was the first good experience with any Hungarian foreign mission. The embassy compound is huge, it was designed for over 500 people as it used to accommodate a small army of electrical and radar engineers during the Cold War when we sold all those military equipment to India, now there is only a 6 people contingents including the son of the consul as well. No surprise they were very accommodating and helpful. Finally we had a good shower and most importantly a great Hungarian meal prepared by the Indian embassy chef.
Feeling fresh, showered and a tiny little pampered and our mood is back to its fullest. We even got a driver to get us back to the train station where we had a last meal with Dad. Well, we tried to have a last meal but after paying for the food, what had to be done before actually eating, you can guess the food never arrived. Oh well, as the saying goes, bad feelings and memories are fading with the time so I won't go into endless lines how mad I got and how cheated I felt when my ticket was not accepted on the train and had to buy another one but as it goes, all the bad feelings faded away. Dad sent me away to Goa and continued his journey on a different path back to Hungary and I laid back and enjoyed my 41 hours train ride down south to Goa province.
Last night we managed to talk to Mom and we received the good news that we can get the Carnet from Slovakia but somebody has to fly home to get it and bring back the registration books and other papers for the bikes. This semi good news made us excited and decided to go back to Amritsar with the first possible bus from Dharamsala. It was 4:45 when the 5:00 am bus rolled out of this heavenly town, leaving all the Buddhist shrines behind and facing a 6 hours trip without headlights or working vipers in a tropical morning rain down the serpentine of lower Himalaya.
Nevertheless, the trip was more than scary. The first hour and a half we traveled in complete darkness with heavy rain hitting our windowless bus from the side we sat which was more uncomfortable but seeing our driver racing down the hill without headlight or viper was rather terrifying. This time we decided to make the whole trip with the bus, saving some time as the train isn't much faster and it seems like a massive hassle to buy tickets there. The trip took us over 6 hours to get back to Dharamsala and it wasn't a smooth ride. Whenever the bus stopped people jumped off to do they toilet business right next to the bus, some using their hand to wipe.
As soon as we arrived to Amritsar we got on a Rickshaw and headed to the border with our paper from the embassy. Little we hoped that it would work but it does worth the try. When we arrived to the border they seemed to ignore us and no one wanted to talk to us. We asked for the head of the custom department but they claimed he is on the holiday. This hassle went on for about half an hour when we seen him walking into his office. Well, that was it for us, we walked in to his office after him which caught him off guard and really surprised the bugger. When we presented the paper he did read it through then laughed, "Carnet or the bikes stay here" . At this point we tried everything, all the promises and different papers but surely, the only solution is to get the Carnet. On the way back to Amritsar Dad talked to Mom who booked a ticket for him, back to Budapest from Delhi, tomorrow afternoon so all we have to do is to make it back to Delhi within 20-ish hours.
The overnight train to Delhi is about 8 hours and it leaves in early evening. We arrived to Amritsar junction station in the late afternoon and it took us a while to buy tickets. After a few unsuccessful attempt at the ticket counter we asked a local guy to buy us tickets. He knew the techniques how to push and grab and squeeze in and around the crowd front of the ticket counter and the seller actually accepted the money from him and gave him what we needed. The train of course left almost an hour earlier than it was scheduled but luckily we still got the tickets in time. All we have to do now is sit back, relax, pick out the bones from our chicken tikka massala train food which taste surprisingly good and have an air-conditioned night on the way to Delhi.
The main reason we came up to Himachal Pradesh province is to visit the village which hosted the Tibetan government in exile from 1948. Dharamsala as it's name translates to "sanctuary" really gave us the so wanted peace, a little refreshing from all the stress and hassle we encountered in the first month of our trip. However, the main attraction is not Dharamsala but the village just above it, McLeod Ganj.
McLeod Ganj or as the locals call it "Little Lhasa" is 1800 meters above the sea level just where the Himalayan mountain begin. The bus cost only 6 rupies from Dharamsala and it takes you up on a scary serpentine, even scarier than the one to Dharamsala. The village itself looks and feels like a giant monastery. People here looks nothing like Indians, majority of the population is from Tibet or another hill tribes and share little or no similarity on the look department with South Asians.
Unfortunately we picked the worst time to visit, the rain just couldn't stop falling even for a minute. This made not just our life harder and definitely wetter but also it made photographing impossible. We had problems already with our Fuji camera already, it does not want to turn on in the humid climate and when it rains a lot it's lens gets all foggy. As we wandered around the endless small pathways between Buddhist temples and shrines we received a text message from the Indian embassy that there is a way to get our bikes back from the border and they will fax the paper which required by the custom as soon as we give them a fax number. I can't describe how excited we got and of course our little trip cut in short to go and find a place which has a fax machine. On the way back to Dharamsala we were already agreed that if we get the paper we will go back to the border straight in the morning. We hoped the best but didn't expect the difficulties what the next few days had for us.
We didn't wait for the first shines of the sun to leave our hotel. The rickshaw arrived with us to the train station when the sun decided to wake up so as the thousands of commuters which made our job to buy a ticket even more difficult. Traveling to Dharamsala, which is about 220 kilometers from Amritsar to the north isn't that easy. First you have to take a train which goes about half way and takes two and a half hours and then another three hours of bus ride.
Soon after we managed to get the tickets we boarded the train. It was chaotic and since it is a commuter train we ended up travelling on the only one class they had, third class. It wasn't that bad and definitely doable for a few hours, it gave us some insight how people commute in this part of the world. Later on we found in Delhi and Mumbai that this little crowded commuter train was almost empty compared to the ones servicing India's two largest cities. After we got off the train we met a Russian traveler. She was about thirty years old, dusty, obviously on the road for a long while, that is why we surprised when she came over to us and asked whether we can look out for her bag until she visit the toilet. Desperation or just the lack of routine made her leave all her valuable with us, I don't know. She joined us to Dharamsala but for the rest of the trip she was quiet. After about three hours on the scariest bus ride in my life we arrived to our destination. We planned to stay the night here and then continue up north to McLoed Ganj in the morning.
The weather together with our mood is absolutely great here. Chilled 18 degrees Celsius in the afternoon with obvious signs that it will get much much colder during the night. Dharamsala is small, no crowds and craziness like in Amritsar or other Indian cities we passed so far. Interestingly everyone seemed to chew on "Paan" or as commonly known Betel leaves what turns everyone into a spitting machine. Looking at some of the younger chewers I am pretty sure that there is something else in that Paan apart from Betel leaves as they looked drunk and disoriented. We seen an accident where a guy hit the electric pole with his motorbike, laying on the ground but still conscious. Surely everyone are staring at him, so the other two motorcycles who came from the opposite direction and hit each others while looking at that poor dude on the ground. What happened after shocked both of us. The two guys who just collided started to have a go with the one on the ground and kicking him. We assumed that they both claimed him as the reason for their accident. After this little show we decided to lay flat on our not so clean guesthouse and recharge our batteries for the coming day.
Since we left Hungary Dad was keep going on about India and how much he wanted to go there and he just cant wait to arrive. We both had countries in the beginning where we wanted to go the most, mine was Australia, all I wanted is to ride across the Nulabor, covered in red dust and watch kangaroos jumping across the setting sun's last shines. Dad on the other hand was all about India. I can't blame him, he grew up reading books from old time Hungarian princess and expediters who came to this magical -or as the Ministry of Tourism refers to it now "Incredible"- land and rode elephants while hunting for the biggest game here, tiger.
We made a few necessary phone calls in the morning. Chances are slim that the bikes will be released without the Carnet so Mom is spending hours daily on getting one. In the meantime we decided to explore the city a little bit. Amritsar the capital city of Punjab was always a very important hub of this area and also the spiritual and cultural center of Sikhism, one of the most fascinating culture and religion. The Harmandir Sahib or Golden Temple is right next door to us so after the morning "chai" -spicy Indian tea- and some lamb "vindaloo" for breakfast we headed to the entrance of the temple. In 1984 for the order of Indira Gandhi who was the Prime Minister that time the Indian army stormed the temple under the "Operation Blue Star" which resulted in around 5000 deaths on the Sikh side. The scars of the massacre was still noticeable at some parts of the temple even after twenty years.
To enter the temple you have to wear a turban, no uncovered heads are allowed and we also had to wash our feet. We entered the temple complex in one of the four doors which meant to symbolize the openness of Sikhism towards other religions and cultures. Inside the temple complex -which is resembles a square in its layout- there is a lake or holy tank "Sarovar" and the golden temple "Harmandir Sahib" is at the middle of the lake with a small bridge as a connection to the temple complex. Approximately one hundred thousand people visit the temple daily so the walk bridge to the Golden Temple can get really crowded but it worth the time to wait. The temple is amazing and really mystical with Gurus sitting and reading inside.
After the temple we spent the rest of the day relaxing, visited a barber, bought some shirts and slippers to really mold into the city and kept planning the way forward with some cold Kingfishers.