Thursday, March 31, 2011

Heigh ho, heigh ho ...

It's off to work I go.  Tomorrow, in fact, if such a thing is really possible.

I think I'm even okay with the concept.  It might even be good, to have a purpose to my days beyond how long I spend ont the beach and which yoga class I go to before lunch at which cafe. 

People make a difference, of course -- it makes a work day so much more enjoyable if you get to spend it surrounded by good people.  I got a chance to visit with some of my old coworkers this week, and they're a pretty good bunch.   Travel gives you the chance to meet some fantastic people -- locals and other travellers -- but it's nice to spend time with people I already know.

And I'm thinking it's a good thing, even, to challenge my brain in ways it hasn't been challenged for a while; use the analytical left side instead of the free-thinking creative right that I've put to work writing fiction this year.  I might even find it fun going back to all those numbers (remember I'm in finance, after all -- and I`m a math geek to boot).

I am much clearer now than I once was that having work that is challenging and interesting is important to me; it's all well and good to say work-life balance is important (and it is), but for whatever hours I choose to spend at work I want it to be doing something that pushes me, tests my limits and puts whatever talents I have to good use. And yes, I'm okay with the notion that a sense of professional accomplishment is important to me; I`m unlikely to turn into a barista at Starbucks any time soon. 

I'm also much clearer that having work with meaning is important to me; I don't think that I will ever choose to go back to the singleminded pursuit of the bottom line that ultimately drives the private sector.  I don't know, for sure, whether I want to stay in government or seek something else, but it's a pretty good place to go back to at least for a while.

And hey, I get paid again, which can only be a good thing.  I`ve got to pay for that new pair of shoes somehow ...

Culture Shock

It’s funny when the familiar becomes unfamiliar, when you arrive back somewhere that you’ve known your whole life and that has indelibly imprinted itself on your DNA and your outlook on the world.  Unexpected things become magical, dazzling, as you return to that world from an alien place.  Take it from me that Canada's a freaking amazing country, in case you ever doubted this.

There may possibly not be any two countries on the planet more different than Canada and India.  India, perhaps more outwardly friendly but a deeply conservative society at heart; Canada, polite and reserved at first glance, but in reality the most tolerant, accepting, laidback and generous place on earth.  India, where cricket reigns supreme, everything’s a negotiation and waiting your turn will never get you anywhere; Canada, where hockey stirs the national passion, taxis are metered and merchandise price-tagged, and you’re unspeakably rude if you don’t wait politely in line.

I love them both, but I know where I’d rather live.  I’m actually glad to be home, although my mind is still boggling at how quickly the time went by.

It was odd, though, arriving back.  Things that I wouldn’t have noticed a year ago are suddenly strange and note-worthy.  Like driving from the airport and not seeing one single cow on the road.  Like walking down Yonge Street in downtown Toronto, and not hearing a single horn.  Seeing traffic stop at red lights and even let pedestrians cross the road without trying to run them down.

Going into shops and having salespeople acknowledge me with polite smiles, then leaving me alone to browse.  Looking at the price tag on the shoes I bought and paying without being able to haggle the cost down.  (Don’t ask what I paid, you don’t want to know.  But they’re very cute and they make me feel better about having to go back to work, so they’re worth it.)

Walking down the street, without anyone calling out to me from shops to try to get me to come in and buy; I haven’t heard a single “Come look my shop, very good price madam”.  Not getting stopped once by anyone trying to take my picture; I’m no longer a rock star goddess and hardly any one pays me any attention at all.  Talking to men who don’t automatically assume that they’re getting lucky just because I said “hello”.

Going outside fully attired in winter coat, hat and gloves, instead of tie-dyed Indian cotton dress and hair tied back with a scarf.  Leaving most everything at home instead of having to walk around with all my valuables strapped to my person.  Getting good coffee as a matter of course, instead of a rare exception to the rule (well, Kerala did good coffee, but the rest of India didn’t).

No one begging for change, anywhere (well, except for that one very polite guy at the corner of Yonge who wished me a happy day even though I didn't give him anything).  Women wearing clothes that show some skin, and no one being scandalized by this.  No one huddled around piles of burning trash on the streets at night.  Not a single open sewer in sight.

Getting on public transit without worrying about my bag being slashed (more a problem in South America than in India).  Taking a cab and just paying what it said on the meter with no argument with the driver.  Going inside and being able to turn on the heat to get warm (unlike South America, or the UK or Ireland).   Getting prompt and attentive services from waitstaff who actually want to earn their tips.

Finally having a proper haircut instead of hacking it off myself.  Wearing pretty shoes instead of practical ones.  Being able to choose from more than two T-shirts when I’m getting dressed.  Planning an outfit for my first day back at work that doesn’t involve MEC clothing or tie-dye. 

Waking up in my familiar and friendly neighbourhood, in my own space that has a million books I know and love (instead of whatever random offering I found in a book exchange).  Seeing people of all persuasions walking down the street with their gender of choice, because I`m back in a society that is accepting of a multiude of different lifestyles instead of just one way to live, Realizing that I’m in Toronto because I choose to be, not just because I kind of ended up here once upon a time.  Seeing people I know and love, whom I will get to hang out for more than a day or two. 

Coming home.  It’s a good feeling.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Holy Holi!

(Written in Arambol, March 21st)

India, in some ways, is an amazingly tolerant country.  There are a multitude of religions in this nation, which all seem to co-exist in relative harmony; there are trouble spots between Muslims and Hindus (mostly in the north, near Pakistan), but Indian newspapers would have you believe that those woes are all caused by rabble-rousers from the other side of the border.  (I take no position as to whether or not that’s true.)   It wasn’t always so — a million people died on both sides of the border in massacres, when India and Pakistan were partitioned — but for the most part, today, people seem to accept whatever faith you choose to adopt.

80% of the population is Hindu, but every other faith seems to be represented as well.  The Buddhist world is centred here, with the Dalai Lama living in India in exile, and Sikhs, Parsis, Jains, and Zoroastrians also share space with believers of the majority faiths.  Christianity is even well-represented, having been in India, according to legend, since 52 A.D., when St. Thomas the Apostle arrived in Kerala in the south.  Catholicism, of course, was spread throughout Goa by the Portuguese (who didn’t quite subscribe to the Indian attitude of tolerance, as they brought an Inquisition with them as well).  

Hinduism, the primary faith, believes that there are many paths to the divine, and has cunningly incorporated aspects of rival religions to hang on to their majority.  (Buddha, it was decided, was one of the incarnation of the Hindu Lord Vishnu, so, really, Buddhists are just Hindus.)  It seems to be more a way of life and a philosophy than strictly a religion, with a whole pantheon of gods, or, more correctly, many different manifestations of the one divine consciousness.  

God, to a Hindu, is G.O.D.:  Generator (Brahma), who created the world; Operator (Vishnu), who runs the place; and Destroyer (Shiva), who is in charge of destruction and reproduction.  There are many representations of each divine force, and devout Hindus seem to pick which they choose to worship, depending on their specific needs; each “god” and “goddess” (as well as the big three, there’s Ganesh, Krishna, Lakshmi, Parvati, Kali, Hanuman and a host of others) stands for one aspect of the divine.    The temple where I was blessed by a Hindu priest (who was terribly distressed by my single state) was dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey god.

I've decided, though, that my personal favourite is Ganesh (or Ganesha).  He’s the elephant god, and brings good luck, prosperity and new beginnings, as well as being the patron of writers.  A statue of him is meant to be placed at the entrance to your home to bring these blessings to your guests.  He’s an all-around good guy, I think, and besides, the little elephant god statues are just so cute.  A shopkeeper in town told me that Holi is a festival honouring Ganesh, but as he was attempting to sell me statues at the time, I’m not sure I believe it.

Carol's been Holi-ed!
But Holi has become my favourite Hindu holiday anyway ... although I hadn’t actually realized till I walked down the street yesterday that it was happening.  I’d heard about this particular festival, but only knew it was that day when I got doused in all the colours of the rainbow by people flinging coloured powder and dyed water on passersby.  It ushers in the spring each year, according to the lunar calendar (which happened to coincide with the Western start of spring for 2011).  Hindus of all ages take to the streets with water guns or bags of dye to mark the occasion.  

In Arambol, they seemed to take particular delight in decorating foreigners, coating some of them in a wealth of colour from head to toe.  (I got off relatively lightly, but it still took me forever to wash all the damn dye off again before I went to sleep!)  The one street winding through the town literally ran with colour as the partying got into high gear.  In some parts of India, apparently, the Holi traditions also involve women beating men with wooden sticks, but that didn’t happen here (more’s the pity, as there’s an obnoxious man or two I’d happily chase down!).

It pre-dates Christianity, and traditionally the coloured powders are made from medicinal ayurvedic herbs, to bring good health with the changing of the seasons.  Nowadays, of course, the powders are usually synthetic, but the spirit is still there:  it seems to be all about having a good time, celebrating a bit of that old spring fever.  Kind of like the Hindu version of Mardi Gras, or Carnivale.

And it’s definitely used by Indian men as a reason to give hugs to every Western woman they encounter.  Hey, anything for an excuse, I suppose ...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Backpacking Then and Now (Part II)

(Written in Arambol, March 20th)

It’s odd, really, thinking about going home.  I thought I’d be sad to be finishing my time off, reluctant to give up the freedom that comes with not having an office schedule to keep.  I thought I’d be dreading going back to work and taking up adult responsibilities again.

Oh, that’s all true in some ways.  This year off has been a very valuable experience and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.  But, instead of dread and reluctance, I find that mostly I‘m okay with the concept of “real life” again.    Much of that, I think, is because of the point in my life at which I chose to do this; had I gone wandering around the world for an extended period of time when I was, say, 27 instead of 42, it might’ve been a very different story.

You might’ve read the post I wrote a while ago about what it’s like backpacking now (as a *cough* older traveller) compared with travelling when you’re young.  (If you haven’t, please go back and read; I thought it was pretty funny and you might get a laugh or two.)  That one was a lighter look at the differences in the experience, but this one is a more serious take.  It appears I am in a contemplative mood, this close to the end of my trip, so I thought I’d share some of it with you.

My experience travelling now, as a 42-year-old woman (hey, that might be the first time I’ve admitted to my real age this trip!), is very different than it was when I was 20-something.  Some of that’s just the changes to how you manage the day-to-day experience of travelling; the fact that I can write this blog to tell you all about my trip, add my pictures online so you can take a peek well before I get home, keep in touch with everyone at home instantaneously through Facebook and email and Skype, and do all my research and bookings online on the fly, makes the practical side of travel light years removed from what it was like in 1993, when I first hit the road as a backpacker.

But there are other differences that are more profound, differences more related to my age and my stage of life than to the technological advance of the 2000’s compared with the early 1990’s.  Different, too, to the travels of the 20-somethings I’ve met along the way; our experiences of day-to-day travel are similar, but our outlooks are quite different.

The biggest difference, I think, is that I’m going back now.  When I first went off backpacking, there was no back to go back to, as I’d just finished university and one stage of my life had ended.  Whatever I did next was going to be invented from scratch, whether I chose to hit the road with a backpack or start a “grown-up” life at home. That’s the case, too, for the 20-somethings I’ve met along the road this time; they’ve finished university (or not yet started), given up temporary casual jobs, left all their stuff in storage at Mom and Dad’s (since they don’t yet have permanent homes), and hit the road.

But for me?  I have a career, which I’m going back to; I’m not temping or waitressing or whatever until I figure out what I want to do.  I have a home, with furniture and furnishing and a vast array of shoes in the closet; I’m not crashing with my parents until I find a place to live.  I’m going back to a city which I’ve come to love and where I’ve lived for more than a decade; I’m not starting all over in a brand new place.  

It’s been an interlude in my “real life”, this year.  Had I done this when I was younger, it would’ve been different; it would’ve been harder to give up the freedom to wander when I didn’t have anything specific to go back to.

But you know what?  I have lots to go back to — lots of stuff that I like, and that I probably appreciate a lot more now than I did at the start of this year off.  I like having home, friends, career:  roots, in a word.  I like having a corner of the world where I feel that I belong, instead of being a rootless nomad trying to figure out where it is that I should stop.    (And I like the idea that I’m going to have money coming in again, instead of always going out!)

And, of course, there’s the shoes.  There’s no room on the road for pretty, frivolous shoes, shoes that you wear just because you like the way they look, not just because they’re comfortable and you can walk for hours in them.  So I’ll be happiest, probably, about trading in the Tevas and hiking boots for my Manolos and Jimmy Choos.  

And I just might have to reward myself for going back to work, with a new pair of ... oh, maybe Christian Louboutins.  Anyone want to come shopping with me?  Meet me at Holt’s on the 24th of March; I’ll be the one drooling in the shoe department.

The Meaning of Life

Written in Arambol, March 19th)

I can’t believe I go home in three days.  (Ed. note:  as I'm posting this, it's the day I'm leaving.  Forgive the temporal confusion!) 
(Well, more correctly, I start going home in three days, I actually get there in four.  I fly from Goa to Delhi on the 22nd, then catch a 1 a.m. flight on the 23rd from Delhi to Toronto.)

There have been times when this year has dragged (waiting around for medical appointments for my broken wrist, for example), but mostly it has flown by.  In just over a week, I’ll be going back to work and my “real life”, whatever that is now going to entail.

I think when I started this year, I was looking to figure out the meaning of life — not the big, over-arching, cosmic universal meaning, but the one specific to my life.  I’d figured out the hard way (depression and stress and weight gain) before I left that my life, as it was then, wasn’t working for me.  Oh, I’d gotten some things right:  I like having a challenging job that gives me a sense of accomplishment and lets me do the world some good (in however small a way), so I’m unlikely to chuck it in to become a cocktail waitress any time soon; I have some wonderful friends and an incredible family that will always have my back, whatever I choose to do.  I’d set some goals for myself that were pretty amazing to me when I actually achieved them:  I got my CFA charter, I got my black belt in karate, I ran (and finished) a marathon.  I’d figured out that I was happy being single (mostly), but that it didn’t mean I shouldn’t embrace the romantic side of life, too, wherever it might lead.  These are all good things.

But not everything worked.   It’s not an accident that I started this year-and-a-bit off 40 pounds heavier than I am now; if you eat too much as a means of self-comforting and drink too much to blot out the anxiety and the stress, there’s something very wrong underneath.  I was living in a narrower and narrower little world and finding myself less and less willing to reach out to the people around me.  I wasn’t always this way, but as I got older — and my close friends got married, had babies, moved to the suburbs — I found myself with a shrinking circle of “life” outside of work, and it became easier and easier to spend all my time at the office.  At least there I got some recognition, some sense of accomplishment, and even a sense of community; even more so, perhaps, it was easier to spend time there than to be forced to pay attention that I had less and less in the rest of my life.

So that’s got to change, when I go home and pick up the reins of “real life” again.  I need more time with friends, more openness to new people and new situations, and more time doing the things I truly love to do.  For the last, you’ve probably figured out that one of these things is writing; one of the things I’ve loved about this year off is the concentrated time I’ve had to write, both in this blog and otherwise.  I need to keep this in my life.

I need to keep a challenging job, too, although I don’t know exactly yet what that job should be.  In all likelihood, I won’t be going back to the same job; I talked to my boss a few days ago about another job opening that might be a good opportunity (and would let the manager who took over for me to stay in her job, without me temporarily disrupting things).  While there would be comfort in the familiar, it would probably be a very good thing to start afresh.  Begin anew, and begin as I mean to go on, rather than falling back into the same old rut.  

I’m pretty sure that I want to stay in the public sector, somewhere.  Not government, maybe, as I sometimes find it frustrating to get things done in the huge monolith that is the civil service bureaucracy.  But I like the dedication and passion that most people bring to public sector work; they’re there, mostly, because they care about what they do and have a genuine interest in making the world a better place.    I like being surrounded by those kinds of people.

I didn’t specifically seek to work for the government, but when I was looking to leave the oil company where I worked and a civil service job came up, I grabbed it.  And it’s turned out to be a really good thing; making a difference matters to me, too.  Making a profit for shareholders, the primary aim of my private sector life, didn’t give any meaning to my work.  I am tempted, occasionally, to go back when I see how much money my friends in private-sector finance are making, but you know what?  I do pretty well as I am, and I don’t need to be richer; I’d rather do the kind of work I do for the public good than for  a company’s bottom line.  

(And really, how many pairs of expensive shoes do I need?  I can afford enough already.  As one of the young backpackers I met earlier in India put it, after she learned that I own Manolos and Jimmy Choos and sometimes wear one or the other to work ... I’m “living the dream” already.  Who needs a private sector salary?)

How this is all going to shake out in terms of my day-to-day life, I’m not sure, but as long as I keep thinking about the choices I’m making — not just falling into a convenient pattern — I think I’ll figure it out in a way that makes me happy.  I don’t know that I’ve figured out my own personal meaning of life, but I’m clearer about what is important to me and what isn’t.  

 And, most of all, I’ve had a hell of a good time along the way. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Art of Red Tape

(Written in Arambol, March 19th)

Well, I’ve left the tranquillity of Mandrem behind me and sought out the bright lights of Arambol, further north along the coast.  This entailed walking along the beach for, oh, half an hour or so this morning, backpack strapped on and shoulder bag slung over top, as it seemed the easiest way to get there.  The only other way was to backtrack down the beach a bit and hike up the hill to get to the road, hail a taxi and get to Arambol from inland.  This seemed unnecessarily complicated and not actually that much less work, so I decided to hike along the beach.

I regretted it slightly about halfway there, as the day was already hot and muggy at 9 a.m.  But just as I was getting fed up enough with blinking the sweat out of my eyes to lay down on the sand and scream, I was there.  At least from Asvem to Mandrem to Arambol, it’s pretty much just one continuous stretch of sand, with varying degrees of touristed-ness along the way, and I think you could hike up all the way from Anjuna or even further.  (That’s something like 25 kilometres away by road, though, so trudging all that way through the sand with a backpack might not be your best choice.)

I opted this time for a room in a guesthouse on the “main street” of town, instead of a hut on the beach; for 250 rupees a night, I have a large room, a queen-size bed (albeit with very hard mattress), a private bathroom with hot shower, and my own terrace that looks toward the beach.  I can get a fascinating glimpse from here into the “secret” life of Arambol, as I look down over the rooftops; tucked in behind the tourist shops and restaurants strung out along the one street, there is a whole network of alleyways and hidden shacks and washing lines that none of the foreigners ever see.  So it’s a real town, after all, not just an artificial creation for tourists!

The guy who showed me my room was remarkably laid back about the whole endeavour; he unlocked the door, advised me I could use my own padlock if I wanted, and left me to it.  He doesn’t know my name, didn’t get any money from me, and hasn’t seemed to be around much since; I could probably just walk out of here without paying on Tuesday morning and no one would be the wiser.  (I wouldn’t do that, though; quite aside from being a basically honest person, it would feel entirely too miserly to sneak out on a bill of not much more than $15 for three nights.)

What a change from elsewhere in India — if this is what I can expect in Arambol, I think I’ll like the casual vibe of the place.  Usually, at a minimum, you have to fill out a form listing all your particulars (name, age, birthdate, nationality, passport number, visa number, date of entry into India, your previous stop, your next stop, your expected date of departure from India), and often you have to surrender your passport so they can laboriously make copies of all the relevant pages.  There`s often a register to sign as well, after the fingerprint check and retinal scan.  (Okay, I`m lying about the last bit.)

But then, Indians do seem to love their bureaucracy — it`s not just hotels.  I think they’re better at creating bureaucracy for its own sake than any other country I’ve ever seen.  You’ll have read my post about getting my Indian visa (or, if you haven’t, you should go back and do so immediately), which would have given you a flavour of the concept.  That experience has proved to be a good portent of things to come. 

Bureaucratic winners so far are the post office and the bank.  Both places had armies of people hard at work — or, at least, taking up space in the respective offices — but only one person who seemed to be able to do anything helpful.  (I’m still not sure what everyone else was there for, except that I suppose in a country of 1.2 billion people you’ve got to find something for them all to do ... even if it’s just taking up a seat at a desk.)

I went into the post office in Kochi to mail some stuff home, which ought to be a straightforward task, one would think.  But it took the better part of two hours to get my parcel sent on its way:  first I stood and waited in line, before realizing that my polite Canadianness was never going to get me to the front of the queue; then I pushed my way to the window of the next available cashier and told her what I needed to do.  She took my parcel, very gravely; weighed it; measured it; opened it up to inspect the contents; motioned me over to another counter to seal the package. 

That done, I went back and presented the finished parcel.  “How much to send this to Canada?” I asked.  She looked at me, consideringly, and took the parcel in one hand and hefted it.  Then she, still gravely, handed it back and directed me over to another counter, where someone else would be able to help me.  Once I got to see him, we went through the same process again (why the first woman had bothered to do all that, I don’t know).  He handed me some forms to fill out, which I eventually did to his satisfaction after a couple of false starts (he was very picky), and argued with me about the necessity of having an Indian return address on my package (I gave up, finally, and put my hotel’s address on there; with luck my package won’t go there instead).

Eventually I was done.  I got out of there after being accosted by a gang of schoolchildren; one of them dared another to go shake my hand and introduce himself; once he’d done it, the rest of them shrieked with laughter and had to do the same.

The bank was equally fun.  Most of the time in India I’ve been taking out money from ATMs, as they’ve been in most towns.  But there was not in Anjuna (except an ATM that would only allow cash advances from credit cards), so I had to break into my stash of emergency travellers’ cheques. 

I headed off to the bank and found another peculiar little set-up, with at least half a dozen employees behind the counter and one man in a cage-type enclosure at the end, who seemed to be passing out the cash.  Great, I thought, he’s the guy I need to talk to; I saunter over there (barging my way through in a very un-Canadian manner).  He knew just enough English to tell me to speak to someone at the counter, which I managed to do after a bit of effort to flag someone’s attention. 

She listened as gravely as the post office lady to my request, but indicated that I would have to speak to the one particular man who could help.  Since he seemed to be the only person who could help anyone (whether they wanted to open a new account, make a withdrawal, cash a cheque or change money), I was waiting a while.

Finally I was able to take a seat at his desk.   I explained again what I was after; he handed me a stack of forms to fill out.  Once I’d done that, he took a long and careful look at the travellers’ cheques I proffered, and went away to make a phone call about them (there was one phone at the far side of the bank, a rotary-dial model that looked about fifty years old).  After a lengthy conversation, he returned, apparently satisfied that everything was in order. 

Next, he asked to see my passport; that in hand, he went to talk to the first woman I’d spoken to, and sent her off to make a photocopy.  Where exactly she had to go, I’m not sure, but she went out the front door of the building and didn’t return for another half an hour (she couldn’t have done this while I was waiting to see the boss man?)

Passport returned, I then waited while the boss man conferred with an underling and totted up some figures on a calculator.  Finally, I was handed back yet another form (filled out by hand, with carbon copies in triplicate) and a brass token, and sent back to the man in the cage to receive my cash. 

I handed him the paperwork (and the token when he requested it, although I’m still not sure what that was supposed to be for), and waited again while he had a long discussion with the other two men involved in this transaction.  Then the underling took the forms back and proceeded to enter the data laboriously on the one computer in sight.  Some time later, he passed the forms back through the slot into the cage (keeping one copy for himself) and the second man in the cage painstakingly counted out my cash.

I checked my watch as I was leaving:  I’d been in the bank for about three hours.  Compare that with my bank at home, which completed my transaction to buy the damn travellers’ cheques in the first place in about 15 minutes!

Ah, India.  Ontario government bureaucracy is going to seem like nothing when I go back to work; we’re a veritable model of efficiency, it seems.  

Too Much of a Good Thing

(Written in Mandrem, March 18th)

Wow, this place is really quiet.  It’s been nice, being able to just chill out and laze on the beach and stare at the waves.  But it’s a little unsettling, though, to actually spend some time alone after spending the past couple of months surrounded by hordes of people everywhere I go.  I thought Anjuna was pretty quiet, this late in the season, but there was at least one place (Curlie’s) where I could reliably find people pretty much any hour of the day or night.
My little home in Mandrem (right)

Now, you know I like my space.  I’m never going to be someone who chooses to spend 24 hours a day in the company of other people; to stay sane, I need to carve out time for myself every day, where I can think and write and read and just daydream in the solitude of my own company.  I go squirrelly after a while if I am constantly surrounded by other people.  But, it seems, even I can have too much time alone.

I had a long wander up and down the beach yesterday, and Mandrem really is just a few huts and cafes strung out along the sand.  There’s a village, up over the hill, but it’s far enough away that it’s really a separate place.  I was confused yesterday as I walked up and down the beach, trying to figure out where Mandrem actually was; I walked north and found myself in Arambol (second only to Anjuna as the traveller haunt of choice in north Goa), and walked south and found myself in Asvem Beach (a little scruffy, and for some inscrutable reason, mainly frequented by Russian travellers).  Then I realized that Mandrem Beach really is just this, this long and mostly empty stretch of sand. 

It probably isn’t always quite this quiet, but it’s the tail-end of the season now and there aren’t so many travellers around.  Everywhere I enquired when I was looking for a place to stay had rooms available, and I think I’m the only one staying in the little hut complex where I landed.  The only people here, after the sunbathers go back to wherever they’re staying, are the Indian guys who work in the little cafe. 

It’s nice, but I think more than a night or two might be too much of a good thing.  Both Arambol and Asvem are under half an hour’s walk away, and both have lots of options for things to do during the day and lots of nightlife (well, Arambol does, at least); problem is, there`s no way really to get there except to walk.  If I went out at night, and took a taxi back, I`d still have to walk down to the beach from the road through the deserted woods and empty sands.

As for walking along the beach, well, there are no lights or buildings most of the way, and it isn’t really safe to walk it by myself late at night; women travellers in Goa have been attacked at night doing that very thing.  So even though there are lights, and people, and action, at Arambol and Asvem just a short way away, I’m not really comfortable seeking out any night life there when I have no good way to get home afterward. If I was with someone, I’d feel okay going out late and walking back down the deserted beach; as it is, I feel a bit trapped after dark (as it is now).

So I think tonight will be my last night here.  I had almost decided, my first night here, to go look for somewhere closer to the “civilization” of Arambol to the north; the lack of options at night, other than hanging out by my hut, made solitude feel less of a choice and more as if it had been foisted upon me.  I like spending time alone, sometimes, but it feels better when I am alone because I’ve chosen to be, not because I have to be.

But I decided in the hot light of day that I’d embrace the solitude.  Do a lot of reading, a lot of writing at night, and seek out other activities during the day if I really wanted to.  It’s done my writing productivity a world of good, as I sit with my little netbook and pound away at the keyboard, listening to the waves crash and watching the moonlight play across the sea.  And I like my little hut, basic as it is; the mosquitoes aren’t bad, there are no geckos to chirp me awake (unlike Varkala) and no cockroaches (unlike Anjuna).  It’s been a good little home for a couple of days, and I’ve loved being able to walk straight out my front door and across the sand into the sea.

But I think I’ve had my fill.  Tomorrow, then, I’m going to head up to Arambol.  Who knows, I might even stay somewhere where other people are also staying, and go out tomorrow night; now there’s a thought.

Write Like You Mean It

(Written in Mandrem, March 17th)

Mandrem is proving to be the complete opposite of the other places I’ve been in Goa.  It’s a world away from the frantic hussle of Calengute and Baga, quieter than the trippy trance soundtrack of Vagator and Anjuna, and the only place I’ve been in India where there isn’t one single shop, as far as I’ve been able to tell.  (I didn’t even think that was possible!)

The deserted location means I pretty much stay put after dark, as it isn’t wise to wander down the empty unlit beach at night.  Oh, I go out in front of my hut, and went for a swim at about midnight last night, but walking back from Arambol, for example, would be a very bad idea by myself.  So I don’t go out at night; there’s nowhere to go in Mandrem.

Fortunately many of the things I love to do are best done while spending time on my own.  I’ve had lots of time to write, and read back over the things I’ve written earlier this year;  unfortunately, it also gave me enough time to realize that something I’ve been working on is currently written from the wrong character’s point of view, so there’s some extensive rewriting in my future.  (This might be harder once I go back to working full time.)

And I love to read, voraciously.  I’ll read pretty much anything I can get my hands on, if I don’t have any other choice; this has meant that my reading material this year has been inconsistent in quality, as I exchange books on the road when the opportunity presents itself or trade with another traveller.  Once or twice, I’ve gotten to read things I’ve really loved and that I will seek out again at home (given the extra weight and volume to carry, I didn’t keep the books in question). 

Let’s see, what books?  I don’t think I’d read anything of John Irving’s before, but I loved A Prayer for Owen Meany; the only trouble with that book, though, was that the copy I acquired was missing pages 1 through 15.  (So I still don’t know exactly how it starts.)  I picked an Anne Tyler somewhere else, that I really enjoyed; I’d read many of her novels before and I always enjoy the quirky little worlds she creates.  I re-read Heaven and Hell recently, the last novel in John Jakes’ North and South trilogy; I read the series years ago and loved it all (and the TV miniseries, although I think I loved that mostly because Patrick Swayze played the character Orry Main). 

And I have a copy of a novel by Kiran Desai (a writer from India), which won the Man Booker prize in 2006.  I’m saving as a treat for the long plane ride home as an appropriate way to say goodbye to the country.  In the same spirit, right now I'm reading The Jewel in the Crown.
But other than those, I’ve read a lot of very forgettable stuff.  Oh, I’ve enjoyed most of it, and I wouldn’t say that most of them were really bad (with one or two notable exceptions); it’s just that they didn’t leave much of an impression.  I like books that make me think or laugh uproariously or cry like my heart is broken, or books that are so beautifully written that the words veritably sing.  The music of Michael Ondaatje’s prose awes me, every time, and he is an entertaining storyteller to boot (it’s a rare combination).

Most of the books I’ve read haven’t been that.  They’ve been run-of-the-mill, formulaic thrillers or mysteries or chick lit that entertained me while I was reading but that went completely out of my head the second I closed the book.  I’ve found myself thinking, after I’d finished some, “Hey, wait a minute, I can write better than that!”  And you know what?  I CAN.  I can write bloody brilliantly sometimes.  (Other times, not so much, but we’ll ignore those times.)  So why on earth are these people getting published, and I’m not? 

Oh, right, I haven’t tried.  That would be a good first step, wouldn’t it?

I started to get inspired last year when I went to a book launch; a friend from a writing class a few years ago got published and her first book came out in the fall.  She’s currently working on book number three of the series about her fictional detective Clare Vengel, and I can’t wait to read more.  (Check out Robin’s first book Dead Politician Society if you haven’t come across it yet; it’s an excellent read.  You can find her here at

Right, then, chalk that up on my to-do list when I get home.  Somewhere in the innumerable pages I’ve written this year has to be something worth polishing, that could finally get my name on bookstore shelves.  (You will all, of course, be buying copies when that day finally comes; I’ll give you plenty of warning!)

It doesn’t actually really matter, though.  Enjoying it is reason enough to keep doing it, and I feel happier and more fulfilled at the end of a day in which I’ve written something (even if it never sees the light of day). 

So whether or not the rest of the world ever recognizes my genius, I’ll just keep on writing. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Living at the Edge of the Sea

(Written in Mandrem, March 16th.  You will note I'm a few days behind, but I'm trying to spread out my posts instead of adding them all at once -- I didn't have internet access for a couple of days so am playing catch up.) 

Wow, I’ve gone 25 kilometres up the coast and I’ve landed in a completely different world.   Anjuna, even this late in the season, was still relatively full of people by comparison; here, in Mandrem, I sit on the porch of my tiny little bamboo hut and stare out at the dark sand.  No lights, except the moon.  No people.  No sounds except the waves and a barking dog somewhere in the distance.   

I left Anjuna Beach this morning, after breakfast overlooking the sea (food always tastes better that way).  I set out to get a rickshaw, having decided (for no logical reason) that I would pay 200 rupees for my taxi ride to Mandrem.  It isn’t well-served by public buses — getting there would involve a bus from Anjuna to Mapusa (inland), up to Arambol, and a final hop down to Mandrem — so I decided a taxi was worth the money to save myself the all-day journey. 

Well, it seems that the taxi drivers had other ideas.  The first guy I approached wanted 500 rupees to make the trip, citing the ridiculously high price of fuel and the horrendously long distance.   (Did I mention it was 25 kilometres?  Hardly the other side of the world.)  I declined graciously, and — as inevitably happens when I start to walk away — he was prepared to negotiate.  I couldn’t get him to budge below 450, though, so I thought I’d carry on and see if I could do better.

As I went further down the beach and onto the road leading inland, the prices started to drop.  I never did manage to get away with 200 rupees — but then, I didn’t really have any good reason to expect to — but I did catch a ride for 300, or about $6.50.  We wove through some lush green countryside and a few chaotic and colourful villages on the way, reaching Mandrem about 45 minutes later.

Sunset view from my front porch
At least I think it’s Mandrem.  There’s no actual village, just a scattering of huts and cafes, which sounds about right to be Mandrem Beach.  But I wasn’t quite sure, as the driver dropped me at the side of the road and pointed out the path down to the beach, speeding off as soon as I’d closed the door behind me.    (I was even more confused later in the day when I took an exploratory walk along the beach and found myself in Arambol after about half an hour’s walk.  Either they’re much closer together than I’d realized, or I’m not where I think I am.)

It looked beautiful when I got out of the cab, anyway, wherever it was, so I was prepared to stay a while whether or not it turned out to be Mandrem.  I wandered for half an hour or so from hut to hut, seeking one for 300 rupees a night or less.  (Yes, I had another arbitrary price in my head.  Well, maybe not quite so arbitrary as it was reasonable based on Anjuna prices.) 

It took a long and sweaty walk down the beach, but I finally landed in one costing only 300 rupees.  It's not the nicest one I saw (that one was 1,500 rupees), and it’s probably the flimsiest structure I’ve ever seen — I think my camping tent would stand up to high winds better than this hut!  But it’s got four walls, a door that locks, and a bathroom with running water; I have learned that these are all things you cannot take for granted in Goa cheap-hut beachland.  (If you really want to live on the cheap, you can give up luxuries like a lock or a bathroom and sleep for about 150 rupees.  I didn’t want to save money quite that badly.)  It does not have a mozzie net, which I may live to regret by tomorrow morning, particularly since the sole window has no screen or shutter to keep the little monsters out.

But for now, it’s working for me.  As I sit here on my tiny front porch, the Arabian Sea crashes into the shore about 20 metres away.  There’s hardly a sound, except for the rhythmic pounding of the surf.  There’s not a soul around; miraculously in this country of a billion people, I’m completely and utterly alone.   Getting my fix of solitude, after the constant crowds and chaos of previous weeks, ought not to be a problem here.

There’s nothing between me and the water except fine white sand, almost glowing in the clear soft moonlight.  The sun set a couple of hours ago — it’s now about 9 pm — but a hint of radiance still lingers in the sky. 

I think I’m going to like it here.