Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Agonda, Goa.

As some of you might have noticed, for about a week now there has been no news from David and I. As some of you have probably imagined, it's because we have reached a destination where our pace has finally slowed down to the point where days bleed into each other seamlessly and it has become hard to spend time in front of a computer. Welcome to Agonda.

(A view of Agonda as we approached it.)

Our last entry was from Benalium, which we understood to be one of the most beautiful and quiet beaches in Goa. Luckly, we were wrong. On the third day of our stay there, David, Brian and Ben went off on a scooter expedition to explore furhter South. They came back right at sunset full of excitement about a new spot which made Benalium look like a rock-n-roll party: Agonda, a 3 km beach about 1 hour South of where we were staying.

The next day we left Blue Corner and made our way here, and David and I have not left since (Brian, Ben, and Sarah left two days ago, together with 2 other friends, in order to explore the party scene in North Goa - Arambol, Baga, etc. - but David and I will meet with them again in Goa's capital, Panaji, in a couple of days.)

To give you a sense of the beach and our accomodation, here are some images:

(Empty beach. I don't have better images unfortunately, but this gives a good idea. )

(Harmony Huts: our place is the furthest to your right. These huts have shared bathrooms, which is why we are only paying 330 rupees per night, about $7. It's wonderful falling asleep to the sound of the waves crashing on the beach. It's a little less wonderful being woken by the crawking ravens that live on the trees all around us. They begin screaming loudly at each other around 6.30am every day without fail. As the owner of the huts put it, these are huts that won't let you be lazy: they'll wake you nice and early so that you do you morning meditation... we live in sentient huts.)

(David relaxing on our porch. This is how we sometime spend the warmest hours of the day, 12p-4pm.)

After a couple of days of Agonda, we all rented scooter and went on little explorations further South. On our first day, we visited Palolem, hailed as a great beach resort. After our Agonda paradise, Palolem was a bit of a shock. To give you an idea, the roads leading to Agonda beach look like this:

The road leading to Palolem, like this:

Another example: in Agonda there's an endless number of little restaurants facing the beach, all with menus that could easily compete with the variety of food you find in New York - Indian, Nepali (lots of Nepali chefs!) Thai, Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Goan, Israeli and more! I have refused to try any of the Italian dishes, but the Indian, Nepali and Thai food that I have had here so far has been delicious! Here's a picture of one of our favorite spots, Sandyfeet:

In Palolem, the restaurant we tried served really "interesting" food (made what we were having in Benalium seem tasty!). The whole scene there is much more commercial and generally busy. And the beach is 100 times busier than Agonda:

(Before all the restaurants/huts/tourist shops were there, Palolem must have been really beautiful. It's a smaller beach than Agonda, better protected from the currents and full of green palms. We hope Agonda won't undergo the same commercialization, although it seems inevitable.)

Apart from the general shock of the contrast with Agonda, here's a nice shot of part of our group having a drink at a "raggae bar" in Palolem:

(From the left: Sarah, Brian, Oeud, Theo, Brian.)

As well as of Sarah and I with a great Shiva background:

As well as of the dense "forest" of palm trees growing along the beach:

Our scooter exploration did not stop in Palolem. For the next two days, David and I travelled along beautiful roads that followed the sea and some internal rivers. We discovered a beach where turtles lay their eggs, and enjoyed our long rides always wearing our super helmets:

(A little parenthesis on helmets: in India, the law demands that only the driver wear a helmet. As a result, when you rent a scooter, you will only receive a single helmet. Accidents are not really something anyone is thinking about. In any case, David had to wrestle a tiger to get me one. They are more like motorbike helmets than scooter ones, but we were definitely Safe.)

When we came to the turtle beach, David and Sarah posed for me in triumph for our discovery:

The roads around Agonda were mostly empty and easy to ride on:

That was really good, especially for Sarah who bravely decided to take on a scooter without ever having driven (anything!) before. Here's a hot shot of Ben and Sarah attacking a curb (Sarah is on the right):

The only time it's actually tricky to drive is when you go through little villages. There, you find the more familiar Indian chaos:

In our rides we encountered many rice paddies, the green of the fresh sprouts oh so irresistible to the camera:

We also crossed a tiny little bridge that looked over a beautiful river coming from deep in the mainland:

(David on our vehicle on the tiny little bridge.)

(Beautiful river coming from deep in the mainland.)

So there it is, a little update on our lazy doings of the past week. David and I have been getting up early every morning - together with our friends the ravens - and doing our yoga practice on the beach, right by the water. In some ways, it's hard to imagine leaving. As Sarah said, being in weather like this reminds you that as a species, human beings began in warm climate. What were we thinking when we moved up North?!?! The peace of Agonda is really something special, and we are enjoying every day of it. Soon, however, we will be moving onwards: to Panaji, the capital of Goa, and then to the state of Karnataka, where we will visit Hempi and Mysore. For now, goodbye . We will post again from a new destination.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Blue Corner in Goa...

Under the advice of my knowledgeable friend Lena, the five of us have been staying at the Blue Corner, a Hawaiian style guest house right on the beach of Benaulim, in South Goa. We sleep in "Coco Huts", as they describe them: rooms with bathrooms with walls made of woven palm leaves. It is quite beautiful. Here are some pictures of the beach and of Blue Corner:

(The empty beach...we are also here just as the season is ending.)

(Blue Corner's restaurant...great spot for breakfast and drinks in the evening.)

(The courtyard. Raj, the young owner of Blue Corner, has a total of 10 huts arranged around a rectangular space of sand, where he has started to grow some palms. Blue Corner has only been around for 3 years.)

(Inside our hut in the afternoon light.)

Our days have finally slowed down after the initial sightseeing, and it has taken a full day to get used to actually relaxing on the beach. It is not hard doing, as you might imagine. Apart from the beauty of the beach and the Arabian Sea, both of which extend endlessly in front of the Blue Corner, there are a definitely a few problematic things. Firstly, the 30 or so "beach girls" from Karnataka who come spend 8 months in Goa (away from their home villages) in order to make some money by selling sarongs, cheap jewelry, and other nick-nacks to tourists like ourselves. Most of these girls have heart wrenching stories that they readily share in order to get you to buy something. It's hard to negotiate one's buying... I have felt very bad for refusing to buy from a girl named Anita, who is the only source of income for the family of 3 younger brothers and two parents (according to Anita as well as some of the other girls- who are all from the same village- there is no work in their village in Karnataka.) At the same time, I can't help but wonder about their stories and not imagine that they have carefully tailored their saleswoman personas according to what they have learnt to work with the Western tourist.

David and I have discussed the question of somehow "giving back" to India after our trip, and it seems like the most practical way of doing so is to do a little research and find a good organization that works on a local level for change. We are particularly interested in anything that deals with women, children, and education - whether it's regarding health, economics, the arts, or anything else. If you have any suggestions, we look forward to your thoughts.

Another, smaller, issue here in Benaulim is the food, which has proven pretty heavy (LOTS of coconut milk) and not so easily digestable. David and I have already caught ourselves longing for's too early in the trip to do so!

Although I am enjoying the relaxed pace of staying by the beach, as well as the clean ocean air (what a relief after the incredibly polluted Mumbai!) I am already looking forward to our next travels. We are planning to move up to Northern Goa in the next couple of days, where we should find a younger crowd of tourists, as well as raves, chill out music, and general partying... we'll see how that goes! After that, we will be moving to the region of Karnataka.

A presto,

Monday, January 19, 2009

Bhaja and Karla Caves in Lonavala.

Today was our last day of official art-site-seeing for a while, as the 5 of us (David, Brian, Ben, Sarah and myself) leave for GOA tomorrow! Wohoo!

We spent the morning in Lonavala, a town about an hour and a half car ride away from Mumbai. There are two sets of caves here: Bhaja and Karla. Baja has some of the earliest Buddhist art in India, dating back to the 2nd century B.C.E. It is a rather small complex, with only 2 caves with actual carvings, and it's located on top of a hill that overlooks a beautiful ghat (valley). Here's a glimpse of it from within one of the caves.

The caves here are Buddhist but they are pre-iconic, so there are no actual images of the Buddha. Instead, there are a lot of stupas.

The carvings that we did see, in the cave furthest from the entrace, appear to be portraits of donors, or of stories from a long long time ago (maybe mythical endevours involving elephants uprooting trees or chariots trumpling of demons...) The detail on these sculptures is beautiful. I was particularly interested in the hairdos of all the different characters.

(This elephant is brandishing what looks like a tree and walking over human figures.)

(A detail from the image abouve. The main figure has a great flower garland around his neck.)

(Three drivers on a chariot driving over a demonic looking figure.)

(The beautiful hairdos of the three drivers.)

(David exemplifying the original use for a one-person-bench carved in the rock. Good vibes by the caves.)

(A sense of the scale of the major cave in Baja. Brian and David chilling on the second floor.)

After Bhaja we went to Karla, where caves started being built in the first century C.E. Here there are images of the Buddha on the facade. However, the more attractive figures are those of the patrons of the cave, represented both in the columns within the temple and on the facade (which was sculpted later relatively to the interior of the temple.)
(The interior of the temple, where people - including David and Brian on the right - try getting a coin to rest on the wooden parasol on the top of the stupa.)

(A detail from one of the columns inside the temple. On each one, a different couple of patrons - husband and wife - is carved out sitting on top of playful looking elephants.)

(A general perspective of the columns.)

(Sexy patron couples carved on the facade of the temple.)

(These two couples have intricate hairdos as well as very thick bracelets on their arms and ankles. To me, they are reminiscent of some beautiful Aztec art I saw at a great exhibition at the Field Museum in Chicago a while back.)

Finally, these are the most colorful pictures of the day! This group of beautifully dressed women was up at the Karla cave, worshipping in a Hindu temple that has been placed RIGHT in FRONT of the main temple with the beautiful facade. An interesting adoption of the Buddhist site by the Hindus. In any case, I asked them to take a picture and they all posed very seriously and beautifully. They were accompanied by a group of men who just did not make my color standards!

(For one picture I posed with them, but could not stand up for fear of towering over them in the image :-)

(Finally, here are David and Brian surrounded by the lovely ladies - all from Maharashtra - as we made our decent from the caves.)

We leave tomorrow morning at 6.55am for Goa, and we will be spending about a week in the Southern part of the region, and slowly making our way North.

All is well and we will post soon.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Short details.

This is how eggs from small farms make it to the large Crawford Market in Mumbai in the morning:

Quite precarious. Below, a detail of the influence of British colonialism. This gigantic shoe stands tall in the hanging gardens of Mumbai for children to play in, a clear reference to the British nursery rhyme "There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe":

There was an old woman,
Who lived in a shoe;
She had so many children,
She didn't know what to do.
She gave them some broth,
Without any bread;
She whipped them all soundly,
And sent them to bed.

How strange...

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Some catching up...

Dear all,

David and I have been gone from easy and fast internet for the past week, which is why we have not been able to update the blog as frequently as we did initially. In this break I have also realized that posting images is a great luxury, only truly possible with a high internet connection. As a result, after this post you might see a pretty steep decline in the photos we'll be able to share.

What you see below are images of the laundry district in Mumbai, a very large area completely run by men who "beat the hell out of the clothes" (as David put it). These photos were taken in the middle of the day, when most of the beating action was over (apparently usually the sound is incredibly loud and somewhat synchronized). To make up for the relative quite, the clothes were all hanging, creating a colorful contrast against the polluted skyline of Mumbai.

All around the neighbour you see charts with plump, round, sari-like fabrics filled with clean/dirty clothes which is either being delivered back to the school/restaurant/hosptial from which it came, or being brought to the launderers. I'm not really sure which. In any case, the fabric in which the clothes itself is being carried caught my eye.

Before seeing the laundry district (from an over passage - I don't believe you can walk through it), David and I visited the ex- Victoria and Albert Museum, today the Dr. Bahu Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum. This is a really special building in Mumbai: it's originally from the 1870's and its vibrant and somewhat baroque colors and architecture have only been recently restored (the process was over just a year ago). This is a picture of the top floor, but you can see more on their website. The museum offers an especially interesting exhibit of miniature terracotta figurines showing all the "different people of Mumbai" over the centuries. It's basically an ode to Mumbai as one of the first intercultural and global center in the world. Not surprising seen all the trading that went on that had to go through this gigantic natural harbor...

Next to the museum is a botanical garden eventually also turned zoo. This is because the British, who originally established the museum, wanted to create a center for the people of Mumbai where the best flora and fauna could be exhibited next to the best "cultural items"...the zoo is quite awful, but the garden attracts many Mumbai families, which is very sweet to watch. Also, within the zooo/park is a beautiful Japanese garden. Here's a picture of a great piece of bamboo: it looks like the green streaks have been painted on it!

The pictures above all come from our last day around Mumbai last week. The next day we left for Arungabad, a really polluted city which connects trains and planes to the beautiful world heritage sites of Ajanta and Ellora. We went to Ajanta first, a loud 2.5 hour bus ride north east of Arungabad. The caves at Ajanta have been carved out of volcanic rock (basalt) in an incredible ravine. Although right now the place looks quite barren (see below), in the summer time it undergoes a complete transformation- everything turns green and lush, there are 7 waterfalls at different points between the caves, and the river below them roars with monsoon water. David and I are planning to come back sometime during the rainy season to experience the site that way.

What was REALLY special at Ajanta was hanging out with 81 year old Prof. Walter Spink, an American scholar who teaches at Michigan University and has been working at Ajanta for the past 40 years trying to unravel some of the puzzles posed by this incredible complex of 27 Buddhist temples carved in the rock. He was delightful! First of all, his insight was crucial in bringing to life the site. He maintains that the caves were all made within a span of about 20 years from each other. This is contrarily to popular opinion, which argues that they were built over several centuries. Spink's theory is that all the caves were began to be constructed under one major king's patronage and encouragement, King Harisena. When he was abruptly assasinated in 478 CE, the site was abandoned. You can see traces of this in actual sculptures which are left unfinished. Check out the second buddhas for example:

They just weren't finished! Anyway, there is a lot of scholarship on the topic of these caves and Prof. Spink has written volumes and volumes about it. Here he is in a "historical picture", at the computer on which he's writing the 6th volume of his Ajanta collection (here David was helping him make room in the memory of his PC):

Prof. Spink took the morning of our second day in Ajanta to show us around some of the most important caves of the site (#1,2 and 4). Here he is together with Davind in the main chamber of the same cave as the buddhas above. This is a great picture to give you a sense of the size of these temples (they were carved from the top down i.e. from the ceiling to the floor):

David and I fell a little bit in love with Prof. Spink. He even recited some Yeats to us over dinner. It was absolutely special to be there with him and to hear his perspective on the caves, as well as on the politics between him and the Indian bureaucracy concerning access to the caves, lighting, design of the structure to access the caves, and many many more things...he really loves this site deeply.

Here are some other images from the Ajanta caves to give you a sense of how sophisticated some of the art there is:

(The facade of cave 26, the last one accessible of the complex. Really massive. The carving is very good.)

(Inside cave 26. General smiling picture of Bici waving an arm for special effect. This is a beautiful carving of the Buddha reaching enlightenment, sorrounded by all sorts of distractions. Doesn't matter, he's moved beyond...)

(Wealthy guardian figure. I love his hair do and how sensual his body is!)

(Inside the cave guarded by the sexy wealth guardian...)

By the way, apart from the temples, at Ajanta David and I were two rock stars/zoo-like attractions. We had people taking pictures of us all over the place, as well as gaping at us sitting in the grass as though we were monkeys in a cage:

After two days, David and I left Ajanta and Walter Spink behind, as well with this interesting group of puppies who were being fed by their grandmother. Incestuos confusion apart, they were adorable!

We spent the next two days in Ellora, where we took far less pictures. This is my favorite: it gives you a sense of how deeply people carved in order to make Temple Kailasa, the main attraction of the site. I'm sure you can get more pictures of the temples themselves online or in books if you are interested.

Ellora was definitely impressive. Particularly the Jain temples, further away than the Buddhist and Hindu temples (unlike Ajanta, which is totally dedicated to Buddhism, Ellora's temples are separated into three sections, each devoted to a different religion.) She was definitely one of our favorite figures in one of the Jain caves, in cave 32. Still, David and I missed Prof. Spink very much: the trip here was not quite the treat Ajanta turned out to be!

Anyway, this is all the writing I can muster for one session. Oh! Today Brian joined us! In a pre-iconic quotation of Buddhist art (meaning: when Buddha still was not portrayed, but was merely symbolized by his footprints) here is a picture of our shoes: David, Brian and Bici. Your riddle: whose are whose? (Hairy legs are not a necessarily reliable clue, as I have been known to shun waxing for months...)

Tomorrow we will be joined by Sarah and Ben Lurrie, two other friends. Together we will be going site seeing for another couple of days, and eventually making our way to Goa, to lie in the sun like lizards.

I will write more the next chance I get.