Fears, Jeers, Sneers

Earlier last month I flew to India by way of my favourite low cost carrier Air Asia. Ever since I booked it, I had dreaded this journey – I’d opted for two back to back flights to avoid spending any time in Calcutta.

As a result, I had to spend a night in Calcutta airport. I was a bit apprehensive about this. I didn’t know what to expect and safety concerns aside, I knew I would probably be bored out of my mind. But even so, I figured it was a better alternative to getting a late night cab to a hotel.

To my pleasant surprise, the airport was very modern and secure. With only a handful of food stalls, it was extremely bare but to be fair, it had only been refurbished a few months ago.

Because there isn’t much information on the new airport, I will write a bit about it now (it seems that a lot of people find this blog when searching logistical stuff so hopefully this will be useful to some):

After clearing immigration and picking up my backpack, I went upstairs, where the departure counters are located. Unlike most airports, this area is not open to the public – I had to show a staff member evidence of my flight to Goa before I was let in.

By now it was well past midnight. There weren’t any flights running until morning and the counters were unstaffed. However, there were quite a lot of people spending the night in the airport and a few guards patrolling the area as well.

Most of the seats had arm rests, meaning the few seats you could lie down on were already occupied by the time I arrived. I sat down in a chair, intending on reading a book, but somehow I dozed off after reading a couple of chapters.

The next morning, I boarded my flight to Goa. I’d chosen Goa as my starting point after hearing about its popularity with backpackers and reputation as a Westernised beach destination.

The long cab ride to Anjuna confirmed all these things – it bore a striking resemblance to beach towns I’d visited in other countries. But even so, I was intensely curious. I couldn’t believe that I was in India, until recently, a place I thought I would never visit.

For all of its familiarity, every now and then, I would catch a glimpse of a cow wandering the road or women, young and old, dressed in jewel coloured saris. It provided a strange contrast to the skimpily dressed Westerners who increased in numbers the closer we got to Anjuna.

After checking into my hostel, I chatted to a couple of English guys in my dorm and asked them if they could recommend a place for lunch. They told me that most places were sanitary but offered to walk me to one they liked, as it was on the way to where they were headed. I didn’t want to keep them waiting and didn’t think it was necessary so I told them to go ahead without me.

Alhough it appeared most foreigners were very relaxed in their dress, I decided to play it safe and changed into loose pants and a tshirt. I had lunch and realised I only had just enough cash to pay my bill.

Walking around town, looking for an ATM, I began to realise Anjuna was quite a strange place. It was not so much a town as it was a couple of long winding roads by a beach. The lack of development was refreshing but I couldn’t see what the appeal was for the Russian package tourists who made up the bulk of the foreigners in town. It lacked the infrastructure that you’d expect in a package destination – for instance there were only a few ATMs scattered in the outskirts.

Nonetheless, the longer I walked, the more I felt at ease. By the time I reached the ATM, I’d shed all of the mild anxiety the English guys had probably detected in me. I withdrew enough money to last me a few days and decided to walk back a different route to the way I came.

Even at the best of times, my sense of direction is far from reliable so this proved to be a stupid decision. My feet carried me further and further away from the centre.

Before long, I’d stumbled upon a beach and was tempted to check it out but decided to continue walking before it got dark. I only stopped when I heard someone call out, “Nice tattoo, where did you get it?”

I turned and saw a young Indian guy, dressed in Western clothes.

“Australia.” I gave him a half smile but continued walking briskly, only pausing long enough to work out who had asked the question.

“Can I ask you something? Why don’t foreigners like talking to Indians?”

Reluctantly I stopped.

“What do you mean?” I asked, trying to look neutral. I figured appearing friendly or unfriendly would only encourage him to drag out the conversation.

“Foreigners, why do they come to India if they do not wish to speak to Indians?”

“I don’t know. I would talk but I’m kind of in a hurry.”

“Where are you going?” He offered to take me on his moped. I turned him down, saying I preferred to walk, but he continued to hound me.

“All I want to do is offer you some chai and talk to you.”

“Oh…well I’ll be on the beach tomorrow. If we see each other we can talk then.” I started to walk away.

“I won’t be here tomorrow, I’m here on holiday. I’m from a different state.”

He trailed me for a while but disappeared after I’d turned a bend. A few moments later, he pulled up next to me on his moped, repeating his offer to give me a ride.

I turned him down again, picking up my pace. Finally, he left.

About ten minutes later, I was stopped by a second Indian guy. For some reason, I thought of Bob Marley when I saw him, though his hair and dress were dissimilar.

“Do you know where Curlies is?” he asked.

I had, in fact, seen a Curlies sign but thought it would be kinder if I did not attempt to point him in the right direction.

“Sorry I don’t… Hey do you know which way is Flea Market Road?” By now I was desperate – since leaving the restaurant l’d walked almost an hour in the heat.

He replied he didn’t but offered to give me a lift on his moped.

I politely declined.

“Why is it that foreigners don’t like speaking to Indians?”

“Not this again!” I wanted to shout but instead I resumed walking, telling him I preferred to walk so I could get my bearings.

This time, it didn’t surprise me when he reapproached me on a moped, insisting I accept a lift.

“I am from a good family in the north of India, I know how to respect a woman.” When I didn’t respond, he continued, “If I went to your country and you started talking to me, I would speak to you.”

He sped away, then reappeared, telling me he had asked someone for directions. I didn’t trust him and began to walk in the opposite direction to the way he had indicated. However, I doubled back when it occured to me that the direction I was headed in was vaguely residential.

It was now dusk and I found myself in what appeared to be an abandoned market. I could just make out the silhouette of Bob Marley in the distance. He caught up to me, asking me the same questions, which I ignored. I probably should have shouted at him to leave me alone but I was totally focused on finding my way back; so much so that I didn’t feel any fear.

Up ahead, I spotted a middle aged white couple and joined them. I asked if they knew where my hostel was. They replied I was very far and gestured in the direction I had come. Afterwards it occurred to me that it was very possible that Bob Marley had intentionally directed me away from the main road and into a deserted area. But at the time, I was only glad that I had people to ask for help.

Even though Bob Marley was nowhere to be seen, I explained he had been following me, unsure whether they would believe me. They were an English couple who had lived in Anjuna the past five years so they must have felt very comfortable there. However, they immediately took me seriously and told me to stick with them.

They walked me to a restaurant and spoke to some local friends to see if someone could give me a ride. At this precise moment, a rickshaw passed by and I waved it down – it was the first one I’d seen since meeting the first Indian guy.

The English guy negotiated the fare for me and explained to the driver where to go.

“Be careful,” he said, as I got in.

Smiling, I promised I would.

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