The first night bus I took in India was from Palolem to Hampi. All of the people waiting at the bus stop were backpackers and I started talking to a Brazilian girl, Deborah. Like me, this was her first night bus in the country and we had both been cautious in booking seats rather than beds.
However, when the bus arrived, we discovered it was entirely comprised of double beds. There was no allocated bedding so we agreed to share a top bunk for the night. The beds were built into the wall, with curtains you could pull across for privacy.
“I feel like I’m in a coffin!” Deborah said, once we had assumed our positions for the night. We laughed. It was true that the berths were small – there wasn’t enough room to sit up straight. We were lucky we were both small and fit on the narrow mattress.
“Aren’t you going to take off your shoes?” she asked.
“No they’re my only pair, I don’t want them falling out of the bed.”
Fortunately it was a smooth ride and I got an uninterrupted night’s sleep. Although my travel agent had obviously lied, trying to sell me a single bed, I’d saved some money by insisting on a seat and it had all worked out fine.
It was early morning when we arrived in Hampi. A large group of rickshaw drivers had assembled outside the door of the bus, blocking our exit. Still half asleep, I was one of the last to file out of the bus but I could hear the rickshaw drivers working themselves into a frenzy.
“Where are you going? Where are you staying? Have you booked a hotel? Are you going to the temples today?”
Stepping off the bus, I realised we had been dropped off right outside some UNESCO listed temples. It was a bizarrely serene backdrop to the throng I had found myself in. I pushed past the crowd and joined Deborah.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” she said. “And I’ve been travelling India for a while.”
“Yeah it’s crazy. Do you still want to walk to the river?”
“Yeah it’s not far. Let me look it up on my phone.”
Luckily for us, most of the drivers had honed in on a Russian couple who were on a day trip. They trailed the four of us as we walked into town, but they mostly directed their sales pitch to the couple.
“Yes we’ve already booked a guesthouse,” I lied when they turned their attention to us.
“If you don’t go away, I’ll call the police!” said Deborah. I laughed, not sure whether she was serious or not.
Although it was still early, the streets were lined with locals in simple dress, mostly headed in the opposite direction to us. After spending the past week in Goa where you could almost forget you were in India, Hampi was intoxicating.
We reached the river, which is where I saw my first ghat. We were greeted with the peculiar sight of men and children stripping off to bathe in the river. The women remained fully dressed and mostly helped with scrubbing the children. Later I learnt the river was a pilgrimage site for Hindus and bathing in the river was thought to be purifying.
A boat took us to the other side of the river, where most of the accommodation was situated. We found a cheap guesthouse and had breakfast. I was glad we were staying on this side of the river; it was quiet and tranquil.
It soon became clear that the harassment of my first day was fairly uncommon in Anjuna. Locals were generally relaxed and pleasant to deal with. Although I was careful to walk in the company of others at night, I continued my solitary walks in the day and was left alone.
The only harassment I experienced, if I can loosely call it that, came from two Canadians at my hostel. The first was a guy in his forties who quickly grew unpopular for being sleazy with the girls. If it hadn’t been for one drunken conversation, in which he euphemistically asked me if I would “date” him, he would not have been particularly noteworthy – all the other girls felt uncomfortable around him.
The second guy was decidedly more selective. From the moment we met over dinner, he made his interest in me very clear when he persisted in having a stilted conversation with me from across the table.
As I came to realise over the next few days, in many ways, he embodied the worst qualities of a veteran traveller. Just as travel can make a person more open minded and easy going, I firmly believe it can also make someone a bit of a wanker.
Like other travellers of his ilk, Canadian #2 had a tendency to relate everything, no matter how mundane or innocuous, back to his travels. Several times I tried to turn the conversation around to other topics but without much success.
I should stress – it’s not that he wasn’t a pleasant enough person. He had altruistic desires (as he told me multiple times, he had plans to start a charity in Asia) and I didn’t mind short conversations with him.
But I think the considerable length of time he had spent in South America had rubbed off him in the wrong way. A very serious person, he lacked the laid back charisma I had found endearing in South American men, but on the other hand, I was often disconcerted by his very forward approach.
Although I tried to keep things between us strictly platonic, he was heavy handed in his early interactions with me, coming out with some cringeworthy lines that I won’t repeat.
Realising he would only become more intense under the influence of alcohol, I left with the first taxi from the hostel the following night, hoping we would end up at different bars.
However, he appeared at our bar an hour later. The first thing he did when he spotted me was stroke my hair and ask where I had been. Using as few words as possible, I told him and walked away.
Shortly afterwards, he sat down next to me while I was in the middle of a conversation with another girl and started stroking my waist. I immediately froze, before deciding not to react in the hopes the girl I was speaking to would not notice.
A third person joined our conversation and Canadian #2 seized this opportunity to take my hand and kiss it.
“Did you like that?” he asked, as though there was a possibility I would actually say yes.
“No,” I said. “I don’t like public displays of affection.”
“No one saw.” Unfazed, he continued, “I’m interested in you, are you interested in me?”
If he was drunk, I would have laughed it off but I could tell he was quite sobre and very serious. I refused to answer his questions, telling him he was being too forward. In retrospect, I was probably a little blunt but I felt it was important someone was honest with him so he wouldn’t be too out of touch with women if he ever went back to a Western country.
I spent the next hour going between different groups. I wished the English guys in my dorm hadn’t checked out. Ever since they had left, there wasn’t anyone at the hostel who I really clicked with.
My mood gradually soured as the night wore on. Getting very drunk didn’t help. I’m not sure why but the tipping point came when a smug fedora-wearing Canadian (hereafter referred to as Canadian #3) told me I should smile more. I decided it was time to leave and loathe to ask someone to accompany me back to the hostel, I went out the front to look for a taxi.
Without giving it any thought, I got into the closest cab and took the front seat, as I usually do when taking taxis. The driver was a young man wearing a turban. He asked me the usual questions, where I was from, what I was doing in India. His voice matched his appearance; benign and unimposing.
I was monosyllabic with my answers and we fell silent. He placed a hand on my thigh. Everything I had ever read about calling Indian men out on lecherous advances suddenly flashed through my mind but having walked back from the bar the night before, I knew we were only a block away from the hostel and decided against saying anything.
As soon as we pulled up at the hostel, I leapt out of the taxi and sprinted away, announcing I had to go inside to get some money (which was the truth). This particular hostel had non-existent security but I was just relieved that he had brought me to the right place.
After I had carefully counted out my money in my room, I returned with the exact change and passed it to him through the window. He took the money and then for what seemed like a very long time, took my hand and kissed it.
I pulled away and went to bed.
Afterwards, I couldn’t help but wonder whether my time in India would change me and if so, in what way.
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.