Agonda diaries – the Rajasthan edition (week 12/13)

Dear reader…

I didn’t file a diary entry for week twelve because I spent most of it wondering which end to put near the toilet (bad shakshuka) and trying to complete an urgent work deadline. Thankfully, both things were finished by the time I left for my trip to Rajasthan last Thursday.

The purpose of the trip was twofold – firstly, to experience the Jaipur Literature Festival, the biggest book show on earth. Apparently over 400,000 people visit it each year, and as it’s free to the general public, it’s one of a kind. I don’t know why, but I thought it was going to be like Frankfurt or Bologna – both international trade book fairs, but of course, the clue is in the name. It’s a book festival, like Edinburgh. But oh, the calibre and diversity of the panels. I realised that I have never been to a book event without working at it and it was so glorious to be a punter. I sat and listened to Madhur Jaffrey, Elizabeth Gilbert, Lemn Sissay, Howard Jacobson, Jung Chang, Lindsey Hilsum among others talk about writing memoir (highly pertinent to me), fiction and the lives of women. Lemn Sissay was a particular highlight – his emotional intensity charges a room and his story (of being stolen from his mother and placed into ‘care’) is heartbreaking.

Jaipur, unexpectedly, reminded me of Bologna. Huge medieval stone buildings the colour of amber and ochre, hot beverages served outdoors on every corner (chai, rather than coffee), scooters whizzing everywhere, people shouting and gesticulating, and of course, a population of people interested in books. All with added cows and monkeys.

On this whole trip I have been waiting to experience this much-vaunted ‘real India’ I’ve been told about, featuring people dying and defecating on the side of the road. I managed a whole week in Rajasthan, including rural areas, without seeing any of that, and I’m more convinced than ever that what people mean by ‘real India’ is ‘really poor India’. I think there’s a kind of slum tourism at work here, among foreign travellers – a competition to see who can do it more cheaply, and more ‘with the locals’. I find it a bit distasteful, to be honest. To flaunt our relative wealth on a ‘novelty’ trip that others have no choice but to experience isn’t my bag. I travelled by low-cost airline (SpiceJet) and by chair-class train. It was all completely ‘normal’, other than the trains, in particular, being a bit old.

Things are allowed to be old here. There isn’t a need to constantly renew everything every three years in a cycle of perceived obsolescence. If an item is functional, it lives on as itself, without even a fresh coat of paint. If an item isn’t functional, it turns into something else – it’s given a different function, eg an empty oil drum becomes a stool outside a chai bar, a saree/sari becomes a curtain or tablecloth. A Delhi resident I met at the fair said she misses the old recycling culture in her city: “Everything has to be new, now,” she said. “We used to re-use everything but now it’s discarded to make way for the new things.”

I could only feel guilty as this is definitely the effect of Western capitalism. Yet again, I was forced to wonder why we need so many new things in the west when the old things were just as good. I even remembered saying to my ex-husband, who loved fixing things and making them last for decades, “Why would you do that when you can just buy a new one?” Oh how I have changed that tune … I’m horrified at how far I bought into capitalism and for so long.

I loved Jaipur, with it’s palaces and forts. And I realised something – I love cities with Islamic architecture. There is a much higher proportion of Muslim residents in Rajasthan and it’s reflected everywhere from the male-oriented chai/coffee culture and the millions of Mughal-made arched doorways and windows, filled with coloured glass and ornate paintings. In the City Palace and the Amber Fort there are miles of cool stone corridors with small windows opening onto incredible vistas. Everywhere there is another archway to walk through and another coloured glass window or mirrored wall to marvel at.

I stayed at a heritage hotel, with unique, individually hand-painted rooms (Pearl Palace Heritage) and hired a Muslim tuk tuk driver from Jaipur City Exploring, Sharukh, who knew the city like the back of his hand. I loved the crazy driving and the beeping. It’s like a dance – everyone makes room for each other and there is no rage. It just sounds like rage, to a Western ear, trained to hear beeping a horn as an expression of frustration. It isn’t in India, it’s simply, ‘I’m here’ or ‘go ahead’. And it’s compulsory to do it, which is why the backs of lorries say, “BLOW HORN OK”. I’ve always been someone who doesn’t mind walking out in front of oncoming traffic so it suits me here – you have to trust or believe that the person will stop or move round you, and there’s a greater likelihood of that here. I also don’t mind dirt and dust. You can’t enjoy being here if you’re addicted to hand sanitiser…

On the advice of numerous friends, I then changed my plan to stay one more night in Jaipur to go to Pushkar, which was on the trainline towards my next destination, Udaipur. It turns out that most people’s delight in it stems from experiences in India twenty or thirty years ago, because now it feels like a Hindu theme park. I did enjoy wandering through the bazaar down to the lakeside ghats but the best bit for me was getting lost at night looking for a way out to a tuk tuk – I came across a temple doing pooja, with all the bells clanging, drums beating and a priest holding candles aloft outside, gesturing across the lake. I later discovered that the cacophony is intended to remove ‘obstacles’, to clear the mind of distractions. The sound is intended to create the om, the sound of the universe, of the sun. Once I knew that, the frequent nighttime poojas in Udaipur soothed me rather than frazzled my nerves.

I caught the train from Ajmer to Udaipur and loved the whole experience. Big brown leather reclining chairs, the chai man going up and down the corridor, someone popping up to sell power boosters for your phone, even Dominos pizzas from a delivery bag. It’s a completely logical pop-up economy and people are entrepreneurial about it. I met young, male entrepreneurs in all three cities, keen to capitalise on the tourist rupee. They work so hard to give you the best experience they can. And then you find out that they sleep in their tuk tuk, a bit like the north Indian guys in Agonda, who sleep on the tables of the restaurants they work in.

Oh, Udaipur. I’m completely smitten by you. To the point where I’m thinking of staying with you for a while, next season. As always in India, someone randomly popped up to tell me to do it – a Brit who lives there for six months every year. He’d travelled everywhere in India since he was seventeen, and he confirmed that Udaipur is the best place to live. “It combines a city with a village feel,” he said. “And everyone is so lovely.” I couldn’t agree more.

Yet again, I was reminded of Italy. I’m not the first person to make the connection between Udaipur and Venice. The city is set next to two lakes, and there are ghats and boats at various points all around Lake Pichola and Fateh Sagar. Sheikh, the young entrepreneur responsible for the awesome Doctor Cafe in the very cool Lal Ghat area, took me on a scooter safari into the hills and farm villages around Udaipur at sunset. This is where he grew up, he said, living a simple life. I clung on as we whizzed around Lake Badi (Tiger Lake) and the surrounding villages, small children waving ‘hello’ wherever we went. Still no defecation on the side of the road (ok a few men were having a pee), just people living in simple houses, without new things. I guess it might be a relatively affluent area, considering its proximity to the city and I probably saw its produce being sold by the women in the lively vegetable and spice bazaar in the city. The women wanted me to give them pens – I’m bringing them next time.

Because there will be a next time. I’ve fallen in love with Udaipur and I’m not done. I’ve seen most of the sights and I want to go back and truly just dwell there. I liked the noise and the clanging of the tuk tuks and pooja bells. I liked the chai society and the namastes (they don’t say it much in Goa and laugh when I say it, like I’m being an affected yogi). I like the medieval buildings that are simply ageing as they are, happily in their natural state. A bit like me, really.

But before you think I’ve romanticised everything about it, the day before the bazaar visit, people in the city centre were beaten with bamboo sticks by the police for protesting against anti-working class laws (I was warned off going near it and saw someone else’s video). Many of the shops were closed and the temples remained quiet. I’m not stupid enough to think that everything is perfect here, but it’s real and it’s open and I love that about it.

See you soon, Udaipur.

(Note: I stayed at the extraordinarily beautiful Little Garden Guest House in Udaipur, run by the incredibly helpful Akshay. Highly recommended.)

Agonda Diaries – week eleven

This week the cool winds have blown into Agonda, bringing with them a freshness and relief from the unseasonable heat. The weather pattern is about a month late here, and it’s still doing strange things, with monsoon-like waves suddenly creating a huge sand shelf for most of the length of the beach. Dogs, cows and people are teetering on the edge of it, seeing if they can find a way down to the shoreline below.

I hadn’t realised how much I loved and missed a cool wind until this one arrived. It has been truly blissful to walk on the beach, morning and evening, feeling it blowing in my hair and around my body. I see people running each morning, wearing headphones, and I wonder why you would want to intentionally blot out the sound of the ocean and the wind in chorus: nature’s ‘om’. I really don’t get it. You’re missing everything that is beautiful about the world. Mind you, people always used to ask me what I listened to while I was hiking alone in the UK – nature, I’d say. What is the point of blotting it out with manmade noise? Still don’t get it.

It’s been a week of realisations. One – a key one for me – is how important it is for me to be productive. Over the festive period I had a lull in freelance work which would have been great if I’d allowed myself to relax into it and use it as a holiday. Unfortunately I didn’t, and I started to feel really down about everything. I blamed the full moon or the Christmas forced-fun machine, but actually I think it was simply that I wasn’t very productive. I felt every day that I should be achieving something and I wasn’t. Now I’ve had a new block of work and I feel happy again. There is a structure to my days as I plough through it.

I’ve also realised the importance of doing something you’re good at – that you’re fluent in, whilst you’re learning a new skill. I’m loving my yoga teaching but I don’t yet feel completely fluent and confident in it (despite some nice feedback). Plus I’m still trying to master some asanas (poses) that I’d like to have in my body before I teach them to anyone else. Blending the learning experience of teaching with editorial work where I know exactly what I’m doing is great for me. One without the other seems to throw me off somewhat. Yin and yang, I guess. One can’t exist without the other.

One of the biggest realisations of this new year is that I’ve turned from a sunset person to a sunrise person. I remember previous holidays in Agonda, where sunset would be the highlight of the day, as it is for many tourists here. I would order a cocktail and sit and watch the sun go down, along with lots of people doing the same thing on the beach. I felt a sense of hope and excitement for the night ahead – anything could happen, and it did, while I was under the influence of alcohol.

Now I walk the beach during sunset, glancing at it occasionally, but prioritising the walking over the watching. Since stopping drinking I’ve started to think about why so many people turn up to celebrate the setting of the sun when the rising of it is a much more positive thing. I walk during sunrise, now, and I’ve realised that this is a much more hopeful and optimistic experience for me. Why was I putting so much hope into brain-numbed darkness? The morning, the daytime was here all along. The dogs frisky and tumbling over each other on the cool sand, the fishermen sharing out the overnight catch, the boys singing happily in the Simrose restaurant, preparing for the day ahead.

I am a sunrise person and I want to walk in the daylight, not the darkness. Sadly this means that my time with The Most Handsome Man in Goa has come to an end. No more Nighttime Girlfriend.

The sunrise moment does come with some surprises and yesterday’s was finding a dead rat in savasana on the yoga mat outside my door. Marshan the landlord and I concluded that a cat had deposited it there. Thankfully there was nothing there this morning.

In other animal news, there are numerous puppies at play on the beach, enjoying the adventure of the sand ledge, turtle number three has laid her eggs, and both pigs have now been sold. I miss them. I haven’t seen the foal on the beach this week – I wonder if he’s been sold too. If you stay here for more than a month you start to see animals disappear, including Simba from Sampoorna Yoga School and Foxxy from Samudra Surf School. We don’t know where they have gone.

Time to stop writing this and get on with some productive editorial work. I’m really loving it this week.

Words are my thing, it turns out.

Agonda Diaries – week ten

The week started so well, with an overnight stay at nearby Khola beach. They call it paradise and it is, made up of a beautiful beach, a river and shady palms. It’s cooler than Agonda at Khola, and there are no mosquitoes, miraculously. I still haven’t worked out why … maybe it’s the absence of cows…

The Most Handsome Man in Goa joined me there for dinner and then an early-morning jungle walk at 7am. The walk simply follows the river upstream towards the Shree Laxminarayan temple, where I’d previously found the praying Nandi. I loved it, even though it meant wading through shallow water for some of the way. We tiptoed round some small rice fields, misty in the morning light. I could see why the river was so small at the beach end – much of the water has been diverted.

Being in Khola overnight is a bit like being on a Greek island when all the day-trippers on boats and scooters have left. There is just you and the delicious silence – no whirring AC (it’s not needed) or droning mosquitoes to spoil it. It was the best sleep I’ve had so far in Goa.

I had a bit of a dramatic tuk tuk drive over to Khola as we found a couple who’d fallen off their scooter on a dangerous bend in the road. They were from Mumbai. She was in shock – the driver – and and tuk tuk driver was amazing, throwing water in her face to keep her from passing out, and bandaging up her husband’s hands. “I’m never driving a scooter again!” she wailed. And reader, that was the moment that I decided that I’m not even starting. The likelihood of having an accident is really high, based on the evidence I’ve seen so far. Everyone has at least one story and I don’t want one of my own. The tuk tuk driver took all three of us back to Agonda where his friend was waiting to take the couple to the hospital.

In animal news, a new puppy appeared at Agonda Diva resort but promptly disappeared, Coca Cola the cow continues to terrorise Mandala, Zest and On the Way cafes and a second turtle has laid her eggs on the beach. Sweetpea is appearing further and further away from Simrose on the beach and she has met TMHMIG, and they seemed to like each other, despite her preference for white people (they feed her).

I have had another weird week, feeling unsettled and stressed for no apparent reason. I have got a lot of work projects either hurtling towards me or that need wrapping up, but that’s not it. I am feeling in the midst of a transition. I hit my one-year soberversary on Friday and the gulf between me and the drinking set in Agonda appears to have widened. I don’t think you realise, when you’re drinking, that all you can talk about is drinking. And if it’s not the actual drinking, it’s what you and your friends did because you were drinking. I must have been like that. I just can’t take part in it any more and I’ve found myself wondering where I fit in here. I’m not part of the yoga set and I’m not part of the holiday drinking set. My mind keeps wandering back to my hiking tribe back in the UK. I miss them. I need to decide where I am going to be when these twenty-five weeks are up and I think I know that I don’t want to be a permanent digital nomad.

I have booked my first Indian trip outside Goa – to Rajasthan. I will be attending Jaipur Literary Festival at the end of this month, and will then take a trip to Udaipur by train. Palaces and forts – something to look forward to…

Agonda Diaries – week nine

This week has been marked by a series of new beginnings, not just a new decade. The first Olive Ridley turtle laid her eggs on the beach at 4.30am on January 2 and they will hatch in 44 days’ time. I’m hoping I will be there to help them into the sea, as I was earlier this year, watching them waddle towards a light held aloft by the forestry commission official (aka Turtle Guy). They think it’s the moon, and they walk towards the crashing waves with little or no chance of survival. Turtle Guy told me that the odds are one in 100. It’s so moving watching the little creatures be swept up by the waves – a story circulated among tourists that their mother is waiting for them offshore. TG told me bluntly that this is a myth – they’re out there completely on their own. I can relate.

The happy news came through that Captain Nitesh’ wife Ashwita gave birth to a baby girl and I can’t wait to meet her. I’ve bought a pair of the tiniest Ali Baba pants I could find in Gita’s shop to give to the baby. I keep thinking about how lucky this little girl will be to have Nitesh and his family all around her as she grows up next to the river in Agonda. I took a river trip with Mukesh, Nitesh’ brother, and his dad Mangaldas (‘Das’) this week and now I almost feel part of the family myself. I saw another sea otter and a stork-billed kingfisher (apparently very rare). That river trip never disappoints, even though Das had to push the boat through various sections because the tide was so low.

Mangaldas at the helm

Having ended 2019 saying no to being a nighttime girlfriend, I have happily said yes to being a daytime one. New Year’s Eve saw an almost Groundhog Day repeat of the scene two years ago, when I was about to leave the NYE party alone and a certain someone I shall refer to as The Most Handsome Man in Goa (how he was introduced to me) appeared. I figured the universe must be telling me something if he appeared again in the exact same place at the exact same time two years later, and so I heard out his apology.

We have since been on two blissful day dates to Canaguinim and Polem beaches. I have never really had the simple pleasure of walking hand-in-hand with someone along a beach, with them stopping occasionally to take a picture of me (without being asked to do so) and suggesting we stop for lunch somewhere. This week I realised that I never heard the words ‘let’s do this’ from a man I was with. Just the simple acknowledgement that he is with me and wanting to suggest something to do together. ‘Let’s’. Yes, let’s.

The inevitable fly in the ointment is that TMHMIG works evenings in a bar and doesn’t finish until late (which is why I had become Nighttime Girlfriend). I have struggled this week with being the only one in a group of friends who isn’t on a drinking schedule, ie going to bed at 2am or 4am and getting up at lunchtime. I am tired at the normal time and want to go to bed at 10pm, just when the party is getting going. Interestingly, a new member of the group tried to use me as a scapegoat for his own not-drinking. He was told about my alcohol-free state and jokingly asked if I needed to see a doctor. I politely replied that he may be the one to need one (being the one choosing to pour ethanol down his gullet). It turned out that he wasn’t drinking either, and not only that, he was about to go on an alcohol-free retreat in north Goa. Aha I thought – another one of those people who pretend to be drinking and ‘fun’ whilst actively avoiding the stuff and using me as the scapegoat to deflect attention from themselves. But I see you, scapegoater, and I will always call you out. It’s nice not drinking, isn’t it, Noah?

Just putting this here – info via Clare Pooley (sobermummy)

I noticed a similar thing at a work party I attended late last year – people who made a lot of noise and fuss about how much they were going to let rip at the party, and specifically how much they were going to drink. I noticed that on the night, they were the ones to have one glass and then sneak off home. The drunk people didn’t notice. I remember this when I was drinking – the ones you thought you’d be partying with were never there at the end. But by then it was too late for you. You’d taken them at their word and ‘let rip’ but they had only pretended. Now I’m sober, I see these people everywhere. Great that they’re not drinking but not great that they feel they have to pretend to, to fit in.

I’ve been greatly amused this week to see how the various dogs in my ‘pack’ respond when I bring them a little treat in the morning. Sweetpea gently lays hers on the ground while she waits to see if there is another one to be had. Sanjo eats his straight away. But Zimbo carries his a little way off and digs a little hole to bury it in the sand for later. Perhaps there is something a little human in these three responses. I’m definitely a Sanjo. Why wait?