The Russians

Mandrem’s huts in O’Saiba

While in India you feel oppressed by the constant heat so the spectrum of a beach seems like a dream with a refreshing breeze going through the palm trees and empty stretch of sands ready to be explored. At least this was in my mind when I planned to spend one or two days in the Goa beaches. And it was somehow as I imagined except that I found the place to be some kind of… “meh”. Far from the secluded beaches of Thailand or the exotic beauty of the Sri Lanka’s south shore beaches, the beaches in Goa are lined up by so called resorts, sets of buildings and/or huts built on land or on top of the other buildings. All resorts have a restaurant by the seaside where you can hang out all day using the Free Wifi and watching the waves, the time and your life go by.

Arambol street, Goa, India

However I was some kind surprised to find out that Russians occupy almost exclusively the majority of these accommodations. Their presence is overwhelming to the point that even the names of the resorts are spelled in Russian. But also the menu in any restaurant is in Russian – and thankfully English -, the stores’ advertising is in Russian, there are party flyers and billboards only in Russian, the shop sellers speak Russian, greeting the customers with “pajal” and “krasnaya”. You hear Russian everywhere, including from the Indians who serve them and learned enough to manage. The day I arrived the resort nearby had a Russian wedding with loud folk music that could be heard on the entire beach. When accidentally you hear some bits of German, French or English you turn your head to see who are those people lost in this Russian land. The Indians are happy because Russian fill up the hotels and give them business but they were very clear to point out that they dislike them; they consider the Russians to be cheap, uncouth, and they treat the Indians bad in comparison with the Westerners who may be distant but few are rude. When, in stores or at the beach, the Indians asked me where I am from, it followed with: “It’s good that you are not Russian. We love USA.”

A “trip” sarong store in Mandrem

The faint distinctions that existed in the old time between the villages, each with its own specific were now obliterated by the Russian tourists. I could not distinguish the quaint and forlorn spirit that existed in Mandrem, or the traveler vibe for which Arambol was known, or even the hippy and backpacker counterculture from Anjuna. Everywhere I went there were the Russian families with naked children roaming the beach – not that I have anything against this – obliterating what once was a specific flavor of a place. If you salute them, like travelers usually do, you get just a blank stare, a kind of  “do I know you from somewhere to respond”.

One of the few throngs of palm trees I could find close to Aswen Beach, Goa

Besides all these I found the beaches I visited way too common. Large expanses of darker sand, stretching as long as you could see and occupied by lounge chairs under extended awnings. It took me a long stroll to take ONE picture with many palm trees that looks some kind of exotic. The rest of the beach side is filled by all sorts of vegetation, a lot of erosion and a general feeling of unkempt on some places. Even the overpriced hut I occupied in Mandrem in O’Saiba Resort looked that it saw way better days with a curtain on a rod that was covering a totally cracked wall that fell from the wall onto the bed, luckily not on my head because it happened in the middle of the day while I was out.
The night I arrived in Mandrem the Internet was down in the entire village and hotels could not do their bookings so everybody was freaking out but nobody had the guts to ask the guy who came to fix it how long would take till the Internet would come back.

The Yoga Village schedule, Arambol, Goa

Still Goa is all into Yoga of various kinds and the beach is full in the morning with people jogging, swimming, practicing asanas and meditating in the caressing morning sun. About a 2 km walk on the beach from Mandrem is Arambol that has a good stretch of nice stores, probably better than I saw in any other places, competing only with the Friday market of Mapusa. However my midweek passing through Mapusa found just a dull local market with wares of all kinds, shoes, underwear sold from large stalls, bags of chilly and lots of flowers.

Sunset in Mandrem, Goa

Anjuna had lots of construction going on and it looked for the moment very unappealing. Not even a hint of the old hippy and backpacker spirit for which the place used to be known. But I came here, right before my Mumbai flight, to meet a very dear friend who spends a lot of time in Goa and whom I did not see in 20 years. A video editor from New York whose interests migrated to become a professional DJ , Jo lives and works around the world but spends a good chunk of her time in Goa and the rest in London. It was an emotional meetings and a lot of catch up after so many years. And it could have happened neither in New York nor in London but in Anjuna at Zoorey’s under a spectacular sunset, thou with no “touchdown” – the sun does not seem to touch the water – like there are most of the sunsets in Goa because of the haze.

Sunset in Anjuna, Goa, India

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Posted by on February 20, 2018 in Blog, India


The Portuguese

The Immaculate Conception Church stands in the middle of the town in Panjim, Goa, India

Out the ones who occupied India the Portuguese were the most stubborn. The Brits left in 1947, the French evacuated Pondicherry in 1954 but the Portuguese were determined to stay put in Panaji(Panjim), their colonial capital. They were also the first to come and establish the Portuguese India while roaming the Malabar coast in search of spices. They first established an interest in Cochin, down the coast in Kerala, and after they they moved up in Goa that they conquered in 1510. So when time came to leave, The Prime Minister of bad memeory Salazar refused to cede the territory and asked all the inhabitants to fight till death in spite of the obvious lack of chances to succeed. In 1961 the Indian Army invaded putting an end of 450 years of Portuguese occupation. Quite a long run.

Se Cathedral, Old Goa, India

One of the way the Portuguese succeeded was through the influence of the church and nowhere else this can be sensed than in Old Goa – Wehla Goa – a town full of enormous, but for sure not beautiful, churches. Most of the churches’ construction date in the middle of the 16th century and the cathedral was at the time the seat of the Patriarch of India.

The cross of miracles whose arms miraculously increased a number of times, Se Cathedral, Old Goa, India

With this apparatus in place the Portuguese started the process of showing the Indians the way of their own God and started an intense process of forced conversion to Christianity. With religious forces exported from Europe the campaign was in full swing when on stage came St Francis Xavier who was probably the most devout activist of the Church at the time. A co-founder of the Jesuits, he was an advocate of forced conversion and the punishment for those who do follow and petitioned the King of Portugal to introduce the Inquisition in the colony. He died traveling the East Seas several years before the Inquisition was adopted in Goa but he is credited to its future implementation, one of the most brutal manifestations of its kind in the world. However for his activism he was beatified and canonized by the church and his relics are kept in a glass coffin under a curtain of stars in Basilica Bon Jesus, right across the cathedral.

The encased remains of St Francis Xavier – The Church of Bon Jesus, Old Goa, India

But in spite of the Portuguese destructive efforts, and the large number of Christians that are currently in Goa, the original Hindu tradition did not die and around Goa there are numerous Hindu temples rebuilt around the 18th century. Most of them were dating from the beginning of the 16th century but were razed by he Portuguese, like the beautiful Mahalsa Temple and Manguesh Temple, not far from Old Goa. The beautiful tower that is typical of Goan temple architecture would have been lit in the night by the numerous candles that were place in the niches marking the time of the pooja.

Mahalsa Hindu Temple tower was used to lit candles to be seen from far away. Goa, India

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Posted by on February 18, 2018 in Blog, India, Portugal


Biking the heart of the empire

Virupaksha Temple, Hampi, Karnataka, India

Vijayanagara was the largest empire established in India around the 15th century. It had enlightened rulers who were devout Hindu but they applied a secular approach in ruling their empire, accepting all subjects as equal and adopting Islam influences in architecture. Hampi was its capital and from here they spread around and conquered territories as far as Odisha. They ruled successfully for about 250 years till they were conquered by the Decca sultans, from around Aurangabad. During these years, especially in the period of golden rule around the 16th century the Vijayanagara rulers raised numerous temples in Hampi, that at the times counted more than 1000 structures.

The stepped Pushkarani, religious water pool, Hampi, India

Hampi was not chosen by mistake. This is the city mentioned in Ramayana where Prince Rama, one of Vishnu avatar – like in the movie – waited and exchanged messages with Sita who was abducted by the Ravana monster of Lanka. How at the time Whatsup was not invented the messages were conveyed by Hanuman, Rama’s monkey general who went back and forth jumping over the straight to Lanka to secure the messages and confirm to Sita that Rama will come to save her.

Narasimha an avatar of God Vishnu – His Lion incarnation, Hampi, Karnataka, India

It’s hard to imagine a better bike ride than in Hampi. You rent a bike and wind you way on dirt roads that snake around a temples decorated in magnificent sculptures, on ceremonial pools used by queens, in religious puskarini, ablution pools fed by long aqueducts that were used exclusively only for ceremonials in temples, through elephant stables and watchtowers, stopping on the way at gigantic statues of Ganesh or Narasimha, also an avatar of Vishnu. And all these surrounded by boulders sitting on each other creating tall hundred meters mountains of boulders around you that entice you to explore also. Only if time would permit.

Temple in Hampi

The temples’ walls have freezes sculpted with the entire story of Ramayana – Hazararama Temple – on three level so if you walk three times around and follow the sculptures you can skip the thousand pages book of the Asian legend.

Sunset over Virupaksha temple, Hampi

In the afternoon I crossed the river with a tiny power boat that would be considered unsafe anywhere in the world and I biked to the Hanuman Temple where I had to climb 575 steps on the sweltering heat on South India to get to an astonishing view over Hampi’s temples. From inside the temple the orange figure of Hanuman was piercing through your soul with only one central eye.

Watching the sunset as we do, Hampi, India

The next morning at sunrise I took a walk to Vithala Temple, a winding stroll peppered with other temples and rocks encountering on the way several huge temples that I did not see and knew the day before. Considered the best of the Hampi architecture Vithala is remote and protected from the hoards of tourists. It has in its middle a stone chariot and its column sing if tapped. But the cool thing is that all this can be done by bike that you rent for a couple of dollars a day and just promise to bring it back. No paper needed but this is India. At sunset when the heat is tapering off you can chill watching the sun going down surrounded by hundred of monkeys. They may jump on your back or steal your food, banana as a preference, but at sunset they just chill and watch how the sun goes down, the same as you are.

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Posted by on February 17, 2018 in Blog, India


The Brits

Time Building, Mumbai, India

Walking through the impressive buildings the Brits built in Mumbai I could not stop thinking how did they feel to be sent to India. Probably at the time Bombay was not so crowded as today but for sure it was as hot and humid to unbearable levels. So for them coming from their $%#@! English weather to India was a major change and malaria took also its toll, the cemetery being full with young lads who did not make it back. For the ones who could afford an option was to move to higher ground and live part of the time in Manali or Shimla, the famous hill stations. I decided to walk by myself in the Fort area but it turned out to be a almost impossible task for the short time that I had In Mumbai. I was used with Indian heat from the south or the sejour in Varanasi where the temperature was 43C making myself the only foreigner out shooting video relentlessly. But in Mumbai the heat and the humidity took its toll and no matter that I wanted to move quickly I was constantly held back by an incredible number of people who were clogging the sidewalks that forced me and many others to walk symbiotically into the chaotic Mumbai traffic. I started at the impressive train station and the The Times building but I could not make it further than the Flora Fountain. And to make things worse the entire city is a building site, digging for the metro and few and far between things could be seen. Beside the traffic is completely stalled and the bad idea I had to go by car killed easily two hours while I simply sat in traffic.

Double decker in Mumbai

In the end I gave up after seeing something on the main buildings route and coming back in the same traffic. We turned to the Marine Drive, a sort of Cuban Malecon but without any Latin vibe where the heat was a little subsided by the breeze but the haze was such that you barely could see any of the buildings in front. It was obvious that not to much can be done in Mumbai by driving and I had a brief stop for the main Hindu Temple, Mahalakshmi Temple dating from the 18th century.

Haji Ali Mosque, Mumbai, India

Haji Ali Dargah Mosque sits closely to the Hindu temple on an island ind the Mumbai Gulf. It is connected by a causeway that gets covered in water during high tide. Pilgrims come to the Mosque continuously and the walk to the mosque is aligned with beggars and cripples waiting for alms. When the tide is high the mosque is looking like is floating on water. The mosque dates from the beginning of the 15th century commemorating a traveler/saint from Uzbekistan who eventually settled in Mumbai and performed numerous miracles. At his wish his shroud was dropped in the ocean in order not to exist a place to be worshiped but his followers figure it out and built a mosque that float in high tide on the place his shroud was dropped.

Sunset over the mosque

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Posted by on February 15, 2018 in Blog, India


The guru

If you were ever traveling in India mainly in spiritual places, in villages, in holy temples, attending traditional melas and pilgrimage places, the moment you reach Pune you would be at a loss. Because for a change you would encounter a city that is nice and clean, with no dirt to be seen around, with sizable sidewalks, with fancy restaurants, coffee places – of course Starbucks – and nice hotels, with young people smartly dressed hanging out in front of bars and cafes off from their 9-5 jobs, with no visible poverty at least in the posh area of Koregan Park that is peppered with elegant villas hidden behind tall fences. The young people that swarm the streets of Koregon park look like any professional around any large world metropolis, be it New York, London or Paris. And being used with the India of almost medieval village life, what first came to my mind when I saw all this was : “This is not India”. And it may have been true because Pune symbolizes “The New India”, a completely different reality that you may not have perceived as a spiritual traveler. But for sure not everything is lost spiritually because Pune has several of the most important ashrams in India, one of them being the one dedicated by Osho, the eccentric meditation-sex-guru with a fleet of Rolls Royce, extradited from the US for tax evasion who found a place back in his country and developed even after his death an amazing following. Like in the case of Sai Baba, the hunger for spirituality drive people from all over the world to come to Osho ashram to look for guidance. And exactly like Sai Baba, Osho was able to create a gigantic institution with large swats of land on both side of the street guarded by police posts and multiple guard rails to prevent any attacks.

Osho Ashram, Pune, India

But the question that remains is if all cities tend to become more of the same why bother to visit them? Because as clean as it is, except the drooping banyan trees that cover the streets, the lanes in Koregon Park look so similar with posh areas around Europe or the US. You take a pleasant walk but is not to much to discover and after that you go and have your nicely prepared dinner that would not even taste different than the one in NY, walk a little bit around sizing the crowds and go to sleep with the only impression that “the world is flat”, to quote Thomas Freedman’s idea. For me at least, as cool and nice Pune looks I would veer away after one night and go explore more of the medieval tableau of life happening in the Indian temples in remote villages or in Khumb Mela, and give a miss for the moment to the cool “lattes”.

In a different part of Pune is tlocated he luxurious palace built by Aga Khan, the head of the Nizari Ismaili sect, a Shia sect that involved in charities.  The palace was built in order to be able the help the poor people of Pune and give them some some work at reasonable wages. The Palace was used by the Brits to jail Mahatma Ghandi in 1942 while he started the campaign “Quit India”. The following Aga Khan donated the palace to the Indian state that converted it in a memorial for Ghandi’s relentless effort for independence.

Aga Khan Palace, Pune, India

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Posted by on February 14, 2018 in Blog, India


The Mughals

Bibi-Al-Makan Mausoleum, Aurangabad, India

If you walk in Aurangabad, an old and powerful capital of the Mughals, you can see how glories fade in history. The fame and power gone left behind dirt, disrepair and an unkempt town. However the town still preserves a number of interesting places to visit, like “the poor man Taj Mahal”, an almost identical copy of the famous tomb from Agra. The monument is dedicated by a young price to his mother and was meant to be built entirely from marble. But to the advice of his father not to empty the state coffers, the prince decided to scale down and only parts of the monument are built with marble while many others are covered in decorated plaster.

Bibi-Al-Makan tomb, Aurangabad, India

Daulatabad Fort, India

Outside the city is located the famous citadel of Daulatabad. The fortress was built on top of the mountain and the access to its interior was done exclusively through a bat infested pitch dark tunnel, with deceiving openings and niches and a spiral staircase with uneven steps. All this civil engineering feat made the citadel practically unconquerable if it were not to take in consideration the human factor. The citadel fell by simply bribing the guards. A little bit of bakshesh goes a long way.

Courtship in Daulatabad Fort, India

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Posted by on February 13, 2018 in Blog, India


The caves

Buddhist cave with chamber music, Ellora, India

Even if I walked into the Ajanta caves the previous day the remarkable workmanship that I found in the Ellora caves surpassed any imagination. Built later than the Ajanta caves, between 600-1000 AD, the Ellora is a collection of caves lined along 2km of cliff that belong to three religious, Buddhism, Hindu and Jain.

Rows of Buddhas, Ellora, India

While the Buddhist caves occupies the right side of the mountain they are also from the period of Buddhist decline in India, 7th to 8th century. Some of them are impressive like the one that is built on two floors with chamber music on top that has a phenomenal acoustic. Others are built on three floors looking like a parking place from outside but extremely embellished inside.

Kailash Monastery, Ellora, India

The most spectacular cave is Kailash Monastery, located right in the middle of the complex, a dugout monastery where the builders had to remove 220000 tons of rocks but carefully leaving on site the rock needed for construction. Its dimension are impressive compared with any other monastery, its size being better grasped if watched from the top of the mountain. The monastery has in its middle a large temple, decorated with lions on its roof, that a representation of Kailash mountain, the holiest of the Himalaya peaks, revered in four religions, Buddhism, Shaivism, Jain and Bon.

Kailash Monastery, Ellora, India

Just a walk away from Ellora is Grishneshwar, one of the 12 Jyotirlinga shrines mentioned in the Shiva Purana.The temple is an important pilgrimage place in Shaivism, the tradition that revers Lord Shiva. Like all the pilgrimage temples, the place is holy and no electronics are allowed inside. So, no pictures… The knack of the temple is in order to enter the sacred area you have to take your shirt off. Inside the atmosphere is ecstatic and you could hear from afar the screams and chants address to the God. In the middle of the sacred area is a shiva-linga on which water is dripping from a top vessel. Bare chested pilgrims place their offer and touching with their heads the Linga, the symbol of Shiva, to be blessed by the holy dripping water. All is happening in the loud singing of the surrounding members, all bare-chested and dressed in white pants. An almost wall size mirror placed to show what is going on at the Shiva Linga presents a fabulous medieval tableau that you would expect to see only as an old painting hanging in a museum.

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Posted by on February 12, 2018 in Blog, India