The Adventures of Two Old Hippies in India: Searching for Bliss Ananda PT2
March 11, 2023
Exerts taken from my unfinished book:
Searching for Bliss Ananda
BACK TO INDIA, OR, THINGS CAN ONLY GET BETTER
“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him.” HENRY DAVID THOREAU, WALDEN
I’m tired, really tired, and I’m not going to be sleeping any time soon. I’m in Abu Dhabi of all places, in the United Arab Emirates. My mega cheap flight to India came at a cost; a fourteen-hour layover in Abu Dhabi.
I arrived here around 1am this morning after a fairly smooth flight from London Heathrow. An initial exploration of the airport confirmed my suspicions of what it was going to be like; white robed Arab men with their hijab wearing wives, walking around expensive boutique shops that sell Cartier handbags and expensive Swiss watches.
I quickly found an ‘Irish’ pub and I thought: ‘I could kill a beer after that flight’. But after asking a fellow Brit how much a pint was there, I changed my mind: £17! I settled for a 95p bottle of water instead and searched for somewhere comfortable to try and sleep through the night.
I eventually found a fairly promising waiting room by the departure gates that had comfortable reclining seats with footrests. Wow, I thought, with the help of a sleeping tablet I might actually get a few hours sleep. But it was not to be, what with the loud airport announcements every few minutes letting people know such and such a flight was ready to board, coupled with people’s loud conversations and dozens of screaming kids running around, sleep was impossible.
So, here I sit like a zombie, my head bobbing forward every few minutes as I drop off to sleep, only to be woken again by a machine cleaning the floor. I am resigned to it now.
At 6am I get up to find somewhere to freshen up before heading for a café to have some breakfast. Then I sit and read until the time comes to go to the gate for the second part of this journey, my flight to Mumbai, India. I have booked one night there, and thank God I have, as it will allow me to catch up on my sleep before I catch my third and final flight to Goa.
I was so relieved when the gate for the Mumbai flight was eventually called, I was finally on my way back to India after three long years. Little did I know what a nightmare my first night back in that dynamic country would be.
As we all boarded the plane there was an atmosphere of relief because many of my fellow passengers had also spent hours upon hours in the airport waiting for their connection. It was only later I found out that Etihad Airlines were offering free accommodation for the night inside the airport to anyone waiting over ten hours: DOH! Too late now.
The India flight was painless though and the view of the mountains beyond Abu Dhabi was breath-taking.
We finally landed in Mumbai, India at around 7pm, and after tackling India’s disorganised customs, and then waiting to pick up my backpack, I was ready to truly begin this epic Indian adventure.
Things pretty much went downhill from there.
First, I forgot to exchange or draw the local currency from the airport on my way out, let’s face it, I was dog tired and not with it. Then I approached the pre-booking taxi counter to book my taxi to the first hotel. The petite lady behind the counter smiled pleasantly and gave me my ticket to give to the taxi driver downstairs; only 600 Rupees, nice.
When I got downstairs to the taxi rank, I approached my designated driver, a rather red-faced portly chap with a pissed-off look on his face. He looked at me and then my ticket with distain and then barked: “you phone hotel, find where is! I don’t know this!” I calmly explained that I could not phone anyone as I had just arrived in the country and had not yet had the chance to purchase an Indian SIM. He looked at me like he wanted to hit me, but instead called over three other colleagues and they began an hour-long discussion as to where this mystery hotel might be. Eventually, they seemed to find it, via Google maps and the grumpy driver was given a new ticket with a clearer address on it. He still argued with his supervisor for ten more minutes, as for some reason he clearly did not want to take me. His boss then came and told him something along the lines of (I’m guessing here) ‘if you don’t take him, you will be given no more work here’, he then looked at me and said, ‘come now’. I followed him to the car expecting him to open the boot for my luggage, but he just got in the driving seat, and so I was left to pile my bags onto the back seat before climbing into the tiny black and yellow car myself.
We finally set off and I was immediately confronted with the chaotic sights and smells of Mumbai. The dirty littered streets, the beggars and desperate disabled homeless, the thousands and thousands of people moving all around, and the insane traffic moving in all directions.
After what seemed like a fairly long journey, we reached what can only be described as quite a rundown area consisting of dirty crumbling buildings, with a few tatty hotels, a market, and some shops.
The taxi driver, who I had attempted to make pleasant conversation with on the journey, had just ignored me up until this point, then stopped and said, ‘this one?’
How the hell would I know, it looked a bit like the picture, but I was not sure. ‘Maybe’, was my limp, tired answer. The driver then got out and moved towards the hotel; should I follow? He then went inside and was talking to the hotel receptionist for a few seconds. In all this grubby rundown chaos, this hotel looked quite nice, so I was pleased; I just needed sleep so badly. ‘Wrong one!’ said the driver as he got back in, ‘a bit further up’. He then drove on and stopped outside what can only be described as a total shit hole; ‘your hotel’ my nemesis said with an evil smile. He did not get out to check this time, he just sat there waiting for me to get out without even turning around, so I climbed out with my bags without a word.
I entered the hotel and walked gingerly towards the young receptionist, who looked back at me bemused, ‘you have booking??’ “Yes”, I said with a smile, just relieved to finally be near a bed, and sleep, beautiful sleep.
‘No booking, full!’ my heart missed a beat. “Yes, I have a booking and I have paid in full; see?” I brought out my LastMinute.com paperwork and showed him my confirmation email from the hotel. The receptionist looked confused and then called his colleague, who looked about twelve years old. They both looked at the computer screen with confused looks on their faces for about twenty minutes before calling someone on the phone, (I presume their boss). He then hung up the phone: ‘no booking, no room, you go!’ I could not believe my ears; I tried arguing but to no avail.
The next minute I was back on the street, I realised I did not have enough Rupees now to both pay for a taxi back to the airport tomorrow and book a new hotel. I had no choice, I was exhausted after Abu Dhabi and needed to sleep. I suddenly remembered the hotel we had stopped at by mistake earlier; it was just up the street. I walked back up, catching bemused looks from the locals; I was the only white person about.
The receptionist at the next hotel was warm and friendly, quickly showing me an ‘ok’ room with a comfy looking bed. I went back down to reception and told them I would take it, ‘how much?’ ‘4000 Rupees’ he said with a sly smile, (£40) no way!! I explained my predicament about what had happened at the previous hotel, and he eventually took pity on me; I was charged 2000 rupees instead (not bad but being as I had already paid for the other hotel; a loss). I went upstairs and felt a wave of relief, for about two seconds before my next big problem hit me!
I had paid for the hotel with the last of my rupees; I now did not have enough to pay for my taxi back to the airport for my Goa flight tomorrow. I needed to find a cash machine in all this chaos, gulp!
After being given instructions by the hotel receptionist of how to get to a cash machine one kilometre away, I set off into the Mumbai madness. The main street I was walking along was packed with all kinds of characters going about their business. As there were no pavements I was forced to walk along the road, with cars, motorbikes and trucks heading straight for me before veering off at the last minute. The locals seemed to take this in their stride but at times, I found it quite unnerving. Street dogs would growl and nip at my feet as beggars shook their walking sticks to warn me off. At times I would narrowly avoid gaping holes in the street leading to sewer rivers below.
Then came a crossroads where I had to cross the street. No one stops for you in India, you just walk across and prey to Ganesh that nobody hits you. I was OK getting across, but a lady in a yellow sari was struck by a taxi right in front of me. Strangers ran to her aid, picking her up and depositing her onto the pavement, shaken and holding her ribs.
Eventually I saw the cash machine and headed for it. A man was already in there and when he came out he said, ‘not for you’. What did that mean? I tried my bank card in the machine, but it came up: ‘non-tourist ATM: transaction denied’. Shit, it didn’t work! I now had no rupees to get me to the airport tomorrow; I had walked all this way for nothing. I walked all the way back feeling very wound up and extremely downtrodden.
When I got back to the hotel an older man was now behind the counter, the manager surely? My luck was improving. I explained my predicament to him and asked if I could possibly change some money with him as this was an emergency. He looked me up and down and then said with a smile, ‘yes sir, I can help with this’. He gave me a really good rate for £100 and I felt finally things were going right.
After this I was totally exhausted and went straight to bed, falling to sleep immediately.
The next morning, I woke up feeling refreshed and in a much better frame of mind. I contacted Steve, and my other friends to share my difficult experiences so far. I then put on my backpack, checked out, and headed for the airport; everything was going to be just fine after all.
Only it wasn’t, it really wasn’t: WTF!
“When you travel you experience, in a very practical way, the act of rebirth. You confront completely new situations, the day passes more slowly, and on most journeys you don’t even understand the language the people speak….You begin to be more accessible to others, because they may be able to help you in difficult situations.” PAULO COELHO, THE PILGRIMAGE
It is sad that the beginning of my trip has encountered so many obstacles in such a condensed time; but I promise you my bliss was drawing near.
But before that I had to face more problems. By the time I reached Mumbai airport I had received two text messages from the airline, the first had advised me my 8am flight had been moved to 1.45pm, the second text then advised me the time of my flight had been put back a second time, to 3.45pm, this was getting frustrating. I eventually flew out at 4.30pm in the afternoon, landing in my beloved Goa at around 6pm.
All the frustrations were put to one side as I shared a taxi from Goa airport with a fellow traveller called Pierre. We drove through the rush hour traffic towards Goa, and I felt a good feeling of excitement about what was to come. It had been a long three years of pandemic horror before I could finally return to my happy place, and here I was about to arrive.
As we entered the beach towns of the Anjuna area, I felt a wave of joy; I was home! The palm trees, the hippies, the colourful colonial houses, the bars, the white churches, the cows, and the street dogs; pure bliss! Eventually we arrived at the hotel I had booked in Vagator, a lovely yellow building. The owner was outside when I pulled up, dragging my bags from the taxi. I waved my fellow traveller off and prepared to check in. I could relax at last.
But no, the dark god Kali had one more hurdle to throw in my way! The hotel had been taken over by a new young owner two years ago who is not even registered with Booking.com. I once again had no hotel booking; give me strength.
Booking.com, you are a disgrace and need to sort this out. Although I had paid a meagre £20 deposit for the original ‘ghost’ booking, I rebooked with this lovely owner. The hotel was lovely, and it only cost me £3.40 a night, less than the original booking. Things were looking up.
Shortly afterwards my Arambol hotel (my next destination) messaged me to confirm my booking with them (at last, a correct booking) and offered me a cheap taxi from Vagator to Arambol; my luck was finally changing.
A Lesson Learned:
My experiences during this latest trip to India have shown me that pre-booking hotels before you arrive is a fool’s game, as many bookings turn out to be useless. You arrive at the hotel and the management have no record of your booking. These companies, like Booking.com and Lastminute.com, have computerised systems that unless they are updated when a hotel is under new management or a hotel has left that particular bookings site, will continue to automatically take bookings for them.
When you arrive at destinations in India, as well as other places in Southeast Asia, there is a plethora of hotels and guest houses (many not advertised online) who are happy to offer you a room at a reasonable price. I for one will not be pre-booking hotels again, except for the very first hotel of a trip, as that address is needed for visa purposes.
My first day in Anjuna was really lovely. I walked all the way down the main Vagator road to the crossroads that marked the beginning of Anjuna. I quickly sort out an old favourite; Oasis restaurant was a firm favourite of me and my crew when we last came to Anjuna, the food is really good, the staff friendly and its always full of interesting people. I was not disappointed with a lovely breakfast of eggs, toast and fruit salad, washed down with papaya juice and a strong black coffee.
I then walked down to the beach, the sights and sounds of the walk filling me with joy; hippie hotels, more colourful colonial buildings, palm trees and exotic birds chirping a beautiful song. As I approached the beach, I could hear some outstanding trance music booming out of a beach bar called Pirates Café. I followed the sound down a path that led me onto the beach: bliss, pure bliss.
The sky was blue, the ocean bluer, the sand like white powder and only a few people on the beach. To be back on Anjuna beach was so magical. I stepped up to Pirates Café and ordered a large Kingfisher beer. I sat, listening to the great music and enjoyed the view. I used Shazam to find out what this amazing music was I was hearing and then added the tracks to my Spotify playlist, the soundtrack to my journey across India.
I then made my way along the beach to the local market; I wanted to buy a day bag and some jewellery and knew I would find what I wanted there. Almost immediately I purchased two really cool t-shirts, even though that was not what I came for; that’s just how it goes sometimes. I did find a beautiful bag though, a sort of small backpack but with a lovely Indian style red embroidered pattern all over. Before I had a chance to buy a necklace and bracelet, my phone rang, it was Jan Cohen.