Present Tense – Jaipur, Rajasthan

I’m getting a bit tired of writing about the increasingly distant past, so I think I might try punctuating this blog with occasional bits of now.  I’m also thinking of incorporating some useful information, just in case anyone travelling in India is curious to go to any of the places I’m chatting about.  We’ll see how it goes.

Right now I am sitting on the rooftop terrace of the Tony Guesthouse on Station Road in Jaipur.  I arrived 20 minutes ago, having flown from Trivandrum in Kerala, setting off from Varkala the best part of 14 hours ago.  I flew  because a bunch of friends I’ve made along the way are meeting in Puskar for the Holi festival a week from now (which sounded like fun) and then I have a wedding in Goa five days after that.  Not wanting to miss out on Rajasthan, and unable to book a ticket for the 42 hour train ride north at such short notice, flying seemed like a sensible option.

I don’t really like flying. I mean flying is fine in and of itself, but (aside from the fact that is feels like cheating) it breaks the flow of the journey and there is just something nice about travelling overland.    The central character in William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition talks about jet lag as the effect of the body out-running the soul.  I’ve not crossed any time zones, but it is easy to imagine that my soul is still midair somewhere over Maharashtra, trying to figure out where its body disappeared to.  I’m sure it will catch up.  In the meantime though, I am really tired.

I have no real impression of Jaipur yet, but it is clear from the bustle; from the noise; from the dour men jostling past me in what was clearly an orderly queue; that I am once more in the North of India.  It is a little reminder of the intense culture shock I felt in my first few days, arriving in Delhi.  The differences are that I now have a degree of hard-bitten familiarity with this world, and a fairly fulsome beard, which may or may not endow me with a level of resilience I didn’t have before.

…later now.  I got sidetracked chatting to an English lad, Louis from Suffolk.  he got in this morning from Jaisalmer, where he spent five days riding a camel in the desert.  Back home he trains horses.  Two years ago a horse he was riding got stung by a bee and bolted, and he ended up being thrown into a tree.  He broke 7 ribs and his sternum, damaged his spine and his leg, and cracked his skull.  He seemed pretty spry for all that, but it was a little hard to tell, since he was lying in a hammock for the duration of our conversation.  Nice chap, and he gave me some good tips about Jaisalmer.

I’m going to bed now in my little room with makeshift, plywood walls.  The street outside is very noisy, though it’s about midnight now.  I might have to dig out my earplugs.  Someone next door has started coughing – it sounds like they are coughing directly into me ear.  I’ll definitely have to use earplugs.

That is all for now.  Goodnight.

 

15 -Margao (No Time to Think of a Snappy Title – My Laptop is about to run out of batteries)

Elaine’s brother and nephew live in a tumbledown colonial-era pile in with an overgrown garden and several stray cats in the middle of Margao.  It was the middle of the night when we arrived to a chorus of local dogs, and we crashed out on mattresses on the floor of the spare room, to be feasted on by mosquitoes until dawn.  We had a busy day ahead, helping Elaine (or at least keeping her company) while she ran a bunch of errands in preparation for her wedding at the end of March and since she lives in Mumbai and her fiancé in Romania, she was short of time.  The first stop was the local church.  Several hundred years of Portuguese colonisation up until 1961 has left its mark and Goa is a majority Catholic state with customs which are very different from the rest of the country.  Church buildings do usually seem to have their own national flavour though and I was interested to see what this would be.  Unfortunately in this case though, the doors were locked.  While Elaine met with a priest in an adjacent building, Aakriti and I sat on the steps for half an hour, being scrutinised by passersby and an officious-looking dog before heading back to meet with Elaine’s mother and go into town.  My cheapie phone having died on the beach the day before, we stopped into a phone store and I forked out for a Samsung (actually way cheaper than what I would have paid in England), then Aakriti and I were tasked with sourcing material for the bridesmaids’ and flower girls’ dresses on a street with about fifteen material shops.

After half an hour we returned with about thirty samples and prices, as well as a string of little Goan chorizo sausages wrapped in newspaper, which Aaki planned to take with her back to Mumbai.  This done, we dropped Elaine’s mum at home and we went off for lunch.  I had been on a strictly vegetarian diet since I got to India (partly to give myself better chances of avoiding stomach troubles, and partly because I have no idea as to the provenance of meat here in terms of animal welfare) but since I was here, and Elaine was so enthusiastic about Goan fish and meat cuisine, I decided to let myself off for a couple of days.  The girls had been talking about one restaurant in particular for a couple of days as being absolutely amazing, and it turned out that is where we were heading.  As we drove along, Elaine asked me if I had brought with me a change of clothes for the restaurant.  I certainly had not and had not been aware of any such need, but looking down at my dusty, sandaled feet, linen beach shorts and scruffy t-shirt I had to admit to myself that I was not exactly dressed for dinner.

“There’s a dress code?”

“Yes, Dave!  Of course!  This place is the nicest, most popular restaurant in South Goa!  We were really lucky to get reservations!”

“But you didn’t say anything!”

“Well I just assumed you knew.  I did think it was a bit strange too that you were wearing those clothes this morning when we were going to a church…I thought maybe you had a change of clothes with you.”

“Er…no.  No I don’t.  Sorry.”  I looked back at Aaki and she shrugged.

“It’s a really nice restaurant. Maybe they’ll let you in because you are with us, and you’re a white boy.”

“What do I need to be wearing?”

“A shirt? Shoes?  Long trousers anyway you’ll definitely need.”

“Ok, well I don’t have any of those things.  Is there anywhere nearby I could maybe buy some trousers and a shirt?”

Elaine shrugged.  There was some conferring, then she called her Goan flatmate in Mumbai. “Matt doesn’t have anything to wear to the restaurant.  Do you know is there anywhere nearby we could buy him something?  No?  Do you think they’ll let him in as he is?  In hippy-style beach shorts?  He’s wearing a t-shirt, yes, and sandals.  We can try at least, no?  Well there’s nothing else we can do is there.  Yes, I know.  It is disappointing.  Okay.  Thanks anyway. Bye.”

“There’s nowhere, Dave.  Well, we’ll go there anyway.  They might let us in.”

I could sense her disappointment.  Aaki’s too, and we drove along gloomily for a short time while Elaine went through all of the amazing food which none of us would now be able to eat because of my bedraggled appearance.  I was not entirely willing to accept responsibility for this turn of events, but I was starting to feel bad anyway.  Down a long road by palm-fringed freshwater lakes, we parked up and Elaine scrutinised my appearance again.  “Put your sunglasses on and straighten your t-shirt.  Hmm. Well you’re quite good-looking; we might be able to convince them.  Let’s just go and try.”  She did not sound remotely convinced.

We got out of the car and walked along a little way, stopping outside an open-fronted dive on Assolna Jetty called the Seamens’ Nest Family Restaurant and Bar.  An awning was suspended over a couple of rows of plastic tables and chairs with little napkin dispensers and empty bottles of Kingfisher lager.

“Are you ready, Dave?  This is the posh place!”

The realisation that I had been played took a few moments to settle in, since they had both played their little deception with such commitment.

“Did you really think we would eat in some super-expensive place?  We would never do that, Dave!”

Once the penny dropped I had to admit that on closer inspection neither of them were particularly well-dressed – Aakriti particularly, since she was wearing a t-shirt with a cartoon image of the Beatles (which I hadn’t noticed under her flowing scarf).  I tried to protest that I couldn’t have known what the custom was and that maybe ladies were not expected to dress up in the same way, but it was weak and I had to admit it; they had done me up like a kipper.  “We played you, Dave.  Not for the first time, and not for the last.”

I swear they both looked smarter than this when we were in the car…

We found a table overlooking the river and sat down to order.  Elaine ordered Mussels, two or three kinds of fish in different sauces, and a couple of meat dishes too – it was all delicious.  Possibly the best food I’ve had in India so far, in fact, and washed down with a couple of bottles of Kings beer; Goan brewed and much nicer than the ubiquitous Kingfisher.  I also tried Fenni, which is a local spirit made from fermented coconut or cashew.  It sounded good.  It wasn’t.

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We whiled away a couple of hours there, before driving back to Elaine’s mum’s house for coffee and then after an unsuccessful visit to a notary’s office in town we headed to the coast for sunset and then dinner at another hidden local gem called Durigo, before heading back to sleep.

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Aakriti and Elaine were flying to Mumbai in the morning and I had a trilogy of bus rides back up to Arambol.  It was lovely to have a chance to see something of Goan life away from the buzz of the tourist sites, and I had mixed feelings about returning to Arambol now that the festival was over, but I figured I would just stay for maybe two days before going to Hampi, and we had plans to see each other again in Mumbai before Elaine’s wedding in March, so all was well.

Goan Loco (down in Arambol)

The days passed in a bit of a blur and the festival left me little time to write.    I would wake up in a tangle of mosquito net, wash some clothes and hang them out to dry, then get to Love Temple for breakfast (lots of fruit, muesli and curd) before classes started.  There was a yoga class starting at 8am, which I attended a couple of times but I was usually way too tired for such shenanigans.  After breakfast there was a two and a half hour ‘intensive’ class working with a single teacher for the whole week.  Mine was Katja, a formally trained professional dancer with a very kindly, but very serious approach.  With her we learned to engage and move head, chest and hips in isolation; suspending between the floor and a partner, maintaining a flow of opposing forces; circling, spiralling and rolling; and working in trios.  It was hard work and I would emerge ravenous for the lunchtime buffet.  After eating there was a lot of sitting around talking before the afternoon class, where you could choose which class to do, and then in the evening from 7.30 till 10 there would be a jam.  As the days went by I found myself making small steps in technique (bigger ones in confidence) and already I felt fitter than I had in a while.  I drank copious amounts of water and I haggled in the village market for beach-hippie clothes which would be more comfortable moving in heat (though they weren’t always very durable and I had to take a few things back in for repair before the week was out).

I skipped the afternoon class on my first full day, because I wanted to get to the jam without collapsing, and seven hours of strenuous physical work and concentration in thirty-something degree heat is more than I am used to.  Also there is a very comfortable chill-out area in Love Temple that is quite hard to leave once you’re in it.  I made amends for my bunking by giving a massage to Priyanka, whom I had almost squashed the day before and who was suffering with back pain (as were most of the Indian students, since they had already been here dancing for a few days before the festival started).  Class finished and the space started to fill up.  I got chatting to a girl from Bombay with a quick wit, a caustic sense of humour and a good line in international accents, called Aakrati (not to be confused with Akriti).  Before long her friend Elaine arrived (also a resident of Bombay but a native Goan).  Elaine was recovering from the obligatory stomach bug.  She had a hankering for an avocado sandwich and though someone told her it wasn’t a good idea, there was nothing else she wanted or could face.  She asked me for advice.

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Aakriti and Elaine.  Attitude.

“If you want the avocado sandwich, just order the avocado sandwich.’ I said.

“If it makes me sick it will be your fault and I will find you and kill you.” She paused. “What is your name?”

“It’s Dave.” I said.

She has been calling me Dave ever since, but at least that’s a real name; Natasha (another of the Dance Exchange crew) just calls me ‘English’.

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Over the next few days I spent a lot of time between classes and jams hanging out with this collection of hilarious, vibrant Indian dancers and yogis, enjoying their musical voices, their quality banter and glorious gift for profane language, and their insatiable appetite for pancakes.  Away from the festival I spent most of my free time with Aakriti and Elaine, sitting on their balcony, playing guitar (I bought a guitar) and singing, pestering the surly staff at Ivon’s restaurant next door for tea and awful coffee, talking endless varieties of nonsense and watching episodes of Modern Family on my little laptop.

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It was a good time.  Over the course of a few short days I had gone from teaching in the cold mountains of Dharamsala and eating Tibetan food with Jeremy, Konrad and the others, to dancing in Goa with sand and sea salt in my hair and finding myself in company with a completely different group of equally lovely people.  Before I came out here to India I was thinking about the structure of my journey and I resolved not to make a plan but to try to stay awake to the possibilities that tend to open up when you are ‘in the flow’ (as Konrad put it).  I made this decision and I dearly hoped it would work out that way, and then for my first few days in Delhi and arriving in Dharamsala, it hadn’t felt like that at all.  I was stressed and anxious and not meeting anyone, and at times it felt like I had made a big mistake coming out here, and that I would have to head home with my tail between my legs.  Partly this was about jet-lag and culture shock; but I notice that it is only really when I began to relax and let go of the need for control that things suddenly and dramatically started to change.

I’m terrible swimmer.  When I get water in my face, my eyes reflexively squeeze themselves shut and I can’t open them until I have wiped them with something.  It’s weird, but I just can’t do it.  This spasmodic reaction carries through into my whole body when I am in water.  I can propel myself by brute-force for 20 yards or so but it’s exhausting because I can’t float and if I let-up for even a moment I sink like a stone.  The only exception is that if I lie on my back, relax my neck and allow my ears to slip below the waterline, it all gets much easier and I can allow myself to float and even to find relaxation in the hollow, meditative roar of sub-marine sound.  It’s not really swimming, but it’s a long way from drowning, and this more or less describes my experience of India so far.

I liked Goa; the languid heat and the thick tropical air.  The coconut-trees and scooters and open-fronted shops and bars and the warm sea and the dogs hanging round – dogs everywhere and lizards and colourful birds.

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Around Christmas my friends Daniel and Helena from Copenhagen had been in touch about the fact that they would be in Goa in late January / early February.  I had thought I would be in the north long after this point, but now here I was.  They were staying in a rather dull hotel resort in the south and they were bored, so when I said I was in Arambol and it was nice, they headed upstate.  I met them on the beach outside Samantha’s and we went for a few drinks and dinner and reminisced.  Daniel and I had walked together on the Camino de Santiago for ten days from Pamplona to Logrono (as far as his knees could carry him after a delirious fit of ill-advised sprinting on the long road into Viana) and it was really lovely and a little surreal to have them both putting in this appearance on this new journey.  They stayed in Mandrem, the next beach along to the south, for a couple of days and I saw them a fair amount until they both came down with a case of food poisoning and I didn’t get to say goodbye.  They finished their trip in the north, and I think they were sufficiently recovered to have a good time in Jaipur, but I felt a little guilty luring them to Arambol only for them both to fall afoul of the fast-track sallies.

On the last evening of the festival there was a performance night at the Banyan Tree; an outdoor café with a large dancefloor under the enormous branches and hanging roots of (aptly enough) two beautiful Banyans.  The performances were at least partly improvised; usually the product of a couple of hours work, and given by anyone who wanted to do it.  I was not ready to take such a step, but ended up, if not performing directly, then at least feeding in some of my own material: Ulli acted as a compere, doing an extended skit in which he played a hapless traveller who had chanced upon the festival and was telling his parents about it on the phone.  “So I met this guy in Dharamsala, just sitting by the road.  I don’t know what he was doing there.  Just sitting.  He was a writer or something…going through some kind of midlife crisis/life transformation kind of thing…he helped me with my bags and we got talking and he told me about this contact thing…this like, weird dance thing where people roll around on each other.  So I thought I’d come to Goa and check it out…”

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There were a load of contact-based performances by students and teachers, and then the Dance Exchange guys did a Bollywood dance and the crowd went crazy.  If I figure out how to post video on this thing I will share the little film someone took, but it won’t do it any justice.  After the performances, a DJ took over and everyone danced.  Not contact this time; just wild, unconstrained dancing to some big, euphoric beats.  The eight days of the festival had created a real sense of community amongst the 150 or so dancers, teachers, musicians and organisers, and that evening felt like a real celebration; of dancing, of friendship and of having the opportunity to take some time out of life to hang out in a tropical paradise having fun.

P1000853Elaine and Aakrati were heading down to Margao in South Goa after the performance night and had invited me to join them, to see something of the ‘real’ Goa and to eat food which would blow my mind.  It sounded like a plan.  Elaine’s friend from home, Dicky-Boy, drove up to see the show and then afterwards we loaded up his car and set off on the two hours drive through the night.  I was not really ready to leave Arambol, so I spoke to the landlord about keeping the hut for longer, and decided to return by bus after a couple of nights in Margao.  A lot of people would be hanging around for another week or so and it would be nice to have a bit more free time to catch up on writing and whatnot, but there were a lot of goodbyes that night and I sat in the back of Dicky-Boy’s car feeling tired and a bit heavy-hearted.  Still, Aakriti and Elaine’s company was endlessly entertaining, and I was looking forward to seeing another side to Goa away from the tourist fray.

Transmission

Hi.  Just a quick one to see if it will work.  I am in Munnar, up in the Western Ghats in Kerala.  I’ve not had good enough internet to post anything since I left Arambol a few weeks ago.  But if this works then this afternoon I will post a couple of things.  Hopefully with pictures too!

P.S. Saw wild elephants yesterday.  Boom!

Matt xxx

13 -We Came to Dance

I’m going to try to explain (or at least describe) this contact thing as I first experienced it.  As a total novice I don’t have much of a vocabulary to do so and I’m not sure how this will pan out, but bear with me…

Every night of the festival there was a contact ‘jam’.  It seemed a slightly strange phrase to use for a dance until I realised what it actually meant: a group of individuals coming together to play and to improvise and explore – not all that different really from what happens when a bunch of people sit down to play some tunes with guitars and drums and vocals (which was good since I happen to really love doing that).

I didn’t know how this would play out in a dance setting, but I wasn’t entirely in the dark.  I spent a fair amount of time aged nineteen to thirty devising theatre; a process involving a lot of improvisation and fumbling around in the dark attempting to create performance material from obscure (or at least non-textual) sources – abstract physical movement, sound, emotion, tone, texture, etc.  Put simply, I have a higher than average tolerance for crazy.  Anyway, I recognised the space I was walking into.  People were dotted around stretching and doing yoga poses and centring themselves.  You take whatever time and approaches you need to bring yourself into the present time and space and to shrug off the world outside.  It had been a while, but it felt familiar enough for me to find myself a place on the floor and go through this process without discomfort.

The space was gently lit by paper lanterns hanging form the ceiling and a pair of musicians were set up on a raised area along one wall.  A guitarist and a girl with a microphone and a sampler who created an ambient soundtrack of startling range and tonal depth.  After a while one of the teachers began speaking to the assembled dancers, bringing us from our solitary preparations into an awareness of the space and each other and getting us slowly up to our feet and moving around, while the music started to build a little and little moments of silent interaction between dancers started to happen.

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In the jam there is a lot of soloing.  You start alone, and you dance and move as you feel until at some point you find yourself dancing with someone.  There are no set moves.  Some kind of physical contact is usually maintained between partners, using hands, arms, heads, torso, hips, legs and feet, and when touch is lost, partners will find a way to gravitate back towards each other.  From an outside point of view this dance can resemble water being poured back and forth between two vessels as the partners move and spiral together, taking each other’s weight, lifting and releasing.  Alternatively (and probably where I am involved) it is a clumsy bouncing off of each other and a battle to not fall to the heap in a graceless heap (though actually there is a place for such fumbling; it’s not always about looking pretty). This interaction may last thirty seconds or it may last thirty minutes, but eventually it will come to an end and then you’re back on your Jack Jones.

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My first dance was with Manju; an Indian lady with a unique style and a frenetic, birdlike energy.  We caught each other’s eye and found ourselves circling around the palm tree that grew up through the centre of the dancefloor.  This interaction was a kind of delicate negotiation – a moment like getting a stranger cat to come and play.  The slightest false move at the moment will break, it seems at first.  The movement is tentative because you are mirroring, repeating, making small improvisations on each other’s gestural and energetic patterns, with focus shifting from eyes to hands to feet, all points making observations.  Also you are trying to keep focused on maintaining your balance, on the music, on your breath, on this being a dance…but in this moment actually, it all just happened on a little wave of intuition.  We gathered pace from our slow start and capered round the floor like children playing tag until we found ourselves at a still point, grinning at each other with our foreheads touching.  It was a natural ending and so we parted.  I danced with a few more partners that night, but it was never so fluid or easy or natural.  Beginner’s luck, I suppose.  Beginner’s mind, anyway.

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By the end of the night I was drenched with sweat and I was tired to the bone.  It was still only my first day in Arambol, and this festival would be going on for the next seven days.  I found my way back to my hut in the dark and fell asleep to the sound of the sea.

12- Temple of Love (Eat My Goa)

(Excuse me if I lose the plot with these titles – I’ll be rinsing the song-title thing for as long as I find it amusing)

My plane was late.  An hour, then two, then three.  Before I even went to the gate to board I knew my connection to Goa would be long gone by the time I got to Delhi.  There wasn’t much point getting annoyed or stressed about this however and I didn’t – actually I was a little surprised by how un-phased I was by the delay.  Jenny had said that one of the main lessons India had given her was about letting go of control.  Maybe I was learning that too.  Still, I had my heart set on something more laid back than another foray into the chaos of the capital, so I decided to forget about my budget for a night and go instead to a faceless modern hotel in Aerocity a few kilometres from the airport.  I bought a ticket on a flight leaving at 11 the next morning and then checked into the Ibis and took the first of several long hot showers.  I washed some clothes in the sink, I ate a huge buffet dinner and I wrote in my journal, then in the morning I ate a huge buffet breakfast and set off to complete my journey south.

Arriving in Goa airport the first thing I noticed that all of my clothes were entirely unsuited to this new climate.  The blanket from which I had become inseparable, and the woolly hat and bed socks in particular were now completely redundant.  A small price to pay though, for this glorious warmth.

I had planned a night or two in Panjim, but on the spur of a moment I decided to head north to Arambol instead.  Ulli had told me about this Contact Festival he was teaching at, which was starting that day.  I had some notion of what it would be, as I had come across it a little in theatre days at university and in London in my twenties, but not a lot really.  I had been to-ing and fro-ing about the idea of it since Ulli suggested I might think about enrolling, but at some point late the previous night I had decided I might as well give it a try.  It’s not like I had any other plans or places to be.  Anyway I had sent an email to one of the organisers asking if I could join late.  I was still awaiting a reply when I got to the airport.  There was a huge queue at the taxi office but I got chatting to a couple of Geordie lads who were going to Vagator with two Indian girls from Mizoram in the far north-east and they said I could catch a ride as far as they were going.  They dropped me by the roadside somewhere (no idea where) an hour up the coast, and I found a bus stop and caught a very crowded local bus another 90 minutes up the coast to Arambol.

The sun had set by the time I arrived and I had no plan.  The guidebook had said there were a lot of huts and rooms on the beach half a mile from the town so I set off walking.  I hadn’t gone more than 20 metres when a hippy-looking Italian pulled up on his scooter and asked if I needed a ride to the beach.  I thought for a moment he had some kind of ulterior motive, but not to look a gift-horse in the mouth, I hopped on the back and a couple of minutes later he dropped me at the beach entrance and shook my hand before driving off again.  I found an overpriced room above a bar on the beach a hundred yards north of the beach entrance, dropped my stuff and set off to explore a little.  I didn’t find much really, and something I had eaten somewhere wasn’t sitting well and I had a sore stomach.  I turned in early and tried to sleep but my bed was about 20 metres from a hefty sound system cranking out Dub until the wee small hours.  At some point I saw I had an email from the festival saying it was fine and to come along at lunchtime, and a text from Ulli saying come along for breakfast at 9.30.  Either way I had some kind of plan.

I woke early and checked out, and walked south along the beach in search of Love Temple (the venue for the festival).  It was a glorious calm morning and the beach was dotted with joggers, walkers, fishermen, little clusters of people doing yoga and burly Russian mafia-looking types with tattoos and gold jewelry doing chest-expander exercises.  Everyone had the bronzed look of someone who had been here for some time.  I found the place and wandered up to take a look.  A bunch of young (20s and 30s) Europeans and Indians were taking breakfast – plates piled high with fresh fruit and muesli with curd.  Everyone looked very relaxed and were lounging around draped over each other like personal space had never been invented.  It all looked very friendly and nice, but also a bit like some kind of weird hippy cult.  I couldn’t see Ulli anywhere, and after standing around awkwardly for a few minutes and feeling entirely out of place, I skulked off to find breakfast some place else.  Sitting to eat at Samantha’s a few doors down, I asked Jimmy the manager about somewhere to stay and ten minutes later I was the proud occupier of a hut about 150 metres back from the sea.  Cobbled together from plywood and loose roof tiles, it had power and a toilet and a cold shower, and suited me pretty well.  I sat through most of the morning at Samantha’s and considered my lot.  I had come up here on a hunch and I didn’t think it was going to pay off.  This Contact thing was going to be a bit weird and probably not such a good idea after all.  The sky was clear and the sea was blue and the sand was warm between my toes, but I had no idea what I was doing here and I felt properly miserable – a fact made even worse by the feeling that if I could be so miserable here in this laid back tropical paradise, then there must be something seriously wrong with me.  A lot of this was lack of sleep, stomach upset and general disorientation talking, and I found my spirits rallied after a nap.  I still wasn’t sure about the festival, but I figured I should at least go along at lunch time and see if I could find Ulli, since I had made it this far.

An hour later I had enrolled for the festival and was about to take my first class.  My stomach couldn’t really handle lunch, but I had caught up with Ulli and he had introduced me around to a few people and everyone seemed very friendly and I thought I may as well just go with it.

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It is worth explaining at this point that Contact is an improvisational dance form based around physical contact and collision between participants.  That’s not a useful definition, but it’s about as good as I could manage at this point.  I didn’t really know how it worked or what it looked like.  I walked barefoot into the workshop space (a wooden floored construction of palm branches about 20 metres across) and looked around.  A lot of people stretching and doing yoga poses – all pretty standard theatre workshop fare – this I could deal with at least.  Ulli was teaching the class.  He was clearly in his element here, relaxed and full of confidence.  It was nice to see.  The lesson was focused on approaches to giving and receiving weight and performing basic lifts.  We paired up for the first exercise and I found myself in danger of squashing an Indian girl of diminutive stature named Priyanka.  She assured me she would tell me if I was too heavy, and I gradually got there, starting to figure out that there are ways of putting all of your weight on someone without squashing them, but it is as much about how you carry yourself as how they carry you.  By the end of the class I was doing slightly more advanced lifts with another Indian, Akriti, and we were moving around with it and making transitions which felt very much like dancing, and whilst I wasn’t confident, I was at least having fun.

Most of the Indian students were here on a Dance Exchange scholarship programme and had already been working hard for several days (in Arambol that is; most of them were professional dancers in Mumbai or Delhi).  Akriti was struggling with shoulder and lower back pain so after the workshop I gave her a massage.  I may not be a dancer, but I know my way around a knotted muscle, and shortly I was inundated with massage requests – it’s a nice way to make friends, and I was happy to make myself useful.  The sun set in spectacular style and I sat and chatted to people and ate a chocolate and coconut ball which Akriti bought me as a thankyou.  My first experience of a contact ‘jam’, which was due to start in an hour or two, and I was feeling pretty good.  It was looking like my Arambol hunch might just be paying off.

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11 – Amritsar

Eight of us caught the bus to Pathankot, three hours away on the Pubjabi side of the state line.  Besides myself there was Jeremy, Pascal, Ingrid, Mala (a jovial lady from Myanmar who is about to start a PhD on the position of women in Buddhism), Fabien, and then Patricia (another Lha volunteer from east Lancashire) and her Tibetan boyfriend with whom I never spoke and whose name escapes me.  We said goodbye to Courtney, Konrad, Artur and Azul, who came to see us of, and we rattled away on the state bus (which cost about 180 rupees).  My ipod ran out of batteries after one song but the view was enough as we wound our way from the Himalayas towards the flat plains of Punjab to the west.  Pathankot was a frontier town that reminded me of other such places I have passed through, like Corumba in Brazil or Uyuni in Bolivia.  There is a sense of there being no there there, but I always seem to like these places for the short time I visit them.  It was unglamorous and dusty and grey, but seemed pretty friendly from the moment we disembarked and found a single autorikshaw to take all of us with our baggage across town to the bus station.  I found myself sitting in the driver’s seat, while he leant across me to drive (this being possible since autorikshaws are controlled like motorbikes).  We were a little early for the bus so we stopped in for a quick thali and Jeremy and I admired a fleet of ancient-looking estate-class rikshaws, which looked like they were straight off the set of a Mad Max film, then it was back onto a bus for the 4 hour stint to Amritsar.

We arrived  in the old town after dark, and my first impression was of a place a lot like Delhi in appearance, but with much less hassle.  This impression didn’t last long.  Amritsar is the spiritual centre of the Sikh religion and the city centre had a distinct air of reverence about it, even away from the holy sites.  The closest thing I can come up with as a comparison is the Easter Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday).  When I was young this was always right in the middle of the holidays.  We would go to mass and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament on Thursday evening, then mass again on Friday at 3pm, then the vigil at 8pm on Saturday.  In between times I was on holiday and free to do as I pleased, but the whole period was permeated with an atmosphere of religiosity; like the volume dial on everyday life had been turned down just a little.  That is definitely how Amritsar felt to me.

We stayed in the international section of the pilgrim’s accommodation across the road from the Golden Temple; a series of high ceilinged rooms with beds pushed together and lockers and blankets, and in keeping with the Sikh emphasis on charity and service the hostel was free (donations of course being welcome).

The Golden Temple is open 24 hours a day.  A beautiful edifice of gold and marble inlaid with precious stones depicting plants and flowers and animal life, the temple is surrounded by the Pool of Nectar – a huge moat considered to have healing properties.  At 5.40am the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikhs’ holy book and living guru) is brought from its resting place in another building whose name I can’t remember across the causeway to the Temple on a golden palanquin.  Then at 9.40pm it is taken back the same way, then the temple is cleaned and polished by an army of devoted pilgrims and lay-people.  A couple of nimble young men tie ropes around their waist and climb onto the golden rooftop and the parapets to bring them to a gleaming shine.  Throughout the day an night the three rooms in the temple each have a priest (if that’s the word) reading from the enormous tomes of scripture in a musical drone, while the devout sit on carpets or the marble floor and pray.

I went twice to the temple in the evening.  You leave your shoes and socks at the compound entrance and cover your head.    The air was cold and the marble floor underfoot bitterly so.  Still, stepping through the gate and seeing the temple for the first time in its otherworldly splendour it was easy to forget the cold for a moment.  The second night I must have sat in the temple for well over an hour.  The floor inside had collected the heat of thousands of pilgrim feet through the day and was slightly warm to the touch, and it was easy to drift away in that atmosphere of holiness.  Sacred places of all religions seem to me to share a similar energy or atmosphere.  Perhaps it is something to do with the intentions of those to whom a place is sacred; that all of that focus and energy creates some kind of imprint that is tangible in the air.  Or so it feels to me.  On the Camino de Santiago there is a place in the mountains west of Leon called the Cruce de Ferro; a small iron cross mounted atop a high wooden post.  I don’t know its origins, but there is a tradition that peregrinos on the Way will carry with them a small stone to symbolise their burdens and intentions, and that they lay this down at this place.  A couple of days before reaching it, I met an Englishman who waxed lyrical about the holiness of this particular spot and how special it was to reach it.  I had my own stone, but I was sceptical and resistant to the idea (partly because I don’t like to be told what to do or how to feel) and I didn’t give it much thought until I reached the spot.  Walking up the mound to the foot of the cross, I had a sudden and profound moment of recognition that the hundreds of thousands of stones on which I was standing were the physical manifestations of the dreams, desires, fears and sorrows of all those pilgrims before me.  I sat down and I bawled my eyes out.  Anyway, there were no tears now, but the Golden Temple had a similarly strong ‘vibe’.

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Afterwards we went through to a large refectory where a host of volunteers chop, cook, clean and serve food to up to 60,000 pilgrims every day, free of charge.  You take a metal thali tray as you enter, and sit on the floor in rows, then people come by with rice, chapatis, daal, vegetables, pickles and a sweet rice and almond pudding.  I enjoyed this proximity of spirituality and food, since few things work up an appetite so much as contemplation of the higher states of existence.

I explored a little of Amritsar, but most of my time was spent in the precincts of the Temple.  The notable exception was a foray to the Pakistani border to se the daily closing of the border ceremony.  There were seven of us, so we hired a taxi to drive us out there; or rather a beat-up old minivan. It started off okay, but after about 15 minutes we noticed that we were being overtaken by pretty much everything on the road.  By the time a horse-drawn cart edged by we knew that the game was up.  The van limped to a halt on the side of the road and the driver got out and started to stroke the fuel tank in an attempt to either warm it or give it comfort, I’m not quite sure.  After a minute he gave us some reassuring nods and we decided to pile back in and give it another try.  We were on the road for about two more minutes before the van finally gave up the ghost, and we got out an hailed an autorikshaw to take us the rest of the way, with Jeremy and I hunkered down in the tiny luggage section at the back, to the amusement of many passersby.

The final kilometre to the border had to be done on foot, passing through four separate checkpoints where my passport was checked and re-checked and I was frisked pretty thoroughly each time.  Eventually we were directed to seats in the foreign section of a stand of seats where there were already several thousand Indians being led in cheering by a moustachioed man in a white tracksuit (who looked like a highschool P.E. teacher) and a team of dancing girls.  There was a speaker system set out, which blared out a medley of nationalistic pop songs and everyone looked to be having a good time.  Over on the other side of the border I could make out a stand of women in saris and children watching the Pakistani version of this pageant.  I couldn’t make out the men’s section but I could hear their cheering roar every now and then through the gaps in the Indian wall of sound.  The ceremony centred on the marching and posturing of the border guards, who with high-kicks, head shaking and jabbing thumbs performed a dance of ritualised belligerence.  There was also a shouting contest, where the gym-teacher held a microphone to the mouth of a big-voiced soldier while he roared as long and loud as his lungs would allow, to the adulation of the crowd, before an answering call drifted over from Pakistan.  I am generally uncomfortable with displays of nationalist fervour, but the whole thing was clearly run as a joint collaboration between the two border forces, and a good time seemed to be had by all.

After visiting the temple that night I said goodbye to Jeremy and to Ingrid, who were both staying in a nearby guesthouse, and to Mala, since I would be rising early to catch a ride to the airport for my flight to Delhi and then to Goa.  In the morning I rose to find that Fabien had gone out to buy bread and cake and tea for a farewell breakfast, which we ate with Pascal, who also got up early to see me off.  It was sad to say goodbye to all these lovely folk with whom I had become friends over the last couple of weeks, but I was looking forward to the heat of the tropics and a new leg of my little adventure.