My Thorns

Motivated by my new resolve for independence, I booked a bed in a 3AC car for our night train to Mysore. A 3AC car indicates air conditioning in a car stacked three beds high. 3AC is right in the middle comfort-wise and price-wise. Mel agreed to join me while Jill, on the other hand, booked a sleeper class ticket. We were all on the same train so what did it matter? Mel and I, both on the top bed, giggled as we struggled to get comfortable in the tight space. I shoved my backpack into my foot space and when that became too awkwardly uncomfortable, I would flip around and try to use it as a pillow. We had a gaggle of women on the beds beneath us who gossiped well into the night.

In the early daylight hours before the train arrived, the women were awake again and sharing homemade snacks from various plastic bags. A man shuffled through selling chai. The smell of potatoes and curries set my stomach to rumbling. It was impossible to sit up in our beds so Mel and I climbed down where the women offered us a seat. They offered us nuchinunde (smashed balls of dal and spices) and nippattu (crackers made of rice flour, coconut, and nuts) with insistent warm smiles. They didn’t speak English, but somehow we understood each other perfectly. It was wonderful.

I had booked a hostel in Mysore called The Mansion. We would only be there one night and it was in an easy convenient location. I knew the price of 500 rupees ($7.50USD) might be more than Jill cared to pay, but if she had chosen to stay somewhere different we could still meet to visit the Mysore Palace or at the very least, we would be on the same bus to Bangalore the next day. I saw no reason we needed to stay in the same place if it was going to be a hardship for either of them. I had heard good things about The Mansion and I was looking forward to staying somewhere with other backpackers. I didn’t see my choice of hostel as having anything to do with either of them. Apparently, I was wrong.

Mysore Palace, barely more than 100 years old, is grand and opulent and worth the visit. It is constructed inside the Old Fort and surrounded by an expansive garden. As the official royal residence of the Wadiyar Dynasty, shoes and photos of the interior were prohibited. We checked our shoes at the door like a coat check. Cool marble and pockmarked stones, the feel of different textures on my toes was enchanting. One woman was caught taking photos in one of the private halls and in a trailing veil of brightly colored saris, she and her friends were chased by a brigade of security guards. It was almost like a child’s game of tag. When the first security guard caught her, she laughed and he just shook his head as he made her delete several photos that she had taken of the building’s interior. He gave her a lighthearted scolding before sending her on her way to slyly take more photos.

Once we were safely outside of the photo-free zone, several families approached us asking to take pictures with us. This is quite common in India and we were pleased to oblige if we could take our own photos as well.

Having visited the palace, the afternoon was open for each of us to tackle a few mundane tasks. Mel needed to find a pharmacy. Jill needed to get passport photos. And I needed to do laundry and finally pull the trigger on a trans-Pacific flight I had been contemplating for a few days. It was lunchtime and it seemed logical that we could eat first before parting ways; however, Jill saw a photo shop and ducked in to inquire about the cost. It was a tiny cramped storefront so I stood in the adjacent alley while the other two were inside. Five minutes dragged into 20 minutes which dragged into almost an hour. I was watching my afternoon of anticipated productivity dwindle into nothing. As I waited, I kept thinking of more and more things I needed to do. I stuck my head in the shop to tell them that I was thinking of getting lunch without them and would it be ok if I saw them later? Jill snapped that they were almost done as if she was expecting me to say that. I was rebuffed so I stayed. Still, I don’t understand why it mattered.

Lunch was a sad forgettable thali and we barely spoke. I just needed to start tackling my to-do list. We paid the check and I excused myself back to the hostel, but the cold goodbye was not lost on me. I later found out they perceived I was being selfish because I didn’t stick around to find Mel’s asthma medication or to seek out a bottle of water that cost 10 rupees instead of 12. How and when did independence become such a crime? There was so much miscommunication stacking up between us I had no idea how to get past it.

A few hours apart and I felt refreshed and ready to let grievances lie. We had all talked about an evening yoga class so I expected to see Jill and Mel amongst the students, but they never showed. It was only me, a spindly-limbed Spanish guy with dirty feet, and the blonde Danish instructor who was recently accredited from a school in Varkala. A few sun salutations and controlled breaths later, I couldn’t even remember what all the discontent was about.

I found Jill on the Mansion’s wide exterior porch and said I missed her at yoga. She grumbled something about never planning to go anyway. It was obvious that she was stewing about something, possibly me, possibly not. Whatever the case, she didn’t seem to want to talk about it and I couldn’t be bothered to pry it out of her. Her negative energy no longer had a place in my solo journey.

When it came time to pack our bags to leave Mysore, we walked the relatively short distance to the bus terminal. I was navigating so I walked in front, while the other two trailed behind. We usually had to walk in the street and it would have been impractical, if not dangerous, to walk shoulder to shoulder anyway. In spite of the recent conflict, I was in a relatively good mood allowing the introvert in me to reflect on all of my experiences so far. Jill and Mel seemed to be in good spirits as well as they talked amongst themselves. The last thing on my mind was whether I was doing something wrong or offensive. Again, I later learned that I was sulking and ignoring them. Misinterpretation again prevailed.

The Cost of Being Cheap

Day 735 – 5 March, 2017

After several visits to the straw hut on the beach marked “Travel Agent,” Jill, Mel, and I all agreed to take a night bus to Hampi. Mel changed her flight to extend her trip. Jill convinced us all to book the lowest fare seats on a night bus with reclining seats. I had searched out a hostel that seemed to suit everyone’s budget. Things were going well.

Backpacks flailing out of the auto rickshaw, we left Om Beach for the bus station. At the bus station, we unload only to be told that our bus was leaving from a different location and that it was “very” far away. Suspicious that we were only being told it was far in an effort to garner a higher rickshaw fare, Jill wants to walk, which I would normally fully support, but we didn’t know exactly where it was, it was hot, and we had all of our belongings in tow. I wanted to hire another auto rickshaw. Meanwhile, we are surrounded within a very close proximity by about 20 drivers barking the price for a ride as Jill and I smiled at each other through gritted teeth as to whether we walk or drive. I offered to cover the whole cost of 100 rupees (less than $2USD) so we could stop debating and get moving. I’m all for saving money (and walking for that matter), but if I’m going to be cheap about something or even tolerate discomfort for the sake of it, I really try not to let my choices have any affect on other people. And therein is where the conflict began.

So far, I had made some decisions as part of this trio that I wouldn’t have made if I was on my own, but it wasn’t overly burdensome. I had been sleeping head to toe with two other girls in a full size bed with no air con. I had skipped eating at the most recommended cafe on Om Beach because Jill thought it was too expensive. I had just purchased a night bus ticket in a reclining seat (instead of an actual bed) so that we could all stay together. None of this had really bothered me up to this point, but it was beginning to compound. Don’t get me wrong; being frugal is how backpackers get by. It’s what we do. It’s how we learn to travel for extended periods of time without employment or a trust fund. In some ways, I admired Jill’s determination in sticking to her budget, but it was becoming a tiresome subject and beginning to detract from my independent experience.

Our second auto rickshaw dropped us off at a roadside bus stop. I only know it was a bus stop because there were lots of stalls selling spiced nuts and multi-colored spicy rice snacks and lots of people lugging heavy burlap sacks of something or other. A few token cows poked their noses into the stalls only to be given random scraps of plastic, which they seemed to savor with every scrawny rib protruding from saggy skin. We were told to board a small metal van that sort of resembled a bus. Except for the windows, the whole contraption was metal and I couldn’t help but think about what it would feel like to smash my nose into the back of the seat in front of me when I was thrown forward from my seatbelt-less seat during the inevitable head-on collision. Yeah, ok, my morbidity was in rare form in India. Somehow we ascertained that we would only be on this bus for a short while as we made a connection with the real bus in a different town.

Our real bus wasn’t much better and it was a learning lesson for sure. We had purchased 3 of the 4 reclining seats that were on the single side of the bus, meaning that Jill, Mel, and I would be immediately behind each other. The rest of the bus was either reclining seats on the 2 seat side with “extra” leg room OR actual beds like we had enjoyed from Mumbai to Goa. Completely my fault for not asking the right questions, but if I had known there were beds on the same bus and we all could still travel together, I would have chosen differently. As circumstance would have it, our reclining seats were so close together that when the first person reclined, all the seats had to recline and it was impossible to stand up or adjust position until all seats had returned to the normal position. Well, this is not ideal… There were no shocks and no muffler and the bus puttered along like a dead man walking. I didn’t sleep even one iota.

At one of the toilet stops in the night, we discovered that Donal, our Irish friend that we met in Mumbai, was on our same bus. He was sharing a double bed with an Indian man and was convinced that if he asked the man to trade with me, the man would do it. It was a nice offer, but I chose to suffer in my own poor decision-making. Every time we would get up for a toilet stop or coffee break, though, one man from another seat kept stealing Jill’s chair and falling asleep. I shooed him away at least twice.

By the time we reached Hampi in the morning’s bright sun, I was blurry-eyed and cranky. I had booked a hostel that I thought would be ok for Jill’s budget, but it was some distance away from the actual town, which would add to our commuting cost. I tried to ignore the passive aggressive jab since I clearly wasn’t the only one that was grumpy.

An auto rickshaw dropped us off at the edge of a brown sludgy river where we would take a broken little skiff about 10 meters to the other side before hopping another auto rickshaw a few kilometers into the rice paddies and arriving at our hostel. As I walked down the smooth stone embankment toward the river, we were followed by several local men offering a tour guide or a place to stay or another ride. I tried to concentrate on my footing because my flip flops tend to treat the wet stone like ice. In slow motion, my sandal slipped and I went down to my knees, but under the weight of my backpack, the momentum pulled me forward so that I also landed on my face. I was too tired to care so I laid motionless for a second trying to decide how to gracefully get up. All I could see were about 16 leather sandals and all I could hear was a chorus of “Ma’am! Ma’am! Are you ok ma’am?!” When I finally lifted my head, there were several hands thrust in my face offering assistance. I’m told that my glasses were also askew as if I had orchestrated the whole thing for comedic relief.

At the “hostel,” the little bamboo shack was open air as almost every domicile in Asia turns out to be. The common area had about 8 lounging cushions separated by tables so you could lay down to sleep or sit up to eat without moving from the same cushion. One hostel guest, Jeremy from California, spent almost two days straight just laying in one of these pillow beds, smoking weed, and talking to his girlfriend on the phone, “I love you. No, I love you more… no, no, I love you the most…(kissing noises)”. He told us he was planning to hop a bus to “Sari Lanka” and I just didn’t have the heart to tell him Sri Lanka is an island.

We were led up to the sleeping loft which was a room with about 6-8 thin foam mattresses, each covered with an individual mosquito net, and a couple of fans. The bathroom, back on the ground floor, was only accessible from outside. It had a toilet hole, a drippy faucet for the shower, a dim lightbulb, and an ample-sized toad that would peek his head out of the drain just when you weren’t expecting it. Now I know this sounds luxurious and why on earth would I have been disappointed, but in full honesty, the only part of this place that I didn’t like was how far it was from town and that we would have to take bicycles back and forth. In case you missed it, I despise biking and I was just tired enough to spout some venom and make it known. I was unfairly blaming Jill for the location of this place, but I was mostly mad at myself for not just making my own decisions in the first place. The tension between us builds with one concrete brick and then another.

Eventually, after a rest and refresh, we agreed to rent bikes and cycle back towards town. The countryside was dotted with rice paddies and the locals were friendly, eagerly waving to us as we rode by. There was one section of road where we had to go uphill (translated as hike a bike), but it was generally ok aside from the oppressive heat. Luckily, Hampi had its own version of the German Bakery (we were finding this to be a popular name!) and it was just at the river so was a good place to leave our bikes for the day since we couldn’t bring them with us. Back at the murky river, we discovered that just upstream there was a natural bridge if you leapfrogged over some boulders. I removed my flip flops this time before attempting any boulder hopping. Now that we had officially arrived in Hampi and had a brief rest, things were looking brighter.

The town was small and compact, famous for its collection of UNESCO-recognized Hindu temples and monuments in and around Hampi. It was touristy, but not in a flashy lights expensive attractions kind of way. It was touristy in a backpacker kind of way, stalls selling brightly-colored cheap dresses that no self-respecting Indian woman would ever wear, restaurants with lounge chairs instead of normal chairs and strong wifi encouraging people to while the afternoon away, lots of travel agents selling bus and train tickets, plenty of street food. Straight away, we bumped into Donal again. He was staying in a hostel close by and tried to convince me to change, but somehow I felt committed to my decision now and I stayed on. The mood was improving amongst my travel companions and I didn’t want to rock the boat so to speak.

In the Virupaksha Temple in the center of town, we got our first glimpse of Lakshmi the Elephant when she paraded out to the central courtyard for a drink of water. Mel was over the moon to see a live elephant walking around the temple. If you give her 10 rupees, she would bless you with her trunk after passing the rupees on to her handler. I looked in her eyes and could tell she was super bored of performing that trick so I just smiled at her, hoping she understood that I was sorry for her tiresome routine. We never arrived early enough, but every morning Lakshmi would take a bath in the river and put on quite a show for whoever was there to witness it. It was perhaps the only time she ever got to play.

Renting bikes again the next day, we sailed through the rice paddies back to our “parking spot” at the German Bakery. Jill and I rode ahead of Mel and were keen to eat egg dosas, a type of pancake layered with egg and sometimes curry, from the street vendor by the river. Plastic crates were scattered on the ground as seats at the roadside makeshift restaurant. The cook/server might as well have had 4 arms to manage such a high volume of requests, cooking, plating, and delivering them correctly in exactly the order of the queue. His chai was sweet and creamy and heavenly even while clouds of dust coated us every time a person, dog, or cow walked by. When Mel arrived, we skipped across the boulder bridge at the river to meet Donal back at Virupaksha for a cycling tour of the monuments.

The ride was hot and dusty, but it was flat and definitely allowed us to cover more ground. Monkeys watched us from the shade of the trees. Some of the oldest monuments date back to the 3rd century BC, with many more added by the Hoysala kings between the 10th-14th centuries. It changed hands several times between Hindu and Muslim rule before finally the Vijayanagara Empire took hold. By 1500, it was considered to be the world’s second largest medieval-era city after Beijing with the wealth and prestige that tends to imply, attracting merchants and traders from oceans away. Of course, these things never last and in 1565, an army of Muslim sultanates recaptured the city, beheaded the king, and burned it to the ground. What remains is 16 square miles of well-preserved monolithic temples baking in the desert.

I really enjoyed Hampi and I was beginning to think if I had more time, I would have stayed longer. I can’t exactly put my finger on what I liked so much, except that the people were incredibly hospitable and the vibe was relaxed. It turns out almost everywhere I went in southern India felt this way, but I didn’t know that yet. I had allowed six weeks in the country before I would be meeting Martyn in Nepal and then onward toward the dreaded place of HOME. I already began fantasizing about returning to India for a six month stay or six years instead of a measly six weeks.

For our last day, we tried to start early and failed. The unforgiving desert sun seemed to take on a life of its own while we did a relatively short hike to some of the closer monuments. I covered my head and it seemed to help block some of the oppressive heat on the exposed rocky path, but still the sweat poured in rivulets as we meandered in and out of one temple and then another. The most famous and extravagant monument, Vittala Temple, with its carved stone chariot, would be at the end of our loop before we would circle back toward town. About 100 school children were waiting at the entrance gate as Donal and I purchased 500 rupee ($7.50USD) all-access tickets to enter. Jill and Mel deemed it too expensive and decided to wait for us outside. The ornately carved pillars and maze of gateway towers pay homage to Lord Vishnu, who is worshipped as the deity for cattle. I had not really known that ruins such as these existed in India so I was fascinated, all the more with Donal who seemed to share my interest in the history.

In spite of the chattering and hyper juveniles inside the temple, I felt a sense of calm relief to be separated from my companions, even if only a short while. Our situation was not sustainable, but I didn’t know how to get out of it. We were relatively on the same timeframe and were planning to visit the same towns so even if I made an intentional effort to separate, we would inevitably be on the same path anyway. I felt trapped. And truth be told, I liked them, but we had different styles. So while sitting in the shade of an imposing Hindu temple, I decided the only way this would work is if I started making decisions for myself. If our plans aligned, then great. If not, that’s ok too. We did not have to be an unbreakable unit. We had come as independent backpackers and it was important for my sanity that I stay that way.

Beach Bums

Day 728 – 26 February, 2017

The bus from Mumbai to Margao, the transportation hub of Goa, was meant to be about 9 hours. Then we would have to locate a local bus that would take us another hour or so to Palolem. Natalie and I shared a double bed, while Jill and Mel shared another. And when I say a bed, it really was. Night buses in South America were usually just regular seats that reclined further back. Night buses in Southeast Asia were individual buckets that were almost fully reclined, but were usually short in length and a hard plastic surface. In India, the night buses almost always had an option of a full bed with a pillow, a foam mattress, and a privacy curtain. Some had a blanket and bone chilling AC as well. If you were traveling alone and placed in a double bed, you would definitely be paired with a stranger, but booking a double bed with a friend gave us plenty of room to store hand luggage and spread out. I was pleasantly surprised.

There wasn’t a toilet on board so usually a bus stops every couple of hours for smoke/snack/toilet breaks. Not this one. I was jarred awake 6 hours into the journey when we drove over a bump in the road and I realized that I kind of had to pee. I checked the time, realized how long we had been without a break, and assumed we would stop soon. I tried to read, but couldn’t concentrate as I could feel us swerving back and forth between lanes of traffic. I had been on enough buses around the world to imagine the driver narrowly cutting off a petro lorry and barreling head on toward a another bus, horn blaring all night long. How the heck did I go to sleep through that to begin with?? I was freezing from an over-achieving air con as I wrapped myself in my fleece and sleeping bag liner and tried to think about anything besides my nagging bladder. An hour passed and another. Natalie slept like a rock. I contemplated the swerving and the physics of which position my body might be found if we were to ever smash into another bus. Since I was lying down, would I be thrown upright into the wall separating us from another bed or would my legs somehow protect me if I was thrown straight forward? Or would I just be sandwiched between both separation walls, one of them breaking my legs while the other broke my neck? And don’t even get me started on the many ways to die if we flipped on our side. Maybe I should try reading again…

A few more hours passed and now I was getting desperate. The sun was rising already and thoughts of a toilet stop were now dominating over impending death. I thought about flagging the driver, but that would require me to walk down the aisle toward the windshield where I could actually see the oncoming traffic. According to my map, we were in the province of Goa and only a few kilometers from Margao. I can do this. Several minutes later I was squatting between two auto-rickshaws and peeing in the dirt. Even holding to my rule of not drinking anything before a long bus ride, we arrived after a good 12 hour journey which will break even the best of us camels.

Bidding farewell to Natalie, the rest of us made our way to Palolem. It was reputed to be a more quiet beach amongst Goa’s raging nightlife. I had agreed to not book an accommodation in advance – plenty of options we were told. Jill, Mel, and I unloaded from the local bus and tramped a short distance toward the beckoning sound of the waves. First off, we passed some beach bungalows that were adorned with fake bright green plants and holiday lights. The price was 1500 rupees (about $23) for one room and the 3 of us were planning to share. The rooms were equipped with AC and strong wifi right on the beach. Considering we had just come from a hostel in Mumbai where we paid 900 rupees each for a bed, the price sounded good to me. However, Jill hesitated and wanted to look around so we moved on. The next place had a similar price. We tried to offer less, but they wouldn’t take it. Meanwhile, it was boiling hot and we were carrying our packs as we trudged through the sand, each grain sticking to the sweat as it rolled down my legs. I quickly realized that my budget was different than Jill’s so I offered to grab a seat at a cafe and sit with all of our belongings while the other two found us a room. I didn’t mind sharing a room. I didn’t mind if they picked a place off the beach. I didn’t even mind if they picked a place without AC. It’s true that I would have just chosen the first room we saw, but if they wanted to spend less, then so be it.

Ultimately, we booked 3 nights in an off beach no AC bungalow. It had a little wooden porch with laminate that was peeling on the edges. The only fixtures in the room were a full size bed, a small wooden table, and a big industrial size fan. The bathroom was what became typical of almost everywhere I stayed in southern India – a squat toilet, a sink, and a shower nozzle (meaning that the entire bathroom was a wet room when someone showered). It was great actually. This place cost 900 rupees per night (300 each) and it had everything we needed.

We had our first power outage that night. I know this because the fan stopped working and I woke up in a puddle of sweat. Apparently, when you have several bungalows all operating their industrial fans off the same generator at the same time, power outages can be common. Jill, Mel, and I were sleeping head to toe, which wasn’t really a problem except when you start to get warm. I’m not sure how long the power was out that time, but it was a recurring event – several times a day. You know what, though? It was still great. I secretly loved staying in such a seedy place with a few discomforts. We easily made it our home.

I was pleased to learn that my companions loved breakfast as much as I do. Every morning we would camp out at a little joint named the German Bakery and peruse the menu that read like a novella. A few concepts that were common at almost every restaurant in Goa:

1) The menus are long, like really long, several thick laminated and sticky pages long.

2) They almost all serve breakfast, Israeli food, Chinese food, pizza/Italian food, and of course, Indian food.

3) They almost all have an entire page dedicated to lassis (a yogurt-based drink) and smoothies in various flavors.

4) Very few places blatantly served alcohol and if they had it (usually beer only), it was pricey.

5) Service was characterized as any other Asian beach cafe would be (i.e. slow, relaxed, inaccurate, optimistic).

6) There were usually dogs and/or cows loitering nearby.

Since almost every restaurant had the same menu choices, the German Bakery really stood out because it ALSO had a prominently-displayed well-stocked dessert cabinet – big gooey chocolate cake oozing with dark chocolate ganache, a moist and plump cinnamon-speckled apple strudel, bright orange carrot cake with perfectly coiffed cream cheese frosting… India had not ceased to surprise me.

Jill and Mel took off for some shopping while I stayed behind to soak it all in. There was nothing about Palolem or Goa, for that matter, that were authentic India. The eroded beach was relatively clean with mostly calm and swimmable waters. The eclectic mix of restaurant food indicated a global population. Conservative dress melted away to reveal nearly naked international tourists and Indian female tourists wearing shorts rather than long pants. Nightclubs pounded electronic music all night long, yet cows wandered aimlessly sifting through discarded plastic as their next meal.

When Jill and Mel returned, they had secured a bikini for Mel. It was a little yellow two piece that could barely contain her, but it would do the job. The three of us rented some beach chairs and spent the better part of the day in and out of the water. Jill was a few inches taller than me with short blonde hair. She and I both claimed to be runners, but we both looked like we had consumed more German Bakery recently than running. Such is the way of the backpacker… She had completely shaved her head some time before her travels and was in the indecisive stage of whether she would grow it out or not.

Mel had box braids, trailing all the way down her back. They would float on the water if she was submerged more than their length and she proved to be a self-proclaimed “fish,” almost always in the water. Her yellow bikini would dip in the back if it became too full of water, but you could tell she was on Cloud 9 in the salty surf and couldn’t care less. She was American, but I couldn’t place her ethnicity. She had creamy almond skin that seemed to glow in the sun. We were standing in the water, almost neck-deep, having a conversation about race in America. I asked her. And you know that moment when you’ve said the wrong thing, but aren’t really sure why it was wrong? Well, she scowled and her retort was, “I’m black.” Of course, I didn’t hear her the first time over the waves so I had to ask again. I’ve offended her. Crap.

That was the same day that Mel also got a serious sunburn. I can’t remember if she used sunscreen and missed a few places or if she forgot to use it at all, but the sun showed no mercy to her exposed skin. She could barely get dressed or shower or sit down. I think it was a first sunburn for her.

Then I picked a restaurant for dinner that was right on the beach so we could watch the sunset. It reminded me of the restaurants I would frequent in Bali and Thailand. It was kind of touristy with mediocre food, but with an incredible view. It wasn’t dirt cheap like street-food style, but well within my comfort level. I had assumed Jill and Mel would join me, but certainly wouldn’t mind if they made other plans. They did join me and I found out much later that I was making too many decisions “for the group.”

After three days of beach and three nights of cozy quarters, we all made a “collective decision” to visit Gokarna in the district of Karnataka. It would be an hour or two by train further south along the coast. I had heard great things about Om Beach and wasn’t quite ready to turn inland yet. To this day, I’m not sure if it really was a collective decision. I just know that I wanted to go there and the three of us were still having a great time so we went together.

As we checked out of our little beach hut in Palolem, I left a pile of clothes on the bed. I had accumulated new things and my backpack was getting heavier so I had to ditch some items. I wonder if anyone made use of my jeans there in the tropics? The local train was slow and stopped frequently, but all of the doors and windows were open so that warm dusty air would blow through as an Indian-style air conditioner. A few hawkers walked up and down the aisles selling chai from a thermos and other snacks.

From the train station, we hailed an auto rickshaw to the beach down a long windy road with no development. I was assured we were going the right direction by following my map, but otherwise it seemed super sketchy. The three of us in an auto rickshaw was always kind of comical. There was never enough space for our backpacks so we usually had to juggle them on our laps or hanging out the side of the cab.

The driver deposited us in a parking lot that appeared to just be the end of the road. We paid him and he casually gestured us toward a grove of trees. It seemed weird, but as we got closer I realized there were some stone steps carved into the mountain that opened up toward an isolated expanse of beach.

So this is where the hippies come, I thought (the first of many times in India). As we tramped through the sand toward finding a place to sleep, the air smelled of pot and cow patties. This was no surprise as there were cows and lots of people smoking. Someone playing the guitar while others danced around throwing a hula hoop in the air. It was a super relaxed vibe and I was beginning to understand when someone says they got “stuck” at Om Beach, it was completely voluntary.

There were lots of ominous signs about how you could drown here in the seemingly calm waters, complete with photos of recently drowned victims. It was disconcerting to know this idyllic beach was a graveyard.

We crossed paths with some guys walking the opposite direction, backpacks in tow, and we asked them if they recommended a good place to stay. Not the first restaurant we would pass, not the second, but the third was really good with a good price, they told us. Good enough. There weren’t many, like in Palolem, but each of the recessed beach restaurants had a cluster of bungalows associated with it. They all basically looked the same from the outside. The one we chose had several little houses with hammocks and plastic chairs on the porch situated amongst palm trees. The inside was almost identical to the one in Goa. The cost was 750 rupees total per night (about $12USD), split 3 ways.

I ordered fried cauliflower with a cucumber yogurt sauce for dinner. It was my 2 year anniversary of round the world travel. I had almost forgotten if Facebook didn’t remind me at every turn. Jill and Mel pitched in to buy me a beer and the day came and went with little fanfare, the way days pass when you are living on circadian rhythms, day turns into night turns into day. It kind of hit me like a ton of bricks that night that there wouldn’t be a third anniversary. I would need to start thinking about when I would go home and what I still wanted to do before I got there.

The next morning Jill and I rose before the sun and followed a path to Half Moon Beach that had been recommended to us by our bungalow neighbors. It could only be reached by foot, clambering over rocks and a narrow dirt track that meandered around the mountain. The views were beautiful, but it appeared that the Half Moon residents had only recently gone to bed after a late night of partying so the beach itself was abandoned except for a single yogi doing sun salutations in the surf.

Back at Om Beach, in between romps in the ocean, we began making plans to go to Hampi. Mel was due to go home within a few days after a 6 week stay in India, but was weighing the options to stay for another 2 weeks beyond that. Jill only had a 30 day visa and was thinking of flying to either Sri Lanka or Nepal when her visa expired. I had a 10 year visa, valid for a 6 month consecutive stay, although I had made plans to reconnect with Martyn in Nepal in 5 weeks time. Basically, I don’t know how it happened. I don’t remember making a conscious decision to travel together. We seemed to be interested in visiting the same destinations on roughly the same timeline and we were enjoying each other’s company. I had serendipitously traveled with people before and it was fun to have familiar faces around, but in my heart, I am a solo traveler. Whether it be viewed as selfish or as independent, I make decisions for me. So when we began making plans to travel to Hampi together, I reluctantly tried making some sacrifices that ultimately drove a poisoned stake right through this friendship.