The aircraft was not small, but it certainly wasn’t a 747. It was large enough to shuttle a reasonable number of people from Israel to Cairo on their way to India. This included Christian tourists who had visited the Holy Land and were now going to the pyramids. Also on the plane were ex-soldiers just released from their military service. They were on their way to blow it out with parties in Goa. And Rainbow ‘hippies’ looking for nirvana. It was the fashion of the Israeli girls to shave their heads when leaving the service. There were a lot of bald heads on the plane.
After a short hour-and-a-half flight, we landed in Cairo and were ushered off the plane. Our connecting flight arriving in 11 hours would be late. We passed through customs to enter the airport. This was when we were told that our connecting flight had been delayed an additional three hours. With such a long layover, they would have us stay in a five-star hotel in downtown Cairo. Our Israeli friends, on the other hand, would have to stay in the three-star hotel at the airport. “No, thank you,” we said. “We prefer to stay with our friends.”
“But you are Americans and must stay at the five-star hotel. Everything is paid for,” the customs agent insisted.
“No, thank you,” we repeated. “We prefer to stay with our friends.”
Again they insisted, and again we declined. Back and forth, this went on until, eventually, they gave up. Looking at us like we were crazy to turn down the five-star hotel, they assigned us a room at the airport.
We hung out with our friends for a while and then decided we were tired. The airport staff said they would call the room before time to board the next flight.
The room, while nothing fancy, was quite comfortable, and we settled in for a short nap. The ringing phone awakened us. Our connecting flight was delayed another four to five hours, but we could continue to stay in our room pending further developments.
Sometime later in the early morning, we received a call that we would be boarding shortly. After a shower and dressing, we proceeded to the gate. All those people who had been shuttled to the five-star hotel in Cairo had been shuttled back to the airport hours ago. They were sprawled out, camping on the plastic airport seating since last night. They looked at us bleary-eyed as all of us that stayed at the airport hotel bounced in, rested and refreshed. It pays to stand by your friends and your beliefs!
Boarding the plane
We met up with Gil, who had found another drummer to hang out with, Karim, a nice Boston boy with Egyptian boots. Soon, we were excitedly boarding the plane to Bombay, India! This was a much larger aircraft, and it was tightly packed. We thought it funny that the featured film on the plane would be “Monkey Trouble.”
We overheard one young Israeli man sitting near us saying he would pay for his whole trip with the goods he was bringing his friends in Goa. Potted meats. It was something that his friends were craving!
Five hours later, we began the descent to the Bombay airport. The sunrise above the clouds was magnificent. I made an offhand comment to an Indian man sitting beside me that I could ditch this sweatshirt since India is warm.
“Where are you going?” the man asked.
“We plan to go to Omkariswar, near Indore,” I said, thinking that it would be warm, being half the distance to Delhi from Bombay.
“Keep the sweatshirt. It’s cold there.”
“What? No, no no!” We had not really planned much of our itinerary for India, but now south and warm seemed to be our preferred direction.
Which direction Om?
Gil has been to India many times and was on his way to Goa to pick up mail. We were sure we would skip Goa’s heavy party scene. Someone had previously mentioned a calm and relaxed place called Om Beach. After three months in Israel, we were ready for calm, so a long rest on a beach sounded good to us. Kamin, Donna, and I decided to venture on to Om Beach.
After departing from the plane, everyone scrambled to get their bags from the carousel. Only having carry-on luggage, we quickly got in line to pass through customs. The young man who had been bragging about paying for his trip had been lucky enough to grab his huge duffle bag from the carousel and make it to one of the customs lines that had just opened. As the agent opened the bag to inspect it, he burst out laughing.
To the horror of the young man, all of the cans of meat had burst open In the plane’s depressurized storage area. The duffle bag was filled with the exploded potted meat. Laughing, the customs agents ushered him through. Throwing the duffle bag into a shopping cart, he rushed to find a taxi he hoped would get him to the hydroplane to Goa. Unfortunately, the meat would probably spoil before getting there in the Indian heat.
Harrowing Tuk-Tuk Ride
After witnessing this humorous catastrophe, we quickly made it through customs. Gil guided us to a tuk-tuk taxi to take us to the bus to Gokarna, the town closest to Om Beach and left with some friends. Karim, Donna, and I squeeze into the tuk-tuk behind the driver setting off on one of the most daredevil taxi rides we have ever experienced!
The following ride in the Tuk Tuk was, and still is, the most harrowing yet exciting ride we have ever taken. No carnival ride could compare as you believe you will leave the ride alive. Chicago or New York taxis have nothing on these drivers! Without dividing lines, the four lanes become six, zipping full speed, dodging, and squeezing through traffic while people wander aimlessly in the middle of the road. Nobody was hit, no accidents. An advertisement for a VISA card featuring Roger Moore seems the closest to the experience.
We got to the bus just in time to get three of the last available seats in the back of the bus. “Only fourteen hours to Karwar,” we were told. From Karwar, we would catch a bus to Gokarna. Donna got a window seat, her head and arm out the window as Bombay passed by. It’s a huge city full of cows wandering through the crudely constructed tarp and plastic shelters crowded next to the road. Thus began our long journey into the depths of India.
The bus was an old, dirty, worn-out zombie of a dinosaur that had been driven past its death and revived many times. We rattled slowly down the road into the night for hours on end which began to feel like days. The back of the bus is where the bumps are felt the worst. The seat in front of us was, of course, broken. Slamming backward into my lap with nearly every bump. Many times as we dozed off, we were awakened and bounced ten to twelve inches into the air. Partway through the journey, we stopped for a much-welcomed toilet break. It had been about ten hours to get to this point.
Scary Pit Stop
We had seen some mighty nasty toilets in our travels, but now I understand why they say India is a land of extremes. A pair of Wellington rubber boots would have been excellent at this stop. Teva sandals were not appropriate apparel for this experience. Although one had to pay for the use of the toilet, I have no idea what the lady was being paid for. It was a hole in the floor, but fortunately, there was water to clean yourself with. It was like a Greyhound station toilet in Hell. Hoping that it was only mud and water, we stepped carefully through the muck before returning to the bus.
We bought sodas, being afraid of the water having heard stories of re-bottling water with whatever was available and sold at stations. We also ate peelable fruit and sweets. Now, to continue ten plus additional hours of our fourteen-hour journey to Karwar.
Traveling further south, we passed through the jungle, rice fields, and sleepy little villages with beautiful temples. Passing over and around mountains, we finally see the sea. We have arrived to Karwar, only needing to take one more bus to Gokarna, but could we go on? Friday, we boarded a plane for Cairo. Saturday morning, the plane to Bombay, and early that afternoon, we took the all-night bus to Karwar, arriving the following afternoon. The following bus to Gokarna was in two hours. We considered stopping in Karwar but were persuaded by a passing traveler to continue on.
Bus Station Buskers
We ate our first real meal in a couple of days at a Lonely Planet recommended bus station eatery. This was our first “Thali.” A plate of rice with small dishes of spicy vegetables and a chai. The restaurant had a place to wash your hands, which was good as you eat thali with your fingers. Fifty cents later, we were fed. Now to figure out the next bus.
Located next to the “ZEN” computer center, the bus station is an overcrowded open-air building with a newsstand and a large board with departure times. As we wait by the bay where our bus will arrive, we are approached by a wonderful group of small children. Some were busking some begging. One of the busking girls, seemingly four years old, was playing a small single-note hand-pumped organ called a sruti box. This instrument produces a droned note to which she sang beautiful Indian ragas in her clear child soprano.
Fun with Magic
One child was dressed in the costume of Hanuman, the monkey god. They played and we photographed. We gave them some tips, but they wouldn’t go away. What to do? It’s no fun telling them ‘no more money,’ so we began entertaining the kids. I pulled out some magic string and started doing string magic tricks for them. Donna had a necklace with a little bottle of soap solution and a bubble wand and began blowing bubbles! Kamin began to drum rhythms on his drum bag.
The kids were happy. Every time they would ask for money, we would ask them for money. They thought that was pretty funny. Before long, we had gathered a crowd of about 70 people. Fortunately, the bus arrived, and we had to fight our way onto the bus, scoped seats, pushing and pulling, and finally settled in. We departed the station waving goodbye to the kids.
Next: Paradise Found