Friday, November 4, 2011

India Chronicles - Part 1

When I stepped out of the terminal building of Goa airport I was literally swept off my feet…by a scent. Yes, there were the drivers, porters, passengers, weeping family members, vendors, policemen, women-men-children, dismayed tourists following savvy tour guides in the stifling heat and humidity, all moving, pushing, talking at the same time with their whole bodies, their babble drowned out by the constant honking of horns and general hubbub. All of these could have easily taken me, but it was the scent that effectively reached its hands out and swept me away…

Scent is a pretty word. Smell is it’s pejorative cousin. I say scent because what I experienced was strangely un-repulsive to my senses. Even on the contrary. It was bitter and spicy, sour and salty, sweet and moldy and totally overwhelming. It reminded me of the old corridor of the moldy NY building of my childhood, where immigrants of all sorts lived and we amongst them...everyone’s cooking smells wafted from under their doors and fused into the old carpets and peeling wallpaper That smell was always there to meet me when I came home from school. It told stories…and this one did too.

When my manager Ofer told me just a few months ago that Mira Awad and I had been invited to perform in India, I thought he was joking. India? We’ve hardly recovered from China! India all of a sudden? Just like that?

After years of reading Indian literature (ardent Rushdie fan), admiring the rich culture, wondering about the enigmatic subcontinent and being mistaken for an Indian on endless occasions…the word “India” suddenly became a date on my calender. Two cities only, Goa (not a city I later learned but a region) and Delhi, for 5 days each.

I have now been in Goa for 4 days. I discovered a sub tropic climate, jungle vegetation and endless beaches, colors exploding in your face at every turn, from the plants, the painted houses, the people, the signs, the Hindi temples…color is everywhere. Color, and scent…

We landed in Goa just after sunset. Driving from the airport to the capital of Panjim, we saw houses and shacks, cars and rickshaws and old noisy scooters, groups of people walking along the main road in a way that made me gasp (with nothing resembling a sidewalk in view..that phenomenon would repeat itself over and over), then, in almost total darkness as there are no streetlamps to speak of, whole families in bright clothes crossing the highway with their small children in tote as if they had some kind of a death wish! The drivers just honk away at anything at all (except cows)…people, other cars, the moonlight..whatever.. and they pass each other on the highway in trio or quartet formation any air force could envy..two from each side…as if it were meant to be so, naturally.

Naturally, I would discover, is a key word here. people connect to nature in ways beyond my comprehension. I do not mean only to the trees and plants, as of course they do, but to “the nature of things” as they see them. They accept their fate with a sort of uncanny compliance, surrendering to destiny as part of the greater scheme…the master plan of nature. This is something unique to India I have never seen or felt before. Not that people here don’t strive to better their lives, of course they do...but not with visible anger, not with violent rampant ambition, rather, with a smile..with a flow that seems almost, well…natural.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to understand India. I have no such pretensions whatsoever. I am just sharing impressions…

The poverty here is mindboggling (as is the wealth I am told), yet people do not go around looking miserable. Is it the Hindu faith? Or something else they know that we don’t? the chaos is magnificent, the scent I described earlier is often transformed into an unbearable stench by garbage everywhere and a very free interpretation of the public toilet concept. The streets are filthy, a large part of the population lives with hardly any creature comforts whatsoever, yet there is something alive here in the most tragically symbiotic way.

They say China and India are on their way to becoming the new superpowers of the world. Visiting China, I could see how that was going to happen. Big brother had it all worked out. but here in India… the feeling is so far from that. No ‘super’ and no ‘power’. I do not feel mobilization from above, rather from within. There is a heightened state of awareness, and a great state of confusion, which smells like fertile ground after a monsoon. Like in China, this country makes you feel very small, an insignificant bug on the tree of life. But there is a feeling that wisdom, culture and the quest for deeper meaning transcend all else, replacing the common rat race with a quest for sustenance and subjective happiness. India feels to me like a billion individual streams trickling down the mountain side, where china felt like one huge ominous tidal wave. I may be wrong (I probably am), it may all change tomorrow, but…that’s the scent of it…

We arrived at the hotel quite late. We were met at the great iron gates by about six security inspectors who checked our vehicles top to bottom as if we were late for a meeting with President Obama. Entering the “white house”, our luggage and bodies were checked with metal detectors, our documents inspected, and finally we were allowed into the luxurious 5 star lobby, where we were met with cold drinks, sea-shell necklaces and a thousand polite and smiling ‘yesmams’ from some pretty gorgeous young men and woman, a small part of the enormous staff at the Vivanta Taj, ready to serve 24/7.

What are we doing here, I asked myself? How did we step out of one dimension and into another?

I woke in the morning not knowing where I was (any touring musician recognizes that sensation). No children were tugging at me (ah, but I wish they were ), nobody to be dressed, hair combed, breakfast made, kissed hugged and sent to school.. no errands to run meetings calls endless to do list so who and where am i??? ah yes, India!! Open your eyes girl..

I gently pulled the drapes slightly opened and was stunned by the nuclear intensity of the sunlight that burst into my room and blinded my eyes. After a few seconds of adjustment I started comprehending what was beyond the glass.

A jungle hillside across from my window was inhabited densely. Shambles. Old ruined buildings, filthy walls. Rags hung out to dry, garbage everywhere, children running up and down crumbling soot covered stairs, and the sound of traffic and omnipresent horn honking that even high quality triple plated glass could not keep out. I could not help thinking what the people on the other side of the hill thought every day when they gazed at the behemoth edifice with its gates and guards right in front of their face. I felt the urge for going.

We discovered, through Aimee, an American Israel journalist living in Goa, that an Israeli musician we’d met years ago name Ori Balak has been living here for almost 10 years…so he and Aimee, who made the connection, have been our guides. They are both very special people and we are deeply grateful to them.

Ori and Aimee took us to Anjuna, where we met Moshe, an Israeli who runs a very cool joint in the village. Bar, restaurant, coffee shop, library, yoga place, arts and crafts boutique, workshop, playground, furniture store all in one, under the trees and sky, very laid back like everything is here. We were supposed to stop for a few minutes which became two hours of smokes talk drinks and passing time (Moshe made us some mean burekas ). yes, yes.. India is a good exercise in patience and letting go. Whoever knows my Yemenite temperament and control freak nature will be smiling imagining this lady biting her lip not to ask “nooo?(Hebrew for: “well??), and gasping for breath in a sea of relaxaaaaation. 

From Moshe’s hang we drove to the beach. On the way we had to stop several times for the cows. Yes, you’ve all heard about it, I had too, but seeing it first hand is just incredible. Cows meander along the roads, free to do as their hearts desire, taking strolls and naps, holding meetings, chatting away with each other, and what better place than right in the middle of the road? And the Indians wait patiently, until the cows see fit to move on. The whole town can be jammed and nobody will touch the cow.  I wanted to jump out and say: “excuse me, your royal cowliness, do you think you could possibly just budge a few centimeters so a few hundred vehicles could pass through? Oh thank you so much your bovine holiness!”

Driving here is just so hair raising I can’t get used to it. Not only do they drive on the left, pass insanely, stop for cows, speed, and honk, the roads are narrow when they exist at all and there are no sidewalks or streetlamps, as I mentioned earlier, so you can’t see anything!! Ohmygod. BUT, as opposed to Israel, here, they don’t get upset. No yelling cursing or fist waving They simply flow. They do it…naturally.

After the beach we went to Ori’s place for shower before dinner. His house is old and beautiful, high ceilings, large rooms, jungle all around, three dogs, musical instruments and a lovely Russian girlfriends, Anoushka. I asked to use the toilet, and quickly discovered there was no toilet paper. I stepped out and asked Anoushka for some. She said they did not use any. Not that it had run out: it had never existed. Instead there was a bucket of water and a plastic cup. Ohmygod. I went back in and tried to use all my mental powers to figure out the engineering, execution and ventilation dilemma I had before me. Finally I gave up, apologized to the God of cultural idiosyncrasy, and asked for some table napkins. Sorry, India. I am still an ignoramus.

Dinner was surprising, a totally new-age yuppie restaurant outdoors with sparkling lights under big trees, chill out music, chef Chris Saleem wearing a desigual shirt and cooking fine ultra fusion fare, very far from Indian food but very nice. Unexpected.

Ah..there’s another keyword. Unexpected. Expect the unexpected. Everything is so strange here, the contrasts so huge.

For example:
The next morning, Gil and I decided to take a walk and see the local market. We were told Panjim was relatively prosperous. As soon as we walked out of the hotel, I was shocked (Gil wasn’t, as he’d been to India before and he keeps telling me this is really nice by Indian standards. Nice? ohmygod). In the 40 minutes that we survived outdoors, we almost died of heat and humidity (35 that feels that 45 degrees!), we almost suffocated in the market as it stank so badly and had no air circulation (though it was beautifully colorful), we saw a dead rat, a dead cat and a dead bird all swarming with flies right at the door of the academy of pharmacy(!!), we almost got run over six times (you guessed it, no sidewalks), and we were followed by a beggar girl that would not leave me alone (I had given money to another beggar woman earlier who was carrying a child that reminded me of my daughter…it choked me up… I gave the young woman 100 rupees, which is the smallest bill I had...but considered a fortune for those circumstances. From that moment I was bait. It was depressing). And all this, in what my Goan friends had described as an Indian Beverly Hills! Oh my God. I had never been so happy to see a hotel lobby in my entire life!

More contrasts:

The women.

The women here dress in the most beautiful clothes I have ever seen in my entire life, they are so stunning in their colorful Saris, they look like rare flowers drifting through the filthy streets. Even the poorest of the poor will have a flowing scarf around her, jangling bracelets, sweeping material in the brightest colors…how amazing!! In all the piles of garbage and stench, they shine like jewels these women. How I envy them! How drab and boring, even ugly, jeans and a t-shirt appear next to these exotic queens and their royal apparel. I see the ‘modern’ Indian girls trying to imitate the west and I just want to cry. But alas… Saris would look ridiculous in tel aviv, and even if they didn’t, who in god’s name understands how to tie the darn thing? 6 meters of fabric!! oy vey. I guess it’s back to jeans and t-shirts for me. 

And more about women here: they have balls. I won’t generalize, but I have met quite a few women here who are sharp, outspoken, super clever and efficient. Just after my own heart. You go girls.

More contrasts:

Paolo our sound engineer had been waiting for weeks to get technical information about the show. None ever came. We were worried as know, third world, what do we know?? Then, as we were all on a day off, he waited for the sound engineer to meet him at the hotel for a meeting. He waited ALL DAY, as the guy was a “tiny bit late”, “just arriving!”, “almost there!”…from 10 am to 8pm!!! (sweet Goan revenge for the Portuguese occupation ) But then, the next day, when the staff went to check out the stage…it was all perfect. Best equipment, all set exactly as we asked for, sounded great… perfect.

And the convention itself, the one we were invited to attend, The THINK festival (a title I communicate well with ). I cannot describe to you how impressed I am with the organization, the program, everything! Incredible guests from all over the world, intelligent publications and brochures, tip top program and production, sophisticated, controversial, deep… beautiful.

And the hotel where the convention is taking place…ohmygod. The Grand Hyatt Goa. A brand new resort, pools and lawns and sea and very high-end architecture, Super splendor and luxury, as high-techy as they come without losing the authentic flavor of the area and its history (as much as a humongous five star hotel in the middle of a jungle with slums right outside it gates can do).

The stage was set in front of the sea, overlooking the lawn with huge Indian Fichus trees that were lit beautifully. Our concert was very well received, though it was the opening night of the convention which is in its first year and there were a lot of glitches to be worked out.

The Indians, all English speakers, blessedly connect to the English lyrics…halleluya!! After years of performing mostly in Europe and Israel, where people rarely have a clue what my English songs are about (those being the bulk of my original repertoire), it is so relieving and satisfying to perform for an audience that actually listens to what you’re saying, and reacts accordingly. Both Mira and I, who put great emphasis on the lyrical content of our compositions, were overjoyed. For an artists there is no greater joy than feeling understood…and appreciated.

Today we had another short performance in the main plenary hall of the convention where all the talks were taking place, and we were once again very well received. tomorrow we are moving to that hotel and hopefully listen to some interesting people speak, amongst them Frank Ghery the famous architect. There is a British theater production taking place too, believe it or not, a comic satire about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict! I’m curious about that one.. 

The only real difficulty I am experiencing so far is my irrepressible longing for the warmth of my children’s bodies, and my husband’s embrace. It’s alike a fist in my stomach that cannot come unclenched. We Skype every day (though the hotel charges criminally high rates for internet access..they are ruthless in that sense). But whoever has loved anyone across the sea in the 21st century knows Skype is a pathetic substitute for a hug and a soft, loving whisper.

With this I leave you, for now.


Noa, Goa, Nov 4 (almost 5) 2011


  1. Thanks for sharing your experience about India.
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  2. Nice post with real money-driven Indian hospitality impressions for tourists...