Sunday, March 16, 2008

Goa, dancing queen

Where do I start? Let me say that on the whole India fitted everyone's description, a city of colors and scents so impacting, even for someone from Cairo, a place so exotic yet still vaguely familiar...

My first impression upon landing in Goa was: are you sure we're in India? The scenery and the villagers could've belonged anywhere. Except for a couple of statues of Shiva, the towns have pos-colonial houses painted in bright colors (for Goa was a Portuguese colony for 450 years) and are sprinkled with those tin shacks which characterize any former colony blessed by the curse of natural resources. For all I know, we could've been in Brazil. The greenery and the diversity of it is breathtaking, the effect magnified by the twists and turns of the road which alternate plains and hills continuously (in addition to the weird effect which driving on the left side of the road always has on me). Down the road locals on vespas speed past us and shops have elephants -and sometimes Lord Ganesh- painted on the facades. Ok, this feels more like India.

Arriving at the resort I feel that the seventies have passed here and stopped, literally stopped. The chalets are loyal to the era's upholstery and tiles, the neighbors wear dreads, and you hear the Abba everywhere you go. So far I don't really feel like I'm in India. The markets with shopkeepers chasing tourists could be in any country with a bit of poverty and a weak currency -so that's what tourists feel in Egypt? poor them. At night we head to the beach, watch fireworks, scream
life is life, try to do the impossible twist on the sand and just go to sleep.

I go through the first day, happy to be back to the seventies, wishing I could just ditch everyone and summon my friends by means of apparition. Maybe I can wear those pink striped bell-bottoms which I saw in the old bazaar, get my hair braided once again, and then we all gather around the fire with one of us playing soft rock tunes; if someone wishes to smoke a joint they're welcome (just passive smoking for me, thank you very much).

I stay quite anxious though (as is always the case when I travel) and fear not seeing any sign of Hinduism in this Catholic town. Luckily I get to see the cows wandering knowing they own the road by and head to a Hindu temple and an indigenous Catholic Church (Jesus Christ and Angels look Indian and the decor very much so). I witness the Indian tolerance which I have for long read about, as the whole group lights incense and candles at both temple and church, you wouldn't distinguish worshipers from one another. I light a candle and wish for a year of serenity.

Whenever I travel I try to get a local feel of places, sometimes I manage, sometimes I don't. In 70s Goa I wore my most Hippie shawls and tops and sang Dancing Queen at the top of my lungs. I learned the basic hindi dance moves to Bhool Bhulaiyaa a hit in India then -inspired by an earlier hit titled Hare Rama Hare Krishna- from a colleague who will be the ultimate Bollywood star if he makes this wise move. I ate spicy food till I could feel curry in my toe and almost cried eating a chili (a friend's idea of a joke or dare), accepted friends offering of fruit salad sprinkled with chili sold on street carts outside the temple.

I still keep the fondest memories of this beautiful haven where time has stopped. I email my best friend when I go home (as Goa remained faithful to the 70s means of communication) and we both envision a meditation retreat in Goa before the end of the year.

Photo: mural in Goa resort

Holy Cow, a book which gave me great insight to the Indian culture and spirituality
Hare Krishna Hare Ram, the oldie version reminiscent of the hippie era
Sachs and Warner's article on the curse of natural resources
On Hindu gods, more on Shiva and Ganesh
The God of small things a story which describes the caste system
On keeping Indian traditions and transmitting them to your kids after migrating to new lands, watch The Namesake and read The Hindi Bindi club.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Berlin, a journey through a time machine

I got to know Berlin last spring break. Before my visit I had watched three good movies which set the mood for it; Goodbye Lenin, depicting the contrast between East Germany and West Germany, Downfall telling the story of der Führer's suicide, the Good German an homage to Casablanca filmed in post WWII Berlin. Also Das Leben der Anderen/The Lives of Others -which I watched later on- depicting the Stasi era. Also I went to Berlin via Amsterdam where I did my best to avoid visiting Anne Frank's house as her Diary is the most morose book I read as a child (which reminds me I ought to advise the school library to take it off the shelves, and that has nothing to do with my opinion of the whole Holocaust issue).

My days in Berlin felt like days aboard a time machine. Passing from Checkpoint Charlie and marveling at the means people devised to escape from Eastern Germany; wandering along the lines of the former Wall and feeling the energy of those who brought down the wall; trying not to notice the Holocaust memorial, attending Palm Sunday mass at the Berlin Cathedral that still carries traces of the Allies' bombing; collecting socialist memorabilia from a street market in Mitte (got a bargain for a Karl Marx medallion), I truly felt transported in time.

The contrast between
Soviet “wedding cake” buildings and more modern buildings on the other side of the wall made me wonder how crossing the wall made people feel. I imagined East Berlin's supermarkets filled with the most basic products and run down apartments adorned with faded wallpaper, feeling like it's lightyears away from West Berlin with its modern cafés and shops filled with brightly packaged consumer goods (check out the devout socialist's reaction in Goodbye Lenin when a Coca Cola ad materializes on the building opposite hers in her East Berlin neighborhood. No more spoilers I promise!)

History aside, Berlin is very modern friendly city, full of gigs and street markets, offering good food (amazing variety of creative veggies), its lively atmosphere and cultural scene are quite remarkable . There's beauty everywhere in the city and some of the museums are good - I still can't understand why I had to pay 4 euros to see Nefertiti, well I've got only the Egyptian government to blame.

Berlin is a perfect city from all attributes. However, I don't think I can live there, aside from my my poor German which Goethe Institute couldn't' fix, I cannot live with such quiet people, I would drive them nuts. Chatting away in this coffee house in Alexanderplatz, my friend and I saw heads turning and disapproving looks shot, we were two Egyptian gals as Mediterranean as can be (my friend and I were living in Italy and Spain at the time) and were just expressing ourselves!

Carrying a bit of the wall in a bookmark -and nothing makes me happy like a new bookmark and nothing upsets me like loosing a bookmark- I head back to Madrid. I still smile when I see my photo resting from a long walk in
Museumsinsle in the relaxed sunshine in a barist outside Hackescher Markt station.

Photo: part of the Berlin wall at the entrance to Checkpoint Charlie museum


Checkpoint Charlie museum
Check out Berlin Wall graffiti art and chronology
Walk down Unter den Linden
Stay at A&O hostels
Go to Quasimodo jazz bar, the neighborhood itself is very nice