Never before have I had a weekend filled with so many 180 degree turns. Yes, I know this sounds like another “expat in India” blog post about how mysterious and diverse India is to the foreign traveler, but I had an Indian with me so I feel validated. I’ve changed the name of the girl involved to respect her privacy. For the purposes of the story, we’ll call her Lisa (despite the name, she was Indian). This is Part One:
I grew up backpacking in Montana where the wilderness boundary between civilization and the rugged untouched openness of “big sky country” was no more than 20 minutes from my front door. We hang bear bags as commonly as we hang laundry, and yet my first encounter with a large predator happened on an island in India in a well-traveled and inhabited place. This is what I get for letting my guard down:
One characteristic I find so attractive in the women I have dated is their insatiable appetite for travel, adventure, and spontaneity and Lisa was no exception. One night over dinner, Lisa and I made a list of the Indian states we had never been to. Being a foreigner, my list was longer than hers but my two years in India meant that I was much closer to her than she had expected.
“I didn’t realize you had been to so much of India already.” She told me.
“Yeah, I’ve been around. But for having lived abroad for the last two years, I have been to surprisingly few places outside of India. Friends back in the US expect me to be able to tell stories of my adventures in Southeast Asia or China or Nepal – all places I have never been to. They do not understand India – that it is like Europe if Europe were one country. Did you know that India’s first home secretary had to convince over 500 independent states to join the Union of India? India is an amazing place.”
‘No, I did not know that. You are almost more Indian than me.”
“Yes, madam, I am being very like a true Indian, isn’t it?”
I said this last line in the Indian accent I had spent the last two years polishing and wobbled my head from side to side. We laughed together, the kind of laugh you do with both the eyes and the mouth.
The restaurant we were sitting in looked and felt like the inside of an Enya music video. In fact, the restaurant was a home furnishings and decoration store during the day and served food in the evenings. Imagine a Pier-One Imports as a restaurant and that pretty much nails it. The lights were dim and we were surrounded by candles. This was one of my favorite restaurants in Bombay.
The candlelight kissed Lisa’s face and warmed her already beautiful expression. She had the type of loveliness that could walk down a runway if it wanted to, but she always denied it and would blush whenever I complimented her. More than humility, she felt genuine contempt for her physical appearance because of all the unwanted attention it had brought her throughout her life – from strangers and from those whom she thought she could trust. This expressed itself in her occasionally poor posture; she would stand or sit as if her shoulders could hide her from the wandering eyes of sleazy Indian men and right now she was hunched over the table. I viewed it as a carelessly fixable attribute, like wearing an unflattering dress. I lightly touched her back with my hand and she straightened her back – she knew it irritated me.
“Sorry.” She said.
“You are too beautiful for that.” I smiled at her and we moved on.
The food came and we continued to talk about other matters of little concern. I ate slowly. I had a hard time eating with Lisa because my stomach would still fill itself with butterflies from time to time. We had not been dating very long – two months perhaps – but I would sometimes be overcome with disbelief at sharing a table with such a wonderful person. I had only been in love once before and the feeling was all-consuming. My stomach was slouching, ashamed at its lack of faith in my good fortune.
After we finished eating, I looked at the list of Indian states we had made once again.
“Want to knock one off the list this weekend?”
At first she laughed because normally a last minute proposition to leave Bombay, except to the nearby beach state of Goa, is an audacious challenge to India’s inertia. Making anything happen in India takes time and planning. But she abruptly stopped laughing because she had come to know me and that, in matters of travel, I consider all possibilities. So she began to consider it too. I pressed my advantage.
“Well the first question is are you even free this weekend? Could you go out of town?”
She thought for a moment.
“Yeah, I could go.”
Although I had lived in India for two years, it was still a largely foreign continent to me and its newness demanded urgency. I can only imagine she felt as I do when I am in the US: my country is large and diverse and beautiful, but I have plenty of time to explore its many secrets. I could see my imported thirst for exploration making her thirsty as well. I told her that this weekend we would be knocking one of those states off the list but that the destination would be a surprise.
“Do you mind trusting me to plan the entire weekend?” I asked.
“Not at all! I’m excited! Just one thing though. I don’t really want to go to Gujurat. I know you haven’t been there yet but I grew up there. I’d rather go somewhere else. But that’s it. Anywhere else is fair game as long as one of us has not already been there.”
“I can work with that.”
The city of Bombay, which is now called Mumbai because a far-right Hindu extremist party won a majority in the state elections in the mid-1990’s and threw a 50-year-late fit about “colonial legacies,” is the commercial capital of India and the political capital of the Indian state of Maharashtra. Maharashtra is on the western coast of India, just south of where India begins to jut out into the Arabian Sea from the rest of the Asian continent. It is bordered by six other Indian states and one Union Territory.
Before leaving the restaurant, we also agreed to take a train rather than try and book a last minute flight. Therefore, the state had to be an immediate neighbor. Her home state of Gujurat is to the north of Maharashtra and the Arabian Sea is to the east, so that only left two states that were within reasonable train distance for a weekend trip that one of us had not been to.
By the time we left that night, we were the last two people in the restaurant. The waiters had begun to break down the other tables around us while we finished our wine and continued to talk excitedly about our forthcoming adventure. I love that feeling of being the last one in the restaurant while they start to close down. It is the same feeling I get when I wake up early enough to see the sun rise, like I have some sort of inside knowledge on the world – I get to be a part of something that most other people miss. It is a small feeling, like the lingering smell of a campfire on your clothes as opposed to the actual fire, but it added to the satisfaction in our walk and in her grip of my arm as we left the building. We had just plotted a secret getaway in what had become our private restaurant. Young love brings everything into sharper relief; we were unstoppable.
For all her powers of deduction there was no way she could have guessed where we were going – I was not completely honest in my list. I unintentionally omitted territories such as Pondicherry, Daman and Diu, and Dadra and Nagar Haveli. Upon inspecting a map I found that 3.5 hours north of Mumbai is a town in Gujurat called Vapi that stands about halfway between the Union territory of Daman and the separate territory of Dadra and Nagar Haveli, thus my condition from above. I told Lisa that she would be handed two envelopes once we arrived, each detailing a different destination that would require us to theatrically exit from one side of the train station or the other; two paths diverged in a wood… blah blah poetic blah blah. Common to both destinations would be a mission.
The mission would be to plant a geocache. For those not familiar with this practice, Google “geocache” and get informed. Basically it is a global treasure hunt with “geocaches” hidden all over the world by anyone and the GPS coordinates are then uploaded to a website. My mom had sent me the link to this wacky idea because she knows that this type of dorky thing would be right up my alley. Since there were no geocaches in either destination, our goal would be to place one and log it on the website.
As I prepared the two envelopes, I struggled to find something fun and exciting to do in both places. Daman was easy. It is a coastal ex-Portuguese colony with a catch: you cannot swim there. A German NGO rates it as being the second most polluted place on Earth because of the heavy metals that come downstream from its neighbor, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, where tax incetives have led to a proliferation of heavy industries dumping heavy metals into the water. Yum. Nevertheless, this itinerary would be fairly standard: stay in a nice heritage Portuguese hotel, relax on the beach, explore some colonial heritage sites, eat good food and drink beer… the usual routine. This envelope was therefore labeled “THE KNOWN.”
Conversely, our dirty little friend Dadra and Nagar Haveli was less forthcoming in its offerings. Honestly, I struggled to figure out why anyone would go to this place besides to escape the dry laws of surrounding Gujurat. A place with enough political sorrows to induce heavy drinking indeed. The landscape was littered with corny Indian “resorts” – concrete jungles boasting paradise and lovely “Most pleasing resort for all your pleasures!” type places. Clearly, the appeal of this place would not be in anything constructed for tourists. What we would do here would have to be off the beaten path. This folder was labeled THE UKNOWN.
For both folders I had Google Earth photos of the landscape, and in the case of Daman, hotels, printed at my favorite printing center next to Bandra station. For the geocache it was necessary to procure a GPS and, naturally, none of the outdoor stores in Bombay were able to sell me a GPS device, much less engage me in a conversation on what it was or where I could find it. I was eventually led to some fisherman stores in Fort but decided instead to turn to Ebay India. The last time I had used this website was the day of a poker game with my friends. I managed to have the two poker sets delivered to my desk at Mahindra within the day. Again, a few hours after sending out emails to prospective sellers I was on the phone with the proprietor of a Rs. 3500 GPS device. As I was leaving Mahindra Towers in Worli at 4:45pm to pick up Lisa for our 5:50pm train (I had told her 5:40pm, just in case she tried to look up the train schedules to see where we were going), the courier with the GPS arrived and our mission objective was saved. This message will self destruct in 32 hours.
I had told Lisa, as part of the planning, that she should pack an assortment of random objects, some were practical and others were added solely to reinforce the visage of the enigma:
– duck tape
– a flashlight
– boots that are made for trekking
– one warm layer of clothing
– a water bottle
– digital camera
– a length of rope (to be provided by Thane)
– a blank journal (to be provided by Thane)
– a pencil
– a GPS device (this is CRITICAL)
– Backgammon board (duh)
In addition to these objects, I asked her to procure an object “no larger than a cricket ball that either represents you, me, or us. It should be like a white elephant gift.”
“Uh, Thane? What is a ‘white elephant?” Culture wall.
“It’s a Christmas gift giving tradition where people give each other random gifts. Nevermind. Make it something that you would not mind, as a stranger, receiving. Don’t make it too nice because we will be leaving it behind.”
At this point, I think I could confidently say that she had no idea what the Hell I was planning. She also thought I was mildly insane. From her email to me:
Have I told you you’re a crazy and idiotic individual?
I arrived to pick her up at her office and immediately withdrew the black moleskine I had packed (see packing list). The moleskine was my answer to the above challenge: an object representing us that I could give away. Right now it meant nothing, but its destiny was to become the logbook of our journey – a dorky habit I have picked up since doing SEA. From here the trip will be recounted via my recollection of the logbook entries supplemented with my own omniscient hindsight narrative. Suffice to say that the logbook was lost on the trip – you will learn the circumstances. All times are approximate.
The chronicles of the trip… OR The Logbook
5:03pm: Arrived at India Bulls to pick up Lisa. Hand Lisa the logbook which contains the map of our destination, the geocache mission, and our two options: Daman and Dadra and Nagar Haveli. Trip commences.
5:14pm: Arrive at train station.
5:31pm: McDonalds burgers and dosas are secured from the galley. Company feels replenished.
5:55pm: Train departs for destinations unknown. The adventure has begun.
6:25pm: Envelopes containing the KNOWN and the UNKNOWN are distributed to Lisa. After careful examintaion, Lisa selects the UNKNOWN itinerary. Thane is pleased, this was his favorite.
The UNKNOWN envelope contained several Google maps detailing a reservoir inside Dadra and Nagar Haveli – you can see it here (the island we made it to is the large one in the northwest corner of the lake). What I had planned was for us to spend Friday night after getting off the train in a town called Silvassa. Silvassa is the capital of this Union terriroty and is roughly halfway between Vapi (the train junction) and where we would disembark for our trek. Outlined in the envelope was the plan to arrive at a resort called “Treat” on the outskirts of Silvassa and walk into the jungle near the entrace to that resort. We would trek over some minor hills for ~6 km. to a village on the edge of the reservoir and hire a boat to take us to a nearby island. On that island is where we would plant the geocache. The extent of my planning for this itinerary was to discover that Dadra and Nagar Haveli are not in Lonely Planet whatsoever, that the resorts are atrocious, and to survey the terrain for whether getting to the island seemed feasible. Thus the name UKNOWN; I had no clue whether we could pull this off. I had packed my tent, sleeping bag, mat, water filter, and other necessities for camping overnight, which I saw as the eventuality for this itinerary. But it was this sense of adventure that drew both myself and Lisa to this itinerary and the area was clearly well inhabited with villages. “What was the worst that could happen?” I thought. Ha!
6:34pm: All timings will henceforth be noted in military time.
18:40: First class compartment is not actually first class. 13 people are being accommodated in a compartment designed for 6.
18:55: The following conversation takes place:
Thane: Did you know the place we’re going has the most skewed sex ratio in India?
Lisa: Really? Which way?
Thane: I think it is 60% men and 30% women.
Lisa: That’s not even 100%.
Thane realizes his idiocy and is silent.
19:07: The famed Indian band, The Interracials, step up to play a set for us in the train compartment. Everyone stares.
21:00: Arrival at Vapi. All belongings are secured in an auto on the Eastern platform. Negotiation for rate is disconcertingly short.
21:15: Crew notes the fine quality of the air, filled with industrial fumes.
21:25: We stop at a resort but defer due to the ridiculously high price. Room contains an oddly arranged couch.
21:35: We settle on the high quality Woodland Hotel for Rs. 300 per night for a deluxe suite. We deposit our belongings and get dinner at the attached restaurant and drinks at a nearby bar.
23:00: Upon returning to the room and using the bathroom, Lisa discovers a mouse. Thane traps it under a bucket.
08:00: Crew awakens. Dawn watch stands down. Separate bathroom is procured due to the presence of the now deceased mouse. No one mourns its passing.
09:00: Crew arrives at Treat Resort, 14 acres of pure luxury. Crew realizes that it did not know the meaning of luxury until now. Breakfast is ordered and sandwiches for lunch are procured.
09:40: Crew departs from Treat Resort amidst confetti. Path is struck into the jungle of the unknown.
10:00: Summit of nearby hills reached, affording a wonderful view of the industrial beauty of Dadra and Nagar Haveli, as well as the reservoir.
10:30: Muslims on motorcycles cited.
10:31: Lisa points out Thane’s excellent spelling: he wrote cited instead of sighted. He corrects the mistake, citing logic.
10:40: Lisa mistakes nearby boat as a seafaring vessel. Closer inspection yields that instead of two men in the boat, there are two girls and they are hard at work with bailing buckets.
10:55: Water supply finished. Boat commandeered for 100 Rs. First stop is a borewell for drinking water.
12:30pm: Land ho!!
12:40pm: Perfect lunch spot discovered. Thane surprises Lisa with a bottle of white wine and a selection of 6 cheeses for lunch.
15:45: Crew disembarks for the planting of the geocache.
16:10: After much toil through the brush, the crew selects a spot at the highest point on the island and plants the geocache. The pages of the logbook are photographed. All lines coiled and hung. So concludes THE TITLE OR The Logbook. Signed: Thane Richard and Lisa Smith.
This really was the perfect day. As you can see from the entries, we really were having quite the adventure. From the epitome of tackiness discovered in the 1970’s timecapsule, Treat, to the giggling women washing clothes next to the cows who must have thought Lisa and I were aliens – we were having an UKNOWN adventure that exceeded my expectations. It all seemed too good to be true…
When we found the perfect lunch spot on our newly conquered island it was the cherry on top. I revealed the wine and cheese and I think Lisa was pretty impressed at this point, if I may throw myself a few props. The only part of the day that could be considered a slight dip in morale was the slog up the hill to plant the geocache. The brambles and branches of the monsoon-craving wilderness scratched at our skin and clung to our hair. So it was with great relief that we took a swim in the reservoir (we told ourselves all the heavy metals were downstream) upon returning to our lunch spot. Mental assurances aside, there is no point in worrying about eating bad fish anymore – we probably got more mercury swimming in that water than if we ate a dumpster full of albacore.
Once we dried off from our swim we agreed that it was time to establish a campsite, make a fire, and make some dinner. As we moved our belongings from our lunch/daytime Shangri-La to a nearby rise overlooking a surrounding high-tide mud area (see small inlet on eastern side of island near the outstretched mainland) we noticed them approach. The locals were paddling towards us in canoes. Fuck. I knew it was delusional to think we could have a perfect day without dealing with the ceremonial Indian-to-foreigner harassment.
Before we had even finished moving all of our things they came to our lunch spot and just watched us. When we had finally re-located ourselves to our new campsite they approached Lisa and I and began to ask us a bunch of questions. I could not understand what they were saying, but the tone of the conversation indicated to me that the theme was something along the lines of “What the fuck are you two doing here?!” Lisa stopped occasionally to translate what the interrogation:
“What are you doing here? Why have you come here from Mumbai? We want to see what is in your bag. We think you have a bomb. There was someone murdered in a nearby village a few months ago and the police gave us a lot of trouble about it. If something happens to you, we don’t want to get blamed. Is this white guy strong enough to protect you? Sometimes men get drunk and come over here, can he protect you? We want to see what’s in your bag. This area isn’t safe. There are tigers and drunk men around here. We want to see what’s in your bag.”
Lisa and I were sitting during this entire exchange while the five men stood around us. I did not ever get the sense that they were threatening. It is hard to justify this feeling, but just the sense I got from their body language, tone, looks, and all the other subtle hints that someone like Malcolm Gladwell would orgasm talking about did not put me on edge. I cannot speak for Lisa, but my decision to remain sitting was intentional – I did not want to be confrontational but at the same time I wanted to keep the ability to stand up and change my own body language as a card in my hand to be played if I desired. I made it very clear to Lisa that I did NOT want to show them what was in my bag and I think she agreed. I deal with this daily – you give curious Indians an inch and they take a mile… kilometer, excuse me. I reasoned that if they had this first request granted that it would open the floodgates for an infinite amount of additional questions and we would eventually be giving them a cavity search. My patience for these theatrics with foreigners had run out sometime in the middle of 2007 (four years prior). However, after much negotiation and explanation, Lisa turned to me and conceded defeat; it seemed they were not going to leave without inspecting our stuff and certifying we were bomb-free. I wanted to lecture them on their arrogance and what horrible terrorists they must have thought we were if they thought bombing a deserted island in Dadra and Nagar Haveli was an Al-Qaeda or Pakistani ISI priority. Despite my immense displeasure at this turn of events, I gave in, opened my backpack, and spilled its contents on the dirt in front of them. As I did this, I played my card and stood up. I wanted to make it clear that it was now time for them to leave. In hindsight, I reason that I definitely overthought this – I doubt they noticed me standing at all.
Lisa continued to reassure them that we were leaving in the morning and heading back to Bombay the following afternoon and after satisfying themselves that we had not come to the island to go down in history as the dumbest suicide bombers of all time, they left. But not really. They went back to the edge of the reservoir next to their canoes and talked to one another for some time. As they did this, another canoe of people arrived. I groaned thinking about our night being hijacked by curious locals and when this new group arrived I was very relieved when Lisa very aggressively told them to leave and speak to the other group that we had just dealt with if they wanted more information. I was very happy that the order of canoe arrivals had not been reversed because this second group did not seem as well-meaning as the first. They were younger and seemed to be out to prove some sort of macho complex. Lisa and I discussed this afterward, but the first group seemed to be genuinely concerned for their own safety as well as ours; they seemed to be good guys.
After a quick glance at my things, the second group gave in to Lisa’s demand to leave and joined the first group by the canoes as the sun disappeared and darkness began to envelope our little island. I continued to be irritated that they would not leave the island – their presence was very distracting to me – but Lisa insisted I forget about it. She was right and I resigned to hunting for fire wood, then lighting a fire, and finally moving on with our evening. We played backgammon by the fire and heated up the sandwiches we had bought from Treat that morning. I recall spilling wax all over my leg as we struggled to stretch the meager light we had to cover our backgammon board. We had placed candles around the perimeter of our campsite and it gave the place a sort of romantic Enya-esque look. Yep, another Enya analogy.
Despite the annoyance of the locals, we ended the day on a very high note. Sadly, though, this was not meant to last and like the bell tolling the end of Cinderella’s enchanted ball, the coming of midnight meant both literally and figuratively the end of our perfect day. It was around midnight when we decided to call it a night and extinguished the fire. We cleaned up the remnants of our dinner and put them in a plastic bag under a tree about 20ft from our tent. I was not particularly worried about any wildlife but I did this out of habit. We had finished our remaining water during dinner and I had said I would filter more in the morning, but as we began to put our things in the tent my Montana camping instincts of ALWAYS HAVE WATER overpowered me and I made up my mind to filter some before going to bed. Lisa joined me as we walked 100ft down the footpath, which treacherously hopped over the exposed roots of shoulder-high bushes, to the shore of the reservoir. We were away from the campsite as long as it takes to pump a Nalgene full of water and gaze for a few moments at the stars that are normally invisible to us in Mumbai. We could not have been at the water’s edge for more than 10 or 12 minutes. It was when we were walking back to the campsite and I was shining my flashlight ahead of us to find our tent that I noticed something was wrong. There was no tent. Our tent was gone.