Then suddenly, I see my uncle quickly shuffling to the counter with his passport. Miraculously, we are able to check-in and make it onto the plane in time. We each breath a sigh of gratitude and situate ourselves for the fifteen hour flight.
After a brief connection in Dubai, we set on to the impressive new Mumbai (formerly Bombay) International Airport, from which we will hop again to our first and final destination, Goa.
I love being here in India, and wish I could share this feeling with my brothers.
A trip to the market here is more like a bazaar with a parade of vendors each vying for your business whether to purchase their fruit, snacks, clothing, or spices. The excitement rivals a securities exchange floor, especially the indoor fish market, where bargaining for deals is a way of life. There are wild dogs that wait out by the trash for scraps, but at least I didn't see any people sifting through the garbage to eat. Poverty seems to be getting better, but I was still able to discern the beggars, from the working poor, and those in the middle all jumbled together. Unique smells are omnipresent, from burning incense, delicious food, and fresh air to waste, exhaust, and alarming body odor.
My toes bulged out beyond the chappals (sandals) that I had borrowed from my uncle’s cousin, Reginald D'Souza, our host and guide in Goa. I felt like a giant where ever I went, which only meant my larger brothers would really feel their size. In actuality, I was surprised to find many tall and fit Goans from all the walking they do. Many of the young men wear professional futbol (soccer) inspired hairstyles and brand named clothing.
The roads are populated with cars, buses, two wheelers, and pedestrians. Traffic is a chaotic symphony of fast and slow drivers sounding horns that indicate intent to pass, frustration, and “get out of the way!” Lanes are more of a suggestion, and safe commutes are granted by the grace of God. Speaking of which, my uncle fell twice while walking up three flights of stairs. The first fall occurred when he reached the zenith, felt dizzy, and we found him at the bottom landing upside down with only a few small bruises. His second fall occurred later that same evening after he and his cousin were returning with provisions in which one of the glass bottles he was carrying broke into shards tearing a formidable gash into his arm. Miraculously both times he walked away relatively unscathed. His bandages included a literal torn cloth tourniquet and later on tissue and tape. People here are tough. Had this incident occurred in America, an ambulance ride, or a visit to the clinic via private car, and the most definite use of stitches would have been employed for a senior citizen of 75. My uncle, smiling and embarrassed, still went on to celebrate mass and recite the rosary later that night before falling asleep mid-decade.
I had the opportunity to attend a Goan wedding, that was full of the amazing things that define Goa for me. There was spirituality in the Cathedral where the couple exchanged their vows. Then followed the reception, which was held by the beach where there were fireworks, live music, dancing, good food, drinks, and celebration.
To celebrate the reunion of my luggage we dined at a local restaurant where I later experienced food poisoning. My symptoms included indigestion, fever, and malaise, which thankfully seemed to last only 24hrs.
The nuptial festivities continued the next evening with an intimate family and friends celebration. In the spirit of adventure, I decided to take a bus to the party. After receiving careful hand written instructions, I boarded the first bus which took me to the bus station. From there I was to board a second bus, which would drop me within 100 yards of my destination at precisely the fourth stop. Since I had made the journey a few times before in a car, I felt confident that I could recognize the way. The bus departed from the station and seemed to be going to my desired destination; however, I kept a close watch at every stop to make sure. Many different kinds of people came and went with each stop. One man was covered with tumorous growths all over his face and I felt pity for him, but he seemed to have a good attitude as he wore a clean pressed shirt and conducted himself in a dignified manner. I was enjoying the “people’s chariot” when on the final roundabout the bus turned off in a direction I did not recognize. The fourth stop was far from the recollected destination, and without the ability to communicate coherently with my fellow passengers, I decided to get off the bus and walk back to some place familiar. I must have been a mile away from where I was supposed to be and it was getting late; so I accepted fate, laughed at my predicament, and began the long walk to getting back to where I should have been. About fifteen minutes into my march, I received a phone call from my friend hosting the party. He was laughing and telling me to look for him and it took me a second to realize that his car was parked just up the road upon which I was walking. The amazing coincidence that he recognized me from behind while walking on a random road during the night was due to my long “Jesus-like” hair, which tends to stand out in a crowd. I was saved from walking at least a mile or more and given a comfortable ride to the party with what can only be described as feeling God’s grace.
The party was another grand celebration, this time at the bride’s house. The guests included close friends and family. I was honored to be invited. There were about 100 guests all through the night. There was a father/daughter DJ performing most of the music themselves. They sang and played Konkani music to a Latin beat that I recognized from my Salsa dancing days. I didn’t realize that Goans were terrific dancers and was able to hold my own on the floor. The young men sat and watched as they were too cool to dance, a sentiment I once shared, but the older people and young girls were happy to move their bodies to the beat.
The evening wound down and I was able to find a ride back to my uncle’s apartment. I wished my gracious hosts, hugged them good-bye and left Goa in the morning for Cochin.
The city of Cochin is in the state of Kerala just south of Goa; however, rather than fly directly there, the airline on which we booked our flight required us to travel back to Mumbai and then down south again to Cochin. Between the delayed flights, rescheduled bookings, and hurried baggage claim, I somehow managed to injure my neck. When we reached the Cochin airport we were greeted by a man holding a sign with “Fr. John Alphonso”. There we met up with Fr. Joseph Nalpat, my uncle's classmate in the seminary. He had arranged for us to stay in an upscale hotel where I could finally shower and rest from the melee of air travel. The next morning Fr. Nalpat had greeted us after breakfast to take us out to see his church and where ever we wished to go. I opted to see the forests of Cochin where we were able to drive into the scenic country side, take a small hike through the jungle, and see some elephants in a nature preserve.
The next morning, my uncle woke me up to celebrate his daily mass ritual, something I’ve grown appreciative of since coming to India. After praying we ate breakfast in the hotel when Fr. Nalpat came and took my uncle to see a doctor, which gave me a chance to catch up on some reading and writing. It was in the afternoon when the sun was beginning to relent when we went to the beach to experience the Cochin seaside. It was warm and unusual to encounter such a vast ocean in the midst of January’s winter. It was an unforgettable experience.
Later that evening Fr. Nalpat took us to an ashram convent to dine with the Sisters of Christo Raj (Christ the King). I was informed that this privilege was not normally extended to lay persons but an exception was made for me. I was honored to be with them. They seemed so inquisitive and happy that they reminded me of the school children I had visited once in Africa. The priests lovingly teased them and they blushed like joyful young ladies. They had prepared delicious food and never wavered in their graciousness as hosts while they constantly served us new foods and drinks to enjoy. I ate till I was unable to hide my gut and felt compelled to stand up and walk a lap or two before sitting back down. They walked us out to the gate, wished us a safe journey, and watched as we walked down the street to our hotel. I loved being there with them and witnessing their commitment to devotion and innocence.
The next morning we left for Mumbai at 5am. We reached Mumbai with plans of dropping off the heaviest of our luggage at St Francis Xavier's School which is managed by Fr. Theo Fernandes, my uncle's classmate nearly 47 years ago. After having lunch with the school Fathers, my uncle and I went back to our quarters to formulate a plan. We were scheduled to leave Mumbai later that day for Bangkok at 11pm and return in four days back to India. With our truncated time table we set out to meet up with my mother's relatives. We took a rickshaw to a wrong church, which happened to be precisely where my aunt, Doris Pereira lives. We had called her from Cochin to let her know that we might be stopping by, so she wasn't all that surprised when we knocked on her door. After catching up for a bit and sitting for some snacks, which included my grandmother's delicious fruitcake recipe, we decided to head to a local market for provisions and gifts. We found expensive knock-offs and crowds so we decided to visit another relative, Dr. Margaret Miranda. Her practice is attached to her home so she can often be found busy and (according to her) unprepared for guests. When we showed up unexpectedly, we found her home to be charming and very welcoming in spite of her own criticism. I was so happy to see that Fr. Francis Gonzalves, her brother (and also my mom's cousin), was there to have tea with us. We chatted for a bit, enjoyed some delicious 'impromptu' chutney sandwiches, and took some pictures before heading off to Dharavi, one of the largest slums in the world, to shop for gifts and provisions.
With dangerous efficiency, my uncle and I secured our purchases, maintained our safety from pick pockets and thieves, and headed back to Xavier's School by rickshaw for supper and to prepare for our trip to Bangkok later that evening.
Next, we decided to check out the famous "Golden Buddha", that my uncle had seen back in 1971. An hour later, we were there. It was bittersweet to see such a spiritual place littered with commercial tourism, people taking endless selfies, and crowds that erased any sense of intimacy. We hastened our visit and proceeded back to our hotel for a rest. In the evening, feeling recovered from our time in the sun, we decided to get authentic Thai massages by a street shop across from our new favorite restaurant. Any lingering pain from my neck injury was tenderized into submission and left me feeling like jello. We stumbled over to our Tom Yum soup shop to enjoy a bowl before retiring for the evening.
One night in Bangkok
When we reached back to our hotel, we enjoyed lunch at an unbelievably inexpensive and delicious street shop which helped encourage our spirits. We rested for a bit until we felt prepared to reattempt our early departure.
Feeling thoroughly discouraged at this point we gathered as much information about visiting the Indian Embassy and headed back to our hotel across town. Somehow the weight of our luggage seemed a bit heavier and the bus routes a little longer. When we reached the hotel, our friendly inn-keeper was there to welcome us back despite our early check-out. We found our room had been cleaned and dressed with fresh new sheets and towels.
I awoke with the earnestness of an uncertain dawning; my uncle had been up for at least an hour. After a quick mass, a short breakfast, and a shower we left the hotel by taxi around 7am. The traffic in Bangkok is horrendous. According to google maps our destination was only 30 minutes away, but it took us more than an 1 1/2 hours to reach. When we finally found the embassy, we were told that we'd have to go to another office located a short distance away on the 22nd floor. I waited in yet another queue only to be told that my best chances for a quick issued visa was to apply online and wait at a coffee shop down below.
A long time ago, when I was a boy, I was taught the concept of 'Grace' was like going to a fancy restaurant, ordering a big meal (including a decadent dessert), and finding out that you left your wallet at home... but instead of trouble, somebody else takes care of the bill without expectation in return. And like that you are free. To feel loved, to be protected by, and to be forgiven is to experience Grace...
At the Kuppadeli cafe in Bangkok, I find my fingers instinctively braiding together as I wait to hear back from the e-visa office.
Here's to Grace!
Bangkok is an amazing city filled with spirituality, which means both spirits of vice and virtue. The good people at my previous inn were able to secure me a room for the night at an inexpensive boarding house named the "Don Mueang Mansion". It was a huge old apartment building with dozens of floors and rooms. While checking in, I was astonished to find my cell phone hidden in one of the bag's compartments. After I checked in, close to midnight, the attendant showing me to my room asked if I wanted a Thai massage woman, upon which I laughed and said, "No thanks." While there were no noticeable insects, the room was musty and drab. The plastic coated mattress rested in stark contrast to the bleached white sheets adorning it. I threw off the ancient duvet, cranked up the air conditioner, and went to sleep smiling at the comedy of the situation. I woke up around 9am with the sound of my tube television set playing Thai cartoons that lulled me to sleep the night before. I was surprised to find hot water in the shower and enjoyed a steamy bath. Running low on Thai currency, I decided to walk to the local Don Mueang Airport and exchange some bills. On my way there, I was able to use the internet and found that my visa had been approved for re-entry that day. I excitedly returned to check-out of the "mischief mansion"; whereupon, I witnessed a scantily clad young woman with a fistful of cash shamelessly stuffing the bills into her purse as we rode the lift down from my floor. Just as the 1980's song alluded, "this is Bangkok" I thought to myself and smiled inwardly.
After a night of peaceful rest and relaxation we roamed about Mumbai to check out some sights and decided to catch a bus to meet a family friend for dinner across town. That evening we were treated to a five star meal at a members only 'National Sports Club of India' (the US equivalent of a Country Club) where our host was a member. Instead of taking a bus home our host recommended that we view the Mumbai "Sea Link", a beautiful bridge that cuts across the water, to bring us directly home via private cab. It made me wish that we had more time to spend with loved ones and sight-see around Mumbai.
After spending a few days with my extended family, we booked an overnight train to Ajmer in north India. We reached the station around midnight and still found a cavalcade of rickshaws and taxis waiting to deliver passengers. We reached the Fatima convent a few kilometers from the station on a cold night in what seemed like a remote village ashram. We waited at the gates until a giant but ragged looking old man answered the gate and escorted us to our quarters at the back of the convent (it reminded me of something out of a Harry Potter novel). We found an ancient guest quarters with several rooms and one with two beds set up for us. I decided to climb right into bed from the exhaustion of restless 'sleep' in the upper berth of a moving train. In the morning I woke up to a cold room with thick concrete walls and hard stone floors. I stayed warmly wrapped in my bedsheets until my uncle informed me that the shower produced a steady flow of hot water. I have never appreciated 'bucket baths' so much in my life. After getting dressed we headed to breakfast where we met Sister Carmelita, my uncle's cousin. She was an 80yr old nun with the grace of an innocent child. She seemed overjoyed that she got to see my uncle once again and wouldn't part from his side (it reminded me a lot of my niece and nephew). In fact, all the nuns I met at the convent all seemed to remind me of children as they giggled and played in addition to their responsibilities at the convent.
In the evening we went to dinner at another cousin's home, nestled in the mountains. Immediately after supper we departed for the midnight train to Baroda to visit with the Bishop and some other family. After a night of traveling and a 2hr morning bus ride, we reached the Bishop's estate in time for lunch with his excellency and a few other priests. This is where I got to meet Father Pablo, a 90 yr old Jesuit Missionary Priest, who with his brothers helped to educate my Dad and Uncle when they lived in India as kids. Father Pablo was the highlight of the Baroda trip as he was the image of a real life "Don Quixote" complete with battle scars from a run-in with skin cancer leaving a menacing suture track on his face. I learned that he published a few books and even more amazing is that he started writing at age 83. His works involved writing on topics of spirituality, psychology, philosophy, and faith. He was a gentleman priest and even presented us with two signed copies of his books (which I read with zeal). That evening we stayed with some family and left for Nadiad in the morning.
In the village town of Nadiad we had lunch with some priests, who ran the St Mary's school. It was a simple school with a devout student body, as children could be seen taking time from their lunches to come to the sanctuary for quiet prayer. After lunch, Fr. Joseph Mari and I decided to make a liquor run as Gujarat is a 'dry' state with liquor sales permitted to those with foreign passports. We zipped through town on his motorbike witnessing cows, street vendors, and children playing in a river. We also witnessed a gruesome vehicle accident on the highway as we scooted by on the access road to our liquor shop.
We packed a weekend bag and made the 3 hour road trip to the mountains of Udaipur, where I discovered a city that one could easily mistake for being in Greece or in the fabled Agrabah from Disney's Aladdin at night. I learned the difference between a street and a gully, which are narrow roads claustrophobically surrounded by ancient multi-story buildings which make it impossible to tell one's navigational orientation due to lack of landscape clues. We adventured the town during the day and dined at amazing restaurants at night. Food was always a welcomed indulgence throughout our travels in India, but I was starting to feel the effects of the rich consumption as more flesh was sticking to my ribs by the day. We concluded our weekend trip with an early morning ice bath and hit the road by 7am (hot water was a precious commodity and didn't heat up until the boiler was lit around 8am).
When we returned from Udaipur we met with the last of our friends and family for lunches and dinners until our time in India had come to a bittersweet end. With one last celebration of mass with our host family, we set off for the airport to catch a series of flights to our last adventure in Dubai, part of the Unite Arab Emirates.
There we were greeted by a cousin, Patrick, who made arrangements for us to stay in a hotel/apartment with a kitchen, gym, and a rooftop pool. After spending time with Patrick's family and some friends, we set off on a 'desert safari' which involved being picked up by an ordinary looking driver in a large Toyota SUV along with some other passengers for a drive through the city and into the desert. After about 30 minutes we reached a small station for tourists to use the restroom and shop, when I noticed our driver deflating the SUV tires to a pillowy bounce. I figured this had something to do with increasing the tire surface area for maximum traction on the sand. Then we all re-boarded the SUV and headed out into the desert. The driver morphed from ordinary man into "Jason Statham" and the SUV from road vehicle into Desert Cruiser as we raced up 15 foot sand dunes and down with equal ferocity. The roller-coaster sensation was paired with an arabic beat as the music matched the mysticism and excitement being felt here in the afternoon sands. We surfed the dunes for about 30 minutes before arriving at our 'desert oasis' for an evening of dining and entertainment (sort of like an Arabic Medieval Times with belly dancing instead of jousting). After snapping a few pictures and getting our fill of food and show, we headed back into the desert for a night ride of oceanless surfing. When we reached the road, our driver made a quick stop at an air station to refill the tires where I had the chance to examine the SUV and congratulate our driver with a new lens of respect and admiration.
After our desert adventures, riding the rail and buses through the city (which houses the world's tallest building), and with our shopping thresholds being reached, I decided to relax by reading on the rooftop and swimming a few laps in the pool. By the end of our 35 days of travel we both were feeling a longing to be home and rest peacefully in our own beds without an agenda necessarily planned for the next day. We checked out of our hotel and made our way to the airport for our direct night flight back to Dallas.
I was proud of my Uncle as he traversed the many airports, lugging baggage to and fro and up into storage compartments (the key lesson being travel lightly and take only what you need). We found our seats, had a drink or two, and tried our best to sleep through the flight. In the morning, we had arrived back in Dallas, suffered immigration, and yet another "random security check". I tolerated the customary travel pestering as I was too happy to be home.