Local Indian bus

A local bus in India

I was extremely reluctant to leave Agonda, but I needed to keep moving southwards to complete my loop of my ports of call in southern India before the south-west monsoon swept in at the beginning of June. The idea was to stay in the dry by trying to keep ahead of the monsoon as much as possible.
Frank the Dutchman had told me about a little coastal town thirty miles or so south of Agonda called Gokarna. One of the most spiritual places in India, it was a mecca – er, so to speak – for Hindu pilgrims who travelled there to worship. It was reachable by local bus from Chaudi, so I thought I’d check it out.
The journey down there was a bona-fide “chicken bus” experience; halfway through, a girl jumped on carrying a live chicken in a cloth shopping bag. Whilst the local buses are great if you get on them early and land a seat by a window, they can be hellish if you have to stand. The conductors will ram on as many people as they can possibly fit onto the bus, leaving you uncomfortably sardine-like on long journeys. Amazingly, it can actually be even worse if you get an aisle seat, as it will mean someone standing right over you with their armpit in your face – and I can report from in-the-field experience with regret that underarm deodorant is not yet widely used amongst the kind of people who travel on local buses. Luckily, the wafts of bodily odour are broken up by floating clouds of bad breath, so at least there’s some variation for the palate.
I had managed to bag a seat on the last stretch coming into Gokarna, only to have the woman next to me throw up; I guess I just have that effect on women. Luckily she got most of it out the window and only a bit on the inside wall of the bus and seat. We’d made it into town by that point anyway, so I was very glad to be off that bus and wandering down the winding road through Gokarna looking for the accommodation I’d earmarked.
The Gokarna Hotel International must have been a grand old building once. It was now in a dilapidated state, with yellowing walls and wiring that Prince Phillip would have had more than a few words to say about. Still, it was the best place to stay in town and the price was right.
Gokarna had real character. Its main street snaked through the town, feeding off into winding little alleys under arches and leading to little hidden temples, the only obvious signs that they existed being the chanting from inside and the dozens of pairs of flip-flops outside. The entrances of many houses and shops were marked by a chalk symbol on the ground known as a kolam, which aside from a welcome to all who arrive at the dwelling, is considered to bestow prosperity as well as preventing evil spirits from entering the house. (Personally, my evil spirit is whisky). Far from being the sleepy village I expected, it was packed with Indian pilgrim-tourists, and crackled with excitement. There was also the odd hippy-wannabe traveller too, identifiable by matted dog-fur dreadlocks and lack of shirt, completely oblivious to Indian conservatism which dictated that one shouldn’t expose one’s flesh too much. I’d seen similar behaviour amongst the tourists in Goa with women baring nearly all (and then puzzling why they got so much pestering from the local Indian men), but at least there it is more accepted. To come to conservative Gokarna and walk around with your gut out, however, was out of order in my book.
For dinner I tucked into my first thali meal (on Indian soil, at least) – a veggie assortment of curries, dals, raita and rice in little metal pots accompanied with a poppadum and flatbread all presented on a round metal tray, and eaten with your right paw. I left the tumbler of local tap water and ordered a lassi instead. A deliciously filling meal for about a dollar: not too shabby.
The following day I took an autorickshaw (a two-stroke, three-wheeled taxi) to one of the many beaches along the coast from Gokarna. I picked Om Beach to check out, as I had originally planned to stay there at a guesthouse called Namaste Cafe which had received the thumbs up from a number of other travellers online. That was, however, until I read that due to the bananas growing in their grounds, it was not uncommon to wake up in your hut to find an unwelcome visitor in the form of a spider the size of your hand. I immediately felt I’d be fine missing out on that kind of experience. I had seen a spider on the sand at Madhu’s in Agonda that you physically couldn’t have captured with a coffee mug, and that was more than enough eight-legged fun for me for this trip.
Om Beach was a wonderful little setting. Jungle was all but spilling over onto a thin but long strip of sand, and there was hardly anyone about. I walked the sand for a while, attracting a friendly companion in the form of a stray dog who followed me for ages, and looped back to Namaste Cafe for a bite to eat and a drink. It seemed a great, chilled location, and cheap too for a tourist spot. The only downer about the place was the flies, which were infuriatingly incessant and required a constant hand-jive to keep them away.
On second thoughts, perhaps spiders aren’t so bad after all.