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"I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move."
- Robert Louis Stevenson

Sickness, Sand Boarding, and a Rat Temple

Getting Sick in Goa

Goa has always been referenced as the paradise of India, a place where you could leave behind the bustle and relax in a liberal haven away from the conservative rules of other Indian states. The novels I had read painted scenes in my imagination of glorious beaches and winding roads where freedom is expressed with hair whipping in the wind on the back of a motorcycle. Deep down I knew that the Goa I had read about had evolved with the tourism of India, becoming more of a playground for foreigners than a refuge for Indians away from the city, I just didn’t know how much.

The few bits of information that Sam and I had about Goa guided us north to the beach of Arambol, where the free spirit of Goa still lived north of the resorts and wealthy tourists. The beach was beautiful, but Arambol was as crowded with tourists as I imagine any other place could have been. Every shop along the corridor to the beach was crammed full of shops selling tourists clothing, jewelry, and various souvenir knick-knacks. The beach was a line of restaurants with tables and beach chairs.

 Arambol

Arambol

During our first day we scoped out nearby beaches on the back of a scooter looking for a less crowded places to lay our bags for a week. We ended up settling at Keri Beach, the furthest beach north in Goa. It still had a few restaurants with chairs along the beach, but it was quiet and had zero shops touting their wares.

Maybe it was my disappointed attitude, but my streak of staying illness free ended after my first night out in Goa. I don’t know if it was the food, refreshment, or slightly dirty hands, but I woke up the following morning and instantly headed to the bathroom to hang my head over the toilet.

The previous evening flowed in front of my eyes and as my stomach emptied I realized there was more to come out, but from a different exit. Sitting on the toilet I knew I had a case of the Delhi Belly and hoped my vomiting was just a result of a long night out. On the bright side, having a bathroom where the toilet and shower are practically on top of each other makes it incredibly easy to clean up.

Lying in the hammock outside our little hut in Keri Beach, I forced myself to drink water to rehydrate my body. After drinking half the bottle my body tensed and I leaned over the edge of the hammock and vomited again, continuing into harsh dry heaves. In the following hours I had gut-wrenching twists over and over again as my body emptied all the water I tried to drink. I was sweaty, pale, exhausted, and fairly confident I had food poisoning.

 Keri Beach

Keri Beach

Heeding Sam’s advice, I asked for some toast and bananas – a staple of the BRAT diet (banana, rice, apple sauce, and toast), how I hadn’t heard of this in college I don’t know. I received a double decker sandwich of dry toast filled with banana slices. Not exactly what I was looking for, but it ended up getting the job done and afterwards I was able to keep down everything else I ate and drank.

It took three days and many banana lassis later to feel back to normal. I enjoyed my final days in Goa soaking up the sun, and don’t get me wrong, it is a wonderful place to visit. I was just hoping for a little more solitude. After the seven days in Keri, Sam flew to Bali, and I headed north to Rajasthan to meet my friend Robert who had been traveling for 7 months through Asia and had just reached India.

 Sunset in Goa

Sunset in Goa

I got the chance to catch the opening parade for Carnival in Panjim, Goa. I don't know the history behind this float...

Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer sits at the western edge of India beside the Thar Desert. Commonly frequented by tourists for camel safaris, Robert and I had a different goal upon reaching Jaisalmer – sand boarding (or sand sledding). We knew the dunes in the Thar Desert near Jaisalmer may not be large enough, but we were committed to see if we could make it happen.

 The Jaisalmer fort

The Jaisalmer fort

During our time exploring the Jaisalmer Fort, also known as the Golden Fort due to the yellow bricks, we popped our heads into numerous camel safari offices to enquire about sand boarding. We were met with blank stare after blank stare. One fellow who seemed desperate to make a sale, threw his hands up in the air declaring that he could make anything happen if we went with him, though he clearly wasn’t sure what sand boarding was. After a day exploring the dusty fort, gazing out over the town, and deflecting camel safari offers from those bewildered by sand boarding we realized we would have to make this happen on our own.

 View of Jaisalmer from the fort.

View of Jaisalmer from the fort.

In Jaisalmer we were couchsurfing and our host, Dev, owned four hotels, one of which we stayed at. After we returned to the hotel we spent time explaining to Dev and his brother Jora about sand boarding. After seeing our determination to go sand boarding, Dev called his carpenter to the hotel. After thirty minutes of explanation and translation we placed an order for three boards. One made of a thin sheet of plywood with a layer of Formica to help it slide smoothly over the sand and two others made of fiberglass. Robert had spent a little time researching about sand boarding, but we honestly had no idea how things would go.

The next day we received the boards and set off on our overnight camel safari, where we slept in the desert under the stars, visited the ruins of villages that once existed in the desert, and made stops to go sand boarding. The trip went splendidly, but the sand boarding failed epically.

Returning to Jaisalmer we were looking forward to relaxing on the hotel rooftop and spending more time with Dev, Jora, and other hotel guests. After a couple midday beers I told Jora that I was interested in getting my ears pierced. It is something that I have thought about before and I decided now was as good a time as any to get it done.

Jora called his guy, the brothers have a guy for everything, and his jeweler showed up at the hotel and whisked me off on the back of his motorcycle. We raced through narrow passageways of golden cobblestones, bumping off cows as we pulled up to his home. I was a little tense walking up inside the jeweler’s house, but felt more at ease after seeing the main room covered in jewelry. Obviously jewelry and piercing was this man’s business. The few thoughts I had about sanitation vanished from my head.

We sat down on a mattress, had a cup of chai, and looked over the earring choices. After the selection another man came into the room and began filing the back of the earrings into a sharp point. When he finished he sat next me to me, grabbed my right earlobe and shoved the earring through with zero warning. After glancing at the location of the piercing on my right ear he took hold of my left earlobe and made his strike again, this time needing to reestablish his grip to get it all the way through. He then took a pair of pliers to bend the metal in the back to make sure the earrings wouldn’t fall out and ended the procedure by cutting off the sharpened tips

In order to care for my ears in the first few days I was told to take my saliva each morning and rub it around the front and back of my earlobes. As the majority of men in Jaisalmer have earrings I figured they must know what they were talking about. After another chai and a quick thank you, we left the jeweler’s home for the hotel, but Jora took us instead to a barbershop to get my beard shaved. In under an hour I went from scruffy American tourist to a pale skinned Rajasthani with earrings and a stache.

Karni Mata Temple (Rat Temple)

Outside the city of Bikaner is the small town of Deshnok, home to the Karni Mata Temple. Legend has it that when Karni Mata’s son died in the 14th century she used her power to restore his life and reincarnated him as a rat. After that she decreed that all descendants of her family would be reincarnated as rats. As a result one of the strangest sights in India was created.

 Entrance to the Karni Mata Temple

Entrance to the Karni Mata Temple

Stepping off the local bus after a forty-five minute drive from Bikaner, we were at Deshnok. The path to the temple is surrounded by stalls selling souvenirs and offerings. Plenty of rat stuffed animals and plastic toys were for sale and I wondered what was in store for Robert and I.

As with most temples in India we took off our shoes to walk barefoot inside. The ground was easily one of the dirtiest areas I have walked upon due to the hundreds of rats living inside and hordes of pigeons roosting above. I had hoped that the rats would be healthy and similar to the pet rats a few friends of mine had growing up. I thought that with the massive amount of food offerings the rats would be in good condition. I was wrong.

Tails were missing, fur had been ripped out in chunks, and many had open sores and wounds around their bodies. The rats looked like they carried the plague and had just escaped from the hold of a ship crossing the ocean. Afterwards I learned that a majority of the rats have diabetes from all the sugar fed to them by visitors. This caused the abnormally large testicles that many dragged across the ground as they scurried about.

 These rats are not looking good.

These rats are not looking good.

Taking a step back from the initial condition of the temple and its inhabitants, I tried to breathe in the holiness of the temple and respect those who touched their heads to the feces caked floor in prayer. The combination of prayer and revulsion from the condition of the rats caused me inner turmoil and the only clear thought in my head was “this is so strange.”

When I tired of watching the rats pour in and out of holes and cluster around bowls of milk I exited the temple and instantly felt relief at the cleaner air outside. There weren't thousands of rats everywhere and the temple isn't an impressive structure, yet, the mixture of holiness and uncleanliness in one place gave me a new feeling I did not know how to interpret. I’m just glad my ancestors were not reincarnated as rats, sparing me from having to pray in a temple like this one. Regardless, it was totally worth the visit and is one of my highlights of traveling India.