Gokarna: Holy cow!

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Asia » India » Karnataka » Gokarna
February 9th 2013
Published: February 11th 2013
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Our journey from Arambol to Gokarna, a sacred seaside town in the state of Karnataka, directly below Goa on India’s west coast, began with a train ride from Pernhem station to Margao. When we arrived in Margao a few hours later, we bought tickets for the “express” train to Gokarna. This train would supposedly arrive sooner and get us to Gokarna faster than the normal train, but, as it turned out, the slower train was on time and left on time, while our train was an hour and a half late! Once we were finally on the train, we had to search for empty seats, as it was rather crowded, and we ended up sitting in one of the last cars alongside a group of beggar children and an elderly man who appeared to be with them. One of the children was a toddler and was sitting barefoot and naked on the floor, occasionally picking up trash and putting it in his mouth with no supervision. Each of the older children asked us and the other passengers for money multiple times, but they made such a ruckus by yelling loudly and running back and forth from car to car, climbing all over the seats (and sometimes over people), that we eventually became irritated by them.

I must admit that, while I did sympathize with these children, I instinctively, perhaps without good reason, felt the need to keep a close eye on my things for fear that they might try to swipe something. I could probably attribute this fear to books I’ve read and movies I’ve seen that portray street children in a negative light, but, unfortunately, I’ve learned that in India it can be a reasonable concern. Ultimately, everything was fine, and, as we stepped off the train at the Gokarna station, the children leaned out the windows waving and yelling goodbye to us.

We took a rickshaw into town around 4:30 p.m. and were dropped off at our guesthouse, the Haripriya Residency. Our host came out to greet us immediately, showing us to our incredibly spacious and clean room and then serving us masala chai in her living room. The couple who own the guesthouse built it as their own and later added several rooms. We sat and talked with her awhile about her family and the town, and she happily gave us advice for sightseeing as well as recommendations for dinner. Then we set out to explore a bit.

We were happy to find that Gokarna is far less touristy than Arambol. Though its main street is dotted with souvenir shops, it actually felt like an Indian town where not everyone is in the tourist business. Gokarna is considered a very sacred site, attracting pilgrims from all over India who want to dip their feet into the sea’s holy water. We quickly discovered, however, that the holy beach is not really a good place to hang out or swim because it is littered with trash and cow pies. This seemed quite strange to us, since the other beaches in the town are very clean and beautiful. We’ve come to realize during our time in India that littering is widely practiced and accepted – it’s simply part of the culture. Unlike Americans who are raised on the notion that littering is unacceptable and bad for the earth, Indians as a whole devote little time, money or energy toward protecting the environment, perhaps because that’s how they were raised and how it’s always been, or perhaps because they have more immediate issues to concern themselves with. Either way, though I find it difficult not to cringe when I see someone throw a plastic bottle on the ground when there’s a trash can right next to them, I have to remind myself that this culture I have chosen to immerse myself in is beautiful in as many ways as it differs from my own.

Another cultural difference between India and America is it’s view and treatment of cows as holy creatures. They are not killed or eaten, but are left alone to roam freely throughout the towns, or even on the beaches if they like. You definitely have to watch where you step, no matter where you happen to be walking! It’s a bit sad, however, because, since the cows are sacred and believed to be cared for and protected by the gods, no one feeds or takes care of them; therefore, there are a good many very thin, unhealthy cows roaming about eating trash or whatever they can find. While in Gokarna, we actually witnessed a cow fight, which I had never seen before. Interestingly, to break up the fight between these sacred animals, the townspeople began beating them with sticks. I suppose their intentions were in the cows’ best interest, but it was somewhat difficult to watch.

As far as sightseeing goes, we spent one full day exploring nearby Kudlee Beach and Om Beach. We followed the trail from the town and reached the first beach in about half an hour. We then walked along the water until we reached the trail that led to Om Beach (which is actually shaped like an Om symbol). It was nice to find this beach to be far less crowded and touristy than Arambol. Additionally, there was a similar number of Indian visitors as westerners, which was a nice change. However, we did see the occasional westerner sporting a thong, as well as one man casually changing out of his bathing suit on the beach. Side note: never in my life have I been in a holy city and seen so many grown men walking the streets and beach in their underwear...granted, it's better than wearing a thong or going completely nude, but I can assure you that this practice of men strolling about in their skivvies is, well, simply not okay.

Anyway, as we walked to Om Beach, we met a Swedish gentleman who accompanied us for much of the way. He was an interesting character, but nice to talk to. Once we got to the beach, we stopped for lunch and then decided to follow a trail we found along the cliffs next to the water. We found some amazing views of the surrounding landscape, but as we continued to follow the trail, it started to become less and less of a trail and increasingly more difficult to navigate. Despite our better judgment, we decided to keep on trekking since we’d already walked for a long time. At this point both Scott and I slid on loose rocks and fell – I was fine, but Scott bruised his rear end pretty badly. Still, we went on…

Eventually, Scott found what resembled a very overgrown trail through the jungle, and, after going ahead of me to check it out, he reported that it did in fact come out at our destination…if I was up for an adventurous, slightly cramped and questionably dangerous jungle hike. I figured I’d come this far, so I might as well give it a shot. Scott was right, though. We found ourselves ducking under branches and vines, attempting (and sometimes failing) to avoid thorns, climbing over rocks, walking across a very unstable “bridge” composed of intertwined vines and leaves, and basically trying not to get seriously injured. Luckily we made it out with a few scratches and minor sunburns, guzzled some celebratory water, and called it a day.

The following day, we walked around window shopping and ate lunch at a great little restaurant we found with generously portioned thalis and delicious homemade ice cream. Aside from that, we just waited for the 6:30 p.m. public bus that would transport us to Ankola, where we would then catch an overnight bus to Hampi.

As we waited, our wonderful hosts served us fresh papaya along with chai and cookies (which they didn’t charge us for) and sat down to talk with us for awhile. This was when I came upon the realization that they had assumed that I was Indian during our entire stay…something about my teeth, complexion, clothes, and, I’m assuming, my nose ring gave them this impression. They said that if I walked around in a sari and wore a bindi, there would be no question. I found this to be interesting, and, to be honest, took it as a compliment since, by not standing out so much as a westerner, I felt that perhaps I was succeeding in respecting the local culture. This, of course, is not to say that being a westerner is a bad thing, but if you walk around in tank tops, booty shorts, bathing suits or worse in a country where it’s considered disrespectful to show your shoulders or knees (and anything in between), it doesn’t make a very good impression. Another reason I was surprised to be mistaken as an Indian in both Arambol and Gokarna was due to the fact that, in Mumbai and other cities, people from small villages viewed me as a novelty and wanted their picture made with me because I’m white…funny, isn’t it?

When the time came, we said goodbye to our hosts and thanked them for their hospitality, then took the short bus ride to Ankola where our sleeper bus was scheduled to arrive at 11:00 p.m. We got to the bus stop (a skuzzy old hotel) early, ate some dinner and read for a few hours, but when 11:00 rolled around, our bus was nowhere to be found. We figured it was just running late, but, as the hours passed, we began to acknowledge that it may not be coming. The people working at the station laughed our situation off, saying “This is India” every time we inquired about our bus. Eventually, at 2:00 a.m. a bus from the company we’d booked with arrived, but, since it wasn’t a sleeper, we assumed it wasn’t ours. We were wrong. Apparently something had happened to the bus we’d booked (and paid handsomely for), and our option was to take the seater bus or nothing. So, after a cramped, sleepless night sitting next to a snorer who had night terrors, we arrived in Hampi with no explanation or promise of a refund… All part of the adventure, right? On the bright side, we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Gokarna, and as you’ll soon find out, the trip to Hampi, as frustrating and tiresome as it may have been, was well worth it.

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