Celebrating Holi in Goa

A few years back, I entered into the damp basement of an old building in New York’s posh Upper East Side neighborhood for a gathering of Indian families. My friend and I were invited to celebrate a mysterious Hindu holiday called Holi.

We were the only white guests at the event, but our skin would not remain so for long. Unbeknownst to us, Holi was the festival of colors – a festival that involved the hurling of neon powder until every human was tie-dyed into a spirograph.

I wore a black coat that day – a coat that would never quite recover from the event. I left the party looking like a clown that accidentally wandered into a paintball arena, vowing that if I ever made it to India, it would be for Holi.

Somewhere in the neon haze of that day in New York, I forgot one key fact: Holi is a Hindu holiday. So when Holi approached and I found myself in Goa — the heart of Christian India — I went into panic mode.

Searching Google at the Internet café, the words “Holi” and “Goa” returned little results. Every blogger recommended staying in Northern India for Holi – anywhere, they said, but Christian Goa.

Yet, when I arrived at Goa’s Agonda Beach and saw specks of neon powder on the road, I realized something I knew deep inside all along: no Indian would ever let a holiday go by without celebrating, regardless of where in the country he may live.

In southern Christian states like Goa, Holi is celebrated within the greater festivities of Shigmo – a holiday heralding the arrival of spring. As such, the celebration lasts a fortnight and powder flies day in and day out until the festival ends.

Many guesthouses along the popular tourist beaches of Goa threw Shigmo parties, but to me, it seemed like an excuse for Indian men to “decorate” Western women with neon powder. I wasn’t after this sort of Holi celebration, so I rented a motorbike and drove out into the countryside on the proper day of the Hindu Holi looking for a celebration. I found it in the picturesque riverside community of Betul.

Hugging the Sal River estuary, the small, homespun village of Betul was the quintessential image of serene, rural Goa. A towering pastel church signaled my arrival in town and the palm-lined main street beckoned me in.

Far from the throngs of bespeckled tourists, I arrived in Betul just in time for the festivities. I first encountered the women of the town celebrating separately from the men. Having sufficiently painted each other with powder, the girls rinsed off — fully clothed — in the middle of the street, giggling as they doused each other with water.

I felt a tad out of place at the girls’ party so I ventured further into town and found the men, quickly realizing why the women kept their distance. The men pounded on drums and danced in circles around the center of town, flinging powder as they marched.

Bare-chested men of all ages formed a mosh pit as the girls slowly edged in on the periphery.

The chanting grew louder, the men grew wilder, and colored particles erupted from the volcano of human activity until the entire pack of wound-up neon revelers marched straight to the river and dove in.

It was nothing like the Holi in the Upper East Side basement. Nothing like the Holi on the tourist beach. This was the Holi I came to India to find.

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Diarrhea Diaries: A Guide to Surviving Traveler’s Diarrhea

***Caution! This post contains serious potty humor that may not be suitable for those with a weak stomach. Reader discretion is advised.

It all started in Agra when I discovered the best deal ever: breakfast for 15 rupees. For 15 rupees (roughly 30 cents) I got two eggs any style, four pieces of toast, butter or jam, and coffee.

Amazing, right?

Wrong! And here’s why: I wouldn’t have a solid poo for the next two weeks.

Now, solid poos were already few and far between on my trip through Asia, but two days after that breakfast I went from having what doctors call “loose stools” to what I call “sporadic waterfalls.”

I had Yosemites, I had Niagaras, I had all sorts of waterfalls – and lots of them. If they sold Depends adult diapers in India, I would have bought them in a heartbeat -it was that bad.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself. Let’s go back to that café in Agra, as there are a few details I forgot to mention.

The first thing you should know is that I ate at this café four times. It’s not that the food was good (it wasn’t), or the coffee (it was made from powder and had mysterious oily swirls in it), but I certainly filled up on the eggs, butter, and toast. Also, I came back for dinner and ate more extremely cheap food of questionable quality. Call me incredibly cheap or call me a glutton for pain. Either would be accurate.

The next thing you need to know is that the restaurant was run by a seven-year-old and his five-year-old brother. They both worked in their pajamas.

You may be thinking to yourself, what were you doing at a restaurant run with child labor? The answer is simple: I was in India.

The five-year-old worked in the kitchen while the seven-year-old served the tables at the rooftop restaurant overlooking the Taj Mahal. He seemed rather sick, but then again, most of the kids I saw in Agra looked pretty sick.

An old man overlooked the operation from a mauve couch in his house below the restaurant. He didn’t move, but he barked orders (at what were presumably his kids) throughout each meal.

Looking back, I should never have eaten at that place. But, it had a great view and I kinda felt sorry for the kids when they lured me in with their 15-rupee deal.

“Best deal in town,” they said, and I couldn’t argue with them. It was true.

Fast-forward 36 hours later. I’m on an overnight train headed from Agra to Jodhpur, “The Blue City” on the edge of the Great Thar Desert.  I awake in the middle of the night feeling funny, search for my dung roll (aka toilet paper) and head to the toilet. Squatting over a filthy stainless steel hole, feeling the breeze from the tracks below, it began.

I wasn’t in waterfall mode yet, but that time was fast approaching.

When I arrived in Jodhpur, every guesthouse was booked… except the Green Guesthouse. The concrete walls were textured with chipping flakes of sea foam green paint and the door to my room was made of mesh. Oh, and the toilet just so happened to be up two sets of stairs and on the far side of a rooftop patio.

The next two days were a workout in more ways than one. Not only was I running up and down stairs, but once I got there, I spent several minutes in squat position (a serious quad builder). And let’s be honest, this wasn’t the kind of toilet you read your Chicken Soup for the Soul on.

I still managed to roam the town. What can I say? I’m a zealous traveler who won’t let massive stomach cramps and bouts of waterfalls cascading out of my bum let me down – not when I can go to the pharmacy and self prescribe myself a magic cocktail.

After spending most of my first day in Jodhpur in bed, I vowed to walk around the second day, exploring both the massive fort and the hilltop Umaid Bhawan Palace. I clocked in three waterfalls at the fort and thought I had nothing left when I reached the palace. Right after taking a decidedly bizarre picture with a wildly mustachioed palace guard, I turned in a panic and made a mad dash for the outhouse. It seems there was a never-ending supply of geysers just waiting to erupt from my butt.

On an evening walk through town on my last night in Jodpur, I did something I haven’t done in 26 years. I pood my pants. Not a lot. But enough. It wasn’t Niagara Falls; it was more like leaky faucet.

Miraculously, things improved after that. The waterfalls became less frequent and more bearable and slowly I graduated to loose stools (a vast improvement).

Once you poo your pants, you’ve hit rock bottom. It’s all uphill from there!

——–

Back home I never talk about my poo, but on the road in less developed countries, it’s a daily topic. Sometimes an hourly topic. And it’s not just me. Strike up a conversation with strangers in a café in India and the conversation will inevitably harken back to poo.

“Did you get sick yet?”

“Whole day on the toilet?”

“Hospitalized!?!?”

Just when you’re knee deep in a stranger’s poo story, someone in the group excuses themselves, reaching into their bag for some toilet paper with a knowing smile.

“Wish me luck,” they say, winking.

Your gunna need it buddy!

Indians Taking Pictures of Indians at the Taj Mahal

Big Shots: The Surreal Sites of Varanasi

Later on this week:

MarkontheMap heads to the Taj Mahal

Big Shots: Varanasi’s Cast of Characters

MarkontheMap is back in India!

Later on this week, MarkontheMap spends an afternoon with the undertaker at Varanasi’s famous burning ghat.

Strange World: Erotic Art

Later on this week:

MarkontheMap heads to the Himalayan hill town of Darjeeling where political turmoil leads to a late night escape.