Here, then, as a service to future travelers, is my travelogue in links. If you happen to be heading to India, you might want to take these recommendations. Or not. As Salman Rushdie is so fond of saying, “It is true, it is not true …”
On my first trip to India, back in 1997, I found Bombay so utterly bewildering that I fled to Kathmandu on the next available flight. On the appointed day I was deadly sick, unable to keep down any food. But somehow by the time we touched down in Kathmandu, all that misery seemed to have dropped away. On the flight I’d befriended English guy about my age, and together we’d decided on Hotel Utse because the write-up in the Lonely Planet sounded good. Miracle of miracles, there was a taxi driver at the airport who actually worked for Utse and charged us nothing for the ride. And while he probably received a commission, that cost wasn’t passed on to us: the rooms cost what they cost, no bullshit. And that, in the subcontinent, is worth a premium.
The rooms are simple but adequate, the rooftop garden offers marvelous views, and the lobby restaurant is extraordinary, serving primarily Tibetan cuisine, which is something of a mix of Indian, Chinese and Russian food: thick noodle soups, potato dumplings, rich stews, savory stir-fries. And the family of owners do their best to make you feel welcome.
We spent 10 days living at the monastery, learning from the monks, meditating, and absorbing the atmosphere of this very different world. We had our difficulties with Ani Karin, the Western nun who led the course. But nothing can compare to those dawns over the Kathmandu Valley, when we all kept silence during morning tea, the chanting of the monks wafting out from the main hall to greet the arriving sun as it chased away the mist from the ripples and folds of the surrounding mountains.
The highest I’ve ever been is Muktinath in the Annapurna Himalaya. It is a place of purification where devout Hindus wash away their sins in 108 fountains that surround a Vishnu temple, while an eternal flame burns beneath a statue of the Buddha. I hiked up to it in the dim light before dawn and watched the sun rise over the ridge to the east, spreading jagged shards of illumination on the peaks to the west. I felt astonishingly close to the sky, but the mountains stretched as far above me as they did below me.
Hotel White Pearl
Located on a Muslim block in the tourist ghetto of Colaba, this Mumbai hotel (whose keychains say “Gulf Flower Hotel”) is more popular with visiting Arabs than with Western backpackers. Which is just as well, because you can get a room when the Lonely Planet-listed hotels are all full. What you get for the price would be embarrassing anywhere else in India, but for Mumbai it’s reasonably clean, ferociously air-conditioned, and offers the delights of cable television. If your TV only gets 28 channels, ask at the front desk and they’ll bring you a TV that gets 100. Our only major complaint was the rats in the ventilation system. But for under $40 in Bombay, it’s about as good as you’re gonna get.
But the real reason to stay at White Pearl is so that you can tip the elevator man and get him to take you up to the roof. Spreading out across several buildings is a luxurious hubbly-bubbly (that is, hookah) cafe where young Gulf Arabs mix in male-female groups and drink surreptitious beer with their apple tobacco and kebabs. The views of the harbor are extraordinary. It’s an exclusive club and we weren’t entirely welcome, but it was an experience not to be missed. Back downstairs, White Pearl is just up the block from Basilico, which serves phenomenal breakfasts that will make you weep with pleasure if you’ve been living off idli and dosas and banana pancakes for a few months.
This is hands down the cleanest place we stayed in all our travels. Run by a charming family out of their home, the hotel opens out onto a field where on Sundays the locals gather to play cricket. It’s close to everything you want to be close to in Cochin, like the Bascillica and the Kashi Art Cafe (see below), and you can rely on your hosts to set up your tour of the backwaters. Helpful, restful, friendly, lovely.
Kashi Art Cafe
Cochin is the only Indian city that we imagined we could actually live in, and Kashi is a big part of the reason. We would while away our mornings there over exquisite breakfasts with thick slices of grainy bread and mountains of fresh fruit, enjoying the sounds of Edith Piaf or Delta blues and admiring the extraordinary art on the walls. Kashi serves as a hub of Cochin’s thriving contemporary art scene, which hums with a genuine passion to express the complexities of Keralan culture — a mix of Hindu, Dutch, Portuguese, British, Jewish, Arabian, tribal and even Chinese influences — through innovative approaches to figurative and symbolic painting and sculpture.
I first came to know Ms. Gamuz’s work in 1998, when it was hanging on the walls of the Kashi Art Cafe. This Spanish woman and her South Indian husband, a poet and ecologist, live with their two sons in Thiruvannamalai, a small town near Cochin. There’s a kind of poignancy to Gayatri’s devotion to a positive spiritual outlook, and it turns her art into a kind of Neo-Pagan icon painting. But she manages to paint and live a set of ideals that are often voiced but rarely achieved, and for this she and her husband should be noticed, supported and paid attention.