Can India ever get well

Kornelia Santoro about life in Goa - India

16 years ago Kornelia Santoro traveled alone through India on a motorcycle for two years - and stayed there. The now 48-year-old has lived in Goa since 1996 with her Italian husband Alberto and their eleven-year-old son. In December 2010 the former journalist and author from Bavaria published her first cookbook, "Kornelia‘s Kitchen: Mediterranean Cooking for India", in which she brings India closer to the secrets of Mediterranean cuisine.

Interview: Anna Werr for amicella / January 2011

About 16 years ago you traveled alone through India on a motorcycle for two years. How was that back then?

I came to Delhi, there was this motorcycle in red and chrome, a heavy old military machine with a great engine - a Royal Enfield - which you still had to start with a kick. I wasn't able to ride a motorcycle at all, that's why I'm on the train from Delhi to Goa with the machine.

In the beginning I had to force myself to start the machine every time. It was always great when I drove up to the Chaishop in Goa. Where, of course, everyone has seen, a Royal Enfield sounds like a Harley Davidson and then as a woman. It was just embarrassing that in the first few weeks I always had to get help from the guys at the Chaishop to start because I didn't have enough strength to start the motorcycle. The first part of the trip I went up to Bombay with two guys and from there we took the train to Delhi. Then I'm on my own in the north of India, in the mountains. During the day it is not dangerous on its own. Only once when a chain broke did I ask in a military camp if they could help me out with spare parts. I wanted to be brought back to my sleeping place because it was too dangerous for me as a woman alone. I set out in a jeep with two soldiers and halfway there they tried to rape me, I screamed like crazy. They stopped once and then tried again, I screamed again until they threw me out of the jeep and then drove away.

I recovered in Ladakh. I had the motorcycle repaired in Manali on the way back. From there I drove alone to Goa via Rajasthan and Puna. This trip was great and otherwise not dangerous at all, it was one of my best trips. The only problem as a woman is that you have to be careful when it gets dark, nobody dares to venture out during the day.

Did you have any problems with the culture when you first came to India?

No not at all. Goa is actually on the decline, when I arrived in 94 there was a really nice international community here - a lot of ex-hippies, a bunch of people who wintered here in Goa and also many Germans. That was really nice, but it has changed over the years. At first there were mainly bon vivants - there were flea markets and rave parties - then business people and a wave of Ayurveda clinics and yoga therapists - of a rather dubious nature.

My personal assessment is that Goa will become the Indian center for art and literature in the near future, as there is now a very good art and literature scene here.

Tell us about family life, did you meet your husband here in Goa?

A German friend introduced me to him. Already in Delhi he said "He will love you". My husband used to compete in motorcross races in his youth and taught me a little bit. We have been together since the end of 96. We got married in Milan and have been living in Goa with our now eleven-year-old son. When he was four, he went to kindergarten part-time, and when he was six, normal school started. Because of the international education he is now at a private school full time, in the public schools Konkani is the first language and we don't speak that.

How does it work with the visa when moving to Goa?

We were lucky with the visa, there was a phase in 1997 in which you could easily get a 5-year visa for India in Germany. If you could prove that you had already been to India three times, you could get this tourist visa. We were able to renew it after five years without any problems. Our son is now going to school here and therefore has a 5-year student visa. As parents, we have an ex-visa, which is a special visa for which nobody knows exactly what the criteria are - if you're lucky, you can get one. We now hope that we can renew it again. The stupid thing about it is that you have no legal certainty. Even though we bought a house here, that doesn't give us the right to live here.

How is the situation here with all the social security, health insurance, etc.?

Since I am married to an Italian, I have basic health insurance in Italy. This covers operations, hospital stays and doctor visits in Italy. We could have taken out health insurance here, but since the medical costs are still so cheap that it is better to pay them privately, it is not worth it. The medical care here is good - so I can't complain, the hospitals cannot, of course, be compared with ours. For example, if we were to have a major operation or something like that, we would fly to Italy for it, but the smaller things can be done here.

What is it like to live in Goa during the monsoon season?

They have no idea what a real rain is! They always write about floods and torrential rain (= torrential rain, editor's note) - as a Bavarian, I can only laugh about that. They have no idea what it is like when it rains for months. But of course it also depends on how you live. We have a house with a cement roof that is well insulated and has air conditioning, so that's no problem at all. If you live in an old house with an open roof, the whole house gets damp, which is less pleasant. Only at the beginning of the monsoon season the power goes out a couple of times for a long time, because all the old trees fall over and the lines run overland. You just have to be prepared and store less in the freezer, as the power goes out for at least a day at the beginning. It's just mixed weather, sometimes sun, sometimes just gray or it rains for at least 10 days at a time.

Are there things that are totally different in Goa than in Germany?

So the hardest part here is shopping. There are no large supermarkets here, you have to buy one in one shop, the other in the other, and fresh vegetables and fruits in the market. I can't go shopping once a week, I have to go shopping every day. The climate, in which everything spoils quickly, and the unsteady offer make it sometimes very difficult here.

What do you miss the most?

Most of all my family and friends, of course. The older you get, the harder it is to make new friends. But I also miss the food here, smoked sausages and a decent white sausage and pretzels - especially good beer - there is no beer like in Bavaria here.

Have you ever regretted the decision to move to India?

There are moments when I'm homesick, and I don't know whether I would like to spend my old age here. But we have a great life here, in Europe we couldn't afford it. The climate is much more pleasant, I don't like the cold winter in Germany, I get circulatory problems and my husband has arthritis.