This month has seen me mostly lounging around and taking it easy on one beach or another in Goa. While the rest of India was colonised by the up-tight Brits, Goa was under control of the Portuguese, and the laid-back Mediterranean attitude remains today. In contrast to the hassles of the rest of the country, Goa is wonderfully relaxed. If you care to read on, you'll see where I've been waylaid, and why I'm finding it hard to leave.
The train to Goa - which I thought of as the White-Folk Express - was surprisingly empty, and the Indians on board were in a minority. The journey was pleasant enough for the most part, although we seemed to spend more of the last few hours stopped than moving; I was convinced that we must have been hours behind schedule. I took advantage of having a three-person bench to myself and lay down during the delays, listening to music or studying my guidebook, trying to decide what to do when I got off the train. A cloying scent came in through the window, reminding me of the rape fields at home, though it didn't set off my hay fever as badly.
We pulled into Margao station as the sun set, only twenty minutes late. I decided to head to the nearest beach, Benaulim, which was only seven kilometres away. The choice of transport comprised of motorbike taxis - which I'm always reluctant to ride when wearing my back pack - or regular taxis rather than the usual auto-rickshaws, and I was annoyed to have to pay more for the short journey than my ten-hour train ride had cost me. I'd selected accommodation from my Rough Guide and, after a small argument, the driver agreed to drop me there (he'd wanted to kick me out at the crossroads at the edge of town). A young girl showed me the accommodation - which had a bathroom that was actually clean by Western standards - and we settled on a price of 250 rupees a night.
The next morning I discovered that the scale on the map in my book was out - instead of a five-minute stroll away, it was a hot twenty-minute hike to the beach. When I got there I realised just how spoilt I have become. The beach was rubbish - it was too straight - just a long stretch of sand, no deviation as far as the eye could see in either direction; how very boring! Benaulim is popular with middle-class Indian families, and Brits on package holidays, and I passed large estates of apartments on my walk to and from the beach that were built to house them; the bright, sturdy buildings looked quite out of place in India. I stayed just a couple of days, before finding somewhere better suited to my picky standards.
I travelled south to Palolem, a beach popular with backpackers and in fact considerably more developed than Benaulim. Local laws ban the building of permanent structures near the beach, so the accommodation consists of bamboo huts and wooden tree houses, of which there are many hundreds, possibly even thousands. Each year the monsoon washes the previous season's huts away, and the settlement is rebuilt the following year. The place wasn't fully packed out, but I was very glad that I hadn't been there for Christmas, when the accommodation prices tripled and the huts all full. As it was, considering the amount of huts and people in residence, the beach didn't feel as crowded as it might have done, and the scenery made up for it.
Palolem was much more the sort of beach I had in mind. The bay curved gently, with rocky outcrops at either end; and island off to one side, that it was possible to wade out to; tall palm trees lined the edge of the golden sand, camouflaging the multitude of huts that sprouted under their cover. There was a lot to keep my camera happy, and I've got another collection of shells to try and get home in one piece. The sea was calm, and safe to swim in (there was still a sign saying swimming in the sea is dangerous, but I think that's just because Indians aren't generally beach people, and consider swimming to be an odd pastime), and I could hear the waves splashing upon the sand from my hut. At long last I was able to get my hammock out; I think this is the first time since Laos that I've had it out - that was months ago!
Being India, each day brought a new novelty to the beach. One day it was a painted elephant taking a stroll, posing for photos (for a price) as it went. Another day a woman and her two small sons erected a tightrope six or seven feet from the ground, and the youngsters edged carefully along it, using a bamboo pole to balance, and performed some acrobatics too. I wondered whether they qualified for the "circus artiste" discount, that I'd noticed whilst interrogating the Indian Rail website. One day two men with monkeys on chains came by, getting the poor creatures to perform tricks for backsheesh; it was disappointing to see Westerners encouraging this as well as the Indians. (I was again reminded of how hypocritical I am: as I stood tut-tutting at the cruel treatment of the monkeys, I remembered of how gleefully I had watch the cats performing at the Jumping Cat Monastery in Myanmar.) The scariest sight I saw was that of a large Western lady in her 50s or 60s that I'd first thought was sunbathing topless. Instead she was wearing what I can only describe as nipple cups - it looked like she'd cut a tennis ball in two, and stuffed the ends of her pendulous breasts into each half. Most bizarre.
I'd noticed that the wet sand had a slippery, almost slimy feel to it, and wondered whether it was a thin layer of mud from all the dust around. Laying in my hammock outside my hut, I'd noticed clouds of dust puffing up into the air as each person walked by. Then I turned my mind to where the dust had come from, and I arrived at the unpleasant notion that a considerable portion of it was probably dead skin from the thousands of visitors to the beach. They say (don't they?) that dead skin makes up a lot of the dust in the atmosphere, and surely his would be exacerbated by sunburnt, peeling skin. In fact, maybe this theory could explain why India is such a dusty country: the exfoliation of a billion people. I tried very hard to put the whole issue from my mind, and wished I'd never thought of it.
After a week at Palolem, I moved to a secret location. It was a beach I'd been told about by someone I'd met a few weeks before, who had sworn me to secrecy, as it's one of the few undeveloped beaches left in Goa. Getting there should have been straight forward. I changed buses onto one that went to the town, but failed to get off at the right place - I'd been expecting a bus stand or sign, or for the conductor to let me know when we got there. A man realised that I'd missed my stop, and told me not to worry - the bus was continuing to a small market town a little further along, and after half an hour it would return the same way. He told me that he owned a shop next to the hotel, so he could show me where to get off. I could see why I'd missed it - I was expecting a town, village, something like that, but there was just the hotel (and the shop next to it) in a paddy field next to a straight stretch on the road.
I arranged a room, and had some lunch while I waited for the friendly staff to get it ready for me. I was a little put out by the fact that I couldn't see the sea - we looked to be inland to my eyes - but I was assured that it was only 75 metres away. Once I'd settled into my clean, spacious room, I crossed the narrow road, walked between the paddy fields on the other side, climbed up a wall, ducked under the branches of a mango tree, and crossed a strip of scrubland to the fresh-scented pine trees on the far side. Beyond these lay a beautiful and empty beach; a long, sweeping bay with a rocky headland at one end. I climbed the rocks and spied another deserted beach the other side.
At the opposite end of the beach to the rocks - a good half-an-hour walk away - a river spilled out into a lake behind the beach, stopping the sand from reaching the next crop of rocks, and turning the beach into a spit of sand at that end. Just along from this were two fenced-off squares of sand, each marked by a small sign which explained that they were turtle nests, containing eggs laid the previous month. A small wooden shack stood nearby, declaring itself to be the Turtle Protection Centre. Walking along the shore I watched flatfish surfing in on the waves, sometimes getting left behind until the next one came along - though, try as I might, I couldn't get a picture of them. Eight-oared crabs (I learnt their name in the turtle centre) took advantage of the super-soft sand the waves left behind by burrowing down into it to hide with a little shimmying motion, while further up the beach regular crabs dug their holes the hard way, throwing out sand as they went.
Enjoying the solitude after busy Palolem, I spent a few days exploring the area, and annoying the crabs by digging them up with my foot so I could photograph them. I'd stroll up and down the beach, revelling in the fact that I was one of only a handful on it, swim, sunbathe - and the trees lining the beach provided the perfect props to support my hammock, so I could loll in the shade during the heat of the day. I was in my element. I met some nice people there, including a retired British foursome. One couple had moved out permanently to India, while the other spent six months in Goa and the other six at home. The lifestyle certainly seemed to suit them. I was loathe to leave the secluded spot, and with hindsight I left too soon, as a dark cloud sat over me on the day I departed, catching five buses to my next destination. I may squeeze in a return visit before I leave the state.
My forth stop was Arambol Beach in the north of Goa, which is a rather strange place. The main alley is known as Glastonbury street, and the whole place does have a bit of a festival feel to it; either that, or it feels like a circus school. Walking along the beach, especially towards sunset, one can see people contorting themselves into advanced yoga positions; twirling unlit firesticks (or just plain sticks, for the beginners); juggling; playing guitars, bongos or flutes; practising martial arts; learning to kite surf and so on. At the northern end of the beach, a path lined with stalls, eateries and rooms for rent winds around the rocks, leading to a smaller, prettier beach known as Lakeside Beach. Behind the strip of sand, edged by lush ferns and jungle greenery, is a freshwater lake fed by hot springs. The sulphurous mud that lines it supposedly has healing qualities, if smeared on the naked body and left to dry, though I've not tried this out for myself yet.
And talking of naked bodies, as I often seem to, I've seen more bare bums and boobs here than I have done for a very long time. Absolute nudity is frowned upon (well, lets face it, getting your shoulders and knees out is frowned upon in India, but the hippies set the precedent here decades ago), but thongs, g-strings and those comical posing pouches for men are in abundance (I thought they were only bought as novelty gifts). All around are dreadlocks, mohicans and shaven heads, and that's just the women. There are some pukka old hippies here too, sporting beards that ZZ Top would be proud of. The beach is dirtier than I had expected - for some reason I assumed that the hippies would have clubbed together and cleaned it up - isn't that the sort of thing that hippies do? Obviously not. I am always surprised at how many of these types smoke, too. If you choose only healthy, organic food to eat, and spend the days practising yoga, reiki and other such purifying techniques, isn't it something of a contradiction to smoke tobacco?
Anyway. I again found myself grumbling at the lack of a map in my Rough Guide, which led me to choose a guest house quite a way from the thick of things. On reflection, though, I think I have the best of both worlds: I have a very short walk to a quieter section of beach from my room, and a pleasant half-hour stroll along the water's edge to get to the busier area near the rocks. My bargain buy of the month was a sturdy plastic torch, the end of which glows in the dark, which was supplied with two batteries for a mere 80p, so now walking along the beach at night is a breeze. One morning I turned left when I hit the beach, determined to walk south until I could get no further. Almost ten miles later I reached Morjim Beach, and the wide mouth of the Chapora River halted my journey. I was quite relieved, as my bare feet were already rather sore; by the time I returned (after wading waist deep through water in places, having forgotten about the incoming tide) I had massive blisters on the soles of my feet. Despite the pain, it was a great day, and my camera was kept busy throughout.
My intention had been to stay just a few days here, before getting back into travelling mode. But as the time drew nearer, I realised I was in no hurry to get back to the hot hassle and dusty grind of "real" India. Instead I decided to make the most of the chilled Goan atmosphere, and hang around for the Arambol carnival at the end of February. It's not all been lounging around and relaxing with friends though - I've visited Anjuna Market and the Night Bazaar, and even managed to get to a few yoga classes. I've booked my flight back to Thailand for 27th April, and have a tentative plan for my remaining time in India, which will hopefully include catching up with my cousin, and a friend of mine, who begins his six months in India ten days before I leave. You can be sure that I'll let you know how I get on.