For my brother Jez
I wish you were here to read this blog. I know that you would have loved to share stories of the characters we have met. I know that you would have loved to travel through India. Lets face it; you embraced everything in life to the full!
Your passing was one of the major reasons for us to finally stop saying ‘tomorrow’ and make this adventure a reality…we miss you and this post is for you…
Given that Catherine was in the prime of a bout of dysentery (see last post), we decided that we would need to stay where we were for a week or so. We would have moved on a little quicker in all likelihood, but the familiar surroundings were deemed essential to recovery. The good news was that Palolem turned out to be a great place to do this and we saw the beach transform over the seven days as the season kicked off in earnest. Here’s how it unfolded…
Week 5 – 20th t0 the 26th October
The week started with the beach still quiet on the whole, although the previous weekend had brought many Indian tourists by bus to paddle and sit in the surf (fully clothed of course).
Despite this there were no kayaks to be rented, no body boards to be over enthusiastically paddled, no shops selling toilet roll and Pringles on the beach and not all of the restaurants were open. Indeed, Catherine had to spend the rest of her illness lying in bed whilst about 20 people built 10 wooden shacks and a restaurant not 5m from her head.
As she was now capable of holding short conversations (many of which were expletive laden synopses of what had just occurred), we decided that some errands needed running. This led to the next joyous event of the trip…our week with a Royal Enfield.
In India there are two classes of 2-wheeled transport, Royal Enfields and everything else. Thankfully, they are not massively fast or powerful (350 & 500cc are the only two engine sizes, of which there are many trim variations from desert khaki to classic two tone) but they are beautiful and their riders are revered and respected by all other road users. So popular are they that there is a 12-month waiting list in a country that does not do lack of supply.
Having coveted one of these lovely bikes since we arrived I went to see the bike rental guy who had been cooing me (whilst I looked like a lovesick schoolboy) all week. Based at the head of the beach, he and 2 or 3 of the traders situated there clearly ran things in the same way as the Jain family and 2 or 3 traders had run the square in Jodhpur. It pays to identify these people and do some business with them as they then keep the hawkers of your back. They also usually know where and how to get hold of anything you need. One of the nicest guys was called Sanjay and he had every product known to man in the small draws under his desk, as well as a ready supply of Orange Frutella…hhhmmm… Orange Frutella.
Anyway, there waiting for me was a gorgeous, Royal Enfield 350 Bullet in classic two tone black and cream. Mine, I mean OURS for £6 per day. Trying to keep an air of cool calm I picked up and nearly dropped the bike immediately. It weighed many, many kilograms and appeared to be made of high-density steel and centimetre thick chromium. I started her up and the familiar sound of a large single piston rumbled out of the exhaust, not ridiculous like a Harley but more like the belly rumble of a Victorian industrialist!
As I rode around the backstreets of Palolem, Agonda and Patnem, picking up altered skirts and taking care of some bookings we had made I quickly realised that using the throttle was like poking thunder with a stick. It was just great. The large wheels and actual moving suspension meant that no fillings were lost bouncing over the rough roads. The enormous horn drowned out the best India had to throw at it and led to partings in the traffic that Moses would have been proud of (especially given the large numbers of Christian Indians in Goa). We kept hold of this dream of a machine for the rest of our time at Palolem and it made every journey a thing of joy!
Other than meeting the bike of my dreams, the next 2 days was spent bringing Catherine slowly back to life. To this end we took walks of steadily increasing length, gradually reintroduced food and either read, played guitar or worked on this very blog. By Wednesday evening she proved her health by fording the river at the end of the beach during high tide (about 5ft deep and 40ft across) in search of a cocktail from the bar at sunset point. The motivational effects of multi-coloured alcohol are strong indeed.
Whilst refreshing ourselves we decided to go on a dolphin watching trip and hire some kayaks, if only we could find them. The fishing boats had all been lined up at the back of the beach since we arrived, with no sign of crews. Furthermore we hadn’t even seen a Kayak. However, I managed to find the skipper of a boat that was right outside our beach hut and booked him for 8am the following morning.
As was now the scary norm, we were up at 7am and, after a short ride on the thunder-mobile to get some cash, we were away on our dolphin trip. I think subconsciously we must have associated dolphins with mental and physical therapy and healing, as Catherine’s extraordinary good luck with regards to wildlife encounters once again prevailed. Not 10 minutes into the trip and less than a mile from the enormous curve of beach, Catherine spotted the first Dolphin out in the bay. Within 5 minutes we were cruising along with a pod of 3 or 4 individuals surrounding us.
At one point it got ridiculous as 2 dolphins took turns to break the surface either side of the bow of the boat. So eager was I to fix my gaze on Catherine’s shouts of ‘this side, no that side, no this side’, that for about 20 seconds I was perfectly out of phase with the dolphins themselves. Being British I used my experience of being painfully unable to pass an oncoming pedestrian on a narrow footpath to stop, assess the situation and make one heroic change of rhythm to get back in step! Over the hour we were out in our traditional Goan fishing boat we must have seen about 8-10 dolphins up close and the excitement did us no harm at all.
The resulting good mood carried through to the rest of the day. Firstly, we came up with a good idea for a creative project for Catherine. She had been slightly envious of my freedom to pick up the travel guitar and we had been trying to come up with something that would be of interest to her, whilst also being portable so we could take it with us. Every day at low tide, thousands of tiny crabs created a vast bed of patterns on the beach, as they rolled tiny balls of sand out of their burrows. Catherine has always loved natural forms so we thought perhaps we could take photos, trace them via the Macs backlit screen, transfer the designs onto plain skirts or tops and then sow over the pattern with beadwork. The clothing idea came from a Desigual skirt that Catherine brought with her.
Over the next 2 days we found out that, once you get used to the chaos of provincial Indian towns, you could even put together a small haberdashery kit if required, inclusive of thimble and dressmakers chalk! Catherine launched into her new project with gusto, making sketches and testing out her new kit.
In a further development we both had a requirement for new shoes. This was due, on my part, to the hoards of ravenous and angry dogs that sometimes take up camp on Goan beaches. There are stray dogs in great numbers all across India (except perhaps Kerala, where they seem to have got matters under control quite humanely); however, in Goa they are a right bunch of moody aggressive little gits.
Anyway, two such dogs, all be it at cute puppy stage, got hold of my flip-flops (the souvenirs of my fleecing in Delhi – see post 1) and tore them up. Catherine had also posted home some shoes on the ‘one blister and your out’ rule and we suddenly realised we hadn’t worn any footwear at all for a couple of days. It came as quite a shock and we had to check that we hadn’t accidentally become hippies without realising it!
On the way to get sandals (whilst quoting Danny the hippie from Withnail & I ‘Do either of you have any shoes? I lost a clog’) we stopped for what has proved to be the only kick-you-in-the-face-tear-you-a-new-proverbial-please-help-me-I-cant-stop-sweating-mental-hot-curry. And it wasn’t even the extremely manly ‘Shark Vindaloo’ (see photo). I fear we brought it on ourselves, as the previous evening we/I had mocked the restaurant owner for opening without 90% of his menu available.
‘Come back tomorrow’ he implored,
‘But we want genuine Goan food, not watered down tourist dishes’ I retorted,
‘Come tomorrow and I promise you authentic Goan’ he said with a glint in his eye,
‘Ok we will’ I promised
‘I’ll give him authentic Goan’ he thought as I flounced off along the beach.
And so it proved, as even the heat shield of a space shuttle could not have protected us from impending meltdown. The evening ended with us full of curry-derived endorphins happening across yet another festival. This time all pretence of the usual van-with-a-shrine concept was dropped and the organisers went straight for the ‘eardrum bursting sound system reversing up the street on a small truck’ approach.
The truck in question gently nudged a crowd of 100 or so highly euphoric Indian youngsters and a few pie eyed european ravers along the back streets of Palolem. Memories of Passion all-nighters (circa 1991) came flooding back, especially when the DJ dropped the beat, much to the bouncy delight of the pulsating mass of dancers.
Over the next couple of days we stayed pretty close to the beach hut. This was necessary to an extent as I had a moderate case of prickly heat on my back. It’s a pretty crazy sensation, not pain exactly, but definitely enough of a step up from pins and needles for me to make a fuss and expect sympathy! The only way round it is to take lots of cold showers and douse yourself in talc. I became very soft and velvety….
With this restriction to our maximum radius, we enjoyed checking out a couple more excellent restaurants. By this time we really did know our Tandoor from our Thali and Palolem has excellent examples of everything in-between. We had all manner of fish and Tiger prawns and became addicted to exotic Naan breads (much like having your first proper thin Italian pizza base, Indian Naan breads are much less yeasty and filling…but much more tasty). We spent most of our time browsing the village and took long walks on the beach, especially first thing in the morning when it was cooler, quiet and the fishing boats were being slid on their temporary wooden tracks in and out of the water.
Getting my debilitating condition (bad pins and needles, as described) under control also meant we were on hand to witness the transformation of the beach over the 48 hour period. We have been travelling through India during fringe season. High season is from November to March in the main, with some areas starting slightly later than others. Anyway, we thought that things might get busier at some point but liked the generally chilled and un-crowded atmosphere.
Whilst in Goa we had learnt that the tourist industry, so essential to this tiny Indian state, had suffered in recent years. One reason for this was the shift in marketing emphasis from the British to the Russians. Goa had sought to upgrade its industry by appealing to higher spending Russians and numbers of traditional British backpackers, hippies, and Thomas Cook’ers fell by up to 50%.
The Russians did (and still do to an extent) arrive in numbers and by all accounts (and a few experiences, it has to be said) were mean, rude and complained a lot. Not like us lovely Brits who’s natural societal guilt would prevent us from complaining even if a cockroach was riding a rat across our dinner table. However, things changed when Russia’s economy took a bad turn and the Russian numbers and spending dropped significantly.
This and other factors meant that there was a quite palpable apprehension with regards to how the season would start. For most of the small beach resorts the different tribes, day tripping indian families and backpackers (British, German and Israeli) kept them turning over, but what they are really waiting for is the charter flights to start arriving. What we didn’t realise was how quickly the beach would transform from a quiet and relatively empty place, all be it full of potential energy, to a kaleidoscope of beach life.
It would appear that the first wave of charter flights started arriving during this week as we awoke on Friday morning to a changed scene. Where 1 or 2 fishing boats had been offering Dolphin trips, all but a small handful were now pulled to the surf whilst a new breed of hawkers in captains hats tried to talk tourists into a ride…right now…lovely best boat…please guarantee many dolphins…if dolphins in area.
In addition, about 200 Kayaks must have arrived on a low loader that night, as they were all now available at Rs100 (£1) per hour. These changes were augmented by a raft of tiny shops springing up right on the sand selling Pringles, toilet roll and sun tan lotion. Apparently all we could need or desire!
The amount of change in just a couple of days was astonishing and, whilst I wasn’t disappointed (you cant expect not to share such a beautiful place and I like lively beaches), I was glad that we had seen it for several days before the butterfly crawled out of the chrysalis. So the beach became suddenly busier, as though a valve had been opened and the black gold of tourist rupees had come bursting out. This meant that the different groups of beach dwellers competed for less space and resulted in great people watching conditions.
Goa is a go to destination for young Israelis just out of national service and this led to large, highly fit, immensely attractive but quite introverted groupings taking up residence outside our shack. Although as friendly as anyone else once the ice is broken (I made friends with one group having helped them find a beach they were trying to locate), there is a certain edge to this clan that we could only presume to be the product of several years of military training and front line service. The subsequent R&R time is a strange combination of bohemian yet disciplined debauchery, lived out within very tight budgets.
Whilst we heard tales and saw first hand their inevitably combative attitude to all and sundry, we also saw an immense display of hula-hooping, poi twirling, Frisbee throwing and volley-balling prowess. We likened it to watching many Mr and Miss worlds competing in Rhythmic Gymnastics, right outside our veranda. I lamented that the closest I ever got was playing California games on the Mega-Drive when I was 15! One girl in particular struck both Catherine and I as using a Hula-hoop and her sexuality to send cupids arrows flying round the beach as if living a particularly graphic episode of Game of Thrones!
Our final tasks of the week were to book our next stops on the trip, including our flights to Sri Lanka and on to Thailand. I won’t labour the point, but for a country so associated with technology and telecoms outsourcing, the Internet infrastructure is bloody awful. This is fine when you are trying to ignore the world, however, if you are trying to book a flight near Christmas it’s a nightmare. Once again it took 3 days of on and off effort to book a flight, as both booking and payment have to be done online. In the end we had to phone someone at Cleartrip and convince him to go off script (no mean feat in India) and use his Internet to pretend to be us!
This achieved we also decided to alter our own plans and delay getting to Kerala in order to take a trip to the ancient ruins and even older landscape at Hampi, in Karnataka. This place had come up in conversation several times but we were put off by the 14-hour coach trip to get there. This would need to be repeated 3 days later to get back (as all the trains were fully booked) and Catherine is pathologically opposed to coaches. More on this trip in next weeks post but it turned out to be one of the most amazing places we have ever visited.
With everything finally booked we settled down for our last few days in Palolem. We spent our time Kayaking around the bay, checking out more resorts (special mention goes to Cozy Nook, which had the most inventive décor, lots of hanging chairs and great food), swimming in the warm and inviting sea, body-boarding (my only beach achievement was catching waves when the Israelis couldn’t, although I fear I both looked like a sad uncle and got way to excited with my achievements!) and enjoying the scenery.
On the Sunday we had reason to be reflective as my brother Jez’s ashes were being spread at his beloved Pippingford Park near Nutley. Jez spent many years devoted to carp fishing at Pippingford’s lakes and the Morris family who own the estate very kindly offered to plant a tree in his name. We are 5 ½ hours ahead of the UK and so at 4.30pm (11am in the UK – tree planting time) we walked to the large rocky outcrop at the northern end of the beach and watched the sun slowly fall in the sky as we sat in silence.
I tried to recall all of the adventures and fun times that I had shared with my brother, who I idolised as I was growing up. Its been a couple of years now since he passed and, whilst it is always sad that he is no longer with us, it is now easier to reflect on what he brought to us and the world.
We miss you Jez.
Robin and Catherine xx