Thursday, 15 February 2018

Time Out in Goa

Back on the road again we continued to head north and back out towards the coast, our destination – the beaches of Goa. Goa has never been a place I’ve been that bothered about seeing, mostly on account of the fact that I don’t really like beaches (much to Evan’s disgust), even less so having to stay right next to them. Sand everywhere, in the bed, on the floor, stuck to your sunscreen-coated skin. Having to find somewhere to leave all your stuff if you want to swim - I just don't get the appeal. I imagined Goa to be much like the party islands in Thailand or Ibiza, full of drunk teenagers giving tourists a bad name, but in actual fact it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I expected.

The ride to Goa was also a bit of a turning point in terms of our feelings about India. As we left Karnataka the use of the horn diminished to tolerable levels and drivers seemed to start taking that extra split second to consider the consequences of their actions. Our near misses decreased and for the first time we started to relax a little.

The only sensible route out of Mettupalayam took us up to Ooty through the beautiful mountains we’d ridden through on the train the previous day. The roads were surprisingly good, if a little slippery in places. More than once I had to pivot my bike on my heel turning a tight corner covered with a fine, almost invisible, layer of grit. Some sections of road were freshly laid, beautifully smooth new tarmac, but we know better than to get excited by this anymore as inevitably a few kilometres down the road we’ll come across the tarmac laying crew and then beyond that the gnarly, pot holed mess that they’re covering up. Someone in the roadside sign division has a sense of humour though, as at regular intervals along the verges there are signs sometimes referred to a ‘Indian Road Poetry’ that offer pearls of wisdom such as ‘Your family’s wealth depends on you. Drive carefully!’ and ‘Hospital ceilings are boring’ and ‘Don’t mix drinks while driving’.

We quickly learnt along these mountain roads that buses are actually our friends, especially going up winding hill roads. Buses overtake everything and at speed. Having a bus come up behind you is a scary thing, akin to being caught up in the running of the bulls in Pamploma at a guess. Tuck in behind them though, and they act as a kind of ‘minesweeper’ allowing you to pass everyone else easily too. There is one caution however – they rarely have working brake lights.

The route to Goa involved a couple of nights' stop in random towns. At one place we ended up with a German couple as neighbours and had dinner with them, discussing our experiences and feelings about our respective trips. It was at this guesthouse that the ‘what’s yours is mine’ mentality was reinforced. Whilst I was sitting on the bed with the door open and Evan was in the bathroom, a young local guy simply walked right into our room, pointing at my phone charger plugged into the wall, before sitting down next to me on the bed and plugging his phone in. I actually wouldn’t have minded allowing him to use it if he needed to and didn’t have his own, but to at least ask would have been nice. 

It wasn’t the first time we’d encountered things like this. Outside a restaurant some days earlier a man who was sitting on the railings next to where our bikes were parked while we had some lunch helped himself to water from our water bottle strapped to the back of Evan’s bike. In this case though I’m pretty sure he was casing our bags, figuring out how far he could push his luck and this was his test to see if we were watching. When we made it clear we were he smirked at us, jumped down from the railing and sauntered away.

Before arriving there, all I knew about Goa was that it was all about beaches and that was pretty much what we found. Beautiful, long sandy ones. Dirty, overcrowded ones. Ones populated mostly by foreign tourists, ones that were mostly used by locals. Beaches full of Russians, others full of Israelis. Quite where we wanted to be, we hadn’t a clue so we were lucky to pick Palolem Beach for our first stop. 

Blindly picking a hut at Palolem Bagpackers (no, not a typo) we were lucky to find ourselves in one of the better value accommodations on the beach. For under $20 we had a nice bamboo hut, sideways on to the beach with a comfortable bed and mosquito net and a decent bathroom. Looking at other places later we discovered that most were nowhere near the beach for that price, so we decided to stay another couple of days. We then inadvertently blew the cost of another night’s stay by ordering a couple of Bombay Sapphire and tonics from the bar. Surprisingly good regular gin 70 rupees, Bombay Sapphire 350 rupees – lesson quickly learned!

No plates or cutlery required.

Like I said earlier, I don’t much care for beaches, but this one was relatively nice as far as beaches go, a long stretch of golden sand sloping gently towards the sea with barely a rock or shell in sight. We wandered the length of it several times over the coming days, spent some time in the sea, got sunburnt and ate the best steak I think I’ve ever had. Yep, real cow steak. In a restaurant, on the beach. For the same price as Bombay Sapphire. 

I’m not really sure how we found the place, but it became our go-to for just about every meal for the entire time we were there. Every night at 7pm they showed a movie on the big screen and honestly, served the best steak I’ve ever tasted, cooked to perfection with sides of roast potatoes and steamed, buttered veg. Evan went with the fish option with salad which arrived with beautifully carved carrot flowers with tea lights in them. Breakfast for half the price of anywhere else on the beach consisted of hash brown and fried eggs, toast, butter, jam and either chai or coffee. If I could eat there every day for the rest of eternity I think I’d be very content.

380 rupees (£3.90) for THE best mushroom garlic steak I've ever tasted.

I mean look at it, it's a work of art!

Someone else also had his eye on it...

It was here too that we opted to pay for only the second lot of laundry done for us on this trip. Usually when we’ve been away laundry services have been easy to come by for a few dollars a time, but for some reason have been few and far between in both Sri Lanka and India. In most cases here asking someone else to do your laundry involves them hand washing it for you, in which case we figure we can do that ourselves. We buy a small bag of laundry powder from time to time and wash our stuff when it needs it in the sink or a bucket. If it’s warm enough it’s usually dry by morning, if not we tie it to our bikes and it’s dry by the end of the day, if a little dusty. Underwear we’ll wash daily in the shower, which is more often than not cold, but on the rare occasion we have hot water we’ll wash pretty much everything. 

When clothes get to the point they just don’t come out clean, or the seams give up, we simply discard them and buy cheap new ones or secondhand ones. A lesson we learnt a long time ago was not to carry anything we’re not prepared to throw out. As it turned out our laundry had been washed by hand on this occasion and was no cleaner than we could have got it ourselves. It was also returned to us still wet, which was very disappointing.

Figuring that we really needed to see at least a second beach to get a proper sense of Goa, we decided to try Anjuna Beach to the north. Its description as an old hippy haunt with a huge flea market once a week on a Wednesday caught our attention in particular, seeing as it was Tuesday. Searching for accommodation it appeared that Anjuna lacked the true budget options of Palolem and we ended up staying in one of the oldest places in town, Guru, a music venue with attached chalet style rooms dating back to the 60’s. The guy who originally started it, Sadguru Purushottham Naik, was a local lifeguard at Anjuna beach and ended up hosting open sessions for travelling musicians, whom he would feed with his now famous grilled cheese sandwiches and bean bhajis. As you would expect, the food was pretty damn good and the menu now extensive. The rooms? Not so much so. They were cheap, but little more than a concrete box and ours had the added charm of having a bathroom door that was hanging off its hinges and therefore could not be opened or closed fully, allowing the mosquitoes to enter through the uncovered window. In addition, the power was very unreliable and every few hours it would shut down, meaning we had no fan and ended up nearly suffocating.

Mosquito hunting in the early hours!

Anjuna Beach isn’t really a pretty place. With sections of rather dirty, sandy beach interspersed with rocky outcrops, it’s mostly used by domestic tourists now. We wandered down to the supposedly famous ‘Curlies’ bar at the far southern end and ordered some lunch – a just about edible tuna jacket potato and a Caesar salad that we had to send back. The lettuce was barely even recognizable as lettuce anymore and should have been thrown to the cows at least a week beforehand. When raising this with the manager, he poked at the salad with a fork as if to demonstrate that he didn’t get what he issue was, before just walking away, no apology, nothing.

Caesar salad, apparently.

As the sun started to set we wandered back along the beach and stopped to watch the ‘water sports’ on offer. I use inverted commas there because to call what was happening a ‘sport’ seems a little disingenuous. Paragliding boats dragged tourists through the air a little way offshore, but it was the inflatable riders that caused the most alarm. Right on the shore, amongst small children swimming, powerboats roared around with banana and donut inflatables attached to them with a short rope, throwing their riders wildly around as they wove between the swimmers. 

Every so often they would turn sharply and send the inflatable skidding across the tops of the heads of the people in the water to screams of delight from all. As if this wasn’t dangerous enough, jet skis piloted by teenagers would roar through the middle of all this, missing people by inches. I’ve seen some stupid water use in my time, but this really was something else. Add to it the ragged state of the props on the motorboats caused by ramming them into the beach every ten minutes and it surely could only be a matter of time before someone lost their arm or head.

Walking back through the clothes vendors between the end of the beach and our guesthouse if became clear that the clothes sales were a front for a very different business. Everywhere we’ve been tuk tuk drivers have also been purveyors of weed, but Anjuna is clearly the place to go for whatever else you might want – weed, pills, opium, you name it they have it – and we were repeatedly offered it all. By the look of a lot of the ex-pats living there, they were regular customers. That night we nursed our sunburn and listend to live music over dinner – a tasty lasagne that contained I know not what, but it was not mushroom lasagne as I had ordered or seafood lasagne as Evan had requested.

We’d been told that the weekly flea market was open from sunrise to sunset so we arose bright and early the following day, only to find that the first stalls were only just setting up. A coffee and a chicken burger later and the number of stalls had increased to several hundred, mostly offering the same sort of wares – clothes, jewelry, spices – and not really flea market fare at all. There were a few clothes stalls selling secondhand items, but nothing much of interest. I did spot a dress I quite liked on a stall belonging to a rather nasty man who demanded a ridiculous 1,500 rupees for said ‘designer’ dress. I declined, to which he simply snorted and turned away. 

Later I walked past again and he tried again. Evan offered him 500 rupees flat, take it or leave it. He refused. As we were walking away he said we could have it for 600, at the same time taking it from its hanger and stuffing it into a bag. Relenting, not bothered enough to fight over £1.50, we handed over 600 rupees and walked away.

For some reason, before we left the market I got a feeling that I should check the dress in the bag and it was lucky that I did. He had switched the size for a much smaller one, obviously an attempt to get one over on us. Angry, we returned to the stall ready to confront him. As it happened, he wasn’t there so we simply swapped the dresses, leaving the returned one thrown over the rack to show him he hadn’t outsmarted us after all. So unnecessary, but yet another indication of the attitude of many people here towards foreigners.

That evening, we ate a slightly stodgy version of pasta carbonara at Café Looda on the recommendation of Miko, the violin player from the band the previous night whom we had met again in the market earlier. He was playing there that night, this time with an old French sitar player and some others, an eclectic mix of psychedelia and traditional music. We decided we were ready to leave tourist town and the beach behind for a bit and venture further north, our next stop the big, scary city of Mumbai. 

1 comment:

  1. This sounds a lot better. It really is so cheap isn't it. I'm glad it's been a better area for you x