November 9, 2002
India has some of the world’s most glorious temples, sacred art and fascinating historic sites. But you won’t hear about them here. This installment of MMGFFF is all about the beach.
The official slogan of the Goa Tourism Development Corporation is “Goa: Land of Sun, Sea and Sand”. But it could just as well be “Goa: Like you aren’t even in India anymore”. We had heard the same thing from every tourist we met on our way South and they all meant it as high praise. This may seem strange, coming from people who, presumably, are traveling in India because they want to. Nevertheless, Goa is often seen as a vacation from traveling elsewhere in India.
The different flavor of this tiny state has a lot to do with the Portuguese. They colonized the area and tenaciously refused to give it up until the 1960’s. Even when they finally bailed, some things were left behind – on the decrepit government bus that took us to Palolem beach from Madagon, Helene and I were bopping in our seats to an Indo-pop-rap version of “Jesus, Light of the World” instead of the usual ear-splitting Hindi show tunes. The presence of a large Christian minority accounts for other differences, not the least of which is that alcohol is cheaper and more widely available than anywhere else in India. And, after two months of involuntarily thinking “Prime Rib” while the rump of yet another sacred cow wandered by, I was finally able to make a selection from the “Beef” portion of the menu. It was cooked by a woman named Maria, and served to me by her husband (you guessed it), Joseph.
Palolem looks like a tropical paradise. The beach is crescent shaped and lined with palm trees. The huts, cafes and hotels that fringe the beach are all built out of bamboo and palm fronds. Fisherman head out in handmade boats and local women collect mussels from rocks when the tide is low. The beach was relatively quiet, with some Indian families, honeymooners, and a few dozen foreign tourists sharing a couple of kilometers of sand. Of course, the animals make things a bit busier. Despite the strong Christian influences, two thirds of the population of Goa are Hindu, and during the heat of the day sacred cows and bulls were as anxious for shade as Helene and I. They’re bigger than us and have horns so they usually won. We would retreat to a cafe for a cold beer and a snack, where we’d be surrounded by some of the dozens of stray dogs who make the beach their home, living off the scraps that tourists feed them. Venturing back to the water at sunset, we’d be greeted by pigs, happily nosing about in the sand for a few snacks before bedtime. All this wildlife means you have to be very careful where you lay your sarong down.
Still, we enjoyed some fabulous weather, and every afternoon congratulated ourselves on our fantastic timing. We’d hear thunder off in the distance, but the rain clouds never seemed to come any nearer. Then one afternoon, hiking away from the beach, we realized why. As we rounded the corner of an island, we came across a few fishermen throwing dynamite in the ocean. A few seconds, a loud BOOM, a few more seconds, and dozens of dazed and dead fish floated to the surface. We’d found our thunder, and also where those delicious mackerel dinners were coming from.
En route to our next destination, the beach at Gokarn, we detoured inland to Hampi. It wasn’t easy. There’s a train that runs from Goa to Hampi, but when we went to buy a ticket, we were told we couldn’t. There was a strike and the train wasn’t going. Strangely though, the platform that our train was leaving from was crowded with people, who, when we asked, believed they were going to Hampi (via Hospet, the closest railway town). So we went to the ultimate authority, the Stationmaster. “It is arriving on platform one,” he told us. “But the ticket seller told us it is cancelled,” we said. “Yes, it’s cancelled.” he agreed. Still unconvinced, we went back to the ticket kiosk, where the worker agreed to sell us a ticket halfway to Hospet. On the train we asked again. “No train,” said the ticket collector. But when we went to get off the train at the halfway point, we were the only ones who budged. So we climbed back on the carriage. And the train carried on to Hospet, right on schedule.
Hampi sees a lot of foreign tourists and has developed the same druggie-hippy edges as Manali and Pushkar. Little stores sell tie-dyed t-shirts and magic mushroom wall hangings. The per-capita number of dreadlocked heads probably rivals Jamaica. It’s not hard to see why tourists flock here. The area is covered with huge boulders in weird and wonderful formations and there are so many ruined temples, caves and other sites that you could spend a month looking. But I’m not writing about any of that right now because I promised this would be about the beach. If you want to know more about Hampi and it’s temples, look here.
Gokarn is in the same state as Hampi, Karnataka, which means no beef on the menu, but the surf is just as good and the beaches are less crowded than Goa. The village temple houses a lingam the sight of which, according to Hindu belief, cleanses the pilgrim of previous sinful behavior. The town beach is also considered a holy area, with Hindus from all over India performing pujas in the shallows. Needless to say, swimming and sunbathing on the town beach are not encouraged. So on our first afternoon in Gokarn, Helene and I took a quiet walk along the surf instead. As well as all the puja articles (mostly flowers and coconuts) washed up on the sand we also came across a dead dog, a syringe and several men going to the bathroom: more reasons not to swim at the town beach.
A half an hour walk out of town is the quiet, kilometer-long Kuddle beach and twenty minutes beyond that you find the slightly larger Om beach. At both places there were rarely more than a dozen people out at a time – more than enough room to be anti-social. Occasionally groups of vacationing Indian men from Bangalore – never any Indian women – would arrive for an hour or two. Inevitably wearing nothing but a pair of Y-front underwear they’d try and chat us up. “How about we go back to your hotel room and party?” one asked us, and was mystified when we turned him down. We soon discovered that none of these guys seemed to know how to swim, and a trip into the sea was pretty effective at shaking off what we took to calling “the underwear brigade”.
Despite the relative peace and quiet, we became infected with deserted-beachitis and spent one day clamoring over rocks and cliffs, bushwhacking through the jungle to get to an even quieter stretch of sand. Helene has a snake phobia ï¿½ she can’t even look at a picture of one calmly ï¿½ so this was quite the trek, with me walking first and beating the ground with a stick the whole way calling “snake, snake get out of our way”. By the time we made it to a beach that suited our purposes – there was absolutely no one on it – we were exhausted and half-terrified from imagined cobra sightings. We turned around and went back without even going in the water. That night in our swankier than usual hotel room, The Beach was showing on satellite TV. The plot follows a bunch of backpackers, who, looking for the perfect deserted beach, are sucked into an ever-worsening situation including shark attacks, murder and other types of mayhem. We took the hint. After ten days in Gokarn, it was time to hit the road again.