Round the World Travel Guide
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#5: 1st July 2001
The Monsoon arrives in Goa
It seems a long time ago now, as so many of these places we have visited do, yet in reality it was not even two weeks ago that we were still lazing in Goa, now a distant, but very good memory.
We stayed at the Hotel Causeway, on the Colaba causeway, Mumbai (formally Bombay). It is renowned as the most expensive place to stay in India, basic rooms in not much more than run down guest houses on the back streets with a shower (but no window) can set you back 400Rs in high season. After sweating around trying to find a place that was clean and had a shower and a window, and not having much success, we opted for a mid-range hotel, more expensive but worth the money for the Air-Con room, nice shower and cable TV. It was a bit of a treat, but we were only there for one night, and for 1200Rs we deserved a break from the heat and the grimy places that were the alternative.
The afternoon before we left Mumbai was spent in a local bar, where Eddie was the only female and we were the only non-Indians. It was a real Indian man’s drinking bar, and because we had to check out of our hotel by mid-day and our train wasn’t to leave till the evening, we had nine hours to kill. So, in true Brit fashion we headed off to the Gokul Bar, a non-descript place in a street behind the main Colaba causeway. Men were sitting in groups laughing and chatting loudly, not taking any notice of the two foreigners sitting on the side wall with large backpacks and all their worldly belongings alongside them, (which was a bit of a novelty coz we must have been a little unusual). And for good reason, in this bar they ordered spirits by the bottle. Waiters were handing out bottles of whiskey, rum and the like to groups that seemed to be happily swilling it down. Now this is our kinda bar, we felt very much at home. Don’t get us wrong, we are not raging alcoholics (those at home may disagree) but there is nothing like getting merry for killing the hours till the off…
Not partaking in the spirits (that was to come on our next visit to Mumbai…), we settled in to some serious beer drinking at a fraction of the price of the “tourist” bars like Leopold’s on the main street. Anyway, to cut along story short, six hours later and a good number of beers consumed we wobbled around a bit attempting to don our back-pacs and sauntered off nonchalantly, feeling that an afternoon was well spent, in search for a taxi to the station.
Little did we know that there are two main train stations in Mumbai, and having bartered a taxi driver down in probably the best manner we have ever achieved (it’s amazing what drink does for you), we set off to the station. We arrived from up north, unbeknownst that there was a separate terminus serving the southern bound railways, and Goa is of course south.
So there we were feeling warmed and happy, just been dropped at the wrong station, and happily oblivious to the fact. Hunger set in, and we rallied around the stalls avoiding the large number of beggars that seemed to materialise from thin air to stock up on fruit, crisps, Bombay mix and the like. We were a little early, so we weren’t too much in a hurry to find our train. 45 minutes to go, we still hadn’t found our train, we searched the departures board for our train number, of course there is no sign of it, and so the realisation started to dawn on us.
Using the backpack as ballast I managed to get to an information window bypassing the queue slightly, knowing how fast queues for these booths move, and then find out that the train indeed departs from another station. Suddenly quite sober (stuck at the wrong station in the late evening with less than half an hour to spare does that to you), we found ourselves a taxi pronto, didn’t bother to barter, and were soon winging our way back to Colaba. The Mumbai CST station was just down the road from where we were originally. (There is a moral to the story I guess about being prepared and not drinking so much, but hey, this is India and they always say that anything is possible in India)
Thanks to a snappy driver and our legs that turned bionic, we wound around the people lying on the station floor waiting for a train (Indians like to lounge in large groups on the station floor having socials and possibly a picnic in some cases), avoiding again thin air materialising beggars (how do they do that? Sixth sense for westerners?), to clamber aboard the last but one carriage just before the train started its slow move out from the station. Made it, but we were a long way from our nice comfortable AC sleeper class cabin. In fact, we were in a third class seating only carriage stuffed, and I mean crammed full, of Indians who all had suddenly found something quite interesting had entered their carriage. Had we arrived at our reserved area much later, I think we may have lost it to the waiting list. As it was, albeit just, we arrived ticket in hand, drenched in sweat, no doubt smelling of beer based BO for our trip to Madgoan, Goa.
June in Goa is just when everybody is leaving, the monsoon is said to arrive on June 10th, although the dates vary from person to person, and when it comes there is no way of telling when a downpour will come, and for how long it will last. We were lucky; our first week was glorious sunshine with a shower here and there, but no monsoon. We stayed at the very friendly family run Rosario’s Inn just off the beach road in Benaulim.
Benaulim is where I stayed the last time I was there, and the changes were immeasurable. What was a small local fishing village with few solid built houses, and no guest houses bar a couple on the beach, is now a fully tourist orientated area with everybody cashing in on the money brought in by the travellers, and to some extent the wandering package tourist. There are so many places to stay, eat, e-mail, book tickets etc that it would have been hard to choose. Thankfully, the low season had a lot of the places closed, and it was quiet and peaceful.
We hired a scooter for rock bottom low season concession price, 100Rs a day, and took in the local area. Next door is Colva, a busier metropolis, and a lot of Indian tourists. Some fine food was served at the beach restaurant, which had an open-air tandor oven. Further south is the beautiful beach bay Palolem, a stretch of sandy beach in a sheltered cove away from anywhere. A few long-termers were still hanging out here although most places had closed up, and the coconut palm built beach restaurants and rooms for rent had been secured with tarpaulin against the coming monsoon. We spent the sunny days on this beach, watching the fishermen take their boats out to trawl the bay. It’s a system that takes a co-operative, the whole village participates, and therefore they share the bounty.
A boat with six oarsmen and a long net, sets off from the beach, the end of the net is held via a long rope by a group of men on the beach. The boat heads directly out to sea, crashing over the incoming waves. This looks like really hard work as the whole exercise is done as the tide is coming in. As the boat pitches over the last of the waves and they reach the outer limits of the bay, the net is released bit by bit into the water, remember that the guys on the beach have hold of a long rope attached to the net, some 200 metres away on the beach. So the boat starts to traverse the bay, in fact there are two boats, both starting from the middle of the bay, and traversing away from each other in two huge arcs to encompass the whole bay.
When the boats run out of net they head back to shore with the end of the net secured by another long rope held within the boat. So here we have a bay, two nets in total covering the outer limits of the bay, and on shore teams of eight men at the end of each rope. For the next two hours or so they continually pull in the nets, gradually trawling the whole bay working as a team. They have long poles that they attach to the rope in the middle, one man either side of the rope putting their backs against the pole and slowly pulling in the nets. As they reach the back of the beach they untie the pole, head back to the waters edge and start over. At any one time three teams are pulling the nets in as one team unties and starts again at the front.
For two backbreaking hours they haul at the long ropes, the women start to gather on the beach with their sorting baskets as the net starts to come visible in the waves. The last half an hour becomes more frantic as the two teams converge together and others are in the water behind the net stopping any escaping fish. As the net closes and the fish become more confined there starts a flurry of fish jumping out vainly trying to escape the net. Silver flashes catch the sunlight just above the water in a cloud of jumping escapees. This is when all the effort comes to a climax, the nets are pulled together and in onto the sand as quickly as possible to minimise the loss and others are frantically trying to scoop the one that got away and throw it onto the beach.
Finally the catch is sorted, after about three hours from when the boats were launched from the beach. The catch is weighed up, a mixture of sand and plastic rubbish hide the true extent of the catch, and another 20 minutes or so pass before we can see the haul. I guess “haul” is a bit strong, for after all the effort that goes into the exercise, the catch is pitifully small, maybe 4 or so fish more than 20 centimetres in length in the catch that we saw. The majority were small fish, craps and a small number of prawns. The catch is an average one, not good, but not bad, enough for the villagers to share out into piles and put in their baskets for the evening meal, maybe a bit over to sell on the road side for a few rupees, but no more. The fishermen stand and discuss the catch while the women sort and share. A few mangled fish that were unlucky enough to get to close to a crab are given to the beggars that sit hopefully on the sidelines, ribs protruding violently from beneath ragged clothing, their children seemingly oblivious playing with a small discarded crab.
After all that work the boat is pulled from the sea on oiled wood slats and stored where the sea can’t reach, ready for it to happen all over again the next day. The beach clears, leaving the few foreigners walking back to their beach towels. Four times we saw this, and each catch was just enough to feed them for the next 24 hours. It’s a relentless daily chore through monsoon season, when the sea beyond the bay is too rough and the winds too strong for the boats to venture further.
Palolem is the only beach we found with a bay, the rest of the coastline is one super long beach, reaching from the south right up to the north of Goa, only breaking the river estuaries around Panaji, the capital town of the state. We travelled to the northern beaches and found them also to be closed and free of western travellers, bar the long term hard and fast travellers who seemed to have lost the real world, happy in their little group in Anjuna, another beach area with a limited number of travellers still catching the last of the sun before the rains. We didn’t get there but were told by others who did that Vagator was still a lively haunt with a number of hangers on still doing the Goa thing.
Back at Rosario’s Inn we had amassed to six rooms occupied, and little parties were occurring in the evenings when we all got together to chat and drink the bar dry. The rains came with a vengeance bang on time, June 10th, four days before Eddie’s birthday, and the day was spent reading and chatting across the balconies of our rooms. I got a book done and dusted in that day, as there wasn’t much else to do. Even a quick dash to the restaurant area guaranteed a thorough soaking to the skin.
That’s the problem with Goa, it’s a beautiful area of India, and rightfully attracts people from far and wide in the season. The beaches are good, the water is warm, and there are beach parties and raves as well as the abundance of bars and restaurants for night life. As the winds pick up and rains fall, this all disappears, leaving a quiet and peaceful deserted shell of what was. We like the peace, and Benaulim, although probably not our choice in the season, was perfect for the time we were there. In the centre of Goa, it gives easy access to all the other parts of the state, and the serenity of the low season suited us. For those who need more excitement in their lives, visit here when the weather is good and the parties are loud! (it makes us sound old… we are very young at heart, and can party with the best of them, really.)
It didn’t rain every day, and when it did it was warm rain that left the air fresh and crisp. It was easy to dodge into a bus shelter or the awning of a local shop. You could tell just when the rain was about to fall, the air gets sticky and close, the wind starts to rustle the tree tops, and then suddenly the air becomes cool. That is the time to seek shelter. It gives you enough time to find a spot to stop, get the stand up on the scooter and away to the shelter, which will rapidly fill up with every passing person caught short.
The rains sometimes lasts a hour or so, sometimes only 10 minutes. The persistent rain eases to a drizzle, and everybody goes on their way. A couple of times we were caught in the open, and by the time you find somewhere to stop you are so soaked through that you might as well carry on anyway. It was pleasant riding in the rain, until it got so hard it felt like hail against your face, but as soon as the sun comes out, and the air becomes warm and fresh, your clothes start to dry.
Panaji was a disappointment, however Old Goa was not. The impressive churches that contain impressive murals and carvings dwarf those elsewhere in Goa and are really worth seeing, along with the morbid casket in one that is said to house the real mortal remains of a long dead St Francis Xavier that is on show at one of the churches. It was set high up on a huge marble and silver-plated ornate showcase so you couldn’t see in it despite the glass sides. Nice…
The day of Eddie’s birthday was a fine sunny day, the rains held off and we swam in the sea. That evening we dined at our favourite restaurant, called Fish Land, off the beach road in Colva. It’s been rented for the last five years and run by a friendly young couple with two kids who looked after the next door house for the owner who spends a lot of time in the UK. They became our friends, as we were frequently in their restaurant for the good, freshly cooked fish they offered. A special trip to the fish market for some local Pomfret fish was made for the occasion, sparkling champagne-style Indian wine was purchased together with a moist sponge cake with “Eddie” iced onto the top. On the table as we arrived they had set a bouquet of flowers that they had bought for her. The sky was clear and we drove home under the stars after consuming a mouth-watering meal cooked Goan-style.
The next day we packed and left Goa after enjoying 18 days of its company, where we relaxed, swam and turned a luscious brown despite the rains. The train left for Mumbai on time, (only one station in Madgoan, thank God…) and the AC broke down half way through the night. When I say broke down, I don’t mean it stopped working, I mean it wouldn’t stop working. We froze that night, the whole carriage complained and not a lot of sleep was had. I gave Eddie my blankets, and headed for the warmth of the area outside the cabin where the walk way joined the carriages together. I sat and read for a couple of hours while railway employees tried to fix the problem around me. Finally the only thing to be done was to disconnect the electricity to the carriage, the AC stopped, none of the lights worked but it was a small price to pay for sleep as the outside heat warmed the compartments up.
Back to Mumbai, we stayed at the Apollo Guest House this time, just below the Hotel Causeway and 400Rs cheaper for a similar room. We found Mumbai uninteresting to look around, the few places we went to didn’t enthuse us, so we headed back to the good ol’ Gukul Bar, where we met a fellow Rosario Inn occupier and sat down to a couple of bottles of Vodka between us.
We had the best trip ever back to Delhi, non stop on the train, 2 tier AC sleeper, where the waiters, yes waiters, plied you with snacks, fruit drinks, mineral water, chocolates and namkeen. A MENU was offered and a three-course dinner was served up with mango juice. Endless cups of tea and coffee, and again a choice of breakfast. This was service. We thought the ticket was a little more expensive than last time, but we just put it down to the fact is was a fast train, and it was going direct to Delhi, we had travelled from Jaipur down to Mumbai. Needless to say, any chance of a quick rupee is taken, the waiter came round with a plate of sweetened cumin seeds (a traditional digestive taken in India after every meal, often placed in bowls by the exit door for you to take a pinch of as you left) with a few conveniently placed 50Rs notes amongst the other offerings, he indicated that 50Rs would be acceptable, especially from rich capitalist western people like ourselves.
Back to Delhi, that hellhole of India, not as bad as Chennai I am told, I’ll take their word for that. We met up with ol’ shifty Shafi again (see the previous Delhi installment, coz I’m not going over that again…) and we collected our stuff we had left in safe keeping with him. He tried to sell us the idea of a house boat on Dal Lake in Srinigar, Kashmir again. We politely declined (again) and sent a load of unwanted gear back to the UK via Shafi’s parcel packaging and sending service. (Yes he has a finger in that pie as well, like I said he’s a useful guy to know in Delhi, which is somewhere you don’t want to be hassled with in my opinion…)
We are now in Manali in Himachal Pradesh, the trip here was something to write about, but I think that’s enough for this go. Check out the next part for Shimla, Mandi, Manali and a jeep safari to Chandra Tal, the Moon Lake at the base of the Himalaya surrounded by snow capped mountains in a moonscape.
Catch us on email@example.com, take care you all now, and have a great day.