Published: February 11th 2008February 11th 2008
We left Munnar on 15th January and have spent the last few weeks in Goa. Our arrangements to leave Munnar had a very Indian quality about them. We usually had breakfast at a small restauarnt close to where we were staying, where you could get a good south indian fry up for two for about GBP1.50. We had befriended one of the waiters and one morning he started asking us how long we would be staying. We told him we were moving on to Goa in a few days. He then wanted to know how we would get there. We told him by train from Ernakalum. This was the crucial information for him - of course we would need a taxi to Ernakulum (a distance of about 40 km) and he had a taxi business so he would take us. After discussing a time to pick us up he said it was 'confirmed'. After that, we continued going to the restaurant for breakfast but didnt see the waiter for several days, so we were staring to wonder whether we had a taxi or not. Of course, this is India and we neednt have worried. The day before we were due to leave we saw him again. He told us to wait and dissappeared down the road. Somewhile later he came back with his cousin, a gentleman called Grace, who was going to drive us.
Grace turned out to be an excellent driver and guide for the journey down the mountain to Ernakulum. He drove us in an Ambassador, which is the mainstay of the Indian taxi business. The Ambassador has the design of a 1940's Morris Oxford. It is built like a tank and while not exactly sleek, its solid nature makes it ideal for negotiating India's roads, which are often in a poor state of repair. This Ambassaor had clearly seen better days, but was still going strong. Grace told us that 'this is a very fine car sir - it was made by the British'. While the British may not have the best reputation as car makers, the ambassador is pretty indestructible. Grace was proud to have worked as a driver for the Bristish when they owned what is now the Tata tea company and he gave us a guided tour and potted history of the tea estates as we wound down the mountain, frequently stopping to point out the different plants, tea, coffee, cardamon etc. The journey took about three hours but the time soon past in Grace's company. We had one slight hitch as we entered Ernakulum. Waiting to turn right at a busy junction, the car stalled and wouldnt start. Unperturbed, Grace got out, beamed at the queue of hooting drivers stuck behind us, opened the bonnet, appeared to hit something with a spanner, closed the bonnet, beamed again at the drivers behind, got in and started the car. Such resiliance explains why there are still so many Ambassadors on India's roads.
We are staying in Benaulim, a quiet village in South Goa about 10km from Margoa, the principal market town in the area. We chose this place because it is close to Varca where Paul and Marie (brother and sister in law) were staying. Paul and Marie have now gone home but we had a cracking couple weeks with them. They have been coming here for several years so through them we got to know several local people, in particular the owners of the cooler beach shacks. Tourist development along Benaulim beach has been restricted to a few low level beach shacks which sell food and alcohol from about 8am through to about 3am, if they still have customers. Many have music in the evenings and there is a nice relaxed atmosphere.
The beach itself is a wide stretch of sand about 25km from end to end. There are several small towns along the beach. When the tide is out it is possible to cycle and we have spent several days ambling along the beach finding quiet spots and nice shacks in which to relax. Our favorite was at the far southern end of the beach in a place called Mobor. We had cycled the 12km or so to this end of the beach and found a small shack sitting alone on a quiet stretch of beach. The owner (a gentleman who called himself Robby Nobby) was very entertaining (and I must say rather attentive to Dee - apparently while I was talking to someone else he started pinching her cheeks!). Opposite the shack was a sand bank about 100 metres from the shore on which the waves broke, leaving a calm lagoon. We enjoyed swimming out to the sand bank and wallowing in the surf. The swimming was good but we were slightly cautious about entering the water, as we had earlier seen a couple of sea snakes (apparently highly venomous) washed up on the beach.
After watching the sun sink below the Arabian sea, the evenings were spent relaxing in one of the many restaurants along the beach. There were several on Benaulim beach and although we tried a number of them we became particularly friendly with the staff at a place called Roger's. We first went there with Paul and Marie and made an immediate impression when my brother got up and started dancing (I think some alchohol may have been involved here). The waiters were so impressed with his dance that they joined in and tried to emulate his movements. Sadly, with their taught, muscular young bodies and natural sense of rhythm, they were unable to get it right. Nonetheless, Paul quickly achieved legend status with the waiters at Roger's and over the next few nights they were very keen to get him up dancing. We felt as if a new dance craze was about to hit Goa. One of the waiters suggested we should call it the 'Funky Fisherman', because the rather jerky action resembled pulling in the nets. But sadly the dance didnt take off. After Paul and Marie had left a new craze was sweeping the floor at Roger's. This involved a fairly random flailing of the limbs (carefully missing the beats in the music) while (for female dancers) much pouting and wrapping themselves around the wooden poles propping up the ceiling. It just shows how fickle the dance world is. Watching all this put us in mind of a Lenny Henry joke; he said he knew that ecstacy must be a dangerous drug, because it was strong enough to make white people think they can dance.
One night in Roger's, when the dancing was particularly bad, we noticed a woman crying with laughter at the antics on the dancefloor. The other reason we noticed her was that she was dressed in a white basque which was struggling to contain her rather ample bossom. This is not exactly standard dress in a conservative country like India. We started talking to her and it turned out that she and her friend lived for part of the year in Benaulim and were attending a local Hindu wedding. They had just nipped down to the beach for a couple of drinks. So, we wondered, what would possess someone to dress in a basque for a Hindu wedding, particularly when they spend time in the country and presumably know how conservative people are. The answer, apparently, was that she used to be an underwear model and sort of got used to not wearing much clothing, which is of course understandable up to a point, but at a Hindu wedding?
We became friendly with Atal, one of the waiters at Roger's. Atal is typical of many of the Indian people we have met during our stay. He works very hard, putting in a fourteen hour day with no holidays to support his wife and young child. His wife is studying for an MBA so in additon to working long hours at the restaurant (often not getting home until gone 3am) he has to help with the young baby. Despite all this he remains remakably affable and energetic, often running between the tables to take orders.
Roger himself is an interesting character. He is a twenty six year old entrepreneur. He started off singing in the beach shacks and reckoned he could run one, so four years ago he borrowed GBP5000 and set himself up. We have heard him sing; he really is much better suited to running a business than being an entertainer. He now however has women problems. He is in love with a girl from an upper class family who look down on beach shack owners. We asked if he had spoken to the girls parents, but he darent, apparently the girl calls her mother 'hitler' (presumably not just because she has a black moustashe). The girl will not go against her parents wishes so to win her he needs to diversify into a respectable profession, but this involves raising more money. Courtship can be quite complicated in this country, where most marriages are still arranged by parents.
Cycling around Benaulim one morning we were stopped by an Indian guy out walking with an English woman. He asked us where we were from. We told him London.
- 'Whereabouts in London' he asked.
- 'Oh thats SE12'
His women companion said that she lived in Woolwich
- 'thats SE18'
We tested him on a few other London postcodes and he got them all right. We asked him when he had been in London. 'oh no, I havnt been to London, I am just interested in postcodes'. Well I guess we all need a hobby.
The postcode guy's name was Shiva and among other things he took people on bird watching trips. While we are not exactly keen ornathologists, we agreed to let him take us on one of these trips, partly because we had taken a liking to Shiva and also because there are several impressive looking birds of prey flying around in Goa and we were curious to know a bit more about them. Shiva picked us up outside our room at 7am. We had not gone more than a few feet down the road when he stopped suddenly - 'OH MY GOD - quick, David and Dee look, look!!' We cant now remember exactly what he showed us, but at the time, judging by his excitement, we assumed it must be a very rare species. It soon became apparent that this was Shiva's standard reaction to everything he saw. However, we did see some impressive birds including several species of Kingfisher, Woodpeckers and several Kites and Eagles.
One of the things that became apparent during the tour was the extent to which the marshland around Benaulim is being destroyed by property development. We saw one luxury development where nearly all of the houses stand empty, having been bought purely as an investment. Not only does it seem wrong to destroy a rich natural habitat just to provide people with an investment opportunity, it seems almost criminal to allow good housing to stand empty in a country where the majority of the population live in very rudimentary conditions.
The room we have rented is in a small guest house in a quiet location just outside Benaulim village. It is pretty basic (no hot water) but very peaceful. We have small a balcony which looks out onto pastures through which Water Buffalo are driven every morning and evening. As a fellow guest pointed out 'it is like the Serengeti here yah' (he was Dutch). The peace was however broken a few times during our stay. The first time we became aware something was up was on a Sunday afternoon early in our stay. We saw a crowd of men gathering in the lane opposite the guest house and start to make their way across the fields. Then we heard police sirens. At first we thought it might be a demonstration of some sort but then the police went away and the crowd moved on. The guest house owner told us it was an illegal bullfight. The police had presumably turned up to show that they were formally turning a blind eye to what was happening. (We were also told that when the police had tried to stop one of these fights they were badly beaten up by the crowd). We couldnt see the actual fight, although we were told that unlike a Spanish bullfight these events pit two bulls (male Water Buffalo) against each other and the animals are goaded by the crowd to fight each other until one backs away. We knew when the fight was over beacuse a huge roar went up from the crowd. We dont know how many animals get killed or badly injured in these fights, but we found them quite upsetting. The young guy who works in the guest house is a Hindu from Orissa and he was close to tears when the fight was going on.
Last Tuesday was carnival day in Benaulim. There was to be a parade of floats through the village followed by a night of music and dancing on the beach. We wandered into the village about 3pm to see the carnival, to find the main steet had been taken over by young men speeding to and fro on motor bikes throwing powder paint over anyone they saw. We were of course like sitting ducks and by the time we had reached the restaurant from where we wanted to see the procession, our head and necks were smeared with red dye. The procession itself was not that impressive; a few floats blasting bollywood music and full of young lads getting beered up. A few had made a token effort to put on a show by donning a gorilla mask, but that was about it. The beach party was not much better; basically a few all male groups hanging around dancing and drinking. We asked a local why it was only men at the party. He told us that the women stay at home, although some of the boys dress up in fake breasts and long hair. Not a great party really.
We have made one great discovery late in our stay. Like everywhere in India, its possible to eat really well and cheaply in Goa and we have had some excellent food. However, we have often found in India that the cheapest places are the best. We found a restuarant in the nearby town of Colva which sells really good South Indian food and for the princely sum of 65 ruppees (about 80p) you can have a South Indian Delux Thali. For anyone who hasnt had one, a Thali is a mountain of food served up on a metal plate, consisting of four or five savoury curries, curd, a sweet dish, a huge pile of rice and a seeming endless supply of chapaties. The name of the place is Sagar Kinara and we recommend it highly to anyone staying in or around Benaulim or Colva in the future.
Thats about it for our time in Goa. It has been a fun three and a bit weeks but we leave tonight for Mumbai, where we will spend our last few days in India. We shall close by quoting the advertising board for the Malibu restuarant in Benaulim, which helpfully states that 'we specialise in food'. Very reassuring.
Bye for now.
Dee and David