Reluctantly, we leave the state of Rajasthan with its magnificent and ancient palaces, spectacular old fortresses and stunning, colourful landscapes. We head south from Udaipur to Ahmedebad in the state of Gujarat. There we board an overnight train for Pune, from whence we head as rapidly as possible to Goa, and warmer climes.
Leaving Ahmedebad late in the afternoon – swaying to the train’s comforting clickety thump, jerk and roll – we watch the urban sprawl and squalor merge into the gritty industrial belt. This eventually diminishes, and small rural, agriculture-based villages dot the landscape. Camels, common in Rajasthan, are seen less frequently as we head further south. The brahmin cattle, oxen, bullocks, buffaloes and the hapless ass however, are still to be seen. We had booked a first class sleeper, but due to some bureaucratic bungle (or someone paying a good bribe) we’ve ended up in second class. It’s not worth pursuing the matter, and anyway . . . Before retiring to my bunk, I was chatting with a very interesting middle aged Indian woman. She also helped deter the insistent beggars (poor buggers) who were either on for the duration, or who passed through the carriages at each stop. Quite a few transvestites, as well as the usual children, were amongst them.
When this lady was young, she worked for the airlines and was based in New York. Through the airlines, she travelled extensively and eventually met and married her husband, an Indian sea captain employed in the Indian Merchant Marine. She travelled with him for sixteen years, during which time she raised two children at sea. The ships, being Indian and having no shortage of cheap man/boy power, were heavily manned and they lived a life of luxury, waited on hand and foot by minions.
At one point in the 1970’s, they actually carried ‘coals to Newcastle’, fulfilling that age old saw expressing a redundant action. There had been an extended coal miners strike in the U.K. which subsequently led to a shortage of coal. Their ship was to carry coal to the U.K. market from Port Kembla, Australia. While they were loading, the Australian wharfies went out on strike. The decision was made to move the ship outside of the port for the duration of the strike, thus saving berthage fees. While out there however, one of Australia’s infamous and regular cyclones struck and her husband, for safety sake, up-anchored and headed further out to sea. There, they rode out the fury of the cyclone for four days before returning to carry on with the loading. A very interesting lady.
A fitful sleep. My bunk was neither comfortable nor restful: six of us, each on hard, plastic covered bunks, three tiers on each side of the small open cabin. I’ve never heard such snoring before, and I was on a top bunk so all the ‘night smells’ drifted up to me. We disembarked at Pune in the dark at 5.45am and wove our way out of the station, wheeling our bags around the many people who actually sleep on the concrete platforms and off-ramps. I tell you, this is a hard life! Their only cover is what at first glance appears to be a thin blanket, but which is in fact their everyday wrap-around attire. God it must be cold! And hard!
We found a hotel room for the day, had a sleep, freshened up and went out to meander through the neighbouring suburbs. We came across the typical sores of large, sprawling Indian cities: families earning a living by picking through great piles of rubbish heaped in side streets, dust, dirt, poverty and vehicle exhaust pollution. The large park by our hotel is used (by men) as an open air public urinal. Eventually, we arranged our overnight bus trip to Goa for that evening. Sitting at the ‘bus station’ (an office outside of which the bus picks up the passengers) we watched the polyglot fellow travellers accumulate, and I caught up on my notes. Amazingly, we would have two sleeping berths on this bus! A sleeper bus! The thought of being able to lie down throughout the journey has strong appeal. (Oh blissful ignorance!)
“Oh what a night it was, it really was a night!” and
“Uh huh! I’m all shook up!”
Our colourful sleeper bus was called the Goan Queen. She was a purpose made bus with three rows of fore-and-aft alined bunks, one up, one down with two alleyways between them. Two vertical poles prevented us from being tossed off our narrow berths. The journey took thirteen hours and I have never experienced such a shaking, jolting, bouncing, jarring and rattling ride as this before. It was incredible. And all this lying down! The road was abysmal and the driver was Hell bent. This trip was a shocker! I remind myself how, time and time again I have said “Do not travel long distance by bus again!” I don’t know how the passengers would have fared if the bus had gone off one of the many hairpin bends and into the deep ravines I saw in the full moonlight. But it didn’t, we didn’t, and there we were. There is a certain fatalism that you take on board when you commit yourself to a mode of travel. Anyway, the concern over possible danger becomes secondary to a concern for comfort after a couple of sleepless nights – and I need more comfort as I get older.
Gradually, silhouettes of banana trees and tall coconut palms appeared in the pre-dawn dusk. A russet and gold hue clothed everything as the tropical sun rose to its full morning glory and all was well and beautiful with the world.
“Watered by the gleaming waters of the Arabian Sea and nurtured by the fertile monsoon, the former Portuguese colony and youngest state in India, Goa presents the visiting tourist with a picture of verdant fertility. Prawns, Shrimps, Lobsters and a variety are the bountiful marine products yielded by the azure seas and along with crisp cashew nuts and frothy fenny offer a variety of succulence to tempt the tongue of the tourist.
The coconut palms standing sentinel on the land, the murmuring blue sea and the gleaming golden sands offer a feast to the eyes and ears of the tourist.
The ancient Portuguese architecture, the mellow churches and quiet temples and the bounteous natural scenery and pleasant climate infuse the tourist with a sense of peace and quietitude (sic). It is no wonder that Goa is called the “Pearl of the Orient”.
Goa has a long and hoary history … “. Here the history of Goa is detailed. This was taken from the Goa Guide. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
In our very tired state, we caught a taxi to an Inn chosen at random, and caught up on our sleep.
“In the very heart of the Latin Quarter of Fontainhas, Panjim, Goa’s capital City, lies a haven of Old World elegance and charm, The Panjim Inn. Surrounded by quaint by-lanes, aristocratic houses and old portals, all remnants of a grand era gone by.
The original building that houses the Panjim Inn goes back 300 years in local history …. The Panjim Inn has 14 well furnished rooms …. Each room retains its distinctive individuality with artistically carved 4-poster beds, almirahs and delicate antique furniture which blend with the aesthetic decor. Its typical verandahs and balconies provide ample space for guests.”
Its charm eventually seduces us and we remain there for the whole six weeks of our stay in Goa.
There is a different feel to this southern Indian state. Perhaps because it is more tropical, there is an air of musty decay. Very few buildings are new, and the new age rapidly. The humidity, the heat, the red dust and dirt and the long rainy season do a good job of antique-ing everything. The state of disrepair of the majority of streets and footpaths add to this effect. However it is not just the climate that is responsible for this difference. It was a Portuguese colony from the 16th century until as late as 1961, and that influence is still palpable. Roman catholic churches outnumber Hindu temples and Islamic mosques. The distinctive Portuguese architecture is reflected in these and in the styles of housing. A predominance of European clothing styles (this is immediately noticeable on the women) and the interesting fusion of Portuguese and Indian cuisine is further evidence.
The Goans themselves tend to look different to their northerly brethren. India has, in fact, much ethnological diversity, an interesting topic in its own right, and it is my belief that the famed Gypsy race had its origins in India. The colourfully adorned, intriguing Lamani people seen in the markets of Goa, are said to be Gypsies. We came across many ethnically distinct tribal peoples in our travels throughout rural Goa. Sadly, these same ‘tribals’ tend to be the displaced and dispossessed of India.
There are hordes of ‘westerners’ here, which is a disappointment. Tourism is big at all levels: packaged tours from the U.K., Germany, Spain and Scandinavian countries. Europeans escaping from their winter woes are catered for in grand or small tourist resorts up and down this splendid, tropical coast. However, other ‘westerners’ are using Goa and its beaches north and south of here as a cheap place to ‘drop out’, ‘discover themselves’ or to find the ‘meaning of life’. Some are attracted by the mysticism of India’s colourful religions no doubt. Most I suspect, are just a loose affiliation of like-minded people seeking a hedonistic lifestyle on the cheap. Not much to do with things Indian really. This mirrors my life, for a period in my early twenties, in Morocco. The emaciated state of some of these travellers indicates excessive indulgence in drugs. Each to his own I suppose! Indian tourists however, throughout India, represent the greater majority.
* * * * * *
Vasco Da Gama – Now, everybody learnt that name at school didn’t they? The famous Portuguese explorer? Well, he gave his name to what is now a sizeable town on the southern headland of Goa’s Zuari River. It is familiarly known as just Vasco. Further out, at the tip of this headland, is the sizeable Port of Mormugao. As I write there are 15 ships waiting outside in the roads. Goa’s abundant iron ore is exported from here. On the northern headland of this broad river mouth lies the fishing village of Dona Paula, a scenic and tranquil spot with one or two small resorts nestled nearby.
We braved the local bus service to go down to Vasco, with its colourful fish market and large bazaar. This bazaar is noticeably cleaner than those we’d experienced in other states, and reminded us of those in Morocco. The bus ride was great. It was crammed full (as was the case on every subsequent ride): all the windows open, Indian pop music pumping out loud, and hot, hot, hot! At each stop, as more people would cram on board, the driver, having no way of seeing what was going on, would rely on the conductor’s whistle code to indicate whether it was safe to move on or not. The conductor would then squeeze his way through the bus collecting new fares. And the fares are very cheap.
The atmosphere in Goa is much more ‘laid back’ than in the north, typical of tropical climes. The fruit available at the roadside and markets is distinctly tropical, many of which we’ve not previously encountered. We begin to indulge ourselves with the local beverages: my favourite – sugar cane juice freshly squeezed in a rotary press with a whole lime, and if you’re lucky, some fresh ginger root squeezed through (the presses usually have small bells attached to the big drive wheel and are often simply hand cranked), or – the juice of one freshly squeezed lime, salt and sugar added, topped up with bottled fizzy soda water while stirring vigorously (available at one of the many ‘Cool Drinks’ stalls). Another common refresher is the green drinking coconut; simply topped with a bush knife, and a straw inserted: delicious. The staple here is chai (tea). The Indians prefer it with milk but we both prefer it black (kali chai) with sugar. Sometimes it is infused with cardamom and that is super delicious. Hot chai is not out of place in this warm climate, just as hot mint tea is popular in North Africa.
Another staple is of course Lassi, sweet or salt. Lassi is raw yoghurt, sometimes with milk or iced water added. The ‘sweet’ has sugar added and the ‘salt’ has masala, the Indian spice mix added. Very refreshing. I’m told that in February and March they make a fruit drink from the flower of the cashew nut – the nut being a major cash crop here. I would like to come back during that period just to taste it. It is only now, after fifty years, that I have learnt that cashew nuts grow on trees. All my life I thought it was a root nut, like the peanut. At least, I think the peanut grows underground.
“It ain’t arf ‘ot Mum!” My early impressions (second day) of this locale are definitely favourable. We have found a terrific little restaurant: the waiters, all uniformed, are barefooted! The dining area is kept really clean and has overhead fans. Here we encounter no Europeans and the meals are very cheap. In fact, it’s going to be hard to get back to ‘real’ prices as nearly everything is extremely cheap to us.
The food of Goa is a wonderful eclectic mix, incorporating classic southern Indian cuisine with that of Portugal. The Goan pork sausage is legend, and the famed, fiery pork vindaloo has its origins here. Naik, the chef at the Panjim Inn, cooks the best masala fish dish I have ever eaten. He, like many Goans, was desperate to get work overseas for the better pay – and every overseas visitor was a potential employer to him. His preference was to work in Saudi Arabia, where he had previously had a contract. Many Indians, Philippinos, Malaysians and Indonesians are contracted to work in Western countries in domestic positions or as labourers – as far afield as Europe and the Middle East. Naik was proud of his cooking, and would hover as we ate his food. We would encourage him to sit and talk, and he would regale us with tales of his stay in Saudi, lamenting his current impecunious situation. He almost put us off our food once by recounting a public execution he had seen. His curiosity had led him to the front of a crowd that had gathered in the middle of the main square in Riyadh. Here, he was a reluctant witness to some poor individual having his head chopped off by a large man with a very large sword. Apparently, public executions are still quite common there.
Masala Fried Fish
Naik panfried his masala fish whole, selecting fresh fish daily from the market. Fillets can be used. Small, fresh fish such as bream, plaice or herring are preferable for this dish.
The Spice Mix
(enough for 6 to 8 fish)
1 tbsp ground tumeric
2 tbsp plain (all purpose) flour
½ tsp black peppercorns, ground
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tbsp coriander seeds, ground
1 garlic clove, crushed
2 tsp Garam Masala
Combine all the spice ingredients thoroughly in a shallow dish. Clean the fish well and coat both inside and out with the mix. Heat ½ cup of oil in a frypan (enough for shallow frying) and gently fry fish until golden brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels and serve accompanied by wedges of lemon.
1 tsp cardamom seeds
2 tsp cloves
2 tbsp cumin seeds
2 tbsp coriander seeds
2 dried bay leaves
7.5 cm / 3inch piece of cinnamon stick
1 tbsp black peppercorns
1 dried red chilli
Masala Method: Grind the spices and the bay leaves together in a spice grinder or pestle and mortar until the aromas are released. Use as required. This mix will keep for a couple of months in an airtight jar in a cool, dark, dry place.
* * * * * *
We seem to be avoiding all the western tourists by going on local buses. An excellent service with noisy touts at the bus stations ensuring the buses are always crammed full. (I noticed on the last bus that the driver was barefooted. Things are certainly more casual in the tropics.)
We bused up into the highlands today (after visiting ‘Old Goa’ with its massive old Portuguese churches in various states of decay) and were introduced to the quaint Indian style of tea drinking. We had noticed this habit in other parts of India. In a very busy, basic ‘Tea House’, we seated ourselves opposite a kindly village lady (she was no city slicker this one) and her glass of chai duly arrived served on a saucer. She promptly filled the saucer up and drank from that. Our kali chai arrived in glasses only. She noted our gingerly handling the very hot glasses and called one of the ‘boys’ (literally) over. In what I assumed was Hindi, she gave him quite a dressing down and he came back with two saucers for us. I smiled to her in gratitude and she returned my smile, giving that peculiar and endearing Indian sideways nod. So there we were. Pouring it into our saucers and drinking from them. And yes, that is the way to drink scalding hot tea. I wonder if this too, perversely, is a legacy of British rule!
The staple crop here is rice. Acres of neat little viridescent rice paddy fields, newly planted out at this time of the year catch our eyes. Their particular vivid greenness makes them stand out against the surrounding landscape. They photograph well. Buffaloes wallow in the deeper waters around the paddies. It’s certainly not arid around here.
Later we go down to a popular beach strip to check out some of Goa’s famous beaches. These beaches; Vagator, Anjuna, Baga, Calangute, Candolim and Sinquerin, adjoining their small village namesakes, are nearest to the capital Panaji (Panjim) and are very touristy, but still the Indians outnumber us. (It is Sunday.) There are large wooden outrigger vessels pulled up on the beach, and many anchored offshore near the larger fishing boats. They are literally stitched together with coconut fibre rope then coated in tar or pitch, very similar to the method of construction the Polynesians of old used. It is great to see this method still in use. The beaches are reminiscent of those around Perth, Western Australia. However the coconut palms, pigs foraging in the detritus beneath them, and cows lying on the sand by groups of bathers – much like dogs do, give it a distinct sense of the exotic.
The Indians, incidentally, tend not to be so interested in the beach for swimming. That, is a ‘western’ thing. They are inclined to sit in the shade or just stroll about the beach fully clothed. It reminds me of the British taking their summer seaside holidays when I was young: families, fully clothed, sitting on the beaches, or strolling along the waters edge, men with their trousers rolled up. The difference ends there however. It is very warm here and the women’s clothing is far more colourful. At one beach where there were fairground type games between the car park area and the beach proper, I managed to win a bottle of beer in a game which entailed rolling ping pong balls down into narrow numbered channels. Typically, I thought, the prize was handed over grudgingly. In a way, these beaches reminded me more of the Costa del Sol in Spain, with their many beach-side bar/restaurants, tourist shops, hotels and resorts. Just not so high-rise, not so sophisticated. A pleasant, relaxed, ‘Indian’ feel to it all.
Below Vasco, on the southern side of that hilly headland, is a long curving sandy bay on which sits the fishing village of Baina. From the hill above it looks very attractive, with groups of small traditional fishing craft hauled up onto the sand. We drove down on our rented scooter, only to discover behind the beach, an incredibly seedy, ramshackle, but lively locale. There is a concentration of friendlier than normal women and girls, all wearing heavy make up, strolling idly about in chattering clusters. A large, nondescript, middle aged westerner follows one of the girls into one of the lanes, disappearing into the shanty-town.
We have stumbled upon Goa’s Red Light district (one of?) just over the hill from the Port. Curiously, Baina is not noted on our tourist map at all! It has the air of a bustling sea side market town, with the women, dressed in their flamboyant attire, adding an extra colourful dimension. Children wander around. There are street vendors, bars, restaurants and ‘Cool Drinks’ shops. Narrow alleys lead to a maze of shacks and back rooms. There, one may sample the delights on offer from these dusky maidens. And I must say many are attractive dusky maidens, if a little overly made up in this scorching, broad daylight. It reminds me of the tale of the sailor’s girl reproaching her disgruntled and now sober lover of the previous night: “Last night you call me Dusky Princess. This morning you call me Black Bitch!” This scooter is proving invaluable.
We’ve hired the scooter from Santosh (there goes that ‘zsh’ sound that is so typical of spoken Portuguese), a young local man who operates his rental business from outside the central Post Office, beside a public telephone booth in the Avenida Dom João Castro in Panjim. No office! No garage! Yet we were directed to him by the Government Tourist Development Corp.
This casual evasion of bureaucracy we find to be widespread. We also understand it to be necessary in a country where mere survival is a thin line which can be easily broken by the weight of bureaucratic fulfilment. We later became good friends with Santosh and were afforded the honour of being invited to his family home. He is another friend we hope to see again on our next visit.
At $AUD6.50 per day the scooter is affordable. It’s an electric start Honda Kinetic with automatic gears. Very modern. Scooters are very popular over here. Of course the climate, at this time of the year – they have about 4 months of rainy season soon – is ideal for two wheelers. We can now range further afield and stop whenever we see good photo opportunities, or an interesting place to eat.
Unfortunately for me, I underestimated, or to be completely honest, forgot about ‘the wind-burn factor’ while riding. Neither of us has had the opportunity to build up a sun tan as we did every long summer in Perth, and now I am sporting bright red (and sore) forearms, forehead, cheeks and nose, with a rather fetching deep red ‘V’ at the top of my chest. To top it off, yesterday we ranged a bit far and came back most of the way in the dark. In the remote rural areas, all the insects appear to come out after sunset, with the sole purpose of meeting me in a frontal attack. One big one scored a direct hit in my right eye. Painful! Another very big one tried to unseat me by whacking me in the forehead, but I soldiered valiantly on with squinted eyes, shrugging off the more diminutive direct hits until we finally reached urbania. Here the enemy was simply really bad roads, incredibly dense traffic comprising of push bikes, other scooters and hundreds of trucks and buses all belching out exhaust fumes and raising dust. This continuous heavy traffic was funnelling into and through the small towns, and we had to negotiate it all at night in unfamiliar territory! Not for the faint hearted. With all the accumulated dust, exhaust fumes, squashed insects and severe sunburn, I looked a shocking sight when we finally made it back to the Inn.
So I won’t tell you how wonderful it is to ride a scooter in the tropics: with the warm wind riffling my (now short) hair, cosseting and cooling us as we bliss along at our own chosen pace. (Helmet wearing is not law here and I personally think it is far more pleasurable in warm weather to ride without one.) Sensual aromas of tropical countryside waft from dense exotic flora, drying copra, village cooking and the odd wood fire or burn off. We get wonderful panoramic views: typical of riding a bike. There are dense coconut plantations in the hilly interior, patterns of bright green rice paddies and colourful gardens growing god knows what, with women (only women) in their colourful clothes, bent over weeding and thinning. Wild coconut palms fringe the rivers, a handy food source and extra income for the fishing communities. These self sown palms also cling to the plunging cliffs and rugged parts of the coastline, fringing the numerous white sandy beaches. Mangroves with their intriguing root systems thrive in the shallows and mud-flats, creating their own prolific eco-systems. It is all very picturesque. Very tropical. Sights and scenes that make you feel good.
We are reluctant to move on. As happens when one spends more than a few days in a place, we are becoming familiar with the territory: its streets, alleyways, shops, markets, bus routes, places to eat (often very primitive restaurants), and local people. We have begun to make friends. We’ve entered a comfort zone. Our plans were to explore much further south, especially Cochin – now named ‘Kochi’ in their own Malayalam/Dravidian language – in the state of Kerala, and perhaps even further afield before our self imposed time limit ran out. But we have been seduced by Goa. We feel comfortable here. The good weather, like Perth, is spectacularly persistent. I am told that when it rains, it is also persistent. For 3 – 4 months solid! The monsoon season!
I still haven’t become chilli tolerant and maintain that it hinders rather than enhances the myriad flavourings that the Indians use. Rachel disagrees. We agree to disagree. For snacks we indulge ourselves with fresh fruit and nuts: the biggest and cheapest cashew nuts we’ve ever encountered, papaya, pomegranates, oranges, mandarins, limes, bananas, local grapes, some splendid out-of-state strawberries, roasted peanuts (far smaller than the Moroccan ones) and one or more of the many spicy or sweet Indian delicacies.
Other locally available fruits are pineapple, jackfruit (a bit later), guavas, mangoes (it’s too early for ripe mangoes but small green ones are for sale already, to be preserved in water and spices called ‘Chepni’ and ‘Miskut’, and used in Hindu and Catholic households), sapotas (these are a strange potato-look-alike fruit that we’ve taken a liking to), custard apples (a very sad looking cousin of the ones in Spain), massive grapefruit-like things, the humble coconut and sugar cane. Breadfruit also grows here in abundance, though it is not really a fruit, and is out of season just now.
We are fortunate enough to find early cashews ripening on the trees that, now I have identified them, seem to be everywhere. Grand old trees line the lanes and there are many plantations in the countryside. The cashew nut on the tree is attached to and ripens under a brightly coloured, small apple sized sack of a most delicious (apple flavoured) juice called ‘Niro’. From time immemorial however, the locals have used it to produce alcoholic beverages. When this juice is fermented and distilled, the first distillate is called ‘Urrak’ and has a very low alcohol content. However, subsequent distillates yield the potent and highly popular ‘Cashew Feni’. Feni is also brewed from the coconut palm. One sees a ceramic pot up the top of most coconut palms in the villages. The flowering shaft at the top of the palm is slit to release the sap, and the pot is hung over it. The sap is collected twice a day. The distillate from this also has a very high alcohol content but the subtle flavours ascribed to it by the Goans elude me. To me, both fenis are pure fire water. It’s another industry though.
So we blat around the state on our scooter, now sporting cheap sun glasses – to lessen the grit and insects entering our eyes, and finally, some real sunblock lotion. We drive onto vehicular ferries to cross the many river tributaries, always a pleasant interlude from driving. We pause here and there to take what we feel will be interesting photographs, to dine or quench our thirst, to stick our noses into small rural villages, to cruise around the many massive old churches, mosques and temples – some very grand, some very grand ruins, many still used – and to idle through remote fishing communities.
It is especially in these latter communities that one experiences the antiquity of India. Magnificent old forts, palaces and temples may tell of grand eras long past, but here, at the water’s edge, the people continue to live an existence that has changed little over the centuries. Lateen rigged craft with palm thatched deck-houses still ply the rivers. Fishermen use circular throw nets in the shallows at the river’s bank. They still make and use hollowed out tree trunks for canoes on the rivers, and larger stitched timber outrigger boats for sea fishing. Intriguingly, I note the use of circular ‘coracles’ here in the riverine fishing communities, the same craft used by the Celts in ancient Britain! Apart from these being circular in shape and the frame being made from bamboo, they are coracles in every aspect. Where, when and how I wonder, did this exchange in simple boat building technique take place?
Small catches of fish are often sun dried wherever space permits: on the roadside or on an upturned row boat, giving off unmistakable, easily detected pungent odours. Fresh fish too: and crabs, prawns, cockles, green lip mussels, massive and diminutive oysters, are all abundant and readily available. There are also fleets of the larger, more modern fishing vessels. However, there are no visible signs of real prosperity in any of the various fishing communities. The profits must be going elsewhere. To corporate owners? I compare the crayfish and prawning boats which operate out of ports up and down the coast of Western Australia: the boats themselves worth in the region of $AUD½ – ¾ million, the owners and skippers considered wealthy men, the crew paid handsomely for their involvement. It would seem here to be more of a time honoured way of life, simply providing a living for all the many family members directly involved.
* * * * * *
Street vending can mean many things here. Near the rivers one finds women squatting, hunched over small catches of crabs and fish for sale. Others with small, fresh catches of oysters. At the village roadside it may well be a handful of fruit, or just strings of flowers for religious offerings or for the hair. Here a few spices (including betel nut) and other diverse local produce placed on the ground for sale to any passer by. In the towns men wheel tiny hand carts with ice boxes full of ice creams and ice blocks, ringing a bell to announce their presence (the forerunner of Mr Whippy?). Beneath our hotel window a woman walks along the street shouting some ethnic refrain, probably “Cockles, lovely fresh cockles, come and get ya cockles!”, because on her head she’s balancing a big basket of cockles! A man strolls by with a bundle of colourful rugs or towels on his head shouting his refrain. A boy rides by on his push-bike with a huge basket of bread rolls on the back, ringing his bell to announce his wares. Another man walks by with a rack of skirts, shirts and children’s clothes over his shoulder. It’s all very ‘villagey’.
From the pavement vendors in the towns you can buy all manner of odds and sods or get your shoes polished or repaired on the spot. In other cities in India we saw many pavement ‘barbers’ hair cutting or shaving their clients. (Funnily enough, I’ve never been game to let anybody run a cut throat razor over my face and neck. Part of my instinct for survival I think!) Leather repairs, clothing repairs. In all of the above I am referring to vendors without stalls: they simply squat on the ground or footpath with their tools of trade or meagre stock. I didn’t find out if they paid for their favourite spot. No doubt in the cities they paid someone something for protection from the authorities. Stall holders, that official legion of vendors and tradesmen who fill the gap between the former and proper shops, abound. We frequented many of the food stalls at roadsides. Egg stalls were always a treat. Simply hard boiled with salt at some; others served absolutely delicious, simple, meatless egg burgers as well. The buns are not your typical, commercial hamburger bun. Much better.
* * * * * *
Well it’s carnival time here. Last night it took the form of a parade of floats along the river-front streets of the capital Panaji where we live, with lots of different themes, colour and music. There is a lot of commercial content however (is nothing commercial free now?) and some poignant themes such as “Keep Goa Green” and “Stop The Corruption!” (small hope!). The whole parade was followed up by a Fire Engine and a Police bus with wire meshed windows full of bemused looking police looking somewhat like captives themselves.
A free music concert in a nearby park introduced us to some Goan music and dance, the rhythms sounding very Polynesian to my ears. Also some thumping, pumping Latin American dance music which had the local lads out on the floor doing very impressive, energetic dance moves. Brilliant! Oddly, for us, the only female on the dance floor was an 8 year old, miraculously avoiding being trampled in the frenetic dance mêlée.
There is something very touching, innocent and heart-warming in the way Indian men, old or young, walk along holding hands, or how they languorously drape themselves against one another in repose.
When we arrived back at our inn last night, later than usual, we found an odd scene outside our door. Two of the ‘house boys’ (for lack of a better term) had made their bed on the floor outside our door, together. One is 14 and the other about 26 years old. The Tibetan manageress was (with good humour) repeatedly beating the young one with a pillow. Bemused by this, in spite of my salacious thoughts, I concluded that it was all in innocence. Apparently this is their sleeping arrangement every night (minus the pillow beating). My curiosity however, is aroused. Where, if at all, is the line drawn on physical contact between same sex?
* * * * * *
We rode our scooter to the zoo at Bondla Sanctuary, a nature reserve some two hours ride inland from Panaji. Our first encounter was with the Porcupines, which, in spite of my having been to many zoos, I had not seen before. Here we were given the answer to that age old question – How do Porcupines make love? And we caught it on film!
It must be the weather. We were standing talking to another traveller near two Indian elephants, (you can tell by their accents!) when I noticed the male unfurling its penis to let forth a torrent of pee. Now I tell you no lie, it was like another trunk! It was massive. The other traveller expressed envy, and Rachel (well all of us really) couldn’t take her eyes off it. Do you know that male joke – ‘It looked so good out this morning – that I left it out.’? Well he was in no hurry to put it away either and we were lucky enough to witness an act I have never seen in any of the many circuses I have been to. He was actually scratching his rib cage with it! Amazing animals! I have the usual mixed feelings about caged animals, but I do enjoy zoos.
The good weather goes on unabated. Temperature rising.
I was gazing out the doorway across the dusty narrow road while awaiting my turn at the local barbershop, Barberia Republica in Panaji, when a cow ambled past. We eye-balled each other casually and I thought: yes, it is scenes like this that set India apart from other countries. The cattle are omnipresent, as much a part of any urban scene as, for example, the push-bike or motor cycle – except that they are allowed to park themselves anywhere! And they do.
The barbershop is very small, old and tatty (as indeed are all the local shops), with two chairs only. Two young men with ‘neat’ hair run it, and they do a good trade. I watched them shaving one or two customers with the ‘cut-throat’ razor that I hadn’t seen in use since I was a boy, sharpening it now and again on the hanging leather strop. They cut hair with that old style of rapidly snipping and clicking the scissors as they comb the hair upwards. The finish on the neck, that outside line, is always precise and shaven, as mine is now, and should customers have a moustache, as most males here do from an early age, then it too is precisely trimmed. This olde-worlde-ness one meets at every turn. Mind you, in many modern European cities I have noticed that these small, old style shops still survive. Perhaps it is only in the ‘new’ countries such as New Zealand and Australia that there is an indecent and ongoing trend to eradicate the old. To be seen as modern.
I digress. Back to my haircut. I had ‘the works’. After the haircut I was given a scalp, neck, shoulder and spinal massage. The final touch was having my neck ‘cracked’ on both sides. It felt great. I felt renewed. I’ll gladly return for more of that. All of this cost just 45 Rupees (about $AUD1.60). And he would not have charged a local that much. Now you begin to understand just how cheap it can be for us (and other travellers) to live over here. We can eat heartily, with an accompanying lime juice soda or lassi, for $AUD3 – 5. Total. We can eat less substantial meals for considerably less, or if we choose to eat at an up-market hotel, for more. We have settled into the routine of eating well once, in the middle of the day, with nibbles of an evening. We are certainly not losing weight!
* * * * * *
The snake charmers of India are worthy of mention here too: squatting with their flutes and baskets of cobras. It’s quite … novel. In India though, snake charming is usually just that – charming them out of their baskets. I’m reminded of Morocco, where it is taken to a different level. In Marrakech’s Djemaa el Fna, a large, dusty plaza at the entrance to the central souk given over to wandering tribal entertainers, musicians and food vendors, we witnessed a demented Arab with his little boy snake handler giving a performance that had us gob-smacked. After a warm up of the usual dangerous snake handling stunts in which the young boy also participated, he allowed the snake to bite him several times along his arm, puncture marks very clear, blood starting to seep. Gee the snakes head moves fast! He must have sensed that the awe struck crowd of Moors around him weren’t yet warmed up enough (for the ‘hat passing’) so, holding the snake’s head a few inches from his eyes, he seemed to taunt it a while before letting it have its way. It bit him on the forehead! Several times! At this point, blood trickling down his face and arms, ranting at the crowd with snake in hand, we feared this masochistic Moroccan may require audience participation in some ghoulish feat and decided to take our leave. No ‘charmer’ he! We joined the crowd surrounding a group of weird mountain musicians who, we hoped, wouldn’t stab themselves with their instruments, or anything like that. Great place. A ‘must’ to see.
The Goan coastline is dotted with small villages which relied predominantly, in the past, on fishing and they would launch their small, hand crafted boats from the beaches. Now, many of these villages throng with foreign tourists. Fortunately these fishing craft at least, are still there adding ‘charm and character’ to the scene, but village after village along this beautiful white sandy coastline is now given over to the tourist industry. Paradise lost?
A curious little industry here which appears to prey on foreign tourists only, is operated by what I call the ‘Soop Soop Men’. As one wanders through these small beach-side villages, Indian men dressed in an odd sort of ethnic garb, with the tools of their trade at their side in a small pouch, sidle up, point at ones head and say something like ‘Soop, soop’.
It happened as we strolled through one of the touristy old fishing villages. We are reluctant to give in to our curiosity, inured as we think we are to the multifarious and often extremely clever approaches by locals in an effort to get you to part with your money: but they, like the children, are unbearably persistent. One of them, still chanting ‘Soop!’, catches up with me and reaches out for my head. At this point Rachel’s will breaks, and she gives in to curiosity (seeing I’m the target and not her) and urges me to stop. He then gets hold of my head and looks intently into my ear, telling Rachel, “Look, soop, soop … !” (She looks, of course. This is a new ruse.) He then takes out of his pouch an instrument resembling a dentist’s scraping tool and inserts it into my ear. Lo and behold, a big deposit of grey looking wax or ‘soap’ is on the scraper. Little does he know I just happen to have a little finger nail which I keep long for the express purpose of keeping my ears free of wax, so there’s no way that glob came from my ear! So we left him there pointing to his scraper, plaintively proclaiming, “Look Sir, Soop, Soop… !” A good scam though. I can imagine a certain tourist demand for this sort of exotic service. “… not only did I get my shoes cleaned by this cute little urchin, but there was this funny little man in this fishing village in Goa who cleans ears for a living, so we …”
From the newspaper: It seems there is Government recognition of the child labour problem. In one of the states (I’ve forgotten which one) they carried out a census and found there were something like 50 – 60,000 child labourers, of whom some 30,000 were in highly dangerous positions. The good news was that children were no longer employed in the manufacture of fireworks – in that state!
Perhaps we are encouraging child labour when we get our footwear polished by a persistent shoe-shine boy for a few rupees! Would it help solve the problem if we declined his services? (You frequently have to be quite stern at that!) Wouldn’t we simply be depriving them of a portion of their meagre income? You can see the daily moral dilemma one faces here. Social ideals are unhelpful when travelling. I observe these abuses of children’s rights with some disquiet, but prefer to think we are helping them when we hire them for whatever task or buy some garment in say, a souk in Morocco, that has been produced using the dexterous young hands of a child. I suspect it is the Multi-nationals that are responsible for encouraging, systematising and prolonging the abuse. Child labour is endemic in India and Morocco and, of course, many other countries. It’s a hopeless and tragic mess really.
But life goes on. In the cities and small towns, where the luckless, the hopeless, the desperate and optimistic flock, there are frequent real and visual problems. Some scenes I would liken to festering sores. In the rural sectors however, although conspicuous signs of prosperity aren’t apparent, life seems idyllic and timeless, and quite likely is. Like the farmer, sitting cross legged astride his ox as it trudges endlessly round its circular track. The oxen is attached to a wooden radial arm that drives a series of large cogs, which turn a long bucket chain (many still made with leather, wood and clay pots), the buckets hoisting water up from a well and tipping it into an irrigation channel. A medieval irrigation system.
Women here, as throughout India, daily perform incredibly hard, physical tasks. They walk, literally for miles, with huge long bundles of wood, large containers of water or full to bursting sacks of grain etc. balanced on a ring of cloth on their head. Speaking for myself, I know I wouldn’t last 100 metres with some of these loads. It is very impressive. The water is being carried because there is no tap or pump at their homes. Men rarely carry things on their heads but do use this method if need be. They are a tough breed, these rural and coastal village Indians.
In retrospect, I would like to have asked the ages of some of the more elderly looking women in order to judge the deleterious effects (or otherwise) of this sort of brutal work on their health and life span. This would however, have required me to firstly fall into jolting, rapid step with them, and then to stoop down to their heads, low because their bodies are bowed under the weight of their loads. It seemed about as insensitive an intrusion into their life as talking to them while they were carrying out their ablutions. Not something I could have done. But I am left with the intriguing possibility that all this hard labour could possibly be prolonging their lives, through the principal of ‘exercise’ being healthy. Well, it’s a theory!
Today’s weather: Max. Temp. 29.4C, Min. Temp. 19.6C, Relative Humidity 65%.
POST SCRIPTS: I was floating on my back in the azure, shallow warm waters of palm fringed Palolem Beach, when I noticed two vultures lazily circling above. They are a colossal and graceful bird in the air. On the ground they are hunched and cumbersome.
The Goans spread their small harvests of pulses out to dry in some of the most unusual places, often utilising quiet sections of the road. (So now I know where those small stones come from in the packets of lentils.)
* * * * * *
In taking photos of the many photogenic animals (oxen, buffaloes, brahmin cattle, camels etc.), I’ve had this terrible recurring thought that the camera flash would startle the animal and I’d have, for example, a rearing, crazed oxen (big beasts) with its attached, big, cumbersome wooden cart careering through the crowded market place causing mayhem and even death. And me? Prior to guiltily fleeing, I’d be trying to capture the chaos on film before these gentle people turned into an enraged lynch mob.
Goans, and Indians generally, while being clearly aware of the corruption, the beggary, the dirt and inequities, are very proud of their country, its rich culture and religiosity (including: Hinduism and its many variations, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam).
I found that they tend to take a very dim view of the West’s advertised immorality and its subsequent effect on marriages, and have an innovative and enlightened attitude to sexuality within marriage while firmly believing marriage to be for life. Those couples I spoke with on this matter expressed a frank openness about sharing matters of sexual fantasies or extra – marital desires with their partners. A very refreshing attitude I thought. Like the Polynesians (and, we found, the Spanish and the Moroccans), their system of extended family gives nurture to the aged and young, relief from stress for mothers, and a greater sense of assured continuance of the family lineage. There are however, occasional horror stories of wives being burned to death by their husbands, usually with paraffin cooking stove fuel. Oh well!
Stressed out mothers raging at malcontent children are hard to find here. They are very relaxed and gentle with their children or others’ (publicly) and appear to have much affection, love and time for them. I won’t try to defend the fact that they condone child labour. That is from economic necessity.
And so, as we motor down the wide, muddy Mandovi River aboard a modern high speed catamaran, we leave the sun drenched shores of Goa and say goodbye to the dusty streets, dusky maidens, the enchanting friendly faces, the oh-so-handsome men with their beautiful, dark, sensuous eyes (this from Rachel – come to think of it, she said the same of Greek men, Moroccan men, Spanish men) and this warm, seductive climate. Sigh……!
* * * * * *
Prior to flying out from Mumbai, we immersed ourselves in all the urban activity. We wandered the lanes and alleyways, absorbing the high energy atmosphere of this outdoor street life with its hustling and bustling crowds, its colours, smells, noise and tastes. All the senses working overtime. Aaah! Life to the max! INDIA!
Notably, in all our dealings with Indians we found them to be friendly, helpful and courteous. However, we will miss being called ‘Sir’ and ‘Madam’ when we finally leave India. I know it smacks of the colonial era, but far be it for me to change an age old custom. Actually, I have come to quite enjoy being called Sir! Heard on a regular basis, it acts as a psychological balm for the self esteem. (A bit of a worry isn’t it!)
Copyright © J Cedric Watkins 1997