We had come to Goa in search of rest and relaxation. Life on the road in India can be an exhausting business. After months of what, at times, seemed like hard labour we desperately needed some peace and quiet. We were craving not much more than a little sea, sun and sand, a palm tree to lie under, and a book to read there.
[Context: When I finished law-school I set off on an extended voyage of discovery across Asia and Europe, with Camilla, my girlfriend at the time. This included backpacking in India for more than three months. I wrote a series of short stories about our experiences there. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to see them published, they have languished in my cupboard ever since. Not many people have read them but recently, a friend who has suggested I should dig out my India tales, edit and “publish” them via this blog – an online book of sorts. There are 18 “chapters” in total, and from time to time I will post the next one, although each can be read standalone. In revisiting these stories now, almost two decades after they were written, it amazes me how little things have changed in India. In many respects, the events described back then could just as easily have happened today. I hope you enjoy].
Starting in the heady days of the 1960s, everybody who was anybody on the hippie trail across Asia would invariably spend some time in Goa. This tiny province on India’s west coast had all the essentials that the average hippie needed: white sand beaches, an exotic location, and easy access to bearded gurus, spiritual enlightenment, vegetarian food, and drugs. The good people of Goa were also apparently willing to tolerate, if not altogether accept, hippie idiosyncrasies like nude beach parties, and LSD-fuelled full-moon gatherings.
Not to mention that Goa offered the hippie traveller something even more important than all of this: a cheap cost of living. In Goa, even the most indigent of hippies could sustain themselves for long periods of time on almost no money.
Given its credentials as a “hippie paradise”, Goa therefore seemed like it would be just the laid-back, off-the-beaten-path kind of place we were looking for.
Laid back? Off the beaten path? Peace and quiet?
You’ve got to be kidding.
We arrived at Calangute, Goa’s primary beach resort, to find that there was not a hippie in sight. Instead, to our horror, we discovered that the whole town was completely overrun with puffy and pale English, German and Swedish holiday-makers. The beach was crowded and dirty, and an unbroken wall of hotels and souvenir stalls lined the shore.
What the hell? We made some enquiries and learned that sometime between the 1960s and now, the tourist masses had found out about Goa. Those rustic beachfront bamboo shacks we thought we would find have all been ripped down and replaced by pre-fabricated concrete hotels. English charter-flights now make regular runs to Goa. Busloads of Indian vacationers pour in as well, so that Goa nowadays resembles Bali, Phuket, and every other Asian tourist shit-hole. In response Goa’s hippies have packed up and moved on.
All in all, not exactly what we had in mind when we had imagined a few restful weeks on a beach in Goa. But we had journeyed for two long days to get here and the thought of packing up and moving on, a-la hippie, was not entirely appealing at this point.
So we sat rather forlornly in a cafe, sipping awful filterkafee, which was actually the same old dishwater coffee that is served all over India, only now diabolically rebranded to make homesick Germans feel even more homesick. Next to us a tourist couple ordered an Indian rendition of “fish ’n’ chips”, which looked a lot like someone had taken to a fish and a potato with a machete, before soaking the remains overnight in a vat of oil.
We discussed our dilemma with an Australian girl at the next table. She said that if we really wanted the hippie experience, we would need to travel to the extreme north of Goa. She said that there were still some places, about a day’s journey away, where we could find dreadlocked pot-smoking forest-dwellers smearing their bodies in mud and cavorting naked in the woods. I took another sip of my filterkafee, looked out at the rows of tourists sprawled in the sun, and sighed. Compared to this lot a bit of mud and nudity would have been a distinct improvement.
In the end, however, we were not in the mood for another long journey. So we made our way a few kilometres south, to the small and relatively less developed village of Benaulim. There we checked into Xavier’s, a collection of small pre-fabricated concrete bungalows, which fronted right onto the beach. It more or less lived up to a “tropical paradise” billing: not that crowded, a few solitary palm trees bending over the sand, blue waters, local fisherman boats pulled high up onto the shore.
Xavier was a big and gruff man more prone to monosyllabic grunting than to speech. His mother, a wrinkled old woman with no teeth, was the exact opposite. She practically adopted us on sight, and for the whole of our stay she fussed over us, checked on us frequently, and all the while tried to make unintelligible toothless conversation with us. She also told us to call her “mama”, and pointed out, lest it had escaped our attention, that Jesus was watching us. Literally, that is – a chubby-cheeked baby Jesus doll depicted Hindu style in all the colours of the rainbow was prominently mounted on the wall of our bungalow, right above the bed.
We swam, took long walks along the beach, and sunned ourselves – just what the doctor had ordered – and for a few days we thought we had magically managed to find a small oasis of peace and quiet, in the midst of the onslaught that has otherwise turned so much of Goa into a modern-day tourist nightmare.
That is until Oscar and Helga, a German couple, checked in to the beach shack next door.
Oscar was a man with an enormous pot belly, supported on a pair of the most disproportionately skinny legs imaginable, so that he always looked like he was about to topple over. He was permanently attired in an altogether inappropriate pink Speedo swim-suit, four or five sizes too small. It scrunched up underneath the overhanging flab of his stomach to reveal in sharp outline the salient features of his male anatomy (they were so tight I can even report to you that Oscar was uncircumcised).
Helga for her part was thin and austere, with wispy black hair that fell in clumps, and a horrible scar all down her neck. She looked a lot like Morticia from the Adams family. Her favourite pastime seemed to be flashing a pair of very hairy armpits.
Now, one of my personal travel foibles is that I like to travel with an adequate supply of underwear. And on the morning Oscar and Helga arrived at Xavier’s, I had done some washing. Thus hanging on the drying line, between my t-shirts and shorts, were eight pairs of faded boxer-briefs.
I would not have given it a second thought, but obviously something about this state of affairs greatly perturbed the newly-arrived Oscar. So when I was passing him that afternoon on the footpath, he blocked my way. I smiled, presuming that this strangely shaped man in a pink swimsuit might want to say “hi”, and introduce himself. But instead, the first words Oscar ever spoke to me were: “You have too many undervers”.
Well. Quite an interesting choice of ice-breaker, wouldn’t you say?
I wasn’t quite sure how to reply, but it didn’t matter, because Oscar immediately launched into a small lecture on his personal underwear protocol: “Ven I am travelling, I have only vun pair. I am vashing it every evening, and zo I am not needing zo many pairs”.
“Oh, really?” was the best I could muster.
“Yes. It is true. You must have only vun”.
I guess I looked confused, because Oscar repeated his view on how best I should manage my underwear portfolio, slowly and deliberately: “I tell you. You. Must. Have. Only. Vun.”
And then he turned sharply on his heels and waddled off down the path, so that all I could see was the fat of his arse, jiggling furiously, as it desperately tried to escape from the prison of his pink Speedo.
This brief underwear episode (pardon the pun) reminded me that despite my protestations, package tourists can actually be quite entertaining. They are a strange sub-group of the travel set: holiday-makers out to have a good time, but only if everything is exactly like it is back home. A brief stroll around a mass-market resort-town can be so jam-packed with comedy that, approached in the right way, it can become like visiting a vaudeville theatre, only where the tickets are free.
So a few days later we decided to put aside our prejudices and catch an afternoon show, a.k.a. walk up the beach to Calangute to see what tourist amusements (or, more precisely, amusement tourists) were on offer. And, if truth be told, we also needed an excuse to escape the constant attention of Oscar and Helga, who seemed to have decided that they very much wanted to be our friends.
We were not disappointed.
The Scene: Calangute beach, a strip of very crowded sand in Goa, India. The beautiful natural scenery is obscured by a solid mass of hotels, resorts, guest houses, and youth hostels. Some are quite fancy, but most are downright grotty. On the main road leading towards the beach, Indians in sunglasses and beach-wear are selling T-shirts, fake watches, sunglasses, sarongs, shorts, trousers, belts, sandals, bags and books. Everything on offer is uninspiring, shoddy junk. There are hordes of European holiday-makers inspecting the merchandise. They are in what appears to be a mad frenzy of shopping – all the acquirable crap gathered in one spot has the same effect on them as a pot of honey to a swarm of bees.
Act I, Scene I – “The Shopper”: An overweight black woman in a bikini, sweating profusely, is standing in front of a market stall. She has an accent and braided hairdo that instantly identifies her as coming from the north of England. She is inspecting a tie-dyed multi-coloured t-shirt, and behaving as if finding this hideous mass-produced rag, in and amongst several thousand of exactly the same thing, ranks up there with Columbus’ discovery of the New World. She calls out to her friend at the next stall, over and over and over: “Oh my God, Cheryl, look at this one; and for less than two pounds, it is so cheap!”
Act I, Scene II – “Smile, Love”: An English couple walks on stage. He: middle-aged, sandals with white socks, khaki shorts, pink skin, massive camera dangling around his neck. She: also middle-aged, snow-white skin, white hair cropped and perm-dyed, yellow bikini top, sagging boobs, gold shoes, ice-cream in hand. He begins taking photos of her. “That’s right love, stand over there, and smile”. Click. “Good, good, now look the other way”. Click. “Now shake your hair love”. Click. “Terrific, now lick the ice-cream.” (Naturally, she does this with a suggestive look on her face). Click, click, click. “Look sexy”. Click. “Beautiful”. Click. “OK, let’s shag”. (No just kidding, he doesn’t say this last bit, although given the lusty look on his face, he may as well have).
Intermission: Three young girls in brightly coloured saris, each balancing a basket of fruit on her head, approach us on the beach. We buy a pineapple, bananas, two coconuts and a few mangoes. More young girls approach. They have full, beautiful smiles, and surround us, offering to sell us clothes and jewellery. We fall asleep on the sand, only to be woken by a marauding beach cow, come to feed on our discarded fruit peels.
Act II, Scene I – “Water Sports”: Enter stage right: four very fat Indian matrons wade into the sea in their full saris, and wallow in the shallows like a pod of beached whales. Cue stage left: a group of young Indian boys strip down to their underwear, and act tough by throwing each other into the oncoming waves, or by pointing and laughing whenever an attractive woman walks past. Company of Western tourists: gorge on burgers and chips at the beach cafes. Company of Indian tourists: set up a few metres away on the sand, and gorge themselves on picnics of curry and rice. Centre stage: a deeply bronzed Italian woman, in nothing but a minuscule fluorescent yellow g-string, steps forward. She slowly parades up and down, oblivious to all other activity going on around her, and all eyes turn to her. Then, she almost steps in a freshly laid turd (not often mentioned in the glossy tourist brochures, but Goa’s beaches are minefields of excrement, human and animal).
Act II, Scene II – “The Butcher Shop”: Hundreds of British and European tourists are sprawled out on deckchairs at numerous “private” beach clubs (private, that is, only if your idea of privacy is being separated from the rest of the world by a 25 centimetre high grass fence). The deckchairs are arranged on raised wooden platforms, so the sunbathing tourists are actually on display, like a beachside freak show of sorts. Most of the sun-bathing women are topless (even though almost every piece of tourist information warns that is inappropriate, and offensive, for women to sunbathe topless on Goa’s beaches). They resemble trays of meat lined up in the butcher’s window.
Act II, Scene III – “The Horn Dogs”: Each English trollop with her tits hanging out is now surrounded by an animated group of horny Indian men, ogling and sniggering like they are at a peep show (given that topless sunbathers are about as close to a peep show as you can get in conservative Hindu India, in their mind they probably are). The men stand in the same spot for three or four minutes at a time, all the while staring directly at the exposed nipples and skimpily clad crotches on display. They do not even try to hide their lasciviousness.
Act II, Scene IV – “The Grand Finale”: A female participant in this bizarre revue sits up. She (somewhat unbelievably) seems to be enjoying the attention she is receiving from the Horn-Dogs. She rolls over and suggestively oils herself. In so doing, her lily-white bosom wobbles, and the surrounding men, all now visibly sweating, break out into a chatter of nervous tittering (shameful pun, I’m sorry). The female looks up like a startled deer, and in a belated act of mock modesty, covers her boobs with her hands.
Curtain. Applause. Bravo.
Like I said, it was a wonderful afternoon of theatre.
There is, of course, much more to Goa besides titties and turds on the beach.
Once upon a time Portugal was a mighty empire, with colonies all over Asia. This included outposts in India, alongside the English and French territories there. Goa, as well as two Indian coastal enclaves of Daman and Diu, both in the state of Gujarat, were all once part of Portugal. Goa in fact was a Portuguese territory until 1961, long after the rest of India became independent from Britain.
The Portuguese left behind in their wake a potent mixture of Catholicism, architecture, and language. This legacy is felt strongest in Panjim, Goa’s capital city, where Fontainhas, the original Portuguese part of town, is like a small slice of Lisbon transplanted to a sub-tropical locale.
We spent a few days exploring Panjim – mercifully tourist free, and a wonderful melange of wide boulevards, public parks, and European style gardens. The streets were lined with beautiful old buildings, built in a classical Portuguese style of gracious columns and elegant arches and rounded, curling edges. Many of the homes we saw were decorated with distinctive blue and white tiles typical of northern Portugal; others were painted in simple white or weather-wearied earth tones.
Panjim’s main church, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, stands regally at the top of a small rise overlooking the town’s central square. It is a huge white structure, the most impressive feature being the zigzag flights of stairs which wind their way down from the Church forecourt to street level. At the entrance to the church we were cornered by a trio of beggars: one had no legs, another waved a cross in my face, and the third quoted the bible to me, in a jumbled mixture of Portuguese and English.
We sat on the steps of the Church and chatted with a young man. He told us that Goa was the most civilised place in India. I asked why, and he replied: “Because people in Goa are Christian”. He told us that he could not live anywhere else in India besides Goa, because he could not bear the thought of having so many Hindus as neighbours. He said this totally matter-of-factly, without even the slightest concern that he might be making statements that were clearly racist. But we had been in India long enough to know that there are deep fissions of enmity between the country’s religious and sectarian groups, always lurking just below the surface.
Given how much he disliked Hindus, the young man told us that the only other places in India in which he could live were the country’s tiny north-east provinces, where Christians are also in the majority. He said that he had once met a group of girls from one such province, Mizoram, on a train, and that they had not been shy and retiring like Hindu girls. “In Goa, we are Christian, and we like to have parties and to go to discos”, he said proudly. This being the first and only time Catholicism has ever been presented to me as a good-time religion.
Not far from Panjim is Old Goa, where the Portuguese first established a presence in Goa. These days it is a comprehensive ruin, although a few magnificent churches remain intact. St. Catherine’s Cathedral, supposedly larger than any church in Portugal, was dramatically set amidst unkempt scraggly grasslands and trees. We followed a dusty path away from the cathedral, got lost, and eventually arrived at a small stone landing by the waterfront. A sign informed that this was the Viceroy’s Arch, at which during the colonial era trading ships would moor to allow the crew to disembark. Still lost we walked at random along more dusty roads, and were frightened out of our skins by a rabid dog, foaming at the mouth, which jumped from out from behind a bush and began gnashing its teeth at us. All around was the evidence of prior greatness – crumbling walls peering out from the undergrowth, broken pieces of ornately carved stone lying scattered in the grass.
We finally found our way to St. Xavier’s Church, a black stone building which, owing to its colour, looked more like it should have been a prison. Inside the church, the relics of St. Francis Xavier are kept in an extravagantly decorated silver box. For one day each year his preserved finger is publicly displayed, and once every ten years St. Xavier’s entire preserved body is removed from its coffin, and put on show for the benefit of thousands of devout pilgrims, who throng to Old Goa for this ghoulish event.
Sadly, our visit to St. Xavier’s was at the wrong time of the decade. We roamed the cavernous and beautifully decorated interior of the church for an hour, and didn’t so much get a glimpse of St Xavier’s famous pickled corpse. A real shame, if you ask me.
Later that afternoon, we returned to Panjim by public bus. The bus was already packed to overflowing when we boarded it, but along with about fifty other new passengers we squeezed in. We wound up crammed in so tightly against the next passengers I could barely breathe, and it felt like we were the proverbial sardines in a tin. It was an overwhelming crush of heat, skin, perspiration and body odours.
A rather large fellow jumped on board at the last second, and then the bus set off, so he was half hanging out the open door. Not happy with this precarious position, he began indicating to me that I should move along into the bus, to make some room for him.
I was, however, pressed up tight against a solid wall of sweaty flesh and there was absolutely no-where for me to move along to. I turned to the man and shrugged my shoulders, as if to say “what can I do?”
This was obviously not the response the man had in mind, and he began aggressively pushing his way forward, causing everyone in his immediate vicinity to lose their balance. I asked him to stop, but he just continued in this most futile of attempts to burrow a path through the crowd.
So I did the manly thing. That is, the next time he shoved forward, I met his thrust with a hefty shove in the opposite direction, sending him stumbling a few steps backwards and almost out the open door of the bus.
The man began shouting and swearing, and pushed forward again. So I shoved him back, again. This jostling continued for a few moments, until eventually he gave up, and instead drew himself up to full height, and squared off with me, eye to eye. Knowing that I was unable to go anywhere, he proceeded to shower me in a torrent of abuse, a barrage of “fuck”s and “shit”s that he kept up the whole ride back to Panjim.
So here you have a foreigner and a local Indian, on a crowded bus in Goa, pushing and shoving each other around. The local is also swearing constantly. You may have expected that these antics would attract some attention, but no-one else on the bus so much as raised an eyebrow. Instead, the other passengers on the bus had just tuned out from the surrounding environment. They were all in a form of cryonic suspension, oblivious to everything and anything going on around them, including my ongoing feud with another passenger.
Indeed, this ability to zone out is a unique and distinctively Indian of traits, and was something we had noticed many times before on our travels around the sub-continent.
Like a few weeks earlier, on an overnight train ride, when a group of Tibetan monks sharing our carriage had decided to begin chanting. I am sure I would have found this to be utterly charming, had it not been three A.M. in the fucking morning, for God’s sake. Apart from me, however, this ruckus did not seem to bother anyone else on the train that night. Other passengers were somehow able to simply ignore the loud, monotonous and frankly quite maddening chanting. After about twenty minutes I had asked the monks to shut-up, please, so I could sleep, and they looked at each other in bewilderment. For them, 3:00am chanting on a crowded overnight train was perfectly normal. I was the one being unreasonable – surely I could have just ignored them, like everybody else?
Elsewhere in India, we had seen people almost killed as they stepped directly into the paths of oncoming trucks or cars, deaf to the sound of the blaring horns. I had watched men pass hours of inactivity on a train platform, staring vacantly into space, in a state of complete indifference to their physical surroundings. I had watched people of all ages descend into a semi-trance, and then sit through an excruciating fifteen hour bus ride, without the slightest hint of discomfort. In our first few weeks in the country the vagueness and zombie-like behaviour of so many Indians had driven me to near distraction, but now I was coming to understand it.
I guess when you share a comparatively small patch of turf with one billion others folks, this ability to tune-out is a useful, if not essential, survival technique. India is so overcrowded that physical isolation is near impossible to achieve, and as an alternative Indians appear to have developed an ability to achieve a sense of mental isolation; an ability to unshackle from the physical world, and cerebrally go for a roam in the wide open spaces. It is all very Buddha, really, something Goa’s hippies would give their eye-teeth for.
Packed check-to-jowl in a bus with a large Indian man who was shouting obscenities at me, droplets of spittle flecking me as he did so, seemed like the absolutely perfect moment to try my hand for the first time at the Indian art of tuning-out.
So I looked directly at the ranting man, allowed my eyes to glaze over, and just ignored him. And, what do you know, it worked. One minute he was there, but then I tuned-out on him, and he quite miraculously disappeared. Sure, I could hear him in the background, yapping away, but I suddenly had the capacity to compartmentalise his incessant jabber, to stick it away in a disused corner of my mind, and instead devote the rest of my mental energy to the simple task of staring emptily into the foreground. And once I did this, the most extraordinary thing happened: the crowded, uncomfortable bus ride became quite bearable; I blinked and an hour had passed, and we were back in Panjim.
We had come to Goa in search of hippie-like peace, quiet and simplicity, and instead had found beaches overrun with souvenir stalls and obnoxious, topless tourists. Yet on a crowded local bus that was packed to bursting, I had experienced a near total hippie-like sense of peace and quiet.
“Life in India is full of little ironies” I thought as I stepped down from the bus at the Panjim Central Bus Station, still utterly amazed with my new-found powers of distraction. I looked up just in time to hear a horn blaring, and to see that I had more or less walked directly into the path of a large blue bus, which had thankfully managed to screech to a halt. A foot and a half more and it would have killed me.
My heart began pounding so hard I thought it would explode.
“God help me,” I thought. “This country is really starting to get to me”.
[The next post in this series will be in about four weeks time: Chapter 12: Impressions of Bombay]