The sleeper train South from Mumbai was a marked contrast from our previous train into the great metropolis. Civilised, quiet, and smooth we slept easily and were only woken at 8am by the guard asking for our tickets. Toby and I (Hello again from Joe, devoted readers) spent the morning gawping at the scenery. I’d thought I’d seen some pretty stunning train journeys but as we entered the state of Goa urban development seemed to cease. Surrounding us were wide rivers, palms and the odd Catholic Church (Goa, a Portuguese colony for over 400 years until 1961) dotting the landscape. We both creaked our necks to see if we could pick out the sea, like children in the backseats on a day trip to the beach! We arrived in Margao, the transport/administrative hub of the state, an hour late, but by 1pm we were settled in our simple guesthouse and on the hunt for some decent seafood.
With only 4 nights to offer Goa and not wanting to spend costly hours in a taxi to more distant resorts, we’d chosen Benaulim, a handy short ride from Margao and one of the more discreet of Goan’s coastal settlements. It’s small, focused around a crossroads with all that you’d need: ATM, laundry, fruit seller (Of the most exotic kinds, almost other-worldly), clothes and souvenir stalls, cafes and just the one German bakery. In our £3 per night digs it’s here that we’re based and spend the early mornings before walking the 500m or so to the beach.
And it’s there, that expansive Benaulim beach that we’ll remember Goa for. Where the road ends and the bright white sand of the beach begins bars and restaurants stretch both left and right. Built of bamboo, they’re no small shacks: proper restaurants with fresh fish chillers, their own sun beds and keen staff. After a 100m or so the beach bars end and it is undeveloped. The beach is unspoilt. The only ‘litter’ to break up the large band of sand are the colourful fishing boats left after bringing in the dawn haul (which Toby saw on his early morning runs down the beach – Jason Bourne style!)
Here our 4 days in Goa blurs into one hazy, chilled binge, and it has gone rather too quickly. In between hearty amounts of fresh fruit (At last, sweet mangos, your time has come), 50p beers and 80p G&Ts we would dip in the warm (and surprisingly calm) Indian Ocean, or wonder aimlessly for a short while. After a seafood salad one might: read, or should I listen to music, or catch up on the news? I need to reapply sun cream…but I want another swim soon… Such demanding boardroom-level decision making got me so hot and bothered that sometimes I’d just crack and order a Papaya shake.
We’ve both not experienced sun like this before. It’s very strong – you need to get in the shade around lunchtime for a few hours. We were caught out on day one and despite suncream (Factor 15 ain’t up to the job it seems) went lobster red with a lovely sting that evening, luckily nothing Aloe Vera, a hot shower, and (In my case) a pot of Yoghurt couldn’t alleviate (Peach & grape, for those wondering). Wouldn’t want my fresh tan to peel so quickly, now!
It doesn’t feel like December, to be frank, and neither does it feel like India. Away from the frenetic cities you have time and space to think and daydream. To ponder and reflect our past fourteen weeks here. The locals behave differently, more confident and with a greater proficiency of English. “Are you kidding, man?”, said one seller as I haggled away. The tourists are different too. There are no Russians to be found in Rajasthan or elsewhere but here we’re quite outnumbered. They’re a real presence: loud and brash, we would observe them as their bright white skin turned quickly to a burnt red throughout the day, all speedos, pot bellies and broad shoulders as they waddle up and down the beach. And goodness *do they* relax, sipping Vodka out of their own bottles and smoking in succession so often I’ve considered buying a pankha (A local fan made of peacock feathers) to waft away the fumes that join me and my macchiato in the mornings. All good fun though, and I think the playful and attentive Indian waiters enjoy working alongside scantily-clad babushkas.
After a sundowner and a good scrub we’d spend the evenings feasting on fish, sometimes as part of a curry or sometimes the just the whole item such as Pomfret or Red Snapper, and always with salad (Pre-Christmas Detox?!). Then onwards for more drinks. Being so touristy the food is a little more expensive here (Again, compared to home it’s still bargain basement) but I’d say the quality of the offering is better: Salad actually includes lettuce (and feta..and olives…) and I don’t need to ask if everything is washed in purified water. Other types of rice have made a comeback. After months dominated by rice, daal, breads and potatoes things like this make Goa a real breather, a total refresher and a well-earned sunny pause after all those cities and sightseeing ventures.
We move on tomorrow (Friday) morning, south to the ancient ruins of Hampi – a place no less than three travellers have said to me is ‘The best place in India, by far.’ All of a sudden our time here has a clock ticking in the background. In two weeks we leave for Australia. Already I have started to stock up on cheap cosmetics and tailor-made clothes, ready for the sharp (I.e. costly) change. In reality we have a mere ten days left of fast city-to-city backpacking as we hope to spend our final five days in another coastal resort in the East, more akin to a small village but highly-regarded among travellers and hopefully just as easy as our time here. A final fling with the simpler aspects of Indian life before returning to Western society.
Until then, it’s cameras out again as we head onwards along the sub-continent’s Western coast.