Goan, Goan, Gone

6th March

6.20am is too early for a train. Especially when it doesn’t show up until well after 8.

I’m grouchy on the platform at Hosapete, sitting on a bench next to Rebecca with my elbows resting on the backpack between my legs, when a white-haired man with a passing resemblance to David Attenborough catches my eye. I try to avoid it. Don’t ask me why, he just looks like trouble. Like a kindly old gent, without the kindly. Despite my best efforts, he leans forward from my peripheral into my central vision, and gives me a little wave. I smile weakly.

His name is Gunter, a marine engineer from Hanover who lives in Cyprus. Why Cyprus?

“Ah, you see, Cyprus is a tax haven. If your business is registered there, it has to be addressed there. They’re very strict. Other places, you pay a lawyer €10,000 and he’ll say you’re based there. Not Cyprus! In Cyprus, you actually have to be there.”

Fascinating. Gunter doesn’t stop there though. “Cyprus is also a tax haven for private individuals. Up to €19,500 tax free! And you can always come in under €19,500, if you know what I mean.” He taps his nose conspiratorially, leaning in so close I can smell the greed.

For some reason he seems to think I’m finding this little masterclass in tax evasion exciting, so I haven’t the heart to tell him I’m actually fairly pro-tax and detest free riders. I’ve been awake since four and in no mood for a public shouting match with a scrounger. Sorry, stranger. Especially not when we’re surrounded by the offcuts of a society that eschews universal sanitation and functional state welfare in favour of nuclear weaponry and a space program.

The train eventually arrives. Though Gunter and his wife are in the same carriage as us they are thankfully down the other end, sparing us ten hours of mind-numbing prattle about minimising one’s tax burden. Though it’s a daytime train, we’re in a sleeper carriage and have berths allocated, so I clear aside the sheets used by the overnight occupant and stretch out, typing and watching movies on my tablet between the occasional nap all the way to Margao, South Goa’s main station. We arrive four hours later than scheduled, fourteen hours after waking up. And we’re not quite there: there follows a half hour train to Canacona, for which we queue wearily for tickets.

After a while we realise that our train isn’t obviously on any of the boards. In an attempt to work out where and what time it’s expected, I ask a few station officials. None of them know. I initially put this down to my English being incomprehensible, but even armed with the train’s number I’m unable to get anything more informative than a shrug from any of the numerous officials around the station. The responses almost seem to pose the question: “Why on earth should I know? I’m just the station master.”

Thankfully we bump into a couple from Cornwall who took the same train out of Hampi as us that morning, and they’re armed with an app that gives live updates on departure and arrival times of all the Indian trains. They’re catching the same one as us, and let us know it’s at Platform 1 at 8pm. You can’t help but think it would be better for everyone if the app info could somehow make its way to the train station staff.

I need sleep. When we finally arrive at our hotel near Patnem, after a cab from Canacona shared with the Cornish couple, we’re shown to a cosy room in a structurally basic but sturdy hut by our friendly Anglophone host Monica, and I collapse happily.

7th March

The Plan is to lay low here for a week or more, rather than moving on to Mumbai then Rajasthan after a couple of days, until the date of Nana’s funeral is set and we can plan our travel home for it. This will afford Rebecca plenty of scope for beachside yoga and give me time to bring the blog, which is now more than a month behind our travels, up to speed. So I’m frustrated to realise I left my bluetooth keyboard on the train from Hampi. This wasn’t part of The Plan.

Monica arranges me a tuk-tuk into Chaudi to see about buying another, as Amazon will take up to a week to deliver and we’re not certain to still be here by then. No shops stock bluetooth keyboards, or even seem to know what I’m talking about, but that doesn’t stop a string of them taking down my number with promises to order one in post-haste. I head back to the resort, spend an initially aggravating couple of hours hammering out a post about Tamil Nadu on the tablet’s built-in keyboard, then Rebecca takes me down to Patnem beach for both our sanity.

The beach is beautiful, fringed with little clusters of beach huts each with its own bar/restaurant and a dollop of late middle-aged Brits abroad in varying shades of sunburnt. These spread themselves out across shaded tables and dangerously exposed sunloungers.

We set up at Mickey’s, next to a group of prematurely leathery types that seem to have coalesced around a Phil Tufnell look- and sound-alike. I try not to eavesdrop but he’s so obnoxiously loud it’s impossible, and he seems to take issue with his bill because half the stuff on it was ordered by his brother. The absent brother, I decide, is indeed Phil Tufnell and the England legend has brought his family out for a winter trip to India in celebration of his playing days, perhaps so they can all develop skin cancer and complain about how spicy the food is. It’s a nice daydream that takes my mind off the fact that we might as well be in Marbella.

9th March

That’s the problem with Goa; there really isn’t much to do here that’s ‘authentically’ ‘Indian’. Rebecca and I, as we hurtle towards our late twenties (I turned 29 last month, which I reckon gives me about five months of my ‘mid twenties’ left), are getting more and more comfortable with the fact that we’re not out to party. And if you’re not out to party, there’s not a lot to do besides yoga and going to the beach.

At first glance the Saturday Farmers’ Market seems like an exception. I like the idea of a bunch of stalls run by local producers, and we head to Bakti Kutir, the nearby resort where it’s held, eager with anticipation.

In the event, every stall but one is run by European – almost entirely home counties British – ex-pats. It’s an odd thing, really. They’re apparently all well-off, cheerfully middle-class families whose hippy leanings got slightly the better of them. Steady jobs were resigned, sensible hatchbacks traded in and the kiddies scooped onto a flight, whizzed through customs and plonked into a new life in Goa. You suspect things like money and finding work weren’t factors that needed to be taken into account; this little community sustains its own circular economy by selling each other overpriced things at the Saturday market, boosted now and again by the occasional shareholder dividend from the homeland.

The children roam freely around the market in handmade garments of cotton and hemp that look like they might be worn, perhaps even made, by the elves of Rivendell. Some of them take turns on the stalls, selling tea and homemade lemonade. By and large they seem to cause and come to no harm, the occasional “Tarquin, let go of Cecilia’s hair this INSTANT!” the only sign of trouble in this little post-colonial paradise.

In the middle of this scene is the only clue that we aren’t somewhere like Letchworth or Cobham; a lonely-looking Indian woman in the eye of the chattering storm, her stall – selling a fairly generic but pretty selection of throws, silver jewellery and notebooks – skipped over completely by the Surrey diaspora. Feeling sorry for her, I ask the price of a leather-bound notebook. The stalls down by the beach all sell similar ones so they’re clearly mass-produced somewhere but you wouldn’t guess that by looking; the pattern on the outside is elegant (I go for one with an elephant motif) and they tie shut with string which I find charming. The shopkeeper tells me they’re two fifty and starts trying to up-sell us a bracelet.

By the time I finalise my choice of two notebooks the stall-keeper’s husband has appeared, and he insists they’re three hundred each. I feel a bit miffed that our sympathy for the lonely traders is now being exploited, but not enough to bother haggling over. It’s at this point I realise that, unlike the European-run stalls that are all doing a roaring trade, this stand doesn’t have any prices displayed. Nor do the ones at the beach, nor any Indian market stands. I half-wonder if they might catch more of the tourist trade if they priced-tagged the wares, though this feels like an uncomfortably condescending line of thought.

10th March

“We’re, ah, gonna have a good time!” Krishna announces, fastening the drawstring of his loose waistcoat around his midriff as he enters the room. Half-naked, wild dreadlocks tied in a thick bun atop his head, there’s a glint in his eye that, in a different context, might lead me to think he’s initiating a sex party.

“You’re not gonna be doing too much. Just, ah, lying down there.” He gestures towards three thin, slightly grubby mattresses on the floor. Hmmm. In an act of extreme trust, I lie down on my back and close my eyes. The sound bath begins.

Krishna has already explained the principle of the ancient healing technique. The sounds from the various instruments, mostly Tibetan singing bowls, come from either side of the head, creating a stereo effect that sends waves through the brain. This puts the listener into a trance-like state, the benefits of which include improved circulation and reduced stress.

I need this. I’ve fallen into a dark mood of late. I’ve no idea how, in a patch of the world as pretty and carefree as Patnem. It could be because beer is stupidly cheap in Goa, so having drunk very little alcohol at all for two months I’ve now started having a couple over dinner. Not a lot, but enough to notice the difference from how great I feel when not drinking at all. It could be because, until this morning, I hadn’t practised yoga for about three weeks. The creepy, flat spider attached like a bottom-feeder to our bathroom wall might contribute. And, though my malaise is expressing itself as frustration, the sadness that lingers after Nana’s death probably plays no small underlying part.

The morning’s yoga session, led by an Italian ex-pat named Lucia, started shaking me out of my funk in the initially counter-productive way that taking any first steps do. My joints ached and creaked throughout; my mind raced every time we were asked to slow down and meditate, but afterwards I felt a little bit better, a touch calmer, a hint happier. Same again after a swim in the afternoon.

The sound bath begins. Krishna starts on the copper bowls, repeating a few short musical cells, discordant yet soothing, gradually increasing in complexity. Their reverberation creates an intense feedback-like pulse, like the end of a Nirvana concert, which brings about a sense of detachment. It’s disorientating. You feel variously as if you’re floating, or suspended painlessly from your ankles, or facing downwards into a void with a strong magnet fixing your back to a ceiling, or all of these at once.

There follows an exciting section on gongs and drums, then Krishna finishes with a recapitulation of the singing bowl exposition, before leaving the room to allow us to come round from, essentially, a long shavasana. He grins as we shake ourselves back to reality, apparently mighty pleased with his work. It feels great.

11th March

The advice I was given before we set off, in different ways and by so many people, is not to fight India. Not to resist it, but to let the country in. Each region we’ve visited so far has been so different from the last, and I’ve had to readjust, almost re-relax, in each one all over again.

The fight I’m putting up against Patnem and Palolem, being so pervasively Brits abroad, is a curious one. I’m ignoring a craving for salty Western food because, to my mind, this would make me the same as the packs of retirees turning red in the sun, chain-smoking Benson & Hedges. At the same time I resent the fact that one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve seen is five minutes’ walk down the road but for one reason or another I feel to proud to go and enjoy it.

So I face up to these thoughts. I take myself down to the beach while Rebecca does yoga, order myself a club sandwich and chips, lie in the sun and take a nap. I wake to the affectionate nuzzling of one of the dozens of stray dogs that fight, crap and hump all over Patnem beach. No; on closer inspection, it’s wearing a collar. It must belong to one of the bars. It keeps sniffing me for about a minute while I try to shoo it away, then wanders a few feet closer to the sea and starts digging in the sand.

I keep watching; it’s hypnotic. Shovelling, shovelling, then patting the sides down fastidiously. Shovel, shovel, pat. A pair of beachgoers stop in their tracks to watch it too. What has it found? A bone? Buried treasure? Sting’s message in a bottle?

Eventually, with the hole roughly dog-sized and deep enough to have hit the wet sand, it jumps inside and curls up. Its own little cool-bed. This reminds me how hot I am. It’s blistering, and I’ve been lying in the sun for hours. I collect my things and head back to the guesthouse.

We book a flight home for the 22nd, the date of Nana’s funeral having been set for the 26th. In many ways, a week at home to take stock will be nice, and until then I have a beautiful little corner of the world that I’m remembering how to relax in to enjoy.

Rebecca launches into gleeful piss-taking at my sunburn.

22nd March

There really hasn’t been a lot to write about in the last week and a bit. Imagine your last two-week beachside holiday, throw in a bit of yoga here and there and a bunch of cows wondering around the roads, and you’ve pretty much got it. A highlight was bumping into Polly and Ruben from Hampi as they drove past on a bike in Colomb; they put us onto Jaali Café, a relatively expensive but very tasty mezze place set back behind the bars on Patnem beach.

Holi started yesterday evening, but is weirdly anticlimactic. Again, I guess if we were somewhere less touristy we might have got a better experience of it, but Patnem’s reaction to the festival seems to be limited mostly to kids wondering around selling handfuls of coloured powder to tourists. All in all it has been a very relaxing, pleasant time. Less ‘travelling’, more ‘holiday’.

The journey home is eerily straightforward. Taxi, eleven-hour flight (sleep for most of the above) and suddenly we’re at Gatwick airport. We take a train to Victoria station, our backpacks still covered in Goan dust, and begin our journey across London to Hertfordshire. It’s rush hour on the Victoria line. We’re back.

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