Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Old Goa and the Goa of Old

There comes a point in every travelers life that he must get off his arse and type up a blog post to keep the people who read it informed about his whereabouts. That time, for me, has come. I've been putting off typing up another blog post for the reason that there won't be many blog posts left to write after this one. The truth is that there's precious little time left for me in this marvelous country and if I catch up with my writing there'll be almost nothing left to write about.

But I must catch up.

If you're wondering where I am at the moment, I will tell you. I am in the diminutive town of Chapora - the Goa of Old. A quaint, one-street town which is a favourite Goa's hippy scene. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before I write about the Goa of Old I must first write about how I got here. And getting here was preceded by a trip to Old Goa. If this doesn't make sense yet, bear with me - it soon will.

Old Goa was the capital of Goa during the era of Goa's Portuguese occupation. It is now pretty much a ghost town. What was once a thriving city at the height of the Portuguese rule is now just a husk of a town. The only buildings which remain are the churches and cathedrals which serve as a testament to the Catholic influence which differentiates Goa from other Indian states. Old Goa is also a convenient 15 minute bus ride away from Panaji, making it a perfect day trip for the travel enthusiast. Well, almost perfect.

Se Cathedral
Old Goa was definitely worth the visit and the churches and cathedrals were large and numerous, but it failed to excite me. I suppose that was partially due to the crowds of other tourists who got bussed straight in, and partly because Old Goa gave off an air of discomfort. It's quite difficult to explain, but Old Goa felt as if it didn't belong in India, in Goa even. Everywhere you looked you were confronted by another massive, out-of-place church. The churches dominated the area and I couldn't help but feel that it was all intended as a display of dominance by the Portuguese. The imposing structures seemed to be built to be formidable. It all felt like a religious prick-waving contest that got seriously out of hand.

Churches aren't my thing, but I do love a good beach. And so, with the beach beckoning I left Panaji and headed north to Anjuna. Anjuna is another stalwart of the old hippy scene and used to have a reputation as the place to go to experience a Goan trance party. I imagine things have calmed down since then because I only caught wind of one party happening and the next day everyone said it got closed down at 11 PM.

The sunset over Anjuna
Anjuna may not be the place to go for a party anymore, but it is a great spot to go for a swim. For once the waves were of a moderate size and could be bodysurfed, unlike anywhere else in Goa. That said, waiting for the waves of a moderate size that could be bodysurfed seemed to take up most of the time that I spent in the water. At this point you can probably deduce where this blog post is going to go. Yep, nowhere. When you're spending most of the day on a beach there's not much to write home about.

I did visit the Mapusa Friday market for a couple of hours, but it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. What was on sale was mostly just tourist crap and fish. I did scour the market for anything interesting or different, but all of the places were selling the same slew of tourist trash - trinkets and T-shirts mostly.

Funnily enough I decided that Anjuna wasn't the best place to be staying. I'm not sure why I came to that conclusion, but it made sense in my mind at the time. I decided to move on after only a few days of lazing on the beach. I even moved away from the beach - to Chapora.

Chapora is a forgotten town. Forgotten by
tourists, at least
The Lonely Planet likens Chapora to the Mos Eisley Canteen in Star Wars and when I arrived here I understood why. It's not much bigger than a canteen, for a start, and its residents (local and hippy alike) have a very relaxed and slow pace of life. That might have something to do with the charas those hippies are smoking, but I can't be certain. It is the Goa of Old and that's what makes it an attractive place to stay. Chapora has not grown up with the rest of Goa. Everywhere else in Goa is full of tourists, Chapora has only a light sprinkling - and most of them are long-stayers. Chapora is still decidedly cheap, whereas the rest of Goa has hiked its prices up to milk the package tourists. I like Chapora. It's just what I was looking for, an almost untainted Goa, a lack of other tourists.

There's nothing to do in Chapora, nothing pressing at least. And I can't help but like that about it. I can spend a full day sipping chai and reading a book and not have to worry that I'm being slack because there's nothing else to do. I think I might just get stuck here for a while...
A short walk from Chapora - Vagator beach

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

On Indians

Spending every day on a beach for a week is fantastic, but doing so means there's precious little to share with you, the readers of my blog. I thought I'd take a different angle with this post and attempt to describe the Indian people. This may make no sense whatsoever, but if it does it would be a fitting description of Indian people as a whole.

I'll start off by saying that to group all Indians together and try to describe them as a single people (which is my plan) is a ridiculous notion. The people are different everywhere you go, sometimes only marginally, other times drastically.

Indians never cease to amaze and amuse me and occasionally shock me into silence. I am constantly amazed by the warmth that the people of this fine country exhibit. Everywhere I go I encounter people smiling broadly and laughing loudly. The happiness is contagious and I've often had to stop my self grinning like a maniac while walking down a busy street, garnering funny looks from the laughing locals. Laughs, smiles and jokes are a way of life in India, and yet I'm always left wondering - why?

India's economy is booming, and that is a gross understatement. The new wealth in India is remarkable, staggering even. India is going places, fast. New money is everywhere, it is flaunted and put on display, mostly garishly. It's not enough just to be wealthy, one's wealth must be flaunted at every possible occasion. There is this crazy urge to be seen to be wealthy.. A crazy urge which seems to be killing the smiles and laughs and jokes. Yes, the smiles are still there, ditto the laughs, but they're different - hollow. In public, the wealthy laugh too loudly and speak too loudly. Trying, it seems, to draw attention to themselves, to show a carefree side which probably no longer exists.

It seems to me that the happiest Indians are those who don't have all that pressure of wealth placed upon their shoulders. The rickshaw-wallahs, dabba-wallahs and chai-wallahs. The people who are still surprised to see foreigners and are eager to have their pictures taken with them. The laughs from them seem genuine, the smiles truly happy. These are the people of the India of old, before the craziness of the dash for riches permeated their society. These are the people I love to meet. Those who have so little always seem to have the most to give.

I'll deviate now to something which I find very peculiar - the India-Pakistan relationship. Leaving aside all the history between these two nations I'd like to discuss a strange reaction I got when I asked an Indian man about his thoughts on the relationship. A little background though - this man is from Pune (a city about an hour from Mumbai, fairly large and progressive), he grew up in Mumbai in a fairly well-off family and after school set about making himself a lot of money. He is not incredibly rich, like some Indians, but he is rich enough to want to be seen to be rich. His brother-in-law is a high-ranking army officer.

When I asked him about what he thought about Pakistan this was his exact response:
"I'm telling you, If  I ever meet a Pakistani... or a Bangladeshi... I will slap him in the face!"
I was shocked! Such raw hatred for an entire country of people. I wanted to know why. I asked him...
"I know it's the 20 which give the other 80 a bad name, but I don't care, if I ever see a Pakistani I will slap him in the face!"
More shock! The 20 which give the other 80 a bad name. Here he was, happily admitting that the whole of Pakistan is not to blame for the animosity between these two countries, but that wouldn't stop him from physically assaulting a Pakistani person unlucky enough to come across him. I find the mutual hatred these countries have for each other astounding. Hatred for each other is ingrained in the societies to the extent that even a man from progressive Mumbai would happily attack his counterpart from Islamabad. This is not the way the world should work.

That conversation made a huge impact on me. It took me completely by surprise. I was suddenly left questioning if everyone felt this way. Could a people so outwardly happy harbour such hatred for other people? Even my favourite Indianisms lost there flavour for a while.

The flavour quickly returned, though. But you're probably wondering what the hell an Indianism is. It's an Oliver Goosen invention, that's what it is. India is full of Indianisms. They are, by definition, very funny and distinctly Indian. An example of an Indianism would be talking to someone about cricket and the topic of Sachin Tendulkar pops up (as it inevitably does), "He is the maximum best batsmen in the world, my god!"
Say that with a pseudo-Indian accent and place emphasis on the underlined words and you'll see what I'm getting at. Indianisms are everywhere, in the way Indians speak, advertise and joke especially. Indiansims stem from the almost childlike way that Indians speak. I don't mean that in a condescending way at all, I just think it's oddly charming. When you've sat next to someone who describes a cricket shot as 'ultra-powerful, hyper-goodlooking' you'll know what I mean.

Indianisms are best experienced so I'll share with you a few of my favourites.

On the side of a road I spotted a cement factory. The building proudly displayed a sign which read: "Cement produced with robot technology!"
I was astounded! Here, in a random location in India, robots where making the cement for new buildings. What sheer brilliance, what incredible ingenuity!

I spotted another fantastic Indianism in a bus earlier today. Innocuously hidden just below a No Smoking sign were the words: 'NO SPITING!' I was lucky I spotted that because I had a spiteful comment lined up for the guy next to me who kept extending his seat space by stealing mine. But seeing as spitting wasn't prohibited I decide to mark out my territory with my saliva...

My all-time favourite Indianism comes from quite a large brand of... something... I'm not even sure what they're selling, but their name is one for the records. They trade under the fantastic title of Bumchums, and they advertise everywhere! I get some strange looks from locals every time I come across one of their signs. They all look at me and I can see them thinking, "What the fuck is that guy laughing about?"

Wednesday, 16 November 2011


Writing this blog post is going to be hard work. Not because writing blogs is particularly hard, but because my fingers, and perhaps the rest of my body, have gone into a semi-comatose state brought about by the Goan beaches.

Palolem is a beach
My long train trip is over. All 38 hours of it. The train spat me out in the city of Margao in the south of Goa and I promptly caught a bus further south, to Palolem. Palolem is a beach town. It is is a beautiful beach town. It is, in fact, more of a beach than a town. The beach is, in essence, the town. Palolem is a beach. There are huts on the beach with people in them. And bars on the beach with other people in them. There are palm trees around the beach and a flat sea just off the beach. The beach is crescent-shaped, which is apparently a good shape for a beach to be. It is hot. It is sunny. There is a certain sossegado to life on this beach.

Sossegado is a distinctly Goan word. It translates, rather crudely, to laid-backness. It is undeniably the best word to describe life in a Goan beachside town. Life is just laid-back. There's not much to do but lie in the sun (or the shade, if you're a pasty individual like me who doesn't want to look like a burnt tomato at the end of the day) and read. And then spend some time in the balmy water. Because there's not much to do apart from be a lazy lout and enjoy yourself, there's not much to write about to interest other people in an obscure, traveler's blog post. Which is the reason I'm citing for not having written anything, up to now. I assure you it has everything to do with me being too lazy to remove myself from the beach and type something up.

Three paragraphs in and I've managed to say nothing at all. This is a pretty good sign. It looks like I'll be able to pass off my laziness by obscuring it in florid descriptions of beaches and palm trees.

This is my Palolem beach hut - swanky, right?
One remarkable thing about accommodation in Palolem is the accommodation itself. Almost all of the accommodation is of the tiny, beach hut variety, just off the beach, amongst the palm trees. These little huts are fantastic! They are assembled at the beginning of each tourist season, just after the monsoon, and disassembled at the end of each season, before the monsoon's return. Huts are pokey, with little more than a bed and a mosquito net (and a tiny bathroom, if you're lucky) which is exactly why I love them. Waking up in a rickety little hut and stumbling out on to a beach is a brilliant way to start a day. If you haven't experienced this, you'll have to take my word for it. Another brilliant feature of these little huts is the maze of sandy, shady alleyways that get formed between them. A walk along these narrow paths is a good way to step away from the countless European tourists in Speedos who inhabit the beach. Speedo's should be considered a crime against humanity.
I wake up to this...

Patnem, a semi-Speedo-free zone
A little way south of Palolem is another beach, Patnem. Patnem is also a crescent-shaped beach, but with the added advantage of having fewer Speedo-toting Europeans around. It's a lot less busy and is therefore a good way of escaping the tourist hordes. I spent some time there today, and I plan on spending some more time there tomorrow, and the next day. Anything to save my eyes from that horrible excuse for a swimming costume. And the people who seem to think it's a very attractive swimming costume. These people are almost always fat, roasted men in their late fifties from the south of France.

With the conclusion of my rant on the heinous crime that is wearing a Speedo in public, or even in private for that matter, I think I'll conclude this pointless update of my blog. You are now aware of my laziness. My confirmation of it is firmly in writing. It's starting to approach evening time over here, the sun is well over the yardarm. I'm going to be heading back to the beach soon to enjoy a cold beer and a spicy, prawn vindaloo.

Oh God, those vindaloos... The mouth-watering explosion of flavour that is the Goan specialty dish. The spices, the fresh seafood which practically swam on to the plate, the zing of chilli... The sudden reverie that merely typing the word 'vindaloo' induces...

I'm off... I think I'll have an early supper.

A snapshot of the rocky Colomb bay

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Only in India

A few recent events have led me to give this post that title. And it's theme. I'm going to dedicate this post to things you'll probably only encounter in India.

Since day one I've witnessed events that, in other countries, would be considered strange at the very least. Although I'm sure that many of these events do happen elsewhere, just out of the view of everyone else. I'll start off small...

One thing you're likely only to witness in India is someone else's morning ablutions... outside... in the gutter... of a busy street. Yes, sadly I've had to witness this. And when I say witness, I mean I was there when it happened. I didn't walk by later and see the evidence. It's pretty rough, and it's made even more rough by the fact that nobody else seems to notice. People seem blissfully unaware as to what is happening just a few feet away. I put this down to the fact that there are almost no public toilets to speak of in India. For example, in Mumbai (a city with a population of nearly 17 million people) there are only about 300 public toilet facilities.

Varanasi and the Ganges
Moving on. Varanasi is a very holy city for Hindus. Dying in Varanasi allows a believer to be freed from the eternal cycle of death and rebirth. It comes as no surprise, then, that Varanasi is a very auspicious place to die and death is very much a part of life (uhh...) in Varanasi. After a long overnight train trip I arrived in Varanasi and made my way through a warren of little alleys to the guest house at which I'd be staying. On my way I heard chanting coming from behind me. I turned around and saw a body being carried down to the burning ghat for cremation, wrapped in a white cloth, head bobbing as it was whisked off to the pyres. Only in India.

Staying on the topic of dead people - a boat trip on the Ganges... While most people who die in Varanasi get a flaming send-off, others are not so lucky. Young girls, pregnant women and lepers don't get burnt at the funeral pyres. I'm not sure why although a guy did mention it had something to do with the young girls and foetuses being innocent. I'm not sure about the lepers though. Anyway, those who don't get burnt have a somewhat different send-off. They get wrapped up in a white cloth, tied to a huge boulder and dropped in the deepest part of the Ganges. Nice. The ropes they use to tie the bodies to the boulders are notoriously weak and it's not uncommon to see a body floating down the Ganges. Which brings me to my boat trip. You can't visit Varanasi and get away without taking a paddle up and down the Ganges, and perhaps watching a puja along the way. I went on a cruise of the Ganges and guess what bobbed past...
Yes, you guessed it - a body. Wrapped in a white cloth and looking decidedly displeased about being released by it's boulder. But it had to make an appearance on Halloween, right?

This last one could happen anywhere, and probably does. But the fact that it happened in India, while I was watching, afforded me the opportunity to shake my head in disbelief and say, "Only in India."
I was sitting in the exact spot I'm sitting now, in an Internet Cafe. The lights started flickering and I wondered what might be causing them to do so. A flash of light outside caught my attention as the lights flickered inside. I looked outside, and saw...

Quite typically of an overhead electricity cable, it was exploding as the current passed through it. The cable crackled and lit up with a bright, white light as it cascaded sparks into a nearby tree. You'd think an event such as this would draw a crowd. Quite the opposite; rickshaws, motorbikes and pedestrians calmly passed by as the sparks showered down nearby. The only acknowledgement of the exploding, overhead cable was by the pedestrians who crossed to the other side of the road to avoid the sparks. Calm as you like.

Only in India...