sojourn in goa: an instructive tale in three parts

August 24, 2007

It was Parsi new year on Monday so there was the possibility of a long weekend (in reality there wasn’t one but it served its justification purposes nevertheless…)  It was almost a month to the day of our arrival in Pune and Erin and I still hadn’t managed to get out of the city.  So Erin and I and our flatmates – Celia, Flo and Hugo – decided to spend a long weekend in Goa.  We ended up missing two days of uni, but I believe that this has been compensated for by the educational nature of our trip, but maybe you should judge for yourself…


Lesson one:  How long is an Indian kilometre? 

To get to Goa and back we travelled twenty-six hours in total – a fourteen hour train trip there and a twelve hour bus trip back. 

Apart from the ogling eyes of a few men (real and imaginary…), the train trip was a good experience.  Sitting in the open doorway of the moving train with nothing separating me from the environment was probably the closest I’ve come to a spiritual experience in India.  Everything felt very simple and right from that train doorway.

The bus trip back was less pleasant.  The much touted air-conditioning on the bus brought the temperature down to about twelve degrees.  I ended up having to put on almost every article of clothing I’d taken with me to Goa (which wasn’t very much, considering it was a beachside holiday).  Additionally problematic was the man across from us had the most incredible snore which progressed from a loud growl to a throaty gurgle throughout the long trip. 

Another serious problem with the bus trip was that the ‘toilet’ stops consisted of parking next to few discreet bushes.  This was fine for the men who could jump off the bus and do their business.  But of course it would have been highly unacceptable for a woman to utilise the flora in this way.  It seems that women tend to not have bladders in India (actually in a way they don’t, I suppose – the female body is often treated as an embarrassing aberration, an unmentionable or a commodity, not to be catered for or accommodated). 

I have also never been able to grasp the art of sleep while sitting up, so the twelve hours on the bus stretched almost interminably, with only snoring-man’s nasty noises to keep me company while everyone sat comatose, head resting in awkward positions, lines of dribble coming from their mouths.  My insomnia was made worse by the knowledge that I’d have to go almost straight to university after getting off the bus in Pune and my desperation to gain a few hours of rest made it even more impossible to achieve. 

We never questioned the amount of time that these journeys took.  An overnight trip to get to and from Goa seemed to make sense.  It was only a few days after we returned that we realised that Goa is only about 300km from Pune.  On average that would mean that we’d been travelling at about 23km per hour.  It wasn’t even as if the train and bus were moving slowly or that there were that many stops.

So lesson one (belatedly arrived at):  A kilometre can mean many things in India.  



Lesson two:  Where did all the noise go? 

First image of Goa: a big rusty sign saying NO BEEPING ZONE.  Bliss.  In Pune I live my life to a soundtrack of beeping, blaring, horning, honking.  I have become a beep connoisseur – my ears are now finely tuned to the different tones of the rickshaws, scooters, motorbikes, trucks, cars, buses and assorted ramshackle machines that somehow propel themselves down Pune’s pot-holed roads.  Some cars and rickshaws have novelty beeps (imagine the most manic ad jingle, in beep form).  Even more eccentric are the noises most cars produce when they are reversing.  For the first few weeks I thought it must have been someone’s obnoxiously loud ringtone.  The beep is so institutionalised here that Indian trucks (often beautifully decorated) tend to have big painted letters on the back declaring ‘HORN OK PLEASE’. 


At first I reasoned that all this traffic noise must be functional.  Pune roads are chaotic – traffic lights and lanes hold only paltry authority, pedestrian crossings mean nothing.  Pune’s traffic police wear a look of uniform exasperation, their arm-flailings largely ignored, their whistle-blowing blending with the cacophony of the street.  I assumed that this traffic noise must be used as a way of warning other drivers of their presence – which can be totally unpredictable (example: when in a rickshaw, if the driver encounters a traffic jam, instead of queuing he (there are absolutely no female rickshaw drivers) will often bypass the jam by driving over the cement middle bit of the road and over to the other side, thus avoiding the queue).  So I thought there was some order to the chaos.  That was until I was given a lift by a local in a car at about midnight, the street was empty but he could not keep his hand off the horn.  I couldn’t help laughing as we drove through the empty streets, the lonely car giving forlorn hoots that echoed off the surrounding buildings. 

The relative silence (I say relative because as far as I know, India is never ever just silent) of Goa the beep-free zone was blissful.

Lesson two:  The noise probably went to Pune and Goa’s golden silence is just as functional as Pune’s pervasive traffic orchestra.  



Interval:  Lucy through the picture postcard.

Goa was ridiculously idyllic, it had the works – palm trees, uninhabited beaches, friendly locals, a guesthouse right on the beach, fresh fish, serene-looking rice paddies (although pervasively branded with huge billboards sprinkled amongst the paddies along the main roads – including an ad for ‘Gandhi Publicity Agents’, and who wouldn’t want to have Gandhi’s image, but can you really say that, here?).  



Lesson three:  A cautionary tale. 

Goa is a tiny enigma of a state.  It is largely Catholic and the Indian take on Catholicism is lavish and colourful and much more festive than most of the west’s dour approach.  It was colonised by the Portuguese instead of the British (I wonder how the Portuguese were so much better at religious conversion, there is hardly a trace of British religiosity in the (tiny portion of the) rest of India that I have seen).  Actually, there is a church up the road from where we’re living in Pune, but it’s also across the road from an IT Park and I suspect that it might be at least partly to cater for the western expats in the area who have come here on the back of Pune’s technology boom.  In Goa Christian fervour was splashed over almost everything, buses had big stickers declaring ‘PRAYS GOD’ and even the fishing boats were called things like ‘INFANT JESUS’. 


The whole of Goa is only about 100km in length so we decided to rent two scooters and a motorbike and use the three days we had to see a bit more of the state.  Flo, Celia and Hugo are all quite confident motorbike/scooter riders.  Erin and I had a go but Erin managed to tip us over while trying to turn (don’t worry, we were only going at about 2km/hour and on grass), and I didn’t even attempt anything but going in a straight line at a speed just fast enough to keep the scooter upright.  So it was decided that Flo, Celia and Hugo should do the driving and Erin and I could sit on the back.  There were plans for us to have a go at learning, but this never eventuated.  I think this was a good thing – coordination is not my strong point – I hardly trust myself on a push-bike, let alone something with an engine.  There is also the small matter of my stillborn attempt to learn to drive – if I managed to crash into a parked car while driving veeeeery slowly in a quiet street (which I did)…well enough said.

On the Sunday we decided to drive up to the capital of Goa– a small city in the north called Panaji.  We had not yet learnt the valuable ‘how-long-is-a-piece-of-Indian-string’ lesson (see lesson #1) and anticipated the trip would take us a maximum of one hour.  We left Benaulim (the beach we were staying at) at about 2pm.  The trip took us significantly longer than one hour, but was a beautiful ride.  I’d heard a lot of things about Goa – particularly in relation to parties, drugs, washed-up hippies and ultra-tourism – so was quite surprised by the relative peacefulness and greenery. 

Panaji was not really as picturesque as the Lonely Planet guide had me anticipate, but we wandered around, bought some Goan speciality fenny (a liquor made from cashew nuts) and happened across a music festival in a Hindu temple.  We were invited into a big hall to watch what seemed to be a traditional music competition.  We felt extremely conspicuous and a little ridiculous.  This was particularly because we’d been talked into buying strings of marigold offerings by women who had set up some stalls at the entrance of the temple.  Inside the hall there were a couple of alters in front of the audience.  We couldn’t bring ourselves to go up and lay these offerings at the alter in front of all those curious eyes.  Finally, at the prompting of some men sitting behind us we crept up to the alter, trying to arrange our faces into an appropriate look of seriousness, but not necessarily devotion which seemed inappropriate considering we had no idea to which God we were offering marigolds or why. After making our offerings with as much dignity as possible we made our retreat from the temple and had a walk around the town until the sky began to darken at a rapid rate… 

The monsoonal downpour began soon after (Lesson 3a:  It’s low season for a reason and monsoonal rains are not conducive to driving safety).  It was after 6pm and it belatedly occurred to us that we were quite a long way from our guesthouse, in monsoon season, dusk was encroaching and (ahem) we’d forgotten our helmets (Lesson 3b:  Wear that stupid helmet).  The happy, holiday mood of our group darkened along with the sky. 

When we turned the bikes on the mood of our group darkened further – none of our headlights were working (Lesson 3c:  When you’re a foreigner (or even a local) in a touristy Indian town expect to be ripped off and act with appropriate vigilance). 

Ironically we became the only vehicles on the road that were beeping incessantly (see Lesson #2) as it was the only way (apart from using our break lights) that we could make our presence known on the road and also ensure that we were all together and no one had gotten lost. 

But our sad story doesn’t end there – the scooter that Celia and Erin were on ran out of fuel in the middle of nowhere, halfway up a hill (Lesson 3d:  Scooters need petrol).  Though this wasn’t completely our fault as the petrol gauges on the bikes were, like the headlights, victims of lack of maintenance and not working…Actually no, it was completely our fault. 

       helmets are good

Erin and I both (separately and without being aware that the other was doing the same) went to the nearest little roadside stall and asked where we could buy petrol from.  I was told that there was a place a little up the road, the direction of which was indicated with vague and ambiguous gestures of the arm.  In true Indian style, the guy Erin approached for petrol (just ten metres down the road) readily produced some from inside his little stall.  I came back and relayed my guy’s instructions to Flo and Hugo who drove up the road to find this alleged petrol seller.  Unbeknown to them, at the same time, Erin returned to Celia and the scooter with two litres of petrol in old water bottles (Lesson 3e:  Communication skills are no laughing matter kids).  We couldn’t get in contact with Flo and Hugo to tell them that we’d found petrol until they’d driven about two kilometres down the road.  Finally we were reunited, though this involved leaving Flo stranded in the driveway of some strange house by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, all alone in the pouring rain for about a quarter of an hour. 

By this time it was completely dark. 

Problem:  India is a huge country with a limited power supply, blackouts are a fact of life. 

Ramifications:  A lot of our ride home was done in almost pitch black darkness because the street lights kept turning off and, of course, we had no headlights. 

We had to try to stay on the tail of trucks and other vehicles so we could follow their lead, as we could barely see the road below us, beeping and braking all the way so that we could communicate our whereabouts to the other vehicles (so in an abberation of lesson #1, traffic noise can be functional). 

Halfway through our journey home it began to rain, viciously.  Poor Flo, of the stranded-alone-in-the-middles-of-nowhere, was worst off as she was wearing contact lenses which began to float around her watery eyeball as the rain flew painfully into all our faces.  I was on the back of Hugo’s motorbike, terrified because I could barely keep my eyes open in the downpour, and I didn’t have to drive and had a free hand to wipe away the water every now and then.  I tried not to think about what his vision must have been. 

Finally at about 9pm we arrived, shivering, shaken, soaked and limp with relief at our guesthouse in Benaulim.  The euphoria we experienced as we finally dismounted from our bikes in the Furtado’s Guesthouse parking space quickly flattened into shock and incredulity at the stupidity of what we’d just undertaken. 

Needless to say perhaps, the next day’s planned scooter ride to the southern beaches of Goa was vetoed in favour of a day at Benaulim swimming, walking and drinking cocktails.  The day was soured a little by the discovery of a group of pervy Indian men filming us swimming.  But I ran at them and they ran away and it was oddly gratifying.



Conclusion:  Return to reality. 

The following day we arrived back in the noise, pollution and chaos that is Pune.  We had to go almost straight from the bus stop to uni, all of us conspicuously branded as truants with our newly acquired tans.  

Class dismissed.


One Response to “sojourn in goa: an instructive tale in three parts”

  1. Tom Says:

    Lucy! man, you dangerous thing you. driving at night with no lights, little petrol in monsoon rain. thats insane dude, but definately a story to tell!

    pervy indian men? is it real bad? had no idea about that, but cant say im overly suprised…

    hope your having fun! as always, i know you are!! lol


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