Breakfast in Goa

‘Trump. Brexit.’ A tiny man and his tiny taxi van scooped us up from the bus. His vehicle looked brilliantly decrepit like an ancient factotem too fondly remembered to be released. To open each door required a special technique, sometimes a slap, sometimes a jiggle. We had enjoyed a bed and air conditioning on a twelve hour bus ride to escape Bangalore, speeding along the Mumbai highway, until turning off and heading down the western ghats, now bumping, now twisting, watching the curtains swing away at fifty degrees, hanging on, lying flatter and flatter. Sleep remained illusive, but crept closer and closer, until I slumped semi upright and semi conscious as the landscape emerged slowly out of the night. In that early dawn exhaustion everything seemed bright, brilliant and excellent.

He wore a tremendous pair of spectacles, that took up nearly all of his small head, and I could just make out his eyes peering at me from far away. He drove at about ten miles an hour, through a landscape green and luminous, down lanes, passing palms, paddy fields, bananas, brightly painted houses strangely wrapped in blue tarpaulin, offering the above comment as conversation start and end, until we arrived at the gate of our accommodation, itself wrapped in tarpaulin. This was The Secret Garden. So secret there was no sign and the entrance was under wraps.

Sleeper coach
The Secret garden

A left handed Diwali host
Inside out

From this
To this
Herein lies a tutuk

We were in south Goa, between Patnem and Paulolem. Here we saw our first tropical beaches, a gurning monkey that reminded me of a sunday footballer and a friend, Michael,  I hadn’t seen in fifteen years. The monsoon was over, but the tropical depression, that had rained on us daily in Bangalore, still hovered in the damp, damp air; Colonel Kurtz just out of sight, deep in the luxuriant shadows.

Our room was simple, a rectangular cabin made of plywood on a concrete base, a thatched roof, netted on the inside, and wrapped in a tarp on the outside, a perfect counterpoint to Bangalore. The season was just beginning, the tide of annual post monsoon construction, swelling every day, hammering, tying, thatching along every beach. By May the 31st every beach side structure has to be down, under starters orders from the 15th September to be re-erected in their simple bamboo, ply and thatch glory. But, of course, the weather owns the day; the monsoon runs late, more rains follow, everything has to be protected from the fecund rotting damp – the thatch has to last the season, not a few mouldering weeks. Hence the lurid transposition of blue tarpaulin to the paradisal scene.

But nothing can diminish the arching, crescent shaped beauty of beaches a mile long. Yes there are people, look over there, yes there. And cows, but mostly looming up from the dark of the evening beach. And dogs dozing in every scrap of shade, alert to your sensibilities, Nuzzling,  wide eyed mute beggars by day, yapping thugs by night. Each beach side shack hosts a pack of three or four, a beach might have three hundred shacks. That’s just the beach.

We wandered south along Patnem beach, round a few rocks onto Rajbag beach, coming at the end to an estuary two hundred metres across. On the far side a few fishing boats clustered around a simple jetty. Two Italians were waiting on the bank as a man standing upright manoeuvred a small boat with a single oar across the streaming current, all strangely Venetian. Room for two more? Looking upstream as the river narrowed and disappeared into the dense lush forest, I felt wildly happy. Our pilot worked and worked that oar, I noticed the power of the current, stole a few photos, quelled the spoiled worrying voice, don’t rock the boat, and then we were in the calm pooled reaches of the harbour. That way to the beach, at least, it was that way five years ago, said the Italian. So along a path, past a ruin, a temple, some simple dwellings, a few yapping dogs, and there stretched out for a kilometre ahead of us the empty vastness of Talpona beach, the Italians disappearing almost instantly in the brilliant space. Here the beach was fringed not with palms but some kind of pine, and halfway along one low building managed to produce two competing restaurants, each with a half dozen tables, but otherwise there was nothing. Lime sodas, Masala omelettes, a fish curry and what more is there to want. A bus ride home? No problem, one will be along in an hour. Just enough time to wander further down the sands, watch a father and two sons flying their homemade kites, by the edge of a young almond plantation, the man saying ‘Look, look, there, that is my kite!’ I, in the way of one who suffers what seems daily worsening eyesight, squint into the blue sky, nod, thinking I can’t see anything, what am I meant to be looking for, until Tash says, there, it’s his kite. Did you let go, she asks him. And then I see it, a speck, receding into the distance, dancing gaily in the wind. Yes, he says, I let it go.

We walk up to the road. There are no cars, there are no vehicles. The road curves away from the beach, and we follow it, seeing huge piles of freshly dug red earth, and as we approach we realise this is the new highway connecting Mumbai with Kerala, and ending at Kanyakumari, India’s southern most point. Six lanes of concrete mayhem hemmed in between the rapidly rising hills on one side and the sea on the other. The motorway is complete to both the north and south of Goa. We stand a hundred metres from the sea, looking a hundred metres further to the site of the new road. I take pictures, even a panorama. They fail to capture what we see. A dozen labourers walk away from their days work. There are no machines, there is no clash and gnash of industry, just men toiling in the sun. It is quiet as the road gets built.

Walking back, I notice the plentiful road signage, warning of sprinting satchelled school children, speed humps and go slow! A boy on a bicycle is the only traffic I encounter until the bus comes twenty minutes later. As we head upstream by the side of the river we catch a glimpse of the bridge being built, and then we climb up and up, into the hills until the river narrows and a simple stone bridge carries the road across.

We alight at the brilliantly named Char Rasta, a small crossroads some five kilometres inland from the resorts of the sea, now dwarfed by the highway ploughing through the paddy fields. The walk home down back lanes past the confetti of dwellings, simple, bright, grand, decayed, half built, half inhabited, shows me that here time runs differently, nature subsumes and quells anything built within a season, structures disappear, age becomes difficult to tell.


Wildly happy
Now you see it
Now you don’t
beware sprinting child
Beach side dining


The old and the new
Char Rasta
Are we quorate?

A muezzin wakes me before dawn, almost beautiful, and birds at least answer his call, filling the silence after his last word fades with their own songs. My shoes have been chewed in the night. The custom of leaving them at the door suits the dogs very well, and I understand why there are so many solitary sandals and flip flops lying everywhere. It seems a mundane pleasure compared to the savage nightly struggles for territory and dominance that fleck the otherwise still night air.

The travelling young of the world, tired by the excesses of the north, bring their organic tastes here and coalesce like a murmuration of starlings for a nightly silent disco. They are a strange sight as they walk excitedly through the middle of nowhere, heading for a remote corner of beach. I must seem equally strange, some looming expatriate totem reminding them of the drab home from which they’ve flown. They avoid my gaze.

We are an advance party, I want to say. The road will bring more.

Buddhists blessing
A colourful wreck