May 17th – The Big Blue

I woke that morning with the continued intention of reaching my beach destination at Malvan. My trusty map had told me that there was a beach there and that there was a fortress somewhere in the town. It was a fair target to reach.

As I rattled through the beautiful but varied scenery toward the coast, I began to warm to the idea of bussing the Konkan coast. Around me I saw no westerners, no tourist crap, no spoiled scenery and no help from the guidebook. As the jungle jostled with the roadside and cut though tiny towns, the idea that I was somehow in the process of discovering India’s ‘next big thing’ began to spur me on. I had found that the compulsion to explore every new, obscure corner of the continent was a pressing one. While the Lonely Planet guide was an invaluable one, the temptation to blaze your own trail and have a set of unique experiences that could trump any at the next traveller hangout was too great to ignore. I had fully entered the backpacker’s mindset.

Suddenly, the jungle peeled away and we leaped out into the harsh sunlight. The road jutted out across a rock-strewn plateau, deep brown and scattered with small tufts of yellow grass. Beyond, down toward the deep blue of the sea-and-sky horizon, lay Malvan. From here, it was nothing but a cluster of white buildings nestled between the gaps in the jungle, as if sheltering amongst themselves against the searing heat of the sun.

As I searched for the fortress along Malvan’s main street, I picked up various bits of food: cheap, sugary biscuits, a whole pineapple, some bananas, a packet of strange, salty hard biscuits that I suspected were designed to be fed to dogs. Perhaps they would have been a useful distraction a couple of nights back, I chucked to myself.

Malvan felt very undeveloped. Aside from the bus stand and some of the larger residences off the main street, much of the town had the lashed-up feeling that many of the houses that Alec and I had seen in Anjuna had – before they were pulled down.

The comparison did make me wonder how Malvan would cope during the monsoon: If Anjuna simply shut down during the monsoon season because there was no economic mainstay, what did Malvan do? Did it subsist entirely separately from the tourist infrastructure? Where did the money come from around here? Did people ever leave? It was an ‘ignorant tourist’ moment, to be sure.

At the end of the road that stopped abruptly at the sea, I found out how Malvan must bring the majority of its tourists. It looked as if someone had deposited a very wide, flat building several hundred meters off shore. At the jetty that struck out into the water, I joined the short queue of Indian tourists. A boat slowly chugged across the water towards us.

Our destination was silhouetted against the deep blues of the sea and sky of behind it, making it impossible to make out in the baking sunlight. It looked far too uniform and flat to be natural. Indeed, it was only as our small boat approached the island that this long form became more defined. Despite the sharp, angular edges of the island between the deep blue of the water and the deeper blue of the sky, there also stood palm trees jutting from the top of the profile, as well as a power line that bounced from rock to rock across the straits before disappearing into the island. The formidable cliffs repelled the boisterous waves that broke against them.

The island before us was what I had been looking for: Sindhudurg Fort. It had been built in the 17th century by the local king on a natural island that he had commandeered for military purposes. It was not hard to see why he had expended such mammoth resources to build it; it certainly lent itself to these purposes. As our boat drew alongside it, we begun to better see the solid towers that jutted out from the rumbling surf in its shadows. The walls were constructed of enormous bricks the size of a washing machines. The only clues before us to the natural origin of the island were the scattered rocks that jutted out of the water beneath them.

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“The formidable cliffs repelled the boisterous waves that broke against them” – Sindhurdurg Fort, India –

Our boat continued to chug around the imposing perimeter and in time arrived at a landing beach that housed a handful of other smaller skiffs and motorboats. The presence of an accommodating jetty and the colourful holidaymakers who wandered through the discrete gap in the walls felt like a violation of the fort’s integrity, as if a set of grappling hooks and barrel of gunpowder would have been a more appropriate way of gaining entry.

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– Sindhudurg Fort, India –

Still, I did feel like I was part of some kind of raiding force in Pirates of the Caribbean as I disembarked from the boat, moved up the white hot beach and weaved through the shady, narrow S-shaped chicane between the two walls. The entrance had been designed so that, from the distance that any invading vessel would have to keep at sea, it was invisible against the curve of the walls.

Inside, I wound back upon myself and up the narrow stairs that had no handrail to hold on to. I stepped up onto the high walls. Having conquered the castle myself, I could see that advantage that the defender had in such a place. Looking back out to where my boat had just arrived, I could see another small boat full of tourists slowly approach the beach. I pretended to light a cannon and let off a round, sinking the boat with all its crew. At least then I could explore the island on my own!

I began to circle the castle along the high ramparts that bordered it. They surrounded what was otherwise a natural and untamed island. To my left I looked out across the water: the green, shallow hills of the shoreline and the mighty, flat blue of the Arabian Sea beyond; to my right, there swayed a laziness of palm trees and yellow scraggy grass in between the bulbous rocks. It was only in front of me, beneath my feet and curling cunningly around the perimeter of the island, that there stood the gargantuan ramparts that made this island a fortress.

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– Sindhudurg Fort, India –

Stepping down from these high walls, I explored the interior of the island. Although the fort seemed unlikely to be invaded again anytime soon, houses did remain within the island, perhaps clinging on to the tourist economy here. In classic Indian style, the power line that had stretched over the expanse of water to the island was powering the small canteen right in the centre of the island. I suppose it was too much to ask for Sindhudurg Fort to remain unspoiled, wasn’t it?

However, it was easy to forget that I was on an island. As I moved through the undergrowth and smoothed rocks, I was almost surprised to be interrupted by a high wall with a small doorway at the bottom. Crouching through the doorway, I stepped down onto a shingle beach just as the latest wave was sucking the pebbles back toward the water with that crunching, sucking, grinding sound that is so unmistakeable. Before me lay a wide ocean, dotted with the profile of supertankers trundling along the horizon up to Mumbai, a hundred miles north. Above me towered thick brown ramparts that hugged my back and edged me toward the sea, which frothed white in front of me. Quickly, another wave ran quickly up the small beach, spilling over my feet and up my legs.

The fort conquered, our raiding party returned to the mainland. As the small boat chugged back across the water, I surveyed the area beyond Malvan whilst I still could. Separating the sea and sky’s shared deep blues was a strip of white and green that curved away from Malvan and far off to my right. I picked out a spot on the beach a mile away that I would swim at. Apart from the occasional human outline dotted along the beach, it looked deserted.

With my lunch in my bag, I set off down the beach towards my chosen spot. As I left the tiny waterside of Malvan and moved further down the beach, there lay lines of fishing boats similar to those I had pretended to fire a cannonball at earlier on. It seemed they were used to catch fish as well as transport tourists. Occasionally groups of people squatted in the shades of these boats or slept inside them, their feet poking out of the sides.

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– Malvan, India –

As I walked, I passed an assortment of dead sea animals that had been discarded from the fishing boats. Some were bloated and fly-plagued, others had been in the sun longer and had dried into a yellow parchment texture. Indeed, it was as hot on the beach as it was in the fort. Sun cream and sweat mixed on the back of my neck and, as I trudged on with the sun beating down on my head, I awaited the thought of a swim with relish.

Then that I saw the first pile of poo. It was sat on the beach near the water with a neat pair of human footprints either side of it. The owner was no-where to be seen and so I put it down to misfortune or the urgent call of nature and kept walking. But, not a minute later, I passed another. Further down the beach ahead of me, I saw someone producing a third.

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“There they were, literally shitting all over my chances of a good swim” – Malvan, India –

It was at that moment that I stopped to examine my surroundings in closer detail. Sure enough, small shapes of people dotted up and down the beach in the distance. Each person seemed to be in the process of producing more piles of human waste in the shallows of the beautiful beach that I had spent the last half an hour waiting to wade into. From a distance, I could observe each individual emerge from the trees behind me, walk out to the waterline and squat down before, in time, standing up again and disappearing back into the undergrowth. There they were, literally shitting all over my chances of a good swim.

Suddenly the sea did not look so inviting anymore.

I walked to the nearest strip of shade that a beached canoe provided me and lay down my heavy bag next to a stray dog. I was tired and disappointed at this turn of events. Unfortunately, the steady wind had carved a slick wind tunnel beneath the canoe, so that a steady gust of hot, dry sand stuck itself to my greasy arms and neck as I tried to recline and take stock of the situation. As I sat there, sweating, sun burned and sand-blasted, I wondered about what alternative these people must have had to shitting in the sea.

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– Malvan, India –

The reality was that the village through those trees clearly had no sanitation system to speak of. From my perspective, the idea of shitting in the sea violated some pretty basic sensitivities that I had grown up with about the natural environment. But in this case, there was obviously no alternative. Indeed, the fact that they clearly fished in these waters for food only exacerbated the apparent misfortune of the situation.

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– Malvan, India –

I continued to muse upon this wretched situation as I begun the long walk back up the beach. To this day, I can never hear the phrase ‘don’t shit where you eat’ without remembering that beach. So much is different in India than elsewhere, as symbolised by the shit-covered beach and the phrase that had been so visibly undermined by that scene. The cultural baggage that westerners bring to this country is rendered utterly  inappropriate by the lack of cleanliness, infrastructure, luxuries and basic safety that we enjoy in our home lands. These people were helping to destroy their greatest asset here through sheer lack of alternatives.

If tourism could be allowed to flourish here, so much economic and material growth could occur here. But until that process begins in earnest, the reverence that we have for the natural environment in the West will remain thoroughly out of place and indulgent. How could I reconcile the scenes that I saw around me every day with the cultural sensitivities that I had grown so ingrained in at home? How did this implicate the rest of my beliefs about society, individuals, poverty and money? Were they next in line for the chop?

These thoughts lingered with me as I returned to Kudal, where the clouds of toxic smoke from the rubbish fires greeted me in the hot evening air.

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May 16th – Going it alone

We awoke early that morning, despite both having sore heads from drinking too much and fighting off dog attacks.

Alec was going home. He had only planned on accompanying me for a month or two and he was finally running out of money. After a series of short bus connections from Anjuna to Mapusa, from Mapusa to Panjaji and from Panaji to Old Goa, we parted company at the train station. He was heading straight to Mumbai, from which he would fly back to London the next day.

As we waited at the quaint station, he chuckled at the contrast in the size of our respective bags. Earlier that day, he had gamely offered to take my 40 litre rucksack back to the UK with him so that I could downsize into my small shoulder bag. He didn’t need to offer twice; I almost bit his hand off. Emptying the entire contents of my bag on the floor, I managed to rife through what looked like half a camping-shop of supplies and equipment:

“Chuck…chuck…keep…chuck…keep…chuck…definately chuck!”

Having flung surplus items over my shoulder like wrapping paper at Christmas, I returned to him with only the slimmest core of items that I had used in the previous six weeks: my camera and film, the Lonely Planet guidebook, a novel, several small clothes items and a mosquito net. What I couldn’t throw away was thrust into the elephant-sized bag on his back.

I now watched as he leaned out of the back of the train to wave at me, his extra large profile jutting dangerously out of the side of the carriage. Before long, the train curved around the edge of the small platform and disappeared.

For the first time in six weeks, I was alone.

What to do? I had really did have a lot of options: The entire Indian subcontinent stretched out in front of me. With £1500 pounds in my bank account and a flight home booked for twelve weeks’ time, the world really was my oyster. I sat under a tree outside the train station, unfurled my enormous map of India and surveyed my surroundings.

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“I sat under a tree outside the train station…” – Old Goa, India

 

I had already decided to continue north along the coast and toward Mumbai. As one of the biggest cities in the world and India’s cultural capital, it was unmissable.

But in between Goa and Mumbai lay a 400 kilometer stretch of coastline that had a paltry two pages dedicated to it in my guidebook: the Konkan Coast. It was apparently little-visited by tourists, had poor accommodation options and bad food, and not much English was spoken there. Why?

It was possible that, because it was squished in between two massive tourist locations, most the fortnight-explorers would probably hop straight over the area from one over to another. It also looked like the railway and the roads that linked Mumbai and Goa ran well inland and away from the coast, which, unusually, also made the coastal area the backwater of the region.

It was too compelling to pass up on. I decided there and then to leave my Lonely Planet guide at the bottom of my bag. It would be of little use. I would be traversing the Konkan Coast on blind faith.

***

I had begun by attempting to reach the town of Malvan by the evening. It seemed like the nearest hub and, according to my fold-out map (and new best friend) it had a beach there. But I only made it some of the way. A train took me the first part of the hop before it curled off inland, leaving me at a town called Kudal.

Kudal was a strange place. The main road that wound through town was bathed in the orangey-purple of the late sunset. I wandered from where my rickshaw had left me, amidst the kinds of staring locals that I thought I had left in some of the rural parts of Sri Lanka. The stalls and shop-fronts that lined the busy street appeared functional and nondescript; above each was a sign whose wiggley, dense script told me that English was, indeed, in short supply here.

As I continued through the town, I passed piles of smouldering rubbish that lay unattended in the ditches by the road. A low, acrid smoke hung lazily in the air above them, enveloping the scene around me. The motorbikes, donkeys and carts, richshaws and bikes, all seemed in a hurry to make home before night fell. I began to wonder if this was the kind of place that a tourist could just turn up for the night and expect a room.

Following a collection of pretty basic interactions with various locals along the way – the guidebook did not lie about the lack of English – I found myself in what appeared to be the most solid and imposing building in the whole town. It was referred to by the various locals as “the hotel”, implying there was just the one.

Later, I opened the soundproofed window of my cold, air-conditioned room. Like an airlock, the seams sucked and cracked open, letting the warm, damp air of the night flood in. Through the darkness, the occasional bark and yell filtered across the smokey, quiet rooftops. I wondered what the Konkan Coast had in store for me.

***

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May 15th – The end of the season, pt.II

We spent the day on the beach today, enjoying the stunning sand and crashing waves. As ever, the calm ripples of the early morning sea had been whipped up to a rough-and-tumble by the time the sun was above us. We alternated between the tea-and-pancakes beachfront cafe and the sand below. While Alec took an extended buffeting in the surf, I finished the last hundred pages of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.

As the early evening approached, we headed back over to the bar we had been at last night. We had both thoroughly lapped up the previous night’s entertainment and we ready for more of the same. However, we arrived to a strange and disappointing sight as we rounded the beach-head.

The bar was being physically pulled down in front of us. This previously vibrant and life-filled place was now dotted with teams of Indian men pulling ropes that wrenched at the very frame of the building. With the band, the drinkers, the furniture and the equipment all gone, it was clearer to see that the entire structure had been built with flimsy wooden beams and thin lattice screens. Now, they bent and crumpled easily under the heaves and groans of the men around us. It was a very surreal sight to behold, given the vivid and colourful experience that the previous night had been.

Beneath the bar, a concrete base was all that would remain after the splinters and beams are taken away. Suddenly the numbers of empty plots that we had seen dotting Anjuna beach made sense; they were similar wooden structures that had been pulled down at the end of the season. The alternative, it seemed, would be to leave these unsubstantial structures to the mercy of the heavy monsoonal rain, which would – evidently – destroy or wash away the building anyway, but in a much more chaotic fashion. It was a very strange and vivid insight into the seasonal life of a tourist resort.

That evening, we ate a delicious burger in a busy restaurant tucked over the hill and beyond the remains of the bar. Music for eclectic tastes drifted on the soft breeze. My burger was absolutely superb and it was followed by the surprise indulgence of a chocolate brownie and ice cream that I would have enjoyed even in a restaurant back home.

A variety of westerners ate around us speaking all kinds of languages. It seemed that this bar, as with last night’s venue, had attracted the remaining tourist population in Anjuna. In front of us, a group of French kids sat with studded leather jackets and scrappy mowhawks smoking a traditional Indian wooden pipe. They looked, as many of the crowd did last night, that they had been here for a long time. It was easy to see why.

We continued on to another bar further down the beach, where we sat on a wall overlooking the bay that was bathed in the eerie silver of the moon’s glow. It brought a mysterious chill as we walked home down the beach. Our faces washed pale in the light, we could only make our two-tone shadows on the sand ahead of us.

It was, therefore, with almost no warning at all that we stumbled across one of the packs of dogs that we had seen loitering and chasing each other across the sand that day.

Feral dogs are everywhere in India. The wider population do not regard these animals as domestic pets to be cared for and taken into possession, but the entire subcontinent nonetheless teems with dogs. Instead, they scavenge the streets for food, fight, breed, are chased away by humans and occasionally chase humans themselves. Most of them are clearly in ill health and frequent warnings are given to travellers about rabies in India. Rabid animals are not social creatures and most will fight other animals or be killed by them before they become infectious. But despite this, India still has the most rabid dogs of any country in the world, most of which are located in the countryside where solitary animals can roam for longer. Some estimates suggest that as many as 20,000 people die annually from rabies infections, of which 99 per cent are from dog bites.

The members of this pack, however, seemed to be just defensive, hungry and mangy rather than displaying the unnatural behaviour of rabid animals. As soon as one of them spotted us the barking began, which woke up the rest of the pack, who had all dug into small sand-holes for the night. As a result, we were suddenly surrounded by ten barking, growling dogs all around that appeared almost from no-where on an empty, dark beach. We had been quite literally ambushed.

It is times like these that you find yourself having resist the base instinct to run away, which would mean being chased and then perhaps falling and being attacked as you lay on the floor. This really would be bad news for you; staying on your feet is the most important thing to remember. A bite in the calf can be fought off and treated much easier than a bite in the neck.

Luckily, I was a couple of beers ahead of Alec by the point and had some of the Dutch courage that was needed in this situation. My waving my arms around and yelling at the top of my voice seemed to do the trick and, after some false charges and well placed kicks, we managed to intimidate the animals enough to break through the crowd and back away from them down the beach. A few kicks of sand and hurled sticks ensured that we were not pursued as we made a speedy escape up the beach.

It is illegal to kill dogs in India. However, it is hard to see how many such situations like that we had found ourselves did not end that way. Thankfully, everyone walked away from this altercation intact.

***

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May 14th – The end of the season

We moved off from Arumbol the next morning, heading further back down the beach to Anjuna. Anjuna beach was certainly one of the more famous locations in Goa. Despite being the location where a British girl had recently gone missing, it was also the spot where the epicentre of the nu-school hippy scene had settled itself in recent years. After the glut of dreadlock workshops in Arumbol, we were prepared for the worst.

What awaited us when we arrived was rather stranger than we had expected. The entire town was closing down for the monsoon, whose imminent arrival would drive away the tourists that usually teemed across Goa; most would not return until the autumn. The place was empty. Up and down the beautiful beach there stood empty cafes and restaurants with no-one in them and boards over the windows. Even the market stalls that were laid out amongst the palm trees overlooking the beach looked as if they were the last remaining stragglers of the season.

As a result, we were treated to a somewhat harder sell from many of the stallholders than we were used to. One girl even offered some novelty with a mock-British accent that certainly caught my ear. It wasn’t enough to make me want to buy a braided necklace, but it was a good effort on her part.

-Anjuna, Goa-

That evening we finally discovered where all the remaining tourists were: A busy, bamboo-made beach bar at the edge of town where a gig was in full swing in front of an assembled throng of reclining drinkers. If the band looked like they had been in Goa for awhile, then the psychedelic funk that they were playing seemed to have been forged in the very atmosphere of the place. The rambling songs, drawled lyrics and endless solos merged one into another, so that the entire gig felt like one long mood. Against the deep orange glow from the stunning sunset behind us, heads of the crowd bobbed and rolled along with the band.

There was a compelling intimacy to the gig. An occasional guest appearance was made by one or two of the audience for a song or two or a quick solo before returning to their seat. The lead singer, who looked like Jesus on his gap year, drawled something about that being their last gig of the season before they were heading up into the Himalayas for the summer, to return after the monsoon. This made sense: there was a special atmosphere about the music and the crowd alike. There appeared to be similar long-timers amongst the audience as well and the unshakeable impression that everyone knew each other and would return again soon. It didn’t sound like a bad life.

The band was called The Essence. I brought a CD.

-Anjuna, Goa-

***

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May 13th – Anecdotes in Arambol

After a breakfast of banana omelette and chai tea, we caught a bus up the road to Arumbol, a small village on the coast at the northern edge of Goa state. It felt good to be finally heading towards a beach of any kind after the last few weeks. Varkala felt like a distant memory.

Of course, this was Goa and we had prepared ourselves for the fact that the beach would be a touristy affair. Sure enough, that the road that wound down from the yellow-fringed highway and through the forest took us past trinket shops selling baggy beach trousers, earthy-toned shoulder bags with Bob Marley’s face sketchily weaved across the side and dreadlock care products. The place felt like a traveller cliche before we had even clapped eyes on the hammocks and sunset views.

But the beach was worthy of the attention that it attracted. After having squeezed past the remaining shacks, the road petered out as it approached the water, opening onto a wide expanse of sand on either side of us. To our right, the wide sand was abruptly halted half a mile away by a rocky headland that rose up and jutted out to sea, sending up silent plumes of surf against the edge of the rough water. To our left, the endless stretch disappeared unimpeded towards the rest of Goa. Around us, small groups of tourists and singletons strolled the beach or sunbathed on loungers that were available for hire.

It would have felt almost inappropriate, after so long away from the sea, not to have reclined almost where we sat and the nearest cafe’s view towards the sea fit the bill perfectly. The plate of pasta that accompanied my beach-watching was, though dull and tasteless, a nonetheless welcome break from the steady diet of dhosas that we had become accustomed to inland.

A various mix of people ate around us; I heard some French spoken and a north American accent somewhere. In the corner of the cafe, a group of Indian guys were talking and laughing animatedly while the waiter brought another bottle of rum. They were dressed smartly but roaring drunk.

After a long late afternoon of sun-lounging, we walked back up the path and towards some of the other restaurants that we had seen higher up the road for some dinner. We vacated our afternoon’s perch in time to avoid the evenings’ entertainment: a showing of The Aviator on a projector in the next restaurant along. Besides, I had found large bug in my pasta in almost the last mouthful of my lunch and so had been rather put off from eating there again.

Instead, we chose a restaurant housed by bricks and mortar as supposed to the seasonal arrangements of bamboo screens, wooden frames and portable equipment that seemed to comprise most beach-side dining in Arumbol.

Shortly after sliding ourselves amongst the long tables that filled the restaurant, we found ourselves in conversation with an old Irish chap who was sat alone beneath a large lantern smoking a small joint.

“I don’t recommend the momos”, he intoned, overhearing our discussion of the menu choices, “but if you must, don’t forget to ask for the sauce that goes with them”.

Although he had been settled in Arumbol for the last year, Frank was one of the early generations of travellers that had first arrived in the decades when a horse and cart had been the best way to get around. Goa had been his final destination on an over-land pilgrimage from London, following an end-to-end trip to Cape Town on an old Enfield bike. More recently, his fast food van had made him a fair old buck during the British music festivals boom and nowadays he spent his days inventing new consumer objects and smoking hash on the beach. His strategy, he said, was to buy a kilo of Manali and clear his diary for the next six months and he would usually come up with something in the mean time. He seemed to be hard at work as he spoke, if the never-ending spliff in between his fingers was anything to go by.

The long, meandering anecdotes that Frank recounted stretched credibility to the limit and were wildly entertaining. The evening’s tales rolled from meeting Jimi Hendrix in the 1960s to travelling with Afghan weapons convoys in the 1970s. Frank’s memories of the 1980s decade featured a particularly intricate hash smuggling operation out of Holland. The final tonnage that made it across the boats to Britain formed the punchline of the anecdote.

“Christ!”, I spluttered. “That’s more than Howard Marks smuggled!”

“I knew Howard”, grinned Frank, with a roll of the eyes that identified Mr Marks and his memoirs as something of a sell-out ticket.

“Yeah, I used to sell pot to him in Brighton.”

He had not always been in Arumbol. Frank lived back in Varkala for a few years and was in the village when the devastating tsunami struck on Boxing Day of 2004. He recalls watching the wave collide with the steep mud cliffs that separated the crystal-clean beach from the village. The water, washed brown from the mud, reached thirty feet into the air as it rushed up and over the cliffs.

Those further inland felt the impact of the waves hitting the cliffs. From two kilometres away, they said, it had been suspected that an earthquake had struck.

***

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May 12th – The River Princess

We awoke late that morning to explore the old town of Panaji, another relic of the Portuguese presence on the sub-continent. The shaded alleyways beneath the heavy walls and thick roofs buzzed with bikes while restaurants spilled over into verandahs above us. Moving through the town, we sampled a number of the small cafes that sat in small gardens and behind white walls, reminding us very much of Fort Cochin’s own secluded eateries.

The same Catholic influences are also vividly on display in nearby Old Goa, where we spent the afternoon. In fact Old Goa is one of the oldest colonial settlements in India, serving as the centre of the Portuguese presence there from their arrival at the turn of the 17th century to the abandonment of the wider area due to an outbreak of the plague. Easy come, easy go, I suppose.

The very Ibearian influence can be seen here with the two large cathedrals that square up to one another from across the manicured green lawns. Inside, the cool shade reminded visitors very much of exactly the same sanctuary from the heat that worshippers are provided in the southern European climes that these settlers came from. Who knows, perhaps the decision to make the church a cooler environment to be in than anywhere else was a pragmatic move on the part of the builders? It certainly felt like the coolest place to be for us and we spent an unnaturally long time admiring the heavy, earthen tones of the gold leaf and masonry. This was officially the oldest church in India, having been built in 1605.

Jesus Catholic Old Goa India

Cathedral Bom Jesus
-Old Goa, India-

That evening, we continued up the coast from Panaji and on to Fort Aguada. Clinging to the deep red rocks of the jagged coastline, the Fort was constructed not long after the church in order to protect the Portuguese settlement here from naval bombardment. During the 17th and 18th century, a number of other European colonising nations also arrived in South Asia by sea, with the intention of similarly occupying the land and manipulating the local rulers through military and economic means, just like the Portuguese were doing. Of course, the Portuguese spent considerable efforts guarding against attack from the sea, when they perhaps should have been defending themselves against the locals, who were, naturally, unhappy with their plans.

Walking beyond the thick red ramparts that held against the sea, the beach opened out and the land fell away. The view out to sea was dominated here by only one thing: Sat in the surf a hundred yards out to sea was an enormous supertanker that sat at an angle against the coastline whilst the waves crashed against its hull. It stood fifty meters high at the stern end and several hundred meters long in its broadside stretch along the beach. Brown and rusting, the boat looked in sorry and dilapidated state and it had clearly been there awhile. Indeed, the clothes line that stretched across the various walkways and cables suggested that it had provided a home for someone, however basic. As we stood and stared at the sad relic, a local explained the situation:

The name of the vessel was the River Princess and she had ran around during bad weather in the year 2000. Having been caught in a storm and having her anchor break off, her Russian crew had bailed out further off the coast, leaving the crippled ship to drift away of her own accord, eventually running aground here. It quickly became clear that the ship had embedded itself deep in the sand and was slowly leaking fuel and chemicals into the sea, polluting the beaches that provided Goa with so much of its tourist income.

Beached tanker in Fort Aguada Goa India

The River Princess
-Fort Aguada, Goa, India-

Of course, such a large boat would require a considerable salvage effort anyway, but it had sustained structural damage during the storm and continued to sink further into the sand month on month. Unfortunately, India’s lax maritime laws meant that the UK-based haulage business that owned the ship would only have been obligated to remove the ship if it had been blocking a waterway. The steady stream of silhouetted tankers that passed across the distant horizon proved that this was not the case and the company walked away from the wreck without culpability.

In order to try and raise funds for the salvage operation, various salvage companies had been allowed to cherry pick any valuable industrial materials from within the ship itself. However, this was only contributing to the physical degradation of the ship and further jeopardizing her structural safety whilst making the job even less lucrative for the eventual salvager. In time, the issue had become a political football for the Goa state governors who various blamed each other and their predecessors for the inability to remove or break up the vessel successfully. In the mean-time, the hull periodically belched chemicals onto the beach and dropped shards of metal and splinters into the sea. The guy who explained the story to us had no idea what was going to happen to it.

We watched as the sun dipped towards the horizon and past the hulking silhouette of the River Princess. It had a sad beauty to it, as it lay there while the rest of the world got on with its business. To ponder the future of the area with such a tourist eyesore cannot have been a pleasant task for the gentleman we talked to, nor anyone else who lived along the coast here.

[Thankfully, this video shows how the River Princess was eventually removed in early 2012.]

Sunset Indian ocean Goa India

-Fort Aguada, Goa, India-

Joining us up on our hillside viewpoint was a coach load of cheerful Indians who were also enjoying the view. We had struck up a conversation with some of them and they gamely offered to give us a ride back to the bus stop in their coach. They were, they explained, Christians, with proud smiles, as if this was somehow the underlying motive for their generosity. As we drove back through the cool forests evening, the entire coach sprang into song: Down by the riverside, endlessly repeated. We were strongly encouraged to join in.

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May 11th – Over the Ghats

We left Hampi early the next morning, taking pleasure in disobeying our orders to return to the police station for a further reprimand and – perhaps – a proper, scheduled and supervised beating. I have occasionally wondered what would have been in store for us if we had returned. Perhaps my potential attacker had sobered up from his power binge and would have been in a half-way reasonable mood?

Still, I realise how lucky we had been. Suppose the child-policeman had actually been more senior and capable of properly asserting themselves? We might well have been in trouble before our night photography begun. Suppose, again, that the child-policeman had been present at the station when we had piled out of the van? That certainly would have made matters worse.

We took an early bus over to Hubli, where I enjoyed a phenomenal Dhosa before jumping on another long, hot bus ride over the Karnataka countryside. In time, the Western Ghats rose up before us, projecting us briefly back into the cooler cloudscape as the roads became muddy and the scenery green. At one point, our bus pulled down a set of power cables that stretched over the road, which snapped in a silent, blue flash out of the windows above us. After pausing briefly to survey the damage he had caused, the driver drove on, leaving the severed black wires dangling off the telegraph pole.

In time, we emerged, at the far side of the mountains and trundled towards the coast. Finally, sweating and dirty, we saw the sea again for the first time in a fortnight. We had arrived in Goa.

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