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.