Mumbai & Goa

Arriving into India at 12.30am at night is game.  Tell the truth, as I waited for my bag (which was late coming out), I expected to descend into the kind of carnage that you see in movies - thousands of people clamouring to take me in their taxi, high humidity, chickens and dogs running everywhere.  However it's all very organised - you get a prepaid taxi which you pay for at a stand. They give you a number and you walk out to a line of little black and yellow bumblebee shitbox cars, none of which look like they've been serviced in a very long time.  You find the number on your piece of paper that corresponds to a number on the licenceplate and off you go.

The first thing I noticed was the dust - hanging above everything - making the streetlamps and moon a sickly orange.  Driving through Mumbai, now at about 2am, was a surreal experience.  Traffic lights mean nothing, and my little cab driver kept taking calls on his dilapidated mobile phone (he had to answer it by using a matchstick (?!) which meant taking BOTH hands off the wheel).  There are homeless people everywhere on the streets, sleeping on steel cots, on cardboard, or even just on the plain concrete.  There are packs of barking dogs and people urinating against the side of ramshackle, crumbling buildings.  Women sit on the side of the street sorting through large piles of green leaves - I assumed tea - probably for the 'chai' sellers in the morning.  It's exactly what you would expect India to be, although eerily quiet at such a late hour.  I didn't get to my hotel until 2.30am, having driven through a fair bit of Mumbai, and by that time I was exhausted.  I stayed in Colaba which is a fairly upmarket and touristy area, near the Gateway of India - an impressive stone arch which looks out over the harbour, built in 1911 to commemorate the visit of King George V to Bombay.

The next morning I was up early to change hotels, and as I couldn't check in right then took myself off down the harbour. It was a Sunday and a holiday, and the place was packed.  As I stopped to take a photo of the Gateway of India I was immediately accosted by a monk who 'blessed' me before I could stop him, which meant tying a red and blue ribbon round my wrist, trying to put a red dot on my forehead and insisting on giving me some foul looking candy.  Then he asked for 100 rupees.  First lesson:  always be a moving target.  Don't stop, be firm and say no to everything.

At the Gateway I bought my ticket to Elephanta Island.  I was really just killing a day waiting for Carolyn to arrive that evening, and Elephanta Island seemed like a good filler - a craggy island containing ancient temples and caves dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.

I had the luck to meet a lovely Indian couple who not only helped me find my ferry, but were happy to show me some of the island.  There is a steep walk up the hill, lined by market stalls, to the entrance to the caves.  Here I had to part ways with my new friends and I did a bit of a whirlwind tour of the caves, the most impressive being the first, with carvings of 3-headed Shiva on the walls inside and fronted by columns.  The architecture is dated between the 5th and 8th centuries.  Without the crowds it would look like an Indiana Jones movie set, complete with monkeys leaping around everywhere, stealing water bottles off tourists and grooming each other in the trees overhead. 

Hotel Fariyas is a 4 star hotel, resplendent with a turbaned doorman and immaculately dressed staff.  In fact the hospitality is overwhelming, to the point of annoyance.  After answering my door twice to staff who wanted to know if I needed anything, and receiving a call at 9.30pm telling me that the tavern was open downstairs, you realise that this is such a country of extremes.  The tally-ho remnants of colonial British politeness are neck and neck with the in-your-face sights, sounds, smells and poverty.  The colonial architecture is breath-taking however.  The next day Carolyn and I did a walking tour of the Colaba, Fort and Churchgate neighbourhoods.  The High Court, armed by soldiers in bunkers with machine guns, looks like Hogwarts has been dumped in the middle of a crazy melee of tuk-tuks, cars and people.  I was told firmly by one of the soldiers I was not allowed to take a photo.  I wasn't going to argue!  It resides next to one of the most beautiful Catholic churches I've seen.  Churchgate is the other side of the peninsula, a long curving stretch of promenade which is filled with thousands of people at sunset.  To be honest you wouldn't want to stick your foot in the ocean here for fear you would pull out a bony stump, and like the harbour it's filled with litter and is a dirty brown colour.

Dinner in quality restaurants is dirt cheap and comes with such over-the-top hospitality that you almost wonder if they are taking the piss. Despite being two blondes we didn't really get hassled much, but took taxis everywhere after dark and kept our wallets and belongings close.

We had a 5am train to Goa on Monday and again I expected carnage - thousands of people milling around platforms, cramming onto the train.  We arrived early, picking up an attentively-packed breakfast from the sweet hotel staff, and managing to find not only our train but our carriage and seats within about 5 minutes of arriving.  The journey itself is supposed to be one of the prettiest trips in India, but the windows of the train were grimy and orange dust swirled everywhere outside making the sun seem like a dull plate high in the sky, and the landscape outside hazy and hard to discern.  It's the end of dry season here, and obviously in desperate need of some rain.  As we moved South the landscape grew lusher, and eventually we drew up at Thivim station.  As the train was late, and we were told we would arrive (by various people) at 1pm, 1.30pm, 2pm and then 2.30pm respectively (normally accompanied by an Indian head wobble which is a fantastic get-out-of-jail-free clause) we didn't arrive into our beach destination of Arambol until about 4pm.

Arumbol and Mandrem are in Northern Goa and the most stunning beaches in Goa according to the God of Lonely Planet.  There isn't the pristine white sand of some of the Caribbean and Australian beaches, if anything the sand is oily - whether from boats or a natural occuring substance it's hard to tell - and the sea is brown not blue - but it's still a wonderful place to chill out.  It faces West, meaning that it comes alive in the evening, tourists, hippies, cows, beach dogs and fishermen taking advantage of the late afternoon sun.

The laid-back atmosphere attracts the hippy-crowd, probably more than any other place I've seen.  The Dawning of the Age of Aquarius is alive and well here with more yoga-centres than you can shake a stick at.  It's a great place to people-watch: gamine-limbed beauties with golden tans wander the beach, their carefully cultured dreadlocks tied back, often accompanied by an emaciated looking bearded-boyfriend. Jump ahead 30 years to walnut-skinned women dressed in skimpy bikins that obviously discovered India in their youth and never left, or have been drawn back time and time again.  It's a never ending parade of hippy-fashion, which is all you can buy in the market stalls: baggy pants, hemp tunics, headscarves, Jesus sandals and stripy Nepalese jumpers (that should be banned in my humble opinion!).  I'm waaaay too cynical for Goa!!  The most scary attire we've seen so far has been sported by cult-leader types - pot bellied elderly men, wearing a kind of g-string pouch, saggy leathery bums flapping in the wind along with their stringy grey hair and beards. 

You do get the sense that people try too hard to 'find' themselves here.  Walking down the beach at sunset is amusing, like a Cirque de Soleil audition, with very bendy people arranging themselves into all sorts of complicated poses, trying to out-do each other for the Most Complicated Yoga Pose of the Year award.  Others twirl batons or poi, dance around like lunatics and demonstrate impressive acrobatic skills with various props (like balancing a crystal ball on one's head whilst twirling a baton).  It's all well and good, except you know that after a couple of days of being in whatever city they come from, they will have ditched the hippy garb, cut their hair, shaved their beard, had a good shower and be back into the commercialised rat race that is the real world with the warm sun of Goa as much of a fading memory as their tan.

The food is excellent and cheap, the beer even more so.  It is one of the noisiest places I've stayed though.  We're paying about AUD$8/night for a bamboo hut (with our own cold water shower and flush toilet however) but yesterday there was a Hindu festival which meant that loud music and 'drama' (it sounded like someone being murdered) were pumped through speakers for literally hours.  It could be heard the whole way down the beach and lasted until the wee hours.  Bamboo keeps nothing out and being a light sleeper I'm struggling.  Luckily it seems to have stopped this morning, but there is little consideration for the fact that you are in paradise and want to just chill the hell out.  That aside, Goa is lovely, and you could live on next to nothing here for months, with one day merging into another, a slow amble of beach walks, lazy days and sunsets.

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