I lay on my back and tried to relax. The sound of rolling waves crashed back and forth in the distance, which helped. However, the sun was beating down, heating the air and leaving me gasping like I had my head in an oven. It was also making the sand hot to the touch and the use of sandals more of a necessity than just a fashion statement.
I hadn’t worn shoes for 2 months. A new adult first, meaning that my feet were always dusty; the ever present Indian dirt and sand sticked to my toes. Every night I showered and a torrent of black washed off my feet. I turned onto my side and spied Cesca on the next sun lounger, she was taking in the sun by laying on her front, her bikini open at the back to allow a tan, but – since I had rubbed in some cream for her – no white line or burning. I reached to the table between us and took down my beer and my book. It was called The Master of Go, by Nobel Prize winning author Yasunari Kawabata.
Then my phone rang. It was my best friend Mark.
I thumbed the screen and the call connected, “Mark!” I exclaimed, genuinely please to hear from him, “It’s great to hear your voice. Where are you?” From over the connection I could hear what sounded like traffic and men talking; the sounds of London. The sounds of home.
“Heyya, I thought I would give you a call,” his voice was raised like he could not really hear me and was compensating by shouting; he must be at work on a building site, “I’m in a man hole at the moment sorting out foundations for a new tube station.”
“Wow,” I said, interested.
“Yeah, it’s for the Olympics and all that. Anyway, it’s cold, wet and horrible and I am down this smelly hole and I thought I could do with cheering up. Where are you?”
I could well imagine England in February and being stuck out in the legendary English wet winter could not be much fun. I looked at the majestic view around me. The beach stretched off to the right and ran into a high line of cliffs with chalets atop the jagged rocks. This had a path running down that ran right behind us giving access to the twenty or so beachfront guest houses. A sort of motley collection of flop houses that serviced the lower order of traveller and would only be reviewed in backpacker bibles such as the Lonely Planet. These ran past us to the left and on down the endless beach, which was also home to a couple of dozen bars of all levels of coolness, before rounding the headland in the hazy distance. The beach itself was dotted with people playing in the surf, lounging on beds like ours, doing yoga and drinking. Everyone looked like they were on a sort of the-morning-after-we-are-the-cool-kids vibe that only a night spent drinking, going to parties and getting laid can get you.
Sure enough, for a certain type of person Goa was a seductive paradise.
“Oh,” I said to Mark, who in my mind was struggling in the cold and wet down a big hole; traffic running all around, “I’m in Goa, India…”
“On the beach…”
“Drinking cool beer in the sunshine.
“Is it beautiful?”
“Most definitely. Wish you were mate,” I said honestly, “you would love it.”
“Thanks-“ he then shouted something to someone off the phone that ended in swearing, then he was back on, “Look. I have to go.”
“Sure. Hope the kids are well.”
“We are all looking forwards to you coming back. The lads too, we will all share a beer with you at Ground Zero.”
“Deal, can’t wait.”
And then he was gone.
“Bye, buddy.” I suddenly realised that I was really missing him and the rest of my friends.
I looked at the sea again.
Like I said, a certain type of person would love Goa. Just not me.
A week previous we had left Ellora and headed back towards Mumbai, before jumping off at a junction in the middle of the night and catching the connecting train down into Goa.
Goa is split up into different parts. The area around Colva in the south is all family places. No drugs, no happy pizzas or topless girls and not much yoga. Then there is Manadrem, roughly in the middle, which is chock full of middle-class Indians. Then there is the wilder northern town of Arambol, which has been given over the travellers. Arambol is famous. Moon parties, drink, drugs and lots and lots of pizzas; happy and otherwise. We had started in the southern end as it was closer to the station and after buying a very expensive taxi ride had ended up in a family resort/guesthouse with beachfront views. The idea was to chill out down here and then work our way back up to the north before heading inland towards Hampi and Mysore. It was good plan.
This guesthouse was fun, in a sensible sort of way, and the food was really nice. We chilled, read some books, had some fun and then made plans to find a good hotel for Valentine’s day.
Valentine’s day is big news in India, but not normally for the right reasons. The Indians have many customs that on the one hand might feel quite liberated and on the other are not. Public Displays of Affection (PDA’s), for example, are fine between men. That is between pals; what the British now call bro-mances. But, PDA’s are not fine between men and women. The highly sexed western valentine’s day, rubs Indians up the wrong way something chronic. Which is to say that it causes all sorts of tension and in India where there is tension, passion and public sexuality then there is violence. Goa is the worst flashpoint for this.
And it is all the westerners fault.
I am going to sound like a “granddad” now, so before I do let me say some things in my defence. I am a modern Londoner. I am confident sexually, comfortable with women and in every way a liberal minded person. This liberality has been the driving force that enabled me to find my religion of Daoism – that and my philosophy degree – and as such I am cool with people cutting loose. I can cut loose too and I like Mary J as much as the next Philosophy Graduate.
Right, so, as I said this is all the westerners fault.
There is a certain type of person looking for something in particular when they go travelling. Goa attracts these people like flies. Serious Ergophobics or, as Douglas Adams called them, “Fart Arounds”. They moved in around the late 70’s and never left. This influx has given rise to an entire enclosed culture that exists in the north of Goa. A culture that doesn’t exist anywhere else in India (that I saw). India is still a very closeted country when it comes to sex. White smooth-limbed western girls with their boobs out are a massive cocktease that the average gently-repressed Indian male finds hard to deal with. Goa is chock full of people that think two things. Firstly, that they can do what the hell they like and to hell with anyone else. Secondly, that India is the same as Thailand.
Believe me, it is not.
The only reason that the Indian government doesn’t roll out the riot police and throw the lot out, is that the tourists bring in a lot of money to a poor country. And that is the big thing for me. When I see westerners mistreating a culture and exploiting it through the power of their money I get angry in a little place inside. And if I feel it, the Indians definitely do. Those not too turned on to think straight.
While in Mumbai I read in a national newspaper about the “worry” regarding Valentine’s day in places such as Goa. That the licentiousness would cause flashes of violence.
It has done in the past.
It was reported that in 2007 a couple of European girls and their boyfriends had been beaten up outside a local bar where they had been drinking all day. The inference of the article was that the lady in question had been underdressed, was drunk and very abusive to the locals’ feelings. In India, you have to watch the public mood carefully. This event had shocked the west and been played down as local trouble, easily sorted, but I can almost guarantee that what happened was instigated by a locals reaction to their attire, their attitude, their rudeness, their drunkenness and probably all of the above.
We wanted none of that.
I never forgot that almost all the police in India have a sub-machine gun.
So we attempted to book a great hotel in the middle of Goa, used by the Indians themselves, so that we might avoid any unpleasantness. We did avoid it, but unfortunately we booked an absolute dive of a hotel that was extravagantly expensive and we hated every moment there that was not spent in our room. Take my advice, unless you want to spend your days eating bad food covered in flies with terrible service, high costs and a small beach then stay away from Mandrem.
After Valentine’s day we bit the bullet, caught a Taxi to the North, and got stuck in. The town of Arambol is basically three long roads leading down to the beach. Each road is absolutely lined with guest houses, bars and tourist shops all selling authentic crap to westerners and catering for the traveller crowd. Mile after mile of this leads finally to the beach and more bars and beach clubs before another spate of guesthouses. It was to one of these we made our way by trudging through the searing heat toward a large blue converted house inches away from another identical copy.
Our room was tiled like a bathroom and had whitewashed walls. Quite romantic in a down to earth kind of way. We unpacked our mosquito nets and made a bed tent to protect ourselves overnight.
We then went shopping and looking for beer and food.
As anyone who reads this blog must surely know, I am somewhat of a culture-vulture when on the road and, since Cesca does not partake of the magical herbs, this left me somewhat at a loss for something to do, until I managed to pull up some WIFI in a great cafe and get on with some writing, followed by browsing an excellent and well stocked second hand book store. Cesca was not in love with this idea. Indeed we only finally reached agreement when I put the laptop away and laid on the beach.
On the flip side, the sea was great fun and we found a fantastic Italian restaurant just off the beach. It was near here that I saw my first Ahsram-Girl.
An ashram is a religious hermitage. Additionally, today the term ashram often denotes a locus of Indian cultural activity such as yoga, music study or religious instruction, the moral equivalent of a studio or dojo. WIKI
Ashram-Girl is a term I invented for the very white and thin western girls you occasionally see wandering around places in India. They are easy to spot as firstly, they are very thin after weeks/month/years spent in Ashrams. Secondly, they have that genuine beneficial smile of the believer in whatever it is the ashram teaches. Finally, they only wear Sari’s. I saw a number when I was in Goa and they all have something else about them too, they take your breath away. They are beautiful – In the way that only the content and happy can be. Radiant I guess you would call it. The first one I saw literally parted the crowd drawing bows, smiles, nudges and “wow” statements from all the male Indian shop keepers. She smiled like a painting of the Madonna and willowed her way to wherever she was going.
Whatever they are doing in those Ashrams, and some of them are all about sex to the point that you get a HIV test when you arrive, I don’t suppose they need to advertise. There are all sorts of legends regarding them, and all sorts of terrible tales as well. Abuse, rape, enforced drug taking, starvation and even death. There exists an entire trade in kidnapping these people back to their families and many Hollywood films on the subject too. I had known a true believer when I was in school (in her case a Christian) and while she wasn’t naturally beautiful, she was radiant in the same way that these girls were and I admit that it is a little scary. They look a little lost in another world. That they wear this one lightly. I could picture Cesca in such robes, lost to herself, her family, living a strange life in India, living some true spiritual life of yoga and I didn’t like the idea one bit, but I won’t deny that the part of her that would embrace that life is one of the many parts of her that I am attracted to.
Over the next few nights we partied, ate, drank, shopped and sat in the sun. I went through book after book from the shop until I came across one that would change my life.
The Tao of Pooh and Te of Piglet (Wisdom of Pooh) is not a real Daoism book. It is not exactly well thought of in terms of intellectual Daoist studies, nor is it in line for any sort of prize for accuracy, understanding or factualness. Nevertheless as a starting point for a long mental journey it was perfect. The book is about the Chinese Religious Philosophy of Daoism. Or more accurately, it is about the Westernised version of the Chinese Religious Philosophy of Daoism. The writers claim that Winnie the Pooh is Daoist. It is a such a strong idea that millions of people have read and instantly understood – or thought they have – Daoism without reading anything else about the religion. For most that is the first time they receive “knowledge outside the scriptures” and as such most come away with a self satisfied sense of having “got it”. They then get back on with their own lives and that’s that.
For a few others this leads down a rabbit hole and after a very long journey, into wonderland. I will have much more to say on this subject in a later Philosophy post, but suffice to say, that while I have listened and read Alan Watts for many years by this point, only the talk of Zen had really interested me. His common reference to Daoism had not, at that point, stirred me. This book, about a fictional bear with very little brain and his identification with an ancient Chinese Philosophy was the first time I really considered it.
Eventually Cesca and I booked a train ticket from the nearby town of Panjim and caught a taxi out of Amabol. I was finally feeling relaxed, and little sun burned. The atmosphere of the place made it impossible not to chill out. We arrived in Panjim and booked into a guest house called Park Lane Lodge.
The owner was very eccentric, and the guesthouse was basically a room in his large house. It was the only place I stayed that had a curfew and the room was not particular well cooled, so we walked around and found an ATM.
Panjim has a very nice feel of colonial architecture and a Portuguese vibe to it.
It was a nice place to wander around before tucking into a meal of grilled fish at the towns top hotel.
Then we wal