Having worked in mostly Sri Lanka during April to earn some wine & caviar money for my final leg home across Siberia, Mongolia, Asia and Europe, on the way to pick up my bike in Vladivostok I thought I might as well stop off in India on the way, so as to not waste my Indian Visa (obtained in the hope I was going to ride my bike through Burma (Myanmar) and into India, before I discovered I couldn’t).
I booked a cheap flight giving me 2 days in Mumbai (previously Bombay) before flying on to Goa for a week or so.
I’d heard lots and lots of conflicting stories about India, and it would seem travellers either loved it or hated it; or both at the same time. Having worked in Sri Lanka for a number of years, I was prepared for noise, crowds, manic bedlam, extreme poverty, colours, smells, friendly smiles and crazy traffic.
However, on arrival at Bombay Airport I was met with none of this. In fact there was nothing. Nothing! I took this picture of my luggage – the only one in the arrival hall.
I couldn’t believe it, and even outside there were no mobs of people clambering over each other to sell me a taxi or a hotel. Instead I walked up to an empty taxi counter and bought a pre-paid ride for a couple of pounds to the cheap south-Mumbai hotel I had booked on the internet on Marine Drive sea front. It was obvious the tight armed security was doing a good job of keeping the crowds & potential terrorists at bay.
Things warmed up a little during the taxi ride to the hotel, with horses and cows mixing seamlessly with thousands of buses, trucks, cars and famous black and yellow taxis. My black and yellow taxi looked like it had been built around the turn of the century, but it worked. Just.
The thing that hit me most was the constant horn blowing. Everybody drove with one hand on the horn and blew it at the slightest provocation. It was used to express everything including ‘watch out’, ‘get out of my way’, ‘idiot’ and even ‘hello’, depending on the timing and duration. I hated it! Beep once in the UK and you’d better have a good reason, or else you’re likely to get thumped.
Apart from the incessant, migraine-inducing racket, because everyone honked at everything, the honks were no longer effective, and basically ignored by everybody. This meant that some people had gone to the extremes of installing louder honks to be heard above the other honks, which just compounded the problem. From arriving until leaving India, the honking remained my biggest headache with the country; so obviously things weren’t that bad!
When I arrived at the posh sounding ‘Bentley Hotel’ (20 quid for an OK room) on the famous Marine Drive, things were looking better. The traffic was calmer and the honking was less frequent – just once every 2 seconds.
After taking a shower, I took a walk down the 4km long ‘C-Shaped’ Marine Drive, which runs alongside the ocean to Choupati Beach (pronounced chow-patty). Choupati is famous for its delicious street food, and I dived in head first trying everything new I saw, as though I hadn’t eaten for a week, including pani-puri and pav bhaji – lovely!
Choupati beach itself has quite nice sand, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a place to go swimming, considering the huge number of very poor people that live in & around Mumbai (with no proper sanitation). This did not stop the locals though, and many of them were enjoying the water, most of the men just swimming in their underwear. There’s nothing like seeing a fat man in a pair of wet Y-fronts to put you off your beach time.
Then I took a wonder down to the famous Gate of India down by the Wellington Pier (Apollo Bunder area) which was the old arrival point of all passengers and cargo entering Bombay during the British Raj (Raj means ‘Rule’). Started in 1911 and completed in 1924, the 26m high arch was made to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911; good job they didn’t hold their breath! Security was noticeable tight as the arch has been subject to 3 terrorist attacks since 2002.
I also visited the equally famous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, just opposite, where 31 people were killed during a 3 day siege in the 2008 Mumbai Terrorist Attacks. For some reason, this was also the gathering point of all the pigeons in India.
I wondered down to the popular westerner’s meeting place, Leopold Café, made famous by novel Shantaram (and also a target in the 2008 Mumbai Attacks). It wasn’t what I was expecting at all – more like a plain old café than a pub (hence the name, I suppose), and it didn’t even sell beer (trust me to have come on a no-alcohol selling national holiday).
I explored the area at leisure, eating every kind of street food I passed, all of which was ridiculously cheap and tasty. While enjoying a cup of Indian tea fresh from an old boy on the street (already made ridiculously sweet, like all Indian tea), I got talking to a pretty young Indian girl standing nearby. She only looked about 30 but had greying hair – probably due to the stressful life she’d led. It may have all been a story to get money from me, but as she never asked for anything, I believed her. She told me she had been left on the doorstep of a nearby church as a baby, and was kindly taken in by them. She was 27, and was destined for the life of a single spinster as she had no money or notable background for any Indian man to want to marry her. As well as bringing her up & feeding her, the church had given her a job as a cleaner and paid her 300 Rupees a month (3 pound, or 5 US dollars). She asked me if I was Dutch, as she’d had a vision she was going to meet a Dutch man, who would sweep her off her feet and rescue her from her life on the streets in India. I really hope that vision comes true for her one day.
I bought her a cup of tea and wished her luck as I moved on down the road. I was half expecting her to chase after me and ask for something, but she didn’t. With over 90 million Indians making less than a dollar a day, I suddenly felt incredibly guilty. I turned around and found her again, still drinking her tea. I gave her a tenner to buy a nice dinner and a new dress, and she almost jumped up and kissed me. It was nothing, and I still felt guilty. What can you do for 90 million people? I saw her again later calling to me from across the road. She looked happy at least.
No matter what you think about India, you cannot say it isn’t very colourful, and everything from trucks, buses, trees and buildings are lit up in multi-coloured lights after sunset.
A new visitor to India will quickly become aware of the blatant staring inflicted upon you by almost everyone. The best way to counter this is to smile, as 99% of the time you will get a big, white-toothed smile back and a friendly head wobble. Occasionally though, I can’t resist pulling a funny face, which then makes me laugh and usually leaves them thinking I’m a mental case. Maybe they’re not far off the mark.
Marine Drive is a meeting place for every man and his dog at night, when cool ocean breezes blow across the impressive Mumbai skyline.
I was feeling groggy, so I put my running gear on and went for a jog down to the bottom of Marine Drive & back, which was lovely and refreshing in the cool evening breeze.
When I got back I showered and blew my nose, which is a strange thing to mention off hand, but I remember the tissue being black afterwards. I couldn’t remember sniffing any coal, and so can only assume it was from the high levels of air pollution Mumbai suffers.
I splashed out and treated myself to a (still non-alcoholic) drink at the Aer Lounge on the top floor of the Four Seasons Mumbai Hotel – one of the best views of Mumbai at night. I didn’t stay for long as I suddenly felt guilty again about the women I had met earlier.
Like most countries in the world, there is a huge disparity between the rich and poor in India. We may think we have a housing shortage in the UK, but India is short by 19 million houses. The population of their slums has doubled in the last 20 years, and now totals more than the entire population of the UK (over 68 million). All this when the people in power grow richer and richer.
In the morning I had a good breakfast and jumped in a taxi back to the airport to catch a short flight down to Goa.
The departure lounge was certainly busier than the arrivals gate, but even so it was no busier than any other large airport. They actually had signs asking people to be at the gate on time because announcements wouldn’t be made in order to reduce noise pollution, which I thought was a great idea. I was so busy admiring it that I almost missed my flight 🙂
After only an hour’s flight we landed at Vasco de Gama Airport in mid-Goa. Again I bought a pre-paid taxi ticket, which for the sake of a few quid wasn’t worth shopping around for.
The taxi took me straight to my cheap hotel near Baga Beach, chosen because a couple of friends had recommended that beach. To be honest, it wasn’t really my cup of tea, as I really hate non-stop dance music (that I would probably incorrectly call ‘rave’ or ‘trance’) which all the bars seemed to play. I must be getting on a bit because I like songs you can hear the words to, ha ha (I remember my Grandmother saying that).
After 1 night I moved north to a much quieter beach called Vagator and instantly liked it much better. I liked it even more when my friendly guesthouse owner put me in contact with a man who rented me his Royal Enfield 350cc Bullet classic motorbike for the crazy low price of 7 quid a day.
When it arrived I was in heaven!
One thing I have ALWAYS dreamed of doing is riding an old Royal Enfield around India, and here I was about to do it.
She sounded beautiful – a deep, throaty, thumping roar, like Thumper the rabbit from Bambi on speed.
The British ‘Enfield Manufacturing Company’ made their brand name ‘Royal Enfield’ motorcycles from 1901 to 1968 before unfortunately eventually dissolving. One of their motorcycles was the beautiful and popular Bullet (made in 350cc and 500cc versions), of which the manufacturing rights, jigs, dies and tools were sold to ‘Enfield of India’ in the 1950s, where they are still being made today.
As soon as I had the Enfield between my legs, I hardly ever got off it, and I wasted no time setting off to explore the whole of Goa from tip to toe.
Starting with the tip, as I’m not too fond of toes, I rode up North Goa towards Mandrem, stopping off at several quiet, large, sandy beaches along the way.
Coastal Goa, being an old Portuguese colony, is practically all Catholic, which means lots of old churches to look at along the way too, if you like that kind of thing. I looked at one.
Arriving at Mandrem late afternoon, I liked the large, sandy expanse of sand, and the fact that not many other people were around.
A white dog ran past me and took a liking to me (it wasn’t made of wood!). This was fairly strange though, as normally beach/stray dogs only approach you when you have food, and I had none.
I had my swim shorts with me, stripped off, and went for a run. My new dog even followed me for a bit, before passing out in the heat after 5 minutes (just before me).
In the evening I rode back to my guesthouse in Vagator. I had a local Indian/Goan dish called Xacuti, which was delicious, although a bit spicy. I tried the local spirit called ‘Fenny’, made from either coconut or cashew. It only costs about 40p a shot in a bar, so you can imagine how good it tastes. If it were a choice between petrol or Fenny, it wouldn’t matter which one you chose as they both taste the same, and I dare say not great for your health (unlike other booze of course).
A mate’s cousin owned a cocktail bar on the beach at Vagator and they were having a beach party, so I wondered down to join in. By now I had left Fenny where it should be left – well alone – and promoted myself into the Margarita league; I really love these recently!
In the morning I started the old bike up and smiled – I still couldn’t believe I was finally riding one!
I packed my toothbrush as I was heading south to the southern tip of Goa for a few days.
My first beach stop was at Sinquerim, where a lovely palm fringed beach was being well used for all kinds of watersports. There was also an old Portuguese fort there which I had a ride around.
The road followed the Mandovi River for a spell, where you could spend the day fishing, take a boat out to see dolphins, or just pose on your new Enfield.
The only route south then joined the main highway for a distance and so I needed to find a helmet from somewhere (you have to wear them on the highways). I don’t usually ride around without a helmet on, but the bike didn’t come with one and so far I’d not seen ANY helmet shops. No-one else seemed to be wearing one either, until I got to the highway that is.
Knowing the Indian philosophy of selling anything and everything you could ever need (or not) at any time and any place, I expected hundreds of helmet stalls to be placed directly at the start of each highway, but there weren’t. Hmm… After a bit of deliberation, I just went for it and ‘shadowed’ a big truck as it went past. It worked, and I sailed right through a police checkpoint without them noticing me. This is not recommended practice in any way, of course, but I didn’t want to miss out seeing south Goa.
I rode past the airport again and swung off the highway as soon as I could, rejoining the quieter coastal road south, back in the land of helmet freedom.
I soon saw that South Goa beaches are bigger, whiter, quieter and more beautiful (in my opinion). Even so, there was still the usual amount of litter in many places. I could only imagine how much more beautiful they would have been before some people were around to pollute them.
My first stop in South Goa was Cansaulim Beach, and I already loved it. There were luxury resorts all down the south coast, and they did look nice, and undoubtedly expensive.
Back on the bike I noticed the top of my legs had got badly sun-burnt, which is strange as I don’t usually burn that much. However, it was ferociously hot and I hadn’t put any sun cream on them. I quickly bought a trendy pair of baggy trousers and a bandana to stop the same happening to my head.
I found a great Reggae bar on Majorda Beach further south which was a breath of fresh air compared to the trance music that seemed to play on every beach in North Goa. I ordered lunch there. If you order food in Goa, don’t ever be in a hurry, as you’ll wait at least an hour. However, I wasn’t in a hurry, so it was OK, and I had Bob Marley and a beer to keep me company.
I’d heard Palolem Beach on the southern end of Goa was one of the best, so I was looking forward to seeing it. On the way I saw a girl walking barefoot in the heat, and guessed she was also going to Palolem, as there was nothing else in between. However, there was still 8 km to go to, so I stopped and asked her if she wanted a lift. Turns out she did, and my good deed for the day earnt me a free yoga lesson, as she (Anna) was a yoga instructor in Palolem. She had also invented a new yoga and dance ‘thing’ which she was hoping would soon take off, so if anyone wants to invest some money email@example.com
I thought Palolem was like the Indian Magaluf. It may have been a beautiful, quiet, unspoilt beach once, but I didn’t think it was anymore. I was still looking for that idyllic, stunning, deserted beach I had seen somewhere in a Goa holiday brochure.
I found it in the next beach to the south – Patnem.
As soon as I arrived, I knew it I was going to like it there. I found a lovely luxury beach hut right on the beach for 15 quid, dumped my belongings (toothbrush and toothpaste) and immediately went for a run along the beach. Funny thing is, the only 2 things I’d brought with me where the only 2 things supplied in the bathroom (toothbrush and toothpaste).
The place was called ‘Papayas’, and I was one of only 3 guests. The owner was just about to close up for the season, which meant taking everything down for the pending monsoon. Many places like this on beach fronts are required by law to remove everything during the monsoon season, which is a heck of a lot of work. They must make good money though, as the owner was off to live in his second home in Switzerland for the monsoon.
After my run I was starving, but the kitchen was closed. Saving me from a night of hunger pains, the owner kindly dispatched himself to the kitchen and cooked me up the best Goan fish curry I’d ever eaten. This was because 1) I was starving, 2) it was really delicious, and 3) it was the first Goan fish curry I’d ever had.
I ate the meal with a large vodka soda on the beach, and my dinner companion was an old beach dog. I would never have thought dogs like fish curry, but I suppose they’ve learnt to eat whatever’s available, as he lapped up my leftovers.
All too soon it was time to take the bike back and book my flight to Vladivostok. I could have stayed much longer, but the Russian shipping agents had asked me to arrive on 7th May as a big Russian holiday was coming up after that, and my bike was attracting storage charges.
On my last night in Goa I returned the bike and wondered down the road to a recommended restaurant called ‘Tin Tins’ in Vagator.
I asked the waiter what he recommended, and he said the steak. I didn’t really want to come all the way to India for a steak, but when the owner appeared and also recommended it, I went for it, as actually I did really fancy a good one.
Good would be an understatement – it was a 5 star steak.
The owner and chef, Xavs, came up for a chat and was a top bloke, and not just because he gave me a free tequila. He had just opened his second restaurant called ‘Route 66’ in Panjim down the road, and told me his steak is the same as the steak you’d pay 5 times the price for in a 5 star restaurant. I believed him. Apparently it’s all in the way it’s aged.
The night was a good one, and I enjoyed Xavs’ special margaritas. Who’d have thought India has its very own high grade 100% agave tequila? It’s called DesmondJi, if you’re ever looking for an unusual great duty free present to bring back home from India. That night I imbibed quite a few samples, just to keep the boogie man away, as I get a bit scared sleeping alone at night.