Goa

Having refused to pay 300 rupees extra for an air conditioned cab, I sat sweating in the passenger seat with one elbow hooked  on the open window to try and spread some breeze around my body. The road was dusty and wild. There were children leaving school, walking along the side-lines and staring as this strange white boy whizzing by their village.

The taxi driver asked for the details of where I was staying. I showed him a screenshot on my phone. He shrugged and drove me to the beach. I asked along the road where the accommodation was and they shrugged too. A tuktuk picked me up and took me two kilometres down the road to another beach. I was still in the wrong place. I started walking back, frustrated and hot, my pack on my back. A motorbike rider stopped and asked where I was going. I was so used to accepting that everyone I came into contact with was totally chilled and helpful that I immediately climbed on the back when he offered to help (sorry mum). We whizzed back along the road. He asked a number of people for directions to my next stop. They didn’t know. I was eventually dropped off at Big Chill Restaurant. For some reason the name rang a bell. I ran up to ask for directions. The reason I recognised the name was because it was linked to the seven huts next door known as Lumbini.

I sat down. They offered me a smoke and a beer. I had arrived.

Akshay, who ran the AirBnB side of the business, arrived. He had this amazing relaxed and relaxing vibe about me. He led me through a humid area of forest which hosted the seven huts he proudly called his business. He had set me up at the furthest end. He marched up three steps to a small covered porch area and opened the door. Inside was a bed and a ceiling fan. There was a single light on the closest wall and a door at the far end. The door led out to a bathroom which was made of wicker and covered over in plastic sheeting. There was a toilet, sink and shower. Imagine a wet room built by Mad Max. I unpacked my bag and chilled out on the bed for a bit. I had a week ahead of me and I was glad I had just one room to call my own for that period. That was it. It was perfect.

I wandered back up to Big Chill and sat with Akshay, drinking Kingfisher beers and eating curry. My bill was less than a fiver. I went back to my hut and discovered I had been thoroughly chewed by the local mosquito population. The mosquito net I had carried with me for a week was my best friend.

I woke up at five am when the mosque around the corner put out the first call to prayer. I listened to some podcasts and tried to pass the time before breakfast. Despite how well I had eaten in recent days, I was hankering for some food. I headed up to Big Chill and looked through the menu. I couldn’t help myself and went for the “English breakfast” – a cheese toastie, fried eggs and potatoes fried in garlic. Elsewhere in Goa I saw these same items listed as a Russian breakfast. I wasn’t sure what to believe anymore.

After I had eaten and been given directions to the beach by Akshay, I headed out. Next door was a small convenience store where I bought a packet of cigarettes for the first time in forever. That week, after quitting smoking maybe seven years ago, I smoked four packs of Marlboro Lights.

I walked out to Patnem beach and tried to walk around the coast. There was nobody else around. I came round a rocky corner and realised I was fifty feet up above the rocks. I climbed up and over, jumping between boulders, my flip flops not giving me the best chance of being safe. After a couple of close calls I realised I couldn’t make it along the coast in the way Akshay had suggested so I walked back and took the road round to Palolem beach where the taxi had dropped me the day before. While Patnem was quiet, Palolem was full of Indian, Israeli and Western backpackers and holiday-makers. Stall owners waved to me and tried to call me over. I bought two tiny pairs of yoga pants for my niece and nephew.

Down on the beach were a number of hastily built up bars. On either side of them were crews of workmen digging and welding, working to get more places up before the summer season hit. I sat in the front of a bar and ordered a coffee. It was still too early to drink beer. Mr B, who ran the bar, came and sat with me, asked where I was from. He told me he was originally from Bristol but there was nothing about him that looked or sounded Bristolian. He made me laugh and I dropped by his bar every day I was in Goa. He said I could leave my bag there while I went for a swim in the sea. I was so excited. I’ve always been a water baby and love being able to throw myself around in the surf. When I was a kid, my parents bought bodyboards for me and my brothers and we would see who could ride waves along the beach until the front of the board dug down into the wet sand and we were flipped off.

It felt great to get out into the water. Waist deep were gangs of Indian men throwing themselves into the incoming waves. I joined them, laughing and whooping as the surf crashed against our backs.

Back at Mr B’s I had my first Kingfisher of the day. I got talking to the only other English guy there, Rob. He worked the season in Goa and returned to his dad’s place in Notting Hill the rest of the time to pick up a job in a pub. He had been doing this for seven years and never saw a UK winter. Rob took me to the other bars frequented by him and his friends. We spent the day drinking and dodging flash floods that were still hitting the land to mark the end of the rainy season. 

I agreed to meet Rob that evening, at Tattwa, the bar where he worked. I had an Old Fashioned with him and sat down for the best Paneer Butter Masala I’ve had in my life (so far). I had another beer and headed back to my room. The vibe in Goa was completely different to the other places I had visited. The zen state in Rishikesh was gone, I was enjoying the sun and the booze and not having a schedule. I sat out on my porch,  smoking and finishing off another beer before bed.

The call to prayer woke me up again. I listened to the rain and the insects until breakfast. I had egg and beans on toast with juice and coffee – I still hadn’t worked out how to “do Indian” for breakfast. I walked to Palolem and wandered around the coast, trying to find Butterfly Beach. I was again met by harsh rocks and turned back. I could feel my shoulders burning so sat in the shade amongst the stray dogs and honeymooning couples until I fancied a beer. I walked back to see Mr B and was told that it was Gandhi Day, a national holiday where nobody in India drunk alcohol. I had a coffee, read some Harry Potter and went for another swim in the sea.

I went back to Big Chill for lunch and ordered a traditional Goan curry. I was told I might be able to get a beer later if I didn’t drink it in public and didn’t mention it to anyone. I don’t know if my blog counts so I won’t reveal my sources. 

I walked out to Patnem beach, strolling from one end to the other. There were more bars popping up. It was still quiet in comparison to Palolem. I swam in the sea but had one eye on my bag, which I had left propped against a boat pulled up on the beach. I walked back to the road and was prepared for a short walk back when I heard a motorbike pull up behind me. I moved aside but the rider stopped and told me I was looking a bit pink.

He offered me a ride. I accepted immediately (sorry again Mum) and rode bitch back to Big Chill in just a pair of wet shorts and my flip flops. I chilled in my room until dinner and had a huge plate of the traditional Indian dish – penne pasta.

The secret beers came through. They were hand-delivered to me, wrapped in newspaper. I skulked back to my hut with them clinking together in the darkness. I cracked them open on the bedframe and slept very well for it.

I woke up with the call to prayer and waited for breakfast again. Life was Groundhog Day but I was happy with that. I had some stuffed roti with pickle for breakfast. It cost half what my other breakfasts had and the spice put a spring in my step for the day. I walked to Palolem and was sat in Mr B’s bar drinking beers when I got into conversation with a couple from Brighton who were sat at the next table – Georgie and Jack. They were very humble about the amount of travelling they had done (when it was loads) and we talked through our favourite places. They asked about my tattoos. We talked about Glastonbury and Arcade Fire. They told me they were heading to Agonda beach to visit a tree that was renowned locally for being full of fruit bats.

“Do you want to come with?” they asked. The joy of travelling on my own was that whenever an opportunity came up to do something, I didn’t need to confer. I was the only member of the committee. I could do whatever I damn well chose.

“Definitely” I said.

Half an hour later, the three of us were shoulder-to-shoulder in the back of a tuktuk on the way up the coast to Agonda. Jack spotted a monkey in the trees and we all jumped out to take photos and watch this family leap through the trees. It was amazing. 

The driver dropped us at the tree. We stared up. I had never seen anything like it. Every branch was loaded with bats. They looked like fruit themselves.

We walked through to a bar and set ourselves up for the afternoon. There were tables and chairs on the beach under huge parasols. Jack and I shared big bottles of Kingfisher (so they didn’t have time to get warm). Georgie had a few daiquiris and then switched up for vodka. We started talking to a couple from Liverpool sat at the next table. They eventually joined us. Jo and Dave were in Goa for three weeks as they had worked out it was a much easier option than waiting for their new place to be available at home after moving. They had a son who had been backpacking a year or so before and they clearly had the travelling bug too. Their place was on Agonda itself.

We sat around drinking until it got dark. Georgie kept running in and out of the bar, trying to get Wi-Fi. Her dad, also a scouser and also called Dave, had flown into Goa and was meeting her and Jack to travel around with them. We all knew the pain of transferring through airports, not sleeping properly and feeling jetlagged so when Dave Two arrived we made sure he had a comfortable chair and a large Kingfisher. It started to rain so we ducked under the canopy of the bar. He told me an incredible story about playing pinball with Morrissey. There was immediately something about him I liked.

Dave One got chatting to a local fisherman who agreed to take him out the next morning.

“Paul, do you want to go fishing at 6am?” he asked. The joy of travelling on my own was that whenever an opportunity came up to do something, I didn’t need to confer. I was the only member of the committee. I could do whatever I damn well chose. 

“Definitely” I said.

I woke up at six. I was still drunk. My clothes were strewn around my hut. My alarm was going off. The calls to prayer were going. I could hear rain on the roof and insects burrowing through my en-suite. I had a horrible feeling that Drunk Paul had got me into a situation. I then remembered that I had agreed to go fishing. I wasn’t sure if I knew how to fish. I had been fishing once before and my friend Charlie accidentally hooked a pigeon. I’m also a vegetarian. What was I going to do?

I stumbled outside and put my shorts and a shirt on. I found my way to the waiting car. My head was ablaze. We rode in silence. I was a condemned man. We stopped for Jack and then headed back to Agonda again, the scene of the crime.

We had to help get the boat in the water and like the man in charge of taking the anchor up, I was feeling ropey. We were all given a bottle of water which I then gently suckled at for two hours.

We headed round the coast to Butterfly Beach. I got to see it from the water at least. It looked like Tracy Island.

In the distance we could see other boats out on dolphin sighting tours. We were able to see them leaping out of the water from where we sat.

I tried fishing with just a line. They gave me a rod. I managed to hook the ocean floor a couple of times before everyone else realised I had no idea what I was doing. Jack and Dave caught five fish in total.

Each fish they hauled in was passed over to our fisherman guide. He rested the wriggling fish on the side of the boat, raised a length of wood up in the air and beat the fish to death with it.

“They call that The Priest” said Dave from the front of the boat, “because it’s the last thing the fish sees”.

I said a prayer for my fishy bro.

 Jack and I sat on the beach and ordered breakfast once we were safely back on dry land. We then dove into the sea (without waiting the required thirty minutes after eating). We messed around in the surf until he remembered we needed to get back to the others. Georgie and Dave Two were supposed to go out dolphin spotting but had (somewhat understandably) stayed in bed.

We took the scaled victims of our cull to a restaurant on the beach where they cooked them up in a mix of spices and served them with beer and sides. If I ate any fish because the opportunity was so brilliant that I couldn’t avoid it, then I’ll deny it until my deathbed. 

We all reconvened at a bar called Fernandes to be thoroughly bad influences on each other and get good and drunk. A small Labrador puppy came and sat with us. We named her Sandy. She had so many fleas that her fur looked like static. She fell asleep in Georgie’s lap and I think she fell in love.

Dave One was excitedly watching locals haul in huge fishing nets which scooped round the entire bay. We went to check out what they had caught. It seemed the rest of the town had the same idea.

We got half cut and headed to the best pizza restaurant in Palolem beach – Magic Italy. It was recommended by everyone I spoke to. Due to alcohol consumption, I don’t remember much but I know we all had a lovely time and the tiramisu deserved a knighthood.

It started to rain. It wouldn’t stop until the morning. Georgie, Jack and Dave Two were heading for Hampi in the morning. It was the last time our motley crew would be together. It was strange how close we had become in just a couple of days but I was gutted to see them go. They said we would all meet up when we were back in the UK.

Jo, Dave One and I watched the rain pour down as we tried to find a taxi. We were heading in different directions but they insisted on dropping me off. I promised I would meet them for lunch the following day.

I got back to my hut and collapsed on the bed. I wondered how I would ever return to a life of relative sobriety and calorie counting after this.

I woke up filled with dread. I didn’t know what the problem was. Then I remembered it was my last full day in Goa. I got up, showered, dressed and had breakfast with Akshay. He gave the most incredible life advice and was happy to sit and chat to me whenever I found myself in the Big Chill. He promised that one day we would meet again and go trekking in the mountains in the north. He had given up a career in advertising and marketing to run an AirBnB and he seemed so fulfilled and so happy that I took whatever advice he was offering out.
I walked to Patnem to meet Jo and Dave for lunch. They were a genuine and warm couple who seemed to enjoy my company so I was only too happy to spend more time with them and learn what their lives were like back home. We all spoke at length about life back home and I was glad when the heavens opened because it meant I could spend more time in their company and enjoy their humour and warmth
.

That night I had dinner and a lot of rum with Akshay and headed warmly off to bed. I didn’t want to go home but I was glad to be doing it with so many happy memories of a unique part of the world.

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