January 01, 2005

Lazing Saddles

Peter Griffin rises at noon to amble along the holiday coast on rented wheels

It feels strange to be flying into Goa. Barring the occasional office junket in the distant past, previous trips in have been via rail or road. You have time to get your system acclimatised that way. Now, there’s still city smog in my lungs, airline food that has sunk like a lead ball to the bottom of my stomach, sore wrists from the manic burst of work that I had stayed up all night to finish so I could make this trip.

When you go to Goa by more sedate forms of transport, you detox by the time you get there, pleasantly travel-weary, and you’re ready to make the acquaintance of a tall, dewy glass. And, with Goa’s enlightened policy towards excise, those tall dewy glasses are available here at a significantly lower price than in other parts of the country.

We deplane, and we still haven’t made up our minds where we’re going first: nearby Vasco, since we’re going to be flying out; Margao, or the North. We stop off at the tourism department’s stall, and pick up a map. The lady behind the counter looks at my scruffy attire and travel-stained haversack, and tells us we need to sprint if we want to catch the Margao bus. Our minds made up, we scramble.

Not a bus in sight. Instead we’re accosted by taxi drivers. Vasco isn’t high on their priority lists. Margao, Panjim or Mapusa is more to their liking. We decide to head South.

Atul, wordly-wise and combative, does the haggling and secures us a cab.

Taxis are supposed to run to a meter - eight bucks a kilometre, luggage extra - but that rarely happens. Aside from taxis (and of course, the public busses), Goa has another unique form of public transport, called “pilots.” A pilot is a bloke who rides a motorbike taxi, distinguished from private bikes by a yellow front mudguard. His pillion seat is for hire, so they’re handy when you’re travelling solo. They usually ply within cities and their outskirts, and its not unusual to see an impeccably turned out elderly matron clutching a shopping bag, perched demurely behind a scruffy young man she might hesitate to invite to her home for tea. The pilots that hang around near railway stations and bus stands will also do the longer runs. As with the taxis, a healthy spell of bargaining before-hand is the only way to go.

En route, we change plans, abandoning Palolem in favour of the much nearer Colva. Our driver takes us right into a hotel portico, near the beach. I ask him how much of a cut he gets for bringing us here. Only fifty bucks, boss, he says with a disarmingly sheepish grin.We inspect a few rooms, and check in.

There’s accommodation to suit every budget. From the five star resorts and boutique hotels, to shacks that will set you back less per day than you’d pay for a beer at the fancier restaurants. For a two-bed non-AC room with attached loo, you’d pay from Rs 150 (off-season, in a less crowded beach area) to a few thousand (peak season, popular beach). Beach shacks can be had for even less.

We adjourn to a beach front restaurant and sip beer. Atul, a restless bloke if there ever was one, wanders off, festooned with cameras, enormous lens dangling from his belt, to see what the beach action is like. I demolish a pancake, finish his beer, and order myself another, and amuse myself by SMSing friends hard at work in the city. Life is good.

Your cellphone will roam comfortably around most of Goa, barring a few stretches or remote hilly road in the South. Keep your settings at Automatic Select, though, because some networks offer better coverage than others in some parts of the state.

Atul comes back to tell me of a restaurant he just recognised from a previous trip shooting for an Outlook Traveller guide book. The place boasts a famous resident masseur, a bit of a local landmark, he says, which gets my attention. My back is stiff from the previous night, and I’m a sucker for massages anyway. Nyet, says A. He wants to shoot the man kneading attractive female body. If I liked, though, I could come along and talk to him. We wander off to Boomerang, as the place is called, a few minutes down the beach. Peter Coutinho, the owner, is awake now, and gives his permission to shoot on the premises, and even charms one of his guests into being our model. While Guptaji, the elderly masseur, and gets to work, and Atul does likewise, i doze off in an armchair. Atul’s lens satisfied, we thank the lady who posed for us, and settle down to chat with Guptaji. He’s from Varanasi, but spends ten months of the year in Boomerang, doing massages at Rs 150 for 30 minutes. He’s been doing this for twelve years, since his wife died. He’s entirely self-taught, he tells us, or rather, he says that his gifts are god-given, not learned formally. He also sings old Hindi film songs. i decide to invest a part of our budget into a one hour head and back massage. The man lives up to his reputation - when i rise from the sunbed, the stiffness in my back has eased. Atul takes his turn while i go back to our room to shower off the oil. When i return, my hyperactive photographer is asleep, and Guptaji is pleased at this tribute to his skills.

We stay up pretty late, and next morning, we both oversleep drastcally - waking up past noon. After breakfast, we go bike hunting, and then head straight for the South, missing Benaulim thanks to my bad navigation. We also manage to unintentionally bypass Varca, Cavelossim and Mobor as well.

Mobor, we have heard, is a firang trap. Some of the beach shack restaurants there, apparently, are run by the five stars that line the beach, and the right hand column reflects that. Not to be outdone, other local-run shacks have sprung up around there too, with prices not quite five-star, but definitely more expensive than the ones on other beaches.

We cross the high ground that separates Salcete from Quepem, detouring slightly to take in the view from a chapel on a hill somewhere between Verlim and Betul. While Atul clambers around, i drink in the maze of creek, backwater, river mouth, the sea of coconut fronds swaying far below us, and the enormous mirror smooth expanse of the ocean, silver turning to burnished bronze as the sun sinks lower. i SMS a friend again, to be get an irritable reply. She’s locked into an edit meeting, and her ideas have just been bombed. i start to type a contrite reply, when Atul reappears and demands that we move. He wants to get the sunset at Palolem. We zoom off, reluctantly ignoring the road down to Cabo de Rama, resist Agonda’s blandishments, but still screech into Palolem after the sun has disappeared into a hazy horizon. The sky is still streaked red, but the entire stretch of beach is already lit up with fairylights, candles, even the odd halogen. Different strains of music from each eating place competes with the wave sounds. Palolem, once a quiet backpacker’s paradise, has been discovered. While its still not as chaotic as, say, Baga, the market now extends all the way to the beach entrance, and even spills onto the sands, once the preserve of the shack restaurants. Atul makes what he can of the remaining light, and i doze off waiting for my squid butter garlic to appear.

While most of the beach villages feature a wide selection of restaurants on their main streets, it’s much better eating at the beach shacks. The cuisine is varied - Goan, Punjabi, Mughlai, Chinese, a fair amount of continental dishes, and, increasingly, Israeli menus as well. You can count on the seafood being fresh. If you’re vegetarian, you won’t have much variety to choose from. An average meal can cost you upwards of Rs 100 (add on a bit more in a more popular beach), minus the drinks. Oh yes, good coffee is hard to find. Most restaurants only serve instant swill.

By the time we head back north, it is much later than we intended. We decide to head straight for the highway rather than do the backroads. This stretch of NH17 isn’t lit, so we have to cope with headlights on high beam hitting us full in the face every few minutes. We’re both in shorts and T-shirts, and the ride is a cold one. In addition to the windchill, we also have to deal with being buffeted by the slipstream of every passing bus and truck. Atul, the experienced biker, leads. i focus on the wedge of light his headlight carves into the night, and we cut our way through the darkness.

We head to Boomerang, where Peter has invited us to join in on a party. By the time we crawl home, it’s close to dawn. Naturally, we oversleep again.We check out way past noon, and after breakfast, set off for North Goa. Atul wants to see the Wednesday flea market at Anjuna. I’m not as enthusiastic - i usually avoid the “happening” North for the peace of the South. He has the faster bike, so he zooms on ahead to get to Anjuna before sundown. I amble along at a more leisurely 50 kmph, miss Panjim without realising it, and wind up approaching Baga from an unfamiliar direction. i manage to circle Anjuna several times without finding Atul. But i do find a restaurant with a great view of a rocky bay, and i find a good seat to watch the moon on the water. A group of young carollers sing to the diners at the next restaurant. So, in honour of the festive season, i order three Kings beers and wait for Atul to find me. Unable to find a place to stay at Anjuna, we scoot up to Vagator. Where every hotel seems to be fast asleep. We finally manage to get ourselves a room after midnight, and promptly race off to get ourselves some dinner in the last restaurant still serving.

Next day, we decide to skip the dubious pleasures of the Calangute-Baga-Anjuna-Vagator stretch and head further north. Our first stop is Morjim. A lovely stretch of beach, near the mouth of a river, its waters are so clear that i could see my toes in the sand in neck deep water. Almost the only Indians here are the guys who run the shacks. Which feature names like Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Cafe. A group of Indian men, paddling around in their underwear and leering at the pink flesh on display, are the only blot on the landscape.

Next stop, Arambol. A friend has raved to me about the deserted beach, and the freshwater lake there, a few metres away from the sea. It’s been a long time since he was here, evidently. Arambol is packed. A narrow lane lead up to the sand, and the beach has the normal complement of shack restaurants. We trudge around the side of a hill to get to the lake. The entire path is lined with stalls selling all manner of touristy gimcracks.We round the bend to the lake, and even that stretch of the hill is restaurant-lined. There are even pre-fab bamboo huts on stilts perched on the slope, available for rent. Sigh.

It’s too late now to get to Tiracol, so we head back to Vagator, and get there, despite a wrong turn along the way. Ideally, i think, this trip needs to be done over at least a week. Ah well. Deadlines and all that.

We have a flight to catch, so we head off for Colva, where we have to return the bikes. NH17 from Mapusa to Margao is in wonderful shape, broad, smooth, well signposted. Except for the odd speedbreaker near a small town or village, i do a steady 70 kmph all the way back. My hands are still vibrating when we get into the cab.

At the airport, the real world makes its presence felt - a line for the baggage check, flight a couple of hours late, loud phone conversations everywhere. But my hair is still damp from the sea, and there’s sand in my sandals, so i smile. Yes, life is good.

--box--
Riding through Goa - with a little help from your friends.

Here’s the deal. You can’t hire scooters just like that. Not according to the letter of the law. Not unless the guy you hire from is registered as a taxi operator. Which, in plainspeak, means yellow number plates. Or somesuch. I wouldn’t know. I have yet to see one of those. None of the bike hire chappies seem to know either.
What you can do is borrow a friend’s bike.

And Goa, you’ll be glad to know, is a very friendly state. Walk up to the man behind the sign that says Bikes for hire. Negotiate price. Pay advance. There you are, friends already. Don’t forget to take you new friend’s cellphone number.

And yes, his name.

Prices
Rules of thumb: newish bike equals higher price; long hire brings the rent down.
A mildly battered Kinetic can be bargained down to around Rs 150 - Rs 200 per day for a four- or five-day hire. One guy told me he had hired out an old one out for a month, at a per diem of Rs 80. A newer scooter could cost you closer to Rs 300. Motorbikes follow roughly the same pattern.
Some guys will ask you for a deposit. Smile sadly and walk on. It was such a beautiful friendship while it lasted.

Checklist.
You have a license that covers motorised two-wheelers, right? Right.
Check the bike papers. You don’t want to be stopped by a cop when you’re riding a bike that’s not legit.
Take the bike for a short test spin. Check brakes. Turn off engine, then test starter button / kickstart. And the lights and turn-indicators. (Seems elementary, I know, but many of us forget to do this when testing a bike in blazing midday sun. I have.) And prod the stepney. You don’t want a flat tire and no spare in the middle of a long back road at 11 p.m.
Make sure the instrument dials work. You could probably manage with an immobile speedometer needle, but the fuel gauge better work.
The “pal” you hire your bike from will also sell you a litre of petrol at a five-to-ten rupee premium over the legal rate . More than enough to take you to the nearest pump. Which should be your first destination. Keep track of petrol pumps wherever you go - you’d be surprised how many very popular beaches don’t have gas stations. At the Colva stretch of beaches for example, you’d have to go to Margao to fill up. And I’m told (we didn’t check) that Baga doesn’t have one either. Also, check with your new buddy on the fuel efficiency of his vehicle. And don’t forget engine oil.
He will also give you a helmet. Wear it. It’s compulsory in Goa. Especially if you’re going into the cities or riding the highway. While you may get away with not using one on the backroads and in the villages, you really should keep it on for your own good.

Maps
Useful for long runs, to help you figure out roughly which direction you should be going, and what town you’ve just passed. You can pick up one as you come in, at the airport or railways station, or at news stands or hotels. Goa is profusely signposted, so with map handy, you’ll have few problems finding your way around. Unfortunately, while most of the maps we saw covered the main roads and larger villages, none of them was comprehensive, none listed distances between two points. A travel agent we chatted with recommended a map published by VZ India, which, he said, filled those gaps. Alas, he didn’t have one to help us decide.

Where to hire.
Start somewhere central. If you’re going home the same way you came in, then that place is a good start to your ride, since you’ll have to come there to return the bike in any case.

Planning your ride.
It’s possible to ride the length of Goa in a day, so you could start at one end, do a straight ride to the other, and work your way back at leisure, staying at whichever beach catches your fancy; or beach hop first, then ride the long route back on your last day. A third method - which we used - is to pick a central base in either North or South Goa, and make day trips out in all directions, then shift base to the other half, and do the same there. Useful if you’d like to have a guaranteed room to sleep in, and not lug more than a swimsuit and towel with you.

Other tips
Busses, Sumos, Pajeros, Jeeps... they own the road, son. Move over and let them pass.
Speedbreakers aren’t marked clearly once you’re off the main roads.
Try to do this with company. At least two bikes and four people. If you have a breakdown, or if someone gets hurt, there’s a second bike to go fetch help.
Ride in convoy, especially in the night. Pre-decide a system of horn or headlight signals to get each other’s attention.
If you plan to follow Plan A, pack light. Even a small haversack can cut grooves into your shoulders if you’re riding several hours. Use the scooter footwell to stow your one rucksack - it also helps lower the scooter’s centre of balance - and alternate carrying the other.
It’s Goa. It’s the mood. Booze is cheaper. But please, pretty please, don’t ride drunk, ok?

Published in Outlook Traveller's January issue, in a slightly edited version.



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3 comments:

fredericknoronha said...

Interesting descriptions, Peter. Do check out http://fngoa.blogspot.com and also http://www.goanet.org/pipermail/goanet

Some of my photos are at http://www.goa-world.com/fotofolio

Frederick Noronha, Goa

Shirazi said...

Very interesting, vey practicle.

suniti said...

Nice :) Goa is my soul land, and been there many times. But this was still a great read.