Beach Bums

Day 728 – 26 February, 2017

The bus from Mumbai to Margao, the transportation hub of Goa, was meant to be about 9 hours. Then we would have to locate a local bus that would take us another hour or so to Palolem. Natalie and I shared a double bed, while Jill and Mel shared another. And when I say a bed, it really was. Night buses in South America were usually just regular seats that reclined further back. Night buses in Southeast Asia were individual buckets that were almost fully reclined, but were usually short in length and a hard plastic surface. In India, the night buses almost always had an option of a full bed with a pillow, a foam mattress, and a privacy curtain. Some had a blanket and bone chilling AC as well. If you were traveling alone and placed in a double bed, you would definitely be paired with a stranger, but booking a double bed with a friend gave us plenty of room to store hand luggage and spread out. I was pleasantly surprised.

There wasn’t a toilet on board so usually a bus stops every couple of hours for smoke/snack/toilet breaks. Not this one. I was jarred awake 6 hours into the journey when we drove over a bump in the road and I realized that I kind of had to pee. I checked the time, realized how long we had been without a break, and assumed we would stop soon. I tried to read, but couldn’t concentrate as I could feel us swerving back and forth between lanes of traffic. I had been on enough buses around the world to imagine the driver narrowly cutting off a petro lorry and barreling head on toward a another bus, horn blaring all night long. How the heck did I go to sleep through that to begin with?? I was freezing from an over-achieving air con as I wrapped myself in my fleece and sleeping bag liner and tried to think about anything besides my nagging bladder. An hour passed and another. Natalie slept like a rock. I contemplated the swerving and the physics of which position my body might be found if we were to ever smash into another bus. Since I was lying down, would I be thrown upright into the wall separating us from another bed or would my legs somehow protect me if I was thrown straight forward? Or would I just be sandwiched between both separation walls, one of them breaking my legs while the other broke my neck? And don’t even get me started on the many ways to die if we flipped on our side. Maybe I should try reading again…

A few more hours passed and now I was getting desperate. The sun was rising already and thoughts of a toilet stop were now dominating over impending death. I thought about flagging the driver, but that would require me to walk down the aisle toward the windshield where I could actually see the oncoming traffic. According to my map, we were in the province of Goa and only a few kilometers from Margao. I can do this. Several minutes later I was squatting between two auto-rickshaws and peeing in the dirt. Even holding to my rule of not drinking anything before a long bus ride, we arrived after a good 12 hour journey which will break even the best of us camels.

Bidding farewell to Natalie, the rest of us made our way to Palolem. It was reputed to be a more quiet beach amongst Goa’s raging nightlife. I had agreed to not book an accommodation in advance – plenty of options we were told. Jill, Mel, and I unloaded from the local bus and tramped a short distance toward the beckoning sound of the waves. First off, we passed some beach bungalows that were adorned with fake bright green plants and holiday lights. The price was 1500 rupees (about $23) for one room and the 3 of us were planning to share. The rooms were equipped with AC and strong wifi right on the beach. Considering we had just come from a hostel in Mumbai where we paid 900 rupees each for a bed, the price sounded good to me. However, Jill hesitated and wanted to look around so we moved on. The next place had a similar price. We tried to offer less, but they wouldn’t take it. Meanwhile, it was boiling hot and we were carrying our packs as we trudged through the sand, each grain sticking to the sweat as it rolled down my legs. I quickly realized that my budget was different than Jill’s so I offered to grab a seat at a cafe and sit with all of our belongings while the other two found us a room. I didn’t mind sharing a room. I didn’t mind if they picked a place off the beach. I didn’t even mind if they picked a place without AC. It’s true that I would have just chosen the first room we saw, but if they wanted to spend less, then so be it.

Ultimately, we booked 3 nights in an off beach no AC bungalow. It had a little wooden porch with laminate that was peeling on the edges. The only fixtures in the room were a full size bed, a small wooden table, and a big industrial size fan. The bathroom was what became typical of almost everywhere I stayed in southern India – a squat toilet, a sink, and a shower nozzle (meaning that the entire bathroom was a wet room when someone showered). It was great actually. This place cost 900 rupees per night (300 each) and it had everything we needed.

We had our first power outage that night. I know this because the fan stopped working and I woke up in a puddle of sweat. Apparently, when you have several bungalows all operating their industrial fans off the same generator at the same time, power outages can be common. Jill, Mel, and I were sleeping head to toe, which wasn’t really a problem except when you start to get warm. I’m not sure how long the power was out that time, but it was a recurring event – several times a day. You know what, though? It was still great. I secretly loved staying in such a seedy place with a few discomforts. We easily made it our home.

I was pleased to learn that my companions loved breakfast as much as I do. Every morning we would camp out at a little joint named the German Bakery and peruse the menu that read like a novella. A few concepts that were common at almost every restaurant in Goa:

1) The menus are long, like really long, several thick laminated and sticky pages long.

2) They almost all serve breakfast, Israeli food, Chinese food, pizza/Italian food, and of course, Indian food.

3) They almost all have an entire page dedicated to lassis (a yogurt-based drink) and smoothies in various flavors.

4) Very few places blatantly served alcohol and if they had it (usually beer only), it was pricey.

5) Service was characterized as any other Asian beach cafe would be (i.e. slow, relaxed, inaccurate, optimistic).

6) There were usually dogs and/or cows loitering nearby.

Since almost every restaurant had the same menu choices, the German Bakery really stood out because it ALSO had a prominently-displayed well-stocked dessert cabinet – big gooey chocolate cake oozing with dark chocolate ganache, a moist and plump cinnamon-speckled apple strudel, bright orange carrot cake with perfectly coiffed cream cheese frosting… India had not ceased to surprise me.

Jill and Mel took off for some shopping while I stayed behind to soak it all in. There was nothing about Palolem or Goa, for that matter, that were authentic India. The eroded beach was relatively clean with mostly calm and swimmable waters. The eclectic mix of restaurant food indicated a global population. Conservative dress melted away to reveal nearly naked international tourists and Indian female tourists wearing shorts rather than long pants. Nightclubs pounded electronic music all night long, yet cows wandered aimlessly sifting through discarded plastic as their next meal.

When Jill and Mel returned, they had secured a bikini for Mel. It was a little yellow two piece that could barely contain her, but it would do the job. The three of us rented some beach chairs and spent the better part of the day in and out of the water. Jill was a few inches taller than me with short blonde hair. She and I both claimed to be runners, but we both looked like we had consumed more German Bakery recently than running. Such is the way of the backpacker… She had completely shaved her head some time before her travels and was in the indecisive stage of whether she would grow it out or not.

Mel had box braids, trailing all the way down her back. They would float on the water if she was submerged more than their length and she proved to be a self-proclaimed “fish,” almost always in the water. Her yellow bikini would dip in the back if it became too full of water, but you could tell she was on Cloud 9 in the salty surf and couldn’t care less. She was American, but I couldn’t place her ethnicity. She had creamy almond skin that seemed to glow in the sun. We were standing in the water, almost neck-deep, having a conversation about race in America. I asked her. And you know that moment when you’ve said the wrong thing, but aren’t really sure why it was wrong? Well, she scowled and her retort was, “I’m black.” Of course, I didn’t hear her the first time over the waves so I had to ask again. I’ve offended her. Crap.

That was the same day that Mel also got a serious sunburn. I can’t remember if she used sunscreen and missed a few places or if she forgot to use it at all, but the sun showed no mercy to her exposed skin. She could barely get dressed or shower or sit down. I think it was a first sunburn for her.

Then I picked a restaurant for dinner that was right on the beach so we could watch the sunset. It reminded me of the restaurants I would frequent in Bali and Thailand. It was kind of touristy with mediocre food, but with an incredible view. It wasn’t dirt cheap like street-food style, but well within my comfort level. I had assumed Jill and Mel would join me, but certainly wouldn’t mind if they made other plans. They did join me and I found out much later that I was making too many decisions “for the group.”

After three days of beach and three nights of cozy quarters, we all made a “collective decision” to visit Gokarna in the district of Karnataka. It would be an hour or two by train further south along the coast. I had heard great things about Om Beach and wasn’t quite ready to turn inland yet. To this day, I’m not sure if it really was a collective decision. I just know that I wanted to go there and the three of us were still having a great time so we went together.

As we checked out of our little beach hut in Palolem, I left a pile of clothes on the bed. I had accumulated new things and my backpack was getting heavier so I had to ditch some items. I wonder if anyone made use of my jeans there in the tropics? The local train was slow and stopped frequently, but all of the doors and windows were open so that warm dusty air would blow through as an Indian-style air conditioner. A few hawkers walked up and down the aisles selling chai from a thermos and other snacks.

From the train station, we hailed an auto rickshaw to the beach down a long windy road with no development. I was assured we were going the right direction by following my map, but otherwise it seemed super sketchy. The three of us in an auto rickshaw was always kind of comical. There was never enough space for our backpacks so we usually had to juggle them on our laps or hanging out the side of the cab.

The driver deposited us in a parking lot that appeared to just be the end of the road. We paid him and he casually gestured us toward a grove of trees. It seemed weird, but as we got closer I realized there were some stone steps carved into the mountain that opened up toward an isolated expanse of beach.

So this is where the hippies come, I thought (the first of many times in India). As we tramped through the sand toward finding a place to sleep, the air smelled of pot and cow patties. This was no surprise as there were cows and lots of people smoking. Someone playing the guitar while others danced around throwing a hula hoop in the air. It was a super relaxed vibe and I was beginning to understand when someone says they got “stuck” at Om Beach, it was completely voluntary.

There were lots of ominous signs about how you could drown here in the seemingly calm waters, complete with photos of recently drowned victims. It was disconcerting to know this idyllic beach was a graveyard.

We crossed paths with some guys walking the opposite direction, backpacks in tow, and we asked them if they recommended a good place to stay. Not the first restaurant we would pass, not the second, but the third was really good with a good price, they told us. Good enough. There weren’t many, like in Palolem, but each of the recessed beach restaurants had a cluster of bungalows associated with it. They all basically looked the same from the outside. The one we chose had several little houses with hammocks and plastic chairs on the porch situated amongst palm trees. The inside was almost identical to the one in Goa. The cost was 750 rupees total per night (about $12USD), split 3 ways.

I ordered fried cauliflower with a cucumber yogurt sauce for dinner. It was my 2 year anniversary of round the world travel. I had almost forgotten if Facebook didn’t remind me at every turn. Jill and Mel pitched in to buy me a beer and the day came and went with little fanfare, the way days pass when you are living on circadian rhythms, day turns into night turns into day. It kind of hit me like a ton of bricks that night that there wouldn’t be a third anniversary. I would need to start thinking about when I would go home and what I still wanted to do before I got there.

The next morning Jill and I rose before the sun and followed a path to Half Moon Beach that had been recommended to us by our bungalow neighbors. It could only be reached by foot, clambering over rocks and a narrow dirt track that meandered around the mountain. The views were beautiful, but it appeared that the Half Moon residents had only recently gone to bed after a late night of partying so the beach itself was abandoned except for a single yogi doing sun salutations in the surf.

Back at Om Beach, in between romps in the ocean, we began making plans to go to Hampi. Mel was due to go home within a few days after a 6 week stay in India, but was weighing the options to stay for another 2 weeks beyond that. Jill only had a 30 day visa and was thinking of flying to either Sri Lanka or Nepal when her visa expired. I had a 10 year visa, valid for a 6 month consecutive stay, although I had made plans to reconnect with Martyn in Nepal in 5 weeks time. Basically, I don’t know how it happened. I don’t remember making a conscious decision to travel together. We seemed to be interested in visiting the same destinations on roughly the same timeline and we were enjoying each other’s company. I had serendipitously traveled with people before and it was fun to have familiar faces around, but in my heart, I am a solo traveler. Whether it be viewed as selfish or as independent, I make decisions for me. So when we began making plans to travel to Hampi together, I reluctantly tried making some sacrifices that ultimately drove a poisoned stake right through this friendship.