Goa: A Portuguese Enclave in India
Panaji – Patnem
The train journey from Mumbai to Goa took 12 hours, even though it covered only 600km, and is rated as one of the most scenic train journeys in India. The old locomotive stopped at every little station, where colourfully dressed locals loaded and unloaded all sorts of goods from bags of rice to motorbikes. Economy travel involves sitting in rather compact surroundings on wooden benches, fun for a few hours but we felt the call of a little more luxury so travelled 2nd class. We each had a sleeping berth (a bit weird as it was a daytime train) that doubled as a flat bench to sit on when not snoozing. Our compartment was shared with two other travellers, a young South African guy who was also into cycling, and an elderly man from London who was originally from Sri Lanka. Conversation flowed and time passed quickly, intermittedly interrupted by the food and chai wallahs walking the carriages with their steaming pots. The window in the cabin was small and scratched so we often joined the locals sitting at the open doorways to soak up the scenery as it flashed past.||
On arrival at the last station, Margao, in the evening, we waited (a virtue in India) on the dark platform for our bike boxes to be unloaded whilst stray dogs and beggars milled around us. An hour later, they had finally made it off the train and onto the platform. Even though we could have just taken them ourselves, we had to wait for them to be carried to the parcel office where we could officially receive them. However, the luggage men were not touching them until we agreed to pay an extra “fee”, upon which two wiry men were called to take the boxes. To our dismay, they grabbed one box each and placed it on their head, hands free and disappeared between train carriages. A little concerned as to the whereabouts of our boxes we took off in pursuit, over the tracks, struggling to keep up with all our heavy luggage. We soon realised that they were just taking a shortcut to the parcel office where we were finally reunited with our bikes.
A terrifying taxi ride later, we arrived at our guest house in Panaji, the small capital of Goa, the starting point of our Indian cycling leg. We were total exhausted so the 1 inch thin mattresses didn’t really bother us but the million and one rules posted all around the place made us chuckle. Everything we wanted to do was forbidden: “Restaurant closed. Internet facilities not available. Laundry services not available. Do not wash clothes. Do not use additional electrical appliances without permission.” To top it off, there was a 10pm curfew, after which the gates were locked, and the checkout time was a cruel 8am! However, as it was just after Christmas and pretty much all other accommodation was booked out, we had no choice but to spend a few days in boot camp.
On the upside, the guest house was located in a lovely part of town: the Fountainhas quarter with its colourful colonial houses, beautiful gardens and old ladies in flowery dresses sitting on their porches and chatting in Portuguese. Goa was a Portuguese colony for 450 years until 1961, and the influence of the Portuguese culture is still very strong. Christianity is the dominant religion in Goa, and most houses had made a real effort with their Christmas decoration, hanging up large, luminescent stars and garlands, all beautifully lit up at night. Many people also create elaborate installations depicting the birth of Jesus, which are placed in front of their houses. In one case, we even saw a very large installation floating on a pond.
There are many Portuguese style whitewashed churches in Goa. Once we had reassembled our bikes (to our relief they had survived both the plane and train journey intact), we did a leisurely test ride to nearby Old Goa, which is famous for its churches. In the 16th century, Old Goa was a powerful city bigger than Lisbon, but now a handful of churches is all that is left.
The following morning, we checked out at 8am sharp and set off for our first day’s cycling in India. We were rearing to go, as we missed cycling, but also a little worried about our loss of fitness after a whole month off the bikes. We took a beautiful quiet road which wound its way through a lush forest along the coastline. To our delight, there was not much traffic at all. The area was quite prosperous, with many candy coloured villas ranging from hot pink to aquamarine, fire engine red, lime green and canary yellow. Indians are certainly not afraid of colour! The abundant tropical environment made a welcome change from the desert mountainscapes of Turkey and Iran. There were flowers, coconut palms and other greenery everywhere, and more wildlife than we have seen for months: water buffaloes with accompanying herons sitting on their backs, colourful tropical birds with sweeping tails, holy cows, lazy dogs, lizards and the occasional monkey scurrying past.
Every village had a large whitewashed church, and many houses had gardens. This was the first time we had seen such lovingly tended gardens since we left Romania! We also passed luxury holiday resorts the size of a small village, and once in a while we nipped down to the coast to find quiet sandy beaches. A delicious lunch was had at one of many restaurants, and after 40km of ambling along in this cycling paradise, we called it a day and checked into a hotel near the beach, where we were planning to spend New Year’s Eve.
For the first time since Istanbul, we were now firmly on the tourist trail. Package tourists mixed with elderly resort residents, trendy backpackers and ageing hippies. Many stalls along the village main drag were selling the loose cotton trousers and woven bags that constitute the uniform of young travellers in India. There was even a German bakery, and banana pancakes were firmly on the menu.
After trying a vegetarian spaghetti dish, which was “indianised” with copious amounts of ginger, we decided to stick to the local diet instead and celebrated New Year’s eve with a lovely dinner of tandoori chicken, Aloo Gobi and a few cocktails. This was a mistake though, as the cheap local rum caused Guy some horrendous stomach cramps so that we staggered home just before midnight and only saw glimpses of the fireworks from our hotel window. Fortunately being back on the bikes the following morning in this beautiful area was the perfect start to the new year.
We took a windy road through small villages, which followed the coast. There were quite a few rivers to cross, and not all of them had bridges. We had been looking forward to some ferry crossings, but the first ferry we came across was out of order, causing us a 10km detour to the only bridge. On the way, we got a little lost and ended up on a dirt track, which was surrounded by water on both sides as it led into a river. The track became smaller and smaller and was obviously not used very often. Just as we became convinced we were on the road to nowhere and would have to do a humiliating backtrack past all the happily waving villagers, the track rejoined the mainland and we emerged in a little fishing village, much to the surprise of the fishermen.
After a 60km ride we ended up in Patnem, the most southerly developed beach in Goa. It was very busy and most of the accommodation was booked out. We ended up in an overpriced, very basic room where Freddie experienced her first bucket shower. This consists of a bucket of water supplied by the guest house, with a smaller bucket which is used to pour the water over yourself. Shortly after this, Freddie opened her pannier, only to find a massive 10cm long cockroach crawling out!
The beach was lovely, though very busy with travellers. We decided to risk some Mexican food as this might be our last opportunity for a while, and had dinner at a beach shack. Having subsisted on chicken kebabs for so long in Turkey and Iran, we enjoyed the variety of food and easy availability of facilities. However, we also suffered from a bit of culture shock due to the sudden exposure to hundreds of European tourists, and were looking forward to crossing into Karnataka and the “real India” the following day.
We are planning to follow the Karnataka coast south to Udipi, and then head inland to visit some of the hill stations and tea plantations. There will be some tough climbs involved, but hopefully they will be worth the effort. We are planning to travel to the Coorg region, visit Mysore and the hill stations of Ooty and Munnar, and cycle through a tiger reserve (!) before rejoining the west coast further south at Kochi. From there, we are planning to follow a small coastal route through Kerala right down to the tip of India, where we will turn north east to cycle through Tamil Nadu, visiting Madurai and Pondicherry on the way. We will probably stop just south of Chennai to avoid the big city traffic, and then fly from Chennai to Bangkok in early March.