'You want my advice - never trust a fucking Indian' said Colin, loudly
and in front of a number of fucking Indians. Satisfied he had our
full attention, he then went on to explore a number of related themes
such as Indian stupidity, laziness and incompetence. Indians,, he
concluded with an air of happy satisfaction, would never come to anything.
When we arrived in Goa, my heart sank. The 'sleepy little resort'
of Colva appeared to be centred on a large carpark surrounded by buildings
draped with garish Gran Canaria style lighting. 'Welcome to the Costa'
said Jane. Some twenty minutes later we were sitting in the bar at
The Lucky Star Hotel with Colin and his two mates, John and John.
Colin, who seemed to be the most stridently bigoted of the three was
a tubby red faced little fellow who sported a t-shirt saying 'Canada
kicks ass.' He was Scottish and clearly a feature of the bar. Of his
two sidekicks, one of the Johns seemed like a pretty decent bloke;
the other was a skinny little guy, burnt as brown as camel leather,
with a twitchy, lopsided left eye. He looked like one of those tobacco
chewing rednecks you find laughing crazily to themselves on porches
in the the deep south. In fact he was from the East End and when I
complimented him on his tan he cackled and said, 'That's 'cos I get
a head start. I spend six months here and the other six months in
Tne-er-reef-ee!' I got the impression he was at the very least, hiding
from the taxman and his low-grade fugitive presence added to the Costa
feel around the bar at the Lucky star.
But the next morning revealed our playa del Arabia to be an illusion.
Colva's noctural Costa look is down mainly to the local fondness for
covering everything with bright lights. In the glare of the Goan day
Colva is a sleepy little place that happens to have two large, well
lit hotels and a big car park. But Colin the bigot was real enough
and to be found at the bar from lunchtime onwards, slowly teasing
out the beers with his ex-pat buddies.
So, smalled minded expats aside what is Goa (hippie commune in the
70s, party place in the 80s and rave enclave in the 90s) all about
in the 00s? Well, to my great surprise, its largest industry is iron
ore, not tourism, although this takes place inland. Along the coasts,
the only real activity is 'farming white coconuts', though they do
seem to grow a little of the real thing too. And it's hardly exciting
adventure tourism either. At Colva there was nothing to do but lie
on the beach and sunbathe, do a bit of swimming or sink a couple of
beers in the bar with Colin et al. As I am not a natural sunbather
(witness my skin's patheticly freckly attempts to produce melanin
in the tropical sun) Colva soon bored me to distraction. I would never
spend all day lying on my arse nornally so why I should want to do
it and get a suburn ? Besides , anywhere that relies solely on beach
tourism is bound to be boring. Everyone is polite to your face, wants
your money and secretly despises you. Which is why I prefer to take
my vacations in places with a diversified economic base - there, at
least, if one of the locals talks to you there's a chance it's because
they're genuinely interested. Still my view was by no means universal:
Jane - who is convinced that if she can just long enough in the sun
she will go the colour of Jennifer Lopez - didn't seem to have any
A couple of days in we went up to the local capital, Painjin, a place
which both the Lonely Plant and the Rough Guide describe as absolutely
fascinating. I suspect they mean in comparison to the rest to Goa.
To be fair Painjin, a former Portuguese outpost, is cute enough and
looks more Iberian than Indian. But to call it sleepy is an understatement:
it's practically narcoleptic. Still, just as we were wondering if
there was anything to Paijin other than crumbling stucco and sleeping
shopkeepers, we stumbled onto an entire street of western stores.
Within 100 metres we had Adidas, Levis, Lacsote, Lee, Wrangler and
Pringle - Goa's Oxford Street. But Painjin is a bit off the beaten
track and these shops were deserted, except for us. Still, the unexpected
appearance of these major brands does make you realise how unwesternised
India is. It's not that the Indians are unexposed of a lot of western
stuff, more that they're just not very interested. In most developing
countries, the second people lift themselves out of financial poverty,
they embrace the cultural poverty of American junk. For some reason
Indians seem much more selective. A middle class Indian might buy
a western car, but still dress and eat tradionally. Indeed in a country
of a billion there are only 20 McDonald's.
Of course there are exceptions to this and the biggest is coffee.
India grows some extremely fine coffee, but can you get it anywhere?
No. Most places serve only Nescafe - Nestle has really done a number
on this place and, not only does its inferior, inspid product dominate,
but it commands a premium price and most people actually believe it
is better than the real thing. When I finally found a decent cup of
coffee, I thanked the coffee wallah, explaining how pleased I was
to find real coffee rather than Nescafe. 'But why' he asked, puzzled,
'Nescafe is much better. It has a richer, smoother taste.'
Bored of the beaches, I hired a bike and cycled around the nearby
villages. Southern Goa is a strange place: it's stuck half way between
a major resort destination and an agricultural backwater. Nor is this
simply a transient stage in its development: rather the area looks
like one of the Costas might do if building had wound down in the
late 1970s. Everything is slightly tired, mildewed and unfinished.
So as I biked around these dozy little resortlets, I watched the coconut
harvest, where men 40 feet up in palms hacked the nuts off with machetes;
women below collected them. I spoke to a coffin maker. He told me
a casket retails for between 2000 and 400 rupees depending on the
finish and - perhaps because of the opprssive heat - business was
good. A Catholic priest asked me to sign a pro-life, anti-contraception
petition. I refused, telling him that India had enough problems with
the already born without worrying about the unborn. And, I met a couple
of lads from Sunderland - all crew cuts and football shirts and lobster
sunburn. Rather cruelly I thought, their package had dumped them at
an isolated hotel in a village even quieter than Colva. I asked them
how they were finding it
'It's f**king shite' said the bigger one, adding that he'd heard Goa
was all all night raves.
I told him that Colva was pretty quiet too.
'What do you do in the evenings' he asked.
'Well' I said, 'I usually eat dinner with my girlfriend and then hang
around in the bar talking to rascist ex-pats.'
'At least you're here with a bird' he said, 'there aren't any at our
place. Just another lad.'
'Where do you usually go?' I asked.
'Went to Cyprus last year: it was fucking great.' Jesus, I thought.
Poor bastard: even though Goa is on the package trail, southern Goa
is about as far from Aya Napa as you can get.
Twats with Tats
Leaving soporific Colva we headed to the supposedly more developed
north. After a journey of staggering incompetence (mostly ours) we
dumped our stuff at a hotel in the 'party centre' of Vagator and headed
down the the flea market at Anjuna. Justly famed, this is Goa's answer
to Camdem market and sells exactly the same mixture of interesting
stuff and utter crap. Though for obvious reasons it's rather stronger
on Tibettan handicrafts than 'witty' and 'ironic' T-shirts.
But while the market itself was interesting, the tourists thronging
it were more so, running the whole gamut from obese louts to long-term
hippies. We sat next to a table of the former over lunch: pakora and
fruit juice for us, beer and B&H for them. These were the kind
of flabby, sunburned morons so familiar to the Spanish whose tatooed
guts hang over their shorts like sagging breasts. To a man (or woman)
they all had a fag permanently 'on the go'. Like their stomachs, these
cigarettes hung down almost vertically from their mouths, prevented
from falling only by a well developed upper lip. I'm all for looking
for the best in people, but I think you can safely define someone
as pond life when they can't even be bothered to smoke properly.
As a counterpart to these folk, there were the old hippies who were
usually razor thin and sported status quo-style pony tails (long at
the back, top long gone). Then there were noveau hippies who look
strangely out of time, bohos and travellers. There's also another
socio-economic group who seem to be a relatively recent arrival and
look like the bastard offspring of football hooligans and new age
travellers. They have the skinhead and slightly thuggish look of footie
hooligans, but have all sorts of piercings - noses eyebrows, chins,
nipples, tongues, belly buttons and so on. The supabundance of metal
recalls John Travolta in Pulp Fiction: 'Who's that freak chick will
all the shit in her face.' But the piercer's needle is not the only
one they embrace: they are similary enthusiastic about 'body art'.
The tatoos they favour, however, are not the football club inkings
of old but enormous designs which borrow freely from celtic and buddist
semiology. As with the piercings, more is better and it is de rigeur
to have some nonsenical celto-buddist mish-mash covering half your
back. I can still remember when it was considered vaguely cool and
rebellious for middle class kids to get tatoos, which often used celtic
motifs. Looking at this lot, I can only thank God I never got round
to having one done.
Still there is one thing that unites these disparate Brits and this
is that they just love wondering around with their shirts off. Nothing
wrong with this on the beach of course, though it is indicative of
a certain boorishness when you're sitting down to eat. But what is
most confusing is that, presumably they do this because they think
it is a good look. Yet from the skinniest, skankiest hippie to the
fattest yob, almost none of them had bodies which should be allowed
to see the light of day. And perversely, the few blokes who were in
good shape all seemed happy to keep their shirts on.
The following day was Jane's birthday and we beakfasted on the beach
at Vagator, with Victoria, a girl we'd met in Ooty and met again through
the wonders of electronic mail and the less wondrous fact that everyone
takes exactly the same predictable route. Forty metres in front of
us were some of Goa's longer term-foreign residents. The women looked
like older versions of Tracy Emin and the men younger versions of
Keith Richards; a naked seven year old girl was wandering around looking
for someone to play with. But the adults weren't paying her any attention:
they were too busy smoking a chillum (a sort of oversized hash pipe)
for breakfast. If I'd had a video camera, I could have made a pretty
compelling 'just say no' video. One of them smoked and promptly coughed
his guts up; then the mother took a beefy lug, coughed and puked (!)
on the beach. Then a couple more smoked and retched before they all
fell alseep on the beach; meanwhile the kid, who was far too old to
be naked ambled around, clearly bored to distraction. As the saying
goes, it was the child I felt sorry for. Mainly because her parents
were such unbelievable wasters. Of course plenty of people combine
recreational drug use with successful careers and fulfilling lives.
But I think its fair to say that anyone in their mid 40s who starts
their day with a bong, pukes and then goes back to sleep is unlikely
to be one of life's fast trackers.
Cabs and Crabs
Mumbai (formerly Bombai) was our departure point from India and going
on our previous experience of Indian metropolises I wasn't expecting
much. But it's a far attractive city than Delhi and its seaside location
means its possible to breathe. Indeed, the downtown area, built by
the British has such a wealth of Victorian architecture that it looks
like a steamy tropical version of South Kensington. That said, it
has most of the usual Indian city irritants. We asked our taxi driver
to take us to a hotel called the Sea Lord. But of course, there are
two hotels called the Sea Lord - the nice one and the one we wound
up in, which was on the edge of a slum and next to a hotel cum brothel.
'Very bad place - jiggy jiggy people go there' explained, our thief
of a driver, rubbing his hands, anticpating the kickback he'd get
for dropping us at the Hotel SlumLord. Later on we got into two taxis
which agreed to take her 'on meter' then promptly said no, it was
three times the fare; to Jane's credit when the driver refused to
honour his agreemen she made him stop and we got out. Mumbai taxi
drivers are, without a doubt, some of the most dishonest people I've
ever met; indeed Goan Colin might have been a bigot, here at least
he may have had a point.
Still Mumbai's an interesting place. We started out, keeping it real
(in terms of our own culture at least), by buying Lacoste shirts.
India is the cheapest place in the world for these and the shops are
covered instrangely emphatic signs explaining there is absolutely,
repeat, absolutely no point in buying fakes for this reason. By way
of cultural compensation we then visited an island with numerous carvings
of Shiva, the Lord of the Dance: hey-ho, another day, another temple.
But things soon picked up. Later, as dusk fell, I was offered drugs
12 times in half an hour, a personal best. Then in the evening we
went to Apoorva, a seafood restaurant where I ordered Green Crab Masala.
I'd kind of assumed in my naive way that this would be a green sauce
with a few chunks of crab flesh. Oh no. The head waiter bought out
a huge, vicious looking and still very frisky mud crab for my approval.
Much too big - I sent it back and a smaller one (a mere kilo) appeared.
He was friskier still and rather cute. Once I'd given the crab the
thumbs up, the waiter in charge of crustacean death - in India,this
job almost certainly exists - took it out back to be killed; it reappeared
some 30 minutes later on a vast platter smothered in green sauce.
Another half hour and I'd dispatched the crab, and had chilli filled
cuts all on my hands and and green masala everywhere. Still it was
one of the best crabs I've ever eaten and there was no doubting it's
freshness. If you're ever in Bombay and don't mind being introduced
to your food before you eat it, Apoorva's the place for crab.
Driving out to the airport you get to see the other side of Bombay.
A couple of kilometres north of city centre and you're in the biggest
slums in the world. But what is interesting about the modern slum
is that many of its inhabitants clearly engage in meaningful economic
activity. Indeed, amongst the rude-rubbish built shacks are innumerable
small businesses. And if there's money to be made, multinational companies
understandably want to get their bit. Which leads to a truly 21st
century phenomenon: the branded slum. I doubt Orange and Pepsi are
particularly keen to shout about this, but both have brand presence
to be proud of in the slums of Bombay. Then again, perhaps there is
something here. Attention efficient westerners are bored to death
of watching happy, well adjusted people advertising products on TV.
So why not leverage your customer base in the underclass? Pepsi couple
sell itself as the slumdwellers drink of choice (cans make a handy
building material) while Orange could launch a 'slum to slum' talk
Some time ago Quantas who operated the Mumbai-Singapore leg of our
ticket had cancelled the route. Naturally they were legally obliged
to put us on another flight. And naturally, rather than put us on
Singapore airlines, they put us on Air India. This may be contractually
OK, but it's hardly an fair trade - while Air India does nice curries,
its planes could do with a good wash and all the films are in Hindi.
Moreover, Air India's employees are all effectively government employees.
And like all good public sector employees, deep down they just don't
give a toss about their customers.
Indian airports are little better: dirty, mired in needless fuss and
a bit hopeless when it comes to the important things. I had a huge
(5 kilo) brass statue in my rucksack. The guy who saw it on the X-ray
machine just waved it through: 'Hahaha you have a big metal animal
in your bag.' Yes, I thought, a big metal animal that could be full
of heroin or Semtex.
Apart from an interminable wait in the world's dullest airport and
a deplanement (apparently that's a word) in Delhi for more ineffectual
security checks, that was the end of India. Still, at least it was
consistent: rather grubby and needlessly fussy and bureacratic (with
good foof) to the end. Six hours later we were in Singpore which shares
nothing with India except the climate. How we marvelled at the lack
of shacks by the road! How we praised the airport's clean efficiency!
How we loved paying two quid for a cup of coffee! In the taxi, Jane
asked the driver irritably if we were on meter. Of course we were!
Finally, when we 'detaxied' at the block where we were staying the
driver put my bag down on the road. Instinctively I grabbed it from
him, expecting a dead rat or ditch full of sewage. But this was Singapore
and it was my bag that was dirtying the road, not the other way round.