Friday, March 05, 2010


Everybody at the Fren Joshua concert is a small crowd of maybe one hundred. The true sound of Goa is German. He sits in splendour on a raised dais on the stage and plays the sitar and a flute. To his right, a grey-haired Japanese with a frozen face plays base guitar next to a tabla player who might be Indian. A second German plays keyboard and fiddles with a lap-top. Fren Joshua is both serious and spiritual. He dedicates his songs to a series of Sufi saints and mystics. My untrained ear finds one song much like the next. Perhaps the Sufi mystics were equally similar. The concert is enlivened on occasion by all four musicians emitting a series of very loud harsh barks.
The Japanese base player runs out of battery.
I clap once at the wrong moment.
The prawn risotto is dry and without taste.
So where is the luck?
In meeting a young Dutch couple, Paul and Fiona, at the restaurant.


Calangute is the northern end of a thirty kilometer hodgepodge of high-rise apartment blocks, bed-bug dosshouses, luxury resorts, bars and restaurants that range in quality from brilliant to instant dysentery. My memories are of a small village. We were fifty foreigners at most. Fishermen mending nets were the only Indians. I trust to luck in searching for my past. The luck is an Italian with a shack restaurant amongst the trees a kilometer back from Vagator beach. He has long hair, an old bike and spent years up in Poona or Pune at the Shri Rajneesh ashram - wow! a real life sennayasin. How old? Mid-sixties and an old stager. He belongs...While I fall at the first hurdle. I've never heard of Fren Joshuah, never listened to his music, the true sound of Goa (so the Italian asures me).
Fren Joshua is in concert tonight on the beach north towards Arambol. Everybody's going. Return to the restaurant afterwards for prawn risotto.


I sit in on a class of final year students discussing manipulation of thought through maps, photography and metaphor. Am I prejudiced in finding the girls intellectually more mature?
The class finishes and I stay on at a table with three students. Teenagers tend to be wary of revealing themselves. They find safety in number. A full class and I might be able to provoke a general discourse – even an argument. Three is too few – though I try with the question I posed throughout Hispanic America. Why do so few students intend entering Public Service?
These three answer me rather than speak to each other.
S1 (f): The pay is too low.
S2 (f): It's modern Indian society - everyone for themselves.
S3 (m) has no opinion. He wants to be a sports journalist.
Or Politics?
S1: It's impossible to stay clean.
End of subject.
Do they spend much time in their imagination?
S3 (m) imagines doing things – driving a fast car, scoring a goal.
S1 (f) fears that she day dreams too much, that it effects her grades.
I want to ask, not what she dreams, but why she dreams. Is she seeking shelter and from what?
From whom she thinks she is?
Or from what is expected of her?
Or from what she expects?
I don't have the right and S2 is talking now of a lonely childhood in which her only companions were imaginary - as they became my addiction both as a child and as a writer of fiction. So to Goa...


The International School is coeducational. 60 % of the 571 students are Indian nationals, 121 are from other Asian countries, 58 North American, 41 from Europe, 7 African, a lone New Zealander and a lone Omani. The curriculum melds the US Public school syllabus with the International Baccalaureate. 100% progress to University, not a bad record...And the school has 14 music teachers. In earlier days Kodai produced diplomats, administrators and academics. The modern trend is towards entrepreneurs and CEOs. For further information check the Web.
My own opinion? A joyful and stimulating path to adulthood...


school hiding in the trees

Kodai has three centers: the bazaar, the star-shaped 24 hectare lake and the International School. So far on this journey I have talked either with other foreigners or with the middle aged and older. I long for young voices. I am in Kodai for the school.
Put most of Asia in a cocktail shaker, add a smidgen of Irish and unlimited enthusiasm and you have the school's Vice Principal. I've omitted intellectual curiosity and intellectual discipline of which he has ample and my joy at discovering that he is an historian.
He is similar to President Obama in thinking before replying to a question - a habit that is politically disastrous according to the Professor of Sanskrit (ex of the University of Pennsylvania) whom I met on the road south. The US voter demands immediate replies. Pause for thought shows indecisiveness. It also leads to confusion as shown when a woman staff member telephones the Vice Principal with a query and preempts his answer - wrongly as it happens. Unraveling the confusion takes a while.


Kodaikanal is 2300 meters above sea level. The settlement was founded in 1834 by US missionaries as a shelter from the fierce heat and diseases of the plain. Kodai remains healthy – almost no mosquitoes! A good road winds up the mountains through thick forest. Waters of Vaigai lake sparkle in the Kambam valley below amidst emerald paddy and darker palm and banana plantations with the Varushanad hills in the distant background. Signs warn drivers and riders to sound their horns. I obey. Two young men on a bike wave me down and point uphill into the forest. I sit on the stone parapet and watch bison graze amongst the trees. The undergrowth allows only brief glimpses of a calf. The calf is paler than the adults. What pleasure in breathing cool air forest-scented. And so upward, the late afternoon chill on my chest and I wonder whether to stop and drag out the sweater from my backpack.


I wrote earlier that India does weird things to a traveler. It fills you with loathing only to lift you with its magic. Earlier today I was in loathing mode. The road to Kodaikanal transports me to heaven. The road approaches forested mountains across the Kambal valley, a flat fertile land of small paddy, coconut plantations and clean villages. I stop at a tiny cafe for tea and a small slice of cake. Four young men are my fellow customers. One of the men quizzes his companions for sufficient words with which to attempt communication beyond a smile. Hi, is all they manage. I can do Hi. To the reader, a single syllable must seem inadequate. Not to the traveler. The intention counts, the desire to learn something of each other.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010


India does weird things to a traveler. It fills you with loathing only to lift you with its magic. Madurai was magical on that last journey forty years ago. I was traveling with a young woman, Vanessa Jack. We drove into town the eve of Madurai's Teppam Festival when Shiva and his triple breasted consort are taken in procession from the temple to the Mariamman Teppakkulam tank. We met a young Brahman outside the temple. His father organised the festival. Thus we found ourselves on the float amongst the notables, two small white figures seated at the feet of the Gods, utterly unimportant, yet permitted to share in the sacred. I remember the glow of the full moon and the ropes connecting the float to thousands of faces glistening in candle-light on the bank, and I remember the music, the drumming of the old master and the young master playing in turn, not in competition but lifting each other to an ever higher plane and we were lifted, transported. All of us. Oh yes, magic...
And I learned my lesson in Goa. Treasure your memories, learn from them, but move on...


I got hit by a bus yesterday. Not me personally, but the right-side wing mirror. I was riding through a small town on a typical Indian main street, buses, trucks, tractors dragging trailers, rickshaws, bikes and pedal bicyclists, loaded hand-carts, cows, a few goats, hundreds of pedestrians. The bus overtook me where there was no room. It shoved me off the road on to soft dirt. I was fortunate to miss a couple of pedestrians and a hand cart. I saw a bad smash a few Ks later out in the country. A rickshaw had pulled out in front of a speeding biker, a young guy, no helmet. The bike was on its side in the road. The biker lay on the grass verge. His head was all blood and he wasn't moving. A crowd had gathered, gawpers. Presumably they were waiting or hoping for an ambulance.
Today's worst smash was an overturned truck with another truck embedded in it. The driver was heading the wrong way down a dual carriageway. Exactly how the crash happened, I don't know. I'm an observer rather than a specialist. Photographing the mashed cabs would have been unfeeling.
And I have been forced off the road In the space of an hour this morning by two buses heading right at me as they overtook other vehicles. I've had enough. To Hell with this. I'm heading straight for the Himalayas. Maybe mountain people are more considerate. In the middle of this thought, I spot a sign to Kodaikanal. Kodaikanal is Tamil Nadu's most picturesque hill station. The sign strikes me as a message (not necessarily divine). I had already decided to bypass Madurai. Madurai was divine. But that's history.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010



Tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims visit Kanyakumari each year to celebrate the rising of the sun. 5 A.M. and I climb the stairs to the roof of the Hotel. No Hindu chant greets me but a sung mass broadcast from the Catholic church on the sea front. A woman sits on one of two plastic chairs and cradles a young girl on her lap. Her husband and another man clamber up a ladder to the hotel's water tower. I consider the ladder. The rungs are steel pipe. A large blister burst yesterday on the ball of my left foot. It hurts. I am wearing shoes, no socks. I haven't tied the laces (nor have I combed my hair and my teeth are in a mug in my bedroom). Which will be more painful: stooping to tie my laces or climbing the ladder on bare feet? Or not climb the ladder? Such are the quandaries of old men. The mother with the child points to the spare plastic chair. Does she judge me too old for the ladder? Me the Hells Angel of septuagenarians? I'll show her. Off come the shoes and up. The eastern sky is faintly tinged with orange. Behind us the moon hangs over a hotel. The hotel's roof is crowded with sunrise celebrants. So are all the roofs. Either my fellow guests at this Hotel are lazy or have taken the true believers route to the sea shore. The sun rises. It is low key rather than spectacular. I take photographs and return to my room. The night porter offers me coffee or tea. Black coffee, no sugar. What will he bring? Brown water. That's OK. Dawn is done. Pilgrim buses are pulling out of town. It's going to be a great day...

Monday, March 01, 2010


I sat this evening on the beach at India's most southern point and photographed the sun set in the ocean. I am way behind with the BLOG - or way ahead on the ride. Tomorrow I will head for Madurai, then up to Khodikanal to escape the heat and finally catch up with the writing. Then north fast for the Himalayas...


My Eicher road atlas is much admired by fellow travelers. Page 98 shows a small road south from Arboli to Ramghat, Bhedshi and Maneri where it joins a main road to Panjim, Goa's capital. The road starts well, single track but good tar, and runs across a rocky plateau through dense forest. The trees are small but the canopy is solid and a fresh deep green. The air is fresh and scented. After the disappointment of Arboli, heaven. I check with a passing bicyclist: “Ramghat?”
Negative. But what does he know.
Next, an elderly gentleman on a motorcycle: “Ramghat? Panjim? Goa?”
Perhaps he is stupid.
Two pedestrian countrymen wave me down. No need for words. Their gestures suffice. The road ends. Oh...


Arboli isn't a town. It isn't even a village - certainly not an Indian village. Indian villages have a main street lined with kiosks. Arboli is a scattering of unplanned low-rise concrete construction, a few holiday homes but mostly featureless hotels in the twenty room bracket - not many of them but sufficient to make Arboli a visual disaster. Lonely Planet advises that tourists can visit bauxite mines. Maybe I'm picky but bauxite mines don't register as major attractions. Come on, old man, be courageous, take the memory lane to Goa. Confront your past.


Arboli is 690 meters above sea level. The road zigzags up a thickly forested mountain side. It is a good road with stone parapets. Monkeys sit on the parapet. Children throw them half-eaten bananas. Drivers park below a waterfall and wash their trucks. Indian tourists photograph the view with mobile phones. The view would be clear in Hispanic America. In India a haze is standard – or standard in the bits of India through which I've travelled on this journey. This isn't a complaint, more a point of interest. I will head north to the Himalayas later. Will the views be clear?


Victory! Or victory of a sort...
A waiter has taken my order for lime and soda and a fried pomfret (flat fish somewhat akin to a sole). He assures me that the fish is fresh. True – and delicious. Sadly the rice is preboiled and the bill for the fish is 50% higher than the price on the menu.
“It was a big fish,” says the waiter.
In competition with sprats.
Memories surface of State-run restaurants in Cuba. Four years of Cuba was sufficient. Arboli, here I come...


The MTDC resort on the Tarkali Peninsular suffers from the dread hand of Government employees. A brick path leads up through casuarina pines to a scattering of simple cottages and an open-sided restaurant. Some of the bricks are missing and rubbish needs removing. An aircon unit protrudes from the rear of each cottage. Glance up and the cottages appear hunchbacked.
I sit at a table outside the restaurant. Three members of staff ignore me. No matter, the deserted beach is white sand licked by blue sea and stretches way into the distance - bliss for beach lovers. I drag off my boots, stick my socks in my pocket, roll up my pants and paddle. The sea is cool. The sand is too hot for bare feet and roasts my backside when I sit to pull my boots back on. The restaurant staff are in the same conversation. I wait patiently and wonder whether I really want to stay the night. Would Amboli be more welcoming?


Turn west off the NH 17 at Kasal and Malvan is twenty-six kilometers down a twisty lane across paddy and passed houses sheltered by mango, jack fruit and coconut. Bananas, guyavas, papaya grow in the yard. Spit out a seed and it sprouts. Malvan is one narrow crowded higgledipiggedy street blocked by a couple of busses and a builder's truck. Carry on a few Ks and you reach the Tarkali Peninsular promoted by the Maharashta Tourism Board as India's Tahiti. Gaugin would have been disapointed – no bare breasts. Houses grow larger closer to the beach and more numerous – holiday homes. A few boards advertise family home stay for respectable Indian families. The Maharashtra Tourist Development Corporation owns and runs the only hotel. It is easy to find. Governments excel at signboards. They are less good at service industries.


National Highway 17 is a biker's dream. I am repeating myself for the benefit of readers who have dropped in on this Site by chance. It is a climb-and-dip road with curves to lean into. Forest cloaks the hills. Neem trees shade the straight stretches. Coconut palms shade river banks. I stop awhile to watch a limited overs cricket match. Our village club has two county-standard grass fields, all-weather practice nets, bowling machine, pavilion with a bar. Twenty spectators on a Saturday afternoon and we are doing well. Here the field is dry rice paddy. No pads or gloves for batsmen, no helmets, and I am one of fifty spectators seated on the roadside. A further fifty or more are dotted round the boundaries. Fast bowlers at either end, drive the ball along the ground and a close-in paddy bank does the fielding. Batsman go for the airial route. My fellow spectators try communicating with me. The few words we share are cricket terminology: leg before, boundary, catch. Too glorious a morning to be depressed by the language barrier. We make do with smiles...