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Book Proposal for Publishers / Agents



BOOK PROPOSAL ON “ELEPHANTS AND ENFIELDS”

Overview

Dry, impersonal travel guides? Sure, they’re out there. Want the recipe for vegetable Xacuti? Not a problem. Is that a Bulbul or a Bee-eater? Taxonomy, migratory information and illustration, found in many technical bird manuals. Want to know how to cross Baga Road, Calangute at 9.30 in the morning without becoming the bonnet mascot on a tuk-tuk? Well that one you may struggle to find…until now.

‘Elephants & Enfields’ is a narrative non-fiction / travelogue in the style of the author Bill Bryson or Jerome K. Jerome. An ordinary, cynical Englishman’s account of a holiday trip to North Goa and some of the experiences which lead to his love of the people and their home state. It strives to be informative and educational but, most of all, funny and entertaining. It gives potted histories of some of North Goa’s significant landmarks and geographical features and humourous “flashback” anecdotes from the authors childhood and past life. Not only will it tell you how to get to Morjim beach, but will make you laugh whilst lying on it.

The book is of approximately 90,000 words over 9 chapters and is within 1 month of completion.

Marketing

The market for humorous, narrative non-fiction books such as ‘Elephants & Enfields’ is huge. During the books visible evolution on the (now defunct) Harper Collins website, Authonomy.com, it was continually compared by critics to the works of Bill Bryson (the 11th best selling author of the last decade with total sales of almost 7.5m units). Whilst modesty forbids me to draw parallels with works such as ‘Notes From A Small Island’, the popularity of the genre is unquestionable with a wide variety of readers of all ages and both sexes.

The subject of the book, Goa, is likely to appeal to the huge numbers of annual English-speaking visitors to the holiday state. (Between 2013 and 2015, over 450,000 Britons and Americans travelled to Goa according to the Govt. of Goa Dept. of Tourism.)

Whilst book sales in mature economies have largely stagnated, those in India have seen significant rises (over 40%) since 2011. Vice-president at Penguin India, Ananth Padmanabhan, puts annual revenues for books in English (a substantially larger market than those in India’s domestic languages) at around $2bn and rising quickly.

According to the International Publishers Association, India is the world’s third largest English books market and is likely, given India’s economic rise, to exceed that of the UK in a relatively short time. I would anticipate a home market interest in a ‘foreigners’ view of their country. Having perused the genres prevalent in airports and rail stations, the book should also appeal to a travelling public, particularly those browsing bookstands at travel hubs with connections to the subcontinent.

Promotion

I am happy to promote the book in any way that the publisher feels may be beneficial (subject to cost viability). I am familiar with social media and the ways in which it can be used as a promotional tool and will dedicate time and effort in its optimisation.

About the Author

The author has travelled to Mumbai, Maharastra, Karnataka and both North Goa and South Goa over many years and considers the Goan state his spiritual second home. Evelyn has had forays into technical writing, proof-reading and had ad hoc, occasional writing published in UK regional newspapers in earlier years. This is his first book and first serious attempt at publication.

Evelyn can be contacted as follows:-

Mail: Myrtle Cottage

Black Rock

Cornwall

TR14 9PJ

England

Phone: 0(+44)7967654206

Email: evelyn.1@sky.com

The author is currently unpublished. Sole promotion has been through the (now defunct) Harper Collins Authonomy website where ‘Elephants and Enfields’ was well received and highly ranked, both within genre and overall, when peer reviewed. Below is a small selection of reviews by both published and unpublished authors:-

…I read the first couple of chapters and thought this was a fun piece of travel-writing. Goa in January is an attractive prospect, and you describe this exotic location well. Laced with delightful humour, the origin of the family name Evelyn and the nightmarish Ox-heart memories particularly amusing. I thought some of the sentences too long, and a good edit would be beneficial, but we all could do with I came across your book whilst browsing some others and started reading and just couldn’t stop. The professionalism of the writing impressed me—spelling, grammar and correct hyphen use as much as the prose!—and the story is so dryly comedic. I can see it as a comic serial, half Benidorm, half One Foot in the Grave. It’s far better than most of the stuff I’ve read on this site in the past three days…you know, the kind of writing that erases itself from your mind almost as quickly as you read it… Your turns of phrase have stayed with me—such as the description of the food and drink on offer on the flight…Tutankhamen’s loincloth indeed! Good luck with it; I can see this being a resounding success! I’ve backed it and given it the top rating, which it richly deserves! (Roger keen –-Writer)

…As a fifty something (who should know better than to write a book) myself, I loved the voice, wit, and content of this fascinating book. I wish you would have uploaded more of it because it's a treasure. From the start, "Goa is for druggies" to "I was digging illegal substances and knuckledusters out of the borders and plant pots for weeks" it is a joy to read. Backed with the greatest pleasure. I wish you the best with this. KW

…Hi Evelyn, The narrator’s train-of-thought contains so much hilarious observation along his traveling to India. The history of his name, his being tantalized by the internet, and the climate created between him and the overweight passenger next to him were written with seeming ease and cleverness. There’s a great deal of relief when they get to India but then the ruminations about Indian signs begin this detailed scenery again. A funny and replete travelogue in a style where every sentence has vitality. K Lou Holmes (Ex-patriot, Pune)

…Dear Evelyn, You had me laughing out loud! I really enjoyed your airport experience (the curvature of the earth, brilliant)! You started off a little all over the place, but that is part of your charm. I hope that you do well with this because as cranky as cynics can be, we're the only ones who don't take ourselves or anyone or anything too seriously and turn that into something that makes other people smile. Good luck to you! Christa Wojo

…Evelyn, write more! great voice for a travelogue: wryly humorous, intimate, observant. if you post more, let me know. great look at goa, i place i only fell upon in the '90s. best wishes, Andy M Potter

…I absolutely loved this. Thank you for uploading it here, and I wish you the best. Very eloquent writing. Important, of course. Great ideas. Well-done comedic lines. I liked the bit about the lady in row 31. Six stars from me. Will come back for chapters 3 and 4 as soon as I can. Best wishes. John B Campbell (Author of Walk to Paradise Garden)

…I read the first couple of chapters and thought this was a fun piece of travel-writing. Goa in January is an attractive prospect, and you describe this exotic location well. Laced with delightful humour, the origin of the family name Evelyn and the nightmarish Ox-heart memories particularly amusing. I thought some of the sentences too long, and a good edit would be beneficial, but we all could do with one of those. Well-starred and on my WL for further reading. Good luck with this.

…Your perspective on life is perfect. They say that laughter adds years to your life, if it’s true your heading for the Guinness book of records. Thanks for an (far too short) insight into your life, it was a joy. – Good luck

…Hi Evelyn, This is very funny and I had to read it all. I've no doubt that we live on the same planet -- Morris 1000's and Golden Virginia roll-ups! Says a lot. You write very well and I like your long sentences. Your para re. the air hostess and 'food' was an especially memorable. Some nice descriptions and I was pleased you mentioned the potential in Goa for death by coconut, about which i wrote a short forum post a while back. Possibly, one of the world's most embarrassing deaths. I'm glad your friend only had a bump.

Constructive criticism (hopefully):

A quick polish will remove the occasional awkward phrase but otherwise it all seems pretty tight.

You'll have to be the judge as to how much personal back-ground you bring into the tale and how much you stay 'in Goa'. So far, so good in that respect I think. Just my opinion but I'd slant it towards the Goan Experience, more than back-story over all, as you continue to write.

I love your cover but it could look a little like a children's book and although it depicts an elephant, it isn't really very Indian-looking.

These are just a few thoughts which I hope are helpful. Ignore them all, of course, if you wish.

I'm looking forward to reading more, so do continue and let me know when you've written more. Drop us a line if ever you come up north to Nepal.

BACKED! Best wishes, Barry Author of ‘Little Krisna and the Bihar Boys’

…Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Still tittering....! Very enjoyable and very funny. It is definitely one that I would like to have in cosy paperback format to curl up with and enjoy, preferably with a cup of tea to hand. In these instances it is very frustrating to have to scroll down a computer screen. Consider it shelved and best of luck with getting it into print. Y. Strauss, Mumbai.

…CalifornianMan, give up the day job if you have one! Very witty, sharp, true and vividly in yer face! You'd better finish this, I've printed it off for the OH to have a look at. Many thanks.

…fantastic I was laughing so loud and I've only read the first page. Where can I buy this from?? Street, Leicester.

List Of Chapters

In the book, the chapters are numbered, titled and subtitled (as per the titling found in ‘THREE MEN IN A BOAT’ by Jerome K. Jerome).

CHAPTER 1

No Gain Without Pain

Where To Go This Year - The Folly Of Family Names - Computers and Grandchildren

Excess Baggage – The Joys of Flight – Dabolim

CHAPTER 2

The Road to Baga

In praise of the Maruti - The avoidance of Coconuts - Army Camps - Pattobridge - “Police!” - Saligao

The longevity of Smells - Baga at Last

CHAPTER 3

Settling In

The Riverside Regency - The ‘whiff’ mystery solved

Cat Chess - Saving ‘Bluey’ - ‘Mozzies!’

Not Wearing Shoes - Tattoos - Frayed legs - Shopping roulette And so to bed.

CHAPTER 4

The Road to Mandrem

Balcony Birdies - Scooter Hire - Supermarket Tennis

The Joy of Clubbing - Hinduism - Religious Ranting

Siolim and the Chapora - Fenny

CHAPTER 5

P.N.’s Place Shack

Shacks - Junaswadda, A Near Miss - Wrong footed by Cats

Halcyon Days - Little Russia-on-Sea - P.N.’s - Waking a Dragon Juvenile Shoplifting - Taking a Beating

Cock Jobs and C**t Jobs – Rasa

CHAPTER 6

The Alternatives to Beach Coma

Breakfast - Old Goa - Cumbarjua - Mining Scars - Trucks Don’t Monkey with Monkeys - Jeep Safari to Dudhsagar Falls Snake - Gaddas on Goat Corner

The Perils of Narcotic Science

CHAPTER 7

Beach Coma

Coco Beach - Ashwem Village - Turtle Beach

The perils of cheap trunks - Beeturia - Goan Cuisine

The Dolphin Restaurant - Lovely Jubbly - The drawback to bare feet Calvert childhood holidays - Rules for staying alive - A welcome gift A night out on Baga beach

CHAPTER 8

Don’t just Lie There!

The road to Aguada - The Fort - The Perils Of Naked Hide And Seek - The Lighthouse - Dolphins – Aguada Jail – Night Markets – A Stark Realisation

CHAPTER 9

All Good Things…

Intruders - Repatriation – Our last day – Road to Ribandar

(to be completed)

Chapter Outlines

1.) No Gain Without Pain. The process of the author and his wife choosing Goa as a holiday destination through to their arrival in India.

2.) The Road to Baga. The last leg of the journey by taxi between Dabolim Airport and the hotel.

3.) Settling In. Initial reactions to the new surroundings, the accomodation and acclimatisation to India.

4.) The Road to Mandrem. Travelling the highways and byways of Goa by two-wheeler en route to the more rural and quieter beach locations.

5.) P.N.’s Place Shack. Beach culture in North Goa.

6.) The Alternatives To Beach Coma. The author and his wife travel to some of the sights to be found inland, both good and bad.

7.) Beach Coma. Day and night trips to beaches in the state, Goan cuisine and some of the high points and perils likely to visit the traveller.

8.) Don’t Just Lie There. Some more travels to the rewarding locations offered by North Goa and a little of it’s history.

9.) All Good Things. The last days in the sunshine and the inevitable gloomy return to the UK.

Sample Chapters

To complete this proposal, I have included two middle chapters from ‘Elephants and Enfields’ which, I hope, will speak far more about the tone of the work and its humour than the dry, somewhat formulaic descriptions above. I pray that you enjoy them.

CHAPTER 2

The Road to Baga

In praise of the Maruti - The avoidance of Coconuts-

Army Camps - Pattobridge - “Police!” - Saligao

The longevity of Smells - Baga at Last

(Contextual Note: Author and wife leaving airport for hotel)

‘Did you get a taxi?’ I interrupted. ‘No, get one from the official rank’.

I reacquainted myself with my passport and returned to the entrance to the terminal where there is a taxi booking office. The government-fixed prices are displayed here. Baga, our destination …. 750 rupees.

Although the price of a coach transfer is included in most package deals, the advantages of taking a taxi are several. It‘s more comfortable to start with and gets you to your hotel without having to call at five others first. It also entirely obviates the need to wait for the tosser who can’t find his luggage / passport / piece of paper with the name of his hotel written on it / brain and who you can guarantee will be ticketed for your transport.

You know what it’s like. We’re all sat on the coach with our welcome garland of flowers round our necks, clutching complimentary plastic bottles of chilled water. The travel representative is waving her clipboard and running around as if she’s just had a tarantula drop down the front of her blouse when a well meaning but simple member of the party decides that he’s sure he knows the whereabouts of the missing passenger. Off he toddles and almost immediately the wayward subject of his search strolls onto the coach and sits down to the combined ‘tut’s of the others. Now all we have to do is find the finder….oh, and the driver who has by now got fed up and gone for a cup of chai.

Having been given a chitty and a cast-iron guarantee that it was ok to smoke in the taxi, we gave ourselves and our baggage up to fate and the talents of our driver, Raj.

In a jiffy we were ensconced in as close as a Maruti taxi can get to the interior of St.Peter’s Basilica.

The Maruti Omni microvan is the most prolific of any ‘four-wheeler’ in Goa. Most people would recognise them as Suzuki or Bedford minivans as they are a product of a Japanese / Indian collaboration that started back in 1981. Taxi operators almost exclusively use Omnis. You know what they say about rats?...that wherever you go, anywhere on the planet, you are within 5 metres of one. Well it’s the same in Goa with Marutis.

I’m certain that when they leave the production line near New Delhi, they are fine examples of the automotive designer and builder’s art. Give one to a Goan though and within ten minutes he will have added considerably to its charm and individuality. I feel sure that each one sold comes with the following inclusions in the owner’s manual:-

1.) Replace the boring conventional plastic dashboard fitted by us fools at Maruti with a far more stylish faux fur one. The longer and more outrageous the colour of the fur, the more you will be the envy of your fellow drivers. Whilst you are at it, our upholsterers can be a little conservative, so get yourself some seat covers and a roof lining from the faux furrier too. But remember, you lose all that hard-earned kudos if it matches the dashboard in any way.

2.) Tint those ridiculously clear windows. I know, we should have mirrored them as standard. You won’t be paying much attention to what’s going on outside anyway.

3.) Find yourself a local accessory store and order at least one, if not two, of every single line that he sells and bolt, glue or gaffer-tape it on. Extra points are scored for anything that is chromed or illuminated or musical.

4.) Next source a really hefty battery because the puny one we installed won’t be able to cope once you’ve fitted the spotlights, stereo, reverse warning alarm which plays the theme tune from ‘Titanic’ or ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’ and full colour, animated nativity or Madonna with Child with l.e.d. eyes. This will look just perfect nestled amongst the leopard-print fur on the dash.

5.) I’m afraid we skimped a little on graphics and logos too so you might want to invest in a large rear window sticker which proclaims ‘Mary, our Saviour’,’God is Great’,’St.Francis Xavier, my friend’ or ‘Michael Schumacher’s Taxi’. Whatever it does say, make certain that it is large enough to completely obscure your vision through the back window. Stupid place to put a window really. Hardly necessary when you’ve got Celine Dion singing her heart out every time you select reverse.

6.) Finally, hand it over to your friendly local signwriter and have him paint ‘Horn OK Please’ all over the tailgate.

Et voila, you’re ready to hit the streets safe in the knowledge that you are about as bonkers as the thousands of other taxi drivers that ply this state and still quite reserved compared to the Philippine jeepney cabbie.

Of course, I write this with a deep sense of affection for the Goan taxi driver and his trusty mount. In all our trips to India, we have never found one that has not been abnormally friendly, helpful, polite and fair. These cabs are dirt-cheap and so numerous that you need never worry about being stranded without transport. You could be on a tiny sandy track in the middle of nowhere at 3 in the morning and out from the back of a coconut palm would come the call,

‘Taxi, sir, taxi, madam?’ accompanied by a cheery smile, a glinting eye, and a twinkle from the moon reflecting off his chromed Madonna and child bonnet mascot!

We rocket, as best a Maruti can rocket, from the confines of the airport onto national highway 17A, slide open the windows, spark up a fag and sink back into the fur seat covers for the ride to Baga some twenty-five miles distant.

Now I don’t know what kind of adhesive Raj used to stick his faux fur to the dashboard and headlining but there’s a slightly musty, sort of familiar, animal whiff circulating in the back of the car.

‘Can you smell that?’ I enquire of Hannah.

‘What’ she replies,’ that slightly musty, sort of familiar, animal whiff?’

‘Mmmm’

‘I thought it was coming from outside’ she says.

‘Maybe it’s not faux fur at all’ I conjecture.

‘Well unless they’ve killed Orville the ventriloquist puppet, I don’t know of any other lime green furry creature’. Hannah has a point and a sniff of the odour-free seat back confirms that Orville is probably still alive. Shame really. The sweet smell of tobacco is what’s needed.

I cannot tell you how difficult it is to roll a stig in the back of a Maruti, vibrating over the ‘rumblers’ ( multiple ‘sleeping policemen’ sometimes ten or so abreast ) with a hot cyclone circulating within and the six inch long pelt headlining sticking to your eyeballs.

Hannah and I look at each other and grin from ear to ear. It’s the grin that says ‘We’re back at last’. The same grin that children adopt when they are excited at being given a present beyond their dreams. The grin that accompanies the squidgy feeling in your stomach; the anticipation of good things to come. We’re like a pair of kids really.

The midday breeze that blows across the river and rushes in through the open window is now as hot as a hairdryer and as welcome as a lottery win. Not at all oppressive, more like a warmed towel wrapped around you as you step from a bath. The familiar scenery and its accompanying scents and sounds are like long-lost friends.

The National Highways are the A roads of India. They are generally smooth and wide and very busy. The 17A is a short spur running alongside the Azuri River from Dabolim and Vasco Da Gama to National Highway 17.

Off to the left through the trees and only a few yards from the verge lie berthed ore barges in tiny boatyards. Any part of the 200 foot hulks which aren’t rusty have been painted rust red… excepting the wheelhouses and gunwhales which are rusty white. Golden falls of acetylene sparks curtain their laddered flanks and huge metallic clangs echo across the river and into the palms. They remind me of queen bees with their diminutive attendant scurrying workers….resourceful welders and riveters that can coax a 35 - 40 year lifespan from a vessel designed to last half that.

We hit NH17, which is the main north south artery for Goa and beyond and head north. It is a ribbon of hot tarmac that will hug the coastal plains 270 miles north to Mumbai and likewise south over 400 miles right into Cochin and the state of Kerala.

They are, at most times, packed with motorcycles, scooters, ox-carts, bicycles, taxis, auto-rickshaws, coaches and ‘goods-carriers’ - trucks to you and I. There is the constant cacophony of horns used to warn those ahead of an imminent overtaking manoeuvre, something to be done with flair and panache and not a little bravado by the local drivers. No, substitute the words ‘not a little bravado’ with ‘total disregard for the potential ensuing carnage’.

The first-time visitor to Goa, I can guarantee, will be unable to describe the kind of overtaking that he witnesses. Not through a poor grasp of his language but from an unadulterated blind terror and the certain belief that, within seconds, his fragile bag of bones and blood will be intimately familiar with the working of, and forever adhered to, the drivetrain of a nineteen-tonner.

A goods-carrier will be struggling to crest the brow of a steep hill when a bus blindly overtakes at a speed only fractionally greater than that of the truck. You are thinking that if a vehicle comes the other way there’s sure to be a catastrophic accident….. when a car pulls out and overtakes the two of them! They are now three abreast approaching the summit when a bus looms into view, itself being overtaken by a swarm of scooters. Eyes squint shut, collective breaths are held but somehow they all squeeze through ….usually. Crazy.

Such things are far from our thoughts as we glide past the many, apparently half-built apartment blocks, brightly coloured shops and roadside bars. Many blocks suffer the characteristic black mould staining resultant from the months of summer monsoon rain. We pass restaurants, hospitals and clinics, coconut palms and, everywhere, huge advertising hoardings inviting the reader to ‘Drink Kingfisher Beer’,’Buy Kingfisher Water’ and ‘Fly Kingfisher Airlines’.

Kingfisher is the brand name for the beer products of the United Breweries Group and the company, founded by a Scotsman incidentally in 1857, learnt all it knows about brewing from the South Indian British Breweries set up to slake the thirst of the British troops stationed here.

Having had first-hand experience of the volume of beer quaffed by squaddies, it doesn’t surprise me to learn that Kingfisher accounts for over 60% of beer sales in India today. I hardly ever drink beer but it has to be said that an ice-cold Kingfisher does slip down rather well in the heat of the day. Today, the boss of Kingfisher is Vijay Mallya, one of the wealthiest men in the world and owner of the Force India Formula 1 team.

In recent years there has been a boom in house building in Goa, mostly to accommodate the demands of infatuated foreigners and many of the hoardings reflect this. Gaudy primary-coloured painted illustrations of the latest gated, gym-equipped developments look more like Lego advertisements than real estate. Come to think of it, why would anyone want a gymnasium on their development complex in a hot country other than to admire themselves in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors or to ogle the woman in front and be envious of the bead of sweat trickling provocatively down her spine towards her buttock cleavage?

You’re not going to be getting a nice stainless, mirrored lift in your apartment block so walking up and down the bloody stairs should provide adequate exercise for most sane occupants.

It’s like it is here in the UK. After an eight or ten hour slog, you overhear someone at work ask their colleague

‘Coming down the gym tonight after work?’,

‘Of course, I need a good work-out’ they reply.

They don’t need a good work-out, they need a damned good slap for being so lazy during the day. I’ve got more cavity than tooth because I’ve barely the energy to squeeze the toothpaste from its tube at the end of the day and they’re going to be rowing the equivalent of Poole to Cherbourg and back or jogging up Annapurna with Lycra fingerless gloves and an i-Pod dangling from their sweaty lug-holes.

I’ve heard it said that a white headphone cable is what connects an i-Pod to a u-Twat. What is the matter with these people? And, whilst we’re on the subject, why do they wear shorts over their Nike jogpants? It’s like putting your socks on over the top of your shoes. Tossers! There, now I’ve alienated half my readership….all eight of you.

The sixty mile-per-hour traverse of a series of rumblers which Raj had either overlooked or felt his Maruti suspension could cope with caused me to stub my cigarette out on my lip.

It’s worth the trauma to see the amusement it gives Hannah. I always know how painful my misfortunes will be as they are directly proportional to how many tears roll from her face. Just now, she cried like she’d lost a close relative. Raj joined in the laughter too but, I think, wasn’t sure why.

The rumblers are a prelude to the thump, thump, thump of the tyres as we launch out onto the Zuari River Bridge. Fingers crossed here, lumps of this bridge are forever falling into the river and it undergoes constant repairs.

Alongside the road and overlooking the mighty estuary is a tiny shrine and cross built on an altar of white gloss wall tiles and covered with a roof of whitewashed corrugated iron. These shrines are everywhere in India and are as varied in size and shape as the country itself. Some are huge, colourful and intricate, built from local stone and adorned with turrets and fluted roofs. Others are little more than a tiny niche, a foot square, hacked from the red rock in a road cutting. All have in common an absence of neglect. Candles flicker and garlands of flowers encircle and incense pervades at almost any hour on any day regardless of how isolated the spot. They may be dedicated to the Virgin Mary or Jesus or any number of sainted souls, most not indicating to whom.

Despite my longstanding contempt for all forms of religion, I do admire the believers’ tenacity, fortitude and dedication.

I make a mental note to return to this spot and take in the views at length.

The concrete Zuari road bridge, completed in 1983, crosses high above the murky waters and its five spans cover a third of a mile. The Zuari widens to over two and a half miles at its mouth on the Arabian Sea. Running alongside and upstream of us is the rail bridge with its web of ironwork on the central two spans, bearing the Konkan railway which links Madgaon near Margao in South Goa to Mumbai way up north. It is the longest bridge on the railway.

Through the haze can be seen a procession of ore barges stretching up and downriver, Laden and low to the waterline on their way to the sea and apparently larger as they return more buoyant to the interior for another load.

Another set of rumblers and Raj spots them coming this time. They mark the other end of the bridge and, as we trampoline on the back seat, the coconut palms and tiny shops and roadside stalls close in again and we are in the district (or taluka) of Tiswadi.

The literal meaning of Tiswadi is ‘thirty settlements’ and refers to the settlements of an ancient Himalayan community, the Saraswats, who moved here when, about 1000BC, the Saraswati river started drying up. The Saraswats were renowned for their worldly knowledge in such subjects as astronomy, medicine, philosophy and metaphysics and had a flair for passing on this knowledge. Shame we didn’t have a few at my Suffolk grammar school in the sixties!

There are more fields now too, each partitioned with low mud walls into plots of between fifty and two-hundred metres square.

The fertility of the farmed land in Goa is largely poor. It’s proximity to the Arabian Sea makes the immediate coastal land too saline and, further inland, the annual monsoon rains wash much of the nutrient from the soil. Most arable land is given over to rice but, at this time of year, the winter (or rabi ) crops also include maize, horse and black gram, beans, pulses and other vegetables, many fruits and, of course, coconuts.

The palms are everywhere and damned dangerous too. I recall, on a previous visit, Hannah and I standing in a grove near the Siolim ( pronounced Showlim) River further north from here. We were with a Goan friend, Assim, who was there to assess a brake problem on our scooter.

We were admiring the fabulous view out over the river where those fishermen too poor to afford a boat were waist-deep in the shimmering water hand casting small circular nets for estuary fish when an almighty whoosh and a loud, metallic but melodious clang signalled the arrival of a coconut. The (unripe) sphere had unilaterally decided to pack its little coconut belongings in a knotted, spotty handkerchief and leap the eighty foot from a nearby palm to ricochet off our friends motorbike petrol tank.

About one third full, I’d say, by the tone. Unleaded, I think. Almost as loud but less melodious was the dull thud as, on the rebound, it struck Assim squarely between his startled eyes. We hadn’t immediately realised what it was. The speed and accuracy of the projectile made me think that we were trespassing in Kapil Dev’s garden.

Assim leant back against the trunk of the offending palm clutching his head. Having scoured Siolim for a fresh underwear shop, we made sympathetic noises as a spherical lump grew from Assim’s brow like John Hurt’s chestburster did in ‘Alien’. We vowed there and then not to stand around too long beneath coconut palms in future. Better to stand out in the sun and contract scalp cancer. At the very least you’ll look nice and tanned against the studded, cream silk lining of your beechwood coffin and not have to pay the extra to have one with a bulge in the lid to accommodate your cranial protuberance.

Every so often the highway drops low onto causeways over estuary land with full paddies to both left and right where everything seems so much greener and lush. The many trees along these sections of road afford shade and commensurate coolness and we ask Raj to pull over at a tiny shed-sized shop to buy a cold drink.

The shop is painted electric blue and beautifully hand signwritten in yellow and white with the text ’SMART PCO. TATA Indicom. STD, ISD, LOCAL’ and the image of a huge white telephone handset. Virtually anything that doesn’t move (and much of that which does come to think of it ) is exploited as advertising space in Goa. I don’t know if the proprietors get paid by Tata Indicom to have their property painted electric blue or whether they are grateful for the resultant increase in prominence.

I like to imagine that they just lock up one night their dull, block-built store and arrive the following morning to find that a crack squad of paintbrush-wielding commandos from Patel’s Covert Sign Squad armed with image-intensifiers and a bucket of masonry paint has ‘done the business’. Either way, it is commercialism in its finest and prettiest form and if I thought that BT would do as artistic a job on my bungalow, I’d invite them round tomorrow.

It doesn’t seem to matter whether it is a wall, a restaurant, a little hut, a bar or a shop. If it has anything remotely resembling a vertical surface, then Vodaphone will get Mr.Patel to paint it Post Office red, Maggi Stock Cubes (remember them?) will insist on canary yellow, Finoglow Lightbulbs, a lovely shade of orange ochre and - you guessed it – Kingfisher Beer, bright red also. It wouldn’t surprise me if many a Goan has come home to find his cat painted orange and black and sponsoring Birla Shakti Cement.

God, I hope Mr.Patel isn’t reading this, I like my cats the colour they are!

I resist the almost hypnotic urge to make a Tata Indicom ISD phone call and ask for a couple of Pepsis. I part with eighteen rupees and am rewarded with a huge infectious grin from the shop owner the size of which is inversely proportional to the number of teeth in his head. Probably the finest and most accurate advert for Pepsi ever. Raj declines the offer of a drink. Probably for the best….don’t want to distract him from the task of dodging goods carriers and cows and shaving a couple more months from our three score years and ten.

Onwards and upwards, literally. As the road widens, the verdant paddies fall behind to give way to red dusty verges. Pretty much every house, shop, wall and tree are coated with this red dust up to about a foot from the ground where the monsoon rains cause mud to splash and ricochet.

NH17 lazily climbs and winds through the scrubby hillside to Bambolim and it’s landmark holy cross to our right.

The village itself is a gem. A classic Goan village with dogs and kids playing in the road and farmers working the fields with oxen and a lovely, rarely-visited, shell-strewn beach, but it is the ‘Miraculous Cross’ which attracts the attention, so called because of its reputed powers of healing. No-one really knows when and by whom it was erected, but most concede that it was an engineer from Ponda who was building the mud road from Goa’s capital, Panjim, through the once-thick forest which covered this plateau. Banditry was reportedly rife through these hills and may have prompted any doubting travellers into hedging their bets with a swift ‘Hail Mary’ whilst tackling the dense bamboo.

Today it has become a huge shrine with a white modernist concrete façade and an attraction which draws believers from neighbouring states and further afield. Raj’s devotion, like that of many travellers, is of the mobile variety – a hefty hoot on the horn in passing.

On both sides of the road are dusty tracks leading to wire-encased complexes set back amongst the bushes. Their signs are sometimes in Konkani and almost always in English.

‘IPHB Mental Hospital’, the huge Goa Medical College and Hospital, ‘Goa Dental College’,’Doctors Quarters’ and, increasingly, Indian Army facilities… ‘EME Station Workshops’, ‘Army Transport Training Facility’, ‘Supply and Stores Section’, each with the guard hut at the gatehouse, a plethora of red and white stripy paint and immaculately uniformed sentries.

It is incredible to me just how drab and depressing an Army camp can be made to be even under cloudless Indian skies. It must take a special kind of architectural skill to take the concepts of a manic-depressive and sadistic military client with a repressed imagination and turn them into bricks and mortar, whether in India, Germany or Catterick, Yorkshire. I’ll bet that last location sent a shiver up the spine of many an erstwhile squaddie.

I still have etched into my psyche, my initial encounter with an army camp. It was back in 1973. My family were living in a quaint village in Suffolk, and I had just been awarded a distinction in ‘persona non gratia’ by Stowmarket Grammar School as had all the members of the infamous ‘Sixth-form Mafia’ - all three of us.

Gary Miller, Robert Rowell and me, what a team! I must admit that I hadn’t considered our behaviour disruptive. How could we be being disruptive to this bastion of privileged education when, for a good proportion of our time, we were twenty miles away, in Thetford Forest on a motorbike? I suppose, in retrospect, although three-on-a-motorbike is considered positively uncrowded and everyday here in Goa, the sight of three grammar school pupils in yellow-striped maroon blazers perched atop a Honda 125, smoking St.Moritz menthol (recently ‘liberated’ from a local shop) and hurtling through the sleepy, sunlit rows of pines, was likely to attract the curiosity of the Norfolk Constabulary.

Needless to say, the faecal matter made contact with the electrical ventilation device and a stark decision had to be made. Find a job in rural Suffolk or join the Army.

I considered long and hard the merits of a career based on separating root vegetables from mud and decided that the earth-father satisfaction of farm work and the tranquillity of the rural idyll would not sufficiently compensate me for having to own a wardrobe comprising wellies spattered in pig shit, John Deere dungarees and a diesel-soaked neckerchief. Nor having to marry an eighteen stone, ruddy-cheeked, steer-wrestling relative.

I have always had a fascination for maps of all descriptions and when I read that the Royal Engineers had the task of mapping and cartography, my mind was made up and I signed on the dotted line with gusto.

Off to the selection centre in Sutton Coldfield, somewhere ‘up North’ for a leisurely weekend to finalise arrangements for reporting later in the year before returning home to spend the summer idling around the village and exploring the intricacies and, hopefully, intimacies of girls. It was all mapped out (if you’ll pardon the pun)…or so I thought.

Because there were no immediate vacancies in my chosen trade, I was persuaded to adopt my second choice and join the Royal Tank Regiment until I could be transferred at a later date to the Royal Engineers. I remembered as a child on holiday near Bovington, Dorset, being allowed to clamber into the dark bowels of a Chieftain tank and start it up. The crew were taking a break in a roadside lay-by and somehow my dad had persuaded them to let me see inside. I was shown how to start the generator and then the main engine. It was only when watching back the grainy silent 8mm cine film that my dad had taken that I saw the huge billows of white smoke that proved my ‘achievement’.

How exciting would it be to hurtle through sleepy, sunlit rows of pines in one of those?

And so I was enlisted into the Second Royal Tank Regiment at Sutton Coldfield and looked forward to telling my parents all about it later that evening. It was with no little pride that I cheerily accepted my free rail pass but it took a second or two for me to realise that the destination on the pass was not made out to Stowmarket station, Suffolk.

I was stuffed onto the first train for Catterick Garrison, Yorkshire, with the news that the next time I would see home and kin was weeks hence on completion of my basic training.

Now, I had been away from home before but this turn of events differed so very much from my expectations of the summer of ’73 that, by the time we reached Grantham, I was already trying to stifle homesickness-induced tears and planning to go AWOL. I reached Darlington station to find an olive-drab, three ton taxi waiting to chauffeur me and one other unfortunate soul to Cambrai Barracks, Catterick Garrison.

It was a late, wet afternoon when we booked in at the guardroom and were told where to find our accommodation block. I have, to this day, never felt so forlorn and desolate as I did then.

John, for that was my colleagues name, and I walked across the precision-trimmed grass towards one of the dreary, grey, prison-like two-storey blocks. I was just revising my view of 18 stone, ruddy-cheeked women and considering whether or not I would have studied harder at grammar school had I known what the alternative was going to be when the scream rang out for the first time.

‘Get off the fuckin’ grass!’

Of course I was used to hearing (and using) language of such hue but I simply did not believe that an adult would speak to me, a mere child, like that. We gazed across to see who was being so abused.

‘Yes, you, you CUNT, get off the fuckin’ grass…NOW!’

I looked at John. He didn’t strike me as a cunt. I was no expert but felt sure that I wasn’t a cunt either. The rapidly-reddening, beret-topped face hanging from a first floor window obviously was an expert in such things because within seconds he was close enough to my face for me to have counted the veins in his bulging eyeballs as he loudly reaffirmed his opinion of our genital status. He either had an overactive thyroid or our army careers were off to a bad start. I suspected the latter.

I later learned to love military life but I still cannot pass an army camp without smiling to myself and basking in the freedom of civilianship.

We leave the military behind us and Goa’s largest village, Santa Cruz, and drop down to the long, straight causeway across the Rio Do Ourem ( river of gold ) estuary. The area comprises a wide wetland of ponds, streams and rivulets used principally for fish farming and salt-panning. The trees and bushes on the dykes are spiked with the region’s most prolific wader, the little egret, a small white heron-like bird and an expert spear fisherman. These banknote-thin predators will stand motionless for minutes at a time just watching for the slightest movement and then dart their stiletto beaks beneath the ripples to fetch up a shivering silver meal.

At the end of the causeway is the region of Patto, the gateway to Goa’s fascinating capital since 1843, Panaji.

Most people, Goans included, still call the place Panjim or Pangim as it was known by the British and Portugese respectively. The city sits on the inside of a huge sweep of the Mandovi River and its densely packed mix of modern and colonial buildings sparkle through the suns haze. Towering red and white striped radio masts rise from the conurbation like an insect’s feelers.

There is little accurate record of Panjim prior to the early 1800’s. The land was largely saltmarsh with hardly a house or landmark. The principle occupation of its few residents was the collection of waterways taxes or excise duty from the incoming or outgoing ships. It was offshore of these marshes that the ship of Alfonso de Albuquerque moored prior to the attack which led to the conquest of Goa from the ruler of Bijapur and subsequent Portugese colonization.

There is speculation as to the derivation of the name but in Konkani, ‘Panji’ means great grandmother.

The succession of large roundabouts at Patto is heaving with traffic as it is a hub for travellers to North and South Goa and east to the former capital, Old Goa. Patto also lays claim to an historic monument, Pattobridge or Ponte De Linhares, the remains of one of the longest and oldest bridges in the East.

Building started in 1632 during Portugese colonial rule and ended two years later with a forty span Romanesque bridge over three kilometres long. It runs along the south bank of the Mandovi across the marshes of the Rio Do Ourem from Panjim to the village of Ribandar. Hundreds of local trees were felled and the massive timbers driven into the silts as pilings to support tons of laterite stone blocks. The more modern Indian bridge builders should have taken lessons as two later bridges across the Mandovi and Zuari have suffered spectacular collapses.

Pattos huge roundabouts are best recognised by sprouting illuminated steel columns punctured like celluloid celebrating the annual International Film Festival of India. Bollywood film buffs keep the end of November/early December clear in their diaries for the spectacle in Panjim.

Off to our left as Raj sweeps off the Patto roundabout is the Kadamba bus terminal bulging with busses which couldn’t boast a flat panel between them but we carry on along NH17 and the ramp to the Mandovi Bridge.

There are two parallel bridges spanning the Mandovi and despite having crossed them on numerous occasions, I am still not clear as to whether they are one-way or two-way because each time I cross, there is a different traffic flow in operation and almost invariably, a scooterist who has struck the foot-high red and white kerbstones alongside the bridge railings and is now three pounds heavier than at the start of his journey due to the gravel embedded in his gushing elbow and knee. I think its best to assume that they are both two-way.

Way down below and to the left are the pontoons for the huge Paradise cruise and casino boats which ply the river in season laden with visitors both foreign and Indian.

Further over and on the opposite side of the river to Panjim is the village of Betim. There is a little ferry here which plies between the capitals old steamer jetty and this large fishing and boatbuilding community. From the bridge you look down on a higgledy-piggledy patchwork of fishing boats jumbled around the pontoons and spreading across the river like cells multiplying under a microscope. If you travel through the village, the smell of fish is overpowering and the variety of sea fish at its daily market is staggering.

I’ve got the open tobacco tin balanced on my knee now and we’re speeding across the bridge when Raj performs his next spectacular manoeuvre.

Our Maruti lurches into the oncoming traffic causing scooters and motorbikes to perform a startling display that the Red Arrows aerobatic team would be proud of. I’m torn between stopping Hannah from falling out of the open window and saving the ‘baccy’. It’s a close call but as I’m crap at ironing and we have a couple of spare pouches of tobacco in the case, I opt for the former. A glance forward reveals Raj frantically trying to don a white long-sleeved shirt whilst piloting the taxi with his knees.

‘Police!’ he cries.

I find myself thinking ‘Shit, what did I do with that pot?’ and suppressing the fight or flight reflex before reality kicks in and I realise that I’ve got nothing illegal on me and have done nothing wrong.

I have to smile as my mind harks back to a time when Hannah and I owned an American style diner in St.Austell, Cornwall. It was a popular eatery with an eclectic mix of clientele ranging from little old grannies, students and ‘normal’ people to hippies, pot-heads and the local ex-Hells-Angel, hairy-arsed biker group, the Scorpios.

The diner had about thirty covers indoors and a further fifteen in a little walled garden out back. The kitchen was in open view of the restaurant.

On the occasion in question it was getting towards lunchtime and the place was jumping. A group of Scorpios were by the door dressed in full leathers, denim and flick-knives and about ten students sat next to the front window and were behaving very reservedly. H was cooking like crazy. I served meals to the table of students (together with diagrams explaining which orifice to put the food in) and a sweet old lady in the corner and went to collect crockery from the garden. On my way back in, I heard the clarion call …

‘Police!’.

Now you’ve probably seen the scene in ‘Jaws’ when the whole town are swimming and playing in the shallows on Amity beach when someone cries ‘Shark!’.

Adults are running for the sand whilst throwing kids over their shoulders like bait and barging pensioners out of their path. Well I had to swim against a stream of customers fighting for the back garden door.

You’d have been excused for thinking that an absent-minded suicide bomber had just walked in and forgotten to put his coat on over the top of his explosives belt.

I glanced at the window and saw the policemen getting out of their ‘jam-sandwich’. H had turned her back on a full restaurant and on turning again was faced with a totally empty room save for the nonplussed granny. I don’t know which of them had the most priceless expression. It was at this point that I remembered that I had a half ounce of ‘a non-catering herb’ in the office and was on my way back into the garden with it and the intention of stashing it in the rockery when H turned from the window and announced that the policemen had finished their business at the cash point opposite, given her a cheery wave and were on their way to the pasty shop.

I was digging illegal substances and knuckledusters out of the borders and plant pots for weeks!

Unlike me, it seemed that Raj did have cause to panic because up ahead, at the other end of the bridge, was a chicane manned by what seemed to be a small battalion of uniformed gendarmerie, some armed. We slowed to a crawl. We watched one of the policemen hold up his arm and braced for a ‘tug’ but he whistled frantically and gesticulated to the driver of the taxi ahead to pull in to the side of the road. We were waved through unhindered. Never mind Raj, I could have pressed flowers between my clenched buttock cheeks.

‘What was all that about?’ Hannah asked.

Raj apologised profusely and explained that taxi drivers are obliged by law to wear a clean white shirt on national highways on pain of a hefty fine. Whether this law was enacted in order to ensure taxi drivers present a professional image to the public or whether it exists to further bolster the income of the corrupt police I don’t know. The way they drive, I’d have thought that wearing a white shirt was the least of their worries. Wearing leakproof underwear might be more appropriate. I needed confirmation that my eyes weren’t totally defective and Hannah assured me that Raj’s ‘white’ shirt was more rusty-beige than white and appeared to have been ironed with a building brick.

We ascend the slope leading away from the river and Tiswadi and enter the district of Bardez.

H17 is now dual carriageway with a lush green central reservation planted with pretty aloes, short palms and tall lamp standards. As we rise further through another red-walled cutting a glance back and to the right reveals a formal double driveway at the end of which sits what looks like a low five-star resort. This palace overlooking the river to Panjim is the newly-built Goan State Legislature building. Bearing in mind how most parliamentarians look after themselves these days, a five-star resort is probably an apt description.

Here sits governor, chief minister and forty area ministers who make up a very small part of the largest democracy in the world. I still find it hard to believe that the state legislature was only enacted in 1987 and even more remarkable that Goa was only freed from Portugese colonial rule in 1961.

The Russians stuck Yuri Gagarin in a superannuated firework and lit the blue touchpaper, I was spilling hot-dog ketchup down my shorts whilst watching ‘101 Dalmatians’ and Goa became self-governing.

The Portugese had finally signed a surrender after 451 years of repression, denial of freedom of speech, torture and imprisonment and attempted emasculation of Goan identity. No wonder celebrations are so wild on December 17 th each year, Liberation Day. More on that later though.

A mile or so further and we leave NH17, veering left onto the Chogm Road. Just one more village now before hitting the spreading conurbation of Calangute, Candolim and Baga.

Saligao village itself sits off of the Chogm Road a little to the south and is a delightfully pretty place where the houses are closely nestled and the palms and fruit trees plentiful. It is understandable that the locality is so very green when you are given the translation of it’s name. ’Gao’….meaning village and ‘Sal’….the Portugese word for bicycle.

Ok, so I lied about the bicycle. I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me. Maybe it was a test for the speed readers amongst you. You know who you are, you CHEATS. Now read it properly or get out of my book and buy a ‘Mills and Boon’.

……and ‘Sal’, meaning wooded forest. Now you don’t know whether to believe me or not. I’ve lost your trust haven’t I? Why did I do that? Just when it was going so well, I go and spoil things by making a cheap joke at your expense.

Right, I promise never to do that again. No, really, I promise.

The roads leading into the village are narrow and lined with palms creeping out onto the gravel like unobservant pedestrians. The compact and neat houses almost touch and between them, a maze of tiny pathways intrigues and invites. The farmland surrounding was traditionally used for growing sugar cane but, increasingly, it is given over to rice paddies and other cereals. At harvest time, the grain can be seen laid along the roadsides to dry. Tarmac radiators.

For those of a superstitious disposition, avoid coming here on the first day of November, for that is celebrated as All Souls Day. It is believed by many to be the occasion when the spirits of the village dead return to visit their old homes…….and probably whinge about how things ‘aren’t the way they used to be’ and how today’s generation have ‘let the place go’.

Quite why they’ve all got to come back on the same day I don’t know. You’d think they’d spread it out a bit. Maybe there’s only one bus.

The more popular cause for a visit to Bicycle village must be the parish church of Mae De Deus, a fabulous white wedding cake of a church in glorious gothic tradition which has sat a little way north of the Chogm Road for 130 years. The buttresses are peaked with long white spires and the bell housing above the entrance adorned with what looks like a blanched Eiffel Tower. You’ll know what I mean when you see it. You’ll have to visit twice though because at night it is floodlit and spectacular. Blueish white at the front and with an orange, sodium warmth down each side. Of perfect proportion, if I were a churchy type of person, this would be my favourite by a mile.

‘What time do you finish today Raj?’ Hannah enquires.

‘Binish when I drop you off and go home’ he replies as he unbuttons the ‘white’ shirt again. Binish isn’t a typo here, I’ve noticed that a number if Indians have trouble pronouncing words starting with ‘F’. There’s got to be a joke in there somewhere, I think, but not one that doesn’t involve lavish references from an Anglo-Saxon dictionary.

‘Easy life.’ H quips.

‘Easy life, easy life, easy life, ha-ha’ Raj sings although I struggle to recognise the tune and feel sure that Robbie Williams won’t be losing too much sleep.

Taxi drivers working out of Dabolim Airport only tend to take one fare in a day. Because of the number of cabs there, they stand little chance of getting to the front of the queue again so they pray for a decent distant fare and then go home to their families and friends. Many, as Raj, are owner drivers who might if successful run two or even three Marutis, the rest are paid drivers and work on a percentage.

We speed out from the shade of the trees and into the, now blazing, heat of the day passing open fields on the final straight run into Calangute. There are more pedestrians now along the sides of the road. Men carrying bundles of sticks or doors or shutters or farm tools or all of the above, women and young girls clutching children, pots, vegetables and bread.

Shimmering up ahead through the heat-haze from the road is the grand chalk-white façade of St.Alex’s church with its two towers flanking a central dome. When we see St.Alex’s we know we are nearly at journeys end and H smiles knowingly. I smile too. We don’t have to say anything, Calangute’s our 4997-mile-distant home from home and it’s been way too long since we saw it last.

St.Alex’s sits on a three way roundabout at the junction of the roads to Panjim, Calangute and Mapusa. In the middle of the roundabout is a low, circular, white-tiled fountain sump with the inscription in blue capitals ‘Welcome to Calangute’. Inside that is a low, not circular, brown-furred dog with a ‘Where’s the bloody water then?’ expression and his hind leg cocked up the centrepiece. He’s in full flow even if the fountain isn’t. In all the years we have been coming here it’s the closest we’ve come to seeing a dancing liquid display. The Trevi Fountain it isn’t but his heart’s in the right place.

Do dally here, even if you’re as heathen as I, for the church is a gem with it’s super-ornate pargetry and wood carvings in white and gold, it’s surfeit of altars ( at least five that I can remember ) and unusual wall-hung rococoesque pulpit which is as spangled as a whore’s handbag. When the sun drops beneath the palm tops, it’s festoons of fairy lights sway in the balmy breeze. If their God is the sort whose eye is turned by baubles and twinkles and prettiness, the believers of Calangute are, I’m sure, assured of his sentry.

Calangute is but a quarter of the sprawling seaside conurbation which lies between the Mandovi River to the south and the Baga River to the north. Four and a half miles of continuous beach separates the two. The sequence, south to north, is Sinquerim, Candolim, Calangute, Baga.

The most direct route to our hotel is through the clamorous frenzy which is Calangute. Most taxi drivers in the world would take advantage of the traffic and it’s commensurate delays to enhance the fare, but as we are ‘fixed price’, Raj opts for the Calangute avoidance route to Baga and diverts through the back doubles of Arpora, an agrarian village just inland of our destination.

‘I can still smell that mustiness’ says Hannah, ‘except it’s more pungent now’

‘What’s that strange smell. Raj?’ My curiosity overtakes my desire not to offend our driver.

‘Very strange smell, very strange’ says Raj, ‘maybe brakes or clutch is slipping, I’ll get my brother to check it later. Very sorry.’

‘No problem’ we assure him.

It’s strange how strongly evocative smells can be. Olfactory milestones through life. The slightest whiff of flour transports me to the dusty creaking buck of an East Anglian post mill at a time when our father embarked on his mission to draw, in detail, every last one of them and, thankfully, dragged us kids with him.

Quite perversely, and to some peoples’ repugnance, I love the smell of cow shit. It has me back in the milking shed at Jimmy Markwell’s dairy in Suffolk, an impressionable ten year old being tutored in the exactitudes of putting warm teats into vacuum cups.

The unforgettable, gagging stench of a bloated Greek Cypriot lying on the Nicosia road with a bullet in his chest following the Turkish invasion in 1974. Even from a speeding UN Landrover the stink would knock you sideways and stays with me forever.

And the worst of them all….my mum boiling ox hearts for the dog in our kitchen! My sister and I would return from school to the bosom of our home to find it resembling a scene from ‘Friday The Thirteenth’ with steaming pans of bubbling gelatinous grey liquid and animal organs with veins and pipes still attached on the chopping board. I swear some were still throbbing!

‘For Christ’s sake mother, can’t you just buy her a tin of Chum.’

I recall our first visit to India and the many unfamiliar assaults on the nostrils that this country can conjure. Some pleasant, like the flowering orchids or incense or spices or freshly baked rolls. Others less so, like the rotting piles of rubbish strewn alongside the Nerul Bridge or Vasco roads, thrown from bikes and cars where refuse collections are unknown.

Now I’m making myself queasy. Fragrant or otherwise, it’s all India and there to be savoured.

Raj makes the final left turn and onto the single-track Baga Creek Road . Hannah and I have pet names for many of the junctions in Goa and call this one ‘Goat Corner’ because of the likelihood of collecting one as an unwanted pillion passenger as you scooter through. Anyone who’s had any experience of goats will know that they are, arguably, in the top three of the worlds most bonkers creatures and here they spill out from the fields to play amongst the traffic, perch on each others backs and fruitlessly forage for brain cells.

Counting down the minor landmarks now…..Nicks Place with it’s rooftop restaurant on the right, the large Marihna Dourada Resort to the left with its attendant squadron of immaculate Maruti taxis ranked with parade-ground precision opposite.

There is a patchwork of sparkling lakes here on both sides of the road. The couple nearest the resort are largely ornamental now but were once like those nearer the river - salt pans and fisheries for tiger prawns and gollxeo fish. Don’t ask me how to pronounce that one!

Over the narrow concrete river bridge and the site of ‘Mackie’s Night Bazaar’ on the left before the road cuddles up to the Baga Creek and runs alongside to the sea. The unhurried river is no wider than 100 feet here with coconut palms dotting the opposite bank and the occasional fisherman punting his low skiff silently upstream. On the right hand side of the road are a scattering of restaurants, multicoloured clothes stalls, shops and bars and interspersed between them, small shabby houses and the odd Portugese ruin stretching up the tree-clad, low hillside which forms the northern boundary of the district.

Finally, Baga Bridge hoves into view. Raj slows to a crawl alongside a handful of taxi drivers lolloping on plastic garden chairs by the river playing cards and rattles off something in Konkani. They all answer at the same time and one gets up from his seat and pulls it to one side to reveal a decoratively tiled sign reading ‘Riverside Regency Resort’. Five thousand miles and seventeen hours after locking the back door…we did lock the back door, didn’t we? …we have arrived.

Raj has the tailgate of the taxi open in a flash and our luggage is seamlessly whisked into the reception of the hotel by two maroon clad room boys.

As Hannah passes me the wallet, Raj hands her his business tissue. A business tissue is similar to a business card but printed on paper only marginally thicker than those best selling books, ‘Katie Price’s Anthology of Intelligent Quotes’, ‘George Dubbleya Bush’s World Atlas’ and ‘Films Worth Watching on the Hallmark Channel’.

I dig out the rupees as Raj tries to persuade H to book our return journey to Dabolim with him in a fortnights time by hugging her like a sister brought back to life by divine intervention. I swap the bundle of ‘rupes’ for the warmest of handshakes and Raj’s Maruti horn gives a final rendition of Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’ as he disappears from view back down the Creek Road.

CHAPTER 4

The Road to Mandrem

Balcony Birdies - Scooter Hire - Supermarket Tennis -

The Joy of Clubbing - Hinduism - Religious Ranting - Siolim and the Chapora - Fenny

(Contextual Note: Awaking at the hotel on the first morning.)

‘Tea?’

My crusted eyes just about discern a Hannah-shaped blur busying about the room.

One day I’m going to say ‘No, thanks’ and really confuse her, but not today.

This has got to be the most superfluous question in the history of superfluity. It must rank right up alongside … ‘Do you want to feel the back of my hand?’, … ‘Do you fancy watching “PS, I Love You” again?’ and …‘Do we really need to do this, officer?’. Throughout twenty-five years of wedlock and a couple out of it (wedlock I mean), Hannah and I have woken to each others warm company and the person closest to consciousness has uttered this totally pointless query. I’m not trying to claim the high ground here because I am as guilty as H.

‘Coffee?’ I dumbly ask, knowing full well that unless a nocturnal, phantom lip-stitcher has visited, I’m going to hear the words …

‘Mmm, please.’

We do differ in this respect, Hannah only drinks strong, unsugared, black coffee and I only ever drink sweet tea first thing in the morning. If I were forced to debate the point then I would, of course, argue that putting tea in ones mouth does at least improve the overall oral environment.

By my reckoning, that’s nine thousand, eight hundred and fifty-five questions wasted. Having said that, it’s also nine thousand, eight hundred and fifty-five questions to which I don’t have to worry about how I answer. Maybe it’s just the way we highlight our selflessness to each other?

‘Stig?’

Shit, that makes it nineteen thousand, seven hundred and ten!

I grasp the hot mug, screw the pre-lit fag between my lips and stagger towards the wetroom wrapped in last night’s bed sheet and a cloud of blue smoke.

‘God, you look hot in the morning!’

I treat the comment in deserving fashion.

‘God you’re a discerning woman.’

We are both old enough to have forgotten whether or not we’ve always been the types who, in the morning, needed to sit in stunned silence, imbibing nicotine and caffeine and waiting for the brain to hunt down the body. I suspect we have. It is, though, noteworthy, the length of time it takes for the brain to catch up with the body. My body doesn’t exactly do hurtling in the morning any more, and it still takes all of ten minutes.

My return from the bathroom, this time in wet, white hotel towel and cloud of blue smoke provokes more predictable derision.

‘You’re the only person I’ve ever known who smokes in the shower.’

‘I know, it’s a gift. … Where’s the sunshine then?’

I scoop up my tea and my watch on the way through to the balcony and plant myself in a plastic garden chair. The sunlight is clawing its way closer through the branches and leaves of the chikoo trees, young cajus and coconut palms, turning them vivid shades of green. Bird calls, predominantly those of the House Crows drown out the occasional muffled bark. I check my watch and it says five to one. H is flitting around putting clothes in the short robe and the standard eleven bottles of shampoos and conditioners in the wetroom.

Five to one!’ I blurt.

‘What’s that, the odds on you giving me a hand to put this clobber away?’

I flip my watch upside-down.

‘Do you realise its only six twenty-five?’

‘We’re on holiday, remember? No good you festering in your wanking chariot all day.’

I’ve always admired Hannah’s fine grasp of the mother tongue.

‘Any birdies?’ she queries.

H and I love the birdies. She particularly loves ‘squeezys’, her pet name for magpies, so called because of her latent desire to squeeze the fat ones. I did tell you that she was a sick woman. She also loves gutting fish, but that’s for another day. We are slaves not only to the cats at home but also to the chatty little feathered things which flock to the feeders outside our bedroom window. There are peanut feeders, seed feeders, fatball feeders, niger seed feeders and even one of those feeders with suckers which stick to the window. I have always thought that those would generate far greater entertainment if stuck to the inside of the window. ‘Dink plop’ they’d go with little startled expressions on their pretty feathered faces.

‘The crows are here.’ I report.

Opposite and on a bough level with the balcony sits a pair of Asian house crows. They look very similar to our native carrion crow and are everywhere. They have the same black plumage with its subtle green and purple iridescence, but their necks, backs and breasts have a lighter, smoky hue. Similarly they possess quick, black, beady eyes and an irrepressible curiosity. H slo-mo’s from the room to join me.

‘Here, I’m sure they’d love some cheese and biscuits.’

She passes me a handful of crushed crackers and beak-sized cubes of cheese which I sprinkle on a ledge just outside of the balustrade and we sit and whisper and wait. Less than a minute passes before they’re across and eyeing us, all the time edging closer to breakfast. They treat the crackers with distain and carefully select the tiny pieces of cheese, trying to fit as many as they can into their feather-fringed bills before retiring to a concrete platform supporting a solar-heated water tank projecting from the roof of a house a little way back in the trees.

Word spreads quickly, for another arrives to hoover up the few remaining morsels of cheese and fly to the bough opposite. He places the titbit under his claw and savours each small bite, slowly and deliberately before wiping each side of his beak on the branch as a human might his mouth with a napkin.

Circling high above the palms is a pair of Brahminy kites. These large brown raptors with white heads are to be seen all over Goa, often riding the thermals in huge numbers or on sentry in the palm tops upsetting the aforementioned crows.

‘You going to sort out that scooter or spend the next fortnight out there, bird watching?’

I reluctantly leave the balcony just as two more crows arrive to polish off the biscuit crumbs. I throw on a pair of trusty, ancient cargo shorts and my favourite faded olive-drab t-shirt bearing the printed profundity …

‘Weed will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no weed.’

‘Do you want to do breakfast?’ I ask.

H shouts something from the bathroom and, although I can’t hear what she says above the sound of the shower, I can tell by her tone that it’s negative. Stuffing a handful of rupee notes in my pocket, I close the room door behind me.

At the bottom of the stairwell, the room boys, Danny and Johnson are frantically busy with their duties, sitting barefoot on piles of dirty bedding comparing ringtones on their cell phones. They stand as I reach the bottom step. I pass them mimicking the managers farting footsteps and they curl up laughing, all broad white smiles and shiny dark eyes. They look to be no more than about fifteen years of age but it’s difficult to know whether they are that age or it’s my decrepitude that’s causing the ‘policemen are getting younger’ effect. It’s amazing, regardless of their age, how they work from first light until sunset, cleaning the pool, watering the grounds, housekeeping the rooms, carrying bags and picking up the endless confetti of falling leaves. I recognise the strains of an A.R.Rahman song from ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ played on the alto Nokia as I make for the front gate.

Coming the other way as I step onto the creek road is a slap of hot sunshine that makes me squint and be grateful. Sandeep is there as if he’s been waiting night long, all teeth and flip-flops and extended hand at the ready. The Riverside taxi drivers have a one-room bamboo hut loosely clothed in perished, blue, plastic tarpaulin slumped next to the Baga bridge in which they can rest, fish and do whatever taxi drivers do when they’re not scaring the living shit out of their fares.

‘Good morning, Eddie. You want your bike?’

‘Hello Sandeep, sounds good.’

It may well have sounded good, but the resplendent two-wheeler that he led me to, standing in front of the small foreign exchange shop next door, looked slightly shy of good. In fact, it looked a bit like something that Valentino Rossi had put through the tyre wall in Valencia at 200 kilometres per hour and then lent to Steve McQueen to practise his jump scene from ‘The Great Escape’ on.

The sad machine had scrapes all down one side, no tread on the front tyre, a slash in the seat that Zorro would be proud of and the speedometer was hanging from the instrument cluster like a grotesque eye gouged from its socket. It was the Honda Activa equivalent of The Terminator before he lowered himself into the vat of molten metal in the closing sequence of T2.

I turned to look at Sandeep in disbelief. All credit to him, he kept a straight face right up to the point when the dozen or so other drivers standing by could keep theirs no longer. Some of them had tears, one looked as if he’d wet himself.

‘You bastard!’

He threw his arms around me to forestall the jab in the ribs that he expected … and deserved.

‘Only joking, you don’t want this one?

‘I’ll get you for that.’ I promised him.

‘This one is yours.’

Stood next to ‘The Terminator’ was a polished metallic grey Activa that looked for the entire world as if it had just been wheeled from a showroom. Nay, carried from a showroom. It had eight hundred and three kilometres on the clock, little rubbery whiskers still on the tyres and the protective polythene wrapping still on the seat.

‘This one better?’ smiled Sandeep.

‘This one will do just fine,’ I replied, ’although I shall expect a discount, there’s a speck of dust just here.’

He actually looked.

‘How much, Sandy, best price for special customer?’

It’s amazing how quickly one falls into the habit of noun dropping. Using indefinite articles becomes a thing of the past. Makes you wonder why we bother with them at all really.

‘How many days?’

‘How much for one day?’

‘How many days you want?

The first rally in haggling Wimbledon has started and I’d almost forgotten the techniques. In my defence, one doesn’t really get the opportunity to practise haggling in Redruth, Cornwall. I might have to try it one day in Tesco’s and see how I get on.

I’ll go to the checkout with the operator who looks most in need of gorm. You know the one, the one who’s worked there for nine months and still tries to open the plastic carrier bags from the bottom. Usually has wet-look lip gloss on a wet-looking face and she’ll be trying to text her ‘Facebook status’ under the counter during quieter spells without the supervisor realising what she’s doing. Textual masturbation looks pretty much like the real thing.

Im still on the tills, lol, hate it. Give me a baby, Daz, so I can get outta here, lol

Beep, beep, ( one bottle of Canadian Club and a bottle of dry ginger ) …

‘That’s sixteen pounds and twenty pence. Do you need any help with your packing?’

My eyes will flit from her face to the two items on the belt and back again.

‘Yes, yes I would, thanks.’ I’ll say.

She’ll find it difficult but will manage to extend her underutilised, wizened, T.Rex arm sufficiently to reach the red call button next to the chewing gum display.

‘Can I have a packer to checkout four? … hang on, I’ll check … you’re not a wheelchair user are you?’

I’ll turn round to check whether or not someone has sneakily rolled a wheelchair up behind me. They haven’t.

‘User?’ I’ll ask.

‘She wants to know whether you’re using a wheelchair.’

‘I appreciate that without utilising your legs and tackling that tricky manoeuvre, standing, it’s difficult for you to see whether or not I have one of those new-fangled unicycle wheelchairs wedged discreetly between my clenched buttocks, but no.’

‘No.’

(Intercom) “This is a staff announcement, can a packer please go to checkout four.”

‘That will be sixteen pounds twenty.’

Right, here goes … ‘How about a fiver?’ I serve fast and low.

She replies with a backhand crosscourt ‘ You’re avin’ a laugh incha?’

I’m ready for it and parry with a fine, dipping ‘O.k., six quid.’

That one bounces perilously close to her baseline. Despite the shortness of her arms, her wiry, overdeveloped texting fingers more than compensate and she hits me with a forehand ‘Make it fifteen and we’ve got a deal.’

The bounce is perfect and I return with a swooping down-the-line ‘Ten’s the best you’re going to get out of me, young lady.’

Being called a lady throws her off balance. She’s visibly shocked and I can see her weakening.

‘O.k., eight and it’s yours.’

Hang on, didn’t I just offer her ten?

‘Right’ she says ‘I’m definitely not going lower than seven.’

I consider the odds on her continuing to underbid herself and decide to quit whilst ahead.

‘Deal,’ I say, ‘good game.’

The pimply packer looks confused.

‘Did you really call me away from morning goods for that?’

The girl on the checkout tries to whisper discreetly.

‘Shhh, he’s disabled you know.’

‘And I‘m on the British Paralympics tennis team.’ I’ll add and sprint to the door … via the tobacco kiosk, of course.

‘O.k. Sandeep, say … one week’

‘250 rupees a day.’

This has been the standard starting price for a scooter since our first trip to Goa. That’s 3500 rupees for a fortnight.

‘And I thought I was a friend.’ I said. ‘Cheaper for two weeks then.’

‘Little bit, maybe. How much you want to pay?’

‘Nothing’, I said optimistically.

‘Call it two forty.’

The game goes on for some little while and would have gone on for longer and been more cost effective had Hannah opted for the full-fat shower and not the skinny latté version and had she not appeared at my elbow with her mental copy of ‘Little Book of Hard Bargaining Phrases’.

‘Oh, that sounds fair, Doobs.’

‘No it doesn’t, Raj said he could get us one for 200 a day.’

‘Yes, but this one’s really nice and shiny.’

‘Naff off, I thought you wanted a paperback to read on the beach.’

H is diverted to reception where a small free-to-borrow bookcase stands. I clinch the deal at two hundred rupees per day, part with the cash and replace the crash helmet from within the compartment under the scooter saddle with our bits and pieces for the day, and hang the helmet from the backrest.

When hiring a scooter, it’s worth bearing in mind that although only about one in twenty Goans wears a crash helmet, it is a requirement to carry one (...stuff the guy on the pillion) and to wear it on national highways. It also gives the police one less reason to hand out an on-the-spot bribe demand, as does carrying the ownership papers and some kind of driving license. You might also take the precaution of creating some sort of official-looking insurance papers on Adobe-Illustrator-compatible “Create Your Own Bogus Documents” software, “…as endorsed by Robert Maxwell!” before you go. You’ll obviously be up shit creek if anything serious happens, but if it has plenty of those banknote flourishes around the border and small print on the reverse and you haven’t mown down too many pedestrians, it will get you by on a dusky evening … or so I’m told. For myself, I obviously could not condone such deception and illegality and always abide by the letter of the law.

To strike a balance, so to speak, it’s also worth noting that about ninety-five percent of local two-wheeler riders will not have taken any kind of legitimate driving test, nor will they have any M.O.T. equivalent to confirm the roadworthiness of their steed, nor motor insurance of any kind. Thus, whether crasher or crashee, you’re probably looking at a disappointing day if involved in a collision.

H is back from the bookstall clutching a tome which, judging by the cover, contains a historic tale of a poor, Irish, illegitimate guttersnipe called Norah who is forced to earn a scant living for herself and her consumptive mother in the docklands of 1930’s Liverpool, before falling in love with a rich, handsome, but crippled, naval officer, set against the backdrop of an ever-looming World War. But I could be wrong.

We mount up and I frantically scour my deepest mental niches in order to remember how to ride the machine without causing a catastrophic pile-up or, even worse, any embarrassment.

‘Go slowly at first, Dooby.’ comes the command from the tail gunner.

‘I will, I will.’

‘Where to?’ I add.

‘PN’s of course, dickhead.’

With barely a falter, we glide off up Baga Creek Road towards Goat Corner, Hannah clutching my left nipple as if she has a mole wrench in her hand.

Any of you who have had experience of a pillion passenger will know how tricky it can be to maintain a true course when the passenger is flinching and swerving on your behalf each time any traffic, however insignificant, approaches. Whether it be a cyclist, pedestrian, cow, dog or butterfly, she stiffens and we come closer to falling from the edge of the tarmac. Some of the drops from road to verge are pretty treacherous but with time and a little coaxing, we soon settle into the flow.

We must have travelled all of three quarters of a mile before the bike mimics the last throes of a twenty-a-day test-lab beagle, wheezes and finally slips silently to a halt outside a tarpaulin shrouded clothing stall. The fuel gauge reads ‘tosser!’ Unlike at home, where you will almost certainly have run out of fuel some twelve uphill, rain-sodden miles from the nearest service station, you only have to slow down over here to induce a stampede of cheery-faced Goans clutching old one-litre water bottles brimming with four-star. All along the byways of India, it seems, every shop-keeper, stall-holder and roadside vendor displays a little clutch of plastic, fuel-filled bottles perched atop a stool, a fruit box or a garden wall. Official fuel pumps are so few and far between that a mini economy has sprouted, servicing the petrochemical needs of the motorised traveller.

Of course this is not altruism on their part. A mix of entrepreneurial spirit and abject poverty drive the desire to earn just a few rupees by filling a drum with petrol and dispensing it by the litre or half-litre at the kerbside. The only proviso I would give is to check the colour and clarity of the ‘amber nectar’ as it is not unknown for the occasional bottle to be adulterated with a splash of ( fractionally cheaper) diesel or paraffin oil. The nearest fuel pump to Calangute and Baga is on the outskirts of Anjuna and quite often is out of order due to mechanical breakdown or has simply run out of petrol.

One hundred and forty rupees are exchanged for two litre bottles and Hannah and I are soon on our way again, the heat of the sun on our necks and shoulders and the warm breeze in our hair …well, Hannah’s hair and my stubble. Goat Corner looms and lives up to it’s name. A small drove of multicoloured adults and kids veer out from the nearside verge and run alongside us for twenty metres or so. I slow virtually to a stop, and, sure enough, they suddenly swerve and bounce off across the road and into their home patch, a small dark wood with piles of sawn logs and makeshift tents and huts. I must confess here to having had to look up the collective noun for goats and was somewhat disappointed. I had them pegged as a flock, but apparently they form either a herd, a drove, a trip or a tribe. Given the colourful descriptive nouns for other species, a ‘murmuration’ of starlings or a ‘crash’ of hippopotami for example, I expected better from the collective noun people than a ‘drove’ for these little ruminants. Maybe a ‘sanatorium’ or a ‘blunder’ of goats, would be more apt?

I digress. We turn left onto the main Calangute Anjuna Road which is raised on a low causeway from the tinder-dry, brown-grassed football pitch to the right and the creekside fields to the left. The road rises and enters the trees and low hills of Arpora. The breeze is instantly cooler. To the right and rising deeper into the forest is a concrete track with sunken, flashing l.e.d. lighting leading to one of Goa’s, nay India’s, most popular after-dark venues, Club Cubana. ‘Nightclub In The Sky’ is its tagline as it sits atop the Arpora Hill and its lights and green-fingered, scouting lasers can be seen on the horizon in the evening ( and morning ) sky, for miles around.

The club, a favourite of Bollywood stars and young Indian high-fliers vacationing here, has recently re-opened after a two and a half year shutdown. Many rumours on the reason for its closure circulated. Some said that the popularity of the place and consequent volume of partygoers made it a potential terrorist target. Others told of planning irregularities, corruption of those granting licenses and even danger of landslip as the reason. In reality, its closure was brought about after the High Court of Bombay, sitting in Goa, upheld complaints of ‘various illegalities’ including noise nuisance at the venue. I imagine that these ‘various illegalities’ were largely the reason for its popularity.

The place now boasts two dance floors, barbeque area, chill out zone with sofas and loungers, bars, swimming pool and quite possibly the largest repository of affectation outside of the opening meet of the Bilsdale Hunt.

Now I have to be careful here because there are, doubtless, many who enjoy the occasion of being self-obsessed, pretentious, overdressed and loud. Just watch ‘Britain’s Got Celebrity, Get Me Some Talent’ on TV on any Saturday night. …But doing it whilst being puked on by a Russian bint with dreads, a fake mimosa flower sticking out of one ear and several lines too many of C17 H21 NO4 up her hooter requires a certain masochism that I seem to be unable to muster.

And it’s not an age thing because half of the clubbers who go to this and pretty much all of the contemporary venues are, at least visually, as old as I.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no prude. Both sundry friends and relatives, and my body, will tell me all too often that I’m a fifty-something, cynical old bastard whose experience of clubbing in his late teens and early twenties was very different to that of today, but I’m far from a killjoy or puritan.

A typical early seventies Saturday night comprised dropping a ‘purple heart’ or a ‘bluey’ ( the azure amphetamine ‘slimming’ pill this time, not the aquatically inept insect ), necking copious quantities of McEwans Export, toking on five-skin spliffs that would scare Bob Marley, applying drool to some unfortunate maiden’s décolletage and spending twenty minutes trying to get ones custard-yellow, two-inch platform boots unstuck from the fly-paper carpet around the shabby bar. All too often, the above was merely an aperitif to the main of a ‘High Noon’ style bar-fight involving a gang of long-haired locals who couldn’t resist mocking our stylish army haircuts, flying stools, tables and plastic pint glasses and the predictable but untimely arrival of the military police. All this, appropriately, set to the soundtrack of ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’. Now tell me that that’s not more refined than clubbing today. We’ll blame Elton, eh?

Ah! … ok … I see what you mean, maybe things aren’t so different after all.

Moving swiftly on …the Anjuna Road levels and passes below the site of Ingo’s Night Market, a gigantic Saturday evening affair which draws hundreds of traders, visitors and locals alike. Tier upon tier of colourful stalls scale the hillside amid fairy-lit trees and surround a stage which hosts musicians, fire-eaters and jugglers. It’s a spectacle worthy of the horrific traffic snarl-ups you’ll encounter journeying to get there.

Right next door is Go-karting Arpora. This is a small winding racing circuit with the usual strings of red and white painted tyre barriers and noisesome put-putting karts set back in the trees. Screeching tyres, dare-devil overtaking manoeuvres, near catastrophic pile-ups, close shaves, they can all be seen here if you keep your back to the circuit and watch the passing traffic on the road outside. Quite why anyone would travel here to seek motorised thrills on tarmac is entirely beyond me. I’m sure it must be statistically safer to stroll blindfolded across the circuit than it is to cross the road to get to it.

A short spurt up the road and a trio of rumblers across it, prelude our arrival at Shri Chauranginath Temple.

I’m not ashamed to announce here that my knowledge of Hinduism is, to understate it, sketchy. My all-too-brief time upon this planet precludes me from using it on such cul-de-sac trivialities as ‘Lord of The Rings’, ‘Discworld’, Facebook, ‘Harry Potter’ and religion. I can only just get my weary head around the concept of Christianity and its fairly basic premise that there is one god in heaven and that he sent his son, Jesus, to Earth in a failed attempt to get us to be nice to each other. I know there were a dozen disciples, whose names, should I be arsed to sit and ponder, I could probably resurrect from the darkest, most underused segments of my shrivelled brain.

The unsolicited bible stories I had rammed down my pre-pubescent throat were entertaining enough but not a patch on ‘Swallows and Amazons’ or ‘Thunderbirds’. In retrospect, and in light of more recent clerical revelations, I guess I should consider myself fortunate that it was only bible stories that were rammed down my throat.

Christianity? All in all, not too taxing as religions go. A cast list that even I can memorise. Compare that to the Hindu faith however and it’s a cakewalk. Hinduism is the third most followed religion in the world behind Christianity and Islam and about a billion of adherents live right here in India. It is not only considered the oldest of all faiths but, by far, the most complex of historical world religions.

Take a moment to search ‘Hinduism’ on Wikipedia, then, whilst holding a mirror in one hand, attempt to digest the layer upon layer upon layer of hierarchies, branches, divas, avatars, nathas, yogis, denominations, ashramas, varnas, shruddis and shaktas. Next, scroll to the links at the bottom of the webpage and click on ‘Hindu Deities’. When you’ve got to the bottom of that script and absorbed one percent of it, ( it should only take about two and a half years), take a deep breath and click on the link ‘Full List of Hindu Deities’… You’ll find twenty-seven under ‘A’. Twenty-eight under ‘B’. ‘C’ to ‘Z’ will reap you another one hundred and sixty-eight, each with its own fables, myths and mysticisms. You’ll find five-foot lingams, third-eyes and blue throats, rabbits that chase hounds, six headed babies and ‘divine mangos of knowledge’. It’s the most powerful argument for re-incarnation there is … you’d never learn it all in ten lifetimes!

‘The mirror?’

Oh, yes the mirror, well unless you’re one of the fourteen or so qualified and licensed death row electrocutioners you won’t have witnessed what happens to the human body when it’s overloaded with ‘input’ on this scale. You’ll want to be right there in the front row when the veins in your temple make it appear that your skin has been put on inside-out. Not so sure about the head exploding bit, though. Mind you, I don’t suppose you’d even be able to see the mirror after the capillaries in your eyes have started bleeding.

So, having saved you from all this discomfort let me tell you that Chauranginath is considered by many to be one of the nine deified and immortal Hindu nathas, yogis or gurus and the temple to honour him here must be very popular as it’s quite a commodious affair. Twin flights of marble steps lead up to the terracotta and creamy yellow-painted covered area for worship. Think caramel and chocolate blancmange. At the bottom of the steps is a sort of gloss brown multi-tiered, wedding-cakey, waterless fountain construction with a concrete chicken perched on the top and I’ll be dust before I find out the significance of that!

‘Heffalump!’ cries Hannah and she nearly loses her right arm to a speeding taxi coming from behind as she points waywardly in the direction of the Chauringinath Temples main attraction, Rhukmani.

‘Good job it wasn’t a scooter passing, you’d have smacked someone in the gob. Shall we stop?’

The answer is in the affirmative and we slip off the road to the nearside and jump off. If there is anyone on the planet who does not know A.A.Milne’s synonym from ‘Winnie the Pooh’, and I can’t think there are many, Rhukmani is an elephant. Believe it or not … an Asian or Indian elephant. Small ears and all that. Larger than mine obviously, but daintier than those of their African cousins.

H and I wait for a break in the paper-chain of scooters and motorbikes and cross to the sandy track alongside the temple and stand in the blinding hot sunshine. My hands go into autopilot and roll a couple of fags as we watch Rhukmani and the interest that she generates from both locals and visitors alike.

I don’t know why it is that of the thousands of species in the world, a mere twenty or so seem to engender human fascination on a scale which is wholly disproportionate when compared to hundreds of others. People get a fixation for them and spend inordinate amounts of time and money to collect pictures and ornaments and fluffy stuffed versions of them. Their t-shirt collections are dominated by them; they buy housewares and utensils in the shape of them; their computers and mobile phones display wallpapers and screensavers of them.

Dolphins seem to have managed to infiltrate our psyches in this way. Penguins are another. My sister’s house, nay, life is just bursting with penguins. From stuffed, life-sized Emperors to minute porcelain Rockhoppers, she’s got the lot. On the plus side, buying birthday presents for her was never too taxing … for other people anyway. Never too taxing for me because I never bought her anything. Ducks, most certainly, have it but geese do not. Pigs of all things have it, but sheep and goats don’t seem to. Hedgehogs … who decided that prickly rats should have it? Cats of course have it, but that’s understandable because they are beautiful, intelligent, independent, inquisitive, stroppy and I have a large one on my lap as I write this whose scalpel-sharp claws are perilously close to my testicles. The animal that has it most, however, has got to be the elephant. A ten foot high, five ton, wrinkly grey thing with a few tufts of hair and a suction hose on the front of its face.

The Elephas maximus in front of the Chauringinath Temple right now looked to me as if she would trade a little of that adoration for a little more respect. I’m no expert but, to me, she looked pissed off. And I couldn’t blame her.

Now, I’m sorry to interrupt the flow of this piece but do I feel a rant coming on here. In order to save time and reduce the column inches and likelihood of you discreetly sliding this tome into a waste bin, I’ll combine two rants into one. Sort of, buy one rant, get one free.

Those of you who haven’t been paying attention during the preceding one hundred and eleven pages or those males wearing mirror sunglasses who have been pretending to read this book on the beach whilst covertly ogling the topless bird on the adjoining sunbed (you know who you are), may not have registered my antipathy to all things religious.

A large part of this must stem from my experience and knowledge, admittedly limited, of the lifestyles of those who set themselves apart by purporting to be our spiritual guides. My over-riding perception of them is that they are either:-

a) … Lacking in an ability to deal the complexity and enormity of life and finality of death.

b) … Needful or desirous of power or influence.

Or

c) … Fucking lazy.

Now, before you throw up your arms in outrage, I’ll be the first to admit that amongst the great and good of all ecclesiastical persuasions, there are those whose work, whose life work, has been of immeasurable benefit to the needy, unfortunate or disadvantaged. There are those who have given their very lives to uphold rights and principles laid down in religious law and divine commandment. My one concession to religion is that its very presence has afforded to those who no longer need to worry about their own food, clothing and shelter, the opportunity of doing good things for others less endowed without interruption.

What I do resent is their self-perceived monopoly on goodness, morality, righteousness and virtue. Do I really have to dress up in a big pointy hat and sit on a bejewelled throne surrounded by arselickers in order to be a good person?

You do not need to put your shirt on back to front and wear flowing white robes and a sparkly scarf to be giving to others and you certainly don’t need to spend your enormous and desperately requisite wealth on marble-lined, crystal-filled, stadium-sized cathedrals, mosques and shrines in order to be kind, considerate and selfless. You can do all these things perfectly well, and probably do them better, without all the bullshit that accompanies religions demand of being seen to be good.

Let’s take my perception ‘a’, that some religious zealots have an apparent inability to deal with the complexity and enormity of life. In the time before I embraced atheism, I sat through sermons, read newsprint accounts and watched TV interviews on innumerable occasions where the priest, imam, guru, archbishop, parson or whoever has responded to a question with the words,

‘Of course, I’m fortunate not to have had to go through the kind of suffering that these people, … blah, blah, blah’.

Damn right you haven’t, I think, because you’ve never had to do anything for yourself in a real-life situation. You have gone from primary school to secondary school to ecclesiastical college or graduate school of ministry or seminary, and thence through some kind of ordination and mentoring before being awarded a peach of a stipendiary position within the giant moneymaking machine. You have been elected without trial and spewed out in front of an expectant congregation. You’re twenty-eight, know fuck all about fuck all and you want us to take your advice … forget it.

You must have puzzled long and hard at the point that you decided to have a ‘calling’.

‘Now, let me see, do I go out into the big scary world, graft, get my hands all dirty and scarred, aquire wisdom and be accountable or … pop on a pair of slippers, sit on a fireside chair, rely on the benevolence of others and read a book of fairy tales for the next ten years? Mmmm, tricky decision.’

And what about death? Why is it so hard to accept that life is finite? Why do we always demand a second chance? A second coming? A resurrection or reincarnation?

‘Urghh sorry, I fucked that life up. Give us another go and I’ll get it right next time.’

Well sorry folks. I can’t risk subscribing to the ‘life is like a bus’ philosophy - miss this one and there’ll be another one along in a minute or two. No-one knows if there’s going to be another bus along in a minute or two. No-one’s ever seen the sodding spare bus, and until one trundles up with ‘Next Life’ on the destination board and runs right over my foot, I’m going to assume that this is the only bus and I’m going to make damned sure that I’m on it. Nobody’s going to find my sorry arse sat in a graffiti-emblazoned, piss-soaked bus shelter in a cul-de-sac with a fourteen year old single mum in a shell suit for eternity.

Perception ‘b’, I’m certain, has been fuelled by a shortcoming of mine. An innate inability to understand why anyone would want to devote their entire life to telling other people what to do. However they wrap their advice, in anecdote, parable, scripture or sermon, it still amounts to the same thing. Them reminding us that if we do not abide by their rules, demons will caress our bottoms with white-hot spiky metal for ever and ever, amen. Now this kind of punishment is hardly scary to someone who has had to endure listening to a Carpenters Greatest Hits album or gone shopping at Asda or, just imagine this for a moment, doing both at the same time. I even know people who would, most likely, enjoy it. The hell thing I mean, obviously, not Asda. There are, without doubt, those who will always derive satisfaction from bossing others around but do they really think that without their commandments, we would all get up in the morning coveting oxen, spend the afternoon bowing to graven images and killing the odd person in our spare, quiet moments. At least most other bullies, despots and tyrants have had to work their way up to the position and have not just chosen the least demanding route to it after a half-hour chat with a careers officer.

Regrettably, perception ‘c’ has always been the most self-evident to me. As a child, I was told the story of St. Paul of Thebes, who in his early twenties, around 250AD, fled to the desert and lived there, in a cave, with only a palm tree and a stream for sustenance. Saint Paul the first hermit as he became known, used the leaves of the palm for clothing and the fruits for food. He then, apparently, sat down in his palm-tree underpants and did nothing for just over twenty years at which point, a raven arrived with half a loaf of bread and, clearly, impressed by this man’s devotion, did so daily for some considerable time. Now, whilst I admit that I would gladly exchange a few ten hour shifts, sat on my numb bum, driving a truck along the M5 for an equal span of time sitting in the sun, sharing dates with a raven, I would have trouble convincing Hannah that I was being anything other than a lazy, skiving bastard. The moral example of the raven, that of doing something in order to achieve something, unfortunately was lost on our St. Paul because he went on to do nothing for a further seventy years and died at the age of one-hundred and thirteen.

‘A good run.’ I hear you say but he can hardly have worn his body out with his eremitic lifestyle choice. The only parts of him that may have looked old were his arse and his eyelids. And this is a guy who was canonised by the Christian church and venerated by the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. Even today, there are thousands in closed orders. Cistercians, Trapistines, Benedictines and contemplative religious orders of all kinds who appear to me to do little other than isolate themselves from reality, brew a little beer or fortified wine, and pray that those on the other side of the eighteen foot flint-knapped wall don’t fuck things up too much.

Shame to say, particularly on our travels in India, there are many such mumbo-jumbo idlers.

Take Rhukmani … the temple elephant? … remember her? Well, over the years, we have seen Rhukmani and others like her being paraded along the tourist belt of North Goa day after day by her attendant orange-robed holy men and mahouts, in order that they may bully the inquisitive into donating to their indistinct cause. The temple elephants are brought in to Goa from neighbouring states of Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh at the beginning of the tourist season in October in order to exploit the larger number of visitors here. The creatures are then decorated with coloured chalk motifs, flowers and so forth, on the forehead and down the trunk. The ‘om’ or ‘aum’ symbol, the sacred Hindu incantation and syllable used in both Hindu, Buddhist and Jainist faiths to mean ‘It is’, ‘Truth’, ‘Yes’, ‘Will be’ and ‘Everything’ is invariably prominent too. They are then treated to a seven or eight hour walk in the melee of traffic and full heat of the day with, according to International Animal Rescue, insufficient food, rest and water. Under India’s animal welfare laws, it is illegal to exploit animals for gain and although the temples have to hold a license granted by the state government, the authorities seem to pay little heed to the animals’ welfare. The IAR have described the illegal use of spiked leg irons pulled by the riders as a method of controlling temple elephants, and although we have never seen such contraptions, holy men at Arpora have been known to use them as recently as 2007 during a religious festival when fireworks and loud music were cited as reasonable excuses for hobbling the frightened creature with spiked shackles. Most godly. Rant over!

I stand and take out my mobile phone to get a picture.

‘You’re chancing it.’ Says H.

Just pulling out a camera will prompt the proffering of an open hand and if no payment is given, we have seen halos slip and colourful language employed to good effect. About two nanoseconds pass before one of the jaffamen, seeing me raise my phone camera, heads our way in purposeful manner with a ‘That’s going to cost you’ expression on his face. I utilise the international gesture of turning my pockets inside-out to signify the futility of his mission. He responds with a facial expression that I imagine is something similar to that of someone who’s just eaten a dog turd and spits a phrase towards us which I’m sure, if translated, would read ‘That’s ok my friend, you take my blessing and have a good day anyway.’ I smile and we re-cross the road to our scooter.

A short distance along the partially shaded road, still busier now as more tourists head out for the day, is North Goa’s next attempt at westernism, a water park due to open in 2012. Wooden scaffolding currently besieges the octagonal structure which will, doubtless, welcome hundreds of excited water-sliders next year. Just now, the slides are mere grey, concrete snakes uncoiled and sunning themselves on the denuded, red hillside and the only visitors, the numerous tradesmen and women with picks, adzes and buckets.

My confidence on two wheels is returning and Hannah’s must be too as we deftly weave between cars, tuk-tuks and fellow bikers, straight across the roundabout at the junction of the Anjuna - Mapusa (pronounced Mapsa) Road and down from the hillside to the low flat farmland and unfiltered blast of the sun.

It’s probably worth passing on a road safety tip here for those following in our tyre tracks. The law governing precedence at roundabouts in India is now perfectly clear to anyone who cares to study it. Regrettably, those that tend to use roundabouts in India do not fall into that category of person.

Many drivers and riders tend to treat a roundabout in the same way that they might treat a cow sleeping on the carriageway. They may veer to the left of it. They may veer to the right of it. In the days before supposed clarification, the consensus was that traffic joining the roundabout had priority unless it was coming from a quieter road, in which case road users on the more major route took precedence. The law now states that priority must be given to traffic coming from the right, as it is in most driving-on-the-left countries. Hence, you now have some people who will give way to traffic on the roundabout and others who give way to those joining the roundabout. The result, needless to say, is largely pandemonium with just a hint of life-threatening bedlam.

You might have noticed the trend for roundabouts being sponsored in the UK, little signs on the island to indicate the benefactor. D-i-y stores or landscape gardening companies seem to be most prevalent. Well here, they are all sponsored by wheelchair manufacturers, splint whittlers, blood plasma suppliers, funeral directors and A and E clinics. You’d never know though as all the little signs have been mown down by careering, inattentive motorists.

The flat, bleached farmland between here and the forested Siolim ( pronounced ‘Showlim’ ) Hills about a mile ahead is the wide river valley of the higher reaches of the Baga Creek. The feeble trickle which characterises its flow during the dry winter spell runs in a waddo or bed which meanders the three and a half miles up to the busy market town and commercial centre of Bardez taluka, Mapusa. This general area is called Assagao and Crossandra Valley, taking its name from the salmon-pink and flame-orange flowers of the Crossandra plant which were once rampant here. It should now be called Sheet and Towel Valley as it has become the dhobi centre of North Goa. The Dhobi, derived from the Hindi word ‘dhona’ … ‘to wash’, are a caste group who specialise in washing and the product of their labours flutters in the hot breeze here. Line after line of clean, white sheets and towels, some hundreds of yards long, lace the valley floor on both sides of the road. Further across the fields are small hayricks, fenced against bovine raiders and oases of palms encircling isolated whitewashed churches, agricultural buildings or huge, old Portuguese colonial villas. Halfway across the valley is Bobby’s bar which sits on the intersection of our road to Siolim and the east-west road from Mapusa to the beach villages of Anjuna, Vagator and Chapora. We are unswerved as the ribbon of tarmac rises again to crest the Siolim Hills and then drop more steeply through the cashews, jackfruit, mango and laurel trees which join the coconut palms in conspiring to make this stretch the shadiest and coolest on the road to Mandrem.

As we hit the sunshine again, at speed, the village which gives the hills their name envelops us and we become, like every other traveller, a grain of sand in its hourglass constricture. This is Siolim and it is frenetically busy. It’s always frenetically busy. If you can ride through Siolim without clipping a schoolchild round the head with your wing mirror then you’re lucky … or should that be unlucky, the hollow clunk is so satisfying.

Siolim, unlike so much of Goa, makes no concession to tourism. Rather than clothing shops and carved wooden elephant bazaars and Tibetan jewellery shops of Calangute and Baga, you’ll find fruit, vegetables and fish freshly laid out by the verge, hardware and electrical shops, bakers, bars and boot menders. A real Indian village.

I feel H’s grip tighten as I squirt the bike between a pedestrian straying out into the road, a mobile phone in one hand, head bowed to the god of text, and a tiny three-wheeled goods carrier laden with propane gas bottles which has kamikazied out from a side road opposite. I then have to execute an emergency stop as the traffic ahead is now completely static. I drop my bare feet to the dusty macadam and it’s scorching. Other bikes around are jockeying to gain a six inch advantage from the jam. Some are trying the inside line and brushing the throng of morning shoppers spilling from the arcade of tiny shops. Others are trying to pry a route between the stationary local bus ahead and a taxi which has pulled alongside it. The bus driver is hanging out of his window and remonstrating with the taxi driver’s passenger, which is amazing considering that the dissonance of horns is now at eardrum-rending levels.

‘What’s the hold up?’ asks H.

I lean the bike and peer around the bus. An elderly man in full Ghandi get up has dropped his shopping right on the crossroads and several young men are retrieving bananas and large white radish from under cars and putting them back into a faded, pink plastic washing-up bowl he is carrying. It’s heartening to see how the elderly are respected here. He is sitting on a crate at the crossroads and has been furnished with a cold beer by the time that the traffic starts rolling again. I just hope that his lungs can cope with the diesel smoke generated by the departing bus. I hope that ours can.

Just beyond the crossroads, on the right, sits the gleaming, icing-white church of St. Anthony of Padua. A Portuguese Catholic saint born at the turn of the thirteenth century, Anthony was famed as an accomplished preacher and a miracle-worker who specialised in the ‘finding of lost things’. Like Paul of Thebes though, he too seemed to have done quite a bit of sitting around under a tree. Unlike Paul, he preferred the shade of, and, presumably, underpants made from, the leaves of the walnut. A fascinating claim is that, after his death in 1231, his body was interred in a vault in Padua, Northern Italy. When this chapel was re-opened some thirty years later, his vestments and flesh had become dust but his tongue was still fresh, pink and glistening! The organ to this day is kept in a little reliquary … or should that be re-lick-uary.

Yeah, I thought that too.

Alongside St. Anthony’s and an additional cause for a snarl-up, were one needed, is the single lane bridge over a narrow tributary of the Chapora River, the next great waterway to segment the state. The old bridge has become a lay-by and a great place to sit on a parapet and sidestep life for a while. We’re saving ourselves for ‘Juice Up’, a mile or so from here and on the banks of the Chapora River proper. A half mile out from Siolim Village is Siolim Junction, another intersection busy enough without being the favourite hang-out for the local cow population. There’s a large, ugly, sausage-shaped, concrete traffic island here and, without fail, it is surrounded by cattle at dusk, sprawled in the carriageway and idly chewing the cud. It was baffling us as to why they communed thus until a nearby resident explained that the daylong heat of the sun on the concrete caused it to become a huge storage heater and radiate accumulated warmth well past midnight. No silverside chicane here this morning as we hang a left and rattle along the potholed tarmac past oily motorbike repair garages, a slate and marble slab polisher and supplier and a local tailor … one man and a beaten up Singer sewing machine in a six by four shed by the roadside.

‘We stopping at Juice Up?’ I have to double check these things. H confirms that her bum is as numb as mine and as the road rises in readiness to span the Chapora, we descend a slip road, past stalls selling iced sugar-cane juice and sweet, deep-fried fancies to the tiny, bright yellow bankside café.

The Chapora River, whose youthful, narrow waters spill over the Tilari Ghat some forty-five miles inland in the State of Karnataka and tease the border with Goa’s northern partner, Maharashtra, has become a languid, half-mile wide old thing by the time it reaches Oxel just upstream of us. Here at Tar, where the Chapora or Siolim Bridge as it is variously described reaches across its silt-laden murkiness, it has narrowed to a mere quarter of a mile. Nonetheless, the bridge, built at the turn of the twenty-first Century, is an impressive structure, particularly when viewed from below on the river bank. The single track road which runs alongside the south side of the river is also spanned by the bridge and the shade it affords makes this a favourite stopping point for villagers and animals alike. The ferry which served as a crossing before the bridge was built used to run from Oxel and today it is the embarkation point for regular river cruises.

As we park the Honda, the propreitress of Juice-Up greets us and waves us inside. The middle-aged Goan woman with a welcoming smile encourages us to pass through the tiny one-room and one-inside-table eatery to an equally bijou verandah immediately above a narrow tidal channel. We are her only customers. It’s lovely just to sit down on something that isn’t pummelling your arse like a Turkish prison guard. Not that I speak from experience, you understand.

You’ll be shocked to hear that the menu of ‘Juice Up’ largely comprises juices. Think of a fruit and it’s likely that you’ll find its juice listed here at a ridiculously diminutive price. Mango, orange, strawberry, watermelon, pineapple, grape, papaya, and a thirst-quenching sweet lime soda. You’ll also find a light breakfast. Omelettes in buns, massala and plain, cheese toast, fried eggs and fresh salads too.

The view across the glinting river and the bridge reaching over to its far, heat-hazy, palm-fringed bank; the riverside road with occasional, unhurried, sari-wrapped traveller; the channel below screening tiny, mooching, silvery fish which rise to swarm like piranha if offered a corner of toast; conspiracy enough to make this one of our worldwide favourite lolloping spots. Factor in a triple-scoop Indian ice-cream sundae bejewelled with local cashews and candied glacé fruit and life reaches an apogean level. Just when you think that your nipples will explode with excitement, a splosh in the water signifies the arrival of a Smyrna or White-Throated Kingfisher…barely two feet away. Bang, bang!

India has many species of kingfisher, including the little peacock blue Common Kingfisher found on our shores, a fabulous black and white Pied Kingfisher, a blue and white Collared, and the less dainty Black-Capped, Stork-Billed and this, the White-Throated variety. The White-Throat is not the prettiest of kingfishers but has gorgeous blue-green wings, a huge red bill and red legs and is largely conker-coloured. I was amazed to discover that the characteristic blue-green plumage is neither a pigment nor an iridescence, but the result of white light being scattered or diffused by the structure of the feathers. You might have to do a few pub quizzes before that question actually crops up, but when it does, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be carried to your home on the shoulders of angels where you can bask in self-satisfaction and toast your noesis. Unfortunately, you’ll probably have to do it with your winnings … a half bottle of Lambrini.

Our kingfisher returns to his regular, ‘phone wire lookout opposite the verandah, the channel becomes one silvery fish lighter, our stomachs become one ice cream sundae heavier and we leave to resume our journey.

The perforated concrete bridge parapet high above the Chapora, is not so tall as to conceal the broad river meandering into the jungle upstream and curving downstream into Chapora Harbour before entering the sea about two and a half miles away. Narrow fishing punts dot the waters. Two eighty-foot wood and bamboo houseboats sit at anchor mid-stream. These boats, designed to sleep two or three couples and replete with jaccuzis, chefs and promises of crocodile sightings, ply the lazy backwaters on two night cruises from the quayside at Tar. There are similar trips to be had on the Mandovi and Zuari rivers too. H’s propensity to attract mozzies like a car-boot attracts Latvians mean that this is a pleasure unlikely to be experienced by us.

Talking of Latvians and car-boot sales, here’s another fun UK pastime I have stumbled upon which I feel would be selfish not to share. Next time you are at one of these junk scrums, start talking to your partner ( if you can convince them to accompany you) loudly in a totally fictitious eastern-sounding language. Plenty of words containing ‘vlad’ and ending in ‘shnitz’ and ‘shnov’ seem to do the trick. Then pick up a random electronic item from one of the tables, maybe a mini twelve-volt car tyre inflator or a computer printer, and turn to the vendor with a quizzical expression and ask …

‘Vot is costings dis err, how you say, toaster?’

I can guarantee that within seconds, you will be surrounded by well-meaning fellow crap-surfers trying to explain the function of the item you are holding. I admit that maintaining a straight face can be very demanding but stick with it. Once they are convinced that you understand what the contraption is, hit them with,

‘Does do buns too?’

At this, you may regret not bringing ear defenders as you’ll find the volume level rockets. People are convinced that speaking louder somehow makes words more understandable. The exit strategy is a little trickier. Asking ‘You accept Lats and Santïmi?’ whilst feigning change fumbling may work. Offering fifty pounds and proffering fifty pence usually provokes closure and can sometimes net a bargain but be wary of real East Europeans, curious about your unfamiliar dialect, joining in and questioning your roots. I have been caught out on more than one occasion and am now banned by Hannah from doing anything other than questioning why the whole fieldful isn’t just scooped into landfill.

The bridge-borne road across the river prompts reckless speeding by many but for H and I, a loss of concentration whilst gazing at the scenery poses a higher risk. A blast from an overtaking big brown ten-ton truck re-focuses my wandering application and serves to remind me that India’s roads are the final resting place for over 130,000 people a year and the country now has overtaken China as having the highest traffic accident rate in the world.

A single rumbler at the far end of the bridge denotes our departure from Bardez taluka and arrival in the most northerly district of Pernem. As we drop down the bridge ramp and back to ground level, the parched open fields to the left of the road, criss-crossed with desire-paths have been home for a poor community of Karnatakans for many years. These itinerants live in what we would call ‘benders’, simple stick-framed tents clothed in blue polypropylene tarpaulins. Their homes lie, quite literally, in the shadow of a huge roadside hoarding which extols the delights of a nearby ‘Luxury boutique hotel’ … both a physical and ironic juxtaposition. To our stressed western eyes, it is tempting to view their lifestyle as idyllic, as they sit around an open fire with their semi-naked children and weave palm fronds into baskets and screens, but I suspect that it is far removed from that. Maybe a job swap for one month per year?

Looming large is the T-junction where much of the traffic on our road will divert left to the village of Morjim and the beautiful strands of Turtle Beach, Morjim Beach and Ashwem. We could take this coast road which joins the Mandrem road further north, but we will go right. The inland road is more direct and the road surface much kinder to our Gluteus Maximii. At the junction are a couple of bars, a fridge repairer, and the overwhelming odour of fish, a loitering perfluvia from the afternoon market held here daily. So, if you’ve got no sense of smell, are feeling thirsty and are in the market for a cherry-red second hand refrigerator, then this is the junction for you. I have yet to discover why every fridge that I have ever seen in Goa is painted ‘hint of morello’. Not all Indian women get married in red, so it can’t be for the same reason that U.K. fridges are painted white … that all the domestic equipment matches!

Opposite the bars is a huge Banyan tree, the national tree of India, whose soft ‘prop roots’ drop like stalactites from the extended branches to the sandy soil and then harden to form additional trunks. Sometimes, the tree’s footprint can reach several dozen metres in diameter. This remarkable plant, a species of fig (Ficus Benghalensis), gets its name from the Gujerati word for merchant or grocer, many of whom would take advantage of the generous shade offered by the tree to trade and barter in the daytime heat. To this day, all over Asia, a market or meeting place can often be found nearby the Banyan. Of course, having set a precedent in earlier passages regarding hermits and trees, I now feel obliged to mention that Robinson Crusoe, the fictional castaway, selected the Banyan as his home of choice. Regrettably, Defoe is remiss in not clarifying whether Crusoe also sported fig-leaf underpants.

The road from here through the village of Agarwada-Chopdem is long, die-straight and fringed by shops set a little way back from the highway. Not at all touristy, the village can boast a couple of bike repair garages, a live chicken supplier, an electrical shop, crematorium, the obligatory temple or ten and several tiny bars and cafés. The street is busy with shoppers and at regular intervals we pass small groups of people waiting to flag down a colourful, crowded, bus to Pernem or Mandrem.

Provincial busses in India are plentiful, frequent, largely un-timetabled, and cheap to ride. Like me, they are often multi-coloured, ancient, battered and smoky, but are geared to the needs of the villagers they serve. In consequence, they invariably resemble a tin can which is past its sell-by-date, has been left in the sun for too long and is bulging on the verge of explosion. Bars and mesh along the flanks ensure that the introduction of a passenger through the front door does not prompt the unscheduled alighting of another through the side window. Hands and arms and smiley faces fight for the breeze as they toot their way along the byways at speeds which belie their apparent decrepitude. Roof luggage racks are as suited to the accommodation of cages of broilers as they are to the birds’ owners. Their toil in the daylong heat means that their radiator grilles are swung up and open, which gives them a kind of a shark-like gape at the front and commensurate air of menace.

At the far end of Agarwada-Chopdem and the point at which you think the steering will seize through lack of use, the road hits you with a hairpin bend and swings up and left to clamber the Chopdem Hills. As you rise to pass through the cutting at the brow, a glance back is rewarded with a superb panoramic vista across the Chapora Valley. The bobbly, emerald carpet of tree tops cloaking the low hills is rent by the river and occasionally perforated with tiny white church towers like daisies in a lawn. The labourers who scoured the twenty foot deep cutting here must have been feeling particularly energetic for, apart from the accommodation for the wide, smooth carriageway, they have excavated a further five hundred cubic metres of hillside into which they’ve placed a small, pastel blue, domed shrine with little wrought iron gates and twiddly bits on the top. It is overlooked by another (smaller) one which, presumably, stood at the side of the old road, and both are unfailingly adorned with garlands and candles. Next to it sit great boulders of ironstone which serve to emphasize the metaliferous nature of Goa’s geology.

What there should be here is a skateboard shop because the strip of tarmac down the hill into the open valley on the other side is wide, swooping and as smooth as a car salesman’s promise. It makes a pleasant change to be able to take ones eyes from the road and not have to worry about potholes deep enough to lose jeeps into. Neither are there the pervasive little trenches, dug by locals, from one verge to the other in order to lay a sneaky water pipe or electricity cable. The landscape here is, temporarily, more open with sparse shrubbery punctuating the dry, grassy undulations. Before long, however, it becomes more agricultural and the cultivated fields, chilli, mango and cashew groves close in. Not far now to Mandrem.

A jink in the road and low rumblers at Ascoumvadda on the outskirts, ensures that the traveller slows sufficiently to notice an even higher than usual concentration of temples. Come to think of it, you could probably pass through by rocket sled and still not miss them. There are thirteen shrines and temples here in an area no bigger than a couple of football pitches. Some half century ago, whilst the southern talukas of Bardez, Bicholim and Tiswadi were being ‘invited to be Christian’ by the Portugese, many Hindus fled north to Pernem and fetched with them their various gods and deities. When Mandremkars, as the locals are known, are not worshipping, they are prolific growers of cashew and palm and accomplished distillers of feni (or fenny). No coincidence, I think, that religion and alcohol are such intimate bedfellows. I only have to hear a couple of bars of ‘My Sweet Lord’ or ‘Crying In The Chapel’ and I’m lunging for the corkscrew.

That said, a word of caution here might not be misplaced. However resolute you may be, I can almost guarantee that at some time whilst visiting India in general, and Goa in particular, you will be coerced into sampling these local brews by enthusiastic native barkeepers who will eschew them as universal panaceas.

‘Sunstroke madam? Have a feni, best cure for sunstroke.’

‘Delhi belly? Have a feni, sir, best thing for gutrot.’

I suppose that should read New Delhi belly now.

Feni comes in two varieties, coconut and cashew. The coconut is distilled from the sap of the palm and the cashew from the fruit of the tree, the cashew apple. The palm sap is collected by ‘toddy-tappers’ who shin to the top of the trunk, sometimes thirty metres high, at huge risk and cut the flower stems to gather the sap. Life insurance premiums for cashew feni producers must be considerably lower as they pluck cashew apples from the more diminutive trees and press them, a-la-cider, to release the juice. What is common to both, after distillation, is the flavour and the physiological effect. Aficionados assured me that wood-barrel aged feni is as subtle as a single malt whisky or an ‘88 Hors d’age Armagnac. What went down my throat felt more like 2010 chilli-infused aviation fuel skilfully blended with that isopropyl alcohol that secondary school biology labs pickle fish heads in.

Who didn’t take a sip of that in first year at secondary school in a tentative step towards a broader education? I know I did. I know Robert Rowell did. And I know Gary Miller did, and the expression on his face will stay with me until I perish. Quite what had slipped from the specimen jar as he raised it to his lips in the science lab cupboard that day became the subject of much post-ambulance conjecture but the general consensus was that it was a rat ovary. Yum, yum.

Mandrem fish market and football ground pass by on the left and the village itself comes and goes as a short, shallow ‘S’ in the tarmac between a pair of low, benevolant rumblers only a hundred or so yards apart. It is a lovely little village with interesting shops and bars populated by friendly locals and moth-eaten dogs. There are invariably foreign tourists here too as it is the nearest centre to the beaches of north Mandrem and south Arambol with a bank. Today we don’t tarry, onward to ‘PN’s Place Shack’…dickhead.

CHAPTER 8

Don’t just Lie There

The road to Aguada - The Fort - The Perils Of Naked Hide And Seek - The Lighthouse - Dolphins – Aguada Jail – Night Markets – A Stark Realisation

The Baga Road into Calangute is as hectic as ever and I find myself having to check my exuberant overtaking and undertaking. It’s so easy to be drawn into riding like a local and sharing with them their stratospheric accident rates. Left on Beach Road and a short squirt on the throttle takes us to the inland end where a roundabout links it to the Siolim - Aguada Road. This is a really busy little junction and its negotiation is not helped this morning by a fifteen strong, cud-chewing, beef chicane. The cows and calves have spread themselves all over the road and have clearly decided that they want to be todays traffic-calming measure. I take a particularly pretty, cream calf on the left side, the roundabout on the wrong side and turn right. Immediately on the right are three further reasons for the weight of traffic here. We pull over and dismount. Occupying part of a row of minute shops is Datta D. Kakule’s Newspaper Section where you can pick up a fistful of Konkani, Marathi and English language Indian papers for just a few rupees. Indeed the avid print newspaper reader is well served in India. The Oheraldo (or Herald), published in Panjim, is the most widely circulated English print daily in Goa and is arguably the most independent. Originally published in Portuguese in 1900, it has, since 1983, been printed in English and has a circulation of over 60,000. Unlike the Oheraldo, many others, such as the daily Navhind Times and monthly Goa Today are controlled by some of the big mining or politically-linked families of the state and as such, allegedly, show a bias toward their interests. In addition there is the local English edition of The Times Of India and Marathi language Gomantak and Rashtramath. Almost next door to the paper shop is an amazing, bijou bakery outlet selling wonderful, flavoursome, fresh-baked bread rolls at an equally unbelievable low price. We join a disorderly queue and our few coppers buy us a slab of conjoined buns conveniently, if not hygienically, wrapped in yesterdays newspaper. In line with most bakeries worldwide it is open from dawn. Immediately behind these dusty shops is a labyrinth of narrow walkways and darkened alleys which are home to Calangutes fruit and vegetable market. I know I said that I never wear shoes in Goa, but to every rule there is an exception and exploring these crowded, shady passages demands a temporary abandonment of principle. We have enough regular and unsavoury cat-related offerings on our floor at home, which squeeze between the toes of the semi-conscious unwary. (I have since been told that the vegetable market has been upgraded and is no longer quite such a threat to the barefooted.)

H and I remount and continue south on the Aguada Road, briefly thrilled by the huge multiple row of rumblers at the Bishop Alex Dias Road junction. Unlike the single or double rumblers which, if taken at the right speed, are a minor inconvenience, the rumblers here number about fifteen, side by side. This means that, depending on the distance between the wheels of your steed, you either buck like you are riding a rodeo bull or bounce up and down like a whizzing skinhead at a ska concert. We bounce and are grateful for having given breakfast a miss. Bishop Alex Dias Road, it is worth noting, is also known for its small Saturday street market and its hosting of Calangute Post Office. Now the next treat on the road out of Calangute, if you exclude the lure of the Café Coffee Day on your right, is the hazard to life better known as St.Anthony’s Chapel. I’m certain that back in pre combustion engine days, siting a chapel smack bang in the middle of a busy road junction was not a major issue to bullock cart drivers . Today, however, you need eyes like a housefly whilst negotiating this ‘roundabout’. Closing from the left is the Chogm Road, the main link to the national highway and Panjim. Traffic coming towards you from Aguada and Candolim should give way, but often swings out from behind the chapel straight across your path. I forget rights of way here and just cede to anything bigger than us. Hymns can frequently be heard on the loudspeakers bolted to the porch but the only hymn which springs to my mind when riding a scooter is ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee’. I’m certain that the location of this tiny blue and white chapel has hastened many a rendezvous with the lord over the years and to reinforce my point we slow to ‘rubberneck’ this mornings close encounter between a tricycle goods carrier and a tourist coach. The three-wheeler is being pushed back upright but its cargo of tiny silver fish is all over the carriageway. It’s a race between the locals and the crows to retrieve them from the orange dust. As always, a crowd has gathered and a khaki-clad police motorcyclist is the reluctant filling in a hollering driver sandwich.

We move on through Candolim. Holiday Street to the right with its arcade of multi-cuisine eateries and a host of parallel, narrow lanes, each dropping to the beach and each sporting colourful restaurants and shops and small bars. The marble-fronted boutiques, jewellers and spas, in rank with the other tidy, regular stores on the Aguada Road through Candolim account for the areas slightly up-market status when compared with its more, how would you say, earthy neighbour.

A lively game of ‘fruit-box-for-stumps’ cricket is being played on the scorched grass of the Dr.Gustavio Montiera Football Pitch by a dozen or more youngsters. Candolim is hot and buzzing today and yet, somehow, it retains that sun-on-your-face, laid back feel.

The further you travel from Calangute centre, the more verdant the scenery and the quieter the traffic becomes. By the time we reach the district of Sinquerim, the road is more shaded by palms and my gauge of traffic levels, the depth to which Hannahs fingernails are piercing my flanks, confirm the reduced likelihood of collision. At the end of the long straight run through Calangute, Candolim and Sinquerim, the thing which curtails an immediate dip in the Mandovi River is the two mile long basalt rock which is the Aguada peninsular. The Sinquerim bus stop sits at a T-junction here; turn right for Sinquerim Beach, left for Fort Aguada, Aguada Jail and the lighthouses.

‘Fag break.’ Demands H and I concur.

I swing left, stop at Netsons Store for a big bottle of chilled Maaza and after a hundred or so yards allow the bike to drift into the leaf litter by the side of the road which by now shadows the Nerul River. Sitting in the sunlight and dust on the river bank for a cold drink and a gasper proves to be the best choice of all. Whatever the harm smoking does to the body, it has to be offset by the rewards gleaned from just putting things on hold and staring for a while. Had we not been redecorating the inside of our lungs with tar, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, polonium-210, benzopyrene and formaldehyde, we almost certainly would not have noticed the tiny stripey Palm Squirrels playing on the reddish bark branches of a Kandelia tree. Nor would we have seen the spectacular blue and orange Indian Roller or Blue Jay watching them from his perch on a string of red, restaurant fairy lights. The air is still enough to allow me to blow smoke-rings out over the murky water.

‘Smoking this fag has just cost us eleven minutes of our lives, they reckon.’ I muse.

‘I’d give up 11 minutes of sitting on a commode in a nursing home being supervised by a texting teenager for just one second sat here.’ H replies.

‘Me too.’

‘You can’t get Maaza in Eastbourne either.’ She adds, passing the icy bottle back to me.

We share slugs on the mango juice as we sit and gaze at the mangroves, marshes and lazy gait of the Nerul River as it wends inland towards the icing-white form of Candolims ‘Our Lady of Hope’ Church, nestling in the cotton-wool greenery at the foot of the Saligao Hills.

Rest over, we rejoin the steady parade of bikes and taxis labouring to the brow of the peninsular. Views to the left are of the mouth of the Nerul river and Coco beach on its opposite bank. The waters are cobwebbed with the white wakes of a myriad small, colourful boats spilling out into the expansive Mandovi Estuary. Finally our engines laboured tone decreases and the road levels out as it passes through the more barren landscape of rock and sparse scrub which leads to the fort. A scattering of small, gay stalls selling snacks, ice-cream and cold drinks nestles amongst the trees amid a sea of scooters and motorbikes parked opposite the entrance to the imposing monument. A mix of mainly locals and a few tourists take dappled shade from the days searing heat. There are a lot of young Indian couples here, some sat astride their parked bikes, others sat with their backs to the tree trunks, many more interested in each other and their cellphones than those in pursuit of antiquity.

Fort Aguada is a pearl in the necklace of ancient fortifications running the length of the coast of North Goa. From north to south they are Tiracol Fort (north of Arambol on the Terekhol River), Chapora Fort (north of Vagator on the Chapora River), Fort Aguada (here on the north bank of the Mandovi River), Reis Margos Fort (about two and a half miles upstream of here opposite Panjim) and Cabo De Rama (on the promontory between the Mandovi and Zuari Rivers.) Of the five, Aguada is, without question, the finest and best preserved. Reis Margos is still largely intact and still retains cannon on the ramparts, the views from which are well worth the climb from the Verem road. It is still accessible for exploration but now sprouts vegetation from its solid blockwork. I believe that Reis Margos is scheduled for restoration, and rightly so, but the other three are little more than ruins.

Taking three years to construct between 1609 and 1612 by the Portuguese invaders as a defence against the expansionary Dutch and the Indian Maratha Empire further north, Aguada Fort envelops virtually the whole of the peninsular. Pronged with 79 cannons in its day, the main ramparted and dry-ditched citadel sits atop the hill with extensive, all-commanding views over the two mile wide vulnerability of Goa Bay, as the Mandovi Estuary was once named. The fortification encompassed powder rooms, magazines, two prisons, four barracks, chapel, residence for commandant and quarters for the other officers, chaplains and surgeon. Its name derives from the Portuguese word for water, água, as within its upper confines are several springs which feed a massive, vaulted, subterranean tank of some two and a quarter million gallons capacity, there to replenish the fresh water stores of visiting and passing Men-of-War. From the impressive, lollipop-shaped, fortified stone jetty at the end of Sinquerim Beach, and all along the waterline to what is now Aguada jail on the estuary side, are further bastions and stores from which provisions would have been loaded onto the colonists ships. The shelter of the peninsular and the Mandovi would provide safe anchorages during their stay. Built later in 1864 and within the forts five metre high, red laterite, internal ramparts sits Asia’s oldest lighthouse of its kind, an immense, stone-built, four-storey, upturned flower pot with balustrades and a curved external staircase to the domed lantern room at the top.

Mooching a little further along the track from the fort, we visit Aguada lighthouse’s younger but uglier sister. Set in a walled garden, it is a 21m high square concrete construction with a gallery and lantern perched on the top.

With the gates closed and no-one in sight, we sit in the red dust with our backs to the whitewashed wall and take in the panorama of the estuary.

‘You should cover your head.’ H scolds.

Despite my inbuilt resentment to covering any part of my body from the sun (especially after I have paid a travel agent to lease its radiation) and innate instinct to ignore sensible suggestions of any kind at all costs, I take the rare step of adorning my head with a printed scarf. It is so hot at this hour and in the light westerly breeze it is remarkably easy to burn.

‘And you should put your shirt on too.’

‘Fuck off, Doctor Hannah, you’re just jealous because you can’t go topless and my tan will be better than yours tonight.’

‘Don’t say…’ I join in with the rest of the predictable sentence, ‘…I didn’t warn you.’

‘You know what happened last time.’

‘No, what happened last time?’

‘Carlyon Bay, remember?’

And then I remembered.

At one time, Carlyon Bay, near St.Austell, was the jewel in the ‘Cornish Riviera’s crown with its quintessential yellow sand beach backed with neat bathing huts, four tennis courts, lido, Quasars nightclub, hotel, et al. My brother and I shrieked like girlies when our musical hero, Alice Cooper, played ‘Dead Babies’ at its Colliseum concert hall. My excuse is that we were carrying about eighty-four percent of Cornwalls, July 1991 allocation of amphetamine sulphate up our conks at the time. Even Steve Wright came down to host the Radio One Roadshow on the shore in the days when he was original and entertaining and his choice of music less likely to make you lunge for a sick-bag. Sadly the beach is now all but closed following an ambitious scheme to build executive homes where once only sand castles had stood. Between the greed of corporate developers and the ineptitude of the local planners, cock-up after cock-up ensured that the cliffs at the back of the bay no longer echoed the sounds of ordinary people having simple fun in the waves. The lido was filled, diving boards bulldozed, the Colliseum and Quasars left as skeletal shells (they couldn’t even manage to demolish those right) and Carlyon Bay is now only used by film producers too tight or too scared to go to Mogadishu or Bopahl to film scenes of dereliction. However the beach does remain the last place that I was the recipient of a ‘cover-your-cranium’ warning from Hannah. At the farthest end of Carlyon Bay was a naturist beach which we frequented. It was much quieter and less crowded in the dunes beyond the headland and, unlike many such beaches, it was patronised more by peace-loving couples and families rather than the traditional furtive ‘pervs’ crashing through the gorse with binoculars and hard-ons. The day in question was a rarity indeed; a British summer day when the sun was fierce, the wind all but non-existent and sea warm enough to swim in without having to don a duffel coat. As it was midweek and out of high season, there were only a few people sharing this treat. H had agreed for us to look after our youngest granddaughter, Nicolette, who, by early afternoon, had become bored, irritable and tiresome. It was suggested that I play hide-and-seek with her and following a little coaxing and a large sexual bribery IOU from Hannah, I agreed. I was to hide first.

‘One, two, three, four…’

Now, as lovely a place as Crinnis beach is, it is far from the ideal venue for hide-and-seek as it is somewhat deficient in the hiding-place department. Aside from the sparse, semi see-through vegetation at the base of the cliff, there was nowhere to conceal a fourteen stone grandfather.

‘Thirty-two, thirty-three, thirty-four…’ Unless…midway between waves and dunes were a newly installed row of open-topped 45 gallon oil drums, painted yellow and inscribed with the word ‘litter’. On investigation, I found an empty one and despite the physical disability propagated by a picnic lunch, two cold beers, a half bottle of warm wine and a particularly memorable ‘Red Leb’ spliff, I climbed in. When crouched in the bottom I was completely invisible from the view of a two foot high, four year old and I was confident that I would remain undetected and arise victorious from this challenge.

‘…ninety-nine, one hundred, coming!’

For the first five minutes it was quite a comfortable experience and I mused on the form of my ridicule of the infant loser. On about ten minutes, I could hear Hannah and Nicolette encircling my tinny concealment to see if I was hiding around the back of it. Not even H thought to look inside. By now it was getting quite warm as the sun was beating directly down onto my shoulders and balding pate, but I was cheered by the thought that I had outwitted the pair of them. After what seemed like about twenty minutes, I was sweltering, intensely uncomfortable with cramp in my calves and starting to empathise with Anne Frank. I am far from certain but feel it must have been at about thirty minutes in when the combined effects of the sun and my lunchtime excesses kicked in and I slid into unconsciousness. What I do know for sure, is that if you need to be absolutely certain of waking up for that life-changing business meeting or unmissable early morning flight, I can heartily recommend getting a middle-aged lady to throw ice-cream wrappers and half-eaten salad sandwiches over you whilst hysterically waving splayed hands and screaming uncontrollably at a glass-shattering pitch. I can’t remember who came out of shock first but I can appreciate that the sight of the body of a naked man in an oil drum on a beach must have been quite disturbing for the poor woman.

‘Honest to God, I thought you were dead.’ She insisted, ‘Murdered, dismembered and dumped.’

For my part, the embarrassing discomfort of climbing, in dishabille, from a litter bin with cramp and a Cornetto wrapper stuck to my temple, under full public gaze was only topped by the ongoing discomfort of a seriously sunburnt noggin. For days I had weeping blisters and the hue of a tomato, and the only explanation from H for my abandonment was that she’d assumed I had cheated, got the munchies and gone off for a cheeseburger. You see the kind of loyalty I engender.

‘You want to go up?’

H and I simultaneously crane our necks to take in the sight of a uniformed official peering over the wall behind us.

‘You want to go up the lighthouse?’ he repeats.

We reply in the affirmative and out comes the hand in anticipation of payment. I can’t recall the exact amount or whether there even is an exact amount, but we cough up the hundred or so rupees and steel ourselves for the climb. Just then he spots my camera.

‘It’s extra if you want to take the camera.’ And out comes the hand again. I give him a ‘look’.

‘Fifty rupees to take pictures.’ He says.

I concede that people trekking up and down the mans lighthouse might cause it to need a degree of maintenance. A lick of paint on the stair from time to time, or a replacement handrail to avert the risk of plummeting visitors crushing the wild hibiscus in the neatly planted gardens below. Either would seem to be a reasonable excuse for an entrance fee. I consider arguing the point that taking a photographic image of a piece of scenery from a mans lighthouse isn’t going to inflict an additional burden of cost to the owner of either the scenery or the lighthouse, but in the interests of international harmony and continued Anglo Indian entente I’m told to shut my gob and pay the man. At one hundred and fifty rupees, I would normally expect a lift, but not today. An epic trudge up the multi-storey stairwell, followed by a vertical steel ladder climb and a contorted grovel through an aperture in the lamp room floor with ones face up the chuff of the woman in front (and every one of those rupees) become a small price to pay when struck by the panorama from the gallery. At over 330 feet above the sparkling sea, the view is stunning. To the north is the five mile long, yellow white smear of the beach, holding back the boat-ticked Arabian Sea from the lush green hinterland all the way from Sinquerim to the Baga Hills. To the south, through the heat haze, the Marmagao peninsular, site of the official residence of the Governor of Goa and Donna Paula, home to the National Institute of Oceanography. To the east, a birds eye view of the old fort, lighthouse and, across the river, Miramar Beach and the low sprawl of Panjim. To the west, a twenty-two and a half mile long, sun-freckled sheet of graduated blue, perforated with boaty silhouettes, appearing smaller and more feint as they embrace the horizon. The lamp room itself is fascinating too. Unbelieveable that such a tiny light can be seen from miles out to sea through the marvel of Fresnel lenses; multiple arcs of ground glass which capture and direct the beam to distant seafarers.

‘Dolphins.’ Blurts H.

‘I know I’ve got crap eyesight and enough insect debris in my eyes from night-time scootering to keep an entomologist engrossed for weeks, but if you can see dolphins from here…’

‘No, I can’t see any dolphins, I want to see some dolphins.’

‘Well, next year we’ll go to Japan. The supermarkets are full of them there.’

I deftly dodge the right hander and avoid a mouthful of the flip-flops Hannah is carrying.

‘Ok, ok, we’ll go and see the dolphins.’

Hands up all those who love dolphins. Come on, come on, this book demands interaction. Yes, I thought so, they’ve got you all suckered too. With their cute little toothy, smiley faces and smooth latex suits and their friendly clicking and chattering, how can you resist? Of course we know a lot more about them now than we did in my childhood. The closest that we all got in the old days to a dolphin was watching ‘Flipper’ on the TV; remember that? Every week in the sixties we were treated to a half-hour at the marine reserve in southern Florida. Flipper the dolphin and his sickly-sweet, all-American, twelve year-old, plump, buck-toothed, freckle-faced, ginger mate, Bud, spent their endless free time warning of approaching storms, rescuing fishermen and catching fugitives. Quite what the police, rescue services and weather forecasters were doing I can’t imagine. Usually they were seen to be sitting around polishing manifolds or checking the oil levels on their boat or helicopter engines. For those of you too young to remember, Flipper would swim up to Coral Quay Ranger Station where Bud would be sat on a bollard scratching his arse and do that sort of chirruping noise.

‘Hey, Flipper,’ says Bud.

‘Chirrup, chirrup, click, click, chirrup.’ Flipper would say.

‘What’s up, Flipper?’ says Bud.

‘Chirrup, chirrup, click, click, chirrup.’ Flipper would say.

‘You want me to follow you to Salty Head where there’s an unconscious fugitive washed up on the beach clutching a big money bag marked ‘State Bank’?’ queries Bud.

‘Chirrup, chirrup, click, click, chirrup.’ Flipper would say.

And off they’d go and, as sure as shit, Bud would get into some sort of a scrape and Flipper would have to go all the way back to Coral Quay to get Sandy, Buds sickly-sweet, all-American, sixteen year-old, buck-toothed, freckle-faced, ginger brother. And so it went on.

Today we are more aware that they are the most super intelligent, social and, let’s face it, randy bunch of mackerel-botherers ever to suck money from the wallet of a holidaymaker.

It’s for certain that the boat owners of the Nerul River and Coco Beach love dolphins because their winter days are spent ferrying groups of ten or twelve holidaymakers out to the mammals’ playground in the murky waters of the Mandovi and it’s to Coco that we ride next. Half way back down the hill to Sinquerim there’s another great viewpoint across the river to Coco beach. It looks busy today with its rainbow of boats drawn up on the sand and at anchor in the shallow, warm water. To get to Coco, we retrace the Aguada Road back through Candolim for about a mile, as far as the Nerul Road junction and turn right. Past the Shantadurga Temple and out onto the long straight causeway which carries traffic across the mangroves and the Nerul Bridge. Today it has modern block-paved footpaths, yellow painted concrete balustrade and black and white zebra kerbstones skirting the tarmac. I recall, when we first visited, the noteworthy feature of this stretch of road was the stench of rotting rubbish strewn into and hanging from the scrubby bushes by the side of the road. It was a truly awful stink. There were usually cows to be seen at full stretch trying to disentangle polythene coated detritus from the higher branches. They, bizarrely, seemed to relish rooting through it. All we wanted was a faster bike or larger capacity lungs so that holding our breaths would be less of a struggle; by the time we got to the far end of the Nerul Bridge our lips must have been blue through oxygen deprivation. Today it is far cleaner and having negotiated the lattice of lanes between Nerul and Coco, we find ourselves on the narrow sun terrace behind the strand partaking of pan-fried seafood and mint lassi (the yoghurt drink, not the collie dog) and negotiating the rate for a dolphin trip. Five hundred rupees drops to four hundred and hits a low at two hundred and fifty each by the time we step aboard ‘GOA022WS Ritesh’, a faded apricot coloured fibreglass canoe with green tarpaulin bimini to screen the sun. Guru, our boatman for the next half hour or so, introduces himself to Hannah and I and the other ten or so Indian travellers keen to see the oceans fishy glitterati. He pulls aboard the rusted stepladder, fires up the small, smoky Yamaha outboard and we ride the light swells as the beach recedes behind us. Rounding the point at the mouth of the Nerul and easing from the shelter of Aguada point, the waters of the Mandovi pick up a pleasant choppiness, causing the Indian ladies to giggle and squeal as their pretty saris soak up the spray that whips from the bow. Their menfolk take pictures on cellphones and after Hannah offers to capture one couple together, we somehow become designated portraitists to the entire company. I’m still playing David Bailey when our boat slows to join a wide circle of similarly occupied canoes and boats in what is clearly thought to be the most likely venue for an appearance of Sousa Chinensis (the Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin). Having described dolphins as social creatures, I must now qualify that assertion. It’s for sure that they are social with other dolphins. It’s certain that some species of dolphin are keen on interaction with humans. I must have watched hours of natural history TV footage portraying them nuzzling scuba-clad cameramen and towing unfortunate, crippled children with their dorsal fins. We’ve all seen their rubbery noses close enough to a documentary makers lens to be able to check the plaque on their little, pointy, unthreatening teeth. I’ve even been directed to a website which categorically proves their amorous fondness of human womenfolk, but I’d better not embellish that aspect here. All of which begs the question…what have I ever done to them? Whenever and wherever I go on a dolphin spotting trip, the scheming little bastards just play mock-the-human. And I fall for it. Oh, they always show up, just far enough away to be sure that in all your holiday photographs they appear as a speck of bird shit on your lens.

‘There, there they are.’ others will shout and I spin round just in time to observe an inch and a half of tail fin disappear below the surface.

‘There, over there!’ and they point to the patch of sea immediately behind you. I swear that unless you’re an owl or you’ve got the physiology of the little girl from The Exorcist film, you’ll never ever get a decent sighting of an Indo Pacific Humpback. Dolphins got their family name delphinidae from the Greek word delphus, meaning womb (ie: ‘fish with wombs’) but I think I know how they got their archaic nickname of ‘mereswine’ or sea pigs (ie: fish with a facility for making me want to hammer my Nikon down their blow-holes with a baseball bat.) When I was a teenager, I masochistically tolerated Murray Walker on Grandstand whilst dreaming of going to a Formula One Grand Prix in person. When I finally got to go to one, I spent the best part of two hours hanging, twelve foot up, by one arm from the back of a wooden advertising hoarding, covered in anti-vandal paint, watching tiny multi-coloured blurs in the distance. I now think of dolphin watching as much the same. If you really want to see them, spark up a crackling fire and a roaster, find a comfy armchair and a 32” Panasonic, pull the cork on a bottle of Cutty Sark Prohibition whisky and let Richard Attenborough do all the neck swivelling. The fact remains that, for all my whingeing, it’s still nice just to know they are there, and why should all the worlds marvellous creatures perform and exist for our benefit?

The voyage back to Coco takes us on a route closer to the land, past stark extremes of Goan accommodation. The (probably) less favoured comprises a string of low, weathered white, terracotta-tiled buildings close to the waterline and within the red laterite bounds of the fort. This is long-stay accommodation at its least comfortable, Central Jail Aguada. Home to up to one hundred segregated inmates and now very much unfit for purpose, Central Jail has itself been given a sentence and is set for closure. Sadly, amongst its more deserving patrons have been victims of Goas, nay Indias, archaic and, more worryingly, corrupt judicial system. Reliable reports abound of prisoners being guilty of little more than refusing to pay bribes to the police in settlement of minor misdemeanours or even non-existent crimes. To remove an undesirable it is simple to raid and search accommodation and then ‘find’ a bag of ‘charas’ (ganja) or pills. A noteworthy proportion of Goas prison inmates are inside for drug related offences. If you questioned a hippy from the very early Kathmandu Trail days, or a 1960’s tripping, hedonistic drop-out or even one of todays ‘Full Moon’, beach rave partygoers, about Goa, many would, mistakenly, recount to you the States laid-back attitude to drugs. With marijuana being so cheap and readily available and smoked openly in clubs, bars, restaurants and on beaches, it is easy to see why so many visitors might think that their preferred route to relaxation is, if not accepted, then at least tolerated. Sentences of up to ten years are not uncommon, even for relatively small amounts of cannabis. Don’t get caught! As we slowly bob past close by the male cell block a face appears at one of the barred windows and an arm reaches out to wave to us. A red, white and green flag flutters in his hand and unfurls sufficiently to make it identifiable as that of Wales. We wave back.

‘Poor bastard, look you boyo.’ I mutter, somehow assuming that the flag-waver hasn’t just beaten the life from an old granny with a starting handle.

‘If you had to be in prison’ Hannah asks, ‘would you prefer the view from your cell to be the sunshine twinkling on the Arabian Sea or the back wall of Wormwood Scrubs prison laundry?’

‘Good question…and not one that I know the answer to.’ I confess.

Would it make your plight worse to see the sun rise on a tropical paradise and then watch a continuous parade of people out having a good time each day? Or would the heat and the flies and the distance from home and family make it all the more unbearable? Hopefully I won’t ever find out. What is quite perverse is that the view from many of the cell windows encompasses the jails neighbouring property which is said to be one of the most opulent villas in India. Palacio Aguada has been variously described by boat guides over the years as the rumoured residence of Veejay Mallya (the owner of the Force India formula one team), a mysterious international diamond merchant and/or smuggler, and Amitabh Bachchan (Bollywood superstar actor). In fact, this hugely opulent, waterside, bedomed mansion with its formal, pristine, terraced gardens brimming with white-painted balustrades, mock Greek columns and urns is the home of reclusive multi-millionaire, one ‘Jimmy’ Gazdar. Although my invitations seem to have always gone astray in the post, live-alone Mr. Gazdar apparently hosts annual lavish parties at this palace for his fellow business colleagues from Cochin Malabars Estates who pride themselves on being tea estate owners, tiger prawn aqua culturists, Indias second largest rubber producer and the country’s number one condom manufacturer. Maybe that should read ‘Johnny’ Gazdar.

The short, leisurely float around the headland brings us back into view of Coco and as we pass outgoing boats full of people still optimistic of seeing dolphins, the occupants all wave and call and smile at us and we all wave and call and smile back at them. Why do we do this? People on buses don’t wave and smile at each other.

Hannah and I lived aboard a motor yacht for about eight years in the nineties and to this day are unable to explain this aquatic phenomenon. Whilst upon water, man views his fellow man through a veil of cheery benevolence. An all-encompassing nicety enrobes him. It wouldn’t seem to matter if a passing boatman called across the river…

‘Ahoy there, I’ve just been round to your house, crapped in your sandwich-toaster, stabbed your family and drowned all of your puppies.’ the recipient will still smile and wave back enthusiastically. And yet, the moment our feet hit ‘terra firma’ this waterborne bonhomie evaporates and most humans will happily ignore each other forever after. Weird.

Guru kills the outboard, runs our bow silently onto the beach and we step ashore. There are far fewer people now. More locals than visitors it seems.

‘Fancy a swim before we go?’ I ask.

H agrees and we shed our top clothes and stroll through a patch of tiny seashells on our way to the water. Wading out to about chest depth amid the tethered boats, we find a convenient mooring line to hold on to and just float. Apart from the occasional returning dolphin trip, the quietness is only broken by the wavelets lapping at the sides of the canoes and a periodic ‘Howzat!’ from a group of fishermen and boat owners playing seriously informal cricket on the sand. Gradually, the dipping suns warm, orange light deserts us and the gaily painted craft, retreats to the palms at the back of the beach and slowly climbs the low hillside beyond. Across the Mandovi, Panjim basks in the last rays of the day. Returning to our scooter, Hannah announces a gift. Holding out my hand, I become richer to the sum of three, fine, conical seashells dressed in tapering spirals of cream, moss green and pink. They’ll make a nice addition to the internationally-sourced bowl of pebbles and shells and feathers which sits at home in Cornwall as a reminder of nearly thirty years of loving friendship.

We kiss, towel ourselves down, dress and take a slow ride back towards Baga. A quick change and shower at the Riverside precedes our regular evening restaurant sortie.

‘Where to then, Moriarty?’ I ask as we clamber aboard our trusty Activa.

‘What day is it?’ H asks.

‘Saturday, why?’

‘Let’s do the night markets.’

‘I thought you didn’t care much for the night markets?’

‘No, I enjoy them…as long as you’re not in the market for a fake Rolex and spend all night going between two traders, haggling the price down.’

‘Doing’ the night markets in Goa sounds pretty straightforward but, to me, is one of those activities which ideally requires a degree of mental preparation. The sort of cerebral psyching, I imagine, most often practised by a rugby fifteen before a six-nations final. Come to think of it the ideal attire for such activity would include studded boots, headguard, gumshield and jockstrap with nut cup.

There are two night markets in North Goa, Mackies and Ingos. They are both in Arpora. Mackies is the closer and smaller of the two and sits upon a thin strip of land near the Marinha Dourada Resort where the Baga River flows beneath the Baga Creek Road. Ingos, probably four times the size, is set amongst the trees in the Arpora Hills nearby the Chauranginath Temple and the Riviera De Goa Resort.

‘Shall we just do Ingos?’ I propose.

‘You’re not going to buy another Rolex, are you?

‘No, you’re safe.’ I assure her, and off we head down the Creek Road. Traffic is already heavier than normal and I thread into a procession of scooters and bikes, all heading east in a rowdy, tooting cacophony. At this point I would be irresponsible (and in danger of losing readership) if I were not to suggest that the safest way to get to Ingos Night Market is by taxi or tuk-tuk. The scooters only advantage is its ability to squeeze between the four-wheelers which form a one mile car park between Goat Corner and the Arpora Hills. The traffic is hideous, but, early on at least, largely all travelling one way. I pick what appears to be a confident yet prudent middle-aged Indian rider on an Enfield Bullet and follow in his wheeltracks. Pedestrians skirt both sides of the road and criss-cross to find the fastest moving line. Some carry torches, some wear flashing, multicoloured, l.e.d. trinkets and most wear fearful expressions which, if translated would surely read ‘Please don’t run over my feet, Mr.Taxi driver, I only bought these sandals today.’

When we reach the entrance to the market, I swing across the road, with the panache of an old hand, into the main bike park and try to find an easily recognisable space amongst the hundreds of identical scooters already shoehorned in. Having wedged the bike, we follow the crocodile of visitors through one of the security gates and into the bazaar. The place is packed and I keep a close eye on H to ensure we don’t become separated. The small stalls, generally demarked by palm matting, brightly coloured throws or walls of hung clothes are numerous and varied. Close to the road, the ground is fairly level but as you probe further, the stalls start to climb the hillside, gently at first and steeper at the very top. The international crocodile crowd shuffles to the beat of Pete Tosh’s ‘Johnny B Goode’ played on a stall-holders boom box. Hundreds of bulbs illuminate the traders and their wares and the warm light bathes the underside of the trees beneath which they sit.

For those amongst you who wish to get a flavour of the ambiance of Ingo’s without the inconvenience of travelling 3,000 miles, try this. Stand in the self service queue at Asda at about ten on a bank holiday Saturday morning. Push an i-pod bud playing Bob Marley firmly in your left ear, get a second i-pod bud playing Ravi Shankar in your right ear, stuff a lit, jasmine joss-stick up one nostril, a cinnamon stick up the other and get someone to beat you enthusiastically around the head with a kaleidoscope. It’s really not as bad as it sounds…apart from the being in Asda bit, obviously.

You are vigourously encouraged to convert your wad of rupees into ethnic clothing, printed tee shirts, Tibetan silver jewellery, watches, lighters and tobacco, spices, leather goods, piercings and tattoos, carved and painted wood Buddahs and Ganesh masks, ganja grinders and fluorescent acrylic bongs. In tradition with most markets, sourcing of the original and artistic and desirable takes perseverance and stamina. Needless to say there are sufficient crap trinkets and plentiful tat to satisfy even the least discerning. In the middle of the market is a sound stage, performance area, and communal seating surrounded by food vendors and bars catering, pretty much, to the taste of any nation you could think of. Amongst the local and out-of-state traders are a good number of foreign settlers dedicated to servicing the wants of their respective visitor. Likewise, in addition to the predictable Goan Indian and Asian curries and finger foods, emphasis is placed upon the cuisines of the tourist majorities and menus border on the stereotypical. Here, the Israelis can feast upon potato bourekas, yoghurt and cucumber soup, shakshuka and babka. The Russians can, of course, indulge their love of cabbage shchi, borscht, cabbage pirozhki and at least twenty-six other specialities, one of which does not even contain cabbage (well, not a huge amount of cabbage anyway). The Germans will relish their chicken schnitzels, bratwurst and bockwurst with sauerkraut. The hippy legacy ensures a market for a plentiful variety of beansprout, humous, nut, leaf and lentil-based delicacies.

‘The British?’ I hear you ask.

Well, apparently it is a physiological impossibility for a Brit to endure two weeks in any far-flung corner of foreign fields in the absence of pasties, foil-filled individual shepherds’ pies and, very specifically, Bisto gravy. I’m ashamed to confess that my knowledge of international cuisine does not qualify me to specify the target audience for quinoa salad, shredded roast beef rolls with pickles, onion tart and Christmas biscuits, but if I ever find out I shall be sure to let you know before deleting it from my bucket list.

Chalked menus in Russian, German, Hebrew and English swing amidst the floodlit smoke of fire pits and chargrills. The confusion of cooking smells just adds to the bewildering yet delectable assault on the senses. H and I grab a couple of Belo beers (a genuine local brew from Assolda) and a dish of Indian snacks and pickles and insinuate ourselves into a table of youngish French tourists. The group appear to be dipping slices of pizza Napolitano into a bowl of Goan fish curry whilst simultaneously demolishing Russian salad, gnocchi, two bottles of Ricard and several fat, conical spliffs. They pause regularly but only briefly to exuberantly cheer a pair of talentless fire jugglers in the performance area. The duo seem to be experiencing difficulty in keeping their flaming batons alight and after an all too brief spell of whirring conflagration, disappear into a cloud of billowing paraffin smoke. Strangely, when preparing for the next infernal stunt, the girl in the wispy Kate Bush outfit has no trouble with slopping copious amounts of accelerant and setting her own arm on fire. Only the quick-wittedness of a couple of onlookers and two pints of Kingfisher spoilt what surely would have been a spectacular finale.

We finish our Belo and mingle and browse in serpentine fashion through the tiers of rainbow stalls until we reach the top of the hill. I frequently find myself apologising to Hannah for my borderline OCD in the perusal of every single stall in a market or car boot sale and tonight is no exception. I would hate to think that having scrutinized the wares of one hundred and ninety-nine traders, that solitary item that would make my life complete, whatever it is, is sitting in the middle of a trestle table presented by the two hundredth. Pausing for a moment to survey the twinkling and undisputedly more characterful face of commercialism, and satisfied that not one object d’art has slipped under my radar, I accede to H’s request that we forsake it all for the peace and tranquillity of our hotel balcony.

A remarkably trauma-free tour back to Baga, despite the opposing, motorized tidal surge this time, sees us towel-wrapped and torpid in the company of Messrs. McDowell, Spliff and Lizard. The candlelight and smouldering mosquito coils give our fourth floor gallery an intimate, if crepuscular, ambiance. I worry that the smoke might affect our lizard but he doesn’t seem bothered. The stillness of the air, the combined warmth from the building, the company and from within, and the muted soundscape of Baga conspire to engender a rare serenity. If only life had a pause button. Maybe it has and we just haven’t found it yet. Until we do though, we shall keep returning to Goa and savouring moments like this. H picks up her paperback and whisky and settles back in her chair without saying a word.

Muffled pops and sporadic crackles in the distance and the occasional glow in the sky beyond the palms confirm the continuing firework and alcohol fuelled revelry in the shacks along the beach. Closer by, tiny rustlings in the treetop branches betray the presence of nocturnal company. I roll and light a cigarette for Hannah and then do my bit for the environment by rolling a spliff using one of my night market acquisitions, Raw unbleached, organic hemp smoking papers. I take the time to read the splurge on the inside of the packet.

‘Each Raw organic hemp smoking paper is unlike anything you have ever seen or smoked before. They are watermarked which helps prevent runs and maintains the smooth and even-burning characteristics that Raw Papers are known for. 100% chlorine free and 100% vegan.'

Vegan cigarette papers, I ask you…seems a little to me like painting a bomb with lead-free paint on health and safety grounds. My musings are callously curtailed.

‘You realise you only have one more full day left, don’t you?’ Hannah casually interjects. I suppose someone had to say it. It’s a bit like my mums cooking, you’re sat at the table, you know it’s coming but that knowledge still doesn’t prepare you for the shock when it arrives. You just don’t want to accept that time has played a cruel trick upon your brain. What you thought were two days was, in fact, a fortnight.

‘You sound remarkably blasé.’ I reply.

‘That’s ‘cause I’m not going with you.’ Hannah retorts. ‘You’ll have to go home, sell the house, inoculate the cats and fetch them back out in a couple of weeks time. I’ll stay on and find us all a nice little place with a corrugated tin roof and a palm tree or two, a sea view and a lizard. Problem solved!’

We look to each other, stare into each others eyes and project those little smiles which fail to hide just how much we both wish it could happen.

‘We’d still need an income.’ I remind her.

‘You could write a book. You always said you wanted to be a writer rather than a dumb lorry driver.’

I pass over the spliff, we clink glasses and dream.

Like many a poignant moment, this one is brought to a premature end when a particularly inept moth hits Hannah in the eye before spiralling like a stricken Stuka into her whisky and Coke. Time to don my insect super-hero suit again, I suppose.

An heroic rescue, an hour or so, and way too many Roddys later, we are lying and listening to the whirr of departing suitcase wheels on the concrete-nippled, poolside slabs as they interrupt Bill Brysons opening to chapter one of ‘Notes From A Small Island’.

‘Chapter one. There are certain idiosyncratic notions you quietly come to accept when you live for a long time in Britain. One is that…

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