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Elephants and Enfields - Chapter 2 "The Road To Baga"


 







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



‘Did you get a taxi?’ I interrupted.

‘No, let’s get one from the official rank.’ replied Hannah.

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 (delete as applicable) and who, you can guarantee, will be ticketed for your transport.

You know what it’s like. We’d all be sat on the coach with our welcome garlands of flowers around our necks, clutching complimentary plastic bottles of chilled water. The middle-aged Scottish couple half way down the coach would give us all the benefit of their assessment of the temperature.

“Cor, it’s hot!”

“I was nay thinkin’ it would be this hot.”

“Are you no hot?”

“I dunnay think I like it this hot.”

I would have to stifle the urge to say “What were you expecting this close to the equator; a ski-lift to your hotel? A taxi pulled by reindeer? Scott of the Antarctic allocating sun beds to the polar bears?”

The older I get, the more difficult I find the act of urge-stifling.

The travel representative has done a name check and a head count several times over and, try though she may, cannot reconcile her total with that on the manifest. She is clutching her clipboard and running up and down the aisle 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 coach 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, contrary to regulations, 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 Maruti Omnis.

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 that fur matches the dashboard fur in any way whatsoever.


2.) Tint those ridiculously clear windows. I know, we should have mirrored them as standard. Reduced visibility won’t be a huge problem as 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, heavy-duty battery because the puny one we installed won’t be able to cope once you’ve fitted the adornments. 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 either when you’ve got Celine Dion singing her heart out every time you select reverse.


6.) Finally, hand it over to your friendly local sign writer 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 jeepney cabbie found in the Philippines.

Of course, I write this with a deep sense of affection for the Goan taxi driver and his trusty mount. In all of 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 asshole of nowhere at three in the morning and out from the back of a coconut palm will 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, Christ-crucified, bonnet mascot!

We rocket, as best a Maruti can rocket, from the confines of the airport onto National Highway 17A, slide open the windows and sink back into the fur covered seats 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’s 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 cigarette 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 steaming 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 AzuriRiver 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 parts of the 200 foot hulks which aren’t already 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 water 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 only 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 workings of, and forever adhered to, the drive train 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 an oncoming 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 stuff.

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 myriad 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 in bygone years.

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 One 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, maybe, to ogle the woman in front and be captivated by the bead of sweat trickling provocatively down her spine towards her buttock cleavage? Or is that just me?

You’re not going to be getting a nice stainless steel, 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; what they need is a damned good slap for being so lazy during the day. I’ve got more cavity than tooth now because I’ve barely the energy to squeeze the toothpaste from its tube at the end of the day. They, by contrast, are 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 have 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 jog pants? It’s like putting your socks on over the top of your shoes. Tossers! There, now I’ve alienated half of 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 largely 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 RiverBridge. 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 with a 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 ambivalence toward all forms of religion, I do admire the believers’ tenacity, fortitude and dedication.

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

The concrete Zuari River 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 west coast railway.

Through the morning 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 habitations of an ancient ex-Himalayan community, the Saraswats, who moved here when, in 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 to support healthy plant growth 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 are also grown. These 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 feet 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 back 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 built 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 is beautifully hand sign written 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 visual 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, equipped 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. If not the finest, then, maybe the 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 its 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 ensuring their passage 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 even further afield. Raj’s devotion, like that of many travellers, is of the drive-thru variety…a hefty hoot on the horn in passing.

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

‘IPHB Mental Hospital’, the huge GoaMedical 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 a 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 sadistic, manic-depressive, military client with a repressed imagination, and convert them into bricks and mortar. Whether in India, Germany or Catterick Camp, Yorkshire, they invariably possess all the charm and classy aesthetic of a 1960’s, concrete, council block. I’ll bet that last location sent a shiver up the spine of many erstwhile squaddies.

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?

Gary Miller had somehow been given, or had otherwise taken possession of, motorised transport. Although three-on-a-motorbike is considered positively uncrowded and everyday here in Goa, I suppose 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 tobacconists), and hurtling through the sleepy, sunlit rows of pines, was likely to attract the curiosity of the Norfolk Constabulary.

Needless to say, the faeces made contact with the electrical ventilation device and a stark decision was offered me by my disappointed father. 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. Neither was the prospect of rising at 4 a.m. or having to marry an eighteen stone, ruddy-cheeked, steer-wrestling relative.

I have always enjoyed drawing and had a fascination for maps of all descriptions, so when I read that the Royal Engineers had the task of military 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 persuaded them to let me see inside. I clambered up and dropped into the driver’s seat where 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 plumes of white smoke billowing from the twin exhaust pipes that proved my ‘achievement’.

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

And so, in June 1973, 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 my local station in Stowmarket, Suffolk. It was inscribed with the name of a, hitherto mystical, possibly fictional land going by the homely misnomer, Darlington.

I was stuffed onto the first train for Catterick Garrison, Yorkshire (even further up north) with the news that the next time I would see home and kin was weeks hence on completion of my basic military 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 (Absent Without Leave). I reached Darlington station to find an olive-drab, three ton, Bedford taxi waiting to chauffeur me and one other red-eyed, 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 colleague’s 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. John looked at me. Despite the brevity of our friendship, he didn’t strike me as a cunt. Although I was no expert on the subject, I 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. This military police sergeant either had an overactive thyroid or our army careers were off to a very 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 that civilianship offers.

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 (Egretta garzetta), 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 Portuguese 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 antennae.

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 Portuguese colonization.

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

The successions of large roundabouts at Patto are heaving with traffic as it’s 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 Portuguese 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.

Patto’s 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 and early December clear in their diaries for the spectacle in Panjim.

DESCRIBE LATERITE

Out to our left, as Raj sweeps off the Patto roundabout, is the Kadamba bus terminal, bulging with buses which couldn’t boast a flat panel between them, but we carry on along NH17 and the ramp upward to the MandoviBridge.

There are two parallel bridges spanning the Mandovi here 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 quantity of 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, downstream, and on the opposite side of the river to Panjim, is the village of Betim. There is a little ferry here which chugs 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 but, if you’re a self-catering pescatarian, you’re in luck, 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, unusually, 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 college students sat next to the front window 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 to 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, on that day 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 to attend to the griddle, 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. I was on my way back into the garden with it, with 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 Cornish pasty shop.

I was digging illegal substances, knives 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 any corrupt policemen, 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 several months ago 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 their own interests 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 Portuguese colonial rule in 1961.

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

Following a skirmish involving the targeting of Goan fishing boats, the death of a fisherman and a 36 hour land, sea and air battle, the Portuguese had finally signed a ‘surrender’ of sorts after 451 years of occupation. Contributions to culture, cuisine, and architecture were little compensation for the repression, denial of freedom of speech, torture, imprisonment and attempted emasculation of Goan identity. No wonder celebrations are so wild on December 17th each year, Liberation Day.

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 Portuguese 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 Saligao 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. Tarmacadam 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 on which 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 EiffelTower. 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 airport 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 are carrying bundles of sticks or doors or shutters or farm tools or all of the above. Women and young girls clutch 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 is 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, Fido having a piss 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 its super-ornate pargetry and wood carvings in white and gold. It has a surfeit of altars (at least five that I can remember) and an unusual, wall-hung, rococoesque pulpit which is as spangled as a whore’s handbag. When the sun drops beneath the palm tops, its 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 the largest part, but only a quarter of the sprawling, seaside conurbation which lies between the Mandovi River to the south and the BagaRiver 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. He 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 windmill 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 farm 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 week-old, bloated, contorted, Greek Cypriot body lying on the Nicosia road 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’s kitchen and the fetor of boiling ox hearts for the dog! 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 whilst scootering 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.

I have since come to know, love and care for goats. Three creamy white Saanan billies who, through their mischievous actions, have become known collectively as ‘The Norty Boys Club’. Founder member, oldest at two years and most norty, Billy Burgers, has made it his mission to educate Valentine and Vindaloo in the fine art of not doing anything they are told, stripping bark from any tree within sight and trying to eat their newly-built accommodation. Within weeks of fitting a new, bespoke, hardwood stable door, Billy and Vindaloo have digested most of it. Electric fences do little to slow them down or curtail their ambition to put me in an early grave. Billy’s eaten two of my beanie hats and one pair of expensive, prescription glasses, stripped the drawstrings from my coats and jog pants, chewed holes in every t-shirt I own and broken into the garden to savour every expensive shrub ever planted there…and still we treat him to his favourite, bananas. It’s difficult to be cross, though, when these cheeky ungulates prompt so much laughter.

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 now 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. Interspersed between them are small, shabby houses and the odd Portuguese 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 playing cards and lolloping on plastic garden chairs by the river, 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 fortnight’s 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.



















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