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Elephants & Enfields - Chapter 4.

Updated: Jan 3, 2023

Graffiti by Banksy Patel


The Road to Mandrem

Balcony Birdies - Scooter Hire - Supermarket Tennis

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


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, my lad?’, … ‘Do you fancy watching “PS, I Love You” again?’ and …‘Do we really need to do a full body search, 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?


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

I grasp the hot mug, screw the pre-lit cigarette 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 before the little, grey cells swing their feet to the floor.

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

‘Have I told you that 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 with a dodgy-looking leg. 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 Asian House Crows drown out the occasional muffled bar. 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, though, 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.’ H whispers.

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 in silence 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 superbike racer 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 Terminator 2.

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 nearby 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 adverb and pronoun 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 kick-starting 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.’


(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 clearly 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.’

The lad eyes me up and down, feverishly trying to find any sign of disability which would preclude me from packing my own shopping.

‘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. Worst of all, she appeared at my elbow with her mental copy of ‘Little Book of Hard Bargaining Phrases’.

‘Oh, that sounds fair, darling.’

‘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, hanging 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 within sight of a policeman.

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’ve had experience of a piloting a bike with a pillion passenger will know how tricky it can be to maintain a true course when the ‘baggage’ 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 than ever 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 and applying drool to some unfortunate maiden’s décolletage. Spending twenty minutes trying to get ones custard-yellow, two-inch platform boots unstuck from the fly-paper carpet around the shabby bar did look almost like dancing. 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 preceded 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 it on 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 ChauranginathTemple.

I’m not too ashamed to announce here that my knowledge of Hinduism is, at best, sketchy. My all-too-brief time upon this planet precludes me from using it on such ‘cul-de-sac’ trivialities as Greek mythology, ‘Lord of The Rings’, astrology, ‘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 Chauranginath 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 and 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 ChauranginathTemple 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 four 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 with the complexity and enormity of life and finality of death.

b) … Needful or desirous of power or influence.


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 I.A.R. 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 TowelValley 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 the 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 ChaporaRiver 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 through the evening until 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 neighbour, 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 proprietress 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 of the kingfisher 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 ChaporaValley. 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 in Goa 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, benevolent 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.

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