21st February 2011, Mumbai Airport.
So here it is, the last instalment in Serena's Fifth Big Adventure. Read on to find out how I fared in Badami, and the fun I had barefoot on the beaches of Goa.
I got the train from Bijapur to Badami. It was practically empty, and chugged along at an unhurried pace. I rested my head against the bars on the open window, and watched the world go by, enjoying my last Indian train ride of the trip. I had happy memories of Badami, particularly of watching the monkeys at sunset, and had been looking forward to returning to the town. It's only a small place, but seemed terribly hectic, the main road through town was jammed with vehicles and pedestrians. There are only a handful of hotels in Badami and, with the exception of a couple of pricier joints, these are all clustered around the bus stand. Prices were higher than I expected, and standards lower, but I found somewhere that would do at a pinch.
The main draw in Badami is a series of carved cave temples, Hindu and Jain, set into the rock face on the far side of town. A handful of regular, ruined temples are scattered on the opposite rocky outcrop, and I explored this area first. The residential area off the main road is filled with boxy, whitewashed houses with flat roofs that have a biblical look to them. I wandered through the streets later, snapping photos of the children I met along the way. As I was making my way back to the main road, I came across a bustling vegetable market, the vendors sitting in the road surrounded by their wares. I decided to take a wander around before returning to my hotel, and was glad I did.
As I turned a corner I saw an elephant walking towards me. She had Om signs and other symbols and writing drawn on her in chalk, and was collecting money from stall-holders and shoppers in exchange for the customary bonk-on-the-head blessing. In places tarps were strung across the streets, providing shelter for the market traders, and the mahoot had to lift these up and flatten himself along the elephant's back to fit under them. I ran around happily, taking a multitude of photos from this angle and that. Whether on the mahoot's instructions, or by her own initiative (I suspect the latter), the elephant decided I'd had enough free pictures; it was time to pay up. She started banging me on the head with her trunk, not at all gently. An elephant's hide is hard and rough and I actually thought she'd grazed my forehead at first - it certainly stung. I found my purse quickly and, not having any coins to hand, passed her a Rs10 note, which she deftly plucked from my fingers with her trunk, and passed to the laughing mahoot.
That afternoon I visited the caves, paying Rs250 entrance (£3.50) where Indians pay Rs5. There were many groups of rowdy school children there, all wanting their photographs taken. Admittedly I'd been enjoying photographing the locals of late; it had been a highlight of my stays in Bidar and Bijapur . . . but having just forked out a hefty sum to see the caves, I wanted to concentrate on them - and there were just so many kids! A crowd would surround me, asking the usual: "What's your name?" Serena. "Where you from?" England. Then the child next to him would ask "What's your name?" Serena. "Where you from?" England. By the third consecutive round of the same questions, it was hard not to be irked. And then that crowd would move off to be replaced by another. One particularly annoying group of girls, around eleven or twelve, got so eager to have me take their pictures that they started punching me. I marched up to the teacher (telltale tit) and expressed my displeasure at the behaviour of those in his charge. He started shouting and lashing out, walloping any girl that didn't run away quick enough. Still, it gave me a moment's respite . . . until the next group arrived.
Near to Badami are a couple of places of interest: Pattadakal, and the amusingly named Aihole. Both contain a number of impressive temples - although, as they were carved from sandstone, they have not stood the test of time as well as those in Belur and Halebid. I intended visiting both by bus, and arrived at the bus stand just before eight o'clock. On asking, I was told the bus would be here in ten minutes. Half an hour later, when I asked again, I was told that the bus would be here in ten minutes. Half an hour after that they admitted that the bus had broken down on its way to Badami . . . but it should arrive in ten minutes. Twenty minutes after that I gave up and caught a rickshaw. The jolly driver explained that there was a big festival beginning the next day, at a temple five kilometres outside of town. That could well have explained why Badami was so busy, as I don't remember that from my previous visit. He asked if I wanted to pop in there to see the preparations, which I did.
He drove into the grounds and stopped by a huge chariot, which was in the process of being painted with a thick, gooey brown liquid. The wheels were the height of a man and made of solid stone. The following day the temple deity would be placed in the chariot and men would drag then drag it as part of the festivities. From what I can gather, chariot pulling is a major part of most Indian temples; I have also heard that the men pulling said chariots are often heavily inebriated, so I'm guessing there are a fair few deaths by chariot each year. We had a look around the site, as people were setting up stalls (bangles being a favourite item sold) in readiness for the start of the festival. My driver told me that 5 lakh people were expected; that's half a million to you or me. I started mentally umming and erring - should I hang around for the festival? Could I handle being amongst half a million over excited Indians, many wanting their pictures taking? It was tempting, and I spent all afternoon deliberating, but in the end I decided against it. If a few hundred school children had driven me to distraction at the caves the previous day, I dreaded to think how I would cope with hearing "what's your name?" 500,000 times! There was also the safety aspect - just a couple of days previously more than a hundred people were crushed to death at a festival in neighbouring Kerala. I still feel like I bottled it though. Never mind; next time . . .
We left the festival grounds and drove on, over the most god-awful potholed roads; the bumps were severe enough to dislodge an internal organ or two. We passed a great many people walking the other way or sitting in the shade of trees. There were groups small and large, many of the people dressed in orange or wearing orange caps. These were devotees walking to the festival - some would come as far as 100 kilometres, taking many days to make the journey. They called and waved as they spotted me, and I spent most of the time leaning out of the rickshaw waving back. As we drove through a small village a schoolboy called and waved at me from where he was squatting at the side of the road. As I turned round to wave back at him, I realised he was pants-down mid-crap! Friendly little lad all the same. The temples were nice, some more impressive than others, and the driver did quite well at hiding his impatience at me snapping stupid amounts of pictures. I tipped him well after we'd jolted back to town, knowing that his waiting time with me would have been a lot longer than for your average tourist.
The next day I skipped town, feeling like a wuss for not staying for the festival. Gokarna was next on my itinerary, which sits on Karnatakaís coastline, and is a favourite place amongst many travellers. After several hours on a couple of buses I arrived in the town and arranged digs for a few nights. Gokarna is a temple town, popular with religious pilgrims . . . only most of the temples seemed to be in regular houses, none of the fancy buildings that had impressed me so much in Tamil Nadu. There were a lot of tourists in town, and many hippies in outlandish garb, some with the stringy appearance and slow drawl of heroin users. There was a multitude of shops aimed at tourists and a few grubby eateries with crowds of dreadlocked travellers clustered outside. I guess if you've come here from Goa, then Gokarna would feel like "the real India" to you; having come from lesser-visited sites in Karnataka, the town just felt odd to me, neither one thing nor another. Not enough facilities to be a "seaside resort" and too many white faces to feel like an authentic Indian town.
Foreigners come here largely for the nearby beaches, which are a bit of a hike away. I knew that already, and had imagined a beautiful clifftop path with stunning views. It wasn't like that at all, rather an ugly track leading through scrub with the sun beating down. The first beach I got to, after a 20-minute hike, was Kudle Beach; it was okay. A bay with a wide strip of sand that wasn't too dirty, not that many people on it - just a group skipping here; a girl twirling poi there; a fella learning to juggle over there. New-age couples with inordinate amounts of naked children running around and splashing in the sea. I couldn't really see what all the fuss was about. I walked on to Om Beach another day accompanied by a stray dog who was rather unlucky - he got hit by a motor bike and kicked by a cow within the first five minutes of our acquaintance, and later a small child tried to stab him with a fork, until I intervened. I had a feeling that he was a beach dog who'd followed someone back to town one day, and needed an escort to get back to the beach; he didn't seem very street smart. Om Beach is so named because it is shaped like the Indian symbol for Om (or Aum) ૐ, a mystical symbol and sound to the Indians which kind of represents life, the universe and everything. The beach was all right. I don't know, I have a feeling I missed the point with Gokarna - I just can't see why people rave about the place.
I did make use of my time there though, by getting on with a little work I had to do . . . and if I'm really, really lucky I might just get paid for it as well. On New Years Day the owner of the hotel I was staying at in Varkala - no doubt impressed by my drunkenness the night before - asked me to go into business with him. He wanted me to send him customers from the UK - just quite how he expects me to do that, I'm not quite sure, and I confessed this to him. In my hungover state I said I'd think about it, but suggested to him that what he really needed was a website. He asked if I could make one for him, and I agreed. Mostly because, if I'm honest, the palm reader in Kanyakamuri had told me that January would be a good time to make business plans; had he asked me the previous day, I might well have said no (and if he doesn't cough up the dosh, I may well wish I had done!). You may mock, but the soothsayer correctly predicted my food poisoning and said I would travel (a weak one that, admittedly), so I thought I'd trust him on this score. So this is what I knocked up www.cmbeachresort.com . . . and if you are thinking of going to Varkala, stay there and tell the boss I sent you!
After a few days I figured it was time to get to a proper beach that was seconds from my room instead of half an hour or more. Time for Goa! I had wondered, as I was enjoying my hectic travels around Karnataka, whether I should rethink my plans. From the start I'd intended spending the last month in Goa, relaxing and working on my tan. Would I regret the time spent taking it easy and lolling around? Should I do some more hardcore sightseeing instead? Nah. Time to get lazy! First stop Palolem in the south of the tiniest of all Indian states. Distance from Gokarna - a little over 100 kilometres; time taken to get there - four hours and three buses. Palolem Beach is beautiful. A long sweeping bay lined by palms; rocks and interesting stuff at either end; safe, calm water for swimming. The powers that be have done their utmost to prevent the rampant development that has swamped many a Goan beach, by decreeing that only temporary structures by be built along the beach, so the accommodation is made up of wooden beach huts that must be dismantled at the end of each season.
I was here five years ago, when there were a fair few place to stay, but now the wooden huts are crowded into almost every available space between the palm trees. As I got off the bus a guy offered me to stay in his establishment, and gave me and my pack a lift there on the back of his moped. The huts were nice, brightly painted (mine even had a palm tree growing through the wall - they'd cut a bit out of the hardboard to squeeze the hut around the tree). It had a little veranda too - very nice . . . except it was cheek by jowl with a number of other huts, in a line perpendicular to the beach, facing a similarly claustrophobic cluster of double-decked huts, one on top of the other. I paid for just one night, and after a refreshing swim I had a look around to see if I could find anything a little roomier for the remainder of my stay in Palolem. I spotted a place a few doors up that had their huts arranged around a nice piece of grass, shaded by palms. They could have fitted twice the number, maybe more, but had opted for a more spacious layout. Just the ticket - I moved in the next day.
Whilst reclining on the beach in Gokarna, I had met a young beach-seller girl. She'd just come over to tout her wares when she froze and said, "oh no, a policeman!" The copper collared another girl, her sister as it turned out. As we waited to see what the outcome would be, she told me that she, her three sisters and her mother live in Madgaon in Goa, and usually work at Palolem . . . but this year there were too many sellers on the beach, it was too hard to make a buck. So the family had decided to travel five hours to Gokarna, spend a few hours trying their luck there, then travel for another five hours back home. She looked knackered. I had thought she'd said that there were 15 or 16 sellers at Palolem, but once I got there I realised it was 50 or 60. It was a constant stream: "You want manicure pedicure madam? Nice henna tattoo? Have a look my jewellery, good price." I saw the girl there one day, her mother and elder sister had travelled to Gokarna while the rest of the family had stayed closer to home. The sellers must each pay Rs100 (£1.50) a day to the village, for allowing them to sell on the beach, plus a further Rs100 in backsheesh to the police - you do the maths, the police are coining it in!
Palolem may be a lot busier than it used to be - the music from the restaurants overlap one another as you walk along the beach - but it is still just as beautiful, I loved it. The place where I was staying had a few sunbeds out front (which were switched with tables as night fell, for on-the-beach dining), and I'd lay out there for a couple of hours in the morning and afternoon, avoiding the midday sun. The rest of my time was taken up with strolls along the beautiful bay, taking photographs, or working on those I'd already taken. A wonderfully relaxed pace of life, I highly recommend it! I was only planning to stay a few days - a week max - wanting to spend the bulk of my time in Arambol, which I'd enjoyed so much the first time around. I figured I might visit Old Goa, and see some churches and other sites too, get that last bit of sight seeing in. But my plans changed after I met someone that I got quite attached to . . . my Palolem beach dog.
She was an old girl, white hairs sprouted from her muzzle and she was lame in her hind leg. She had a browbeaten look to her, slinking around with her head down. She'd sheltered under my sun lounger once or twice, but we'd not taken much notice of each other. One afternoon just before sunset, as I returned to the beach with my camera, she greeted me at the steps to the sand (it was about a 20 second walk from the door of my hut to the beach - it's a hard life!). She gave a little yip, and attempted to wag her corkscrewed tail (it curled round like a spring, looking more like a pig's tail than a dog's. I spotted a great number of similar tails around the beach - obviously a dominant gene). I gave her a stroke on the head and set off along the beach. She followed me, and was then pounced upon by the neighbouring restaurantís dogs, who ganged up on her two against one. I never did like to see bullying, so stepped in on her side, swinging my bag at the attacking dogs and shouting, protecting my new-found friend. We saw them off, and I made a big fuss of her . . . and that was that! From then on we were almost inseparable. I delayed my plans to leave, and popped to the nearest town to buy some dog food for her instead, which I fed to her on my porch where she also slept at night.
"Where is your doggy?" The boys at the restaurant would ask. "Why is she so lazy?" This was true, she was quite a lazy dog . . . but I was getting pretty lazy myself, so we were a good pair really. She did follow me down the beach one morning as I went out taking pictures. We had to run in a few places, when other dogs spotted her on their territory and came racing up, barking viciously. We got about halfway around the bay when she sat down, refusing to go any further. It was at the spot where the beach road meets the beach, and this area seemed to be a doggy no man's land - there were always plenty of dogs there (and cows, and the odd pig too), but nobody got territorial about it. She sat on the sand, watching me as I continued around the sweeping bay. When I got to the northern end, where a river feeds into the sea, a guy approached me asking if I wanted to go on a boat trip up the river a way. I immediately thought of my doggy waiting for me, but it seemed a bit daft to miss out because of that, so I agreed.
The river trip was very nice and peaceful. Engines are not allowed, so the guy poled us around the calm waters, where kingfishers fished and bee-eaters showed off their pretty plumage with some fancy flying. After an hour we returned to the beach, and I walked back, seeing that the dog was not where I'd left her, and assuming she'd gone home. She wasn't at the restaurant when I returned, and the waiters hadn't seen her. I put my camera away, and lay out for my morning sunbathe . . . but I couldn't get the dog out of my mind. What if she was still waiting for me? She'd be trapped there, with many territories to cross to get home. It was no good, I had to go looking for her - and sure enough, there she was, waiting in the shade of a boat. She was very pleased to see me, dancing around and talking to me in her doggy way (I've come across a lot of talking dogs in India!). We walked back along the beach and I gave her a big drink of water when we got home.
I cancelled any half-formed plans of doing anything cultural in Goa, and resigned myself to being a beach bum - and I have to say it came very easily to me. I went out kayaking one afternoon, on a boat trip to see dolphins another morning, took lots of photos, read loads of books and relaxed, enjoying my time with my Palolem doggy. After a fortnight though I felt I really should move on, and beach hop from Palolem to Arambol. I said a tearful farewell to my dog, and asked the owner to please look after her. He said he would, and that the dog had been around at least three seasons, and always managed to "get a tourist!" I boarded a bus and bade farewell to Palolem.
Five hours and four buses later I got dropped on the main road through Arambol, and began walking towards the beach. It was a long hike, and I was hot and tired by the time I neared the beach. A man approached me asking if I needed a room, showing me a basic, clean room for Rs250. I couldn't see the sea though - it was a good five minutes away, and that just would not do! I continued on, cutting through to the beach, and trying a few places there. When I'd been in Arambol last, I'd looked enviously at the rooms perched over the water along the low cliff that leads to the smaller, prettier Kalacha beach. I dreamt of returning one day and staying in one of these rooms, so I left my pack at an accommodating beach restaurant and went in search of my perfect room. I'd looked at many that weren't quite right, and was then shown the perfect place, overlooking some rocks and the sea, with scope for my hammock (always a priority at the seaside).
The room would be vacated at six, so I went back for my pack and waited at an adjacent restaurant. In true Indian style, six o'clock came and went. By seven, when it was dark, I spoke to the owner, who assured me that the couple were just about to check out, and the room would be ready within the hour. I needed to get some mosquito coils, so walked back along the rocky cliff path and onto Glastonbury Street, the main drag with lots of shops. Walking back, I crossed a small, precarious bamboo bridge, and managed to put my foot right through it, scraping a considerable chunk of skin from my shin. Half an hour after I got back the room was finally ready - my perfect dream room . . . only the sea was bloody loud as it crashed against the rocks, and my phone and Internet didn't work, as I was under the cliff. Sometimes the thing you think you want most in the world turns out to be not what you want at all.
I decided to stay two nights, as the view really was fabulous, and set off the next morning for a walk along the beach. About an hour along I came to Mandrem, a wonderfully peaceful spot. A few restaurants strung out along the shore, sun beds out front. This is where I want to stay, I said to myself, and enquired about a room. We settled on Rs500 a night and I agreed to stay for twelve nights, until it was time to leave Goa and India behind and fly home. I walked away from the place with a big smile upon my face, looking out to sea as I crossed the sand - and saw a dolphin leap right out of the water just where I was looking. That was a much better omen than falling through a bridge! Arambol had changed a lot since my last visit (or maybe my memories were rose-tinted), and was much busier and dirtier than it had been . . . and I'd been surprised at how grubby the beach was then. My new home was fronted by a much cleaner stretch of sand, and was a lot more peaceful.
The days rolled by, and my camera saw a lot of action. I took long walks along the beach, either north to Arambol or south, one day walking as far as Morjim several kilometres away, where the beach ends as a large river enters the sea. I found a place where pretty, translucent pebbles sat temptingly on the sand, just asking to be picked up and transported to England. I became addicted to collecting them, and couldn't walk past the spot without picking more up; I now have around a kilo of them in my pack. I filled up camera cards with shots of kitesurfers speeding along in the wind that picked up during the afternoon, leaping up in the air, suspended like magic for a second or two before crashing back down with a splash. I put in my time on the sunbed too, topping up my tan to an impressive shade of brown - for me, at least . . . then on the last day felt the tiny bumps on my skin that foretold of the peeling to come. It'll be sod's law if the best tan I've ever had doesn't even make it as far as Heathrow.
I got a taxi to the airport earlier today, leaving plenty of time. First a short hop to Mumbai, then - after one of the bumpiest landings I've ever experiences - a seven hour wait for my flight home. Fortunately the first two hours were taken up with queuing for the shuttle bus from the Domestic terminal to the International (one hour); the bus ride between terminals (twenty minutes); queuing behind a large group of Chinese to get through immigration (half an hour); and sundry security checks. So the story ends here - or this chapter of it at least. I'm sat at Mumbai Airport waiting for my flight to Heathrow (where hopefully Chris will actually be waiting for me this time round). I've had a wonderful eleven months, taken a staggering 43,000 pictures, and enjoyed my adventures immensely. After a bit of a shaky start, I've fallen back in love with India, and will hopefully return again one day.