Scooters, forts, and the search for Rocinante

Trip Start Feb 19, 2006
Trip End Oct 01, 2006

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Monday, March 13, 2006

Rocinante, is that you?--the search for a suitable Royal Enfield continues. It is not a "royal" pain in the arse yet, but there is still legwork to be done. I have decided to rename the cycle when I get one (they all have names), and christen it Rocinante, in honor of Don Quixote's faithful old horse, and also in honor of John Stienbeck, who borrowed the name for his camper van in his witty and insightful book "Travels with Charley." A recommended read for anyone, but don't be drinking milk as you read, or you may end up with milk streaming out of your nose when you get to the funny parts. One of the few books that have ever made me laugh straight out loud.

I have been spending most days with my friend James, and a fellow from Canada by way of Germany named Jay, and Linda, a german psychology student living here in India for 8 months or so. All in all, a good "gang" to run with. Evenings we congregate at the rice bowl for a couple of games of pool, and hanging with our other partners in crime, the ever-present Mick, and his wife Sue, Milo, an Aussie couple of whom I forget names, and the various others who come and go. The staff of the rice bowl joins in sometimes in the pool, and we share yuks, smokes and King's all round.

Despite the comfortablility of Arumbol, the need sometimes arises to get the hell out of town for a day. Renting scooters seems the preferred method.
Jay had one rented already, James wanted to stay in, so Linda and I went down to see my friend with the scooterrentaltaxitravelagentinternetcafe around the corner. Haggling down from 150 to 125 was no problem, as he sees me most every day and it is really about developing relationships with the local merchants to get the best deals.
Linda got a scooter, and I got a geared bike, a little suzuki 150 to drive. My first India driving experience was underway.
Gassing up, like everything else is a little different here. Pulling into the lone petrol station in Arumbol, a man there said it was closed, but they had gas across the street at a little cafe. We pulled in there and the man asked "How many litres?" Two each we related, and motioning to his buddy on the other side of the wall they brought out six one-liter water bottles filled with orange gasoline. At least like everything else in India, the numerous water bottles drunk up by soft-stomached pasty westerners have another utilitarian role. Fueled up and ready, we took to the road.

Everyone talks about the hierarchy of the Indian Road, and it is pretty true. Highest on the chain are the trucks and buses, which you pass at your own peril, next come the cars, motorbikes, pedestrians and cows. Bicycles are somewhere between dogs and monkeys in the order, being run off the road by the bigger powered vehicles.
Driving on the left is no problem compared to finding your way along the snaky and unmarked tracks that pass for roads in these parts. Looking closely one might see the name of a town with a loopy arrow painted on the side of a building somewhere, and occasionally the stray road sign with actual directions on it at certain crossroads.

We were on our way first to a neighboring beach to catch up with Elaine and Sally, a Brit and a kiwi doing a whistlestop tour of India. We had all met in Arumbol at, (where else??) the Rice Bowl, and had had a good time for a couple of days before they moved to a new hut on the beach some 10 km away and across a river.
Asking for directions must be done a number of times, as everyone has a different idea about how to get to places and so will point you toward any point of the compass. Best thing to do is ask numerous people, count the pointing fingers, and take an average direction. Be sure to get a proper 60% before proceeding.
After about an hour we found "silence" the name of the place where the girls were staying, and walked out to the beach to talk a bit before proceeding. Turns out that they could not get a hold of scooters, and so were not coming on the trip.
Mandrem beach is a little more "package" touristy, though a beautiful and small beach. The package tourist is easy to spot by the hue of skin, mostly a glowing white that precludes the need for a torch on night walks. Also the average weight of them, at least on Mandrem is about 325 pounds, or damn near 100 kilos. Best to keep the Animal rescue folks out of there, or they would be banding together trying to push them all back into the water. Every time a helicopter passes, the package tourists scan the skies, looking for a huge sling hanging from it, and waving so as not to be mistaken for some kind of albino sea creature beached under the palm trees.
We bid another fond farewell to Sally and Elaine, as they were heading out in the morning to another quick stop on their full itinerary. Nice girls, and a lot of fun.

Back on the scooters after a study of the nonsensical tourist map of Goa, and a spirited discussion on cricket with the Silence staff, we had decided to go to one of the old-style portugese forts that dot the hilltops here, a holdover from the colonial days. On the way we had heard about a town that had a shop with the best Lassis, a curd-and-fruit drink much like a milkshake. Donning a bandanna headband and my wrap-around shades, I felt a little like dennis hopper in Easy Rider, and had to resist the urge to flip off the drivers as I passed, instead opting for the more civilized horn honking, as is the custom on the road.
Halfway up the hill Linda's scooter started to shimmy in the front end, a little quirk this machine had exhibited a few times earlier, and which now had gotten worse. Being the handy guy that I am, I quickly found the problem: the front tire was unevenly worn, and badly scalloped. Not too terribly unsafe by Indian standards, but for the novice rider quite unnerving. We parked her scooter by the side of the road, and since I had the powerful bike, I took her on mine.
After thinking ourselves lost many times, pulling over for the huge buses barrelling around the tight one-lane corners, and passing many slow trucks, we finally came to a small town (don't blink you'll miss it) with a juice bar type of place in the center.
A couple of good lassis sorted us out just fine. A westerner, about 55 years old who looked like he had been in Goa for a few years at least kept staring at me. With my dark sunglasses I was sure he couldn't see my eyes. I almost did the old trick of pulling the shades down revealing eyes looking off to the side, but he looked kind of sketchy, as though he had been chewing betel nuts, drinking fenney and smoking hash for far too many years. Hell, with the properties of Fenney, it is entirely possible that he was blind. Either way that shall remain a mystery, as it was time to brush away the flies, drink our lassis, and head to the hilltop fort that stood sentinel over the estuarial village.

Finally 60% of the pointing fingers went the same direction, and getting close, we actually saw a sign crudely painted on the wall outside of (of all things) a Days Inn. .
Up the winding road and at last we saw the fort clearly. The red stone ramparts were at least 500 meters long on any side, and old-style watchtowers dotted it's length.
The walk up was a little treacherous, as the tiny iron-laden stones around here get rounded and worn, making it a little like walking on marbles.
Reaching the summit and walking the length a little, we came to an archway entrance to the fort, and inside there was not much to see, just an arid expanse of dry grass with the ever present stones sticking up out of the ground. On the other end, however, there was a view. From this height one can see all round, the river mouth and estuary, up and down the beaches, and the hills of the interior. Fishing boats headed in to the harbor with their daily catch, all lined up and waiting for their turn to dock. A rocky promontory stuck out into the sea, and few people were on it. We were the only western tourists there, as at this time of the season people from all over India visit Goa to see the sights.
After drinking in the panorama spread out before us, we ran into a group of about 15 indian young men, who were posing perched on the archway and trying to take a picture. "Friends! Get in picture, yes?" they motioned to us. Jay and I jumped up there and I taught them all to "throw the goat" a traditional American gesture meaning "Rock and Roll!" They took to it quite readily, shouting "rock and roll!" in all degrees of broken English. Good bunch these Indians, they love to laugh and smile, and are alway curious about other people from faraway lands. After exchanging handshakes and a few laughs we headed back out.
Of course, one does actually get lost here, though not for long. Just drive confidently, acting as though you know right where you are going, and eventually you may or may not come out to a main road upon which you see a landmark you recognize. Of course choosing right or left is crucial to your getting home before sunset, as none of the rentals seem to have working headlights. Oh, and carrying a compass really helps if you cannot read the sun's position.
So after driving confidently though cluelessly through all manner of villages and dusty red dirt tracks, we finally came out to the main road, and managed to find Linda's scooter, for which Jay traded his, doing the chivalrous thing and taking the danger on himself so as to spare the poor girl a Death Ride.

Sunset on the beach, a meal, and a few well-earned Kings back at the Rice bowl capped off the day. Tomorrow is another day, and perhaps I will find the elusive Rocinante. .
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