April 21- 30, 2013This time Sam will narrate our experiences while Eric interjects his comments in italics.Palolem Beach, Goa
The southern coastal Indian state of Goa is famous in its own right. We had heard about how great Goan beaches were before we even made it to India. So it was a definite on our India tour. I had been thinking about Goa since we had arrived in India. I was hoping we would have some time to relax and recharge the batteries since traveling around India can wear on you.
However since April is considered low season in Goa, we weren't sure where exactly to go in Goa. There is over 60 miles of coastline in Goa, which makes for plenty of beach options. They range from rough and rocky to flat and sandy, and include party beaches, Russian dominated beaches, and of course many secluded and quiet beaches. Indians are not a big fan of the Russians at all. They have taken over Northern Goa, which is a big reason why people end up going south.
Based on pieces of info we picked up from other travelers and guidebooks along the way we decided to head to Palolem Beach, a relatively central hub beach in the south of Goa. We consistently read and heard that it was one of the best places to go. Although it doesn’t really seem like anywhere is a bad place in Goa.
Based on what we’ve heard it is quite a crowded, touristy, dirty and party beach but with a beautiful long coastline and relatively calm swim-worthy waters. It is certainly touristy and has a party scene, but overall it is a pretty great place.
We figured since it was easy to get to Palolem we would start off there for a few days and see it for ourselves, and that if needed we could just move on to a more quiet/secluded beach. I was hoping we wouldn’t have to move because that would involve packing up our stuff and dealing with buses once again.
But either these claims of over-touristy are exaggerated or just not relevant during the low season, because we were pleasantly surprised. What we found was a very long clean beach surrounded with palm trees and lined with cute brightly colored beach huts. All we wanted in a Goan beach experience was to be able to lay in the sun, read, swim, relax, not get too hassled, and stay in a cheap quintessential beach hut. We lucked out since this was the perfect place for us to spend 10 days.
For the most part
Palolem checked the boxes for all these requirements, so we never found a reason to leave. (The one exception was the extreme heat we felt some days- even the water was too warm to be refreshing- the water temperature reminded us of hot tub water... but thats what we get for waiting until April to finally get down to Goa.)
It took two hot non-A/C local buses and about 4 hours to reach Palolem from Panjim (the capital of Goa). These buses are awful even with all the windows open you can barely get a breeze. It can be 95 degrees outside and Indians will want to close the windows because they are cold. I have been on the edge of flipping out on the bus rides because of things like this.
Once we were dropped off on the "Main Street" of Palolem, a tout was waiting for the easy prey coming off the bus. We see this every time we got off a train or bus, but this was the first time we had decided to go along with it.
Since we had not made reservations our only plan was to walk the beach on foot and find something we liked, we decided to follow this kid to his place and check out the huts. They had a row of brightly colored one-room huts pretty typical to the rest of the beach, with a few facing the ocean. You almost can’t tell the difference between each place. It just looks like one rainbow colored mass of huts.
We managed to negotiate a relatively good price considering the location (600 rupees a night, or approx. $12), for a basic mattress with mosquito net, with an attached bathroom. We were living in style.
These huts are temporary, they are built on rented land out of wooden poles, plywood and palm fronds, and are nestled amongst the forest of palm trees that line the coast line. They come with a rudimentary form of plumbing which facilitate a sink, basic shower and western style toilet (all of the same one-temperature water source of course). It is important to note the western toilet because you don’t always come across those in India. I understand now how all the Indian yogis are flexible- because they have to squat so much to use the toilet.
There is a one light bulb in the bathroom, and another in the main bedroom, along with a plug-in or ceiling fan. The ceiling itself is usually a taunt blue tarp pulled across
some wooden poles, layered with palm fronds to control the heat. Typically the clusters of huts and restaurants are built in October-September and taken down between April-May in anticipation of the monsoon season. Needless to say these places are not the ritz, but it is sufficient and true to the quaint Goan appeal. These may sound like terrible places to most of you, but I can assure you they are more than sufficient. These places were on par with many of the places we have stayed at in India.
The best part of our hut was not only the view, but the fact that it had a small basic porch and beach-facing windows that allowed us to catch the surprisingly strong breeze that came in off the ocean. By small we mean I was like a bull in a China shop on this thing.
We spent many an afternoon and evenings here people watching and reading, well-armed of course with bug-spray and our bug repellent coils.
We stayed a total of 10 nights, after the first five having to relocate to a new hut given our current place was closing down for the season. And they were lighting fires on the beach near our hut, which was not cool at all.
Our next place was only a few feet away, almost identical to our first place except for a slightly off-beachfront location and larger porch, and also 200 rupees cheaper. The manager at this place was very friendly and took a special liking to Eric. He seemed to be an India-style surfer/hippie, and while we never saw him (or anyone really) surfing at the beach, he always wore board shorts, was saying “cool man” and managed to utilize the term “full-power” from everything from an exclamation to an adjective about the hut/shower/breeze/night’s sleep. If they had made t-shirts I would have bought a full power one, since I liked that catchphrase. Also, in true Indian fashion he tried to sell me drugs. If you don’t shave for a week or two everyone thinks you are just a big drug addict in India.
Goa has its own culture, vibe and lifestyle. It feels like a different world compared to North India. The people themselves are laid-back and friendly with have dark brown skin, perfect white teeth and fantastic English. No one gives me creepy looks, Indian women are present, and overall the atmosphere is much more relaxed. Alcohol is easily consumed, meat is prevalent, and none of the locals bat an eye at women in bikinis. There are much fewer cows patrolling the streets, and we’ve even seen a few cats (surprisingly rare sightings in India). But most of all, people here smile! There is little to no poverty (that we can see from tourist perch at least), just the occasional beggers walking the beach (apparently these beggers aren’t even Goan, but move into the area to beg off the tourists). It was, in a way, a nice escape from the rest of India.
The “town” of Palolem, if you want to call it a town, is basically just a tourist-centric gathering of shops, restaurants and more shops. There are a few wine/beer stores, a handful of convenience stores selling waters and sunscreen, and a ton of local-owned shack shops that have the same generic mass-produced beach dresses, linen pants, towels, sarongs, flip-flops, hats, cheap India elephant knick-knacks, etc. 99% of all the things that they sell are crap.
Every time we walk down the “Main Street” (which is really just a road off the beach where all the shops and restaurants are centralized), we get constantly harassed from the annoyingly pathetic shop owners (mostly women) doing the “You need something? Come see my shop. Free to look. Come look, good price for you.” You don’t see women in other parts of India, but here you see them at the different shops. You don’t really see them on the beach though.
They are by far less aggressive than other places in India, but still annoying none the less. There are also a handful of jewelry stores that will pull out “precious stones” from under the counters to show you if you ask… they claim that they sell lots of this jewelry to the Russian tourists during high season. They are more full of shit than anyone else we come across. I don’t believe for one second that anything they show us is even close to being real.
But it’s starting to get too hot for even the shop-owners here, if I approach their shop they will jog over from where they were inevitably stilling outside in some shade with a few friends to turn on the lights and fan inside for me. Sometimes they have A/C which is the only reason I will enter their store. That and to negotiate some price with them.
They are counting the days until closing and shipping up back north.
There are a few internet places also that we’ve visited to get our train tickets booked, as well as the all-important Café Coffee Day (as close to a Starbucks as you’ll get in Goa). I have complained about this in other blog posts, but the coffee is the worst in India. They can’t even make Nescafe the right way,which is instant coffee. Café Coffee Day overcharges, but at least the coffee is decent.
They guys in the place recognize Eric as a local now and start fixing his order before he asks (“2 cappuccinos take-away”… apparently everyone outside the US uses the term “take away” instead of “to-go”.) The locals around Palolem live as you would expect in a tropical developing world. The houses are low one story houses with open covered outside dirt areas, palm fronds across the roofs, and plenty of outdoor clotheslines. Along the streets are cows, dogs, occasional cats, women selling fish, and huge piles of coconut shells.
We tried various restaurants around the beach and Main Street, some better than others, but all with the same laid-back beach vibe and typical slow-as-molasses-Indian-food-service we’ve grown accustomed to. Sam is being nice the service in India is HORRIBLE. It’s a big reason why I dread eating at most restaurants since it takes so long.
At least here there is no need to be in a hurry and we barely notice how long the food takes since we are usually reading our books. We did find a cheap local place on the main street called Calcutta Restaurant that had amazing egg-chicken sandwiches. Basically they chop hardboiled eggs and chicken chunks in some sort of sauce and serve it on two pieces of toast. It’s pretty amazing and only 80 rupees ($1.50) a piece. These sandwiches were amazing!
However, the one go-to place we frequented (well, we practically moved in here) was a long ocean-facing restaurant called InnJoy. They had free (!) lounging sun beds, super friendly owners (who we came to befriend and who came to know our
orders by heart), and best of all, the best and fastest wifi we’ve ever experienced in India. The food was pretty cheap as well as pretty good, which is also a big reason why we kept coming back here.
In fact they would give Eric the internet password the night before (they constantly changed the password) so that he could set up early in the morning to stream whatever sports game/draft event he wanted from the laptop. These guys were extremely nice to me, allowing me to wake up early each morning to watch the NBA Playoffs and the NFL Draft. I would come to the restaurant and some of their employees would be sleeping on the sun chairs while I started watching sports.
We enjoyed many a banana lassi and various Indian dishes here, had many a sun-nap and did much reading here. I was switching between Ghandi’s autobiography (again for the India culture context), and re-reading Friedman’s “The World is Flat” (which is funny to read 10 years later given how dated some of the information is... I wanted to refresh on his original arguments before I read his more recent “Hot, Flat and Crowded”). Eric of course continued to plow through his Game of Thrones series, which are surprisingly very prolific here among the second-hand book store and book exchange piles we’ve come across. I can’t get enough of them. I am planning on finishing them all before we leave India.
He also read “Holy Cow
”, which I had just finished myself and forced him to read. "Holy Cow" is one of those books we see all over the place in India, it's in every single roadside bookstore or book exhange we come across. It is written by an Australian women who moves to India for her husband’s job and not only has to overcome the
initial culture shock, but also (slightly superficially) explores the country’s various religions. I especially appreciated this book because of her rants about the country and its people, as we have often been making the same observations and having the same frustrations and infuriating experiences. In fact, so many of her points drove home that you’ll probably find me quoting them as we continue our account of India. It was great to read a book by someone who had a lot of experiences like we did, but published all of her frustration for the world to read.
To round out our reading we’ve both been getting through “The Power of Your Subconcious Mind
” which was written in the 1970s by a PhD phychologist as one of the first introductions of what has now become a somewhat New Age craze. (ie “The Secret”). While some of it is slightly past believable for us, it is an interesting read and only at the beach can you find the patience and time to wade through it and practice some of the “mental healing techniques”. It was good to read this while being in India as it can be frustrating, so this is a good way to calm yourself down.
People watching was another major source of entertainment during our time in Palolem. It is highly entertaining in most parts of India, but at the beach you certainly have more time to people watch
- First of all you have your Indian tourists, who our InnJoy friends have informed us are usually Northern Indians or village Indians. I’ll come out and say it they are like the white trash of India. We can pick these out of a crowd instantly. They are the ones that swim (well more like wade/beached-whale themselves into the sand) with full clothes on and in groups of no less than 10. Of course you also see the ubiquitous packs of fully clothed Indian men strolling the beach, oogling at the westerners in bikinis and taking pictures of anything with boobs. Once again, I will state it in plain English. They are the in your face perverts, who have drool hanging off their chins looking at western women. In fact Eric caught some Indian teenager taking a picture of me laying out not from not more than 10 feet away. He yelled at the kid to cut it out, and on second thought charged after him and his two teenager friends to confront them, telling him them to never take another picture of “his wife” again. One of them was a teenager two of them were grown men. I felt the need to let them know that this is not acceptable behavior. As he stormed back to his chair he noticed other western patrons looking on from the nearby restaurant smiling and nodding in approval of Eric’s assertiveness. Or all of these women thought I was good looking. I will go with they all thought I looked good with my shirt off.
- Secondly, there are the western (read: white) tourists strolling the beach. We have found a majority of them to be Russian, or some form of Eastern European. They also are unmistakable. They dress in skimpy bathing suits and “banana-hammocks” as Eric calls them, and to their credit are for the most part are in pretty great shape. I don’t get the appeal of a guy wearing a little speedo at the beach. They look terrible and don’t cover as much as a normal bathing suit would. If we were in the US people would openly hate on guys dressed like that, but here that is no big deal at all. The women can wear whatever they want, who am I to judge? Though most amusingly, they are forever taking pictures of themselves in provocative and sexy-swimsuit-model styles, which of course we think is bizarre but is much to the shock/delight of the visiting village Indian tourist. It gives the Indian tourists another reason to drool.
- Thirdly, are the beach dogs. As we’ve come to notice, there are plenty of stray dogs here in India. Most live on the streets, but here they live on the beach. They are friendly and happy dogs who are well accustomed to people. They hang out with the lifeguards, follow us on our beach walks, keep us company at our restaurant table, and overall just are the kind of laidback dogs you’d expect to find on the beach. Sam is much nicer than I am. I think these dogs are annoying and dirty. They just sit around looking for food, and have come running after me when I have been running on the beach. I just turn around to bark back at them then they run away. At least once a day there is some sort of dog conference that takes place on the beach, where up to a dozen dogs may gather to bark and or sniff at each other for a few minutes before they eventually disperse back to their napping place. At night they dig themselves a little pit in the sand and curl up for their sleep. We have had one constant dog companion at our go-to beach restaurant, who is actually sleeping here at my feet as I type this. She seems to have some sort of pink eye, which earned her the adopted name “Pinky”. This dog is the worst of them all because of the stupid eye. Despite Eric's hating, the dogs really are not annoying, and they don't beg for food either, they just are social dogs that want to play. In fact, one thought that my beach yoga was play time for him and insisted on laying on top of my towel mid-pose.
On a Saturday, in the middle of our stay, when the beach was crowded with Indian tourists, we unfortunately witnessed a tragedy. As we were sitting around the InnJoy Restaurant we heard some whistles from lifeguard and saw two lifegaurds take off into the water towards a man about 30 to 40 feet out in the water. We saw a lifeguard reach a man and help him onto his lifeguard surfboard. What we didn’t see was the other man who had been out there with him and was no longer visible above water. Soon the lifeguard jet skis was flying down the beach towards the rescue location and doing circles around the area. More lifeguards drove in a jeep over from other areas of the beach, and more were still were showing up out of nowhere to also rush into the water. For the next hour dozens of lifeguards were entering the water to search for the missing man. Keep in mind that the water here is far from clear, so we’re sure it was hard to see much of anything not right at the surface of the water. We got talking to the owners at InnJoy who sadly explained to us that a drowning happens maybe once a season or so, and it is always an Indian, never a westerner. They told us that a lot of times the Indians will drink beer (in the blazing sun which is in itself not a good idea), and then brave the rough waters
without being strong swimmers to start with. In this case the two swimmers were brothers who had been working at one of the nearby resorts all season, and had just helped to close down the place for the season. They were celebrating their last day on the beach before returning home. Apparently the south end of Palolem Beach has rougher waters with strong rip-tides and undercurrents. There was a large crowd of people, mostly Indians, clustered around the water edge hoping to see the missing man, or at least to witness a rescue, but as minutes turned to hours people solemnly started to disperse. An hour later a coast guard helicopter even showed up to hover around the sight, eventually leaving after doing rounds for about 20 minutes. Occasionally a lifeguard or jet-ski driver would get excited and start pointing, and another crowd would form, only to disperse again when nothing came out of it. Six hours had passed since the man went missing, it was late afternoon, and the excitement level on the beach had gone down considerably. From where Eric and I were sitting (yes, in the same place we had been all day), we saw a
few lifeguards in the shallow waters directly in front of us pulling in the man’s body. I was getting close to going in the water at this point. Fortunately, I didn’t go in since two tourists are the ones who found the boy right near the shore.
For all the hours of extensive rescue searching earlier in the day, the man’s body just peacefully drifted to shallow water 60 yards away from where he disappeared. Watching his stiff body being dragged in then quickly surrounded by Indians, both curious and paying their respects, then being carried away on a stretcher was heart-wrenching and weighed heavy on us for the rest of the day, as well as the next few days. I had seen dead bodies at funerals before, but this was the first time that I saw one up close like that. They pulled the body out right in front of us and the path they took it on to the main road was right next to our restaurant. The body was stiff as both arms were bent like the guy had his fists up ready to fight. It took 8 people to carry the body on the stretcher from the beach just to give you an idea of how heavy the body was.
Back to lighter subjects... Eric has been diligent about taking some runs on the beach, I have been much less motivated to run and opt instead for occasional self-directed yoga. Running on the beach as the sun was going down was very relaxing. The beach is only a mile long so I would go back and forth a couple of times to get a decent run in. On these runs there would be a lot of stares from Indians and a lot of them trying to talk to me as well. I don’t mind talking, but not when I am running.
Though we do go out in the water when it’s not too rough and play around for a bit of exercise. One day we decided to rent a kayak (100 rupees for an hour of a two-person kayak) for another alternative form of exercise. This was my idea which was not one of my better ones
. This was slightly disastrous as we had no experience trying to get the stupid thing past the breaking waves. We didn’t have much team work going on at this point in time.
We had it flip over on us a couple of times, which provided multiple mouthfuls of saltwater, before finally managing it past the breaks and into the calmer water. Surprisingly we only lost a bottled water and pair of sunglasses. All the flip-flops were accounted for. I would have been pissed if I lost my Rainbows.
Coming back in to shore after about 45 mins of paddling around was also an adventure, as riding in a wave to the shore once again flipped us over as Indians stood by and laughed. This time though I clung to all flip-flops to avoid any shoe loss. I wasn’t laughing since they kayak smacked against my head and gave me a good bruise.
We also took advantage of the amazing wifi and free time to be slightly productive, including planning the rest of our India trek, booking all our onward trains throughout India (seven train trips), and booking ourflights from Bangalore to Sydney. All of which was necessary but not necessarily fun. I've also been able to get a little progress on the blog (hense this post), and start to wrap our heads around our plan once hitting Sydney. We still have a lot on our plate for when we hit the ground in Sydney.
Not to mention our trip home for a few weeks this June/July for a wedding and coordinating all the travel involved in our time there. This is also stressing me out.
In Mumbai we had picked up a bootleg copy of season two of Showtime’s Homeland TV series, and over the course of the first week were able to crank through the whole
season. We are way behind on TV shows, but it was good to catch up on this one. Certainly not as good as season one, but it was still entertaining.
There’s not much else in the way of nightly entertainment besides that, which is fine with us, since we are old and tired and would just assume be asleep as soon as possible. If you want to pop some pills and dance until 4 am you can find some sort of party or rave in Goa. That sounds awful and they play enough crappy western music here during the day that you don’t need to go out at night. While it is cheaper in Goa drinking in India is not cheap. And most of the beer and wine is awful anyways so it makes it easier not to drink.
As I said, we were happy to be lulled to sleep each night by the sound of the waves.
Overall Palolem Experience
(scale 1 to 10): 9
Good weather, relaxing atmosphere, not too much harassment. Overall, our favorite stop in India.
Check out our full Goa Picasso Album.