Travelblog India / Requiem to Goa

 

Why travel to India? While exploring South-East Asia and the Pacific for many years, I had always shied away from Mother India - I assumed it was too loud, too poor, too big, too dirty, too intense, too everything. Also there lingered a certain respect for the motherness of the country, being the origin of so many spiritual undertones: Buddhism and Hinduism, the Gurus and Sadhus, the Kumb Melha, Goa Trance, Bhagwan, Ashrams, Advaita Vedanta, Ayurveda, Yoga, the number zero - you name it.

But now the time had finally come, mainly because of personal connections. So I went to India, but to be honest, I barely scratched its surface in those 30 days, half of which I spent in Goa, simply because I needed a beach holiday. And, now since my return, I am looking forward to go back, perhaps for a bit longer than four weeks, and seeing much more of the country.

Many visible aspects of modern India are rather questionable: a lot of the buildings and roads, the traffic, the pollution and the garbage - you just wish it was not there. India must have been a beautiful country two centuries ago, but that is probably true for most places. Modern civilization, as we know it, has reached its final years; the world is sliding into a mess, and so is India. But in a way it is being very honest about it, with its overpopulation, pollution and rubbish - there it is, just plainly visible, what the First World is hiding away.

So why travel to India? At least from the rather superficial traveller´s perspective, the answers could include: India is quite cheap. It is a huge adventure playground. It is surprisingly safe. It is photogenic. It is still beautiful, at least where modern civilization has not yet made too much of an impact. The climate is great. For some people there are also endemic propositions such as ashrams and yoga-schools, as all of the aforementioned motherness of India. And, finally, Indians are great people. They are fun, and from them we can learn how to take it easy, even when the world is crumbling to pieces. Shanti shanti.

 
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1. Mumbai

Maximum City

Mumbai, the main gateway for tourists arriving in India, is well worth hanging out for a couple of days - especially Colaba, South Mumbai, where almost all tourists go and most of the sights are located, but the city actually extends indefinetely way up North. We are talking over 20 million people. You get a glimpse of this extensive madness in the taxi from the airport.

I immediately took to the city, because it reminded me of places like Bangkok or Yangon. But those still remain favorites, while Mumbai was eventually loosing out on (for me, at least) the traffic and its neverending honking. After two days I was ready to leave. But it could get much worse, as I was to find out in Delhi.

In the background is the famous  Taj Hotel.  According to legend the British architect had send the building plans to India, only to find out years later that the hotel had been built the wrong way - apparently the facade facing the sea (s. above) with its rather small entrance was meant to be the garden side, and vice versa.

In the background is the famous Taj Hotel. According to legend the British architect had send the building plans to India, only to find out years later that the hotel had been built the wrong way - apparently the facade facing the sea (s. above) with its rather small entrance was meant to be the garden side, and vice versa.

 

At the airport, arriving guests are greeted by some charming artwork:

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The beautiful departure hall of Mumbai International, designed by SOM (Skidmore Owings and Merrill), was completed in 2014; the other parts of the terminal, arrival and gates, are less remarkable. One annoying aspect of all airports in India: Once you have stepped inside, you cannot get out again.

The beautiful departure hall of Mumbai International, designed by SOM (Skidmore Owings and Merrill), was completed in 2014; the other parts of the terminal, arrival and gates, are less remarkable. One annoying aspect of all airports in India: Once you have stepped inside, you cannot get out again.

 
My hotel had a roof terrace. I arrived at seven in the morning, so I had a chai up there before I took off to explore the city. And crows actually run the country. They are everywhere.

My hotel had a roof terrace. I arrived at seven in the morning, so I had a chai up there before I took off to explore the city. And crows actually run the country. They are everywhere.

 
Like here, at Marine Drive, Mumbai´s waterfront boulevard, just around the corner from the hotel.

Like here, at Marine Drive, Mumbai´s waterfront boulevard, just around the corner from the hotel.

A place to stroll and to be seen, but no comparison to the sexyness of the Malecón in Havanna. To my surprise there were absolutely no street vendors whatsoever at Marine Drive: nobody selling chai, refreshments, nothing. Obviously Mumbai wants to be modern, clean and first-worldly here and offer people a hassle-free experience. Well, they have overdone it a bit.

A place to stroll and to be seen, but no comparison to the sexyness of the Malecón in Havanna. To my surprise there were absolutely no street vendors whatsoever at Marine Drive: nobody selling chai, refreshments, nothing. Obviously Mumbai wants to be modern, clean and first-worldly here and offer people a hassle-free experience. Well, they have overdone it a bit.

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Indians are not camera-shy. In fact, they are constantly photographing and filming each other and themselves. It even happened that they would ask me to take a photo of them - with my camera.

Indians are not camera-shy. In fact, they are constantly photographing and filming each other and themselves. It even happened that they would ask me to take a photo of them - with my camera.

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Seagulls are surprisingly rare along the coast, especially down in Goa. This is actually the only place where I have seen any, and they stuck in a big group. I strongly suspect that this has to do with the crows. They don´t like competition.

Seagulls are surprisingly rare along the coast, especially down in Goa. This is actually the only place where I have seen any, and they stuck in a big group. I strongly suspect that this has to do with the crows. They don´t like competition.

Dogs are, besides crows, the other predominant species in Indian street life. Not all of them are as shanti as this one. Let´s say, you want to carry a stick walking the villages at night. Or a shotgun.

Dogs are, besides crows, the other predominant species in Indian street life. Not all of them are as shanti as this one. Let´s say, you want to carry a stick walking the villages at night. Or a shotgun.

 

Art-deco, one of my favorite styles, can be found in such varied places like Damascus, Manado (Sulawesi), Jakarta, Yangon or - Mumbai.

 
The Empire also left its architectural marks.

The Empire also left its architectural marks.

Chai

Chai

Sugarcane juice. (The empty street in the background? It is eight in the morning.)

Sugarcane juice. (The empty street in the background? It is eight in the morning.)

Street food is surprisingly rare in Southern Mumbai, at least during daytime: it is entirely possible to walk around for hours and only come across places like Starbucks, which seems to be quite fashionable among young professionals and student types. (Was it ever in Europe? If so, it must have been before my time.)

Street food is surprisingly rare in Southern Mumbai, at least during daytime: it is entirely possible to walk around for hours and only come across places like Starbucks, which seems to be quite fashionable among young professionals and student types. (Was it ever in Europe? If so, it must have been before my time.)

Mumbai is beautiful and quiet. From seven to nine in the morning.

Mumbai is beautiful and quiet. From seven to nine in the morning.

During the rest of the day traffic is insane. There are no functioning pedestrian crossings to speak of, even sidewalks (!) are sometimes missing.

During the rest of the day traffic is insane. There are no functioning pedestrian crossings to speak of, even sidewalks (!) are sometimes missing.

These people between the cars? They are crossing the street.

These people between the cars? They are crossing the street.

Colaba Causeway

Colaba Causeway

 
Gateway to India: The last British troops left through this gate in 1947.

Gateway to India: The last British troops left through this gate in 1947.

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Victoria Terminus: grand old train station

Victoria Terminus: grand old train station

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2. Delhi

Not my favorite place in the world

I flew up to Delhi to meet friends and continue on to the mountains, which I did. But Delhi … I had a queasy stomach that day, which might have influenced my judgement. But it certainly was smoggy - I couldn´t see the ground from the plane until a few seconds before touchdown, although it didn´t seem quite as bad on ground level. My hotel was located at the edge of Old Delhi, which is clearly the worst place I have ever been to: The traffic, noise and pollution are next level from Mumbai. What gave Old Delhi that extra bad and almost agressive vibe (at least that´s how I felt), was the lack of women in the streets. They were apparently all locked away at home. It added to the overall impression witnessing a minor accident on the street, with two taxis colliding, nothing really bad: within seconds more than a dozen men were attacking each other with sticks and pipes. Delhi is not shanti.

Bhushan carefully inspecting the construction progress of a new bridge across the Yamuna river.

Bhushan carefully inspecting the construction progress of a new bridge across the Yamuna river.

 

The following pics are drive-by-shots taken from a motor-riksha in Old Delhi, not showing the noise and pollution.

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A woman! No wonder she looks unhappy.

A woman! No wonder she looks unhappy.

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New Delhi, for a change. This is the government district at night.

New Delhi, for a change. This is the government district at night.

To be fair, Delhi has a lot of parks, temples and the Red Fort. This is all I saw of it, so my impression of the city might be a bit flawed.

To be fair, Delhi has a lot of parks, temples and the Red Fort. This is all I saw of it, so my impression of the city might be a bit flawed.

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In the Tibetan village, a neighborhood near the river

In the Tibetan village, a neighborhood near the river

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Did I mention that dogs can be very annoying in India?

Did I mention that dogs can be very annoying in India?

Well, perhaps not this one.

Well, perhaps not this one.

Pete

Pete

Alice

Alice

 

3. Manali

Mountains, Fumes and Landslides

Manali is the Garmisch-Partenkirchen of India: A pretty touristy town specialized in hiking, mountain trekking, river rafting and paragliding, mostly in summer. In December almost all tourists (I was about the only Western person in town) are Indians, especially couples on honeymoon, who come for the snow and enjoy relatively fresh air - at least compared to Delhi.

The town is quite nice in December, clear blus skies and sunshine, but when the sun disappears behind the mountain it turns chilly immediately. And at five it gets dark. The 14 hour-bus ride from Delhi was well organized and driven, the Volvo half-sleeper bus quite comfortable. Half of the (Indian) people on the bus were throwing up, though, as the bus curved up the winding road along the river.

But even in this off-season the traffic down at the river and around New Manali is already at its limit, and one can only imagine how it must be in summer, when the town is packed with tourists. So yes, even this small mountain town has serious environmental issues. I asked a local source if people had any say in the development of the town, such as traffic, urban development or tackling the problem of garbage. He just laughed bitterly: Indian democracy is strictly limited to voting for one guy or another and that´s it; there is no way of adressing issues to local politicians or the city council, since they are running things, right? So, during election time - do the candidates present themselves with ideas and concepts, I asked? No, not at all. Candidates are elected by social affilliation, such as castes or religious groups. Another well informed source told me that in his home city (in the state of Maharashtra) local politicians simply buy the votes by going door to door with money, or even pay for a mororcycles for a house.

Old Manali, up the hill from the river and surrounded by apple orchards. The smog, caused by traffic and heating, is clearly visible.

Old Manali, up the hill from the river and surrounded by apple orchards. The smog, caused by traffic and heating, is clearly visible.

New Manali. The town is connected to the outside world by a road following the river down to the plains and further up into the Himalayas. The problem, as can be seen here, are landslides: Not only does the road crumble into the river, it is also buried on a regular basis from the mountains above. During last monsoon season the upriver villages were cut off for two weeks. I wonder how the local authorities are going to work this out.

New Manali. The town is connected to the outside world by a road following the river down to the plains and further up into the Himalayas. The problem, as can be seen here, are landslides: Not only does the road crumble into the river, it is also buried on a regular basis from the mountains above. During last monsoon season the upriver villages were cut off for two weeks. I wonder how the local authorities are going to work this out.

The view from my room in OId Manali. Lovely, especially after the hustle of Delhi.

The view from my room in OId Manali. Lovely, especially after the hustle of Delhi.

View from the other window.

View from the other window.

A charming mountain town, Indian style.

A charming mountain town, Indian style.

The river, looking upstream. I was to hike up one of those mountains in the background.

The river, looking upstream. I was to hike up one of those mountains in the background.

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House in Old Manali, bearing a certain resemblance to houses in the Alps.

House in Old Manali, bearing a certain resemblance to houses in the Alps.

The Tata Nano is less ubiquitous in India than I had expected.

The Tata Nano is less ubiquitous in India than I had expected.

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During winter Houses in Manali are heated with wood, creating a rather bad air in town - I had to close the window of my room to keep out the fumes at night. Villagers are allowed to collect wood in the mountains, mostly pines and Himalayan Oak. Since the latter happens to be a slow-growing and therefore especially sought-after wood, the trees are illegally being felled by “politicians and forestry people”, as a local source informed me. The decrease of the oak forests is apparently a major cause for the aforementioned landslides.

During winter Houses in Manali are heated with wood, creating a rather bad air in town - I had to close the window of my room to keep out the fumes at night. Villagers are allowed to collect wood in the mountains, mostly pines and Himalayan Oak. Since the latter happens to be a slow-growing and therefore especially sought-after wood, the trees are illegally being felled by “politicians and forestry people”, as a local source informed me. The decrease of the oak forests is apparently a major cause for the aforementioned landslides.

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This protected forest - actually a tiny national park - separates (or connects) Old Manali from New Manali. You have to pay 20 Rp to walk through, but nobody cares if you don´t.

This protected forest - actually a tiny national park - separates (or connects) Old Manali from New Manali. You have to pay 20 Rp to walk through, but nobody cares if you don´t.

 
The shopping area in New Manali.

The shopping area in New Manali.

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Hiking up the Mountain

I couldn´t resist. I was in the Himalayas. I wanted to go up a mountain. So I checked with a trekking company, hired a guide and off we went, on a two-day hike uphill. It was a heavy-duty endeavour in thin air, carrying my big backpack, including snow-shoes, walking sticks and dressed way too hot, in thermo-underwear and a thick rented ski-outfit. It was the hardest thing I had done in a very long time.

First we drove upriver, to a small “resort town” at 2300m altitude - one of those places that will be cut off from the world after the next landslide. Here there was snow, which was the main attraction for Indian tourists who have never seen the white stuff before. So they would joyfully throw snowballs at each other and, of course, film it all with their phones. There even was a ski-slope and a lift.

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(Pieter Brueghel)

(Pieter Brueghel)

First stop was another village further up where we bought some more water in this guy´s small shop.

First stop was another village further up where we bought some more water in this guy´s small shop.

At around 14:00 we reached the tent (at 2900m, just below the tree-line) that had already been set up by a previous hiking group. Up to that point it had already been quite an exhausting hike through the oak forest, especially with the heavy backpack.

At around 14:00 we reached the tent (at 2900m, just below the tree-line) that had already been set up by a previous hiking group. Up to that point it had already been quite an exhausting hike through the oak forest, especially with the heavy backpack.

My Indian trekking guide, Lalit. Great guy.

My Indian trekking guide, Lalit. Great guy.

And an amazing cook. He produced a delicious three-course meal.

And an amazing cook. He produced a delicious three-course meal.

And this was breakfast in the tent just before sunrise the next morning. It was freezing cold.

And this was breakfast in the tent just before sunrise the next morning. It was freezing cold.

View from the tent when we climbed out and got ready for the hike.

View from the tent when we climbed out and got ready for the hike.

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Manali can be seen in the middle background. Note the fumes climbing up the mountains: the smell of burning wood made it all the way up to our altitude beyond 4000m.

Manali can be seen in the middle background. Note the fumes climbing up the mountains: the smell of burning wood made it all the way up to our altitude beyond 4000m.

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The summit (4457m) in the distance. I gave up at around 4200m.

The summit (4457m) in the distance. I gave up at around 4200m.

A shepherds shelter at around 3900m, on the way up.

A shepherds shelter at around 3900m, on the way up.

Lalit, inside the shelter.

Lalit, inside the shelter.

On the way back down.

On the way back down.

 

4. Requiem to Goa.

Where have all the hippies gone?

Goa: The name still has a magical ring to it; a mythical place, deeply anchored in the collective consciousness of pop- and party culture, like Haight-Ashbury 1967, Madchester 1988 or Berlin in the 90s.

It all began back in the days of the Hippie Trail in the late 60s, the birth of backpacker culture, when hairy Western travellers “discovered” Asia, the beaches of Goa among them (ironically Tony and Maureen Wheeler were on the same track, resulting in the Lonely Planet guidebooks, later ruining many places by mentioning them on their pages). Twenty years later a new generation of hippies and DJs took to Goa, spawning a new musical genre, Goa Trance (or Psy-Trance). Its parties, lifestyle and colourful aesthetics soon spread to the West and became a major subculture on the beaches and festivals of the 90s. Goa became synonymous with techno-hippies and summer raves, and still is today.

But the real Goa? The actual place? It is commonly known that the halcyon days are long over, the scene has moved on, and Goa has turned into a mainstream holiday destination. Well, even that isn´t quite true anymore, at least in the North, and from the viewpoint of a Western tourist: The legendary Goa of ye olde days was mostly happening upstate, in places like Arambol, Anjuna and Calangute; further South (the middle part of Goa has no beaches) it was more chilled and quiet. Arambol, as everyone confirmed, is now a favorite of Russian tourists (although according to rumours they have now moved on to Sri Lanka - which sounds like reports from the Ostfront in 1944). I had a quick glance at Calangute beach, but it was a touristic nightmare, like Coney Island. And Anjuna, according to history, the actual birthplace of Goa? Well, I checked it out …

So, what about down South? There are two beautiful beaches left, but their time has come. See below.

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Anjuna

Anjuna Beach today feels like a museum of Psy-Trance party-culture, still strongly visible in the decor of the bars and clubs, and the stuff being sold in the stalls. But the scene has left a long time ago, but so have foreign mainstream tourists after them: In 2018 the number of visitors has decreased by 55% (compared to the previous year), a number you would usually find after a terror attack or a natural desaster. What happened?

Nothing bad, but it is simply the fact that Anjuna is nowadays a predominantly domestic (Indian) holiday destination, with Western tourists accounting for not much more than 15-20% of the people. The crowd, at least around Christmas and New Years, is made up by mostly young guys from Mumbai or Bangalore in bachelor mode, happily partying away in the remnants of a lost civilization. They are the friendliest crowd you could ever imagine, they are having a great time. But they might be a bit too overwhelming for Western tourists. Words travel fast these days, and in the next season you will see even fewer non-Indians in Anjuna. Probably close to none. Down in Palolem, however, the mix between domestic and foreign tourists is around half-half, which seems to work quite nicely.

The hippies are gone, but their cultural memes stick around.

The hippies are gone, but their cultural memes stick around.

 
Not an unusual sight, unfortunately.

Not an unusual sight, unfortunately.

On the way down to the beach.

On the way down to the beach.

I´d like to see that sign more often.

I´d like to see that sign more often.

Anjuna Beach

Anjuna Beach

A common sight at Anjuna Beach: Indian guys. Posing.

A common sight at Anjuna Beach: Indian guys. Posing.

Nowadays the beach is firmly in the hand of domestic tourists …

Nowadays the beach is firmly in the hand of domestic tourists …

… loving their watersports - as long as it doesn´t involve actual swimming.

… loving their watersports - as long as it doesn´t involve actual swimming.

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Beach dogs chasing cows.

Beach dogs chasing cows.

Flying kites.

Flying kites.

Remnants of a lost civilization.

Remnants of a lost civilization.

Boys doing mushrooms.

Boys doing mushrooms.

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The weekly night market

The weekly night market

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The best thing about Anjuna is not the beach, but rather exploring the villages in its hinterland with a scooter.

The best thing about Anjuna is not the beach, but rather exploring the villages in its hinterland with a scooter.

Such as the beautiful Artjuna Café.

Such as the beautiful Artjuna Café.

In the distance, there is Arambol. The Russians are there.

In the distance, there is Arambol. The Russians are there.

A market in a nearby town

A market in a nearby town

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Palolem + Patnem

So down South there are the pretty twin beaches of Palolem and Patnem, with Agonda as number three around the corner. They are nice tourist beaches, with deckchairs, seafood, couples and families. A good place to spend a few days after having done a bit of travelling, hang out if you have kids, or do Yoga in one of those beachside-retreats. Nothing wrong with that, but not very extraordinary, either. And no, the spirit of Goa is nowhere to be felt, if it ever was.

Palolem is the bigger of the two, with a healthy mixture of Indian and Western tourists; Patnem is smaller and prettier. I hung out there between Christmas and New Years with some nice people. And when it gets too beach-touristy, you can always hire a scooter and bugger off for the day.

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Colomb Beach, situated between Palolem and Patnem.

Colomb Beach, situated between Palolem and Patnem.

Patnem Beach: Cosy and touristy.

Patnem Beach: Cosy and touristy.

Gateway to the beach.

Gateway to the beach.

Indian boys doing their thing.

Indian boys doing their thing.

 
Palolem

Palolem

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Talpona + Galgibag

So after the Goa-spirit was taken over by Russian and Indian tourists up in the North, and Palolem and Patnem are regular touristy beaches, there isn´t anything to Goa anymore, right? Not quite.

During one of my scooter-excursions further South I discovered these two beautiful beaches, which made me give up my plan to go to Hampi. Talpona and Galgibag are magical places. Almost no huts or restaurants, a few daytrippers and perfect bliss.

At least for now. The bad news is: They are building a major road, just a hundred meters behind the beaches, that will also cross the two rivers that enclose these twin jewels. When the road will be finsihed some time next year, it will be noisy and noise-resistant tourists will be flooding the place. 2019 will be the last year to enjoy these beaches.

So 2019 is the final year of Goa.

Talpona Beach, early morning

Talpona Beach, early morning

 
This narrow bridge is yet the only way to cross Talpona river near the coast. Yet.

This narrow bridge is yet the only way to cross Talpona river near the coast. Yet.

Talpona Beach. Perfect blissful solitude. Now.

Talpona Beach. Perfect blissful solitude. Now.

The only beachhuts at Talpona. I stayed in one of them for a week.

The only beachhuts at Talpona. I stayed in one of them for a week.

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The couple running the restaurant next door.

The couple running the restaurant next door.

The beach-dogs were friendly.

The beach-dogs were friendly.

Around sunset local boys came to the beach for football.

Around sunset local boys came to the beach for football.

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Their Mom was nowhere to be seen.

Their Mom was nowhere to be seen.

 
The new road is coming … just a hundred meters away from the beach.

The new road is coming … just a hundred meters away from the beach.

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And it will cross the rivers, too.

And it will cross the rivers, too.

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The already existing railway bridge.

The already existing railway bridge.

 
Galgibag Beach

Galgibag Beach

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Although Galgibag is only visited by a few daytrippers, a lifeguard is on duty. Hence the red flag above.

Although Galgibag is only visited by a few daytrippers, a lifeguard is on duty. Hence the red flag above.

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And here it is again: The new road, to be completed in early 2020. It will be the end of peace and quiet for Talpona and Galgibag, which were the last reason to visit Goa.

And here it is again: The new road, to be completed in early 2020. It will be the end of peace and quiet for Talpona and Galgibag, which were the last reason to visit Goa.

 
 
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(all photos were taken with a Fuji x100f)