Thursday, February 01, 2007 India India

Three weeks in the sun

Goa sunset [Enlarge]

We've had a great three weeks of doing nothing much in Goa. Apart from spending a morning going out on a boat to see the local dolphins, we've hardly done anything. We've spent most days swimming in the warm sea, lazing around in the hotel over a long breakfast and the morning paper, wandering around Benaulim, sitting on the balcony reading second-hand paperbacks which we found on a stall in the village, making incredibly cheap phone calls home, sampling the delicious Goan cuisine, drinking cocktails or local beer, and thinking about various ideas for the future.

Life has been tough. Living in palatial accommodation and eating good food, our total expenditure has been about GBP 25 (USD 49) a day. We could have easily done it for half that and still been very comfortable.

Benaulim is a spread-out village less than a kilometre inland from the beach. It still just about qualifies as 'unspoilt', but sadly the rate of new construction going on points to it becoming just another tourist metropolis in a few years. We feel lucky to have seen the place at a time when the village still has farmers who take their cows down to the sea on Sunday for a salty bath, while there are still traditional fishing boats on the beach and while the fishermen's wives still gut the fish at the roadside, before packing up the ones for eating or selling, and laying out the remainder to dry in the sun so that they can be preserved for the monsoon season when the boats cannot go out.

Villagers of Benaulim on their way to work. [IMG_0937]
Please OK Horn [Enlarge]

Of course there are touts here, who move in from the provinces at the beginning of the season and make it their life's aim to rip off the tourists for as much and as long as possible. We are becoming very good at knowing the true value of things and bargaining, but it is tiresome to not be able to do a simple job like take a taxi to the next village without having to go through a protracted ritual of arguing over the price, walking away, being followed and continuing the discussion at walking pace before finally getting to somewhere near the correct price. Or just walk past a street stall without the "Yes please! Madam sir, come have a look today? Very good price, free to look." They know that their initial overinflated prices are still cheap to us, and they know that westerners hate bargaining, especially when they are trying to have a relaxing break. No wonder inflation in India is so high, when tourism makes up such a large proportion of India's GDP. But we feel that we owe it to ourselves and future tourists not to just accept being ripped off every day, and consistently paying five or ten times the true price for things. Surely the question of whether we can afford to be ripped off is irrelevant?

Fish drying in the sun [Enlarge]

After two weeks or so of walking past the same street vendors every day, learning many of their names in the process, they finally gave up trying to sell us things and we had a peaceful final week here. We feel refreshed and ready to start the next part of our trip. We originally wanted to tour the whole of India by train, but we have now realised just what a huge country this is. The lack of reliable infrastructure magnifies the already large distances between places. And the bureaucracy involved with carrying out tasks that are simple in our own country (like catching a train) makes it worse still. Our plan was to take trains through the south of India, working northwards in an anticlockwise loop over a couple of weeks and seeing places like Hampi, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Khajuraho before reaching the capital New Delhi. We spent several hours with a travel agent in Benaulim stringing together an itinerary which looked plausible. Then when she checked the availability of the trains, several were full, so we had to change the plan. Then, finally, the agent bizarrely decided to announce that she couldn't book train tickets for us anyway, since her runner was on his day off! (Despite the fact that the agents all have internet connections, and it is possible to book trains on the internet in India, the agents still employ runners at the station in Madgaon, whom they phone with details of the required tickets—the runners then queue up at the window and buy them). We puzzled over why she had wasted half a day of her time and our time when she knew she would have no chance of getting any commission from us.

Walk on Benaulim beach [Enlarge]

We considered going to Madgaon station ourselves and taking the pain of trying to book a long string of tickets from the widow there. But then, as if in revelation, we decided to simply abandon the whole idea and fly to New Delhi instead. We found that budget carrier SpiceJet had availability, and we booked it on the internet with no help at all from agents. Suddenly life seems a lot easier now. In any case it will be better to focus on a smaller part of the country so that we have a chance of getting to Hong Kong before our antimalarials run out on 18th March. We will make New Delhi our base for the next few weeks and travel out to places like Agra, Jaipur, Amritsar and Nainintal from there, on several shorter trips. We also want to head over to the north-east of the country to see Darjeeling and hopefully take day trips into Bhutan and maybe Nepal. Whether we'll fly across from Delhi or try to go by train remains to be seen.

All our photos from Goa are here.