Goa: the shimmering jewel of the Arabian Sea

Swimming in the Sea of Arabia – doesn’t that sound romantic? It is exactly that – and so much more.  Palolem Beach, in south Goa, is our very soft landing.

IMG_0058
We picked Palolem Beach because Lonely Planet told us it was one of Goa’s most postcard-perfect beaches. Palolem is a small town on a wide crescent beach, with rocky outcrops separating it from other, smaller beaches to the south – all of them accessible on foot.

Goa’s beaches are divided into north and south, with the northern beaches being famous for trance parties and drug-fuelled all-nighters. The southern beaches (including Palolem) are quieter and more family-oriented. They still have beach parties, but incredibly, they are silent: participants wear headsets and groove in their own little bubble, without bringing down the neighbourhood.  It works well – they get to party, we get to sleep.

We are staying at a small guesthouse called Alba Rooms – just five rooms set back from the road and buffered by loads of plants, so it is quiet at night, yet 100 metres to the beach. Each room is large, tiled, spotlessly clean and best of all, they have private patios out front. Our hosts, brothers Sanjay and Tutu are simply the best. They speak perfect English and are so hospitable and welcoming and helpful.

IMG_0004
Originally we were to stay here for just one week, but we’ve extended our stay for another several days – it is too relaxing to leave. As well, our friend Kathryn has arrived in India, and is also staying here at Alba Rooms. She has been travelling the world since June and it is starting to catch up with her. Time to hang out and do little.

Life on the beach is constantly changing, depending upon the time of day. Four or five o’clock in the evening is our favourite – the water is calm, the light is soft and the heat is lessening its grip.  In a town filled with yoga centres and studios, beach yoga is a natural.

IMG_0059

So are boys kicking a ball around.

IMG_0061
There are scenes of quiet contemplation.

IMG_0051
There are many, many boats. Some are fishing boats but many are for the tourists – boat rides out to see dolphins and outlying islands.

These men have developed an ingenious method of moving their boats out of the water and up onto the beach. They lay out long wooden poles on the beach, and then roll the outrigger boats up along them; move the wooden poles and keep rolling until the boats are in place for the night.

IMG_0062
Naturally, there are the requisite stray dogs, but seeing cows on the beach was a new thing for us. They wander about, but since there is a dearth of food on the beach, they tend to congregate and just chill like the rest of us.

Interestingly, the cow patties are few and far between and they’re easy to spot and avoid. Surprisingly to us, the beach is very clean.

IMG_0045
Cows are one of India’s iconic images. Depending on the survey, there are between 200 and 300 million of them, wandering the streets, stepping out in front of cars and on airport runways, and adding greatly to environmental challenges. However they are considered sacred in most of India’s states, so their numbers are not likely to go down any time soon. Here in Goa, (where they do eat beef), cows plod along the streets and on the beaches, and some shop owners throw out food for them. We walked by these two, feasting on cauliflower leaves.

IMG_0024
The first day we were in Palolem, this steer walked right into the restaurant. If this is not an incongruous sight, I don’t know what is. (Cow walks into a bar…) The cows tend to be docile and just stare blankly at you, which can be disconcerting. The owner had a soft spot for this one, and gave him a piece of bread. Later, when another cow tried to enter, he chased her away – telling us she was too aggressive. Apparently, it is not uncommon for cows to head-butt people without any provocation, so we tend to give them a wide berth.

IMG_0017
The town of Palolem runs along one main road, with a number of smaller roads leading off, either to the beach or into residential areas. The main road can be crazy, with pedestrian, bicycle, scooter, motorcycle, rickshaw, car, bus and truck traffic all vying for space on a road that barely qualifies as two lanes. Right of way is yielded to whomever is bigger or bolder, and survival as a pedestrian depends upon being fleet of foot, quick of wit, and having eyes in the back of your head. In the midst of this madness are calls from every vendor to,”have a look inside, madam. Good prices.” 

This morning, we headed to the next small town to access the ATM machine, and grabbed a three-wheeled rickshaw for the 3-km. ride. Our driver was telling Stephen that tourism has been down this year, and since he only has three months to make his money driving rickshaw, it is a bit worrisome. We can only imagine the same is true for the dozens and dozens of small shops selling virtually identical stuff – your heart goes out to them all.

IMG_0001
This is the little psychedelic bus we drove in on from Panaji; complete with natural air-con and a rattly sound system. It’s great fun for an hour or less.

IMG_0039
The town is filled with all kinds of wonderment, including this colour-coordinated assortment of oddities, advertising Coca-Cola and laundry services (presumably without a washing machine – that is usually stated.)
By “wonderment”, I mean just that – we frequently find ourselves saying, “I wonder why?” or “I wonder what?” Questions that have no answers.

IMG_0031
Another question unanswered. Today as we were sailing by in our rickshaw, we saw this gentleman leading a cow wrapped in a saffron embroidered cloth. I missed the cow, but caught the man. At some point, we will discover the significance.

IMG_0002
I’m also curious about this tiny corner store. Christianity is prevalent in Goa, but this is the first time I’ve seen the Baby Jesus aligned with mercantile endeavours. And what is the significance of Frosty the Snowman?

IMG_0032
One of the hardest things to resist here are the spice stores. Beautiful bowls neatly heaped with the most fragrant spices – such a treat for all the senses. These are not for us to buy this time around – they simply wouldn’t last the trip for the next three months. I asked this young woman for a photo and noted that her sari matched her spices.

IMG_0020
And of course – on to the food. We have eaten really fresh and delicious food in Goa. Our challenge is to avoid loading up on samosas and pakoras and naan, and try to find cleaner, lighter food. One restaurant we’ve been going to a lot is called Zest – a vegetarian and vegan restaurant that has imaginative and beautifully prepared dishes.

IMG_0028
It will be very easy to eat mainly vegetarian food while we are in India. Our intention once we leave Goa is to avoid meat, to mitigate our chances of  contracting the dreaded “Delhi Belly”.

This plate – pakoras, raita, coriander chutney, chapati, brown rice, tomato salad, and vegetable curry – incredibly flavourful, and so reasonably priced – about $7.

IMG_0002
In this same restaurant there are several very striking photographs, done by local photographer Francisco de Souza  – http://www.francisco-desouza.com

Stephen took this shot of one of his photos of a young girl on a train, nicely juxtaposed with a  young woman on a computer.

34199344_unknown
Minor annoyances so far?  All restaurants are required by the police to post No Smoking signs – an edict that is ignored by most restaurant owners and patrons. There is little to be done – it is a cultural norm that is not even close to changing. The fine is 200 rupees – about $4 – not much of a deterrent. Last night we found ourselves surrounded by smokers, literally encased in smoke. Remembering our mantra, “Just surrender”!

The other challenge so far has been the beggars – admittedly not a fraction of what we will encounter in much of India.

We have poverty in Canada and it is no less heartbreaking to see homeless people on the streets there. We give money both directly to people and to food banks and agencies – we give what we can.

In India, the scale of poverty is a whole other thing. Millions of people are doomed by birth to remain dirt poor and hungry, with little in place to help them.

It is wrenching to see a woman crouched in a ditch with her hands out. This is nothing but pure poverty and desperation and hunger and fear.

34199360_unknown

We’ve been told so many times during our travels in Mexico and SE Asia not to hand out money, especially to children, as there are agencies who are trying to break the cycle through education. That is all good, but it doesn’t change the fact that people are suffering. It is also impossible to hand out money to everyone, so the dilemma remains. We give where we can.

There is a flip side to this.  Yesterday I watched as a tiny woman in a pink sari deliberately bumped into Kathryn.   Since Kathryn had her hand firmly on her bag, that effort went unrewarded, but it was a good reminder that we need to pay attention.

The other good reminder is not to be angry or fearful. If I was that poor, I would likely steal as well.

I’ll wrap up with a photo that has no special significance, other than I like it. This was taken on our walk from Palolem Beach along the coastline.  Still lots to explore and report back on, and so many impressions to talk about. See you again in a few days.

IMG_0017

Advertisements

From hell to heaven: benediction at Chiang Rai.

If I told you that I thought I might have come down with dengue fever, you could be forgiven for considering that diagnosis over-the-top. Still, since we are so far away from home, and I just spent three days and nights alternating between sweats and chills, and drifting in and out of sleep for 20 out of 24 hours, the thought crossed my mind. I was able to  reassure myself, as apparently the dengue headache is mindblowingly painful, (mine was medium, but constant) and the fever is referred to as “bone break” for a reason. As much as I love a good story, it would appear that so far I have escaped a tropical ailment; just caught the good old-fashioned flu. Woke up this morning, “It’s a miracle! I’m alive!”

It began four days ago, on our travel day from Pai to Chiang Rai. First the three-hour mountain road (762 curves – someone has counted) to Chiang Mai. Then a three-hour wait in the bus station, where we both fell asleep upstairs in the waiting room on bus seats that were so dirty I normally would not have sat on them. Then, a three-hour bus ride to Chiang Rai with no air-conditioning. At one point, I was sweating and shaking and feeling so sick, I didn’t know how I was going to last. I asked our hostess to please turn on the air-conditioning and she walked down the bus, reaching for the vents and frowning; a small sea of hands began waving in front of their vents. She appeared encouraged to find the faintest little “pfff” coming from our vents, but nothing improved. I believe it was either faulty or deliberately turned very low to save on fuel. We finally rolled into Chiang Rai, grabbed a songtaew and made it to our hotel, where I have spent most of the last 48 hours in bed.
Briefly, I did get outside for short walks with Stephen, but until today, he has been on his own. Yesterday, he ventured into town for a bit of sightseeing and first came upon came upon this portly golden Buddha.

image
A bit further down the street, he discovered Wat Phra Kaew, unbeknownst to him, but the more important temple in Chiang Rai; site of the original Emerald Buddha.
In 1434, a bolt of lightning struck the chedi to reveal the original Buddha hidden inside (made of jade, not emerald, as was first thought). This treasure was moved about until it found its final place in Bangkok’s Grand Palace. Over 500 years later, A new Buddha was commissioned for Thailand’s Princess Mother’s 90th birthday in 1990, using jade imported from Canada (maybe Jade City, BC?)

Our country’s contribution to Thailand’s history:

image

The city of Chiang Rai has been described as being more liveable than touristy and that is an accurate assessment. Although it is packed with temples, it is more a launching spot for hill treks, trips to the Golden Triangle, and in our case, the last stop before we leave for Laos.
We’re staying at the Chiang Rai Condotel, which offers large condo studio suites with kitchenette, seating, a balcony and use of a very large and welcome pool – for $25 a night. We were originally booked for just two nights, but extended our stay by another two, to let me get better before we took on our two-day boat trip down the Mekong.

We found these very curious mannequins in a local shop two nights ago. I have seen laughing mannequins just once before – in a hat shop in New Orleans – and now here they were in all their garish glory in a nondescript dress store in Chiang Rai. I have Googled them, would love to know if there is any significance to them – let me know if you’ve heard of them.  Stephen grabbed this shot with the proprietor proudly sitting beside them.

image

There are a number of innovative motorcycle-driven vehicles to travel around Thailand, but we thought the old-fashioned rickshaw had largely disappeared.  Stephen grabbed a photo of this driver, asleep. I could not imagine how we would feel sitting in the cab, watching his frail back as he cycled us along in the heat.

image

They say if you do one thing in Chiang Rai you should visit the White Temple, so we headed out this morning, hoping to beat the heat and the crowds. We were largely successful on both counts; by the time we left, tourists were being herded across the bridge by bullhorn-ed directions,”Keep moving, please. Don’t stop on the bridge, please.” Ours was a far more leisurely and zen-like experience.

The White Temple has to be seen to be believed – our pictures cannot capture the excess,the sugar-froth confection, and the forces of good battling evil, that is the brainchild of visual artist Chalermchai Kositpipat.

image

Self-described as a devout Buddhist, the Buddhist church would have kicked him out but for the support and admiration of the late King, who bought a number of his paintings. That patronage has helped to make the artist a very wealthy man, and his themes of moving from hell and damnation to nirvana by means of eschewing all earthly desires may be suspect. Cardboard cutouts of the artist portray a more bon vivant pitchman than humble holy man.

image

Walking up the bridge toward the temple, one must first pass by hundreds of hands, reaching and begging for help; a reflection of human suffering.

image

Other frightening symbols from the dark side.

image

The Gate of Heaven is guarded by monstrous creatures, who will decide our fate. This one does not show one speck of benevolence.

image
And then…over the bridge, and we have crossed to nirvana. We entered the temple (no photos allowed) – rather simple, but for the pop culture and superhero images inside. Apparently Keanu Reeves’ image is in there somewhere – I did not notice it.

The rest of the park is all about the details – surreal and outlandish as they may be. The artist covered the temple in pure white plaster to reflect the purity of Buddha and in embedded mirrors to reflect His glory.

image

I loved this tree and its gnarly vines – there were a number of big, older trees like this on the property, as well as bromeliad orchids.

image

Everyone was lining up to have their photo taken with this fellow, so I did as well.

image

We leave Thailand by sending out good wishes to all of you. Seriously – we bought a silver leaf for 30 baht (just over $1), and wrote on one side “Health and happiness to our families”and on the other side “Health and happiness to our friends.” That silver leaf hangs on the tree, preceded by thousands of others on other trees and rafters. We are confident it will work. See you again in a few days.

image