Dolphins, saris and Speedos: A typical day on Palolem Beach

There are many ways to amuse oneself on Palolem Beach – swimming, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, and dolphin watching.   The beach is lined with boats ready to take tourists out for an hour-long ride – dolphins, eagel (sic) sightings and Honeymoon Bay. All this for $10 – how could we refuse? The captain of our boat assured us we would see dolphins if we showed up early in the day and he delivered. We set out on the 8:00 am boat and passed an atmospheric old fishing vessel on our way out.

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Kathryn, ready for her dolphin adventure.

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And then, true to our captain’s word,  there they were – a small school of dolphins.  We stayed in the area for about 15 minutes or so – long enough to see several swim up quite close to the boat. As with many dolphin or whale sightings, unless you snap one of them spinning in the air, photographs don’t tend to capture the excitement.

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After the dolphins, we were deposited on Honeymoon Bay and left wondering what exactly was expected of us. One of the sailors mimicked holding a camera, so we dutifully took photos.  The young Russian couple who shared our boat smoked cigarettes  and took selfies. Eventually we were allowed back on the boat and resumed our tour. We did see an eagle (or big bird of some sort) and one of the sailors, in the interest of making us feel we were getting our money’s worth, pointed out a rather listless monkey.

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All in all, a somewhat lacklustre boat trip, but it is always enjoyable to be out on the water and gain a different perspective of land.

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Back to the beach, where a broad mix of cultures meet with their accompanying ideas of appropriate swimwear. Palolem is a huge draw for Brits, Germans, Israelis and Russians, and modesty does not seem to register with any of those groups. The Russian men in particular are fond of tiny Speedos – a costume that is flattering to so very few. That, combined with butt cheek shorts and  minuscule bikinis  strapped onto every imaginable body type and it does make me wonder what the locals must think of us all. Watching Indian families on the beach gives us some idea of their preferred attire. These two ladies were out for a stroll, but if they decided to go for a swim, they would simply enter the water fully dressed. Their men, on the other hand, favour form-fitting boxer briefs.

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Every afternoon, we watch the boats being brought back up to shore, well off the tide line. This video shows how this has probably been done for generations.


I dropped off our laundry this morning, and ran the gauntlet past three ladies gossiping by the entrance. “Nice dress,” said one, grabbing hold of my (knee-length) dress after she had given me a good once-over. “Where are you from?”  I have no idea if I passed muster, but I had a pleasant chat with them and then they all had a good laugh as I was butted by a cow on my way out.

We can’t stop taking cow photos – they are still such a novelty.

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And water buffalo – they are less likely to be roaming the streets, as they tend to hang out in the marshy area just outside of town, but we happened to see them heading home.

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The two main streets of Palolem are lined with small shops and restaurants. They are fun and colourful, but we are resisting buying anything so early in our trip.

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Steve did buy a couple of light cotton shirts to help cope with the heat. He asked if I thought he looked like a tourist – I’ll leave that to you to decide. #notalocal

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This was taken a couple of nights ago on the beach. We sat in front of a bonfire, listened to the waves, and enjoyed cold beer and chicken tikka. A memorable night.

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India’s national beer is Kingfisher – not burdened with flavour, but light and cold and a good accompaniment to many of the dishes. We had an interesting experience the other night – Kathryn, Stephen and I were coming back from dinner, and decided to buy a bottle of white wine and drink it on our front deck. I struggled to twist open the screw top, and then it became apparent it had been tampered with – it had already been opened! Back to the store we indignantly marched and the young man seemed entirely unfazed – he returned our money and put the bottle back in the fridge, to be sold to the next unsuspecting tourist.

It is a common scam to fill plastic water bottles with tap water and sell them – it falls to the consumer to make sure the lid has not been broken. We wonder what the scam was with this wine bottle – watered-down wine or the shop-owner’s home-brew? Many parts of India are dry and alcohol will not be available, so this will hopefully be a one-time issue.

Now the food – that is another thing. Look at this gorgeous display of fresh seafood – caught off the Goan waters. That long beak-y fish is a barracuda – I felt those sharp little teeth –  and those are the biggest prawns I have ever seen.

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There is a good-sized Israeli population in India, and a number of them live in Goa, and in particular in Palolem. I asked one of our favourite restaurant owners about this sign (with what looked like a rabbi), and he pointed us down the opposite street. “Many Israelis live down there.”

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Sure enough, after about 10 minutes, we came upon a Jewish open-air congregation – more like  a community hall. We kept walking and the street provided a whole other glimpse into residential Palolem life – neat, homey and inviting.

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Some homes were barely shacks.

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Others appeared prosperous enough to warrant protection.

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And then we came across this home, with the Swastika symbol – which is an important Hindu symbol and in Sanskrit means “conducive to well-being”.  It is hard not to associate this peaceful symbol with the co-opted Nazi symbol, turned on its side.

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We’ve talked to a number of people from different countries who have moved to India, either full or part-time. It is warm, extremely cheap to live, the food is great and the people are wonderful.  Religious tolerance would be another draw – Goa is home to a number of religious and spiritual practices.

However, tolerance of Indians marrying outside of one’s own religion or race is still a huge problem in smaller centres. We spoke to two young men who both faced this dilemma. One of our favourite waiters at a beach restaurant was an exceedingly handsome and charming 26-year-old man from the north of India – in Manali. Luckily for him, although his marriage was arranged, it was also a love match. If he had chosen to marry outside, not only would he be cast out of his village, but so would his family. He works in Goa for the winter and returns to Manali  to work in the summer and be with his wife and family. He is personally happy, but does not like the fact that his culture still operates in the old ways.

Our guesthouse host faces a significant challenge. His girlfriend is Russian and if they married, he would not be able to continue living in Palolem. He is 38-years-old and they have been together for five years, but he shows no signs of wanting to leave his home, family, his friends and his business.  So for now, they remain in limbo, with impossible choices that will may bring an end to their relationship, no matter what decision he makes. He seems sad but resigned and says it is not like this in the big cities – just in the small towns. But he tried living outside of Palolem and was not happy.

The younger generation wants change, but it could take many decades. As an outsider, it is easy to be critical of harsh and outdated beliefs, but we need look no further than the glacial pace of societal change in North America to realize we cannot judge.

We plan to eat a lot of vegetarian and vegan food while in India – both for better health and to improve our chances of not eating tainted food and getting really sick. Palolem has a number of good veg/vegan options and Little World became one of our favourites – great coffees, wonderful breakfasts and interesting and colourful clean food options.

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We became almost daily customers, stopping in for at least a coffee, and we got to know the folks in there quite well, with Shanu dancing to “Uptown Funk” and Ruby serenely working the room, and Nitin lending a spiritual presence. They invited us to come for dinner as their guests and tonight we gratefully accepted their hospitality.  It was a lovely evening with delicious food. This photo does not include Shanu – he was temporarily distracted by two beautiful blonde women who dropped by for long hugs and then needed a motorcycle drive home.

Nitin, Ruby and us.

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Our time in Palolem is coming to an end. Last year, while travelling in Vietnam, we came across a couple from Scotland who were kite-surfing instructors, of all things, and who had been travelling the world. They offered advice that we have taken to heart – Don’t try and pack too much in. Get a feel of the place. Stay there until you are a bit bored, then move on.

We’re there – we’ve had a memorable start to our trip, but now we’re a bit bored and ready to go. We’ll take a day-long train to Hampi and stay there for a few days. See you in a bit.

 

Nha Trang: The Russians are Coming!

For those of you too young to get the reference, The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming! is a 1966 Norman Jewison comedy that played into American fears of a Russian invasion.
Nha Trang is a Vietnamese beach town that is as famous for its long white crescent beach as it is for the very literal invasion of Russian tourists and expats who have made this their personal playground.

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Oh sure, you’ll see Asian tourists and a few Europeans and even the odd Canadian, but Russians outnumber us all by 10-1. Hotels, restaurants, tour groups and stores cater to the Russian market. Most menus are in Vietnamese, English and Russian and if you are hankering for a massive wooden platter with potatoes and five varieties of grilled meat, you have come to the right place.

We had heard iffy reports from fellow travellers, but we were there for a day and two nights to break up our long travel north to Hoi An.

The promenade along the ocean is lovely, lined with high-rise hotels and softened with a shady, sculpture-filled park. Walk two streets away from the beach and Nha Trang is not a pretty place. It’s got a bit of a reputation for being a hard-partying town.

Nha Trang could be a beach in a lot of places, but nothing about it feels like Vietnam.Any nationality in large numbers will dominate and define and ultimately change a place. The dignified and modest Vietnamese residents have been bombarded by people who look fresh from auditions for “What Not to Wear”.

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Butt floss and banana slings are alive and well in Nha Trang. But it’s not all tacky t-shirts and buckets of booze.  There are plenty of Russian families, many of them multi-generational,  playing in the sand with their kids.

I didn’t encounter many friendly Russians – my smiles were met with stares, but hey – they’re not here to make new Canadian friends. They’ve got their squad with them.

The Asian ladies on the other hand seem fascinated with me. When we were in Laos, I saw three women staring at me and smiling and one of them surreptitiously took my photo. On our bus from Saigon, I had two ladies come to me and start stroking my arm and laughing.

And yesterday Stephen and I were sitting in the park beside the beach, watching two women posing for photos. The next thing we knew, they were cuddled right in beside me, with their friend snapping away madly. We think it is my white hair – many Asians have dark hair until they are very old, so I am a bit of a novelty.

Stephen told them I was a famous Canadian movie star, but I don’t think they understood him.

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We continue to be amused and curious about the sometimes quite intricate choreography that goes into the Asian photo or selfie. I would love to have access to some of their photo albums.

This lady had posed by a tree with her scarf draped provocatively, one leg kicked back, and hair tossed. Then… another, more serious and reflective, gazing skyward. She will have at least 20 similar shots, not including the many they took with me.

We watched this group for quite a while. They had four or five people photographing them as they clapped their hands, waved them overhead, did small steps , etc. At first I thought they were practicing for a routine and we would be treated to an impromptu performance.

 

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and another group …Mum, daughter and friend. I think the whole world’s gone mad.

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We dipped our toes in the water and Stephen went in for a swim, but mainly we entertained ourselves by people-watching and walking the promenade.

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Halfway down the beach is a massive complex with multiple pools, sunbeds, umbrellas, food kiosks  and all manner of beach accoutrement catering to the Russian tourists. The facilities were lovely and prices were extremely reasonable (a sunbed rental was about $3), and its easy to understand the appeal of a foreign destination that speaks your language.

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It’s not all borscht and blini though. As we walked by, this crocodile was slowly turning on the rotisserie. Two hours later on our return walk back, all that remained was his head and skeleton – he had been picked clean. We haven’t tried crocodile yet -they say it tastes like chicken.

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Here’s a healthy food choice – the tempting array of fruit that can be found on most street corners in Nha Trang.

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We came to Nha Trang not expecting much, and yet it was still an intriguing place to see –  just for a couple of days. If it’s not our cup of tea, that’s not holding back the many work sites in full swing. Like much of Vietnam, Nha Trang is in the middle of a building boom.

We wonder about the saturation point – at what point will there be too many hotel rooms in this city ?  We had building sites all around our hotel and across the street. This big project says it all (in English!)

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