Agonda, Palolem and Patnem, Goa. April 2019
By the time I reached Agonda, I was ready to socialise and meet fellow travellers, swim in the sea and really experience Goa. Duck and Chill is the very last set of accommodation on the north side of Agonda. I’d booked six nights due to a friend’s recommendation. It was a cabin, rough chipboard interior and a palm leaf roof, you could see daylight through the ceiling. The room was open to the elements, a large hole above the door and a wobbly fan to circulate the air. The floor and the clothes cubby were both glossed a dark maroon colour and the double bed (two singles tied together) had a mosquito net with holes a bird could fly through. The bathroom had a bucket and jug and it took two days before I found the saltwater shower, a nozzle that had to be cranked by putting your hand through a hole in the wall and turning the stiff tap.
But it was close to the beach and I couldn’t wait to put on my swimsuit and jump into the cool refreshing surf. I remember changing into my swimsuit and running into the ocean, leaping into a soupy, warm, turbulent sea that carried the faint whiff of raw sewage and every wave battered and tumbled my body like a rag. When I managed to crawl out in one piece, I sat on the sandy beach to recover, only to find it was crawling with tiny spiteful bugs that bit and scratched at my skin.
The young hotel waiter flirted with me in a mercenary way, obviously hopeful enough to try for a visa and access to my bank account. I used the imaginary ‘husband’ and real wedding ring to deter his efforts.
I escaped and wandered down the main street, the entire length full of tourist shops and tie dye merchandise, advertising end of season bargains. I found a tree covered with heavy Indian fruit bats, flying in broad daylight and screeching in wheels above my head.
I’d picked a terrible time to visit. Late April is hot, unbearably so, with monsoon season looming over the days like a humid blanket. Most places were beginning to close down. Few bars and restaurants were open. Those that were held a drunken mass of foreigners, rowdy with beer and bawdy language.
I headed back down the same road, dark now and the lack of light made me fearful. A motorbike roared by, carrying a leather clad youth. I kept walking. I saw him turn and do another pass toward me. Head down, I carried on. The next pass, from behind, he took a swipe at me, not aiming for my handbag but making contact with my backside at some speed. I tried to grab him and pull him off his bike. If I had, no doubt I would have fought with all the anger I had inside, but in retrospect it was better I missed. Seconds passed and he turned again for another go, I gathered my senses quickly and ran. Stumbling through the pitch black of a deserted bar, I could hear the bike revving and then the engine cut.
By now, I was charged with the sharp prickle of adrenaline and absolute terror at the thought of what might happen. The sound of the waves pulled me through the labyrinth of buildings, feeling my way in the dark and hearing footsteps in time with my heartbeat. I reached the sand and saw a glimmer of light from further down the beach. I ran until I reached the wooden seats and recognised and the face of the flirty waiter. Sometimes it’s better the devil you know. I was shaken and bruised, more by my stupidity than anything physical. I was a white, middle aged woman, travelling solo. I should have known, never, ever walk the streets of India alone at night.
My first night was spent bathing cuts, scrapes and bites in a squalid bathroom, buckets of cold water over me to wash away the smell of fear. A travel website had advised carrying a doorstop, so I jammed the wood under the bolted door and locked the shutters. I spent the rest of the evening making contact with friends and family on FB, never telling them about my ordeal. I knew that they would worry that I was half a world away, alone and hurt. Facebook is a great tool for communication, but it also breeds a fake image of happiness. I wholeheartedly fed into that. Posting happy pictures to reassure everyone and tell them about the great time I was having. A total lie. I was typing and simultaneously swatting cockroaches the size of my thumb and sewing up the large holes that gaped in the mozzy net. I was angry because I felt vulnerable all of the time, in a way I had never experienced before. Soon, things would get better. Ish.
My sister facetimed me the next day and I just cried. I had wanted a journey full of spiritual growth and meaningful encounters with people, not relentless staring, grabbing and groping around the entire country. I met a great British couple, and that made all the difference. Having good company for dinners and going on a boat trip lightened my days and I felt a little less oppressed. There were power cuts and storms that cracked across midnight skies, I sat watching with my new companions as the light flashed in the distance and clouds crept towards the hills. These are the moments I like to remember, awestruck at nature rather than utter disappointment with humanity.
I hired a ‘scooty’ for a few days and got out to explore the local area, spending hours riding around the rolling jungle covered hills. On one journey, a troop of pink-bottomed macaques strolled across the road 30 metres ahead of me, I stopped, slack-jawed as they passed by the dozen, all ages from the old to babies clinging on maternal underbellies. It was only when I reached for my camera that I remembered I wasn’t in the confined safety of a car but totally exposed to any possible danger. There was none. Like most animals, if you leave them alone, they do you no harm. I had never been so close to wild monkeys and the last large male stopped, stood tall enough to make eye-contact and almost looked like he thanked me. An image I will never forget.
Back at the Duck and Chill, I made friends with a stray cat, I called him Tuxedo, his white bib and bow-tie markings made him look like a little, furry butler. He was owned by the neighbouring hotel and as they were building constantly, he was around a lot, mewling for attention or just climbing on my lap. I met his owner and encouraged him to take the cat to the local animal shelter to be neutered, all for free. I had volunteered for a day and spent my time petting kittens.
I came back to the beach armed with leaflets and handed out information to the local hotels. I also decided to stop moaning about the filthy beach and fill a bag with rubbish, a small gesture but it made me feel better. I did ask if I could change rooms as the noise from the building site next door was excessive and relentless, 7am until dark. What they offered me as an alternative was even more primitive, no roof on the bathroom, so I stayed put for the full six nights and then rented an apartment on the main road between Patnem and Palolem just fifteen minutes down the coast.
This place was in a complex and I had a kitchen and washing machine so I caught up with laundry and just read a good book by the pool and chilled out. That first afternoon I ventured down to the beach in the evening and had a meal, just to socialize a bit and then hired another scooter to roam around the area and get my bearings. When I returned to my block and settled for the evening I started to receive obscene messages on Whats App. Again, I felt vulnerable. The only people who had my number were the people running the apartments. A few dick pics later, I blocked the phone number and rammed the doorstop under the door and levered a chair underneath the handle. Just in case.
Patnem was very similar to Palolem, less crowded but they were both set up for tourists and had the same style clothes stalls and souvenirs on every street. On my last day, I found Colomb beach, down a dirt track with chickens running wild about my wheels. White sand, palm trees and a few sun-bleached umbrellas. The small cluster of bars had been boarded up for the monsoon season and I was almost alone in this sandy haven. Almost.
A small, wizened lady hobbled across the hot sand, waving with one hand and encumbered by a large cloth bag in the other. She sat next to me, squeezing into the shade. Her name was Amma, her questions a stream of lilted English, punctuated with genuine smiles. Her hair was a haze of silver with reddened henna endings, giving the impression of a halo. But her eyes were playful, a mix of youthful spirit and entrepreneurial endeavour, I was about to buy something. I agreed to see her merchandise and she carefully unfolded her fuchsia blanket and laid out trinkets, silver and stone, beaming and nodding enthusiastically with each unveiling.
I am the world’s worst shopper. On a holiday in Kenya my friend left me browsing souvenirs by the pool and when I returned to the hotel room, I’d bartered so badly I had no shoes! I know this about myself and yet I still let her sit and talk and show me her wares. I did buy some things and manage to extricate myself from the situation quite well. Although, in retrospect, the portable ashtray was ridiculously heavy and the embroidered scarf was of no use in 40 degree heat. I live and learn.
The following day I passed a noticeboard and stopped to have a look and see if there were any activities going on. The board was plastered with posters of missing men and women. All westerners who had ventured to Goa in search of a good time and disappeared. Dozens. Later that night, safe in my apartment, I went online and checked the ‘Women in Goa’ group that my friend had invited me to join. A woman had posted a request. Six bodies had lain unclaimed in the local morgue, all westerners, could people have a look and see if they recognised any of the dead. I didn’t open it. Instead I logged on to a travel site and booked a flight to Delhi. I would visit the ‘Golden Triangle’ and then head out of India. I’d had enough. My relationship with India was hanging by a thread.