Nobody, no website, guidebook or colleague had told me the important bit of information about Goa – that it is in fact a well-known establishment, albeit in India, for European hippy's from a few decades earlier but who still haven't grown out of it, to go and hang out and make love, not war. This of course came as a complete and unexpected surprise to me when we arrived. But first, the arrival itself. Goa with its unbearable heat clashing with the ocean, makes it apparently especially susceptible to rolling layers of thick fog and as we began descending we very much became ‘the plane that rocked' as we lurched forward, took sudden and swift drops through air pockets, dipped to the left, dipped to the right, dipped in directions that didn't seem at all normal and would suddenly aim once again for the sky, accompanied by the engines roaring beside us. The majority of Indians on-board seemed to consider this perfectly normal and sat looking content with themselves, staring straight ahead in spite of the occasional forces trying to push or pull our heads in different directions. I, on the other hand, had bought what was by Indian standards, a particularly expensive beer, and I was determined to guard it with my life so I invested all my efforts at resisting the turbulence of the coastal winds clashing with the mountain air and keeping my hands steady, to which I had secured purchase on the remainder of my beer. Finally we broke through the clouds and below, trees as far as the eye could see. We descended further and further, still taking the occasional drop, swiftly followed by the roar of the engines as they struggled to compensate for the unexpected drops. We hugged the terrain of a sloping mountain all the way down before passing over the rooftops of a village and landing straight onto the runway.
My driver, Wahid, was a very interesting man and refused to let silence reign in the car for more than a few seconds before dispensing another snippet of information about the area. Not only that, but aside from just being a driver he was also a great salesman, offering ‘the best prices' just for me on a whole range of items such as motorbike rental (‘Just give the policeman 100 rupees if you don't have a licence and thank him for doing a good job', on the issue of getting caught without an Indian licence), tour packages (‘I arrange tours where you get closer to the things than you ever thought possible', on the issue of what makes his tours unique) and of course, something that no doubt goes over well with the remaining hippy population, weed (‘The best weed you'll ever smoke'). In the end, surprising though it may seem, it'd later turn out that his motorbike rental prices really were the best anyone at my hostel had heard of. But then we arrived to the hostel.
Don't get me wrong, it looked pretty similar to the pictures and the family couldn't have been nicer – essentially what I was to be staying in though was a mudhut alongside the family's home. It smelled damp almost as soon as I walked inside, although that'd be nothing compared to what it would be like in the following days. It was small and dark, its two windows obscured by a mixture of dirt and metal netting. Huge gaps separated the walls from the straw roof and it was obvious straight away that this would serve to be an open invitation for the surrounding mosquito population. To congratulate myself however on having lasted so long in Delhi, a feat which continued to puzzle and amaze both backpacker and Indian alike everywhere else, I decided to sample the local restaurant to see what it was like. Almost immediately the prices shocked me – nearly 200 rupees for a meal; almost â‚¬2.50 for a full dinner, how could this expensive pricing be?! I was deeply unimpressed and realised something I'd realised many times during the trip before – the prices were a little too steep and weren't really sustainable once again in the face of dwindling finances. So I returned home, did some reading (The Kite Runner again, ran out of new reading material somewhere around KL the second time so started into it again) and just before bed in came my room-mate, a half-German, half-Italian man whom I still owe 100 rupees to. Needless to say the usual room-mate banter took place then until late into the night, drinks were had, food was exchanged and stories swapped until we were both ready to try our luck with the Goan mosquitos. I bathed myself in anti-mosquito spray until my skin was shiny and stank of paraffin. Lights out.
My legs, arms, neck, and even feet. I could've itched them all day, all night and all the next day and still been no closer to satisfaction. To say I had been bitten would have been one of the greatest understatements of this decade – I'm still not sure how I can go about describing in sufficient detail what was after happening but the words ‘eaten alive' feel like they come close. Similarly, my German friend woke up to discover that he too was going around the place like a dog that hadn't been treated for fleas in 6 years all the while being left out on the street. Unlike me however, he had witnessed what was happening – the ‘Rambo mosquitoes' as we would later go on to term them came in and he had seen himself that one in particular kept flying straight for skin, backing away when it found mosquito repellent, trying a different part of the skin, and so on, continuing until it found a spot, no matter how miniscule, where one of us had been a bit lax with our repellent application. The Rambo mosquitoes seemed to stop at nothing either, no amount of mosquito repellent, no amount of covering ourselves up in the extreme heat or wrapping ourselves up in blankets seemed to do anything. My dear mother I know for a fact had invested great time and money into a bedsheet to be placed under myself which deterred both bedbugs and to a lesser extent, mosquitoes. Furthermore, I know just as much that it worked magnificently in the majority of places; in some instances in fact, I dispensed completely with the need for repellent in favour of this net. The Rambo mosquitoes however thought little of her efforts, nor did they think much of my ‘safari-strength' repellent. How I got out of Goa without either the dengue or malaria, I'll never know – in fact, it wouldn't surprise me much to learn that my illness after Goa was related to mosquito-borne diseases.
As a result of our dwindling finances and out of protest at the restaurants high prices, we both embarked on a mission to be slightly cheaper by buying fruit ourselves, washing it and eating it without having to go near the room. We also discovered a local pastry shop willing to offer us good prices without us having to hassle them for a better price. So for the following 4 days we subsided on pastries, coconuts and pineapples. And it would be fair to say my ‘system' was functioning perfectly – as I stared into the latter half of my trip to India, I began to feel almost invincible to the dreaded Delhi Belly that seemed to plague so many, if not all, visitors to India. Of course I was going a little more often but nothing to worry about. By day we'd climb mountains in the area, walk around the lush tropical jungles and take in the sea air down at the beaches. Of course, it wouldn't be India if we didn't nearly get ambushed by half a million people trying to sell us tat on every visit to the beach but I quickly learned to wear flip flops and high shorts so I could wade into the water when someone was particularly insistent on me buying something; incidentally they never came into the water I figured. In the evenings the general protocol seemed to be arriving home and dealing with the after-effects of the daily downpours as a result of monsoon season and the toll it would, without fail, take on our beloved mudhut. Generally the mudhut would flood to some extent – including any belongings not carefully stowed off the ground – but would generally dry up after a few hours. There was however one particularly unruly patch of stagnant water in the corner that refused to budge and no doubt contributed to the growing mosquito problem, which by the final nights necessitated the use of a mosquito net, repellent and optimism that we might be ‘lucky' and they'd go somewhere else.
Needless to say they never did and by the last night in the mudhut, in spite of sadness to be leaving, I was also glad at the prospect of not being eaten alive for a night or two. To celebrate we went out with a Frenchman working in Afghanistan but on ‘compulsory holiday' in anticipation of violence during the elections and splashed out – we had dinner and some beer and all went home feeling suitably full. The restaurant had been especially empty – with only a handful of Indians there aside from the staff. Of course they warn you about things like this in guidebooks but we didn't care less about it and I devoured every single bit of the food and went to bed with something I hadn't properly had in a few days; a full tummy. I like to consider that it was almost an omen. The next morning it was up early and off on the local buses (I felt bad taking the bus to the train station instead of calling upon Wahid's many services but the simple fact was that there was really no competition between 30 rupees and around 700) firstly to Mapusa where I said a final goodbye to my muthud room-mate and in a final act of generosity, he lent me 100 rupees to make sure I'd have enough for my onward journey. From there it was on to Thivim train station with about 100 Indians packed onto a tiny bus just like you'd see in a movie. Some hours later as the train pulled into Madgaon station and I got off to wait for my next train, the ‘Radjdhani Express' for Kerala, I began to feel a little bit unusual. Not unwell but sweating far more than I'd expect in the shade. The meal had come back to haunt me and India would suddenly turn into a game of ‘where's the next toilet roll'…