We had an agreement, my sister Sally and I: after nearly five weeks of caroming across a mindblowing sensory palette known as India and Nepal, once we’d made it to Goa, we’d stay put until we absolutely, positively had to head back to Mumbai for the flight home.
It was our reward for surviving a gauntlet of experiences both exhilarating and exhausting, terrifying and fascinating. Having met a crew of newfound friends on the ghats of Pushkar, we heeded their advice to go south – as far south as we could along the Arabian Sea – inside the province of Goa. And so it was we discovered Palolem.
Twenty years ago, it was a sleepy place. Most of Goa’s coastline swarmed with British ex-pats who could live more cheaply on this sun-drenched beaches in winter than they could in a dreary flat at home, with the side benefit of being on holiday, to boot. In fact, we ran into friends of Sally’s who were doing just that, living in a grass hut under the coconut palms. It all seemed so romantic, until the pigs arrived.
A sacred cow lounging on the golden sands didn’t surprise me. This was India. But herds of pigs, scuffling and snuffling down the beach? I’d heard that pork vindaloo was a local delicacy. That same day, I learned about the pig toilet. I could not reconcile the two, and was glad I stuck to my guns about eating vegetarian as often as possible while in India. Pass the channa dal, please.
For those not in the know: a lack of actual plumbing along the beach meant certain establishments – like the place where we took our meals and, at least once, nodded off to sleep in hammocks swaying beneath the palms – had an alternate method of dealing with deposits made in their outhouses. The pigs had free rein to roam beneath them.
Avoiding the pigs was easier than avoiding the fellows the ex-pats called “Bombay Johnnies.” It’s a beach. We’re wearing swimsuits. The locals are fine with that, encouraging, even. But at the beach, once ladies like ourselves shrugged off the overshirt or wrap to go swimming, these out-of-towners would gather, point, and stare. It was uncomfortable, but no more so than the experiences we’d had so far. We figured out why when we finally met some Indian women who came to the beach to swim. They entered fully clothed. In this culture, despite our hosts words to the contrary, we were the freak show by showing skin, even in a modest one-piece suit.
A very young man came by every day to try to sell us peanuts. Peanut-wallah, we learned, could also procure a drum. And so a local drum joined our growing stash of fabrics, spices, and sculptures small enough to squeeze in a backpack, made all the more meaningful by buying directly from the people working on these works of art. With Palolem our last stop, there was some splurging, knowing our long strange trip was coming to an end.
Sitting around a table on the beach, sharing cold beer and feni and hours upon days of philosophical and political musing with Fi, Lenny, Deb, and Paul, I felt that Sally and I had finally escaped the slipstream of the everyday and that perhaps this feeling could go on forever. But it never works that way. There are bills to pay and family to look after and responsibilities to shoulder.
But for that week out of time in a culture not of our world, we could set the pain of losing our sister Susan, who was the impetus for this impetuous journey, on a shelf. We could make merry and live for today. While hiking the Appalachian Trail with John came close, it was hard work, not play. I’ve never quite captured that feeling again, the time I truly lived the words “Be Here Now,” in Palolem.
My sister Sally writes about travel, too. Follow her at Adventures of Mom.