Travel is awful

View of Tawang town

There seems to be no lack of pithy sentences promising you the world if only you travel. One may walk over the highest mountain one step at a time. A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. The journey is the reward. Travel makes you modest. Focus on the journey, not the destination. Nothing is as tedious as a journey. No two journeys are the same. The beauty of a journey is that it’s unpredictable. If you are 22, I urge you to travel. Wisdom comes with age. Travel teaches tolerance. Travel long enough, and you forget your passwords. Travel stretches the mind. Tourists don’t know where they’ve been. Amazing how much stuff gets done the day before you leave. I have seen more than I remember. To understand a foreign country, smell it. Go see for yourself. There’s no foreign land, it’s the traveller who is foreign.

Bird photography in Arunachal with the wrong lens

The truth is travel is tedious, and not always comfortable. You only have to eavesdrop on two backpackers chatting to figure out how expensive, inconvenient, and downright unhealthy travel can be. I’ve found more disconcerting things about my hometown by overhearing conversations between backpackers than by reading newspapers or doomscrolling. If travelling has taught me anything, it is that it is far more comfortable to stay at home, drinking a tea or a beer as the mood takes you, eating food that you like, and generally being in an environment that you have grown used to.

Fountain in Hamburg when the temperature was below freezing

I learnt that on a freezing winter’s day in Hamburg you should not take a ferry ride through the harbour, or take long walks with a camera in hand. Much better to do what locals do, and stay inside a shopping arcade or sit in a warm restaurant. Better still, go to Hamburg in a different season.

If you focus on details you find that Rome’s most famous fountains require cleaning

Do not look for the telling detail in Rome. Better to step back and take a long shot of the piazza. It would be even better if you just step back into the crowd, find a table to site down at, and order something to drink. i had more fun drinking a coffee and eating a cake at Piazza Navona that I had taking photos of the fountains.

Contrary to what brochures say, Goa is not full of locals busy having a holiday

Do not go off the tourist map. Do not follow the white rabbit. There is no wonderland waiting for you in Goa. Remain where the tourists are, in the places marked out for you. Enjoy the inauthenticity of a big tourist destination. Remember that Alice did not have a great time in wonderland. The world is full of people trying to make a living. Most of them do not have the money to travel.

Bhutan may or may not be the happiest country in the world. But it is not the world’s richest. The always photographable gho and kira which people are required to wear in public are not cheap. The result is that most people only have a small number of outfits, and they cannot always dress for work or leisure appropriately. Do not assume that everyone treats work as a such a joyful activity that they dress their best to work.

The most interesting thing in a village is always the foreigner

Life in a small small village is not carefree. It is often boring and pointless, much like our own, no matter where we come from. If you look different, then you are as much of an attraction for them as they are for you. Even better, you give them an opportunity to forgo dangerous travel to broaden their mind. Also, be sure that any local politician worth his salt will tell his constituents that he has worked hard to make sure that the village is the most attractive in the world, which is why people come from far to see it.

It is not travel which broadens the mind, it is thinking about what you have seen. Anthony Bourdain probably never said that, but Mark Twain may have. Maybe travel has taught me that. Intercontinental flights are boring enough that I get a lot of reading done on trips.

Goa in the monsoon

Monsoon in Goa: an advertising catchline from the 80s and 90s, when the hoteliers decided to fill up the empty rooms left after the party crowd disappeared. Winter is a washout with all the music and booze on the beach, so you might as well try to see the other Goa in the magical months of monsoon. This is one time when there is a truth beyond the lies of advertising.

The year I took these photos I realized that Goa is a wonderful place to observe the monsoon as it comes in to the Western Ghats. The wonderful plants and insects, the frogs and the moths, straggle down to Goa, to meet the birds and crabs of the coast. You can go for long walks, or drive to lonely spots, with your camera and catch some of the beauties that you might otherwise see on treks through the Ghats. You can lead a solitary life if you wish, broken by exchanging passing greetings with the fisherfolk who are the original inhabitants of this place, or long conversations with the university types over a strongly Portuguese-influenced lunch.

Or you could just stay at home on rainy days, reading, eating the sausages or dried fish in boiled rice, stepping out into the garden on the beach between spells of rain to capture the play of rain and sun on vegetation. It is a life to dream about in these constrained years.

Saibachem Goem

The port of Old Goa was founded in the 15th century CE by the Sultan of Bijapur, captured by the Portuguese in 1510, and served as the capital of Portugal in the east until it was slowly abandoned after several epidemics in the 18th century. Of the several churches here, the one that drew me is the Basilica of Bom Jesu, which contains the remains of Francisco Xavier, the accidental traveling missionary who was sent to Goa by the Pope at the request of the Portuguese king, and was responsible for setting up the infamous Goa Inquisition. The local Konkan name for Old Goa is Saibachem Goem, ie, Goa of the saib, Xavier.

The church is a huge building made of the local laterite stone, with several interior courtyards. The large wooden entrance door was rather plain, but set in an imposingly tall doorway made of marble. It was glowing red like newly cut stone, not at all what I’d expected of a church built in the 16th century. I suppose the facade must have been blasted clean with sand and water just before I arrived (I should remember not to visit often, because this treatment cannot be very good for the stone). The ASI has been in charge of the upkeep of the church since it was declared to be a world heritage site, and although the local chapter of the organization has been accused of negligence, they are pretty competent in the matter of preservation.

Looking more carefully at the stone I realized that the cleaning was not too recent. The stone had started weathering again, and moss was growing in the mortar. I suppose it must have been cleaned for the 500th birth anniversary of Xavier, a couple of years before I visited. The rain here is extremely heavy, and even when I visited, at the end of a monsoon season more than a decade ago, it was raining continuously. The amount of moss I saw was consistent with just a couple of years of growth. A service was on, and people kept arriving. All of them came on foot, and I wondered who was the lone person who had come here on a bike.

Except for the very ornate altar, the church was quite plain. After the service was over I admired the altar, but the light was too bad for photos. The gallery of art work on an upper level was closed for the day. I looked in at the crypt of Xavier, and the famous glass casket where most of his body is interred (some parts have been taken to Rome and Macau). The casket bears beautiful work, almost 400 years old, by Goan silversmiths depicting scenes from Xavier’s life. I wished the light was good enough to take photos of the details.

Xavier’s life is well known and very well documented; even his Wikipedia entry is enormous. I find it interesting that he was part of the millennia-long power struggle between the Eastern and Western Christian churches. When he arrived in India and began traveling to convert local people to Christianity, he visited the tomb of the apostle Thomas in Mylapore, and would have been aware of the many sects of older Christians in India, several of which had attended the very early Synods which codified the doctrines of Christian faith. Perhaps this was even at the heart of his championing the establishment of an Inquisition in Portuguese India. I’m sure that there are many studies of the religious and political climate which drove him east to Borneo, Japan, and eventually to China, where he died in 1552. I wonder though whether the urge to travel was not among his motivations.

Fontainhas, Panjim

If you choose your time well then you will arrive at the Church Square of Panaji when the bustling market is on. My first visit was not timed well at all. I saw a large empty plaza, with one end taken up by imposing steps that lead up to the church of Immaculate Conception.

I’d arrived at the hottest part of the day, in the humid weather at the end of the monsoon. I climbed those steps slowly, keeping to the edges, seeking little bits of shadow. Eventually, when I got to the top, I realized that with the sun vertically overhead it was not possible to find shade. The ornate doors of the church were closed, and I felt like a bit of a fool as I walked back down. I have been back to the square at better times, but I bear a little grudge against that church and I haven’t tried to go back inside.

But if you bear right and walk along Rua Emidio Garcia with the aim of losing yourself in the side streets, you’ll come to a picturesque enclave called Fontainhas. The lovely bungalows here are often called Portuguese style, but that is quite wrong. Perhaps the arches and tiles have been borrowed from the Portuguese, but the thick walls and bright colours are typical of houses in peninsular India.

These pleasantly curving roads lined with low buildings and trees had only a few restaurants when I first walked through them a dozen years ago. Since then, every time I visit, the number of restaurants has increased, many houses have turned into hotels, or home stays, and the pleasant little shops which mainly provided meeting places for the locals have filled up with upmarket kitsch for tourists. It brings more money into the locality, but drains off, slightly, the uniqueness which I’d found so charming when I took these photos.

As I wandered I came across this statue of Abbe Faria, a central figure in Alexandre Dumas’ door-stopper of a novel called The Count of Monte Cristo. The real Abbe Faria (1756-1891 CE) is no less fascinating. He was a Brahmin Catholic (this is Goa!) who left Goa for Lisbon, then traveled to Rome to study to become a priest. He was invited to preach a sermon in the Sistine Chapel in the presence of the Pope, and later to the court in Lisbon. Back in Goa, he developed his theories of hypnotism, was part of the Pinto revolution against Portugal, escaped to Paris, where, strangely, he became part of the counter-revolutionary royalist conspiracy. He was imprisoned for many years in the Chateau D’If (the part of his life fictionalized by Dumas) before he returned to Paris, obtained a position as a professor of Philosophy, and became briefly famous for his work on hypnotism. If anyone knows of a detailed biography of the real person, please do let me know.

I spotted this lovely window and wall on that first walk, and then traced it out on another walk many years later. The colour of the wall aged well. I wouldn’t mind going back there again to see whether it needs another coat of paint now. That line of hooks on the wall mystified me. I wonder whether there was a forgotten function to it, or whether it marked a ghost window: a place where a window had been before it was walled up.

Strolls through Fountainhas will always lead you to interesting things. Like this house, which had a pay phone. The person who made a little business out of it was clearly loathe to lose any customers. I hestitated in front of the sign. Should I ring the bell, ask for change, and take a photo or two of this astute businessman? But it was time for lunch, and I wandered off.

A monsoon drive: Dharwad to Goa

I had to decide how to travel from Dharwad to Mumbai. My meeting ended about noon. Then there are three choices: wait the night and take a morning’s flight from Dharwad to Mumbai, fly to Mumbai with a change in Bengaluru, drive to Goa and fly to Mumbai. In this season, right at the beginning of the monsoon, I decided that the third choice would be the most scenic; the route passes close to a very large tract of protected forest as it descends from the Deccan plateau to the Konkan coast by way of the Western Ghats. It also turned out to be the fastest.

We started an hour after noon, and I was told that the drive would be four hours long. I was not inclined to believe that. The map showed the distance to be 163 Kilometers. “Three hours,” I thought to myself, feeling a little annoyed with the driver when he hit a speed of 100 Kilometers and hour right outside Dharwad. I realized that I had no chance of photographing the very interesting road signs that began to appear right after we got on to the highway. The few roadside businesses petered out very soon. The last one that I saw had these impressively large tires. The highway was full of trucks which could have stopped for one of them.

In less than half an hour we had left these establishments behind. In India you are never too far from people. We passed smaller villages every few kilometers. Houses were generally of brick, with roofs of fired clay tiles. They seemed to use hardly any mortar, but often a few walls would be plastered and painted with bright chemical paint. The photo above shows a typical hut. I noticed that huts are generally built in the shade of a large tree. Summers must be killing up in these highlands.

I’d left without having anything to eat. The driver also wanted lunch, but he had a destination in mind. I kept looking out for roadside establishments, but couldn’t spot much. We’d left the farmlands behind, and were in forest now. The abandoned shack that you see in the photo above was typical of business premises in this area. Only a smatter of plastic garbage testified to the fact that it does serve food sometimes.

The beautiful forest took my mind off my fast depleting levels of energy. I like taking stop-motion videos in rides like these. The video above is speeded up ten times. We covered a little more than ten kilometers through the jungle in the part of the video which you see above. The rain was a little intermittent drizzle, and the sun broke through every now and then. The nearly empty road, the watery light, and the green rain forest around us created a magic ambience. I was happy to have made this choice.

Around the midway point we pulled into a larger village called Ramnagar. A small eatery here was the place that the driver was aiming for. He’d told me earlier that the vada pav here was good. I ordered one and found it delicious. Crisp vada covering wonderfully spiced potato served in the usual sourdough pav, with some chopped onions and a garlic chutney. I’m too wimpish to bite into the optional fried green chili. I washed it down with a chai. A family on the road sat at the next table and had a lunch plate; the children asked why there were no noodles in this place. I was still a little peckish. I ordered a second. The driver was still on his chai. I stood outside the shop, taking in the sight of this roadside village as I finished my second vada pav.

We were a little more than halfway, and it had taken us two hours. The road would now rise into the ghats before descending quickly into the Konkan coastland. We started on the rise soon after the break. This was forest land. I saw a Hornbill fly above us, a little ahead. When I messaged this, the instant question that came back was “Which Hornbill?” What a horrible bunch of expert birders I talk to! I didn’t get that good a sighting, but I thought it was a Malabar pied Hornbill. The sighting had come and gone too fast to record. Soon we began to descend. Our snaking path took us repeatedly across a channel of water which grew as we descended. We stopped finally at a point where the road became wider with a culvert and a shoulder. Several cars were parked there, and groups of people were peering at the stream which flowed below the big culvert. Lower down this would apparently turn into the Dudhsagar waterfall. So we were at the beginning of the Mandovi river. The featured photo was taken here: the wooded lowlands are Goa.

The last bit of the drive took us through the charming villages of south Goa. I love this part of the country, but I always wonder about living next to a highway. I see beautifully painted houses, clean, with a little garden in front of it. The village store, the post office, a place of worship, and people striding about on work, stopping for a spot of gossip. We sped through it all. The video above shows part of this drive; if you look at it, watch the villages on the sides of the road. The large bridge that we cross is over the Zuari river. In one drive we crossed both of the main rivers of Goa!

Goa after christmas

Sao Jacinto

I spent the end of last year in Goa and returned home on the eve of the new year. Unlike my previous trips, I stayed entirely to the south of the Zuari. When most people visit Goa at the end of the year, they want to be shuffling in the madness of Sunburn or crowding some other beach in north Goa. If you are sure that you are not a sardine, you could try to head south of the Zuari. It has beaches, and it has more.

On my last evening in Goa I went with some friends to eat in a popular fish restaurant on the south bank of Zuari estuary, near the island of Sao Jacinto. The eatery is one of the places which runs more on the freshness of the fish than on the skills of the cook. The crabs are enormous and sweet, and the less the cook does with it, the better. After selecting one you have time to drink many shots of the wonderful local cashew feni (I like mine on the rocks, with ginger and lime squeezed into it) while munching on the superb Goan sausages. Unless you are careful you can be full before the crabs arrive. Many of the more popular restaurants will have a crooner who manages to make the angriest rock sound mellow. That’s one thing that Goa has in common with the north east of India.

Fisherman's house

After dinner we walked over the causeway to the charming island of Sao Jacinto. I’ve only been there at night, so I can’t tell you whether it looks charming in daytime. Late in evening, when most of the fishermen on the village have gone to sleep, it is quiet place with a serene charm. The causeway takes you to the church square, from where you can start your walk through deserted village roads. On this occassion, after Christmas and before the new year, all the houses were lit up with fairy lights, coloured porch lights, and illuminated stars.

Fresh prawns in Vasco

Earlier in the evening I’d driven out to Vasco on a borrowed scooter to buy a load of cashews to take home. Goa is as non-urban as a continuously inhabited stretch of beaches can be. Even the town of Vasco looks pretty spread out until you get to the old Portuguese center. I spent a fruitless ten minutes looking for Bebinca. Apparently tourists had bought all the stock, and the factory was closed for the rest of the year. I got my cashews, bought various things at the two bakeries I passed, and then wandered into the fish market. The fisherwoman put us down for cheap tourists, interested only in gawking at the fish they have been eating in restaurants. She was right, we were not there to buy any fish. The moment my camera came out, she stopped talking to us and started chatting in Konkani with the owner of the next stall.

Vasco town center

The central square of Vasco is a noisy and crowded place. If you dodge a lane of traffic to stand under the trees in the middle of the oblong “square” you can forget the bustle and look at the layout. It is decidedly not Indian. It is not hard to imagine that if the surrounding buildings were spruced up and painted, and the hoardings and signboards removed, the whole area could look like a charming European plaza, only with more sun and warmth. Some time in the future I hope people put an end to the blight of multistoried shops which has begun to take over, and put the emphasis back on the remaining street-level shops. That can only happen if tourists were willing to take some time off from beach-shacks and come for a coffee, or a drink and a meal in town. The local economy is not strong enough to make the turn-around on its own.