The following describes my experiences, riding from the town of Dharwad in the state of Karnataka to the fishing village of Benaulim in the state of Goa, on Wednesday 23rd October, 1991.
I retrieved my bicycle, miraculously unscathed after its evening of finger-poking scrutiny in the lobby of the Hotel Dharwad. In the early morning half-light, the lobby was deserted except for the night watchman stretched out along the reception counter. I woke him to unlock the front doors. Dharwad was cool, and still quiet. I rode slowly along deserted streets, allowing my body a relaxed beginning to what promised to be another long and tiring day. I was still saddle-sore from the previous day and my thighs felt stiff and bruised. (Coming down from my room I'd had to hold tight to the banister for fear that my legs would fold and send me tumbling headfirst down the marble stairway.) After a few minutes gentle pedalling, I spotted an open restaurant with rickshaws parked outside on the pavement. The rickshaws were an encouraging sign; the food would be good, and cheap. A breakfast of curried vegetable and chapatis, washed down with several cups of sweet refreshing chai, lifted my spirits and gave me the energy to contemplate the day ahead.
The road to Goa turned west off the National Highway that lead back to Bombay and dropped down a series of short fast hills, affording easy progress out of town. Trees lined the roadside, and I caught fleeting glimpses of large houses, set back in well tended grounds, as I coasted by; this looked an up-market suburb, where businessmen and industrialists lived. Behind those shuttered windows families were waking to another day, in spacious rooms with beds and clean sheets and air-conditioners, their needs and wants, no doubt, tended to by cooks, maids, sweepers and chauffeurs. By anyone's standards, the lucky residents of these homes lacked little; their lives bore no resemblance to those of the rickshaw-wallahs with whom I had just companionably breakfasted. For them, the rickshaw was home. When the day's work was finished, a thin sheet transformed the back seat into a cramped bed.
The speed of the descents chilled me so I stopped to put on a jacket. After a few kilometres I had to climb, slowly regaining the height I'd just lost. The jacket came off again as soon as I had to work my passage. The scenery here was different. Gone was the dry plain of the Deccan that stretched off to the distant horizon, with only a few solitary trees to interrupt the flatness of the landscape. Scrub and tree-covered hills now replaced it. There was little cultivation here, the slopes making farming difficult. (Had it been at all feasible, I am sure, there would have been families here scratching out some sort of subsistence.) Instead, I was treated to an unspoilt panorama of green rolling hillsides, with hardly a sign of man's interference.
The morning passed pleasantly, although I had to continually resist the temptation to get off the bike and sleep on the grassy verge. A combination of tired legs and undulating roads didn't make for an impressive pace but it was peaceful riding. A few trucks and the occasional bus passed me. They sounded their horns, then disappeared as quickly as they had arrived, leaving me alone again amongst the trees. The sun was hot, and I soon drank all my water; drinking was an excuse to stop for a while and rest. The trees lining the road offered some welcome shade.
By noon I had reached the turn off for Londa. I'd intended to lunch in Londa but it wasn't actually on my route (as my map indicated), but three or four kilometres off to the north. I didn't have much inclination to incur unnecessary distance, so I flopped down on a wooden bench in a little open-fronted shack on the corner of the junction. The shack was one of three in a row, all boasting the title of hotel. I chose was the only empty one. Feeling weary and bedraggled, my wet shirt plastered to my back and salt stinging my eyes, I didn't feel presentable or sociable. It wasn't the right time to field the all too well known questions about my bike and country, my family, my job and salary. Being empty meant that either this restaurant didn't serve liquor, or that the food was awful. I'd find out about the food soon enough, I thought. The proprietor brought me water, while his son stood in the corner and stared. I drank the water down at once and immediately regretted it; this didn't look like one of the more hygienic spots that I had stopped at. Oh well, I thought, the beach is as comfortable a place to convalesce as anywhere.
"Lunch?" I asked. He nodded, and turned toward a small doorway at the rear. I didn't expect anything too nourishing to come back through that opening, and I began to wonder if it had been a mistake to pick the only empty establishment. It would have been rude to leave now, though, and it did look like they needed the business. "And one Maaza, two soda," I added.
His son brought the drinks, then backed off to continue his staring, now from just a few feet away. I was mildly irritated by his intrusion into my space, so I concentrated on pouring my drinks in the hope that he would get bored and busy himself elsewhere. Maaza is a sweet syrupy mango-flavoured liquid, which I thinned with the soda water to make a light refreshing drink. I drank glass after glass of it until all three bottles were empty. I ordered three more, and looked out of the open front of the shack, avoiding the boy's persistent stare. Trees had been cut down around the junction to make a huge open area. There were a dozen trucks parked, lost in the wide open space, their drivers probably enjoying Indian Made Foreign Liquor at the adjacent restaurants, before venturing back onto the narrow and winding roads. (Indian Made Foreign Liquor, or IMFL, refers to all "foreign" spirits such as whiskey, rum or gin that are produced domestically; widely regarded as inferior to their foreign counterparts. I was frequently asked whether I had any "Johnny Walker Black Label.")
Lunch arrived quickly and, having first satisfied my body's most pressing need by replenishing body fluids, I now found that I was quite hungry. The food surprised me; I was brought a tray with a large pile of rice, two hot oily papads, some spicy pickle and a tasty dried fish. In a separate bowl came a fresh fish in a coconut curry sauce. It was delicious! Indifferent now to the boy's gaze I rapidly emptied the plates in front of me. It was my tastiest meal since arriving in India, and it augured well for the next few days of seafood at the coast. This filling meal, along with six bottled drinks, set me back Rs.29. For about 90 cents US, this was luxury I could happily afford!
With some reluctance I walked back into the sunshine and rode away. All I needed now was a long downhill to the coast and surely that could no longer be too far away.
I pushed hard now, racing against time and darkness. It was mid-afternoon and there was still no indication of the Goan border. The morning before, leaving Hospet and feeling keen after a few days rest I had (optimistically, it now seemed) wondered at the possibility of making it to Benaulim in two long days. I would then arrive in time for the full moon and, who knows, with all the travellers congregating at the beach, there might even be a party! I felt ready for some Western company and to exercise my rusty social skills after weeks of mime and 'Indlish'. But to get there in time would require consecutive 'hundred-milers' and, by then, I had yet to manage one! Now I did have one under my belt, though it was beginning to look increasingly unlikely that I'd manage the second and reach Benaulim that day.
With my objective still not totally out of reach, I pressed on. My legs were very, very tired and even the slightest uphill stretch made my thighs burn. I'd change down into the lowest gear and crawl along with barely enough momentum to stay upright. There were definitely too many of these uphill sections; each short exhilarating burst of downhill speed was followed by a soul-destroying and physically draining ascent.
On one downhill section, rough road punctured my front tyre. Letting gravity do the work, I had used the brakes as sparingly as possible and was travelling faster than I should have, considering the road condition. My front wheel crunched down heavily into the far side of a pothole, almost tossing me over the handlebars. Chastened somewhat by my lucky escape (hitting asphalt and gravel at sixty kilometres per hour in shorts would have been messy) I slowed to a more controllable speed. Three minutes later the front tyre was flat but it was only the second puncture so far, in thirteen hundred kilometres. Conscious of the precious minutes of daylight ticking away, I decided not to patch the tube right away, so reached into the tool kit for a spare. The first tube I pulled out was useless. It had ten separate tiny holes in it. Here my inexperience as a cycle-tourist suddenly became evident. Hindsight now informed me that it had been a mistake to pack the tube together with my tools and spare parts; everything had rubbed together, I presumed, nipping the tube and causing the perforations. My second, and only other, spare was not so bad; it had only four holes in it! So I had to patch the tube and, while the glue dried, I appreciated the forced respite, enjoying the silence of being alone in peaceful and beautiful surroundings.
The stop for lunch and drinks had helped reduce my dehydration, but hadn't come early enough; the damage to my legs was already done, had in all probability been done the day before. By now I realised that the smart thing would have been to cycle the leisurely three kilometres from the lunch truck-stop into Londa, found a room, and then had a relaxed day to the coast after a night's rest. (If I'd been that smart, though, I would have probably still been at home in Canada with my feet up in front of the fire, reading about someone else's folly.)
At the side of the road I passed a large, garishly painted sign, four feet high and eight feet wide. It depicted two brightly coloured tigers stalking through the jungle. Printed along the top of the sign, in big red letters was, "We are proud. Tigers have right of way. Protect them." Along the bottom I read, "Karnatak Forest Department, Belgaum." A few minutes later I was further informed, this time by a sign displaying a single garish tiger, that "Tigers are sighted here. Protect them." I stopped to photograph the sign, asking myself who was really in need of protection here. Solitary tigers have been known, on rare occasion, to take down an adult elephant! With a bicycle pump and an old but trusty Swiss Army knife my only potential weaponry I didn't feel that I posed too much of a threat to anything. I was torn; it would have been wonderful to see a tiger there, in its natural habitat, instead of behind the bars of a zoo. But also dangerous. There probably weren't any tigers this close to the road, I rationalised to myself!
I caught a movement out of the corner of one eye, and nearly jumped out of my skin. But it was a forest warden walking along a faint trail through the forest toward me, bare splayed feet contrasting with his smart uniform of neatly pressed khaki-coloured bush-shirt and matching trousers. He had a big friendly smile and bright white teeth. He spoke no English. I pointed at the sign and he smiled again, proudly exclaiming: "Tiger!"
"There are tigers here?" I asked.
He nodded in that enchanting Indian way, rocking his head from side to side, not twisting from left to right as in the Western 'no.' It is the Indian equivalent of our 'yes' nod. (I had practised this movement in private but my untrained neck muscles never quite mastered it.)
"Where are the tigers?" I tried.
"Tiger!" he replied, again.
"How many tigers?"
"Yes, tiger! Which country?"
He looked puzzled. I remembered that the main language in Karnataka, the state I had just left, was Kannada.
"Canada, America." I elaborated.
"Acha," he said, a little uncertainly.
'Acha' is an Indian word equivalent to 'I understand' or 'gotcha!' But he clearly didn't understand. After a moment's silence he gave me yet another toothy grin, waved his arm at the surrounding forest, and repeated: "Tiger!"
I reached into my handlebar bag and brought out my camera. He frowned at the sight of it and took a step backward, obviously unhappy at the prospect of being photographed. So I held the camera toward him, pointing it at myself. He realised quickly what I wanted, and his face lit up again. Showing him the viewfinder and how to look through it, I pointed at the shutter release, and mimed pressing it very, very slowly. I didn't try to explain that when the tiny green light in the viewfinder stopped flashing the exposure had been selected and the lens focused. Hopefully pressing the shutter slowly would allow time for the camera to make all its necessary adjustments. Then I remounted my bike, posed under the stalking tiger, and was photographed.
I bade him goodbye as well as I could, and rode off down the narrow avenue of trees, cautiously keeping an eye on the surrounding dense forest. I had not the slightest idea what to do if a tiger actually appeared. I could barely outpace the mangy and lame pariah dogs that occasionally took offence at my presence; a race with a tiger would definitely be short-lived! There was no movement in the forest.
At one time tigers could be found almost everywhere in India. At the beginning of the century, there were an estimated 40,000 but a count in 1972 showed only 1,827 remaining. The decline in numbers is due, partly, to loss of natural tiger habitat. The rapidly growing human population has increased pressure for forests to be cut, to make room for more arable and industrial land. Most of the damage, though, has been through hunting and poaching. In 1911 an account of the visit of King George V noted that: "...the King killed his twenty first tiger." (He also killed eight rhinoceros' and a bear.) His accompanying party of lords and knighted gentry killed yet more. Despite protests in England, as recently as 1960, the Queen and Prince Philip went on a tiger shoot, or shikar. The shikar was still a traditional part of Indian hospitality for honoured visitors. Indian aristocracy was equally to blame, enjoying the fruits of their privilege. Western demand for tiger skins encouraged poachers, as did domestic demand for animal parts believed to have medicinal properties. The tiger's brain is reputed to be protection against pimples, the flesh against snakebite.
Fortunately, in 1970, the Indian government recognised the tiger as an endangered species and banned the shooting of them. Project Tiger was initiated, managing in the nick of time to save them from extinction.The shikar was banned and serious efforts were made to preserve tiger habitat. Reserves were created, villagers living in these reserve areas resettled, and farmers from adjoining areas compensated for any cattle lost to tigers. By 1986, a count indicated that the tiger population was up to 4,015, roughly half the total world population at that time. Within these reserves, not only tigers but also many other endangered animals have prospered. Project Tiger has been very successful, and my forest-warden friend had every reason to feel proud.
All day long the vegetation been growing thicker and thicker, until in many places it now looked impenetrable. Dharwad only receives about 32 inches of rainfall annually but this figure quickly rises to 230 inches at the coast. The steep western side of the Ghats catch most of the rainfall and little makes it through to the Deccan. This precipitation allows the luxuriant vegetation I was now witnessing: dense evergreen and deciduous forest.
I'd hoped for, but not realistically expected, a day of long gentle downhills leading me easily to the coast. After ninety hilly and slow kilometres I was starting to despair of ever escaping the repetitive uphill-downhill-uphill grind. But eventually, laboriously cresting yet another rise, I was treated to a magnificent, and much anticipated, spectacle. In front of me the road dropped away out of sight, but this time it didn't rear back up again. I could see the coastal plain, a long way below. From where I stopped to enjoy the view, dark green treetops dropped steeply, before levelling out to a lumpy carpet of green which stretched off, seemingly forever. The lumps meant that there were still more hills in store. Before them, though, were some easy and recuperative downhill kilometres to delight in. Directly beneath me I could make out parts of the road as it snaked down the mountainside. This was going to be fun!
I rested awhile, sitting on the side of the road between a couple of trees with my legs dangling over the edge. I fancied at first that I could make out the sea in the distance, but it was just a blue haze on the horizon; Benaulim was still almost seventy kilometres away and the air wasn't clear enough to see that far. There was a warm breeze rising from the plain below, which quickly dried my shirt. Most of what little traffic there had been had turned off for Londa; since then the road had been quiet. It was a tranquil, and private, place. Below me, all I could hear was a solitary truck, revving in low gear, as it laboured slowly up the hairpins towards me.
It would have been easy to rest at that beautiful spot for hours, but there was still a long way to go. Reluctantly, I straddled the crossbar, lowered my tender bottom as gently as possible onto the unyielding leather saddle, and started to roll downwards. The road was bad and it was necessary to keep a firm grip on the brakes so as to be able to avoid the ruts and ridges. That didn't matter; moving in the right direction, towards excellent food and a warm sea, without pedalling, was all any cyclist could have wished for! I passed a rare elevation marker. At 560 metres above sea level, there was still plenty of downhill to enjoy.
In a few minutes, a sign announced the state of Goa. And at the border, a surprise awaited me; in saying goodbye to Karnataka, I was also leaving potholes behind. After weeks of jarring roads, I was suddenly treated to a beautiful snooker-table smooth asphalt surface. Once this fact registered I released the brakes and accelerated crazily, enjoying the unaccustomed speed while squinting ahead into the wind. The surface kept coming, but then so did the hairpins and soon I was braking hard again, trying to decelerate in time to get around a one hundred and eighty degree bend.
Tight hairpin followed straight, straight followed hairpin as the plain rose up to meet me. Having climbed slowly up from sea level weeks before, I felt that I had earned this joyride. I slowed for the bends, and then accelerated quickly down the straights; it was wonderful. I caught up with a laden truck, followed it for a while, breathing clouds of black exhaust, and then sped past as it slowed for a corner. The grimy young boy sitting at the opening on the passenger side smiled and gave me a wave as I squeezed by between the truck and the rocky escarpment that marked the uphill edge of the road. Soon the truck was left behind, a long way above. The green carpet below me was getting nearer, and was beginning to take on form. I could see individual trees as I got closer and then, all too soon, I was down on the plain and pedalling again. But what a glorious twenty kilometres, it had been!
My legs had recharged a little and I cruised along easily for a while. Back almost to sea level I could feel the humidity that I had left behind during the climb to Mahabaleshwar. The road was narrower here but, still without traffic, that was no problem.
Soon thick vegetation gave way to plantations of orderly palm trees. The palms are cultivated for the coconut fruit and for fenni, a locally brewed liquor. A signpost informed me that it was still twenty-nine kilometres to Ponda, and I passed through the small settlements of Consauli, Suctauli, Darbandara and others whose names were not revealed to me. The area appeared prosperous, with solid whitewashed houses, tiled roofs, and neat brick-walled gardens full of bright bougainvillaea. But there was an eerie absence of life: no animals in the yards, no residents sitting around waiting for something to happen, no noise. I surmised that the apparent prosperity here was due to steady employment offered by the plantations.
Then the regular lines of trees and the dry rice paddies gave way to the outskirts of Ponda. The traffic increased, a different sort of traffic. Instead of the usual dominance of bicycles and ox-carts, here were private commuter vehicles. Maruti vans and old Ambassadors outnumbered trucks and buses. Pedestrians were moving with purpose and those sitting, watching, waiting, had an alertness about them. Goa felt different!
Goa, of course, is different. So different, in fact, as to be almost un-Indian. (For this reason, and its beaches, Goa is a popular destination with travellers wanting a "time-out" from the travails of Indian travel, for those worn out by effort of buying a railway ticket, by the discomfort of the bus journeys, by the hustle and hassle of Indian cities, by the lack of privacy.) Goa has a varied history; it was ruled by, amongst others, the Chalukyans (of Badami) from 580 to 750 AD. It was conquered by Muslims in 1312, but in 1370 they were evicted by the Vijayanagans (of Hampi), who were in control until Goa was retaken by the Muslims in 1469. But it was the Portuguese who had lasting control, and were responsible for giving Goa the special character that it has today. In 1510 Alfonso de Albuquerque arrived at the head of a procession of 1200 men, in 20 ships, up the Mandovi river, and established a base at what is now Old Goa, or Goa Velha. It was already a busy city, and under Albuquerque it continued to grow until it rivalled the Portuguese capital, Lisbon. Huge churches were built that still survive today. The Basilica of Bom Jesus houses the remains of St Francis Xavier. (His body is shown to the public only once every ten years since a devout Portuguese lady, overcome by religious frenzy and in search of a sacred relic, bit off one of his toes.) The Portuguese sphere of influence expanded until, by the late eighteenth century, Goa reached its present size. It was a big centre, trading in spices, coral, pearls, porcelain and silk. Two hundred and fifty years of religious persecution, in the form of the Inquisition, and a plague responsible for 200,000 deaths, took their toll. Eventually the Goans tired of colonial rule and in 1961, with help from the Indian military, the Portuguese were ousted. Nearly thirty years later half of the one million or so population is still Catholic, Portuguese is still widely understood, and the Union Territory has a prosperous, yet relaxed and easy-going atmosphere.
I stopped at a roadside stall and quickly gulped down three soft drinks, watching the surrounding scene without dismounting, and pushed on; there were mosques and temples and churches to see in Ponda, but it was still twenty kilometres to Margao and already five o'clock. The Ponda-Margao highway was a busy one with vehicles racing determinedly in both directions. There were no verges, only stone walls on either side of the road. This reduced my options for evasive action so I steered as close to the edge as I could and hoped the traffic would avoid me. For the most part the drivers were considerate but I had one narrow escape. A van, overtaking around a bend, headed directly at me. I stopped, leaned tightly into the wall and made myself as small as possible, shut my eyes, and survived.
This temporarily dampened my enthusiasm for Goa, and the Goans, but I had to continue. On this road there was nowhere to hide; parked where I was was no safer than proceeding. There is a mountaineering practice for dealing with traversing areas of rockfall or avalanche potential: sacrifice some of the normal safety procedures in order to move as quickly as possible and thereby reduce the time spent exposed. I employed the same technique, although in my case 'as quickly as possible' was no longer that impressive. But I managed it to Margao without further incident. Margao was busy, and I was swept along with the evening rush-hour traffic.
The town seemed endless and I didn't recognise anything. Just as I began to wonder if I hadn't missed a turn somewhere, the traffic separated and I rode along a one-way road, coasted down a gentle slope and found myself in a square I remembered. In the centre were the Municipal Gardens with lawns and benches and people hurrying home after work, women in skirts and blouses instead of the usual saris, men in suits and ties, well-to-do Goans. On the far side of the square was the bank where I had changed money eighteen months before. Behind me was the post office, and just ahead was the bus stop for Benaulim. I was on familiar ground, but barely in time. The sun had disappeared into a haze close to the horizon and twilight was turning swiftly into dark tropical evening.
At the far end of the square traffic was stalled. The noise was deafening as everyone leaned on their horn, as if decibels alone could melt the congestion. I managed to squeeze through, and turned right onto a quieter street that I dimly remembered. Soon the buildings thinned and I was back between rice paddies. There was a line of palms down each side of the road, beautifully silhouetted in the ghostly light of the full moon, still low and huge and ethereal. I dawdled along, alone now except for the occasional pedestrian illuminated only by the red glow of a cigarette end. I left the fields behind and was into a forest of palms, blocking out the moonlight. A church was spilling out its congregation and people walked quietly along the roadside in groups of two and three. I came to a cross-roads; it was Benaulim village at last! A few men sat smoking outside the barber's shop, underneath the streetlight. I could hear music coming out of the fishermen's bar and then I was past the circle of dim light and back into the darkness of the narrow lane that led straight to the sea. I strained to see ahead, peering into the darkness, watching out for dogs or chickens or pigs that might wander into my path. I passed a couple of Westerners out for a stroll and cycled back into the moonlight as trees and houses gave way to the final rice paddies. The two hotels and Pedro's Bar came into sight. I was suddenly hungry, and very thirsty. I had ridden 207 miles in two days; I deserved a beer!