Mumbai: Good Food, Long Walks and Polluted Air


We arrived in Mumbai Central Station at night. ‘Milling crowds, millions of them, in the streets, on the railway platforms, even at night the pavements are full of people. The whole city is like an overcrowded room.’ (Kushwant Singh abridged).


Since the family we usually stay with were out of town this weekend, we booked online. Happy Home Hotel was on a dark side street in Colaba. Old and worn, but with a certain charm. A fish tank and a birdcage in the small lobby on the third floor reached via a cramped elevator, a welcome alternative to the well-trodden staircase.

happy-homeThe price we were paying would have been for a luxury hotel in most of the usual places we stay.The boy led us to our room surreptitiously spraying air freshener as he entered. We were very tired and after Gerard had made a cursory round of the room with his rag and bottle of disinfectant we fell into bed. We woke in the morning to the distinct smell of Mumbai. Now where’s the boy with the air freshener? David Gregory Roberts begins Shantaram trying to describe the smell– his first impression of Bombay. Suffice it to say it’s not a pleasant one.

As usual, our first activity was to find a restaurant close to the hotel. We were lucky to find ‘Ganesh’ in easy walking distance. Pure veg and small, it had a friendly middle-aged owner and an exceptionally good cook. We didn’t need to look further. Over our two days and three nights in Mumbai we went back repeatedly and the food was always fresh, each meal cooked individually for us. The next best thing to home cooking.


On the way back from the restaurant, we came across a group of young people, enthusiastically painting a section of the drab street wall with a slogan on bright blue. One fresh-faced young man was providing encouragement. He explained to us that they were part of a youth volunteer organization to promote ‘truth and justice.’


Colaba was busier than we’d anticipated. ‘Fashion Lane’, an old pillared arcade crowded with merchant carts – cheap clothing, sequined cloth bags, colorful scarves and so on. Further on, we found a collection of second hand bookstalls and traded our used books in for new ones. But stall was not the right word for the mountainous stacks of books piled so high and close together you had to turn sideways to work your way through. The stall owners were skillful at extrapolating a book from the middle of a precarious tower without upsetting the rest of the pile. Gerard was reminded of a story he’d once heard about an elderly man in NYC who filled his apartment with stacks of newspapers just leaving a narrow passage between. The story goes the papers toppled over, suffocating him.


As we walked up the bay toward India Gate and the Taj Hotel, we came across a Colaba slum right next to some high-end private residences and towers. Not uncommon in India. Real estate is certainly not about ‘location, location, location.’ I insisted on sauntering through the lobby of the Taj and we were immediately hit by wafts of lilac, jasmine and rose. The hotel wanted to mask any trace of the unsavory aromas from outside it’s hallowed walls.


Across the road from the Taj sat India Gate, crowded with weekend tourists. A thick cloud of pollution hung over the bay and we decided to cross over to the other side of the narrow peninsula to the Marina. But the air was no clearer and the afternoon sun fierce. We decided to take a shared taxi back to Colaba and our AC hotel room to cool off and rest our weary feet. We had walked for miles, but never found the old Parsee houses that we’d caught a glimpse of last year.


Our train to Varanasi left at 630 am from a train station an hour away from Colaba. As arranged, our taxi driver Gullu was waiting outside the hotel at 4.15am his engine revving. He’d insisted we leave this early because “you never know what can happen…” But the streets were empty and we reached the station in less than an hour. Climbing over the customary sleeping bodies we found the train that was to be our home for the next 30 hours already sitting at the platform.

Agonda, Hello…and Goodbye


We’d had brief conversations with people in both Gokarna and Guljibagha that forewarned us of what’s happened in Agonda. Each year we’ve watched it lose its original charm. This it sounded really bad.

Urick and Joana accompanied us on the bus ride to Chaudi (our good luck because Gerard had put his back out and we needed help with the ‘small cases’). Then a short rickshaw ride to the guesthouse where we’ve been staying for at least six years, primarily because it’s all the way at the southern end of the beach where it’s much less developed. But what we hadn’t foreseen was that the open space was prime for building. More beach huts, more restaurants, more souvenir shops…and now great Heineken and Kingfisher banners flapping in the sea breeze.


Six years ago

p1030356Our guesthouse owners, Rita and Dominic, were very pleased to see us, hugs and kisses all around. Tatiana, our friend from Russia, was the only familiar guest. Then we asked how much for our usual room. They quoted a 25% increase. Gerard grabbed his heart and said, “Rita, what are you trying to do to us?” Of course, their response was, “Oh, we can get so much more. And you’re only staying two weeks.” “Rita, please what can you do for us?” “Ok…Ok…” and she dropped the increase down to 12%.” Now, after being here for a week and learning about the exorbitant prices of the glorified beach huts, we realize that maybe the price is not so bad after all.


Six years ago



Walking up the street, our first evening, we saw maybe 15 people we casually knew from years past. That didn’t include all of the shopkeepers who greeted us with a smile and “welcome back.” But Gerard lamented that our close friends, Frederick, Jonny, Michael, Richard and Jane were not here this year. OMG, does this mean less conversation, more beach?? The next shock came when we got to the restaurant and saw the menu prices. A good thing, we only eat out in the evening.

Walking up the street, our first evening, we saw maybe 15 people we casually knew from years past. That didn’t include all of the shopkeepers who greeted us with a smile and “welcome back.” But Gerard lamented that our close friends, Frederick, Jonny, Michael, and Jane were not here this year. OMG, does this mean less conversation, more beach?? The next shock came when we got to the restaurant and saw the menu prices. A good thing, we only eat out in the evening.


Seven years ago



We resumed our usual routine –breakfast and lunch on the balcony; swimming in between; the birds still sing sweetly in the trees — all of this hasn’t changed. It’s that the town has become one of the most sought after beaches in Goa. Not helped by the reference to Agonda as ‘the best beach in India” on Trip Advisor and a write up in Conde Naste. We do our best to ignore the ongoing construction of every possible square inch of this little strip of land beside the sea, and enjoy the warm water, friendly chats over chai and good baingen dahiwalla cooked by Babu at Little Plantain.

Our friends Russ and Caroline from Wells, England had “very good news.” After a series of family tragedies they decided to take up early retirement and hit the road. Once they’d made the decision, everything miraculously fell into place. An ad for the large American RV they wanted appeared, Russ got a notice in the mail allowing him to cash in a pension fund early, then he managed to sell his window cleaning business enabling him to pay off his mortgage and buy the RV. Renting their house will provide enough income for them to take to the road and travel indefinitely through Europe and perhaps beyond.


Besides Russ and Caroline and Tatiana there’s a dearth of interesting characters in Agonda this year. Then Gerard met a family on the beach from Moscow who had decided not to go back because it was too depressing. “No one in Moscow smiles.” This matched Tatiana’s remark of last year that everyone’s depressed because it’s always raining. “The only day the sun comes out is when there’s a national parade. The weather’s controlled by the government,” she concluded.


And that evening we had planned to meet for dinner six meter Peter, the violinist from Switzerland. Much to our surprise Krystyna and her mother from Poland had just arrived. They’ve all been coming for as long as we have. Mother has Alzheimer’s but each year she seems to get a little better from the sunshine and swimming in the sea. Krystyna lives in Prague and makes Czech documentaries on political issues that she translates into Polish. This year she’s accompanied by a Czech man the same age as Gerard. Karel had left what was then Czechoslovakia in 1968, just before the Soviet occupation, the same year Gerard left the U.S. With the assassinations of MLK and RJK, the last straw was the democratic convention in Chicago. Even Gerard’s mother encouraged leaving the country. A pivotal year in both Gerard and Karel’s lives. They had a lot in common. Karel stayed away for 20 years, only returning and seeing his family again after the Communist Regime collapsed. Gerard was only gone for 5 years; being in foreign cultures, especially North Africa, had an indelible impact on him. Returning during Watergate hearings was perfect timing. His wife to be witnessed the undoing of a President. Not grasping the full gravity of the situation, her allegiance was with the beleaguered Nixon!

Both us needed more dental work. Gerard had to go back to redo a crown, made a year ago, that never fit. Obviously he was not excited at the prospect of having them in his mouth again. On the other hand, I had a good experience last year, and had no qualms in returning. You might have guessed. Gerard goes back a week later to have the new crown put on, and that wasn’t made properly either. The dentist said come back in a week. I told him we wouldn’t be here that long. So he suggested going to his main practice, next to the lab, in north Goa two hours away. And how much will the taxi cost? Gerard asked. “Oh, 2 or 3,000 Rs.” “That’s not acceptable.” After much discussion between all parties involved, the specialist agreed to send his car and driver to pick him up. A much better solution but still a waste of one of our last days in Agonda. And it was a successful trip.


It’s harder for me to say goodbye to Agonda than Gerard. I loved this town from our first visit. There was little between the sea and me and I felt a freedom I don’t have for the most part traveling in India. But on the other hand there’s very little adventure or sense of discovery here. Each year, toward fall, we’d start planning our next India trip and foremost in my thoughts was returning to Agonda. On each visit the town became more familiar, more comfortable and we’d pick up with friends again. I understand others who say, it’s like coming home. I was in denial of the advance of commercialism, the inability to deal with trash, noise, and too many motor scooters roaring up and down the street. But this year, even I have to admit it’s gone too far. The seduction of sea and sand is no longer enough. So I come to this conclusion with a heavy heart (as LBJ would say), I say goodbye to Agonda for the last time. We’ve talked to a number of people in the same mindset and already have an idea for next year north of Goa in Maharastra.


The Sun sets on this Tranquil Beach


We left Gokarna by bus first thing in the morning. Quite simple — we wheeled our cases out of the guesthouse round the corner to the bus station, stopping on the way for chai and banana buns at the little corner restaurant, open early by Indian standards. The bus pulled in and we hauled on our “small” cases and backpacks and left right at 8.15 as scheduled. A cool breeze wafted in through the open window. So far, it was a lot easier than we’d speculated.


We told the conductor we wanted to get down at Mashem. He had to consult his list of stops, asking us three times. I guess tourists don’t get off at Mashem, The conventional way to get to Guljibagha, our next destination, would be to stay on the bus and go to the market town of Chaudi, and then backtrack in a rickshaw to Guljibagha. But Gerard had noticed on Google maps a much more direct route: get down at Mashem before the highway turns inland and follows the river away from the coast. On the map, there was a broken line indicating something going across the river from Mashem to Guljibagha. “That must be a ferry crossing,” he said. “How do you know?” “I don’t but let’s give it a try.”


Gerard noticed the tell tale landscape of Guljibagha across the river and asked the conductor, “Mashem?” His response was, “Oh!” And he blew his ear-piercing whistle for the bus to stop. Leaving us at a tiny intersection with no signage, we backtracked down the road assuming we’d overshot the ferry stop. After a while, we asked and old woman and her daughter-in-law standing in their front garden. We were strangers at the door. They actually seemed glad to see us, pointing back the way we’d come and saying just go straight. But what is straight in India? Staying on the main road or literally going straight down a dirt track? We chose the main road. After walking for some time, Gerard says, “This doesn’t feel right. Let’s ask again.” Another woman was more than happy to help us. “Go back the way you came and take the right turn on to the dirt road. The boat rests on each side for 15 minutes.” So here we are back where we started.

Just around the corner, there was the river and on the other side we saw a broken down old boat…that must be our ferry! We waited 15 minutes and the boat arrived. We rolled up our pants, took off our shoes and waded across to it, hoisting our cases and backpacks into the boat. The boatman pushed off from shore and we slowly made the short crossing to the other side. But what about the fare? The boatman strode away without looking back. The government pays, a fellow passenger told us. Another surprise.


We had arrived in a construction site. We’d heard about the interstate highway development that would go right through Guljibagh. Here it was! Again we didn’t know where to go. Out of a house alongside, a boy appeared. “ My mother woke me, saying there’s tourists coming and they may be in trouble. Go talk to them.” He was bright and alert for having just woken up. “Let me show you the way to your guesthouse.” We pointed to the construction and asked him how he felt about it. He said, “I hate it. Everybody in the whole town hates it. Pointing to the midst of the rubble, he told us his family used to have a guesthouse there. “My father bought the land 30 years ago and the government is now paying him only 3 Rs per meter compensation.” Another sad story of public works schemes in India that has little consideration for the locals. Arundhati Roy (‘God of Small Things’) has written in depth about just such bullying by the government, in her case, regarding dams.


He pointed us down a lane — you’ll find your guesthouse there. The spacious room we had booked in Telly and his wife’s home was perfect. The tiled roof extended over a small porch, facing the sea just a few feet away, through a thin line of tall skinny trees. Almost perfect, save for the puppy that barked and whined outside our room half the night.


Unlike other Goan beaches, Guljibagha was not first discovered by the hippies thirty years ago, and then developed commercially for tourism. A fishing village, it remained undiscovered until a few years ago. Today, there is very little accommodation; ours is virtually the sole guesthouse, along with one pricey accommodation, a collection of fancy huts. Also some very basic shacks and a few rooms for rent in private homes on the back lane, the “available” signs indicating few takers. A couple of out door restaurants sit facing the sea. Their prices exorbitant with a heavy emphasis on fish. We made arrangements with our landlady to prepare breakfast and dinner for us. She cooked a great fresh coconut veg curry!

The locals have their sights set on the high-end tourist. There are already beach sweepers and lifeguards, even though the beach is almost empty. So we have an arrangement with Telly’s wife who makes us breakfast and dinner. Making your own meals is not an option; there’s little available in the couple of village stores; you have to go to the nearby market town for fruit and vegetables. No entertainment, no loss to us…just the sea, beach and each other. We swim daily and walk the beach, watch crabs dart across the sand laying their eggs, scurrying sand pipers, and strutting egrets. Flocks of birds fly in long lines of formation; a sole bird breaks out, flies around as if confused and then regains his senses and returns, closing the break.

p1030333Even in Guljibagha we make friends – a Swiss man, Urick, with his Brazilian girlfriend, Joana,  who have been staying here for several months. (pictured above with our landlady). Urick is suffering from over-exposure to microwaves. i.e. cellphones, WiFi, computer screens etc. He was in hi-tech for many years until he realized the cause of his ailments. Guljibagha is perfect for him because there’s no wireless service at all.  The last afternoon, Johanna took me for a walk through the north side of the village. Down a long sandy path beside the beach, over hung with palm trees, flowering bushes and scrub, we walked past a row of simple houses and huts. Sleepy activity in the afternoon sun. Finally, we emerged at the far end of the beach. Joana insisted I clamber over the rocks to view a neighboring beach, another long virtually empty stretch of sand and blue water.

Returning back through the shady lane, we came across a large gathering of women and children in the front yard of one of the houses.


Recognizing Johanna, they called out, “Come and join us. Eat and drink!”  Everyone was dressed in their best colorful clothes – one woman wearing brightly colored headdress appeared briefly and then disappeared into the house. “What is the celebration?” we asked. It was a party for a seven-month pregnant woman, a Goan tradition. The guest of honour with her elaborate headdress had now disappeared to my photographic disappointment.  But the other women insisted we come in the house, and sit in the dark interior of their kitchen in the rear –  a single naked lightbulb hanging from the tin roof ceiling.  Husband and children joined us; it was all very jolly with plenty of laughter, reminiscent of days gone by.


As the highway nears completion the sun will set on this tranquil place.


Gokarna: Shiva Worshippers and the Beach


After nine years of spending at least a month in Agonda we decided to split our time between Gokarna, Gulijbagh and Agonda. We still have friends there that we want to visit. For those who remember, we made a day trip from Goa last year to see if Gokarna, just over the border into Karnataka, could be a possible alternative. Unlike most beach towns on the west coast of India, Gokarna’s major draw is not the sunbathing crowd from the west. It’s primarily a place of pilgrimage for Shiva worshippers. As the legend goes, Shiva was passing by on his way from Sri Lanka to the Himalayas when overwhelmed by the beauty of the area, he shed a tear. Where the teardrop landed, it created an abundant source of fresh water next to the sea.


Meat and alcohol are not served and there seems to be little incentive to develop infrastructure for the beachgoers. Unlike Agonda, Gokarna has not become so commercialized that the local life has all but disappeared behind beach huts, sun beds and souvenir shops. On the other hand, for years Gokarna’s been a strong pull for hippies of our vintage and the present version, with its dreadlocks, tattoos and body piercing. (Where are the hippies from the 80s and 90s? I guess it was all disco.)


Accommodation is not plentiful. We booked one of the few guesthouses posted online. On arrival, we were not thrilled but too exhausted from the 36-hour train ride to venture further. After reviving ourselves with a thali, we looked around to see what else was available and realized we had a good deal.


The town beach is certainly not as beautiful as Agonda but after walking 20 minutes away from the hubbub of the town, the beach became virtually empty and the water very clear. No sun beds cluttering the sand, and the few beach huts are hidden in the undergrowth bordering the beach. It’s appealing for us to be in India AND at the beach. Harder to find than one might think. Two or three restaurants serve good South Indian food at Indian prices. At most times of the day, they are packed with Indian tourists and pilgrims making such a din you can hardly hear yourself think.

p1030120I respond to the religious fervor even though I can’t personally identify with Shiva worship. Such conviction and dedication are refreshing in today’s world of lukewarm faith. Even though I’m here for the beach, I like the diversity. As I make my daily pilgrimage to the sea down the winding main street, I pass two temples. Around them, the local women wrapped in a sarong pinned over their breast to numerous beaded necklaces, sell flowers, coconuts and who knows what as offerings. Then I dip myself in the clear sea water, giving thanks.


Beside the temple sits an old carved wooden chariot decorated with flags waiting for the next occasion to be hauled out; furrows in the street shows its path.


We had hoped Republic Day would be one such an occasion. But instead, all the school children in the district paraded up and down in their uniforms carrying flags and beating drums.


The beach wasn’t as convenient as in Agonda, but the town was far more appealing. We plan to pass by this way again.

Losing a friend and we’re so far away


Our good friend Bob Pearsall passed on this week. We knew he was very sick but it was a huge shock to learn that he’d gone. I wish I could hug his wife, Susan, and be there for her. Comprehending the permanent loss of a friend is so difficult, and being on the other side of the world, makes it even harder.

Almost exactly a year ago, our niece, Sarah, also died while we were in India. And now we find ourselves again in the same predicament, unable to be with the family and the community. We’re stuck here and can’t participate. One of the downsides of traveling overseas.

Not forever does the bulbul sing
In balmy shades of bowers,
Not forever lasts the spring
Nor ever blossom flower.
Not forever reigneth joy
Sets the sun on days of bliss,
Friendships not forever last,
They know not life, who know not this.

from Train to Pakistan, Kushwant Singh