6:30 am, Calangute: The crows around here must get to eat; my bike has been blessed with fairly copious amounts of droppings. I wet a rag and spend some time cleaning, then look up. The branches of the mango tree are studded with the undersides of over 20 dark shapes. Before any more accidents can occur, I roll out the bike and park it under a blue-pink sky. As I sip a last cup of tea, I look at my dark gleaming friend of 16 years and thank her again for bringing me to this heavenly place. Some dark still lingers on in the morning air as the right leg kick starts the 350 cc. engine into its gentle boom-boom. The early morning is chilly with ocean breeze. As I finally get moving, home in Pune seems far away. Was it only 6 days ago that I rode through the Taminhi Ghat singing old Hindi songs to myself? With a helmet on and the visor drawn, one can have a private concert; the performer and the audience locked in symbiotic union. The newly paved road all along the Sahyadri range makes for a good ride and with just one brief stop for chai and a you-know-what, I make it to the Mumbai-Goa highway - 100 kms done and only 240 more to go. The first stop is Ganapatipule, 20 kms off the Mumbai-Goa highway, on the Ratnagiri coast. Ganpatipule is a little seaside village, prominent on the pilgrim route because of its large beachfront Ganesh temple. I check into Hotel Shreesagar and am shown a fairly decent room for a negotiated price of Rs.300.
After an hour of recovering from the ride, a bath and with cleaner clothes on, I take a leisurely walk through the one-street village. Night is setting in as I find myself matching the brisk pace of a youngish Brahmin who is on his parikrama of the temple. He looks splendid in his dhoti of red silk. Each pleat has been folded and ironed to a sharp crease. Bright red vermilion streaks vertically across his forehead like a meteor on fire.
With a pooja thali in his hand and shlokas in his mouth, the priest leads. I follow him all the way into the temple. Ensconced on the left in a large niche sits the elephant God adorned with ornaments and surrounded by his favourite modaks heaped in plates and may become the prasadam. I look into the eyes of the 5-foot high idol and the Lord seems to stare right back at me. I imagine him smiling as if we have just shared a cosmic joke.
I pay my obeisance then walk on to the beach making my way towards the darker part where the lights of the temple fade and the stars take over. The moon is on the rise and the gentle ocean waves sing a song of welcome. Phosphorescence gleams on the ocean like an emerald carpet and I am soaking in the bliss.
By 8, the crowds have left. Instead, I spot silvery waves form a few hundred feet away from me and follow the single column of approaching froth that bursts into diamonds, scattering on the beach. The clock on my mobile says its nearing 12 and I get up and walk back to my hotel. I realise I've not had any dinner and resolve to have a good breakfast early next day.
While my omelette is being prepared, I consult with the hotel clerk, who suggests I take the coastal road to Rajapur and join the Mumbai-Goa highway there. This will mean more time on the road but then, I'm in no hurry either. I'm soon passing through some very picturesque scenery of ploughed red-earth, of isolated coastal jungle villages. Everywhere, even in the smaller places, I see prosperity and smiles. There are PCOs and Internet cafes. I'm getting very good signal on my mobile too! This is a new India I'm riding through.
I cross gleaming new bridges over creeks where fisherfolk mend their nets before venturing out to reap the sea's bounty. It is a happy India. As I pass the 'Welcome to Goa' signs, the world changes. If the Maharashtrian section of NH17 was good, the Goa section is better. At Pernem, I take a detour towards my stop for the night - Arambol beach. The narrow winding road takes me through border villages, with their mixture of Maharashtrian and Goan. Arambol is what Anjuna used to be 20 years ago, hippie. Almost the entire tourist population in Arambol is European, Korean or Australian. I was the only Indian there! I saw ageing hippies, and young hippies-in-the-making!
I have long held a fantasy of riding my Enfield on the firm wet beach sand. And then I make the first mistake of the trip. I ride onto the sand and immediately get stuck. The loaded Enfield is too heavy for this kind of thing. I cool off the accelerator and look for help with a plea on my face. Soon enough, a Nepali hotel manager who has been staring at me comes over and lifts the rear of the bike. I ask my rescuer if he knows a place I can spend the night and he directed me to a nearby house that looked like a few thatched rooms fused together with no particular symmetry.
An elderly woman is tearing up pieces of dry chapattis and tossing them to two mongrels frisking around her. She is small-statured with a thin wiry body typical of those for whom physical labour is a way of life. A thin, faded brown cotton sari, wrapped in the Konkani manner with the pallav passing between her thighs is tucked at the base of her spine, just above her stringy buttocks. Her well-oiled hair gleaming in the sunlight is tied behind in a bun. Red and green glass bangles tinkle as she washes her hands and comes over to where I was standing. Her mouth spreads in a tight smile and when I tell her I'm looking for accommodation for one night, she asks me if I am on my own, then leads me to the right side of the house, along a fence of an untended bush of duranta. There are two rooms of unplastered brick, sharing a wall, each with three cemented steps leading up to an unshaded door. There is a stack of rotting branches heaped up nearby. Mosquitoes hum me a welcome as she clicks the lock on the door, pulls open the rusted iron latch and then stands aside for me to look into the room. It has no toilet of its own but she says there is a pig-toilet in the back. When I look out of the open window, I see an open place crowded with banana, coconut and supari trees and two families of pigs clothed in dried muck, roaming around. "Shambhar rupayee," she says without me asking. Only a 100 rupees, but it's not to save money that I say yes to the lady of the house. She was a poor woman and the 100 bucks would mean a lot to her.
Ingenious waste disposal
The pig-toilet is a Goan institution fast fading into oblivion. Essentially just an elevated brick platform over a hole in the ground, with a woven coconut frond curtain around it to provide some privacy, this system of waste disposal is ingenious to the extreme. And if the smug, happy faces of the pigs are any indication, one could say this system works, give or take a mishap or two. Every toilet comes equipped with a standard accessory; a thick 4 foot long wooden stick which one holds on to, not for support but as a weapon of defense. As the lady unabashedly demonstrates the technique, I look on in horrified amazement. One delivers, she says, a sharp hit on the flat snout of the pig as soon as it becomes over enthusiastic and gets too close to the flanks. Timing is everything. With almost motherly pride, she tells me her pigs are smart and they are quick! So I'll just have to be quicker. Won't I? It is almost as if a challenge is being thrown. Who will win? The pig or the human? Either outcome appears to be okay with her, although I suspect she is marginally partial to her pigs. Then, as if embarrassed by her own bias, and letting her voice adopt an insider's tone, she tells me not to get taken in by their delighted grunts. They can be quite dangerous. One German, an animal-rights protectionist, in his kindness, had hesitated hitting them, and had consequently to be rushed to the government hospital in Mapusa with a portion of his rear taken from him. "My pigs are not polite like maybe German pigs". She laughs at her own joke. I admire her for that. A sense of humour even!
Nevertheless, I decide to take a rain check on using her rustic rest room! At the same shack-hotel, where the Nepali manager had helped me with my bike earlier in the evening, I have a light supper of noodles and Soya. I want to keep my stomach semi-empty to avoid going into the challenging toilet at all, but an hour later I find I am back at the shack-hotel to eat some Goan fish curry and drink some of the local brew. The ride has made me hungrier than I had thought. The spicy curry-rice and the intoxicating cashew feni have somehow made me brave. I start to believe I can handle the pigs tomorrow. Even teach them a lesson to keep their noses out of my business.
I need to stretch my legs and go out for a long walk up Arambol beach. I see village youngsters playing cricket then, along the way a bit, a group of Koreans practicing Tai-chi, looking very graceful, powerful and spiritual. I fall into conversation with a forty-ish looking villager. When he learns that I've come on the bike, he says 'hya vayaat?' (‘At this age?'), almost disapprovingly. Must be the white hair that camouflages this young heart but yes, I do look ancient. The body is 54 years old but the soul is age-less. Isn't that what the Vedas say? He himself has never ever strayed more than 30 kms from his village.
Back in my room, I have little difficulty in falling into deep sleep. Somewhere on the fringes of my dreams, I see an overly large porcine face waiting with an expectant gleam in its eye. When morning comes, I try to put a mental plug on my own digestive system, praying it will hold until I reach a more manageable toilet. It does. As I leave my adventurous accommodation, the nice lady waves me a loving goodbye while her thwarted pigs look cheated.
What a maroon
Saying goodbye to the beach is never easy. This proximity to the sea has been such a joyous aspect of these last 4 days, the glittering waters dancing to fantastic batons of the sun's rays, the fishing boats coming in with their hauls, the tiny crabs scampering over the wet shores. The breeze... the invigorating breeze has been my cosmic masseuse. But now it's time and I have to be on my way. The ride through Sunday-morning Goa carries the aroma of freshly baked bread. Newly awakened faces, looking suitably pious, walk up to the church.
Being a Sunday, it is too early for the petrol pumps to open. It was a mistake to have procrastinated. Should have filled up last evening. As I near Sawantwadi, I've still not decided what road I'm going to take. There are numerous options as to where one can cross over the Sahyadri range and this time I take the advice of a well-informed Samaritan who suggests the Amboli Ghat road. This turns out to be good counsel because the winding road takes me through densely wooded hills with very little traffic. The road is fairly well maintained, studded with slightly raised blobs of crushed stone and tar, which put a bit of bounce into the ride. Anyway, potholes don't carry the same degree of 'hate-factor' when one is on an Enfield as when one is driving a 4-wheeler.
A pee-chai-smoke-pee stop beckons and then the road begins to wind up again. The petrol situation doesn't look too good and is becoming an increasing concern. The mountain road has taken a toll of the mileage and I'm trying mental-power to help the bike delay that moment when the reserve-tank would need to be tapped. On the highway, the bike was delivering an astounding 44 kms to the liter but I can now be sure of only going a further 40 kms on the 1.25 liters reserve capacity. I observe the anxiety building up in my physiology but somewhere I am enjoying the uncertainty of being marooned in one of these remote jungle communities and never being rescued! Will I then marry the chieftain's daughter and become the mukhiya when I am old? A pebble under the tire jerks me out of this reverie as I remind myself that I am already older than my would-be father-in-law and in any case, there must now be few places on this planet where one can realistically expect to be absolutely marooned, much less of being offered any of the chieftain's nubile daughters!
Behind all these mind-distraction games, I hear the speedometer yelling that 35 of those 40 kilometers are already over and trouble is brewing. So I blank out the chieftain and his sexy progeny! I don't even get time to miss her because I suddenly come upon a village and see a large BP logo heralding a petrol pump. My vehement "bhar daalo" takes the attendant by surprise. What enthusiastic customers! On a Sunday morning too!
Towards Nipani, on a narrow but paved road between golden fields, a farmer is waiting to cross with his two huge buffaloes. It seems that he waited for the exact moment to startle one of those huge beasts right into the path of my beast. But 60 kmph is an easy speed to be able to use both brakes and still remain astride - this time, with my front wheel only 2 feet away from the almost inviting soft (but firm!) body of the 1,000 kilogramme milk-machine!
I am already crossing Karad with Kolhapur 40 kms behind me and it's only 2 pm by my mobile-phone clock. Gradually, the possibility of reaching Pune that very evening becomes distinct. The way the road is looking, with me comfortably touching 80 kmph, I might just be able to sleep in my own bed tonight!
At one point, I become part of a dream sequence. Just ahead of me are three, gleaming new Enfields with three sparkling, white clad, prosperous-looking farmers riding abreast the wide highway. They are going at a uniform 70, with me overtaking them on the extreme right at a steady 80. Four Enfields, singing in unison and celebrating life with a thump and a vroooom... Some more stops and a few hours later, I reach home. What follows is a reward - a hot bath coupled with her ministrations and some Old Monk thrown in, lovely food and some great sleep. My snoring that night had a deep thump, thump beat, she tells me at dawn. But I know she's pulling my leg!