Biking along the Goan coastline

From Vagator via Morjim to Arambol--ambling along the holiday coastline of Goa on rented wheels
Biking along the Goan coastline

It feels strange to be flying into Goa. Barring the occasional office junket in the distant past, previous trips in have been via rail or road. You have time to get your system acclimatised that way. Now, there&rsquos still city smog in my lungs, airline food that has sunk like a lead ball to the bottom of my stomach, sore wrists from the manic burst of work that I had stayed up all night to finish so I could make this trip.

We deplane, and we still haven&rsquot made up our minds where we&rsquore going first nearby Vasco, since we&rsquore going to be flying out Margao, or the North. We stop off at the tourism department&rsquos stall, and pick up a map. The lady behind the counter looks at my scruffy attire and travel-stained haversack, and tells us we need to sprint if we want to catch the Margao bus. Our minds made up, we scramble.
Not a bus in sight. Instead we&rsquore accosted by taxi drivers. Vasco isn&rsquot high on their priority lists. Margao, Panjim or Mapusa is more to their liking. We decide to head South.

En route, we change plans, abandoning Palolem in favour of the much nearer Colva. Our driver takes us right into a hotel portico, near the beach. I ask him how much of a cut he gets for bringing us here. Only fifty bucks, boss, he says with a disarmingly sheepish grin. We inspect a few rooms, and check in.
We adjourn to a beachfront restaurant and sip beer. Atul, a restless bloke if there ever was one, wanders off, festooned with cameras, to see what the beach action is like. I demolish a pancake, finish his beer, and order myself another, and amuse myself by SMSing friends hard at work in the city. Life is good.

Atul comes back to tell me of a restaurant he just recognised from a previous trip shooting for an Outlook Traveller guidebook. The place boasts a famous resident masseur. My back is stiff from the previous night, and I&rsquom a sucker for massages anyway. Nyet, says A. He wants to shoot the man kneading attractive female body. If I liked, though, I could come along and talk to him. We wander off to Boomerang, as the place is called, a few minutes down the beach. Peter Coutinho, the owner, is awake now, and gives his permission to shoot on the premises, and even charms one of his guests into being our model. While Guptaji, the elderly masseur, gets to work, and Atul does likewise, I doze off in an armchair. Atul&rsquos lens satisfied, we thank the lady who posed for us, and settle down to chat with Guptaji. He&rsquos from Varanasi, but spends ten months of the year in Boomerang, doing massages at Rs 150 for 30 minutes. I decide to invest a part of our budget into a one hour head and back massage. The man lives up to his reputation--when I rise from the sunbed, the stiffness in my back has eased. Atul takes his turn while I go back to our room to shower off the oil. When I return, my hyperactive photographer is asleep, and Guptaji is pleased at this tribute to his skills.

We stay up pretty late, and next morning, we both oversleep drastically--waking up past noon. After breakfast, we go bike hunting, and then head straight for the South, missing Benaulim thanks to my bad navigation. We also manage to unintentionally bypass Varca, Cavelossim and Mobor.

We cross the high ground that separates Salcete from Quepem, detouring slightly to take in the view from a chapel on a hill somewhere between Verlim and Betul. While Atul clambers around, I drink in the maze of creek, backwater, river mouth, the sea of coconut fronds swaying far below us, and the enormous mirror smooth expanse of the ocean, silver turning to burnished bronze as the sun sinks lower. Atul reappears and demands that we move. He wants to get the sunset at Palolem. We zoom off, reluctantly ignoring the road down to Cabo de Rama, resist Agonda&rsquos blandishments, but still screech into Palolem after the sun has disappeared into a hazy horizon. The sky is still streaked red, but the entire stretch of beach is already lit up with fairylights, candles, even the odd halogen. Different strains of music from each eating place compete with the wave sounds. Palolem, once a quiet backpacker&rsquos paradise, has been discovered. While its still not as chaotic as, say, Baga, the market now extends all the way to the beach entrance, and even spills onto the sands, once the preserve of the shack restaurants. Atul makes what he can of the remaining light, and I doze off waiting for my squid butter garlic to appear.

By the time we head back north, it is much later than we intended. We head straight for the highway rather than do the backroads. This stretch of NH17 isn&rsquot lit, so we have to cope with headlights on high beam hitting us full in the face every few minutes. We&rsquore both in shorts and T-shirts, and the ride is a cold one. In addition to the windchill, we also have to deal with being buffeted by the slipstream of every passing bus and truck. Atul, the experienced biker, leads. I focus on the wedge of light his headlight carves into the night, and we cut our way through the darkness.

We head to Boomerang, where Peter has invited us to join in on a party. By the time we crawl home, it&rsquos close to dawn. Naturally, we oversleep again. We check out way past noon, and after breakfast, set off for North Goa. Atul wants to see the Wednesday flea market at Anjuna. I&rsquom not as enthusiastic--I usually avoid the &lsquohappening&rsquo North for the peace of the South. He has the faster bike, so he zooms on ahead to get to Anjuna before sundown. I amble along at a more leisurely 50kmph, miss Panjim without realising it, and wind up approaching Baga from an unfamiliar direction. I manage to circle Anjuna several times without finding Atul. But I do find a restaurant with a great view of a rocky bay, and I find a good seat to watch the moon on the water. A group of young carollers sing to the diners at the next restaurant. So, in honour of the festive season, I order three Kings beers and wait for Atul to find me. Unable to find a place to stay at Anjuna, we scoot up to Vagator. Where every hotel seems to be fast asleep. We finally manage to get ourselves a room after midnight, and promptly race off to get ourselves some dinner in the last restaurant still serving.

Next day, we skip the dubious pleasures of the Calangute-Baga-Anjuna-Vagator stretch and head further north. Our first stop is Morjim. A lovely stretch of beach, its waters are so clear that I could see my toes in the sand in neck deep water. Almost the only Indians here are the guys who run the shacks. Which feature names like Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Cafe. A group of Indian men, paddling around in their underwear and leering at the pink flesh on display, are the only blot on the landscape.

Next stop, Arambol. A friend has raved to me about the deserted beach, and the freshwater lake there, a few metres from the sea. It&rsquos been a long time since he was here, evidently. Arambol is packed. A narrow lane leads up to the sand, and the beach has the normal complement of shack restaurants. We trudge around the side of a hill to get to the lake. The entire path is lined with stalls selling touristy gimcracks. We round the bend to the lake, and even that stretch of the hill is restaurant-lined. There are even pre-fab bamboo huts on stilts perched on the slope, available for rent. Sigh.

It&rsquos too late now to get to Tiracol, so we head back to Vagator, and get there, despite a wrong turn along the way. Ideally, I think, this trip needs to be done over at least a week. Ah well. Deadlines and all that.
We have a flight to catch, so we head off for Colva, where we have to return the bikes. NH17 from Mapusa to Margao is in wonderful shape, broad, smooth, well-signposted. Except for the odd speedbreaker near a small town or village, I do a steady 70kmph. My hands are still vibrating when we get into the cab.

At the airport, the real world makes its presence felt--a line for the baggage check, flight a couple of hours late, loud phone conversations everywhere. But my hair is still damp from the sea, and there&rsquos sand in my sandals, so I smile. Yes, life is good.

The information

How to Hire
Here&rsquos the deal. You can&rsquot hire scooters just like that. Not according to the letter of the law. Not unless the guy you hire from is registered as a taxi operator. Which, in plainspeak, means yellow number plates. Or somesuch. I wouldn&rsquot know. I have yet to see one of those. None of the bike hire chappies seem to know either.
What you can do is borrow a friend&rsquos bike.

And Goa, you&rsquoll be glad to know, is a very friendly state. Walk up to the man behind the sign that says Bikes for hire. Negotiate price. Pay advance. There you are, friends already. Don&rsquot forget to take you new friend&rsquos cellphone number. And yes, his name.

Where to hire.
Start somewhere central. If you&rsquore going home the same way you came in, then that place is a good start to your ride, since you&rsquoll have to come there to return the bike in any case.

Rules of thumb newish bike equals higher price long hire brings the rent down. Some guys will ask you for a deposit. Smile sadly and walk on. It was such a beautiful friendship while it lasted.

You have a license that covers motorised two-wheelers, right Right.
Check the bike papers. You don&rsquot want to be stopped by a cop when you&rsquore riding a bike that&rsquos not legit.
Take the bike for a short test spin. Check brakes. Turn off engine, then test starter button / kickstart. And the lights and turn-indicators. (Seems elementary, I know, but many of us forget to do this when testing a bike in blazing midday sun. I have.) And prod the stepney. You don&rsquot want a flat tyre and no spare in the middle of a long back road at 11pm.
Make sure the instrument dials work. You could probably manage with an immobile speedometer needle, but the fuel gauge better work.
The &ldquopal&rdquo you hire your bike from will also sell you a litre of petrol at a five-to-ten rupee premium over the legal rate. More than enough to take you to the nearest pump. Which should be your first destination. Keep track of petrol pumps wherever you go--you&rsquod be surprised how many very popular beaches don&rsquot have gas stations. At the Colva stretch of beaches for example, you&rsquod have to go to Margao to fill up. And I&rsquom told (we didn&rsquot check) that Baga doesn&rsquot have one either. Also, check with your new buddy on the fuel efficiency of his vehicle. And don&rsquot forget engine oil.
He will also give you a helmet. Wear it. It&rsquos compulsory in Goa. Especially if you&rsquore going into the cities or riding the highway. While you may get away with not using one on the backroads and in the villages, you really should keep it on for your own good.

Useful for long runs, to help you figure out roughly which direction you should be going, and what town you&rsquove just passed. You can pick up one as you come in, at the airport or railways station, or at news stands or hotels. Goa is profusely signposted, so with map handy, you&rsquoll have few problems finding your way around. Unfortunately, while most of the maps we saw covered the main roads and larger villages, none of them was comprehensive, none listed distances between two points. A travel agent we chatted with recommended a map published by VZ India, which, he said, filled those gaps. Alas, he didn&rsquot have one to help us decide.

Planning your ride
It&rsquos possible to ride the length of Goa in a day, so you could start at one end, do a straight ride to the other, and work your way back at leisure, staying at whichever beach catches your fancy or beach hop first, then ride the long route back on your last day. A third method--which we used--is to pick a central base in either North or South Goa, and make day trips out in all directions, then shift base to the other half, and do the same there. Useful if you&rsquod like to have a guaranteed room to sleep in, and not lug more than a swimsuit and towel with you.

Other tips
Buses, Sumos, Pajeros, Jeeps... they own the road, son. Move over and let them pass.
Speedbreakers aren&rsquot marked clearly once you&rsquore off the main roads.

Try to do this with company. At least two bikes and four people. If you have a breakdown, or if someone gets hurt, there&rsquos a second bike to go fetch help.

Ride in convoy, especially in the night. Pre-decide a system of horn or headlight signals to get each other&rsquos attention.
If you plan to follow Plan A, pack light. Even a small haversack can cut grooves into your shoulders if you&rsquore riding several hours. Use the scooter footwell to stow your one rucksack--it also helps lower the scooter&rsquos centre of balance--and alternate carrying the other.
It&rsquos Goa. It&rsquos the mood. Booze is cheaper. But please, pretty please, don&rsquot ride drunk, ok

Getting there & around
When you go to Goa by more sedate forms of transport, you detox by the time you get there, pleasantly travel-weary, and you&rsquore ready to make the acquaintance of a tall, dewy glass. And, with Goa&rsquos enlightened policy towards excise, those tall dewy glasses are available here at a significantly lower price than in other parts of the country.

Taxis are supposed to run to a meter but that rarely happens. Aside from taxis (and, of course, the public buses), Goa has another unique form of public transport, called &lsquopilots&rsquo. A pilot is a bloke who rides a motorbike taxi, distinguished from private bikes by a yellow front mudguard. His pillion seat is for hire, so they&rsquore handy when you&rsquore travelling solo. They usually ply within cities and their outskirts, and its not unusual to see an impeccably turned out elderly matron clutching a shopping bag, perched demurely behind a scruffy young man she might hesitate to invite to her home for tea. The pilots that hang around near railway stations and bus stands will also do the longer runs. As with the taxis, a healthy spell of bargaining before-hand is the only way to go.

Where to stay
There&rsquos accommodation to suit every budget. From the five star resorts and boutique hotels, to shacks that will set you back less per day than you&rsquod pay for a beer at the fancier restaurants. For a two-bed non-AC room with attached loo, you&rsquod pay from Rs 150 (off-season, in a less crowded beach area) to a few thousand (peak season, popular beach). Beach shacks can be had for even less.

Where to Eat
While most of the beach villages feature a wide selection of restaurants on their main streets, it&rsquos much better eating at the beach shacks. The cuisine is varied--Goan, Punjabi, Mughlai, Chinese, a fair amount of continental dishes, and, increasingly, Israeli menus as well. You can count on the seafood being fresh. If you&rsquore vegetarian, you won&rsquot have much variety to choose from. An average meal can cost you upwards of Rs 100 (add on a bit more at a more popular beach), minus the drinks. Oh yes, good coffee is hard to find. Most restaurants only serve instant swill.

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