Postcards from India

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On Valentine’s Day I got the plane back from a delicious fortnight in Goa, a small state on the west coast of India. The whole trip was a hot, vibrant cocktail of sights and sounds and tastes, but to try and describe it all in words would take another two weeks – so here is a collection of visuals instead. का आनंद लें! (Enjoy!)

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Goa is a paradise for stray dogs, the vast majority of which are friendly and just want love/food. At night they played in the sea as we walked along the beach, and in the day they snoozed on the side of the road, oblivious to the stream of cars and scooters flying past. We only saw one dead dog.

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The cows are almost as plentiful as the dogs. Cows are sacred in Hinduism and Jainism, so they wander the streets with their calfs in search of tasty offerings given out by restaurant staff, either out of kindness or to please the deities. They are all extremely friendly and like their heads being scratched.

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The gardens were filled with big, beautiful butterflies that tended to land frustratingly out of reach on the leaves of coconut trees. I’m terrible at butterfly identification, but the internet has persuaded me this is a rather faded common gull, which was kind enough to pose for a photo when the common lime and swallowtail would not.

During our boat trip along the Mandovi river, we were encouraged to rudely awaken the flock of flying foxes sleeping in a tree. I felt a bit bad about this, but it was very cool to see one fly. They are huge.

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We biked over to the Salim Ali bird sanctuary on the island of Chorão, which is a protected mangrove habitat filled with birds and snakes and all good things. We sat for a while on the stone jetty and watched ospreys and brahminy kites calling overhead, and on the mudflats below us we discovered an amazing community of crabs and mudhoppers.

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The identification of such crabs is miles beyond my capability as a naturalist, but their shells were decorated in all kinds of colours and patterns. My favourite was this bright blue one, which reminded me of those scarab beetle souvenirs you find in museums. As the crabs were wary of strangers and prone to scuttling away, Dave only managed to take this photo from an aerial view after I sat on his legs to anchor him down.

The crabs seemed to be making holes in the mud, scraping out large piles of soil and searching for something in the ground. I presumed they were eating or finding somewhere to sleep, but my knowledge of crustaceans is minimal so we just enjoyed watching them scurry back and forth.

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A fishing boat lay in the sand at Baga Creek, filled with salty specimens drying in the sun. As a vegetarian I don’t usually eat much fish, but the dishes were so tantalising in Goa that I did permit myself the odd kingfish curry. My favourite food discovery was the paneer masala dhosa, which is basically a crepe filled with melted cheese and spices. Supreme stuff.

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I’d never ridden a scooter before but thought hey, India has such a great reputation for road safety, why not start here? On the scoot up to Fort Aguada I got pulled over by a policeman who tried to fine us £20 for not carrying a proper bike license, but I suspected it might be a little scam so we managed to talk our way out of it. After the first day I decided I’d risked my life enough and rode pillion on Dave’s bike for the rest of the trip.

The roads in India are even more mental than you think. There are literally no rules except that everyone just accelerates when they think it’s their turn. I decided to film our scoot from Baga beach to Candolim, complete with bikes, cars, trucks, dogs, cows, potholes and pedestrians.

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A fisherman on the Mandovi river during our boat trip to watch crocodiles. This photo was taken during a short break, when we anchored under a mangrove tree with samosas and cold beer in the sun. The journey was speckled with kingfishers of all colours and sizes.

In the end we saw five wild crocodiles on the banks of the Mandovi. They lay deadly still in the sun, camouflaged in khaki against the mud, and without our lovely guide we would have missed them all. I’m not particularly frightened of crocodiles, but did retreat slightly when we watched one climb effortlessly over a four foot wall.

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While the rest of India was being manhandled by the British Raj, Goa was colonised by the Portuguese and, hidden away by the peaks of the Western Ghats, consequently developed a different culture to the rest of the country. We visited the capital Panjim, which is filled with Portuguese architecture and prints.

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I loved the colourful patterns splashed against walls, a reminder of a colonial past that is now slipping away. Despite the country’s European history, we were greeted with warm delight everywhere we went, particularly me as I am so tall and pale. I was often asked to have a selfie taken with Indians on holiday in Goa, which was bizarre but not at all unpleasant.

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Another boat trip in the Arabian Sea, waiting to spot humpback dolphins in the Goan bay. Along the coast we saw an abandoned prison that lay in dusty ruins alongside a few luxurious houses looking out to sea.

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There were lots of dolphins in the bay, who obliged us with a few sightings of their fins above the water. Humpback dolphins are not as well researched as other species, but they live along coastlines and don’t seem to mind boats full of ogling tourists.

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Despite the amazing naans, dogs, piña coladas, spices, birds and coconuts, my favourite memory was our daily swim in the Arabian Sea. Jumping in the waves for hours at a time, we felt tiny fish nibbling our arms and watched an osprey circling above us, waiting for the sun to set and another cocktail to be swiftly ordered. Delicious.

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