#14 Exploring Palolem

Sent: Thursday, November 08, 2001 1:26 PM

Vasco de Gama sailed down the Malabar coast in 1498 and within 12 years the land area now called Goa was a Portuguese colony, which is how the things remained until control was ceded to the Indian state in 1961 following a virtually unopposed invasion by the Indian army. The Portuguese influence is everywhere, in the architecture, the food and drink, the place names, maybe even the laid-back attitude.

Palolem possesses a truly spectacular beach, a 2km long crescent of golden sand enclosed by two tree covered headlands, the smaller covered in todi terraces the larger an island separated from the coastline by 20 metres of boulder-strewn shallows and covered in dense trees and foliage.

Along its' entire length the beach is backed by todi groves, save the Northern end where a freshwater stream flows gently into the sea. Palolem has been on the travellers trail for a number of years now and the days when you might hope to experience a rough and ready tropical idyll are long gone. The entire area to the rear of the beach has been developed, but if that sounds horrendous it isn't, because 90% of the accommodation is in beach huts, erected afresh each year, which nestle unobtrusively amongst the todi trees.

We arrive from Arambol with a clear list of priorities. We want:

A room.
With 4 walls.
And a roof.
That doesn't leak.
We want a shower.
With hot water.
And we want it to stop raining.

On arrival it is Sausage's turn to investigate the options so I sit down with the luggage while she troops off in search of an eco-friendly place recommended by the Rough Guide. An hour and a half of Sausage legwork discounts the eco-friendly place (beach-hut with knobs on, lovely in high summer, but not now) and leads us, via lots of matting beach-huts that we can't even contemplate while the unreliable weather lasts, to a room that delivers everything we want except hot water, which is a minor consideration compared to Cupid Castle's magnificently solid looking roof, a roof so impressive we are prepared to tolerate the naff name.

Our arrival miraculously coincides with the beginning of the end of the monsoon and day-time rain becomes a fading memory as recurrent mornings start cloudy but more or less clear, giving us the first sunshine we have seen since Mount Abu.

On the first afternoon we go for a stroll under cloudy skies and return to the room lobster red from the hazy sun. I curse my own stupidity as my forehead, badly sunburnt 10 years ago, goes livid pink over an area that looks like a distorted map of Africa with Cape Town in the gap between my eyebrows.

If I am careful from the outset and consistently slap on sunblock I can allow it to slowly brown. Bit I have missed my one opportunity to get it right and will now have to spend the next 3 months nursing it back towards a colour that has something in common with the rest of my head, not to mention having to tolerate the two days of headache that follow when it feels like I have a large bolt running from temple to temple being tightened by a turn every hour.

On our third day we hire an Enfield Bullet and set off Northwards for Panjim. The hiring of the bike takes longer than expected as, on arrival at the café from which I will hire the bike at 9.15am, I interrupt preparations for the first chillum of the day and have to wait for the purple haze to clear and approximately 5 ounces of mucous to be violently and noisily expelled before Tony and Louis get their act together to relieve me of 250 rupees (3.57 pounds) for the days' hire and take me on a tour of the bike's workings.

Being an English, as opposed to a Japanese bike the rear brake and gear-change levers have swapped sides (lots of fun to be had with that one!) and the gear pedal moves downwards through the gears, again the opposite of Japanese bikes.

But the thing looks and sounds magnificent. A tank like a black teardrop is perched on top of an engine of a solidity and simplicity that makes no concessions to aesthetics and consequently looks brutally lovely. The narrow exhaust takes the engine's power and spits it out in a throbbing basso-profundo rhythm. It's the most exhilarating pseudo-antique I've ever seen.

Sausage climbs on the back and we set off, she laughing wildly as certain rev speeds send ticklish vibrations up through the seat, me fighting with a gearbox which, like a video game with hidden levels, has an apparently infinite number of false neutrals.

The road is just what the doctor ordered, smooth and with hardly a straight section anywhere. According to the broken speedometer we are progressing at a steady zero kph with occasional momentary flickers to 15 kph. But the truth is that at any speed you feel you are going twice as fast as reality as the rattles, vibrations and hums confuse your senses.

The open road is the easy bit. Under no pressure my brain has time to redirect its' longstanding neurological bike riding instructions from their usual Japanese settings to the required back-to-front, down-not-up English settings. But when time is short, as it often is on Indian roads, my brain defaults to London settings which causes me to try and gently brake using the gear-change whilst at the same time stamping hard on the brake believing this will change me down through the gears. This unedifying spectacle serves to keep Sausage awake and I think that by the third occasion she accepts that it is a reflex action rather than a liking on my part for her chest to hit my back at just short of terminal velocity.

We reach Panjim in an hour and a half, pick up the letters waiting at Poste Restante (and a big thank you to those who write, it's great to get an actual letter in our hands) and step sideways through space and time to have lunch it what I swear is a capsule of Portugal left behind by the departing colonists. Everything from the décor (rough white plaster), the furniture (stout dark wood) through to the menu (seafood and bebinca, the Goan equivalent of the ubiquitous Portuguese crème-caramel) confirms our first impression.

After delicious shark and crab we head off to Old Goa, the former state capital which in its' heyday was more populous than either London or Paris. Little other than a collection of grand churches remains today and we visit the Se Cathedral a huge, down-at-heel edifice with a large Latinate façade that I'm sure has, or will, crop up in a Vindaloo Western once Wim Wenders is finally mad enough to conceive the idea. Until then the final showdown will have to play only in my mind's eye as mustachioed, put-upon locals are gunned down by heartless baddies who send them plunging from the bell tower, blood-stained ponchos flapping in the wind, before Clint saves the day with a fearsome grimace, a vengeful gun and remarkably few words. The whole place really is that New-Mexican in its' appearance.

We cruise noisily Southwards with our backsides progressing from feeling to numbness and turn off the main road to drive out toward the coast at Capo de Rama. The scenery is breathtaking. The single track road weaves first across paddy fields and meadows and onwards into wooded valleys where the foliage hangs dense and damp and the houses have walls that seem so swollen and smudged with moisture that it is hard to imagine the damp lifting even in the height of summer.

Climbing out of the woods and emerging above the tree-line we see the sea, reflecting the late afternoon sun from its' calm surface which is mottled by the cloud cover. The road then twists, turns, falls into recurrent soggy hamlets and climbs to high points where the todi terraces fall away for 100 metres below us. We round a corner and find ourselves in the middle of hundreds of tiny dark brown crabs all scuttling sideways across the road heading inland.

By this time the road surface has deteriorated and Sausage's bum has moved beyond numbness to that bone-marrow ache that sets your teeth on edge and has her echoing the posture of another famous cowboy, John Wayne, on her final dismount from the Enfield some 20 minutes later.

Until the age of 11 I spent every school holiday between March and September at the seaside in North Wales and my Mum, always keen to have as little to do as possible, gave us rigorous training in stranger danger at an early age so that she could kick us out of the house after breakfast and give us no heed until tea-time. All of which left some big gaps in my relationship with my Mum but laid the foundations of a relationship with the sea and the coast that remains unchanged over 30 land-locked years later.

Spending time again on a beach all sorts of old ghosts are resurrected. With a Mum who avoided other people I was a poorly socialised kid with unlimited energy and few friends. But I was the best ever at getting invited to join in other people's games of beach football and cricket. It was only a few years ago that I realised what a forlorn little figure I must have cut, but I was hugely expert at being, apparently by accident, looking casual and only vaguely interested, in exactly the right place to return the ball after a goal was scored or after a particularly huge six was hit.

All of this comes flooding back as we walk along the beach at Palolem. Sausage may simply be strolling along, but the ghosts have woken in me and my ever-changing position in relation to each game of beach cricket that we pass is the subject of constant reassessment in order that I am ready to pounce if the crucial blow is struck and the ball comes screaming or steepling toward me, which, predictably, it doesn't.

And I have to go exploring of course, not because I want to, but because the rocks and boulders INSIST I do. So one afternoon I leave Sausage sat in a beach-side café and set off to investigate the island at the end of the beach, managing to factor in another childhood memory by wondering if I will encounter a Japanese soldier who doesn't know that the war has ended.

After a treacherous clamber in knee-high water across the slippy boulders that separate the island from the beach at low tide I eventually find my way into the dense undergrowth and I see signs that I my not be absolutely the first human to have ventured this far. The todi trees on the island, which I had surveyed from the beach, deciding that they must be self-seeded, prove to be stood on man-made stone terraces, but they clearly have not been managed or maintained for many years because progress through the thick matted conflagration of roots, climbers, shrubs and seedlings is tortuously slow, despite the narrow paths worn by previous explorers.

I see the most beautiful butterflies, 8 different varieties ranging from a huge black and yellow specimen with a wing span of 5 inches down to a tiny brown one with leopard print eyes in the centre of its' small wings and a lurid purple and blue fake head at the rear of the same wings which has me looking, as nature intended, at the whole butterfly back to front until I decipher its' camouflage.

At the highest point on the island large boulders create space 30 metres below the dense canopy and as I emerge into the covered clearing a monkey scitters away from branch to branch.

The hill top is dominated by a massive tree which looks like it has been created by Terry Gilliam as the centrepiece of a twisted, dark fairy wood. But the tree is not what it appears. It is two trees, the original host now dead and crumbling in the snaking, choking, deadly grip of the strangling fig which arrives on the host amongst it's branches before sending tendrils downwards seeking nutrients from the ground.

There is no single solid trunk, the 1.5 metre diameter base of the tree being a twisted conglomeration of innumerable tendrils that reached downwards and then fattened and solidified as they sent roots down into the soil. A branch shoots out horizontally from the main knot 8 metres above the ground. Despite being no more than 30cm in circumference it stretches out, rising slowly, for more than 20 metres, supported by two sets of tendrils-that-became-trunks creating a convoluted, multi-limbed being that looks like it is forever reaching out to grab more ground, standing still only when it hears the footfalls of approaching visitors, waiting silently to resume its' malevolent wanderings.

I don't think I've ever climbed a hardwood tree before and the wood feels immeasurably dense and heavy beneath my hands and feet. Even a branch only 5cm in diameter supports my weight without any give whatsoever as I climb to a spot from where I can see the beach through gap in the canopy.

It is very hot and humid under the sun-screening foliage so I head for the seaward side of the island. The undergrowth here is even thicker and I pick up a selection of cuts and scratches before emerging, blinking in the sunshine, facing out to sea.

The rock is solid and smooth, perfect for clambering about. From where I emerge huge boulders curve away to my right for 50 metres before they abruptly terminate at the foot of a steep sea-cliff. Walking towards this point I can see that there is a narrow opening to a sea-cave between the boulders and the cliff from which lots of twittering can be heard.

The swell is quite small and I can see that the boulders in the cave have been brushed smooth by the sea and have only a sprinkling of barnacles, so I decide to risk swimming into the cave, peel off my t-shirt, leave it on the rocks with my water bottle and sunglasses and jump into the swell. The first wave sweeps me forwards into the narrow opening of the cave, the second deposits me half way up the escalating pile of darkly polished, deeply green, glistening boulders where I have to cling on hard as the backwash tries to send me back from whence I just came. The third wave washes me up to a point where I can see that what once was a cave is now a tunnel which opens out to a large sky-filled hole following the long-ago collapse of the cave roof.

Looking up into the murk of the small remaining area of high dark tunnel roof I see that the twittering I heard is coming from a colony of bats, big bats, a hundred or so hanging, flying, flapping, busy being batty. Sightseeing completed I wait for a big swell and allow it to swoosh me seawards from where I clamber back up the rocks with a couple of scratches from barnacles and a very pleasant post-adrenaline rush glow.

As I head away from the sea-cave, clambering up and over huge boulders and heading back towards the beach my muscles remind me how little exercise I have done in the last 5 weeks as they winge and moan increasingly stridently about their exertions.

When I get back to the café where I left Sausage after re-crossing the slippery causeway back to the beach and paddling for a kilometre in the warm sea I am amazed to discover that the whole trip has taken only two hours, not nearly as long as I thought, but enough to leave me feeling tired and floppily, childishly happy.

Lots of Love
The Travelling Sausages