#15 The End of India

Sent: Wednesday, November 14, 2001 12:28 PM

Things have not been going well in gadget land. Not only has the power supply packed up our MP3 player, a problem we can't rectify 'til Bangkok, but a series of problems, mishaps and misunderstandings has been plaguing the process through which each of these episodes has to go: writing, editing, transferring into Yahoo and eventual posting. I shan't go into details, I fear for my pancreas if I should describe the many debacles. Suffice to say that this episode has been written on three separate occasions and typed into Yahoo twice...

The story of the last seven of our eleven days in Palolem is a story of lazy days drifting by, of good company, bookishness and relaxation. But before the good times can roll Sausage has first to endure what will henceforth be known as 'Sausage's Food Disaster.'

Sausage enjoys food at least as much and, generally speaking, much more than any other person I've met. But her enjoyment has a dark side that is normally hidden from view, for Sausage is capable of depths of despair and disappointment arising from food that are simply unimaginable to most mortals. This is what happened.

Day 1: Evening

We go to Cool Breeze, the restaurant currently enjoying the status of 'the place where EVERYONE goes' (there's always one isn't there). Sausage orders what proves to be an uninspiring dish of spicy prawns. Her mood is not helped by my eulogizing of my tandoori calamari which is a melt-in-the-mouth revelation (but I'm not supposed to rub salt in the wounds so just pretend I never told you). Still, it's only one duff choice. Tomorrow will be better.

Day 2: Breakfast

We've been having lovely breakfasts at a rather grotty restaurant on the beach, fresh fruit, crunchy muesli and lovely cool curd all mixed up together. But today we decide to break with routine and go to. Cool Breeze. The closest Sausage can get to fruit, muesli, curd is fresh fruit salad which, when it arrives, complies with only the latter two-thirds of its' title being tired and tasteless. I have the opportunity to carefully examine Sausage's bottom lip as it protrudes glumly for a good five minutes from her crestfallen face.

Day 2: Lunchtime

On a couple of previous days we have lunched at The Lucky star on the beach and, having had really nice food both times we play safe and return to the scene of our earlier successes. I order Chicken Hakka noodles which are every bit as yummy as previously. Sausage orders vegetable chowmein and gets a glutinous pile of noodles that tastes of vinegar. I look away for what I swear is only a moment and my beautiful wife is kidnapped by aliens who replace her with the saddest looking puppy I have ever seen, its' big bluegrey eyes pleading not to be spanked for producing the puddle in the middle of the kitchen floor. It is a pitiful sight.

Day 2: Evening

We're not about to rush back to Cool Breeze after the breakfast debacle so we head off to Blue Jays the scene of a pleasant lunch a few days previously. I order pasta carbonara and Sausage revisits a big success when we were in Arambol: tandoori shark.

My pasta comes first and it is delicious, the eggy, cheesy sauce is perfectly cooked and almost invisibly coats the pasta and bacon. I have already started when Sausage's shark arrives. She takes one bite and screws her face up before turning to me and asking me to try it. I take a tiny nibble and reel backwards as a Vicks Vapour Rub menthol rush tears through my sinuses. Due to an under-heated tandoor the shark is inedible. So far in Sausage's Food Disaster the food has been disappointing but edible. Now, when her spirits are broken and despair has fallen into step alongside her, now Sausage must dredge up from somewhere reserves of civility and complain. The elderly Italian lady who runs front of house at Blue Jays sniffs the shark and refuses to try it, her rotten-eggs face betraying how strong the menthol aroma is. In a last desperate throw of the dice Sausage points at my pasta and asks for a plate of the same.

Pasta Eggs Cheese Bacon Salt Pepper

It's not rocket science is it?

But, in the hope of atoning for the shark and maybe securing our return custom, the kitchen rushes the pasta to the table. The pasta is warm rather than hot and insufficient time is allowed for the already inadequate heat of the pasta to cook through the sauce. Where my sauce was invisible and clung to the pasta Sausage's sauce is stringily yellow and clings mainly to itself. Out off desperation Sausage eats two-thirds of the pasta before her tastebuds rebel and she gives up.

I once saw a wildlife documentary featuring a long, lingering shot of an orphaned chimpanzee whose face betrayed the horrors through which it had lived. A face every bit as heartbreakingly distraught sits across from me now.

At which point we reach the beginning of the end of Sausage's Food Disaster. No more dodgy food is imbibed. In fact for the next 48 hours hardly any food at all is consumed as Sausage takes to her bed, scarcely sleeping, bent double night and day with stomach cramps and diahorrea caused by the undercooked eggs. For both our sakes let's hope we can continue to dodge dysentery because this bout of food poisoning has been bad enough.

As Sausage recovers we meet Dan and Lee two lovely men from Plymouth via a caravan outside Padstow, Dan is an entrepreneur who works to travel and scoots off round the world as often as funds allow. Lee has had enough of fitting out expensive yachts and has run away to the sun with Dan. The two of them are surfers, nature lovers, Special Brew aficionados and very funny, easy-going company. They are exactly the people I hoped to meet and a great antidote to the all too many glum faces we keep encountering.

One day Dan and I wander across to watch the locals dragnet fishing off the beach at low tide. Four boys swim out pushing a raft on which sits the net. Ropes attached to the two ends of the net sit coiled on the beach unfurling slowly as the raft moves away from the shore. When the raft is 150 metres out the net is pushed into the sea and pulled out into a straight line parallel with the shore. The boys start making their way back to the beach where more kids, the youngest no more than five, and a couple of adults prepare to pull the net in. They fix sticks to the ropes which are, in turn, attached to the ends of the net and, positioning the sticks against their backsides, lean back and start to walk very slowly backwards up the beach, pulling the net towards the shore.

After 30 minutes, as the net is approaching the shallow water, women appear carrying round wicker baskets, ready to pick over the catch. Children paddle out to meet the net in knee-deep water. They grab the top and bottom of the fine mesh and pull two sides together to prevent anything that is in the net from escaping underneath as the catch is brought up onto the beach.

With a final pull the catch is dragged clear of the water. At first it appears to be nothing more than a big pile of sprats, but appearances are deceptive. The two men present first remove, very carefully, two tiny black and yellow venomous sea snakes, then the women descend on the catch picking things out in order of priority. First, squid, the biggest the size of a strong forearm, next pomfret, smallish and nearly two-dimensional with a yellow chest sitting above a silver grey belly, then baby sharks and catfish. The women turn the pile over carefully using empty baskets, wary of there being more sea snakes. All of this takes place amidst a gentle round of applause, similar to a flip-flop ovation at the Red Fort in Delhi, but this time it is the fish who seem keen to acclaim their captors with their animated flapping.

A couple of cuttlefish are thrown to one side. First cousins of the squid, but with a hard backbone beloved of budgies worldwide they lie on the beach firing ink at anyone who gets to close and changing colour, dark brown against the sand, silver when the tide laps around them. Dan and I apply our western liberal standards and help a cuttlefish back into the shallow water. The locals have no time for such niceties and the men and boys tidy away the net and ropes and set off back up the beach leaving a couple of women to pick over the large pile of sprats for the juiciest specimens before abandoning their remainder to the circling crows and the just-turned tide which between them will obliviate the pile within hours.

Our last days in Palolem are also spent with Olivier and Sheila from Holland. Now, I now that racial stereotyping is a bad thing, but I have to ask: why is it that everyone we meet from Holland is young, fit, good-looking, huge and immensely, calmly, self-assured. The Dutch people we meet are fantastic adverts for a culture which is permissive and educative rather then oppressive and condemnatory. Sheila is a psychologist so she understands why Olly, a mathematician loves numbers. Days drift by in the company of Dan, Lee, Olly, Shiela, Tom and Petra and it feels like just when we would like to stay it is time to go, but it is always probable that when you meet people with whom you really get on you will soon be parted and we take our leave determined to make our way to sunny Padstow at some pint in the future, but only on the strict understanding that we are allowed to take it easy on the Special Brew.

We have a restless last night in Palolem because as we go to bed we are No.s 1 and 2 on the Wait List for the train the next morning. This means that we are NOT on the train as we go to sleep and time is tight to get to Delhi to catch our onwards flight to Nepal by alternative means. Fortunately we have been allocated seats on the train by the time we arrive at Margao station for the 25-hour rail journey to Delhi. We get some strange looks as we do a lap of honour round the ticket hall.

So that's India finished then. 7 weeks down, 45 to go. In terms of our year traveling it has been a good place to start because we gather from most people to whom we have spoken that things will get better from here on, better accommodation, less scams, less hassle, smaller distances etc etc. But it is far too easy to start on the negatives about India and then forget to move on to the positives, a trait we have experienced repeatedly when talking to other travellers.

After seven weeks I feel that I understand India hardly one iota more than before I arrived. But over the last weeks I have come to understand some of the many riddles, conundrums and legends which, when aggregated form the weft and warp of India.

As a confirmed agnostic I have failed to comprehend a vast nation where daily devotion is the norm, nor have I got to grips with the role of religious fatalism in enabling people to live lives that are both fiercely aspirational and entirely limited by notions of caste or it's non-Hindu equivalents.

What I do know is that we have barely scratched the surface of India. If I had a couple of years to spare and if I could acquire large stocks of patience then I could hope to see and experience at least a reasonable proportion of what India has to offer. But this time around what will linger in the memory will be some of the spectacular sights, the Taj Mahal, the Jain temples, the beach at Palolem and the many acts of kindness and friendship, that flew in the face of all the scammery.

The end, when it comes, at the check-in at Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, is as scam filled as our arrival in India, except that our check-in lady, maybe respecting our well-traveled appearance, checks our baggage straight through, while the four lily-white Brits in the next queue are relieved of 100 rupees each for 'Extra Insurance". Onwards and upwards to Nepal.

Lots of Love
The Travelling Sausages