Of all the modern conveniences we grow to take for granted, I hope to never lose astonishment for commercial flying. The mere facts of it are mind-boggling and often overlooked. Sure, let’s hop on a pressurized cylindrical tube, ascend 30,000 feet, then whip around the upper stratosphere at 600 miles per hour! Sounds like a fun way to start the day.
Going back hundreds of years, such journeys required timeframes of weeks or even months, detailed knowledge of coastline geography and winds, precise observation of weather patterns, and a fair bit of luck. Now within a few short hours we can transport ourselves across timezones, climates and cultures while sipping a glass of wine and enjoying an Oscar-nominated film above the clouds.
So that’s exactly where I found myself last Sunday, beginning the next chapter of this adventure known as life. Over the prior weeks there were many times when this moment, this feeling seemed impossibly far away, as if a chasm stood between me and the future. Even in just a brief year and a half in Amsterdam, I had immersed myself in projects, possessions, and people that were hard to let go. Yet one by one, Stefje and I quit our jobs, sold off our stuff, and said our goodbyes until all we had left was a pair of backpacks and each other.
Now it was time to use this modern marvel to our advantage. In a 24 hour period we escaped from the cold grey morning fog of Amsterdam, soared high above the icy fjords of Finland, and touched down in steamy Southern India to stick our toes in the Arabian Sea.
While stuck in Helsinki we took our time to observe the growing importance of the Chinese tourism industry, which will surely rear its head again during this journey. Finnair is pulling out all the stops to market their Helsinki hub as the perfect jumping off point for the Chinese to enter Europe, fully decked out with Alipay and WeChat compatible mobile payment kiosks and Mandarin speaking employees.
Upon landing in Goa, we quickly found a taxi and marveled throughout the entire 90 minute drive Northwards to the beach town of Arambol. First there was the blood red sun, cutting through a dense layer of haze to signal the arrival of the day. Second was a battery of massive rusted cargo ships, all left to die along our winding seaside road. Third, we passed through a series of small towns as school children stood at attention for morning roll call and busses packed to the brim navigated potholed-riddled roads. Fourth and most impressively, we rode alongside a gargantuan construction project. Partially finished pillars lined the side of the road for more than 20 miles, coming to a crescendo with a bridge spanning a wide bay at a height of more than 80 feet.
Seeing the work in progress brought an awareness to the scale of civilization in modern India.
Finally the journey was complete when we reached the tiny overrun town of Arambol. Whether your native tongue is English, Spanish, Italian, Russian, German, or Hebrew, you can be sure you’ll hear plenty of it amidst the diverse tourism community of this village.
The industry runs on two distinct yet intertwined promenades. The main drag sports every possibly kitschy souvenir shop, budget restaurant, and motorcycle rental outfit your heart could ever desire.
Meanwhile, the beach is a collection of bars, restaurants, and palm-roofed huts backed right up against the surf. Here is one of the few spots in the world where you can order a cold beer, an Indian dosa, or a hamburger at every hour of the day.
Yet to grasp the essence of Arambol one must look past the hedonistic pleasures of the intense party scene to inspect the town’s past. It was once a hippie destination of immense popularity, promising an escape of Western commercialism through healing, enlightenment, and dance parties. While such a reputation ended up backfiring horribly once the secret got out, vestiges of the past still remain as evidenced by the prevalence of yoga studios, Ayurvedic treatment centers, and white haired hippies who never left. Yet in this instance, perhaps a picture (of a flyer) speaks a thousand words.
Completely eviscerated by jet lag and a redeye flight, we spent the better part of Monday discovering various places to lay down in a borderline catatonic state. The sand, our bed, hammocks, and bamboo lounge chairs were all the site of various naps under the scorching hot sun.
As the afternoon rolled into evening, we wandered into town, eventually stumbling into a restaurant that doubled as a live music venue. While digging into a vegan and gluten-free menu, Stefje and I and dozens of other travelers were serenaded by a one man show. A French DJ looped trance beats and new age mystic sounds while incorporating flute, sitar, recorder, wind pipes, and bongo drums into the show.
A long and deep sleep meant that by the time we awoke on Tuesday morning the sun was already high in the sky, but that didn’t stop us from seizing the day. The first order of business was securing a motorbike, which we hopped on and headed out for some exploration. Under the wavy branches of palm trees and alongside parched agricultural land in desperate need of the forthcoming rainy season, we rode to Chapora fort.
More of a crumbling ancient wall then a fully fledged fort, the vantage point nevertheless offered expansive views of long sandy beaches on both sides.
While the sun torched our necks and a light salty breeze kept the air fresh, we were able to take in both geographical and anthropological sights. Somehow we had stumbled into an attraction that consisted exclusively of domestic tourists. Young, progressive Indians on all sides engaged in selfie sprees, blasted music from bluetooth speakers and even asked to take a few photos featuring the two of us. This prompted Stefje to enact the "one minute rule" from her previous trip to India: never stay in the same place for more than one minute when curious locals abound.
Once back on the bike we drove further South to Baga beach. But before posting up on the sand it was time for lunch; luckily we encountered an excellent spot packed with more Indian tourists.
Similar to the menu del dia prominent across Latin America, we ordered up the Vegetarian Thali. Consisting of three rotis, a flat bread papadam cracker, a heaping portion of rice, three curries, yogurt sauce, and a spicy pickled topping, the meal felt more like a feast. Normally they are served on prison style metal plates, which fortunately does very little to detract from the sumptuous and spicy flavors.
The texture and seasoning of the chana masala and dhal curry had me purring with delight, while the flavor combinations when mixed with all the topping options made for a truly divine dining experience. If these are to become my staples over the next month, then my taste buds will be very happy in India!
In just a few minutes I was asleep on the beach under the heat of the afternoon sun, my toes dug firmly into the sand and my skin refreshed after a short dip in the ocean. Stefje followed suit soon after.
On the way back we enjoyed the sights of the Goan countryside: a traffic jam caused by a herd of cows, massive banyan trees with thousands of roots draped across the branches, and a quick traffic stop with corrupt cops looking for a bribe (they didn’t get it from me!).
On Wednesday it was officially time to search for three necessities as old as traveling itself: real coffee, an ATM, and halfway decent wifi. Arambol’s popularity amongst the tourist crowd meant there were plenty of excellent coffee options, but for cash I had to drive to the next town because both ATMs were out of money.
So difficult was it to find a solid internet connection that I ended up splurging $8 on a SIM card, which provided a shocking 1GB of data per day for an entire month.
Flush with all of our worldly desires, we set off on foot to explore the Northern tip of Arambol. I thought the tourist shops were largely confined to the town’s main drag, so it was quite a shock to find another layer to the madness. Peeling around a secluded alleyway headed out of town was another long stretch of shops selling the same wares: t-shirts and bags, bongs and jewelry. Unless they double as fronts for drug-selling operations, I couldn’t help but wonder how these places turn a profit in a place with paltry foot traffic. Our path led farther North towards a quieter and more secluded beach, then straight up Arambol mountain.
Soon the beach came into full view, backed by a dense jungle of palm trees and a refreshing freshwater lagoon. Yet in our surroundings everything was deathly dry: yellowing grasses waved in the wind, dust kicked up from beneath our soles, and the mid-afternoon heat brought a stickiness that enveloped our skin.
By the time we reached a rocky outcropping overlooking the panoramic seascape, the fresh breeze was so enticing that we had to take a few minutes to relax. As my eyes drifted towards the haze on the horizon my mind couldn’t help but imagine what it must have felt like centuries past, watching Portuguese man o’ war ships emerge from the mist.
From the other side of the peak, the extent of Arambol’s beach emerged from beneath our feet, its huts and bars stretching far into the distance.
Thoroughly exhausted from the climb and heat exposure, Stefje and I quickly made our way back down and uncovered a tiny secluded slice of paradise: a four table restaurant looking out over a private section of beach. With a fresh breeze, a cold bottle of water and a cauliflower curry, all was right in the world.
Thoroughly finished with the intensity of the tourist vibe in Arambol, for our last afternoon I decided to see how far my legs could take me from the mass of humanity. Setting off heading South, it took about half an hour until the shouts of Russian tourists and techno beats slowly dissipated. Then it eventually became clear why this beach became such a popular destination in the first place.
Swaying palm trees and wide open stretches of white sand stole the show, while the endless pounding of the surf entranced my ears. Paradise lost, but paradise found again!