Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Konkan Coast

Finally I had arrived in Mumbai, clambering through the chaotic streets and across freeway merges until I reached the calmer inner core of the central city - jutting out on reclaimed land into the Arabian Sea.

Immediately I was launched back into the stressful world of Indian bureaucracy. I take a deep breath...

Applying for a visa to Yemen I was told that all I needed was a letter from the Australian Consulate and it would be arranged for me that afternoon. Being redirected from my consulate for this service to a visa-organising contractor near Chowpatty Beach, to the Australian High Commission in New Delhi, I finally hit a bureaucratic brick wall. It took me a week to remember I'd developed a contact there who was keen to help me out after bungling my Victorian Election ballot paper, and he directed me to the proper person... back at the Mumbai consulate.

Sadly, $30 letter in hand, this ended up not being enough to placate the Yemeni Consular-General, who was offended by the letter being addressed, 'To whom it may concern' and not to himself. After riding my bike back and forth between the consulates for two days getting the letter subtly reworded my visa was eventually denied on a whim. This was even after an Australian Consular official argued my case over the phone to her Yemeni counter-part - a very kind gesture of my government considering they had a 'Do not travel/Get out now' warning against the country. The Yemeni officials asked why I'd want to visit their fine nation anyway, "To get blown up?"

Actually, the answer was so that, after arriving in Oman's port city of Salalah by cargo ship I could travel overland to Africa. I am now heading north to Iran instead. However, I still had a couple of weeks before my ship departed from Mumbai's port of Nhava Sheva - plenty of time for more bureaucratic wrangling.

All my efforts to acquire a Djibouti visa were now of course moot, as was, I found, wrestling with my travel insurance provider to fill out all the forms required to be reimbursed for not only the cost of seeing a doctor for a sore throat, but also my multiple subsequent visits getting him to sign all the relevant forms for reimbursal - only to discover that it came to less than my coverage's excess. My frequent visits to both the GPO and the Foreign Parcel Office ended up in angry exchanges over why my Christmas present and magazines hadn't arrived. Then, climbing my way up the hierarchy of AirTel's head office to discover why they'd cancelled my pre-paid SIM (immovable bureaucracy meets my bloody-minded obstinacy), I found that the form-checker had looked at one of my signatures upside-down and thus concluded it had been forged. They made me fill out a new form, provide new photo ID and again photocopy my passport before again cancelling my service on a different administrative pretext - this also took an entire day to rectify.

The reason I still sport any hair at all after this is because although by day I battled bureaucracy, by night I partook in the personalities of the peripatetic people of this party polis.

It all began with a night out on the town with Melissa, a young acquaintance of my dad's through his Zen meditation group - we got stuck into Mumbai culture by dining out on beer and pizza at the city's brightly lit foreshore. Amazingly, I again came across my old school friend Sue whom I'd met by chance in Kathmandu. A pair of world-encircling cycle tourists staying in my hotel was next, and, along with several others congealed from my dormitory, we hit the hip scene of Leopold's Cafe, still smarting from terrorist bullet holes, before puncturing the more insane of the nearby nightclubs.

For contrast many of us went on a slum tour the next day, but either Mumbai houses some fairly comfortable destitutes or our guide was grinding an axe over countering portrayals from Slumdog Millionaire and Shantaram, for it seemed no different to all the other Indian cities I'd been cycling through over the last four months.

Armed with my newly repaired bike I took the ferry from the Gateway of India to the mainland and was instantly transported into a world of wide beaches, undulating headlands and fishy villages.

I spent my first night in the failed beach resort town of Kashid where I luxuriated away the afternoon on my first decent beach since Thailand. Here I taught a hybrid French/Indian family how to construct dribbly castles - a vestigial skill from my childhood not improved by my later career.

The next day I was till doubting the wisdom of taking the coastal route (whose roads appeared on no maps and whose motorised traffic seemed to be entirely comprised of autorickshaws sporting bladed hubcaps in the style of Boudicca or Ben Hur) rather than the much more clear-cut Konkan Highway, when I came across a seemingly impassable estuary. As if conjured up by sheer will a small ferry materialised to take me across for a pittance. It was here that I first realised that my Konkan tour was something special: from the ferry roof I took in the surreal sight of small sailing ships meandering around an ancient fort rising straight up out of the sea as an old man next to me sang a quiet call to alms.

These estuarine crossings became ever more frequent on my coast-hugging route. Occasionally they'd manifest themselves as enormous car ferries, or I'd be greeted by a rickety two-stroke wooden boat (in one instance being bailed out more slowly than the inflow leakage), but my favourite were the somnolent gondoliers lugubriously poling my bike and me across shallow swampy inlets, scaring off the coastal birdlife.

Getting between the ferry-heads often required tackling the trickiest tracks through jungles and wetlands, extruding streets from a non-existence even the locals swore by and, in some extreme situations, being forced to ride on the sand itself (the surface is always the least soft as the tide recedes). At one time I was almost caught out over a long beery beach lunch with some local medical students as the tide turned and swamped an inlet I'd previously thought cycle-able. I ended up having to wade across holding my bike high above my head to keep it dry. No such luck for a German heading in the opposite direction attempting to do the whole coast on foot.

In this fashion I passed Christmas Day, marked with a three dollar beach hotel and a large tub of choc/vanilla ice-cream (alcohol was a no-go in the strict Muslim town of Guhegar), but my appreciation of this auspicious date was surpassed by its successor. While riding over a bridge late in the day I suddenly encountered three other cycle tourists: an English brother-and-sister pair, Pete and Keara, along with a Canadian cyclist, Eric, they'd just met mere minutes before. I was so astounded to have found cycling company I ignored the fact that they were heading in my direction's opposite and backtracked 20 kilometres with them to a small fishing village set beneath a massive Moghul fort. This turned into one of the most awesome evenings I've had on my trip so far.

After eating over-sized thalis we stocked up on beer and set off for the fort after dark. As the ruins were right on the beach we of course had to go for a swim to wash off the layers of grime we'd all accumulated over the day. As we each nuded up and waded in the ocean instantly greeted us with the most spectacular bioluminescent show any of us had seen. Even submerging a limb was enough to set off an under-sea firestorm of phosphorescence so diving underwater elicited thousands of trailing flashes like an air raid on a sparkler factory, the foamy surf exploding around us from the darkness. It was other-worldly.

Returning to our well-defended fortress campsite we lit a fire with the aid of the last of my kero and sat around drinking and sharing touring stories until two a.m. - although we were interrupted briefly by separate pairs of suspicious locals checking to see if we were Pakistani terrorists.

Not only was this night amazingly awesome in itself, it also opened my eyes to the world of Indian stealth-camping. The next night, arriving late at the local tourist town of Malvan, I was just about to settle down for the night beneath a wooden fishing boat's outrigger when I encountered a middle-aged Austrian couple inviting me to stay at their palm-shaded beach resort. It was so beautiful and relaxing I ended up staying for two nights during which time I swam, hammocked about reading all day and engaged the Austrians in philosophical discourse (often diverging to debate their outlandish conspiracy theories).

Actually I achieved my first solo Indian stealth-camp the following night in the grass under some headland palms, falling asleep admiring the slowly rotating star-field above me.

And in the morning I was in Goa, crossing the border by ferry on New Year's Eve. I'd been recommended Mandrem beach by some Melbournians in Mumbai but it turned out to be a lot sleepier than I'd expected. Luckily I ran into some trans-Atlantic backpackers with whom I shared the New Year on the beach over some beers. We ended up joining an Indian Army detachment on leave and hit the nightclub scene until the not-so-small hours. Things ended on a slightly sour note when one of the drunk Indians accused the Western girls of being sluts based purely on them being girls... from the West. They then tried to sleaze onto them on the dance-floor. Indians often have this idea about our culture. It reminds me of the misconception a Nepali girl once expressed to me when explaining why she never wanted to travel to a Western country: from the movies she saw our surroundings were always exploding - it looked too dangerous.

In the morning (the light part of the morning) I rode off hung-over through Goa's capital of Panjim and towards Colva Beach. The last few kilometres were through the surf after dark having failed to find a vacanceous hotel. Luckily a nearby restaurant, the Silver Spoon Beach Shack, kindly let me sleep to the sound of the surf on one of their lounges, interrupted only by a curious army patrol rudely poking assault rifles in my face before being waved away.

I ended up staying at this restaurant for a day and a half, swimming, eating Hakka noodles whose incredible flavour transported me to a new plane of existence, sipping port and languidly admiring the predominantly Russian clientele which comprised women so spectacularly beautiful they defied the principles of physiology... chaperoned by men so disgustingly ugly they resembled overfed slugs (think Jabba the Hut). The two extremes held my discreet attention with equal fascination.

Finally I was to return to Mumbai by train (otherwise I'd miss the boat). My arrival at Margao Station presaged the sequel of my Bombay bureaucratic battling when the station-master told me the train had no luggage van for my bike. But in India anything (and everything) is possible and I managed to wedge it in the corridor between two carriages - its articulation matching the train's so as to avoid bending the frame.

And more good news: mere hours before I left Mumbai to sail the Arabian Sea on a cargo ship, my magazines finally arrived at Poste Restante. I'd been published in two of these, both on the subject of Nepal - one for the Melbourne Uni Mountaineer, the other for the Australian Beer and Brewer magazine. A fine addendum to what was almost certainly my most satisfying cycle tour so far.


  1. Hey Felix - good to read your blog – love your word smithing. Hang on – I’ll look at the pix – great, especially the spider web. Pity none of Goa. I stayed at Arambool – “full of gracefully aging hippies” said Lonely Planet. Think I know your pizza joint, on the corner just opposite Melissa’s hotel in Churchgate? And the bullet holes at Leopolds. Ash had a similar med experience to yours, in Mysore (hmm just realised how aptly named that place was for Ash). Hotel sent out for a doc who came, competently diagnosed and sent the hotel “boy” out for the medicines, one of which cost <10c and as in your case didn’t trouble the excess.
    If you get on your skates and across to London you might find Steppo who has a job interview there next month.
    Keep on trucking
    Happy Invasion day

  2. The bioluminesence sounds amazing. Very cool.

  3. What's your movements?

    Mumbai to Musqat to Abu Dhabi...then? Iran? Then north?

  4. Thanks Colin, yeah my camera shat itself on the last half of my trip so I was left without photographic record of my trip down there. That excess thing was annoying - I had to renew my old coverage, but since I had already begun my trip they forced me into a different policy, whose excess was $100 - my three doctors appointments and medicine came to $30. I used it as a test case to see how it would all work, but it was still a lot of effort.

    Yep, you half have it Rupe: Mumbai to Salalah by ship, bus to Musqat, bike to Dubai, ferry to Banda Leng-gue in Iran, then head to Tehran before winter gets too nasty. I'll keep you all informed, so stay tuned!