It was sunset, a few days before Christmas, and we were sitting on the wide verandah of a cool house, built by a Portuguese landowner, now owned by our friends Denis Forman and his wife Moni. The sun was setting over the paddy field and rare birds were settling down for the night, when a cart came trundling down the road, drawn by two white oxen with proud horns and sagging chins, driven by a boy wearing nothing but a loincloth. And then, capering in the twilight, came eight or ten figures, some in saris, some in grotesque Father Christmas masks with white beards, some carrying sticks with lanterns, singing at the tops of their voices ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’. They crossed the garden and pranced up the steps to the house. They gave us ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ and we gave them money and Indian champagne.
It was just one of the religious festivals of north Goa, where Epiphany is celebrated by three boys wearing brocaded silk and crowns, who ride to a hilltop on white horses; where the Bandeira festival is marked by returned emigrant workers marching through the village firing pea-shooters, and Shiva’s wedding is celebrated by the drinking of a mixture of milk, sugar and ground cannabis leaves. It’s the country conquered by Portugal for the Catholic Church, where glistening white churches, like baroque wedding cakes, stand next to brightly coloured Hindu temples. Goa’s first Bishop was a Franciscan friar; it suffered under the Inquisition and now the church, about half a mile from Denis and Moni’s house, calls the faithful to mass at dawn, not with a gentle bell but with taped music of the sort which can be described as Hollywood devout, played at an ear-splitting volume for an hour between six and seven. It fills the landscape like thunder, wakens the exotic birds and sends the children scurrying for the school bus with their ears ringing: sitting on the terrace trying to write, I find myself concentrating entirely on ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, ‘A Winter Wonderland’, ‘White Christmas’ and a no longer appropriate rendering of ‘Silent Night’.
We were a large party setting out from England, where religion manages to pass almost unnoticed: Bill, my father-in-law, and I, both in wheelchairs (by far the most comfortable way to travel), he because of a replaced knee and I from a failure to see steps and judge distances, my wife as commander-in-chief, our daughter Emily who exhibits signs of uncontrolled terror as soon as she hears the distant sound of an aeroplane, and Rosie our younger daughter. At 2 am we were among the crowds in the baggage arrival at Bombay airport, having waited more than two hours for our suitcases. Emily, her fear mercifully blocked out by tranquillisers, was asleep. I was reading the small Oxford India-paper edition of Trollope’s novel The Prime Minister and my wheelchair pusher said, ‘That is right, you go on reading your Bible, sir. And pray that the luggage will not be delayed very much longer.’ God must have mistaken Trollope for the Bible because he sent our luggage and a mini-bus to take us to a hotel where we could spend four hours until we had to set out for Goa.
At Goa airport Denis was waiting, smiling and endlessly hospitable. Having found room for a detailed map of north Goa in his head – which already contains all the Beethoven symphonies, the Mozart piano concertos, most operas and the accumulated wisdom of a man who was responsible for the best years of British television at Granada – he had worked out a number of trips in the land of Christmas and Shiva which turned out to have an unforgettable magic about it.
Driving in Goa is enormously exciting. Stuck behind a bus, a bursting-at-the-seams taxi or a lorry full of goats, the driver twists the wheel and is out on the wrong side of the road with another bus or taxi, or a loose water buffalo charging towards us. Death is missed always, if not by a particularly wide margin. It’s a pity if your attention is diverted from the roadside notices, some of which contain dire warnings such as ‘DO NOT ACCUSE ANYONE FALSELY IN THE COURT OF LAW JUDGES ARE VERY BUSY THERE IS A TIME FOR SOWING/REAPING GOD TO MANKIND. WHO CARES WHO!’
At the end of the road a notice pointing to the old farts’ retirement spot says, ‘Home for the beautiful aged’. Bill and I read it with satisfaction and felt inclined to book in.
The hippy era may be over and all those headbands, beads and Afghan waistcoats that set off to find the Holy Bagwash, or danced to the full moon on the beaches of Goa, have no doubt become accountants or computer programmers. But there are still ageing hippies on huge motorbikes among the straying oxen and the wandering elephants, one of which had ‘Welcome to Goa’ written on its vast rump. Some of the motorbikes bump down the paths of a mini jungle towards a clearing where the ‘German Bakery’ welcomes hippies in exile. There’s an As You Like It feeling about the place, with bright scarves and shawls hanging from the trees instead of Orlando’s love poetry, and fresh fruit juice and vegetarian samosas instead of ale and venison. But melancholy old Jacques, pierced and long-haired, sits on his own and similarly dressed German or Scandinavian lovers hold hands in silence.
There’s a noisier, dirtier, more strident hippy beach at Arambol, with sands crowded with fishing boats, wooden shacks and tourist bars. In search of genuine, up-to-date hippies,
I found two young men, stripped to the waist, skirted in bright sarongs, with shoulder-length hair, nose rings and numerous tattoos. I asked them how long they had been living the free, careless and lotus life of Arambol.
‘Just a week,’ said one. ‘Actually we’re window cleaners from High Wycombe on a package tour. But it’s great fun here, isn’t it?’
‘Wonderful,’ I said. ‘Where are you staying?’
‘In a shack on the beach. We’re hoping to find some girls to shack up with us. We’ve asked about two hundred so far and we hope to get lucky before we have to go back to High Wycombe.’
Notices on the beach at Arambol threaten ‘ten years rigorous imprisonment’ to those found taking drugs, a threat probably as effective as health warnings on cigarette packets. Denis took us to Holywood beach, a huge, empty stretch of golden sand where the palm trees grow down to the breakers of the Arabian Sea. On Holywood the shacks are closed down, with orders from the High Court of Bombay to shut them, pending trial, pinned to their walls. Some might have been used for drug dealing. We called at one shack and a carpet, table and chairs were pulled out of some recess. The carpet was spread on the sand and bottles of cold Kingfisher beer appeared on the table. We were about to drink gratefully when a police patrol was seen approaching. Like the magic meal in The Tempest the tables, chairs, carpet and Kingfisher disappeared and the police were engaged in friendly conversation with the shack’s owners. We stood gazing casually at a group of children on the edge of the water who ran away, screaming with laughter, at the sight of flying fish. Then the police patrol moved on down Holywood and, by another blessed stroke of magic, the Kingfisher and the carpet returned.
On one beach where we went for lunch, nuns in fluttering white habits congregated on the edge of the water like seagulls and schoolgirls in blue uniforms paddled. An old man, another wheelchair rider, was pushed to the water’s edge and an umbrella was put up over him; but umbrellas are not allowed and it had to be put down again. I ignored the red flag and plunged into the sea, where I was immediately knocked over by a huge wave and a fierce undertow dragged off my Marks & Spencer’s shorts. I tried to remember stories of drowned writers and felt sure that Shelley never lost his Marks & Spencer’s shorts in the undertow. My children disowned me and left the beach. Finally I and my shorts were rescued by the old man’s wheelchair attendant – another proof, if proof is needed, of the value of that form of transport.
‘Ramshackle Mapusa,’ says the Rough Guide to Goa, ‘is the state’s third largest town. Other than to shop, the only reason you may want to visit Mapusa is to arrange onward transport.’
We didn’t want to arrange onward transport and I didn’t want to shop. The others vanished into the ramshackle town, which seemed to contain at least half a million inhabitants jammed together, with acres of fish, miles of meat, hectares of vegetables, old iron, second-hand clothing, small statues of the Buddha and religious pictures for sale. Off they went and I was left alone in a sweltering car park, sitting on a stool and trying to write a story about life in the Thames Valley.
Later Denis came to rescue me. He took me to a chemist’s shop where he bought a small bottle of artificial sweetener, not because he particularly wanted it but so that he could borrow the chemist’s padded bench, which the obliging shopkeeper brought out and stood on the pavement for us to sit on. So we sat among the jostling crowds, the hooting cars and gasping motorbikes, the swift, evasive bicycles and pecking chickens, the lost tourists and wandering oxen, and chatted of this and that as the others tried to find a pay phone, or a lavatory, or bought saris, shirts and Buddhas carved out of fishbone. Later we were joined by a youngish Goanese man who was on holiday from Australia where he programmed computers. I was grateful for the company and the bench and resolved to leave the story until next morning when I would get up before Bing Crosby’s singing took over the sky.
But what I remember most are the rusty ferry boars, chugging across the broad, sluggish, khaki-coloured river, past mangrove swamps, towards a Portuguese fort on a high cliff, put there for a defence against the British, or the Dutch, or the army of the Hindu Maratha from central India. There were old vans on the ferry, and bicycles, and a tall, hawk-faced hippy dressed in yellow with his motorbike (later we saw him on the beach with two beautiful women and a baby). There was an old woman with a jewel fastened to her forehead with Sellotape, and a boy who carefully wrapped betel in a palm leaf to chew. An Australian girl in a long white dress with a rucksack stood at the rail, impeccably clean on the rusty boat, on the oily river beside which the turtles were nesting. It was a moment to remember in the early darkness of an English February, when the talk is all about the sex lives of pallid politicians in suits.