Stories from India: Life at Palolem beach and the Taj
I just arrived in Melbourne, Australia after spending the last month and a half in India, and the last several months in Asia in general – mostly in more “rugged' environments like Chiang Mai, Bali, and most recently Palolem beach in Goa.
I have to say that I'm very glad to be back in civilization (oh hot showers, how I've missed you), but I've come out of the last few months with lots of stories to tell!
Arriving in a new country with no place to stay
If you're not a big traveller, this may sound terrifying to you. Okay, actually in a lot of cities, the idea of arriving with no accommodation booked would usually terrify me as well – for the sake of my wallet. But when I arrived in India last December and piled my stuff into a taxi to drive 3 hours south into Goa, I had no idea where I'd be staying for the next month a half.
And I recommend you do the same if you ever head to Palolem!
Why? Because that's the best way to find the cheapest accommodation. It sounds really intimidating, and usually it's the other way around, with last minute bookings being more expensive, but for this beach-bum village, arriving with just your bags and doing some old-fashioned legwork is the best way to avoid paying the very steep tourist tax.
Palolem is touristy, but it's the kind of town where the restaurants don't have websites and residents don't have email addresses. There aren't any hotels, only huts. Because of this, the only places you can book online in advance are the pricy ones – the “fancy” huts. And because every May through October Goa gets hits by an intense rainy season, all of the structures on the beach — the bars, the restaurants, the huts, all of it — have to be taken down and rebuilt every year, usually not by professional builders, but by regular guys with hammers.
And for many of the huts, it shows 🙂
Still, as you can see in the photos, you can get pretty great places! When I was in Palolem in 2009 (it's the last place I was before I started this blog), I found a very very basic beach hut (no hot water and the floor creaking with every step) for about $2/day. This time I “splashed out” and paid about $15 a day for AC and “hot showers”.
The hot showers would typically last for 2 minutes, or be a weak drip from above rather than an actual shower. For New Year's we had to use a bucket of hot water as we downgraded our accommodation to avoid peak rates.
But despite all this, we were on the beach and lulled to sleep by the sound of waves crashing.
While most of the huts are incredibly bare-bones, with not much more than four walls a bed and a toilet, trust me when I say that there will be plenty of huts available when you arrive! When I got there, I spent the first morning walking up and down the beach, talking to the shopkeepers, looking at the huts and trying to find one with hot water and A/C (these are hard to come by if you want a hut right on the beach, but they do exist!)
After a few hours of searching and haggling, I landed on a great little hut facing the water, with a rocking chair out front and semi-reliable A/C, right in front of a restaurant where I could get my morning cereal. Not bad!
Daily Life on Palolem: Waking up to the sounds of waves crashing and cows mooing
I spent each morning on Palolem with a walk along the beach, hanging out with the Palolem cows. They roam freely there, just as cows do all over India.
Palolem is also covered with friendly stray dogs, who keep you company while you eat, waiting patiently for any scraps or pets you may give them. It's an extremely relaxed atmosphere!
Goa is also very cheap. Right on the beach, where the restaurants are more expensive, a typical meal costs around 200 rupees (or around 3EUR/USD). But if you walk to the restaurants on the street instead of the beach, you can get great food for even less – like a huge bowl of fried noodles with veggies – for only 90 rupees, a meal we had quite often.
I've said on the blog way too many times over the last year how crazy the year has been with my intense book tour, so we really needed to take it easy and wind down for a few weeks. That's why I had an intense plan of nothing all day long, following by not travelling, with a strict schedule of not attending daily events, and meetings with Mr. Nobody.
We read, we walked up the beach and we appreciated the views.
Palolem is a beach town that's in the middle of the spectrum between crazy party beach (head to North Goa if that's what you're looking for) and quiet-tranquil (head to nearby Agonda). It's active, but relaxed.
There's loads to do during the day, whether it's to walk around the town to look through the many shops (and very willing shopkeepers eager to show you their wares), or to take a boat or kayak out onto the water. At night, you can find a bonfire or live music going on somewhere on the beach, but you can also escape it if you feel like it.
And of course, we interacted with the locals.
People in Goa are very laid back and extremely friendly. Goa used to be a Portuguese colony, and the Portuguese did a better job of assimilation than the British did, so the cultures meshed way better, and you have this “European village” feel in a way. Locals are actually Catholics and tend to be called “Mary” or “Luke” or other typical Christian names.
And Portuguese is quite prominent in all the placenames, and is still spoken by the older generation.
While we ideally would have stayed put for all six weeks, we had to move around a few times to avoid peak Christmas and New Year rates, and to switch between very basic accommodation, and standard accommodation. One thing that was pretty consistent though was that no matter how much you were paying, every place on the beach had regular power outages.
All you can do is shrug your shoulders and not care much about it 🙂
For the Christmas period, we moved to a nearby beach Agonda to avoid the rush of tourists and take it easy. I had been working in Palolem to catch up on a backlog of emails and writing, but I resolved to do no work at all in Agonda and in a single week I managed to catch up on my Goodreads book reading backlog!
Despite the fact that I've been on the road for twelve years at this stage, I've never missed a Christmas in my hometown in Ireland a single time… until this year. I'm not actually religious, but I do like family time and believe it or not, I missed the cold and huddling up by the fire.
I think this will actually be the only Christmas I ever don't spend with family. It was a new experience, but sometimes traditions are better!
One thing I did find interesting though was seeing the Goan Christmas celebrations. We spent Christmas Eve in the bustling tourist zone of north Goa for the day and drove back at night and I got to see mass take place outside with huge amounts of people attending. Goa has many churches, but on Christmas when most residents may attend, they have to create concert style stages beside the church to hold the amount of people coming.
I couldn't help but think how impossible that would be in freezing late December temperatures back in the west!
After Christmas, we went back to Goa and tried to start a fresh routine for the New Year. We loved our time here, but when it was time to move on, we were itching to get back to the outside world.
Having said that, now that I'm paying Australian prices and shocked at even the take-away prices on simple food, I'll always miss those $3 dinners with this view:
A Day trip to the Taj Mahal
One thing I didn't do on my first trip to India in 2009 was make it up north.
Seeing the Taj Mahal is an experience of a lifetime. It truly is a magical place.
…But getting there is not for the faint of heart. This was a completely different side of India, that unfortunately you have to deal with when you are in tourist mode.
Getting to the gates of the Taj Mahal is kind of like getting into Fight Club. By the time you get there, you've endured lies, deceit and manipulation, and multiple attempted cons. People have been telling you that you'll never get in. You've probably been frisked. So if you ever decide to go, prepare yourself.
Here's what to expect. Not all of it is pretty.
I left New Delhi at around 10am for a day trip, and after some research it turned out that the cheapest way by far was to hire a “driver” (essentially a day-long taxi). The 7 hour cab ride there and back is one I will never forget! Let me paint you a picture:
I get into the cab a little after 10am, and my cabby is talkative and cheerful. He shows me some pictures of his kids, to soften me up. This is all a part of his strategy, though, and shortly after comes the first of many, many pitches I'll endure over the next hours. First, he asks innocently, what are your plans for tomorrow? Oh, we're just staying around our hotel in New Delhi. Have you been to Jaipur? No, we haven't been yet. Oh, I'll take you tomorrow, okay? No, no thanks. Yes, tomorrow we'll go. No…
This goes on and on. He stops to pay a toll and asks me for the money, which would be fine, except he tells me a much higher price than the one I can clearly see on the sign in front of me. I give him the amount on the sign, and I ask him why he told me a different amount. He suddenly struggles to understand my English.
A while later, his English returns and he tells me I really need to go shopping while in Agra, since its “the best place in India” to shop, as the prices are so low – when in fact I know the exact opposite is true and that it's one of the most expensive cities to shop in. When we arrive in Agra, we ask to stop somewhere particular for lunch I found good reviews for; the cabby suggests we go somewhere else instead, somewhere “much better.”
What's actually going on is that the cab drivers work together with shop owners and are paid commission for bringing tourists into certain shops and restaurants, so sadly his recommendations just can't be trusted. Getting us to spend money around the city is as much a part of his job as driving the car. Our cabby ends the drive by telling us that he won't be able to drive us back to New Delhi as planned because of “the fog,” and that we'll have to stay overnight in Agra. He knows a great place.
Of course I say no, and finally we jump out of the cab and get to the Taj Mahal. I walk past the man insisting that we need to pay for a shuttle to the temple, because I know that a free shuttle is included with my ticket. I ignore the fleet of men telling me that I can't enter without a guide, because I know that's not true. I joke with the guy who tells me that there's a two-hour line that he could scoot me past, and tell him, “Don't worry, I'm patient.”
I get in line, but I opt not to store anything in the lockers, because earlier I'd read on wikivoyage that the guards may actually tear up your ticket right in front of you when you get back, so that you can't possibly get your stuff back.
The line doesn't take longer than a minute to get through.
Getting through all of this, it feels like climbing a mountain. It takes persistence, confidence, prior research and a lot of patience.
But then you get to see the Taj Mahal.
People from all over the world – and from all over India – come to stand in front of the Taj Mahal and to walk through its doors to see the tombs of the famous lovers.
In fact, the vast majority of the other tourists I saw here were Indians, come to visit the monument from other parts of the country.
The monument is massive, with a hazy fog surrounding it that gives it kind of a magical quality.
Inside the walls of the monument, no one is trying to scam or sell – these aren't people aren't here to work, they're here to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Everyone is taking pictures and smiling.
And here was where the real Indians are – not the touts or those who want a quick buck from tourists. A white face doesn't mean “sucker with money” but is actually a point of genuine fascination.
After I did my had-to-be-done poses in front of the Taj, someone came up and asked to take a photo with me. I didn't mind, so I went along with it, but before I knew it, Lauren and I had a crowd of people, each one scrambling in saying “just one more moment!” and posing next to us.
This had happened to me when I was very far from civilization in India before, but I found it amazing to see that white people were such a novelty at one of the most iconic tourist sites on earth! It took ages to break away from the crowds but we soon managed to continue on our way toward the building.
Just outside the building, the cabbies and the touts are working, trying to earn their livings, albeit some in misleading ways. But inside, people are just trying to enjoy their holidays, and you can experience their genuine personalities and senses of humour.
And there were plenty of types of personalities. As well as those who boldly went up to us to ask if they could take a selfie with us, I noticed quite a lot of people who would be taking pictures and framing the camera for us to be in the shot! When we sat down at the building, one guy kept inching his way closer to us as inconspicuously as he could, so that his friend could get us in the corner of this shot.
I thought it was really charming, and made sure to give them the best shots I could! On someone's Facebook wall somewhere out there is a picture of a shy Indian guy sitting next to Lauren with me on the other side of her pretending like I'm shocked and jealous, in as ridiculous a pose as I could muster up. He was extremely appreciative of the comic gesture!
As you can see in this post, there are good and bad interactions with people when you are a tourist in some places. You can judge your experience by the one or two bad apples, or you can see how most people actually are.
It's important to remember the roles of those you meet. We all say we want to “get off the beaten path”, but I don't think that's the problem.
The Taj Mahal is as beaten a path as you can get, but I had an absolutely wonderful experience there! For me, experiences are enriched by the people I meet in my travels, but I have to be careful to not meet people who are only interested in talking to me for my tourist money. It's hard to strike a balance, since you have to deal with the tourist industry quite a lot to get things done.
That's why I'm glad the opportunities came up for strangers to approach us and just chat. It meant that we left India very happy about our entire experience.