Reza's Travel Blog

Travels to Bombay and beyond...

January 30, 2005

Bombay Goa 2003-04

Bombay – Goa: The City and the Surf

I return to Bombay after two years. My childhood home for eighteen years, rich with memory, the comfort of family and the warmth of old friends.

Bombay, an island nestled against the west coast of India along the Arabian Sea, came to prominence in the 17th century when the British took advantage of its natural harbor and made it a busy trading port. Today, Bombay’s pungent mix of business center and entertainment hub makes it a modern bustling city brimming with energy and opportunity. But this also makes it a magnet for the rural poor looking to make it in this city of money and dreams. The ramshackle slums, tall apartment and office buildings and Victorian architecture makes Bombay’s urban landscape a rich contrast.

The highlight of this year's trip was a short vacation to Goa with my brother and his girlfriend. But before Goa, let me share a sample of Bombay nightlife, the night before we left.

First stop is Bar Night at the Bombay Gymkhana. Groups of thirty-somethings mill around the bar and on the lawn outside. It is a balmy night and I nurse a few fresh-lime-sodas. I see many old friends, some that I have not seen in ages. As it gets closer to midnight, cell phones are brandished and SMS messages are exchanged to decide on the next stop. My friend and I decide to head to Indigo, a well designed restaurant and lounge. A hip place that after all these years of watching the comings and goings of numerous other restaurants and lounges, has had remarkable staying power. We step in off the narrow street, past the valets, the hangers-on and the sundry entry and exit of the beautiful people, into a packed bar area, ripe with smoke, expensive perfume and loud lounge music. I scan the crowd looking for a familiar face: men with mussed-up hair in slant-striped shirts chatting up beautiful women in acid-washed jeans with candy-sized cell phones – permanent appendages in their hands. The typical exchange when I saw an acquaintance: a second of eye contact, a few words exchanged as they look past my shoulder. To see and be seen in spades; the Bombay Scene at its best. At the edge of the tall ceilinged bar and restaurant area is a red stairway that takes you up to an open air terrace and a cigar bar painted deep indigo like the night sky right after sunset. Indigo is Bombay at its most rarified strata. You forget that you have just come in off a street with people sleeping in narrow alcoves.

Mimo, Nazneen and I drive down to Goa on an early Saturday morning; real early. He is so excited about leaving that he first gets up at around 2am - wide awake - and considers waking us up. But he goes back to sleep for two more hours, gets up, does a load of laundry and finally cannot contain himself. My cell phone rings and I barely know who is calling, much less what time it is. Blame it on my very late night.

Eyes shut, I am tossed around like a sack of potatoes in the back seat of Mimo’s Land Cruiser as we twist and turn through the Western Ghats weaving our way down south to Goa on National Highway 17. You call this a highway? A two lane tar strip used by cars, decrepit red ST buses, rowdy trucks (TATA Horn OK Please), motorcycles, scooters, annoying rickshaws and cattle. Yes, we are sharing a national highway with cattle, ambling along here and there as we pass through numerous villages.

8 hours and 300 miles later we arrive in Goa: swaying palms, shimmering rice paddies, fine sand beaches and the smell of the sea. Goa was a Portuguese colony up until 1961 when India finally brought it into its fold. The Portuguese influence is visible in the old mansions, quaint white churches and the numerous Portuguese names of places that still remain. Goa has been a popular destination for travelers since the 60s when hippies came to enjoy the sun, sand and more liberal attitudes of the locals unmatched elsewhere in India. The hippies have been replaced by European backpackers, wealthier Indian visitors and international tourists on cattle-car package tours.

We spend most of our time on the string of beaches beginning with Baga in the north, the most commercialized part of the beach, Calangute, heavily trafficked by locals, Candolim, where the hordes thin out, and ends at Aguada, with a small hill jutting into the ocean on which sits an old crumbling fort. The beach is lined with shacks: a place to rent a sun-bed and get some food and drink. The shacks range from the basic: temporary structures built from bamboo poles and palm thatch, to more substantial structures with long bars, pool tables and large speakers blaring Goa-Trance techno. The latter is found at Baga, the former is more typical at Candolim. With a shack every hundred yards, naming is important. They range from the obvious: Oceanic, Sea Breeze and Beach Hut, to the more exotic: Zanzibar and Dreamweaver, to the truly hopeful: Popular Shack, a distinctly empty and sorry looking shack that the proprietor probably renamed wishing to turn his fortunes around.

We set up base in Candolim. The Travel Scrabble board is out on the sun-bed and we play distractedly looking at the sea hoping for good surf. After a year of watching a few surf movies and documentaries, I am ready to try my luck at it. Goa is not known for surfing, but we have two borrowed boards and are hopeful. The first time we head out when the waves look decent, I have a hard time getting used to paddling out on the board and sitting on it waiting for waves. The first day I just lay flat on the board and get a feel for the waves. Mimo is looking good and I am whooping every time I see him propel himself upon a good wave and ride it to shore. The second day the surf is pretty low and I satisfy myself with body surfing, learning now the pattern of three that the swells come in. The third day I feel ready. The surf looks good. I attach the leash to my ankle, put the "egg-board" under my arm, walk down the beach, step into the white foam at the edge of the water and enter the warm sea.

I sit on the board, squinting at the sun glinting off the water, and wait. I see a promising group of waves. The first one passes. I begin paddling ahead of the second, my arm muscles burning as I churn to catch it. It swells under me and I am no longer being propelled by my arms. The wave comes up to meet me. I grab the sides of the board, pull my knees up under my chest, plant my feet and rise – my body momentarily connected to the ocean under me. I whoop and lose my concentration, topple backwards and the wave crashes over me and takes me under. I lose my orientation for an instant; the surf board has skimmed in towards the shore, the leash pulling my ankle as I come up through the churning foam, the word wipeout now a visceral experience.

The exhilaration of being transported over the water is compelling. I eagerly run back into the sea and begin the cycle again: sit and wait, paddle to a spot that seems better, skip a weak swell, try to catch a good one, and every once in while ride a wave to the shore. There are moments in life when the effort and exertion is replaced by a swell that carries you along, transports you effortlessly over the flatness or turbulence of daily life. These moments make life truly compelling.

I am lucky that I picked up surfing so quickly. The waves are not too big, I have a good board and I feel totally in my element in the water. My body and mind are in vacation mode – relaxed, adventurous and ready to connect. I am ready for the wave to pick me up and carry me to shore.

My trip this year is one of the most enjoyable I have had. It is like picking a good day to surf. I am ready for a vacation after an exhausting and rewarding year. Each prior trip is practice for this one. I know all the good surf spots, so to say, and have some great company to enjoy it with. I am lucky.

I began this poem two years ago when I visited Bombay with my best friend from Austin. That trip helped me build a stronger bridge between my old home in Bombay and my new home in Austin. The poem sat unfinished and untouched until December on the flight to Bombay. I was in that unique space again: between two worlds, between two times and feeling connected to both.

Ebb and Flow

Dusk drapes itself
over the hills’ bare shoulders
deepening the lake to purple.
Bouys bob
and blink in the wake of boats
turning into the marina.

Life’s ebb and flow:
You look for signs
Of reassurance in the past.
Stop this dim dread from clouding your eyes;
the next moment
never fails to be new.
Tomorrow was once an eager mystery;
look for it again
around the corner.