Goa : A Lesson in Life. Chapter 13: Candolim, Crumbland and the River Princess.

The morning light jerked me into consciousness with all too familiar and somewhat comforting hangover symptoms. As I got to my feet I could still feel the alcohol coursing through my veins and beating a painful rhythm around the side of my head. I was fully up to speed, in the saddle and relishing another day of absolute freedom and adventure. My ailments just came with the package.

As I once again made my way down to the bike shop on the corner, all my daemons and anxieties had been left behind. Goa had fulfilled it’s promise to the full and now everyday was just a bonus, extra icing on top. Home-time was looming and there was no way I wasn’t going to make the most the last few days. To the bike-shop attendant’s obvious and palpable surprise, I actually stopped at their corner this time, ‘Want Bike?’ absolutely!

Confusingly, there were no bikes, instead, another short stocky man I hadn’t noticed before appeared from inside the tiny blue shack, the thick meaty smell of cannabis almost burning my lungs. He was dressed much smarter than the rest of them, who resembled a pack of stray dogs, and had a business-like character about him. Commandeering one of the regular’s mopeds, he ushered me onto the back seat. Cash in hand and completely befuddled, I hopped on.

We sped of down the usual trail to Baga but suddenly turned off in a new direction as  dark thoughts and alarm bells threatened to ring once more. The clean, modern residential area was much like the one I and Felix had stopped off at on day one (Goa Trip Chapter 2 : Arrival in Goa), and before too long we pulled up outside a large garage of a typical suburban semi. The huge door swung upon to reveal a collection of shiny mopeds. A dark blue Honda Activa had my name on it. Still none the wiser, the quiet but efficient guy (I was guessing he owned the house and the mopeds) switched over to the Honda and once again beckoned me over to ride shotgun, and off we went again, all the way back to the bike shop…

The thing with Goa was, no matter how illogical a situation was, the locals just accepted it and got on with it. This bike renting lark was typical, as I handed over my money to the familiar ancient looking man and the bike owner sped off again, I couldn’t even bring myself to make sense of their system, it was just plain silly but no-one seemed to care. The fee was vague, and agreed between them in a huddle, as was the number of days rent, all that mattered was they had their money, and as they all reconvened inside the hut in a cloud of smoke I now had my very own set of wheels.

The destination was set. Candolim, the next town south of Calangute,  This time I stuck to the main roads as it seemed easier, and before I knew it found myself on a main highway of sorts, devoid of any safety gear, or even any lessons. It was a vivid, bright day, and as I cranked on the accelerator the refreshing wind made me more even more awake and eager to find out what today had in store. I sped over a bridge of sorts, casually breezing past an official at a checkpoint, he waved at me frantically and authoritatively to stop.

I had bared the speed limit no mind, It was just a moped after all. But the sign, I now noticed, did read thirty, kph as opposed to mph. The hulking policeman paced over calmly and ominously, looking more like a special forces soldier than a bobby. He was armed ,wore a beret, desert cam uniform and, unusually, a ginger crew cut . Tall, heavily muscled and tattooed, I was literally quaking in my boots. “Do you have a licence?” he muttered coldly as he reached into his top pocket for a pen and pad. I didn’t of course, didn’t think I needed one. “Speed limit is thirty, did you know that?” he continued,  with a little more humility and maybe humour in his voice. “Sorry, I didn’t know”. Without any further ado, he fined me 1000Rs, right there on the spot. Almost gratefully I hurriedly delved into my side-pockets for my wallet and was all too eager to hand it over and get out of there.

Before too long I was on Calangute road again, at a much more cautious pace, and on into Candolim, which continued on from where Calangute left off and shared the same stretch of coast. This was a much more affluent district, with leafy suburbs lining the main strip but not a great deal of bars or shops that I could tell, maybe they were situated closer to the beach. I decided it really wasn’t worth stopping yet so I continued all the way to the end. Eventually the road swung to the the left and then in a large circle to the right, past some high end bars and restaurants and onto Aguada Fort, which was spectacularly situated, jutting out to the Arabian sea and overlooking the Mandovi River. As I disembarked and strolled around the spacious ruins, I  also noticed a lighthouse in an impressively good condition. This was a well looked after heritage site that the locals were obviously proud of.

Thinking that there wasn’t really much else to see I thought I may as well check out the beach, the path led my past a very expensive-looking hotel complex confirming that this place was indeed designed for the well-healed. I peered in through the gates, gawping at the well-cut lawns, palm trees and modern, classy architecture. As I headed to the beach, something you don’t see everyday, a huge ship, on first glance a passenger liner, on it’s side and aground, maybe only a hundred metres away from the shore! I stood in cold shock, maybe even fear, as I watched the waves crash violently against it. I encountered a lot of typically ‘Indian’ situations on my trip, most of which raised a smile, but what I was witnessing here, I thought, was the aftermath of a disaster, maybe even loss of life. (As I later found out this was the bulk ore carrier “River Princess” which ended up being grounded during the 2001 monsoon). I took a moment to take in the scene of the vast, ugly, angular iron bulk  contrasting sharply against the soft shades of the coastline. Very uneasy on the eye, disturbing even.

On my way back I noticed a sign outside the last bar in Baga before the bridge. It simply read “Live Band Tonight: Crumbland”. That was tonight’s entertainment sorted. Back at Anjuna Palms I went over the day’s events with Felix’s wife. See was filled with exasperation. First of all the speeding fine had been a con (I really should have known by now). Why didn’t I ask for a receipt from the official? I felt good and bad about this, good because I now knew I had free reign on the moped and bad because I was down a tenner, either way it seemed to amuse her. She also gave me the full lowdown on the River Princess, angry that the powers that be hadn’t sorted it out by now.

After a rejuvenating few hours kip, the night-out adrenaline rush kicked in once again as I got myself together in the now familiar washroom and polished off a quick biryani and kingfisher at Munchies. I opted to take the moped down the usual path to Baga this time, which was a lot more fun, not to mention dangerous, as I scrambled over the dirt paths and the undergrowth. The journey took no time at all as the usual scenery flashed past, culminating in the kickstart-style obstacle of the Baga bridge, which needed a full-throttle run-up the ramp followed by heavy braking to stop me falling off at the other side.

Another obvious advantage of Goa was the lack of parking laws. I merely screeched to a halt outside the bar, jumped off, dusted myself down, went up to the bar and ordered a beer. The bar itself was lovely inside, with marble and floral decoration everywhere. This was my kind of bar too, nice brass footrest, lots of space, lots of stools, and manned by the most customer friendly people in the world.  I took an instant shine to this particular lad, a young teenager inflicted with a slight build, acute shyness, horrendous bucked teeth,  and the thickest jam-jar spectacles I’d ever seen. But like every other Goan I’d came into contact with, he hadn’t been poisoned by the cynicism and laziness we get back home. Truth be told he was probably the worst barman in the world,  spilling drinks, smashing glasses and messing up orders left right and center, but you could tell he was really trying. I was his first customer of the night so I put him at ease by not rushing or stressing him.

Then the owner appeared. A round sweating bull of a man with the look of a mustachioed Italian opera singer. He was gesticulating to everyone and I feared for the young lad, but he was great with him, patiently, gently showing him the ropes from his obvious years of experience. You just didn’t get this sort of thing in England anymore. This guy really cared about his staff and you could tell it was a big night for all of them. As the bar filled the owner greeted everyone personally. As kingfisher after kingfisher went down he would stop the lad from charging me from time to time, on the house, thankful for my custom. He knew how to treat his customers well, and for that he was rewarded with a full bar and captive audience for the ‘turn’. Crumbland; who, as it turns out are a four-piece rock band from Finland on a tour of India.

After more frantic organizing by the owner, Crumbland were now setup and ready, with everyone in place, band, bar-staff, owner and punters. To my surprise they played almost exclusively original material, good original material, in a post-Nirvana style. Strangely the audience were completely into the music, even though the set must’ve been completely new to them. No leaving the bar in disgust or ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ demands here. The owner had a look of pure satisfaction, looking for all the world like he’d orchestrated a masterstroke as the tills rang and the audience cheered. Crumbland were a great band, led by a charismatic, good-looking front-man who reminded me of clean-cut Johnny Rotten. He was not only accomplished vocally (in a variety of styles), but could also hold his own as a rhythm guitarist, and sometimes lead player. He was the type of person you just had to take your hat off to, he just had it. The Fender Telecaster toting guitarist, in contrast, was more troll-like in appearance, like the brother that got all the bad genes, musically he supported the front-man superbly well although it was obvious who the focal point of the band was. Towards the end of the night he surprised us all with a solo rendition of “Isn’t she Lovely” by Stevie Wonder, revealing a crystal clear vocal tone in contrast to the vocalist’s grit and grunt. The rhythm section were great too, at one stage breaking into an infectious “Knight Rider” influenced riff that stuck in the memory. The bass player was a tatty blonde haired surf-dude type, complete with a beany hat and the youngest member of the band by some way. Of course, no-one ever remembers the drummer do they?

As the night progressed, the nervous barman gained in stature before my very eyes, expertly mentored and supported by his boss all way, to the point where he even looked like he was beginning to enjoy himself and cracked a smile. The owner was now in full flight, juggling the band, his staff and his punters, which now included entertaining a group of very important (and rich) looking gentleman at the opposite end of the bar to me, maybe business associates of some description. Throughout the night I didn’t really engage with anyone except the staff, except for an impressionable English couple who had just arrived in Goa. We didn’t really have a lot in common though, they were enamoured with the Goan party scene and had the safety net of each other, the typical British holiday makers naively seeking culture but only on their terms, in their comfort zone. I, however, was reaching the end of my journey, on my own, and had almost emotionally fallen off a cliff, without a safety net, and got back up again (Goa Trip Chapter 6 : What am I doing here?).  I didn’t want to give away any of Goa’s secrets though, I wanted them to savour it like I did, and maybe learn from it like I had done, and so as the band finished to a rapturous applause and the crowds drifted towards Mambos, I made me excuses and mingled in with the masses.

Before I left though, I made the effort to thank the boy, and his fantastic boss, for a great evening. The owner grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him with pride, showing him off to his pals at the bar whilst enjoying a well-earned drink with them. This had been a baptism of fire for the boy, and he got through it. I often wonder how far he made it in life. I left just as I began, to an empty bar.

Now much worse for the wear, I’d almost forgotten about the moped still parked outside. I clambered on and caught up with the crowds headed for Mambos. The atmosphere on the streets was electric that night, with people dancing as they waited to get in, or enjoying a snack al-fresco in one of the many take-aways and cafes. I don’t think I’d ever felt as free in my life ever, or since. Free of any financial burden (because it was so cheap here), free of laws and regulations, (as I pulled up drunk right outside the nightclub on a moped with no licence or safety gear with no parking fees), and free of anyone making decisions for me. But for all this, as I entered the nightclub and attempted to join in,  I was alone, not really part of it. Crumbland had even appeared and were the toast of the town, I was pretty much a nobody.

Mambos had never been so packed out, so much so that I could barely move. After a while the constant jostling and repetitive dance music started to grate enough for me to want to leave. I stumbled out and back onto the moped. After my alcohol riddled body had finally worked out where the headlights were, I tentatively made my way back to Baga bridge. I couldn’t chance the main roads in my state, likely I’d end up in prison or dead, my only option was the pitch dark undergrowth. Anything could’ve happened to me on that journey back, I was a sitting duck with my blaring headlights, a prime ambush target anywhere along the deserted dust paths lined by the blackness of tall trees. The makeshift village half-way back was spookily quiet at this early hour, not one bit welcoming or approving of the noise or bright beams. I didn’t know of another way through so I held my breathe and zipped through as quickly as I could.

Eventually the stressful journey came to an end and I found myself approach the bike shop once again. The road was damp and as I turned to head back home I couldn’t resist opening the throttle and going for the power-slide, which I pulled off surprisingly effectively and with some style, screeching round the bend in full control to the approving audience of the bike shop crew. Did they ever go to bed?

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