The Arabian Sea was restless, as its strong waves slammed onto the sand, reaching further and further up the beach with each passing wave. The colour of the dark grey clouds up above matched perfectly with the colour of the sea, as rain hammered down mercilessly. The shacks and buildings near the beach were all covered with plastic sheets, in a desperate attempt to escape the wrath of the monsoon.
After a twelve hour back breaking bus ride from Mumbai to Panjim, followed by another half an hour on a local bus to Mapusa, before finally boarding a crowded minibus full of villagers, who were chatting in an indecipherable dialect all through the hour long trip, I had finally ended up in the small fishing village of Arambol.
The doors and windows of the houses that I had passed through on my way to the beach were all tightly shut from within. Some had big fishing boats covered in blue plastic sheets parked in the backyard. The shops, bars, restaurants, guest houses were all closed. Occasionally, I saw a few locals sitting on the porch or on the stairs, with a bored look on their faces, as they stared blankly at the narrow road outside.
The beach, which was supposed to be the main reason why people visited this sleepy little village, looked to be in disarray. Although incredibly beautiful with palm trees lined up all along the coast line, it seemed to be in a state of total neglect with plastic bags, empty bottles, and thousand different kinds of wastes lying outside every beachside shack.
Somehow I passed through all of that and found the one hotel that I knew was open. Like every other beach side establishment in Arambol, it too was covered with a big plastic sheet from top to bottom. I walked through the garden area, passing all the plastic wrapped beach side huts, and reached the reception, doors of which were closed.
After a lot of frantic knocking, the reception door opened, a man gingerly stepped out, handed me the keys to a room on the second floor, yawned and went back in. Though he impressed me with a quick check in, he failed to mention that one of his guests on the first floor, probably the only one at the time, had adopted a couple of vicious stray dogs.
As they barked and growled while I stood frozen on the staircase, shit scared, the guest, a lanky Australian man, stepped in, guided them down the corridor and into his room.
I ran on to the second floor, almost slipping midway thanks to the wet floor, hoping that no other unpleasant surprise was waiting for me there.
I was mistaken.
Imagine a room slightly bigger than your closet, with walls that once used to be pink and were now just a stained mess, a single bed that creaked when you touched it, a mirror so dirty that it only gave you a vague idea of what you looked like, a fan that moved like you move on a Monday morning, and a few portraits of bare ladies with “Amsterdam Art Gallery” printed on them.
On one corner of the room was another smaller room, which was supposed to be the bathroom and toilet. Stained walls, and dirty mirror apart, the floor was filled with cigarette butts, just some of the many surprise gifts that the previous occupant had left for me. Few more were floating in the WC, but I flushed those away.
Determined that I was not taking this room, I mentally prepared myself to deal with the rabid dogs of the first floor, the heavy rain and wind outside and find another hotel, when Amar, an attendant came in with a few towels, which were sparklingly clean to my surprise, along with the receptionist, Michael, whom I had met downstairs.
“Sorry, we did not expect any guests in the monsoon. Everything is closed here now. This room costs Rs.900 in the peak season.” Michael said as we stood and watched Amar clean up the room, and change bed sheets.
“How much does it cost now?”
Needless to say, by the time they left, I had dropped all plans to leave and had booked the room for three nights. Michael told me that there was a cafe down the beach that was still open, in case I wanted any food.
(You know, in case I was a human and needed food to survive.)
With no food in the last 18 hours, a feast was in order. I braved the dogs of the first floor, slipped again on the wet floor and bruised my knee, stepped into a mud puddle and ruined my new slippers, and if that was not bad enough, on the way to the cafe, amidst the wind and rain, my umbrella turned upwards.
(It died bravely while fighting the nasty wind and rain.)
I was soaked by the time I found the cafe. Sea Horse was a sea facing beachside shack, with plastic chairs and wooden tables, all arranged in a way that no matter where you sat, you could see the sea and feel the waves. It had a pool table, a nice bar and you could tell that it is very popular in the peak season. Today however, there were no guests.
I went crazy on the menu. I ordered tomato soup, chicken, prawns, noodles, beer and God knows what else and for the first time in my life, I finished everything that was ordered. And it was great!
Outside, the dark clouds were giving way to darker ones, and it felt like the rain drops would burst through the thatched roof any time. Tired, frustrated and stuffed, I made my way back to the hotel and dozed off on the questionable bed spread.
It was early evening when I woke up and realised that the rain had stopped. I quickly freshened up, took my broken umbrella to protect myself from the dogs, and went out.
From that point on, the trip took a turn for the better.
The dogs didn’t bark. I didn’t slip or step into a mud puddle. I saw locals on the beach, playing cricket. A couple of more cafes had opened up and people were sitting on beachside tables, sipping chai. Few local women were sweeping the polythene bags and empty bottles away. The beach looked a lot cleaner now.
I spent the evening hanging out at the cafes, listening to music, trying out different items from the menu, drinking cheap beer, having some very interesting conversations, and watching the evening waves come and go.
It was a great evening!
The next day, the sun rose and soaked all the puddles and stiffened up the mud. The birds chirped and people started to step out of their houses. Fishermen stepped into the morning waves with their fishing nets, as we watched them while having our morning chai and munching on crispy egg sandwiches.
After a long lazy breakfast, I decided to explore the village a bit. It didn’t look like the same village that I had walked through the day before in the rain. The narrow roads were filled with people. Kids, accompanied by their parents, were on their way to the village school, people were cleaning their backyards as chickens and cows strode around. The bell of the beautiful white church rang as the morning mass ended.
The village school was full of life, with students running around in the corridors, playing football in the school ground, while their teachers dressed in white clergy robes, tried their best to control them.
The area near the bus stand was definitely the busiest place in the village. A small office crowd had gathered at the bus stop as buses going to other villages and towns came and went.
I remember talking to one of the shopkeepers at the bus stand, who told me that he preferred his small village to big cities like Delhi and Mumbai. Unlike the hectic city life, here life was slow and peaceful.
“I know everyone in this village by their first name.” He bragged, while I realised that I do not even know the name of my next door neighbour.
Sometimes we look down on the villages because they do not have sky touching glass buildings, or swanky shopping malls or multiplexes with hundred screens playing hundred different movies at the same time but we never consider the price that we pay for it.
“Cities build these shopping malls by cutting down trees, and now you are paying for it by sacrificing your health… bit by bit… everyday. Here you could take in a deep breath and not inhale thousand different types of harmful gases.” He claimed with pride.
For the next two days, I enjoyed lungful of clean air while appreciating the beautiful trees and greenery all around. Thankfully, the Rain Gods showed some mercy, as I spent the remaining days enjoying the cool sea breeze sitting under a palm tree while listening to the waves and reading the written words of Bill Bryson.
Dogs of Arambol also warmed up to me and started following me around, with tongues dangling from their mouths, wagging their tails, looking for opportunities to smell my legs, hoping to find a treat.
(Still, I carried my broken umbrella to shoo them away if they got too friendly. I hate dogs. Always have. Always will.)
The evening was the best part of the day, when the humidity was at its lowest, kids played beach cricket and football, people took long walks along the beach, and stepped into the sea to play with the waves, while others sat in cafes, having chai and evening snacks.
I became a regular at Sea Horse, hanging out there from afternoon to evening. I was not the only regular, however. The place seemed to attract a diverse set of clientele consisting of locals, Americans, Brits, Australians, and doped out Russians.
Of all the travellers who frequented Sea Horse, I found a middle aged Spaniard, the most interesting. Every evening at around 7.30 PM, he would show up on a bicycle that seemed to be crumbling under his massive weight, a cigarette perennially attached on the side of his lips, completely stoned.
He would sit in a quiet corner of the cafe, with a bottle of beer and a guitar and play some beautiful tunes. He would play with all his heart, as people gathered around him, tapping their feet and swaying their heads in rhythm. He didn’t ask for tips or cared much for the accolades. Looking at him play, it would seem like he had teleported himself spiritually to a different world.
Every once in a while, he would get up from his seat, ask around for a cigarette and then return to his corner and continue playing.
“He doesn’t talk much. But he has been coming here for the last eight months. Every now and then, he would vanish for weeks and we would think he is gone for good. But then he would return.” One of the waiters told me as he served me dinner.
His music would mix so beautifully with the sound of the rain drops falling on the roof, and the soothing sound of the waves, that the evening would fly by and before I knew it, it would be 11 PM and he would get back on his cycle and ride away into the darkness.
And even though it has been a while since I saw him riding away for the last time, his music still rings in my ears whenever I think about Arambol.