Goa wasn’t originally on my India travel itinerary. The tiny, Southern Indian state has gained a reputation for its pristine beaches, Portuguese heritage, and consumption of alcohol—all of which have made it an attractive destination for European backpackers, aging hippies, and Indian vacation-goers. Don’t get me wrong: the thought of lounging on white sands and watching the sun set over the Arabian Sea, drink in hand, was definitely appealing, especially after spending time in Bombay. But in general, I prefer to explore places that haven’t been overwhelmed by tourism. Besides, India has a heck of a coastline. I was sure I could find other equally alluring seaside oases if I wanted some beach-time.
A Shortcut to Nashville
This idea changed. When my friend Nash (whom I met playing ultimate with the Storm Chasers) offered to show me around Goa, where he had recently moved, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to experience the beautiful, notorious tropical state. After a long train ride that was made longer by a landslide on the tracks, I arrived in Goa in the wee hours of morning in the middle of a downpour.
Nash’s bungalow is a sprawling work of art tucked into a jungle. Upon arriving, you climb down a moss-covered staircase bordered on each side by a waterfall fountain. Once inside, its walls and floors are sporadically mosaic, its rooms high spacious and flowing into one another, and its windows and doors perpetually open. Walking around the backyard is an exploration in itself. The plants and wildlife have free reign of the place, but wandering along the path will lead you to unexpected structures: a set of stone chairs and a table, a gazebo covered in a canopy of vines, regal-looking stone archways, a swimming hole complete with a shrine near the water’s edge. The place is whimsical. It was only too appropriate that I happened to be reading The Secret Garden during my stay at Nashville.
Yes, Nashville. Nash’s dad gave it the name when he bought the bungalow over twenty years ago, immortalizing the name on a plaque mounted near the front door. Since then, he has been creating and adding to his ever-changing magnum opus (Nash’s father is a prolific artist). For whatever reason, Nash is still reluctant to share the bungalow’s name with new friends.
I spent several days gallivanting around Goa with Nash and a handful of friends I met through the Frisbee team. The group was the ideal mix of playful and laid-back: ready to jive to rock ‘n roll till morning, talk for hours over bottles of port wine and cashew rum, meander about the local church’s shockingly colorful independence day festival, and lounge the afternoon away by the beach. It was during this time that I found out that Nash and another friend were about to embark on a week-long bicycle trip through Goa and into the neighboring state of Karnataka. There was an extra bike sitting in Nashville’s garage. Why not?
Tour de Tiger
And so it happened that I began one of the most satisfying and stimulating weeks of my life. Everyday was a collage of strange and lovely new places, remote villages, excellent food at roadside eateries, and miss-haps that led to unplanned escapades and charitable new friends. It was India in all its beauty, diversity, and wildness—and pedaling through it was the ideal way to appreciate its wonder. At the end of each day, my body was simultaneously exhausted and content, my mind thrilled by the simplicity of being so portable. Traveling with only two changes of clothes, my larger backpack left back at Nashville suddenly seemed gratuitous.
My two travel companions and I made a trio that probably resembled a traveling circus to the residents of the rural areas we cycled through. Gaurang, who lives and works in Mumbai, recently bought a fancy hybrid bicycle, which he has tricked out with a whole series of snappy looking gadgets. He also packed an impressive amount of stuff onto the back of his rack for the trip (including a picnic bag with Nutella, Red Bull, and an endless supply of candies). Nash rocked a pair of deluxe headphones while riding, and peaked even more curiosity by occasionally wearing balloons on his head and decorating his bike with flowers and a small plush doll meant to ward off evil. And then I was a white, blonde girl. After day two of the trip, we had decked out all three bicycles in a gaudy array of colorful, unnecessary plastic items to give them a little personality. Before beginning each day’s ride, we would have a team huddle in which to boost morale and set the tone for the day. It was no wonder that we attracted so many stares, waves, and even cheers from those we passed.
Our road, scenery, and weather changed dramatically with each day. Early in the trip, we found ourselves climbing a mountain in the midst of a rain cloud. Another day we cycled through a tiger reservation, surrounded by jungle so dense that its canopy made the interior look dark as night. One day we spent swimming about a massive dam reservoir, while another we waded around a perfectly blue lagoon. And then there was the day of the exhilarating, never-ending downhill that flew us past waterfalls and scenic overlooks. As we approached the coast, our road flattened out, but the sun beat down so intensely that we took refuge in a small, shaded temple for an afternoon nap.
At night we would stay in whatever lodging was available and willing to take in three unconventional (potentially suspicious?) travelers. These places included several nondescript hotels, a hut at an elephant sanctuary complete with a spider the size of Gaurang’s helmet, a government guesthouse, a tent on the porch of a farm, and a seaside hut overlooking a secluded beach. Every time we ate a meal, I couldn’t help but think it might possibly be the best Indian meal I had eaten yet. Breakfasts came in South Indian style with fluffy idlis, coconut chutney, tamarind sambar, massive dosas, and fried banana buns (pronounced benzz). Most lunches and dinners consisted of fish thalis: a metal plate heaping with rice, a serving of dal, a bowl of fish curry, mango pickle, a papad, and pieces of fried fish. I learned the important trick of swallowing a small ball of rice to dislodge fish bones from one’s throat.
While it was frustrating to me that I wasn’t able to communicate with most of the locals whenever we stopped—I would get conversational cliff-notes from Gaurang and Nash—I learned to accept my ignorance and perfected the art of “going with the flow”. I rarely knew the names of the places we stopped or our next destination; thus, when people asked where we were going I would smile and point to the road ahead. If asked where we were coming from, I would again smile and point to the road behind. My apparent amicable stupidity amused and confused many people.
The trip was filled with small, unforgettable moments of the Indian generosity with which I’m already familiar. Like when several friends who happened to be nearby took a detour to come fix my bike’s busted brake: they arrived in two off-road jeeps, after having collected the neighboring town’s cyclewala (bicycle mechanic). We paid the cost of the part, but the cyclewala refused any extra money, despite going 12 kilometers out of his way to help us. Another rescue involved two men driving a carrier truck; they scooped us off a mountain after Nash’s pedal fell off, and gave us a 30-kilometer lift to another cyclewala. They wouldn’t even take 100 rupees ($2). The owner of a canteen in the tiny town of Joida arranged our lodging at no cost, and assured that we had good meals and a good tour of the area during our stay. Near the end of our trip and a few towns away from our final destination, Gaurang’s tire burst. Two of his friend showed up unexpectedly and unnecessarily, after the tire had been fixed, because they thought we needed help.
It’s been tough to be sedentary after such a trip, despite the fact that I’m currently working with an incredible group of football-playing girls in the northern state of Jharkhand. Even writing this, I find myself itching to shed my excess baggage, hop back on a bicycle, and take off. I made the mistake of picking up Ernesto Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries the other day, which (though it makes for good reading) has only fanned the flame of my wanderlust. It’s taking some serious discipline for me to shed these nomad daydreams and truly be where I am.
But to those concerned about my health and well being: don’t fret! I’m genuinely enjoying my time in Jharkhand, and will give more details on my experience here shortly. And I’m not really going to take off on a bicycle into the horizon, probably.