Power out in Patnem

A power cut is a great leveller here. Whether you are staying in a basic beach hut, think shed, or a boutique chichi beach hut, you get plunged into equal darkness, becoming a musical statue. The maglite or your phone may be nearby, but try finding either in pitch black.

You can hear a collective “ooh” from the diners at the beachfront restaurant as the power fails and the candles on the table come into their own, providing just enough light. 

The kitchen is well used to cooking in the absence of electricity.  The lit tandoor is fuelled by wood. The cooking rings are powered by bottled gas. 

But you can’t get a strawberry daiquiri when there’s no power as those get whipped up in the bar equivalent of a nutribullet. And they need a power source.

Sitting on the balcony, mug of tea, reading the kindle, I carry on as normal. The kindle screen is great in pitch black. Ironically, I am reading Americanah and am on a page towards the end of the book where the protagonist talks about power cuts and non functioning back-up generators in her block in Lagos. I know where the maglite is, but I have no need to use it. I have no need for my own mini back up solution. I am enjoying the dark, even if punctured by the kindle light spill.

Pitch black above softens slightly and after a few minutes of eye adjustment, the faint outline of palm fronds can be detected against the black sky. And there is one star or planet visible. Could it be Venus, apparently visible in the last few days? I will never know.

The waves sound louder as they hit the shore. 

Five minutes or so later and the power is restored. 

Damn. I quite liked the dark. 

And, there’s another one early next evening. Experience tells me to take a shower while it’s still light as there is some natural light spill into the bathroom. No hair straightening for my frightful beach hair. But clean, I head to the bar for a strawberry daiquiri sundowner just as the sun reaches its last few minutes.

Damn and double damn. No power. No strawberry daiquiris: a sundowner pot of tea it must be.

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The perfect strawberry daiquiri at sunset or later

Roll up, roll up. This is a challenge and a half. They are all good, all three, almost neck and neck, but I have to make a decision and pick one out, probably by, er, necking a few more of them down.

Something a bit Alice about this challenge. Drink me. Drink me.

Every day, I see the man on the beach who sells trays of strawberries, walking from beach shack to beach shack, selling to the kitchen staff and to those in charge of the cocktails.  Occasionally, sun worshippers, often strawberry pink themselves, respond to the passing call of ‘strawberries, strawberries’ and buy a box to enjoy at their sunbed. Me, I wait.

I wait until sunset approaches. It wouldn’t be decent any earlier. As part of the preparation, a decision has to be taken from a sunbed, whether to stay and slink up to a table at that shack just ahead of the sunset, predicting the time when it will not be too late to get a table facing right out to sea and the sunset, or whether to go elsewhere, not knowing how many other people have decided to go there too. Tough holiday decisions, I know.

The classic sunset choice has to be Boom Shankar at Colomb Bay, a ten minute stroll along the beach from Patnem, not allowing for distractions en route. There is a bit of a stampede for the tables overlooking the bay as the sunset view is one of the better sunset views on this planet, even without a strawberry daiquiri to mark it. But timing is all and it’s a bit uncool to be the first there. But you don’t really want to be sitting further back as you just don’t get the full panorama. There’s a happy hour too – I think you get a 20 rupee saving per cocktail. Not much to write home about, but an approximately 15% discount does equate to one free in eight, far better than a Cafe Nero coffee loyalty card. Boom Shankar, the undisputed original purveyor of the strawberry daiquiri in the area. A frozen cocktail, served, overfilled, in an old fashioned glass – you have to make a quick start on it before the overfill starts to melt and soaks the tablecloth. It is difficult not to make a quick start though. Rich in crushed strawberry content, I used to think this was the best in the world, easily beating a Manhattan bar’s offering at almost ten times the cost. But it is a bit like a grown up slush puppy, a bit on the sugary side, fairly light on the white rum taste. The view is unsurpassable though, more so  if there are a couple of local kids having fun and messing about in a rowing boat on the bay when the sun sinks to its final levels.

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The second strawberry daiquiri in my top three is from Tantra, a Patnem institution with welcoming staff and, in the style of Cheers, a bar where everyone knows your name. I am not sure how they know my name, but they do. Definitely like being in your local, even if the view and setting is a million miles away from any local hostelry in this city. Served in a large tulip shaped stemmed glass, packed with strawberry purée and any strawberry lumps which have got stuck in the chopping blades of the blender, there is a good acidic kick from the squeezed limes too. An underlying taste of white rum finishes this one off nicely. You sometimes get a strawberry pushed onto the rim of the glass, not quite as often though later in the evening. I think they get so busy that they forget. Occasionally, depending upon the number of tulip shaped glasses already in use, it’s served in a highball glass. The combination of the sharp limes and the rich strawberry content make this one feel like a health drink, not at all sweet as far as cocktails go, and it is rude not to have a second. I don’t think I’ve ever had one of these as a sundowner though – it tends to be a gin and tonic or a beer as it would feel a bit too Del Boy to have a cocktail there that early! No photos of a strawberry daiquiri here though as it’s always a later evening drink, just a sunset view of the local lifeguard hard at work and a boat watching the sunset.

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For beauty and looks, head to April 20. A fine strawberry daiquiri, the most expensive of the trio, served in a classic cocktail glass, always with a large whole strawberry set into the rim of the glass. Elegance in a glass.  This is one to contemplate before sipping. No rustic lumps of strawberry left behind in the purée, a good balance of flavours and a high rum content too. Not overly sweet, but missing the contrast of the sharpness of the limes marks it down just a notch from Tantra’s offering. Again, it is difficult not to have a second. This one feels wholly appropriate at sunset, an upmarket restaurant feel rather than a beach shack, looking out across the beach, maybe an on the hoof football kick about taking place, a standoff of local dogs seeing who can bark the loudest or a show-off doing some beach yoga poses or a bit of juggling. And, occasionally, a sunset to die for, not perhaps quite as breath taking scenery as that from Boom Shankar.

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So, there are winners all round. Boom Shankar for the setting, Tantra for the taste, and April 20 for the presentation and style. And they do all taste fabulous in their different ways.

I may think about tasting some others next visit, purely in the interests of my research.

Bagging a tiger (Or, with apologies to Michael Rosen, We’re Going On A Tiger Hunt)

Well, no one expected it to be easy. These big cats are just about as rare as hens’ teeth, even if recently published statistics show a very slight increase in their numbers throughout India.

It is probably not the best time of year for tiger spotting, nor quite the best place either, and the thought of a week or two’s sunshine and lazing on a Goan beach helps push the tiger mission towards the recesses of my mind. I can imagine one of those tigers rather enjoying a bit of sun basking too, perhaps not on my beach though. But the time comes to leave the beach and head out to the boonies and to keep our eyes pealed.

Driving through the Western Ghats is exciting, a mix of countryside and forest, a lot of anticipation. I am ready to shoot at any point – you don’t want to miss the opportunity. Our driver says that there are big cats in these forests, that people he knows (or knows of, more likely) have seen them. I think we are getting a tall tale. If they are inside the forest today, they are staying there firmly and avoiding straying onto the roadside. The only wildlife that we see from the car is a rabbit and I am not going to bother shooting it. To be fair, there are a few troops of monkeys along the roadside, probably trying to look cute in the hope of being thrown a few treat bananas from a passing vehicle. Otherwise we see only domesticated animals, goats, dogs, and oxen. Where are those tigers? I know they are there. Come on, just pop your head through and make yourself known so I can shoot you quickly. We give up. Well, at least until tomorrow.

Tomorrow becomes today and we are all over Hampi, driving to every corner of the temple complex, shooting away, but keeping a serious lookout for one of these big cats. Surely there must be one here? We spend all day driving and looking and, finally, in a split second, approaching sunset, I see one, not even in hiding. In the car park no less. I get a great shot.

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Having come to India to see a tiger, it seems unlikely that there will be more. But, never one to give up too easily, we watch the road on the way back  like hawks. Nothing gets past us. But no big cats. After about 4 hours, we decide to stop for a drink and, blow me down, if the little roadside café doesn’t have exactly what we had been looking for, right by the counter, guarding the Fanta. Lean and mean, staring right at me. This really is too good to be true. Another shot.

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And so, it is off to Bombay, two tigers bagged in the space of a few days. This is really a high water mark and I do not expect any more sightings, especially in the city. An early afternoon taxi safari from The Taj Mahal Palace to The Four Seasons is a bit of adventure, jolting along in stop start traffic. Unexpectedly, a big cat. There, right in the city, looking out from the parcel shelf of a car, the driver quite possibly unaware of its presence and any danger posed. A tiger in a traffic jam. I manage to shoot it from the backseat of my safari vehicle. .

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Exhausted and overcome by the sight of three big cats, three more than I was really expecting if truth be told, I know that there can be no more. I decide to shoot other things with the Nikon instead. I think that city bus destination signs will make for an interesting set of photos, but cannot get out there and shoot these (twisted ankle, feels like it has been caught in a gin trap, turns out to be fractured) but I do get a totally unexpected bonus sighting, a tiger on the windscreen of a school van, parked just outside the hotel. A final shot.

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And then, gin and tonic in hand, the fascinating news that the tiger population in India is really on the increase, up about 30% in the last three years. Way to go. But possibly why I have seen quite so many.

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jan/20/india-tiger-population-increases-endangered-species

Patnem Beach Road, Goa, a place where little happens

Patnem Beach Road is somewhere where nothing really happens, the narrow road leading between the main road, itself a small road, and the steps down to the beach. A place for tuk tuks to wait for people heading off to another beach or into nearby Chaudhi for an ATM or a pharmacy.  But, the more you walk up and down this little road, the more you notice and the more that does actually seem to happen in a very small understated way. 


Early morning, it’s more or less all closed, just an optimistic tuk tuk driver or two hoping that you want a tuk tuk in the opposite direction to which you are walking. Sleeping dogs. There are always sleeping dogs. The little shops which have evolved along much of the road are still closed, covered up in heavy duty plastic sheeting, often bright blue, the occasional flower garland or lime and chilli combo hanging from a rusty nail, vibrant in the early morning sunshine and against the blue plasticised background. The shopkeepers will remove the plastic later, also then beginning their almost constant task of sprinkling water on the road in front of their establishments to reduce the sand and dust. One or two of the posher shops have hardboard doors instead of plastic sheeting or even some windows.

Sometimes, the laundry/tailor opens fairly early and the tailor always has time to look up from his sewing machine outside and say good morning to any passers by. His wife, the launderer, decorates the threshold each morning with a ringoli, first of all chalking an outline of the pattern for that day, then neatly dropping differently coloured sands into the correct area to form a beautifully complex patterned graphic on the ground, all from sand and swept away at the end of each day. She is such an artist, so modest about her creations too. I always intend to make a photo collage from ringolis across the years when  I get home, but just never seem to get around to it. 

And this year, for the first time, a fruit shop too. Two actually. One is more of a stall than a shop, but its entrepreneurial owner offers a sideline in laundry.  The shop further along the road makes its entrepreneurial statement with a juice extractor to supply ready whizzed concoctions to those who have become too beach lazy to peel their own fruit or to eat it whole. 

On New Year’s Day morning, I noticed one of the traders burning a lamp just opposite his shop, part of a religious ritual and not one that I had come across previously. He was quite happy for it to be photographed. 

And the bigger tailoring shop closer to the beach steps has a quite scary display collection of dummies dressed in examples of the available tailoring. Some of the clothing would not look out of place as stage costumes in a retro 1970s pop opera, pure Jesus Christ Superstar or Hair! Still, there must be a market.

And some evil road potholes, a fall into one of which caused me to fracture my ankle. Boo hoo. 

But, otherwise, nothing really happens here, nothing much at all. 

The road to Hampi

We begin in pitch black at 4am or 5am. The first shock in the land of no-time-for-health-and-safety is seeing a parade of people walking along the small back lanes just beyond Patnem, Goa, carrying torches and sticks. Apparently, people carry these when walking to work very early in the morning, but do not at other times use a torch in the dark. The stick, I was told, is to beat off attacking dogs.
Onto the highway, not exactly the biggest road in the world but the biggest road in the far south of Goa, soon crossing the border into the neighbouring state of Karnataka. The smell of salt hits us, quite refreshing and astringent, as we reach Karwar Port, still pitch black and quite nippy. I mistakenly think that the air conditioning is on, but the driver’s open window is providing the chill air. Uphill, the ghats appearing in silhouette as the black sky lightens slightly, becoming pink, then apricot, then lemon, with ethereal mists and dramatic ghat formations appearing almost from out of nowhere. We say it looks like New Zealand, not that either of us has been there. Daylight breaks gently as we hit flat land again, pure countryside that feels much more like India than Goa does. Overladen trucks, buses, scooters, bicycles, ox carts, wildly decorated tractors pulling trailers packed with people. Monkeys, pigs, dogs, rabbits, goats, bison and oxen. Endless forest and amazing trees lining the road. Churches, temples and mosques. Morning roadside ablutions, mainly people standing outside their very small village houses brushing their teeth, well away from any obvious water source.
Approaching Hubli, where the driver says we’ll stop for breakfast. Not a mammoth city by Indian standards, it feels huge compared to the rural areas we have just driven through and even boasts a couple of traffic roundabouts in the centre. Tuk tuks everywhere, railway and bus stations, a small airport, quite the metropolis in the middle of nowhere. There is even a traffic jam approaching the railway level crossing in town. We stop adjacent to a bus and all the passengers are waving to us, grinning away. A few optimistic hitchhikers try their luck at thumbing a lift too.
We never do stop for breakfast there, something about the particular restaurant being closed. Back in open country, quite different as the landscape changes, we drive past sugar cane fields, cotton fields, chillie fields and picked red chillies being sun dried, sunflowers past their sunny yellow best. Vast endless plains. We decide that this landscape is just like the southern states of the USA, not that we have been there either. As we continue through small villages, we see kids in smart school uniforms waiting for school buses or school tuk tuks, ox carts, dried up rivers, fields full of laundry drying flat on the ground. We try, unsuccessfully, to count the number of adults crammed into a tuk tuk – some in the front with the driver, at least three inside and two more sticking out of the back. And, then, in a small town called Gadag, a huge towering modern Buddha statue, quite incongruous with the area.
Against the rural landscape, scarecrows in saris, pairs of oxen, horns painted pink or blue, wearing ploughing yokes and being driven along the road, suddenly the surreal sight of modernity in the form of turbine wind farms everywhere, harnessing energy from the air. Hundreds and hundreds of them.
Then back to rural village landscapes again. Stopping in a small town, we buy some coconuts for about 20 rupees each, goat herds being driven along the main road as we drink coconut water, our lives seeming about a million miles away from the people of this small town, almost as if from different planets, even though we are standing physically only feet away.
And, slowly, it becomes less rural until we hit a proper town and stop to buy fruit from a roadside fruit shop. Industrial quantities of bananas and of oranges for a ridiculously cheap price. Breakfast, eventually.
And then a wide toll road, taking us the final distance towards the cultural excesses of Hampi. About 7.5 hours of fascinating road journey before we think about the treasures still in store.

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