Monday, May 10, 2010

Waterfalls and driving through Goa

We had met our driver, Franco, for our waterfall adventure the day before at the travel agents. When we’d mentioned that we’d like to get to the falls without there being a lot of people there he’d suggested that we leave fairly early in the morning, like 7 or 8. I’d gone for eight, and he’d pushed for seven. Going with the philosophy that one should trust their guide, I settled for seven.

When we got up that morning it felt pretty early and I was rather sore from the day before’s yoga session. Plus, my belly wasn’t doing so well – I had a very minor case of India-gut. But we were good to go. Franco showed up on time and we headed off to who-knew-where.

Colleen has always had a love for waterfalls. When she used to visit me in San Francisco we’d find them on treks around California. And we’ve made great hikes to falls in the past in Cuba, Indonesia and Thailand. It’s a bit of a vacation ritual.

Our drive to the falls was pretty interesting. First, we hadn’t had the opportunity to get breakfast before we left. Nothing is open in Palolem until much later in the morning. So after about 40 minutes driving Franco pulled us over in a small town so we could grab some breakfast samosas. We got several of them, some other bready things, and a Fanta and a Coke – all for less than $2. When I bit into my first one I discovered that it wasn’t my standard samosa – it was screaming spicy hot. I got a case of the spicy-hiccoughs, and was horrified to see Collen, who can’t stomach spicy food, eating hers. She seemed fine though, at which point Franko pointed out that what I’d chosen wasn’t a samosa, but some sort of Indian manliness test. (OK. He didn’t say that last bit.) The other doughy bread things sweety and tasty, he called them Bons, which may have just been his way of saying “bun” – we really couldn’t tell.

The other interesting part of the drive was the traffic. After about half an hour we started to pass dump trucks. And as we carried on they became more numerous, until it got to the point where the roads were simply clogged with them. There were thousands of them going in all directions. Franco explained that there are several mines in that part of Goa, and for the past several years the trucks have completely taken over the roads. There are trucks as far as you can see shipping minerals out of this region. From what I could understand it’s largely ore headed to China. The trucks go from morning to night, 8 months of the year, coming off the roads only during monsoon season. The poor people who had nice homes by the road now have homes beside a constant traffic jam of diesel fumes and mining dust. It was complete chaos, and the thought of that amount of “stuff” being removed from this province every day was somewhat mindboggling and a little depressing. I realize that it’s the way of the world, and that it provides good paying jobs in a pretty poor part of this relatively poor country, but actually being in it was a very different experience.

It turned out that this was part of the reason why Franko had wanted to leave so early, so we could avoid the worst of the mining traffic. Even so, he zipped in and out of the traffic, because if we just went with the flow it would have taken hours. It’s an interesting experience to be headed around a corner and seeing two mining dump trucks coming at you, passing one another and taking up the entire road. It was the first time driving in India where our driver has actually pulled over to get the hell out of the way.

Franko took us as far as Colem, where we chartered an off-road Land Cruiser-ish vehicle for the rest of the ride to Dudhsagar Falls. (And no, don’t ask me how to pronounce that.) The vehicle chartering operation seemed very dodgy, with the boss-man sitting on the side of the road collecting for the drivers and guides, but there were no other options. And you definitely needed a proper vehicle for this ride. Even at this time of year, when it hasn’t rained for months, we were driving through rivers and the roads were very badly beaten up. It was a pretty cool 40 minute trip in, and I’m not sure how those vehicles do it every day.

At the end it was a short hike to Dudhsagar Falls. They’re the second highest in India, and a pretty spectacular sight. Again, thanks to Franco’s timing, we’d arrived early enough to be the first people there. Colleen had brought her bathing suit and immediately jumped in to swim in the pool at the base of the falls. I made my way in a few minutes later. Franko had warned us that the water was quite cold, so I was waiting for the shock, but it turned out to be “India cold” not cold cold. It was gorgeous.

I don’t really like swimming. For me it’s just an ongoing battle to not drown, which takes all the pleasure out of it. On the other hand, Colleen loves swimming and is quite content to paddle around for hours. So she swam around the base of the falls, finding places where there were rocks on the bottom that I could stand on. Then she’d signal to me and I’d swim to the next rock. It was a good solution for both of us.

After a bit more people arrived at the falls. I got out to take a few photos and to read the sign that listed all the people who had drowned there over the past decade. (There were lots, but I decided it was rather poor form to take a photo of the sign. Karma and all.) Our guide came up to me to make his case, rather persistently, that we should be sure to tip him and his partner very well as the money they made right now would have to cover them throughout the off season. He wasn’t wrong, but it was disappointing to have a pretty cool experience put off a bit by someone asking for money. (I’m sure it won’t be the last time it happens here.) He also mentioned that we had to tip him in the vehicle, ‘cause his boss would take half if he saw someone give him money outside of the car.

On the drive back along the bumpy road we passed many more off road vehicles on their way up. It would be crowded at the falls before long. And at one of the last river crossings before we left the park the locals had taken over the river for a bit of fun in the water, kayaking and taking paddle boats through the first few turns and wading through the water with their families.

Franko was surprised to see us back in town as early was we were, but was happy to head out. Unfortunately, it was still busy truck time on the way back. We felt tiny in our taxi, amongst all the huge dump trucks. And, in true Indian fashion, there didn’t seem to be an rationale behind the flow of traffic, leading to some pretty good snarls that we were in the middle of. Thousands of trucks along dozens of kilometers. It’s a pretty amazing sight.

When we got back to Palolem we grabbed a late lunch down on the beach. Colleen went for a bit of a swim and I happily finished one of the books I’d brought – A Good Walk Spoiled by John Feinstein. A non-fiction account of life on the PGA tour. It was a pretty interesting read, but it’s gotten rather dated since it was first published, before Tiger had his massive impact on the sport.

As an aside, I also read Chuck Palahniuk’s Pygmy on the first days of our trip. I love Chuck’s books, but this one was a little trying. It’s a writing accomplishment, everything is in the form of a broken English North Korean-esque terrorist diary. But that doesn’t necessarily make for good reading.

Later we did some trip planning. We realized that getting to Ooty was not going to be as easy as the travel agent had suggested, and that we needed to pay her a return visit. We were also informed that we couldn’t extend our hotel stay as long as we needed to, as someone had already reserved our cottage as of Monday. Neither were a big deal, but they needed some figuring out.

Dinner was at a restaurant that Franko had recommended. A few minutes after ordering the power went out, which meant that the fans all died. Even outdoors at this time of year it was stifling, and dinner was spent in a constant sweat. The food was fine, but we were happy to get out of there and call it a day.

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