Cycling in Goa, Day 1: Campal, Dona Paula, Vasco de Gama, Majorda beach, Assolna by bicycle
The Mormugao Harbor Police were not impressed. One month ago, a handful of youth dressed as backpackers had landed on a jetty like this, pulled out AK-47’s, and terrorized the city of Mumbai for three days. And here we were – sixteen people in matching black T-shirts – briskly unloading hefty knapsacks and foreign-made bicycles off an unscheduled Goan cargo ship just 375 miles south along that same coastline.
We’d left Panjim “base camp” at seven that morning, peddled to the Dona Paula jetty and loaded our bikes and gear into the “Mercury,” a 35-foot vessel hired especially for this trip by Youth Hostels Association of India (YHAI) carried us across the wide expanse of Mormugao Bay.
On the Mormugao side, we’d set gear onto the concrete pier, unaware of the stir we were creating. Once we were unloaded, two brown-shirted officers indicated that we should form a line to question and I had an awful realization.
“I forgot my passport!”
I pulled trip leader Shripad Chavan aside. Like everyone else in our group, he was an Indian cyclist who had come from his home state to join YHAI’s first annual bike trek across Goa. I was the only gora (foreigner) and, being of Goan descent, could pass for a local — so long as I didn’t open my mouth.
“I don’t speak Hindi,” I whispered to Shripad, “And I forgot my passport at home.” This was, after all, just a trip within the state of Goa. It didn’t occurr to me that we’d pass military checkpoints at the habourfront. Shripad looked struck. If the police discovered me in his group’s midst, they could arrest me, charge the group for haboring me, and put the entire program at risk just ten kilometres into its first day.
The other cyclists – who had come from Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, and Uttar Pradesh and variously spoke Hindi, Marathi, Tamil – spoke enough English to ascertain that I was in trouble.
“Put on your helmet and wear your I-card,” he said of my YHAI identity badge. It was to serve as official identification but because I’d also forgotten to bring a photo of myself to stick to the badge, I’d playfully drawn a picture instead. I showed it to him and he called a few of the other cyclists over.
“Come with me,” said Pravin. At 59 years, the flower grower from Gujarat was one of the older riders and – after having cycled the “world’s highest highway” from Delhi to Leh-Ladakh in Kashmir – most experienced. He guided me to the centre of a few riders and we casually led our bikes towards and past the police who were questioning some other riders.
The police called out to us but Pravin whispered to just keep moving. We continued walking then got on the bikes and pedalled to the jetty entrance. A gate blocked our way. Shripad stepped forward and told the gate guard that we already been questioned, and produced a description of our government-sponsored journey on official-looking letterhead. The guard examined the letter, looked at the riders still on the jetty, looked at us, and let us through the gate.
Hard beach, hard floor
Our group drew stares and honks as we passed through the city of Vasco de Gama. Riding with others, I felt a lot better about the attention I’d received cycling around by myself over the last couple of months: it wasn’t me and it wasn’t even being a female – sport and tour cyclists in Goa are a rare sight in a country where the majority of cyclists are vendors, old men, or children.
We picked up a good pace riding on a wide highway for a few kilometres, then turned right at sign that pointed to Majorda Beach. The group paused at a mosaic archway leading to the soft sand and looked at each other. Where next? Our guide, Sameer rode up on a motorbike with the trip’s mechanic on the back.
He motioned that we should ride on the beach and Dipti, Shahid and Shaldavya unhesitatingly hoisted their bikes onto the sand and towards towards the water. I watched as they crested over a sand dune until only their heads and shoulders were visible. After a moment’s pause, they pedalled out of view as fast as if they were riding on asphalt.
“It’s hard!” I said to anyone who’d listen, “The sand is hard as a road!” I pulled my backpack off my bike’s rear rack, shouldered it, then carried my bike MTB-style across the loose sand until I reached the low tide line. I swung my leg over, stepped down on a pedal and flew across the sand like one of the sandpipers in the tide’s shallows. The beach was hard-packed and perfectly smooth. We pedalled with huge grins on our faces, like kids discovering bicycles for the first time. We passed each other and snapped photos, then passed hand-carved fishing boats, a farmer washing his bullock, and sunbathers.
“Nice tits!” I yelled childishly at a large topless woman at a Russian-only beach shack. Four kilometres later, we pulled the bikes back off the beach and onto a coconut-lined laneway. After lunch and a nap in a coconut grove near Mobor Beach, we’d cycle 30 kilometres of quiet, beach roadways to Assolna, where YHAI had made arrangements for our group to stay at the neighbourhood sports stadium – fourteen men crowded into one dorm room, and two women spread out in the other.
“In my next life, I want to come back as a woman,” grumbled Tapan, Parvin’s 61-year-old cycling companion.
“You’ll have to come back as an extra special cycling woman,” I remarked back.
Having spent the night at base camp, I knew that – as an Indian camper – I would be expected to spread a wool blanket onto the granite tile floor, lay my bedsheet on top of it, and crawl in. I eyed the pile of extra blankets and grabbed seven. I folded a blanket several times, laid it on the floor, and did the same with the other six. I grabbed an eighth blanket to act as a pillow.
“Look,” I said to Dipti, pointing to my makeshift mattress, “Princess And The Pea!” She gave me a smile, lay down on the tile floor, and pulled up her sheet.