Monday 18 May 2020

Arambol diaries - The gigs

La Sambusa Latina was to perform in one of the beach shacks of Arambol that evening. Antonio, one of the brothers of 'the twins', had joined Tom, Vani and Seba on the balcony of the house. The Argentinian brothers sported similar moustache and hairstyle, confusing people by their similar looks. They took advantage of this and enjoyed pulling pranks on unsuspecting people. I met their other half, Leonardo at the bakery the next day  While I smiled at him thinking it was Antonio, the unsure smile on his face gave him away. On first meet, it was practically impossible to tell them apart.

My previous posts from Arambol

Arambol diaries - Vani

Arambol diaries - La Sambusa Latina

Arambol diaries - The hippie life

In preparation of the gig

The group geared up for the practice session. Between the strumming on the ukulele and the guitar, cigars were rolled and handed out. The distinct whiff of cannabis filled the air. 

Tom meticulously prepared the program for the evening, listing down the songs. The group discussed the sequence of programmes for the evening and their every transition. Slots were planned for the circus acts to break into the music at intermittent intervals. I was astonished to see how much effort went into the planning of an evening. Every performance is a project in itself, to be planned in every detail for its successful execution. 

As the music picked up pace, Seba brought out the tea. It wasn't the most traditional cup of tea, rather a concoction of mushrooms. It is common knowledge that psychedelic drugs are highly prevalent in this society, more popular with the artists and performers as they seemingly boosts their creativity. Through the days of living with the group and attending their performances, drugs, from the humble weed to LSDs, were discussed and used freely. 

Disappointment strikes

The performance at the beach shack in Arambol was due to start in the evening. It was to be Tom, Vani and Antonio. Seba had prior commitments. 

The publicity of these events are carried out mainly by the hosts, while the performers spread the word within their community. The performance is agreed for a fixed cost with the shacks and anything that is collected in the hat at the end, adds to the kitty of the performers. Hence, more the merrier. Apart from the money, limited food and drinks for the evening is provided to the group as well. However, not everything always goes to plan. That's what happened on this particular evening.

When we reached the beach shack, we were met by a very apologetic manager. For some unknown reason, they had failed to carry out the publicity for the evening. The shack was right on the beach at a prime location. However a dearth of tourists to Arambol for the past two of years was resulting in empty seats in the shacks. Despite the discouraging news, the show had to go on. It was a tedious job to set up the stage with the light and sound equipment knowing not many people will turn up, but hoping some would. 

The music started to an empty gallery. Eventually two girls arrived, and that was all for the evening. The trio still kept up the tempo for the whole time. I had heard Tom perform before, but this was the first time I was seeing Vani on stage. She was a fabulous clarinet player, truly capturing the soul of Latino music. Antonio even put up a couple of circus acts much to the delight of the staff and the visitors. Later, as he came for the collections, I dropped in some money in the hat.  

We had a late dinner. The food provided by the shack was not on their menu. It was what the staff ate. I was not part of the group, but a friend, hence I had to pay and order from the menu. The food was gloriously overpriced, but I did not have a choice at that late hour. 

The collections from the evening wasn't much, but it still made them a happy bunch. High on spirits, on the way back they bought ice-creams from the local store just as it was closing for the night. In their limited means, indulging in food is the last thing on their list and a dessert, as they called the ice cream, is a treat to be reserved for nights when they earn. Normally they chose to have two meals a day, a late breakfast and an early dinner and that too at the cheapest local places. They looked forward to these performance nights, especially if the place is known for their food. 

The program a couple of nights later was booked at one of these places.

Finally a real gig, true to the spirits

Vani was very excited as she told me about their next performance. It was a new joint in Mandrem, the adjacent beach south of Arambol. Her first reaction was, they make fabulous pizzas! Her excitement for the food was showing. Suddenly I felt sad for her. She also told me to prepare for a completely different experience from the evening before. She expected it to be a busy night, full with guests and fun. It would be incredibly entertaining and lively. 

I reached a little late, delayed by a fabulous sunset on the beach. It was already dark, took me a while to find the place. It was indeed what Vani had told me. The open space under a thatched roof was bustling with people. The stage was already set, and full with performers. Quite a few travelling musicians had joined in for the evening. They were dressed all in their La Sambusa Latina gear of black and white stripes and were ready to rock.


As the music began, members of the guest came forward to show their skills. It was a largely hippie group, all friends or acquaintances. There was exotic fire dancing, of course without the fire for safety reasons, juggling, salsa, hula-hoops, all in the tune of the foot tapping Latino music. The night was reverberating. Needless to say the air was heavy with the smell of weed and am sure drugs was flowing as freely as the beer. 

It was in striking contrast to the previous show I had been to. This time, the hosts had done well with their publicity and the effect was showing. 

Even La Sambusa as a much bigger group tonight had the energy flowing for hours. 'The twins' were fooling around with their circus acts and Seba had joined in too for the evening. The performance went on for hours, well into the midnight. Exhausted yet still drenched in music, everyone settled down. Over pizzas and beer, they chatted and laughed. Some practised their skills. People were meeting old friends and making new acquaintances. The more experienced in this life were looking out for the newcomers. The travelling community was growing. This is how it thrives. 

I sat there observing. I was definitely an outsider here. I was aware that I am unable to let go so many things in my life, which I needed to do to be able to truly embrace the hippie life. However, this did not bother me. I was just happy to be there. As I sat there, Seba came over asking how I was doing. He even tried to teach me a couple of juggling tricks, but I remained as clumsy as ever, 

The collections from the night was fairly decent as I followed a happy couple on the moonlit beach back to Arambol. 

At 2am, the beach was empty. The full moon had painted the sands, sea and the waves in silver. It was a beautiful night and after the excitement of the evening, a sudden loneliness gripped me. The evening was truly one for friends and community, a strong bond which holds the spirit of these travellers together. They thrive on company and friendship. It was a happy evening and I felt the energy of the community in my veins. In the huge empty space that I was walking back now, the feeling of melancholy had never been more reinforced.

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Monday 11 May 2020

Arambol diaries - The hippie life

After leaving a stable job, the first thing that hits you hard is the sudden stalling of a regular income. It does not matter how prepared you think you are for the change, it still manages to catch you unawares. It takes a while for the discomfort to sink in, before you gradually start accepting the fact and tune your life according to it. 

Both Vani and I had very recently left our jobs, and both of us were in this initial phase of discomfort. We were trying to hold on to every penny we had. There was a slight difference in our situation though. While I had made up my mind to leave the corporate world, I was still expecting this to be a short break and then return to something I felt closer to my heart. Also I was staying at home when not travelling, and had a general idea where my next assignment would be. Vani on the other hand had embraced a life of total uncertainty. She did not know in which part of the world she would be in ten days time, when she was to leave Arambol.

Arambol diaries - Vani
Arambol diaries - La Sambusa Latina

Living the hippie life

Vani talked about her struggles after she arrived in Arambol two months ago. She was scared and uncertain about the life choices she was making. The security of a stable job was gone. She struggled to retain the accepted norms of privacy she grew up with and she didn't have any of her old friends or family for support nearby. She did not even know when she will see them next. Thoughts of escaping this life was frequent. But the old life suffocated her and her creative, gypsy soul.

She told me how thankful she was to have Tom for support. At one point in life probably Tom had been through the same dilemma as her, when he left his stable life behind for the life on the road. In all these years, he had managed to find balance and peace through his struggles. In complete contrast to the liberties provided by the hippie life, he was surprisingly organised and focused. Even though he was living in a different part of world every few days, he kept in regular touch with his friends and family in Argentina. At least every three years, he planned a trip back home, to renew the bonds. This was true for their whole Argentinian community of travellers, including Seba. They were more in touch with their roots back home than most wanderers I have known. To me, it definitely brought a different perspective and proved my presumptions incorrect.

Arriving in Arambol

From Panjim we took the bus to Mapusa from where we were to get the bus service to Arambol. I waited in the long queue for the bus while Vani went to grab some snacks for the journey. The bus arrived and we were lucky to get the last seats. The sun was blazing down and despite the open windows, it felt like being trapped in a packed-up hot metal can. The roads were empty but the young driver maintained a decent speed as the bus snaked its way to Arambol. 

Where we got off in Arambol, looked like a small town one can find anywhere in India. A couple of convenience stores stood by the road. There was an omnipresent branch of the State Bank of India and a few scattered shops selling food and tea as locals smoked and gossiped under the shade of a banyan tree.
There was a small yet significant difference though.
A major percentage of the people walking around or whizzing past on their bikes, were Caucasians. They were foreigners to the land, but looked as comfortable as any local would do in their hometown. The bus we just arrived in also had a significant number of foreigners travelling. I had even heard one girl trying to have a conversation in Hindi with the conductor. It was impressive.

We got off the main road and walked towards the beach. There were more foreigners lazing around and very few Indians. Everyone was dressed in a style so typical of the hippie culture. Loose trousers, elephant pants, shorts, vests and cropped tops, shaved or braided hair and almost everyone sporting exotic tattoos and piercings. To add to the ambience, the shops lining the roads were selling everything these people wore. The food menu on the restaurants were inspired by Western dishes, obviously catering to a select clientele. To top it all, there was an obvious air of chill. I immediately knew I had landed in a hippie town.

We left the main road through a gate, walking past a popular bakery on to a dirt track. The track wound past isolated buildings and undergrowth. We turned at a wayside cross. Structures like these once adorned the many neighbourhoods of Goa, but are fast disappearing. Tucked in a small courtyard beside the cross was a half painted three story building. It looked like an unfinished new build. Musical motifs were designed on the balcony rails, perhaps an indication of the spirit of its residents. 

Living arrangements in Arambol

La Sambusa Latina was renting the top floor of the building. The owner lived in one of the lower floors while the remaining flats were rented out to other travelling musicians. Vani was telling me all this as we climbed the uneven stairs to the spacious landing on the top floor. It counted as an open balcony. Tiny fairy lights hung casually around it.

There was a tiny lock hanging on the door when we arrived. This meant both Tom and Seba were out. I was wondering what our next course of action would be, when Vani reached up and fished out the key from their 'hidden place', within the gaps of a hanging bamboo log. It was right in sight and all their friends knew where it was kept. I gaped at her. This was something I would never consider doing in India. But I had more surprises in store.

It was a two bedroom flat with a decent sized living room and a kitchen. Both the rooms had their own bathrooms. One of the bedrooms had a tiny balcony, and of course there was this lovely space in the landing outside when we walked in. The flat was sparsely furnished. The bedrooms just had a bed and no other furniture. The bathrooms didn't have any hooks, shelves or storage. There wasn't much cooking arrangements. The fridge was broken and there was no hot water. Ceiling fans worked overtime to cool down the flat, but it was pleasant to just sit out on the airy balcony. The living room was the most furnished in the flat, with a sofa, a table and a desk.

The living standard was very basic, but travelling musicians do not own much, neither do they stay in a place long enough to even try to make it comfortable. The landlord though was very strict. He restricted how much water was to be used through the day, means even every toilet flush was controlled. Unfortunately, he also restricted the hours they could practice their music. The building being located around dirt ground, the dust crept into everything, even after relentless sweeping through the day. The rent for the month amounted to twenty five thousand, which I found exorbitant. But it was a short term let too. The local economy was supported by these seasonal travellers to Arambol, but more about that on another post.

While such a basic setup is very normal in India, I remembered that Vani wasn't an Indian. She had spent all her life in places were basic accommodation comes with certain basic amenities and these were glaringly missing here. I was really amazed at her capability to cope with her new life. She wasn't on a vacation, when backpacking is for fun. This was a life she was going to live for the foreseeable future. She had been comfortable taking public transport, travelling on rickety buses and in the non-ac coaches of the long distance trains, something I would always reconsider doing. I was full of respect for her and in awe at her courage.

The travelling community is very strongly knit where everyone is always there for everyone. This also means that everyone follows a more or less open door policy and people walk in at odd hours. Definitely privacy isn't something you can have.

I was offered the living room to sleep in, with a spare mattress and a bed sheet which Vani bought from the fair in Panjim. I had my own sleeping bag liner to wrap up in and an inflated pillow. For a little privacy, the flimsy, plastic table was moved away from the wall and my mattress placed in between the wall and the table. It was close to living in a hostel, but with a lower level of privacy. Vani was apologetic and told me I could always move to more private and comfortable paid accommodation if I so wished. She also warned me that the main door is kept open overnight and I should just ignore anyone dropping in at random hours at night. People here didn't own much. Their most precious possession were their musical instruments and even these were left out mostly in the open, without the fear of being stolen. I dumped my backpack and its contents behind the sofa and I was set, to explore Arambol with La Sambusa Latina.

Sunday 3 May 2020

Eigg - Alone in the Barn

It was 2016, just before Easter. Officially it was still winter in Scotland.

I had planned a week out in West Scotland, first to visit a couple of isles of Inner Hebrides before spending the rest of the days in Skye. After staying in Muck for two nights with barely any human contact, I left for Eigg on stormy seas. The west coast weather had turned as usual. I had learnt to accept this as normal by now.
The Small Isles - Isle of Muck

With a population of about 90, Eigg is the most populated of all the small isles. This is the only one of all the Small Isles to have proper roads, though non-islanders are not allowed to bring their cars to this island. At 9 km by 5 km dimension, it did not need one. I had booked a couple of nights at the Glebe Barn on Eigg. This was an old barn that had recently been converted into dormitory accommodation. When I visited, the place was still undergoing renovation.

The Glebe Barn is located on the cliffs of Eigg, about a couple of kilometres on steep roads from the ferry terminal. There wasn't much around it apart from a rundown building, which too was undergoing renovation. From the road, I could see no other human habitation in the vicinity. A few sheep were grazing on the wild grassland. Standing alone on the grassy cliff by the sea, Glebe Barn painted a pretty desolate picture.

Glebe Barn from the road
The building next door, under repair

It didn't seem anyone was in when I arrived. I walked around the building trying out all the doors, but they refused to budge. Suddenly one of the doors flew open, startling me. A smiling face greeted me. This was Tamsin, the owner of the barn and luckily she was around as she was working on the conservatory. The barn was still being built. The door was unlocked, but for some reason had got stuck. It was just another fix needed to the building. Came to know that the original barn belonged to Tamsin's family. Her childhood days were spent playing in the old barn. After returning to the island with her family, she had decided to turn it into an accommodation for visitors. She herself lived in another part of the island.

The building was built in two stories. The ground floor had the shared kitchen and a spacious lounge with an attached conservatory. At the back of the building, there was a toilet and utility room from where the stairs led to the upper floors. On the first floor were three rooms set up as dormitory accommodation and a separate complex that could be rented as private accommodation. The second floor had two more dormitory rooms. The place could accommodate up to twenty two boarders. And of course each floor had its own set of bathrooms. For what it matters to this story, there were a lot of unlocked doors with rooms behind it. And of course as I mentioned before, there wasn't any lock on the main door either.

Spread across three floors, it was a massive place and I was the only boarder for the night. I settled in one of the rooms in the first floor, taking a bed by the window. The views looking out to the sea was gorgeous.

View from my room, looking out to the sea
I was preparing my dinner in the shared kitchen when Tamsin knocked on the door. She was leaving and inquired if I had comfortably settled down. Knowing I was alone, she told me to call her up if I needed anything. On the island, mobile network is barely available adding more to the feeling of remoteness. There was a payphone installed for this purpose in the corridor by the lounge. She assured me there was nothing to worry about. I had lived in remote places in Scotland on my own, so I assured her I would be fine.

I finished my dinner and settled down in the lounge with a book. The storm had returned with a vengeance after a short respite. The wind was howling as it passed through the gaps in the woodwork. The building stood exposed on the sea cliff and didn't have much shelter from the elements. There was a fireplace in the middle of the room and Tamsin had left a box of firewood too. It was March and still cold. I lit the fire and cuddled up on the sofa, with a throw warming my legs. The hours ticked on.

The lounge and the fireplace, clicked the next morning
I was woken up by the sound of the wind battering the glass panes. At some point I had dozed off on the sofa. The twilight was long gone and I woke up in complete darkness. The single bulb I had switched on in the lounge accompanied by the dying fire, created more shadows than illumination in the nooks and corners of the room. All I could hear was the wind, nothing else. The night was dead. It was time for bed, but I needed a shower before that.

The house was in completely darkness. I did feel a shiver running down my spine as I stepped out of the lounge. It was not just because of the chill away from the fire. I have an overactive, imaginative brain.
I walked up the stairs switching on the lights of the corridor as I passed, the wood creaking under my feet with every step. The voltage wasn't that great and the lights emitted a faint, yellow glow. I switched on my room lights, then returned to switch off the lights on the ground floor. The dark space was making me uncomfortable, so I shut all the doors. I opened the main door for a look and stared at the pitch darkness. The wind with the accompanying rain hit my face. I quickly shut it and headed upstairs.

I ran the shower, the water was hot. I felt secure in the tiny, well illuminated space of the bathroom. I started to relax under the shower.
But not for long.

A deafening shrill shook up the house. An alarm had gone off somewhere in the building. My first thought was that I had been careless with the fire and the house was now burning down. With no time to collect my clothes, I wrapped the towel and ran downstairs. The shrill alarm was deafening and disorienting. I ran into the lounge, and thankfully there was no sign of smoke. It looked peaceful. I was not! I ran to the kitchen to check for any sign of fire, but nothing looked out of place. I ran back to my room to get my mobile phone. There was no network on it. I looked for change for the payphone downstairs, but I did not have any either. I scrambled around the house and in one corner found a feeble signal. I dialled Tamsin. After a few rings she picked up, but it was impossible to hear her amidst all the ruckus. Multiple redials, interrupted communications and through a flurry of crackling noises I gathered she was telling me to switch off the alarm using the instruction in the ground floor corridor. Her husband was already on his way.

I located the alarm instructions by the payphone. I needed to punch in a few numbers. But the board was too high for me to reach. Still wrapped in my towel and dripping wet, I dragged a chair from the kitchen and climbed on it. I could now reach the buttons. I frantically entered the numbers as mentioned in the instruction. Nothing! The alarm was screaming along. I climbed down, checked the numbers on the instruction again, climbed back and punched them in. Still nothing. The alarm kept blaring. I was dizzy and disoriented and half deaf by now. I figured, this is all I could do and returned to my room to get dressed and wait for Tamsin's husband.

After about ten minutes Tamsin's husband arrived. The noise was too loud to talk, so he headed straight for the alarm. He punched in a few numbers and finally there was peace! The sudden quiet hit me hard. My ears were buzzing and I felt I would faint any moment. We checked the numbers on the instruction and figured, a couple of numbers had been mistakenly interchanged, hence my inability to switch it off.

He introduced himself as Tamsin's husband, and I think mentioned his name as Stuart. He was now laughing at my predicament and pulling jokes. I probably looked petrified, in complete shock and definitely disoriented. He guessed there was a malfunction, but taking pity at my shaken self, he assured he will do a thorough check of the whole building to look for anything amiss. We visited each room and looked in. Before heading to the second floor, Stuart continued to strum on my very weak and taught nerves. He suspected there was an unannounced guest in one of the rooms having a puff, which must have triggered the melee. I followed him meekly, peeping into the room from the doorway as he looked around. He came out and gave the all clear.

Wishing me a good night's sleep he left. But of course, he also apologised for the situation and said he will look into the electronics the next day.

By the time Stuart left, I had calmed down.  His cheerfulness had helped tremendously. Also having been through the whole house, I was now feeling less edgy. The adrenaline was running high, making me feel a lot braver.

Surprisingly, I slept pretty well that night despite all the excitement of the evening. Looking back, I do feel proud of myself for having the nerves and not completely freak out. But then visualising me running around in a towel, all panic stricken, it does make me laugh too. It was a situation I would not have experienced had I not been on my own. The joys of solo travel...