Tuesday 2 June 2020

Arambol diaries - The Visitors

There are many reasons as to why people want to travel to India. The main one normally revolves around yoga and spirituality. This I expected to be especially true for a Bohemian destination like Arambol. However, while I did come across a few who fit this cliche image of practising yoga, spirituality and organic veganism, for the majority of the visitors, the reason for their visit was far more earthly.

First of all, Arambol is cheap, compared to their own countries. Cheap beer and easy access to drugs is a big draw to this quaint seaside destination. Though a major driver, that's not all.

Of course what's common to every visitor to Arambol is their travelling soul, else they would not be visiting this distant land, thousands of miles away from home. Here they have found comfort in familiarity. Arambol, despite its basic living standards, has evolved to cater to western tourists and does not have the stark contrast in culture presented by other rural parts of India. No one here takes a second glance at drunken behaviour or skimpy clothing in public. Unofficially, it even has a nudist beach. With its established community of travellers, for a newbie, it takes away the nervousness of setting foot in a foreign land. 

I am not sure how much the love of the land brought the visitors to Arambol though. There is of course the expansive sea, the golden beaches and the sun. But a land is made not just by its geography, but by its people. Some did mention how they loved the happy, smiling faces of Indians. But in the few days I was in Arambol, I realised that most interactions of the visitors happened within their own community. The locals are mere service providers in shops and restaurants who stayed in the background, almost invisible. Actually, some, of the so called locals are not even from Goa, but have travelled from different parts of the country for business. They are there to make money. To an Indian, the prices in Arambol appear jacked up and I could easily bargain a price down to fifty percent just by asking for the Indian price. Unfortunately, I noticed a certain disdain among the locals for the foreigners. Business has been hit hard for last two years, the fall of Thomas Cook considered to be the culprit. In much need of an economic boost, the local shop owners are tired of the backpacking travellers. One such owner selling bracelets by the beach complained that for the people who survive on bananas, how do you expect them to purchase anything at all. Unfortunately, that's not completely true. The foreigners still make purchases, but from within their own community. The business of beads and bracelets has been taken over by these travelling gypsies. They make their own, and sell these goods within their own community, but probably that is what Bohemian art was meant to be.

Arambol is a seasonal town. The visitor season starts just after monsoon in September and ends before the heat of summer hits in April. For the rest of the year, only the permanent residents and a few adventurous souls live in its empty lanes. The vibrant hippie life takes a break, as does the industry that has grown around it. 

Arambol, Goa

What definitely stood out to me was the high percentage of Russians among the visitors to Arambol. I asked the locals and even the Russians for the reason. I did not get a concrete answer, but what it appeared to me was because of the Russian community that has built up through the years, which attracted new blood. Also in the current times, with a weakening Rouble that weighed almost equal to the Rupee, and a short flight, was what made it economically viable. The strong Russian influence is evident everywhere. They are in the shop signs, and the menu cards. But when I saw a local woman fluently conversing in Russian, I realised the true magnitude of the Russian influence. The woman was probably in her fifties, with greying hair, wrapped in saree and decked in traditional jewellery. She looked formidable, who could easily be the matriarch of a family, but speaking fluent Russian is the last thing my stereotype inclined brain would have expected from her. 

Of course, along with the Russians, Arambol draws the vagabond soul from all around the world. 

The Bakery

I had spotted the Bakery when I walked past it on the day of my arrival in Arambol. The cafe is a popular joint. I had never seen it empty at any hour during the days I was there. I figured the popularity of the cafe is for two very interdependent reasons. 

The Bakery, Arambol, Goa

First of all, it's the food. 
The bakery is experienced in serving a very non-Indian clientele and their distinct palettes. The menu lists items that use freshly made hummus and pesto. The bakery, of course makes its own wide range of breads, and along with the fresh dips, serve popular sandwiches. Fresh juices are available and I loved their filter coffee. 

The second reason I figured was the opportunity it provided to collaborate. People dropped in knowing they will meet other travellers, musicians or bloggers. There is always someone with a guitar, someone typing away on their laptop, or leaflets being handed out for a gig. One morning I was absorbing the vibe over a coffee when a young girl drops in, distraught. Her boyfriend had left her. She had cancelled her forward travel plans and only wanted to return to her home in the UK. She needed help to plan and finance her journey, and there were more than a few to support her. 

The bakery, I realised, is a community, symbolising Arambol.  
Just like Arambol, it was seasonal too. It is run by a Nepali family who arrive here only for the season. I managed to have only a brief conversation with their boy server before he had to disappear to take fresh orders.

The Bakery, Arambol, Goa

The Bakery, Arambol, Goa

To me, Arambol felt like a part of India that has stopped being Indian. The hippie vibe is everywhere. Most of the locals, impersonal, like in a tourist town. There is friendship and camaraderie within the travelling community, which has evolved into a world of its own. I accept, I was a visitor, that too only for a few days. Therefore it would be unjustified to pass such judgement. But when you keep yourself open to observations, the obvious unveils itself. 


I met Tucci while having my breakfast at the bakery. He took the chair beside me and acknowledged everyone sitting around us. He ordered a coffee and soon we started to talk.
He was a doctor, a retired one. I wasn't sure whether he was a dentist or a plastic surgeon or both. He was Italian, and his English was not fluent and very accented. He was struggling with his vocabulary, but still managed to tell his fascinating story.

As a kid, he used to run away from home and the police had to be involved. Eventually he joined the army, because that gave him the freedom to travel legally. He trained as a doctor, had a family. Now that his kids were all settled in life, he left home and started travelling. He comes to Arambol every year, and when it closes, he heads out to the South East Asian countries. He was planning to visit Sri Lanka in March and then travel to Indonesia and Cambodia. He was living his wanderlust and his motto was to help out others, which he talked about in great length. 

I asked why he came to Arambol every year. It was indeed the familiarity with the place, but the main reason he said was because it was warm and cheap. He talked about his experience of travelling in Europe and was how he was convinced that the Euros from his retirement won't last long if he continued there. 

I requested for his photo and he was more than happy to comply. 

The Bakery, Arambol, Goa


I met beautiful Lara at the house of La Sambusa Latina. She came up for a chat with Seba, over Yerba Mate. Yerba Mate is a popular drink in Argentina which is drunk from its special cup as a social activity. She was sipping the herbal tea from the metal straw of the specially designed wooden cup, traditionally made from calabash gourd. She offered me some, also showing me how to drink. The cup is filled with the dried leaves to which is added hot water. As the leaves soak, the pale liquid it releases is sipped through the straw slowly. Once finished, the cup is filled up and and passed onto the next person. The cup keeps getting emptied and refilled as it is passed around. It is a mildly flavoured drink with a smoky aftertaste.

Lara is an Argentinian too, and comes over to Arambol every year. She wasn't a musician like the members of the La Sambusa Latina, but lived the Bohemian life. She made money by making bracelets and beads, popular with the travellers and performing at dance shows. Walking the streets of Arambol and on its beaches, many of these travellers can be seen selling their own handmade artefacts. She said she did return to her home now and then, before leaving for travelling the world again. As to why she returns to  Arambol, she didn't have a clear answer, but it was more because of the familiarity and the community that was already there.

My previous posts from Arambol
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