Tag Archives: Travel Journal

19 -Get Outta My Dreams (Get onto my Bike)


Sunrise on the plateau

I was sitting at one of the big round candlelit tables at Goan Corner talking to Laura and two of her friends; one an American I’d not met before.  We were playing guitar and drinking a beer and chatting about whatever, and we got onto the subject of dreams; Laura doesn’t ever recall her dreams upon waking.  She never has.  For me, they come and go in phases, but sometimes I will have a dream so vivid and real that, good or bad, it stays with me for years.  I remembered a recurring nightmare I used to have when I was little.  I don’t know how old really, maybe six or seven.  Anyway I remember every detail of this dream like I just woke up from it, and in the flow of the conversation I started recounting it.

I’m in the barn.  That’s what we call the upstairs living room of the house I grew up in.  It’s night time and it’s just me in the house.  The lights are off and I’m scared.  I go to the window and outside on the street is a man.  He is standing across the road, in the shadows on the edge of the light from the streetlamp.  There is this overwhelming feeling of menace and malevolence and I know it comes from him, and I know that he wants inside.  I run down to the front door and briefly open it and he’s coming towards me.  I slam the door shut and lock it before he reaches me, but then somehow I know he has the key.  He has the key to every lock in the world.  And the key I just used to lock the door begins to turn back on itself.  I run upstairs and jump into my bed, under the covers.  But I can hear his feet on the stairs to my room sand I am absolutely frozen with terror.  And then I wake up.

The American girl leaned in and asked me ‘Was he wearing a broad-brimmed hat?’

I went cold and I jumped up from my seat in shock.  That strange black hat.  I’d never met this girl before.  How could she know that peculiar detail of a dream I had thirty years ago?

‘And you couldn’t see his face.  It was all in shadow.’

What the hell?  It’s true.  All I can remember is the suggestion of a grin.  A sly, wicked grin that told me I was powerless to stop him.  Nothing else was clear, like she said. The blackness of night was a part of him.  I had goosebumps on my arms in spite of the heat.

‘I’ve never seem him,’ she said, ‘but people all over the world dream of the same figure.  They call him The Hat Man.  I saw a documentary about it.  Some people think he’s some kind of extra-dimensional being. He enters into the dreams of children usually, but some people see him their whole lives.  He feeds on their fear.’

I didn’t have much to say to that, except that it’s been a very long time since I had such an encounter.  I’ve never been able to watch scary films, and I still get freaked out even if I just see an advert for one, or a trailer.  But who knows?  Maybe I’m not so much of an easy target than I was when I was a child; or else it was all just a bad dream and nothing more.  I was spooked though, and it crossed my mind that I might now have another dream of this evil figure.  I’d like to think this time I would be able to stand up to him, and maybe create some fear of my own.  So far it hasn’t come to that, though.  Since then there have been no such visitors, shadowy or otherwise, to my dreams.

Anyway, I had some other, more tangible scores to settle. A day or two after the fated expedition to the waterfall, Mike informed that, Jess being up and about, they were thinking of hiring a couple of scooters, finding somewhere to get lunch and going to the Temple of Hanamun for sunset.  Sigrid and I had already walked to the temple at the summit of Anjaneya Hill a few days before, but I wanted to ride a scooter.


Sigrid and I on our way to the Temple; synchronised t-shirts not planned…

The year after finishing school I went backpacking around Europe with two of my school friends, Richard and Hannah.  We were on Lipari; one of the Aeolian Islands off the Sicilian coast, when we decided it would be a good idea to hire some scooters to razz around on.  I can still picture the square where we went to hire them – the Mediterranean bustle of the place; cars and bikes and ships unloading cargo on the dock.  There was a little test involved; a quick spin round the block.  Richard was first up and back in a moment, flushed with satisfaction and worthy of his new ride.  It was my turn next.  I shouldn’t have been nervous; it’s really no more difficult than riding a pedal-bike, but the bike shop manager was riding pillion and he kept throwing the whole thing off balance.  I was lacking in confidence and I wobbled and stopped once, then again.  And that was it.  He shook his head at me and told me he wasn’t going to let me take the bike.  I was gutted.  We sought solace in the arms of a gelato but it was no use.  That little moment of light humiliation has been bothering me for the last 18 years.  I don’t know what it is – maybe it’s just that it would have been so cool for us to be zipping around this sun-kissed island, hopping from beach to beach, wearing sunglasses and saying ‘Ciao!’, and it was entirely down to me that this didn’t happen (though I still blame my wobbly passenger) – anyway, it was a bigger deal to me than it should have been, but now, finally, was my chance for a bit of vindication.

Sigrid rode the scooter when we picked it up from the shop in Hampi Bazaar.  I didn’t want a repeat performance of Lipari, and Sigrid had kept a scooter in Goa, so I rode pillion as far as the place we found for lunch (where I ate an exciting dish of boiled rice and nothing and drank a soda water).  It may not have been the greatest meal ever, and my visit to the toilet was a grim immersion in a lightless, Stygian world of terrifying smells, unearthly wailing and relentless gnashing of teeth (though all of those things may have been caused by me), but the view of the river was lovely and there was an absurdly cute puppy there who padded around and nuzzled into us at every opportunity.

From there we were headed to a nearby town to find a working ATM, and then on to the temple.  It was my turn to drive.  With Sigrid sitting behind me I looked at the rough dirt track ahead and thought of how hard it had been to keep my balance in that golden piazza years before.  Then I opened up the throttle and felt the bike move forward beneath me.  I opened it up some more and we sped forward with the back wheel skidding a little in the sand.  I had to break hard to stop us leaving the road and disappearing into the bushes, but nothing bad happened.  Of course.  After that it was a breeze.  We pulled out onto the road and then we were flying along with the wind in our hair, tooting at pedestrians and roadside vendors as we buzzed past in a summery halo.

We parked the bikes at the base of Anjaneya Hill and bought fresh coconuts, while Jack’s myriad tattoos attracted a flurry of attention from the local boys and rickshaw-drivers, then we set off up the several hundred steps leading up to the temple.  Before it was Hampi, before it was even Vijayanagar, this place was Kishkinda; the realm of the monkey gods, and the birthplace of Hanamun, a muscular Hindu deity with a large mace and a simian cleft palate.


It’s not a big temple.  An antechamber with an elderly baba reclining in an alcove surrounded by pictures of celebrated holy men of yore, and another room with two men sitting in the sweltering heat chanting from scriptures, and then an inner sanctum with the usual blessing procedure for the unenlightened foreigner.  You ring a bell over your head as you enter, and place a ten rupee note in a little dish, then a temple attendant daubs your head with orange tikka, and gives you something sweet as puja (in this case some large crystals of sugar) and you are on your way.  I’m never sure what I’m doing when I visit Hindu temples; they are hardly there for my benefit of course, but I’ve never felt like I’m learning much by visiting them.  Still, I’ll take a blessing and a bit of good luck wherever I can find it.

Outside on the rocks several families of monkeys were making the most of the pilgrims and tourists by soliciting offerings of peanuts, while the sun went down in its usual splendid style.  We lingered for a while taking in the beautiful views, before heading back down and riding back to Hampi Island in the dusk.




18 – Licensed to Ill

There’s a line in Fight Club about how on a long enough timeline the survival rate for everyone reaches zero.  Edward Norton might be talking about men hitting each other in dank basements and using soap to blow up buildings, but it’s a rule that also holds pretty true for travellers in India; if by survival you mean not getting sick.  Sooner or later you will eat something that doesn’t like you, or you will swallow the wrong bit of water when you are brushing your teeth, or the mosquito bite or the scratch on your foot that you didn’t bother to use antiseptic on will get infected.  One way or the other, your days of health are numbered.

For my friend Jess, it happened on the way back from the waterfalls.

Located some distance up-river from the ferry crossing to Hampi Bazaar, we’d heard about this place, but no one I spoke to had been there themselves.  Some people said waterfalls, others said rockpools, even whirlpools.  Everything was second-hand and sketchy.  Someone said it was dry this time of year and the water-levels were too low. Elsewhere I heard that the falls were there, just further upstream and harder to find.  There was no map; just a cryptic entry in the guidebook.  We had a strong team for this expedition.  Sigrid and I, Mike and Eve the physiotherapists, Eve’s mate Jack the tattoo artist, and Jack’s school-friend Jess.  We also had Josh and Martin with us; two English climbers with an unerring instinct for tough terrain.  Being seven eighths British, we were short on language skills but well supplied with banter, 90s comedy references and all round joie de vivre (yes, I know that’s French).  We made the river crossing in good form and set off along the dirt track that would lead us away from the familiar world of ruins and coconut stands, and into the wild unknowns of the Karnatakan wilderness.

It was hot.  I know I say that in every post, but it’s only the truth.  It was baking hot, and once we emerged from the path through the banana plantations and into the exposed hinterland through which the river flowed, this punishing fact of life began to take its toll.  When you’re in good health, dehydration, sunburn and sunstroke can do a number on you quite easily, but when you are sickening for something the process is much quicker.  Anyway, we were still fine at this point.  A local man appeared out of nowhere and started walking at the head of our little column.  We weren’t sure what he was up to until he started pointing at things and telling us what they were, helpfully identifying bananas, coconuts, likely photo opportunities and, of course, the path we were already following.  Perfectly capable of finding the way without assistance, I was indignant and made it clear that I had no intention of paying this interloper, though eventually his persistence won out and I did end up coughing up some cash.

Josh and Martin solved the problem by just pushing on ahead on their own.  Caught up in a frenzy of path-finding, they disappeared from view quite quickly once we reached the badlands of water-eroded boulders which had to be traversed in order to reach the river.  Much of this was a scramble; crawling, climbing, and jumping across crevasses deep enough to be dangerous.


Jess is scared of heights.  A lot of people say they have one phobia or other, but it usually just sounds like they dislike something or they find it creepy.  It’s not often you find someone with a proper terror of something.  The thing that makes it different is that it’s not about thoughts.  It is not a matter of thinking ‘oh no, look at that long drop, I could fall off there and die – how scary’.  It is a complete rebellion of instinct (and its bodily allies in the sympathetic nervous system) against the conscious mind.  I have a funny thing with water.  That is to say as soon as I am in it, I start to panic.  It’s not the same thing as fear.  I don’t fear water.  I love the sea, and rivers and lakes, and I would really like to be able to swim well.  But in reality as soon as my body breaks the surface, my breath shortens, my muscles tense up and it’s hard not to just sink.  Even if my face gets wet in the shower (which can happen), I can’t open my eyes until I have wiped away all traces of water.  I don’t give it a lot of thought in the day to day; but it’s definitely a thing.

Anyway, Jess has a phobia of heights, and it wasn’t long before the passage through the rocks was getting to her.  She started well, but then by the time it really kicked in we must have been halfway, and going back seemed as bad as continuing.  Through a team effort of reassuring chatter, hand-holding, time-taking and the occasional human-bridge, we worked our way through that treacherous maze of rocks and crevasses.  I’m not sure how Jess managed it all that way, but she did, and we figured there would be an easier way out on the other side.  For now though, we seemed to have reached our destination.


Not a waterfall in sight, and thankfully not a whirlpool neither.  What there was, was a large rocky pool about 30 metres across at its widest point, surrounded by a smoothly undulating wall of lunar rock.  It was pretty stunning.   Everyone got in.  Some climbed, some jumped.  Josh and Martin were already here, swimming across to a cave on the other side.  Beautiful as it was, I was not keen about going for a swim in this pool of uncertain depth and who knows what lurking dangers.  I had done plenty of frolicking in the waves in Goa, but always where I could but my feet on the seabed and stand up.  This was different.  I’m not sure what exactly changed my mind –  How hot it was sitting there, or the how much everyone else was enjoying the water, or possibly Jess’s example in battling though her terrors and getting to this point.  Anyway, after a couple of minutes of vacilation I got into my swimming shorts, clambered down the rocks and gingerly lowered myself into the cold river.  I figured out a few years ago that the best way for me to be in the water is on my back.  With my ears below the surface but my face in the open air I can let myself relax enough to float.  It’s not swimming, exactly, but it’s a lot better than drowning.  I pushed off the side and quietly kicked my way across to the far side of the pool and back.  It was only a few minutes, but it felt like I’d scored some kind of victory against my phobia, and that was enough for me.

The way back was tough for Jess.  Josh and Martin’s scouting had revealed no easier way out that the route that had brought us in, so she had to do it all again, in reverse.  I talked her through the tricky bits and she made it through, but she was clearly worse for wear. Coming out of the rocks, Josh and Martin decided they wanted to try an alternative route back to Hampi Island, by crossing the river upstream of the ferry.  The rest of us began to head back towards the banana plantations.  It was at that moment that Jess, weakened already by heat and stress, began to vomit.

It took us a while to get there but we were lucky enough to find a rickshaw at the end of the track which could take the six of us back to the ferry.  There wasn’t really room inside, so Mike stood on the rear bumper and clung on like a long-limbed Welsh monkey, while I sat up front with the driver and tried not to get bounced out when we hit potholes.  We crossed the river and made it back to the Goan Corner, where Jess went straight to bed and stayed there for the next couple of days, being all kinds of ill.


Sitting around having dinner that night, we were talking about Delhi Belly and the myriad bacterial illnesses which lie in wait for foreign travellers in India.  It occurred to me that I had made it nearly six weeks in this country without having so much as a single loose movement, and having thought this, I immediately made the mistake of saying it out loud.  “I’ve done pretty well. I’ve not been sick since I got to India” is what I think I said.  Such foolish complacency.  I woke in the morning to an insistent growling in my gut and sharp cramping pains, and for the next week or so I was fighting a running battle with bacteria, marked by frequent visits to the loo, friendly chatter about the consistency of my stools, and a depressingly boring diet of rice, curd and bananas.  I don’t know what got me.  A bit of re-heated rice maybe, or some unwashed hands in the kitchen.  It’s possible my brave attempt at swimming had exposed me to something in the river water.  It doesn’t really matter.  It was pretty much inevitable from the moment I disembarked in Delhi.  I’m just surprised it took so long to happen.

16 -Slight Return

Three hot and crowded local buses saw me back home to Arambol and I reached my hut sometime in the afternoon..  It was quiet around but it didn’t seem like much had changed since I left. The little landscape of mosquito net, sheets and general disarray on my bed, picked out by the beams of light spilling through the two large gaps in the roof tiles, had a melancholy air.  I took a quick shower, washed some clothes and tidied the hut.  Then, feeling a bit better about the state of the world, I went out for a walk.  I found the road and followed it round to the Banyan Tree Café, where I bumped into Lucas, a professional juggler from Sao Paolo, who I knew from the festival.  He had been using the space to practice, and was just packing up his things.  He said he was so used to being busy that he hadn’t really stopped since the end of the festival. I said I was going to sit on the beach and watch the sunset.  He thought about this for a moment then said he would like to join me, as if this would be a fascinating new experience.  We talked about juggling and dancing.  He makes youtube videos and teaches juggling, but increasingly he just likes to dance instead.  I asked him if he was going to Ecstatic Dance tonight at the Banyan Tree but he thought probably not.  I wasn’t really sure I was in the mood either, but I didn’t have anything better planned, so I returned to the Banyan Tree at about eight.


Ecstatic Dance is another curious little subset of this hippy-culture I was spending a lot of time with, and it’s a little hard to define.  Basically it’s like a club night, only there is no talking on the dance floor, intoxicating substances are forbidden, and everyone is free to dance as they please.  This last bit is the key of course.  Everyone is always free to dance as they please, but (in the UK at least) they seldom do unless they’ve had a skin-full to take the edge off the awkwardness and the discomfort of being seen.  Ecstatic Dance starts with a big sitting circle and there is an element of meditation involved at the beginning, aimed at bringing people into the present moment.  This then develops into movement, as it does in Contact jams, while the DJ (in this case one Rico Loop) builds an improvised soundtrack based on samples and live instruments which gradually builds through peaks and troughs to a great crescendo and then a more gentle coda, over the course of two hours.  And everyone dances in their own way as they feel.  I was pretty tired and wasn’t really in the mood, but there were quite a lot of familiar faces there and it was nice to see people again, and I danced even though maybe my heart wasn’t really in it.  When the music finished someone told me that a lot of people from the festival were going to one of the beachfront bars for food, so I tagged along.  There was a large crowd there, including a large contingent of Dance Exchange students, whom I thought had gone home.  I clambered over the bamboo fence, squeezed myself in between Aditya and Amitya and settled in to the candlelight and chatter around me.  This guy Princeton began to sing and shortly it turned into an all-out group medley of everything under the sun from Aerosmith to Shaggy, with a decent amount of Bollywood showtunes thrown in.  It felt good to be back here with these new friends who, after my two day sojourn to Margao, now felt like old friends.

Over the next couple of days I found myself settling into a new rhythm in Arambol; a quieter one now I didn’t have the festival to keep me busy.  I slept in until nine or ten and I took leisurely breakfasts at Totem next door, where there was fairly reliable WiFi (a distant and fantastical memory now), fairly decent coffee and really nice banana, honey and coconut porridge.  I would then go to Love Temple to sit on their comfy seats in the shade and drink tea and write before lunch.  I made a few massage appointments too (for free because it was nice to be keeping myself in practice).  By about 3.30 or 4pm it would be starting to cool off a little so I would sit on the beach and play some guitar, then go for a swim before the sunset.  In the evening there was usually a jam or a dance thing or a concert of some sort.  This would all be punctuated by meeting with people from the festival; some of whom I knew, some who were new to me.

There was Zuza the Polish-born Berliner who sang passionate Polish folksongs and did acro-yoga on the beach, Monica from Slovakia and Mira from Finland, both of whom I met on my first day in Goa.  Then Adi from Mumbai, Ines from Barcelona, and Lucas and his friend Oli from London (also now living in Berlin).  Ulli was still in town, and Carmen (another Berliner) and Sigrid from Tirol in Austria and a bunch of others. A lot of German speakers, now I think about it.  Everyone is so good at speaking in English that it’s easy to forget…

Hanging out at Magic Park (a very nice organic cafe) with Kruti, August, Lucas and a coconut

Passing by Samantha’s bar one afternoon I was hailed by a voice above my head and looking up I saw Vicky; one of the guys who worked there.  We had spoken a few times after he saw me with a guitar and he had asked if I would like to jam with him and his mates sometime.  Now he and two others were sitting with two guitars and a bass on a little platform above the bar, accessible by a ladder.  I clambered up there and we shook hands, and I took out my guitar and off we went, playing for about 2 hours straight as the sun went down.  They were considerably better musicians than me, but not so much that I couldn’t play along and bust out the occasional solo. Mainly I was just happy to be there, playing some tunes and looking at the sunset.

Having a guitar around often turns out to be a useful way of meeting people.  One night I was sitting on my own around sunset just in front of Love Temple, playing some songs to myself (I tend to play to myself at the lowest possible volume, and people usually need to really insist in order to get me to perform, though this is a habit I am trying to shake off) when Kruti arrived.  We hadn’t spoken much if at all during the festival, but she was one of the Dance Exchange group and she had been in the bar singing the other night.  She asked me to play a song and I mumbled through a rendition of something or other.  There was an actual concert performed by real musicians happening nearby so we went along and afterwards went to eat (unsurprisingly disappointing) momos at one of the myriad beach restaurants. Kruti is a dancer but she is trying to move into dance therapy and we had an interesting chat about that and the relationship between mind and body in illness and emotional stress.  She also told me how she had spent the day doing a theatre improvisation workshop with an Australian called Jonno (also from the festival but I didn’t remember him).  She had really enjoyed it and suggested I come along for day two (being such an old hand at acting, etc).  I was a little dubious but I like to say yes to things if I can’t think of a good reason to say no, and Kruti has an infectious enthusiasm which is hard to ignore, so I agreed to meet her at Banyan Tree in the morning.

I’ve not acted in a long time, and comical improvisation was never something I felt very confident with.  I can be clown-like, but it’s usually unintentional.  Anyway, I had mixed feelings about this workshop, and when I got there in the morning my ‘try anything’ mindset had been replaced by a ‘tried this for a whole decade and I think it’s safe to say I’m done with it’ mindset.  Still I was there now, and there were only a few people so it was way too late to drop out.  I muddled through the next three hours in a fog of ambivalence, unable to shake the feeling that I would much rather be sitting outside my hut playing the guitar or eating pancakes on the beach.  I raised a few laughs in a fairly unoriginal little doctor/patient sketch, but I just couldn’t get into it.  At the end we all sat round and Jonno asked who wanted to perform that night.  Perform?  It wasn’t in my mind at all that there might be an actual performance with an actual audience. Hell, no!  Looking around I saw nods of assent and raised hands from all concerned.  Still, I shook my head and said “I don’t think so, no.”

Over the course of the afternoon though, Kruti wheedled and pestered until eventually I said I would do it – for no other reason than that I felt bad being the only person to say no.  Also, while I was never able to make a living out of it, I did spend a lot of time and energy through most of my twenties making theatre and I was a bit embarrassed about opting out.

So I did it.  It was entirely unplanned; Jonno would call out names to do a short thing, in twos and threes, mainly.  Then I heard “Matt.  Do you want to do a solo?”  I was already onstage, so there wasn’t anything for it.  There was a small audience of about twenty-odd people sitting there on the floor in front of me, and I just started talking to them, more or less saying the first thing that came into my head, improvising a strange character whose exaggerated Englishness and colonial superiority was intended to be mildly offensive and ironically amusing.  Actually it went pretty well.  I got quite a lot of laughs and some generous applause, but I was still relieved when it drew to a close and I was free to go to a nearby bar for some food and a cold beer.  I used to love it, but maybe acting just isn’t my thing anymore.  Who knows?

Ten days idled by.  Nobody wanted to leave.  Kruti was perpetually on the verge of taking a train to the Sivananda Yoga Ashram in Kerala where she would be working as an assistant teacher, but somehow she always decided to stay another day.  Adi was stretching his resources as thinly as possible to stay on before he had to return to work in Mumbai.  For myself, I had no place in particular to be and I was perfectly happy to linger as long as there were nice people to hang out with.  There was always something to do – a dance performance in a village nearby, or a music concert.  I went to one last contact jam at the Banyan Tree a week after the festival ended, and for the first time it really felt like I was getting the hang of it – it felt like dancing.  Eventually though, the often-deferred end of our time in Arambol became a present reality.


My last day in Arambol was a lovely one; all sunshine and sand and sea, lazing around on the beach with the remnants of the Contact crew.  Playing guitar and singing with Zuza, discussing Hindu and Buddhist philosophy with Kruti, foiling Ulli’s attempts to haggle with beach traders (I am a total pushover and a liability in negotiations, I have discovered).  Ulli and I had an epic sand-bomb battle in the sea which I must admit to losing after he caught me in the chest with a fist-sized lump of compacted sand which took me of balance and sent me sprawling beneath the waves.  It was the last day in town for a lot of us and we made the most of it.  In the evening we went to Ecstatic Dance again and this time I danced wholeheartedly for the duration, then we all went for dinner at Alladin’s, ending the night in a protracted group hug which we were all so reluctant to break that we shuffled out of the restaurant as a single, many-limbed, organism, much to the bemused amusement of the staff and the local dogs.


Ulli haggling for shawls while Mira, Kruti and Zuza eat corn


All good things must end, though, and we made our protracted farewells.  The next day I would be heading down to Mapusa to catch a sleeper bus to Hampi in Karnataka, and no doubt that would be very different, just as Arambol had been a world away from my time in Dharamsala.  I would just have to see when I got there.