I have so many habits I need to drop as soon as I get back to the UK. The head wobble for one. Despite having exactly zero idea what it really means I appear to have adopted it and seem to use it without realising. If I keep doing it back home people will just assume I’m drunk all the time. I should probably also cease and desist with the spitting too. You know when you have a bit of a cold and you cough up a load of phlegm and you have to either spit it into a tissue or swallow it? In India you can just hock it up into the gutter and no one will judge you. It’s amazing. I love not having to swallow my own infected mucus.
But the main thing I need to stop doing is reducing whole sentences to two words, often (but not always) the same word quickly repeated which I do because it’s such an easy way to be understood. In English though it sounds rude. You want the driver to turn left? You don’t say, “Turn left, please.” You just say, “Left left!” and he’ll turn left. You want one train ticket to Dadar? “One ticket to Dadar, please” is unnecessary and holds up the queue. “One, Dadar” will suffice. It’s something else which took a bit of getting used to, at first I took it personally because I’m a sensitive little flower, I thought they were being abrupt with me, but it’s actually just how shit works over here and it works really well because there’s very little margin for misunderstanding. So yeah, I’ve adopted that and if I combine it with a smile, a head wobble and a “thank you” at the end of the communication I generally get a smile, a head wobble and a “welcome” back. See? It’s not rude, it’s efficient, and no one said you couldn’t say thank you in order to maintain your air of British politeness. But I still can’t see it going down very well back in Blighty ay, regardless of how many head wobbles and thank yous I throw in.
So when you’re wandering through Panjim bus station trying to find a bus to Ponda there’s no point in wandering up to a bloke and saying, “Excuse me, sir, but could you possibly please tell me which bus I need to get to Ponda?” because he’ll have lost interest by the time you get to “possibly.” You make eye contact. They lift their chin to acknowledge you or say, “Where are you going?” You say, “Ponda Ponda.” They wave you in a vague direction. You thank them and move on. the next guy will wave you in a less vague direction, and the next a relatively specific direction, and eventually you’ll find a man who will point at a bus which you board, sit down and wait for another bloke to sell you a ticket. Piece of piss.
So. This Ponda place we were heading to. It’s home to several spice plantations but not like the ones I was shown in Munnar. These bad boys are big, organised places with entrance fees and restaurants and elephants. We’d decided on Sahakari Spice Farm which we walked to from Ponda bus station and were relived of ₹400 each on entry but guys, this includes lunch! Who doesn’t love lunch? It also includes a garland of flowers, a red tika on your forehead which you promptly sweat off and a lemongrass tea which you sit and sip whilst waiting for your guide. They also give you these printouts detailing the health benefits of different herbs and spices, including how to cure depression or asthma. It’s all pretty interesting reading but I’m not gonna lie, I’m not sure if an apple taken with honey, or cardamom tea would counteract actual, severe, clinical depression. I just think there’s more to your own brain wishing you dead that a delicious snack and a nice cuppa would sort out, y’know?
There’s also a cure for asthma which contains so many spices you’d probably need treatment for the hole it subsequently bored through your stomach, and a remedy for all allergies which involves lime juice, honey and lukewarm water. That could be an interesting one to try providing your allergy won’t actually kill you if it doesn’t work. If nuts send you into anaphylactic shock then maybe you shouldn’t test the theory ay. Three months of lime juice and honey for breakfast followed by a packet of salted peanuts and a trip to A&E.
Anyway, our guide, Himesh, rocked up and told us a bit about the place. The plantation is organic and has been around for 300 years. The whole thing is about 130 acres but they have a small patch which they’ve turned into a demo garden, a “best of” as it were, to show to tourists. It’s really informative. We learned that banana trees aren’t trees but a member of the grass family, the tallest grass in the world being bamboo. Neither are something you can relax on in the sunshine whilst enjoying a nice picnic though ay, it’s odd to think of them as grasses. Banana trees produce one bunch of bananas in their whole life time then you chop it down and replant the tiny banana trees that have magically appeared at its base. Every part of the tree is used though. The string that held our flower garlands together was made from banana tree fibre. The leaves are often used as plates, the flowers and the inner stem can be eaten and what can’t be used for much else goes for compost.
We learned about a plant that comes from Jamaica called an “all spice” plant, which smells like a spice you know you’ve had but can’t place. It’s meant to replicate five different spices and can be used in place of garam masala which is something most Indian families mix at home but I just bought from a shop in Munnar. He showed us a pineapple plant and two papaya trees, one which was bearing fruit and one which wasn’t. So who knew that papaya trees had genders? The male just produces the pollen and birds and wind take what is essentially tree spunk to the female who then produces fruit.
He showed us a load of dead plants which is where the turmeric root had recently been harvested. This is used as an all rounder too, it’s used in a lot of Indian cooking for colour and he told us you can also add water to the powder to form a paste then put it on your face as part of a beauty regime. Don’t leave it on for more than 10 minutes though or you’ll actually go yellow and that’s not a good look for anyone other than Marge Simpson. It’s also an antiseptic agent, if you cut yourself you can rub it into the wound to stem the bleeding and help stop infection.
They had cardamom plants of course, the queen of spices and the third most expensive spice in the world. The king of spices, pepper, grows here too but that shit grows fucking everywhere. It’s all over south west India and often grows wild but today we learned that every kind of pepper comes from the same vine, it’s just different processes that define the end product. Green and red pepper just grow on the vines, are harvested and soaked in salt water to preserve it. White pepper is what happens when you take red pepper, boil it and remove the outer skin. And black pepper, the one we’re most familiar with, is green pepper harvested dried in the sun. It’s the strongest and spiciest of all of the peppers. Culinary speaking, black pepper kicks spice arse. The most expensive spice in the world, saffron, doesn’t grow here. It likes colder climates, like you find in far north India. It comes from crocuses but probably not the ones that Brighton & Hove City Council plant along the road side in spring to make the place look pretty. And the second most expensive spice in the world is vanilla, probably because it takes so bloody long just to get one pod. It’s a vine which, like pepper, grows up a tree and it takes years before they become big enough to produce anything. He told us about nutmeg too, and the flower that grows around it. We didn’t see it here but I took a photo of some in Munnar, but you break open the shell and the nutmeg is inside, and the alien tentacle looking things are the flower which is mace. As in, the mace cops in America use to imobilise people, and he also told us it’s used in tear gas. As well as melting your eyeballs and lungs it can also used in Indian cooking so it’s not all pain and anguish.
And the betel nut trees! I was told in Munnar that the rings up the trunk represented one year per four rings, but Himesh told us that is was three rings per year. He also told us they plant them so close together on account of the technique they use to harvest them which basically involves a dude climbing up a tree with a bag then swinging from tree to tree, collecting betel nuts as he goes. There was a bloke who gave us a demonstration then it was our turn if we fancied it. They wrap rope around your feet and off you go… Kinda… Sooo yeah, I couldn’t even get off the ground on account of the fact that none of my limbs like holding my weight. Fair enough. I do have a bit of a penchant for cake and if I were my arms I wouldn’t want to be dragging my lard arse up a tree either. Tarrant however got a good way up thus winning the impromptu tree climbing competition. Clearly I’ll never live this one down.
Apparently back in the day they used to end the tour by jumping into water to cool down but that just ain’t practical, so instead they pour cold water down the back of your neck which is actually really refreshing, if not a little bit upsetting for your nerve endings.
Then you’re handed a shot of feni. Ah, good old feni. The Goan drink made from cashews or coconuts, in this case the process explained to us was the cashew variety. The cashew fruit is trampled in a basin and the juice is collected and allowed to ferment over a few days. Nothing is added to it, it just does it all by itself, like the toddy you get from palms. Then it’s distilled once (he called it “getting the vapour”) and this product is a weaker, 15% drink they call “ladies drink” or “jungle juice.” Then they mix this with some of the juice again, re-distill it and this is the 40% clear liquid that was handed to us after the tour. Ooh I couldn’t possibly, I mean, it’s before midday and… oh fuck it. I’ll have two of those and a bottle of beer, please. It went straight to my head, I’m not gonna lie and it pretty much just tastes like fire. Usually you’d mix it so I’ve no idea why we were shooting it but he said it’s best just to get it down in one and don’t smell it. Clearly we bought ourselves a bottle for ₹100. Cheap dates, we are. And lunch was a help yourself buffet style thing and the plates, we’d already been told, were made from the stems of palm leaves. They’re collected and sent away to be cleaned and pressed into shape. Hurrah for eco friendly crockery.
We both actually really enjoyed it here ay. We declined to take part in the elephant riding or bathing (costs extra) on account of the fact that elephants in captivity never look happy, though I don’t think any of us would look happy if we spent most of our lives chained to a tree and the rest of our lives entertaining tourists. We caught the bus back into Ponda and found a taxi driver to take us around some temples. He wanted to drag us around five of the buggers but we told him three was fine. They were ok, they’re relatively new though (I say new, one of them was 450 years old. “New” takes on a different meaning in India) and they don’t look like the temples you see around Tamil Nadu. These ones were built after the Portuguese destroyed the originals and they kinda look more like little churches than temples. One of them had a massive tower that reeked of oil and apparently it’s a torch. Like, a huge, fuck off torch! I’d have loved to see it lit up at night, it probably belts out some pretty severe heat an’ all.
So I keep missing people as they visit India. I managed to catch up with an old school friend, Shai, in Mumbai but I missed Rohan whilst he was here in Rajasthan and Goa. Another friend, Kathryn will be in Goa by the time I’m in Darjeeling and a mate I met in Oz will be over on the east coast whilst I’m, well, not. But two of Tarrant’s friends, Jen and Vikki, were here staying with Jen’s grandad in Panjim so we totes caught up with them all, and Jen’s family are brilliant. Tarrant and Jen’s grandad got on massively thanks to the military connection. I don’t usually talk about drunken nights but this one was fucking epic, it was like they were in my head choosing all of the songs that I love and belting them out. Guys, I even danced. Okay, I used the term “dance” very loosely. I don’t dance, I just kind of flail a bit in a non-rhythmic fashion. To the untrained eye it could appear that I’m having a fit. But whatever you call it, I did it in a Romanov fuelled haze and it was one of the best nights I’ve had in absolutely ages. Yeah nah, I don’t think my liver is going to like Goa very much.
Ponda, Goa, India
Stayed at: A Pousada Guesthouse, Panjim, Goa