The Gokarna part of the trip began on a fairly surreal note. Everyone was fed up with listening to my ancient 1970s Hindi music tapes and gladly agreed to play a collection of rock music PR had made in college. Small villages rushed by us on one side with tiny STD/PCO shops, open air restaurants and plastic shops marking their neon-lit existence. Inside we were trapped in humming our existential angst. Shriraj, our driver, did not blink his eye (or for that matter his accelerator pedal) when various heavy duty lorries hurled themselves on us in the narrow road. It was already night when we weaved our way into the tiny road that terminated on Om Beach.
SA had made bookings for us in a place called Gokarna International – a happy and economical hotel for families, located in the centre of the town to enable quick trips to the famous temple. All of us, in an unspoken agreement, knew that it was Plan B and we would first die trying to stay in a shack close to the beach. So off we went in search of the highly recommended Namaste Café at the entrance to Om Beach. After scrambling down the cement steps and the rocks, we realized we had stepped into Goa of ten years ago. Namaste Café was buzzing with white skinned people, pleasantly high and vocal and the only Indians were clearly the waiters and the owner. It also looked pretty full and when we enquired about rooms it was no surprise to hear that they did not have any. We were directed to Niravana Café at the other end of the long beach.
Om Beach, from afar looks like the Sanskrit script for ‘Om’ and thus earned its name. Ever since Goa began to attract a more up-market class of visitors, Gokarna had begun to take on the task of providing an economical beach option for the down-market First World travelers. Added to that was the presence of a famous temple in Gokarna and anyone in search of the great Indian soul, could easily find nirvana, religion, alcohol and possibly more here. This was not to say the beach was strewn, Bollywood-style, with half naked people in a drunken stupor. Everyone had settled down to a clearly familiar routine of conversations while staring at the sea and eyed us with very little curiosity as we trekked to Niravana Café.
The owner of Om Beach’s second best café was also not too helpful. He had one room which four of us could share and no attached toilet or ceiling fans. It was cheap at 200 rupees a night. We began to check with other Shack owners. Everyone replied in the negative. It was already close to 10 p.m. and somewhere in the corner of my mind I was worried if Gokarna International would also call a no-show and cancel our reservations. All of us were also slowly realizing that brown skin would not get us too far in this place. Deciding to make one last attempt, we changed tactics. NA, who had so far not been given any job more onerous than buying snacks for the trip, was elected as our representative to go and get us rooms. He spoke with a New Zealand accent and was the closest we could produce by way of a foreign connection
We all trooped into a fairly deserted looking shack. The suspicious looking owner barely acknowledged our presence but he was obviously eager to have any customers. The dialogue started;
NA – We would like rooms
Owner – Where are you from?
NA – (pointing at me and PR) – These guys are from Chennai. I am from New Zealand
Owner – (without blinking an eye) – New Zealand? Come. I have rooms
We silently marched into the room on display. It was a small, white hut. There were no windows. There was a queen size mattress on the cement slab, occupying two thirds of the room. The mattress was covered with a dirty bed sheet and we could almost see the bed bugs crawling all over it. If we did not die of suffocation or claustrophobia, we would certainly die of insect bites. Looking at our disappointed expressions, he took us past a small bamboo enclosure, which he told was the common toilet and triumphantly introduced us to his best room. It was painted a vivid blue. Same space, same bed bugs, same dirty sheets. Our minds protested ‘That’s it? The ridiculousness of it all began to hit us. We were being treated like untouchables in our own country, by a bunch of former fisher folk who were so fascinated by white skin that they refused to even look at us. And all for the hole of a room they had managed to build which we would not have even considered looking at under saner conditions.
Angry, amused and with plenty of perspective, we tramped out and decided to head back to the car. SA’s torch light which had been assisting the moon light in guiding us was beginning to dim. We wondered if our driver Shriraj had left with the entire luggage or had sent out for the police to track us. Nearly an hour had elapsed. Just as reached the end, we saw Shriraj coming towards us, waving a welcome torchlight. All of us cheered up immediately at the thought of a friend still left in this strange world. Shriraj modestly blushed when we told him he was a saviour to have come down with his torch. ‘Actually when I was buying the mobile, I was wondering if I should go for a model with a torch light’, he explained, ‘and now it is so useful’. We told Shriraj that we had to check out other options. On the way to the beach, we had spotted a fairly swanky looking place called ‘Swaswara’ and we began to make inquiries there. The receptionist greeted us politely and informed us that the rooms were 360 dollars a night. If the earlier experience had shaken us, this totally took the wind off our sails. SA politely told him that we would be back when we got pay hikes. Later we learnt that the resort catered to chartered tourists from First World countries.
We informed Shriraj about the prices and he burnt in righteous anger asking ‘are they selling the rooms or renting them out?’ and continued to rave for the next ten minutes. Atleast our entertainment value in this episode was increasing with each passing minute.
The next stop was the Om Beach resort, 7 kms uphill. It had been over our budget when we were planning the trip. Now, it seemed like the best option. Unfortunately, there were no rooms here either. We were in a Dickensian tragedy and the night was getting on.
On the road to Om Beach resort was a dilapidated sign board for a resort called ‘Seabird’. We decided to check it out as well. The place was deserted. The prices were reasonable – 800 rs a night for a non a/c double room. Rooms were available. Suspicion began to rear its head – why would such a hotel be practically empty? Were the guests being murdered in their beds and placed as stuff toys in some place somewhere? We told Shriraj that we were not happy with its ready availability. Shriraj, clearly a man of simple living and thoughts, could not understand our logic. Yet, he could not give up his role of a Man Friday now. So he disappeared and returned to furtively inform us that he had checked with the employees and they had confirmed that this place was safe. We were too tired to explain why there was a flaw in his research and were about to leave the place, when blazing brilliantly two vehicles full of tourists arrived. The tension disappeared, relief flooded us and we decided to stay on. We paid Shriraj and plonked on the verandah outside our ground floor rooms. Meanwhile, the tourist vehicles instead of adding to our numbers and being a security cover had decided to go elsewhere. We were too tired to begin worrying about our safety all over again. We were too tired to even walk up to the restaurant and just got the food to the verandah. We lay there for a long time, finally managing to make our way to our respective beds. There was a tiny cockroach somewhere behind my bed. Killing it in one stroke and closing the windows to prevent a further infestation, I slept.