Tuesday, 21 February 2012


Old colonial houses and churches liberally dot the country-side and towns of Goa, remnants and reminders of the 450 odd years that Portugal ruled over this piece of prime Indian real estate. In contrast to the huge empires carved out in Asia by the French and the British, Portugal established small areas of rules, creating cities or small states that served to facilitate trade with one another and of course, with the motherland. The Portuguese established colonies in China (Macau), Malaysia (Malacca), Sri Lanka and what is now Indonesia (Flores and the Moluccas) as well in the present day state of East Timor, focussing on the successful and lucrative trade of spices and other raw consumables. For many of the major (and minor) European colonial powers, India was a place of interest and Portugal was no different, establishing various colonies over the sub-continent. Many of these colonies were short-lived and soon fell back into Indian or into British hands. Some, like Mumbai, were gifted to Britain as part of a royal dowry. Goa, though, remained in Portuguese hands and was the last of Portugal’s Indian colonies to be relinquished, when it was finally “recovered” by India in a largely bloodless invasion in 1961, 14 years after the rest of British India had achieved independence.  Maybe this accounts for the different vibe that Goa has in comparison to other parts of India that we have visited and it wasn’t just the beach resort vibe that was different. Here, a thriving Christian population co-exists with the Hindi community, long-term foreign residents party with travellers who might be there for only a few nights. Partying co-exists with sightseeing, with Goa’s long colonial history leaving plenty of sights of interest to visit and explore.

The Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa, where the relics of St Francis lie.
The first capital of Portuguese Goa (and of all of Portugal’s eastern colonies) is now a small town called Old Goa but at its peak, old Goa was known as the Rome of the East, a city said to rival Lisbon in its magnificence. After its founding in 1470 until the late 16th Century, old Goa was a city of over 250,000 people. In the late 17th Century, a succession of cholera epidemics led to plans to abandon the city that eventually brought about the end to Old Goa, which lay abandoned bar a few buildings that were rebranded and used as military barracks. Interest in its history led to the revival of Old Goa in the 20th Century but the scars of neglect can be seen still, with some spectacular churches now lying in ruins while others bear marks of plunder caused by material being looted for other building projects.  However, enough of the splendid religious buildings remain to showcase how magnificent the city would have been in its prime. In one of the mega churches lies the body of St Francis, of Jesuit fame, making it perhaps the most revered church in East Asia. Another ranked as the largest church in Asia when it was built (it may still be the largest church in Asia, although some contemporary churches I have visited in Korea have been of a massive size and are probably bigger). Photo-shy nuns dressed in grey bustle around the streets, hustling between the convents and churches, while groups of Indians posed for photos, often wishing to involve us in their photographic escapades (one of the things that takes some time to appreciate when you are in India is that Indians really like to take their photo with random foreigners). People here seemed used to seeing curious foreigners on the prowl; we received few of the trademark stares from Indian men like those that we had experienced in Mumbai.

The Church of our Lady of Immaculate Conception, Panaji.
After the fall of Old Goa, the capital of the colony became Panaji and just as with Old Goa, the legacy of the Portuguese is apparent. The churches are still apparent, like the whitewashed Church of our Lady of the Immaculate Conception that stands on a hill, overlooking the city centre. But here, it’s not so much the churches but the old colonial houses that line the winding small roads and alleyways of the city that are the true guardians of the Portuguese tradition. 

Old colonial streets
The colourful exteriors of these houses, with their cheerfully decorated window shutters and balconies, reminded me of Malacca, another former Portuguese colony that I had visited in Malaysia. As if mirroring the colourful houses, extravagantly coloured birds like kingfishers and parakeets flitted through the gardens, as if in competition with the artificial hues of the houses. From the vantage of a temple pavilion, I enjoyed the antics of fishing eagles, as they soared and caught thermals that let them glide with a minimum of effort. 

One of the fishing eagles that I admired.

On other days, we visited some of the forts that were established on headlands along the coast-line of Goa. From our hotel (a good guesthouse called Bean Me Up attached to a great vegetarian restaurant of the same name), we walked to one fort called Chapora Fort. From here, there were great views to be had looking out into the Arabian Sea and down onto Vagator Beach but the fort itself was run down, consisting of no more than a gate and an outer wall made of volcanic-looking rocks. 

Fort Aguada, by the sea.
We visited another more substantial one another day. Fort Aguada, unlike Fort Chapora, had never been overrun, which highlights the fact that location isn’t just important in real estate. Fort Aguada sits on a hill that overlooks the Arabian Sea and the mouth of the Mandovi River, where you can catch brightly-coloured boats that will take you on dolphin-spotting trips. The fort was once completely cut off from the mainland by a moat formed by the river, but had a regular and constant supply of fresh water, a must if you wish to survive long sieges. A lighthouse was built in the 19th Century to protect ships that were coming close to shore, another indication of the prime perch the fort enjoys.

The lighthouse at Fort Aguada.
Of course, most people don’t go to Goa to look at architecture or to be tested on history. The beaches here are the drawcard and while the days of the hippie trail have cooled a bit, there’s still plenty of life in this beast. Describing beaches is a difficult thing because not much really happens on tourist beaches that can’t be described by clichés-golden sands, palm trees, Europeans in speedos and ill-fitted bikinis. But these clichés really sum up the beach scene in Goa, at least on Vagator. The problem and maybe the beauty with beaches is that you could be anywhere-it’s just the vendors and what they are selling that changes. On Vagator Beach, (the one that sat below Chapora Fort), vendors tried selling sunglasses and sarongs to pasty looking Europeans who tried to fight then off, while groups of young men played games of cricket, soccer and volleyball on the beach. At the point between Vagator and Little Vagator, a small fleet of wooden outriggers sat idle, nets ready for their next fishing adventure. Cows walked along the beach, looking out of place as the surf rushed up their legs.

Fishing boats at the ready
The beach adjacent to Vagator is Anjuna Beach and every Wednesday it hosts the Anjuna flea market, Goa’s most famous. The market at Anjuna has been described as an anthropologist’s dream and while I wouldn’t necessary go that far (things have retreated back a bit since the heady days of the 1970s), the market is still a good place to lose yourself for an afternoon. Here, people from all over India ply their trade-refugees from Tibet, brightly attired women with elaborate jewellery and facial piercings, men selling drums and elegantly carved stone elephants and Kashmiri carpet sellers mix with guests ranging from bewildered looking foreigners on their first overseas trip to the seasoned Goa heads who once came here for a week in the 1970s and then never left, their children weaned on Goan trance. 
Vendor at a Goan market

Whatever you want to find here, you probably could, (I wish I had tried asking for an elephant foetus or something equally ridiculous, just to see if the vendors would promise me that they could procure it).

Beach scene-somewhat typical of Anjuna.
While Goa has its own special charm that makes it unlike the other parts of India we have visited, it’s still clearly part of India. People still have that peculiar head-nodding whose meaning evades the casual traveller to India. Churches may be a distinctive part of Goa but Hindus are still in the majority and temples can be seen built beside churches. Like elsewhere in India, cows still have free rein to stroll wherever they want, to nuzzle at rubbish heaps and hold up traffic. 

Cow holds up play
A multitude of dogs room the streets, lingering on the side of the road or if they are brave enough, catching forty winks on the street itself, placing more trust in Indian drivers than I would have felt was warranted. You still stumble upon kids playing cricket, in a park, on the beach or on the street., just as you would in other parts of India. But there remains something intangible that makes Goa indescribably different from other parts of India, something in the air (and I’m not talking about the hashish) that gives Goa a unique feel, a good place to spend a few days to relax and recharge your batteries, especially if you have spent a few weeks travelling around the Indian hinterland. To paraphrase the signs you see in Goa, Goa is like a fridge, everybody chills there.

Monday, 6 February 2012


Mark Richardson, the former NZ opener, had a Christmas wish-list. It consisted of three things; for New Zealand to have a fit Jesse Ryder, a genuinely quick bowler and a leg spinner. Of the three, Ryder being fit is most probable; a genuinely fast bowler is possible but the leg spinner, that seems unlikely. A high-quality leg-spinner is an asset for any team, with their ability to find turn and bounce on pitches that finger spinners struggle on, spinning the ball away from a right-handed batsmen, with the option of using a well-disguised wrong-un (finger-spinners, at least until the invention of the doosra, didn’t have this option). Unfortunately, New Zealand is not exactly overflowing with leg spinning talent or tradition. Tarun Nethula made his debut recently against Zimbabwe and showed some promise, especially in the second game. Before him, the last specialist leg spinner to play for New Zealand was Brooke Walker, who took five expensive wickets in 5 tests. Before Walker, there was Greg Loveridge who played one test in 1996. He broke his hand batting before he got a chance to bowl, although his first class average of over 50 doesn’t suggest the NZ selectors had stumbled upon a test bowling sensation. In fact, New Zealand’s most successful leg spinner was Jack Alabaster who snared 49 wickets from the 21 tests he played in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s (21 tests over 17 years suggests that he may not have got a decent run in the side). But that’s not to say that this situation of not having a leg spin legacy is uniquely New Zealand’s. England, like New Zealand, is a team reputed to struggle against leg spin. A contributing reason for this may be that no English leg spinner has taken more than Tich Freeman’s 66 (notwithstanding the central role that an English leg spinner played in keeping Bradman’s average below 100). South Africa’s attack in their first forays in test cricket often included 3 leg spinners but their most successful was Aubrey Faulkner, a talented all-rounder whose career was interrupted by the First World War, who averaged 40 with the bat and took 82 wickets at 26 with his bowling, The West Indies leading leg spinner was David Holford who took 53 wickets in tests (not a surprise given the recent pace-dominated history of West Indian cricket). Zimbabwe’s best leg spinner was Paul Strang who took 70 while Sri Lanka’s best is Ajantha Mendis, the “mystery” spinner whose test career has seemed to have stalled at 62 victims. No Bangladeshi leg spinner has taken more test wickets than Mohammed Ashraful’s 24.

 Leg spin has played a large role in Australia, where wrist-spin bowlers can thrive on bouncy pitches, getting drift, turn and bounce away from right handed batsmen when finger spinners can’t and on the spin-friendly sub-continental pitches of India and Pakistan. This is probably why these are the only countries to have leg spinners who have taken more than 100 test wickets.  When people talk about a revival of leg spin after Warne, it’s more that he inspired a generation of cricket-watchers rather than led to a succession of world-class leg spinners. His success led to imitators being sought, most of whom failed to live up to expectation, like Loveridge or Ian Salisbury, the English leg spinner who averaged over 100 after 10 matches (with the ball not the bat, unfortunately).  Few of these Warne clones succeeded. Ironically, one of the next best leg-spinners during the Warne era was Australia’s Stuart MacGill, who had the misfortune of being born in Australia around the same time as Warne. It’s also anglo-phillic to say that Warne was the man who saved leg spin. After all, Abdul Qadir was living up to all sorts of Oriental stereotypes as he bemused a variety of batsmen during the 1970s and 1980s. Mushtaq Ahmed was Qadir’s successor and a contemporary of Warne’s and had the earlier impact with a starring role in Pakistan’s World Cup triumph and Anil Kumble was snaring Englishmen by the bucket-full in 1993. But cricket watchers in England, Australia and New Zealand in particular of my generation tend to think of leg spin as having a pre-Warne era and then a post- Warne era. The reality is that most countries had no great tradition of leg spin bowlers to fall back on. Warne may have revived interest in leg spin but that had more to do with his genius than for a longing to rediscover some long-lost art form. Simply, the art-form had never existed beyond the fringe in most cricket-playing countries. Warne was a genuine superstar, the sort of bowler who made kids change from trying to bowl as fast as possible to attempting to bowl a well-disguised flipper. 

Abdul Qadir carried the leg-spinners tradition in the 1980s.
 My cricketing heroes before Warne were all quick bowlers; Danny Morrison, Curtly Ambrose, Wasim and Waqar. Then Warne happened. I first saw Warne bowl against the West Indies in the summer of 92/93. In my mind, listening to it on radio, it exists as one of the great series. There was Lara's double at Sydney, the nail-biter at Adelaide, Ambrose's rampage at Perth (and before that, the wristband incident with Dean Jones during the World Series). Warne played a largely peripheral role in the series but had a match-winning spell at Melbourne, 7-52, his first 5 wicket haul, the first time his name really came to my attention. Soon after, he came to New Zealand, where he impressed with his control and variation, snaring 17 wickets in the 3 test series, but remained largely unheralded still. Then came the Ashes series, the ball of the Century and his name was made. My favourite Warne is the Warne of 93/94, when he took 36 wickets in 6 tests, 18 against New Zealand and them another 18 against South Africa, famously capturing Darryl Cullinan as his bunny as well as adding 22 in the World Series tournament. 
Warne of that vintage had it all, his big turning leg spinner and his flipper his key weapons alongside his attitude, swag, as we would say in modern-day parlance. If Murali was all energy, Warne was the schemer, the bowler who could out-think a batsman. Just witness his recent prediction of McCullum’s demise when he was bowling to him during the Big Bash to get what I mean. If Warne has a lasting impact, it may have been reflected in the quote about the Velvet Underground, the seminal American rock band “no-one brought their records but every-one that did started a band.” Conversely, Warne was widely admired but few have managed to emulate him, in no small way because of the inherent difficulties in bowling leg-spin. I hope that Mark Richardson’s wish could come true as apart from watching a genuinely quick bowler in the midst of a match-winning spell, there is no greater thrill in cricket than watching a leg-spinner at the top of his game, outwitting and out-thinking a batsman. It’s just unlikely that New Zealand will be the country where the next great leg-spinner will be found.

Thursday, 2 February 2012


Mumbai exists in the minds of many as a collection of clichés: men playing cricket under an array of colonial Victorian-era buildings, extravagant Bollywood films and Slumdog Millionaire, a film that feeds directly into another of the more powerful and enduring images of Mumbai, the people who live in the city’s slums. Dharavi is the slum featured in Slumdog Millionaire and is one of India's largest slums, a 0.7 square mile city within a city that over a million people call home. The child actors in Slumdog Millionaire were cast from here and may well still live here.

A million people live in an area the size of a small farm (175 hectares)
Tourists can visit Dharavi as part of a guided tour to see how the other side of India live. We went with a tour group called Reality Tourism, who gives most of its earnings back to the communities that it visits. The tours are led by a local guide, who is sensitive to the needs of the local community. They also have a strict no-photo policy that showed me that this was a company concerned with the emotions of the people whose lives we were imposing ourselves on. My concern before agreeing to go on a slum tour was finding the right tour, hoping to avoid the wrong sort that would be exploitative and tacky, trading off the misery of others and leading to flawed judgements being cast by tourists. Images can easily be used to distort the realities of life in the slum, which misses the point of this tour, which is to showcase the innovation and enterprise inherent in the slum. No cameras means that small groups of people can travel relatively inconspicuously and without imposing too much of the lives of the slum dwellers. Only one person, a young Australian, out of our group of eight decided to take photos. She was unrepentant even when she was caught by our guide, shocked that she should have her rule-breaking pointed out publicly. She seemed to be the type of tourist who would fail to see the value of the work done here, instead focussing on the squalor and poverty of people’s existence here. 

Small-time industries like this are common in Dharavi
Visiting Dharavi was an eye-opener. A slum it maybe but it is different than what I expected- families had small established houses to live in, we only saw one rat and there is a staggering amount of industry (it has been called the heart of Mumbai’s small-scale industries), that caters to many industries from the more traditional pottery, leatherwork and textiles to the recycling that processes recyclable waste from Mumbai and other parts of India. Small-scale activities like this are believed to bring in about 665 million dollars a year. Women made poppadoms and laid them out to dry on cane umbrellas. There were schools and kindergartens, mainly funded by NGOs (the tour group we went with funds a kindergarten and a community centre) and temples, mosques and churches existed almost side by side. There was little sign of the sectarian violence of 20 years ago that led to violent clashes between Muslim and Hindu and the setting up of separate Muslim and Hindu quarters.

Working conditions are tough
Dharavi may have been one of the more humbling places I have been but that didn't mean that the people were humbled by their living conditions. Instead, these people seemed proud of Dharavi. Not once were we asked for money (rupees, chocolate, pen is a familiar mantra known by many travellers to India) by children as you would be on a regular basis when visiting sights. We walked down small alley-ways, catching glimpses of day to day life inside the small rooms that families call home, all the time being careful to avoid the low hanging roofs, open drains and potentially live wires that haphazardly exited out from the houses. Shyer kids peered out of the doorways while the braver ones were seemingly content to wave and say goodbye to the foreigners who intruded in their living quarters. One boy was especially proud of his pet dog, walking it on a shiny, new red leash, others played cricket in confined spaces. The residents of Dharavi are making the most of a pretty limited way of life.

The narrow alleys of the slum
That’s not to gloss over what Dharavi is. It is made up of a collection of people, from all over India, who work long hours for 120 rupees a day, about the price of a big bottle of beer, eking out an existence in conditions that most Westerners would find abhorrent. The men who work in the cottage factories work in conditions that are unpleasant and with materials that are probably toxic. Sanitation and hygiene is a major problem. There is only one toilet for every 1400 people, so many people resort to using creeks that run through the slum as a toilet, with an obvious consequence being the spread of disease as well as contaminating a potential water source in an area that is already suffering from problems with inadequate drinking water supply. Children play on rubbish heaps that double as toilets, taking advantage of one of the relatively few open spaces in the slum.

Where the laundry goes
But this is a tour that didn’t showcase poverty but made a story out of the success of the slum, if that’s not too much of an oxymoron. People in Dharavi are just like the rest of us, just less well-paid, working each day to make enough money to eat and pay the rent (the rent for an average house in Dharavi is said to be about $4 or 200 rupees). Slums are still part of the Mumbai cliché just like Victoria Terminus, the most imposing of the collection of colonial buildings or the men played cricket in whites dirtied from diving around on hard, dusty and uneven playing surfaces. But dig a little deeper and the cliché of slum squalor starts to slip away, replaced by a positiveness and self-belief that seems to drive much of Indian society today.

(All photos are sourced from the Reality tours website)