Here lies about 3 day's worth of journal entries from a 5-day walk down the coast of India in 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to spread across borders. Originally travelling for a 10-day meditation retreat, I found myself at a loose end in Mumbai when the event was cancelled last minute. Inspired by Alastair Humphrey's long distance walking across India, I set off with a small backpack, bed sheet, and mosquito net on my own little walking adventure.
The retreat is cancelled, and I'm a little dumbfounded as to what to do next. I step out of the taxi and into the station, then wander round aimlessly thinking what to do now? I'm in Mumbai, India. At the station. About to catch a train to a retreat center on the outskirts, for 10 days of Vipassana meditation. Except now I wasn't. On one last look at emails on the way to the station, there'd been a note from the organisers. "Due to [Coronavirus] advice from the authorities your attendance has been revoked." It couldn't have been more last minute, and I'm' left a little dumbfounded as to what to do next. Suddenly 10 free days had been laid in front of me. Starting immediately. What to do with them?
Day 1 – Sunday March 1
It's just gone midday as the ferry unties from the Gateway to India and starts chugging out away from the city. I sit on the top deck of the ferry and watch the world go by for the next 90 minutes. Leaving the city, we pass all manner of interesting boats, and the air slowly clears and feel fresher. The trip makes for some excellent people watching. A family throws chips to a hovering crowd of seagulls, which get progressively braver and more aggressive as the trip goes on. A group of guys spend much of the trip preening and trying to get the perfect selfies off the side of the boat. Another man again and again steps init and out of the air-conditioned room. Clearly unable to find a comfortable temperature. Stepping off the boat at Alibaug, I'm stopped by 3 security guards at the gate to the ferry terminal. My heart picks up for a second and I wonder what I've done wrong, but they just want to chat. Curious who I am and what I'm doing and making sure that I absolutely get the tides right when I go and visit the nearby fort that all of the visitors go to see. They're great, and we chat for a few minutes before I head on my way with a smile on my face.
I start walking away from the ferry. Past gateways to holiday compounds and second homes. The whole area feels setup as a weekend getaway locale for Mumbai's middle class, though we're deep in the dry season, and the yellowing trees and dry air gives the place a sleepy, worn out feel.
Filled with the optimism and resolve that comes in the first steps of any journey, I set off with the intention of walking on a compass bearing and doing without a map or GPS. Keep it pure, y'know. This lasts about 10 minutes, or, until I pass the first fork in the road and can't handle the uncertainty of not knowing if I'm on the right path. I pull out the phone and wait for it to turn on. Sure enough, I'm going the wrong way. On a road heading East back towards Mumbai. Bummer. From then on the phone stays on and ready, and I check the map frequently.
I walk maybe 3 or 4 kilometres down a winding single track road through the sprawl of holiday homes. It's quiet. For the first time since coming to India quiet enough to hear birdsong and the wind in the trees. Everywhere feels eerily empty, with most of the homes presumably only occupied on weekends and holidays. I make eye contact occasionally with someone working their garden, and I'm always greeted with a beaming smile back.
It's early afternoon and the sun is high in the sky and I am hot. Drinking lots of water but starting to feel as if the sun is getting the better of me. A scooter with two teenage boys passes, then they both look back and do a double take at the large foreigner walking in the middle of the day. They stop, and beckon to me? "Need a ride?" They wordlessly offer. My will is weak, and I take them up on It hopping on the back and zooming off. They take me 5 minutes onwards to the main road to Alibaug, dropping me at the junction. They wait with me there a few seconds before flagging down a tuk-tuk. "Go!" They gesture, pointing at the tuk-tuk. I try to explain that 'No! I'm here to walk!', but they're having none of it, and make it clear that they're not going anywhere until I'm safely on my way in some form of transport. I relent, and hop in the back. Squeezed among the 4 other women already there. It's a public one - driving up and down this 15km stretch of road ferrying anyone who flags it down. The journey passes wordlessly, and I spend the time staring out of the doorway for the half-hour or so into town.
Alibaug beach is a definitely a tourist spot. It's Sunday afternoon, and it's bustling. There tuk tuk drops me by the beach and I wonder over to dip my feet in the water. The sand is packed with local tourists from Mumbai. Playing games in the water, taking selfies with a pair of camels, taking rides on ATVs, buying ice creams, lounging, swimming, and every other kind of beach activity you could imagine. The density of holidaymakers is quite something, I wonder if it's enabled by different norms around personal space. I struggle to sees many brits happily doing their own thing in such proximity to hundreds of other strangers.
It's all a bit overwhelming after my few hours of solitude on the road, and I soon retreat into town to find food and recharge. A good restaurant fills me up and I'm ready to get out of here and keep moving south.
It feels good to be moving again, and I'm quickly off the main drag and into a maze of twisty residential streets. I have to check the map every few hundred metres as I wind through streets barely wide enough for a car. The world feels closed in and more intimate. Eyes peer out of windows, and kids playing in the street stop and wave at me as I pass. It's beautiful. Calm and quiet compared to the busy tourist area. The air instead punctuated with the sound of chatter inside the nearby homes, chickens clucking in gardens, and dogs barking. Though most faces I see are smiling and warm, the change in scene has my guard up a little. All around me is more ordinary, everyday life, and I feel much more of a sore thumb here. Conscious of the eyes on me, the difference in material wealth between me and those around me, and the expensive camera swinging around my neck. It's a familiar feeling though - one I've felt in many poorer places around the world, and there's nothing going on that has me worried. The looks on faces are of warmth or curiosity. Not of want or suspicion.
As I walk the scene morphs from tall residential buildings into something lower, more industrial. I smell the sea approaching, and our a corner into wide open yards spread with tiny, drying fish. The smell is powerful and evocative, and is matched by bursts of color in brightly painted huts. I feel like I'm in a travel documentary, my inner monologue matching that of a TV personality traveling through some exotic locale, waxing on about evocative sights and smells of this exciting place. My guard's up higher still here. Industrial areas always do this to me. Somehow the faces always seem a little less warm, and the whole place just feels a little shadier. Those residential backstreets had me a little wary, but 'here feels like a good spot for a kidnapping', says the paranoid voice inside me.
I'm walking in sync with two guys my age ahead of me. Eventually one turns and notices me, and they stop and wait for me to catch up. Their English is almost non-existent, but we introduce each other with smiles and handshakes and continue walking together. I tell them I'm from England, which gets them very excited, though that excitement is tempered a little when I admit I don't know much about cricket.
We soon reach the end of the road. Water again! This time in the way – the opening of a bay between me and the path south. There's a huddle of fishermen at the waters edge; they turn as I approach. I ask and gesture as best I can - "Is there boat? I go south! Over water!" They understand… I think… and begin talking among themselves. One fella on a fishing boat shouts and gestures over. Come! I take you! The man is scrawny and a little wild looking. Hair going every direction, bloodshot eyes staring hard into mine. He can tell I'm wary, and he shouts and beckons again for me to come aboard. I'm torn – "he's probably just trying to help!" Says one voice inside – but another part of me doesn't trust the hungry look in his eyes. I turn back to the others, and to the boys I'd approached with. They shake their heads as if to shrug the wild fisherman off, and I decide to trust their judgement. Ignoring the shouts from the boat and continuing to press – "where is the ferry?". Tension feels as if it's rising a little. The fisherman is shouting more desperately, a little incredulous at my ignoring him. I'm getting no closer to figuring out how the ferry works, and no-one speaks enough English for to really help.
I'm saved by another man approaching on a scooter. Crates of fish balanced on the back seat. He speaks a little English, and is happy to help. Taking me round the corner and beckoning to the ferryman across the water to come. He's going too, he says, and the ferry is 20 rupees (£0.20). I breathe a sigh of relief and stick with him as the boat approaches.
Crossing the river mouth is a picturesque scene. Colourful fishing boats, faded and battered by hard working lives, line the river banks. The sun is getting lower in the sky and casts a warm glow over everything.
Reaching the other side, I pay the fee and climb up to the land. I'm still a little on edge from the ferry confusion, and there's a large crowd of men, presumably all collecting after a day's fishing, gathered in the yard I'm stepping into. I'm still a little rattled from the confusion earlier , andopt to keep my head down and start walking. Trying to slip by without too much attention, friendly or otherwise.
My path opens out onto sand, and onto a beach that stretches to a headland far into the distance. I know from the map that I'm aiming to make it to a beach beyond that headland by the day's end. Near the opening to a bay which looked like a satisfying way to mark the end of the day. It's still a good 10km away, and the sun is lowering in the sky, so I pick up a good pace and don't stop for the next few hours. Walking the beach is nice. Apart from the gaggle of holiday makers it's mostly empty, and my mind is given space and quiet to wander for what feels like the first time today.
A few hours and about 7km later I'm met by a surprise. What looked like a shallow stream splitting the beach on Google Maps is actually a deep, wide expanse of water. No good for passing. I'll need to go around. There doesn't appear to be a path, so I wander over to a nearby wooden hut to ask for direction. A man comes out as I approach, and when I ask directions he points back the way I came. "About 1 mile up there is a path", he says. I think he can tell I'm a little dejected as he quickly has a change of heart. He calls for his boys, who I'd seen walking off moments earlier. "Take him" he says, and they nod and I follow.
The brothers must be maybe 10 and 13. They speak no English, but their smiles are warm and I feel comfortable in their company. They're taking their donkey home (looks like the family sells donkey rides on the beach), and I walk with them through mud and mangroves inland toward their village. We leave the donkey tied up at its stable as we approach the village. The village lies on the bank of a stream, separating it form the mangrove swamp we're standing in. As we reach the stream, I'm puzzled... How will we cross? The question's soon answered though as the younger brother jumps in to fetch a boat. He swims deftly across the river and returns dragging a wooden rowboat, which I'm carefully ferried across in by the other brother. Such kindness! I thank the two of them greatly and try to offer money for the help. They refuse.
It's another couple hours walking on a busy road to the camp spot. I'd scoped out a beach on Google Maps that looked quiet and un-populated, like a lone traveller sleeping there wouldn't be bothered. It's a tiring walk in the along the side of a busy road. I'm worn out from staying on alert and away from the traffic, and feel well ready to sleep by the time I make it to the beach.
I make camp in an epic spot! At the end of a beach are the ruins of a large fort. Dark stone walls towering up from the sand into the jungle above. It's straight out of the Jungle Book – and I decide I have to sleep there that night. Clambering up through a broken section of the wall, there's a patch of flat ground under a low-hanging tree. Perfect to lay out my bed sheet and hang a mosquito net.
Lying down feels good. I'm weary and aching all over, but the excitement of finding the fort and of successfully making it out of the city has me feeling alive. I smile to myself as I look up into the canopy above. It's minutes before I'm out and asleep.
Day 2 – Monday March 2
I woke at 6. Cold. The sleep had mostly been good, although I'd woken a few hours in shivering hard and had got up to put all my clothes on. The mosquito net had half collapsed, leaving it open on one side, but it didn't seem to matter. The whole trip I questioned whether the net was really doing anything other than giving peace of mind. I packed up camp and took photos; pleased with the camp spot. The sky was beginning to lighten as I clambered down from the fort and onto the beach. I considered a bath, but it's too cold. Clothes wouldn't dry for hours. Instead I keep all the clothes on and begin to walk.
I cover about a kilometre up the beach. It's quiet and empty expect for two men walking about 100m in front. The beach opens out into a large river-mouth, and I follow it round to the left. Here the men point me in the right direction. Off the beach, through an industrial yard and up onto the road bridge. As I step onto the tarmac I merge with a convoy of oxen pulled carts. Quietly clip clopping across the bridge. The drivers have long stares and chat intermittently between each other. The river is quiet, still and beautiful. The morning air is crisp.
I walk with the convoy a few kilometres to Korlai village. Dropping down on to the sand as I approach the village. Villagers squat among the rock pools, trousers round ankles, taking their morning dump. Some smoke cigarettes, some chat to their kids who've come out with them, some stare into phones. Apparently the instagram poop is just as much a thing here too.
I round a corner and inadvertently step into the ladies' bathroom. Three women squat on the rocks ahead of me. They either don't see me, or choose not to acknowledge me, so I keep walking. Eyes down. Cheeks red. Stepping off the beach, between houses, I'm greeted by a picturesque village scene. The sights and sounds of waking up echo around the houses – piercing the otherwise still air. Babies' crying. Cocks cockadoodle-dooing. Dogs barking. Men belching. Early risers out washing clothes. Rubbish collectors rubbish collecting.
I walk towards Korlai fort (apparently the local landmark and tourist attraction), but decide to pass on it and keep going. By now the sun is starting to rise and I'm anxious to make progress before it's too hot. Here the ground is more open. Houses give way to large concrete expanses, apparently used for drying fish. A woman stands surrounded by fish-filled baskets. Spreading them out on the concrete by way of a giant wire-mesh sieve. She lets me take her picture.
I walk to the edge of town, then down to the rocks. On the way I pass a pack of dogs sniffing around one of the fish beds. It speaks to the kindness of the people on this trip that this was the most threatened I'd feel on the whole trip. Down on the rocks – I take a bath. Clothes and all. They need a way as much as me, and I'm a little sheepish about the norms around clothing here. Every dude I've seen in the water so far has stayed fully clothed.
The bath feels good. The day's warming up, and walking in cool wet clothes feels good.
It's maybe 9 o'clock. I settle back into walking. Stop for breakfast a few kilometres in and meet an engineer who'd spent a year in London some time ago. Visited the Cotswolds too! Really friendly guy. Insisted on paying for my breakfast. The waitress helped me fill my water and I set off on the road again.
A few kilometres on and I step for water again. It's hot. The lady at the roadside stands refuses to take any money.
It's getting really hot by now, but the walk it beautiful. The road's fairly quiet. Just occasional clusters of houses. Trees and trees and trees. As it's approaching 11 the road winds down to a beach, and as I step out onto the sand, the sun is in full force. Aggressively strong. Don't want to get spend hours on this beach with no shade or sun protection, so I decide to run. Want to make it to the end of the beach before I get cooked. I make it two thirds of the beach before I'm tired out and have to walk the rest. At the end and finally in shade, I stop to drink water and clean my feet, then keep walking.
I make it another 3 kilometres or so. Can really feel myself cooking now. I vow to stop at the next lunch place, but it's a while before I find one. At times I'm getting a little light-headed, and I start wondering what heatstroke feels like. It's a big relief when finally a restaurant appears on the side of the road and I can dive off for some shade.
After so many hours in the sun, the restaurant feels like an oasis. The owners are friendly and speak good English, and I think are a bit excited to have a foreigner visiting; I'm smothered with attention the whole time I'm there. They do a good (salty) veg thali, and a salted watermelon juice – which is bit odd for my tastes, frankly, but I gulp it down anyway figuring the salt will be good.
Two engineers join me and want to chat. We talk about lots of things. On whether the caste system in India has changed, one says 'you can't change genetics'. Makes me uncomfortable.
I nap in the hammock until 3, then pack up my things. The father of the managers sorts my bill, and we talk walking. Says he'd done a 600km pilgrimage to see his swami a few years ago. Big respect.
I set off, feeling foggy for 10 minutes but then refreshed again. I walk 12km through villages. Past schools, and temples, and countless homes. Compared to the morning, I"m more weary and irritable. I stop for rests more often, and my feet begin to ache more and more as the day grows long.
Eventually I reach Murud, my resting point for the evening. It's another tourist town and is fairly busy with Indian tourists. I find a restaurant for another veg thali, then go in search of accommodation. The cheapest place is a basic hotel at £15/night for a double room. I took a shower. Being clean has rarely felt so good.
Before bed I head out for a second round of dinner. I'm famished. Dinner is great – local fish curry and piles of naan bread. A great drama ensues though as I realise I've run out of cash, and it takes a few hours of walking between ATMs in town before one finally accepts my card and I can afford to go back and settle up for dinner. By the time I can get to bed it's nearing midnight and I am tired, tired, tired.
I wake to the sound of banging. It's the hotel owner. 9 o'clock – checkout time. I lay there a few moments. Groggy, sunburnt. Face feels swollen, feet feel sore. 'Okay five minutes!' I call back, and roll out of bed. Step in and out of a cold shower then pack up my things and leave. The owner is fine with my tardiness and wishes me a good day as I set off up the road.
I walk south down the beachfront road feeling decidedly sorry for myself. Everything hurts. I feel blisters on my feet and sunburn throbbing. The day is already beginning to heat up and I mope and grump at myself for sleeping in and missing the cool morning air. I can't help but feel irritated as the noises and looks as I get on my way, and I want nothing more than just to curl up somewhere cool and shady and be left alone for the day.
First order of the day is sunscreen. The map suggests this could be the last major town for a day or two, and I can't go another day so out in the sun. Asking around, I zero in on a pharmacy and get a tube of the blessed stuff.
It's 5 kilometres to my first stop, a river mouth with a ferry crossing, next to a famous fort. I begin walking with the intention of making it there, but last all of 5 minutes before the passing Tuk-tuks get too tempting, and I flag one down. It feels good to sit down, and the breeze on my skin wakes me up a little as we whizz along winding roads, over a rise and back down to the sea.
The driver drops me at the ferry terminal, but there's no boat there so I head in search of breakfast instead. I settle on a small local café, busy with local fisherman. The omelette's okay but the places is noisy and gets me all irritable once more. I wolf down the food, pay up, and go in search of somewhere quieter. In the end it's the ferry terminal that suits best. The waiting shelter is cool and quiet – the ferry comes in one and a half hours, says the attendant.