Overland From Paris to Bombay in 1975: The Road to Arambol
We left Paris on a drizzly day in October 1975. My French boyfriend, Patrick, an accomplished world traveler at 26, was fluent in seven languages. He was taking me overland to India. He posted a handwritten note on a travel board in a popular Parisian café. It read: Young couple wishes to travel overland to India by car. If you require companions, please contact this phone number. And there it was, the note that started the next big adventure of my young life.
We were traveling with a French businessman named Gilles. He had a brand new 1975 Peugeot 504, a tough and ready car that could handle anything. I had the back seat all to myself. Gilles was heading to Tehran for a job in the oil industry.
The drive through Europe was beautiful in the fall. Watching France, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria pass by from a backseat window was sublime. We ate great meals and lodged in comfortable hotels. The gears shifted (so to speak) when we drove into Turkey. Gilles had a time constraint but gave us two nights in Istanbul; I fell in love with this city steeped in history, our hotel room, the food, the bazaar, and tea on the Bosphorus.
On the third day, we headed for eastern Turkey and Iran. The landscape changed dramatically as we ascended onto the Ararat Plain, a vast expanse of pure openness with great Mt. Ararat and little Ararat hovering in the distance. Our tiny troupe pulled into a small town for the night. Gilles chose a decent hotel while Patrick decided to impress me with how well he could save money. Did you know that a hotel room in eastern Turkey could cost five cents for the night?
My life with Patrick had been quite comfortable. Now I’m walking up rickety stairs with the hotel's proprietor pinching me on the ass. The bed was filled with bed bugs and the toilet was a hole in the ground. That night turned me into a 21-year-old travel warrior. I began to make observations and mental notes about my surroundings and the people near me. I was in deeply foreign lands trusting my instincts and my guy. From this point on I had a voice on where we holed up for the night.
A week in Afghanistan
Once we reached Tehran, Gilles dropped us off on a street corner and we were on our own. No more car. That evening we found the bus for the Afghan border. Patrick convinced the driver to let us sleep inside his bus for the night. Departure time: 6 am. Patrick had made this overland trek before.
Afghanistan was a man’s world. We rode in crazy-assed busses and stayed in ancient hotels. We traveled the now infamous road from Herat to Kandahar, and then to Kabul. Every day was an extraordinary journey through the 10th century. This beautiful country was locked in time. It had not yet been invaded by Russia or fought a war with the Taliban. It was functioning and it was intact.
Women were invisible. I was invisible. Yet girls attended school and not all women were shrouded in a burka. The best of this strong, independent one-of-a-kind country remains in my heart. We spent a week in Afghanistan until it was time to take another colorful bus through the Khyber Pass and cross the border into Pakistan. We were heading to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, and then to catch a train to Bombay (now known as Mumbai).
Bombay, November 1975
There’s a line from a song: Going where the weather suits my clothes. The temperatures had often been brutal heading across the Middle East and I mostly shivered my way through the continent. But the warmth of Bombay allowed me to finally relax. Our tiny hotel room was adjacent to a tea shop patronized by travelers from all corners of the world. Each day was an adventure in culture and conversation. We grabbed taxis and drove around the city sightseeing until one day I said, “I need some luxury. Please take me somewhere beautiful.” He did. We walked into the Oberoi Hotel and sat in the lobby. Then we went to the bar for a glass of wine. That tiny piece of luxury is forever embedded in my consciousness.
The steamship named Konkan Shakti
Today one of the most interesting ways to travel from Mumbai to Goa is by booking one of India’s new modern ferries. You can even book a stateroom for the 24-hour trip.
But in 1975, we took passage on the charming old steamship Konkan Shakti. She departed at 10 am. It was a festive atmosphere filled with food, music, dancing, and joy. To pick up passengers along the Konkan coast, the ship would stop dead in the water. Hand-rowed canoes filled with new passengers met the ship and rope ladders were tossed over the side. The newcomers climbed up and departing passengers climbed down and were rowed back to land. Sometimes things are accomplished in the simplest way possible. Even while wearing a sari.
Patrick and I slept in a life raft on the deck. At sunrise, I watched as the majestic Goan coastline came into view, volcanic outcroppings, pristine beaches lined with palm trees, and excited passengers smiling and chatting with one another. This was happiness. 24 hours after departing Bombay, the steamship docked at Patanji and was readied to take a new throng of passengers back up the coast to Bombay.
Just how do we get to this Arambol that Patrick has been promoting
Goa was first discovered by Portuguese explorers in merchant ships in 1510 as a stop on the silk route to China. The Portuguese claimed it as theirs, and slowly infused Catholicism into the Goan way of life. It wasn’t until 1961 that Goa was fully returned to Indian governance.
From Patanji, Patrick and I hopped on a bus heading north to Mapusa. Along the way, I noticed ancient Hindu temples in ruins and centuries-old Catholic churches in full swing. It’s an interesting mix of cultures in Goa.
In Mapusa (pronounced Mapsa) we purchased supplies like roll-up straw mats, blankets, a cooking pot or two, and some produce. Another bus drove us to a little town called Siolim on the banks of the Chapora River. We loaded our supplies onto a four-passenger canoe and the boat owner rowed us across the river. It was a big choppy river flowing wide into the Arabian Sea and I was really scared. But we ended up doing this so many times I came to love the river-crossing. I can close my eyes and imagine the slow pull of the oars and the boat dipping and swaying in the small swells.
Once on the other side of the Chapora, a taxi drove us to Arambol. The driver dropped us off at the post office and we were home. Sort of.
The first thing to do was visit Patrick’s trusted friend, Tomas Rodrigues, who lived in the village. He protected our most important documents, passports, and money in a safe at his house. After cups of tea and some lovely conversation, we walked down to the beach to sleep in the sand.
Are we there yet?
I woke to a gorgeous, deserted beach with a humble fleet of fishing boats pulled up on the shore. As we gathered our belongings I marveled at how I had been transported from Paris to this place on the planet. Fishermen slowly arrived, laden with the nets they had taken home for safekeeping. Patrick said let’s go have some breakfast. A beach shack was serving, dahl, chapatis, tea, and coffee. After our meal, Patrick pointed north and announced we were hiking over a huge outcropping of lava rock to reach our destination – a fresh-water lake fed by a jungle stream. The Arabian Sea was a scant fifty feet away, separated from the lake by a narrow spit of sand. We were going camping.