GOALLESS IN GOA
Goa began at the Chennai international airport, a minute after the gentleman at the Duty Free politely told me that I was not qualified to buy.
‘Only if you are travelling overseas, sir.’ That was impressive – overseas. Usually in India it is ‘abroad’. I had hoped to get for a friend a bottle of Amarula, that much better South African version of Bailey’s. I was at the international terminal because that is where Air India flights land. Deprived of Amarula, a drink made of a South African fruit that elephants get drunk on, I sat in a quiet corner to ruminate.
That’s when they arrived, first the aunt, and Goa began.
‘Hello, are you going to Goa?’ Yes, I am. ‘When is the flight leaving?” They will announce and I will let you know.
Soon, the rest of the brood arrived: a mother, a daughter, and a young man. Given his lack of interest in the others, must have been the son. The daughter introduced the mother and the aunt. They surrounded me in an arc.
The mother, who looked like the older sister – and was thrilled when I told her that – proceeded to tell me that they were from Israel. The daughter, a sturdy buxom lass, had been in India since she had completed the mandatory army training six months ago. She was on a beach-hunt in India, having been to Diu and Port Blair already and now headed to Goa.
She was intimidating, and I wondered why. Then it struck me: I am easily intimidated by buxom women.
‘Where should we stay in Goa? What do you do? Are you travelling alone?’
Were they going to ask next if they could stay with me?
I put that thought aside and answered all their questions. I told them this was my first time to Goa so I could share with them what I had learned from the net: You want a quiet, clean beach, go to the south. I have heard that Palolem is good. I could not find a vacant hut there, so I am staying at Varca beach. If you want to party, go to the north – Baga and Calangute are the most infamous.
They looked impressed, they tightened the arc and we continued.
‘A lot of people from Israel come to India, don’t they?’ I asked. Yes, said the mother. ‘You know, we are similar people. And you got independence the same time as Israel – in 1857’. I let that pass. She was too friendly to contradict.
The mother continued to be genial, took my email address, and then asked gingerly, ‘India is beautiful, you know. Why don’t they keep it clean?’
I put it on size, population, and lack of national pride. I have stopped being embarrassed about my country, though I continue to be embarrassed by the adult males that inhabit it. The one or two who are soft and civil stand out.
The flight was mostly vacant and pleasant. I was impressed by the warm and attentive Air India staff. The family was seated a few rows from me, so I was safe to resume my rumination. Then I got distracted by a romantic couple.
I had seen a lot of lovebirds during my recent peregrinations – and several had asked me to take their pictures – but the one seated on the far end of my row redefined romance. They giggled, chattered and snuggled, they smiled beatifically all through. I watched them as they got up when the flight landed. Both were equally shabby and gleeful, both wore beads and bracelets.
And both men were equally pretty.
Goa had arrived quickly over a nice meal, some furtive observations, and a nap. The airport reminded me of the Trivandrum and Kathmandu airports for its simplicity.
Getting a cab was easy. I was delighted to discover that the cabbie spoke fluent Hindi. I asked if he could be my cabbie for the next two days too. ‘Not allowed, sir. Unions here, they won’t let me come to the hotel.’
It was late evening by the time I reached the hotel, which looked unpromising at first – and then stayed that way all through. The tap leaked, the glass panes were stained, and the food was indifferent. The one good thing was that it sat on Varca beach, where the sand was smooth and clean, and there were very few people around. Just what I wanted.
I showered, changed, stretched, unpacked, and headed out for a quick recce. As I stepped out, I ran into my neighbours –Russian couples that flanked my room. As I strolled by the pool towards the ocean, I ran into three Russian families, one of them singing aloud together over large quantities of beer.
By the time I had finished my candle-lit dinner by the beach, I had concluded two things about Goa. Put Mauritius and Kerala in the blender, add a bit of feni, sprinkle large quantities of Russians, and you get Goa. That was one. Two, you will be at home if you speak any of these three languages: Konkani, Hindi, or Russian.
By the time I had finished my two and a half days in Goa, I had added a third conclusion: There are four things you can do in Goa. You can party and do water sports in North Goa; relax and ruminate in south Goa; cruise on one of its several mighty rivers; or dart off into Old Goa and other interiors to take in picturesque Portuguese architecture.
Since I had done beaches in Pattaya – and I live by the beach in Chennai – I decided to first make a vella trip to Velha Goa. Velha is Portuguese for old. Vella is Delhi-ese for worthless wandering.
Goalless in Goa, but then that’s what it is all about.
Once I was confident that Luis the cabbie understood what I was looking for – good pictures – we set off. He did try to sell me the beaches first – Calangute and Baga, predictably – but I managed to steer him away.
The first stop was the popular, revered, Bom Jesus Basilica dedicated to St Francis Xavier, who died in 1552. His body, interred in a cask inside the Basilica, is said to be still intact.
Bom, meaning holy, refers to infant Jesus.
The basilica, a splendid example of baroque architecture, was beautiful and majestic, as most large old churches are.
I took a guide who showed me around, dramatically narrated all the myths and legends, and educated me about what he called the ‘poolpit’, which was held up by exquisitely carved angels. I asked the usherette standing there if they still used it.
‘Now we have the mike.’
When I was told that St Francis Xavier and St Ignatius Loyola had founded the Society of Jesus, there was a moment of association. The Brothers and Fathers at St Michael’s in Patna were all SJ.
I walked over to Se Cathedral, said to be the largest church in India. Dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria, this church is not open for masses or weddings. There were fewer people here, so I had more time to take in the murals and the pulpits.
Luis decided to take me to a temple, perhaps to establish religious equality? God knows.
The Shanta Durga temple, set in the foothills, is dedicated to Durga in the role of a mediator. When Vishnu and Shiva started fighting, Brahma got unnerved and asked Parvati/Durga to mediate. According to legend – and Wikipedia – Durga held Shiva in one hand and Vishnu in another and settled the fight. Simple.
Only a woman can do such things.
We proceeded to Big Foot, to an old Portuguese home that was preserved for tourists like me, for a hundred bucks or two. The mansion reminded me of the man who had changed my life – Mr Frank Morrison.
Mr Morrison was a portly Anglo-Indian tutor who used to call me ‘the little devil’ because I had nearly electrocuted him once accidentally. He would tell everyone about this incident with a mischievous chuckle. I would want to melt away.
He brought me into my own, taught me to read and write English, and within a year made me win elocution competitions. His Rs 60-a-month classes were in huge demand.
Thank you, sir! You gave me life.
I wouldn’t be gallivanting thus, or writing about it confidently, if it weren’t for you. I wouldn’t have become a journalist and a teacher if it weren’t for you. You had made me promise that one day I would in turn teach others. I have kept my word.
If you are reading this blog, I must tell you this today: I didn’t have the heart to come to your funeral. And that never again did I attempt to fix any electrical wiring.
This Portuguese house resembled Hazeldel, Mr Morrison’s Patna mansion, in its grandeur: lofty ceilings, many rooms, wooden benches, open green spaces, a well, and many trees. Hazeldel had acquired some modernity here and there, but this one still had a large wine barrel, large wooden ladles, and a rather fundamental ‘latrine’ – wooden chair with a hole – and a grand piano.
The place was buzzing with tourists, so I did a quick round and set off again. Fort Aguada turned out to be an even more of a tourist spot, buzzing even more loudly. Standing majestically on Sinquerim Beach, on the mouth of Mandovi river, the 17th century fort and lighthouse was an important port for the Portuguese. Many ships stopped here to tank up on fresh water.
I tried to dodge the flocks to take pictures. Just as I had found a quiet corner, a young couple approached me. ‘Sir, can you take our picture?’ Yes, of course. In the past few weeks, I had been approached several times by couples. Picture done, and with extra care because the lady looked lovely, I shuffled back into the quiet corner.
Two shots later, a loud family landed.
‘Give pose, give pose. Montu, give pose.’
It was a father shouting with great urgency at his son.
Montu, a pudgy little fellow, was in a state of repose. He seemed to have no idea how to ‘give pose’. He looked as flummoxed as me. They quickly settled for that great Indian classic – hold-the-fort/moon/Taj Mahal-in-your-palm pose. I walked off.
It was too hot anyway. I wasn’t getting tanned, I was getting stir-fried.
Luis waved me back into his car, and determined that we would be able to make it in the nick of time for the river cruise if I didn’t make him stop again for cashews and feni. Not my fault, it is he who had taken me to the cashew shop which also sold home-made grape wine and feni, that popular local brew they make out of cashews or coconuts. I had loved the cashews, they were cheap and delicious, I had loved the red wine, which was cheap and sweet, but the feni wasn’t really my cup of tea.
We didn’t stop for cashews, and we did make it to the cruise on time, thanks to his clout. Luis surprised me, he never looked like a man with influence. Wiry, polite, attentive, he looked permanently lost, the kind who would be easily harassed by his wife. Henpecked is a nice word.
He jumped the ticket queue, got me the ‘boarding pass’, jumped the queue again and shoved me into the cruiser. All looked promising till that point.
And then they announced that the cultural show was about to begin. On a river cruise!
A balding, spirited DJ materialized on the dais and threatened to make everyone dance. He started with the kids, and he succeeded hugely. He moved on to couples, and it went one step further – one well-fed couple refused to get off even after the music had stopped. Guess they needed the exercise.
Once the noise subsided, I could savour the wide wide river which flowed in silvery ripples into the Arabian Sea.
India’s smallest and richest state, Goa has close to 300 km of navigable rivers criss-crossing it. Of the nine, I saw three in my two and half days in Goa – Mandovi, Zuari and Sal – and they were all quite imposing.
The steamer was turning, dusk was falling, and the sky was peeling in strips of oranges and blues. The families were tiring of all the singing and dancing, and the DJ was making desperate last squeaks.
Finally, silence descended along with nightfall. In front of me stood a pretty lady in a billowing black dress and black tresses.
I disembarked and, as expected, saw Luis waving to me. Always there, this Luis. I thanked him for the experience and we headed home. I couldn’t wait to have a hot shower. Day One had been eventful.
Diwali with Dolphins
Day Two started off spectacularly. I couldn’t take my eyes off the daybreak over Varca beach. Clouds added to the texture. I love clouds.
On impulse, I decided to hire a speedboat and head out. Once I had I managed to wrangle a nominal discount, two sprightly men jumped onto a jet ski, flew up to a boat anchored a hundred meters into the ocean, brought it to shore. I was fitted with a life jacket, the pilot was told to be careful to not splash my camera, and we vroomed off into the wide open.
I remembered that morning in Mauritius when my resident guardian angel Doris – who I called Island Mother – had taken me on an orange pirogue. Allen, the handsome French Creole gentleman who owned it, was a fisherman by day and singer by night. Allen had put me at the helm and said, ‘Go wherever you want to.’
I was driving a boat for the first time, and I drove it straight into the deep glassy waters. I glanced at Allen, he smiled, and I carried on. I didn’t turn for a good hour. Then I cruised slowly along the coast, navigating half of Mauritius.
This blog’s name comes from that indelible morning.
My Goa pilot might not have been a singer by night, but he sure was a consummate boatman by day. He dashed and swerved, turned sharp arcs. He was one with the sea, the way he navigated small and big waves.
And then he stopped. Suddenly. In the middle of nowhere.
I thought he had run out of gas. A colleague had recently been on a boat ride in Pattaya where they had run out of gas mid ocean. Such things happen.
I began wondering if he had a cell phone, if the cell phone worked in the middle of the ocean.
‘What happened? Why …?’
He frantically signaled me to hush, and pointed his finger at spot a few meters away.
Just water. I frowned.
And then they showed up, and how they showed off! Dolphins. An entire pod.
I stared unblinking for a long time as these graceful mammals put up an impromptu performance as if only for me, and for a good ten minutes. Then they faded, the entire pod, under the soft ripples.
We headed back, and then he stopped again after a few minutes. I followed his gaze – more dolphins. They liked me.
I didn’t want to go back to shore but my time was running out. Speedboat rides are expensive, but this one was worth every wave.
I stood at the shore in a daze, drunk on dolphins. I shall come back to Goa if only for you, I mumbled.
One last picture of some canine sun-bathers, and I went back to get ready for Luis.
Luis was dot on time at 10:30 am. Beaches today, he told me. I agreed. I was at the best each already, but I wanted to know what the fuss was about Calangute and Baga.
We reached Calangute in about an hour and a half, and I almost retreated immediately after stepping out of the car: swarms and swarms of people! One large patch was particularly hazy with humans, spread like dense winter smog.
There were the usual Indian families, the women dressed all the way up to their necks and down to their ankles, the loud children, the indolent men with paunches, clumps of students, and those that everyone hoped to get a glimpse of – white women in red bikinis.
Around them, the hawkers and the gawkers.
I was drenched in sweat, the mid-day sun was boring into my skin, so I decided to settle for some shade inside St Anthony’s, a popular shack on Calangute. Now, any Goa aficionado will tell you that Goa is made lovely by its shacks. You swim, you come out and refuel on beer and crabs in a shack, and then you swim again. Or go jet-skiing or parasailing or dinghy sailing. Then back to the shack.
To me, Goa was made lovelier by the cozy little houses that line up the narrow streets. I shall rent a bike next time, I told myself, and do a photo collection of only such houses, some of them painted in bright greens and oranges.
The food at St Anthony’s was passable, and I wondered if I should have gone to Britto’s.
We stopped at Nakita Resort where a friend’s son runs a bar and grill called Back Waters. Mayank and his friend Natalia were most hospitable and offered me chilled beer which I gulped. Nothing beats chilled beer on a sweltering afternoon. I felt guilty later because they didn’t let me pay for all that beer I had merrily consumed. I was meeting them for the first time.
They indulged me between taking orders for drink and food from a large, hungry family of 15 that had descended. Natalia, who is from Argentina, said she liked Goa enough to want to settle down there. I wish them all the luck. Cheers!
It was late afternoon by the time I was done with Calangute and beer. Luis then took me to Baga, which felt marginally less crammed than Calangute. I took a quick glimpse before heading home.
A friend called from Delhi to ask if I was doing the Goa thing.
‘Come on, Amit, go to a shack at night, go drink and dance and flirt and pick up a chick.’
And why should I do that?
‘To have fun.’
I told her I was having enough fun, that I hated partying, and that I had had enough in my heady media days of reckless nights. I don’t regret them but I won’t redo them. I also told her that the so-called ‘chick’ was never my kind.
She sympathized and hung up.
I showered, looked at my photos, ordered dinner, curled up in bed, and started to finish Alexander McCall Smith’s The Sunday Philosophy Club. Isabel Dalhousie was no doubt an engaging Scottish sleuth, I thought, but Mma Precious Ramotswe was certainly more rounded. She’s from Smith’s Mostwana setting, the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series.
A friend sent a message to wish me a happy Diwali. I had almost forgotten. There is some Diwali in Goa, there are colourful paper lanterns everywhere and large demons at some gates, demons that would soon be set afire, but it is not a noisy, fiery spectacle like in northern India.
I preferred my quiet Goanese Diwali – with some dolphins. I now know when to go there next.
For an encore.