Slide Show click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jnd0syMVfU0
GOA: INDIA'S SPLASHY PLAYGROUND
"Goa is famous for three things," says our host Salvador ("Sonny") Carvalho, "Powder-sand beaches, all night parties…and susegadho". I look at him quizzically. "Susegadho?" He drawls "It means taking life e-e-a-s-y!"
Sonny, moustachioed and stocky, and his wife Deena with her cascade of thick dark hair, are old friends, and we're lolling on the verandah of the family's sprawling hacienda, sipping pre-lunch drinks and nibbling locally grown cashew nuts.
"Another Shandy?" Sonny offers. "Or would you like to try a glass of Feni?" Feni is a fiery country liquor made from either fermented palm or coconut.
"Er..no, I think I'll stick with beer and lemonade." I say. "I don't want to pass out before lunch!"
Deena shakes her head. "Oh heavens no! Don't do that! You've got to do justice to our Vindaloo and Goan Sorpatel."
Later, after the main courses have been served, the family's chef beams as he presents a traditional dessert -Bebinca a seven-layered cake which takes several hours to prepare.
Goan House Architecture
The Carvalho family's lifestyle is typical of Goa's affluent middle class. Their Roman Catholic faith, traditions and culture, derive from their Portuguese heritage and like many of their 40-plus generation they are gregarious and fun-loving. And generously hospitable. Over the next few days I'm invited to impromptu parties thrown by their friends who greet us as though I'm an old school buddy. These house parties are lively - the music ramps up and everyone grooves. As the night deepens, booze flows ever more freely, guitarists play pop songs from the sixties and seventies and guests break into vigorous renditions of Goan folk songs accompanied by rhythmic clapping. Parties rarely shut down before dawn.
But if Goan joie de vivre hasn't changed, much else has. On my first visit twenty-five years ago, Goa was a little tropical paradise: palm groves, paddy fields and small residential communities. Roads wound past whitewashed homes with colonial Portuguese style balcaos (balconies) where folks would sit out in the cool of an evening and chat to neighbours passing by, or invite them in for a nip of Feni. Such neighbourhoods are rapidly vanishing in North Goa, giving way to concrete apartments, multi-storied hotels and time-share enclaves. Panjim, the capital is a-buzz with shops, commercial buildings, cafes and bars. South Goa, for the most part, still retains its tranquil bucolic ambience.
Chilli vendor, Mapusa Market
I spend a leisurely five days in Goa. The open air market at Mapusa, is reputedly a "must", and when I arrive mid morning, everything is at full throttle: bright colours, seething crowds, and the sun beating down from a brazen sky. The smell of overripe fruit lies on the dust laden air and the roar of traffic and the incessant beeping of horns are like hammer blows. Urchins with matted hair and runny noses offer us gaudy trinkets, bony cows chew the cud dreamily as they saunter through the crowd, stray dogs sleep under the shade of awnings and sari clad matrons with rolls of flesh bulging between choli (blouse) and sari waistline, haggle vociferously with fruit vendors. A couple of tribal women insist on having their photos taken, and then demand 'baksheesh'! Which I'm okay with anteing up. This is India at it's mad, churning, fascinating best!
The hot smell of frying bhajias (potatoes and cauliflower encased in chickpea flour) is irresistible specially when accompanied with mint chutney. I tuck in. Masala tea in small clay cups washes things down nicely. The cost? About 80 cents. Fingers crossed, there'll be no 'rumblies in my tumblies' as a consequence.
Later in the afternoon, I stroll from our B&B to nearby Baga beach. Things have changed here as well. What was once an unpaved country road is now a busy thoroughfare edged by blinking neon advertising signs, shops flaunting trendy clothes, shoes and jewellery and a bewildering array of restaurants.
Musician on Baga Beach
Baga beach too is crowded beyond recognition. Families frolic at the edge of the rolling waves, bikini clad middle-aged Russian women with blonde bleached hair and glistening lotion-slathered bods broil under the blazing sun. Teenage youths smirk and stare at them. Rajasthani gypsies sell hand-made jewellery and persistent Kashmiri salesmen offer us "cheap" Pashmina shawls. Bollywood film music playing at top decibel level wafts over from a ghetto blaster perched on a nearby mound of sand.
Parasailers off Baga Beach
I don't swim, but the frill of waves breaking on the sand is cool and inviting, so I paddle in the shallows. As the evening closes in I watch balloonists silhouetted against the crimson and purple splashed sunset sky.
Entrance to Old Goa through 16th Century Portuguese Archway
No visit to Goa would be complete without a morning spent in Old Goa. The road from the water's edge, where ships would have docked to great fanfare, leads through a triumphal archway - now mossy and worn by the passage of five centuries. A grand procession would have made its way along here, accompanied by a military band, high ranking officers and church dignitaries, as a succession of Portuguese Governors arrived in Goa to engage in the spice trade-and forcibly convert the local population to Catholicism. Today the road is empty except for a couple of school kids sauntering homewards. Colonial mansions once occupied by court grandees have now crumbled into ruin and stand ghost-like amid weeds and creepers.
PBom Jesu Basilica
The enduring legacy of the Portuguese in Goa is to be found in its Roman Catholic churches designed after the style of European cathedrals. The most renowned is the Bom Jesu Basilica with its dazzling gilt altarpiece and majestic statues. Its main claim to fame is the "uncorrupted" body of St. Francis Xavier, a Jesuit missionary who died five centuries ago. His remains, shrunken to a little over four feet, rest in a silver casket lodged in a high alcove. The remarkable thing is that despite Goa's intensely humid heat, the body (never embalmed or mummified) hasn't decomposed over the centuries. Canonized by the Pope in the 17th century he is now deeply venerated as a saint and many thousands of devotees from across India throng the streets once every ten years when an exposition takes place, and the Saint's body in its glass casket is carried in procession through the streets of Old Goa to lie in state in the nearby Se Cathedral.
Carved Wooden Altarpiece - St. Cajetan's Church
A lesser known gem, and well worth a visit while in Old Goa is the 17th century Church of St. Cajetan, with its white Corinthian pillared façade and a dome fashioned after that of St. Peter's in Rome. The three altars, the pulpit and paintings are exquisite and unlike the crowded aisles of the Bom Jesu Basilica, this is a haven of serenity.
I say a reluctant farewell to Goa. It has been a memorable visit and perhaps I'll return some day to party again with newly found friends. Maybe I'll even risk a shot of Feni.
IF YOU GO:
Goa's international Dobolim airport is conveniently accessible by air from points across India, as well as from Britain and Russia. Several trains run daily from Mumbai.
Where to Stay:
Accommodation runs the gamut in Goa, from the five star Lemon Tree Amarante Beach Resort http://www.lemontreehotels.com/goa/amarante-goa.aspx and the Bougainvillea Guest House http://www.bougainvilleagoa.com/ in north Goa, to shacks on the beach for intrepid budget travellers.
We stayed at a modest, but comfortable B&B guest house, Hotel Baga Villa, within walking distance of Baga beach and the main shopping strip. Room rates are reasonable and vary according to season and availability.
Beware of confidence tricksters, and avoid walking alone at night on deserted beaches.
PHOTOS: by Margaret Deefholts unless otherwise attributed
1. Goan House Architecture
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