PHOTO: Marigolds & the Virgin Mary (Goa, India)
The acrid scent of diesel stinging your nose as you dodge through teeming masses of people in a narrow roadway, the piercing shriek of various tuk tuks rattle your senses as they wiggle past you and a minimum of three other animal species. The kaleidoscope palette of paints used to write "BLOW HORN PLEASE" on the ass-end of each vehicle serving as a knowing wink at the hilarity of it all. Despite the strong breeze kicking a few kernels of bitter dust into your mouth, you catch the pungent scent of frying oil, cloves, and cumin and suddenly find yourself in desperate need of samosas.
This is the image that most people conjure up when they think of travel in India. And yes, this experience can happen if you happen to find yourself in the right place at the right time across this massive, diverse country.
But Goa isn't one of those places.
The smallest of India's states and union territories, this little slice of land on the Arabian sea is a mishmash of the local Konkani culture with a colonial Portuguese twist. Auto rickshaws zooming past aged stone Catholic churches standing next to restaurants selling vinegary prawn balchao, a pungent seafood dish that perfectly represents the marrying of the two cultures. If balchao is too foreign, you can always opt for what is likely a much more familiar Indian dish - vindaloo. A cousin to balchao, this dish that is commonly found on just about every Indian restaurant menu overseas is a Goan original.
Being the smallest state, the cacophony of larger places like Mumbai and Delhi are far from the norm. It's decidedly calmer, almost serene in places. The capital, Panaji (or Panjim), can definitely cause the senses to swirl, but the heart of Goa is in the placid villages and seaside that stretch out from the city center. While many dismiss Goa as a tourist trap, I found myself really enjoying the laid back atmosphere while allowing myself to relax along the coastline. Even if it was built up a bit to cater toward tourists, I found that was more of an asset than a detraction during my stay.
I spent about a week in Goa, but let me walk you through just one of my days to give you a bit of a feel for the area.
GOA IN PHOTOS
I woke up to the sound of waves crashing upon the soft sand along the Arabian Sea, staring up at the vaulted canopy of my Mughal tent at the Amarya Shamiyana. After reading for a bit out on my front patio, I made my way down to the shoreline where little shacks and huts run along the waterfront serving a variety of food. I settled down at a table under the awning of a place called La Plage that advertised French-inspired cuisine. The clientele was a mix of older Europeans and younger, well-to-do Indians who appeared to be vacationing from locales beyond the Konkan coast. The French owner quietly lorded over the service operation with a cigarette hanging precariously from his lips while the all-male serving staff flitted about with pristine white plates and glasses of cold beverages.
One of those men soon appeared to place a beautifully arranged plate of three prawn ravioli in a brown sauce before me. A basket of puffy, warm bread served as the perfect tool to sop up the briny, crabby sauce that complimented the packets of pasta. I knew from previous lunches in the area that there were definitely cheaper options, but the $7 I paid still seemed like quite the steal for the quality of food I received. I handed some rupees over to a waiter under the watchful eye of the owner and made my way back out onto the beach.
Goa is a land of beaches, some of which can be quite crowded at times. I was lucky to have my hotel on Ashvem beach, a quieter stretch of sand in the far north of the state. The beach had enough creature comforts in the form of food shacks and lounge chair "colonies" to meet a visitor's needs, which meant the remaining space was saved for expanses of uninhibited sand to stroll along and enjoy.
The "colonies" of lounge chairs are managed my little food and beverage shacks that are built off the shoreline and closer to the treeline. Each shack offers between five and thirty-ish chairs for use. All that's required to sit down on a padded chair (usually with a canopy) is to purchase something from their menu. It was still pretty early in the afternoon and I was planning on heading into the heart of Old Goa for the day, but I decided I had a little bit of time on hand to plop myself down in a lounger and read a bit.
Perhaps it was just my luck on this trip, but most of the shacks seemed to be owned by Nepalese immigrants. Consequently, the snack offerings at many establishments feature quite a few types of momos. For the unfamiliar, a momo is a Nepalese steamed dumpling that is quite similar to a Chinese pot sticker, Japanese gyoza, or Korean mandoo. These were my go-to edible option when lounging around the beach, always downed with a bottle or two of ice cold Sprite.
While the beach has its share of Russian vacationers and European frolickers, there's still a good bit of traffic from local folks making their way up and down the golden sands. Mobs of Indian children chasing after soccer balls. Groups of men carrying bundles of wood or fishing equipment. Solo women in vibrant saris strolling to and fro as the sun beat down over the Arabian Sea. Not a bad way to pass an hour with a book in hand.
As the previous seat of the Portuguese colonial government, Old Goa is a sprawling collection of churches and traffic situated a good haul inland from the sea. My tuk tuk driver dropped me off at Gandhi Circle, a large roundabout in the middle of all the historic action. I first made my way toward Se Cathedral, completed in 1619 and built to commemorate the Portuguese victory over a Muslim army that was holding Goa at the time.
Sitting on a large plot of land with perfectly manicured lawns running out in all directions, the structure itself was a little less cared for. The white walls gleamed in the relentless Indian sun, but that only served to highlight the decay and crust that centuries of humidity and heat have wrought. A small garden sat at the front of the church, and I wander through it staring up at the beauty of the church as an orderly line of Indian school children file through the door.
Taking a hint from the children, I filed into the building myself and marveled at the vaulted arches. Light streamed through windows in the ceiling creating a halo of sun beams throughout the interior. Once the children had filed out, I was one of only a handful of visitors. The rest were locked in prayer at the front of the cathedral, smoke from candles wafting into the rafters.
Leaving the cathedral, I make a wrong turn and find myself walking on dusty dirt roads with roadside food stalls and brightly painted buses lined up along the Mand0vi river. Men on motorcycles zoomed past me shaded by the expanse of palm trees towering over the roads, creating a canopy against the ever present sun. The familiar jangle of Bollywood item numbers reach my ears just in time for them to quickly fade into nothingness as the vehicles rocketed past me.
I made my way back toward Gandhi Circle and walked across Se Cathedral to the Basilica of Bom Jesus, a UNESCO World Heritage site that holds the remains of St. Francis Xavier. Unlike its white washed neighbor across the street, Bom Jesus is built of earthy reddish stones but still features the same sooty black wear and tear. As I made my way to the front of the Basilica, I passed various makeshift altars where worshipers lit candles and left garlands of marigold followers. While many of the locals in Goa are traditional Catholics, this unique ritual of lighting candles and draping marigolds seemed like a little nod to their own version of honoring the Lord that falls a bit outside the typical routine you'd find in Rome or even Chicago.
Inside the Basilica I found a solemn experience as worshipers sat in quiet repose. Stiff wooden pews lined the majority of the interior, most of them filled with people in prayer. The intricately decorated exterior gave way to a rather simple interior, the ornate altar and a few murals depicting the life of St. Francis Xavier the only real embellishments.
A quick stroll back to the circle to find a tuk tuk and it was back to Ashvem beach.
I wasn't quite hungry yet so as the sun set I decide to wander along the shoreline and take in a bit of the local scenery. As the sun began to drop in the sky, I ran across a large group of people hanging garlands of white flowers over the back of a small elephant.
Despite the language barrier I was able to figure out that there's was a wedding going down and either the bride or groom would be riding this elephant to one of the numerous events that constitutes an Indian wedding.
As the sun drops further into the horizon people begin to abandon the beachfront. Vacationers start to pack up their goods and shuffle off from the lounge chair colonies and even the locals begin to head off the shoreline and back toward their villages. A breeze kicks up and ripples move across the surface of the water.
As others moved away, I moved in. I found a dry patch of sand and plopped down to watch the very last vestiges of the sun disappear into the Arabian Sea. The straggling rays of sunlight dug their claws into the surface of the Earth, a glassy sheen covering the totality of everything that fell under its grasp.
Not a bad way to end a day in Goa, India.