Since our last missive, we’ve wrapped up our stay in Hampi with an epic adventure looking for Bevan’s missing bag, embarked on a whirlwind 3-day tour of North Goa, and optimized less than 24 hours in Pune with a charged programme of street food sampling. Currently, we’re sitting on a (grounded) plane in Ahmedabad, waiting for the weather to improve in our destination of Jaipur before taking off again.
All bias aside (as you may know, my mother’s family is Goan), Goa was incredible and probably our favourite place in India so far. We started out in Morjim, a relatively undisturbed beach town, or so we thought – until the relentless trance beats kicked in and we began noticing that most signs were in Russian. It seems Russian mobsters have made Goa, and Morjim particularly, the headquarters for their illicit activities. We even heard from some Indians that many resorts in this area prefer to serve only Russians, and don’t allow Indians. But we didn’t come to Goa for the sand, sea and sub-par Smirnoff. After a dip in the Arabian Sea, we agreed unanimously to abandon our lovely beach resort in Morjim and instead take up residence in the much quieter inland town of Sangolda. The guest house we found was amazing – the best place we’ve stayed in so far – the room was immaculate, the grounds were full of cashew, jackfruit, and chickoo trees, and the manager was a most lovely and unintentionally comical gentleman.
In the evening, we were happy to accept an invitation to the home of Aaron, a former Montrealer, and his lovely lady Sophia, along with some friends of theirs. It was the first time in a few weeks we’d spent an actual evening at someone’s house instead of in a restaurant, and it was much appreciated (as were the strawberry daiquiris, Indian feast, and, after so long, a nice, cold vodka soda!)
Aaron further contributed to our enjoyment of Goa by helping us sort out the rental of a very cool motorcycle which became our best friend for the next couple of days. We first zoomed down to the city of Panjim, where we had a fantastic lunch of Goa sausage and prawns chilly fry, received the blessings of Hanuman at his violently orange hilltop temple, and engaged in our patented brand of drive-by sightseeing with a number of other tourist attractions.
Our next stop was the once-great town of Old Goa, now home to a collection of World Heritage Monuments such as the Se Cathedral and the Basilica of Bom Jesus, home of the remains of St. Francis Xavier, after whom my great-grandfather and the street we live on are named. We sped south to Ponda, a town surrounded by spice plantations, one of which we decided to visit. Our expectation (tacky tourist trap) was unfounded; we actually really enjoyed the experience, thanks to a very sweet guide who deliberately steered us away from an obese and immodestly clad British family. We were impressed with the fully organic cultivation methods and it was quite cool to see all my favourite spices in their natural habitats (yes, I have favourite spices.)
Among the plants we saw: cinnamon, nutmeg/mace (it’s the same plant – who knew?), pepper, betel (healthy in small amounts; intoxicating otherwise – the whole country is addicted to this legal stuff), clove, vanilla, cardamom, chilly, coffee, cashew (which they use to make their own feni). Two elephants inhabit the farm and tourists can pay to bathe or feed them – the guide, as it was her last tour of the day, just let us hang out with them.
The tour includes a buffet which we declined to partake of as we’d made reservations elsewhere, and we seemed to be the last 2 people in the place anyway and the buffet had been put away. But the staff prepared heaping plates for us anyway, and continued to bring more veg curry, chicken xacuti, bananas, ice cream, and kokum curry (an amazing salty digestive drink) despite our protestations, and refused to give up until we downed shots of feni with them. When we left, they sent us off with a shopping bag full of leftover bananas. Alas, we were not equipped to turn them into lassis. In the evening, we managed to find room for yet another blissful meal – more Goa sausage, stuffed masala crab, pork vindaloo, and warm bebinca.
On Monday, our bus to Pune was scheduled for 7pm, but our trusty steel horse allowed us another full day of explorations. We had a great, sun-drenched ride down to Fort Aguada; a jaunt north to Mapusa to check out the amazing market there; a quick stop in lovely Saligao, where one side of my grandfather’s family were from; lunch at the famous Britto’s on Baga Beach (sorpotel and chicken cafreal), surrounded by the perpetual stares of male tourists from other parts of India who come specifically for that purpose; and a stop at Candolim, where the other side of my grandfather’s family were from. Throughout the time in Goa, we pointed out instances of Pinto to each other – my surname is as common in Goa as Tremblay is in Lac-Saint-Jean.
The scene on the beaches was pretty abysmal – the hippies and partiers have moved north to other spots such as Arambol, giving way to package tourists from the UK mingled with the aforementioned Indian prowlers, and I’m not sure which of the groups is worse. We were treated to the sight of miles upon miles of sunbeds occupied by doughy sunburnt bodies in skimpy (or no) swimwear, dilapidated beach shacks serving up dismal-looking “continental” cuisine, and world-weary locals dodging security trucks as they hawked their various products and services to the unwitting vacationers. British ladies, it’s said, are particularly prone to fall for the old “ayurvedic massage” trick. The Indian prowlers, fully clothed although on a beach, wander throughout the action, eyes peeled for a target for their cell phone cameras. After a quick wade into the sea, we decided to give up and head back to Sangolda.
With less than one day to get to know the rapidly-spreading IT boomtown of Pune, we made a shortlist of so-called tourist attractions to try and get to. We couldn’t get easily a motorcycle but this turned out to be a good thing – congestion in the city is so bad that we’d have spent a lot of time sitting in traffic breathing in even more diesel fumes than we did. We found our way to some underground 8th century cave temples at Pataleshwar (unimpressive); then the 18th century Peshwar fort of Shaniwar Wada (poorly maintained); before finally striking gold with the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum – a collection of antiques and art from around the country, meticulously collected by one very rich, eccentric dude. We strolled back to our hotel and found ourselves in the market, where I bought some very cool gloves (pictured) and a thermal shirt for our journey to the north. More to come soon on our mission to photograph the Pune skyline…
* Konkani expression meaning, loosely “chill’.