Riding through India’s beach state, PRATHAP NAIR discovers well-kept Portuguese mansions, rustic villages and a relaxed way of life.
I STEPPED onto the beach as the bright orange November sun rose swiftly in the sky, dousing me in a golden light. But for a few fishermen ambling around and fidgeting with their nets, a few sparse crows cawing away and a bunch of playful dogs, the coconut palm-fringed Varca Beach (27km from Dabolim Airport) in south Goa was practically empty. And it was just a step away from, in the backyard of, the resort I was holed up at.
I decided to take a morning walk. A far cry from the tourist mayhem of north Goa, the southern stretches of its beaches are relatively peaceful. There are no hawkers intruding into your space selling their innocuous yet strange “ear-cleaning” services or pitching their “water sports” offers and the beaches render themselves for soliloquy-inducing long walks.
There is no better way to see Goa in its element, life as it is lived in its sleepy villages and towns, than exploring it on a motorbike. It is the universal mode of economical transportation on Goa’s roads and every budget traveller worth his salt gets one as soon as he arrives. I got myself one too but this time, my companion and I decided to stay off the party circuit, slightly veering off the beaten track, seeking beaches left to their own devices, less frequented forts and villages that even Google Maps has not yet discovered.
One morning, we rode along leafy lanes and sinewy roads to reach the scenic Mobor Beach where the River Sal flows into the Arabian Sea, forming one of the tiniest estuaries. Fishing boats are moored along the shore and fishermen go about their daily lives – some preparing their boats to set out for the day, others refurbishing their boats painting the strips of wood with black varnish, and yet others taking a leisurely bath, dousing themselves with bucketfuls of fresh water under the green awning of the cashew trees. We draw curious looks and they suggest unfamiliarity of tourists wandering into their territory.
Mobor and its unhindered beauty spoke of a Goa little explored. For more such unbidden experiences, we took a ferry ride at Covalessim across the Sal River that brought us to Betul village. We accelerated ahead by the backwaters in the company of the acrid smell of fish being left out in the sun to dry.
Betul wears the signature look of a Goan village – the roads have no signboards so it’s perfect for getting lost on a sunny day (or nightmarish, depending on how you see it), children play gully cricket on the road, local bars announce fish curry meals, a front yard of the church is being cleared up by volunteers for an upcoming feast.
Goa, to me and perhaps to many others, conjures up images of endless beaches, the remains of the matted hair hippies that populated the state in the 1970s and continuous alcohol-induced half-stupor. It is India’s Hawaii sans the Western glamour. That’s probably what brought the sea-loving Portuguese to the state.
The Portuguese were also keen on bringing Christianity to India. In their endeavour, they built numerous churches, mansions to house their priests and forts to fortify their position in the Arabian Sea. These magnificent churches, tenacious forts, exquisitely built expansive laterite-stone houses and other cenotaphs are strewn across the state, serving as historical vestiges of its culturally rich past.
One day, we rode to Palácio do Deão, a renovated Portuguese mansion by the Kushavati River in the town of Quepem, in south Goa, undisturbed by the hubbub of Goa’s tourist mayhem. Built in 1787 by a Portuguese nobleman who is also credited with the founding of the town of Quepem, the mansion was meticulously restored by Ruben and Celia Vasco da Gama. They accept visitors and conduct guided tours of the house and offer a lavish multi-course lunch of Indo-Portuguese cuisine prepared by Celia and served in a dining hall with ornate seating, overlooking the river.
Ruben walked us through the house, explaining the displays – the oyster shell windows, the primitive mobile toilet, the restored domestic relics including iron boxes, mirrors, closets, utensils and antique furniture. The house also has a library with rare books and is complete with an ornate garden featuring a beautiful display of terracotta figurines, stone ornaments, balustrades and ornamental vases.
We ended our tour with cocktails and lunch. The cocktail was made with local ingredients – kokum (a tamarind-like sour fruit) syrup and feni (locally brewed Goan liquor). Lunch consisted of quintessential Goan specialities, with delicacies like prawn curry and chicken vindaloo, with a smattering of items borrowed from fusion cuisine, such as batter-fried prawn dumplings, squid canapés, and ended with homemade bebinca – layered egg-yolk pudding that’s popular in Goa.
The meal could ideally induce a prolonged siesta but we were on a mission to cover the indolent village of Chandor to visit the Menezes Braganza house. Goans take their siesta rather seriously; shops down their shutters briefly and traffic on the road thins out – more so in villages where the sun-induced stupor necessitates the practice.