Monsoon magic in Goa
A dark shadow creeps across the sky until it's almost as black as night. The waves get choppier and choppier until they lash against the shore in anger. The water is chilly on your skin. When the dogs sense the deluge coming, they flee out of sight. In the distance, where the beach shack is shut, the palm trees sway wildly. Then the rain descends, instantly torrential, drowning all other sounds. It gets in your eyes and ears, soaking your swimsuit to the skin. Sea and sky merge into one angry crash of water. Goa in the monsoon - the loveliest place on earth.
When you tire of the sea, you can drive through the state, north to south or south to north, through sleepy little villages dotted with wine shops and streetside bars and restaurants, past paddy fields and dense forests of palm trees. The lush foliage makes the entire state, apart from a few small towns, look like countryside. The rain keeps pouring, forming swirling mists around the peaks of the Western Ghats that form a shadowy backdrop to everything. Aunties in loose, short dresses sit inside fast food shacks, selling beef chilly and Goan sausage with bread.
What can you say about Goa without sounding like a travel brochure? I just spent six days there in the middle of the monsoon season when tourism is at its lowest ebb and the sea at its highest. Initially, I had planned to rent a service apartment, a concept that's growing in popularity in the tourism-dependent state. People from Bombay, Delhi, and overseas buy condos in Goa that serve as holiday homes when they want to visit. But most of the time they're rented out to tourists.
Unfortunately, in the off season, the condos we were going to rent turned out to be quite poorly equipped, so we drove around looking for a hotel, and finally landed up at the exact same place I'd stayed at four years ago, on my last visit to Goa. The Royal Orchid Galaxy at Uttorda was, back then, a fairly quiet, small resort on the beach with few frills. Now, I was stunned to see the transformation, and reminded of a short story by EM Forster, "The Eternal Moment", where a character returns to a hotel in an Alpine town which used to be unspoilt but has since been changed utterly by fame. Except that the Royal Orchid has become even prettier. Its new swankiness is subdued and charming. Of course the tariffs have doubled. The whole change reminded me that even south Goa won't remain unspoilt forever. These days, nearly every tourist I meet seems to prefer the south to the overcrowded north.
On one of the days we drove around the southernmost parts of the state, the region that borders Karnataka. Our car was ferried across a small river, but once on the other side, we were completely lost. It was about as different from the northern towns of Panjim and Calangute as it can get. No people for miles, no cell phone signal, and no traffic. Just winding, hilly roads flanked by thick coconut groves, glistening paddy fields, and muddy ponds filled with rainwater. In the distance stood the blue-grey hills. And every now and then, without any warning, the car would turn a bend and below us we'd catch a sudden shocking glimpse of the silver sea. The local people in the villages around spoke almost no Hindi or English, only Kannada. From the coconut trees hang clusters of green coconuts, and when you drive with the windows rolled down, occasionally a strong whiff of coconut oil floats up. It's funny how the scent of coconut oil in Indian cities elsewhere evokes associations of cheap hair oil. But in the Goan countryside, all I could think of was delicious prawn curry.
On the other hand, north Goa feels like a different country. Even the gas station attendants speak fluent English. In some ways, used to the huge influx of Western tourists, perhaps, Goa is perhaps the most liberal part of India. You can wear the skimpiest clothes without anyone staring. Drinking and driving also doesn't seem to be a big deal, which is a good thing in Goa! The small towns around Panjim are a lot more lively than the south but can feel very crowded even in the off season. I prefer the quiet, deserted beaches of the south, like Uttorda, but I did drive up to Panjim a couple of times to see the energy of the city. This is the only Goan city that feels urban, compared to say Colva or Margao. Old Panjim is quaint and charming with its heritage houses and pretty churches and strong Portuguese influence.
Needless to say, I ate tons of Goan food. Much of it is very spicy but, unlike the Andhra cuisine I mentioned in my last blog post, Goan cuisine is also a little sweet and tangy. Coconut and vinegar are big ingredients. We ate fried kingfisher and ladyfish, fresh lobster and several Goan curries such as Balchao, Xacuti, Cafriel, and Vindaloo. Goan pork is very fatty and a little smelly. Of all the dishes, my favourite is the basic prawn or fish curry which smells strongly coconutty. For dessert, you've got to have the layered coconut milk cake, the pudding with the prettiest name in the world - Bibingka. It's ideally served warm, with a side of vanilla ice cream.
Goa is the only place in India where port wine is produced. When I was seven years old, I went on my first vacation to Goa with my parents. We lived in Bombay then and sailed by ship. I remember sleeping outdoors on the deck. In Goa, my parents found that a bottle of Vinicola port cost exactly the same as a bottle of Thums Up - four rupees. My father poured me some port at dinner and said, "You may as well drink this instead of the cola." It was my taste of anything remotely alcoholic, though Goan port has very little alcohol content and varies from mildly sweet to very sweet. It's easy to drink a bottle at a time.
I have to confess that port wine is no longer my drink of choice in Goa unlike when I was seven. Over the years, Goan fenny, fermented from both coconut and cashew, has grown on me more and more. I no longer find cashew fenny smelly like many people do. Drunk with Sprite or Limca, it's quite refreshing and also quite potent.
In the monsoon, with very few tourists around, especially on the weekdays, the beach resorts are magical. Uttorda beach by our hotel felt like a private beach. When the rain came down in sheets, there was no one there but us. The bigger beach shacks were open and are really fun places to eat. My favourite is Johncy in Benaulim. They put tables out on the beach so you can eat while watching the waves crash on the shore. The more popular Martin's Corner has live Goan music at night and is quite crowded even in the off season. In peak season, I can't imagine what Goa must be like. Quite frankly, I'm not eager to find out. You can rest assured that my next visit there will also be in the monsoon.
In the midst of my summer in crowded Indian cities, these six days without Wi-Fi on my laptop or a strong cell phone signal, were almost like a dream. You can never really be sure you were there. But long after you've left, somewhere far away, surrounded by city noises, a sudden scent of coconut oil or an unexpectedly cool breeze has the power to transport you to an idyllic place, a cool, green place where mountains and forests meet the sea and everything is covered in rain.