After spending from 6.30am to 2pm on a train from Mangalore to Goa, I have lost yet another day to travel. I should have realised the proposed five-hour time was on the optimistic side. Having run out of time, Hampi is not going to happen this trip I’m afraid, but I guess you should always leave a bit for later and give yourself a reason to come back.
As it happens, my ticket to ‘Goa’ didn’t indicate at which station I would disembark. I assumed near Panjim or Old Goa, but it turns out to be Margao, which is a mere 60km from where I need to be. Faced with the prospect of multiple buses and many more hot sweaty hours, I choose the relatively exorbitant option of a taxi for 800RS. A small fortune compared to my other costs, but put into quick perspective when I calculate it iss about half the fare I’d pay just to get home from Sydney airport.
First though, I need to buy a three-tier AC sleeper ticket for Mumbai to ensure I get my flight home. I lug all my gear up a flight of stairs to the Reservations area. There are two long queues and two short. One of the short lines was headed ‘Special Function Window’ where you could get inter alia, according to the sign, a name or sex change. Whacko.
I front up to the other short line and am told yes, there is one three-tier seat left. ‘You must fill in this Reservation Form,’ says the bored looking man behind the counter window. I do so and pass it back to him, not able to believe my luck.
‘Now you take this form to window 2 or 3,’ he says, shoving the form back at me.
Oh well. I knew it was too good to be true.
After standing in a ten-person line for ten minutes with my backpack still on and getting absolutely nowhere, the lady in front of me, an angel in disguise, directs me to the dreaded Special Window.
‘Are you sure?’ I ask, one eye warily on the twenty or so tired and patient people ahead of me.
‘Yes, yes. Special Window also for tourist.’
In no time I have the last available berth for the time I need and have avoided getting my name or sex changed. Phew. Feeling somewhat guilty at getting special treatment, I make sure I thank my angel-in-disguise before I take off.
Loaded into my taxi at last, we pull out of the station car park into busy Margao. We are travelling behind a blonde pony-tailed girl in shorts and a halter-neck top that reveals her whole back as well as a green tattoo on her left shoulder. Hmm! We’re not in Kansas any more Toto.
On the hour-drive north I see firsthand that while Goa’s scenery is familiar, life is quite different. For the first time in two months I am seeing the bare legs of Indian women everywhere and very few men are wearing the lunghi, opting instead for shorts or trousers.
I have to say, this seems a shame, as Southern Indian men usually look very elegant wearing this long piece of material. The lunghi, or mundu, (or numerous other names) depending on what language you're using, is tied around the waist and falls to the ankles. It is most often worn with a short-sleeved collared shirt. It is very common to constantly see men tying and re-tying their lunghis as they can be tucked up to knee length and tied again at the waist. In hot weather you also sometimes see the men holding out the edges of their lunghis to each side as they walk, looking like cormorants drying their wings.
There are many beach areas in Goa to choose from (Lonely Planet reviews twenty of them), and I opt for Fort Aguada, based on its centrality and proximity to some interesting looking ruins. My accommodation, chosen from a three-year-old LP, is the Villa Ludovici Tourist Home. My Portugese hostess, Donata Gousalves, is a sweetie. She also has no trouble with my name once I give her the lispy Spanish pronunciation.
The house is large with high ceilings. The main part of the house is one large open room followed by another and there is a huge bedroom off each side of both. At the back of the second main room is a large print of Jesus looming over all who enter and below, a shrine made up of a glassed-in cabinet on a table containing a variety of pictures and statues of Mary and Jesus. On the table at the front of the cabinet are flowers and small tea light candles that are lit of an evening.
My room has a ceiling exposed to the steeply sloping roof that is 25-30 feet above. Two king-sized singles pushed together dominate the room and there is a mosquito net bunched up at the head ready to be looped over the bottom corner poles. Each room has its own bathroom and heavy wooden wardrobes, tables and dressers. The kitchen and some other private family rooms are along the back of the house.
A stroll out in the afternoon confirms my worst fears. This is a Tourist Mecca and has more white people than I’ve seen in two months. The average tourist is an ageing overweight baby boomer who either has a décolletage that would camouflage well on a chesterfield lounge, or pasty white skin with sunburn ranging from pink and blotchy to horrifically beetroot. There are a lot of men getting around with no shirts on and this appears unseemly to me coming from less touristy, more conservative areas (not to mention plain stupid given how red they all are, but let’s not go there). And the mopeds! My godfather, the place is infested with them!
Goa has a bit of everything, in keeping with your average Tourist Mecca, but the tourist tack is expensive, and from what I have seen so far, not the quality I have become used to seeing.
These comments are based on the Fort Aguada and Candolim areas, but on branching out to Mapusa and Baga and Calangute, the pattern is similar if not worse, with the general fashion sense slobbed-down yet another notch.
Wandering to the beach there are many naval and container ships hovering offshore with the odd parasailer in the middle distance. The wind is blowing the sand up the beach like a desert storm.
My dim view should be put into some context however, as I know some of you would love the very things in Goa I’m repelled by. Being a pasty-white person myself, I have never been fond of the beach, as I relate it to slathering myself in goopy cream so that I can impersonate a cinnamon doughnut. Having also nearly drowned in a rip when I was nine doesn’t add to my nostalgia levels either.
So why did I come here? Well, one always has to see things for oneself, no matter what good or bad things anyone else has to say. I had kind of hoped for ‘deserted-beach-ennui’, which I think may still be available in Goa’s furtherest extremities such as Polem and Querim, for those who have a lot of time to seek them out.
In the evening I head down the main drag with lobster on my mind. Most restaurants seem to have it along with every other type of seafood you can think of.
My lust for lobster takes some time to assuage however. The first three restaurants have to ‘check’ and find they actually have no lobster despite what their signs say. One even winningly tells me I should have ordered a day in advance. So much for the Tourist Mecca tag!
The fourth restaurant has garlic butter lobster on its special board. The waiter confirms, ‘Yes, we have lobster.’
I order and get through a glass of sweet Indian Sauv. Blanc before I am told half an hour later, oops, sorry, no lobster, ‘The waiter, he doesn’t know. You like red snapper instead?’ To add insult to injury I’ve had to sit hear listening to – ooh, guess what – My Heart Will Go On. Now there’s a surprise.
I came for lobster, and I will eat lobster tonight if it kills me. So I’m off again. The fifth restaurant virtually has to show me their range of crustaceans before I will sit down. After a second glass of white (only my third drink of this trip) I’m half trashed. I have also ordered the local Pomfret fish as I’m not expecting there to be enough lobster to touch the sides. Both dishes do indeed come, with about eight chips each, and are very good. The lobster costs about $AUD17 and the service is also excellent, which is a relief.
The next day I luck out with my taxi driver who has agreed to take me to Old Goa. He is adamant about taking me to a shop on the way. ‘Only five minutes. No need to buy!’
Five minutes. As if. ‘Listen mate, I hate shopping.’
Little does this poor unfortunate man know, that the woman he has in the back seat has received marriage proposals prompted by her expressions of hatred for shopping. Now, if he’d said he knew a good bookshop…
We have just driven down the road that divides the Bom Jesus and Se Cathedral grounds. These edifices are jaw-droppingly enormous. Maybe four storeys high for just a one-level building. It was said of Old Goa in its hay day that if you came here, there was no need to see Lisbon.
So now I know where I am and where my accommodation should be. My driver refuses to follow my directions. ‘Okay. You find it then,’ I say, sitting back in my seat, folding my arms in annoyance ready to eat his head off if we pull up in front of a shop. I also pride myself on possessing the (supposedly) unfeminine characteristic of being a pretty good map-reader and navigator, having spent most of my life in the passenger seat.
Soon my driver is asking, nay, demanding, that we stop to ask directions. I am too stunned to argue. In Australia, the vast majority of men would rather run their tanks dry and end up in the Sturt Desert than ask for directions.
The next day shapes up to be more enjoyable as I stroll around this quiet little place being awed by the power and money of the Catholic Church. The Se Catherderal is over four storeys high with soaring ribbed and vaulted ceilings. The altar is dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria (the same St Catherine as Sinai’s monastery I assume, where the Catherine Wheel is a reminder of how she was martyred).
The Basilica of Bom Jesus doesn’t look quite so flash, having lost all its facing, but is still just as large and imposing. The draw card here is St Francis Xavier, who proselytised here and died in 1552. His body refused to rot despite four sacks of quick lime and a medical examination was carried out in 1556 to establish whether the body had been embalmed. The Viceroy’s physician declared all internal organs were intact, and that no preservative agents had been used.
Some bits of St Francis have been carted off to share the miraculous powers around, but the majority of him is now only paraded around for the faithful every ten years (next time is 2014 if you’re interested). This is largely thanks to a lockdown that occurred after a female devotee lent over to kiss the saint’s foot and surreptitiously bit his toe off, which she then made off with in her mouth.
Late afternoon I return to my dodgy little roadside shack where I enjoyed a tasty, but rather bony, Kingfish in marsala gravy the day before. I order another ‘special’. The dish of prawns in bright red marsala gravy is placed on my table alongside the fragrant jeera rice.
It just goes to show. This meal, provided at a shabby little shack on the side of the road, turns out to be one of the best I’ve had in India. So I can highly recommend the roadside shack prawn marsala when you come to see the desiccated carcass of St Francis in 2014. It certainly beats eating a saint’s toe…er hands down.