In matters of healing the body or the mind, vacation is a true genius! ~Mehmet Murat ildan
The six month mark of my time in India found me in the Indian state of Goa, a former Portuguese territory on the shores of the Arabian sea, with scores of my closest friends enjoying the annual company outing. Goa is a beach resort area frequented by Westerners seeking relaxation in sun and sand. I really couldn’t think of many places I would have preferred to be in India to mark the milestone.
The Road to Goa
Though not particularly enthusiastic about a 14 hour drive to Goa, I agreed to go by car as it would provide an opportunity to view the countryside and catch a glimpse of rural India. The trip did not disappoint. Much of the time it rained so the lushness of the greenery popped giving a perspective I don’t typically get in my home town of Pune.
Our first stop was at an outdoor museum (no pictures allowed). The museum depicted rural and religious life in full sized, painted statues of people and animals. We walked amongst the displays for better than an hour. The detail contained in the figurines was impressive from the painting of the eyes down to the sinews in the muscles near the ankle.
Stop number two found us at the foot of a waterfall near Amboli. There were a number of visible waterfalls in the area but only this one was approachable from the road. As an added bit of luster, monkeys abounded in the surrounding greenery and on the barrier at the lip of this mountain road significantly improving the ambience.
I enjoy encountering monkeys. Perhaps it’s because they tended to be romanticized in the literature I read as a child. Perhaps it’s because they represent the exotic to a boy that grew up in the Midwestern United States, a area devoid of any primate save for man. Perhaps it’s because they seem almost to be miniature human beings. Perhaps it’s because they have tend to be mischievous a personality trait prevalent in my nature. That these monkeys were in their native habitat and readily posed for pictures, as long as I did not venture too close, made the waterfall stop that much more enjoyable.
I have seen monkeys swoop from trees, spring from the ground and snatch a cob of corn from a persons hand and be back in the trees before the person even knew a monkey had it’s eyes on the food prize. So, I was careful to wrap my camera strap around my wrist in the event one of the more aggressive of the lot thought I was carrying something edible. I also made sure to empty my pockets of food stuffs to minimize the eau de edible on my person.
The waterfall had steps allowing us to walk a portion of the way up the falls. The steps caught the runoff of the falls so were typically a few inches deep in running water requiring care when ascending. We were at the falls during a light rain which quickly turned into a downpour as I carefully made my way up the steps. At first I thought the additional water was spray from the falls but soon realized we were in a cloud burst. I tucked my camera under my shirt to protect it from damage.
Prior to leaving, we had a spot of tea at one of the roadside eateries. These eateries tend to spring up wherever tourists congregate in India. They are also a mainstay outside of offices where business people gather for a smoke and a tea throughout the work day. Typically, the eateries are created of a semi permanent bamboo structure covered by sheets of plastic to shield customers from sun and rain. These entrepreneurs provide a much needed service for travelers
After being on the road for 14 hours, we finally arrived at the hotel De Alturas in Goa. I was antsy. The trip left me with pent up energy that I needed to work off or could pretty much forget about getting any sleep. Our tour operator referred us to a ‘happening’ disco right around the corner from our hotel. The thought of relaxing in an establishment with local flavor, sipping a drink, listening to music and people watching appealed to me so off we went.
We paid our cover fee which included two drinks and entered. The dance floor was empty The entire place was near empty. I guess the term ‘happening place’ has a different meaning in Goa than it does in the US. We looked at each other and laughed then took up a table. Immediately, three women, the only women in the bar, made the way to our table. Good, I thought. At least we will get some decent service in the establishment.
One girl sat on the arm of my chair and said something to me I didn’t understand because it wasn’t English. I quickly determined she did not speak English. Impasse. I figured she was taking my drink order but wasn’t sure how to tell her I wanted a Jameson whiskey and Sprite so looked to my friend for a translation. While he and I tried to talk over the thump, thump, thump of the music, she ran her hand through my hair. Ok. Ok. I thought, she’s just not used to hair my color and wanted to see what it felt like. Then my friend explained the girls were offering to dance with us or talk to us if we bought them a drink.
We declined, indicated with a wave of the hand they should seek greener pastures, then went to the bar to order our own drinks. The girls hovered nearby brushing against me, putting their arms around my waist and asking to be bought a drink. Sorry ladies!
It turns out our free drinks were not quite free. Well, if I ordered the house whiskey, a very low end hooch, the only whiskey they had, it was free. If I ordered their fake Sprite only it was free. If I ordered a cheap whiskey and fake Sprite delivered in the same cup, there was a charge. We gathered up our cheap drinks and returned to the rickety table to watch the girls work.
The three of them were bought quite a few drinks. I am guessing their drinks, which carried the price of alcohol based libations, were alcohol free. If I had drunk as much as the girls they would have had to carry me out of the bar. And I had at least twice their body mass if not more. It was obvious the girls worked for the bar and were tasked with separating patrons from their money.
With each drink purchased, the girls would spend a couple of minutes, no more than three, either dancing or conversing with their mark. When the money ceased to flow the interest of the girls quickly turned to someone promising better prospects. We left after our second drink laughing all the way back to the hotel.
Touring South Goa
Goa was much larger than I had pictured in my head. How the picture in my head came to be so small, I really don’t know. Two of us hired a local driver to take us on a tour of South Goa. I was pretty excited about the tour because part of the itinerary included some of my favorite touring sites – sacred places – old churches and a temple.
Our first stop was St. Francis Xavier Church also known as the Basilica of Bom Jesus wherein rests St. Francis Xavier‘s bones. We exited the car into a torrent of rain and walked, sans umbrellas, to the church. The exterior of the church was comprised of red brick. At the front of the 405 year old church, workers were hewing new red bricks with hand adzes. I expect such an old building in the we Goan climate would have a continual need for repairs.
The interior was beautifully ornamented with many ornate religious displays and artifacts. Natural lighting entered through three levels of windows. I did not seen any artificial lighting. The outdoor storm ensured the entering light cast soft, not harsh, shadows. Taking pictures was difficult in the low light especially after a guard told me I was not allowed to use my monopod. I was setting up and shooting quick without delay but still he required that I comply with the rules.
The most difficult display to view was a life sized Jesus nailed to the cross. (I guess I have finally developed some bit of empathy.) Unlike most crucifixes which show minor traces of blood, this one depicted him fully bloodied. I believe this is a more realistic depiction of the event and, for me, acutely captures the agony he endured.
On the second floor, there is a museum (no pics allowed) containing many old wood statues of various saints of Christendom. In what seemed an odd juxtaposition, the museum also housed a carving of Pontius Pilate. In Christianity, Pilate is tagged as one of the bad guys. He was the Roman that despite finding Jesus had not committed a crime, he washed his hands of Jesus and surrendered him to the crowd for murder.
Across the street, we visited the Convent and Church of St. Francis of Assisi. There was a respite from the rain so we walked across in some very high heat and humidity. Typically, I was completely soaked by the time we entered the church. The complex housed two distinct churches and I’m not sure if one or both bear the name of St. Francis. One church is actively used as a house of worship while the other has become a museum museum. Both housed beautiful artifacts.
I could easily have spent many more hours in either church, or in the temple we had not yet seen, sitting still attempting to tap into the sacred, trying to connect with the flow from God above. But such was not possible during this visit. I was traveling with a companion who, I don’t believe, was so inclined.
Next on the agenda was a visit to a local spice farm. Initially, we were a bit reluctant to visit this stop on the agenda. But, we were both getting hungry and the spice farm held the promise of lunch so we acquiesced. The entire drive to the spice farm was in a torrential downpour. Heavy rains pelted the car sending sheets of water over the windshield which left me wondering how the driver could see the road. Thankfully, upon entering the farm, the rains parted so our tour would allows us to remain fairly dry.
Our tour of the organic farm began under a tiki hut with a garland of flowers hung on our necks, papers encased in plastic describing the virtues of various plants/herbs/spices, along with a soothing glass of lemon grass and mint tea. This was the same concoction given to me during my Turkey trip to temper an unsettled stomach. I was amazed at how quickly and thoroughly it addressed my gastric distress.
The half hour tour was fun and informative. We saw 3 of the 4 most expensive spices in the world, vanilla, cardamon, and cinnamon growing in their natural habitat. Only saffron, the most expensive spice, was not shown because it will not grow in the Goan climate.
A mainly veg lunch followed. The one non veg offering was a fish dish, a fish with many, many, many small bones. I tasted the fish and liked the flavor but ate primarily veg because I really, really dislike pulling little bones from my teeth when eating.
The final stop on our tour was the Mangueshi Temple, a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. On the way there, our driver told us we could look at it from the outside but could not enter because it was not open to white people. Thankfully, he was wrong.
This was another no picture zone, at least on the inside. From what I have gathered during my time in India, Hindu’s consider taking a photo of the face of a god to be sacrilegious. I guess photography is banned in entire temples to protect from the face being photographed.
Upon entering the temple in a porch temple, there are bells to ring. The bells are rung as an invocation to the deity to listen. At the head of the temple, the god resides. It is there that people lay worship offerings at the foot of the god. Between the bells and the god, there is a large rectangular area for people to sit on the floor and meditate.
We were sitting in the meditation section with our eyes closed when my friend was tapped on the shoulder and asked if he wanted to learn more about Shiva. I would have thought the interruption of someone communion with god would be taboo. Perhaps this person figured since we were not Indians we weren’t really praying.
He took us out of the temple proper and showed us some other artifacts on the grounds and allowed me to snap a few photos. At the end of his personal tour, he asked for a few US dollars. No longer living in the US, I don’t carry US dollars so gave him some rupees, the local currency. He seemed disappointed.
Saturday found a few of us at a local eatery, an off the beaten path gem specializing in fresh fish flavored with fresh home grown herbs and spices.
Getting to Kinara proved to be somewhat of an adventure. My driver back in Pune tends toward the conservative side knowing I would gladly extend the journey a few minutes than risk getting in a wreck. For this trip, one of my colleagues drove us in his minivan. He definitely does not adhere to my slow and safe mantra. A couple of times, I braced myself for the impact I was sure was imminent…only to have the oncoming vehicle pass within a hairs width of our vehicle. I think my colleague has a future in Formula 1 racing.
The food was excellent…especially the giant prawns. I could have sucked the meat out of those babies all day long. We were served plenty of fish and bread and libations. The last dish was a fish curry over rice.
I tend to be ok eating with my hands when I have something like roti, a flat bread for scooping up food, keeping my hands from touching the more messy dishes. By messy I mean dishes immersed in the sauce, locally called gravy. Such is not the case with my Indian colleagues. Where I used a spoon/fork, they bunched the rice/fish/curry into balls and popped it into their mouths. So adapt at they are eating with their fingers, I would not be surprised if, on day, I come upon someone eating brothy soup in the same way.
Not relishing a 2nd long drive in a few short days, I had booked an airline ticket a couple months previous. When I was about to board the plane, the attendant told me to step aside…because I had been upgraded to Business Class. Yippee!!!
It felt so good sitting in a plane that had my own armrests, more than ample leg room, and a seat with spare inches on either side. The only down side was that the trip between Goa and Pune was just an hour. During the flight, I kept wishing it was a much longer trip home.