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Published: January 18th 2008
Holy Cow Batman!
Even sacred cows were not averse to catching a few rays at the beach. Palolem, Goa. © L. Birch 2007
The fact that Goa was different from just about any other state in India was obvious from the moment you crossed the border. Gone were the ubiquitous shrines and temples devoted to a bewildering pantheon of Indian deities. In their place were whitewashed Christian churches that reared enigmatically above the palm trees. Crucifixes swung from the rear view mirrors of buses and taxis while their sunstrips proclaimed that "Jesus is our Saviour" or invoked the auspices of a favourite saint.
The people were different too. Goans were a gentle race whose proud heritage was reflected in their names; D'souza, Fernandes, Rodrigues and Emmanuel - a legacy of more than 350 years of Portuguese rule. The Portuguese explorer, Vasco de Gama was one of the first Europeans to survey the Goan coastline in 1489 when the state's potential as a means to control the lucrative spice trade was first recognised. The Portuguese did not begin to exert their political influence until the early 1500s and stayed until they were ousted by a newly independent Indian government in 1961. Although they left behind an infrastructure still envied in many parts of modern-day India, not all of their policies can be said to
A very Different Place
The years of Portuguese rule have left a lasting religious and architectural legacy that sets Goa apart from its Hindu neighbours.
© L. Birch 2007
have been benign or beneficial. One of their less pleasant imports was the Inquisition when thousands were burned at the stake in the name of the church.
Goa has seen many invaders come and go including the Arabs, the Dutch (briefly) and more recently, out of state developers who are succeeding in changing the face of Goa in a way that no previous invader has managed to do. Once empty beaches are now succumbing to a form of rampant and unsustainable development as planeloads of fortnighters descend upon Goa in ever increasing numbers: which was why we chose Benaulim to settle for Christmas. Unlike its more famous counterparts to the north - Candolim, Calangute and Baga - Benaulim has been spared the kind of development that has turned pretty beaches into dirty, overcrowded versions of the 'Costa del Sol' on the Arabian Sea. The same fate will probably overtake Benaulim eventually but for now it remains low key and fulfilled our criteria (close to the sea, celebrated Christmas, relatively unspoiled) as somewhere to sit still and enjoy the festive break. The difference between where we had spent last Christmas - in Buddhist Cambodia - and this one, could not
"Deck the Halls..."
A Christmas tree and 'holly' wreath decorate the doorway of a house in Benaulim.
© L. Birch 2007
have been more pronounced. And being Christian, Goans did not only recognise Christmas.... they celebrated it with gusto.
In the run up to Christmas an air of excitement prevails. Local markets are filled with special foods and Christmas decorations. Churches and houses are strung with coloured lights and complex nativity scenes are built to illustrate the Christmas story. Many of these scenes were large and elaborate with a beautifully painted cast of plaster characters. As the big day loomed, hastily cobbled together groups of carol singers toured the restaurants in the hope of earning a few Rupees. Santa - complete in red outfit and white beard - was driven slowly through the streets of Benaulim in the back of a pick-up truck as he shook hands and dispensed sweets to local children. While the story of the nativity and the true meaning of Christmas was strongly upheld, it was nevertheless interesting to see that, even here, 'Santa Claus' had filtered his way into and become a part of the local Christmas culture.
Not to be outdone by what was happening around us, we decorated our room with tinsel and a string of cheap fairy lights from the market
House Among the Palms
A fisherman's house stands among the palm trees in Benaulim village.
© L. Birch 2007
in Margao. Cards from friends and relatives hung from the line supporting our mosquito net. Bottles of Goan port and brandy added the final touch to our supply of festive cheer. On Christmas Eve, with excitement reaching fever pitch, we joined crowds of Goans attending Midnight Mass at the Holy Trinity church in Benaulim. We went along more or less out of curiousity and a desire to experience all that a Goan Christmas had to offer. After all, this was one of the holiest nights of the Christian calendar and we had come to Goa - not simply to relax but also to experience its culture. Everyone had turned out for the service in their smartest clothes. We had done the best we could with our limited wardrobes but still felt decidedly 'underdressed' among all the sharp suits, shiny leather shoes and sequined dresses.
The church itself was huge, which was just as well. By our conservative estimates, there were more than 2000 people thronging the pews and upper balconies of its high-ceilinged interior. The Roman Catholic mission to Goa had obviously been extremely successful, for the Goans had adopted all the pomp and ceremony of the Catholic religion
No Room at the Inn
Nativity scenes telling the story of Christmas were a common sight all over Goa.
© L. Birch 2007
and practised it with vigour. The service lasted 1½ hours, though it was longer for many of the other church-goers since they had gone early to take confession before they attended Mass. The entire service was conducted in the local language, Konkani - even the hymns. We recognised old favourites like "Come All Ye Faithfull"
but most of the hymns were unfamiliar to us. It soon became obvious that staying for the entire service was going to be something of a challenge but leaving early was not an option.
We were in the middle row of the first floor balcony and hemmed in on all sides. Not willing to fight our way through the closely packed seats or endure the disapproving stares, we sat tight and watched proceedings unfold. There was much genuflecting and burning of incense, as you would expect from a Catholic service. There were hymns and bible readings, and a sermon - the real meat of the service - delivered by a bespectacled priest. It was a sermon of the "Fire and Brimstone" variety and although we did not understand the words, we certainly understood its meaning.
"It is supposed to be a Silent Night, a
The Church at Cavalossim
Wonderful old churches rearing above the palm trees were a constant reminder of Goa's Portuguese influence.
© L. Birch 2007
Holy Night," the priest intoned in English before lapsing back into Konkani. Down at the beach, the many Christmas parties were already underway and we could hear the occasional burst of fireworks being let off. The priest raised his voice ominously and produced a copy of the "Panjim Herald", waving it accusingly at the congregation. Two pages of the Herald were devoted to advertisements for beachside Christmas parties. The implication was clear. This was meant to be a holy night and such behaviour was sacrilegious. It was also clear that many - if not most of the congregation - were heading straight to the beach to 'party 'til dawn' just as soon as Mass was over. It was obvious from the way many coughed nervously, shuffled their feet or picked at imaginary pieces of lint during the priest's tirade. As the final prayer was offered and everyone bowed their heads in silence, I imagined that many were praying for forgiveness.... and that the party would not be over by the time they got to the beach. Orion's Sword
Next morning when I visited the local shop Edlina, the shop owner, told me that she had seen us at
Santa Comes to Goa
It might be 33 degrees in the shade but it evidently doesn't stop Santa from making a pitstop in Goa.
© L. Birch 2007
church the night before and wished us a Happy Christmas. It was just one of the rewards of sitting still somewhere; being recognised and accepted by a community. We spent the day with new friends Jason and Greba, both from the UK. They were taking a break from jobs with a Calcutta based NGO and had come to spend Christmas in Goa and bump up their tans while they were at it. Together, we sat out on the balcony of our guesthouse taking it in turns to unwrap silly presents. Our host’s daughters, Ani and Abigail, brought us each a plate of prawn fried rice for lunch, chuckling at the sight of us sat amid piles of Christmas wrapping paper. Later still, we drank cheap Goan brandy and toasted absent friends.
Christmas ran quickly into New Year. There was time, either side of Christmas, to make visits to the legendary market at Anjuna (once the exclusive haven of Goa's hippy fringe) and the beaches of Palolem in Goa's deep south. On another occasion, we headed north. A 2-hour journey and 4 changes of bus finally got us to the small village of Vagator. From there, we climbed up onto
A stallholder poses for a photograph at Anjuna's famous Wednesday flea market.
© L. Birch 2007
a nearby headland to explore the ruins of a Portuguese fort that dated back to 1617. Only the red laterite ramparts remain but the views along the coast and out over the mouth of the Chapora River were spectacular.
In between little trips out, we simply enjoyed being where we were. Some days it was enough to hang out at our guesthouse: reading, writing postcards and blog entries or watching the colourful golden orioles and barbets that flitted through the trees nearby. Of course, we spent time at the beach too. After a while, the Lamani women who constantly patrolled the beach selling sarongs and t-shirts, began to recognise us and left us alone. When it got too hot, we could cool off in the sea or retire to the shade of a favourite beach shack to mix with the long stayers; ex-pats who spent all winter in India. Some of them stayed even longer, like Marcel who was the colour of mahogany and had been knocking back and forth between Sri Lanka, India and Nepal for the past 12 years. Then there were the coincidences. Strange episodes of synchronicity that had us bumping into people we had met
Exploring Chapora Fort
With its commanding views, it is little wonder that the Portuguese chose this headland above Vagator on which to build a fort.
© L. Birch 2007
in other countries months before. In Sara's case, it was over a year since we had met her in the town of Mae Hong Son on Thailand's N. Western border. It was November 2006 and we had been a mere 3 weeks into our trip. We had only spent 2 days in Sara's company and - in that way you do on the road - had quickly become friends. We had parted with hugs and swapped addresses but never really expected to see each other again.... until, 14 months later and in a different country, she walked into the same restaurant where we were having dinner. Since we had all parted company in Mae Hong Son, all those months ago, Sara had been to Australia, New Zealand and back home to the UK to work for 6 months. Becoming restless again, she had set off for China in Oct 2007 and by chance had eventually ended up for Christmas in India. Fate had done the rest. It was the kind of experience that left you almost speechless with wonder and reaffirmed a belief - often lost in childhood - that life really could be magical after all.
Miles of golden sand stretch endlessly in either direction... now, where the heck did I leave my shoes?
© L. Birch 2007
Year's Eve, we sat on the beach listening to the trance music that issued from a nearby beach shack. Fire jugglers were performing, perfectly in-sync with the music and at midnight, fireworks filled the sky with Rorschach blotches of colour. Beneath the glittering stars that made up Orion's Sword, we made our resolutions and watched the waves crash upon the shore as they rolled in from an inky black Arabian Sea. The year ahead was going to be very different. The sands of time were once again running out, but there was still an adventure or two waiting before we hung up our boots and finally unpacked our bags.
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