A fish jumped over my head....

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November 28th 2007
Published: November 28th 2007
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No, this wasn’t the effect of any dodgy stuff that I might have smoked/drunk/eaten, but exactly what happened when I was body-surfing waves off Palolem beach in Goa one day last week. And it seemed like a fun title for a blog (thanks, David!).

But to back up a bit.

Goa… the Costa del Sol of India. Brit package holidays with a touch of the exotic. Hippy heaven. Kathmandu-by-the-sea. It wasn’t, to be honest, high up on my Top Ten As-Yet-Unvisited Places In India, but it was a happy compromise reached to meet the goals of somewhere new to explore and a rendez-vous site for meeting up with David, a friend from my China and Tibet travels earlier this year.

Clearly, Goa doesn’t have the best press and I can now say, categorically, that this is to the loss of those that dismiss it in such terms. Panjim, the state capital (albeit of a “little bit state” as it was described to me, Goa containing less than 0.1% of the population of India), is a disconcerting but delightful mix of Portugal and India, with its narrow streets of ornate overhanging balconies and red tile roofs, Mediterranean churches and Hindu temples, mopeds and palm trees, seafood and local wine, casino-boats and tavernas, local dialects and the occasional word of Portuguese. And this dichotomy dominates the town and its hospitality. The people are a fascinating mix, their features suggesting provenance from all over India and its neighbours, from the dark-skinned Tamils to the oriental features of Tibetans in exile. My chosen hotel was in an old Hindu building, with high ceilings and dark wood balconies overlooking an enclosed courtyard, but our favourite place to eat and drink could easily have been in southern Europe, its tiny balconies overlooking the narrow street below. And our fast-established “usual” pre-prandial was a chilled glass of Goan red wine that tasted more like port or sherry, but my favourite dish was a fish “vindalo” (sic).

Nearby is Old Goa, the wistful remains of a city that once rivalled London and Lisbon in terms of size and trading significance. Now it is a curious collection of imposing white-washed churches, their facades disproportionately vast and their altars unexpectedly ornate, and not much else. My Church-Of-The-Day (in a half-day that contained five churches and a museum to Christian art - I was suffering a bit of
Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate ConceptionChurch of Our Lady of the Immaculate ConceptionChurch of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception

As you can appreciate, this dominates central Panjim and was the spiritual beacon for arriving Portuguese sailors.
a religious overload by the early afternoon, I must confess) was the Convent and Church of St Francis of Assisi which has Biblical paintings lining the pink carved walls, a gorgeous high arched roof whose ornate carving only now remains at the altar end as well as on the altar itself, as well as fabulous old Medieval-esque tombs which are sensibly roped off from tourists’ feet. However, what I found most fascinating were the examples of the intermingling of religions and cultures: the Christ-baby laid out on a tiny four-poster bed, his wrists, ankles and waist decorated with very Indian gold threads, and the statue of the Christ-child on a plinth decorated with Hindu deities. I had been intrigued by the “localising” of Buddhism in Mongolia, China and Tibet: temples and monasteries nominally dedicated to the same religion looking so very different with their various influences of Shamanism, Taoism and, of course, Buddhism’s close relation, Hinduism. If these religions are complex to the outsider at the best of times, they are gloriously incomprehensible in combination.

But I cannot ignore Goa’s main attraction any longer: the beaches. Slightly surprisingly, this was my first beach holiday since I left work (a fact of only academic interest, I appreciate, for those who consider that I’ve done nothing but be on holiday in some way, shape or form, for the last 20 months!). Which to visit and how many to visit had been the subject of numerous emails and texts as we compared notes from our respective guidebooks, but, at the end of the day, the main decision came from a chance meeting. I went to meet David at the airport and, while waiting for his badly delayed Delhi flight, I got chatting to a variety of people, most significant of which, for beach-selection purposes, was a retired British-born, Swiss-resident gentleman who was in Goa to help his Irish-accented daughter with her lodge at Patnem, one of the southern-most beaches. We talked about this and that, including his fascinating experiences as a construction engineer in Nepal thirty years or more ago, and, in due course, moved on to his daughter’s experience with buying land here and running “Papayas”. He emphatically was not “selling” it to me, not least because he was unsure about whether there was availability, but he did say that, if we were to visit, we would not be disappointed. The manager, Lezly Fernandes (Portuguese names still conspicuous in modern-day Goa), was with him and I promised to call the next day…. and we booked in for a tentative three days the following week.

With Panjim being, effectively, in the middle of the Goan coast, our hardest decisions had been whether to head north or south (prevailing opinion is that the north is more “developed”, to use a neutral word), and whether to try and visit beaches in both directions. However, we decided to head south first and our first port-of-call then decided itself - Patnem’s slightly busier and bigger near-neighbour, Palolem. The first place we stayed was disappointing, particularly in view of its “our pick” write-up in the latest Lonely Planet, so we moved to the wonderful Ciaran’s Camp for the next two days. This is halfway along the kilometre or so of palm-fringed golden sand that is Palolem beach and was an absolute oasis. I could be reading in the depths of my hammock, perusing the Camp’s extensive library, swimming or trying to body-surf the waves, supping a cocktail and dining off fabulous Goan-style lobster (admittedly, only a one-off indulgence, but it was superb) with only minutes between activities. Did we really have to leave? But we had committed to Lezly, so we packed up - pencilling in a return to Ciaran’s if Papayas didn’t meet expectations.

It did, and more so. We extended our stay from three days to six, and only extremely reluctantly tore ourselves away earlier this week to head off to meet our respective further commitments. The temptation to “forget” to leave was huge. As with Ciaran’s, Papayas is a beach-front bar with chalets only seconds away from the waves. The atmosphere is relaxed and homey, the staff kind and friendly, the cocktails increasingly strong, the food varied and excellent with enough tiger prawns on the menu to satisfy even David, and… what more could you ask for? Patnem is a much quieter beach, so we were less hassled by offers of boat trips, shawls, postcards, necklaces, bags, etc., than we had been in Palolem, and we spent our days reading, swimming, ambling along the beach and playing Frisbee. One day we were seized with a fit of energy and scrambled over the rocks and across the intervening little bays until we were back at Ciaran’s, a relatively leisurely two hours’ worth. Apart from the fish of this blog’s title, wildlife was dominated by raucous jackdaws, extraordinary numbers of hermit crabs (the latter mainly inhabiting disproportionately long tower shells which I would have thought would be difficult to manoeuvre for a hermit crab, but I defer to their obvious dexterity in this regard), and small dark green crabs that scuttled over the rocks. One day we saw two different types of heron, including a green/grey one optimistically trying to fish off a rock that was being battered by the waves; another evening we found a moray eel in a rock pool, the pool’s other inhabitants, large quantities of small fish, seemingly oblivious to it.

All in all, it was an idyllic couple of weeks, but now it’s back to the day job - if I can cheekily call it that - exploring new places. Next up, Udaipur in southern Rajasthan…

[For those of you who are acquainted with my itinerary, yes, I went to Mumbai before indulging in R&R in Goa. I will be blogging this shortly, albeit out of chronological order, but, as may become apparent, I wanted to spent a little more time on that blog than on the Goan one.]

Additional photos below
Photos: 29, Displayed: 27


Maruti TempleMaruti Temple
Maruti Temple

Another side of religious life in Panjim.
Convent and Church of St Francis of Assisi, Old GoaConvent and Church of St Francis of Assisi, Old Goa
Convent and Church of St Francis of Assisi, Old Goa

Winner of my "church of the day" award.
drying fishdrying fish
drying fish

I was impressed that the local birds, crabs and ants did not seem to have taken advantage of this splendid buffet meal

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