The Old Portuguese City Of Goa, The Quiet Beaches Of South Goa, and How to Ruin a Vacation, India
Happy Diwali to all!
Diwali is the festival of light in the Hindu tradition.
On the beaches of southern Goa, Diwali had very little visible impact.
The hotels strung festive lights on the trees, and the sound of fireworks and firecrackers could be heard from distant villages.
The newspapers were filled with stories of runaway pets, disoriented and frightened by the loud noises.
Most of those living in the villages along the Goan coastline are Christians, and even though they were born and raised in Goa, they could tell us very little about where to go to see the first night of Diwali’s celebrations.
On the eve of Diwali in Goa, village people build very large effigies, made of brightly colored papier-mâché sculpted around wire forms, of demons called Narkasur.
After parading the effigies through the village, and even giving awards to the most creative ones, they are burnt between midnight and five in the morning.
The celebration of burning the effigies of demons reminded me of “Purim” in the Jewish religion, from the Book of Esther, in which people build and then burn effigies of the mean and oppressive “Haman.”
They also eat sweets like “Sufganiot” (donuts filled with strawberries jam) and a cookie shaped like the ears of Haman, (Hamentaschen), a traditional holiday cookie filled with black poppy-seeds. Jules tells me he still remembers the delicious Hamentaschen his grandmother used to bake when he was a small child.
We flew to Goa from Kochin airport in Kerala on the eve of Diwali.
On the way from the airport to the Leela hotel in south Goa, we saw a few locals carrying their large Narkasur demons.
If we had wanted to see those wonderful art forms in a parade, we would have had to take a long taxi ride back to the city, and nobody could tell us at what time, or exactly where the parade would occur.
We got to admire those amazing Narkasur effigies the next day, through the photos in the local newspaper.
It left me surprised at how little curiosity and admiration people have for religions and customs that are not their own….
They were Christians and proud of it, and they had no curiosity or interest in the ways the Hindus celebrated their Festival of Lights.
Goa was a Portuguese colony since the 1500’s.
Until the 18th century, the Portuguese governor, living in Goa, had authority over all Portuguese territories in the Indian Ocean, from southern Africa to southeast Asia.
The Portuguese retained control of Goa even during the British Raj occupation of India, and refused to leave when the British left and India gained its independence.
Finally in 1961, the Indian army invaded Goa, and the Portuguese put up a futile fight.
The Portuguese army, with only 3,300 men, was no match for a fully armed Indian force of over 30,000 with full air and naval support.
The Governor of Portuguese India signed the Instrument of Surrender on 19 December 1961, ending 450 years of Portuguese rule in India.
Goa stretches for over a hundred kilometers from its northern to the southern beaches.
It can take as much as two hours by taxi to get from the south to the north.
The taxis are unionized and expensive.
Taxis from the north are not allowed to pick up passengers in the south., and vice versa. Even after they drop their passengers off in either location, they must drive empty back to their point of origin, in the north or the south.
This leads to higher taxi fares all over Goa, and to fixed prices which include two way fares, even if the passenger only goes one way.
We planned to divide our time in Goa into two parts.
We wanted to stay four nights in South Goa, and then four nights in North Goa.
South Goa is known for its quiet, sandy beaches, while north Goa is where the capital city of Panjim is located, the historic Portuguese churches of old Goa and the busy Northern beaches full of nightlife.
In the South, the Leela Goa hotel is a little haven of nature, ponds and beauty.
We heard that only a week before we arrived, the prime minister of NZ and other countries had visited and stayed in the Leela Goa to attend an economic conference, and this is why the property was extra manicured.
The rooms are luxury cottages, spread around man-made lagoons with wooden bridges crossing the lagoons.
The beach is clean and the daybeds very comfortable.
The sand is soft and the sea temperature was nice and warm.
Every day we chose a daybed under the coconut trees at the Leela’s private beach, making sure to pick a place away from the people talking loudly on their mobile phones.
Reading under the coconut trees was fun and relaxing.
We also tried Parasailing, which felt so natural and easy,….to let go of the pull of gravity and to rise up in the air like a light-filled bird….it felt to me as if we were always meant to fly….
One settles so quickly into the lap of luxury, and forgets that quiet, cleanliness and manicured gardens are far from the norm in India.
At our first dinner at the Leela, I ordered a pressed watermelon salad with feta and arugula (also known in the U.K. NZ and Australia as “Rocket”.)
I almost cried with joy when I ate the crispy bitter arugula, I had missed the taste so much.
The Leela breakfast was a lavish buffet with comfy outdoor seating.
The outdoor area is patrolled by guards wearing uniforms and armed with air guns.
The guards are there to scare off the thieving crows who fearlessly snatch food from people’s plates.
If there are no plates full of food, the crows steal packets of sugar from the tables and fly away.
One day we took a long, 17 kilometer walk along the forty kilometer stretch of the southern sandy beaches in Goa.
We walked barefoot and at the end of our walk, my feet felt like they had been scraped with sandpaper.
The beaches were mostly empty, with hardly any beach shacks to buy drinks or food.
There were thousands of small starfish and Cone hermit seashells, birds and the occasional group of limping stray dogs.
Crows and birds ate the squid and small octopus that had washed onto the shore.
We had a lovely lunch at the “Sunset Hut,” adjacent to the Ramada Hotel.
We ate a grilled fillet of fresh Snapper on whole grain bread, with melted cheddar cheese, and an order of grilled jumbo prawns.
They also served big sunset lemon ice teas, that looked like Tequila Sunrise cocktails.
The Ramada hotel is a nice, midrange beach hotel catering entirely to Russians. The young couples from Russia looked extremely attractive, but I was sadly observing how a life of daily alcohol consumption and overeating, leads to such a quick decay of the lovely human form.
It is nearly impossible to see an attractive Russian person in their late sixties or seventies, or even one who is not very overweight.
To be perfectly clear, it is not the loss of an attractive body that saddens me.
Along with bad eating habits comes the loss of health and an abuse of the human potential.
I see them waddling along, hardly able to make it back from the beach to their rooms.
But then again, wealthy, elderly Indian people never drink any alcohol, and they are just as obese and physically disabled.
They are mostly vegetarians, but they eat large amounts of food and consume huge amounts of sweets.
The wealthy Indians avoid all physical activities and have servants who do all their domestic work for them.
That results in a life with heavy and unhealthy bodies, which is an extremely compromised affair.
After our long beach walk, we walked towards the main road to try to hail a taxi.
A group of women selling beach dresses, jewelry and t-shirts, came asking us to come look at their shops.
They introduced themselves as Tina, Monica and Sonia, saying that they had sold nothing all day long and please, please, just come and look, because most of the tourists are Russians who don’t understand any English and don’t buy anything.
Jules seemed very accommodating, asking them what their REAL names were, saying that it is not likely they had been named Tina, Monica and Sonia by their Indian parents.
They laughingly admitted that their real names were Sunita, Solan and Junita, and that they had taken these foreign names as their “business names.”
They waited for us at the entrance to each shop, making sure that we also came to each of their shops, after we’d browsed the cheap crap that each of them sold.
We even bought a few items, just to support them.
After the red sun had set below the horizon of the Arabian Sea, complete darkness descended on the area.
We continued on the road to try to find a taxi.
Not many taxis were available, and we were told to continue walking towards a cluster of restaurants down the road, to see if any taxis were waiting there.
We negotiated a small discount on the first inflated asking price.
Taxis in Goa are well known to overcharge tourists, and we had even read an article in the Goa newspaper that same morning, debating what could be done to remedy this problem.
Our taxi driver did not waste much time in trying to convert us to Christianity.
He introduced himself as Norbert, born in Goa to a Catholic family, who had been born again in Jesus’s name.
Now he was an evangelist-preacher-taxi-driver on a mission from God, to spread the word of the Bible among all those ignorant people who are bound for an eternity in hell.
We were tired and our feet hurt from walking all day long barefoot on the sand, but Norbert was entertaining, so we asked questions and listened to his lengthy, preaching monologue.
“I see you are wearing a t-shirt with the Buddha on it.
Do NOT put your faith in Buddha, put your faith in Jesus.
Jesus died for your sins, Buddha did NOT die for your sins.
You say he did NOT die but was resurrected?
Yes…..but he did die on the cross.
Later, God restored him to life.
Buddha did not die for your sins.
No! NO! NO!
It is NOT TRUE that God is one, and there are many paths to God.
Jesus said: I am the way, the truth and the light.
Nobody comes to the Father except by me!
There is only ONE WAY and ONE right path and that is to be born again in Jesus.
Yes, indeed, All other faiths and all other religions in the world are wrong!
Their followers are going to burn in Hell.
An eternity of damnation in hell.
What are you asking?
How can a loving God condemn His children to an eternity in hell?
I’ll tell you why,
It is because He gave you the power to choose.
Yes, you have the power of choice, and if you do not choose to follow Jesus,
God will condemn you to an eternity in hell.
This is how things are done.
You have to make the decision and you have to choose to follow Jesus.
Brother Michael, from the USA, came over to Goa and taught me all this.
You see all the churches in Goa, right?
Catholic Churches, Jesuit churches, etc.
Some very old.
Many Indian people are Christians in Goa.
Very, very many.
I was born a Catholic, but brother Michael came from the USA and he showed me the light.
Now I am born-again evangelist.
You know Billy Graham?
I follow hm.
Very wise evangelical man.
I believe that everything happens for a reason.
There are no accidents and no coincidences.
I have met you for a reason,
So I can teach you about Jesus and tell you the word of Jesus.
Every morning I pray to Jesus that I can speak His words to everyone who comes into my taxicab.
And here you are!
Yes, it is an Israeli flag I keep on my dashboard.
I keep it there next to the Indian flag,
So I can start a conversation about Jesus with people.
Tell them about Jesus.
The Jews killed Jesus.
Yes, you are right, Jesus was a Jew,
But He was the Son of God.
His mother was Jewish and his father was Jewish, which makes him technically a Jew,
but His father Joseph never had relations with His mother.
The Holy Spirit impregnated mother Mary.
She was a virgin.
The Jews are the chosen people.
They were chosen by God.
But they rejected Jesus,
And it brought them much troubles.
They suffered many troubles as a result of rejecting Jesus.
But the chosen people are essential to God’s plan.
Every nation in the world that is friends with the state of Israel,
And which honors the Jews, prospers and grows.
Look at America, number one country because they are friends with the Jews.
Any countries who are against the Jews, will suffer greatly.
The Jews are the chosen people.
The Bible said so.
What do you think of what I say?”
I felt that it was useless to try to insert higher truths into the conversation with Norbert, so I complimented him on his eloquence in expressing his beliefs in English, which made him glow in gratitude.
He thanked me repeatedly and said that it encourages him to continue to be a taxicab-preacher.
When we finally got back to the Leela hotel, I paid for the taxi ride and slid out the door to Norbert’s last words:
“Do NOT put your faith in Buddha, put your faith in Jesus!
He died for your sins!”
We were slated to be among the first guests of the about-to-open W Hotel in North Goa, which we were scheduled to visit next, after the Leela in South Goa. Unfortunately, we received an e-mail that they had just made a last-minute decision to delay their opening for two months. With little advance warning, and no help from the W, we decided to stay instead at the Grand Hyatt.
When it was time to switch to the Grand Hyatt in North Goa, we were looking forward to seeing the busy beaches not far from the hotel.
We imagined many beach restaurants and expat cafes where we could waste the days away, laying on cushions and reading.
Alas, it was not so….
North Goa is full of casinos and people.
The beaches of Calangute, Baga and Anjuna, are beyond busy.
Hundreds and hundreds of people stand in the water with all their clothing on. No one is relaxing at the beach in the conventional sense.
Hundreds of cheap beach wear stalls with identical items line the streets, along with an enormous number of tattoo parlors, and the restaurants look very unhygienic.
The nightclubs look cheap and loud, and the water is oily from all the engines of the boats that line the water not far from shore.
We hurried away from those busy beaches, as soon as we could.
The expat cafes were not in existence, only dirty seafood places packed with loud families and drunken men.
Luckily we had just spent lazy days at the beach in South Goa, so we gave up on the beaches and on another day, we hired a taxi for the day, to take us to see the historic area of old Goa, and the Portuguese and Latin quarters in Panjim city.
Old Goa is the home of the Basilica of Bom Jesus, and other very beautifully restored old churches.
The scale of the churches is very large.
The design is Gothic and Corinthian, with very ornate Baroque altars and very beautiful sculptures throughout.
Old Goa was busy, and we had to squeeze among the many visitors.
The extreme heat of the day reminded me that anywhere away from the beaches, it is going to be very hot until sunset, when a cool breeze settles on the city.
We also visited a 400 year old Hindu temple, a short drive east, called Sri Mangueshi.
It was another extremely busy and hot place, and we stopped to revive ourselves at one of the fruit stands on the way to the temple.
An old lady wearing plastic gloves was cutting green mangoes, tiny bananas, garden pineapples and delicious green and tart berries which I liked a lot.
We had a late lunch at Mum’s Kitchen, where we tried and enjoyed more Goan specialities.
Before sunset, we walked through the capital city of Panjim.
The old Latin Quarters of Sao Tome and Fontainhas were a reminder of what Goa looked like during the rule of the Portuguese.
Our taxi driver, Chinky, told us that his grandmother still lives in an old Portuguese house with twenty four rooms.
She is 89, and lives alone.
She has two servants who take care of the house.
She talks with affection about the times when the Portuguese ruled Goa.
His mother told him that she used to take one hundred rupees and buy groceries for the whole family for one month, while today ten thousand rupees does not buy enough food for the whole family for one week.
Chinky, who was a very chunky if not obese man, said that his family does not like to eat many vegetables.
He has two teenage sons and a thirteen year young daughter.
When he brings home from the market fresh vegetables, his daughter is sad and angry, saying: ” Why did you bring this? You know I hate vegetables.”
When he brings home fried chicken from KFC, his daughter is happy, and his son “polishes” him with compliments and love.
I liked his term “polishing,” for describing how his son compliments him when he is happy.
Chinky told us that many Indian people from New Delhi and Mumbai, come to gamble in the many casinos of Goa.
They fly in for the weekend, lose a very large amount of money and then fly back home, crying when they have to leave a hundred rupee tip for the taxi ride to the airport.
On the Mandovi River you can see many large casino boats floating on the river.
The Portuguese, Spanish and Mediterranean influences are visible in the architecture, the street signs and some of the cobbled streets.
In Fontainhas, there are some restored heritage houses painted in bright hues of red, yellow, pink and blue, trimmed with white, which are very lovely.
There was a lovely art gallery with nice paintings, and a few other shops that called themselves galleries, but were actually stores selling ceramics, glass and kitchenware.
In a small and cool-looking guesthouse which doubles as a cafe, we had a mocha coffee and listened to some backpackers dressed in raggedy dirty clothing, asking for a refund for their 600 rupee dorm room.
For us, this trip to India has been an extremely expensive affair with very pricey luxury hotels nearly every night.
We did not set out to have a luxury trip, but we had to play it defensively as we quickly came to realize that unlike in other parts of the world, in India today low prices almost always equate to places that are not very comfortable or clean.
Those who make traveling sound like a series of never-ending joys, do not tell the truth.
There are no earthly paradises and many things can turn a lovely holiday into a nightmare. Too many pushy people, too many rowdy people at the buffet, room service that mistakes your order, errors in registration, you name it, I have seen it all turn into crises of major proportions by uneasy, stressed-out people.
I could fill a long book full of stories of what I have seen and heard, of vacationing people with their never ending grievances and complaints.
Only this morning, over a lavish breakfast, I heard a man call the manager over, to express his grievances over yesterday’s lunch.
He had invited his extended family and guests to the hotel for a late lunch.
They were late, and wound up arriving after four PM, when the hotel had already finished serving lunch and only the pool bar menu was available.
The man was beside himself with sadness and unsure why his party was not allowed at least to order from the room service menu as well.
Another woman was venting at the waitress with nearly a crying voice, why had they not put a “reserved” sign on the adjacent table, which she had wanted to reserve for her extended family.
“Must I be like a guard dog and watch the table, asking people not to sit there all the time? Like a dog?,” she cried.
Memories of dozens of other such complaints and grievances that I have heard on this trip flooded my mind.
In the Oberoi hotel in Shimla, a woman told the waiter who came to ask her if she wanted him to fill her water glass:
“Why are you bothering me all the time?
I know you mean to be helpful, but you are ruining my dinner.
I feel like you are pressuring me to buy another bottle of water all the time, and you are ruining my dinner.
I know why you are doing this!
It is because I am an Indian woman .
If I were white, you would not be doing this.
You would have treated me with respect!
You have already completely destroyed my dinner and my mood.”
She was yelling and crying uncontrollably, almost hysterically.
Not the restaurant’s manager nor his supervisor were able to soothe her.
She was convinced that if her skin was not dark, she would have been treated like royalty.
I would like to make it clear that I am not making any judgements about these people.
Their grievances and complaints did not affect me in any way, nor did they diminish my enjoyment of the places we have visited.
If you want to understand the human condition, you must observe it and learn to recognize the nature of the beast, or of the ego with its many tricks.
Our ego minds can be a very tricky playground.
They can latch on to an idea and become unwilling to let it go, even if it makes us miserable to hold on to such ideas.
We all do it at times and to some degree, but some of us constantly hold on to ideas that truly ruin our lives in all sort of ways.
Goa is the pride of India when it comes to luxury beach vacations.
In India, it is second to none.
On the beautiful and quiet beaches in South Goa, it is easy to see why people love coming here.
On the very busy North beaches, it is clear that those who love that part of Goa, come to gamble or to drink in the sleazy, noisy night clubs.
My hope for Goa is that more of the old and beautiful heritage houses will be renovated and turned into galleries, guesthouses, restaurants and cafes.
It is a revival that the city truly needs.
Chinky, our taxi driver, is not optimistic.
The tropical climate is quickly corroding those lovely old houses made of stone and concrete.
Termites and white ants eat the old wood of the windows and doors and the beams that hold up the roofs.
Corruption in Goa is a huge problem, and he tells us that the old and dilapidated Portuguese houses in the city are already very expensive, costing as much as two to four Indian Crores ($300,000-$600,000) BEFORE renovations.
It is a fortune for India, and very expensive for any house that is in need of major renovations and is surrounded by busy, transitional neighborhoods.
Our trip to India is nearly at an end.
Tomorrow we fly back to Mumbai for four days, and then on to Singapore.
It has been a very interesting journey, full of unique sights and experiences.
I miss being more physically active since our arrival at the hot beaches of the South.
Even though it is the beginning of winter in India, it is just too hot to walk very far.
I am almost welcoming the hard work that awaits us when we arrive back at our garden in New Zealand….