There was pin-drop silence, barring an intermittent hushed whisper. As I shuffled into line next to my husband, unable to peel my eyes away from the mortal remains of St Francis Xavier, a haunting voice rent the church air, almost piercing through my core. I didn’t understand a word of what the voice – it personified heaven, no less – was singing but it must be true that music knows no barriers. For something, I don’t know what, stirred inside me. And there, just like that, I found tears welling up in my eyes.
Now that was not the Goa I had in mind when we were planning our trip from Delhi. Beaches and palm trees, sun and sand, fun and feni, and a quick romantic getaway were the sales-pitch that had lured us. But spirituality? Goa, clearly, ambushes you with a surprise now and then. It was a shock though that had preceded the spiritual interlude.
Incredibly, my first reaction not long after reaching Dabolim was that we’d been had. We had just shelled out Rs 80 (little under $2) for a less-than-2 km-ride on a pre-paid taxi from the airport and I couldn’t believe the insane amount the driver had extracted from us. I am happy to report that that remained the lone lament on our otherwise perfect Goa trip. For nowhere else will you find the rare amalgam of rich history, enviable geography, eye-popping architecture, syncretic religiosity, drool-worthy food, all topped up with a genial local population. The trouble though was that all we had were five days to experience the smorgasbord. Impossible? Inadequate, all right, but certainly possible.
Following our prepared script, soon as we dumped our luggage in the suite (we stayed at the Coast Guard Officer’s Mess), we set out in search of a two-wheeler to rent. It was the only way to acquire the freedom of mobility. But getting to one wasn’t going to be a cinch. After waiting for almost 20 minutes, a rickety bus finally showed up but it was teeming. Pass. Impatient, we decided to hitchhike. A pleasantly loquacious youth gave us a lift to Vasco, the closest market, but not before telling us about Hollant, a secret of a beach. (An aside: I am curious that his car had several empty bottles of 7Up, an aerated drink, but no alcohol. A teetotaller Goan? Is that an anomaly or have I succumbed to cliches!) The scooter/bike rentals at Vasco turned out to be far more than we had been told to settle for, so off we went again, this time to Bogmallo in an autorickshaw. Once there, we struck gold, twice over: We rented a scooter we could keep night and day for the next four days and nights, and discovered a beach with few people in close proximity to our place of stay. We also found a deserted fisherman’s boat on the beach that became our romantic refuge. Dinner at Sea Gull on the first evening was an average Goan fare. But what excited us was the Baywatch-style lifeguards and their posts. It was the one consistent feature of most Goan beaches.
Day 2, Earmarked for South Goa’s beaches, the day dawned with a lazy sun up above and a raring-to-go couple down below. Zipping across wonderfully smooth roads flanked by palm trees, colourful cottages, pristine white churches, and through lush paddy fields that merged with the horizon beyond, we beach-hopped (the sea, unarguably, is Goa’s top attraction). Our first halt was Hollant, a few kilometres from Bogmallo. Sure it is a beach that is hitherto largely unknown (which explained the absence of any touristy types, barring the two of us) but it was littered. After spending some time walking here, we were off again. Driving from one beach to another – Velsao, Colva, Benaulim, Majorda, Varca and Verna – we realised that though they are cheek-by-jowl, each has its own distinct characteristics. Verna, for instance, is infested with local fisherfolk while Colva is clearly a tourist hotspot. Moral of the story: In Goa, never conclude that it’s a case of ‘seen one, seen ’em all’. Majorda and Benaulim register more foreign travellers and May being an off-season, the flow was limited. The latter, which emerged as a personal favourite, was spectacularly quiet. Not surprisingly, it became our haunt.
Day 3:All along the long drive to Old Goa, past Panaji and the Mandovi river, the wind against my face was almost lulling me to sleep while the beauty around me had me agog. The houses – some with imposing Portuguese facades, others cosy with thatched roofs – and the atmospherics were exotic. This part of Goa, founded in the 16th century, is contrarian to the modern-day images one harbours. It’s like stepping into another era, away from the rave parties and sexy beaches. A quick stopover at St John Baptist Church, Carambolim, later, we went to the Basilica of Bom Jesus (which houses the afore-mentioned sarcophagus of St Francis Xavier). The awe-inspiring chapel, originally built in the 16th century, was rebuilt in 1884 after remaining abandoned for almost 300 years. Right next to it is St Cathedral Church, which reportedly took 80 years to make in keeping with the aim of making it worthy of the wealth and power of the Portuguese. Next, we visited the imposing ruins of the 17th-century St Augustine Church near the nunnery (with its tower standing tall at 46m). Though Calangute beach turned out to be a major letdown – crowded and filthy with the poor Arabian Sea almost outstripped by the sea of humanity, making it the most popular beach – it offers all sorts of fun activities and water sports for the enthusiast. Fort Aguada (‘aguada’ means water in Portuguese), meant to ward off the marauding armies of the Dutch and the Marathas, has turned into a major tourist attraction. Today it also houses the Central Prison. A charming drive through the market town of Mapusa and we returned…once again to Benaulim. Another day gone and there was much left to do.
Day 4: After the frenetic pace at which we had been gallivanting all over Goa ever since we had landed, it made sense to slow down. Straight to Benaulim! Perched on cane recliners, a mere few feet away from the raging sea, we ordered beer and snacks and ruminated. This is it, this place in Goa called Benaulim, peaceful and clean, this is where we want to be each time Goa beckons. There, unfettered by any worry or care, we relaxed, literally in the lap of nature. Eating, drinking, napping, reading, all interspersed with leisurely swims, we found our elixir. Come evening, and the recliners were replaced by cane tables and chairs. In the candle-lit darkness, relying mostly on auditory senses with swooshing waves almost caressing our feet, the world seemed to have come to a halt. A romantic setting we had serendipitiously discovered, it made us fall in love a little more. With Goa. With life. With each other.
Day 5: With a flight scheduled for take-off at 1600 hrs, there wasn’t much to pencil in. So we played it easy, waking up later than usual. After a hearty breakfast, we hit the Vasco market to pick up packets of the famous Bebinca, a uniquely Goan layered cake, and hot chips for our friends back home, before parting ways with another friend we’d made on the trip, the two-wheeler (the rent worked out to less than Rs 2,000, $45 approx). We returned to base camp in a quaint bus in which everyone seemed to know everyone else. A quick lunch and we found ourselves back at the airport. I was returning to the real world with a heavy heart but I was bringing a slice of Goa with me – an audio recording of that nightingale singing mass at the Basilica of Bom Jesus. Surprisingly, it’s not the beaches or the beauty but her voice that represents Goa to me. Call it paradise on earth.
Meal Times: Top 3 Picks
Souza Lobo, Calangute. The fact that it is highly recommended and frequented by the locals themselves is a testimony to its authenticity. Fresh seafood.
Zeebop, Majorda. A hidden treasure. Most patrons get here by word-of-mouth publicity. Zany and quirky, with good food to match.
Coco’s Beach Shack, Benaulim. Friendly, non-intrusive staff on a beach that is quiet and pristine. Add a wide variety of food and Coco’s becomes a favourite.
Day 1: Arrive at Dabolim Airport, check into hotel, visit the spots close-by
Day 2: Head for South Goa and hop from one beach to another. Zero in on the one that appeals most, drop anchor for the day
Day 3: Drive to Old Goa for experiencing a slice of history and religion
Day 4: Relax at the most appealing beach, swim, indulge in water sports (there are a plethora of nightclubs to choose from in case you are looking for a nocturnal engagement)
Day 5: Hit the closest market, shop, scout for souvenirs, leave for the airport