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Goa — beyond the beaches

Goa — beyond the beaches

The author checks into the old Latin Quarters of Panaji and checks out of the clamour of daily life

Dusk is setting in Fontainhas. Strings of fairy lights have started coming on at its roadside European-style bistros, in one of which I lie sprawled with my head stretched back over my chair, lazily watching life pass by. The fizzy drink that has so thoughtfully been poured into my generous measure of feni is bubbling before me, besides some crisp masala papad cones stuffed with chicken. Either my ears deceive me or the air actually carries the sound of someone playing the violin somewhere close by. It is filtering through the chatter of the diners inside, wafting around my ears and soaking into my skin gradually, casting some kind of a spell on me. I’m in the Latin Quarters of Panaji — there is no beach anywhere close, I don’t do drugs, I haven’t had any alcohol (so far); yet, if there could be death by overdosing on contentment, I wouldn’t be here writing this piece.

Those of us who travel might agree, there are two types of pretty places. Most that are, well, just pretty. And some that are much more than that. Like people. They have been yours from some past life maybe, and the moment you come into recognising distance, they stake claim on you. They pull you into their arms, their streets and their turns. They walk with you in companionable silence or they whisper in your ear. And when you look into each other’s eyes and smile, you know relationships don’t get better than this. Fontainhas, to me, is that kind of place.

Let me begin from where it all started. With a tall, dark and not-so-handsome stranger — Mike-who-never-smiles of the brooding brow and bushy black moustache. Destiny has chosen this man of many frowns as my taxi driver. He picks me up from Dabolim airport (after making me drag my suitcase nearly half a km with a curt “follow me”); making me wonder if he is going to walk me all the way to my destination. Much to my relief, he is only leading me to his battered car, hidden in the bushes beyond, for reasons unknown.

As Groucho Mike, his creaking Celerio and I clatter over the ups and downs of Goanese terrain, I start having this funny “going back home” feeling. Turning completely deaf to his constant cribbing — politics, roads, cheap tourists — I concentrate on the sights zipping past my window; the vada pav seller at the roadside, the piles of coconut, the sleepy lady in a colourful sari who sits yawning over her basket of bananas, the pretty bungalows. I regain my hearing only after he has deposited me outside the pale green building called La Maison, a heritage house that is to be one-eighth mine for the next two days.

The old-world ambience is lovely. Classy wood furniture, sheer green curtains, books and newspapers on side tables, soft music in the lobby, smiling staff who speak in gentle whispers and just eight rooms, which means privacy; I approve of it all. In my room, I make myself a quick cup of tea, help myself to a packet of peanuts from the bar and head out on my voyage of discovery. I walk into a street lined by the most interesting houses on both sides. A spray of flashing pink bougainvillea has draped a casual arm over an old doorway, and for a moment, I just stand there gasping at its audacity. Taking the first left, I freeze again. Standing tall, at the end of the street, is the happiest chapel I have ever seen. Stark white against the bright blue sky, St. Sebastian Chapel smiles in the sun, colourful paper buntings fluttering in the breeze, having completely gotten over the executions that once took place there, as I have read. To my right is Alfonso Guest House, drowning in ferns and creepers; colourful lamps and fascinating lights dropping down from the tree in front. I make my way to the chapel, reading the pretty ceramic name tiles in front of the houses. Beside the chapel is a painted wishing well, the kind I have only read about in childhood stories, and beyond that an old house with an open window, where a man with an Elvis Presley puff stands playing his violin. His eyes meet mine, he nods politely at my nervous bow, and loses himself in his music once again. I notice he plays the same tune again and again, his eyes have a glassy haze; and also that his clothes are practically falling off his body, ripped to shreds. It’s a story I wouldn’t like to pursue on this sunny day, so I trace my steps back with the notes following me till as far as they can.

I cross an old-world chemist shop and an alley, where there is a wall with the brightest of colours splashed across it in the form of entwining creepers and assorted flowers on painted tiles. A couple of cycles lean across it in easy camaraderie. Old Quarters, says a painted sign. I spend a few hours exploring as many streets and places as I can discover. I walk into Gitanjali art gallery, open and airy, with large-size Raghu Rai photographs sitting comfortably in their easels. Mother Teresa in prayer and the Dalai Lama in a relaxed moment catch my eye. Further down the same street is a quaint little shop called Velha Goa Galeria that displays exotic curios, ceramic tiles and Mario Miranda prints. On its walls, marriage processions amble past Goan villages, with coconut trees waving in the air; vegetable markets with comely women in tightly wrapped saris balance wicker baskets of fish on their heads; and grinning locals with large teeth and larger moustaches spill out of creaking buses. I pick up two prints with a silent salute to Mario and take a longish walk in the direction where my Google Map shows the Immaculate Conception Church to be. I cross ice cream and milk bars, a hole-in-the-wall shop with a ‘salesgirl wanted’ sign, from where a wrinkled old man looks at me expectantly.

Trudging on, I turn with the road, and suddenly stop in my tracks. Sparkling in the sun before me stands the most gorgeous building I have ever seen — the Immaculate Conception Church. I move back to the bench so thoughtfully placed in the middle of an island at the crossroads, wear the pretty flowery head band a roadside seller has palmed off to me, put on my shades, and sit there gazing at the church, hypnotised by its beauty.

From the corner of my eye, I spot George Bar, famous for its traditional Goan cuisine. A hazy image of pork xacuti and beer flashes before my mind’s eye — a premonition of things to come. I feel love towards one and all. When the time comes to go back to the airport, I think I shall call Groucho Mike. He is, after all, my first friend in Goa.

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