Secrets of Goa: Beyond the Sun and the Sea
(Caution: Long post ahead!)
My first memory of Goa was as a wide-eyed kid, squealing with delight as the waves took away the sands under my feet, way back in 1989. The wonder of this small coastal state remained with me and I continued to visit it repeatedly in the subsequent years, sometimes with family, a few times with office colleagues and once with my cousin and her friends. And yet, each time I ended up seeing the same things over and over again. So much so that Goa became synonymous only with beaches, shacks, churches, clubs and port wine.
Finally, the trip in October 2014, the ninth one in the series, cracked this belief. Goa was a revelation as we explored a side away from the beaches, the non-touristy circuit, a facet so rich and diverse in its ecosystem and culture that it took our breath away.
Come along with me and I will show you what I did this time that was different from the other trips and was so fulfilling. Here’s what I did:
1. Went bird-watching: Of the winged variety, if I may add. We were absolutely astounded by Goa’s birdlife, although we could not pursue birding that much. There were birds chirping about in the foliage and wading around in the paddy fields, making us turn our heads here and there. While the countryside of Aldona where we were located was a great birding place in itself, we looked for more pastures and one early morning we found ourselves scouring for birds along Morjim beach, better known as a nesting site for Olive Ridley turtles. We sighted our first sand plovers and sea gulls there along with a few raptors whirling overhead.
A flock of sand plovers at Morjim Beach
We also visited the beautiful Chorao Island on a rainy afternoon, where we got to see our birds riding on a boat, shielding ourselves against the drizzle. Although we were there at a wrong time when the tide was high, we did manage to catch sight of quite a few species, including redshanks, kingfishers and even a lone adjutant stork. The boatman warned us of marsh crocodiles lurking about in the mangroves and tipped us about Carambolim lake being a good place for birding. Too bad we didn’t have time to go there.
Boat ride along Chorao Island
(Psst… A detailed post on our birding experience coming up soon with more pictures)
2. Visited a waterfall: Not the Dudhsagar falls, sorry, but a smaller one that was equally impressive, minus the arduous journey. Now who would have thought that a beach destination like Goa was home to so many waterfalls? The Arvalem Fall, located near the village of Sanquelim, is a single strand of gushing water plunging headlong through a rocky terrain, ending up in a clear pool of sea-green water. Although the sun was blazing down on our backs, we were refreshed by the misty droplets rising from the waterfall.
Arvalem Fall, Sanquelim
The historic Pandava caves near the falls were another attraction but we had to give them a miss owing to our grumbling tummies. We also took a peek at the tranquil Mayem Lake on our way back from Arvalem Fall. Sadly, we decided against using the boating facilities there as the sun just would not relent that day.
3. Drove around the countryside: For the most part, we were indeed practicing the art of susegad (Portuguese for contented). An unexpected thunderstorm washed away the sun’s glare and we went around at a leisurely pace around the countryside of Aldona and Chorao Island, taking in the breathtaking views. The village roads wound up and down, bringing us a different panorama at every narrow turn. Numerous quaint little chapels stood alone in the fields, while old, abandoned Portuguese villas allured us with their fading, melancholic beauty. How I wish I could buy one for myself and spend the rest of my life there in Goa.
We also stopped by the St. Thomas church at Aldona, a magnificent structure built around 400 years ago. We were told about gorgeous murals inside it that depicted biblical tales but unfortunately we were there on a Sunday when prayers were going on and hence could not see them for ourselves.
St. Thomas Church, Aldona
The eternal truth - Today Me, Tomorrow You
4. Visited a local market: We had visited markets on our earlier trips as well. But those were the ones explicitly set up for tourists, like the flea market at Anjuna and Ingo’s Saturday Night Bazar. This time, it was the Friday market held every week at Mapusa, meant for the locals. It was fun experiencing the life of a Goan, even if it was for a few hours, browsing through the market and haggling with the vendors. We ended up buying strings of fiery Goa sausages and a few clothing items for our son. Pity that we could not locate the handicrafts shop or we could have bought a few memorabilia crafted by local artisans.
Friday Market, Mapusa
5. Stayed at a 500-year old villa: Away from the beach and far from the crowds, this cozy homestay tucked away in the village of Aldona, was our little haven in Goa. The Amarals welcomed us into their home warmly even in the face of a personal grief, and we spent three happy days as their guests. (Read my post on Cancio’s House here.) Roberto regaled us with his stories, ranging from the history behind their beautiful mansion to the various places of interest in Goa, while Raquel prepared tableful of scrumptious food, the memories of which makes me long to taste them again.
Cancio's House, Aldona
Thanks to the Amarals, this trip turned out to be the one where we actually made friends. Not only with the lovely couple and their three sons, but also with their dogs Donut and Jess. Mr.Floss, the cat, remained a bit aloof.
6. Tasted hot bread at a 50-year old bakery: I was in Raquel’s kitchen when her son ran in with an armful of freshly baked poi bread. Little did I know that I was to visit the same bakery and savour the bread piping hot, right from the oven! Roberto took us to Jose’s bakery, the only traditional one in the village, and we witnessed first-hand how different kinds of bread (poi, katro, pao, kakon) were baked in the huge earthen oven. As the heady aroma of the bakes enticed us, we were offered a few katro breads, fresh off the fire - golden, crisp and liberally buttered. Never had bread tasted as divine as it did that afternoon in Goa.
7. Lunched at a village shack: It was on this trip that we finally came out of the Brittos fixation and looked beyond the shacks and other glittering restaurants dotting the beaches. We had asked Roberto about a good dining place, which by our standards need not be large or pricey, and he came up with this suggestion – his friend Steve’s place at Aldona. “The roast pork there is to die for,” he told us. We took him at his word and faithfully waited for Steve to open his restaurant, for we had gone there on a Friday which incidentally was his day off. Saturday afternoon we were there again and I must say that the food was worth the wait. And to die for.
For me, the food tastes even better if it is served with love. Steve was the perfect host. He bustled about bringing dish after dish of amazing food and it was like dining at a friend’s home in Goa. The stars of the lunch were definitely the succulent, thinly sliced roast pork and the plate of steamed prawns that he had cooked with kokum, tamarind and chillies. For the record, prices managed to stay at ground level, despite us ordering so much food.
8. Cruised the backwaters and scouted for dolphins in the sea: I had said it earlier and I will say it again – “The ride of a lifetime.” It was almost dusk when Roberto took us out on his speedboat for a cruise. “Old Goa or dolphins?” he asked us. “Umm…dolphins?” we ventured and although daylight was scarce, Roberto decided to take a chance.
As we cruised through, we were privy to life along the backwaters of Goa. Fishing boats lay tethered to the banks while kingfishers whizzed by, their day coming to an end. Old churches framed by swaying coconut trees went past us as we cleaved through the calm waters. I was lying back with an air of “Ah, this is life,” when suddenly the boat increased its speed. “We are now entering the sea,” Roberto warned and within minutes we were flying off the water, crashing against huge oncoming waves, time and again. For a few minutes I thought that was the end. I just had to let go of the handrail and I would be swallowed up by the sea in an instant.
Somehow my heart stabilized but within seconds it was leaping about with joy. For, there were dolphins! A whole group of them (10-15?), babies in tow, playfully gamboling about. This deserves another post, definitely, because I have so much to tell you about those two hours.
And so, that wraps up my Goa trip. The one that I saw in a different light and will cherish forever. I know that I have just cracked the surface of Goa’s best kept secrets and there are several more to unravel. But I am happy, because that means a tenth trip to Goa is in the offing.
Have you any secrets to share about Goa, too? Do let me know!