Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Hidden Gems of Goa

Just ‘cuz you haven’t HEARD of something doesn’t mean it aint AMAZING!
The season is beginning to wind down. You’ve experienced all the necessary evils, visited all the regular haunts, been there and done and are thinking, is that all there is? 
Happily, the answer to that question is a resounding, NO!
How ‘bout going off-road, down a barely lit trail and discovering things – right here at home – that have been staring you in the face but you haven’t quite noticed.
There is so much more to Goa than the beaches, restaurants and nightclubs that everyone and their mother flock to. These are experiences, places and services we need to hold dear, to encourage without spoiling. Here’s just a few of them.
Uncovering history at Chikhali Caves
Several years ago, four underground caves were discovered that proved the existence of prehistoric settlement in Goa. Pot shards, found at the caves in Mormugao taluka, prove that it is one of the oldest known sites of human habitation in the state. It is possible that these were once used as burial chambers, and as such can be considered holy in the eyes of history lovers. For a place that cries itself hoarse about eras that began with the arrival of Vasco da Gama, Goa certainly offers awe-inspiring eye-openers.

Luxury bazaar at Le Souk by Amarya
The Saturday Night Market is one of Goa’s big draws, being more of a fun experience than a shopping excursion. When the pockets are deeper and the shopaholic soul restless, a trip to Le Souk by Amarya in Ashvem might be a good idea. It’s a luxury bazaar that has all the aura of the fashion world cascading out of Middle Eastern-inspired décor. It includes Indo-French collections at The Shop by Nana Ki, contemporary home textiles and accessories at The Bohemian Project, apparel and home furnishings at Shades of India, whimsical Bollywood-inspired bags at Paris Goa, unique handcrafted luggage at Nappa Dori, fine jewellery at Van Andel & Peace, beauty and skin care offerings at Bottega di LungaVita, men’s wear at Jonas G, specialty haircuts by Guy Staumont at Le Studio Haircut and products by Royal Enfield and Leela Art Palace. There’s also Le Café for nibbles and juices, La Crêperie for delicious pancakes and Nespresso Bar for a caffeine fix.

Deluxe detox at The Beach House
This might be a rather indulgent way to begin Lent – or wind down the season of decadence – but it’s a good option to get all the holiday season toxins out of your body with minimal self-motivation. The retreat in Sernabatim, south Goa, is hidden away from the temptations of city life, and provides a sojourn of rest and relaxation. A number of treatments are available, with clients starting off on a screening process that assesses their physical, psychological and physiological systems which goes into developing a tailor-made programme for the length of their stay. The Beach House also mentors guests at the resort and after they return home to help maintain their new, healthy lifestyle.

Georgian artisanal cheese by Maia
Cheese platters are the ultimate classics at sunset events, where you want a bit of formality but couldn’t bother with rustling up a spread for guests at dinner. One can never have enough cheese but it isn’t always Camembert or Roquefort that steals the show. Thanks to the tourist influx, there’s a whole smörgåsbord of cheeses available in Goa. But way down south, in the sleepy breezy village of Palolem, Maia Donadze brings traditional Georgian cheese to Goa, made from Indian milk but using techniques learnt back in the Eastern European country she calls home. Maia Cheese offers a variety of products, including feta, cream cheese, quark, buffalo mozzarella, smoked mozzarella, blue and ‘bree’, and also does cheese tables at weddings and other occasions.

Eco e-waste with Group TenPlus
It’s the age of electronics and short attention spans. Combine the two and you have new gadgets making themselves at home in cars, rooms and pockets. What happens then to all the waste? While some of it can be palmed off via online classifieds portals such as Quickr and Olx, much of it needs to be binned. Group TenPlus in Saligao provides complete e-waste solutions from collection to disposal in Goa that is all recycled and kept out of landfills. The company does not put any of the electronics up for resale, and ensures that all equipment that could contain sensitive data – such as mobile phones and computers – is shredded.

Scrumptious Saraswat food at Suwadik
Even as a resident of the state, eating Goan food in a restaurant is most often restricted to fish curry rice, crumb fried fish and a host of Indo-Portuguese dishes. Places that serve satisfying pre-Portuguese inspired food is generally restricted to the ‘aunty’ in the two-bench chai shop who will churn out thali after thali of delicious lunch. In Panjim, Chef Keshav Nadkarni’s Suwadik restaurant serves the quintessential Saraswat Hindu cuisine in an environment where you don’t have to roll up your sleeves, swat off the flies or share your table with strangers. Accompanied by a Mario Miranda-style painting, diners relish tisryanche dangar (clam cutlets), fish thalis, mackerel pickle, bharlele bangde (stuffed mackerel), the ever popular sungtache lonche (prawn pickle), bangdyachi uddhemethi (mackerel curry) and sweets including kharvas (made from cow’s colostrum milk), tavsali (Goan cucumber cake) with vanilla ice cream and nachinyachem satv (red millet pudding).

Luxury yachting on board Lady M
Lay off the boring five-star dinners and turn it up several notches. Goa’s quiet backwaters, bordered by lush mangroves and teeming ecosystem are lying in wait. Captain Roberto Amaral, who owns Cancio’s guest house in Aldona, offers guests and walk-in visitors the chance to soak in Goa’s hinterland beauty on board his 42-foot yacht that he calls Lady M. The catamaran and its smaller speedboat cousin have been used in movies and advertisements and provide stunning visuals of tranquil village life in Goa. Lady M has a spacious forward deck for parties, a specially designed fly-bridge, ample aft deck lounging area, and offers everything from sunset cruises to overnight trips with food and beverages, and even a DJ! Want to make things extra special? Book a full moon cruise.

On and Off the Road
Goa’s hinterland roads have long been the haunt of riding and driving enthusiasts. The open tarmac, rich hues of vegetables growing in open fields, the rush of wind – and not to mention the hearty aroma of roadside snacks – make the state an easy, yet enjoyable ride. Since 1999, Blazing Trails Tours has been riding standard Royal Enfield Bullets across the length and breadth of the country. The group of carefree souls, who once had an office in Saligao, offers a number of tours in India and South Africa. If they’re out on tour, there are other options. Based in Assagao, Peter Paulo Dos Santos and his friends established the Classic Bike Adventure project with a fleet of more than 35 Enfield Bullets that offers over a dozen rides as well as custom tours. And if you feel like something dirtier, get your gear on and head down hundreds of kilometres of deserted forest tracks with John Pollard at his Off The Grid homestay in the Western Ghats.

Pimp Your Ride at Speed Accessories
Sometimes you don’t want a regular ride, and with the vehicles market virtually exploding in Goa, it’s almost certain you will be lost among the stampeding herd. To stand out a little without looking cheap, head to Speed Accessories in Caranzalem, Panjim, where enthusiast Kenneth Fernandes owns an exclusive little outfit that furnishes your ride with some of that swagger you always wanted. Opened in 2006, Speed Accessories does everything from chic bumpers, 3D floor mats and fancy new alloys to projector headlights, LED work and custom car wraps. Based on the client’s budget, Fernandes imports accessories from Singapore, Thailand, the UK, Germany or Italy. He accepts new clients only by appointment and never takes on more than two cars a day, ensuring quick, quality work you are bound to love. So sweeten your new car or doll up old Betsy; it pays to be different.

Village life at Olaulim Backyards
They have never advertised, and probably will never need to. This is the ideal that one usually holds standards against. It is quiet, eco-friendly, warm and very, very local. The homestay in Olaulim, Pomburpa, allows guests to soak in the kind of environment our forefathers grew up in, with a few modern flourishes such as an azure blue swimming pool, comfortable beds and convenient WCs. With just two cottages and a tree house to choose from, there’s never a crowd and one is rest assured that the environment is as taken care of as you are. From water and electricity conservation and composting, to recycling and natural furnishing, Savio and Pirrko at Olaulim Backyards certainly put their back into it. Locally sourced fresh seafood and vegetables are cooked on a traditional wood-fire and seasonal fruit are always on the table.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

8 ways to enjoy Goa without the sea and sand

Go ahead, defy your overseas friends in their adamant insistence that having fun in Goa only involves drunken dancing in a club and a gorgeous tan from saltwater swimming.
It’s been said time and again that Goa is much more than just the beach. But most of these articles tend to be published during the monsoons when a day at the beach is pretty much a wet blanket. But it doesn’t always have to be so.
Here’s a chance to get away from the crowd-choked areas that call all and sundry during ‘season time’ and still have photographs that will make your social media followers go green.

Karting: Feel a bit of the adrenaline rush and zip around a track where you can’t endanger the general public. You don’t need to be a speed junkie to enjoy karting; a little competitive spirit will do just fine. Children and adolescents find racing around bends bordered by rubber tires quite exciting, so it’s also possible for parents to keep them busy while they catch up on local gossip.
Race around the karting tracks in Arpora or Nuvem.  
Boating at Mayem Lake: Remember those school trips as a child? Or perhaps even a family trip where you were plonked into a pedal boat and forced to pose with the sun in your eyes? It doesn’t have to be this traumatic. Mayem Lake has its own charm with its placid water, lush greenery all around and a large shady park to finish some reading in. Goa Tourism runs the Mayem Lake Resort with self-contained cottages should you feel like soaking in the vicinity. In the nearby Kumbhar vaddo, artisan families make Ganesh idols out of terracotta – a change from the regular clay idols.
Try boating options at the Champions Yacht Club, or stay at the Mayem Lake Resort
Live in a Portuguese mansion: Pretend you lived in a bygone era without the stiff frills of aristocratic society. There are a number of old Portuguese mansions across Goa that offer a trip back in time. Some built as far back as the 17th century, they are filled with antiques, paintings and curios that each tell a story; and rooms that whisper rumours about the people who lived there over the ages.
Both Siolim House and Casa Britona were originally built more than 300 years ago.
Go off the grid: Yes, literally. Leave everything behind and live without a fridge, fan or easily accessible shops. Is the city soul in you already scared? Don’t be. Tucked away in the Western Ghats is a farm that indulges in what it likes to call ‘micro tourism’ with simple eco-friendly solutions, lots of outdoor activities including an overnight trek in the wilderness and a fusion of multi-cultural cuisine out in the wild.
Sounds too good to be true, but Off The Grid certainly delivers.
Pedal your way around Goa: Before the festive spirit leads to all sorts of lazy indulgent malaises, repair that forlorn bicycle and pedal into the hinterland. Stay away from the touristy areas where over-enthusiastic bus drivers can turn your legs to jelly. Try the stretch from Chandor to Quepem and its surrounding areas where you can stop and admire the golden fields.
Stop at the Palácio do Deão in Quepem to admire an ancient legacy of architecture, art and décor, and perhaps grab a bite to eat.
Kayak down a river: Stretch those arms and get yourself up a creek. With a paddle though. Goa has more beautiful rivers than you’ve cared to notice. Exchange loud-mouthed tourists, pesky sand bugs and the stench of jet ski fuel for a light kayak and oars, thick foliage bent double over the river banks, and perhaps a mocking monkey or two.
Goa Kayaking has a number of options.
Stuff it: Eat more spoonfuls of indulgent food than your brain can comprehend. When your workout programmes reward you with a cheat day, an all-you-can-eat buffet is what you ought to gift yourself.
Do justice to that famous appetite of yours at Coffee Heaven or House of Lloyds.
Make some high-flying pals: These will come without the pretentious behaviour affiliated with the human sort. Grab a pair of binoculars and head into thickly wooded areas. You’ll get a lesson in silence (switch those phones off and stop chattering), patience and observation. There’s a vast range of species out there so you might want to lug along a copy of ‘The Book of Indian Birds’ by Dr Salim Ali, the 13th edition of which has illustrations by Goa’s own Carl D’Silva.
Get a personalised introduction to Goa’s avian treasures with Rahul Alvares.

Don’t overthink it; simply get that calendar out and cross out dates. Friends and family will thank you for a refreshing change to the fun times they’re used to. 

This article was first published in Goa Streets on November 21, 2014.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Spice up the season in Goa

The Fun, The Unusual, The Wild and The Serene

If you told your buddies that you weren’t really looking forward to ‘the scene this season’ and they gave you a ‘what’s-come-over-you’ look, know that you haven’t flipped a lid. Sometimes you need to change things a bit, leave the haze of parties and beach trips behind and do things a little differently. Instead of hopping from one bar to the next, one dinner plate to subsequent serving for lunch, take a shot at some fun, unusual things to do this coming season.
Crash a wedding
This is the season of weddings after all. You’ve probably been to one before, but there’s something so exciting about doing things you’re not meant to. Don’t go with your entire gang of drunken buddies and avoid dressing like you want to kill the fashion sense of the season. But it’s great to make random conversation with an interesting set of people, or ask the pretty girl or cute guy across the lawns for a dance. And then disappear into the night like Cinderella. Not before wishing the happy couple of course!
View the relics of St Francis Xavier
This happens only once in 10 years, so if your memory of last time’s visit is fuzzy or if you’ve never been to it before, it’s about time you did. The Catholic saint’s body has been lying in state since it arrived in Goa in May 1542! Despite two burials after his death, St Francis Xavier’s body was found to be incorrupt until the end of the 17th century. It was in the 19th century that the current cycle of decennial expositions began. This year, it will be held between November 22 and January 04.
Contact: 0832 2284710
Learn how to water ski
We’ve all seen the parasailors, the jet skiers and the banana boat riders, and we’ve lost our twinge of jealousy having done it ourselves. Now it’s time to get a little more adventurous and ski on water. Get in touch with any one of the numerous water sports companies along the coast and feel the adrenaline rush as a cable pulls you along on skis behind a speeding boat.
Witness a Combat Cage Fight
In late November, Goa will see a new, different kind of entertainment. Combining a variety of martial arts, the Combat Cage Fight at Tito’s Courtyard promises to showcase the complexity and beauty of self-defence skills surrounded by the vibe of Goa’s nightlife that we know and love. With six bouts, one including women fighters, this unusual event is set to leave a mark this season.
Tito’s Courtyard – 0832 2275028, 2276154, +91 9822765002.
Saunta Vaddo, Tito’s Lane, Calangute Road, Baga. Website:
Volunteer at an old age home, orphanage or kennel 
When you think of it, there’s a lot for you to be grateful about. Sometimes we need to share that with those who haven’t got very much. Instead of wasting those semester breaks in the company of your PlayStation or exhausting your excess compulsory leaves expanding in front of the television, leave a little room for some volunteering. Lend a listening ear at an old age home, play some music for children at an orphanage or hand out some much awaited tummy rubs at your nearest pound.
Cheer on FC Goa at an ISL match 
Yes, this is not the Premier League and yes, our standard of football has yards to go, but haters will be haters and we’ve got to start somewhere. The Indian Super League has proved an excellent way for domestic football to get going. So grab your pom poms, banners and jerseys and head to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Fatorda to watch veteran international players show off their skills right here at home.
Tickets at
Tour crib county
Where else in India can you take a leisurely walk or drive in your pyjamas and see nativity scenes that sometimes reflect completely disconnected themes? Across Goa, Christmas is celebrated with much revelry, but it’s the competition of the cribs in south Goa that can make your celebrations a little different. From Christmas trees made of straws depicting concern for the environment to banners with social messages, and some very traditional ones, the creativity never ends.
Make your own guitar
Thought you were cool when you made your own Hallowe’en costume? Think cooler when you make your own musical instrument. Join Chris Horton at Jungle Guitars in Baga, where he shows you how to build classical or steel string guitars from scratch over 15 days. With more than 20 years of experience, he will take you through its construction, from choosing the wood to varnishing. It might be a bit heavy on the pocket, but how many people do you know can boast of such an achievement?
Contact Chris Horton. +91 9823565117,+91 8308162326.
Whip up a storm with culinary classes
After the success of Masterchef Australia, pretty much everyone thinks they can throw a few ingredients into a pan and receive gushing compliments. Learn how to do things the right way with some classes in your favourite style of cuisine. With the season of giving coming up, you can ready yourself to lay out the perfect spread for family and friends.
Discover the Story of Light
Here’s an artsy version of all the incomprehensible physics quips from the Big Bang Theory. The Story of Light Festival from January 14-18, 2015, will throw cross-disciplinary scientists, artists and philosophers together to translate quantum physics and the universe into exhibits, workshops and installations around a planned pedestrian route in Panjim.
Give your insides a makeover
Did you ever think that maybe your internal system – that effectively keeps you alive – might need a little overhauling during party season? For all the tightrope walks you put it through, hopping from one party to the next, it needs a bit of rest and relaxation. Head to a detox centre, and we’re not talking about illegal substances here. Most offer detoxification programmes focusing on rejuvenation, cleansing and stress reduction based on the ancient Indian science of ayurveda. It might be a bit rigorous, but believe me, your body will thank you for it.
Juggle me joy
If everything goes according to plan as it has been over the last six years, juggling convention InJuCo might return to Goa in January next year. If you’re expecting clowns throwing striped balls or oranges in the air, you’re highly mistaken. Here, a variety of performance artists showcase everything from the popular trapeze, acrobatics and hoola hoop to lesser known but equally mindnumbing arts such as poi, kalari payattu and acro-balance. The non-profit event features artists, some with strange names such as funny man Mr Banana and escape artist Monsieur Gusto, from all over the world.
Walk back in time
You could uncover a lost world in Panjim just by looking a little closer to the signs. If you nodded off in class while the History teacher droned on, you’re guaranteed to be snapped wide awake by this activity. Take a walk with the Goa Heritage Action Group, which organises tours in the state’s capital city and points out bits of the past you would never have seen otherwise. You’re sure to have several ‘aha’ moments that reconnect with a dusty old schoolbook.
Tel: +91-832-245-9109
Website: www.
Gardening glory
Stop complaining about the price of vegetables in the market and grow some of your own. It’s the perfect run up to making your New Year’s resolutions by getting in the groove and then committing to it long-term. You’ll get a bit of a workout in – bending over, raking, digging – and you’ll be eating fresh, organic veggies without those disease inducing pesticides. Green Essentials’ website even provides a calendar to help you schedule your gardening tasks.
Tel. 99606-43245/0832-2443124
Loosen your tongue
No, don’t hit the bottle. Sign up for a language course and learn how to say your favourite phrases a different way. There are many foreign language institutes in Goa, but there are also many that teach Indian languages. With travel a favourite activity among the middle class these days, learning a new language will help you make your way to the core of the destinations you’ve always wanted to see and the cultures that have never stopped intriguing you.
Whatever it is, choose to do something that’s not run-of-the-mill, whatever age you’re at. You owe it yourself to be able to look back at experiences you can remember and learn from, not just (although equally fun!) days and nights of partying that turn into one long blur.
First published in Goa Streets on October 25, 2014

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Young, Smart & Committed to Changing The World

The Goa hub of the international World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers initiative is addressing global issues at the local level

Social media is a lot of things, chief among them being a superb out for venting. We’re always expressing our happiness, sadness, rage or disgust on the latest trending topic. But when it comes to actually getting down to doing something about it, people often pass the buck. It’s either out of their control or someone else’s job.
Not these youngsters. This group of 14 Goans has joined the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) international initiative to improve the state of the world, one project at a time. Around the world, thousands of Global Shapers are making a difference, from providing furniture and household items for displaced people in Gaza to encouraging young Costa Ricans to vote.
“These are young people exceptional in their potential, their achievements and their drive to make a contribution to their communities for building a more peaceful and inclusive world,” says Tallulah D’Silva, the curator of Global Shapers Community Panjim Hub.
With 50 per cent of the world’s population under 27 years of age and a majority in urban areas, the World Economic Forum began to look at engaging young people in the solutions to global challenges. The Swiss non-profit started this global network of people between the ages of 20 and 30 in 2011 and by June this year, more than 344 Global Shaper Hubs had been set up.
In Goa, the hub was formed five months ago after D’Silva received a call from the WEF. She then recruited youngsters she knew had the passion and drive to make a difference here.
“The Panjim Hub is involved in a number of different projects at the moment,” says social worker and photographer Fabian Franco, continuing, “One of the projects is promoting grey water recycling systems using plants and biogas systems in institutions.”
This is their G2H2O project in which they opt for plants over a conventional sewage treatment system to convert waste to clean water. Another similar project is their Trash2Gas initiative in which they hope to use wet waste to generate biogas that can be used to run a community kitchen, or light public spaces.
In Karmali, the group has joined hands with the Mitsuko Trust and the local panchayat to come up with a low-cost eco-friendly toilet to improve sanitation. The community in Old Goa is currently grappling with increasing population density, lack of water and sanitation facilities, which pollute water bodies and put the nearby Karmali Lake bird population at risk.
To combat this, the Hub’s Ecoloo Project is looking at eco-friendly, cost-effective individual and community sanitation modules with grey water recycling, minimal water usage, built with long-lasting materials, with plants grown in the root zone that can be used as food.
Recently, Viola Rodrigues, Mrinmayee Thakur and Chenelle Rodrigues assisted D’Silva with a series of nature trails to help students from city schools connect with their environment. “The objectives of the trails are to promote outdoor learning, understand local biodiversity, identify and document local flora and fauna, and connect to natural systems and understand the role they play,” the Shapers explain.
They’ve conducted two trails for students of Our Lady of The Rosary High School – one in Dona Paula and the other in Bambolim – and a third for the Little Penguins School in Old Goa.
The Hub will soon launch a Career Speak initiative for young school and college students to encourage them to choose careers that go beyond the typical ‘first choices’ of engineering and medicine. And this is just the start. D’Silva elaborates, “We are currently involved in preparing a tree policy for the city and are documenting and mapping tree avenues and different species. There are also plans to introduce urban farms in the city as a collaborative effort with Green Essentials and the Corporation of the City of Panjim.”
Goa’s Shapers come from across professions and spheres of interest – from professor Varad Sabnis, student of Environmental Studies Gabriella D’Cruz and research associate Atul Borker to journalist Anwesha Singbal, psychologist Krystal Cardozo, engineer Nitish Wagle, teacher Chandrakant Shinde, and the youngest Tarika Khan.
Being a part of the Hub is a way for them to make a change in society while also exposing themselves to the ideas and voices of youngsters from around the world. Entrepreneur Raghuvir Mahale is looking forward to using information technology to make life easier and improve daily life. “I also want to get exposed to a lot of knowledge from around the world, and learn new things that can be implemented in Goa,” he says.
The group meets every month, either at a small café or at the curator’s office, discussing ideas and making plans over hot chai and bhaji. They often work on implementing their projects on their own time after office hours, and gain inspiration from the shapers around the world who are already well on their way to making a difference.
The global community lends its support through forums and offers opportunities to exchange best practices on relevant issues – from selecting Shapers to Hub governance, and sharing insights with WEF colleagues on regional issues and pressing world challenges.
“I look at being part of the Global Shapers Community Panjim Hub as a way of helping each other with new projects, building a network not only in India but across the world and giving our community work international exposure,” says Franco.
This motley group of youngsters believes in making the change they want to see, and the next time we think of complaining about something, we might want to take a leaf out of their books first.
To learn more about Global Shapers, visit their website at
First published in Goa Streets in August 2014

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Singing in the rain for Sao Joao

Lift your spirits with this celebration of life

According to Christian tradition, more than 2000 years ago, St John the Baptist gave a little leap for joy in his mother’s womb when she heard a greeting from Mary, who had just become pregnant with Jesus Christ. His mother Elizabeth would scarce imagine that a strange recreation of this event would become a major part of his birthday celebrations in a tiny state on the western coast of India.
Tourists might be mildly surprised to walk through villages across Goa on June 24 to the sound of raucous singing and young men jumping into wells. The Catholic feast of São João (or ‘St John’ in Portuguese) is one of the most awaited celebrations of the monsoon season. At no other event can one splash old aunties and uncles with cold water from the well, run amok on the village roads in the pouring rain singing famous Konkani songs and get away  with it.
Villages in north Goa put a little more vigour into the festivities compared to those in the south. Across Anjuna, Assagao, Calangute, Chapora and Siolim, preparations for local entertainment programmes get underway at least a week to 10 days before the feast. What started as a local celebration has now spiralled into organised chaos, with nightclubs joining in the fun.
Throughout the month of June, pre São João events send cash registers ringing with one of the last big parties before Independence Day in August.
While some simply spruce up a regular party with the ‘São João’ – or corrupted Spanish- Portuguese mix ‘San João’ – tag, others open up their swimming pools and throw in some foam to get with the spirit of the celebration. Whichever one you show up at, generally married with suffixes like ‘bash’ or ‘shuffle’, you’re bound to have a good time.

But despite the high society revelry, the real festivities are the ones you see in villages – where boys and men wear headgear called ‘copels’ made of fresh leaves and seasonal flowers, knock back a drink or two, and distribute juicy fruit and traditional sweets to all who visit. Carlton Carvalho recalled the celebrations being much the same as they were when he was a child 20 years ago. “I used to go with the entourage through Fatorda, all of them without shirts, wearing copels woven at home. At each house they visited, they would jump in the well, and the residents would give them a drink. It was fun watching them jump into the well and then climb out of it.”
Residents keep their wells at the ready, removing meshes or covers and laying out a thick rope to help revellers out of the dank darkness. Heritage lover Sanjeev V Sardessai suggests that many of these traditions have very useful beginnings. “The custom of jumping into wells would ensure that the people’s main sources of water remained clean. No one would jump into a dirty well. Back in the day, it was their way of protecting the resources,” he said.
Not long after the prayer at the local cross or chapel, a motley group of men, young and old, make the rounds of homes in the village, playing local traditional instruments like the ghumot (an earthen vessel with one of two openings covered with the skin of a monitor lizard) and the kansallem (cymbals).
To join in the fun, you can sing along to local Konkani songs, many made popular by Goan singers over the years. Tradition dictates that ‘Viva San João’, a composition by Siolim tiatrist C Alvares, be sung with much gusto as it invites revellers to have a drink as they might not get any the next day.
It appears many take the strain “Choll-re, pie-re, tum illo ghe-re. Falean kain mevonam” pretty seriously. And all too often tragedy strikes. Not a year goes by without at least one case of drowning or near fatality. Emergency services, including ambulance teams, fire brigades and the police, are  generally on hand to avert such situations, while priests sound warnings against excessive drinking and misbehaviour. It’s hard to stay away from the fun though. Some villages, such as Candolim and Loutolim, organise a boat parade or ‘sangodd’ in which beautifully decorated boats are sailed down the nearest river to the sound of a brass band and folk songs. Villagers come out in support wearing vibrant costumes and chanting “Viva San João, viva San João”.

In Siolim, the celebrations are taken to new heights with the Traditional Boat Festival. A custom followed over hundreds of years involved residents of Chapora, Anjuna, Vagator and other nearby villages sailing their canoes up the creek, garlanding the cross with a whispered prayer and returning. It soon developed into a parade of colourful floats, following which just over two decades ago, a cultural committee got things a little more organised. “We host the parade and give out prizes for the best decorated boat. Later in the evening we hold an entertainment programme with cultural songs, tiatrs, folk dances and even fireworks at the end of the show,” said Sylvester Fernandes, president of the San João Traditional Boat Festival Committee.
Thousands of people throng the banks of the creek, spilling onto the roads, to watch the line up of innovatively decorated boats – from mermaids and crocodiles to wells and swans. Coveted cash prizes for the boat parade winners, spot prizes and famous entertainers including Francis de Tuem, Laurie and Luis Bachchan keep the  visitors coming back year after year, including some from the south. In some villages, the uninitiated might notice a bunch of revellers smacking thick hard stems of coconut palms on the ground. This symbolises an aversion for Judas, who betrayed Christ for 30 pieces of silver. Often, a stuffed effigy of Judas, not unlike Old Father Time, is carried about before being set on fire.
The feast of São João is also an important time for newlyweds. Known as ‘javoiache fest’ or feast of the sons-inlaw, it’s a time for families to show off the men their daughters have married. “According to this tradition, a recently married man visits his wife’s village. He is adorned with a copel of fresh leaves and flowers and joins in the celebration of jumping into the village wells,” explained historian Maria Lourdes Bravo da Costa.
At each home in which a wedding was celebrated in the last year, the daughters offer ‘dalis’ or a platter of seasonal fruit such as mangoes, pineapples and jackfruit fresh off the trees while the sons-in-law hand out that most favoured Goan beverage – a shot of feni – to keep the spirits up and the cold away.
Sardessai, who promotes the forum Hands-On Historians, believes that this tradition was connected with procreation. “Seasonal fruit provide vitamins and minerals that we might lack during that time of the year. Sons-in-law were given local fruit so they remain healthy and were able to provide a grandchild to the family. It’s a celebration of life!”
Many youngsters are now either too busy to follow traditions or find them too time consuming. It is heartening to watch those who continue to follow them, for as much as the nightclubs might call, it is the joyous manifestation of faith, the comfort of culture and joie de vivre typical to Goa that is bound to keep the São João tradition alive.

First published in Goa Streets

Monday, June 2, 2014

48 Hours In Panjim

Somewhere along the way you suddenly find yourself with two days to spare and the feeling that you really don’t want to do your chores. Kick off the mundane and don’t settle for reruns of Breaking Bad and How I Met Your Mother. Instead, get out and rediscover those memories of skipping class for hot samosas, pedaling furiously down back lanes or sneaking off with a teenage crush to a quiet spot. This time, we’ve picked Panjim.

Day 1:
Kick it off with some puri bhaji at Café Tato in the beating heart of the city. Everyone’s got their favourite spot for bhaji, but with Tato’s you can’t really go wrong. Follow it up with a plate of mirchi bhajis. As one of the city’s oldest and most popular cafés, you’re sure to spot someone familiar.
Take a walk around Panjim – you don’t have to go too far to browse through the stores. You would agree that the shopping here is far from the best, but you never know what new belt or random t-shirt with a quote about feni might catch your eye.
You could either walk down 18th June Road and enjoy the bustle under tree-lined streets, or weave your way through Fontainhas and São Tomé. It is evident the early fathers didn’t spare much thought for the traffic of the future and the cramped lanes in Panjim’s Latin quarter could make walking a slight hazard. But frankly, it’s quite worth it.
You’ll find some interesting curios at the Velha Goa Galeria to add to your collection, and the walk up to the Maruti Temple provides a neat view of life below. Cycling around these streets is even more enjoyable as it lets you cover greater distances without missing out.
Stop at the General Post Office and send some snail mail to a long-forgotten friend.

The perfect start to an afternoon could only be in the centre of Fontainhas with some delicious home cooking at Viva Panjim. It’s best to sit inside on a hot afternoon, particularly when you’re not too keen on having a local whiz by on his bike inches from the al fresco seating. The food here is reasonably priced and unpretentious, and will bring back dozens of memories of the times you have shared with friends and family. If you’re lucky, they might still have a tipple or two of this year’s urak.
Spending the day off at home in Goa is made fulfilling with an afternoon siesta. If you live close to the city, sneak home for an afternoon kip. If not, head to Miramar beach and you’re sure to nod off under one of those palm fronds. Catching up on reading at the beach makes for a delightful way to spend the afternoon alone.

When the heat has dissipated a little, it’s time to bring out your swimmers and hit the beach. Make the most of the closing of the summer, taking the short drive to Vainguinim beach at Cidade de Goa in Dona Paula for a few hours of wading in the shallows.
You could join in a game of football, should some of the locals be kicking one about. Or let out your inner child and build a sand castle or sculpture. The sinking sun steeps the myriad faces of stress out across the darkening sea and there’s nothing like a swell dinner to make the rest of it magically disappear.
Panjim’s latest entrant on the bistro circuit is not one to miss. Black Sheep Bistro has made the cut and raised the bar with some fine twists on Goan classics and a nice selection of spirits and wines to go along. It’s open for dinner, and keeps it home grown by using only locally sourced ingredients. So you might want to take a rain check on that beef roulade craving since most of our buffalo meat comes from out of Goa.
Dinner done with, hop across only a furlong away to Café Mojo for some groovy tunes and a few drinks. If you’re looking for somewhere a little less cramped, Butter in Patto has a little more elbow room.

Day 2:
You certainly cannot be expected to wake up bright and early after a night on the town. But for those of you who are supernatural and do hit the road running, take a walk on Miramar beach, or by the fields – the last of them anyway – in Taleigao.
If you’d like to get reacquainted with a higher power, a visit to the chapel at Raj Bhavan in Dona Paula is a beautiful way to start the day. Even if you do forget to register your car number in advance, there’s a lovely look-out spot close to the entrance of the Governor’s Palace where you can soak up some energy.
The Goa Marriott Resort and Spa lays out a lovely brunch on Sundays, the ideal way to squeeze out any remnants of a hangover. You could also opt for the much more reasonably priced offerings at Not Just Omlettes on 18th June Road.

A good brunch could either perk up your spirits or slow you down. For a case of the former, pop into the gaming arcade at Caculo Mall in St Ines and unleash your bowling skills at the alley, drive like a maniac in the bumper cars or try your luck at pinball.
To cure a case of the latter, you could catch up on some reading at Kala Academy or under the shade of the trees in the Campal garden. There could be an interesting play or tiatr being staged at Kala Academy, so you can buy a last-minute ticket and enjoy a bit of Goan entertainment.

As evening jogs on, take a slow walk down the Panjim promenade. Look closely at the heritage buildings as you pass by – the old Goa Medical College, the State Bank of India building, old Secretariat – and visually wipe out the present. Imagine life in black and white when residents mostly walked and the annoying sound of today’s vehicle horns were replaced by the chirping of birds.
Close the evening with a ride on the ferry across the Mandovi River to the rooftop tables at Terry’s. There’s not a sight more beautiful than the twinkling lights of a city you have called home, served alongside the wash of the river down below and some fresh catch from the sea.

First published in Goa Streets

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Bhutan: Trek to Tiger's Nest

Tiger's Nest, Paro

I put Paro on the itinerary only because of Taktsang Valley. Ok, and because it is one of the more historical towns in Bhutan and looked pretty in pictures. If we hadn’t entered Bhutan in a bus (or truck or smuggled ourselves across the border), we would have flown into the country’s only international airport in Paro.
In any case, by the time we hit the town, we’d already been to Thimpu and Punakha. It was a Tuesday, which was Pedestrian Day in Paro. From the gate of the town, we walked several hundred metres to the square. I was certain we were in the wrong place, that there was somewhere else we would have to go, somewhere more, ummm, populated.
A small tower stood in the main square, surrounded by a garden, where little children squeaked in excitement after school. There was an archery tournament in a field nearby. We would have to check it out sometime, and try not to get pierced in the bum accidentally.
The hotel was cheap, decent (ish) and served by a restaurant downstairs. We got a ride to Taktsang the next day. At the base of the hill were the obligatory souvenir stalls selling prayer beads, flags and other knick knacks. Piles of pony dung peppered the rocky ground and the pungent smell of the animals and their faeces hung in the air.
A 40-something European gentleman and his wife were selecting rides. We were young and full of vigour; surely we weren’t going to take the ponies to the half-way mark. Five minutes into the walk and I thought, ‘hell, this is easy’. Then came the uphill climb. While it was nippy getting there, I ought to have been smart enough not to wear my sweater. After all, exercise does make you work up a sweat. I bore it out.
The path was probably hewn into the rock over the ages. Taktsang or ‘Tiger’s Nest’ Monastery was built in the 1694, but held sacred for centuries earlier. Legend has it that the revered Guru Rinpoche flew to this location on the back of a tigress to meditate sometime in the 8th century. Seated precariously, on the edge of the cliff-face, the monastery with its four main buildings, chortens and caves, was rebuilt after a fire in 1958.
Taktsang through the trees
We plodded on. Up ahead, the European gentleman was not on his pony anymore, but instead behind it, urging it forward. On and off he would climb onto its back, helped by the guide, but the pony seemed to want the day off.
Between the trees on certain turns of the path, glimpses of Taktsang peek at you. It’s a good way to motivate you on, particularly if you start having second thoughts about the walk. Soon, we were at the little restaurant where you can tank up with water and a bite. The next point at which you can get the strange tasting butter tea the Bhutanese love is at a little kiosk run by a toothy, smiling old lady along the steps to Taktsang (It’s free and served out of a mug).
The road gets nastier here. I realised how much more fit I needed to be (or turn miraculously into Heidi of the hills) as elderly Germans passed us with their hiking sticks, a senior Japanese lady bent forward to tie her shoelaces and continued on, and Bhutanese pilgrims raced by with barely a heavy breath.
We strung up our prayer flags, took a few mandatory pictures and began climbing down the stairs. Already I was dreading the walk back. Stairs have never been my best friend.
But the view from Taktsang is worth every uphill climb, every second thought, every penny spent getting to Bhutan. Chilly wind from the valley whips at your face, threatening to tear off your nose. The wood panelled rooms are comparatively warmer, and because you were on too tight a budget to afford a guide, you sidle up to the ones speaking English and catch snippets of their stories.
As usual, I got lost, roaming room to room for at least half an hour before I was heated up enough to grunt ‘where the hell were you?’ when I finally found my travel buddy at the ‘Personal Belongings’ desk. We chatted with the sentries, who like most Bhutanese were dressed in traditional ‘gho’s.
We trudged back up the stairs, stopping to take pictures by the waterfall as a web of colourful prayer flags fluttered maddeningly in the wind. I couldn’t help but wonder how they tied them across cliff faces like that.
The Dzhong we saw the previous day had nothing on Taktsang. Sure it was beautiful in its own right, majestic and royal with its pretty wooden bridge across the pebbled river and gilded tops. Truth be told, visiting Bhutan had always been a wish, but it was Taktsang that actually yanked me there.
A dzhong

How I got to Bhutan:
Flight from Goa to Calcutta, train to New Jalpaiguri, rickshaw to Siliguri, bus to Phuentsholing

Where I stayed:
Thimpu: R Penjor Lodge (spacious, clean, nice views, neat café attached with free wi-fi), Hotel Tandin
Paro: Hotel Peljorling (the walls don’t quite keep the cold out and the bathroom is a bit dingy)
Punakha: Damchen Resort (lavish for my standards)
Phuentsholing: Hotel Bhutan

What I ate:
Ema datshi (chilli and cheese, Bhutan’s favourite dish)
Pork (with lots of fat)
Chicken rice with cheese and chillies

Points to note:
Indians are one of the very few nationalities allowed into Bhutan without a visa and on a pre-arranged tour. However, one must obtain a permit, easily available in Phuentsholing, for five days, extendable only in Thimpu. Carry photocopies of all your documents and keep your permits with you at all times. They will be stamped at every check post.