Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Different Hues of Goa

We were in Goa for four days, to attend a science meeting.  It was the first time we were not on vacation - not hitting the beaches and the seafood shacks and not taking long siestas in high ceilinged rooms.  It was also the first time we were there in 'the season' (the tourist season) and the first time we experienced regular Goa showers (the rains have been unseasonal and heavy this year).  As a result, the beaches were packed, the sea temperamental and we had no option but to look at other facets of Goa.

We were housed in Hotel Mandovi, a respectable old hotel in the heart of the old centre of Goa, Panjim.  Rennovation has not done the hotel much good, but the location allowed me to walk down all the little lanes and alleys of this part of the city.  It took some time to get accustomed to this though.  I strongly associate Goa with the sea - soft, sweeping beaches and wave-packed waters.  Not being able to see or even smell the sea was most disconcerting and unsettling in the beginning and I felt as if something important was missing from my life! 

Anyway, I began my series of walks.  The first set of directions to the market led me to the heart of the municipal centre - a place packed with hardware stores, pure veg. Udipi restaurants and shady alcohol shops.  A very Hindu atmosphere pervaded.  I had nothing against this but I personally preferred the Portugese-Christian shades of Goan culture - the food, the music, the customs and more.

The next round of exploration was somewhat better as I decided to ask for bakeries instead of general markets.  I was rapidly directed to a charming, somewhat touristy, but still lovely square with interesting looking shops - the erstwhile Mr. Baker's (est. 1922), where everyone drops in for a mug of steaming tea and the mildly spiced fish croquettes or the Goan dessert bebinca.  Just behind it was a shop selling imported Portuguese foods and ceramics and a little way down was the main church of Panjim in gleaming white and blue.

The following morning we were fortunate to be introduced to Luis Dias - a young doctor who likes to take people on walking tours when he has the time.  Coming from an old, eminent Goan family, he lives in the old mint (now the Dias family house) opposite the main post office.  He has also recently begun a music school for underprivileged children http://www.childsplayindia.org/
The Panjim post office
 He took us down the most charming streets of Panjim and we saw a beautiful section of old Portuguese-Goan life.  The distinctive-looking houses with their little shrines dedicated to patron saints, the little figures of Portuguese sentries or the highly coloured Portuguese cocks that stood happily on walls or atop old wells, the tiled and mosiac-lined walls.

Houses were painted in blue, white, yellow or terracotta.  Little gardens peeped out unexpectedly through curving lanes.  It was a very different aspect of Goa that we glimpsed.

We also drove down south, to Loutulim, to visit the elderly Lourdes Figeuredo - a fiesty old lady in her eighties who is single handedly taking care of her family's 17th century mansion.  She has converted a part of it into a museum, which displays the life and times of the Goan-Portuguese elite over two or three generations.  She also lets out a few rooms for people to stay.  http://sites.google.com/site/oldheritageinn/Home

We saw the huge old house with enormous wooden floors and high chandeliered ceilings.  Intricately carved wooden furniture that almost had a south-east Asian look to it, masses of Chinese ceramics - blue pottery, pink pottery and more.  European silverware and porcelain in abundance.  Pieces of art strewn everywhere.  There was a large and beautiful prayer room, a dining hall that had seen upto 800 guests on special occasions, a central courtyard with a little garden where a band could play - traces of a charming, Mediterranean-influenced life style.
There were sprawling fields all round (much of the family land has been gifted to the village farmers) with coconut plantations seen in the far distance.

The present generation of Figeuredos are all in Portugal.  Goa in general is witnessing a whirlwind of change.  Times could not be better economically (though the main source of income is still tourism and now perhaps, real estate).  But frustration levels are high - the lack of suitable jobs, corruption in high places and the tourist-driven growth have made it a very different place from the laid back, easygoing city of old.  Certainly the little that I saw of some of the popular beaches made me glad I had spent my time in the city instead - so disconnected from nature were they.

And yet, I met the old lady of Mr. Baker's who asked me if I enjoyed each of the pastries and savouries that I had sampled.  I met the hotel musician who effortlessly played, amongst other things, Astor Piazzolla's music and when asked, said vaguely that he had just heard these tangos somewhere and they stayed in his mind - he actually played the guitar in his village church at seven each morning before going to his 'regular job.'  Luis Dias too is a violinist and has been busy the past few years setting up a music school and has not found the time to practice medicine.

Our ancient and temperamental taxi driver - Joe- who would cheerfully greet us with a handshake each morning and the relaxed looking man at the airport who just seemed to be lounging under a tree, wearing a T-shirt that read "Read books not T-shirts".  Well, seeing all this made me feel that Goa was reassuringly still - Goan.

Worker busy on the cell phone as he paints the church for Christmas

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