My four year old daughter has finally begun to read simple three-letter words. We bought her some books she could read on her own, and within minutes of starting, the LO (‘Little One’, in case you didn’t know) had settled on what she now calls her favourite book: Fun Under the Sun, about Gus, who goes with his Mum to the beach.
And, our daughter being what she is (she says “Someday I want to go there,” to just about anything vaguely interesting we go past, whether it’s a park or the Yamuna or a municipal office building)… she decided she wanted to go to the beach.
We’d been wondering where to go for a summer vacation, and what with our beloved hills beset by water shortages, a beach vacation did seem like a good idea. Especially Goa, since we’d experienced Goa in the monsoon years ago and loved it. The vivid and abundant green, the red earth, the grey clouds: an artist’s palette.
But visiting a place as a couple and with a toddler in tow are two very different things. When we last went to Goa, we hired a motorcycle and drove all over, barely even batting a soggy eyelid when we were liberally splashed by a bus speeding through a vast puddle. We trekked up to forts that were falling apart, we visited the Menezes-Braganza Mansion and admired the 400 year old beauty of a villa that had once been the residence of the Spanish ambassador to Goa.
With the LO (who loves exploring), the prospect of a visit to an ancient villa made my hair stand on end: I could just imagine her racing about, paying little heed to admonitions about staying away from this priceless artefact or that. A motorbike was out of the question, as were the forts.
What she wanted was the beach.
And, luckily for us, the hotel we stayed at—the Vivanta by Taj, at Panaji—was just a hop, skip and a jump away from Miramar, considered one of Goa’s safest beaches during the monsoon (not that any beaches are safe—not for swimming, since currents at this time of the year are lethal).
Anyway, after we’d checked in and washed and eaten something, we, egged on by the LO, headed for Miramar. (The hotel, good people that they are, provide a free pickup or drop to Miramar).
The LO, I will confess, has a poor history when it comes to beaches. When she was a little over a year old, we took her to Glasshouse on the Ganges, and the feel of sand and rippling water on her plump little feet made her freak out. I doubted if the glamour of Fun Under the Sun would override that earlier phobia.
I couldn’t have been more mistaken. The LO took to the beach like a duck to water. She ventured out a little bit, clutching her father’s hand, just enough to get her feet wet (and, when a slightly larger wave came along, drenched up to her tummy, which she thought hilarious).
She gathered seashells, and recruited us for the task as well.
She used the ferrule of an umbrella to make crazy squiggles on the sand (and drew—of all things—a clock face). She regarded, with deep suspicion, the fresh pineapple being sold by a vendor. On being reminded of the family rule of at least tasting something before outright rejecting it, she did eventually yield—and then had to be held back from wolfing it all down.
And she found a washed-up stuffed toy, a rabbit, which elicited much concern. If the LO had had her way, we would have lugged that sodden bunny back to our hotel room and had it sleep in our bed.
Just as well that we didn’t, because when we got back to our room, turn down service had been done, and a little tray load of goodies left for the LO. There were chocolates, jujubes, star-shaped cookies, a stuffed toy (a goose, promptly christened ‘Goosey’) and a handwritten note signed by the General Manager, welcoming the LO to the Vivanta and hoping she’d have a comfortable stay.
And the LO certainly did have a ball at the hotel. Before the first day was over, she’d made friends with everybody from the security guards to the receptionist, the chefs at the display kitchen, the wait staff—even the man who served her a glass of ‘red juice’ when she first arrived. (She was convinced that he—the ‘juice man’—was the General Manager).
We weren’t planning, of course, to spend all our vacation between the hotel and the beach. So, on Day 2, we set off for the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Churches of Old Goa. The first stop was at the top of ‘Holy Hill’, where stands the tower of St Augustine, as it’s popularly known. In reality, this huge church was called the Church of Our Lady of Grace; it was built by the Augustinian friars in the closing years of the 16th century.
In the 1800s, the roof of the church collapsed, and after that the building deteriorated swiftly. Today, while there are some isolated chapels and altars and bits and pieces of masonry and tile work and carving still to be seen, the most prominent architectural feature that survives is a massive tower, one of four original towers.
Interestingly, on one plaque at the adjoining convent, I read that this space (the convent) had been used to shoot part of the title song of Gumnaam. The area has been cleaned up considerably, but yes: I do recognize it. I think.
From here, we made our way downhill to the Church of Santa Monica (the convent of the same name was the first and the largest of its kind in Asia, and still continues to be off-limits to the public: it is home to the Mater Dei Institute, which imparts theological training to young nuns). The church, however, can be visited, and we did, with the LO (and us) admiring the painted and gilded altars and chapels. (My Anglican upbringing means that I tend to dislike gilt, but many of these old Goan churches manage to strike a rather appealing balance between opulence and elegance, what with most of the gilt mellowed to a beautiful honey-gold).
The Museum of Christian Art, which is next door to Santa Monica, is right now closed for renovations, so some of the art from there is currently housed in the church. That was a welcome bonus, since there are some fine pieces here—including two intriguing-looking candle stands in the form of angels in martial attire.
From there, it was downhill (literally, not metaphorically) and into the more touristy part of this area: the complex that houses the Sé Cathedral, the Basilica of Bom Jesus, and the Archaeological Museum.
We went first to the Sé Cathedral, which is dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria. For an interesting reason: the day on which Afonso de Albuquerque defeated a local army and conquered Goa for the Portuguese happened to be the feast day of St Catherine.
This is a massive church, and what I liked best were the many chapels and altars that line its sides: these have some lovely decoration, ranging from beautiful paintings to tiles and carvings.
After the cathedral, we went for a little break to a nearby canteen (which we had stumbled upon accidentally while searching for the Archaeological Museum—it lies up a flight of stairs between the cathedral and the museum). Refreshed with lots of bottled lemonade, we trudged off to the museum next door.
… which is housed in the convent of St Francis of Assisi. The church next door is large and rather bare (without even pews, which makes it look oddly lonely), but it does have some beautiful (and well-maintained) iconography.
This took just a couple of minutes, before we headed for the museum. Though small, the Archaeological Museum has some pretty good exhibits. On the ground floor are a collection of artefacts, both from pre-Portuguese Goa (some exquisitely carved ‘hero stones’ and sculptures of deities included), as well as from after the Portuguese arrived—more sculpture, more figurines, lots of saints. My favourite here was a giant bronze statue, larger than life, of the Portuguese poet Luiz de Camoes (there’s a twin statue, near the exit, of Afonso de Albuquerque, but I didn’t find it as appealing as the poet’s statue).
Up on the first floor is a portrait gallery of the Portuguese governors and viceroys of Goa—a quick tour, since there was precious little labelling and the portraits themselves weren’t exceptional. Some stuff about Portuguese-Goan postage stamps and currency would probably have been of interest to philatelists and numismatists, but by this time the LO was beginning to get fidgety, so we went on downstairs, to where there is a small but very interesting Maritime Gallery. This one has a small model of a medieval ship; a couple of hoary old anchors; and lots of text and illustrations regarding pretty much everything maritime: trade routes, histories of important seafaring communities (the Arabs, the Chinese and the Portuguese among them, of course), commodities of trade, nautical instruments—all very fascinating.
By this time the LO was getting very restive. She had been promised a visit to ‘Bom Jesus’, and every new space we entered—church or not—she would ask, ‘Is this Bom Jesus?’
So we went to the Basilica of Bom Jesus, which is an important Jesuit landmark, since it contains the remains of St Francis Xavier, who, along with his friend and colleague St Ignatius Loyola, founded the Jesuit order in India. It’s hardly surprising that a lot of the imagery inside the basilica consists of Loyola and/or Francis Xavier—Loyola, in fact, appears in the form of a gilded statue gazing up at heaven, at the high altar.
The crush around the reliquary of Francis Xavier was rather macabre, if you ask me. You can’t really see the relics, since it’s dimly lit, and the reliquary is placed above eye level. The LO was very curious: what was there to see here? Why were there so many people crowding around?
Before I finish talking about the Basilica of Bom Jesus, one interesting little anecdote I was told about this, and from a reliable source. The basilica looks very unlike most Goan churches, because it’s the stark brown of the stone (laterite) of which it’s constructed—just about every other Goan church, including the Sé Cathedral next door, is beautifully plastered and painted white or cream.
The reason for this seeming uniqueness is prosaic. At the time Goa became a part of India, the Portuguese government was carrying out a restoration project at the Basilica, and as part of the work, had stripped off the plaster, exposing the underlying stone, which is a feature of all of these churches. The ASI took over, and because of its policy of maintaining monuments in the state in which they’ve been found, continues to keep the Basilica of Bom Jesus unplastered. It grows on one and looks very impressive, but that brownness isn’t what it’s supposed to be.
The next day, we decided to give the LO a taste of what she has always liked: the outdoors. With a visit to a spice plantation. Ponda has several spice plantations, about an hour’s drive from Panaji; the one we chose to visit was the Sahakari Spice Plantation (no, it’s not a co-operative; the family’s name is Sahakari). For a fee of Rs 400 each (the LO went free), we were taken on a half-hour tour of the plantation and given lunch.
The Sahakari Spice Plantation spreads over 130 acres, of which the ‘demonstration’ zone—the area we visited—is a mere 2 acres, of mixed spices. The remaining 128 acres include pure stands of the spices they grow for sale. There are Hindi-speaking guides and English-speaking ones, who lead a group at intervals, as soon as there’s a group large enough to go on the tour. (We were lucky that we visited in the off-season; there were just seven of us in the group; our guide said that in the tourist season—winter—groups can consist of up to fifty people).
The LO loved this bit. She gazed, goggle-eyed, as the guide peeled off the white covering from a fallen cacao pod to show the purple bean under (purple! The LO’s favourite colour! And covering something from which chocolate is obtained! Bliss).
She shuddered on being told about the peri-peri chillies, looked a little sceptical about the coffee berries, and was very appreciative of the smell of crushed allspice leaves (this fascinated me, too: the leaves were so aromatic!)
Lunch—which wasn’t that great—wasn’t much of a hit with the LO, who may be small but has a remarkably evolved palate for her age.
We had also been told that the Sahakari Spice Plantation has elephants on which you can go for rides; our guide told us that since we had a car (we’d hired a cab), the easiest way to get to the elephants—instead of walking all through the plantation—would be to drive down to them. About seven minutes’ drive, and we reached two somewhat battered-looking pachyderms, their legs all bruised. That put us off immediately, and when the man there said a ride would cost Rs 700 per person for five minutes, we got into our cab and came back to Panaji.
That evening, we went for a stroll around Panaji. Fontainhas, with its stunning old colonial buildings, many of them painted in vivid mustard or red, with semi-circular arches, columns, and balconies. And the parks, the gardens, the trees.
The LO, poor child, felt very frustrated. Every time she’d look into a private garden, bursting with greenery and flowers, and say “Someday I want to go there,” she’d be told no, you can’t go into strangers’ gardens. Every time she looked out to sea and to the casino ships floating out there and said “Someday I want to go there,” those same fuddy-duddy parents would say no, not just now.
But the LO enjoyed herself nonetheless. She danced to the peppy ring tone of some random stranger’s cell phone (random stranger, fortunately, didn’t notice). She gushed over the powder-puff flowers on the rain trees, and giggled over the colourful intruder trying to climb into the Entertainment Society of Goa’s building.
The next day—our last in Goa—we headed for the Mario Gallery in Torda. This, from the online photos of it I’d seen, looked very attractive, what with life-size models of the iconic characters created by the very talented cartoonist Mario Miranda.
Alas, these have mostly been moved to other places in Goa; only the breadman, atop his bicycle, is still here.
But there was plenty to drool over here by way of souvenirs and gifts to be bought—clothes, postcards, posters, coasters, books, laptop bags, lampshades and more—all with Mario’s work on them. We did pretty much all our Goa shopping here.
Next door to the Mario Gallery is the Houses of Goa Museum, a three-storied (but small) collection housed in a mast-shaped building. While this did have photos and text about Goan houses—pre-colonial, colonial, and the amalgamation—and there were some interesting titbits (about tulsi vrindavanas, for instance; I didn’t know that was what they were called), I came away feeling somewhat disappointed. While these people have some artefacts from Goan houses—like a house altar and a little mandir, or a door, a bedpost, etc—there’s really not enough. If this had been housed in an interesting and ‘authentic’ example of a Portuguese Goan house, which would actually be able to show, first hand, the architectural and interior design features, it would’ve been far more effective.
But the LO wasn’t concerned. She loved the view from up top, and when some music that she liked began to play somewhere, she broke into a little dance (she loves to dance). And when we went downstairs and discovered that the museum has a tiny canteen, which serves mango juice and brownies, the LO was on cloud nine.
That afternoon, before we left for the airport, we went to a lovely little place called Cantina Bodega, which sets in a centre for the arts. We ate pizza and some fabulous pies. The LO chased butterflies in the very green garden outside once we’d finished, and gathered up fallen frangipani flowers from the lawn.
Then we got into the cab and went off. Back to Delhi, back to real life. Back from the beach.