Wednesday, April 7, 2010

India: Meet Portugal, Portugal: Meet India

Goa March 20 to 26, 2010 (by Swiss)


Having braved through the late winters of Japan and China as well as the hustle and bustle that is Mumbai, we both were ready for some R&R and beach time.  This, in our case, would come courtesy of Goa.  Goa lays nestled between mountainous terrain about a 12 hour train ride south of Mumbai.  Formerly a Portuguese colony, it today sports beautiful beaches, old Churches aplenty, gorgeous scenery, great cuisine, and the remnants of a formerly thriving hippie culture.  Although the Portuguese pulled out in 1961, the cultural influence is very clear and Goa thus is often quoted as being quite different from "the rest of or ‘real’ India."

Contrary to our initial assumption, Goa is a region rather than a city (oops!), with its capital, Panjim, located neatly in the middle of the state. Littered along the coast line are towns of various size and tourist populations.  Our home for the week would be Anjuna, an old hippie enclave located in the northern-ish section of Goa.

IST, or "India Standard Time"
As Jason wrote earlier, it was time for our first train ride in India:  Mumbai to Goa (Tivim station, specifically.)  We had made arrangements at Anjuna’s Evershine guest house while in Mumbai, and the plan was to hop on the train at 7am and arrive safely 11 hours later at our destination in Goa, where a driver was to pick us up for a taxi ride to the guesthouse.  This, as it turns out, didn't factor in Indian Standard Time, as our arrival was delayed by 3 hours to about 9pm.  No worries, since the train was actually quite nice (we had opted for the A/C compartment), and we met some cool people along the way.


First off, we shared our compartment with two Belgian chefs, Bram & Roel, who quit their jobs to go travel and write a book about Nepalese and Indian cuisine.  Their website can be found here.  For any of you who can read Dutch, their book should be coming out around Christmas time.  Being cooks, they had plenty of food to share ranging from fresh muffins to juicy Alphonso mangoes. We initially tried to reciprocate their gesture, unsuccessfully, by sharing our somewhat crummy chips - or crisps for you English folks - we had picked up the prior night.  Luckily the trains here offer regular servings of hot chai tea for Rs 5 (about 10 US cents), so we managed to at least buy them a round of chai with money I had found wedged inside the seat.  Yes, this gesture did get a chuckle out of Jason for my cheapness, but at least I shared my treasure.  Nothing compared to the luscious mangoes, though. 

Most of our ride was spent learning about Belgium, cooking, and photography equipment/editing techniques (they were lugging along quite a bit of gear), with a couple of episodes of Star Trek (yes, nerdy Star Trek) sprinkled in between.  That last item came courtesy of Bram’s Macbook, an external hard drive loaded with tons of episodes, and a handy power outlet in our compartment.

It was during the viewing of one of the Star Trek episodes when Lindsay, an American most recently living in SF, stumbled upon our compartment.  She had some questions about the power outlet as she, like most young Americans it seems, was in desperate need for some juice for her Macbook.  We had an extra outlet, and after fishing for the right adapter, had her up and running.  She promptly joined us for the rest of the ride, where we learned about her plans and websites here and here.  Time permitting, we will be meeting back up with her later in our Indian journey.

Lindsay did come much more prepared than us, with two items of specific interest:  A door stop alarm and plastic "brass knuckles" in the form of a cat's head (the ears are "pokers.")  The former item is basically a plastic door wedge with a built in switch.  It can be used to jam closed a door, and if removed, sounds an alarm.  A nice feature if you're traveling alone, especially if female in a country where that can be a tad more challenging and door locks at times are not up to snuff.


The latter item, the "brass knuckles", were to be used to gouge an attackers face/eyes allowing an initial escape. Just insert your index and ring finger through the "cat's" eyes, and let the ears do the damage. Couple the door stop and the "cat knuckles" with her alarm whistle and a bright luggage strap, and you basically get this:


Welcome to Goa
As mentioned above, we arrived at our station three hours late.  Luckily our driver, apparently accustomed to IST, was waiting and promptly drove us to our guesthouse where we were greeted by Sebastiana, the proprietor of Evershine guest house.  No private rooms were available that night, so we were stuck with a ~8 person dorm room.  Tired, we headed off to a spot called Eatopia for dinner and the end of a cricket match on TV.  Cricket, folks, is huge here.  We're both working on understanding the rules of the game, which based on how long it took me to "get" baseball, may be a while.  Fun to watch, though.  After the conclusion of the match it was off to bed after this long day of travel.

We awoke at a fairly decent hour on Sunday, when we sorted some things out with Sebastiana regarding private rooms, and then moved on to search for a SIM card.  I have a very good family friend, Chiara, living in Goa.  Plans of course were to meet up with her, which can prove quite challenging without a phone.  Three forms and a copy of my passport later, I was the proud owner of an Aircel SIM card.  Although more complicated than some other countries, getting a SIM in India is actually pretty straight forward – well, at least in Goa.  One thing to note, however, that users of pre-paid cards will incur roaming charges when traveling outside of the area where the SIM card was purchased.  The upside:  my SIM doesn't expire until 2020 :)

Plans were quickly made to meet up with Chiara later that evening at an Art exhibition going on in Calangute, a town about 5 km south of Anjuna.  This left the rest of the day for some breakfast/lunch overlooking the Indian Ocean.


and relaxation on the beach near our guesthouse.  This being India, one finds that the beach experience includes a "unique" feature:


Having baked in the sun for most of the day - actually, there are plenty of shaded lounging chairs that are free to use for the more fair skinned folks among you - it was time to clean up and work our way down to Calangute.  Transportation options in Goa are basically limited to three types:  Buses, Taxis, and Scooters.  As we didn't have a scooter and wanted to be free of bus schedule restrictions, we opted for a cab.  This turned out to be quite pricey, especially on the late night ride home (I think it cost somewhere in the Rs 300 range for a quick ride from Mapusa.)  We decided later that renting a scooter for Rs 150-200 per day would provide much better value, something to be pursued the following day.  Bottom line, cabs in Goa are expensive, get a scooter if you can.

Before heading south to Calangute, we also had to sort out some lodging issues, as our private room ended up being double booked due to an early arrival of Leia, an American woman who had booked the room for the following day but had showed up a day early.  Long story short, we worked out a compromise, as the room was spacious and had three beds.  We thus gained a roomie for the remainder of our stay, which brought down the cost and still allowed for sufficient privacy compared to a stuffed dorm room.

We arrived at the “Art Chamber” shortly before 8pm and Chiara was running late.  The exhibition was of art done by an Iranian artist currently residing in Goa.  I'm no connoisseur, but the exhibition was nice and offered free refreshments, leading me to strongly consider becoming a connoisseur for the sake of free drinks and snacks if nothing else.  While "mingling", we met Rachel and Chris, two of Chiara's friends.  They would join Chiara, one other friend, Jason, and myself later for some Thalis after a tumultuous scooter ride (two scooters, at least one crazy driver, and six people) down the dark, windy roads of Goa.  It was great company and made for an enjoyable evening where I learned that Rachel's take on Switzerland was basically a country of well educated hicks, which I take as a compliment, as it actually very aptly describes Swiss culture.  The overpriced cab ride got us safely back to our digs sometime around midnight.

Bikes, Thongs, and Sunsets
Item 1 on the list for Monday was to score some wheels.  Chiara had a contact in Mapusa (pronounced Mapsa, fyi) who provided scooter rentals for Rs 150 (just over USD 3.30) per day, Rs 50 cheaper than the vendors around our area.  A quick call with my newly acquired SIM, and Raut showed up at Evershine about an hour later with a Honda Activa, the de facto rental scooter in the area.  We also spent some time figuring out how we would get from Goa to Jaipur, ultimately settling on a flight to save time and hassle.  With these formalities out of the way, it was off to Aswam beach to catch some rays.  Aswam beach can be found in the northern portion of Goa, and contrary to the beaches around Anjuna and Calangute, is much less crowded.  Plus it gave us a chance to explore the countryside with our little Activa.  Short of a rip-off on fuel (pay attention to the fuel counter, or you can end up paying for much more than you got as we did in our case), the journey was quite enjoyable.  Aswam beach itself was gorgeous, the only caveat being the sighting of multiple older Western gentlemen wearing thongs, and I'm not referring to flip flops if you know what I mean….  Besides that, the scenery and weather were absolutely gorgeous.

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Although we didn't run into any cows, we did find us a "Selah puppy":


Chiara was kind enough to make a list of items for us to do while in Goa, and one of these was to have dinner and watch the sunset at Thalassa, a Greek restaurant near Vagator just north of Anjuna and conveniently on our way back home from the beach.  The dinner was outstanding, eclipsed only by what was one of the nicer sunsets we had seen in a while.  Highly recommended if you make it to that area, and prices are reasonable given the quality of food an location (I think we spent somewhere between Rs 300-400, or USD 7-9, per person, including beer and appetizer.) 

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And so a very relaxing day came to an end, a theme that would carry throughout our stay in Goa.

Let's hit the road
Continuing on Chiara's list of items to do, we decided to make Tuesday our "explore Old Goa" day.  Old Goa, the former capital of Goa, lies a 15 minute ride east of the current capital of Panjim. From Anjuna, it is about a 45 minute ride by scooter (make sure to bring a helmet, they check vigorously on the national highway.)  Past it's capital prime, Old Goa today seems largely deserted save for beautiful churches and the requisite tourism infrastructure (restaurants, shops, etc.) 

We first scored some breakfast at Shore Bar in Anjuna, which made some excellent Masala chai (spiced Indian tea) and solid food.  Plus, nothing beats sitting at a beach shack overlooking the ocean and watching early risers exercising in the cool morning air while stuffing our faces with carb loaded food.


Besides the requisite cows and dogs …


…we also managed to spot one bearded elderly man in a bright red thong running along the shore, and promptly nicknamed him Santa Claus.  Pictures were not taken out of respect to him and our readers (the few who remain, I suppose.)

With the hunger thing taken care of, we hopped on the scooter (Lawton has gotten into the habit of calling me his "driver", a description that doesn't invoke any surprise by folks in a country that sports quite a few private drivers) and were off to our little adventure for the day.

We got into Old Goa about 45 minutes later, with minimal detours and zero incidents with police officers looking for folks without proper head gear.  We started with a visit to the Basilica of Bom Jesus, which translated means "Good or Infant Jesus."  It's construction started in 1594 and consecrated in 1605, with one if it's highlights being the sacred relics of the body (read: remains) of St. Francis Xavier (last picture.)

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Temperatures had been climbing throughout the morning, so it was time for a drink which also provided me with an opportunity to contact PD, one of Chiara's friends who does tours of the area.  He suggested that besides the churches in Old Goa, we check out a little known seminary in Pilar, about 20 minutes south of Old Goa.  Plan was for us to wrap things up in Old Goa, check out Pilar, and then meet up with PD for some drinks at Bambolim beach.  Words can't really describe the beautiful architecture in this area, so I'll just let photos speak for themselves.

Old Goa...

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And our visit to the Seminary in Pilar...

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We met up with PD in the latter parts of the afternoon, and he promptly guided us to a local beach hangout called Sand & Sea bar.  Although the kitchen was closed, the owner (knowing PD) kindly prepared us some French fries to go along with the cool and much appreciated refreshments.

We chatted with PD for a good two hours, ranging from politics, corruption, music, the development of Goa (including a monstrous five star resort being built just next door, threatening the closure of the little beach bar we were patronizing), the increasing influence of Russians in the area, and tips for travel up north (our itinerary seems to be changing on a daily basis.)

PD actually runs a personalized tours business, so if you ever make it to Goa and would like a tour of the area with a "local touch", make sure to contact PD at  He's super nice, and you'll likely get much more out of it than some of the packaged tours offered by large tour operators.  As we watched the sun slowly set, Jason was offered a sample of the local Fenny (Cashew Nut spirit popular in Goa - I, as his "driver", was denied a full sample), and we were soon joined by Chiara and crew to catch the last couple of rays.


Dinner plans involved the birthday celebration of Suddarth, one of Chiara's friends who lives in Panjim.  We first swung by PD's place for a tour of his home, which is also where we met his wife.  She joined our growing crew and we headed for a nice dinner at Pan Asian bowl in Panjim.  After the conclusion of dinner, we followed Chiara for the ride back north towards Anjuna, where it was time to say good bye and head to bed once more.

French Cuisine, Blogs, and a tinge of Drama
So what would a week be without our standard "chore" of writing our blog?  Especially if you're in a beautiful spot like Goa?  Well, Wednesday was slated to be our blog day.  We started with breakfast at Janet and John's, a beach shack just down the beach from Shore Bar.  Like Shore Bar, it offered a beautiful view of the beach and ocean, and ensured a satisfying breakfast mixed with some good ol' people watching.  For you inquiring minds, Santa Claus wasn't spotted this time around.

Chiara had called me that morning to let us know that, time permitting, we should check out a restaurant called "La vie en Rose" (translates to "Life in Pink") run by Michele, a French lady who had moved to Goa 30 years ago (married an Indian gentleman) and since has set up shop in Anjuna.  We quickly decided this would be our lunch spot, which was to be visited after looking into airplane tickets to Darjeeling (well, Bagdogra), a destination that, coupled with Sikkim, would displace our planned visit to Nepal based on input we had received from a variety of people.  Tickets out there were quite pricey, but we did find a cheap return flight to Delhi, so that was booked.  Plan was to just hop on a 30 hour train to get there, a plan that nearly backfired due to our procrastination in booking train tickets.  More on that in our Agra post.

So off it was to La vie en Rose, which turned out to be a super charming little outdoor restaurant (4 tables or so), with some of the best quiche either of us has had in a long time.  Plus Michele was extremely nice, which coupled with free wifi, led us to conclude that we would likely swing by there again.  She also rents out two rooms, although we didn't have a chance to check them out during our visit.  Highly recommended.  She can be reached at if you plan to visit the area.

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The remainder of the day involved bumming around, a thing we've gotten quite good at in Goa.  Dinner plans involved meeting up with Chiara, who showed us a secret little spot for sunset, followed by a visit to her home where we got to sample her cuisine while sharing a bottle of wine and philosophizing about life.  Very chill, very nice.  We called it an early night around 10pm as I wanted to finish up writing my latest blog (I had been falling behind), so we said our goodbyes and made plans to meet at 6 am on Friday for a visit to the Mapusa market.

I managed to stay up until around 1am writing/formatting, while Jason retired slightly earlier.  Unbeknownst to us, the night would turn into a drama night.  As our roomie, Leia, informed us the following day, a new guest (Christine - American, heavy drinker) apparently got completely intoxicated, went absolutely crazy (screaming, accusing, etc), invoking action by Sebasitana (our host), Tony (resident peacemaker) and a few others of the guesthouse inhabitants to first get her off the street, then to shut up, and finally go to bed.  This was coupled with a couple of love-birds who, let's just say, were not very discrete in their tent and thoroughly offended our host Sebasitana after trying to wind down from the drama that was Christine.  Mind you, all this is going down sometime between two and five AM.

More stunning was the fact that Lawton and I basically slept through the entire thing.  So the following morning involved quite a bit of awkwardness with the finale concluding with the kicking out of the crazy drunk and the two noisy love-birds.  A shame it had to come to this, but all guests were happy to be rid of the drama and it of course made for plenty of gossip the next day.

Uploading, exercising, exploring
Besides digesting the remnants of the prior night's drama, Thursday involved breakfast at the "famous" German bakery, which offered wifi but not for free.  The food was pretty good, organic and all that jazz.  Since wifi was not free, we opted to re-visit La vie en Rose, which this time involved the sampling of their coffee (good) and fresh tarts (very good.)  Blogs were uploaded, conversation with Michele was had, and we returned to the hostel.  The afternoon was actually spent at the hostel chatting with the guests, including Tony, who is a retired Canadian school teacher scoping out Goa and taking in life at Evershine.  We decided it would be cool for him and Leia to join us early the following morning for a visit to the market with Chiara, and they gracefully (foolishly?) accepted our invite.

While chatting, I learned about a little impromptu soccer match going on later in the evening among a couple of the guests.  Excited for some real exercise, I decided to join in while Jason stayed behind to hang at the hostel.  The game itself didn't last all that long due to the heat and most of the other participants being in worse shape than I am.  Which was actually quite hard to believe.  But it was fun :)

We had been steadily working on Chiara's list of recommended restaurants in Goa, and since this was our last night, it was time to check out Starlite, a local seafood place off the beaten tourist path.  Tony, Leia, Nathan, and Kat decided to join the two of us, and so the six of us hopped on the two available scooters (Kat and I piloting one of each), in search of the elusive Starlite.  To our surprise, after basic directions from Chiara and two road-side enquiries, we managed to get there without any significant detours and had a lovely dinner of Goan veg and seafood cuisine.

Markets and Airports
It was rise and shine early for Tony, Leia, Jason, and me, as we had committed to meet at Chiara's place around 6:30am.  To our surprise, we all managed to get up in time and enjoyed the cool morning ride to her crib.  Fresh coffee, snacks, and conversation was had before we hopped on our scooters one more time to drive into Mapusa for the weekly market.  The market itself is broken down into a couple different sections, where we started in the wholesale section for Chiara to pick up some stuff for her latest project (or search Facebook for Salon 545), and eventually moved through the remainder of the market.  Since we got started early the temperatures were reasonable and we managed to sample a variety of snacks while navigating through the packed aisles with vendors selling everything from food to clay pottery to baskets to hardware.  The colors and people are hard to describe, pictures don’t do it justice; but it was a great experience and a nice way to wrap up our last couple of hours in Goa.

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Which now brings us to the end of our stay in Goa.  Scooters were returned, a cab to the airport ordered (Leia would join us on the ride there, splitting the Rs 800 fare), and goodbyes were said.  A couple of pictures with our friends we made along the way can be found below.  Good people, good fun. 

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Selah said...

Love the picture of Jason and the horse (cow?) on the beach!

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