If life was a beach
dotted with crabs, cocktail umbrellas and drinks smelling of plum and peach
I'd begin my day with a seafood stew
I'd wash it down with some pungent coconutty local brew
I'd splash about in the waters till lunch
To sate my belly with a lobster brunch
But well, life rarely lets you sunbathe in peace and so it is only on rare occasions that one trades the computer mouse for a bright yellow toy spade and thus armed embarks on a journey to search for the perfectly sunny clime, the perfect stretch of unbroken white sands and the sweetest grilled crab in butter garlic sauce there could be.
With such humble ambitions the husband and I embarked on our longest vacation till date to explore Goa in all its lovely rain-washed splendour.
The fact that this was off season, meant great discounts, lower numbers of seekers searching for the elusive 'self', lesser raggedy shacks and many more fresh catches of the day to go around.
Our journey started on a rather ominous note as we found ourselves on a roach infested, smelly interstate bus. What was advertized on the Internet was a glamorous coach with pop art on its body and luxurious extras. What we clambered into on a rain sodden night was a rattly tin can airing mindless David Dhawan juvenile sex comedies at top volume.
The dreams of sun and the sand on the other side helped me survive the night.
The moment we entered the state I felt my spirits lift. My heart soared as i could imagine the spray of salt in my face. Although when I embarked from the bus all i felt was a light rain drizzling down and wetting the end of my freshly painted pink toenails.
The sky was grey as we took a cab to our hotel of choice, a highly recommended spanking new and small little resort in Anjuna. I was dreaming of the sound of the sea and a view of a vast blue expanse from my room and I nearly missed what was right under my nose. It was not the beach, it was not the sea and it wasn't even sunny.
But here was Goa like a hidden pearl glinting in the watery sun. There were rows of gleaming pink walls, latticed windows, red tiled roofs, purple geraniums in little pots, spotlessly white churches with jet black steeples. Old Portuguese architecture cleaned by the rain, offset by shades of emerald green. Life bursting at every corner as creepers unfurled and waved delicately as our car whizzed by at breakneck speed.
We had been travelling for over an hour through the rural heart of North Goa awash in the tender green of young coconuts and strangely I had forgotten all about the sea.
As we turned into a little village road and drew up into the driveway of our hotel - the Hacienda de Goa, there were no sea-facing windows. In fact the sea was a good fifteen minute drive from this place. Before I could voice my disappointment, the Mediterranean design, the sprawling suites, spotless white walls, chintzy curtains, red tiled roofs and chirruping of birds had turned me into a convert. A few moments later, as I sat by the pool side with a beer in my hand every hint of a grumble had escaped with a burp.
Run by the friendly and gracious Mr. Thomas who was as hands on in the kitchen as he was in the office, the Hacienda de Goa truly embodied the grand maternal warmth of a family run estate. As i took large swigs of the local King's beer which to be honest is not the best brew in the world. But the price point (it costs as much as bottled water), the thrill of consuming an authentic local drink without worrying about alcohol poisoning and the fact that it was icy cold really smoothed out its imperfections.
Combined with home-cooked Kerala beef cutlets with the crunch of coconut and whole black pepper, a succulent beef fry and mounds of steaming rice, the day seemed full of potential. Coming from a beef deprived state, these tender and flavourful bites of meat did all that its tough as nails buff counterpart constantly failed to do.
A few winks and some more beers later we decided it was time. To see the sea and eat all its divine creatures. As we made our way to Baga Beach, that buzzing centre of north Goa in our newly serviced sturdy steed of a Santro, we expected the tourist hordes, the honeymooners, the hippie relics, the yuppie NRIs etc but what we saw was woebegone shop fronts selling dusty I heart GOA t shirts, roadside shacks with their shutters half down and puddles of rain water collecting on their thresholds and a few vendors hawking their florescent sticks and lurid devils' horns rather half half-heartedly. While we had expected it to be slow time, we didn't expect it to be a somnambulist's paradise.
In hope of a meal that might compensate the lack of bright lights and festivities, we made our way to a tried and tested Britto's - that much visited bastion of drunken nights, seafood binges and idle days. At least our collective nostalgia had hued it in all those rosy tints. And like most nostalgic lenses the view it offered was a little askew.
Rambunctious little boys played tag around our chairs.
Precariously balanced on a wooden platform with one chair leg buried in the sand, staying upright had become a task. The plate full of butter garlic prawns cheered me up some although it lacked that fresh 'I was swimming around under your toes under a minute ago' taste.
The husband reliving his bachelor days boy's trip had ordered his drink of choice - a swimming pool - a strange looking pale blue concoction of curacao, pineapple and coconut cream. Admonished by the waiter for demanding something as absurd as coconut water on a beach, I sheepishly sipped on my Malibu and diet coke and attacked another prawn dripping butter. The crabs that I wanted were ominously expensive, the ambience missed a certain joie de vivre and the congealed butter on the plate made my stomach churn enough to want to leave and go somewhere new. Nostalgia does leave an aftertaste sometimes that is not altogether pleasant. I walked out to catch my first glimpse of the waves; a sight that made had made me smile since I was a wee child. I saw the white crested stormy sea, felt gusts of cold blustery wind and drops of rain on my upturned face. It wasn't quite the balmy-summer-night-on-a-beach-where-you-could-hold-hands-under-the-stars. I felt bits of garbage under my toes and heard a gaggle of Punjabi housewives shrieking at a baby wave licking at their toes.
And onwards to Cavala, one of the oldest bars in the area. It warmed the cockles of my heart and I felt like a traveller on a cold winter's night who had walked into a Victorian inn warmed by a roaring fire and pitchers of ale. Warm wooden interiors, soft light bulbs imaginatively imprisoned in bird cages and little fairy lights hidden inside squat, green coloured King's beer bottles, with a bar menu that included exotic absinthe cocktails as well as an old man playing Frank Sinatra songs on the piano. If I was a fish, i had just been hooked. Dinner was a Goan sausage curry - pert pieces of fatty sausage in a fiery potato and onion curry and a rather overpowering prawn masala. We never ate there again but we returned time and again to partake of the tipple and the wonderful ambience.
Cavala was like a colonial club for the locals, a lace to meet and greet and sing all the 60s songs you knew and dance atop tables with as much flair as you could manage. It was a place where the old and the young mingled with equal ease and friendly banter flew around the room.
And sometimes life's a bitch...even on a beach. Dissatisfied with our night time hello to the sea we decided to brave the busiest of beaches which is Goa's Chowpatty - Calangute. A beach that is depressing in its built up squalor and filth, Calangute was crowded (come hail or storm, Calangute is always crowded) and teeming with life. I wanted to run the moment I arrived. back to my peaceful Hacienda and my chilled beer at Cavala.
However there we were to try one of the restaurants which had received much praise and success...enough to open up branches in Delhi. That should have been warning enough as north Indians are not big on seafood and as I sat munching my crisp tandoori lobster with tasted all tandoori and very little lobster in a character-less restaurant, I rued the waste of half a day at Calangute and an unappetizing meal.
Goa in the monsoon is not a place where you lounge on the beach. It rains all the time and is clammy and still when its not raining. The beach is muddy and squelchy and every single shack serving Goan treats and Goan tipple has been dismantled and dumped under layers of tarp for the season. It is not the time to hunt for fresh seafood because even the fishermen take a break and there is no fresh catch of the day. So the buttered and garlicky grills are not a good idea unless butter garlic rubber is your thing.
Goa in the monsoon is a place where you explore the lovely country side, when you soak in the laid back vibe of the land without being an idiotic tourist and learn how to bring a little bit of susegad into your life...Goa in the monsoon is where you go trekking in the hills, where you stand behind the ramparts of old Portuguese forts and where you eat full bodied meats cooked in the familiar-yet-unfamiliar gullet burning spices and souring agents.
It is the time of the year where you do as the locals do, eat as the locals eat and party as they do. Abandoning the idea of a beach holiday we tried to discover Goa shorn of its hummus and pita bread, schnitzel and pancakes and welcomed the sausage pulaos and vindaloos with stomachs reinforced with Uni-enzyme pills.
Lloyd's Steak and Grill - a non assuming eatery was a surprise of the good sort. with four tiny tables packed into a tiny garage, the only cooking surface was a large sized charcoal grill and the only ingredients - the best cuts of beef, pork chops, lamb racks with a few fat homemade sausages thrown in for company. The tiny space behind the counter had a microwave and boxes of freshly made Goan food prepared by Lloyd's mother. This place operated from 7 in the evening till 4 in the morning and was a veritable treasure trove for a meat lover. I broke into meat sweats but I savoured every last bite of the perfectly done, smoky flavored grills.
A quiet meal comprising a fish recheado, meaty and fragrant vindaloo and sausage fry at the pretty Charcoal & Cheese tucked away on the road leading up to the Taj Aguada was better than anything we had eaten as we drove from one pitstop to the next all over north Goa eating fried calamari and butter garlic prawns till we felt like the two of us had made a sizeable dent in the population figures of these creatures.
Churches, cathedrals, old Portuguese markets, a mackerel recheado, vindaloo and more prawn and squid later we realized that our time was nearly done. Just as I was getting used to the gentle drizzle and learning how to put up my umbrella at the exact moment before it turned into a downpour. Just as I was learning to love the winding roads through green fields without worrying whether we would skid off the wet roads and land with a crash in the self same fields. Just as I was falling deeply in love with this state and planning my post retirement home here which would NOT be on a beach. As we made our way to the airport through the heart of north-central Goa, the changing scene outside my window and the promise of a meal with potential kept me from sinking into utter despair.
And what a delightful last supper it was. Ferdinand's Nostalgia nestled in the heart of Salcette is a neighborhood joint as well as a well kept local secret. We crossed grounds with local football tournaments going on in full swing, neighbourhood schools which had just given over for the day and majestic country churches hunting for a restaurant whose address had cryptic local references such as 'near Eduardo Faleiro's residence'.
We pestered the helpful lady who ran the place and every passersby on the street every 200 metres to make sure we didn't miss it and finally drew into a leafy driveway with an old brightly painted Portuguese mansion. Not knowing what to expect we walked into one of the most charming places I have been to in my life.
A large open hall had been converted into the restaurant space with a stage and a dance floor. The tables were nestled on a raised platform and covered in bright cloth. An array of quirky bric-a-brac cluttered most spaces giving the place a very unique look. The bottles on the set out in no particular order and the whole place had an air of gay abandon. One whole wall had a mural by Goa's most famous son, Mario Miranda and right in front of that was a long trestle table with a huge family of 20 odd members. They had come to celebrate the 80th birthday of someone who looked like the grand patriarch of the household. The space, the setting, the warmth of the sun, it all felt like a Buendia family dinner straight out of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
The restaurant was started by a locally renowned chef called Fernando who incorporated some of the most interesting elements from Goan-Portuguese cuisine in an attempt to popularize the lesser known food as well as preserve the traditions of making them.
His wife continues to run the place and the aptly named Fernando's Nostalgia seems as much a paean to her husband and their shared life as it is to the food that he created.
As the jolly old saxophone player came up to our table playing an old fashioned ragtime tune especially for us, I sat spellbound. This was the moment of our trip where we clasped hands across the table without a care as to how we would catch our flight which was a mere hour and a half away. We felt old fashioned, romantic, like we had discovered our very own hideaway for a special date. We ordered off little metallic lids with the menu engraved in ink and ate among the most spectacular meals ever. Sauteed ox tongue in Goan spices, a meaty, brothy, bloody, spicy sorpotel (made with pig blood and offal), a pomfret ambotik (a spicy sweet and sour sauce) wiped up with fluffy sannas (idly like steamed breads) and washed down with gallons of beer.
We ate, we ran to the airport and boarded our flight. As we were taking off, we burped nearly in unison...to a holiday well eaten.