Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Panjim Papers

Among the first things done towards the fulfilment of the Goa trip was buying the Outlook Traveller Goa Guide. You see, there was enough "advice" about the beaches but no one knew a bloody thing about anything else, especially Panjim. This was when I was planning just a few days in the North, including a day in Panjim and Madgoan each, and a few days in the South of Goa. But after merely flipping through the book, it turned out that there was too much to do in the North, and so we decided to stay up there.

And that's how I came to spend a decent portion of my days in Panjim. Before I get to anything else, let me tell you that when discovering Goa, stick to the Outlook guide. Despite its erroneous maps and slightly vague road directions, it's a very well-researched and well-written book with some excellent photos — as opposed to the completely ludicrous Times of India Goa guide. It was also a lot of fun trying to find the places that are supposed to be in one corner of the map but are really some way off! And apart from the places-to-see recommendations, I also discovered a number of interesting dining options through the guide.

It's an interesting thing about the towns of Goa, or at least the ones I saw. Unlike Bombay, Bangalore or Hyderabad, the center of activity is usually not more than a couple of kilometers from the town limits. For example, once you've crossed the Mandovi Bridge and driven into Panjim, the river front and its associated landmarks, restaurants, and precincts are either just there or a very short drive away. It's the same with both Mapusa and Madgaon.

Panjim Riverfront

To say that Panjim's really glorious is stating the obvious. The city is enchanting, with its Portuguese architectural heritage and one-way roads, all of which lead into Church Square, the seeming center of town. The river front is like the main road of Panjim and you'll find most of the sights down one left or the other off it. It's a lovely, green-shaded road that is best explored at leisure or you'll miss gorgeous buildings like the the green-yellow-white Secretariat (which is currently under restoration) and the beautifully built and maintained promenade with its parks and restaurants and the Kala Academy.

We turned back only at the sign post for Miramar, the Juhu Beach of Panjim, and randomly followed one of the lanes leading into Church Square. Along the way, little markets grow into blue buildings with contrasting green trees and traffic islands with designer artefacts. You'll also find that the stories you've heard of Goans (in Goa especially) with a strong Portuguese identity aren't the figment of someone's exaggeration. There were a number of stores with signs in Portuguese and NOT in English. The only reason I knew that one of those stores was a fabric store was because the Portuguese word for textile, which I cannot remember right now, is easily recognisable in English.

One of the main sights in Panjim is Our Lady of Immaculate Conception in Church Square — so named after this church. It's a pretty church with an exquisite altar indeed. But its magnificence was eclipsed completely by the ex-reviewer's Jesus number.

See that little blue pulpit?

Our man decided that he needed to express his atheism for posterity in the land of his roots. So up he climbed to the pulpit and spread his arms wide, like Christ the Reedemer, for the benefit of my camera! He also proceeded to bless an imaginary congregation! Amused as I was, I've also rarely been as scared as I was taking those photos. In a known city, you know what is permissible and not. For all I knew, in Panjim, we could well have gotten lynched for a stunt like that.

Just to the right of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception is this incredible little place called George's Bar and Restaurant. It's obviously a local favourite because most of the patrons were locals. George's is where I discovered the joys of the perch, the butter fish, and the Goan sausage pulav — they've got to serve the best Goan sausage ever! I must admit that I did not like the feni much but with no choice — since they don't serve King's — it will do. The service is also excellent — ask for a guy called Santosh.

When you stand on the steps of the church with your back to it, you'll see two left turns, one far and the other nearer. The far left takes you up the gentle slopes of Altinho, pronounced Aal-teenyu according to the guidebook. Altinho seemed to me the Altamount Road of Panjim, consisting mainly of mansions and winding, airy roads lined with trees that have been around since Adam. The area looks like old money, complete with the Bishop's Palace (it really is a palace!) and dramatic views of the water ways surrounding the city.

In a strange city, I've often found that going down one lane through another, being utterly lost, takes me where I want to be. As it was with our way into Fontinhas, the Latin heritage quarter. Let me say this now before I repeat myself endlessly — I love, love, love Fontinhas. For one absolutely wonderful moment, I thought I was back in Jew Town in Kerala. But as the shutter fell and I explored the area further, the Goan flavour of Fontinhas was unmistakable. I strongly recommend that you walk around the area for hours, getting to know its dilapidated yellow, red, blue, green, dark pink houses with wonderful blue ceramic name plates.

Fontainhas, Panjim

Fontinhas done and it was nearly sunset. While waiting for it to be dinnertime, we killed time taking a cruise on the Mandovi. I thought I'd rant about my terribly bad experience but I'll suffice it to warn you that you should avoid the ones on the river front. We didn't have the time to explore more peaceful options (if any) but I wish we'd stayed away from the Santa Monica sundown cruises. Also, it might also be a good idea to go on a morning cruise since one would actually be able to see something then!

We'd decided we'd end the day with a meal at the Hotel Venite, a place that the guidebook describes as having shut down the residential area to use the rooms to expand the bar! But don't you know, the bloody thing wasn't on the harebrained Panjim map. We found it by sheer serendipity while looking for a way back to Church Square. It was the magnificent seashell and blue mosaic doorway that first drew my eye and the friendly, cheery waiter in the balcony, who directed us back and helped ensure that I wanted to come back.

I can't tell you how glad I am that we did. The Hotel Venite was possibly amongst the best restaurant experiences I've ever had. Once you cross the seashell threshold, a warm warli mural covers walls that enclose a brown-red and cream staircase leading up to the sitting area. What I had presumed were merely decorative balconies were actually booths with a really small table and two stools each, lit by a madly swinging cane lantern — look at the far end of the photo below. I have some excellent night shots of that evening despite not having a tripod. In fact, if that evening has taught me something, it's that I should always, but always, carry my tripod, because at the Hotel Venite, I might need it during the day as well.

Venite II

It's been well over a month since I've been back and I still do not have the words to describe the sensory assault of a wonderful day followed by a cool, still night, encased in warm, liquid yellow light, mingled with fantastic feni, good food, and excellent service. If you finish up with rum caramel bananas, then life ceases to be elsewhere indeed. I hope this photo shows you what I mean, though.

Venite III

Finally, should you be a North Goa person, I'd strongly recommend not missing out on Panjim. It's a Goa you won't see in a shack, restaurant, or club at the beach: there's an everyday-ness about Panjim that puts you at your ease almost at once. There is also a sense of sudden surprise that lurks in every corner, which will make you want to ride and walk around all day. That's what makes it so interesting and such fun, I think.

Friday, November 16, 2007

On the Road...

... in Goa is where you'll come across these incredibly funny hoardings. When the the ex-boss told me about a few advertising local musical talent last year, I refused to believe him until he showed me camera phone evidence. This year, I found them too — all over the place. I found this hoarding on my way into Baga from Porvorim but I finally ended up taking this shot on the way to Anjuna.

The Voice of Goa 2007 contest features Henry K "Iglesias" from Benaulim, "Shakira" Soares from Saligao, and Joaquim "Morrisson" (the Lizard King must be rolling in his grave!) from Mandrem in the finals. For good measure (apparently), the organizers have also thrown in a performance by Hard Kaur. Ah, to be back for this show. On the whole, it's a decent-ish campaign but the Henry K hoarding is nothing short of a stroke of the utmost genius!

This photo below is just a little off Calangute Beach. It was only my second morning in Goa and I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about settling down to feni just yet. What I was enthusiastic about was trying to ride the Honda Activa. I wheedled my way into turning left off the beach parking lot and riding down the lane that led to this sign. You've got try this — say Maddo-Waddo really fast a few times and you'll find that it has a lovely rhythm that's bloody addictive... or so I thought. I don't suppose that it bears mentioning that Mr. Boatcar's name just made the frame!

The photos aren't as well-shot as I would have liked but I must admit that it's a little difficult to take good pictures when you're balancing yourself, a camera, and a bottle of King's on the backseat of an Activa. Ah well, you win some but for the ones you don't, there's always some King's.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Me-bop by the Sea!

If there's one thing I've learned from my Goa trip, it's this: never put off a trip too long, because when you finally make it, there'll be too many non-negotiable things to do. So, after much agonising and deliberation (and some heartbreak), we decided to stay North for this trip. We would just have to be content with a day spent in Colva-Utorda. And so, after wending our way through luxuriant rice fields and drying harvests, we spent a wonderful few hours at the Colva home of the ex-reviewer's family friends, N and S.

Since we arrived just a wee bit after lunchtime, we were, very graciously and warmly, ushered down to a meal. The food at the Gonsalves table was exquisite in the way only great home food can be — non-greasy, perfectly seasoned and cooked without tasting like restaurant food. There was some absolutely fantastic fish, plain curry, a meat preparation, and rice. N would have had three more dishes on that table if we hadn't been so full. I must also say, I've rarely felt as welcome in someone's home, especially as N took me on a guided tour of their home and a part of the ex-reviewer's childhood.

The only way to finish that meal was with chocolate rum pancakes that the ex-reviewer hadn't stopped ranting about for over a year. Off to Benaulim Beach then, to Pedro's Beach Cafe. But we needn't have bothered. Sure, there was a lot of rum in the pancakes, but the chocolate was watery and almost non-existent, the banana hard and bland. So, by the time we stopped wasting our time with the unspeakably bad service (45 mins to serve pancakes!!), I was in a very bad mood indeed. With rain sweeping in from the beach, putting paid to my Utorda plans, I was positively furious.

Not being very keen to ride 50-odd kilometers on a wet NH-17, we set off northward with me muttering about the pancakes under my breath. And to irritate me a little more, by the time we got about 10 kilometers up, the bloody rain had stopped and the roads were drying up. Can you bloody imagine! At this point, the ex-reviewer wasn't sure if he was amused or irritated at this magnificent display of puerility. But serendipitously, just a little before Zuari Bridge we came across a sign proclaiming "Kenilworth Beach Resort and Spa, Utorda Beach. 3 kms"

Perhaps all was not lost yet. If it were, I'd have lost out on this.

The Sentinels

I wish the light had been better because the photo would then have told the truth of it. You see, I'm told that the water couldn't possibly have been greeny-turquoise. That we don't have very many beaches like that in India and that Utorda's not one of them. That I was being fanciful. But I can tell you, with at least a degree of certainty, that that the colour was really close. Thing is, I don't like most of my photos from Utorda a quarter so well — mainly for a couple of reasons. First, because of the fallen and the impending rain, I didn't have even acceptable light to work with. Second, I was too busy jumping around the beach to bother with taking photos.

If anything will convince you of the merits of the south of Goa over the north, it is Utorda. The elder sibling tells me that Palolem and Butterfly Beach in the South are as exquisite... next trip... but I've never yet set eyes on a beach and wanted to dive into the water at once. Utorda's far beyond beautiful and too far beyond my feeble words to attempt a description. But somewhere in those white, unbroken sands and that inlet of warm water a little way up the beach, with minute fish speeding past, I was entirely lost. Off came the sandals, out came the camera, and madly danced the penguin on Utorda Beach!

Utorda has a lot more character than beaches like Baga and Calangute because there's nothing else there but the Kenilworth Beach Resort and two shacks. A deep, loopy stillness whistles about you instead of beach chairs, massage men, and water sport peddlers annoying the living f%$k out of you. Makes for a lovely change, don't you know, to see so many shells on the beach. It was also a strangely reassuring experience to collect shells as I did on the sands on Candolim as a four year old. What sealed Utorda as "favourite beach" though was this, my prize find. In these two years of photography, this is my second favourite composition.

Between your feet

Another of Utorda's attractions is that most gorgeous restaurant/shack, Zeebop by the Sea. The guidebook says it is "arguably the best shack in Goa", and while I'm not sure if it qualifies for restaurant or shack, I had a wonderful time there. I'm told they have full bathroom facilities and space to leave your stuff so that you can spend the whole day there. They also have an incredible array of fresh seafood available, from which we sampled the superb seafood cocktail. The charming staff, especially the man who seemed to be in-charge, Baiju, were enthusiastic enough to bring out trays of lobsters and prawns for our selecting pleasure!

Because it began raining again, we didn't spend as much time at Zeebop as we would have liked to, but it was quite enough to let me fall completely and utterly in love with the place. I don't know exactly why I feel so strongly, given the unseemly brevity (I fervently believe!) of our visit. Perhaps, there was something that intermingles and sparkles about great food, good feni, Utorda Beach, and the name Zeebop by the Sea. Perhaps there was something about the silence and wind. I'm just glad I had the chance to experience it.


Finally, here's wishing you a very happy Diwali and a marvellous year ahead. As always, I hope you are surrounded by family, your loved ones, and loads of mithai. I hope this festive season is safe and prosperous for you and yours. I've had an amazing past few months and I really hope that the New Year ahead continues to bring halcyon days like these for both you and I. Saal Mubaarak, people! :-)

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Notes from a Goan Table

In all the years that I was a Goa virgin, I never heard a Goa story without the teller going into paroxysms of gastronomic glee. Have you? I don't think I've heard a Goa story without the tiger prawn, the lobster (or crab), and the baby kingfish assuming center stage for at least three-quarters of the tale. And each of them comes into its own only at specific establishments, usually in Baga-Calangute-Candolim. In fact, I think that's one of the primary reasons why I chose the touristy North Goa stretch over the deserted sands of South Goa.

Not my usual hyperbole, don't you know, to say that Goa is amongst the greatest gastronomic adventures possible. It goes without saying that I ate only food unavailable or difficult to get in Bombay. Only prawn and fish curry, Goa sausages, masala-fried and recheado-tossed seafood, sorpotel and vindaloo and sannas, crab xacuti, and all manner of chilli fried meat. I'm sure I'm leaving something out! Certainly, there was the occasional seafood or prawn cocktail and even a butter-garlic calamari, but we've walked out of restaurants not serving Goan food — only after a beer, though!

Of Lobsters and King Prawns

I consider myself respectably fishetarian but I don't think I've ever even heard of as many different varieties of fish in Bombay: perch, butter fish, sea bass, red snapper, and rock fish. Even though I've eaten mostly kingfish in Bombay for the past few years, I haven't had the pleasure of kingfish as fresh and succulent as I did in Goa. And where shall I begin about the squid? You don't get calamari as juicy and firm in Bombay - it's one in a million chance if you do.I have but one regret about the seafood and it is the lack of crumb-fried mussels. The elder sibling and the ex-reviewer won't stop raving about mussels but don't you know, mussel season begins only mid-November. It became something of a quest finally, the hunt for bloody crumb-fried mussels. God knows, I tried everywhere — from Baga to Calangute to Vagator to Panjim to Utorda.

And let's not forget the chorizo. That most wonderful, worthy, and spicy sausage. I ate it fried, boiled, in curry, in pao, in pulav, and chilli fried. Since that was not enough, we trekked to the Mapusa Friday Market to buy a few hundred to bring back home. While I was at the market, I also bought the only things that can ease being away from Goa — Goan masalas. The ache eases, truly it does, when you've made crumb-fried prawns and kingfish marinated in recheado masala. A wee bit of San Andre Port wine along with the food and the constriction inside begins to lessen... really!

My first proper meal in Goa was at a little bar and restaurant on the second floor of a house 30 meters from Baga Beach. The ex-reviewer's prize culinary find, it's called Alex's and is run by a rumbling, quiet man named Alex and his wife, who is the most incredible cook. We started with masala-fried calamari and some seriously great cashew feni. A failed request for crumb-fried mussels later, a plate of two large crumb-fried mackerels wound up on our table. Finished that up with chocolate-banana pancakes and I couldn't have been happier.

Alex's is certainly one of my favourite places in Baga, not just because of the food but because of the wonderfully relaxed atmosphere: the TV blaring, Alex's mad little son running all over the place, funny British people, and a huge old dog that looked like a stuffed sausage. For our last meal in Goa, Alex scoured three fish markets to buy crabs for us. He didn't find them but he did buy clams, which his wife cooked into the best clam coconut curry I've ever tasted.

The holy trinity of food at Baga-Calangute is easily Souza Lobo, Brittos, and Infantaria. While great local fare is par for the course in Goa, these are somewhat overrated places. They each have a couple of outstanding things on the menu but otherwise, like the ex-reviewer observes, good loos make the trinity.

For example, the elder sibling nearly froths at the mouth about Brittos, but apart from the baked crabs, sannas, the desserts, and the sublimely brilliant palm feni, I wasn't particularly impressed at all. As was the case with Souza Lobo. The roast tongue with Russian salad was brilliant — the quality of the meat was just superb. But I didn't think so well of the Goa sausage chilli fry or the other food. In addition, I didn't like Calangute beach much and that just added to my general impression.

Infantaria though is my very favourite of the three. I was decently disappointed by the famed Infantaria breakfast because it's not as large as the menu claims and hence isn't value for money. Avoid the feni — too harsh and bitter. But they have best strawberry and blueberry doughnuts ever. The Kahlua Mousse Cake and the Chocolate Walnut Date Tart, and the Crab Xacuti which at 85 bucks is some real value for money. But honestly, a major reason why I loved Infantaria was the *awesome* service that we enjoyed. Should you stop there, ask for John and Michael. They're quite friendly and happy to stop for a chat or invite the ex-reviewer to sing.

There are also a couple of other places that I recommend. One is on the Candolim Road and is called Lloyd's, after the guy who runs it. His mama does all the cooking and the food is excellent, if a little expensive. The potato chops looked delicious but were over by the time we ordered. The fish cutlets are definitely a must-try. The feni's not too good, but he does serve King's. The other place is called Mirabai's Goan Village — featured in the photo below. I wasn't very keen on the place because of a misunderstanding and some overreaction on my part but I'm glad the ex-reviewer convinced me otherwise. The fish was incredibly fresh and well-cooked and the feni smooth and light. Coupled with the lovely ambience, friendly staff, and loquacious owner, I had a really good time there.

Mirabai's Goan Village

I don't think that I'd be doing the Goan experience justice if I didn't mention the alcohol. Especially since a decent effort was expended in the noble pursuit of finding the best local palm or cashew feni. We devoted ourselves to it with such single-minded purpose that we did not suffer a single drop of anything else (but King's) to pass our lips in all that time. Feni is the loveliest high — easy, lazy, and mellow like a summer's day. Pour it over ice, add some sugar (syrup, preferably), sip it gently, and watch the languor unfold. Ah yes, the final verdict on the feni? The best palm feni hands down is at Brittos while the best cashew is available at Alex's.

To end this post, I have just one word of advice. North Goa, long being a tourist haven, has restaurants all over, some of which are run by the most unlikely suspects. As far as possible, stay out of shacks and restaurants not run by Goans. Both the service and food are likely to be quite bad. Also, there's one recurrent thought — for the life of me, I cannot fathom what a vegetarian would eat in Goa. I don't recall seeing any vegetarian Goan food on any of the menus I studied, either on or off the beaches. The ex-reviewer's more worried about the poor teetotallers but I, being driven by my stomach, am terrified for the vegetarians.


I've gone through over 500 photos from Goa and would you believe it, I cannot find more than these two photos of the food!! There's only one more and it's a remains-of-the-plate sort of one. There are assorted cats, dogs, hoardings, and hazy beaches, but no food. I suppose I was too busy to take photos, no? :-)

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Time Turtles

If you asked for a time line of my sojourn in Goa, I fear I may not be able to furnish one. You see, as I found out, that one great Goa cliche is really quite true — time really doesn't seem to have much meaning here. It only turtles along and wraps you in gelatinous languor. I cannot tell you which day precisely was spent tramping about Colva or which day in Panjim. Nor can I say which days were spent watching the sea or simply staring at it, sometimes idly, sometimes glassy-eyed.

Beer at Brittos

What with it being my first trip, I was labouring under both my own expectations and too many recommendations. So after some deliberation, we decided upon North Goa with a day in South Goa thrown in. A miserable bus journey later I arrived in Baga — in the middle of the Eid weekend. It's true, you know, what they say about Goa in season. There really were far too many people already down in Baga and most of those from bloody Bombay! Of course, things settled once the throng left on Monday (but still!): we got lazy, discovering Baga, Candolim, and Vagator in the silence of the early season.

Goa's the most beautiful country — lush and green and truly, quite like Kerala. Both so abundantly flaunt the blessing of the South-west monsoon in their waving palm trees and mid-harvest fields. The Baga, the Zuari, and other rivers meander across Goa with elephantine grace as do so many rivers across Kerala. Both states also carry the unmistakable stamp of familiarity with the Portuguese. This is especially true of Panjim with its brightly painted buildings in Fontainhas, the Latin quarter, so greatly reminiscent of Jew Town in Fort Kochi.

Fontainhas, Panjim

Along the Zuari River

Another intriguing similarity — you can't go five kilometers in either Goa or Kerala without some symbol or house of religion!

Goa's also amazing food and alcohol country. It's at least a mildly disorienting experience to be in a decently fancy eatery and find that Smirnoff's only 45 bucks to the large. And you know that we're doing something right as a country if we're producing a liquor as fine as palm feni and a beer as mellow and easy as King's. It's such a pity that neither are available in Bombay. I'd like to rant about the food because God knows Goan food deserves the paeans, but then I won't have a next post. But I will say this: as it is usually is with hearsay, I was disappointed with some of the restaurants so long hallowed.

Live in sight of the sea for most of your life and you may begin to take it for granted. I, on the other hand, have learned its true value in the last three years. And so, I rediscovered the sea in Goa. There is such a pure and beautiful joy in sitting in the deepening twilight, reading or writing or talking or being silent, letting the sound of the waves wash over you. In the North Goa stretch, Candolim is the best beach for those evenings. Candolim is also where I walked the sands of my childhood: where memory nibbled in small tendrils of nostalgia. Some roads were familiar and some vistas beloved.

Fort Aguada

The elder sibling warned me that because of the length of my stay, I might just end up being disillusioned about Goa much sooner than I need be. And perhaps, I was. In season, I don't think there is much of a difference between Baga-Calangute and Juhu Beach. Unthinkably irritating, don't you know, being kept just too far off the beach. Also, since I don't see a point in partying in Goa, I take at least some manner of exception to the loud, intrusive Bollywood and other "music" and the speeding cars along a road wide enough for two bikes!

Over that week, I came to realise that I like some of the big things, like the restaurants, but otherwise Goa is in the quieter and smaller things. In the little "bar and rest" that no one notices. In the genial, rumbling patrao who checks three fish markets to get your crabs. In the homes of people who don't know you from Adam but welcome you warmly at their tables just the same. In the stark, deserted beaches that bring you back in touch with your penguin roots. In the run-down bungalow down a green lane in Colva selling sausage-pao for 10 bucks. In the old, friendly and pushy aunty who sells chorizo at the Mapusa Friday Market but owns a flat in Napean Sea Road, Bombay.

Chorizo at the Mapusa Friday Market

Finally, I'm glad I went with the ex-reviewer. I doubt that I would have seen so much of Goa otherwise - a fact the elder sibling corroborates. Or had such a completely indulgent vacation. He watched me thumb through the guidebook only to finally gleefully let the susegaad win me over. He stopped obligingly on rattling and busy bridges for photographs. He laughed when the feni made me mad in my toes and very, very drunk. He also stole my camera every now and then only to make me the unwilling and tortured subject of too much wasted camera battery. And yes, those will never see the light of day!