I am not an adventurous person but from time to time I like to challenge myself, step outside my comfort zone and do something I have never done before. Like take a solo trip to a place I have never been to before.
Goa – the sunshine state, one of the most popular tourist destinations in India. All through my adult life, I have often consciously avoided going to Goa for vacations simply coz I thought it to be a tourist infested, over-exposed destination. Whenever my friends planned that Goa trip, I would step in and manoeuvre it elsewhere. At other times, fate intervened and spared me the ennui of visiting tried-and-tested-Goa.
The only thing that could tempt me to visit Goa was perhaps the opportunity to travel by the famous Konkan Railway, touted to be one of the most scenic train routes in India and an engineering marvel in itself.
Hence, earlier this month with my regular travel partner travelling for work and me having some spare time on my hands, I decided to travel to Goa solo and find out for myself, what the whole brouhaha was all about.
I booked the travel and the stay. Read up on what to see in Goa, where to eat and made a mental map of all that I wanted to fit into my four days in Goa. But as the trip drew closer, I started having serious misgivings about this whole solo travel thingy. I was really skeptical if I would be able to enjoy on my own on a solo trip to Goa. I mean, having lunch or going on a drive on your own once in a while is always a welcome relief but imagine doing that for four days at a stretch! But I had made the bookings and told friends and family and it was too late to back out now. So begrudgingly, off I went to Goa not really expecting to have much fun.
Day 1: Two’s company, one is glum
For the first two days I had booked myself in a backpacker’s hostel in Calungute, North Goa just because I hoped to run into other solo travelers and team with them and go around. The hostel was tucked into a rundown neighborhood off Calangute Beach with very very basic rooms and amenities. I took that as a sign to spend more time outside the room. I quickly freshened up and decided to walk to Calangute Beach. The sun was about to set and although I had been warned about Calangute, nothing could prepare me for the enormous sea of human population that hit me on Calangute Beach. It was like all my worst nightmares about Goa had come true. Add to that pesky shack owners, tattoo artists, water sports people and shady masseurs who seem very interested in knowing who I was travelling with. At first I was amused by their persistent questions but soon I got irritated and decided to walk to the neighboring Baga where the crowd is supposed to be slightly better.
Thankfully at Baga, no one bothered me with pesky questions. I happily lounged in one of the many beach shacks, soaking in the music and neon lights all around and sipping away to glory. But it started to get boring soon. I was trying hard to pretend that I was enjoying in my own happy little oasis but the peals of laughter and chatter emanating from the groups around made me miss my friends and my regular travel partner. It was still early evening but after a while, I decided to call it a day and head back to the hostel glumly.
On entering the room, I realized that two new girls had arrived after I left for the beach and had occupied the upper bunks in my room. They were cousins, part of a huge joint family living in Delhi, on their first trip to the sunshine state as well. Seemed like they had teamed up with another boarder at the hostel, a software engineer from Hyderabad travelling solo and they were all heading out for the evening. One of the girls asked me if I would like to join them and I jumped up and said yes. I was elated at the prospect of being able to spend the evening with some fellow travelers than stay in the drab hostel room and sulk. We headed to Tito’s in Baga. Although there was nothing exclusively Goan about the place, I had a nice time chatting and dancing with my new found friends.
Day 2: Comfort in Numbers
Next day the four of us hired a car and went around the churches in Old Goa, Dona Paola and chased the sun as it dipped into the Arabian Sea. It was good to be out with friends, to laugh, pose for groupies and discuss about each other’s previous trips, jobs and families back home. Since I had booked the hostel for only two days, I would have to check out the next day. Given the rundown condition of the property, at the time of checking in, I had just wanted to quickly get done with the first two days and move on to a better place for the last two. But I was in two minds now. Leaving the hostel would mean saying goodbye to my new friends and I did not want to go back to being alone and miserable again.
That evening we headed to a popular shack, Curlies, situated just a few feet away from the splashing waves on Anjuna beach. The place was hosting a trance party and was packed with revelers eating, drinking, smoking and dancing the night away. Looking around I realized that there was not an inch of Goa here or in most of what I had seen in the past two days. Goa had left a long time ago and had instead been replaced by noisy tourists looking to get high and shack owners from the Northern part of India or Russia serving pizza, chicken fried rice and blasphemous Goan food along with imported spirits. My friends seemed to have a good time but I was getting restless. Surely, there is more to Goa than smoking up, drinking and endless partying.
Day 3: Unsure but Solo
Next day, I decided that it was time to bid goodbye to my new friends and head out on my own to find some real Goa even though it meant risking being alone and miserable.
I left the hostel, took a bus to Panjim and checked into a home stay in Fontainhas, an old Latin quarter in the city. Painted in bright yellow and overlooking the white St. Sebastian Chapel with a small hill in the backdrop, the homestay with oyster shell windows was being run by a Goanese mother – son duo. I felt right at home. After some good rest and a quick chat with the lady of the house, I set out to see Fort Reis Magos in Verem, across the Mandovi.
Originally a bastion of the Adil Shahi dynasty and later of the Portuguese, it had fallen into disuse and disrepair before being restored a few years ago. It is now open to public both as a historical and cultural centre. I was especially interested when I heard that some of Mario Miranda’s work (famous for his caricatures on everyday life and the mural in Café Mondegar, Mumbai ) is displayed in Reis Magos. Even though it was almost late afternoon and the fort closes around sunset, I decided to give it a shot. From Panjim Jetty I boarded one of those enormous blue ferries along with the horde of office goers, their bikes, cars et all returning home after work. The setting sun had turned the waters of the Mandovi to gold but all around us the floating casinos of Goa were still looked lethargic. On the other side, I boarded a crowded mini bus to take me to Verem Market and from there I followed the road along the river. It was getting dark all around and I realized that I had probably missed the chance to see Mario Miranda’s illustrations. Nevertheless, it was good to see a non-touristy side of Goa and travel like a local. I spent some time along the river, watched the lights in the casinos come alive as a river cruise boat decked up with fairy lights sailed past blasting some popular Goan songs. On the way back, I stopped over at Ritz Classic, a popular sea food restaurant in Panjim and feasted on some delicious Goan prawn curry and rice. Since Christmas was around the corner, street corners and churchyards had come alive with lights, fireworks, dance performances by local kids and pop up bands playing Christmas carols on saxophone and violin. The cheer in the air was contagious.
Day 4: Solo and loving it!
The next day, after spending sometime exploring the winding streets, colorful houses and art shops selling porcelain figurines and hand painted tiles in Fontainhas, I set out for Chandor a sleepy village in the heart of Goa known for the opulent houses of Goa’s former landowners.
An hour and a half, a bike taxi and two bus rides later I arrived in Chandor. Since I was the only touristy looking person in the whole bus (courtesy the straw hat and the big camera bag), as soon as I asked for the ticket to Chandor, the conductor had looked at me and exclaimed, “Bada ghar dekhne ja rahi ho? Braganca House near the Church?” Before dropping me off at Chandor, he pointed to a longish two storied house across the road surrounded by an overgrown garden. The four hundred year old house with two wings housing two offshoots of the same family: the Menezes-Braganza and the Menezes Pereira is a museum in itself. Words will not do justice to its grandeur; hence I will cover it separately in a photo blog.
It was Mrs. Aurea Menezes Periera who told me and gave me directions to the other house in Chandor that is open to public, the Fernandes House. So after thanking her, I set out towards the Fernandes house on foot. It was mid afternoon. I crossed the road and walked past the church. In the school ground behind the church, kids were practicing march-past. I walked further past Chandor social club to edge of the village but still no sight of Fernandes House. A little ahead, I saw a woman who appeared to be waiting for a bus/ pickup and decided to reconfirm the directions with her. She was indeed waiting for a bus to Madgao. She confirmed that I was on the right path but will have to walk another fifteen minutes. Famished in the hot sun, I inquired if I could hire an auto rickshaw to get there. She laughed and said there are no autos available here for hire but offered to stop one of the passing bikes and request them to drop me at the Fernandes House. I was too exhausted to decline. As she tried to wave down a bike for me, she kept asking me various questions. Where are you from? So you are a tourist huh? You came here alone all the way from Mumbai? Have you had lunch? She also kept repeating almost apologetically that in case her bus comes in the meantime, she will have to leave even if she is unable to flag down a bike for me by then. Unlike the pesky shack owners in Calangute, her questions had a tinge of concern that really touched me. At long last, she was able to flag down a bike. A young boy who apparently was her milkman. Grudgingly, he agreed to drop me at the Fernandes House.
The Fernandes House looked more time worn than the Braganca house. All the windows on the lower floor were closed. I was about to turn around after several bells and knocks on the door went unanswered, when suddenly a man popped his head out of one of the upper floor windows and asked me to wait. He was the matriarch Mrs. Sara Fernandes’ son. The Fernandes house is almost 500 years old and although crumbling had very intriguing stories attached to it. More about it on the photo blog. After showing me around, Mr. Fernandes asked me to wait in front of his house for the next bus to Madgao in half an hour’s time. But barely fifteen minutes had passed when a rickety Alto came ambling down the road and abruptly stopped a little ahead. The driver, an elderly man asked me where I was going. Turns out he was heading to Panjim and offered to drop me at Madgoa. Usually I would have turned down any such proposal. But today was not a usual day. I had traveled all alone to a little known village in central Goa and experienced extraordinary kindness from complete strangers. It was probably the warmth of the Goan people that made me get into the car without much hesitation. I got talking to the gentleman. Turned out he was 84 years old, a petrol pump owner and driving down from Sanguem to Panjim (a distance of about 60 kms) to see his daughter. I was amazed by his grit to drive such a long distance alone at 84 years of age. But a little further down the road to Madgao, he kept forgetting where he was heading and where he was supposed to drop me. He told me several times that he loved to drive and to help people but his memory was failing him now. At last, I had to whip out my phone and use google maps to drop myself off in Madgao city and set him back on his way to Panjim. From there I took a bus back to Panjim. As my Goa trip came to an end, I was satisfied at having experienced some real Goa and real Goan warmth. (More on Chandor here)
The next day, I took the Konkan Railway back to Mumbai. The route was scenic indeed. We passed through several tunnels, chugged over hills , ravines and gurgling rivers. Alas, I could not click any good pictures through the dusty glass windows of AC 3 tier. Next time, I will make it a point to travel by sleeper class. Yes there will be a next time coz there is so much that Goa has to offer that one trip is indeed not enough. Cheers!
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