Monday, May 29, 2006
Just got back from a short trip to Goa.
This was not my first trip. probably not my last one either. But this was a trip made after 31 years, my last visit here being at the end of 1975.
Notwithstanding warnings from folks decrying this choice of time of travel, Goa being very hot, this being peak of the Off-season etc etc, flights to Goa were completely packed. With mostly Indians. Lots of children .
Despite Goa being touted as a destination of choice that draws German charter flights like a Goan to his feni, the airport in Goa remains an unassuming type. No aerobridges, tunnels etc. You get off the plane and sort of trudge into an enclosure which quickly leads you outside the airport, without endless corridors with endless signs . No one looks at you with suspicion as you pull your lugguage (the current style elsewhere being, treat travellers in an Guilty-until-proven-innocent manner, all in the name of security.).
You have a choice of prepaid taxis to take you to your destination, ours being Panjim. Immediately outside the airport, you see the moderate intercity traffic, and spying buses trundling in the distance and true to our middle class values, we do a fast trudge with our bags to the main road and back. The buses are decently crowded with folks who are NOT on holiday, and going about their work with baskets and stuff, and since we do a lot of push-push-shove-shove-squeeeeze-through-to-the-exit-stuff in mumbai, we decide to treat ourselves to a taxi in Goa, and pretend we are on a five star vacation. Turns out this was to be one of the two taxi rides we took in our entire 5 day stay....
Goa to me, earlier was a bunch of cities interspersed in a wealth of small villages dotted with greenery. The earlier lack of multistoreyed dwellings was admirable. The biggest difference this time was there are no well defined village boundaries any more. There seems to be some sort of boom in ex-village construction. Some of the older mangalore-tiled houses with intricate trelisses and bowers of greenery leaning over imposing entrances have given way to cement-concrete monstrocities. Some unavoidable things like industrial areas have come up, but they still try and blend in with the surroundings, moderating their external display, so-to-speak. Earlier, 25 years ago, as you entered the main village area, you saw a nice football field , a church and temple, where you read announcements of impending matches with a visiting village team from elsewhere; folks landed up to cheer their team, to be followed by a goodwill feni session post match, possibly with a great meal.
Today, what really strikes you is the number of houses in the village with doors locked from outside. My friend from Goa, who we met after 25 years , tells us that this doesnt necessarily mean that people have migrated ; it also could mean, that someone is out for shopping etc, and IT IS NO LONGER SAFE TO LEAVE YOUR HOUSE UNLOCKED IF YOU ARE STEPPING OUT FOR A WHILE. The possibility of people from the countryside going to work in Panjim also cannot be denied, given the developement of educational institutions over the years , and the transport infrastructure. (We in Mumbai , who travel 80 kms daily , packed liked sardines , simply to go to work, cannot really say a thing. Travelling to work in Goa is a very civilsed affair. Buses are generally going from point A to Z, and anyone along the way , at any point, stops the bus anywhere and gets on it. You politely wave, the driver politely stops, the conductor shouts out the area names while leaning from the steps, just to introduce some excitement, and "transport" happens....).
Roads in Goa are wonderful. Mostly 2 lane highways, sorry, roads. I dont recall seeing single speed limit sign during my entire stay. Everyone drives as fast as they want. Our taxi driver did a 1 hour drive in 35 minutes flat. The approved thing is to overtake huge vehicles at great speed. The only time you cannot do that is when a motorcycle with a pillion rider is simultaneously trying to overtake you at the same time, irrespective of the width of the road. I didnt experience a single pot hole . Goa has a climate similar to Mumbai. Yes, i know the density of traffic in Mumbai is huge. But here in Mumbai potholes are a way of life. Goa is dotted with new roundabouts where traffic gracefully swirls around before getting into a frenzied acceleration, and i admire this effort by the government to temper as well as beautify in one shot.
Given the 25 years that elapsed after my previous visit, one thing that reassures me is the effort being put , in maintaining the greenery in Goa. Goa is still lush with mangroves, trees, and i suppose individual riches are still counted in terms of how much land you have and how many mango, cashew and coconut trees crown it. You notice "houses nestled amongst trees" as opposed to trees decorating the house. Which is how it was, and how it should be.
Goa tourism tries to do a commendable job running various tours. The communication interface when you call from out of state is good. Relevant information, quick information, someone has some great ideas about how websites can be usefully planned.
The problem starts in "real-time."
Assorted bookings are made, coupons given for trips on buses, but the communication infrastructure, networkwise, is simply , not there. The centralised booking people convey arbitrary bookings to the people at the tour start site. One feels they get so carried away with the IT aspect of the whole thing, that they simply forget to pass on the information to people at the bus-level. And so, for every tour we took, there was a lot of frustrated yelling, discussion, cursing the GTDC people. Walking back and forth to counters. On finally resolving the issue, we would still keep our time everywhere as defined in the brochure; which leads me to believe that these mess-ups are all planned/built-in and taken care off by the GTDC system. Absolutely shameless and amazing.
Waves of anger and frustration, enveloped by the breezes of the peaceful Goa countryside, soon gave way to a bus , speeding along, playing the latest music, interspersed with pithy comments from the tour guide. One cannot help but smile , when , on explaining the importance of Aguada fort, where there is a jail, the tour guide PROUDLY mentions that 2 very prominent criminals managed to escape from there. There is even a bust of one of the criminals , in the fancy restaurant where he was finally arrested. :-) :-)
Folks in Goa have an inborn environmental awareness. There are several watchdog organisations today that ensure that planted trees exceed cut trees during any construction activity. One is delighted to see inland waterways, and mangroves ; driving inland in the hills, pineapples bought from local chaps certainly taste different to those I have eaten so far; much more sweet. Old women hawkers on the streets and markets of Panjim, sell raw cashews and Goa's local mangoes. A glance across the hills emphasises the insistence of non-highrises. The coastal regulations rules prohibit construction within 500 meters of the coastline. But sadly, as elsewhere in India, (but to a much lesser extent) these rules are flouted by appealing to higher (?) authorities at the Centre. Witness the Tata housing in the Betim Hills. JRD would NEVER have approved.
The old quarter of Panjim, now being treatd as a Heritage area, has these amazing "gulleys", (small pathways), with even more amazing houses with intricate carvings and treliises, and a very unique way of announcing the owners name, in a blue delft like plate fitted into the wall outisde. Dark blue, brickred etc appear to be the favourite colours of buildings, and white comes a close second . These areas are dotted with homestyle reaturants , serving typical Goan food, and many are written up and recomended in things like the lonely Planet Guide.
Lonely or not, recommended or not, we were treated to a lunch in one of these, by our Goan friend towards the end of our trip. Fish Curry and rice being the staple, this place excels in serving various varieties of fish. The non vegetarians amongst us, ate with single minded devotion to the plate in front, oblivious to the coming and going of electricity, conversation, etc. Plates were wiped clean with "pao" till they gleamed, and fingers licked till there was nothing more to be licked. Amazing food, at even more amazing prices; bringing out th Goans' natural predeliction for the "good times" to be enjoyed by one and all.
Which finally brings us to Sussegaad. I am convinced that after such great meals of Fish Curry and rice, a person gets so satiated, that a short nap (after a drink of chiiled beer...) is on order. Maybe its the quality of rice, the lush quality of the coconut used, or the omega 3 magic of the fish fat, but most businesses in Goa come to a halt between 1pm and say 4pm. This is Sussegaad time. Relax. Take a nap. Release your tensions.
And then there is the Ferry. Despite the Panjim Mandovi river bridge spanning across Panjim and Betim , most people still like to travel across the river by Ferry. On my last trip to Goa, I remember paying for it. Since 2002 this is now free, except for vehicles with wheels for which there is a minor fee. . And so you see tons of two wheelers emerging , as if from the river, when the Ferry docks at Panjim or Betim. The heady combination of sea smells, fish and diesel fumes probably creates the right incentive for rushing to have a cold chilled beer /feni wherever you plan to go next.
On our last day in Panjim we were looking for a place that sells a typical Goan sweet called "Dose"; I may have the spelling wrong, but folks, its the taste that matters. Our Goan friend served this to us over tea at her riverfront living room in Betim. This resulted in us depleting her entire supply of this sweet . A deadly combination of gram flour (chana flour), coconut, and local jaggery (probably toddy based) this melt-in-your-mouth stuff has not been given the publicity it deserves. Goa Tourism, WAKE UP!!!
It was 1 pm when our taxi taking us to the airport came. On hearing about our quest, the driver, trying to beat the Sussegaad timings, drove in a frenzy in the opposite direction to the airport, to take us to a shop where he knew this was sold. He then came after us to see whether we were able to get it, and then even moved the car and parked it where we didnt have to walk back a big distance to get back in again.
Izzat ka swaal tha. (To those unfamiliar with this, it means "it was question of goan prestige...").
And so we were back on the way to the airport. Whizzing past, trying to beat out previous timing between Panjim and the airport. Maybe the driver was yet to have his lunch. Maybe he wanted to get back to a Sussegaad afternoon over fish curry, rice and feni.
Like i said, there are NO speed limits. Maybe i will recommend him to Michael Schumaker. And maybe Schumaker will take him, provided, of course , he comes along with the fish curry and rice.
And a picture of Schumaker winning his races and getting doused by a bottle of feni in Monaco, is too much to imagine.
Time for Sussegaad.