We were finally in Goa.. one of my favourite places, and a very special one as it was the first place the Other and I travelled to, when we were still discovering ourselves and trying to stand on our feet. It felt good to be going back 10 years later, as surer more grown up adults.
With a small pang of ruefulness I missed the us we were, the people we used to be, it made me smile, it made me wistful, it made me realise how much we had grown.
This time in Goa we were going to spend a few days at Aldona, a Goan village before heading down to the beaches. We were staying at a homestay called The Only Olive, which was a century old Portugese mansion. Our host Ginza Pinto was extremely warm and despite living in Bombay kept checking on us and gave us suggestions of the best places to go to. Infact she checked on us till we reached Kerala.
The ride to Goa was beautiful, tree lined, with tiny white churches popping out of no where, crumbling Portuguese villas with overgrown compounds, well maintained villas with an old vintage car standing out in front and an old Goan granny watching everything that passed by with hawk like eyes.
We entered Aldona, and I felt like we were in a movie. Time stood still and there was magic in the air. The other suggested we dump our bags and eat something at the first place we see and begin to explore the town.
But I decided we should follow Ginza’s recommendation and eat at Spice Goa, in Mapusa, 10 KM away. We still had our luggage with us, it was hot, and the Other was hangry ( anger from hunger). He muttered something darkly about me and my obsession with ratings and recommendations but rode towards the restaurant.
Spice Goa is a nondescript looking restaurant, in an unimpressive alleyway, but there was a big queue on a Friday afternoon and I knew we had hit jackpot. Since we were just two, we got bumped up, thankfully as the other’s dark muttering and stomach rumbling was getting to me. We passed a tray of giant live crabs, I guess you could choose the one you wanted to eat. But the restaurant had left the tray in the sun, and it was disconcerting, as the crabs obviously didn’t like the heat and tried to crawl to the edges in the hopes of finding shade, but there was none. In my opinion there is no reason to torture before killing, if I were the crab I would be happy not knowing the end was near, I wouldn’t want to be in a situation where I was in so much discomfort that I hoped that the end was near. The other loves crabs, and even he couldn’t eat those.
We were soon seated and ordered Kings beer, a pilsner which is made and sold only in Goa. It was a long due reunion, we were back after a decade after all. With every sip the other’s mood lifted, and as his belly got filled with goan prawns the mutterings ceased. I am the one who usually gets hangry if I am not fed every few hours, but strangely it was his turn. Despite being a restaurant which specialised in local goan fare, i.e- seafood, they had a fair collection of vegetarian dishes. I had a gravy called xacutti, a spicy vegetable concoction in a grainy coconut base. But the star of the meal was the desert, it is called Serradura ( sawdust pudding) and tastes like childhood, of sweetened milk froth with a hint of milk custard, and strangely milk powder. When my brother was an infant, I used to love eating his milk powder (lactogen) when no one was looking, I would cram as much as I could into my mouth and then struggle to swallow it without choking. Ahh… the sweet taste of powdered milk, and this desert was all of that and more.
Satiated and in high spirits we rode back to Aldona and checked into the only olive. It is an old portugese house, renovated on the inside with all modern amenities set amidst a large garden. They have two rooms for rent, so 4 people can stay at a time but once again we were the only guests. I felt very rich, living in this large house, with a lovely living area and a grand dining room. Felt like a memsahib, especially while sitting at the long 8 or 10 seater dining table. The house also comes with a functional kitchen, a fridge and a gas stove if you are feeling peckish.
My favourite place in the house was a sit out with a outdoor dining table. This is where we had all our meals, wrote, read and gazed at full moon over some feni and rum respectively in the nights.
The property also comes with a closed garage, so for once buttercup had a nice place to rest too.
Our room was simple and functional and had a very high ceiling and wooden steps leading to a little loft. I think it would be a great place, if you had young children, it is a room within a room and the kids would love to sleep on the loft.
The only olive is taken care of by Santosh the caretaker and his wife. They live with their three daughters in a smaller house behind the main house and are pleasant and very efficient. Their elder daughter was quiet and a very good craftswoman, I saw some of her art projects for school and they were amazing and the younger one was a bright spark. She was talkative, curious and inquisitive. She would stare over my shoulder as I wrote on the laptop and try and make sense of the words, she is just learning to read and then bombard me with questions. But she was most fascinated with the polaroid camera. I was forced to take several pictures of her and give it to her. Each time the photo came out, she would squeal in excitement and jump up and down till I gave it to her. Once she had it in her hands she would run as fast as her little legs would take her and show her family the picture, hide it and run back to me for one more.
The polaroid camera had this effect on everyone. (One of our best wedding presents for sure)
All along our trip, the children loved it and I loved taking pictures of them and giving it to them. The adults loved it too. In kutch they stared at it in wonder, with respect. Rambhai tried to understand how it worked, but the rest were content in believing it was magic. In Utelia the caretaker puffed his chest in importance and took the developing photo from me to shake. He was so proud. I then caught him grabbing another photo from his wife, chiding her for not shaking the film properly and proceeding to shake it with an air of great importance, as if he was on national duty. Men I tell you !! I have observed on countless occasions, I don’t know why they try and act superior to their wives, even in the most mundane matters. I was once privy to a man grabbing his wife roughly to teach her the art of standing in a queue at JFK.
Santosh’s middle daughter however was mentally underdeveloped and spent her days in a swing fashioned out of a stick and a rope, hung from a big branch of a giant mango tree .She wore nothing but a yellow underwear, and could not speak. But her younger sister would push her on the makeshift swing and she would shriek in enjoyment. I wonder what will happen to her as she grows older, if she will become a burden. Will her sisters would still care for her…
After a bit of a rest we set out to explore Aldona. Everything in Aldona is old, the trees, the roads and the houses. It is a beautiful village, content and full of stories. We went to the little market square and watched a man make fresh mixture. Taste wise I prefer the ones we get in the south, but it was nice to see him fry the various condiments and mix it together. You get the mixture hot here so we ended up buying a big bag to go with our evening drink. He is quite popular so you have to wait in queue, but it is the best place to people watch and talk to the locals.
We also sampled some local vada pav and bhaji and returned to the house to enjoy our drinks under a blazing full moon. The neighbours had a bunch of hens who would crow now and then, it was a perfect night.
Once again on Ginza’s recommendation, we headed down to Aldons for dinner. The place oozes with character, it cannot get more Goan that this. There is pretty much no vegetarian food on the menu for starters, but the drinks are great and the ambience is worth it. The other however enjoyed his seafood tremendously.
Santosh woke us up with coffee and breakfast the next day. He served us eggs with poi, a local bread. The baker in Aldona still makes it in a wood fired oven and Santosh bought it fresh and warm every morning for us. Despite looking like a bun, it was airy fluffy, and stringy inside. Needless to say, I loved it.
The previous evening, we rode through the village and had noticed that every house was prettier than the one before, every street more quaint. We set aside the morning to explore Aldona on foot, and house after house, street after street we were mesmerised. So many beautiful old houses, so many vintage artefacts, bougainvillea gates, vintage cars, wrought iron grills. So many abandoned houses in disrepair. We stood outside and could see the fading graduer, could see life as it used to me. We fell in love quickly we fell in love hard. We were under a spell so strong that we even changed our retirement plans – to buy a old house in Aldona, restore it and live there till the end of our days. The other went as far as to even enquire prices 🙂
We then took buttercup and rode around the edges of Aldona, where there are fields and waterways, ancient bridges and the most adorable scenery.
The waterways are pristine, and I read up later that you can hire kayaks or houseboats and spend some time in them. That is the agenda for the next trip, quiet Goan waterways.
We explored the region all morning but met no one, and saw no one except this beauty.
The people here are not friendly, and are probably wary of tourists, being a Goan can’t be easy with the number of invaders every year, imagine not being able to go to a tourist free beach in the city you live in. If we rode into someone’s compound by mistake, there would be figures at the porch, and at the windows glaring at us, as we struggled to turn the bike back. But then we would smile apologetically, and something invisible would melt. They would beam back, wave and get on with life. Sometimes all it takes is a smile, and a smile can do so much.
The Other was content to spend all our time lazing at the only olive, nipping down to the market for snacks and supplies, but I decided we had to go to the beach. I am a water baby and I needed to jump into the ocean. It was time, I was craving it, I had waited long enough. The other suggested I splash around the bathtub at the only olive, but I was adamant.
Aldona is a great place to stay in if you want to explore the north without staying in the tourtisty beaches. We rode down to Morjim, a beach in north Goa one afternoon, and had lunch at Jardin de Ulysees. This is an open air café.restaurant by the river and they serve international food which is quite good. Post lunch we entered the beach, it was wide, it was beautiful, the temperature of the water was perfect. Warm water at last, and I would swim, float. I was home. I think I am happiest in the water.
We witnessed yet another great sunset from the water and it was time to head back.
Another evening we rode down to the Saturday market at Arpora. There is nothing flea about the market, it is a well organised bazaar, with parking and stalls that sell everything from pashmina shawls, golden budhas and beach wear. There is also food, booze and live music.
We wandered around a bit, bought several things we don’t need and then wandered around the locality. The road from Aldona to Arpora is dotted with antique furniture shops selling the most delightful chairs and doorways. If we ever get responsible and save money to buy a house, we know where some of our furniture is coming from.
The area around the market is home to many restaurants and bars. We passed by the cutest bar, which is basically a shack with plastic stools on the dirt patch on the side of the road . An India sidewalk café of sorts. It looked like a dosa shop in the south, where a woman in general would deftly make dosa after dosa, for crowds of labourers and few blue collared workers every morning. In the south it was a place of business, packed and speed and delivery was of essence. However in goa, it was a bar, chilled out and slow. The guests sat on the stool, and used another stool as a table. The waiters strolled in and out of a tiny hole in the wall shack with the orders. I wish we could have stopped there for a drink, in retrospect I don’t know why we didn’t.
The Russian contigent from Wildernest seemed small in comparision to the Russians in North Goa, I don’t know how old or new this phenomenon is but the last time we were here, we met tourists from all over the globe. What intrigues me more is the absence of the Europeans and American tourists rather than the influx of Russian tourists. The menus in most of the beach shacks were in Russian and all the shop keeprs spoke Russian too. One localite told us that there was even a Russian village in Goa where Indians were not allowed, and it is where the mafia stayed. Seemed a little far fetched, but I had no intention of verifying the truth.
Charming – that is what Aldona is, it is the top contender for the place I would like to spend my sabbatical in, if and when I take it. But now it was time for us to leave, to the beach to the ocean. This was the part of our trip to which I was looking forward to the most, we were off to Palolem, south Goa, to my favourite beach, to do nothing all day but swim, eat, drink and swim some more.