When I decided to go to India, the reactions were discouraging. "You'll be overwhelmed," friends said.
I was overwhelmed, but not as they had expected. It happened in the idyllic, tropical state of Goa on the west coast.
Booked first into a seaside resort at Bogmalo, I had anticipated a pleasant vacation. Instead, my hotel was close to the airport and isolated. The land was dry and brown, and buildings nearby were reminiscent of Southern California sprawl. The first--and only--afternoon I spent there, it was evident that this was a haven for various European charters.
Fortunately, bad often leads to good. In this case it led to Panaji, the capital of Goa and a town of immense charm. Using a phone number I had obtained in Los Angeles, I contacted a tourism official in Panaji who helped make a booking at the Hotel Fidalgo.
Early the next day I set out in an incense-scented taxi. What a change from the artificial atmosphere of the resort. Women in brilliant silks walked along the road with huge brass pots balanced on their heads. Cattle wandered across the line of traffic. Palm trees and alluring seascapes replaced the drab terrain. Other sights reflected Goa's long history as a Portuguese enclave. Occasionally we passed a cross at the side of the road or a Catholic church.
Panaji looked promising, with its shady streets, riotous gardens and pastel-washed buildings. It could have been a town in Mexico or Portugal, and its languid ways reinforced that feeling.
No one bothered me when I walked through the quiet streets at night. A boy who had stretched out to sleep on the sidewalk smiled as I passed. A shadowy passer-by said good night. Strains of Bach echoed from someone's window.
Quiet as it may seem, Panaji thrives as business and tourism draw job-seekers from Goan villages and other parts of India. The population is estimated at 85,000 and is expected to exceed 100,000 by the 1991 census.
The Portuguese, who held Goa from 1510 to 1961, added a Latin lilt to Goan music. They also left behind surnames such as Colombo, Fernandes, Pereira and De Souza. The bakery at the Hotel Mandovi in Panaji is called Pastelaria, and Velho & Filhos is a department store. You can still get authentic Portuguese caldo verde (a soup of broth, greens and potato). And shops carry smooth, sweet Goan wines reminiscent of Port.
Goa attained statehood last year. A top political issue concerns the construction of five-star hotels along the beaches. One faction says such development will interfere with the livelihood of Goa's fishermen by cutting off their access to the sea. Conservatives also want to protect Goan culture from incursions by foreigners.
Tame as Afternoon Tea
Carnival, the boisterous Mardi Gras celebration that once brought in throngs of tourists, became the center of another controversy two years ago. There were objections to the revelry, and now Carnival is as tame as afternoon tea. The highlight of Panaji's observance this year was a parade of spiffed-up automobiles.
It is hard to imagine violence in Goa, although two years ago several deaths resulted from a conflict over two languages. One group wanted to adopt Konkani, which is spoken in Goa and in some parts of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala states. Another group advocated Marathi, the predominant language of neighboring Maharashtra state. The two sides staged protests and street marches. When the demonstrations escalated into fires and stone-throwing, police intervened. The eventual winner of the dispute was Konkani, although Marathi is also still spoken.
The closest takeoff point for Panaji is Bombay, a flight and drive of less than two hours. My hotel, the Fidalgo, featured a pleasant courtyard and a swimming pool. The Hotel Mandovi, on the other hand, has no swimming pool but boasts spacious rooms that overlook the Mandovi River. The rate for a large suite is about $29 U.S. for two and less than $28 for a single. Because it has a pool, rates are slightly higher at the Fidalgo, but the rooms are not as nice.
The Mandovi's Riorico dining room captures the mood of Old World Europe and the food is wonderful. The long menu includes Portuguese specialties such as peixe caldeirada (seafood stewed with potatoes and wine), caldo verde and canja de galinha , a chicken-rice soup with green olives. Goan cuisine is well represented, and the kitchen also turns out tandoori meats, Indian vegetarian plates and continental dishes.
A Must for Dessert
Spicy, distinctive Goan fare is famous in India. Try the prawn curry, which is made with coconut milk, or pork vindaloo , which is seasoned with vinegar and a cupboardful of spices. A must for dessert is bebinca , a cake of thin layers that are baked one at a time, preferably in a clay oven. This egg-rich, nutmeg-seasoned cake reflects its Portuguese origin, but the addition of coconut milk to the batter is purely Goan.
It is possible to see all of Goa in a short time by taking the two daylong sightseeing tours that cover the the northern and southern portions of the state, and are bargains at about $3 each. The tours can be booked at hotels and are conducted in English. I was the only non-Indian on a southern Goa tour that took in beaches, towns, spectacular Hindu temples and the historic churches of Old Goa, which is six miles east of Panaji.
At the Basilica of Bom Jesus we saw the silver casket that holds the remains of St. Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary who arrived in Goa in 1542. The custom has been to place the body on view every 10 years.
At Colva Beach we had time to splash in the surf, drink juice from freshly cut coconuts and buy fruit, spicy snacks and souvenirs.
Things to shop for in Panaji include shell jewelry, candles in fanciful shapes, locally grown cashew nuts and the famous Goan liquor feni .
I spent three days in Goa as part of a monthlong trip to India. It was the most peaceful place I visited, and I am sorry that my itinerary didn't allow me to stay at least a week.
For more information about Goa or travel to India in general, contact the Government of India Tourist Office, 3550 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 204, Los Angeles 90010, phone (213) 380-8855.