From the window of my bunk on the lower level of a sleeper bus, the sun’s light trickled onto my face, cut into thousands of shining shards by long green blades of jungle foliage. The fractured light filled my vision and danced about like I was watching a time lapse of the creation of the universe. I had resolved that Mumbai would be the last big city for me in India and was hoping to squeeze the most out of my last two weeks in India. Until I leave, it’s the jungle for me.
Before setting out to meet my host, I needed a big hot meal and thankfully the pure veg restaurant at the train station was jam packed full of Indians – a good sign implying the food is good, prepared fresh, and cheap. My recent success at deciphering menus made me feel like a scholarly wizard mastered in the arcane arts of divination, but when I opened the menu and saw page after page of words I’d never heard or seen, I finally realized how different of a beast southern India was. After all I had accomplished, I would have to start from scratch. There was actually a fair selection of fondly familiar northern dishes, but I decided to withhold the pact I made with Hannes in Udaipur, and I would only order southern food until it too was subject to my divine sorcery.
Employing the shotgun approach, I ordered some dosa, which I knew to be a large flaky bread, and two other items at random faraway on the next page, hoping for savory new flavors and assuming their distance from dosa on the list would mean they’d be very different. Shortly, my table was nearly overrun by tin plates, all full of different kinds of bread, and only a paltry amount of dipping sauces, a spicy mint chutney and some kind of tomato based sauce. I earned puzzled looks from nearby tables and was embarrassed about my accidental gluttony … and then embarrassed again when trying to figure out how to eat it all. I had mastered the contours and forms of naan and chapatti: breaking them, folding them, and scooping generous amounts of curried vegetables with practiced artfulness, but these southern starches confounded me. They were either too light and flaky or too spongy to function as shovels, and they left me needing tutelage (Stuti Desai, I wish I had been taking notes we ate south Indian on the Upper West Side!). I would later learn that instead of ordering your breads and veggie dishes separately, southern cuisine features a wider variety of breads, but without a choice of a side. They always come with coconut chatni and the tomato based sambar. The other two items I ordered ended up being a serving of idli, spongy fermented rice cakes, and a large disc-like uttapam, a delicious pancake of coconut and rice flour fried until the edges are crispy.
I met my host at his place of work, a beautiful palm fringed Marriott Hotel, and he treated me to a lovely tropical iced tea. He looked shockingly like an Indian Adrian Brody, and had the warmth and easy going character that Goa’s beach towns are famous for.
For most of the last 500 years Goa was the domain of the Portuguese, and despite my never having seen a single Portuguese while in Goa, their influence remains carved into Goa’s landscape and its people. Shiva and Ganesh, while still present, are much harder to find than elsewhere in the country, and when they are around, you’ll often see them hanging out with their new pal, Jesus Christ. Most of the places of worship here have steeples, and the churches are numerous and diverse in shape and color. Much as Islam bleeds into Sikhism, bleeds into Hinduism, bleeds into Buddhism, Christianity joins the spectrum in ways I’ve never seen. Hinduism is a very decentralized faith and its worshippers tend to worship how they want and wherever they want, and you’ll find little shrines hidden in wall panels, at the base of trees, and on sidewalk fences. Here Christ too is worshipped in a similar manner, and Goa is littered with busts and portraits of Jesus, each adorned with marigolds and wafting in the smoke of incense.
I think I did Goa all wrong. I explored the tiny capital Panaji (pronounced Panjim) on a Sunday, and it was just dead, as its people took their Sabbath indoors. So the brightly painted Portuguese styled neighborhoods were mostly my own. I did spy an immodestly dressed blonde girl prancing down the steps of what I would later decide was my favorite church in the city. I reflected upon how quickly western people and their clothes seemed more foreign to me than saris and turbans, and then I realized – holy shit – that’s Paris Hilton. I don’t think I would have realized it was her if it weren’t for a flier I had seen while sipping on a vegan coffee shake at Café Coffee Day advertising a party Paris Hilton was DJing (Paris Hilton DJs? (People would pay to hear Paris Hilton DJ??)).
Later, in Old Goa, the remnants of a once great city full of some of India’s largest churches, I was hoping to enjoy the vine laced European style ruins with some solitude, but I turned out to be a Catholic Feast day and I think half the state showed up to listen to mass in Portuguese and spend four hours in a sweaty queue to visit the remains of St. Francis Xavier. I escaped the throngs of festival goers and better enjoyed the quiet edges of the town. After walking through a museum’s vast portrait gallery of a few hundred years’ worth of Portuguese lords, and staring into their eyes, I felt like they followed me out of the gallery and that I could see their ghosts walking about, invisible to the eyes of the Goans. The Portuguese were no longer there, but their architecture, their culture, and most importantly their religion are still a domineering force in this section of India. Their legacy remains intact.
The better parts of my days in Goa were probably spent during the evenings swimming in my host’s beautiful pool and in his apartment, enjoying his company with other surfers over beer and feni, a popular Goan liquor made from cashew fruit and often served with Limka (pretty much Indian Sprite).
In the end Goa was perhaps my least exciting destination so far, despite the lovely jungles, clear skies, and the fact that as I write this I’m overlooking the sun dip into the Arabian Sea in the company of palm trees, cows, and fisherman dragging long lines of netting back to the sand. Most succinctly, Goa was just too western for me. The bad English language techno, the churches, the PDA, the poppy t-shirts with absurd English phrases, the country music, and the menus full of meat demystified the jungles and my expectations and left me more baffled than enchanted. Most travelers come to Goa for the beaches and the parties, and since I had scheduled a whole chunk of Island hopping pleasure in the future, I foolishly abstained from the best things Goa has to offer, and I left wanting more. Now I wait for another sleeper bus and perhaps I’ll find the magic of the ancient Hindu south I’m looking for in Hampi.