…and it will be just the escape we so urgently need, writes Aimee Ginsburg to a friend stubbornly unconvinced of its storied charms
I’m sitting at a beach shack overlooking Baga River, nursing my fresh lime soda, bare toes wiggling in the sand. It’s almost sunset now, my time to breathe. Finally, the evening breeze; and the water has turned mercury rose in the last rays of the sun. I can feel you tense up as you read. Not again, you think, and wish I would finally just drop it.
The seasons have changed again, you know? In the morning, the air is cool enough for socks, the flowers in the gardens—fuchsia hibiscus and lilac bougainvillea, masses of morning glory, white ruffled jasmines—are covered in dew. Yesterday, I pulled my purple hoodie out of the trunk; after dark, on the bike (through the jungles and over the hills, beachside and along the rivers), the wind is cold enough to make you shiver. Winter is on its way! The psychedelic greens of the monsoon have given way to dusty rust (iron-rich earth), powder blue (clear sky), popcorn yellow (shorn fields) and the browns and greens of the coconut and cashew trees. You know why I am writing. I want you to come.
Before you say no again, please listen. I won’t try and sell you Goa as ‘paradise’: we both know paradise is a frame of mind (one neither of us seems to occupy at the moment). Don’t come for a Bollywood Goan fantasy or any such cliché either. We’ll be ourselves, we’ll do it our way, but let’s just escape the heavy thumb that has us pinned down, of late. I think it’s urgent, we need it.
The taxi turns round the bend and down off the bluff; you get your first view of the Zuari River, the famous fringe of coconut trees. At this angle, the whole world seems to be made of water, and you let out your first of many long sighs, realising you have been holding your breath since who knows when. It’s contagious; soon we are both sighing like a couple of old bats. Good thing our driver is an old friend.
We are staying at Noi Varo, a gorgeous old Portuguese villa in the northern village of Siolim. It has been renovated in a soft modern style, warmly elegant, light and airy. Three suites open out to private lotus pools; and open in to an indoor heated lounge pool, softly lit at night and soothingly gurgling at all hours. There is another swimming pool and a deluxe tree house outside; a small branch of the Chapora River flows right behind. Noi Varo is hard to leave once entered, and we have a delicious dinner in the cosy dining room (meals must be ordered in the morning). The menu is eclectic and exact: creamy carrot coriander soup, almond mushroom pâté, grilled fish, mango spinach salad. After a swim (by the light of the silvery moon) we finish our bottle of wine. I get into my bed and wish to savour the wonderful balance of crisp sheets, firm mattress, and soft comforter, but I’m asleep before I know it. (Noi Varo, Village Siolim, shunyachi.com. Also try Kajo Varo, Shunya’s sister property in the beach village Aswem. Capella, in the village of Arpora, is a wonderful homestay option, luxuriously comfortable: capellagoa.com)
After breakfast (homemade lemon curd and jams, ripe papaya, eggs and toasted local poi), it’s time for your first surprise. Sherree Carlos, a sought-after reflexologist who has moved here from Delhi, is here to treat our feet. Sherree always comes to her client’s home/hotel so that you can keep your feet relaxed after the treatment. She will sit you down in front of the best view, maybe up in the tree house, so you can watch the river while she works on your feet, releasing blocks and tension. Let yourself float, you know you want to. (Sherree Carlos +91932494004. Best to book several days in advance)
There is a little temple built into the rocky hill at the mouth of Chapora River, where it merges back with the sea. We walk there in the late afternoon. You find a flat shell, a perfect spiral with one small hole. I have some gold string in my bag, so we thread it through and you put your new garland around your neck. The temple is dark, cool and damp, and smells salty; shells are stuck to the sides where the high tide has washed over it innumerable times. Legend has it that this is where Parashuram shot his famous arrow that created Goa. Another rumour claims a giant king cobra lives in the ancient cave at the back and comes out late night for prasad. We sit on the sand, watching the fleets of fishing boats returning to Chapora dock, crowned in flocks of cheeky white seagulls.
Dinner is at Thallasa, a funky Greek place up on Little Vagator cliff. We have reserved a table overlooking the sea, and our Mojitos blend well with the ocean air. The Delhiwallas at the next table are telling Mariketty, the Greek proprietor (well known and beloved in these parts), about their visit to Greece 20 years ago. “We still miss it!” they say; “Me too!” she laughs. Our friendly waiter brings us tzatziki, Red Snapper baked in banana-leaf (incredibly delicious), and a big bowl of Greek salad. There is also a high-end boutique—Flame. Every item is a piece of art, designer ethnic bohemian-chic wear. We, ethnic bohemian-chic in the flesh, can probably only afford to look. (Thalassa, Little Vagator +919850033537 reservations recommended for dinner)
This morning I wake you up early; c’mon, let’s go. You are expecting a taxi so ignore the two black Activas parked outside the gate (one with a picnic basket). No way, you say, there is just no way, but you are looking so relaxed, I know it will not be hard to convince you. It’s time to explore, go off track, and get lost on purpose—the basis of any worthy adventure.
We head north over Chapora bridge. The view from here, a magnificent concerto in blue and green, is my favourite in Goa. We take every back road we can find, stopping to visit a massive kindly looking banyan tree. Right, left, right—as we turn, going by impulse alone, the roads get narrower, the options fewer, but still we press on, never mind how lost we are. At last, there is only the narrowest of openings between two mud houses, blue and silver tulsi shrines in front, and we go through, expecting a dead end. Instead, the world opens wide before us. We have emerged in a huge expanse of open fields, shorn and yellow. There is even a lotus pond, reflecting the sky. The scene is serene but not silent. A lizard rushes by, and a butterfly. A few buffalo, one of them a baby (its hair red from playing in the soil), are soaking in their pond. A kingfisher, resplendent in turquoise and gold, lands on a lone tree at the edge of the water. Hey, not fair, he reached here the easy way, you say, as you check each other out. (No directions needed to get lost, just do it)
Everyone is happy to point us in the right direction, and we reach Kerim beach quite smoothly. Kerim, the final frontier, is the northernmost village on the Goan coastal belt. Here, driftwood and conch shells litter the almost clean beach, and the village boys are still shy and sweet. We buy cold beer from a beach shack and have our picnic—pesto sandwiches on pao, olives, egg chops, guava cheese—sitting in the sand in the shade of a fishing boat, the old way, before sunbeds and branded umbrellas. The tide is coming in.
How have things gone so wrong?
Wave in, wave out.
Who says things have gone wrong?
Well, look where I am.
What’s so bad about where you are?
Wave in, wave out.
I never made it to where I set out to go.
Is the success of a journey measured by whether
one reaches where one set out for? Is there no different measure?
A wave creeps up and steals your shoe. You chase after it a long while, and return soaked but triumphant.
Heading back to Noi Varo, we find a little place called Lisa’s Cake Shop. We split a strawberry tart, juicy red berries on vanilla cream and a perfect shortbread crust. (Lisa’s cake shop, 500m east of the turn into Little Mandrem, on the north side of the road)
At night, we put on our dancing shoes and step out to hear some live music, and I don’t mean ragas. The scene is rather seedy, but the guitarist is wicked and he winks at you as you bop to Black Magic Woman. We have a great time hanging out with an assortment of fellow rockers. Several Old Monk plus Diet Cokes later, holes burnt in our soles, we stagger back to Noi Varo and into the starlit pool. We are the Sultans of Swing (Sea Rock restaurant, North Anjuna beach; The Pub at Molly Malone’s, Afonso Road, Calangute; Cavalla Hotel, Baga Beach; Mix Bar and Grill, Arpora Junction, all have live music on weekends)
What so you want to do today?
I’m giving you choices, you choose.
Okay, we flip a coin.
(> A tandem paragliding flight, ten minutes in the air off Arambol Hill and over the ocean: goaextreme.com
> A top class Nature Outing with Rahul Alvarez, author and naturalist. Goa’s birds and snakes, and great local lore +919881961071
> An Egyptian belly dance class with Katie at Tree House Holistics in Candolim +919325530554
> Nothing at all)
Your last night. Put on your prettiest dress, we are breaking our piggy bank and going out to Sublime, one of the best restaurants in Goa, a place for the Most Special Occasion. We feel a tingle just walking in, the ambience is so magical. We order the huge and amazing organic salad. This salad gives raw veggies a glamour of their own. The mains, mostly meat and fish with zany but perfect sides, are good (some of it vegetarian as well); the starters are great. Salim Agha, owner and chef, mixes flavours from around the world effortlessly, and the dishes all look so pretty it is almost a shame to eat—but do. (Sublime, Nagoa +919822484051, reservations not a must but recommended)
We drive to the airport by way of the old road, completely abandoned by thoroughfare after National Highway 17 was completed. We pass through a forgotten village, several houses clinging together on the side of a hill, looking out at vast open vistas of the distant Ghats. There is an old lady in a flowered smock with a coconut cart, standing in the shade by the side of the road. She must have been waiting for us. She chooses two coconuts from a huge pile and opens them expertly, her movements exact and sure, only a few drops of the cool sweet water spilling as she hands them over to us. Her hair is greying, her face is lined, and watching her we realise with a bit of a start that this ‘old’ lady is no older than us. She joins in our laughter, fully and without reservation, and waves us goodbye as we drive away.